Room treatments. Tweaked to make the sound 'best with current equipment'. Then start equipment changes.
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Dvorak was your great great uncle?! How cool! He's my favorite composer.
I agree with the above comment that room treatment might be your best bang for the buck. Or, even simpler, spend some time optimizing your speaker positions. You might be amazed how much of a difference this can make.
I'll divide possible considerations into 3 categories:
1) Room-speaker interaction
2) Speaker-amp interaction
3) Source/preamp interaction
What is wrong with your present system? If it sounds good, then why mess with it? If you're missing in dynamics at higher volumes or the sound becomes congested, then you might consider a different amp or a different speaker.
On the other hand, if the system sounds boomy, then you should look into the room and speakers.
And if you're lacking in detail or soundstaging, then you might look into the source and/or preamp.
It's a vague answer for a vague question, I know, but there are just so many variables involved.
From simply looking at your component list, I would guess that the Rotel 5-CD changer is probably your weak link. You might want to start there, and perhaps consider getting a separate DAC, since this would help if you eventually move to computer-based audio.
From some of the components you've indicated an interest in, I gather that your budget is fairly high. Although Rotel won't be on anyone's list as a top-dollar, elite product, their products tend to be solid and good value. I'd make sure there's something about them that you're not happy with before investing megabucks trying to solve it.
Just my 2 cents.
Forget the components for 5 minutes and evaluate your listening room. Then consider:
Two or four dedicated 20 amp circuits using either (PS Auido Power Ports, Shunyata SR-Z1 or Oyaide R1s) AC outlets
Double check grounding and line noise from the main electrical panel and determine if you can add sub panel for the listening room
This was by far the smartest decision I've made. The cost was around $300 plus adding two 20 amp lines from my main panel. I did not add a sub panel.
I agree with the above posters. Room evaluation, if I had a dedicated room would be my first move. It seems like you have a space and depending on the WAF it seems like you can do some acoustic treatments.
If your happy with the Usher's then combining room treatment and the speakers you plan on keeping awhile is useful.
Since your interested in ARC gear and the Rotel's seem to drive the Usher's fine to your ears, you might want to check out a pre amp, after the above is taken care of. There are rave reviews of their new LS-26 here on the 'Gon. I have not heard it but it was on my short list.
Enjoy and let us know how you progress.
For an alternative point of view, I respectfully submit the following:
If I were just starting out (sort of the way you are), or redoing it all over again, knowing what I know now, and had my own audio room, the very first thing I would do is get the best speakers I could afford, i.e the best sounding to me while maxing out my budget. A set of speakers that you can "grow into" and ones that are almost too big for the room and look good while doing being so
With speakers meeting the above spec's, chances are you will be happy for a long time as its much more fun to "tweak" the sound of your speakers by adding, subtracting or changing the electronics that make up your system. If you have speakers you really love house sound of, then the music will, even with the worst electronics, sound pretty good to you. Even when you have an amp/pre/CDP that you don't really care for, the system will, generally, sound good because the majority of the sound arises out of the speakers signature sound you originally bought as being the sound this is just right for you..
THEN, I would deal with room acoustics and spend the next ? years finding and buying the "perfect" electronics for your tastes....
I had a pair of B&W Matrix 805s that stayed with me for years, in 1986 they cost $1600 which was way more then I should have spent on anything much less a silly pair of stereo speakers! Over the subsequent years electronics came and went but I always stuck with the speakers. Even when I had crappy supporting electronics (like the time I had a $200 Denon Receiver driving them because I had to sell my Brystons to pay the rent) or source, they still sounded pretty good to me. I did eventually "out grew" them, however this was because I grew out of the B&W signature sound and began to appreciate and love more romantic or musical speakers, but they were a staple for a long time
Think about it and enjoy the ride John
I would consider that you have a relatively large room with stand mounted speakers, so I would configure my system and listening area for near-field listening, where room treatment will not be as big a factor. I would then ditch the 5 CD changer for a cdp with a tube output stage, such as one of the Lector models depending your price range, the droplet, or maybe a modified Denon. I believe the tubed output CDP will inprove on some of the less desirable issues of the Rotel gear. Later you might look at new amps and preamps, but unless you have suddenly turned wealthy, you might also want to do those upgrades in steps, and stick with several year old models in good condition that come from stable manufacturers who are stable. You might go through these iterations a couple of times until you reach the point of dimensioning returns. Along the way you will have time for room treatment using stuffed furniture, carpeting, absorbant material at reflection points, and maybe something like DIY bass traps. I personally would do speakers last, once I had zeroed in on my electronics.
I'd focus first and foremost on careful speaker placement, proper line conditioning, and proper vibration management.
All three of these are easier said than done. Yet all three areas are absolutely foundational regardless of what components you swap in and out and without any one of these three you will never know what any of your components (now and in the future) are truly capable of producing.
Seriously, what possible benefit could there be upgrading your car to a Ferrari if that too only performs like a '72 VW bus?
Greetings and thanks to all who responded.
From your advice, I believe my next step is to set-up the room acoustically. I've visited the Rives Audio site and already have drawn up the room. It'll probably be a level 2 design, though there might be accomodations for some custom work.
Following the room design, I expect I'll watch the 'goN for some used Wilsons Watt / Puppies or something in that class, and then upgrade the system components. Having the speakers with which to notice changes brought by various components makes sense to me.
The RIVES Audio approach makes sense to me too - application of a little bit of objective science to this subjective world of hifi.
Its all a bit overwhelming -- coming back into this world after such a long hiatus. Reviewer's prejudice towards advertiser $$, dealer prejudice to what they carry, and I've lost touch with fellow 'philes from years ago. And my wife thinks I've got over the edge, which is not atypical when I find or renew a curiosity.
Thanks again to those who replied.
As an update, room treatment moved lower in priority due to need to shuffle things around the house. Bonus room was the gym, so the gym stuff needs to move to spare bedrooms - and the bedroom stuff has to be sold off.
In the meantime I've acquired a used ARC CD3 MKII, and am waiting arrival of a used LS26. Very likely I'll be getting a VS115 shortly. ARC just swapped the dealership here to a much larger store compared to the tiny appointment only dealer previous. Current dealer is much more accessable and has full ARC ref class setup and burning in.
A post I read on Stereophile said this hifi thing is a bottomless pit - of happiness!
After years of doing this...The 1st thing is get a electrician to install some dedicated circuts and then contact Albert Porter and order some of his cryoed duplexes.
If you like your speakers move on to the amplifier and audition several tube and SS. Look for a amp that can produce dynamics and spatial ques of the recording. In other words the ability to capture the ambience of the original venue..It sounds live. Next is the Preamp....same criteria and match it with your amp.
There are a couple tube dacs out there. One has a linestage that performs very well to trying different tubes.
Interconnects and cables make a big difference. I would buy cables on Audiogon as they are priced well and can always be resold with out much loss.
I would list importance of equipment as follows: Speakers,Amplifier,Linestage,Cables and then CD player and DAC.
You can find many exceptional equipment pieces used. As a expample...I have a Sony cdp x-707-es player and I have never heard a player produce a quieter background with spatial ques that are as close to live as you can get. I saw one sell for $700 which was a steal.
Have fun it's a great hobby.