Backing Away from Stereophile Class A

After taking a break from chasing the audiophile dream for a few years, I jumped back into the game about a year ago and began to try whatever I could afford. This is what I've learned:

1.) My enjoyment of classical music on CD diminished as my system improved in accuracy, revealing the limitations of the digitally recorded source material. This seemed to be especially true when it came to speakers.

2.) Even fabulous speakers sound mediocre in a difficult room. In fact, room-matching may account for as much as half of the perceived quality of sound, at least in my experience. Bigger and more expensive speakers were not necessarily better.

3.) A good tube preamp sounds better than a good solid state preamp. At their best, tubes offer the illusion of neutrality while adding life to otherwise sterile-sounding digital recordings.

4.) The cheapest CD player made by Wadia sounds at least 90% as good as $6600 worth of separates.

5.) In any given system, a less expensive DAC may actually sound better than a Stereophile Class A-rated DAC of similar vintage.

6.) An expensive amplifier turns out to be a good investment after all.

If I were advising someone looking to spend about $5K on a good used CD-based system, I would recommend the following basic components to start with:

a Wadia 23 CD player
Audio Research LS-15 remote-controlled tube preamp
Mark Levinson No. 27 amplifier
Magnepan 2.7 QR planar speakers

Add decent balanced cabling between the Wadia and the preamp, and between the preamp and amp, and you have a very musical system that satisfies without being fatiguing.

With kind regards,
Ag insider logo xs@2xmark_hubbard
Mark hubbard,

1. For some time now, I have thought that detail and musical sweetness were natural audio opposites, as you imply. However, I recently listened to Quad electrostatic speakers and have changed my mind. There are some components that achieve both.

2. Agree

3. Tube preamps are very musical, but the ones I have heard are more noisy than SS, the audio research being among the quietest. For sweet sounding SS, try the Pass Labs X1 pre (which I own). My own system when it is finished will be based upon a SS pre and tube amps, a combination preferred by several audiogon members. See the archives for interesting detail on this.

4/5. I have found the greatest improvements in sound quality for CDPs to come from upsampling. I moved first to a 16 bit external DAC and then to a 24 bit one box player. There are several threads here that look at players comparable to Wadia's top of the line.

6. I find this to be true for all components.
Stereophile rankings are little more than marketing tools for the major audio manufacturers. It doesn't take much more than a decent product, and some advertising money spent in the right place, to achieve a Stereophile ranking. I have seen some real crap in the Class A lineup, and the Class C stuff, is like "Mid-Fi World". Every now and then, a good product will make it in(probably just to maintain the illusion of fairness). I would personally be more likely to steer away from anything on the Sterophile list, than to go out and buy something because it's on the list.

It's like the "Consumer Reports" of audio, except with ads. None of the great cars ever get listed in Consumer Reports, because that magazine is aimed at the masses. It's similar with Stereophile, except they take ads, and the rankings reflect that. You get the Toyotas and Lexus of audio ranked as the best in categories. Not that there is anything wrong with those, but they are not Ferrari or Bentley. If you truly want the best products, you must look outside the mainstream.
I can agree to #1 in my case so far. Most would feel the speakers are the weak link in all four of my systems, but everytime I try something better it sounds worse.

I think it is more a case of having a well balanced system, where each component goes well with the others. Speakers are a big change.

The system is many times built around the speakers, so if you change the speakers, you may have to start over.
Mark, great observations. I totally agree with #2, #3, and #4. I haven't been able to acheive #1. What is your analog set-up? And I have no experience with the DACs in #5. I'm still deciding #6. Does a $1200 amp beat a $500 Legacy or Rotel?
I agree with 1-4. I have no experience with DAC's and do not necessarily agree with 6; although I do support a quality amplifier not necessarily an expensive one. I have found that the pre-amp has the greatest impact on the quality of the music comming from my speakers with the amp contributing a substantially smaller portion. I have read and experienced (limited in home experimentation) that building a gret amplifier is relatively easy but building a great pre-amp is much more difficult.

1) i agree with sugarbie build around the speaker
2) in my own experience good front end wont do a
lot of impact if the speaker are not capable.
3) thats why i bought andra i believe with the
odyssey stratos they will shine, because the andra
are capable to produce any equipment ranging
from 10k-20k gear but i chose performance for the money
the o.s. monos upgrade,may be iam wrong but i believe
the 80% sound you will hear from the system comes
from the speaker,this is only my humble opinion.
Sugarbire - you're talking about the B&W 302's in your "system"? Must be something better than that.
Moving to really high end audio is like moving from a Corvette to a Ferrari, a bit more performance but much harder tuning.

I second the thoughts of Judit. I try to find components that offer both sweetness and detail. I better go listen to Quads now.

The Stereophile Class rankings are not blanket recommendations but they are a good start, as are the recommendations here on Audiogon. One problem with Stereophile is that the recommendations only cover what's been recently reviewed, which tends to be recent releases by well-known manufacturers.

By far the best advice I've picked up from Audiogon is to decide what level to build your system to and keep to that level. The first limitation is the budget. Don't buy fabulous speakers if the budget dictates that the rest of the system can't be to that level. The second limitation starts with the room. Don't try to put a fabulous system in a difficult room. The third limitation is your time. A fabulous system takes a lot of time to tweak, just like the Ferrari. The fourth limitation is the cost/benefit ratio. A fabulously detailed system may mean that many recordings are no longer as enjoyable.

In the end it's the enjoyment that matters.
1. That was true for me too until I got an Electro EMC-1 MkII.
2. Especially true, and one of the reasons why Stereophile Class rank is spurious. Reviewers evaluate speakers IN THEIR ROOMS...not a controlled reference space.
3. Like Judit, I use a Pass pre/amps to entirely successful, non-grainy effect.
4. Wadia's filter algorithm DOES roll off the top octave noticeably. If that pleases you (especially with Redbook), then that's understandable. The EMC-1 is spectrally flat AND musical, by comparison.
5. Don't know. Guess it's a function of how well the DAC's filters synergize with your system.
6. A GOOD amplifier ends up being a good investment. A budget favorite like the Audio Refinement Complete for $1k is an outstanding integrated, while some $$$ separates sound, well, let's say less good.
My budget audiophile 2ch system I just built for a friend comprises:
NAD C541i ($400 discount new)
Audio refinement Complete Integrated ($700 used)
(Audio Refinement Complete Tuner ($450 used))
Spendor S3/51p ($800 used)
Plateau V23 stands ($200 discount new)
Canare Starquad speaker be upgraded to Blue Heaven after he "gets it". ($50 new)
Blue Heaven IC ($100 used)
(Canare IC for tuner ($20 new))
3 PCs made by me from belden 83802 ($200)
Total: under $3k, including FM.
Excellent post Pmi! You need to show up more often here. And Mark, same goes for you. Regards!
Word to the unwise, limomangus, the "More to Discover" reading list? Watch out. You can wind up replying to someone from 20 years ago, making you look like some kind of Rip van Winkel doesn't know time has passed.