I’m subbing for GoodSound! senior editor Colin Smith this month because he had to take a month off his audio duties to attend to more pressing matters. I’m fine with that -- I’m always happy to express my opinions about affordable high-performance audio, which is one of my passions. I love helping people find great, modestly priced gear that performs as well as, if not better than, equipment that costs much more.
The impetus for this article came easily: Today as I walked through a store, I spied a pair of speakers that looked attractive and seemed interesting. I stopped and listened. They sounded awful. Despite their good looks and interesting appearance, they were, for all intents and purposes, crap. I couldn’t help but think that Someone is going to get conned into buying these heaps just because of their looks, and will possibly think that this is how a good speaker is supposed to sound. How can I keep people from buying speakers like these, and steer them toward something that actually sounds good?
The best way to avoid buying crap audio gear is to know a lot about the subject. Know the market inside out by reading reviews and listening to as many products as you can. GoodSound! and the other SoundStage! Network publications are great places to find those reviews, and you’ll likely find a few stores in your area where you can audition gear.
You can go further: Learn about the underlying technology on which each category of component is based, and perhaps even conduct your own battery of tests. When I began getting seriously interested in loudspeakers, I learned all I could about speaker design and testing methodology. As a result, I know the parts that go into speakers, I understand how they work, individually and together, and I know how they can be tested to determine if they’re good or not. Do-it-yourselfers might go a step beyond this and try building their own components.
But not everyone wants to go to such lengths to inform themselves about something they want to buy; most just want to go to the store, buy something, and feel confident that they’re bringing home a good product. In short, they want to avoid buying crap.
The easiest way for me to steer someone straight is to single out by product type some brands that I know produce good stereo products throughout their lines, and that rarely if ever sell something that I would consider crap. Knowing these brand names can at least steer shoppers in the right direction. (Note that I’m limiting this to two-channel components; perhaps a similar article on home-theater equipment will surface in the future.)
There are many great speaker brands on the market, and my list is far from exhaustive -- it’s unavoidable that I’ve omitted some good brands. But when it comes to building good-quality, affordable, high-performance speakers, the brands I’m most familiar with and can easily recommend shopping for are: Paradigm, PSB, Axiom Audio, Aperion Audio, Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, Ascend Acoustics, KEF, B&W, Amphion, Monitor Audio, and Focus Audio. Not every speaker from every one of these brands will suit your needs or your budget, but I’m confident that if you find a model from one of them that you feel is suitable, you can be confident that it won’t be crap.
The number of electronics manufacturers providing high-quality, affordable preamplifiers, power amplifiers, and integrated amplifiers is far smaller, but I feel comfortable recommending certain brands for their general high quality, affordability, and established track records spanning years, sometimes decades. NAD, Anthem, Cambridge Audio, Rotel and Arcam are the staples in these regards; their product lines are vast and varied, and their products’ performance ranges from good to outstanding. The prices of another brand are quite a bit higher, but if people can stretch their budget that far, I like to recommend Bryston. Their entry-level gear costs quite a bit more than the entry-level products of the four other brands listed, but Bryston has long been my benchmark for cost-no-object-type build quality and performance for what can still be considered a reasonable price. And they back their components to a degree few other manufacturers do -- most Bryston products come with a 20-year warranty. For many, this means that they can be considered very long-term purchases.
Recommending a digital source these days is difficult: CD is on the way out, and computers streaming digital music files are in, as are other digital source components, such as the Apple iPod and media players like Logitech’s Squeezeboxes. Because the options in this area are so varied, it’s difficult to recommend specific brands, but I can give you some direction.
If you still want to play CDs, some of the best affordable players I’ve come across are from NAD and Cambridge. In fact, I now use NAD’s C 565BEE, and find it superb. If you’re going to use your computer as a source, I’ll first address the topic of file formats, which is as important as the playback equipment. I don’t recommend playing low-resolution MP3 files; the format is lossy and compressed, which results in inferior sound. Instead, use a lossless format like WAV, FLAC, AIFF, or Apple Lossless, all of which support CD-quality resolution or better. I also highly recommend buying a top-notch soundcard with a high-quality digital-to-analog section -- or, better yet, an external DAC that can support higher sampling rates such as 24-bit/96kHz, or even 24/192. Don’t rely on the cheap stock soundcards that come with most computers -- they’re usually crap, which is what we’re trying to avoid using. I don’t know the market of optional soundcards well enough to recommend brands, but I do know DACs. High Resolution Technologies makes a series of inexpensive DACs they call Music Streamers that seem very good. And Simaudio is now bringing the performance of their cost-no-object digital sources within reach of GoodSound! readers -- Colin Smith reviewed their Moon 300D DAC and loved it. It’s worth saying that most CD players, while not DACs per se, can be used as DACs because they have digital inputs. Lotsa options.
Though there’s a lot of talk these days about the vinyl resurgence, I think its scope has been exaggerated by the media and by some wishful thinkers. Still, there are no doubt plenty of people today who want to play LPs, old and new. If I were shopping for an affordable turntable right now, I’d first look to three well-established brands: Pro-Ject, Thorens, and Rega. More than likely, any of their models will come with a tonearm, but you’ll have to supply your own phono cartridge.
Finally, cables: interconnects, speaker wire, power cords. A longtime audiophile favorite is DH Labs, and for good reason: Their Silver Sonic brand offers a wide range of cables (speaker, interconnect, power) that are very fairly priced for the quality. Even if you buy DHL’s most expensive stuff, it’s still a good deal compared to what many audiophile-grade cables cost. And if you’re thinking of getting audiophile-grade power cords, I like Essential Sound Products (ESP) for their good quality and reasonable prices. Last but not least, here’s a name not well known to audiophiles, but whose cables I’ve found superb: Supra, a brand of Jenving Technology, based in Sweden. Check out their extensive catalog to see all the products they make. I’m using a Supra HDMI cable now, and it’s outstanding.
I can’t guarantee that any system assembled from the product lines of the companies listed here will be your ticket to sonic nirvana. Building a great audio system is more than just hooking up some components -- there’s a certain synergy involved. But I’m confident that if you do buy products made by these companies, they won’t be crap, and that you’ll greatly increase your odds of building a very good stereo system. Take these lists of brands, go shopping, listen for yourself, and see if you don’t agree.
. . . Doug Schneider