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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
October 2004

Tools of the Trade

I traded e-mail with a colleague recently -- talked shop, as we reviewers often do. He mentioned to me that he purchased a new amplifier to use with some speakers that were in for review. "The speakers needed more power," he reasoned, "so I got it for them." When a carpenter buys a new hammer or saw for a job, no one thinks twice about it. But when an audio reviewer buys a new amp to write about a speaker, it's news. Nobody needs a second amp, especially one that costs considerably more than a hammer or saw. Such a purchase underscores the fact that we reviewers don't own equipment we listen to purely for enjoyment -- the sort of equipment we'd own if we weren't reviewers. Our systems are the equivalent of a carpenter's toolbox.

All of this started me thinking about my current audio system and how I would listen to music if part of my job didn't involve, well, listening to music. I love the system that's playing some Duke Ellington in the other room as I type this, but I realize how much space it takes up, how expensive it is, and how user-unfriendly it can be. On the other hand, it sounds glorious, and this is, of course, a priority.

With all of this in mind, I considered what components I would buy within an arbitrary budget -- $25,000, including some discounts -- that I would allot myself. Surprisingly, I found it very easy to make choices and even include a few alternates.

For speakers, I would stay in the Wilson Audio family and buy a pair of Sophias, which are relatively compact, very attractive, and sound wonderful. It has been a long time since I heard a pair of Sophias in my system, but I was reminded of their sonic beauty during a recent visit to Audio Research -- ARC uses Sophias for evaluating and testing its equipment. If I needed to spend less money, I would opt for Paradigm Signature S8s or, at an even a lower price, Thiel CS2.4s. All of these speakers are very satisfying.

I could come up with only one solid choice for electronics: a Mark Levinson No.383 integrated amp. It has all of the user amenities I would want, including remote control and balanced inputs, and it can drive any of the speakers on my short list to deafening levels. Yes, I would consider separates -- the Belles 21A preamp and 150A Reference amp especially -- but I'd settle on the No.383 strictly for its richer feature set. It's also only one component, making placement easier.

I abandoned vinyl long ago, so I wouldn't have to budget for multiple sources, although the product I would choose can play discs in multiple formats: the Esoteric DV-50S, which has replaced the DV-50. I have a large collection of CDs, SACDs, DVD-As and DVD-Vs, so the DV-50S would be a natural choice. Again, for less money, the McCormack UDP-1 is worth considering as well, but I'm a believer in try-before-you-buy audio spending, and I haven't auditioned the UDP-1. The DV-50S brings to light the need for the No.383's balanced inputs: the DV-50S sounds best balanced.

Cables are often overlooked, but not by me as I build my system. There are two sets of interconnects and speaker cables I would want to hear: Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval and Solo Crystal Oval 8, and DH Labs Air Matrix and Q-10. Both Analysis Plus and DH Labs make even better cables, but in terms of what I've heard, the cables I mention from both companies are above the point where diminishing returns start to cost big money. I'd use Shunyata Research power cords, likely Diamondbacks all around, and a Hydra Model-2, which would accommodate my electronics (another good reason to use an integrated amp instead of separates -- one less outlet needed) and protect them from power surges and spikes, too.

But there's a hitch. Even if I weren't a reviewer, I would remain an audiophile, and as I type, Duke Ellington is making an impassioned plea from the other room. A guy doesn't have to be a carpenter to have two toolboxes, does he?

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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