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 sound better. 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 like 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 require 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.