Best system for the budding audiophile?

What began as a search for new speakers has rapidly evolved into the development of a new system. After reading many reviews (none of which are negative - Hmmm?!), I am humbly turning to this sage group for recommendations.

I am an avid listener of classical and jazz. I occasionally listen to select blues and rock, but that's not my first love. For me, I like a piano to sound like a piano, a guitar like a guitar, etc. No coloration, just the facts, so to speak. I am not a bass hound but prefer a detailed midrange and clear highs. I also look for a open spacious sound stage for symphonic pieces. I have a large room 15' by 20' but can't be too fussy with placement. I am budgeting around $5,000 for my new system.

Based on this information, what system would you build (Amp, CD player, speakers)? which is better bookshelf speakers with stands or floorstanding? I appreciate any advice you might have.

Thanks in advance,
Try: Proac 1SC speakers (estd $1000-1500 used with stands), Pass Aleph 3 amp ($1000 used on Audiogon), Pass Aleph P preamp ($1700 used on Audiogon), California Audio Labs CL20 ($1100 used on Audiogon). Start with cheap interconnects and zip cord for speaker cable and upgrade later. The total would be $4800-5300 as listed. If you want to shave the number down to have more to spend on cables, etc, I suggest you trade down on the preamp. You can get a decent one for $500-1000 used on Audiogon.
James, since you are starting, just about anything that is good high end will do. I have never had that kind of cash to throw in at once!

Your statement saying "I have a large room 15' by 20' but can't be too fussy with placement" indicates two things to me:

1) Your wife's got her setup the way *she* wants.
2) You don't want to go through the learning curve.

Speaker placement is absolutely critical--even if you buy, some speakers are less placement sensitive. My Swans M1 are an example. They have a controlled dispersion ribbon tweeter that is less finicky of room interactions. It works.

Whatever you do, make sure you either get a dedicated line or get power line filtration properly taken care of. Search the files.


Here are some questions you need to answer for yourself (my choices in parentheses):
Tube or solid State? (tube)
Power? (3.5w~94dB/w spkr sensitivity; 7w~91dB/w; 15w~88dB/w)
Preamp or amp with volume control? (preamp eventually)
Floor standers or Monitors? (floor standers)
Copper, silver/copper, or silver interconnects? (copper)
Copper, silver/copper, or silver speaker cable? (copper)
Good luck and have fun.
There is a pair of Merlin VSM III that just listed for $1800. I don't believe they're upgradeable to the VSM-M, but they're still great speakers for the price. Very detailed, yet musical...large soundstage, excellent highs, etc. They're technically a floorstander, but really a monitor with very heavy stand built in (about 90lbs each). They only take up a small amount of floorspace. Not the most bass-heavy speaker in the world, but good, tight, musical bass for a monitor design. They sound best when placed ideally (using Merlin or Cardas recommended placement), but they still sound good placed closer to a'll just sacrifice some of the soundstage that they're capable of portraying. I've used mine with a Pass Aleph 3 amp. They're great amps, but I think you should go with tubes with the Merlins (17-18 watts and up). If the speakers sound good to you, try calling Bobby at Merlin. You can ask him any questions about that particular model and recommended amps. He's extrememly helpful and he knows which amps, cable, etc. sound best with his speakers. There are similar, more recent, upgradeable Merlin models, but they'll probably sell for more than $2000-$3000. If you're interested in tubes, you may want to check out Rogue. They make some very nice amps for the money and they work well with Merlins if you go that route. You might want to consider an integrated amp, versus seperates, to save yourself some money. As far as CD goes, there are many many options. The Sony 9000ES CD/SACD/DVD sounds like a pretty good bargain and they're going for $800-$900 these days. There are a million more used options. A lot of people are selling very good CD players cheap...just because they're not 24/96 upsampling models. You can probably pick up a very good player for less than $1000...something that was $2000-$5000 when it was new (depending on the age). Good luck.
1) Find speakers that you like. Recommend PMC, Spendor, Harbeth as examples of well rounded speakers that have excellent build quality and satifying all round sound. PMC has a floorstander with a transmission line bass loading that is excellent in all areas. About $2500. However, these are not commonly carried by a lot of dealers so it may be hard to listen to them first.
2) Get a competent solid state amp like the Bryston (the 60 watt integrated will do, the B-60). about $1500, or less used.
3) Don't skimp on the CD player! I believe the rega Planet 2000 is a pretty good value and offers fine all around sound. $1000.
This system will not play super loud but will generally satisfy.
Another route:
Cabasse Farella 401s around $2500, a Cary integrated tube amp (around $1500) - or see; and the same CD player. You could also try the audioelectronicsupply speaker which is a bargain and a good match for their electronics. With the high sensitivity the system will not need much power, and the naturalness of the sound will be addicting. This is sort of the audiophile version of the system.

An all-Rega system from speakers to amp to source, can be had for $5000 and the sound, I've heard from all the hi-fi show reports, is always a standout.

finally: Competent cables, as from

To get much better sound than the above setups, you are going to have to spend over 2x as much, if not more, looking for that last 2%...unless (or even if) you're obsessed or have too much money, this will be an exercise in frustration!

Sorry, there are just too many options to list!
The molecular structure of interconnects is NOT what a budding audiophile needs to worry about. Nor is "a dedicated power line". Come on guys. Why impose your neurosis on a well-intentioned newcomer? Tube vs Solid State? Fair enough. Planar vs. conventional speakers? Fine. Integrated vs. separates? These are the kinds of things I wanted to know when I first got into this habit.
i'm in a similar situation... i'm about to move halfway across the country, so i'm selling my entire system. but i plan to rebuild at around the $5k range. here's what i plan on getting:

preamp: rogue audio 66 magnum ($900-$1000 used)
amp: odyssey stratos (~$1000 used with upgrades, tough to find for sale on the used market though)
speakers: meadowlark kestrel or shearwater hot rods (anywhere from $750-1500 used)
source: sony dvp-9000es sacd/cd/dvd player ($600-700 used)
cables: virtual dynamics power cords, interconnects, and speaker cables (run around $750-1000 for everything... they are worth the price!)

i've had great success with the tube pre/solid state amp combination. the meadowlark's are transmission line speakers, and i really like this design... best bass reproduction than any other speaker design i've heard. some may think it strange to spend almost as much on cabling as on other major components, but i've found the virtual dynamics line of cables to be just that--a high quality component. in my experience, the virtual dynamics' cables have made a HUGE improvement on my system.

just my thoughts... have fun with your search! i think experimenting and finding what you like is one of the most enjoyable parts of this hobby (next to the listening, of course). best of luck!
C; Lot'sa good advice above, but Neubilder makes a good point, ie don't make things too complicated to begin with. While recognizing the importance of good source components, I'd pick out speakers that I liked first and build my system around them. Why? Because speakers are the most "colored" of all components you'll be dealing with, and they are usually the most conspicuous too. AND it sounds like you might have speaker placement issues, but as Physicanimal notes, speaker placement really is important (critical?)-- so get some you like and can live with sonically and aesthetically. After you've settled on speakers, go from there.

If you like big, near full range floor standers, either Vandersteen 2Ce/sig or PSB Stratus Silver/Gold are a good choice (new or used makes a big difference in price for all this stuff). and for stand mounted, I like the Proacs too-- if you can live with the bass limitations. Good Luck
Here is a fourth for considering speakers as the starting point. Based on the description of your musical tastes and priorities for system sound character, I strongly recommend planars. Find a Magnepan dealer and demo the 1.6's, a good fit for your budget. Once you hear piano, voice, or guitar rendered by Maggies, you will look at dynamic (cone) speakers differently.

If the Maggies float your boat, then consider Bryston or McCormack amplification, as Maggies demand stout amplification with loads of current. A Conrad Johnson tube preamp and Rega Planet CD for the front end will round out what should be an extremely satisfying system within the confines of your budget.
If piano is a big thing for you I'd strongy recommend hearing the Soliloquy 6.2(around $2700/pr.)--makes many other speakers sound like they leave half the sound of the piano behind. They're a pretty forgiving load and sound good with lots of electronics, but I'd do something like a Placette passive pre(the one with 3 inputs at about $1400), an Odyssey Stratos amp, and maybe something like a Cambridge CD player or a Sony CD/SACD player that you can get modified later. I'd worry about the cables later--get the components(especially the speakers) right first. Best of luck.

Lets see, how about
BAT VK3i used at about $850-$1250 depending on +/- phono stage and/or remote
McCormack DNA 0.5 Rev B 100 wpc/8 ohms, used for about $850
Vandersteen 2cesigs or Maggie speakers used at about $1K
SONY 9000 or CAL CL-15 for about $700-$1000.
Balance for cables and ICs
or Substitute Vandersteen 3A sigs for about $2-2.2K, bump the amp up to a DNA 1.0 (185 wpc) for about $1K, and go with DH Labs T-14 Silver Sonic cables and BL1 ICs. Slightly over budget, but very musical sounding system, with plenty of bass and great timbre on acoustic instruments.
I put together the following system recently and I love it. All equipment was purchased used.

Proac Response 1.5's $1700
Threshold FET 2 pre amp $350 (amazing quality, inc phono)
Sonographe SA250 amp $500
VPI Jr w/RB600 $800
Clearaudio Aurum Beta S $350
SONY 333 ES SACD $350
Speaker and I/C cables $500

your mileage (and tastes) will very but this is a very satisfying system. I'm sure there are a million other combinations that you can assemble that would sound similarly good. You might also get a coopy of Stereophiles Recomended Components and use it as a guide to get you started.

I've just added a PS Audio P300 power conditioner as well to feed the system some clean juice but you don't need it to hear some wonderful things from the system.

Most of all... HAVE FUN

You could set up very nice Linn active (aktiv) system for under 5K. You should at least give it a listen. For jazz, piano, strings...IMO for everything, the Linn system does it better. It's errors are errors of omission - you won't find bloated bass or tinny highs here. Used Keilidhs-800$, 2 x LK140(amps)850$each, Wakonda(pre)-700$, Genki(CD)-1400(new), K400(Spkr cable) 100$, interconnects included with components. 4700$ total - for a simple, elegant AND AMAZING SOUNDING system. This is my current system. When I hear systems worth many, many times more, I often prefer the sound of mine, and very few systems in it's price range touch it. I agree about a REGA system, excellent value and quality. Also, Castle speakers, Joseph Audio, Audio Physic, Aerial acoustics, Totem, and some of the other British speakers mentioned at the top. - Speaker to avoid: B&W. (a British speaker that the Brits don't buy) - even the top of the line nautilus has a sound that is unrefined and seems to cater to generic tastes (boom&tizz).
Five thousand is 67% higher than three thousand but I submit a 5k system will not sound two thirds better than a three thousand dollar system. There is a diminshing return. That said,you might try this system:

Adcom 200 watt power amp about 5-6c used
Morrison ELAD pre amp about 5c used
Sony 333es cd player aaabout 5c used
Magnum Dynalab or Fanfare tuner 5-6c used.
a good antenna $50?
a pair of Magnepan 1.6qr s about 11-12c used

Your point about reviews in magazines that accept advertising is well taken. Try the reviews at Disregard the reviews from obvious shills and children begging for attention. The tenor of the remaining reviews should give you a fair idea but, in truth, you won't know until you've listened for yourself.
Use the other two grand for cd s or rent.
Just my subjective opinion.

Happy hunting,
This will be VERY difficult to find all of the pieces to (and it is over your $5k tag), but worth considering:

Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD Player @ $1500 used
Audio Prism Mantissa Tube Line Stage @ $1100 used
Audio Prism Debut II Tube Power amp @ $1100 used
Red Rose Music R3 speakers @ $1600 used
Osiris 24" stands @ $200 used

Red Rose also offer some pretty inexpensive speaker cables and IC's ... you would essentially have the Red Rose Baby Reference system for about 1/3 (or less) of the list price.

For $5,000 for a 2-channel system, you clearly want the Magnepan 1.6QR's as your speakers. Gigantic soundstage, stunning transparency, life-like tonal balance, and totally seamless sound down to around 40Hz makes these true giant-killers. Buy a pair used at around $1,200 (new $1,700). Next get a Bryston 3B-ST amp, an Adcom GFP-750 pre-amp, and a cheap Denon dvd player/changer connected to a Bel Canto Design upsampler/jitter reducer/DAC 1.1 (or the new 192 Hz model). That would be a KILLER $5k system. Good luck.
I second Ccmman's recommendations but would encourage you to install one to two dedicated 20 amp circuits using 10 gauge wire. Include a hospital or audio grade outlet. Next, save a few bucks for power cords, ICs and speaker wire. In your price range, Harmonic Technology Truthlinks may not fit, but I have enjoyed mine.
Happy listening,
I agree with Garfish and all about the speakers being the first choice. They define the voice and the amplification/source needs. For your type of music I recommend the following used system:

1. Audio Physic Virgo speakers (2500)
2. Audio Research CA-50 integrated amp ( 1600)
3. Harmonic tech truthlink interconnect (125)
4. Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables $350
5. Sony XA7ES CD player (950) or Perpetual tech p1/p3 w/modwright upgrade and an old CD player (1200). You might even want to pony up for an used sony 777 SACD player at 1600. I would.

This comes to about 5500, but lowering by 500 will take a big bite out of performance. It will be a great system with a beautiful midrange and very natural sounding instruments. It will also be fairly small and very nice looking. If you want to go solid state, I would go with a pass labs aleph 5 amp (1500) and direct drive it from the sony XA7ES (you don't need a preamp with these cd players).

The virgo speakers are narrow floorstanders. They should be well out into the room to sound good. A good way to use these is NOT spike them so you can slide them out into the room when you want superior performance. The move quite easily over carpet or hardwood (with felt pads on the base).
I agree the Maggies sound great, but if someone wants ease of placement and wants to hear all of the music when he's off in the kitchen somewhere, Maggies aren't the best choice...they're so directional at the higher frequencies. Pick soemthing with wider dispersion.
I have just upgraded my system and have everyhing but my new speakers.

Rega Planet CD 2000 $875
Creek 5350SE Int. Amp $1,495
Cambridge Audio T500 Tuner $279
Carda Cross Interconnect $322
Kimber 4TC Speaker Cable $313 (20 ft. pair)

This combo works real well with my older speakers. This still leaves you with $1700 for a decent set of speakers. Have fun!
Spendor 1/2 speakers (used with stands $2,200?)
Ah! Njoe Tjoeb CD player (a sleeper at $770 fully tweaked)
A used integrated amp (Creek 5350 or McIntosh 6450) $1,500.
The rest on cables and inner connects.
In my humble opinion the above would be a good starter system on the budget put forth.