[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
March 2000

My So-Called Virgin System

Our introduction to the audiophile (or audio-insane) way of life comes via various paths. Maybe we hear a friend's rig, or, after buying some budget gear in a local "salon," we wander into the cool confines of the closely watched listening rooms and see what they have to offer -- if the salesperson doesn't accost us first, that is. Personally, my introduction came from neither. As I am a music journalist by trade, I was writing record reviews for Audio magazine and was thus sent comp copies of CDs in the mail. I thought the gear reviews were awfully dry, with about as much character as potato-chip-ingredients listings, but I was intrigued by all these speakers, amps, and CD players that I had never heard of. And the prices! Sheer lunacy.

Anyway, upon a visit to the Audio offices to pick up some more copies (I was rallying for a staff gig at the time), my editor led me into the room that housed the stereo, which then consisted of Adcom amplification and a pair of B&W 801 studio monitors. Now, while my musician's ear knew that the upper frequency range was bright, due perhaps to the Adcom gear, I had never heard such low-end slam and overall body and texture. My quest had begun.

I returned home, sneered at my large Yamaha amp, pimply Technics CD player and home-brew speakers (they did have Audax drivers!). Faster than you can say Doug Schneider, I was down at New York's Stereo Exchange dealing with their fine salesman Jack, who hooked me up with a pair of B&W 602s (then around $550). More shopping led to the classic Marantz CD-63 ($300), a Rotel integrated ($500), and AudioQuest interconnect and speaker cable ($200). This all sounded OK, but the train had to keep a rolling!

The glories of the Internet, especially Audioweb, Audio Shopper, and rec.audio.marketplace, convinced me that that there was gold in them thar audio hills, and that it could be had for half its original selling price. A wealth of SoundStage! and back issues of Stereophile helped educate me further. Armed with this newfound knowledge, I emptied the piggy bank. Many brands ran through my Manhattan crib, including Rotel, Mission, Melos, Monitor Audio, XLO, B&W (805s), and D Lin silver cables. But the little system that could, which now resides in its entirety with the editor of the website guitar.com, consisted of the following:

Marantz CD-63

A highly praised player that has gone through various incarnations and upgrades since its debut, the basic CD-63 produced a very clean, very British sound, which was also smooth, smooth, smooth. Its high end was its crowning glory, though it ultimately lacked bass drive. I bought mine new back in the mid '90s, and the unit is still working flawlessly at my friend's house. The CD-63 has a digital output, I believe, which led to my first experiment with an outboard DAC (something by California Audio as I recall), but it had such a pleasing top-to-bottom coherency that I didn't really feel the need to play around much. Flimsy black plastic, good remote, a display you could turn off, this CD player remains a budget classic in my mind.

Audiolab 8000S

This integrated amp can also be used as a preamp, so I knew it would lead to further upgrades. Highly awarded by the Brit press (I was reading a lot of UK hi-fi mags back then), the Audiolab 8000S retailed for around $2000, but, again, I bought it new from an Internet dealer for $1000. Later he lost his dealership for selling them so cheap! Anyway, the Audiolab was clean, a little etched up top, but with great functionality, and very solid construction via durable RCA jacks and a hefty torodial power transformer. I know you are thinking: clean, smooth, pretty, pristine. What kind of speakers can work with this polite duo?

Epos ES 14

Listing for around $1500, much more than the rest of the system, these big monitors were and are my favorite bookshelf speakers. I paid $800 used for them and sold them for the same. They are not the best speakers for rock per se (my friend plays a lot of metal, so maybe I am wrong on that count), but jazz and classical benefited greatly from their very coherent, easy-on-the-ear nature. Bi-wirable, in gorgeous cabinets, the ES 14s simply made great music. Their bass end was not as driving as that of the B&W 805s I also had at the time, neither were they as full of presence and punch as those smaller B&W monitors with their bullet tweeters. But the Epos ES 14s were much easier to listen to for long periods of time, and they could be played loud with little or no distortion. Stacked on a pair of Atacama stands (which I broke my back on carrying them over from London) filled with sand, the Epos speakers were detailed, smooth and did I say clean? Sorry.

The moral of my story is that there are still many deals on the Internet for those who do their homework. I also believe you can largely trust the various reviewers out there, once you learn to read between the lines and decipher educated opinions from a product's good looks, marketing hype and audio ballyhoo. Happy hunting.

...Ken Micallef


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