|Fringe with Greg Smith
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Audiophile Construction Set -- Part Two
Regardless of what reviewers might suggest, very few people select their audio products based on performance alone. Aesthetics, value, brand name, longevity and a host of other concerns come before sound quality to some people picking out a new component. During a long car ride on the way to a concert last year, I had a chance to revisit how some of those factors weigh in even for a buyer who is willing to spend a bit more than average on his or her gear.
My friend Stuart was living in New York City in an apartment that, while fairly large for NYC, didn't have a whole lot of room for audio equipment left over, especially after housing his music collection. His system at the time was getting a bit old and starting to wear out. The Magnavox CD player wasn't tracking some of his CDs anymore. The Denon integrated amp wouldn't play all the time anymore. Luckily, the speakers were still holding up. The original Ensemble system from Henry Kloss' Cambridge Soundworks was one of the better satellite/subwoofer systems from that era, and Stuart was still quite happy with them. But all the electronics had to go, and he wanted something of similar quality, not spending more than $800 or so on the whole replacement.
As always, it took a number of interview questions to figure out what would be the right choice for an upgrade. Stuart was planning on moving out of Manhattan before too long, and suspected he'd want to replace his whole system with home-theater-capable components in a couple of years. So none of the replacement products he was looking for right now needed to last too long, as he was expecting the upgrade bug to hit before anything wore out. He did express an interest in starting to buy movies on DVD, a format you can enjoy many advantages of even if your playback is solely in stereo. Unlike many people I talk to, Stuart was perfectly happy with a single-disc player, so I suggested that one of the inexpensive DVD players that sound good playing regular compact discs might be right for him. Since he works with computers and collects music, I also asked about how important compatibility with CD-R and CD-RW discs was, since recordable media won't play on most DVD units. That wasn't an issue for him.
Next up was the amplifier. A tuner wasn't a concern since Stuart's tastes are more likely to be filled with an Internet radio station than any regular broadcasts. Lately I'm doing that a lot myself, too, listening to a progressive-rock radio station he recommended: progradio.com. If you can receive it at 96Kb/s, it sounds pretty good. He didn't see any need for surround decoding, as he wasn't expecting to have room for more speakers in the near future. Stuart was perfectly happy with his existing integrated amplifier, back when it still worked correctly, so I asked about the features he needed in a new unit. A remote control was a must, which narrows the field considerably. As far as total power, his Ensemble system includes two 8" subwoofers with a passive crossover. This means he could safely use a substantial amount of power, at least 100Wpc. However, living in an apartment means he didn't see getting a really powerful amp as being either necessary or even a good idea. Somewhere around 50Wpc seemed like a good compromise to me, as that makes for plenty of current to move all the drivers around without wasting money on power Stuart was never going to use. Finally, as a music collector, he still had enough vinyl recording hanging around that having a phono stage was definitely a worthwhile feature.
I started searching for a suitable integrated amplifier first, as that was the more annoyingly broken of his components. Knowing that good DVD players were easily available for around $300, that left as much as $500 for the amp. While a number of companies make popular integrateds I like in that price range (Rotel, Arcam, and Creek come to mind), none of those are remote controlled. Since getting a remote was necessary, the main two companies that came to mind were NAD and AMC. I had bought an AMC 3020 amplifier for myself after reviewing it a few months prior, and didn't hesitate to suggest their larger 3050a to Stuart. The price was right, at $499 retail and selling for a bit less than that if you shopped around. As I write this in May of 2000, I note that Audio Advisor has a $300 special on that amplifier. At 45Wpc into 8 ohms, increasing to 60 into a 4-ohm load, the amount of power was sufficient, and there is a phono stage included. Since the basic circuit topology was similar to the 3020, except with more output transistors and a beefier power supply to drive them, I expected the sound quality to be quite good as well. Having gone through so much trouble to find out what Stuart really wanted and needed, I was starting to feel a bit like a dealer at this point, so I arranged to grab a 3050a for him rather than sending him to a store to buy one himself.
This brings us to one of the trickier ethical issues people have with audio purchases nowadays. There is so much information available that a savvy buyer can spend months looking through catalogs, reviews, online testimonials and the like to sort through exactly what product is right for him without the slightest bit of help. Traditionally, audio dealers did a lot of that work for people, along with stocking inventory, keeping a storefront with demo areas, coordinating repairs, and so on. Now, to finance all that overhead, a dealer obviously needs to mark equipment up a bit more over the wholesale price than someone who isn't providing all those services. Many people feel that if they know exactly what they want, they should be able to shop based on price and availability alone, as the extra services aren't worth paying more for. I'm all for that in most cases; few people buy more stuff via mail order than I do.
The part I suggest you be careful about is using a local dealer as a resource if you have no intention of buying an item there. I get to hang around audio shops a lot and watch what's going on, since as a member of the industry dealers often let me wander loose in their store without being chaperoned too carefully. I'm stunned by the number of people who stop by, spending what can be hours worth of time asking for advice, only to leave and go price shopping afterwards. This drives dealers crazy, as people who successfully sell anything for a living quickly learn how to sniff when they're being exercised like that and get quite offended by the whole thing. Can't say I blame them.
You'll have to draw your own line for how to handle your shopping, but here's what I do. If I've got something I want to buy and I really want to see one before I buy, I'll sometimes visit a local store that carries that item even if my main intention is to order it through the mail. But during those trips, I avoid wasting the time of the sales staff, asking for a demo, or grabbing product literature. As I see it, every time I walk into a retail store it has the potential to be worth a sale to them either right then or in the future, as during such trips I sometimes end up spending money on the spot or noticing something I come back for later. The minute I start asking a lot of questions, playing with demo equipment, or otherwise taking advantage of what an old-fashioned store has to offer, I do so with the intention of buying the equipment there should it prove interesting. Of course, if you aren't happy with how you're treated, don't like the product, or otherwise don't feel the dealer has done you a service worth paying for, by all means head out of the store and buy somewhere else instead. I'll even suggest a research tool for you. I've recommended the Audio Mail Order FAQ before, and it's better than ever in its current format at audiosurvey.com. Check through the tips there before buying something mail order to make sure you don't get screwed in the process, and the ratings of the dozen or so companies I've bought from before seem accurate.
Anyway, back to Stuart's equipment choices. Next up was figuring out exactly which DVD player was appropriate for him. If you're using a Dolby Digital receiver like many DVD watchers, connected with a digital cable, the quality of the player's analog output is irrelevant. But since a regular analog amplifier is involved here, the sound of the DVD digital/audio converter (DAC) section was very important. Having not dabbled much with DVD before then, I rounded up a few samples to try out.
One of the fundamental assumptions high-end audio is built on is that components can sound very different as you connect them in different systems. Given that, the only real way to check how a DVD player sounds is to connect it in your system. While I didn't have Stuart's whole setup available to play with at my whim, I did have the similar AMC 3020 amplifier in my system, and it's the electrical interface between the integrated amp and the DVD DAC section I was most concerned about. I decided to check out a couple of inexpensive players and see what worked. The question, then, was how to go about getting said players.
First stop, a specialty audio dealer. While getting a demo in a store is helpful, dealers recognize that taking something home is sometimes the only way to tell for sure that a component is going to work well for someone. Here's the way this normally works: the dealer has a set of demonstration units used in the store and for in-home auditions. If you want to try something, they'll take your credit card and charge the unit to it, and you walk out with it. The amount of time you get to keep the box depends on a couple of factors like the popularity of the model in question, but typically it's at least a day or weekend and sometimes can be a week or more. If you like it, you can either keep the unit you've taken or go back to the dealer and exchange it for a brand new one. If you don't like it, you return the demo unit within the agreed time frame and get the charge on your card reversed, assuming the item is still in saleable condition. Once a box has been opened, there's a certain loss in value associated with that, so this model helps keep the overhead of loaning out demo units under control.
I cruised by Avalon Audio-Video during one of my plentiful trips down the New Jersey Turnpike. They carry Toshiba electronics, with the main sales focus there being their televisions. Avalon also carries Toshiba's inexpensive DVD players, most as a convenience to the store's customers who are looking to buy a whole system from a single source. Bob, the owner, freely admits his is not the place to shop at if you're simply looking for the best deal on their mass-market DVD units. His sales volume of those is low enough that any big electronics chain can easily sell their cheap players for about the same as his dealer cost to buy them from Toshiba. Accordingly, it doesn't hurt his feelings if people buy amplifiers and speakers from him but drive them all with a DVD player bought at Circuit City; the margins are low enough here that it would be silly for Avalon to try and compete in that kind of price war. I believe specialty dealers are wise to concede a loss on that front and focus instead on the kinds of products the chains can't or won't sell.
That said, Bob did have a Toshiba SD-2109 demo unit for me to borrow, which at the time was a very popular unit I'd heard a lot of positive information about. I connected it to the AMC 3020/Clements 106di combo to try it out, with my old Rotel RCD-955AX player for reference. The Toshiba and I didn't get off to a good start. The excess of annoying beeping and the "Welcome to Toshiba" advertisement the player slowly scrolls across when you turn the player on were not welcome. Spinning up an audio CD, I found the amount of whirling noise inside the player as the disc was spun to be excessively loud. These two things are forgivable traits if the player's sound is exceptional, but it wasn't. I had two copies of the Alan Parsons Project: Pyramid [Arista ARCD 8225] hanging around and loaded one into each player. The high frequencies of the SD-2109 were more extended than the Rotel's, but the lows were another story. The Toshiba's bass was very bloated and inarticulate playing "What Goes Up...," enough so that I was shocked by how colored it sounded. While the Toshiba works fine when connected to a receiver via its digital output, the usual way a unit like this is connected, the sound quality of its analog outputs was awful. I returned the SD-2109 to Avalon, warned Bob not to let anyone buy one for that application (everyone who'd gotten a SD-2109 from him so far was using another box for D/A conversion), and went shopping again.
The big electronics stores have their own demo policy -- sort of. You can buy something, take home a brand new unit, and try it out. If you don't like it, you can return it, usually with no penalty. If you find somebody else selling it cheaper, you can usually get that lower price, too. I know people who have visited four different stores, taken home a different set of speakers from each, listened to all of them for a week, and returned the three losers in their evaluation. With speakers, where there's a bit of break-in, placement fine tuning, and other lengthy factors before you get maximum performance, this can be a bit unfair to some of the participants. But DVD players basically sound as good as they're ever going to after just a bit of warming up, making them ideal for comparison on this format. Make sure you carefully scrutinize the store's return policy before starting something like this, and it's also wise to use a credit card for your purchase if you're the slightest bit unsure about anything. The last time I wrote a check for a speaker I ended up not liking and wanted to return, the store was going out of business when I returned a week later and wanted my money back.
Around this time I read an enthusiastic review of the Pioneer DV-414 by Greg Weaver and decided that was the next thing I wanted to try. Street price bearing little resemblance to retail price in this part of the market, I found one at the local Best Buy for $280, including the ubiquitous stack of free DVDs (anybody want a copy of Stepmom?). I hooked the Pioneer up in the system that had rejected the Toshiba. Now here was a player that sounded good. Confident that Stuart would be happy and I wasn't going to need to return the player, I was intrigued enough to spend a few weeks seeing how the DV-414 compared to my Parasound C/DC-1500 changer, which sold for almost twice as much two years before. This time I connected each player with Belden 89259 DIY interconnect to the AMC 3020 as a preamp, then to a Proton D1200 amplifier with JPS Ultra Conductor interconnects. Speakers were the Clements 107di, connected with AudioQuest Type 4 cable.
I cued up "Secret Silky World" from David Baerwald's Triage [A&M 75021 5392 2], and again it was the high frequencies that first called attention to themselves, with the Pioneer being considerably more realistic-sounding. I was very impressed by the resolution of cymbals, which I had never before heard a sub-$300 player do anywhere close to correctly. The bass on the two players were about the same, with the DV-414 a bit more controlled while the C/DC 1500 went a bit lower while sounding woollier in the process. Switching to "Red Rain" from Peter Gabriel's So [Geffen 24088], the Pioneer player impressed with its wide sense of dynamics. The Parasound's presentation leaned toward the polite and rounded off, while the Pioneer resolves all the rough edges, and throws a considerably more enveloping soundstage as well. Switching to Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad [Reprise 45230-2] and "Springtime," there was more of a contrast in bass reproduction. The Parasound sounded tighter and deeper here, while the Pioneer was a bit anemic. Still, even given that, it was obvious that the DV-414 performed much better overall than Parasound unit, especially when it came to delivering a sense of space in recordings. I also ran through my usual tracking tests with the Pioneer DV-414, and here I was bit disappointed. On the Pierre Veranay set, the DV-414 would only play the 0.75mm error on track 30 perfectly; even the 1mm hole of track 31 skipped periodically. Similarly, on CD Check, track 2 was OK but 3 crackled badly. This is not the player to use for playing beat-up CDs.
Satisfied that the Pioneer DV-414 was a commendable choice, I dropped that off to Stuart and let him try it. His general feedback on both it and the AMC 3050a was that each sounded noticeably, but not overwhelmingly, better than the Magnavox/Denon unit they had replaced. That's what I was expecting, and he seemed happy. I let Stuart experiment with interconnect cables as well, loaning him samples of both the DH Labs BL-1 and the JPS Ultra Conductor, not telling him a whole lot about either in advance. He commented that either cable was a definite improvement in overall sound quality, but that he was hard-pressed to tell the two of them apart. Given that the main differences I hear between them relate to really high-frequency material, where Stuart's Ensemble speakers are a bit weak, this isn't a big surprise. When I told him the prices for each, he though that was a bit much for him given the magnitude of the improvement in his system. Given that, the next time I visit Stuart (who has now moved to Maine) I'll bring along some of the approximately $20 DIY interconnects I've made, which is more of the price range he feels comfortable with for cables based on what he thought of the almost $100 ones. As for me, I was impressed enough with the Pioneer DVD player to buy a unit from them for my own use, the DV-525 from the next model year. It's selling for around $250 as I write this and would make an excellent front-end for almost any budding audiophile.
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