When my 14 year-old Sony and Infinity home theater system started dying back in 2005, I was glad. I’d been itching to upgrade my system for over ten years, but felt I couldn’t justify spending the money until I really had to. And no, I didn’t abuse it to end it’s life sooner, though I considered it. It lasted pretty long for a consumer level system that cost less than $800. I started my research with magazines like The Absolute Sound, and online, haunting review sites and forums like Audioholics, Ecoustics, andAV Science Forum. Couldn’t find a pocket protector, but I put on my glasses and geeked out with some of the most insane audio and videophiles you’d ever meet.
I found a plethora of great information and advice, and also learned when to turn on my b.s. detector. While information on HD features and performance charts for subwoofers can be pretty straightforward, some people get a little weird when you venture into the more arcane areas like tube amplifiers (very popular among analog fetishists still nostalgic for distorted, e.g. “warm” sound of vinyl), thousand dollar cables and $2,000 to $15,000 CD players. If your speakers aren’t going to be located three floors and over 800 feet away, you can get just as good conduction with a coathanger as some of the overpriced crap up there. 16 gauge is plenty for most rooms. As for pricey CD players, I just had to shake my head.
After auditioning a dozen brands in listening rooms around town, I bought my main front speakers that would specifically be good for music in a somewhat cramped studio apartment (front driven Rega R3s that would sound good pushed against the wall). I got a bunch of Wharfedale pieces at great prices via eBay. I’d already begun plotting what I’d get when I would eventually move into a larger space (which I did after the first version of this article, in September 2007). I conducted a couple polls onfavorite tower speakers under $3,000 and B&W was the overwhelming favorite. However, it’s difficult to find the speakers at anything less than list price. And having heard them, I didn’t think they’re even as good as comparably priced models by Revel, Energy, Gallo Acoustics and Wharfedale. Once I decided the best value for me was to continue expanding my Wharfedale setup, I started an amps for Opus thread. There’s a lot of solid options for power amplifiers, but I also realized there is no discernable difference in sound performance between amps of similar power ratings. The final post on the thread was, “And now you have become the master…” I don’t know about that, but I saved a heck of a lot of money by getting the extremely nicely priced Emotiva XPA-5 ($800).
Due to the fact that high end manufacturers are usually smaller companies, there’s a longer lag time in incorporating new technologies like HDMI in preamplifier/processors. In fact, in the rush and confusion of changes from HDMI 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and 3D technology, these boutique brands have been left behind. New models from internet direct companies like Emotiva and Outlaw have been delayed for 3 years, or even cancelled, leaving companies like Marantz and Integra to pick up the slack. I hope they can survive in this economy, because they still make amazing products for the price.
In 2007 I helped a friend research a new system for his specific budget and room requirements. Interestingly, I found out after the fact that what we eventually came up with was close to what theAudioholics buyer’s guide recommended in their recommendation for a $12,000 setup at the time (he just got the Emotiva separates and Mordaunt-Short speakers, no projecter and subwoofer). He did have issues with the processor, and after trying three of them, got his money back and went with an Outlaw 990. While there are a few similarities with the Audioholics recommendations, I came up with my own mini-guide. Rather than use list prices, I listed the lowest possible prices I could find on the web for new pieces. Many can be found even cheaper on auctions on eBay or Audiogon, although many may prefer to avoid the risk. I think the risk is worth it. My suggestions aren’t meant to be the last word, just what I feel is the best value. As far as my own biases, I believe in using substantial floorstanding tower speakers for the front main speakers, so they’re not too anemic when listening to two-channel music. And generally, speakers are beautiful. They should not be hidden as tiny four inch boxes or inside a wall. Nothing beats a pair of large, bold speakers that promise to sound even better than they look. Rear and surround speakers, eh, who cares.
I realize that the $1,210 super budget is still a lot of money. At least for most of us. While there are enthusiasts out there who drop $30K to $150K on gear, your average music fiend is more likely to spend their money on music rather than gear. I always laugh when articles talk about a new custom installation of $30K wortth of speakers, and they try it out with some Celine Dion or Kenny G. I personally couldn’t normally drop even $1,000 all at once. I upgraded incrementally. I started with a temporary AVR receiver, a Yamaha HTR-5730 for only $65, rawk! My condo came with a Panasonic TH-42PHD7 42″ Plasma. Last summer I did some research into the LCD versus Plasma issue. The gist is that LCD is slightly more mature technology yet still more expensive, 15-25% more efficient power, and technically has higher resolution than the average plasma. Yet somehow almost everyone who’s compared thinks the plasma looks better, and has a cool 3D effect. The glass on plasma screens is more susceptible to glare from light sources, just like old CRT tubes. There’s concern about images being burned into the screen, but with proper break-in procedure, no users complained of it actually happening, even those who play video games and watch sports with the network logo constantly on one corner of the screen.
In 2007, the struggle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players hadn’t been played out yet, until Netflix’s February 2008 announcement that they were dropping HD-DVD. That was pretty much the checkmate in favor of Blu-ray. It took over three years for the prices to start to drop. Now that there is major competition from streaming movie services, you can finally get a decent 2010 model player for around $120. CNET has a handy comparison chart regarding features and ratings for current models. I’m not including these in the quotes below, as many people already have a player and is the least important item to upgrade.
Super Budget: $1,210 to $1,405
There’s actually a lot of options to choose from in this range. Smaller budgets often are combined with smaller rooms, so this is a 5.1 surround sound setup. Yamaha, Denon, and Harmon/Kardon make great entry level receivers and available for great used and refurb deals. Polk and Paradigm also made good speakers in that price range. With a limited budget, I recommend considering getting the best front speakers you can afford, and gradually picking up the other speakers later on.
TV – Panasonic TC-P42U2 Viera 42″ 1080p Plasma HDTV, $600
Speakers – Yamaha NS,$380
Budget: $2,669 to $3,166
At double the budget, you get four times the bargain. You get to move up to 7.1 surround sound, a 1080p 50” plasma screen, a great Marantz network receiver and the choice of two brands of audiophile quality English speakers. See also Axiom Audio.TV – Samsung PN50C550- Factory-Refurbished 50″ 1080p Plasma HDTV, $750
Speakers –Mordaunt Short Carnival,$1,216
High End: $6,259 to $8,003
Wharfedale is a well-known brand in England but not so much in the U.S. The Evo2 series has been consistently available for amazing value.
There’s an option for a projector for a true home cinema experience, and separate pre-amplifier/processor and amps. With the AV7005, Marantz arguably outperforms units at twice the price from the likes of Rotel, NAD and Anthem for truly audiophile quality sound.Display – Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 705HD Projector, $567; Carada Criterion Series 100″ HDTV Screen, $744; or Samsung PN50C550 50″ 1080p Plasma HDTV, $750
Speakers – Wharfedale Evo2 Series, $1,896
Super High End: $19,642 to $30,058
Again, more Wharfedale. The Opus series is hands down the best I’ve found for the price range. I got mine for a steal from a drop shipper in Texas. They’re nice and enormous and sound sufficiently throbbing and bulbous for my tastes. The Opus2 came out in 2008 and is being discontinued, to be replaced by the Jade series. For now though, it’s still available. Denon’s flagship pre/pro and amp combo is bleeding edge technology that is pretty much one of a kind at that pricepoint, able to handle up to 12 channels. To make use of it, I’m including 9 speakers with the Opus2 setup. Alternately, a Mordaunt Short flagship 5.1 setup focuses on (over-the-top) audio quality over quantity.
Pre/Pro & Amp – Denon AVP A1HDCI AV 12 channel network receiver, $6,498, Denon POA A1HDCI 10x150w, $4,995; or if only 5 channels, Lexicon MC12 HD, $9,999, 2 Emotiva XPA-1 Mono-Block 500w, $1,998, Emotiva XPA-3 3x200w, $699.
Speakers – Wharfedale Opus2, $5,275
Ultra Mega High End: $32,463 to $56,426
The more expensive the gear is, the more debatable its relative value. No one should go with any recommendation at this level without thoroughly auditioning, shopping and comparing, even if dropping nearly fifty G’s doesn’t phase you at all. I list this as a fantasy system. I will most likely never have a system like this, definitely not at the listed prices, and that’s okay. I didn’t bother researching used prices, because if you can afford this, you can pay someone to do it for you! There is seemingly no end to possibilities of ultra high end audio, from customized speakers to wide array of brands, like Lexicon, Parasound, Halcro, Proceed, Meridian, McIntosh, ATI, Krell, Mark Levinson, etc.
If you’ve got that kind of dough to burn, have fun.Display – Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8700UB, $1,939, Seymour AV 109″ H095 Center Stage XD Screen, $2,637
Pre/Pro & Amp – SimAudio Moon CP8, $18,000, Theta Dreadnaught II, $7,050 ($2,500 base plus $850 x 3 225w channels, $1,000/2x 100w channels) or Denon setup, $11,493.
Speakers – Aerial Acoustics $22,200
Subwoofer: Aerial Acoustics Model SW12 $4,600
300-Ft. 12AWG Enhanced Loud Oxygen-Free Speaker Cable, $77.23
6 ft Premium RCA 22AWG cable, $2.97 each
High-Quality Screw Type Banana Plugs, $1.50 pr
There’s a bit of debate over the impact of cables on sound quality. I think as long as they’re properly shielded, copper is copper. As far as I know, James Randi, who offered $1 million to anyone who proves the $300+/ft. Pear cables can outperform already overpriced Monster Cables, still has his money. Blue Jeans Cable is a step up for a bit nicer looking cables for those who care. Other cables at Monoprice, 6ft 3-RCA component video, $12; 6 ft HDMI cable (24 AWG), $12; 12ft RCA subwoofer, $6.
I don’t have any recommendations for CD players. Most DVD players play CDs, and more and more people are just using digital audio files on their computers or iPods.
If you’re looking at the Super High End range, and really want to do things right, you might want to get a quote from a professional who specializes in this sort of thing. They will make sure the room acoustics are appropriate to get the most out of your system, make room design suggestions and install proper in-wall wiring. The above Wharfedale Opus speakers are very large, and if your aesthetic preference is to hide the equipment, a system designer can install speakers that are hidden in the walls or ceiling, and also custom install hiding places for a 60” plasma TV, like in the photos below! Here’s an interestingdo-it-yourself project.