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Audio Systems

A Couple of Recommendations and Suggestions

Is it possible to separate the singer from the song? There are times when I read reviews of recordings or equipment when I suspect that the writer is attempting such a feat. In an intellectual sense you can do that, but in a real sense it is not possible. This is one reason I have worked at trying to find a stereo system that will allow me the opportunity to listen to the music with in the best possible sound. This new facet of my hobby led to reading some of the journals in the field and, through Maestrino, the opportunity to share my findings. I offer this latest installment.

To set some of the parameters I want to start by saying that I will limit my opinions to equipment under $1,000.00 for units and $2,000.00 for speaker systems. This is not an arbitrary standard. I began the whole thing by responding to friends who asked me to suggest a complete system that they could get that would have excellent sound but be priced in a range that was affordable. Well, Consumer Reports is one source I initially recommend for the budget conscious, but it is possible to build a similar priced system with less commercial brand products. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the bigger companies, lets face facts. If you were going to buy an engagement ring would you go to a jewelry store or Uncle Al's Bargain Barn? The major companies produce some good equipment (as you'll read, my primary player is a Sony) but there are smaller companies who specialize in making excellent equipment who also make affordable equipment. Plus, if I can do something to keep small, privately owned shops alive I will.

Second, these offerings will not be full of stats and none of the magic eye graphs that fill many of the journals. (I recall looking at a couple of these in a recent issue of Stereophile about two different D/A converters. The lines looked a lot like the kind of graph you see on a cardiograph and I was wondering which one was more healthy.) Many of you may understand and appreciate the art in this kind of data, and I do not mean to depreciate your knowledge. However, I have personally felt that these statistics provide about as much understanding to the sound I hear as diagramming sentences does to understanding the English language. (And I have been teaching English for 25 years.)

It is important to keep in mind that those small shops that carry audiophile equipment should not be avoided because you believe they are out of your price range. These people have to make a living and they can't do it by carrying only Rolls Royces. If, however, Rolls Royce produced a more modestly priced automobile with the same care and quality, wouldn't you like the opportunity to get one? These smaller shops will be where you find such equipment, if it exists, and a good staff will help you.

So, I would suggest you might want to begin by finding a good audiophile store in your neighborhood. Now there is no such animal here in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, but I am only about 45 miles from Columbus and there are at least two of these types of store there. I would suggest you check out those in your area and choose the one that makes you feel comfortable. If the people working there know the product that is important, but not sufficient. If they make you feel like they're trying to sell a product, leave. If they make you feel like you are beneath them in your appreciation of good music and systems, leave. If they make you feel like you are important, listen to them and how they answer your questions. In the world of stereo equipment there is a lot to choose from and you can find excellent equipment for a wide range of prices. Therefore, the salesperson should be listening to you and suggesting the right equipment for you. That is, they will not try to sell you expensive equipment, only the equipment which will provide you with the best sound. Price will be used as one of the guidelines in meeting your needs, but will not provide a barrier to your appreciation.

Another important criteria is being able to audition the equipment in your own home. Now, don't expect to walk in off the street for the first time and take home a stereo system to "try" without some kind of deposit, but it is important that you can listen to a system in your house. This should be an audition, not a commitment. These places all have listening rooms but they are often designed to sound good. That is, they built the room with stereo systems in mind. My house was built in 1906. Nuff, said.

If I may take a moment to recommend one, I would suggest you might want to contact Progressive Audio, in Columbus, Ohio. This little shop is bigger than it seems and contains a lot of the equipment you may have heard about. What is important, however, is that they treat you like they really care about you and not just a sale. The owner, Scott, has a fine staff. I have personally worked a lot with the manager, Robert Roeger (pronounced Rurger). One of his favorite phrases when I call or come in to talk is, "I'm here for you." What amazes me is that this phrase would probably sound pretentious from anyone else, but with Robert you feel he is sincere. I watched him work with people ranging in age from 19 to 49 and make them feel like their listening pleasure is his only concern. If you don't care for his approach, there's a lot of other people to talk with. In my observation, all of them have the same philosophy as Robert. I would only suggest that a Saturday is the worst day to try to check out the place for the first time because they are swamped!! This is what you want to look for in a shop. Progressive Audio is located at 1764 N. High St. Columbus, Ohio 43201. The phone number is (614) 299-0565 and the Fax is (614) 299-6587.

If you are interested, one of the recommendations for a system I made in previous issues included the following items. There was a Rotel RX-950AX receiver ($600.00), an Optimus 3400 portable CD player (then available at Radio Shack for around $175.00, no longer produced by them, but if you see one grab it), and a set of RA Labs Black Gold Mini-Reference speakers ($200.00). If you add some expensive interconnect cables it would cost an additional $100.00 for a total of $1,075. These recommendations were based on a request to recommend a quality stereo system for around $1,000.00. Since that article was published, the Optimus has been discontinued. More about that below.

I have found that D/A converters add an impressive amount of musical information and another dimension to the musical gestalt. I discussed what a D/A converter is in a previous article, in print, but since this is designed to be kind of a primer, I will briefly state its nature. CD players have two primary components. The transport spins the disc and reads the information on it. This digital information, expressed in digits, is transported to the D/A converter which converts the digital information into analogue sound. The premise is that having a separate piece of equipment to process these signals will afford the opportunity to build a better mousetrap. You can add a D/A converter to any CD player that has a digital out. In a previous essay I recommended the $1,000.00 Adcom 700 and I still marvel at it. I wanted, however, to hear if a less expensive converter would improve the sound of the Optimus.

I was sent a DAC-IN-THE-BOX from Audio Alchemy (which I have seen advertised for as low as $200.00) and hooked it up to the Optimus. The result was amazing. The already good sounding player made a significant improvement!! It was richer, more body….like a good beer. As mentioned, however, the Optimus is no longer available. So, I decided to try out some other equipment to hear if I can make any other recommendations. I searched various places and was unable to find any other portable CD players with a digital out. So, I went to regular players. I decided to start at a low price range of $300.00 but one that still had a digital out.

I got an NAD 502 player from Progressive Audio and used it for awhile. Now, that would add another $125.00 to the price, but it does have a digital out connection, so you could add a D/A converter to it. Let me cut to the bottom line, I was impressed with the NAD 502. I thought the sound was clean and clear. It provided a nice inner detail and musical sound. I have to report, however, that the 502 player is no longer available. It has been replaced by the NAD 510 which I have not had the opportunity to audition, but Robert tells me it is exactly like the 502, only more readily available. It is also the same price, $299.00. If this fits your price range you will not go wrong.

Next, I had considered reviewing players in the $600.00 range. I decided, instead, to hear how the sound might change if I simply added the DAC-IN-THE-BOX to the $300 NAD. That would bring the total outlay to around $500.00. The difference was significant!! The difference is best described in the listening I did to Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, Norbert Kraft on guitar, on Naxos (8.550729). [I highly recommend this disc which also contains Villa-Lôbos' Guitar Concerto and the Guitar Concerto #1 of Castelnuovo-Tedesco.] Without the Audio Alchemy unit the guitar sounded slightly metallic and the strings a bit steely. While the sound was nice sans the Audio Alchemy D/A processor, adding it changed this so that the guitar sounded like a classical guitar and the orchestra was warmer. It reminded me of a comment on the same D/A converter in Stereophile, "Perfect…for getting high-end sound from a mass-market CD player." (Oct.'94). Anyway, at this point you would have invested a total of $500.00 for a player unit. There may be a better $600.00 self-contained unit, but I don't know about it.

Okay, so now let's go up another rung or two to the Acurus ACD-11 that retails for $900.00. This player is a massive one, weighing in at 20 pounds. Its appearance is rather spare, the black front having only a semi-circle of buttons on the right side, also in black. There seem to be no frills so far as the appearance is concerned and not a lot of playthings (inserting the name of the composer in the deck so that it appears when the disc is played, etc.). Still, with the remote you can accomplish anything you would want (programming, etc.).

I probably broke some standard procedure, but I began auditioning the player as a transport in my home system. This was primarily due to the fact that the Acurus arrived about the time of Christmas break from school (where I have the system I use to do a lot of the testing). I have been perfectly happy with the Sony X55ES for the past six years both as a player and, of late, as a transport. As a transport the Acurus provided a sound which was more crisp and clearer than the Sony. There was more of a tactile sense of spatial location and differentiation. This was made clear, in one example, while listening to Marcus Roberts' Gershwin for Lovers disc (Columbia 7464 66437 2) where Reginald Veal's bass reaches out and touches you. I think this sensation may be what some writers refer to when using the phrase sound stage.

School resumed and I took the Acurus CD-11 there to listen to it as a player. Here, again, I was impressed. The bottom line is that, if you can afford to shell out $899 for a player, go for the Acurus CD-11. As a player it provided the same kind of sensual sound stage and loving detail that I heard at home. This is not to say that you won't hear a better sound when hooked up to the Adcom 700, but a DAC-IN-THE-BOX will not provide any significant difference in the sound. Listening to Górecki's Symphony #3 on Naxos sent chills up my spine.

I wondered if there was something in the design or innards to which we could attribute the resulting sound. Its simple, black facade was not unlike the philosophic black box. The only technical information I had was in the owner's manual. I had not received any of the company's (Mondial) propaganda when they sent the player. So, I called Tony at Mondial and he sent me one of their info-ads. Well, the following is what I brought away from several readings. For what it's worth, for all you red-blooded Yanks out there it's made in the U.S. I do not mention this as a reason to buy it so much as for a reason NOT to avoid it. I fear that the phrase 'made in America' has come, of late, to have the same connotation that 'made in Japan' had when I was growing up. In this case, have no fear. The Acurus CD-11 is an excellent player. The other thing I gleaned from the info-ad was the frequent reference to dampening vibration. Vibration seems to be the flavor of the month in audio jargon and I won't go into that now. I can say that if that is what has been done to effect this sound, sounds good to me.

Try this as an exercise in virtual reality using the Acurus player. Listen to Neilsen's 4th Symphony "Inextinguishable" while reading Yeats' "The Second Coming". The music captures the essence of the poem if not the literal line. The Acurus brings to this experience a dimension lacking in lesser players. It left me emotionally drained in a positive, but not necessarily pleasant sort of way.

A final note. When I am working on articles, like this or any other, it is an exercise. It is an exercise in trying to find a language of musical experience which is not a song or poem but which conveys a feeling in prose. We can use phrases like warm and more body but even that cannot fully convey the experience. This is why I have often used the word tactile in an attempt to convey the experiences I have had while listening. Tactile is a touch sensation, not an aural one. Lately, however, it has become a touching sensation.

Copyright © 1996, Robert Stumpf II.