[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article
April 1999

Introduction to this Column

Equipment reviews are great because they give you a wealth of information about a specific product. At Soundstage!, we ask our writers to describe in detail not only all the features of a product, but also their perceptions on exactly how it sounds in the context of their own systems. Our goal is not to make a definitive judgment, but rather to relate the reviewers’ experiences with the product so the reader will gain a good understanding about the product’s design goals and a very clear idea of how it sounds. However, despite the detail, sometimes reviews are not enough. After all, a component is part of a whole system, only one piece of the puzzle. We’ve found, over time, that our readers not only want to know about the single piece, but also about the entire system in which it is auditioned. That is precisely why we started this monthly column.

This column will attempt to explore systems as a whole while individual product reviews will explore a component in detail. While there will be less information given in this column about each component in comparison to a full review, there will be much more insight into assembling an entire system. We’re not just talking about expensive, two-channel systems either. This column will be written by a different writer each month and will cover a wide price range, from budget to ultra-expensive, two-channel to multichannel. You may even see portable, headphone and car systems included in this section.

It should be noted that we are not attempting to create a recipe for system-building based upon the products we review. Despite our reviewers’ access to a wide variety of equipment, we cannot possibly audition even a fraction of the products available. Today, a multitude of components and loudspeakers spanning an ultra-wide price range attract our interests. Many of these products are of exceptional merit regardless of price. Unfortunately, it is impossible for even the most energetic band of writers to audition more than a small sample of current offerings. To the extent we choose our samples carefully, however, we are confident that our systems include some of the best components available. As a result of many collective years of trial and error, as well as enormous commitments of time, intellect and emotion, we reviewers are usually justifiably proud of the systems we have assembled. By any standard our systems usually sound very good, indeed. Although the results are largely limited by monetary restraints, other concerns are also involved, including room size, decor (the famous "significant other" factor), family safety, neighborly considerations, and so on. Nevertheless, budgetary limits are usually paramount. We are hopeful that our systems are representative of good value at various price points.

As with reviews, we ask our readers to consider this section as simply a guide to continuing their own listening experiences. Some components may work better in reader systems than the ones we discuss here. That’s fine because listening and trying, mixing and matching, is the essence of this crazy hobby. Instead, we hope the perspectives we supply may encourage and inspire our readers to strive to attain that most desirable state in which music played on a hi-fi system satisfies one’s soul. For this one needs a killer setup.

System Simplicity in a Small Size

Audiophiles almost always go overboard. In the quest for the best sound, we resort to separate everything -- separate preamp and power amp, DACs and transports, sometimes even crossovers and power supplies! It can cost a lot of money and take up quite bit of space to boot, not to mention the mess of cables that accompanies such a system. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with excess. I have the luxury of a dedicated listening room that houses a preamp with separate power supply, a digital transport, processor, and jitter-reduction device, and a turntable with an outboard phono stage, all feeding into pair of monaural amplifiers. Is it worth it? You bet, because it sounds great. However, chassis separation in the extreme is not everyone’s cup of audio tea. In fact, when it comes to my living room (as opposed to dedicated hi-fi room), living takes a higher priority. There, I pay more attention to ergonomics and convenience than performance per se. Of course, I want something good, but simpler and smaller too.

Luckily for me, the system I’ve been listening to in my living room not only performs exceedingly well in the home-theater realm but also sounds fantastic as a music system. Furthermore, it takes up little space and leaves ample room for expansion should separates be something worth trying. The total price, you ask ? Under $7000 excluding television and VCR, but including room treatment and a DVD player that doubles as a CD player. It’s not exactly cheap, but like the best things in life, high performance has its cost. Unlike a separates-based system, this rig achieves simplicity, and keeps the cost down, by using components that either serve dual purposes or, as with the integrated amplifiers mentioned below, combine separate functions into single packages.

The components

The heart of this system is the 70Wpc, $2595 Moon I-5 integrated amplifier from SimAudio of Canada. The Moon series is the company’s best, which puts cost of the product secondary to its sonic performance. That means you pay a little more for stellar sonics and exemplary build quality. For example, there are lower-priced amplifiers in the company’s own Celeste series. However, Moon I-5 is the best integrated SimAudio offers and in my judgment is outstanding. Sonically, I love the I-5 for its exceedingly clean, transparent, quick and detailed sound that makes it a true high-end piece. It is not the most powerful amplifier you can buy in the under-$3000 category, but this is the type of piece that places refinement ahead brute power. Furthermore, it is exquisitely styled, diminutive really, yet built like a tank. It is simple to operate, either from the front panel or its hefty remote control, and contains enough inputs to accommodate a bevy of source components. An optional phono stage is also available should you have a turntable. One nifty feature is the compatibility of one set of input jacks with a surround-sound processor should you have the desire for a full home-theater system down the road.

In this system the I-5 is the only component with a detachable power cord, so being an audiophile, I tried after market power cords on it. I found that the JPS Labs Power AC cord ($449) made the musical background a smidge quieter and the transients a tad sharper. Definitely, the performance is better, but is such a small improvement necessary when the system’s goal is actually ease of use? Not really, at least not right now. But it is worth keeping in mind for expansion down the road when you begin to elevate the system to a loftier plane.

For speakers I chose the $1495 Cliffhanger CHS-2, which are priced as well as they perform. The only drawback to the looks of the speakers is the absence of a grille, meaning they don’t quite blend into the room décor as well as they could. Plus, the delicate drivers are left open to damaging fingers. However, a very nice feature of the CHS-2 is its magnetic shielding, allowing it to perform well in a home-theater setup, flanking a television set. The CHS-2 has good bass to below 50Hz, which is ample for most music and movies. For bass freaks, an upgrade path with the W-2 subwoofer keeps the options open. The result, when paired with the woofer, is a near full-range speaker that can rattle the foundation. As for speaker stands for the CHS-2, I used 24" all-wood BBC units that, to the best of my knowledge, are no longer available in North America. This is not a problem because Target, Sound Anchor, Osiris, Atlantis are all good options in their place.

Although Nirvana’s $1095 S-L speaker cable would be my wire of choice in this rig, I realize that its cost may be prohibitive. Thus I can also recommend the budget-priced DH Labs Silver Sonic cables. I want to emphasize, though, that in the cable world, almost infinite possibilities abound, and I don’t doubt many other very good options are also available. So, more than ever, try and try some more.

For digital source, I opted to use a DVD player to play CDs too, which saved money and space. What’s more, I didn’t sacrifice that much in sound quality. As many have already found out, a number of the current-generation DVD players sound quite good -- much better, in fact, than similarly priced CD players from only a couple years ago. I happen to own a DVD player that you will likely have no chance of finding because mine is the only one I’ve ever seen. It is a Kenwood DV-7000 that is 24/96 capable and has a coax digital output should you wish to add an outboard D/A converter (expandability again!). Why is it likely that you haven’t seen it? Best as I can tell the company brought these to North America as a test case and didn’t market them intensely. I bought one of the few. It’s a good unit that serves me well, but there are others as good or better on the market today. Given a choice, right now I’d rather have the Sony DVP-S7700, and if wanted to save cash, the Pioneer DV-414 seems a steal.

Keen eyes looking at the picture of the DVD player will note the VLS Cyclone sitting atop the player. This is a great little unit that simulates five-channel surround from two speakers (see SoundStage! Video Online for a full review). No, it’s not perfect, and a real five-channel system does better, but for 99 bucks the Cyclone is fantastic. If you don’t want five speakers hanging around (not to mention the expense of powering them), this is a great alternative. For music, I remove it completely from the chain, but for playing movies on this system I put it back in. The bad news is that Virtual Listening Systems, Inc., the maker of the Cyclone, seems to be kaput. The good news is that virtual-surround options are creeping up in DVD players like the A310 from Panasonic.

Two interconnects are needed to connect the Cyclone in the path and one if you forget the Cyclone and simply connect the DVD player straight to the amplifier. Regardless, it is at this point that I cheated a little. I opened up the Kenwood player and determined that within this mass-market unit not the greatest attention to detail had been placed on things like internal wiring. As a result, what goes up to the output jacks is anyone’s guess. My reasoning led to the conclusion that I could use almost anything outside of shoe-leather to string up to the SimAudio Moon I-5. At that point, attention to detail shows up in all components throughout the chain. Therefore, I factored in 0 cost for these source connections because I used the supplied DVD player and Cyclone interconnects. These are about as cheaply made as one can find. At most, the equivalent interconnects will cost you a couple of dollars. Once again, using better interconnects in a future expansion is a possibility.

Making sure to create a complete system I wanted power conditioning and room treatment inside of the full price tag of the system. An elegant little conditioner that certainly does help improve the sound of many things plugged into it is the Blue Circle Power Line Pillow. I used the $490 BC-83 that I own and which has ample inputs for this system and includes MOVs to help protect against spikes and surges (Blue Circle Audio has now replaced this unit with the BC83.1, priced the same).

Bass response is good in my room and it does not suffer from boominess, so things like tube traps in the corners are not necessary. However, the room has some echo problems that acoustical treatment is ideal for taming. It’s bound to be split decision on the aesthetic appeal of the following two products I used, mind you, particularly in a living-room setting. Although both products are understated and refined-looking in charcoal gray, undoubtedly they lean to the techie look. For wall covering I used two, 2"-thick Sonex wall panels behind each speaker and two more of the same on the back wall (behind my listening position). For good measure I used a 2’-by-2’ ProFoam panel on the front wall just above the TV. Both the Sonex and ProFoam are purchased by the box. They are both valuable, cost-effective ways to help alleviate room problems and well worth investigating for any system.

The final four pieces of the system include my trusty Sony Trinitron monitor and hi-fi VHS VCR along with a small stand to hold the TV up (the SimAudio I-5 goes under). To the side, a photocopier paper box filled with old magazines and topped with a wooden chopping block holds the VCR with the DVD player propped up on that. For those tweakers who need to know, the wood block is 1.5" thick of Canadian maple. No, I didn’t put it there to improve the sound. The top of the cardboard box kept caving in so this was a good way to give it a sturdy roof to hold these two components on top.  The laptop computer seen in the picture is for writing reviews and articles -- like this one.

Listening and conclusions

The entire system combines to produce an exceptionally balanced, clean sound that is very good with everything from pop, rock, jazz, dance and classical to soundtracks with heavy dialog, gunshots and explosions. Bass response is down to below 50Hz, which provides a solid foundation for music and movies. Placement closer to back walls will increase bass, and more distance will provide better imaging and soundstage depth. The bass is not subterranean, but it’s pretty darn good. The 70Wpc I-5 amplifier plays plenty loud and is exceedingly clean-sounding -- it offers more than enough power for me. In the end, the system is ideal for smaller to medium-sized rooms.

While this is not intended to be a recipe for your own system, I do hope that it gives some insight into building a high-performance multi-purpose system. What I enjoy about this system is its simplicity in terms of components and its surprisingly high level of performance for music and movies. No, it’s not true surround, and no again, it is not the epitome of a high-end music system. But it is an outstanding system, a Standout System! In fact, it does many things so well that I find myself listening to it as much as my reference system. It must be doing something right!

...Doug Schneider


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