If it were me, I would upgrade one component at a time. If you can afford to spend 800 now, I would work on the amplification, then when you can afford to, upgrade the cd player. There are many good integrateds in your price range. Audio Refinement complete, musical fidelity A3, even antique sound labs would work if you don't plan on cracking the volume. However, all of those won't leave you any room for a cd player in the budger. Although, if you can find the audio refinement for around 500 or so, you can probably get a used Music Hall CD25. That may very well keep you close to budget. NAD is a good value, but I feel the above list is slightly better. My opinion of course.
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I did exactly what S7horton suggested, bought a used Audio Refinement complete for $525 and a slightly used Music Hall CD-25 for $350. I recommend both very highly in that price range and they look great together, if that's important to you. I've used them with Soliloquy 5.0's and Proac Response 1s' and was extremely happy with both setups.
And I third the CD-25 (also known as the Shanling CD-S100)! It's the very best player I know for the money.
I think the other guys' recommendations are excellent, if I may say so. The Audio Refinement gear is very good value IMHO. I'm only chiming in to reply to your question: how much do you divide the budget between amp / CDP / cable ?
My personal answer is, spend all you can on the source.
After all, you will be upgrading again, eventually, won't you? Getting the best source you can means you will be happier with it for longer. The next major effort can be on the amp, because you will still enjoy your source. And the quality you have upstream will be revealed when you upgrade downstream.
Compare that approach with the opposite : a downstream upgrade makes you painfully aware of an inadequate source.
If I were in your shoes, I would consider spending the whole pile on a CD-S100 Mk II, and a cable. I have a review of this player here at Audiogon. But then I have access to the Canadian sources for it ; AFAIK it is not available retail in the U.S. :-(
Canadian Shanling distributor's page
CD-S100 / 100 MkII review
Nevertheless, with all that said, moving from your Nak to a CD-25 and an amp like the Audio Refinement will still make you very happy. Tell us about it, when you get your upgrade home, if you get the chance.
I know this thread is sounding like an ad for the CD-25 but I did want to chime in one more time to reinforce what Tobias is saying. My experience is that, with a limited budget, a dollar spent on the source gets you more improvement than a dollar spent on the amp, cable or speakers. It's not that the others aren't important and you certainly have to find a balance, both sonically and financially, among all of them.
One of the advantages of the CD-25 is that, while it's an exceptional player at its price in stock form, it's easy to make it much better with commonly available ugrades. Spending $50 on a pair of better op-amps that you can easily install yourself takes it to another level of quality entirely. I haven't found any upgrade to the other components that will even come close to matching the improvement for anything like that amount of money.
Again, from my experience in swapping out a lot of moderately-priced components, If you had $800 to spend on a source and amp you'd be much, much better off with, for example, a $600 CD-25 and a $200 entry-level used Rotel integrated amp than with a $600 integrated of any brand and a $200 player.
Cable differences are important but more subtle. It's easy to start with any of the moderately prices ones like Audioquest or DH Labs and experiment as you go.
Sfar what about high end systems? Just Curious what your thoughts are in this area.
Reason I ask is I have a very good class A amp, $3000 monitors but am running this with a $350 CD player.
I have a very good Eastsound player (compares well with $2500+ players) that I should be receiving in the next week.
Upgraded the speakers first and big improvement. Next upgraded the cables then amp both big improvements.
Now curious how much difference a good CDP will make as the final upgrade?
Thanks for your input.
You didn't ask me, Maxxc, but I think the rule is pretty much the same for all systems. The difference is that at the high end, you are not going to have to put up with sound that is actually toxic. Even if you upgrade starting downstream, a true high end source should already be pretty easy to take.
Upgrading is so expensive ( cost of new component plus loss on resale of the old component, minus resale value of the old one ) that it makes sense to plan for the best sound possible at every step. Unfortunately that can mean passing on speakers, for example, while you save for a source. It can be hard to do.
I think you will be delighted with your coming source upgrade, and you will be able to hear it at its best. Imagine if you had upgraded your source first, though. Your amp upgrade would have been double fun!
I'm afraid I don't have the same level of experience with high-end components, though my current set-up replaced a much more expensive system of all McCormack electronics, including an SST transport and separate DAC as a source.
As Tobias said, at the high end the compromises you make just don't have as much impact. You should be able to simply tune the system to your preferences by choosing different components rather than spend time and money trying to avoid what irritates you.
I expect the same principles apply, you're just making much smaller incremental changes as you spend much larger sums of money. It argues even more strongly for really taking your time and auditioning equipment in your own system, comparing it carefully with what you already have before you make a decision.
Tobias and Sfar thanks for your input. Yes, I'm expecting a real good improvement no doubt the CDP is holding back the amp and speakers.
I may have the unit tomorrow as it has been shipped. A good weekend of burn in and I should really have an idea how much the budget CDP was holding the system back.
Thanks for everybody's help. I am definitely going to seek out a music hall CDP, although the upgraded ones seem to be more plentiful (worth it?) than a standard used one. Then, I'll try to audition an audio refinement complete, NAD 320 bee, 352, and consider a cambridge azur. I'll let you know in a few weeks when I get it all set up.
I can't comment on whether any of the various upgrades are cost effective from the several places who do them. It looked to me as if the biggest bang for the buck might be in replacing the opamps since they're such a critical piece in the signal path and there's such a huge spread in the price ratio between the relatively inexpensive ones in the stock player and the high end ones. Many of the other upgrades require soldering, as well, but replacing the opamps doesn't.
I bought a pair of AD8066 opamps from soundodyssey.com for $54 and the swap was no more difficult than replacing a fuse, as long as you pay attention to the pin orientation. The difference in sound is amazing, particular in bass articulation. Blindfolded, I would have thought I was listening to a more expensive pair of speakers rather than to an upgrade of a couple of fingernail-sized chips.
Thanks for sharing about the op amp upgrade, Sfar. My brother has my old S100 and the mod will make a nice gift for him.
I agree with you that this particular upgrade is probably the most cost-effective. Another good one for the player is a better power cord, which helps the bass and overall detail quite noticeably. I like the Subaruguru for cords--his kits are a great deal.
Tobias, yes, I forgot to mention that I'd also upgraded the power cord. I made up my own, using Marinco plugs and Belden 19364 wire. I had the cord when I bought the player and never used the stock cord at all so I can't compare the two.
On the opamps, Underwood HiFi uses the Burr Brown OPA-627 in their upgrade and Sound Odyssey uses the AD8066. There was no way to compare the two directly and the reason I bought the 8066 is that the price seemed reasonable considering the cost of the player. Sound Odyssey was set up to sell parts directly from their web site and that's the chip they use. I'm thrilled with the sound but the OPA-627 might be a good option, as well, though considerably more expensive. They sell it as well
Here's the page on their site with descriptions of the various opamps they sell. I'm sure their may be other sources, as well.
I would highly recommend the Panasonic SA-XR45 or the new SA-XR70 (avail. in Oct). These are in the $400 range HT receivers with 100 W/chnl digital amps for all channels. They can be run digital in to out and sound good stock, but are superb when modded. You can enjoy it for a while and then when you have the bux, get it modded. You will have a true audiophile system after this. For the player, I would recommend a Toshiba SD-6915. Plays everything and sounds decent stock. Can also improve with digital outs and power supply modded.
I am building-up a frieds system and this is what I have recommended to him.
Thanks for all your suggestions. First, with the amp, today I auditioned the NAD 320bee and 352 with an NAD 541i and was impressed. Then I auditioned a Jolinda 102b (wasn't originally going to go with tubes) with the 541i and found the sound much more full and enjoyable. The reviews seem to be mixed on this website on the Jolinda. I have been leaning away from an ARC integrated because I can't audition it. Also, how does an NAD 541 Cdp compare with the Music hall CD25 (I haven't been able to audition)? Again, thanks for all your help.
I understand why you would like the 541, I did too. My personal preference is for the CD25, though. I felt it had more energy and liveliness, and I like the upgrade possibilities (power cord, then later the op amps, maybe a clock). However the CD25 can also sound forward, so you need to get a listen, if a more laid-back presentation is what you prefer.