Asking for guidance on my first hi-fi system...

Hello, this is my first post here and I am hoping to gain a little confidence in making a purchase of an integrated amp for a nice two channel music only system. I recently built my own speakers, (the Jim Holtz Mini Statements) and auditioned them at my friends house on two different high end audio systems.... Rogue, Electrocompaniet, Van Alstine are a few names I remember of his gear. He helped me confirm that my speakers sound very nice and are a good starting point to build upon. My budget is 500.00 or less for an amp. Currently I use an Onkyo HT-R520 home theatre receiver, set on "Direct" listening mode. Obviously, my speakers don't sound as good with the Onkyo. I believe the bass is over emphasized and the mids and highs are a little lacking in detail.
Here are my objectives:
1. Stay within budget
2. Find something that will sound better and resolve the weaknesses of the Onkyo

Currently I am interested in a 300 to 400 dollar Carver CM 1090 integrated amp. Would this be a wise choice given it's age? or should I be looking at a new NAD, or ?????

Any and all help would be greatly appreciated!
You cannot go wrong with a NAD. From personal experience, they are very musical. You can also take a look at some Marantz or Onkyo.
fmerk: very nice post. YOu offered a LOT of info and it all was clear.

I would not buy the Carver. It is rather old, and not one of the 'chosen' old stuff folks talk about with any reverence.
You CAN find some of the good stuff, and for the $500. you mention.
Now first, you write 'amp' but I assume you really need either an amp and preamp, or an integrated amp for your $500.
A cheap golden product was the Hafler DH110 preamp. Should be able to be found for $100 to $150.
Another decent preamp was the Forte F44 $200 to $250
Then an Adcom 535mkII amplifier. The mkII is important. that should be around $200 to $250.
An Adcom 545 is OK also.
Another very hard to find amp is the Forte 4a which is killer, for $400 to $500. (but that is with no preamp.)

Those items I suggest are also old. but they are good products, and worth the money they cost.

These are the items I know. (and I owned Carver long ago, also Forte, Hafler..)
Thank you for your replies, since posting I've steered away from the Carver idea. I'll definitely explore some of the suggestions mentioned, I was thinking a preamp and amp wouldn't be doable for my budget so I'm excited to hear that it is. I thought I'd be limited to an integrated amp. Looking at that option, would an Arcam A65 be on the same playing field as the the suggestions given thus far ?

I also like the idea of an integrated that has the preamp out option.
You could find a really nice sounding amp/pre-amp combo for around $500. My advice would be to spend a little more on the pre-amp than the amp. Perhaps an upper level older NAD or Rotel. RC-990/995. The Nakamichi CA-5 is a very nice older unit. Now this goes against what I previously said, but....if you could live w/o a pre-amp output and remote, the Adcom GTP-350 is a steelar pre-amp/tuner combination. (Under $100 used.) Match it w/ a nice amp (perhaps an ADCOM 5300 or a Rotel amp) and for a song you'll have a very nice combination. As far as an int. amp., a new NAD 326 is something worth considering. You have alot of options! Be patient and do check carefully seller feedback if buying used. Good Luck! Bill
When I restarted out at 28 years of age I bought a NAD C370 brand new for a good deal. That amp always amazed me and I passed it onto my son who still uses it. I bought it brand new and it made me proud. If I didn't have kids it would still be here doing something. It was 80 watts but sure seemed like more to me. That integrated always amazed me. You owe it to yourself to listen to NAD to see if you like it. They're such a big company that they can truly offer a lot for the money. I miss it so much because it brings back such great memories that I've been looking for a 375 to have on hand. There's not a lot of people that will bash NAD unless they've never owned one. Built like a tank with very few issues. Very musical. Integrateds are more popular than ever and will continue on that path. Don't start out with separates.
I owned the NAD 355BEE I sold it, I think I was one of the first buyer of this amp from audio advisor, dark no details dull sound, I have no regrets i sold it, I ended up going up, the only way to hear differences in audio is when you jump for example for an NAD amp and all of the sudden your ears can't live without a class A luxman. Is costly but if you are serious about audio, start with a Rega used amp, Brio 3 or Brio R the new version I owned too, excellent and musical don't buy vintage, too much work repairs and other unexpected things that you will like to be away from....make your first steps in the hobby walking right...
enjoy the music
All of these NAD recommendations are no accident or conspiracy. Their entry level gear punches way beyond the weight class and is known for exceptional reliability. I've used the BEE models for several budget systems and my friends are very pleased. I have a seriously expensive system yet still love the NAD sound and approach; it's very balanced and refined for solid state in this price range.
Go with the NAD.
I second the NAD proposal. Always a great place to start. Some even finish there.
Audio Refinement integrated. Smoother and more reliable than NAD.
What ever you do, don't get an early NAD built in the late 70's. They had no head room. I fried a beautiful pair of B&W DM7s with a 90wpch. receiver. I don't recall the model but mine was a fairly common story. They soon began producing amps with 6db headroom.
Do some more research and watch the classified ads here and on the other audio related sites. I owned the Audio Refinement amp mentioned above quite a few years ago and it's one of those pieces I regretted selling. Also owned a NAD C352 and thought it was a nice amp for the money with the exception of the jumpy remote volume control.
If you are patient though, you'll find a good deal. I recently purchased a Cairn 4810 at your price point. The Cairn feels like a hi-end integrated amp at a bargain price.
The first thing I would consider is how are your speakers "voiced"?If they are fairly neutral or slightly(or heavily)bright then NAD or Cambridge Audio would be a good choice but if they are warm/ish then I would look to Marantz (fairly neutral electronics)as the 2 I already mentioned tend to have a warm voice.Your budget will by brand new(instead of messing with older/used)& you will get much better build quality/sound.
Thank you everyone for your suggestions! Today I bought a NAD326BEE. I've looked at so many different systems, I was close to analysis paralysis! That's why I came here for guidance and I heard loud and clear to give NAD a try. I look forward to listening to it soon and I will certainly post my thoughts after listening! Thanks again to all!
Yesterday I received my NAD 326BEE and I didn't waste any time getting it set up and listening to some of my favorite music. I think I had a smile stuck on my face the entire time and almost giddy at times. I couldn't be happier with my investment in the NAD. With every piece of music I listened to I heard details that I hadn't heard with my Onkyo HT receiver. My speakers utilize a 4" titanium cone midrange driver and a 3" ribbon tweeter and they just came to life... The best way I can describe it is to say that my old system was like regular TV, the NAD makes it like HDTV... It's really that obvious and so much fun. The bass is just right also, sharp, solid and detailed. Thanks to all for the great suggestions !

One more question though, I assume it will break in to some degree... What might I notice to know that it has been broken in?

You made a good choice with the NAD. The audio world is a better place because NAD can offer so much bang for the buck. Everyone hears differently so you tell us if or what differences you notice as it breaks in. You can be assured it will only get better if anything.
Glad to hear! Enjoy!
Always nice when people provide follow-up. Hope you get years of enjoyment with the NAD.

Glad the NAD is matching with your speakers. In a few months, you might want to try an after market power cord. You seem to be the kind of listener who would appreciate the improvement.

I may have to try that and I like the idea of waiting a few months, I should get to know the sound really well before making any changes. I'll be honest, as a newbie in the world of higher quality audio, I've been a bit skeptical about spending lots of money on speaker wires, RCA cables, etc. However, I don't doubt I could improve upon my 15' - 18ga lamp extension cord powering my NAD ! In time I will definitely change that and my ears will need to be the judge. Do you have any suggestions for RCA cables and power cords for the budget minded buyer?
There are a number of great options: I suggest the Shunyata Venom 3 power cord because it costs $99 and nothing touches it for less than $200, IMHO. I added one to my father's NAD and, while he's no audiophile, he loved the result.

As far as speaker wire goes, there are so many options that will beat the stock or Best Buy wire. I'd suggest sticking with a copper based wire and you can easily find some great used wire on A'gon.

If you start with a good power cord though, you'll more easily be able to hear the differences in speaker wire and interconnects. I'd find out if there are some audiophile groups near where you live. I suspect any number of hobbyists would happily let you try some wire out. As you say, your ears will guide you.

I predict that the 326BEE will reward your efforts to feed it the best possible signal. I look forward to reading your posts down the road. We're in the golden age of budget gear right now, so you can have a lot of fun for relatively little money!
"The audio world is a better place because NAD can offer so much bang for the buck."

I agree.
12-09-12: Jfmerk

I may have to try that and I like the idea of waiting a few months, I should get to know the sound really well before making any changes.

True words of wisdom my friend.
You're already happy(giddy) with how it sounds. Just sit back and listen for a while, break in changes will vary, good and bad. This could take some time, depending on play time and your speakers probably aren't fully broken in yet either.
I'm very happy that you're happy.

Disclaimer-I'm Jeff's buddy with the tube equipment

OLD NAD is good, new NAD sucks.
For cheap speaker wire and interconnects, try Blue Jeans Cable.
Yes, by all means, enjoy the giddy pleasures of your new kit! I usually rediscover my whole music collection when I've made a change.
Sound advice Jeff.... Taking my time will also provide the best opportunity to strengthen the WAF :-)
Thanks for all the help!
Blue Jeans cable is good.

As for power cords, do not believe the snake oil about power cords. People CAN reliably tell the difference in a blind test between speakers, amplifiers and preamps. But no one has ever reliably shown they can tell the difference between power cords.

Say no to voodoo induced audiophile anxiety. If there's a difference it is small, and most likely all in your head. The power of suggestion is a powerful force indeed.

To bad you have to contend with people who use hobbyist forums to insult people who they don't agree with. Fortunately, you have someone like your friend Jeff and your own good ears.
Here's how civil discourse works: "I've tried power cords and I couldn't' hear any differences between them."

Wilsynet's post seeks to insult the thousands of audiophiles (including hundreds of respected audi journalists, producers and engineers) who use and love power cords. I wonder why the ignorant bliss of so many bothers him so much? I'm always skeptical of those who want to protect others from happy hobbyists who are selling nothing.
In the early history of the US, there were these people who traveled around selling ointments and potions who promised cures for all manner of ailments. These people were called snake oil salesmen.

Indeed, I could say "I have tried snake oil and I couldn't tell the difference", but that wouldn't be telling the whole story.

The whole story is that a significant portion of the audiophile community believes that power cords make a difference. They plug in an exotic power cord, strain to hear a difference, and indeed, there it is.

I have asked these same audiophiles to try doing a blind test. In every case, they decline to do so, saying they'd rather not know. You know, people feel strongly attached to the things they own. By buying an exotic power cord, you sort of self-select into the group that believes in exotic power cables. Not always, but sometimes.

Look, 40 or 50 million Americans smoke cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is very bad for you. It does not insult Americans that cigarette smoking is bad for you.

A number of audiophiles have exotic power cords. Exotic power cords are indistinguishable in blind testing from ordinary and well engineered power cords. It does not insult exotic power cord owners that such power cords are indistinguishable.

The posts here certainly aren't going to tell the whole story about blind tests; whole books have been written about them and they have long ago been discounted by the mainstream scientific community as a reliable measure of whether a perception is valid or not. Why don't flat earth society members start a "power cords don't work" thread and leave the rest of us alone? The answer is pretty clear.

The fact that they can't be satisfied with merely posting their own listening experiences ( which they have yet to do here, btw) says quite a bit. A very wise engineer once said, "If you haven't listened yourself, you don't HAVE an opinion." The best and most civil advice is to listen for yourself. Borrow a cord and it won't cost you a dime. It'd be great if the debate were to end with that but and we could return to sharing what we love, but this will probably degenerate into the usual, pointless p***ing match. Is it any wonder the hobby is shrinking?
This is really an interesting topic to me because as a rookie in the world of audiophiles, I'm like a sponge, trying to learn as much as I can. From a completely personal perspective, I've been a DIY type my entire life. ( I'm 51). So I've been able to learn a lot from my own experiences, good and bad. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've taken my vehicles to a shop for repair since I learned how to drive... and I've always bought used vehicles. I have always enjoyed trying to understand how things work, why they aren't working and resolving the underlying problem. From that, comes my logical and analytical approach to nearly all of my decisions. Therefore, with respect to power cords, I tend to think in terms of AC current, voltage and resistance. Too much resistance is a bad thing, so be sure a power cord provides a free and easy pathway from a power outlet to the audio device and your set. Just a good solid copper conductor.

Now, on the other hand, I am completely open to the idea and WILL cast aside analysis and logic in exchange for letting my ears provide the information for me to base a decision. On two separate occasions recently, what I "heard" gave me tons of information and guided my decision making process relating to upgrading from my Onkyo HT receiver. For example, when I finished building my speakers, my friend (Jeff) came over with his Van Alstine amp and VTL preamp so we could have a listen to my speakers through quality equipment. I had been listening to music all afternoon while he made his way to my house. When he arrived, no time was wasted getting things connected and I'll never forget that moment... I had my back turned to what was going on and suddenly there was music and it made me spin around and ask what happened? The music sounded incredibly different and in a beautifully way! Jeff said something to the effect of "well of course it sounds better!" At that moment, my ears gave me all the information I needed to realize I must upgrade my Onkyo.

Again, very interesting discussion.... I think it would be really interesting to conduct a variety of tests for the purpose of gather facts. Certainly we have the technology to measure all kinds of information from the sound a speaker produces. So let's power up a system with a $3,800.00 power cord and a 50' Home Depot extension cord and see what the data says.

In the end, I fully respect "to each his own!" And I will continue being a sponge. Thanks!
You really think the hobby is shrinking because people disagree about power cords? I don't think that's the reason.

Differences between preamps, amplifiers and speakers are readily and scientifically explained.

It's a free country: buy exotic power cables if you want. I would just recommend you try a blind test.

Because the power of suggestion is very strong. Isn't it interesting that people sometimes describe maple isolation stands as organic, silver interconnects as cold and analytical, and copper interconnects as warm?

I wonder what would happen if you only told someone that an interconnect was made with silver, but you actually substituted a copper pair?
Reasonable differences of opinion aren't hurting our hobby but the use of pejoratives like "snake oil" to describe other people's preferences certainly does more harm than good. The term implies that the manufacturers are dishonest and that happy consumers who post here are fools. Condescension and derision in a friendly forum are not attractive practices.

I think Jeff (the OP) has the perfect outlook about all of this. He has an open mind and I'm confident that his open eyes and open ears will guide him just fine.
The fact that they can't be satisfied with merely posting their own listening experiences ( which they have yet to do here, btw) says quite a bit. A very wise engineer once said, "If you haven't listened yourself, you don't HAVE an opinion." The best and most civil advice is to listen for yourself.

I try not to get involved in these discussions anymore as they are truly a waste of time, but here's my two cents.
Been posting here for ten years or so and as the OP I am also a DIY guy of sorts. My experience tells me that expensive cables make no discernible difference over a well built DIY power cable which I have built. And when I say DIY concerning power cables I mean proper gauge cable with a good connector and solid connections. In my system I do use some after market power cables but still don't feel they make any difference. Why do I keep them? They're there and I have no interest in them any longer.
What it really boiled down to for me was I got tired of, and honestly felt kind of silly, listening to power cables instead of music. Thin skinned audiophiles may take offense to this but I mean no offense.
I absolutely agree with the last sentence of Vhiner's quote. If you are so inclined, go for it. I tried it, heard no difference and have moved on.
In time, I will be trying an upgraded power cord.... I have to hear for myself.

For now, I am really enjoying my NAD integrated amp! I'm glad I came here for guidance!

By the way, just a side note: today is the great Ludwig Von Beethoven's birthday... I'm listening to the "Egmont Overture" and it truly sounds fantastic! Gives me goose bumps every time!
Happy Birthday Ludwig! Congratulations on the Nad,Have fun!
I'm glad you are enjoying your new int. amp! I'm a DIY type as well. I enjoy modifying "resoanably" priced equipment and bringing them to higher sonic levels. The first thing I would do is replace the stock jumper straps that connect the pre-amp to main end. Those things are terrible. Short interconnect or jumper cables will make a world of difference. If you're handy w/a soldering iron you could set up a short set no problem as well as make a power cord. Buy the raw materials and use good solder. (Last time I tried Johnson solder.) As far as interconnects if you want to buy a set already made, I highly recommend an older set of Tara Labs Prism 33, buy them. Solid core w/very pure copper. (The Prism 22 is good as well but a little warmer w/slightly less detail.) Older Wireworld Oasis/Equinox IC's are very good as well. As far as speaker wire, I like "QED." Very reasonably priced High quality copper. Enjoy the music! Bill