Usually, we at the SoundStage! Network try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible: If we put up a big enough tent, we figure, then more readers can enter and find something useful -- information that will support them in buying high-end audio gear.
The “What I’d Buy” series is not that. In its conception and execution, it’s actually quite selfish. Here, I don’t list and describe what I’d buy if I were you, but what I’d buy. Therefore, the products listed in the various categories I’ve written about -- Digital Source Components, Integrated Amplifiers, Power Amplifiers, Loudspeakers Under $15,000, Loudspeakers Over $15,000, and this final article -- will appeal to readers who think at least somewhat as I do -- or to those who are simply curious about my opinions. Many types of products -- tubes, turntables, planar speakers, component footers -- are not represented in these articles, simply because I wouldn’t personally buy such things. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy them, but they haven’t made it into this series because they’re not on my shopping list. It’s been refreshing to not have to consider what anyone else thinks of the content -- for once!
Something else I don’t buy is a marketing ploy that’s been going around for years -- basically, that you should spend 25% of a system’s total cost on cables and interconnects. I think that’s nonsense. I’m no cable skeptic -- I know that cables can make a real difference in the sound of an audio system. But I also know that higher cost doesn’t necessarily mean better sound, and that that rule applies more to cables than to any other type of audio component. My recommendations of cables are very basic. I believe in buying from solid companies whose cables I’ve heard, and that I know won’t present me with quality-control problems. Basically, there are four such companies that I hold in high regard: Nordost, Crystal Cable/Siltech, Dynamique Audio, and AudioQuest. Here’s why:
Cables and interconnects
Nordost: I’ve had experience with several lines of Nordost cable. It began years ago, with their Blue Heaven series, and culminated with the last generation of their Valhalla models. If you’ve heard rumors of how good Nordost cables sound, you can probably assume that they’re true. These are the fastest-sounding cables around -- what they can do for transient attacks can be downright frightening. But they’re not one-trick wonders: they also sound full and articulate in the bass, and have a crystal-clear midrange that anyone would love. If speed and resolution are hot buttons for you, explore Nordost post haste.
AudioQuest: The AudioQuest cables I’ve heard -- from the Meteors to the WEL Signatures -- are meaty, full, and tonally rich. If your system needs an infusion of energy and sounds at all lightweight or threadbare, AQ cables might be just what the doctor ordered. I simply love the bass power that these cables are capable of, and they can jam-pack a soundstage with full, crisply defined images that are both dense and three-dimensional.
Crystal Cable: Although I put these in the same camp as Siltech, below -- the two brands share the same parent company and the same designer -- make no mistake: Crystal cables have a heart all their own. From the musical soul of Gabi Rijnveld, herself an accomplished musician, Crystal cables will surprise you with their incredible fidelity, including their powerful bass response. Although it’s easy to see these thin, décor-friendly cables and think that their sound must be equally “small” or “light,” that would be a mistake. They have great clarity and speed, but also will portray music’s full power and majesty. If you’ve ever heard the Crystals with the company’s own Arabesque loudspeakers, you’ll know that what I’m telling you is true.
Siltech: If you read my review on SoundStage! Hi-Fi this month, you’ll see just how impressed I am with Siltech’s least-expensive cables, the Explorers. There, I describe how these cables fall between the house sounds of Nordost and AudioQuest. What’s enticing is that, for a bit more money, you can step up to Siltech’s silver/gold Classic Anniversarys, which are now the reference cables of at least two SoundStage! Network writers. And I don’t think I’ve seen better build quality in any other cable line.
Dynamique Audio: I was turned on to this brand by a GoodSound! review that I arranged with our own Hans Wetzel. He was so impressed by what he heard from Dynamique’s lower-priced cables that he followed that first review with a second, on Ultra Audio, this time of the company’s more expensive offerings. Suffice it to say that Hans found these cables to be basically without flaw. My interest piqued, I asked Dynamique to send me a few cables to try. Sure ’nuff, Hans was right on the money -- these cables are super. Dynamique can’t compete with the other makes mentioned here in terms of brand recognition, but given a few years, that could change. They’re certainly worthy contenders.
I’ve always gotten the best performance from my electronics when I’ve paired power amps and preamplifiers from the same company. Typically, I recommend buying a power amplifier based on the power requirements of your speaker of choice, and taking into account the size of your room, and your preferences in volume levels and music. Then, I would recommend buying the preamp that best suits the power amp you’ve chosen. Most brands offer a preamp model that matches one or more of their power amps, so this usually ends up working out just fine.
But, as with any component genre, I often see audiophiles basing their choice of preamplifier solely on price -- the more expensive, the better. I’ve had a number of expensive preamps in my system over the past few years, and I’ve yet to hear a better one than Ayre Acoustics’ KX-R ($18,500 USD). In my system it’s paired with Ayre’s MX-R monoblocks, and I have to tell you that I think the KX-R is almost flawless. I believe Ayre’s Variable Gain Transimpedance volume control to be a superior design that leads to the quietest, most dynamically charged sound I’ve ever heard from a preamp. I often chuckle when I see an audiophile choose an even more expensive preamp that uses a conventional attenuator circuit for the volume control. Again, the assumption is that the more expensive model is always better, even if, from a technological perspective -- and a sonic one, in my experience -- the cheaper one is superior. A/B the Ayre for your audio buddies against the latest preamp from any of the en vogue Euro brands costing 30 grand and up. You might be very surprised at the outcome.
But if I ran an all-digital system, I’d seriously consider using no preamplifier at all. Some of the 32-bit volume controls are very transparent, and various designers have successfully tackled the problem of reduced resolution in digital volume controls. I like the simplicity of using a great DAC with a built-in volume control, and there are now many such products on the market that will suit various system types. And they sound better and better.
Footers, isolation devices, etc.
Perhaps I’m going to have to turn in my audiophile pocket card, but I don’t spend Saturday afternoons trying various sets of footers under my DAC. I recently received a letter from a reader telling me that he’d ordered a set of speakers and was already planning to buy some very expensive aftermarket footers, before he’d even heard the speakers standing on their own stock feet. Dude . . . is that really something you want to admit?
Although I don’t have an expensive rack in my system, I do see the benefit of placing components on a firm, stable platform that minimizes vibration. I’ve just always found other places in my system where my available funds give more of a benefit for the cost. But if you’ve already optimized everything else in your system, knock yourself out and try some of these products -- like the ones from Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS).
Lastly . . .
My overall system-buying strategy is very simple: Buy the best pair of speakers I can afford that fit my room; make sure my room is as acoustically neutral as possible, either through initial design or aftermarket room treatments. Find a power amplifier that can easily handle the speaker load it will be presented with, that provides enough clean power, and that sounds really great. Pair the amp with the same company’s preamp -- or, if I have only digital sources, explore the volume-control capabilities of my DAC. Get a Mac computer and a great but not stupidly priced DAC. Spend enough money to get good cables, but don’t go crazy. Pay attention to setup details such as precise speaker positioning (preferably with in-room measurements to help). Sit back and enjoy.
That’s how I do it. Now you know what I’d buy, too.
. . . Jeff Fritz