Introducing the concept behind The Entry Level with reviews of budget equipment having high aspirations: RA Labs Mini-Reference speakers, Yamaha RX-485 receiver, Phillips 926 CD Changer
Lately I've been laughing more than usual while reading the audio reviews in all the upscale magazines. See, I had this discussion about the whole high-end audio scene a couple of weeks back with a friend of mine. While I was commenting on certain peculiarities to the whole audio business, he pointed out some amazing similarities between those magazines and the automotive fantasy rags he reads. Almost none of the people reading audio equipment reviews ever actually intend to purchase something from Krell, just the same way almost none of the readers of the auto magazines will ever actually buy something from Ferrari. It's all the same sort of vicarious living, letting the reader dream about being so erudite that they could complain about faults all but the most critical would never notice. Ever since this conversation, whenever I read expensive audio reviews, I mentally picture the author driving that component around ("while the 0- 60 time on the Krell was superb, it's high weight made cornering sluggish, and the windshield wasn't quite as transparent as the Conrad-Johnson model I use as my reference"). While I find these reviews entertaining at times, I certainly don't find them to be useful to me as a shopper. I'm more interested in products that perform as well as possible while carefully watching my price ceiling, and I certainly don't feel I'm alone (it's rare I make a trip to the local high-end store without hearing the cliche'd phrase "diminishing marginal returns" muttered by at least one other customer).
The Entry Level is about getting the best sound possible when you don't have a big wad of cash lying around to spend on audio. There's a couple of audiences I'm trying to address, all types of people I routinely encounter. Some think they want something better then the equipment they see at the big electronics stores, are willing to pay more for it, but don't know how to go about getting it; they find only very expensive items when checking out the high-end scene. Some want to get started as audiophiles, but are hampered by very limited funds (college students often fit into that category). Others really don't care about the gear in itself, they just want something that does justice to their music. Personally, I find the budget equipment (where by budget we're talking between $200-$800 for individual electronic components and $200-$1500 for pairs of speakers) is where the action is at. Spending the proper time getting pieces that work well together in this price range can end up being far more satisfying then a random collection of more expensive parts. I find it far more productive to spend my time doing careful listening and equipment matching, instead of just spending money on undirected upgrades just to have something more expensive. Besides, my own priorities have me constantly spending over double my equipment expenses on music; anyone who would have more money tied up in their playback system then they do in material to play on it has a serious problem in my eyes.
Anyway, I'll be doing equipment reviews, but not in the usual style. Most of the equipment I'll be talking about I've owned for some period of time; maybe a couple of months, maybe over a year. These aren't cutting edge "here's what's new this month" sort of reviews; this is more about the sort of equipment that works well, lasts a long time, and gives good value for the money, regardless of whether it's new and hot or old and boring. The focus is not just on the individual components themselves, but on the methods and resources I've found useful for identifying good products and integrating them properly.
My own systems are individually not very expensive in an audiophile valuation, but I'm quite happy with the quality of them relative to how much I spent on them. For the comparisons this month, everything is paired against my favorite setup that I listen to the most. It uses a Rotel RCC-940AX CD changer ($500), Rotel RSP-960AX surround-sound processor ($600) running as a stereo preamp, Proton D1200 100w/ch power amp ($700 five years ago when they last were made), and a pair of Klipsch Forte II speakers ($1300 years ago when they were last made, and no they don't sound at like most horn speakers, so don't give a hard time about them until at least next month when I've talked about them more). You'll see me drop dollar figures on most of the things I mention; that's certainly not because I'm trying to impress anyone, it's just to give you an idea what range of equipment I'm dealing with as a reference for comparison with your own experience. Some of these components will show up as the features in full-length reviews in the next few months, as those are the kind of dollar amounts I find the most cost-effective and therefore the most worth discussing.
Enough of the philosophy for the now; on to the reviews. A year ago, I had a younger sister graduating from high school. I decided to put her together an audio system as a graduation gift. Everything needed to be fairly small, simple, and reliable. In this price range, the robbers at the chain electronics stores will charge you a good sized wad of money for things like heinous rack systems. I was aiming to put together something that had solid performance, with a touch of higher-end aspirations via a solid upgrade path, at a similar price to what those rack systems run (something less then $800 total).
$224/pair; 1" copolymer tweeter, 6" woofer in a 14x9x8" sealed enclosure totaling 9 pounds. 90db sensitivity, -3dB@55hz,20Khz, crossover at 3Khz. Impedance specified as nominal 6 ohms. 5-way binding posts, removable grill
I firmly believe that complete systems are best put together by starting at the speakers. Since speakers are, on average, the most flawed of the links in the reproduction chain (unless you're using single-ended tubes), picking them first gives you a fighting chance at working out a system that has the flaws of the individual parts balanced. I feel speakers are so important, at one point I took a year off from other audio equipment related pursuits just to learn how to build them (this was after several years of just reading about it). This was not so much to get a finished product as to get a hands-on feel for how they really worked and the concessions you have to make as part of a design. Just as I was really starting to get results I was happy with, I happened to get a catalog from RA Labs. This killed off most of my desire to build my own speakers instantly.
For those of you who aren't familiar with him, the RA in RA Labs is Roy Allison, one of the most famous and well-respected speaker designers in existence. Well known for his theoretical work in investigating the effects of room boundaries and speaker placement on frequency response (I'll mention some computer software that resulted from that research later), Roy has also made some great speakers along the way. RA Labs is the company currently manufacturing speakers built to his specifications. They make all their own drivers and cabinets, selling directly to the public at rock-bottom prices. Let me give you an idea just how rock-bottom: when I was putting together speakers myself, the 2-way designs (3/4" tweeter, 6.5" woofer) I was producing cost me about $150/pr in parts, along with an entire weekend of labor. RA Labs was selling their Mini-Reference (with similarly sized drivers) at the time for $173/pr (there's been two small price increases since then). My speaker workshop has been abandoned every since; Roy builds the kind of speakers I would make myself if I had the time, and RA Labs sells them for barely more then what I could build them for. Fighting that ever-present desire to be proud of something you built yourself, I will firmly state that these speakers soundly whip my designs as well. RA is a considerably better speaker designer then I (or almost any amateur builder) will ever be.
How do they sound? Better then speakers in this price range have any right to. Whenever I get a new set of speakers in, I drop them into my main system in place of my existing ones for a bit to beat on them (um, break them in, I mean). Usually cheap speakers get embarrassed and begin to annoy me after, oh, ten minutes. The Mini-Reference, though, was not at all out of place. Compared with the larger (maxi?) reference speakers I have available (all three-way designs with a good chunk of woofer area, running around the $1200/pr mark), you'll find only the usual problems with smaller two-way designs. The bass only goes so deep; with a 3db down point at 55hz, the bass is very solid for this size, but it doesn't compete with real, big woofers. Using a sealed box does mean the bass rolls off below this point relatively slowly, unlike the much faster and uglier roll-off you get from ported boxes. Although you don't get that truly deep bass impact, these speakers certainly don't sound anemic. The midrange and treble are excellent, the result of a well-designed crossover working with custom drivers. There's a coherent sound I usually only expect on systems with a dedicated midrange. Normally I dislike cheaper two-way designs because their crossovers are sitting right around that 3Khz mark where your ears are so sensitive, giving the potential to really screw up that transition; that's not the case with the Mini-Reference. Some may find the treble a touch exaggerated with certain amplifiers (especially cheaper ones), but it's more on the side where it's "detailed" rather then being "harsh", and it's waaay less then almost any cheap speaker I've ever heard.
There are few things you have to consider in order to make these speakers sound as good as possible. Their impedance dips fairly low, which means your average receiver is not going to be happy driving them. Since their sensitivity is fairly high, you really don't need a lot of power to drive them; anything much over 40w/ch is really wasted. While the speakers will handle more then that, they start having distortion problems somewhere around that mark. All these things point toward using a high quality amplifier, easily capable of handling low impedance loads, but not necessarily requiring high power output. This is a good thing, because high quality plus high power equals high cost, but there are some very good sounding, inexpensive low-powered power amplifiers out there still capable of dealing with difficult speaker loads (although most looking at speakers in this price range will be using receivers instead of separates). Getting out the trusty Radio Shack SPL meter and sitting about 6' away from the pair of speakers, I measured the peak level as going cleanly to about 95dB (C-weighted) with the level meters on my Proton power amp going up to about 50w/ch to do so (the meters aren't perfectly reliable, but they give a pretty good idea how much power is being used). That's fairly loud for speakers of this size, but nothing out of the ordinary.
I recommend putting these on stands; for the system I was putting together, a pair of Sanus 24" high stands seemed a good choice (although I preferred the sound of these speakers when they were bit higher then that that, somewhere closer to 3' instead of 2'). They throw a good soundstage if placed at least 5' apart. The location I ended up settling on as sounding best in my admittedly small room was with the speakers and myself forming a triangle with all its sides 6' long, with the speakers perpendicular to me (no toe-in) and their rear 1' from the back wall. This is similar to the recommendations in the brief manual that comes with the speakers, and with RA at the helm I suspect RA Labs has done more accurate experimentation in this area then myself, so following their instructions is a good idea. They also offer a computer program preloaded with information on their speakers called Bestplace (available on their home page) that lets you experiment with the differences in placement and see a frequency response curve. I found it instructive, and it reinforced what I had already discovered via experimentation in placement. The program is recommended as being very fun to play with even if you don't have (or don't intend on getting) speakers from them.
$299. 65w/ch continuous stereo receiver with remote. 17"x5"x11 3/4", 15.5 pounds.
If you've been reading along so far, you'll realize I've put myself into a pretty tight corner by settling on the RA Labs Mini-Reference with the total budget I'm working with. With $800 total to spend, getting a separate preamp and power amp is definitely out. Although there are some excellent integrated amplifier combinations that might fit, this particular system needed to have a FM tuner in it as well, so getting a receiver was the really the only choice left. And you won't find many receivers at the $300 mark capable of dealing with the load that the Mini-Reference presents; most have big labels warning you not to connect speakers that drop below 8 ohms on them. This characteristic is indicative of a design with a wimpy current output. Although capable of driving an 8 ohm resistor to high levels, your average receiver is not happy with the complications of a real loudspeaker load. Designs with a good current output will show increasing power into low impedance loads. Once you get above the $500 range, most good receivers have adequate current output for more difficult speakers, but that capacity is rare in the $300 range.
One company that does make high-current receivers for those on a tight budget is Yamaha. Rated at 65w/ch continuously into 8 ohms, that power goes up to 70w/ch for 6 ohm loads like the Mini-Reference. And the dynamic power output figures really show greater capabilities--into 8/6/4/2 ohms respectively, IHF rated dynamic power is 96/115/135/150 watts/ch (and all these are full 20hz-20Khz bandwidth ratings, unlike the cheating I've seen some companies do by only measuring their amplifiers driving a 40hz+ signal). This sort of output, with power going up into lower loads, is a characteristic of a good design with a good power supply. Receivers without dynamic headroom, and those that have their power drop dramatically below 8 ohms, are not recommended for driving real speakers no matter how high their wattage figures may be.
Looking in the case, you'll find a very manly transformer for an amp this size, two adequate filtering capacitors, and a hefty heat sink attached to 4 output transistors. Very impressive compared with the empty space inside the case of most $300 receivers. There are two sets of speaker outputs and, typically of this price range, relatively cheap speaker binding posts that are really only capable of being used with thinner bare wire or pins (they aren't the really cheap spring-loaded designs that totally suck, but they still aren't very good). There's a big, motorized volume control on the front with a nice feel to it. There are knobs for bass and treble (with very intelligently picked center frequencies of 50hz and 3.5Khz, usually the places I want to tune inexpensive speakers at most), balance, and Yamaha's variable loudness. The loudness circuit is effective at improving the frequency response of your speakers relative to your ears at low listening levels, but is really a pain to get configured right; I really don't recommend it. There's also a "pure direct" button that bypasses all these tone controls. You get a phono input, three line inputs, and two tape monitors. The AM/FM section has five banks of 8 stations each. The FM antenna input uses an odd- ball coaxial connector (not a standard BNC coax) that I haven't been able to put anything tightly into except the supplied antenna (I got my Terk coax plug to go into it, but I wasn't happy with the mechanical quality of the connection).
It may look good on paper, but how does it sound? Pretty good. Hooking it up in place of the separates I usually use driving my Klipsch speakers (which, despite their high sensitivity, are a difficult load to drive) and listening, the sound was surprisingly accurate. Unlike most of the low-end competition, the treble response was relatively flat, without much "saleable" treble emphasis (and a nudge of the treble control knocks the sound right into "smooth" territory). The bass is solid and goes down pretty deep; I noticed a very slight roll-off below 50hz compared with the big separates, but that's not even going to be noticeable with the kind of speakers that would normally be used with this receiver. The midrange was good, but not fantastic. Vocals are detailed, but you don't get that "voice hanging in space" type of realism and detail that is expected from more expensive equipment. Similarly, the soundstage thrown isn't quite as big or detailed as I'm used to, but the performance was certainly acceptable. When listening to music, everything sounded correct, but I never got that hair-raising tingle of realism on good recordings that I've come to expect from great equipment.
Using the pure-direct switch to bypass all the tone controls did help a bit; the treble seemed more detailed (the decay to sounds like cymbals sounded more accurate). The pure-direct increase in detail did move the receiver a bit more toward sounding harsh. I wasn't completely decided whether to use that button or not; I found myself turning it on and off frequently, trying to get a handle on exactly what the subtle differences in sound were. I couldn't hear any at all later when I was using the receiver as part of the complete system described here, it was only audible with some of the more expensive components inserted.
There usually seemed to be plenty of power, but when things are really turned up the Yamaha does show off its limitations. Even before the amplifier got into heavy clipping, it sounded obviously strained. The sound started to break up, with the low bass disappearing and an increase in harshness. Realize, though, that all this was driving a large set of speakers--when driving the Mini-References, the Yamaha was never the limiting factor on how loud things could be played.
When you consider the low cost, the Yamaha is really an excellent overall performer. Driving my Klipsch speakers, it's sound quality was only marginally lower than the NAD 7100 receiver (60w/ch, $700) I used to use with them, and I always thought it was an excellent performer for the money. The Yamaha works so well, even if you a bit more to spend on a receiver I'd still recommend that you use it, and put the money toward better speakers instead. For many people who want good sound and to keep things simple, I'd say it's very difficult to justify spending much more with this bargain available.
$249. 5 disk CD changer with remote.
Popular wisdom would indicate that, if you had to cut corners somewhere, the CD player would be the place to do it. After all, they all are working with the same bits, so they should all sound the same, right? Nope. It's been my experience that cheap CD players are every bit (oops, gotta watch those puns) as bad as cheap receivers and speakers, maybe even worse. Most of what's out there at the low end of the market is almost unbearable to listen to. Having already settled on the Mini-Reference speakers and the Yamaha receiver, I tested the two of them together with my existing CD players. The combination was balanced fairly well (just a touch of the typical inexpensive gear harshness), but adding a cheap CD player to them would definitely screw the whole thing up. Since what I really wanted for this setup was a changer, what I ended up getting was the Phillips CDC926, a very capable Bitstream player.
This five disc changer is a bit odd to operate. You can fool with three of the spots while the player is playing, but the whole interface to select what disc you want (and to rotate the tray around) is odd. The remote only has the ability to skip to the next disc, while the front panel doesn't have this capability (instead there are buttons for each disc). There's a "load" button on the carousel that moves the tray around two spaces, along with a "quick play" feature to skip right to something you just loaded. Plus, the player likes to skip around searching for discs to play whether you intend it to or not. All of this would be more aggravating then it is, except that the rotation mechanism on this player is by far the fastest I've ever used. So even if you have to rotate around more times then you wanted to, it's still not time consuming. What is very irritating is that many function have a short delay between when you hit the buttons and when the action occurs; switching between track in particular is very difficult because of this. Minor complaints, the lot of them, but they make this player more difficult to work with then average. I'm not one to whine about things being difficult to operate, but this changer tries my patience sometimes.
I'd like to be able to give you a good description of what this player sounds like, but just like most CD players I've dealt with, the sound is very much a function of what it's hooked up to. Back when I was using a NAD receiver, I found the Phillips player to have a recessed midrange (male vocals in particular were weak) but it was otherwise excellent. Now that I'm using a Rotel preamp, the midrange sounds just fine. In fact, after hooking both players up to my reference system, I was hard pressed to tell the difference between the Phillips and the twice as expensive Rotel changer I normally use. With the NAD as preamp the Rotel was the clear winner, by a big margin--now though, with the new Rotel preamp, it's much closer. The Phillips player sounds like there's a slight haze around all the sound compared with the Rotel, with a loss of detail in the upper treble. Everything sounds a bit less realistic because of it, and the soundstage isn't quite as convincing. All this is well and good to know, but the real concern here is how the Phillips player sounds mated with the equipment it was intended to be integrated with. Using the Yamaha receiver driving the Mini-Reference speakers, the Phillips player actually sounds better then the Rotel. The Phillips' softer treble makes for an overall flatter sound that's more pleasant to listen to (compensating a bit for a matching rise in that area on the Yamaha). The upper bass is a bit lean, but that's really the only obvious flaw with the finished system. Sure, the level of detail, bottom end output, etc. is all less impressive then with a stack of more expensive gear, but that's what you'd expect. One of the odd features you'll find on this player is that it has a variable output. It's got 24 steps, each one about 1dB (I'm guessing by ear on this one, I can't find it quantified anywhere), with the top one being full output and the bottom one turning into a mute. This can be useful if you don't have a remote volume on your receiver or preamp; setting the volume up to your maximum expected level, you can drop it down from there with the remote. Be warned that when you turn the player on, it resets back to maximum output again. What's different about Phillips's variable output is that it appears to be done digitally--the volume drops even on the player's digital output. Accordingly, there is no fixed output jack like you'll find on most CD players with variable outs. I didn't hear any obvious degradation in sound quality by using this feature, and the steps were small enough that I could usually find the volume I wanted, but still I prefer a continuous volume control where I have a big knob to twist around and look at.
One of the attractive features of the Phillips player is that is has a high quality coaxial digital output (most cheaper digital output are of the inferior optical Toslink type). This means you can hook it up to just about any of the outboard D/A converters on the market to upgrade its sound later. This player is about the least expensive CD transport you can buy, and the sound quality is good even using the built-in outputs if you're interested in separate CD components, but you can't afford to buy everything at once. Using Phillips players as transport with the D/A converters from Audio Alchemy is a popular combination.
Audioquest Turquoise (~$30), Original Monster Cable (~$30)
Okay, so you've got a system with around $800 worth of components; how much should you spend on cables? I firmly believe that any system, even an inexpensive one like this one, deserves better cables then the ones that come with the components. I like to keep the budget for interconnects and speaker cable at a total between 5 and 10% of the total system value. What I have around for connecting CD players to receivers is a whole collection of Audioquest's Turquoise interconnect; these were $30 last time I bought some, but they have revised their whole line since then and I'm uncertain of the current pricing (I'm told they've even improved the cable a bit, but there's a minor price increase). All of Audioquest's cables are excellent for the money; what I personally do is use the Turquoise for general duty, and for anything that seems to be especially cable sensitive I use their Ruby interconnect (approximately $100, again these have changed a bit since I last bought some).
As far as speaker cable goes, the options are limited because of the cheap connections on the back of the Yamaha. What I got was some of the Original Monster Cable (around $30 for a 10' pair) with pins on the end. These pins fit perfectly into the Yamaha, and they are passable on the back of the Mini-References (the binding posts on them won't clamp down very tightly on the pins). There are better speakers cables then the Monster around, but it's been my experience that speaker cable is the least significant change you can make as far as sonics are concerned in any cheaper system; something that costs around $1/foot is as good as you'll need unless you start getting much more expensive equipment. Just don't use thin, cheap speaker cable and you're fine to get started.
What I ended up with are three components that easily exceed the performance of their similarly priced competitors and happen to work very well with each other. Hook it all up with some good cable, get some music that was recorded well, and you get a good-sized taste of quality sound without most of the nasties that plague inexpensive equipment. All the people who charge you this much money only to give you a crummy system instead of one like this should all be rounded up and shot. It is possible to get something that performs very well even on a modest budget.
Now, as far as actually buying these things go, it may be an interesting adventure. RA Labs started selling direct to consumers only, but have recently added some dealers; check out their page for full details. I ended up buying the Yamaha receiver through mail-order via Kief's, because all the local dealers I knew of who carried that line at the time were jerks. I think the receiver line the RX-485 is part of is being discontinued and being replaced with a functionally equivalent "next years model", because lately I've been seeing them in advertisements very cheap. The Phillips player I couldn't find at any dealer in town, so I ended up buying that through the mail as well (from Audio Advisor, 1-800-942-0200). Audioquest cables should be sold at just about any high-end audio dealer (buying a set of them gives you a good excuse to visit such a store and actually buy something, you may enjoy the experience). If you have a good local dealer who is willing to work with you, don't go buying through the mail just to save a couple of bucks; at this price range in particular, some help from the dealer is worth far more then the minor price difference. My personal philosophy is that any component I go to a local dealer to check out, I buy from that dealer as well, but if I'm getting something based on word-of-mouth recommendations or on a review I might buy it through the mail if I can't find anything local dealers I like. Before you buy audio equipment via mail-order, make sure to check out William Nau's Audio Mail Order List.
Maybe you're looking for something like the system I talked about, but not exactly. There are a number of things you could alter. I raved quite a bit about the Mini-Reference speakers, but it's appropriate to talk a bit about what the other options are if these don't sound like they are quite right for what you. There are a number of excellent speakers in the $200 range. All of the NHT's SuperZero setups I've heard have a more refined and accurate sound to them at about the same price, but you get no real bass at all out of them; a subwoofer is not optional if you're looking for any sort of bass impact (and mating that subwoofer to them becomes a bit tricky because the crossover point between them needs to be so high). B&W's entire line of loudspeakers offer designs similar in price and performance to what RA Labs sells; I haven't spent enough time listening to the series of speakers that are comparable to the Mini-References to really offer a real opinion on them, but I'll state that I've never heard anything from B&W that wasn't excellent. Other then those two, I haven't personally heard any other speakers at this price point I'd recommend, but audio scuttlebutt suggests that you should also consider PSB's Alpha and Paradigm's Titan as contenders, if you can find dealers that sell them near to you (I haven't, or I'd know for sure). Any of these will give far higher quality sound then any of the horde of cheap speaker designs that crowd the chain stores and make me wince in pain whenever I hear them played.
What if you've got more then $200/pr to spend on speakers? All of the companies I've mentioned offer higher priced models with better drivers and better cabinets, which all add up to better sound. RA Labs even offers a matching $325 passive subwoofer for those who want small satellites and deep bass as well (they'll even cut you a price break if you order it all at once). Loudspeaker performance goes up very quickly up to around the $500/pr point (it continues to climb at a slower speed up to about $1500/pr, and improvements get sparse after that). The $500/pr point is really my favorite for most systems, especially if you're not willing to let your speakers dominate your room (which is inevitably what happens when you start getting into the expensive territory). For around $500, I highly recommend the B&W 600 series (those are what I tell my friends to buy, and they all have been very happy with them).
As far as receivers go, Yamaha also makes a model RX-385 that is almost identical to the 485. The power output is a lower 45w/ch continuous, there's no "pure direct" button, and there's only one tape loop. For those looking to save a few dollars, it is the cheapest receiver on the market I will recommend. I also believe receivers from Onkyo to also be a cut above their competition, although I don't quite like them as much as Yamaha's. Those who can live without a tuner and spend a bit should check out companies that primarily sell to audiophiles (this means you won't find them in any chain store) who offer inexpensive integrated amplifiers (models from Rotel, Arcam, and Creek come to mind as being good choices). And if you have surround sound on your mind as a future purchase, the higher-priced models from Yamaha and Onkyo are also very good for that purpose, although once you start getting above the $500 point you should be considering Denon and Harmon/Kardon on your shopping comparison list as well (even Sherwood is supposed to be making good surround gear lately). Go above $1000, you should be thinking separates instead of a receiver if you're concerned with sound quality.
The CD player market is bit more difficult; most of the good units are considerably more expensive than the Phillips player is (the Rotel units I like all run at least twice as much). Phillips makes a number of players in this same line; there are some less expensive ones that are missing features like the remote and the variable output, others that are single disc players, but have all the same quality sound. Players from Yamaha that are designed to be used with their receiver are decent but not spectacular, even if you do get the convenience of a single remote. While the sound doesn't match what you'd get from Phillips, they are much better then the other cheap Japanese brands I've listened to (and more reliable, too, judging from conversations I've had with some repair shops).
There's actually two reasons I prefer to spend more on a CD player. The higher quality sound is certainly a factor, but just as important to me is that I've never been satisfied with the long-term reliability of cheaper CD players. Me, I'm playing music at least three or fours hours on a slow day, and it's not unusual for me to keep my player crusin' for over ten hours at a clip. The cheaper players become disposable at this level of use; I'm lucky if I can keep one going for a year without problems (a total meltdown two weeks after the warranty expires is typical for me), and if I can go three years I think I've gotten a good deal. Part of the reason I recommend Rotel's players so frequently is that they are built very solidly and can keep going for years (I know one record store near me that plays CDs inside all day, every day, that has been using one Rotel player for several years now without a hiccup). The Phillips players, while very solid and well built for their price class, aren't quite as sturdy.
If you're looking for a bigger list of inexpensive equipment that is of good sound quality, I recommend checking out Marlon Feld's Good Sound. All of what I picked out here was done before that document was first released, and it's indicative of how accurate it is that many of my choices appear there among the recommendations. It gives you another spin on all the components reviewed here this month.
(Greg has a number of additional ravings about audio and music available on his home page).