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robbyrne2

Building a system - An audiophile journey from beginning to end - or more correctly end to beginning

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As with most audiophiles the world over, I love music. I am an engineer, pianist and classical listener predominantly, but open to all genres and music types and listen avidly to any music type either recommended or discovered. It all started for me, as these things have a wont to, with some money burning a hole in my pocket. A pocket that was not much used to having burning money in it... Countless daily hours over countless months of reading reviews, studying design methodologies and factors influencing sound reproduction, engineering principles and costs, listening sessions to train myself to be able to distinguish quality when heard and what to listen for. A clear obsession with the reproduction of sound.

 

 

I started with speakers. The purchase of speakers I would suggest should be both the biggest, most personal, and most important part of designing and building a system that is perfect for you; or your wallet. Let's be clear here - the best system is the best system that you can afford. What matters is deriving the best possible sound from the core components that you can afford. That starts with you speakers. The choice of a speaker is a very personal decision and the reality is that when you go above a certain threshold, most speakers are of very fine quality and much better that the start-up audiophile will have ever had access to before. I settled on a used pair of B&W 803's. Perfect for me as they were aesthetically pleasing, sonorous (to my ears), and, most importantly, within budget. Ching - $4,000.

 

 

Next was the amplifier. Here there is such an unbelievable level of choice as to be mindboggling. I took a very simple rule and applied it. I wanted to spend no more than 50% of my speaker cost on my amplifier. That gave me a budget of $2,000 and significantly limited my options. With an amplifier your main concern should be 1) will it effectively drive your speakers, 2) does it sound good with your speakers and 3) what will you use as your source. I wanted to go digital and the NAD 390DD was (and is) an amazing choice and an amazing amplifier. I got a refurbished unit, some nice transparent cabling and hooked it up to my mac mini as a source playing files from an external hard drive. It was amazing - I was in audiophile heaven. Ching - $2,000 - budget blown.

 

 

One would think that should be the end of the story. A $6,000 system, some fantastic digital files at 44.1/high resolution and a newly discerning ear to appreciate it all. Those audiophiles out there will well appreciate that this is never quite the case though. As one learns more and more in this hobby, the quest for perfection is a niggling one. What is referenced above is the core - speakers and an amplifier - but the most important aspect, in my opinion, comes after.

 

 

This is the portion of the journey where you work to make the absolute most of what you have. My beautiful 803's are never going to be $50,000 Wilson's or $80,000 sonus fabers. My 390DD is never going to rival the very best in available amplification. My MacMini will not stand up to a $100,000 DcS stack. But the steps taken post the acquisition of these devices will most definitely allow you to get close. Much closer than you might think possible - particularly up until you get to the speakers.

 

 

I am just going to give it straight here - in my experience the source and more correctly the chain from source to amplifier has an effect similar to a jump of many $10,000 dollars on the amplifier speaker side. I have heard amazing speakers with amazing amplifiers and if the source is not of sufficient quality and, more importantly, the signal chain from the source to the amplifier, then you are wasting all that money on your amp and speakers. I have no doubt that if you're spending $120,000 on Fabers Aida's then you will have on the best at every level, but if you are operating at a less billionaire like level then the importance of the point above will be much more salient.

 

 

In utilizing a mac mini for audio I was using usb out to usb in on the amplifier. More than fine. The problem with this is the quality of the power supply in the mini is dubious for audio (switching). You don't need to know all this, but suffice to say you want clean power for good results. Insert iUSB power regulator (or similar) into the chain for immediate improvement. Dramatic improvement in the case of the 390DD. Ching - $200 - we are getting cheaper and closer...

 

 

Next thing to fix is the inherent problems with USB for audio generally... Now we don't have choice in terms of getting the signal out of the mini, but we do have a choice of what we feed to the amplifier. Enter a USB converter. Suffice to say I spent probably the most amount of time here in terms of research; clocking and conversion is a dark art... I tried multiple devices here in my system - each with their own positives and negatives, but settled; more than settled, fell in love with, the Yellowtec PUC2. This is not the prettiest and very far from the most expensive, but in my considered opinion, the very best; not just for the money, full stop. This device has had the single greatest impact on output quality and I now have a very nice transparent AES cable feeding my 390DD a magnificent, clean, musical digital signal. If you own a 390DD, I will tell you that the AES input is the best - this is not the case on all amplifiers, but for the 390DD the AES is your man. Ching $480

 

 

There is one final thing. One final tweak that, if you are searching for the best for your system will be the icing sugar on top. Try using a dedicated xD card to store your music. The USB bus on my mac mini is busy with external drives and other non audio related activities. The xD card slot is a clean bus and delivers a mite of extra sparkle. Ching - $50

 

 

What's the point here... Well what I want is to hopefully save a little time and heartache for someone that has a similar desire to that which I had. Implement the absolute best audio quality you possibly can on a limited budget (and in my case also with the flexibility of a media centre/TV setup for the mini). My goal was the best digital possible. If your goal is analogue quality then this direction is not for you I would suggest. Especially given the the 390DD has been very badly commented on for its phono stage... I have never tried it and never will. For digital though - it is sublime.

 

 

$6,730 + a little bit lost in mis-steps along the way is the cost of my music system and I can promise you that I have heard very many relatively well implemented systems across multiple brands at 10x+ of the cost, in dedicated rooms, that don't even come close on multiple criteria - that is obviously while critically listening to the exact same recording. The point is that if you are smart about your expenditure and give the time and effort required to learn, listen, test and repeat, you can achieve amazing results on a comparatively low budget. Many reading this might consider this a nonsensical comment with expenditure as above, but that was my budget. What I am saying is that with care this quality scales. I paid $6000 for the core and $730 to take that core to its highest level. If you can only spend $1,000 on the core then the $730 will still bring that core to its highest level and certainly will be much more valuable than spending that extra $700 on a bit more speaker at the cost of improving the source-amplifier chain.

 

 

What I have found with all my time is that, while you have to start at the end you will finish at the start. The speakers are the end and still the most important element in reproduction of sound; but it is the start; high quality recordings and the methodology of getting those signals to your amp and speakers which delivers the high fidelity. Bad recording or bad transmission will ruin even the best speaker amp combinations. So if you are going to buy into a high fidelity system this is where you need to focus - on the fidelity. Fidelity is detail and nuance - this is inherent at the start of the signal chain and can only get diluted from there. Once the signal hits your amplifier there is nothing you can do but hope that you remain more than satisfied with your investment in the core components.

 

 

I want to thank the audiophile community and all the forums and content that exists to make this journey possible for someone starting from a zero base. I don't expect everyone or possibly anyone to agree with what I have said above, but do wish to offer my experience for someone who was where I was and thus pay it forward!

 

 

Separate note - the 390DD is a direct digital amplifier blending the functions of amplification gain and digital analogue conversion in one device. If you are planning on a class A or A/B amplifier you will have the extra complexity of a DAC to consider. I wish you luck!

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Cycleman   

Nice post, well-written and very useful...and I really like how you acknowledge your subjectivity. There is, of course, no single way but we can help map potential paths for others here.

 

Dave, who is grateful for all he's learned here

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Nice post.

 

Twenty-five years ago I heard ProAc Studios and Cary 300B Amps. I was in love. Fifteen years ago a friend sold me a pair of Response 2's. I have become pretty good at building my own 300B amps. I have a Mac Mini and an Arcam irDAC, running HQ Player with a Cubox NAA. I'd venture to guess it's a $5K system, altogether. It's a modest system but extremely musical and makes you want to dance. My audio pals can testify to that.

 

While texture and tonality are important, I don't need to hear every strand on the violinist's bow. I attend concerts and remember what I'm hearing. It's not bright, it's not hyper-detailed. It's warm, rich and relaxing.

 

I've heard some mega-buck systems that left me cold. Best system I've ever heard was a pair of Nestorovich floor-standing speakers and home-brew PP pentode amps. I've heard some very modest, well-crafted systems that provide hours of pleasure. I remember a guy with YBA amps and and pair of Focal speakers. Sheer pleasure. It's really asbout good tuning, good blending of components and good music. :-)

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esldude   

Good write up and good approach in my opinion. I recommend people find their speakers first. It is the most important to the eventual sound you will enjoy. Next is the amp which needs to be chosen for the needs of the speaker. From there on back good quality can be achieved in many ways.

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Well done. Nice, logical description of your personal audio journey, and I certainly enjoyed it. Congratulations on achieving what you wanted and doing so very effectively. Now, you can simply enjoy what you've put together and sit back and let the music play.

 

My own journey to audio satisfaction was a lot more extended, more complex, and certainly more costly, but no less satisfying, for all of that. It was also driven by an unexpected early retirement, which certainly added to the mix. Perhaps I should write my own story one of these days.

 

JC

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skatbelt   

Nice to read. Would like it if more people write up their journey's like this. You don't write anything about room setup and treatment and/or digital room correction. Personally I find this to be one - if not the - most critical success factors to reach audio heaven. And your statement about the Yellowtec PUC2 is a bit bold in my opinion. Ever had the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB or the Mutec MC-3+ USB for an audition? And did you experiment with cables? Especially USB and AES/EBU ones?

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Thanks to all for the positive comments - I would also like to hear of others journeys in achieving personal satisfaction with their systems. With regard to the PUC2, I did try many other converters, but not the berkeley alpha. I have heard it many times - also in critical listening situations and it is obviously excellent, but never in my room as it was always out of budget. The reason for my statement is that the PUC2 did everything that "I" wanted and much more - the nature of music with it in the chain was at a level that I was/am wholly and completely happy with. That made it the best for me and I think others would be amazed at the quality at that price level. Each converter has its own personality so to speak. The PUC provided a personality that I very much warmed to. While other converters may have been subjectively more pleasing in one or other area - the PUC provided a beautiful listening experience for me. That is why my opinions is as it is, but then again. You know what they say about opinions... For me when I included the component in the chain and sat back to listen - this, as described, was after multiple converter tests and months of critical listening with differing components - my first reaction was to smile and my first thought was - thank god I can move on from USB conversion!

 

Nice to read. Would like it if more people write up their journey's like this. You don't write anything about room setup and treatment and/or digital room correction. Personally I find this to be one - if not the - most critical success factors to reach audio heaven. And your statement about the Yellowtec PUC2 is a bit bold in my opinion. Ever had the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB or the Mutec MC-3+ USB for an audition? And did you experiment with cables? Especially USB and AES/EBU ones?

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JR4321   
Good write up and good approach in my opinion. I recommend people find their speakers first. It is the most important to the eventual sound you will enjoy. Next is the amp which needs to be chosen for the needs of the speaker. From there on back good quality can be achieved in many ways.

 

I found room acoustics improvements to be the 2nd most important upgrade (after speakers). The improvement I got using material in the link below far exceeded expectations:

 

Owens Corning 705 Acoustic Board HEAVY DENSITY (6#) - Buy Insulation Products

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tboooe   
I found room acoustics improvements to be the 2nd most important upgrade (after speakers). The improvement I got using material in the link below far exceeded expectations:

 

Owens Corning 705 Acoustic Board HEAVY DENSITY (6#) - Buy Insulation Products

 

I was about to post the same thing. For a gear head like me, spending money on room treatments is not very fun. I avoided it for a long time until recently. As mentioned, treatments have done more to elevate my system than any other tweak or modification or piece of equipment. My most recent discovery was treating my ceiling which resulted in increased clarity. I finally feel like I an hearing what my system is capable of. I am now better able to assess changes I make to my system.

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Ajax   

Hi Rob,

 

I enjoyed the read.

 

In summary "it all matters" and for those on tight budgets the art is in deciding where in the chain you get your best bang for the your buck.

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yrrah   

I like your incremental approach to sonic bliss. Mine has developed along similar lines. Big part of the fun is the discovery of yet another jump in SQ. I suspect this growth path of learning and experience enhances the appreciation of good sound to no end. Good luck with the evolvement of your system.

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