Monday, July 18, 2011

Audio Guide Part 2

Replace wine with "stereo" and you'll
have the right idea.
If you missed Part 1, please feel free to start here.

Part 2 - Let's start with a plan!

This system guide is tailored for listening to amazing music in an apartment, not for massive multi-channel home theater surround sound madness. I might write a guide on doing home theater, but as I don't even have a TV at the moment, such a guide will have to wait. 

In audio terminology we're going to be building you a "2" or  "2.1"
 channel system. Which means two speakers sitting left and right ("2"), as well as possibly a subwoofer handling the bass (".1" in audio notation). That means we will need a pair of speakers and an amplifier to power them. Then we'll figure out what input options you need (turntable, iTunes, CDs) and other accessories like headphones. The way the guide is set up you can get the core components and then branch out getting more extra stuff as you have money. Basically, you can buy a pair of speakers and an amp and plug your iPod in and already be worlds ahead of any shitty dock or package system. 

First step. Das amplifier!

The first piece of gear we're going to talk about is the receiver/amplifier. The receiver, clever enough, is the the piece that you plug things in to like CD players, and receives the audio signal from them. The amplifier is the thing you plug the receiver in to that sends loud sound to the speakers. Technically these are two pieces, but all the models were going to be looking at come "integrated." (Fancy audio-speak for a box that has both a receiver and an amplifier in it). Other than the speakers, this is the most important piece of gear for how you setup sounds. If you amp sounds like crap, not even the best speakers will be able to do anything but project crappy sounding audio coming from your amp. 

Basically, I went on the search for an integrated amplifier for under $500 for this part of the guide. 
There is one amp that is the clear winner on the market right now. I'll include a few options in the apendix, but they aren't really better, just different (and mostly more expensive!)

Best Overall Choice: Yamaha A-S500 ($400)

So, going down through the options, my personal choice (and what I own and love) is the new Yamaha A-S500. (Note: there is an R-S500, which is no where near as good - do not confuse the two).Everyone in the audio community was pretty shocked to see Yamaha put out a serious contender for budget audiophile 2-channel amps, but was then doubly shocked when it could go mano-a-mano with any of the other options in it's class, even though the competition costs more! Super-clean sound, simple design, plenty of inputs, tons of power (85w per channel ***see footnote) and even three cool options: optional direct iPod dock, totally variable loudness, and a "Pure Direct" button which bypasses all of the processing options for even more pristine sound if you have a good room for listening. 

The only negatives are that: it doesn't have a tuner for radio, which is normal on good integrated amps - you can buy one separate if you need; it's phono pre-amp sucks (not an issue unless you listen to lots of records, but if you do, read the vinyl section, specifically about pre-amps since almost all integrated pre-amps suck); and while the circuitry and case are robust as can be, the knobs etc. are a little weak/cheap feeling. 

The sound is a touch bright, but not harsh. It is a great match with any of my recommended speakers. Price to performance to convenience, this amp is truly amazing and it's becoming a regular class leader at it's price. I can vouch for many hundreds of pleasurable hours listening to it! This is the one to buy right now if you're starting out!

The competition:

Best Retro Looks: Outlaw 2150 ($699)
Solid Performer With Good Bass: NAD C326BEE ($500)
Alternate Proven Performer That Is Bright: Cambridge Audio 650A ($700)

Okay, if you've got money to blow, be my guest to get one of these other amps. They all cost more and offer slight performance upgrades. They're all good gear and will work fine for the rest of the article. 

The Outlaw 2150 has tons of hype, with good reason. It is an extremely serious piece of gear for listening to music. With gloriously warm sound and the most killer retro-Art-Deco looks, it's worth every dime. It even has a built in USB DAC (more on that later) to directly connect a computer. The only negatives are that it has a smaller number of inputs (3 + the DAC + Phono, which is a bit weak again), that it allegedly doesn't have the tightest bass sound and that because the DAC is internal, you can't upgrade it as technology advances without using one of your already scare inputs (and it is already a little out of date). But oh, those cool looks! If you just have to have the eye-candy item, this is perfect for you.    

The NAD C36BEE is a super solid choice too. It particularly shines with it's handling of low/bass frequencies which are traditionally a weak spot in budget audio gear. It has a decent price-point and tons of inputs (7). No phono pre-amp, no tuner and a very plastic build. While this is a warhorse of budget audiophile amps, the Yamaha seems to be a better choice since the NAD is more expensive. I don't really know why you wouldn't buy the Yamaha over this, but it's a good piece of gear. 

From what I hear, the Cambridge amp is a bit more nuanced than the NAD, but it's also by far the most expensive at $700. It, like the Outlaw, probably has a bit more "musicality" (a term that describes the ease with which the amp makes music sound lovely) than the Yamaha, which seems to strive for a more neutral, passive sound, but at almost double the price it's hard to recommend. The one reason you might want to use it is that it is the budget amp that is rather treble-heavy. It's technically a flaw, but if you were to pair it with a darker sounding set of speakers it would make them shine. Particularly Bowers and Wilkenson speakers in our more pricey build might benefit from this amp. 


Now that we've presented the options you'll notice most of these amps are something between 35 watts per channel and 85 watts per channel. 

"But wait! That's so little power!, "you howl. "My car stereo/boombox/toaster oven has 20,000 kW of audio power /flex!" 

I respond: Something interesting happened sometime in the 80's and 90's, which is that the way that most mainstream amplifier manufactures measured the strength of their amps changed. The number you see in giant Techno x Street style typefaces on the shiny boxes is the hypothetical peak output number if you are only driving one speaker on the whole system. With the units we're looking at, made by talented designers and engineers, that wattage number is the actual average output under normal home listening conditions. In real terms, that means that a 50W audio-nerd piece of gear is REALLY loud (probably way louder than Best Buy 7 channel, 150W per channel home theater amp from some generic company.)

Now you are worried the other way — that you will destroy your speakers. One major myth of the home stereo mythos is that huge amps wreck speakers. In fact, it's mostly the opposite. What wrecks speakers way more often is bad signal. i.e. unclean/distorted signal that comes from a weak amp being pushed way past it's comfortable working strength and feeding ragged sound to speakers. Most amps do usually sound best in the middle 1/3 of their volume range (33% to 66%). Think of it this way: that you want the system loping along like a mustang enjoying himself out on the open plain. Not cheetah trotting in a tiny zoo cage, nor a pony running in terror from a predator. 

Anyway, up next when I get some time free from making art is the portion where we talk about speakers! 

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