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Starting-Out SystemExactly 20 years ago I bought my first stereo system. I was a novice and it was a long, draining, and complex ordeal that, thankfully, ended on a positive note. I ended up with a good system, and I learned enough in that one six-month-long shopping spree to last me a lifetime. Luckily, I found a good salesman who educated and looked after me.
John was his name, and he gave me valuable advice and helped me pick out my first system that served me well for more than five years. But wait. After those five years were up I didnt just hock what I had on the used market and buy a whole new system. No, John had factored in upgradeability. When it came to improve what I had, I was able to do it a step at a time. John helped me pick a perfect system to start out with, and then grow with.
Some people will tell you to put most of your money into your speakers. Theres a lot of truth to this because, in general, you get the biggest bang for the buck with speakers. This theory makes sense and, frankly, today if you run out with only that piece of advice, you can usually come out OK. However, what about when you upgrade? Will the rest of your components be up to the task?
Other people will tell you to put most of the money up front in your system. The logic here is that what comes out of the speakers is only as good as what goes in to them. This is true too, but common sense must prevail. If youre using a tin can and a string on the speaker end of your system, no matter how good the signal is going in, not much good is going to come out. The "garbage in, garbage out" theory does have merit if used wisely.
Then there are those who will tell you to balance your spending throughout, that no one area should overshadow the others. The thinking here is that your system is only as good as the weakest link. This is true too, but it does not mean you have to spend evenly throughout. Things are different today than they used to be, and its possible to skimp with money in one or another area and come out just as far ahead. Again, this is good advice, but knowledge is needed.
Unfortunately, one aspect thats too often forgotten is future growth -- upgradeability. Like I said before, when it came to upgrade my system, John the salesman had already factored that in and hand-picked the components in such a way that when it came to improve my system, I could change components one at a time and make it all better. I didnt have to start fresh. But how do you do that? The lesson was driven home just recently when I assembled a relatively low-priced system based on products in for review that closely match what John did in my original system.
When most people start buying their first system, they have a fairly limited budget -- either out of necessity or caution. When I bought my first system, my limit was $1500. Today, $2000 to $2500 seems very reasonable to me to build a great starting system. So what do you do with that?
Of course, you do want to get good speakers, and thats where you get the bang for the buck. But wait -- you need a good amplifier too. The speaker/amplifier interface is crucial to getting good sound. And thinking ahead for growth, you dont just want an amplifier that will power these speakers youre getting today. You want something that can grow with you and wont be a bottleneck for some new and better speakers that you might want later.
John taught me to get a good-sounding amplifier with more than enough power to use with the majority of speakers on the market. This doesnt mean you need a powerhouse, just something reasonable. Back then I could have bought the 20Wpc NAD 3020. But instead, I spent a little more (at the expense of the speakers!) and got the 3140. The 3020 would have easily powered those first speakers, the PSB Avantes, but when it came to upgrading later when I bought more expensive and way less efficient B&W Matrix 1 loudspeakers, I was thankful that I had the extra power.
Today, thats one of the reasons Im so impressed with Roksans $895 Kandy KA-1 integrated amp. It is very nicely built, elegantly styled, full of features, and best of all, it boasts a lot of power -- way more than that NAD 3140 I had. Roksan says it will deliver 110Wpc into 8 ohms and 170 into 4ohms. I used it effectively with five sets of speakers that came into my house, one pair with very low 81dB sensitivity, and it worked just fine. This isnt the be-all of amplifiers, but its the type of amp that offers fine performance and can grow with you, just like that NAD 3140 did with me. My bet is youll upgrade your speakers long before you upgrade this amp into, say, separates.
Now, how about the front-end? Theres truth to the notion that what goes in will affect what comes out. So, youll likely want a good-, clean-sounding CD player that will make it through numerous speaker and amp upgrades. There are many good options here, but the one I will discuss for this particular system is the matching Roksan Kandy KC-1 CD player. It too is priced at $895, and I found it to be as good as most anything around this price. Its well built and nicely styled, just like the KA-1. A single remote control operates both of them. Only one problem: The KC-1 doesnt support anything other than CD. What about the new DVD-A and SACD digital formats? Good question, with no easy answer. My personal take on the whole thing is that there is going to be a whole lot of shaking going on before we see either format take hold. Whats more, there is still hardly any of the new software on the market to speak of (even hundreds of overpriced titles dont impress me). Who knows? The way things are changing, even some combination player that supports all the formats today wont support everything thats here even a year from now. All I know is this: LP lasted a long, long time (and people still play and swear by vinyl), and CD is now surpassing its 20th anniversary. CD is not going away anytime soon. So a good CD player will be useful for years to come. Chances are, when you upgrade youll add another player that supports these other formats and still use this for CDs.
Finally, what about those speakers? This is where you get the most bang for the buck. Right, but remember, were on a budget, and Ive already blown quite a bit on the electronics. Mistake? No, that was on purpose. When I bought my first system, the speakers I wanted were $1300. That was almost as much as my entire budget! I couldnt get those speakers, but I could get good electronics and good enough speakers that would tide me over until I could really afford a killer pair of speakers. Sound crazy? Admittedly, this is advice you likely wont hear anywhere else, and some may say that its blasphemy. But look back to the preceding paragraphs. What Ive done is line you up with equipment that will see you through many speaker upgrades. Today you might not have enough money for the killer speakers you want, but chances are you will have some more cash in a year. Get the best inexpensive thing you can today, and then start dreaming for a year from now.
Today, the best low-priced speaker value Ive found is the Axiom Audio Millennia M3Ti SE loudspeakers for $275 per pair. Enough has been written already in our e-pages about them that, once you read, you will realize why they cost the perfect amount to spend now, because to better them substantially youll have to pay a whole lot more later. And with the Roksan electronics, the sound is simply splendid. You can mount these speakers on a bookshelf or you can get stands. Fellow SoundStager Bill Cowen bought Axiom's $80-per-pair CSS2 stands to use with the M3Ti SE speakers. These are certainly not the best stands you can buy, but they're affordable, and Bill's perfectly content with them. Given that Bill has a main system costing many (many) thousands of dollars, I'd say that his purchase is proof-positive that the M3Ti SE is good enough for now.
If you have a wee-bit more money you can also check out the newer $400 M22Ti SE. I have personally not heard this speaker at length, but our man John Potis has got em, and he says that theyre even better than the M3Ti SE (Johns full review will be published in a future SoundStage! issue). And when the time does come to upgrade to your all-out dream speakers, dont sell these, which would be a waste and counteract the growth and investment were trying to factor in. Relegate them to a bedroom where theyll likely be part of the best-sounding second system youll ever have.
Finally, what about cables? When I bought my first stereo no one really used anything special. It wasnt more than a $30 consideration. Today you can spend more than the entire budget here on a simple set of interconnects. Dont go and blow a lot of money right off the bat. In fact, just get something that will connect everything together and experiment with cabling later. Consider high-end cables an upgrade for later. Youll be surprised how much fun it is to tweak your system.
I believe this approach is a unique way to think of your system that many other theories dont address. In short, dont just think about today, think about tomorrow too. Something new will always be coming, and you want to be in a position to incorporate it into your system without selling the farm and starting over again. In the end, this kind of theory will help you design a system that will grow with you for years to come.
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