|Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
Audiophile Construction Set -- Part One
One sure way to start an argument among audiophiles is to ask for the definition of a "budget" component. Reading some high-end publications, it's easy to get sucked into thinking that a good $1000 amplifier is "a steal," that nice $2000 speakers are "a bargain," and that a $750 CD player can be "a giant-killer." All of these sentiments are, of course, wildly incorrect. For almost everyone on this planet, $1000 is a big budget for a system. While some of that is simple spending economics, it's quite true that most people don't appreciate what spending more on audio really buys. By far the best way to push people toward the path to becoming audiophiles is to help them buy better-than-average gear. But that's a real challenge when there aren't kilobucks of cash to spend. In the last few months, I've helped four friends upgrade their systems, and not a one of them spent more than $800. I hope that following the process I led them through will prove helpful to show how it's possible to buy real budget gear in a satisfying fashion.
Michael and the too-cheap Yamaha
Michael is a friend of my sister. They're both college students right now, nearing graduation. He's got a job at a local bank that helps pay for school and related expenses. Over the course of a year, he saved up some cash to buy a whole audio system with full-size components. While Michael knew I wrote about audio, he decided to do some shopping on his own for a bit in his local Maryland stores before asking me for too much advice. But he did ask me to recommend a receiver brand; I suggested Yamaha as my usual favorite for sub-$500 equipment.
His first stop was Best Buy, one of the big electronics chains. A row of receivers and CD players, none really configured for demo play, sat silently. A Yamaha CD changer, the CDC-502, was priced at $179.99. The receivers topped out at the $499.99 R-V905, which produces 85 watts into five channels and has built-in Dolby Digital decoding. Since there were no salesmen to talk to and nothing to listen to, this was a quick trip. Had he instead went to the nearby Circuit City, he'd have gotten a salesperson who could actually play the gear on display. This wouldn't have necessarily been an improvement.
The next store on the three-hour tour was Bryn Mawr Stereo & Video, a mid-priced audio chain with stores from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. There are stores of this style all over the country. While it would be a bit of a stretch to call Bryn Mawr a "high-end" dealer, they do carry fairly upscale lines like Mirage, Klipsch and B&K in addition to the usual Sony, Bose, etc. equipment you can find all over. Michael wandered around a bit, and one of their salespeople wandered by and tried to answer his questions. Unfortunately, this guy was about the same age as Michael, and apparently didn't know a whole lot more about the products either. Now, I've done a lot of shopping in that particular Bryn Mawr myself, and there are certainly a number of very qualified people working there. Had Michael asked in advance, I'd have told him, "The Timonium Bryn Mawr? Ask for Anthony or Jeff." Unfortunately, even a fairly well-controlled chain like Bryn Mawr can't fill over a dozen stores with great salespeople. If you just wander in and talk to somebody who works there at random, you may find that the person may or may not be knowledgeable on the topics you're asking about. But you are much more likely to get good advice in an audio/video-only chain than one that also caters to appliances and such. Michael just didn't get lucky. When visiting a chain audio store with a lot of employees, consider stopping back at a different time if you don't meet anyone you like on your initial visit.
Another curiosity about the Bryn Mawr visit was that none of the equipment matched up. Their least expensive Yamaha player, which was also $179.99, was labeled the CDC-565. And even though they had a $499.99 receiver, it was the RX-V592, and the power specs were a little bit different from the units he'd seen at Best Buy. This is normal for consumer electronics with broad distribution. Some retailers, usually the bigger ones, get "branded" versions of the equipment with a unique model number. This makes it difficult to compare the products fairly. Note that if a store has its own model numbers, this nicely circumvents any price-matching guarantee they offer. Yamaha has several sets of model numbers for what are essentially the same unit. "Specialty" dealers (ones who usually only deal with audio) get one set of model numbers, electronics chains get another, and certain stores get a totally customized set. It gets even more complicated when you add in mail-order dealers who carry Yamaha. Crutchfield, for example, always seems to have a different set of models from anyone else, and these units often have quite different specs as well. It's all a confusing mess, but it's not going away any time soon. When comparing models across several stores, try to note the price and as many feature bullets as possible at each location. This allows you to match comparable products even if the model numbers are different.
At this point, Michael thought he might need to go somewhere more upscale than the stores in which he'd been trying to get some useful help. So he headed to Gramophone, the Baltimore store that spends the most advertising money trying to convince people they are the premier high-end establishment in the area. They do carry nice equipment at a number of budget levels. You can buy Yamaha, Adcom, and B&W if your wallet is on the tight side, but McIntosh, Proceed, and MartinLogan beckon as well. It's a good thing they carry some good lines of equipment, because if the store had to survive on the friendliness of its salespeople, they'd have gone out of business long ago. Michael's trip was pretty typical, based on my experience. After being ignored by everyone working at the store for a while, he finally went to one salesman and asked him some questions about the Yamaha receiver he was interested in. The RX-V592 cost about $500, so you'd think they'd have been interested in making that sale. Michael's description of the line he was fed made me crack up, as it was exactly the kind of nonsense tried on me when I was his age. He was informed by the salesman that he didn't want to sell Michael one of those because it was too cheap. You see, he could tell that Michael was a discriminating customer. Buying that Yamaha model now would inevitably result in future disappointment, as a young listener with good ears would inevitably grow dissatisfied within a few years. So, in good conscience, he couldn't possibly recommend it. Getting one of the more upscale receivers was the only option that really made sense, Michael was informed quite emphatically. This was the point where Michael thanked him for his advice, exited the store at high speed, and called me.
Never forget: when you're shopping for audio equipment, whether your budget is $100 or $100,000, the salespeople in the stores you visit should treat you like you're the most important person in their world, because you are. There is no reason to put up with anything you're not happy with, as there are plenty of places filled with very nice equipment and staff out there. If you feel insulted, ignored, misled or are otherwise dissatisfied, you don't have to take it. Just walk out, grab a phone book, and look up someplace else to visit. Shopping for audio should be fun; if it's not, you're going to the wrong dealer.
Every reviewer, audio or otherwise, hates one question more than any other: "What's the best item for the price?" If it were that simple, there would be a whole lot fewer brands of equipment on the market. What I like is not necessarily what you like, and vice-versa. Audio is so personal that it's tough to take anyone's advice as the gospel. I try to get myself matched up with the priorities of the people I advise by carefully interviewing them about their preferences.
Michael wanted to put together a stereo-only system for now, because of a small room, but after graduation he expects to move somewhere that will eventually have room for a home theater. Since receivers typically last quite a few years, he wanted one that he wasn't going to outgrow in the near future. In today's market, that means you need built-in support for decoding Dolby Digital. As for a source, he expects to keep using VHS tapes and CDs for the next year or two before updating to DVD. At the moment, he was more concerned with getting a music changer than getting video capability. His total budget for the electronics was around $800, with speakers being a later purchase. He borrowed some of my old speakers to get started (a pair of Advents that were older than he was).
The least you could spend for a decent receiver with Dolby Digital back then was around $500. Right around the time Michael was first shopping (November of 1998), Yamaha released their RX-V595 receiver, which was priced right and included Dolby Digital. With about $300 left for a source, that wasn't enough to get a DVD changer, so a CD changer was the obvious choice. Since most Dolby Digital receivers convert all their analog inputs into digital form before playing them, it's kind of silly to use the regular outputs from a CD player. Yamaha sells their CDC-665 with a TosLink digital output, for $250. There are slightly better changers from companies like Harmon-Kardon for a bit more, but Michael felt the convenience of single-brand electronics with a unified remote was more important than getting the best possible sound or build quality for the CD player. After all, he did plan on switching to DVD in a couple of years anyway.
So the Yamaha CDC-665 connected to the RX-595 receiver with a TosLink cable was the system he liked. This was not the system I would have bought, or the system you may have bought. But it met his goals, short term and long term, and I suspected it would sound good for the money based on my previous experience with Yamaha products. If I hadn't interviewed Michael carefully, it would have been quite easy to recommend something that wouldn't really have fit his needs. When you visit an audio dealer, you too should be interviewed carefully. There are so many products out there, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, that anyone who gives you advice about what audio equipment to buy without asking quite a few questions is doing you a disservice.
The next question was where to buy it all from. I could have suggested turning to mail order, since I'd already done the hard part of determining what gear he should buy. But after the mess Michael had already gone through with local dealers, I thought I'd take him somewhere new. After all, I don't live in that area anymore, and I wanted him to have a store he could visit and get good service at even if I wasn't around.
One weekend when I was visiting my family, I dragged Michael to Soundscape in Baltimore. I've been shopping there for around a decade, while my father's experience with the store goes back another five years more than that. Our trip was on a Saturday afternoon, which is the most crowded time to visit. This is true of pretty much any store, and audio dealers are no exception. In general, if you'd like to get the maximum of personal attention from a dealer, consider shopping during an off hour instead. I've been by Soundscape before in the middle of the weekday afternoon and had the full attention of almost every person working in the store. You can't really expect that on the weekend. Some dealers even work on an appointment-only basis so they can make sure every person gets personal service from the minute they arrive.
On this particular Saturday, as I walked into the store's first listening room I ran into salesman David Smythe. He was counseling a customer who was trying to sort through the maze of options for surround nowadays. The shopper asked if he should just wait a little bit for the standards to settle down and then get a system that would handle every format and last a long time. David gave him the only honest answer to that question: At the current pace of innovation in the industry, standards aren't likely to ever solidify again like they did during the long reign of the LP or CD. Any home-theater purchase today should be considered in terms of its expected life span, which may only be a few years before new features demand an upgrade to keep up with the latest formats. You should expect to get honest predictions about long-term trends in the industry from an audio dealer; after all, keeping up with such things is part of his job.
The line of products at Soundscape is pretty typical for a high-end dealer that also competes with the mass-market stores. You can find inexpensive products from Sony, Marantz, Yamaha, and Polk, but you can compare them right in the same room against budget high-end gear from Rotel and B&W. Each of their three listening rooms features home-theater capabilities, with some more expensive equipment only setup for stereo listening. At the higher end you can find electronics from companies like Mondial, Sunfire, CAL, and Conrad-Johnson, while Vandersteen and B&W provide upscale speakers. This is the kind of store I usually recommend; there's the same familiar brands as you'll find at the local discount store, but you can compare them face to face with budget high-end brands. Meanwhile, you can wander around the store listening to your music on systems running into the tens of thousands of dollars, which lets you get a nice perspective on what's possible at higher price points. It's a lot easier to decide which of two budget components is more accurate after you've heard the same song played on a reference system that's several times as expensive as what you're considering purchasing, and doing such a comparison is welcomed at any good high-end store. After all, hearing the best systems a store has isn't inconveniencing them because expanding the horizons of their customers is how they sell their better lines in the future.
After a bit of waiting and browsing the wares at the store, I caught salesman Richard Dorsey's attention and introduced him. Michael went through some of the same kinds of questions he'd been asking me, and appeared happy that he was getting the same kind of answers I'd suggested to him. After his experiences in the other stores he visited, I can understand his relief. Satisfied that his original choices seemed sound, he placed an order for the two pieces. The receiver he wanted happened to be selling fast that week and they'd temporarily run out of stock (a regular hazard at the beginning of a new model year). I stopped by a few weeks later and picked up the Yamaha pieces for him.
Cross-state Yamaha evaluation
Since I was interested in hearing how the Yamaha equipment sounded nowadays, I dragged everything to my office, where I connected them to the Clements 106di speakers still hanging around. Phil Clements uses playback on a Yamaha receiver as one of his testing tools, to verify compatibility with mass-market electronics.
At the time, I was still deep into Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth [Warner Bros. 945384-2]. Initial playback sounded weird, and I realized I had to inform the receiver that I had no subwoofer or center channel. Compared with the Parasound C/DC-1500 and AMC 3020 combination I normally listen to while at work, the Yamaha duo had a very different sound. The percussion transients were rougher around the edges on the Yamaha equipment. The bass was just as powerful, but my sense of pitch definition wasn't as clear. Listening to "How Fortunate the Man With None," I found that the Yamaha receiver was obviously more forward when playing the tinkling bells during the opening. Vocals were very clear and powerful, and the volume capability was limited only by the speakers. Music requiring big dynamics was the only area where the Yamaha outclassed the AMC amplifier. The RX-V595 was always powerful and exciting to listen to, but would never be described as relaxed or forgiving. In fact, I found long-term listening on the receiver a bit fatiguing. After a few hours of testing, returning to the Parasound/AMC combo gave a system that wouldn't play as loud, but it was considerably more enjoyable to listen to.
Power vs. finesse is a constant audio trade-off to consider, and the Yamaha RX-V595 receiver certainly weighs in on the power side of that curve. The amplifier section is rated at 70Wpc with all channels driven, but the dynamic power figures go way above that: 100 watts at 8 ohms, 120 watts at 6 ohms, 145 watts at 4 ohms, and a stunning 170 watts into 2 ohms! Most receivers don't even recommend you connect 4-ohm speakers to them, much less give increasing power even into 2 ohms. There is a switch to flip if you plan on using 4-ohm speakers; it limits the amount of current the amp will deliver to prevent it from burning out.
Let me hit a quick feature list of the receiver while I'm at it. There are coaxial and TosLink optical inputs for the DVD, but you can only use one of them at a time. A second TosLink input is available for the TV/DBS input. All of these are capable of syncing to inputs at up to 48kHz, so DVD player compatibility shouldn't be a problem. There are real binding posts that can hold banana plugs for the main speakers, but a shield on the outside prevents the use of spades. The rear and center speaker outputs use cheap connectors with which you can only use pins or bare wire. There is a six-channel input you could use to add a DTS decoder to the unit, and there's a line-level subwoofer output that includes a 90Hz crossover. The remote included with the unit is programmable, but it's got this weird rotating input selector and volume controls that are oriented left/right instead of the usual up/down. I found the remote annoying to use.
One nice ability of this receiver is adjustable Dolby Digital dynamic-range compression with three different settings available. As much as I hate to say it, compression abilities are a must with today's DVDs if you have nearby neighbors and want to hear the dialog and not overload the area with sound effects. Generally, I only watch movies with full dynamic range on Friday and Saturday nights when I know I can get away with blasting the area without any serious complaints.
The Yamaha CDC-665 is a pretty standard five-disc carousel CD changer. It has both regular analog outputs and a TosLink digital out. One thing handy to some is a volume control on the remote. Typically using one of those is worse than using a regular preamp for that function, but I didn't test that feature on this particular unit. While I'm mentioning the remote, I'll also point out that it's a miserable little unit with tiny buttons. While buying from a single manufacturer allows using a single remote in most cases, the Yamaha remotes I've seen lately all deserve to be dumped into the trash and replaced with an ergonomic universal anyway.
The changer works well as a transport. I can track errors up to 2.4mm (track 35) on the Pierre Verany test suite, while with CD Check it plays track 3 perfectly and skips occasionally on track 4. The warranty on the changer is two years, double what some manufacturers offer. I experimented a bit with using both the analog and digital outputs from this player into the RX-V595 receiver. There wasn't a significant difference between the two with that component downstream, which isn't really that surprising because the two units are probably using similar DAC technology. To be honest, I don't really like the CDC-665 very much. If you must buy a cheap changer, it's as good of a choice as any, but the sound quality of the inexpensive ($300 and less) DVD players with 24/96 DACs is so great it's hard to justify buying a CD-only player of any type these days.
Michael has since returned to Soundscape to purchase a set of B&W speakers to complete his system. He's happy that he has a place he can get good advice from any time he wants to buy something, and the store is happy to have another regular customer. After he graduates and gets settled down at a full-time job, I'm expecting him to start adding some video hardware to his budding home theater. For those shopping now, today's current receiver offering from Yamaha adds DTS decoding at the same price, making it an even better deal.
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