Go Big With Little Money

pioneer-SP-FS52That sounds like a new underground mix tape doesn’t it. I’m talking about speakers. Right around when the iPod was introduced at the turn of the century, and smaller laptops became ubiquitous, there was an unfortunate trend to also downsize speakers. With music compressed into MP3s, people seemed to think the music was no longer worthy of taking up space, speakers and sound systems being the centerpiece of a living space, filling wallspace with records or CDs. For the next 15 years, people unnecessarily suffered from compromised sound. It wasn’t because of the MP3s though. It was because they were playing them on shitty earbuds and wee little Smurfwick speakers (see my 2011 piece, Ditch the Fisher Price Speakers and Do Your Music Some Justice).  Consider this a quick update.

In the past six years, audio technology has improved on many fronts. Tiny desktop bluetooth speakers have improved. But while they sound better, there is only so much they can do, and that does not include defying physics. In order to cause a sufficient volume of air in a certain size room to vibrate in a way that accurately represents the music, you need power, and transducers of a sufficient size. There’s really no way around it without compromising sound quality. And if you’re passionate enough about music for it to not be merely background sound, why compromise? The biggest reason for many is cost. Fortunately, there are some engineers who have dedicated their careers to making audiophile quality gear affordable for average non-hobbyist music lovers.

death-star-speakerAndrew Jones is such an engineer, who’s entry level speaker, the Pioneer SP-FS52 lists for $318 a pair, and can be found at times for as low as $200 (currently at BuyDig until Jan 4). You can now have floorstanding speakers for the cost of a fancy-ish dinner and drinks for two. One meal versus possibly a lifetime of music enjoyment? That’s a no-brainer for me. The kiddies had their holidaze, now if there’s any money left, it’s time for mommy/daddy to get their toys. Some may choose for nearly as much money to go for something like the Death Star levitating bluetooth speaker. It’s a fun gimmick, but at 5W, it’ll sound just like what it is, a toy.

I know some think that bookshelf speakers are the best option when you’re on a budget. But who actually has bookshelves with space for speakers? Usually you have to buy a stand, which has the same footprint as a floorstanding, and then supplement it with a subwoofer, which takes even more space, and often much more money.

Why are people in the audiophile world so impressed by the SP-FS52? Well, Jones has some impressive credentials. He’s had a long career as chief speaker engineer at a variety of companies, starting at KEF, Infinity, Technical Audio Devices Laboratories (TAD), and Pioneer, where he spent 17 years. TAD was created as Pioneer’s research lab division in 1975. When Jones came aboard in the late 90s, he helped design the groundbreaking $45,000 Model 1. He trickled down the advancements into the less costly Pioneer EX series (ranging from $1,700 to $4,500 in 2006). Yet possibly his most lasting legacy at that company before leaving for ELAC, is his budget SP series, which have proven to be wildly popular and obviously touch many more lives than the pricier gear. The sound quality for speakers in that price range was previously unprecedented.

elac-debut-f5Those looking for a step up, his work at ELAC is certainly the next phase of evolution for those looking to upgrade or with more budget. The Debut series starts with the Debut F5, which lists for $560 a pair. While this starts to get into the range of other great lines from Wharfedale, Monitor Audio, Rega, Tannoy, GoldenEar and others, though you’d have to find clearance specials to get that low of price (hint, you can get the F5 as low as, at the moment, $450 in an open box deal, and the F6, which lists at $760, for $600, yer welcome!). I’m not sure if Pioneer’s merger with Onkyo had anything to do with his leaving, but ELAC is a German company that’s been around for eight decades and has an excellent reputation in Europe. Jones works out of their California facility, and is quickly making this brand an increasingly popular introduction to the audiophile world.

Some may want to go for powered pro monitor speakers. I’ve written about this before, these are meant for pros who are sitting in one spot, and are not meant to fill a room at home with needs for a wider sweet spot.

teac-ai-301daSo, how to power these bad boys, which are rated at 130 and 140W at 6 Ohm impedance? This is where technology has drastically cut down desktop footprints without much sacrifice in power and performance. I own the PS Audio Sprout, which I use in my bedroom to drive my Wharfedale Evo 20 floorstanders, along with headphones.  Their 50W per channel is more than enough to drive my Wharfies in the bedroom. The base price dropped from $800 to $500 last year, and recently they collaborated with Massdrop for the Sprout II, which upped the power to 100W, along with other improvements. The drop is over, but I’m sure you’ll see it offered again. The next best option is probably the TEAC AI-301DA-BK Integrated Amplifier with Bluetooth USB and DAC, which offers DSD native playback, and 50W per channel of power, plenty to drive a good pair of Pioneer or ELAC floorstanders for $349. From what I’ve heard from my Sprout, I’m not a fan of bluetooth, as it compromises SQ (sound quality). A good USB or other digital connection is much better. TEAC offers many other options, but the AI-101DA is only 26W, quite a drop in power for just $50 savings (though it’s now on Massdrop for $230). It also has a solid headphone amp.

Speaking of headphones, Massdrop has been killing it with collaborations with the top companies behind some venerable classics, including the Fostex TH-X00, HiFiMAN HE4XX, AKG K7XX ($199) and the best value I’ve seen for $150 the Sennheiser HD58X Jubilee. In 1991, Axel Grell joined Sennheiser and designed the HD 580 Precision, which lead to the HD 580 Jubilee four years later, then the HD 600 and HD 650. This new iteratoin features updated technology like 150-ohm drivers. That drop ends in 2 days. Also available on the higher end is the Massdrop x Focal Elex for $799, which improves upon features of the $999 Elear and even includes features from the new Clear! Also at that price is the MrSpeakers Aeon, which is a very comfortable, fairly portable closed headphone, a great option for travel and the office.

Those who spend more time on headphones might want to try some dedicated headphone amps and DACs. The best starter for the money is definitely the Schiit Audio Fulla 2, for $99, a pretty amazing little DAC/amp combo for the price. The next stop up is the Jotunheim ($399) with balanced connections, though Schiit offers an even wider variety of separate DACs and amps. iFi Audio, a British company that’s an offshoot of AMR, an extremely high end audio company with huge R&D resources that enable iFi to make affordable products that blow away most of their peers. While Schiit cannot be beat at the $99 pricepoint, iFi’s most popular products are the Nano iDSD Black Label ($199) and Micro iDSD Black Label ($549) that offer pretty amazing features. Another British company, Chord, trickles down technology from the $10+K DAVE into the Mojo ($600 list, currently $529). I’ve been pretty happy with the Massdrop xGrace m9XX DAC/amp ($500), but even more people seem drawn to the Chord Mojo.

crown-xls-1002Many of the headphone desktop setups also serve as an excellent pre-amp. This means if you do not have other components like a CD player, you don’t really need an integrated amplifier. You can simply connect it to something like a Crown XLS 1002 amplifier ($299), 215W at 8 Ohms. Currently high end amps are pretty expensive. Originally a direct ship bargain (I got the XPA-5 for my home theater for $700), Emotiva has tripled their prices in the past decade. While not as pretty as other high-end gear, Crown can definitely compete with brands three to six times the price. Based in Indiana, they have been around a while, and are owned by Harman Corporation, which makes JBL products among others. In fact, Crown amps (Macro-Tech 9000i) are paired with the JBL M2 Master Reference ($20,000), cited by some as the world’s most accurate horn-driven loudsppeakers.

The XLS series offer balanced connections, a very quiet fan that keeps it cool, and volume control among other features. I learned belatedly that NAD’s consumer amps are prone to overheat and fail. After just a year, my C 272 started buzzing, so I replaced it with a Crown XLS 1502 ($399), a great option if you think you’ll upgrade to bigger, power hungry speakers like my Wharfedale Opus 3s. I’m not going to get into stuff in that range, because if you’ve gone down that slippery slope, you’ll have done your own research and have strong opinions that I wouldn’t be much help with. Similarly, home theater is a whole other arena, which I’ve covered a couple of times, though it’s been a while. My current setup is Marantz AV7702, GoldenEar Supercinema 3D Array XL and Forcefield 4 sub, Vizio 65″ LED 2160p 4K and Oppo BDP 103 region-free blu-ray. I still have the Emotiva XPA-5 amp, though I’m currently not using the two rear channels because there’s nowhere to put them in my current living room. For portable audio, I recently got Astell & Kern AK Jr, which I’ve been happy with. 64GB plus a 256GB chip for storage.

I realize there’s a popular conception of audiophiles as whackadoo nerds who gullibly plonk down tens of thousands of dollars on needless audio snake oil. While there is always that type, most people simply want the best sound they can get for the best value, balancing necessity and budget. You can certainly get, um, sound from a little $100 standalone widget. But for people who have spent years building music collections, even if they don’t spend as much on music, but still consider it a priority, this should give a good start.

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