Best Way to Spend ~ $2000 for System Improvement


Hi fellow music lovers! I have about $2000 right now to improve my system. It can be for any component, but I'm thinking amplification first, power, pre, or integrated. SS or tube.

To begin, right now I have a Mccormack 0.5 Deluxe power amp with "A" revisions, an Eva 2 passive preamp, Metrum Octave v1 DAC, Dell laptop for music files. Sometimes I use a Teac H750 as a transport and GMA Pico Executive speakers. The room is small, about 14x18x10ft. I listen to about 50/50 rock and classical, mostly full orchestral. As far as just sound goes, I would like the bass to be "fast". No delay or overhang, not exaggerated, but detailed. Detail is important at any frequency, the more the better, but not at the expense of musicality. I realize at this price point, compromise is necessary, and treble would be the best place for that. No harshness allowed, but I'm in my later 50s now and don't hear treble like I once did.

I hope I've given enough info to get some good suggestions. I like the sound now, but think it could be better, maybe a slightly lower noise floor and a little more pace and rhythm while retaining it's sweetness and smoothness. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance. BTW, if any existing question answers any part of this question, feel free to link it.
xrayz
Don't think it would consume the entire $2K but maybe consider some room treatments; e.g., a couple of GIK Acoustics' 244 Bass Traps behind your speakers, maybe???  Spend the balance on a subwoofer.     
Oyaide R-1 and OyaideWPC-z wall outlet pair (clean power/lower noise). Belden 8402 interconnect (about $80.00 ea terminated). See Jeff Day at jeffplace.me (reviewer for Positive Feedback and 6 moons). Try Western Electric WE14ga speaker cable (likely only about $100 or a little more depending on length. Again, see Jeff Day for details. I think you will get many inexpensive ideas. Also, get Jim Smith's book, ("Get Better Sound"), one of audio better bibles on improving your system. Good luck. Best, Rob
Are you looking to improve the sound you have or are you seeking a different kind of sound?


What type of speakers do you have?  I don't see them mentioned in the original post.
Thanks for all your responses! To answer your questions, @smrex13 I have GMA  Pico Executive speakers. They are three way floor standing speakers. @mapman The system as a whole is a little (not much) "laid back" for lack of a better term. To me, that's a lot better than bright, but I'd like a little more clarity and liveliness. Overall, it's the kind of sound I like, but not quite there. I wish I had a better audio vocabulary. @mikirob I will definitely read this book and check out the products you mentioned, thanks. @ghosthouse The system is not in a dedicated listening room. Believe me, I have wished to be able to employ room treatments, but unless they're very unobtrusive, they're not very practical for me. I have a time keeping the speakers set up correctly without them being moved (mysteriously, haha). I've also considered room equalization (electronic), but I have no experience with that.

I was thinking of an amp with a little different musical signature, a little more speed and punch to it, but as stated I'm open to all ideas, thanks again guys! Oh, and I wouldn't mind going to an integrated, it might be time to downsize a little.
Thanks for the additional info.  My guess is that you would be served by looking for a used active preamp in the 2k range.  The McCormack, especially with the mods, is a very good amp.  It will give you whatever it's fed without too much editorializing.  I would think an active preamp would add some dynamics and give you the detail and bass control that you're looking for.  

Just my 2 cents,
Scott
qol
The system as a whole is a little (not much) "laid back" for lack of a better term. To me, that’s a lot better than bright, but I’d like a little more clarity and liveliness.
You’re most likely already aware of this, but just to be sure I’ll mention that the symptoms you are describing can occur with a passive preamp if the length of the cables connecting it to the power amp is not short, and/or if the particular cables do not have low capacitance per unit length.

Adverse effects can also occur with a passive preamp if the input impedance of the power amp is too low, but it appears in this case that the input impedance of your amp is 100K, which at least in theory should be fine. But nevertheless I wouldn’t be surprised if Scott’s (Smrex13’s) suggestion of an active preamp would be more likely to be beneficial than an amplifier upgrade, assuming that the amp doesn’t have any age-related or other condition-related issues.

Also, do you sense that the symptoms are similar when you use the Teac as a transport compared to when you are using the Dell as your source? And how are you connecting each of those sources to the DAC (e.g., optical or coax or USB)?

Regards,
-- Al

I agree that amp is a keeper. Also agree an active preamp would be the component to add for a change in dynamics and detail.

Are your speakers resting on the floor? To get faster, tighter bass, they need to be on footers or spikes.

The best way to lower the noise floor is to address your power situation. Install a dedicated AC line from your circuit box (if possible). A good power conditioner can significantly lower the noise floor; a passive unit can be had for under $500. Only your low-current components should be plugged into it, the amp should remain plugged into the wall for best results.
And having your computer on the same AC line as your components is adding noise to your system. Typically 2 lines are used, one for analogue and a separate line for digital.
You don't need to spend that kind of money to improve your sound.  I agree with wall outlets (I like Maestro)....or power cords.  Big improvements for little money.
Move away from the laptop. A dedicated computer server with an SSD for the OS and one for music files, and a Paul Pang Audio USB card together will make a tremendous difference in those areas you mention, and will provide a cleaner signal to the DAC as well.
Good suggestions have been given. 
Good quality AC power is a prerequisite for good sound,  so dedicated lines and high quality AC receptacles are fundamental needs. 

I also agree with Scott, Al  and lowrider regarding the consideration of adding a high quality active Line Stage. 

I believe that these two steps would clearly help  satisfy your goal and direction. 
Charles, 
Again, thanks for the replies! I will provide as much info as I can. I had considered the passive pre as  something to be replaced but the interconnects to the amp are only 1/2 meter. I don't know how the pre is regarded in general in the audio community, maybe it is the weak link. My computer is plugged in across the room from the rest of the system, but I don't know for sure if it's on a different circuit. Of the purely audio components, the amp is plugged into the wall and the rest are into a Monster HDP 850 power strip. I'm sure I could do better there.

One thing I left out was the USB/ SPDIF converter is a Musical Fidelity V link. I really don't know how much difference that makes, and the usb cable is Belkin gold series. The coax cable is Beldin, I forget the #. Using the Teac does sound a little better, clarity wise anyway, but not really THAT much better. I guess since the digital out goes directly to the DAC? My speakers are on spikes.

OK, assuming an active pre will get the sound closer to what I want, does anyone have any specific recommendations? I haven't been following audio like I used to and really could use suggestions as to what to keep an eye out for. Again, thanks to all of you.
Hello  xrayz, 
I'd recommend you  look into the Atma-Sphere UV-1 as a possible contender given the track record of its builder. 
Charles, 
... the interconnects to the amp are only 1/2 meter.
Good!

... the USB/ SPDIF converter is a Musical Fidelity V link.

I see that both versions of the V-Link for which information is available at the MF site (the V-LinkII and the V-Link192) have specified output impedances for their coaxial outputs of 50 ohms. Which is absurd if true, as it would create a gross mismatch to the 75 ohm input impedance of components such as your DAC which provide standards-compliant S/PDIF inputs, as well as to the impedance of standard 75 ohm digital cables. The likely result being unpredictable but almost certainly adverse sonic effects, which among other factors would vary unpredictably as a function of the length of the digital cable.

On the other hand, though, I see that John Atkinson’s measurements in Stereophile’s review of the original version of the V-Link (www.stereophile.com/content/musical-fidelity-v-link-usb-spdif-converter-measurements) made no mention of such an issue.

Assuming you are using the coaxial output of the V-Link, as opposed to its Toslink output, I would suggest that you contact MF and ask them if that 50 ohm spec is accurate. If it is, my one suggestion beyond what has already been said is that you consider replacing the V-Link.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al

Did you mention what interconnects and cables you're using?  They can often improve upon the areas you're targeting. 

Add a Conrad Johnson or McCormack pre-amp.
It’s been mentioned already but address your power situation. I just did this and while the wall receptacles are still burning-in, I have noticed dramatic differences already most notably a lowered noise floor, clear and dynamic sound, more air around the instruments, deeper and more detailed bass, etc.

My electrician added a dedicated 20A breaker to the circuit box and ran Southwire (Romex) 10-2AWG wire (keeping the run as isolated as possible) to a junction box and into two Furutech GTX-D (Rhodium) outlets.

Got the outlets on Ebay by way of Hifi Heaven in Wisconsin for $180 each. Electrician’s time at $395.

Big improvements for under $800.

You will not know the full capabilities of what you have until you address your power.
Post removed 
I agree with smrex13, jafant! A proper pre amp for the McCormack amp is exactly where I would start...good call you guys.

Matt M
Good comments by the others. But a note of caution about the suitability of CJ line stage preamps for use in your system. Many of them have unusually high gain (e.g. 25 db), and your McCormack power amp also has higher than average gain (30 db). Coupled with the moderate sensitivity of your speakers, the fact that you are using digital sources, and your not very large room dimensions, that combination of gains would be likely to cause you to have to utilize the preamp’s volume control VERY close to the bottom of its range. Which in turn would considerably limit your ability to adjust volume in small increments, and depending on the design of the volume control mechanism may also result in channel imbalances.

Regards,
-- Al

Some great advice has already been given - an active preamp or cabling are great ways to inject a little 'caffeine' into your system.  For the former, Atma-Sphere and Modwright are tops on my list.  For the later, perhaps some nice silver IC's might push you in the right direction - I have replaced cables costing multiples of their price with ClearDay.

Read Al's cautionary note on system gain twice (his posts are always worth reading a few times).  He makes a very good point - something I recently had to work through!
Wow, I had no idea I'd receive so much good advice! I must admit to being a little confused by all of it! So I must ask even more questions. Is there a general consensus that having a dedicated electric line would be more effective than an AC power conditioner? It seems that should be the case. If so, is clean electric power the most effective solution to the problem? 

I think I need someone smarter than me to rank in order which actions would have the biggest effect on the sound. If clean power is first on the list and an active pre is next, I would still welcome more suggestions on which pre? SS or tube, or does that matter? Most active pres I've had have been tube but it doesn't matter much to me. I had a Dodd which was so detailed all I heard was the sound. A Croft I had was the most musical, but I owned both of them a while ago. I would like to hear what anyone's favorite pre is.

I usually don't spend much on interconnects and cables. I've had Anti Cables, Cullens, Ultra Fis, that price range. I would really like to hear everyone's favorite power cords, too. Mine used to be Electraglide, before they became so expensive. I don't think they're in business anymore. As always, I want to thank everyone for your help!
I believe you should start with dedicated AC lines; you want to isolate your system from all devices and appliances in your house. Since you are using digital files from a computer, you should have the electrician run two 20 amp lines. Your digital devices should be separate from your analogue since they can introduce noise thru a shared power line.

Then install quality AC receptacles; there is a ton of info in the archives and you will get recommendations here.

Depending on the quality of the power from the grid in your area, you may not need a power conditioner. Use your Monster power strip, and with high quality power cords, you will notice a much lower noise floor.
My advice is to address the power cables before upgrading your other cables. A great bang for your buck cable is Pangea Audio, available at Audio Advisor. The Audience PowerChord series is an affordable high-end cable and they are often for sale in the Agon classifieds.

Maybe sell your dac, preamp, amp, interconnects and one power cord and go with a Job INTegrated?
I have a Job amp and it's fast and "punchy" like you wanted. 
At $1,700, not only will you not need money but you'll possibly pocket a few bucks.
@xrayz @lowrider57 provided good advice however, I am trying to understand what a dedicated 20A line, 10-2AWG wire and Furutech GTX-D Rhodium outlets mean to my system. Thus, I am still using the stock 15A power cables that came with my Rogue Cronus Magnum and VPI Scout 1.1.

If you do go the route of upgrading your wall outlets, keep in mind that different outlets will need different amounts of burn-in time. For the Furutechs, some have suggested a breakthrough at 500 hours and then again at 1000-1500 hours. 

When they were first installed, there was a sibilance and a gritty layer on top of what I could tell were serious improvements. As the listening hours pass, that layer is becoming less and less and the sound is improving.

I have been in the market for an external phono-pre as I am using the built in phono-pre on my integrated. Considering the improvements from the dedicated line and outlets do I really need to upgrade now to another phono-pre? No....however, I probably will because I am crazy and this is how I like to spend my discretionary time.   
I'd also have to say an active preamp is the way to go. Wall outlets will make minimal differences in the scheme of things. Power conditioning is fundamental as well as cords, but oh my that can get expensive. If it was my 2k I would look for a nice active preamp. Are you looking to go with solid state or tubes?
Maybe buy a nice vinyl set up and spend weekends looking through used records; hopefully you have a used vinyl shop near by. Rediscover or discover music you never knew existed. Might be a lot more fun than buying a power cable. Just a thought.
@lowrider57  Would you have a ballpark figure as to how much what you suggest would cost using good components? And thanks for the tip about Pangea Audio power cords. I used to put a great deal of stock into high end power cords, but got away from them as their price kept rising. @asp307  Haha, this hobby makes us all crazy!  @devilboy  I have often thought of downsizing to an integrated amp. I've never heard any Job gear though. How would you describe yours? @elem79  I think maybe SS this time. Every time I've had an active pre, it's been a tube one. I wasn't even especially looking for tubes, it just happened that way. Maybe an old Rowland Capri or a W4S. Or even a Mccormack one. ANY preamp suggestions are welcome!  @adg101 I have been telling myself for years I'm going back to vinyl. And I still may, but it's not looking too good for that right now. As always thanks for your ideas everyone!                                    
a tube preamp with a SS power amp is a very nice way to go!  in tubes, the Modwright SWL 9.0SE is fantastic and should be well within your price range.  Atmasphere preamps would be another to look into - great gear and peerless customer service.  If you're only considering solid state, the two you mentioned are nice, as well as the Pass Labs X1.
@xrayz, 6 years ago, an electrician charged me $210 to install a 20 amp breaker and run 12 gauge Romex from my basement panel to the 1st floor. I've since learned that 10 gauge is recommended and that I really needed 2 dedicated lines.
Running two lines at the same time would be very cost effective. Most electricians will give you a free estimate for the work involved, although you may need to supply the 10 gauge Romex since it's not a standard size for a residence.

For AC receptacles, Porter Ports are highly recommended and sold by Audiogon's Albert Porter. And very affordable.
https://www.audiogon.com/listings/ac-distribution-porter-port-porter-ports-outlets-cryo-various-colo...
Speaker and interconnect cables will do it .Will not get tired or change them every 2 years
There is a lot of disagreement on this site, but I still say that an amp with a high damping factor has tighter bass. Check out the match between Audire Forte and B&W DM 16 omn the site listed below.

I have tried a lot of amps, including giant Classes, and these speakers require a lot of control, i.e. they need the amp to stop as well as start them.

I use the woofers as subs for my 803's, at least on loud rock.  
Whoops:    http://www.avsforum.com/forum/91-audio-theory-setup-chat/1243132-hall-fame-audio-equipment.html

I am not suggesting anything except that a high damping factor gives tighter bass.

The 350 wpc Classe does not compare with my 125 wpc Forte, and all other Audires after the Forte (which followed the Model 1 and 2, Crescendos, and Forte) are even better, and have even higher damping factors. 
@lowrider57  Those prices are really good, especially since my circuit breaker is exactly under the stereo. I always wanted dedicated circuits to see if I could hear a difference in the sound. If I may ask, is Romex generally recommended? Also, is there anything else I should tell the electrician? I mean, I doubt the average electrician knows much about sound. Or is everything I need to know already in the A'gon  discussion files? @passet02  Do you have any specific ones you like? I could always use recommendations! @srosenberg  I'd love to try a Modwright, I've always heard great things about his equipment! Pass too! There's a lot I'd like to try, maybe even older vintage Threshold. Also, my speaker manufacturer uses Atma-Sphere electronics at CES they go so well together. @almarg  I meant to respond before- I do use coaxial to connect with both my pc and cd transport. My octave v1 has no usb input. In your opinion, even if the impedance matching is not a problem, would a better usb/spdif converter go a long way toward solving the perceived lack of dynamics? I've only ever used this one, and I know a lot of people consider them to be one of the most important components, paying a huge amount of money for their own.              
@xrayz, You're right about the average electrician, they don't understand the complexities of power in an audio system. Mine said he knew all about home theater and not to worry. He was competent, but in the end his installation was not optimal for a HiFi system. Read the thread I started asking for advise on proper installation for audio...
https://forum.audiogon.com/discussions/dedicated-line-advise

Romex is a manufacturer, but the important thing is to use the same cable design; copper, 3 conductor, solid (not stranded) wire.
@danvignau  I remember so many of the components listed! Out of the amps, which do you think are the "fastest"?
Almarg, I meant to respond before- I do use coaxial to connect with both my pc and cd transport. My octave v1 has no usb input. In your opinion, even if the impedance matching is not a problem, would a better usb/spdif converter go a long way toward solving the perceived lack of dynamics? I've only ever used this one, and I know a lot of people consider them to be one of the most important components, paying a huge amount of money for their own.        
I can't really say, Xrayz, as I have no particular familiarity with the sonics of the V-Link.  I can only say that I would definitely consider replacing it if its output impedance is in fact 50 ohms.

Good luck as you proceed.  Regards,
-- Al
      
FWIW - I'm running a MF V-Link 192 USB/SPDIF converter in-between a Macbook Air and Schiit Gungnir.  I use a split USB cable between MBA and V-Link and a Stereovox digital coax from V-Link into DAC.  I'm not aware of any sonic problems.  As per Al's remarks, maybe the V-Links' reported 50 ohm output impedance is erroneous or it just doesn't matter much in my particular system.    Comparing audio from my CDP into the pre-amp vs  Gungnir into the pre-amp, I don't hear dramatic differences though I do note improved sonics for music played from ripped CDs on hard drive.  I also note the V-Link has been favorably reviewed and performed reasonably well in at least one published shoot out.  Nothing to suggest a design flaw, I don't think.  On the other hand, I'm not trying to say it performs on par with, say, an Audiophileo or Offramp converter.  My 2 cents.   
@ghosthouse Thanks for the message, I was going to write a similar one about any possible design flaw. I think you or I or any one of thousands of other satisfied V Link customers would have noticed it long ago                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
I did a bit of Googling and found this thread in which the 50 ohm spec was discussed.  See post no. 30, by "Lexx."  Sounds like the impedance is correct, but the person who wrote the spec won't ever be a candidate for the Nobel Prize.  :-)

Regards,
-- Al
 
You are welcome xrayz.  For the record, I certainly did not intend any disrespect to Al.  He is one of the more credible contributors here and knows a heck of a lot more about electronics than I do.  Never the less, hands on/ownership experience does count for something.  

Hope you find what you are looking for sound wise with that $2K investment.  

@almarg  I'm sorry if I gave the wrong impression, Al. I meant no disrespect to you either. I wouldn't even have known what the spec was without you. It's so obvious even to a non-tech guy like me that  you really know  your stuff! @ghosthouse Thanks for the good wishes, but now I'm not sure if I'll spend 2k all at once. There are so many options I hadn't considered. I think I will go for the dedicated electrical supply, that option will pay off as long as I live here, then go for the active pre. Many thanks to all who helped me think about a better long term solution than I would have on my own!! And I'd like to wish all of you well finding your own perfect sound. Who knows? Maybe someday that will actually exist!! :-)


Xrayz and Ghosthouse, thanks. But know that I didn’t take either of your comments as disrespectful in any way.

Best regards,
-- Al

Hello xrayz. Your demands are realistic,achievable and I feel will add immensely to your pleasure. Based on what you've indicated  the "wisest" investment for you at this moment is a device that provides isolation and conditioning for your ac power. I suggest you restrict your efforts to experimenting with a variety of power conditioners that can address all parts of your system. I am a retired 65 year old with absolutely no industry affiliation of any kind. I have found a used Equitech 2Q to be an item I recommend you evaluate along with any others that interest you. Very best wishes and I'm happy to answer specific questions. Peter
@ptss   Thanks Peter. I hope you mean it. This is a subject I know very little about, and may very well have many questions for you!

Xrayz, I have been following this thread since inception and feel you have received much valuable info. Based on your feedback I thought I might add: 

I also use an USB/SPDIF converter, owning a V-link and a Audiophileo2 with purepower.  I would keep the V-Link and your DAC. 

I also recommend the installation of dedicated lines. I installed three. Use one for my amp, one for my pre and one for digital sources (computer, converter, DAC, transport). Separating digital from analog is most important.

I am with those recommending an active pre. I use a tube pre with a SS amp. I like what tubes do for digital source, however didn’t care to get into larger driver level tube issues.

Based on what I have found to work for me, I would purchase an active pre and install the dedicated lines prior to making any other changes. The need for power conditioning differs from household to household. I would purchase the above prior to assessing my need for this.

I enjoy my Jolida Fusion tube preamp, which retails at $1350. There are many factory mods available for this unit. I have not taken avail of any however. (No affiliation). Quicksilver also makes a well respected tube pre. The recommended Atmos-sphere UV-1 as well.

Good luck with your upgrades!

 

 

Grettings xrayz! I see LOTS of ideas/opinions to your post, but when looking at your system, there is a huge issue that I did not see addressed by the others (unless i missed it).
Your system is VERY speaker heavy! No way can the source and amplification you are using do justice with speakers LIKE THOSE sweethearts! There is nothing lacking about your source and amplification components for their PRICE RANGE at all, but just do not have the Nth degree of harmonic and rhythmic articulation for speakers in the almost $10,000 price range. I see people building systems like yours A LOT lately, they will pay 10-15 thou for a pair of speakers, and then put very, very modest gear ahead of them. They are great at impressing your friends, but become somewhat tiresome to listen to for more than 30-45 minutes. What I value about a high performance system is that it satisfies the PLEASURE center of my brain! The reason for better source and amplification is for things like the ability for a system to make EVERY song on an album have meaning and purpose instead of being more like "filler material". Your speakers need more serious gear than what you are using to do that. You would be in new world with even just a $3000 Ayre QB-9 DSD (fed by a dedicated PC or MAC mini with Jriver and NAS with 7200rpm drive) Your Power amp, I admit is actually not as challenged as your source, the McCormick stuff is great stuff, but it might take more than that to really exploit the capabilities of the kind of speakers you have. It's your intellect, the pleasure center in your brain that you ultimately have to satisfy, not just your auditory system. BTW, I'm not a dealer, just a music lover who bought his first HIGH-END system 29 years ago. Good Luck.
@xrayz @lowrider57 this is good advice. I would suggest having the electrician keep the 20A breaker as far away from any breaker that powers a dimmer. Also, most of the wires come out of the top of my breaker box so the electrician put the dedicated breaker at the bottom and ran the Romex out of the bottom side of the breaker box. He then kept the run completely isolated and away from any other wires and cables. For this dedicated line, you will benefit by isolating the Romex as much as possible. Send me an email and I will reply with pictures step by step.
Sell the 0.5 and move up the McCormack chain a little further $0.02.

I had the standard version with Bryston 3B NRB on the bottom. It held bass like a vice while the Mc brought sweetness elsewhere . Very hard to beat that partnership for similar money, and even more. However I'm not suggesting that here.


Outlets were mentioned, we put in a dedicated e-line and some heavy industrial grade outlets and realized improvements in about every direction. I once was one of the -how much better could it be guys-, providing no other appliances we're sharing line while listening. $100 for wire and 2 x 2 Howell outlets. They hold my heavy plugs like nobodies business. That in itself would of made them a good upgrade.