Best upgradable system components for under $6K


Hello All,

I plan on upgrading my system with components that I can live with in the short term and the long term (hopefully so I don't have to keep upgrading components as I upgrade my speakers).

I currently have an NAD 356BEE integrated and while it is entry level I must admit it sounds very nice. My room is 14'8" by 20'4" and I currently have a pair of Legacy Classics (not Classic HD). My goal is to make my next big purchase on components in the $6k or less range but I would like to make it a once and for all purchase. In other words I'm looking for something I can live with for 15-20 years without worrying about upgrading.

I would prefer to stay solid state and don't mind having an integrated or pairing separates. New or used also doesn't matter as long as it is a great bang for the bucks. My ultimate goal is to one day be driving a pair of Acoustic Zen Crescendo or Vandersteen Quattro speakers. A 200wpc + consideration would be preferred but I’m flexible on that too lol.

Finally my music selection is a bit diverse. I like jazz, soft rock and new age. Some of my favorites are Dave Matthews, John Mayer, the Wallflowers and John Tesh. I value your opinions highly and would love the community's input on the best component upgrades for my $6k budget.
xerotrace
Check this out: http://app.audiogon.com/listings/solid-state-simaudio-moon-600i-stereo-integrated-amplifier-2015-03-23-integrateds-07641-haworth-nj

I bought one at the beginning of the year and it's the best I've had in my system.
"My ultimate goal is to one day be driving a pair of Acoustic Zen Crescendo or Vandersteen Quattro speakers. A 200wpc + consideration would be preferred but I’m flexible on that too lol."

If you want to do this right, you should plan the system out now, even if you can't afford everything all at once. The Vandersteen as a possible choice caught my eye because its my favorite speaker and I have some experience with them. For solid state, I feel Ayre is the best match for Vandersteen. You may want to consider an Ayre V-5, and then maybe a K-5 preamp after that. But just getting a V-5 now and using your NAD as a preamp, you won't recognize your system. You'll think you got new speakers, as well. That's how much of a difference it will make. But you should do some listening first, to see if you like the combo.
I'd recommend you try this LSA Statement Integrated amp. Only 150 wpc, and it does have two tubes in it, but basically SS, and would be very tough to beat in this price range.

I have no relation with the seller.
I'd recommend you try this LSA Statement Integrated amp. Only 150 wpc, and it does have two tubes in it, but basically SS, and would be very tough to beat in this price range. I have no relation with the seller.

Of course amplifier/speaker interface is a very synergistic relationship, so obviously, it is best if you have a chance to listen to the combo first.
Thank you all for the feedback so far.

ZD542: great option with the Ayre combo. It looks like new the pair is around $8.5k so I bet I can find the set used closer to my $6k budget.

Illuminator: I have not heard of Moon amps pre-amps. Do you know how they compare to Ayre, for example?
hopefully so I don't have to keep upgrading components as I upgrade my speakers
You might consider active speakers since at least one of the components (the amp) comes along for the ride.
"You might consider active speakers since at least one of the components (the amp) comes along for the ride.
Bob_reynolds (System | Threads | Answers | This Thread)"

Going with active speakers would almost certainly be a huge downgrade in sound quality. There's just no way around it. The OP is considering a Ayre/Vandersteen combo. What kind of amp in a powered speaker would be the equal of an Ayre V-5? No active speaker that I know of, at any price, has an amp that can even comes close to it. When you ask the question, who is the best designer of solid state amps and preamps Charles Hanson is going to be at the very top of the list. There's only a small handful of designers in the world that are in his league. Now look at the speaker. What active speaker is on par with a pair of Trio's? Again, there isn't one. Like Hanson with Ayre, Vandersteen is one of the worlds best speaker designers. Vandersteen speakers are all time and phase correct. Its not easy to design a speaker that way and I'm pretty sure there's only 2 companies left that build speakers this way. Vandersteen and Green Mountain Audio. Thiel died and the company is no longer making speakers and Meadowlark went out of business a few years back. You really can't substitute a Vandersteen with any other speaker. Powered speakers are going to come up way short in comparison to what the OP is considering.
I wouldn't be dismissive of every active speaker. As with all audio products there is a hierarchy and a spectrum that exists. A trusted audiogon member purchase the Avantgarde Zero active system several months ago and says it's really quite special. Based on prior experience with him I have regard for his opinion and sonic impressions. Of course you'd have to hear it for yourself, but that applies to everything audio.Is it better than Vandy and Ayre? who knows, you'd have to listen and decide.
A well designed active system will out perform an equivalent passive system every time. Actives allow for better implementation of crossovers and improved synergy between the amp and the crossover/drivers. Examples are JBL, ATC, Pass and Gradient.
To your question about the Moon amps, they're made by Simaudio in Canada and are great products, impeccable build quality, ergonomics and sound.

I've owned three of their integrateds and two DACs and they've been among the most satisfying pieces I've had in 40-something years of swapping out audio gear.
Used BAT VK51se -> Event Opal active studio monitors(near 500w per each) will get what you need ez.
I like the approach recommended by ZD. I am surprised he didn’t suggest getting the Ayre preamp 1st and use your NAD as the amp until ready to buy newer speakers. I would think he would think it would make the biggest improvement in your system as it currently exists.
The Moon is an integrated amp. In my system, it beat amps or integrateds from Krell, Karan, Burmester, Pass, BAT, Spectron and Audio Research. I have not had an Ayre in my system.

The good thing about an integrated in the savings on a set or interconnects, power cord and maybe a rack shelf.

Probably the next best integrated that I had was the Audio Research DSi200.
If I had $6k to spend on a 2 channel system, Emotiva XSP Balanced preamp mated to some Emotiva XPA1L Class A/AB monoblocks. They have *plenty* of power for almost any speaker and deliver the 1st 30 watts in pure Class A mode.

The pre is $999 and each amp would be $599. The total is $2200. The preamp is a very nice piece indeed with plenty of connection options and fully balanced cirsuitry. These products have a 30 day in-home trial and 5 year warranties. And they are built to last several decades, one of your priorities.

This leaves you about $4k for speakers, a source, and cables. Expect to spend about $3000 on the speakers and the rest on your source and cabling.

The obvious source choice is the Oppo BDP-103, an excellent CD/DVD/Bluray/File playback/Streaming universal player. The Oppo products are VERY well built and Oppo has some of the best customer service in the world. The BPD-103 is $499

Speakers are far too personal for anyone but you to decide what sounds best. And they MUST be mated properly to your room.

The Vandersteen 2CE Signatures are about $2700, a good fit for your budget. I've also read very good things about the GoldenEar Triton 2s at $1499 ea.

I would strongly recommend you get out and audition speakers and see which ones "speak" to you. But if you assemble a system using the components I suggested I believe you will be VERY happy for many years to come...

-RW-
03-26-15: Mesch
I like the approach recommended by ZD. I am surprised he didn’t suggest getting the Ayre preamp 1st and use your NAD as the amp until ready to buy newer speakers. I would think he would think it would make the biggest improvement in your system as it currently exists.
Yes, ZD has frequently emphasized the criticality of the preamp to the sonics of a system. But one reason for his amplifier-first suggestion in this case might be that the OP's present speakers are nominally 4 ohms, and most likely dip to significantly lower values than that at some frequencies, while his NAD integrated has the same 80 watt continuous power rating for 4 ohms as for 8 ohms (although its "dynamic power" rating for 4 ohms is somewhat higher than for 8 ohms). That being suggestive, of course, of the likelihood that driving low impedance speakers is not its forte.

While there are always multiple paths to success (and to failure :-)), given the OP's stated preferences and intentions I can't imagine he would be going wrong by following ZD's Ayre recommendations.

Best regards,
-- Al
If your $6k is exclusive of speakers, I would substitute the Oppo BDP-105 player at $1200 for the BDP-103. The 105 has a terrific DAC in it and can actually be used as your preamp as well.

I don't think I would change the amps, those XPA-1Ls are very good amps indeed. If you simply must spend more money, go with the Emotiva XPR-2 amp, a true reference class monster. $1799.

I now see that Emo has a new amp, the Stealth SA-250. This looks to be a very fine piece indeed. $1399.

Jack the Oppo directly into the amps and you would have a world class digital playback system (no analog, however) worthy of the very finest speakers...
I hear you, Al, about the Ayre preamps. However, their lowest priced preamp, from what I could see on their website, is right at his stated budget, leaving no money for an amplifier. But I may be wrong about the pricing, please educate me if I am.

Maybe a modded Oppo BDP-105 (usually around $2500) mated to a $3,500 amp gets him where he needs to be....

-RW-
"You might consider active speakers since at least one of the components (the amp) comes along for the ride.
Bob_reynolds (System | Threads | Answers | This Thread)"

Given the OP's budget, he probably won't be able to get both pieces at once. The amp is the more expensive piece so it would probably be best to get the big purchase out of the way. Also, the OP's current speakers would probably benefit a great deal the extra power. I don't think had enough power to drive them to potential.
Thanks so much for this great feedback- I have a LOT to consider. A couple clarifications: right now to my ears my Legacy's are very nice but I think I'm running flat on the component side of my system (the good news is because of my limited experience I don't think I know any better so I'm not disappointed yet lol).

My thought was to beef up my components to get the most out of my Legacy's using equipment that will also be a great match for my next set of speakers. The $6K budget would only be for components. Down the line I want to allocate about $10K for a GREAT set of speakers (possibly the Vandy's or the AZ Cresendos as those are the two that seem to have the best reviews from the research I've done in the $10-15K price range). I run most of my music from my Laptop using a NAD 1050 DAC so that might also have to be a consideration as well. I honestly don't know how much focus to put on the DAC...

Like ZD put it I do want to do it right the first time with minimal "Swapping" so to speak so if I spend $10K over the course of 2 years I would rather do that than spend $6K now and have to swap out things again to get the RIGHT system. My goal is to have the right setup (speakers included) within 3 years at a budget of around $16K total.
"03-26-15: Onhwy61
A well designed active system will out perform an equivalent passive system every time. Actives allow for better implementation of crossovers and improved synergy between the amp and the crossover/drivers. Examples are JBL, ATC, Pass and Gradient."

The amp and the speakers still have to be designed as well as the separates in order for that to be true. And that's usually not the case. Can you show me 1 active speaker, at any price, that has a fully balanced, 0 feedback amp that sounds as good as an Ayre V-5, in the same box as a time and phase correct speaker that performs on par with a Vandersteen Trio? An active speaker like that doesn't exist.
03-26-15: Rlwainwright
I hear you, Al, about the Ayre preamps. However, their lowest priced preamp, from what I could see on their website, is right at his stated budget, leaving no money for an amplifier. But I may be wrong about the pricing, please educate me if I am.
RLW, I don't know what the current pricing is, but based on many ads I've seen for used pieces (which the OP indicated he would be receptive to), current versions of the -5 series amp (the V-5xe) and preamp (K-5xeMP) should be findable used for a total of around $6K, and perhaps less. And I'm sure that earlier versions of the V-5 and K-5 can be found for considerably less than that.

I don't doubt that your suggestions are all excellent in their price range, but given the calibre of the speakers the OP ultimately envisions going with, and given his budget, I would expect Ayre to be a better choice.
03-26-15: Xerotrace
I run most of my music from my Laptop using a NAD 1050 DAC so that might also have to be a consideration as well. I honestly don't know how much focus to put on the DAC...
The DAC is certainly important, of course. But the rapid evolution of digital technology these days, and with it the likelihood of continuing improvement in performance per dollar, would seem to suggest that upgrading your integrated amp should take priority. Also, although I have no specific knowledge of the D1050, FWIW its use of asynchronous USB, its claimed 24/192 capability, and the fully balanced analog signal path it apparently has would seem to be encouraging with respect to its use in the near term. As are this review and this one.

Regards,
-- Al
The whole point of an active speaker is that it functions as a single, integrated component. It is more than an amp connected to a driver. Take a look at the Linkwitz floorstander. It is an active loudspeaker system designed to function optimally in a real room.
"03-26-15: Onhwy61
The whole point of an active speaker is that it functions as a single, integrated component. It is more than an amp connected to a driver. Take a look at the Linkwitz floorstander. It is an active loudspeaker system designed to function optimally in a real room."

I understand where you are going with that, but just because a active speaker is well designed, doesn't automatically make it the best choice. You're not taking into account the sound quality of an active speaker. Using the Ayre/Vandersteen example again, how would you find an active speaker that has the same qualities as that combo? Both pieces have a very unique sound. I've never heard another amp, regardless of cost or brand, that has the same sonic qualities as the Ayre V-5. Same thing with Vandersteen. No active speaker that I know of is time and phase correct. So, if you like that combo, you won't be able to duplicate the sound with an active speaker. You'll need to buy the separates. There's just no other way around it. Maybe if Ayre and Vandersteen worked on building an active speaker together they could make it sound like the separates. But that would be it. It won't happen any other way.
Yes Al, I failed to consider the NAD amp/speaker interaction. I just assumed that the OP was satisfied with the sound of of the amp section driving his current speakers and was throwing a little kidding Zd’s way.
Thank you everyone for you input. I think I need to do some auditioning with the Vandys to see how they sound to my ears. The Ayre sounds like a leading contender with my speaker choice so I will certainly give those a listen.
Yes, do your homework. I couldn’t say what i would do of I had your budget. I know I would take advantage of the fact that I currently have a satisfying system and take my time, buy each component for the long haul and with an end plan that allows for synergy toward my listening preferences. I have enjoyed your thread. Good luck and please keep us posted.
The Exemplar Audio Exception integrated is an amazing component. Once again you would have to spend big $$$$$ to better it. I just posted a piece about the components I own from Exemplar. I have owned lots of gear from lots of companies and this is the most musical gear I have owned. Great gear for reasonable money. Highly recommended.
Thanks again for all the feedback. In researching my options I stumbled upon some reviews of Class D amps. I know NAD makes one that is pretty reasonably priced (around $3K new) as do some other manufacturers. I think the technology is still new (from what I can gather) but should this be a consideration for me? Would it be a problem to match a Class D amp with the Class B amp that is built into the Vandy Quatro's?

What are the advantages of the different class amps? Do I need to have a different class amp for a speaker that is completely passive (like the AZ Crescendos) vs. a speaker that is partially passive (like the Vandy's)?
While this technology is changing and improving at an impressive rate, let me recommend something involving DSP. Recently got a DEQX HDP-4 and it has transformed the sound of my system. Replaces my DAC and preamp, and the speaker/room correction functions are astounding.
"Would it be a problem to match a Class D amp with the Class B amp that is built into the Vandy Quatro's?"

It will work with no problems, but its not an optimal match for Vandersteen. If you find that you want to build a system around class D amps, You would probably be happier with a different speaker. Probably the best way to pick a system is to start with a must have, and then build around that. So, for example, class D is your must have, build a system around that feature. Everyone’s different. I know many people that focus on vintage, others that like horns, for me personally I go for sound quality. Just start with the most important area, and go from there.
Great points!

Roscoeiii: what is a DSP? How does it replace a pre-amp and a DAC? That sounds like a very interesting option...

Zd: that makes a lot of sense. I think the speakers will be my main focus. So with that in mind do I need to make sure the amp is a class B (if I do go with the Quatros to match the built in amp)? Sorry I might be reading too much into this. Also what has been he best DAC that you have seen to work with Vandersteen in your opinion?
DSP stands for Digital Signal Processing. Google reviews of DEQX to get an idea of their products' functionality. Most recently there was a review in Stereophile. And there is a thread here, something along the lines of "Is DEQX a game changer?"
"Zd: that makes a lot of sense. I think the speakers will be my main focus. So with that in mind do I need to make sure the amp is a class B (if I do go with the Quatros to match the built in amp)?"

If you want to get the most out of the Vandersteen's, there is an overall strategy that seems to work best. Vandersteen speakers are designed to be time and phase correct. Where people sometimes go wrong is when they just consider the speakers themselves, and not the whole system. In order to be time and phase correct, you need to start at the source. The most accepted way to achieve this is to use electronics that are fully balanced and use 0 negative feedback. You definitely don't want to use any type of EQ or signal processing, analog or digital. For example, if you put an EQ in your system, any adjustments you make with it, will alter phase on whatever frequency you are changing. The signal then goes on through the other components, and you end up sending the speakers a signal that already has the phase altered.

So if you want to look at some equipment that will work best with Vandersteen, I would start with Ayre for solid state. All of their products are designed in a way that is the best possible fit for Vandersteen. You can look at other brands, as well. For a source, I use Wadia CD players. They're also fully balanced, 0 feedback components. For tubes, I like Aesthetix and BAT. ARC and Pass also work well. But before you buy anything, you are going to have to demo any of these products first. They're expensive, highly resolving and a mistake will not be cheap.
Zd: thanks for the recommendations I will definitely audition them. What do you recommend as far as DACs that would fit well with the Vandys? Does the Ayre DAC fit that bill? Based on what I am hearing I think I will need to raise my budget.