Now is the time
Now is the time
It should be no secret that AUDIOGRAM II is not just about cutting edge. It is also about cutting costs. Yes, choosing the right audio components will make a remarkable improvement in the sound of your playback system. However, this blog is for those people who do not want to spend an arm and a leg for such components. There is so much more to the enjoyment of beautiful music in the home than how much money one might have spent. Today’s prices are insane.
How I miss the early days of Saul Marantz and William Z.Johnson. Their stuff was expensive, but their components were so much better than anything else available. Considering the life expectancy of these components and their resale value, they were often good investments. Today, nearly everything is outrageously priced and very few products standout as significantly better sounding than others. If I am being asked to spend that kind of money it would have to be someone like David Berning.
So I have been looking for bargains in audio products – affordable bargains. I wanted to buy online and save money. Yet, what good is buying online when you cannot hear what you are buying? If you are spending a relatively small amount of money it may be worth the risk. If you are spending big money, by all means buy from a reputable audio retailers. They need our support.
For my cybershopping experiment I set a price between $40 and $100. I chose a pair of Grado Headphones as my first buy because of their reputation. Joe Grade was a matchmaker who invented the moving coil phono cartridge, but he made his reputation building moving magnet cartridges. He built them by hand in Brookline, NY and sold them at reasonable prices. His family is still selling these cartridges in Brookline. Today, they are also making and selling headphones in Brookline. They do not advertise. Word of mouth is enough to keep this company in business.
Thought I should check what all the fuss was about. I bought a pair of Grado SR 80e’s for $99, just under budget. They are a remarkable product.
I have owned expensive headphones, including ones made by Stax of Japan. The Stax phonesare still probable the most revealing set of headphones one can buy. They are electrostatic phones with incredibly low distortion and a silky smooth response. But the Stax suffer, as do any other set of headphones, a lack of true bass response. We hear low bass not only with our ears but also with our gut. Headphones bypass the gut. Thus, many headphone makers boost the bass response to compensate. Stax does not and neither does Grado.
A second problem for headphones is that the sound can seem to be contained in between one’s ears. Grado does a good job of getting around this problem by making their phones open backed. Sound does leak out from the phones but the musical stage is so much more realistic. The there is the legendary Grado midrange. Female voices are very convincing because the Grado’s have very little coloration.
The Grado’s also have a sound that is lively. The remind me of the old Decca Mk. V phone cartridge. It sounded like no other cartridge. It did not provide the best tracking of the grove, but it extracted a sound that made almost everything else seem lifeless. Some said the Mk V had a ringing problem in upper frequencies. That is why we bought expensive damped tonearms at the time.
The Grado’s makes piano keys tinkle. A hint of sibilance is apparent on some recordings. I like this sound, but over an extended period of listening I am afraid that listener fatigue might set in. Graphs of frequency response do not always tell the tale. But in the case of the SR 80e’s, they help explain a few things.
Notice the incredibly smooth midrange. At the limits of the human voice range, however, the response begins to tick up. This is audible. The Grado is simply a little hot at the extreme top. However, it is quite listenable for the most part. One would have to spend significantly more money for an improved top end.
My only real complaint with the Grado’s is their low end. The bass is solid and well defined, but it is not extended enough to satisfy organ lovers. But I would take them over a pair of Beats any day.
I bought another set of headphones by Koss because of the discount through Amazon. Koss invented the full frequency spectrum headphone. Before that started in business the only headphones in use were made for the military. My first set of headphones were the Koss ProA. Updated versions of these are still being sold by Koss today, I owned the first pair of Koss electrostatic headphones before I moved to Stax. Now I have settle on another pair legendary headphones the Koss PortaPro’s.
I bought them for $41.00 from Amazon, just over the lower limit of my shopping range. There are worth very penny! They are light weight, portable, and comfortable. Yes, they leak sound as well but they also have a natural sound stage, though not as extended as the Grado’s. They are not as articulate as the Grado’s, but in some ways they are more listenable over a longer period. Let us check out their frequency response:
Their midrange is not as flat as the Grado’s but they appear to have a more extended bass. This extension is audible. Their highs are never fatiguing, but the high end rolloff is audible. On the whole, however, the PortaPro’s have a well-deserved reputation. They are not as transparent and defined as the Grado’s but they are very smooth and quite impressive. A fun pair of headphones.
Now let us look into low-cost ways to improve the sound of digital music. My MacBook Pro laptop has a reasonably good sound card for converting digital sound to analogue. The builtin DAC in my AudioEngine A2+’s is a little better. But I was wondering how much sonic improvement an outboard DAC might make. I would have chosen a Audio Quest Dragonfly Red or Black but they were a little out of my price range. So I settled an AudioEngine D3 DAC which was on sale for $79.00.
The DAC is straight forward. Just plug it into your socket on your laptop and plug in some earphones and chick it out. It is better than listening through the tiny analogue connector of your laptop. Yes, indeed! The D3 sounds better than the original Dragonfly but AudioQuest has moved on with their products. The Red version of the Dragonfly is a significant improvement over the original, but it costs $200. The D3 falls behind it but provides a very listenable experience, particularly after it has been broken-in. AudioEngine suggests a forty to fifty hour break-in period.
I have saved the best buy to last, but it is certainly not for everyone. This is the Sonic Studio’s Amara 4 software.
What does it do? It makes digital music sound like analogue. It does this even for iTunes AAC compressed files. The sound from iTunes or Apple Music can be almost beyond belief, especially if Apple has worked some of its magic on the original studio master (for .) The music is clear, open, defined, and non-fatiguing. Solid bass and sweet highs are not what one expects with compressed music. Somehow Amara gets back to the bits and makes them near perfect. I compared Amara 4 to Bitperfect and Bitperfect fell short. It has a little too much grain.
There are problems with Amara 4. It does not play well with iTunes. The predecessor of Amara 4 was Amara HiFi. It was a solid product which meshed well with iTunes. I owned this product and loved it. It was set and forget. Not so with Amara 4 which almost seems life a beta version. One must now scan iTunes files for music in order to form entirely new playlists in Amara 4. Forget making playlists from Apple Miusic. That music would first have to be downloaded in order to be available for Amara 4.
By the way, the Amara 4 will work with Apple’s AirPaly. I am sitting here enjoying controlling my AudioEngine A2+’s from my laptop while listening to some gorgeous music.
The amazing thing about Amara 4 is that it only cost $50 online, Buy directly from Sonic Studio. One can download a trial version of the software for evaluation. I recommend it for those who might not mind the hassle. For me, I am looking for user-friendly. But the sound is beguiling!
Everything I have mentioned would make great stocking stuffers for impoverished audiophiles and those new to better sounding home audio. (The Grado’s might required a larger stocking than normal.) These products are outstanding bargains and each one can make a significant improvement to one’s listening experience. Happy shopping.
Audiophiles are often fiddling with their system to wring out the very best sound possible. I know the drill. And it can be frustrating. But let us not forget why we have all this expensive hardware. It is for the software – I mean the music. There are days when you just want to sit back and enjoy the music without any fuss. (I will always clean my vinyl and dust the stylus.) Let us call it casual listening.
Can casual listening be enjoyable? Yes! Can such listening compete with high-definition sound? Well, not quite. But I have found that it can come very close to the point that I can imagine myself at a live concern if I turnoff the super critical OCD mindset. Yes, casual listening can be fun. And it can reproduce realistic sound with a little experimentation. (There goes that OCD again.)
I finally upgraded my audio system. I bought a used MacBook Pro laptop at a very good price from my local computer store. What a beauty as you can see. I still like to use a mouse though. (Old habits are hard to break.)
I love iTunes. It is easy to use. I love Apple Music even more. It is now easier to navigate after some recent tweaking by Apple. I subscribe. It is a great way to discover new music or get re-acquainted with some old classics. I have been able to locate some wonderful classic recordings.
What Apple has done is significantly improve the sound of iTunes. Yes, it is compressed. If, however, the original master tapes or digital recordings are carefully transferred, the sound can be quite good. Apple has done that with its “Mastered for iTunes” program. In fact, Apple has asked that all music producers submit their recordings in a high resolution format. This has enabled Apple to improve the sound on many recordings, whether labeled as “Mastered for iTunes” or not.
Now here is where the fun comes in. I just upgraded my audio system for the unheard of price of ten dollars. (Well, I did spend $650 on the used MacBook Pro. I already had an Apple Airport Express which connects to the AudioEngine speakers. This is needed to establish a home network so that one can airplay directly from a laptop.) Remembering that we are still talking about casual listening, I have discovered the joy of having great music at my finger tips for an unheard of price.
With a Mac laptop, using the latest operating system, one can airplay his or her music to the great AudioEngine A2+’s. This could be done from an iPad or iPhone, but the laptop provides more flexibility and the use of additional software.
The audio playback can sound wonderful, even from iTunes. But first a little tweaking is necessary. (Always the tweaking!) The bits need to be cleaned up. This is where a $10 program comes in. Download the BitPerfect app from the Mac App Store. The beautiful part of this app is that it is compatible with airplay (after a little fiddling) and that it just sits in the background without changing the iTunes user interface in any way. But what is does do is to, somehow, play any type of files whether high-resolution or not. The amazing thing is that it greatly improves Apple’s AAC files as well.
Just using it plug and play, one will discover a significant improvement in the sound. There is a little digital glare so to speak. However, this can almost be eliminated with a little playing around with app’s preferences. Here are the settings I arrived at for my particular system for music recorded in ACC at 256 kbits/s:
I did not do this scientifically. Do not ask me why I chose certain settings. It was all done by ear. I encourage you to do the same. Your settings might be different.
What about the sound with this app in the system? Bass is more solid, resolution seems to be improved, and the high-end is sweeter. Coloration? Maybe, but a significant improvement to my listening experience.
I reviewed this app along with several others. See iTunes Audiophile Software Comparisons. The Amarra HiFi was a bit better at a cost of $50 (no pun intended). Nevertheless, what we are talking about here is casual listening. The Amarra app is not as easy to use and it does not play as well with iTunes. Not only that, but the latest version of BitPerfect has been significantly improved from the version I reviewed previously. It just sits in the system in the background and stays out-of-the-way, while it busily cleans up all those little bits. It is nearly bit perfect.
It will work with high res. downloads, but the beauty is that it will greatly improve the sound of iTunes and Apple Music. Try this for a test. Download or stream:
I know what a live cello concert sounds like. Emmanuelle Bertrand plays beautifully and, on my AudioEngines’s, she is right in the room. If you love the sound of the cello and you love great playing, get this album. The wonder is that this music is reproduced in ACC at 256 kbits/s.
Good luck with your own experimentation. You only have ten dollars to lose. Let me know in the comments what you think. I encourage your sharing of info and insights.
Wanted to share a few things on my mind concerning our beloved audio.
Should I upgrade my components?
Hmm. It is easy to believe that the newest thing I hear is a breakthrough product. If it were, why is it so easily traded for something newer?
Maybe the best way to upgrade my sound is to buy better recorded music. I have found that as I have upgraded my program material I have also upgraded my enjoyment of music.
Should I buy expensive headphones?
Maybe? If I am going to use them for casual listening then I am not going to be able to hear the improvement in the sound. Maybe I need them because I am a recording engineer? Hah, I am not a recording engineer. But aren’t they more accurate than speakers because the best phones have lower distortion and more resolving power. Yes, but I am not a recording engineer. I want my music in the room and not my head. I like to feel the low notes as well as hear them. Besides there are so many great sounding headphones at very reasonable prices. But I like those Earspeakers!
Aren’t there new models of bookshelf speakers that sound as good as or better than the little AudioEngines. and are similarly priced?
Maybe, but most of them do not include a built-in class A/B amplifier that is matched perfectly to the speakers. Getting the right amplifier is an important part in selecting a speaker system. The amps often cost more than the speakers. And if they are any good, they cost way more than the speakers. Yes, but I need an excuse to spend more money.
What is all this about sound quality? Why cannot you enjoy a piece of music regardless of that?
When I go to a live concert, do I say to myself: “I wish I had a worse seat in the hall so that the sound would not be as good?” People spend more money on tickets that offer better seating. Why would they do that? They want to hear a great performance but they want to hear as much of it as possible. Could be that these are audiophiles without knowing it. Well I can just make it official and declare them to be audiophiles anyway.
How about a double blind A/B comparison to make the best determination about what component sounds best?
Nah, I really do not listen to music that way. Maybe I could just see how much I enjoy the music for a reasonable length of time if I substituted a new component into my audio system. Of course, if I am listening to a low quality recording will I be able to determine if a new amp adds to the fidelity of the recording? But what if I have great ears and this amp goes all the way to eleven?
My first real audiophile loudspeakers were the Magneplanar Tympani 1’s. (Before these I owned a pair of Rectilinear III’s which were quite nice for their day.) The Tympani 1’s were so good that I pursued recordings to reveal just how good they were. in doing so, the speakers revealed to me just how wonderful music could be. They helped to start my love affair with classical and Jazz recordings. I first fell in love with the music of Bach by listening to it through the Tympani 1’s.
The speakers were far from perfect, but they presented a certain allusion of live music being played in one’s home, provided that the recording was up to snuff. A wall of sound washed over the listener. One could close his or her eyes and imagine being at a live concert. Precise pinpoint stereo imaging was not their forte, but they never failed to bring across the idea that the music to which one was listening was indeed music. Their midrange was clear and transparent, while highs and lows were lacking. The bass was tight, but lacked weight, and the highs were rolled off and overly damped. Bells simply did not ring enough.
Fortunately, over the years Magnepan speakers grew smaller in size but far better in sound, The latest models of Magnepan are significantly improved at both the high and low end of the frequency spectrum. Today the speakers stand at the peak of their performance. Only very expensive speakers can revival them or exceed them, but the “Maggies” still excel at presenting the allusion of live music being played in the home.
You say that their bass does not play loud enough? They are not able to reproduce the impact of a rock concert? You are right! Just buy some other speakers. Get some top grade cabinet speakers. These will be very expensive if they are to compete with Magnepan. I like rock music – some of it anyway. But I am not willing to compromise certain qualities I hear in the Maggies for the sake of reproducing loud rock music. The Maggies just cannot do it. You will need other speakers for loud rock.
If you are ready to audition Magneplanar speakers you are surely going to run into some difficult choices. The speakers are not as big as they used to be but they are still dipoles. They must be kept away from the back and side walls. In other words, they need to be out in the room. They may simply dominate the room decor. The speakers are lovely to look at but they can be obtrusive. Better not to install them in too small a room.
Not every amplifier can drive the Maggies. The speakers are inefficient and they require an amplifiers that high current capabilities. Power alone is not enough. The amp must also be unconditionally stable. Some amplifiers may drive the speakers but they will not sound at their best. In truth, though this may be controversial, they really come alive when driven by excellent tube amplifiers which are very expensive.
AUDIOGRAM II is about buying sensible products. We love extravagant music reproduction but not extravagant prices. We are going to recommend a relatively inexpensive Magnepan system for your hone without loosing too much of the total Magnepan experience.
We will need to pass on the most expensive Magnepan. It is a magnificent loudspeaker but very expensive. Not only that, but its true ribbon tweeter, though very quick and extended, just does not integrate with the midrange and bass drivers as well as it should. Two lower priced models do a better job of driver integration: the Models 1.7i, and the Model .7. These speaker models use what is called quasi-ribbons for all of their drivers. The drivers blend together well and produce a very smooth and transparent wave front.
Which model should one chose? For a medium sized room chose the $1,995 Magnepan 1.7i.
For a slightly smaller room chose the $1395 Magnepan .7i. They give up some bass response but still have the overall Magnepan sound. A quality subwoofer could augment them and not muck up their sound if cut off very low.
For a small room, forget it. Stay with the AudioEngine 2A+’s. Magnepan’s smaller models are just too difficult to set up in a small room and are not that cost effective.
Which power amp should drive them? That is the question! Do amplifiers sound differently? Yes, and especially on the Magnepan’s. Partly it is a matter that Magnepan’s are difficult to drive. But largely it is a matter that the Maggies are just so revealing. There is no question that David Berning or Audio Research amps make the Maggies come alive, and I mean alive! But the prices of these amps are absurd for a “budget” audio system. So don’t listen to the Maggies on these amplifiers please. But what if you could come close to the capabilities of the Maggies without them?
We are talking quality used tubes? Quality used tubes can be expensive to bring up to speed and maintain, not to mention that they are not cheap at the starting line. (Paoli 60M’s may be an exception if you can find them.)
How about solid state? They will not sound like quality tubes driving Magnepan. Too much of the magic of the speakers might be lost. But I am thinking about a solid state amp that sounds like tubes and does not cost a bundle. There is only one candidate. The very first solid state amp that did not sound like solid state at all. Why it is the QUAD 303 power amp, Peter Walker’s masterpiece!
Yes, it is a rated at only 45 watts RMS per channel. That is a conservative rating. It is a high current amplifier that has rock solid stability. These amps are still being used in the field, but they are no longer produced. However, a used reconditioned one may be obtained for less than $500. That is the good news.
Here is the best news. This amp makes the Maggies sing such beautiful songs. It reproduces such a wonderful sound stage. Voices are crystal clear. Instruments are separated. There is air around them. And the amp has such a sweetness about it. Yes, the sweetness might be a coloration, but that does not seem to hurt the typical CD sound. Good vinyl comes through unscathed. Ultimately, I listen to music and not audio equipment. If you love music and live on a budget, pick up the 303 even if you don’t have Maggies. The amp gets along very well with many other speakers as well.
I must admit that we have bought some rather expensive beer here. But the sound is more like champaign. No need to give up your treasured 2A+’s if you would rather spend the money on vinyl.