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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 September 2018 01 September 2018
In the last few years I’ve reviewed some very expensive hi-fi gear (all prices in USD): Constellation Audio’s Revelation Taurus Mono amps ($40,000/pair) and Revelation Pictor preamplifier with optional DC filter ($23,000); EMM Labs’ DA2 Reference digital-to-analog converter ($25,000); Muraudio’s SP1 speakers ($14,700/pair) -- and, still to come EMM Labs’ Pre preamplifier ($25,000) and MTRX2 monoblock ($85,000/pair).
The numbers of people who read our reviews of such products are sizable -- it’s not surprising that so many readers around the world enjoy learning about cost-no-object hi-fi, just as car enthusiasts like reading about the latest and greatest high-end sports car. To serve these readers, it’s important that we review stratospherically priced audio gear -- and it’s something I like to do. But it’s also important not to forget that few people can afford such products, just as few can afford that sports car. I can’t afford it -- and unless you’re one of the very few who are rich enough and passionate enough about audio to spend as much on a stereo system as some people spend or borrow for their houses, you can’t either.
In short, no audiophile of average income is going to spend $25,000 on a preamp -- but they’re happy to be entertained by reading a review of that preamp. More likely, they’ll be looking for something that costs a lot less -- something for way under $10,000, and perhaps under $2000 or even $1000. It’s reviews of affordable products like these that get read much more often than reviews of most expensive items, as is seen in our statistics. And the average music lover would rather go even lower -- say, an entire system for less than $1000. This is what “normal” folks can actually afford and are willing to spend on hi-fi gear. As important as writing about the high-priced stuff is, writing about this lower-priced equipment is probably even more so -- not only because it’s more relevant to more people, but because it can more directly affect what they purchase -- people are less likely to read a review just for fun than they are to make a purchasing decision.
But you might be wondering if it’s even possible, in this era of accelerating price increases for high-end audio, to assemble a good hi-fi system for under a grand. It certainly crossed my mind -- $1000 is what I paid in 1981 for my first good entry-level stereo system, and the inflation calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells me that’s about $2800 in today’s dollars. Surely, modern entry-level hi-fi should cost more than it did 37 years ago . . .
But not so fast -- it can be done. Through a confluence of events in July and August, I was able to assemble a surprisingly complete, feature-rich, expandable, shockingly good-sounding hi-fi rig with a total US retail price of only $926.95. Its sound is good enough that I think many people would enjoy it -- not only plain ol’ music lovers who just want something that sounds great, but budget-conscious audiophiles as well. Too good to be true? Read on . . .
The $926.95 system
First to arrive was a pair of Paradigm Monitor SE Atom speakers ($298/pair). This two-way, stand-mounted speaker is the eighth generation of the Atom, which debuted in 1992 and became Paradigm’s best-selling speaker of all time. It has a 1” dome tweeter covered by a Perforated Phase-Aligning lens, and a 5.5” midrange-woofer with an inverted dustcap and an inverted surround. Hans Wetzel had just finished listening to them, and had sent them to me to be photographed and measured for his forthcoming review on SoundStage! Access.
As with much of the gear that arrives here for measurements and/or photography, I had no plans of listening to the Monitor SE Atoms -- there’s only so much time in a day, and I’d rather devote it to the products I’m reviewing. But when I unboxed them, I was so impressed with the apparent quality of their cabinets and parts that I couldn’t resist hearing them. I was also surprised at how good their matte-black finish looks (the Atom is also available in gloss white) -- not that long ago, most entry-level speakers, including Paradigm’s, looked like dreck in black.
A few days after the Paradigms arrived, NAD sent me their D 3020 V2 integrated amplifier ($399) to photograph for Sathyan Sundaram’s review, which we published August 1 on SoundStage! Simplifi. The D 3020 V2 is an update of NAD’s classic 3020 amplifier, launched in 1978. Its class-D amplification is specified to deliver 30Wpc continuously into 8 ohms, 50% more than the original 3020’s class-AB amp could muster. I had no intention of listening to the NAD either, but with the Paradigms sitting there begging to be heard and the D 3020 V2 ready to go, I had to at least try them together. Furthermore, it was the combination of the D 3020 V2’s low price and many features -- TosLink optical and coaxial S/PDIF digital inputs, as well as Bluetooth, for the built-in DAC; line-level analog inputs; a moving-magnet phono stage; a subwoofer output; bass EQ; preamp outputs; and a 1/8” headphone jack -- that got me thinking about what kind of system I could cobble together for under $1000. But two things were still missing: cables and a source.
Of the two, the source component was by far the trickier. I didn’t want to add a turntable -- not yet, anyway -- or a separate CD player (that would be so old-school), or add an outboard DAC (the D 3020 V2 has one built in). Nor was I going to use the NAD’s Bluetooth connectivity -- despite Bluetooth’s convenience and generally pretty good sound, most audiophiles know that Bluetooth, at present, can’t deliver the best possible sound quality. However, the D 3020 V2’s lack of a USB port means I can’t plug my computer into it, which would have been the easiest way to send digital music to my new rig, either from a streaming service or the library on the computer’s hard drive. (Though the absence of a USB input is the D 3020 V2’s one glaring omission, perhaps it was necessary to keep its price under $400.) So . . . what to do for a digital source?
I kept thinking -- until I remembered something Sathyan had said in his review about Google’s Chromecast being his “preferred wireless, mobile-friendly solution.” I researched Chromecast, then tried it -- and understood why Sathyan felt that way. All I had to spend was $35 for the Chromecast Audio, a little black puck the size of most audiophile equipment footers, and $15 for the optional 3.5mm TosLink cable. With those, and with the free Google Home app installed on my smartphone, I could glitchlessly stream to the D 3020 V2, via my Wi-Fi network, bit-perfect PCM files of resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz. (The TosLink cable lets you pass a digital bitstream through an external DAC; otherwise, the 3.5mm analog cable bundled with the Chromecast Audio outputs an analog signal from the Chromecast’s built-in DAC, which many, including Sathyan, think sounds good but not great.)
To say that I was surprised at how well the Chromecast Audio setup works is an understatement. As a number of our writers can tell you, it so enthralled me that I immediately called them and told them that, if they hadn’t already, they had to try it. None had. I was also pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to set up the Chromecast Audio device and make it work with my Samsung S8 smartphone. All I had to do was download Google Home -- the moment I opened the app, it knew there was a Chromecast device on my network and guided me through the setup procedure, step by step. Getting the system to work with my wife’s Samsung S8 was even easier, as the initial setup had already been done on my phone -- after she’d downloaded Google Home, all she had to do was open it and select the Chromecast Audio using the name I’d given it. So cool . . . and convenient . . . and cheap.
The only caveat: To stream music using Chromecast, you need to use a compatible app. Thankfully, the list of these is growing, and the audiophile’s favorite streaming service, Tidal, is already on it, as is Spotify (which I don’t use). And Roon, which audiophiles love for how it integrates Tidal streaming (and soon, hopefully, other services) with local media, is also now Chromecast compatible. Because I already had Roon running on one of my laptop computers, I could use it and the Roon app on my phone to stream music from Tidal and from my hard drive full of music to the NAD D 3020 V2. Furthermore, Roon’s default settings are such that if you stream PCM files of resolutions higher than 24/96 through the Chromecast Audio puck -- as I did when I played the new 24/192 remastering of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction (Geffen), just to see what would happen -- Roon automatically downsamples it to a Chromecast Audio-compatible 24/96. You don’t have to do a thing. Roon also converts DSD files to PCM so that you can send them through the Chromecast ecosystem. Easy.
As for cables -- since I was using the D 3020 V2’s internal DAC, I didn’t have to worry about analog interconnects. But I needed speaker cables, and the pair I usually use in my reviewing rig cost more than the D 3020 V2 or a pair of Atoms -- using those for this system would have been silly. I began to look online for cheap, bulk cable, which sometimes can be had for between a few cents and a couple dollars a foot, depending on gauge and quality. But the more I thought about my new project of building a good-sounding system for under $1000, I knew I didn’t want to recommend anything DIY -- stuff you’d have to make yourself, even if it meant no more than cutting and stripping cables and attaching connectors. Instead, I wanted finished products you could buy online or in a bricks-and-mortar store, unwrap, and hook up in a snap.
I contacted a few cable makers and told them what I was doing. The most enthusiastic response came from Joe Harley, AudioQuest’s senior vice president of marketing and product development, who was really jazzed about a reviewer assembling an entire system for under $1000. He immediately offered to send a 10’ pair of AQ’s banana-terminated Q2 speaker cables, priced at $179.95. At first I thought the price a little high for an entry-level cable, but when I received the Q2s, it was easy to see what it buys: the rubberized jacket and connectors seem of really good quality, to last a long time and tolerate occasional mishandling. And while 10’ was far longer than I needed (4’ would easily have been enough), if I eventually move the NAD farther from the speakers -- maybe when I add that turntable -- I’ll have the slack.
Setup and use
I placed all my new components on a low storage cabinet in our living room. The NAD integrated and the Chromecast Audio’s power supply were plugged straight into a nearby wall outlet -- no fancy power cords or conditioners. I pushed the speakers up to the front edge of the cabinet to prevent any funky reflections of sound off the cabinet’s top (though when I pushed them back an inch or two, the sound wasn’t much harmed).
Besides Google Home, I interacted most with the D 3020 V2. For $399, it has a refined look and feel and way of functioning. As Sathyan described in his review, “it’s 7.3”H x 2.3”W x 8.6”D, weighs 3 pounds, and its rounded top front edge makes it look like a capital D when viewed from the side.” It’s designed to be stood upright or laid flat on one side. I haven’t figured out which orientation I prefer, so I keep switching it around. Its rear panel has the usual unsightly connectors, but nothing interrupts the smooth surfaces of its sides and bottom other than the volume control, which protrudes from the forward part of the D’s top curve when it stands upright. About 5” below that on the front panel is the headphone jack, along with bright white indicators for volume level, input selection, and bass EQ on/off.
The D 3020 V2’s controls for day-to-day power-on and input selection aren’t hard buttons or switches but touch-sensitive areas on its top (when upright) or side (when laid flat) -- they give it the feel of something costing more than $399. These and other functions are duplicated on the small remote control (supplied). Ergonomically and aesthetically, NAD’s designers have done a nice job.
I don’t want to give much away about Hans Wetzel’s forthcoming review of the Monitor SE Atom, but I’ll tell you this: He described a “supple and articulate midrange,” “a healthy dollop of bass extension down to about 50Hz,” and not “a single concession made to meet its low price point.” And Sathyan Sundaram described the D 3020 V2’s “warm, rich sound when suitable,” its “rapid reflexes and its get-out-of-the-way approach to tonality,” and a sound that was “clean and crisp” overall.
Nothing I heard from my new cheapie system contradicted those findings. When I played “Defiant,” the opening track of the fabulous Vanished Gardens, by Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, featuring Lucinda Williams (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Blue Note/Tidal), Lloyd’s tenor sax had that “warm, rich sound” Sathyan noted in spades -- it oozed voluptuously from the speakers, but not so voluptuously that I couldn’t hear plenty of details. As for the bass extension Hans mentioned, it was all there; in fact, the bass sounded so full and fleshed out through my new setup that there was no reason to engage the D 3020 V2’s bass-EQ circuit, which boosts the low end by a noticeable 6dB. I tried it anyway, and it made the bass overpowering and the midrange a little less clear -- as was particularly noticeable in Vanished Gardens’ track 2, “Dust,” which prominently features Williams’s voice. Bass EQ probably works better with bass-shy speakers. Without bass EQ, the Atoms’ sound was very clear throughout the audioband, with resolution in the critical midband comparable to that of speakers costing at least a few times more. The sound was also very spacious, which made the speakers seem quite a bit bigger and more expensive than they are.
When Hans said that he could hear no concessions in the sound of the Atoms, he meant that he heard no obvious sonic compromises that might have been made to meet the speaker’s low price. Such compromises are often the Achilles’ heel of budget gear. For example, the highs might sound etched, or the tonal balance might be far enough off that voices and instruments don’t sound natural, or the low end might be so attenuated that the sound becomes lightweight and thin. Worse yet, the sound can be irritating enough to render the product or the entire system unlistenable. Not so with my new $1000 setup -- nothing about its sound jumped out as being objectionable.
Nowhere was this more obvious than when I played Elan Catrin Parry’s Angel (24/48 FLAC/MQA, Decca/Tidal). The album’s title indeed invokes the best word to describe this 15-year-old Welsh girl’s lithe, slippery-smooth voice: angelic. Hearing her through this system was a revelation -- the cleanness and purity of her voice, from top to bottom, could stand up with the sounds of systems costing a few thousand dollars. And where the recording itself edges toward brightness, the system didn’t exacerbate the problem, or add to it any high-frequency nasties of its own. The highs were extended, but very delicate and remarkably clean. All told, I heard a really refined sound that illustrated what good hi-fi is about -- for very little money.
Given the size of the speakers and the D 3020 V2’s limited power output, it should be no surprise to learn that this system had its shortcomings. I could play it loud enough to make for satisfying listening, but this system won’t blow your socks off with high sound-pressure levels. Don’t expect to party hard with it. I had to warn my wife about this -- she likes to play her favorite Latin music at very high volume, particularly when people come over. “It’s a very good-sounding system,” I told her, “but it’s not enough to put on a concert or turn this place into a disco.” This is why Sathyan recommended the NAD D 3020 V2 for rooms of “small to medium size.” I’d call the room I put the system in medium-size -- I wouldn’t want to use it in a larger space.
Paradigm’s recommended amplification for the Monitor SE Atom is 15-100W, but warns not to cram more than 50W into it, for fear of blowing it up. A more powerful amp than the D 3020 V2 might be able to make the Atoms put out a bit more sound, but there are limits -- just like getting far deeper bass, getting a lot more sound will probably mean moving up to bigger speakers, or putting on headphones and listening via the NAD’s headphone jack. As the title of this review implies, this is a system you can begin with, live with, and then grow with over time. Speaking of which . . .
My next step won’t be to replace any of this system’s components -- its sound is satisfying as is. Instead, I’ll do what I’ve hinted at above: add a turntable. What’s got me hyped on that is something Sathyan said in his review of the D 3020 V2: “I was especially impressed with the built-in phono stage and DAC of this $399 product -- to do dramatically better, an outboard device would likely cost more than the D 3020 V2 itself.”
So I’m budgeting $300 for a turntable, including tonearm, cartridge, and the phono cable to connect it to the D 3020 V2. If I can find something suitable, I think that about $1200 for a complete system that not only lets you stream music but also spin vinyl should be as interesting to people as the sub-$1000 digital-only setup described above -- and at least as interesting as any six- or even seven-figure system. After all, being able to play an additional format will potentially allow some to enjoy even more music -- particularly when that format is vinyl, which is hip, trendy, and back in a big, big way. After that, I might take another step or two and try a different amp and/or speakers -- perhaps higher-priced models, or maybe even lower-priced ones.
Stay tuned to this space for how this system evolves in the coming months.
. . . Doug Schneider