My 2 cents on System Building
The 3 Piece Approach
A top quality system under $5,000 can be assembled with an integrated amplifier, a 1-box CD player, and a pair of speakers. At lower price levels, buying seperate pre/power amps or CD transport/DACs is not really justifiable. For example, good quality pre-amps are at least US$995 [read: Conrad Johnson PV-10 AL], anything less and you might as well plug the CD direct to the power amp.. it'll sound better. But lets look at the other advantages:
In my opinion, theres no reason to buy a cheap 2 box transport/DAC. Some companies think theres no reason to make mid-price 2 box systems as well and they make $3,000 CD players as well, citing losses from jitter exceeding any benefit from separating the systems. Seems to make sense. If you shield the components and have independently regulated power supplies in a CD player, do you really need a 2 box system? Of course, a 2 box system at the higher end does not significantly increase cost, unlike at the lower end of the market. But as usual, if a manufacturer makes a cheap 2 box system thats better sounding than a similar 1 box player (haven't heard any yet -- not even the much vaunted DDS Pro/DDE 3.0 at its price level, and you should factor in electric bills from needing to leave Audio Alchemy equipment on all the time), that should be the ultimate criteria. My statement above shouldn't be taken as a diatribe against 2 box systems, but rather a reaction against the thinking that 2 box players are better per se. Before you buy a 2-box system, compare them against these 1 box players: at US$1200, the Marantz CD-17KI-Signature, at US$2000 - the Sony XA7ES, at US$2500, the Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1.
Hmm, well I'm at
it, I might as well list other great 1 box players : Sony XA3ES,
XA5ES, X-5000 (Ok I'm a Sony Fan), Marantz CD-17,
YBA CD 1, CD 2, CD 3,Meridian 508-20, Audio Research
CD 1, CD 2, Naim CD 2, CD 3, Quad 77 (gee, can't they think of
better names?)Rega Planet, etc etc etc. When you get
to the more expensive Wadias (but then theres also the Wadia 860),
Mark Levinsons etc, you might then think of 2 box players. But at lower
prices, why? So you can spend more money on a DTI Pro/Digital Lens?
Ok first off, Yes, A Pre/Power combo is superior at higher price levels. Independent power supplies, separation of the pre-amplification stage -- EMI, transformer vibration etc etc. Higher price level meaning at least US$2,000
I'm really gladdened by Sterophile's spotlight on inexpensive European integrated amps. They're popular in Europe and Asia, but somehow, never caught on in the US. I suppose Sam Tellig is right when he says that people may feel that its more macho to have 200wpc monster amps lying around the house than something like a teeny Quad 77 (yes, my CD player is much bigger than my amp), or to be fairer, maybe they have never heard of 91-92 dbm sensitive speakers (impaired bass extension they sniff).
At the budget to mid-fi end, I have to say that the stuff made by the British (I've no experience with budget European amps yet) is really good. Stereophile has been reviewing quite a few of them (Audiolab, Musical Fidelity, Myrad, Audio Note, Linn), so I'll highlight the good ones they missed out: the Quad 77 , Exposure XXVRC, Cyrus III (still burdened by their 'slow and wooly' reputation from their past, but still trying hard). Oh yes, watts don't mean anything. Exposure has 3 integrated amps at 3 price levels, and they all put out 55wpc, but yes, you can hear the difference. This should be the philosophy shouldn't it? Throw the extra money at getting better sound and not more watts.
But is it a case of 'grass is greener on the other side'? Whereas Stereophile reviewed the Linn Majik more favourably than the Sonic Frontiers Anthem Integrated, In the UK, despite Sonic Frontiers being really expensive compared to the Linn, the Anthem Integrated got 5 stars from What Hi-Fi, and the Linn got 4 stars (and 'value for money' is a consideration for giving stars. duh!) and worse yet, the Audio Note Oto (which in the UK is the same price as the Anthem) got 4 stars (must be the anti-SET camp, but more likely, What Hi-Fi auditions systems with trashy pop discs). Moral of the story? Don't get too worked up about it! If you can hear the difference, great!
2 way vs 3 way
A 3 way speaker is harder (and more expensive to build) than a 2 way speaker. This would suggest that a $2,000 2 way speaker would be of a far higher quality than a $2,000 3 way speaker, that the 3 way speaker would have more design compromises made because of this. [$2,000 just a somewhat arbitrary number and also because I haven't heard any really great 3 way speakers under $2,000 yet]
It is critically important to get speakers you like. Interestingly enough, a speaker you like may actually be pretty cheap. After a certain price level, speakers achieve a certain standard. The good ones don't try to do everything but make sensible compromises. [shameless plug for my $1,280 Triangle Zephyrs]. A good test for good speakers is whether they can rise to the occasion when partnered with top-notch ancillaries.