How to upgrade in pieces - or - tell me about your journey!


Hello

I am getting started on my journey into Hifi here and I would be willing to spend about 10k over the course of a couple of years to get my system from where it is today to something a step or two above. I intend for my system to always be a stereo system at heart and also for it to stay all digital (no intention of tape, tuner or vinyl - or eveb a CD player).

My current systems is a Sonos playing Tidal or lossless FLAC files from a NAS drive. The audio outputs of the Sonos get connected to a Jolida JD-202A which is a 40W class AB tube integrated. The speakers are Energy floorstanders.

I am happy for how the system sounds with a limited number of things - such as vocal heavy folk or classic rock (pre-70s) recorded in mono. It sounds integrated across the drivers with no one element of the speaker standing out. The soundstage is narrow, but the imaging is not bad.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of the music I listen to includes
  • A lot of baroque music. So the orchestra sizes are relatively small, but the vocals and melody lines are very nimble and need to be easy to follow for the counterpoint to show.
  • modern electronic music - not dance floor fillers - but more experimental stuff ranging from IDM (Autechre, Chris Clark, Squarepusher) to ambient (Brian Eno, Max Richter)
  • A good bit of classic jazz from the Miles Davis, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock school.
  • Lots of modern pop & rock - including bands like Wilco, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sufjan Stevens, The National, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead who include pretty much whatever the hell they want in their music.
My goals are to get a cohesive & well-integrated sound with lots of growl in the lower frequencies and a lots of treble with no "heat" or sizzle to give that sense of extreme clarity. Imaging & dynamics are more important than a massive soundstage, though I would like off axis sound to not be completely unlistenable so that me & a couple of friends can all sit or stand by the couch and enjoy the music. I am much more interested in clear, fast and articulate bass and to have that which exists have power rather than the speaker trying to reproduce things they are going to do a terrible job at. I am happy to supplement my speakers with a JL or REL sub in the future.

So based on wanting to hear the clarity I hear in my headphones (HD650 with a headphone amp) with a similar amount of articulate bass, I want to upgrade my main stereo system in pieces. I want to go about it in the following fashion, knowing that there will be times in the middle of the process where the system will be less than ideal.

  • First, purchase a DAC (looking at the Ayre Codex) & start feeding the Sonos output through that into the amplifier.
  • Second, upgrade the speakers. I am looking to eventually end up with fairly high power solid state, so I am considering the Revel F206 or F208 speakers. I know they will fail to deliver much with my amp and be on the quiet side, but I hope that once I swap out the amp, they will start to sing.
  • Third, find a power amp that can do at least 200W into 8 ohms. Perhaps the Bryston 4BSST2, Plinius, Parasound A21 or Benchmark power amp. Or maybe even a Mcintosh 402. Connect the DAC-pre directly into it via XLR to drive the speakers.
  • Fourth, replace the sonos with a Aurelic Aeries Mini and use the USB out of that device into the Ayre Codex as I hear that it makes a much better sound.
  • Lastly, consider putting a pre-amplifier into the path if necessary and I need expansion options (or if the sound quality of the dac suffers badly due to chopped off bits at low volumes)

So my final system would likely look like

Aurelic Aeries (Mini) -> Ayre Codex DAC -> (Ayre Pre-amp) -> Bryston/Parasound/Plinius/Benchmark/Mcintosh amp -> Revel Performa 3 F208.

I expect this whole process to last me about a couple of years.

Does this sound like a journey worth embarking upon? Anything there that sounds to like it would be a really dumb idea?
badri
Have you listened to all of the components you mention?
What model Energy floorstanders specifically?

Also please describe room.   How big, dimensions, any special features that might affect acoustics.

What are you not getting with the bass currently compared to your goal?

If it were me, I'd start with getting the bass effortless and sounding good.  That's the hardest part.  Poor bass can obscure other things that might be heard otherwise.   Or speakers may not be capable of producing enough bass in a larger room alone.

Then tweak the other details.  DAC upgrade might be a good idea but not until speaker/room acoustics sound right as is.  

A 40 watt tube integrated should do a decent job in up to a modest size room with most speakers but to optimize things you might need speakers that can go louder and clearer off 40 tube watts, especially for the modern electronic music.  Or a different amp.  Or add powered subs to what you have.   Many ways to skin the cat effectively.


@jl35 I have heard the codex alone in isolation, yes. Also, the speakers (the revel f208). That is why those pieces I am more certain of - and for everything in the future, I have names and lists and ideas more than clearly identified pieces.

What I was really looking for feedback on is if the path seems like a reasonable one to take, given I don’t have a ton of cash to spend right now buying the whole rig (even if I knew all the exact pieces I wanted, which I don’t).

So based on that, I wanted to know what any of the experienced folks on here thought of this approach.

For example, I know that the Revel speakers will need a WHOLE lot more power than my amp to sound good. So while I am running them with my existing amp, I will need to make sure I don’t attempt to drive the amp too hard and hurt the speakers by clipping.

So I am looking for guidance/warnings/gotchas along those lines - or maybe your own experiences on how you built your system piece by piece.
I like the idea of starting with speakers. Sometimes when buying used, the buying order can be determined by finding a good deal.  You have certainly picked good stuff, though need to make sure they all work well together, which is the hard part...
@mapman I do not know exactly which speakers they are since I got them second hand from a friend who was disposing off stuff from his basement. ;) They look almost exactly like the C-300 images that I can see online.

They have one mid-range/woofer driver and 1-tweeter. I cannot find any other 2-way, 2-driver floorstanding designs in the current Energy lineup, so I can only assume that it is the discontinued C-300.

The room is roughly 13'x13'. So overall around 150~160sq ft. However, it has two doors that open out into a bedroom and a kitchen - both of which are large spaces which are about 160sq ft and 150sq ft respectively. The door to the kitchen, at least, is always open. The speakers will be about 2 ft from the back wall and about 3 ft from side walls.

The bass as it stands just feels muffled and plods along like a someone is plopping a giant bag of sand every time there is a kick-drum in the recording. With deep basslines, I expect to hear clarity, growl and movement and instead I head muffled thuds. The whole things just seems to move like it has heavy chains tied to it's feet.

This is why I want the speakers to produce the bass that they do clearly, with speed and slam. What they do not want to produce, I will be happy to augment with a good sub in the future.
I say go for the DAC the Sonos analog outs are average at best. Lots to choose from at a variety of pricepoints new and used. I run my Sonos into a Yamamoto YDA-1 dac and love it.
Badri what kind of floor?    Is it an upper level suspended plywood floor?  Mainly does it have some give or is it rock solid like cement foundation level?    Bass you describe can often be tamed by acoustically isolating speakers from floors on upper levels of a house or if not a solid foundation to start.  
@mapman The floor is - as you suspect - a suspended plywood floor on the second level (1st floor if you are from the UK). I live in an apartment. There is no carpeting - so it is all hardwood. 

Also, by isolating the speakers, do mean using screws or spikes?
@jond Thank you for confirming that a DAC connected to the Sonos improves the output. I long suspected that, but it is nice to have it confirmed - especially since the folks on the sonos forums are so adamant to even acknowledge that it is possible.
@jl35 Thank you confirming with the idea of starting with the speakers and building the system around those.

Have you tried or heard the Revel Performa 3 F208? I am concerned that in the transition period between getting the speakers and replacing the amplifier, I will be stuck in a very lean and thin sounding world :) - but I guess such is the price to pay for being on an upgrade journey!
Ah well if an apartment (with others below) and hardwood floors even more reason to isolate no matter what speakers used.

I use use auralex subdude isolation platforms available on Amazon

http://www.amazon.com/Auralex-Acoustics-SubDude-II-Subwoofer-Isolation/dp/B00DI5AXNI

Under my floor standers with similar flooring. These are not expensive and work like a charm.

For monitors I use isoacoustics stands also available for similar cost on Amazon and these are similarly effective in cleaning up bass very nicely.

Your room is not large so you probably do not need very large speakers necessarily with the right amplification.

Once you clean up the bass you’ll be in a much better place to consider any other upgrades if needed. A good external dac on Sonos sounds like a good idea.

A nice decorative rug in front of the speakers to help absorb floor reflections would be another easy add to try once things are cleaned up a bit.




badri-

make a short-list of all of the gear that you would like to demo/own.
Then, carefully, listen to each piece at a dealer/retailer for the best
outcome!  Keep me posted & Happy Listening!
@jafant Thank you so much for your kind words. Will definitely update this forum. And at any rate, listening to my shortlist is exactly what I intended to do! :)

My thread was specifically about the order in which I was about to go down the road was good or problematic for some reason. i.e. is picking the speaker you like the sound of, regardless of current amplifier, and then upgrading the electronics to bring out the best in speaker the best way to go? Should I be okay if I connect my DAC to a power amp directly? etc.

Those are the bits I would like advise on. I would appreciate any insight you could provide. :)


@mapman That’s fantastic advise. I will definitely put those on order. Amazon is having some issues with their checkout process right this very moment - but I will try to get those pads as soon as I can checkout my cart. Would I need spikes on top of that pad too?

Also, thank you so much for your guess on not needing very large speakers. From what I can see, the Revel F208 are bigger than the speakers I have, but not too big for the room. Is there anything short of actually buying them that I can do to see how they would behave in my room? Do I have to rely on a kind dealer that will actually let me test them in my house? The ones I heard them at here in San Francisco said that they do not allow in-home testing. :(
Do you want the best system you can get for the money and intend to live with it for many years? Or would you find enjoyment (as many do) in continuously rotating equipment in and out of your system? If the former then I have advice for you.

I've gone through a fair amount of gear in the 25 years since I put together my first serious system. I strongly recommend this path:

  1. Live with your current system for two years while you save the $10K. Use the time to research and look for deals.
  2. Spend as much of your $10K as needed on a pair of the best active monitors you can find. Spend the remainder ($500 should do) on a DAC with balanced outputs and ideally a headphone jack. Sell your Jolida amp and Energy speakers. Keep your Sonos.
  3. (OPTIONAL) If/when you get the upgrade bug, upgrade your DAC. Or get some headphones.

I understand that this advice is counter to the conventional wisdom of the home-audio community. I don't think there's much info on active monitors here. You can check out pro-audio forums such as gearslutz (which has its own issues) for a different perspective.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to audition active monitors, although that's starting to change with high-end active speakers such as the Kii (around your budget) targeted at the home music listener. More reason to wait the two years.

If you decide to go the conventional route of passive speakers, I recommend Audio Vision SF in your hometown. They have an amazing inventory. Not sure how flexible they are on in-home trials.
@ccolby Thank you so much for your response. I am definitely of the former sort. Music is what makes me happy, not the gear. So I am much more interested in the best gear I can afford with the intention of keeping them for many many years to come.

What is the real benefit of active monitors? Why would you recommend them over the conventional passive speakers? I am more than happy to wait, and to learn more about them. I have, to date, only known active speakers to be of the tinny, nasty sort that one connects to their computer. I had no idea there were audiophile quality active speakers out there. I looked up the Kii Three based on your response - but are there other active speakers and brands out there that I should look into?

I have been in touch with folks at Audio Vision & Music Lovers here in San Francisco. I have tried out the Paradigm 75F, the KEF LS 50 and the Revel with one or the other.
I also am of the former sort, despite having gone through a fair amount of gear.

There are quite a few articles about the technical benefits of active speakers. For example:

Pros (recording studios, etc.) almost always use active speakers, while audiophiles almost always choose passive. This means most active speakers are made for pros and hence (1) tend to have an ugly utilitarian appearance, and (2) are not in your neighborhood hi-fi store. If you’re open to that, you have many choices. Check out some of the threads on gearslutz.

ATC and ADAM have active speakers targeted at the home listener -- essentially versions of their pro products. I’m sure there are others.

I’ve been to both Audio Vision SF and to Music Lovers (the one in Berkeley) several times. Music Lovers Berkeley is off the deep end.
Since you want to stay digital right through the signal chain with Meridian gear.  They really are considered the thought leader in digital processing and equipment design.  A pair of Meridian 5200s will run you in the $4-$5K range but this will include your DAC, power amplification, and indeed act as your pre-amp (volume control only).  Essentially, your digital source goes right into the Meridians and you're done.
Dynaudio has active and wireless speakers too. Check out the new Xeo2 and XD 200/400 with the 'connect' wireless box (if interested in wireless). No amp or dac needed. Only a digital source but I believe they also have analog inputs.

That said if you go the passive route I would get speakers first. To me all components are important but I believe since all speakers have a 'house' sound I think that's the place to start because again to me speakers makes the biggest difference.

Good luck
I would also wonder about the 208, a fairly large multi driver speaker,  in a 13x13 room...something you would want to listen to before buying...
@ccolby Thank you so much for those links. Will definitely read up on those. I have been recommended active speakers every now and then, but I did not have the material I wanted to read more about high quality active speakers till now. Sincerely appreciate you taking the time to help out with this.
@kjweisner I see that the Meridian 5200 are another active speaker pair. Thanks for pointing me in that direction!
@xti16 Thanks you so much for once again confirming the speaker-first approach!
@jl35 Unfortunately, that is what is slightly problematic. I cannot evaluate the speaker at home since the dealer doesn't allow for home demos. Would the smaller 206 fare better? I did not hear that model, but is it similar enough in sound that one could just move a step lower in size?
Badri the speakers just need to sit on the felted plywood pad squarely and securely, like a subwoofer would. If they sit firmly on the current hardwood they should sit even more firmly on the pad. No spikes needed (they would probably rip teh felt cover).

I use mine with 36" tall OHM Walsh speakers that have a 12X12 inch square base and 4 fairly conventional wooden feet.

I am willing to bet these help clean up your bass nicely. They do for me and many others report similar results That is what they are designed for specifically though most use them for dedicated subwoofers.

Try it and see. Should help in your case with most any floorstanding speaker you might end up with that fit on them as well.
206 vs 208 in a small room is something your dealer should know
@mapman Amazon was back working this morning and I was able to put the order in for those pads. Thank you so much for your recommendation! Those pads should be arriving by Friday - so I should have the weekend to set things up and give them a listen. Very excited to see what comes of them. Thank you so much once again! :)
@jl35 Will get back in touch with them. Thank you so much!

In the meantime, a couple of pairs of Totem Mani-2s have shown up here on the 'gon store. I have heard these (with much better amplification, of course) at a friend's place. I have written to the sellers about these. Do you happen to know off the back of your head if these would be better for smaller spaces?
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for small spaces, many consider it an advantage to use monitors and a sub, that way both can be optimally placed. Again, a matter of personal preference and your room...
Badri, I'm pretty sure they can only help.   We'll see.  They look nice under the speakers in any case.    If not, easily returnable to Amazon so nothing to loose really.   Plus if it works it will save you a lot of money down the road by helping hear what you buy better as opposed to the room and floors.
EBM, if you have suspended plywood wood floors, you should try these under your Magico floorstanders as well. Unless the bass sounds perfect already of course. Magicos may have effective isolation from floors built in already. Dunno. If not whats another $100 for something nice looking to put them on.
Someone above mentioned monitors in a small room which is normally a perfect fit. Even those on many stands will still interact with floors and can be improved. I use Isoacoustics stands under my Triangle Titus XS monitors in a 12X12 room. Could never get the bass right in there prior. Always either too much or too little and not defined or articulate.  Floor interactions are the enemy.   In my basement, with thin carpet and pad on concrete foundation, no additional isolation is needed with the same speakers because the floor/foundation the speakers sit on is rock solid (literally) to start with.   Isolating speakers from floors provides similar results when needed, I find.
@mapman In case of bookshelf or stand-mounted speakers, do you place the whole stand on the sub-dude platform? Or do you place the sub-dude between the top of the stand and the speaker?
I do neither. I use Subdude platform for floorstanders and Isoacoustics brand stands for monitors. In addition to providing similar isolation, the stands get the monitors off the floor and provide optional upward tilt as needed.

There may be other good isolation products that might provide other options if needed but these are the two I have used and find to both to deliver similarly better results in each case.

http://www.amazon.com/IsoAcoustics-1004209-ISO-L8R155-Medium-Pair/dp/B008GOP79G

You have to make sure to get the right size Isoacoustics stands to fit specific monitors best.

Also note that Isoacoustics are short stands often used on desks, but having tried various monitors on higher, heavy, high quality spiked stands in my problematic room, I find use of Isoacoustics on the floor with upward tilt as needed to provide the best results. There may be other stands available that focus mainly on isolating speakers from floor interactions. Spiked stands alone though solid are also often quite rigid and still transmit vibrations and may not do the job with very lively flooring I have found.  Products that isolate well (as opposed to coupling to the floor, which is the opposite of isolating) tend to have some give that absorbs vibrations before they reach the floor.

Coupling is a good approach in some cases where floor interactions are not obtrusive, like in my basement with carpeted solid concrete foundation for the floor..   When floors are lively or built to have some give (the normal case with modern construction to better withstand earthquakes, etc.), isolation rather than coupling is the key.




I'm new to a lot of this and most everyone I read here seems to know more than I do so take what I say with that qualification....but you are like me in that we both like the same kind of music, varied and diverse. Sometimes you like to listen to acoustical music at lower volumes where you really need a system to reproduce that great mid range. Other times you want to crank it up a bit when you listen to other types of music where you want that bass to come through.

I would suggest to you that rather then achieve what you want with a single system you should consider moving to two separate amp/speaker combos driven by a common preamp and source(s). I believe it is more economical this way than trying to get a single system that plays all types of music perfectly.

If you are happy with your tube amp I would keep that and find great mid range / full range efficient speakers for that. (For your acoustical / voice music you want to keep that tube amp sound.)  For the heavy bass and volume get a good SS amp and "rock" speakers. You don't need a lot of power with the room size you have. Plenty of preamps, amps and speakers out there that are preowned and in great shape. You don't need to spend anywhere near Ten Grand to get where you want to go given your room size and if you are willing to buy preowned.

And I can confirm that when I put just a simple Emotiva Stealth DAC connected to my Sonos the sound improvement was very noticeable and the Stealth is not even a high-end DAC.


@badri  Genelec and Geithain are two other pro-audio companies (in addition to ATC and ADAM) that have a line of active speakers designed for the home. All four of those manufacturers have great reputations among pros. Again, the "home" part is mainly relevant only if you care about appearance. There are lots of other manufacturers worth considering. You might check out the monster "high end nearfield test" thread over on that other forum I mentioned.
@1extreme I do intend to keep my tube amp. But I don't have the space to stash the set of speakers in my average sized San Francisco apartment. So I might have to make some compromises there despite how attractive two systems sound. :)

Thanks once again for confirming that the output of the Sonos improves with a DAC. Did you get your Sonos modded by Wyred4Sound? What output are you using to connect your DAC to your Sonos? What is the improvement that you notice?
@ccolby Thank you so much for the link to that thread! Massively helpful! :)
@mapman The platforms should arrive today. Will update this thread with the results of using them! Very excited! :)
Cool I am looking forward to hearing.
@badri Did you read this review in Germany's Audio magazine about the Kii Three? Quote: "Let me tell you this much up front: here’s a family friendly compact speaker that scores far higher on all significant audiophile fronts than any we’ve had here at AUDIO in our thirty plus year history."

This would be perfect for an SF apartment. You can connect it directly to your Sonos Connect's S/PDIF output. No other equipment required.

Wait a couple years and see if it lives up to the hype.
@badri I did not get my Sonos upgraded. I don't want to put more $ into the Sonos when a replacement of the Sonos and the DAC may be on my horizon when they move to a second room. But I am hooked on the Sonos mainly because of its Android compatible app. What ever I would switch to would have to have a comparable Android app at least as good as Sonos.

I used to connect my Sonos to my DAC with a Toslink cable but it kept slipping out every time I moved something so I switched to a digital coax connection. Could not find a toslink calble
Plex software includes apps and server and runs on most all common platforms including Android and the app has gotten quite good on the last year or so and continues to get better. I’ve been going towards PLEX rather than Sonos (proprietary hardware) to replace my current Squeeze system and devices someday soon.  You can start for free with  Plex and CD quality sound if you already have computers, and common streamers or mobile devices.  
@mapman You are dead right about the sub-dudes. They make a fairly dramatic difference to the sound quality. With them under my speakers, the amount of bass is vastly reduced, but it is now a lot tighter & faster, which is exactly what I wanted! Thanks so much for the tip!

That said, the limitations of my speaker (where it compresses oddly when driven past even moderate volumes) are still exactly what they are. But now I have a much more accurate view of it's deficiencies rather than being bothered by the fat and plodding bass.
@1extreme Ah, I see! What sort of streamer are you looking at? A mac mini + plex/jriver or a dedicated streamer?

I just got my ayre codex and auralic aries mini yesterday. The soundstage is massively different already though both components need some burn in time - about 20 hours for the mini and 200 for the codex. I am connecting the DAC to the mini over USB and my TV goes into the optical input on the DAC. Loving the differences it has made already! :)
Excellent.   Sounds like subdudes are doing their thing.   Now you are in a much better place to assess from here.

Not familiar with those speakers specifically but I am pretty sure you can do better without necessarily spending a fortune.  
About four years ago, with the kids’ college expenses behind me, I started my journey into the higher end of our hobby, with the purchase of the NAD Masters Series components, a Velodyne sub woofer and a pair of Totem Fire monitors.

I was immediately struck by how the NAD SACD player make all my regular CDs sound better, which started me on my journey to "go digital". With that purchase, I had my eyes opened to the difference a DAC could make.
For a long time I’ve lusted after McIntosh equipment and before taking my first step in that direction, told my wife I wasn’t sure it would sound "better" than the NAD, but it would sound "different"; Wow, I was wrong about that! The DAC in my MCD500 was even better then the one in the NAD. When I upgraded to the McIntosh integrated, it just sounded more "musical" to me.

So I started my search for a dedicated external DAC and have enjoyed a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, which really improved the detail I never knew was recorded onto my CDs.
I have transitioned from the CD player, now have a music server, AC power re-generator, McIntosh separates, a pair of Focal Sopra 2 floor standing speakers and a pair of JL Audio F113V2 subs, all connect with Wireworld cabling, (most of my purchases in 2015). I’ve also ordered a Bryston headphone amp, to power the HD800’s better.

So that’s my journey, in a nutshell.
@ejr1953 Thank you so much for sharing that. In a sense, I think we might be on a similar trajectory, in that I started with the source first. Getting a lossless stream to a good quality DAC has already made a big difference in sound. Since the rest of the chain can only show what the source provides, I think you going for a good SACD player and me for a good n/w streamer and a good DAC are similar in that sense.

You seem to have a rather lovely system now. I know McIntosh gets polarising reviews on here, but what a system sounds like is a personal thing between your system and your ears. I hope you are enjoying yours!

As for me, I look forward to moving to my speakers next. :)