Building a system from scratch (other than speakers)

Hello all! This is my first post. I am a relative newbie when it comes to hifi but have been doing some research and reading the forums for a while now. I am looking to build a two channel system with the best quality sound for the money. My budget is approx. $5K. I have a pair of Martin Logan Theos in my home theater that I will be pulling out for the dedicated hifi setup. 
Mainly I'm looking for preamp and amp advice. I know a point of contention is the tube v ss debate, but have read on this forum and others that you get the most out of electrostatics with tubes. I know virtually nothing first hand about tubes so am concerned about maintenance and high ongoing cost. I don't have a lot of listening time anyway, less time for working on components. Is this something to worry about? 
Also, brand/model suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I'm concerned about mismatching the speakers and amp.
For cd I am looking at the OPPO BDP 105d and for vinyl the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, but would appreciate advice here as well. 
Thank you all in advance!

If they’re around, go to various audio stores in your area, especially ones that deal ML’s. Tell them what you have; tell them what listening habits you have; as much as you can, hear things for yourself. Ask if they’ll let you audition a piece for a few days.

I’m not the most knowledgeable person on the matter, but modern tube gear isn’t as finicky and high maintenance as you may think. The tube gear I’ve had from ARC, Rogue, Sophia Electric, Blue Circle, Jolida, and LSA have all performed beautifully with little to no fuss once the initial set-up is complete.

It really depends on what kind of sound you want (I like a warm and bloomy soundscape, for example, and listen to a lot of acoustic jazz; thus, I have a good SS/tube hybrid amp and a tube phono to power my Adagios). Listen to as many components as you can before buying --

-- and be ready to change them out as your whim and sound ideals change over the years :)
ModWright KWI 200 w/ optional phono board. The Pro-Ject is a nice deck and I bought one, "Purple" for my teenage daughter. I'd buy used on the table and step up in the Pro-Ject line. Clear Day balanced cable to the Oppo 105d. Call Dan at ModWright; he might have a demo unit and he'll tell you how his amp will work with your ML's. 

I have Aerial Acoustics 7Bs and I bet your ML's need power as well. Like my Aerial's they work with a 100 watt amp but you won't know what your speakers can sound like until you feed them the power they need.  I might be wrong but look for an amp with 200 watts that will double down. 

Good luck
Is your $5k budget for preamp and a amp or also for the Pro-Ject and Oppo you mentioned?  If $5k needs to include everything look at the Parasound Halo integrated. Great unit for the money which I believe has phono and a DAC under the hood, but suspect the Oppo will sound better on its own.
As adg101 mentions in the two posts above, with your budget, a good integrated amp is the way to go. You'll get better quality spending more money on electronics, and less money on chassis', interconnects and power cords.

I'd recommend looking for a used BAT VK-300SE w/ phono card. You should be able to find one for under $3K.
It sounds to me that when you have time to listen you want to make it a more involving session, isolating music from video. 

You have been given good advice so far. I also believe given your budget that an integrated amplifier is the way to go. However as I am not familiar with the Theos I can’t make a specific recommendation as you are correct in your concerns as to the amp speaker synergy.

If I understand correctly you are putting together a  music only system. My question is how vinyl vs. digital is partitioned regarding your listening sessions and your music library as is and as you see it in the future? If you would provide some feedback on this and the questions asked in previous posts we might be of greater help. 



you are off to a nice start. Seek out ML dealers/retailers to determine the kind of gear that sounds appropriate w/ those speakers.

Do not forget the most important aspect, cables/power cords!
Keep me posted & Happy Listening!
The gear available now is quite different than even five years ago. There are a lot more "integrated" options, such as integrated preamp with DAC, DAC with preamp (there is a difference), even some integrated CD players with preamp function. 

Servers are a serious option and should not be overlooked. OTOH, you can use a computer such as a Mac Mini, as I do, and use a form of integrated to achieve your goal. 

Lot's of options. Do not buy hastily.  :)
Martin Logan electrostats have a pretty wicked impedance curve, so weather you chose tubes of SS get adequate power around 100 watts. I have Martin Logan Summits and have used both tubes and SS and they both sounded great just different.
Thank you all for the advice so far. To clarify a little bit:

simao - I live in central Mississippi, so high-end audio stores and in-home demos don't really exist here. The company that sold me the Martin Logans went out of business. I do have an audio consultant that helped me with home theater but he only deals in Mcintosh and Rotel and has no inventory/sound room.

adg101 - I was trying to be all-in around $5K but can stretch that some I need to. 

mesch - honestly, I don't know what the partition will be. I have a fair amount of vinyl and far more cd's. I'm sure I will lean more towards one than the other after I build the system and have some time with it. I mostly listen to classic rock (think grateful dead to led zeppelin), some newer rock/alternative leaning towards more acoustic (think nirvana unplugged to dave matthews/tim reynolds), and some classical, jazz, and blues. Sorry I'm not more help on the partition, that's why I was leaning towards the relatively cheaper turntable. 

jafant - thank you! yes, will have to start a new thread for cable/cord recommendations when I get components figured out.

douglas_schroeder - yes, trying not to be hasty and finding that very difficult! I had an Emotiva xsp1 & xpa2 in my amazon cart the other day just because I was being impatient and wanted to get going - decided to try to be strong and seek professional help i.e. this forum. When you say server/mac mini, are you meaning storing some form of uncompressed audio there to play through the system?

yes, trying not to be hasty and finding that very difficult! I had an Emotiva xsp1 & xpa2 in my amazon cart the other day just because I was being impatient and wanted to get going - decided to try to be strong and seek professional help i.e. this forum. 

You will find that patience is a virtue, both as a buyer, and as a seller.
Those in a hurry rarely get a good deal, unless they know the market very well.

Approaching just the amplification matter, those who choose tube amplification for MLs usually do it because MLs are oft unlistenable with SS, notice I stated oft not always.  Very harsh and revealing.  An Allnic Audio T-1500 listed on A'gon would be a very sweet match, image wildly and settle the panels.......however at approximately 12wpc 300B SET power they will NOT rock the MLs.

Rogue and EAR also make nice gear to drive the panels, again not to rock them.  For that you will need really expensive tube gear or heavy duty SS like Odyssey with lots of damping to control the panels.  These panels are tricky as a wattage rating is practically useless in translating what will happen.  Best of luck.
I'm a devoted owner who immensely enjoys a SET 300b amplifier. The Allnic you cite has been praised universally.  However I believe that his speakers would be better matched with a good quality push pull tube integrated /power amplifier  (good output transformers and stout power supply ). I'd really recommend looking at used  amplifiers to maximize purchasing power.Line Magnetic and Quicksilver are a couple of good tube brands to consider. 
There's many SS amps and integrated amps that will sound great on your ML's. I've heard the Parasound Halo Integrated on Magnepan 1.7i - 3.7i and it's a really nice amp; not harsh or thin and drives the Pans with plenty of power for most. If you can spend more the ModWright and Pass gear is hands down better and your speakers are in my opinion more in that league. 

Not sure how extensive your vinyl collection is but maybe start with the digital side first and add the analog gear later when budget allows. I wouldn't skimp on the amp too much with your speakers. 

I'd forget a tube amp on your speakers unless you can drop some serious coin and want to deal with the cost retubing such a beast you'll need for your MLs.

Call ModWright and see if Dan has a show demo on the KWI 200. He knows as much as anyone does on the Oppo you're interested in too. If he has a demo and is willing to part with he'll give you a good price.

In my opinion, if you don't step up to a high end Integrated amp such as the ModWright you wasted money on the MLs. The ModWright KWI 200 will get close to tube sound without the cost and headaches down the road. Only mention Integrated as you'll spend a lot more for separates and cables to do better.

If you're using your Theos in a home theatre set up with a receiver you have not heard your speakers yet. Hopefully you have a dealership near that has something you can drag home just to see what your speakers can do. A lot of people bash MLs because they've only heard ok gear on them; they're very revealing so crap in - crap out it goes. 

Good luck

Arising, I too have an ESL system. I had Quad ESL57's, then ML, now modern Quads.

I have used tubes (good sound), and solid state (good sound). But here's the thing: ESL's tend to have circuits to protect them from high voltages caused by equipment failure (or owner failure, I suppose). They rob performance from your speakers. It would be great to remove them.

If you were to choose low power, high precision solid state amplifiers, it would be impossible to drive the speakers loud enough to engage the protection circuits. Therefore the protection circuits would be redundant, and so they could be removed. This I have done, running without protection circuits for nearly 10 years now. Practice is the same as theory - no problem. No problem whatsoever.

Caveat - my electronics are all ultra-stable full complementary push-pull home-brew, designed for low voltage and high precision. YMMD

I should have added: perhaps the electronics are not optimal, but the SYSTEM is.

Arisingsound, yes, I use a Mac Mini, and I have PCM (ripped CD tracks uncompressed) in an AIFF format, and also DSD files for playback. From the Mac Mini I use a quality USB cable to... (here's where the options jump in number) you can select from the following options, and yet more:

DAC with preamp function (volume control) paired with amp

Preamp with DAC paired with amp

DAC paired with an Integrated amp

Any one of these options can yield terrific results.

I should have added Integrated amp with DAC

I'm rushing too quickly; software such as Audirvana, Amarra or HQPlayer is tremendously beneficial in playback of such files.

There are many full featured servers for file playback as well with built in DAC, storage, and software to link to phone or tablet.

Just keep researching as it will be well rewarded.

I currently have ML Vantages paired with a McIntosh MA6500 integrated (solid state/200wpc) and an Oppo 105. This setup works very well for me. The Vantages, as well as your Theos, need a lot of clean power to make them shine. I've never tried tubes but you will need a lot of power/current to make your speakers sing. I have heard my system with a 100 watt Anthem integrated as well and I did not like how dark and rolled off it was. The MA6500 is a good match, IMO, with very nice midrange, strong bass (if its in the material) and good clean airy highs. I have never had any problems with "circuit protection" like terry9 mentions above. And I use my system as both 2 channel music and 2 channel home theatre. When I watch fun movies like Casino Royale and The Matrix, the volume is up to 12 PM and the sofa is vibrating and the Vantages have never shut off or sounded compromised. They perform very nicely at high volumes, whether playing music or movies.

The 105 works very good and I'm super happy with it. I'd buy it again.

For more help, check out MartinLoganowners dot com. You may find threads of interest there. Good luck in your journey.

Pokey, as I said, it's for malfunctioning equipment and head banging owners. If your amp can't produce the signal, the protection circuit is superfluous.

I was about where you are now about 38 years ago. For about $5k I bought a pair of Infinity ServoStatics, two ARC amps, and their SP3 preamp. I already had the Linn LP12 turntable and a Decca London cartridge. I lived with this system for ten years.

However, in this day, you could not get this system for that money. I agree with others that an integrated amp is your best option. But of course, there are many that you could not buy for $5k. I have heard the Exemplar eXception integrated amp but it costs %$5.5k. The LSA Statement integrated amp can now be had for about $3k used and is also quite good and more powerful.

What you lack today is the many dealers that used to be around where you could hear equipment. This seems to be a result of the internet and buying directly. All that can really suggest is going to local shows and reading reviews by those you trust. Also were there any consensus among those posting, you might get some guidance.

pokey77 - I had no idea that ML forum site existed. Will drop in there as well and see what I can find. 

Thank you all very much for taking the time to give your input. I now have a lot of homework researching suggested components - that I'm really looking forward to. 

It strikes me that pretty much all of you are nearly if not totally encyclopedic (at least from my perspective) on this subject. How did you build up this knowledge base? Is it just building systems for so many years, hanging around good shops, or are you reading certain periodicals or review sites? I ask because I'm truly fascinated by hifi and have learned a lot from the research I've done to this point, but the amount of products and information out there just seems overwhelming.  

Yes, yes, and yes.

Reading Stereophile and Audiogon forums, talking both by email and in-person with audio dealers, meeting with and talking to other audiophiles and with the actual designers and makers (Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen, Duke LeJeune of AudioKinesis, and Larry Staples of Living Sounds Audio are a few who come to mind) of some of the products. All these and a bunch of years experimenting with different components, configurations, cabling, rooms, and music.

I guess like any serious hobby, the more you immerse yourself in it, the more you learn. There's also the obligatory bunch of useless info and snake oil out there, but for the most part the people I've dealt with share a passion for good sound and an appreciation for others who share that passion.

The Martin Logan forum is a good place to ask ML questions.

Also, check the owner's manual for the speakers and make sure you are using amps within the power and impedance requirements that Martin Logan recommends for those speakers.

I own Martin Logan Monolith III speakers using a Krell KBX crossover and I can tell you they do need power to drive them.  My Audio Research tube amps really work well with the speakers.  However, my Mark Levinson 23.5 amps on the top end and lower end also sound wonderful.

That is one heck of a solid state amp that still to this day will beat most amps (tube or ss) out there.

So, check the manufacturer's requirements first, ask around and listen for yourself it possible. 


my Martin Logan's with the Emotiva preamp and mono amps was a really poor match.
Go to the Martin Logan forum for advise.
Two terrific used amps for your speakers are the Sunfire 300x2 and the Ampzilla if you can find rebuilt ones.  I found a newly reconditioned Sunfire 300x2.  Perfect match and $800 on eBay.
Be very cautious of tube amps with Martin Logan's very demanding low impedance.  
I found 100 watts minimum and more is better on my ML ESL's.  My ESL's drop to low 2ohms at some higher HZ .


you do not want to make a buying mistake. Take your time and travel to listen to the gear. You are not far from New Orleans- seek out Wilson Audio owned by Doug Wilson. He is a plethora of knowledge and a visit will yield a step in the right direction.

Keep me posted & Happy Listening!

If you nee to purchase amp, preamp, digital source, and phono source, I agree with one of the posters above, I would look at a integrated amplifier for sure.  I would go heavier duty on the turntable/arm/cartridge than I would on amplification.  Usually the sources and the speakers are the most important.  I would also avoid the oppo CD player.

Not sure if this this enough power, but this integrated from Conrad Johnson ($1350) looks great:

This Krell sold state integrated is also worth considering, at the same price, it has significantly more power if your speakers need it.

Perhaps a little tube phono pre such as this one $700:

I would step it up a bit with the table and cartridge.  this $1000 table seems like a pretty solid deal.  Its a higher end table than the one you were looking at, and it even comes with a $450 cartridge, versus some $30 cheap starter.

This one on audiogon also looks interesting:

As for digital, personally, I would advise against a CD player.  The move to hard drive storage, digital player, and DAC is the way to go, and it is the way the industry is moving.  All you need to do is rip all of your CDs to a basic NAS hard drive with your computer.  Rip them in a lossless format such as WAV or AIF, and you will have fully uncompressed CD quality music, and you never have to worry about scratching another CD!  Cambridge makes a player called: Cambridge Audio Azur 851N that sells for about $1700; you may find it used for $1100?  Cambridge also makes a similar unit that is a step down the chain for about $1000. These are players that will access your networked hard drive, organize the music, and play it through its high quality DAC, and output to your amplifier.  For the price, these cambridge units (or similar ones from Marantz and Sony ES) is excellent.  They all have a smart phone / tablet app to control them, which is excellent, and also allow access to streaming services like Tidal.

NAS hard drive $160:

Amp 1350
Phono Pre $700
Table & Cartridge $1000
Digital $1000
NAS Drive $160
Cables $800

total $5000

Cables are a whole different topic of conversation.  You won't get the best available if you need speaker cables, and 2 pairs of interconnect for $800, but its a good starter budget.  definitely get used.  The cable company has a used section that is great, and of course Audiogon has a ton.  Hope this is helpful!

Good Luck,

jafant - Actually the day before you recommended him I was researching Rogue Audio products and came across Wilson Audio. I called and told him I would be down Saturday the 13th to check out some gear. Your recommendation cemented it. Down I went and came back with most everything. Blew my budget a bit but think it was well worth it. 

marktomaras - I didn't even think of getting used cables. By the time I read your post I had already purchased. There's always next time!

The verdict: 
I went with the Chronus Magnum II with phono bypass mod. The other amp/preamps I liked but were just stretching my budget too much (which I still busted) were the Rogue separates (new), and a pairing of an (used) Audio Research hybrid preamp (blanking on exact model at the moment) and a Rogue amp from the mid 90's.
For turntable, I went with the Project expression carbon classic DC in mahogany.
For cd, I went with the Cambridge Audio Azur 35IIC. With this I bought a used California Audio Labs Sigma II DAC.
For a line conditioner, I went with a Furman Elite 15 PFI.
For cables I went with Audio Research SGL for speakers. Audio Research LitzLink interconnect (for CD), Audiostream interconnect (for phono), and an Aperture digital cable.
The only thing I am not terribly happy with is the cd player. Sound quality-wise, it is outstanding. With the Cal Labs tube DAC, it sounds very nearly as good as a used Audio Research tube CD player ($7500) they had in the shop. However, and perhaps you can help me with this, it has an audible tick when playing cd's. When the music is up you can't hear it but if the volume is down or when music lulls I can hear it from about 9 feet away in my chair. It is only when the cd is spinning. Is this normal, or is this a defect?
It sounds amazing. Thank you all so much for the help and input. 
I'd love you hear your opinions, especially on cables - as that is the only thing I didn't extensively research. 
Nice job on the amp, that Rogue looks great!  I still say kill off the CD player.  Rip your CDs, play them through a player such as the Bluesound Node and feed that to your great DAC.  That will eliminate the CD tick.  You ought to be able to get a refund if there is a tick.  Not only that, but you will be able to stream Tidal, and even purchase high res music from places like HD Tracks.  I couldn't imagine using a CD player anymore.

You need to talk to your dealer re the tick. This should not occur. After all you seemed to have purchased an entire system from Wilson so should be accommodated. As one who has both computer based and disc based digital front ends, I understand the desire to sometimes just spin a disc. 

marktomaras - thank you! I love the Rogue so far. A server or media player will certainly be in my future as budget allows. 

mesch - Yes, I will be contacting Wilson today. They aren't open on Mondays. The cd player will get me by until I can get some kind of media storage solution going.