Mid life audio crisis


As the title says I seem to be going through a mid-life audio crisis and I would like some advice.

Here goes: In recent years I have upgraded, changed and tweaked my system until I have arrived at the following:

* Audio Aero Capitole CDP;
* Joule Electra LA 150MkII preamp;
* Dave Berning ZH-270 amp;
* Merlin VSM speakers;
* Cardas Gold Ref speaker cable & interconnects.

As you will see I have spent quite a few $$$$s on this system and I've been considering changing my ZH-270 for a pair of valve mono blocks over the last few months to help me get some more bottom end slam from my speakers.

Recently I bought a Steve Nugent modified Benchmark DAC1 and started to play digital music from my Mac. I was amazed at the sound quality from this combination and I considered selling my CDP. I have not sold my CDP yet but I suspect it will be only matter of time, as I think the modified DAC1 is better than my CDP and I have burned all my CDs to hard disk and use this more than my CDP.

I have never really got on that well with my Merlin speakers. Now please don't shoot me for saying this, all you Merlin fans, but they don't quite have the 'grunt' and energy that I like, perhaps they are true audiophile and too refined. I love transparency and sounstage, which they do well, but I also love bottom end slam that they don't do that well in my view.

The performance of the DAC1 has started me thinking and looking at 'pro' audio/studio gear and a week ago I got to listen to a tiny pear of active PMC AML1 speakers, that are powered by Byrston amps. This was fed by a Larvy DAC/Mac and nothing else but XLR cables - a real simple system that sounded amazing, but just lacked some bottom end slam, but had lots of transparency!

PMC recommend a sub with their AML1 speakers and I have worked out I could have my DAC1 > Bryston crossover to sort out the sub and active monitors. A really simple system that will probably halt me upgrading.

So what do I do? Keep my current system or go the active monitor + sub and DAC fed by a Mac.

Any thoughts?


Welcome to the dark side! Computer based (noiseless/fanless) music servers are an extraordinary value and are quite convenient, with 1 caveat I will list at the end of this post.

I have a setup similar to what you describe in my second system and was so enamored by the sound quality that I began to implement a similar philosophy into my main system.

My second system is (soon to be was) Apple iMac feeding a benchmark DAC1 feeding the PMC AML1. It is in a medium sized room (15 x 18) and has PLENTY of bass. These little speakers can really get the job done. Extraordinary actually. I liked the convenience so much that I was not listening to my main system as much so I decided to implement the convenience into my main system. I like to keep things simple and I'd rather not have to tweak to find satisfaction. I now enjoy my main system (iMac feeding a McIntosh MDA1000 into a McIntosh MC275 with Sonus Faber Amati speakers, Kubala-Sosna cables) with the iMac as the source that I am selling the second system.

As far as the Bryston xover you mentioned, you may want to try it without it at first to see if you can accomplish your goals without the extra cables and hardware. The dac1's rca and xlr outputs are both active so you could run the sub from the rcas and the PMCs from the xlrs, using the volume on both the sub and the monitors to balance out.

Me, I would set the pmc's up in your room, play with placement a bit and let the transmission lines do their thing. You may be VERY surprised...properly placed they reach well into the low 30s and you may discover there may be no need for a sub. Good luck and enjoy yourself, it is a fun setup.

The caveat....I enjoyed flipping records when I got into this hobby a few decades ago, the CD changed that ritual which I discovered that I sortof missed. Now with the computer....its gone! Maybe hang on to your cd player, run it into your DAC1 and then you will be able to have the interaction with the music, besides when friends bring over their music, I don't want to burn it to my computer (bad copyright Karma). Regards.
Keep what you have and add a powered sub like SVS,
This was fed by a Larvy DAC/Mac and nothing else but XLR cables - a real simple system that sounded amazing, but just lacked some bottom end slam, but had lots of transparency!

If you like dynamics and energy then active is a good way to go. You may get used to tight pro sound bass - it takes a while - initially you think the bass is not there compared to usual fare - until you realize that instead of heavy bass on every track you sometimes get it and sometimes don't - all depends on the mix.

One thing I can say for high energy dynamic sound is that it is really exhilarating - every time you listen - the effect does not wear off. Basically modest volume nice sounding systems are everywhere - in your luxury cars, most headphones, even cheap audioengine PC speakers sound pretty good these days - however speakers that really rock and turn a home listening session into a "live performance" are in a whole other league. It will put "fun" back into your listening sessions.

The kicker or downside is that if you like this "grunt" high energy sound it is going to cost you a fair bit for a decent sub - cause you will need a really good sub to keep up. Think JL F113 or SVS PB12 or HSU VTF-3 Mk II - check the HT Shack Subwoofer tests to see how they rate subs - get something with high output, low distortion and low group delay and obviously something you like the sound of with your choice of speakers. You may also find room modes more of an issue if you get the bass really clean and extremely powerful - think bass trapping may be needed.

As far as the mid life crisis - perhaps you might also check out your local Harley-Davidson dealer?h for you.
I have Merlin VSM speakers as well. It looks like you have one of the prescribed/standardized Merlin setups. I can see how you wouldn't have the bass slam you desire. First of all, the kind of bass you seem to want will never come from the Merlins, get one of the subwoofers mentioned above. You could also try an 845 tube based amp vs. the Berning, I suspect an 845 would integrate with a subwoofer better by filling out the lower end on the Merlins. I'm running Art Audio Carissa Signature, Art Audio has just come out with 845 monoblocks, could be just what you're looking for.

I don't see how a pro audio 'sound' would be to your liking over the long run. You already don't like the Merlins because they are too "audiophile and refined," this sounds like exactly the same problem the guy I bought the Merlins from complained about. He couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was he didn't like about them, he only knew he wanted to go over to the 'dark side,' a full McIntosh system. He was suffering from the dreaded uppermidrangeitus that some audio equipment suffers from. The presence region is exaggerated, the center point of tonal balance is the upper midrange. The result is lack of musicality, an analytical sound. All the pro audio stuff I hear has the same affliction, but with way more bass slam, the sound is still way unbalanced.

You need to keep the refinement of the Merlins, fill out the lower mids and upper bass with 845 tubes (perhaps there are other amps), and add some bass slam with JL Audio subs.

I love dynamics and energy and I value hearing exactly what is on a disk. This has its drawbacks, in that quite a few of my disks sound real bad through the Benchmark.

PMC recommend their SB100 that features the PMC 10" flat carbon fibre & Nomex™ piston driver in a heavily braced and damped cabinet with an effective line length of 2.8m (9ft). The combination of piston driver and PMC’s ATL™ transmission line technology gives the SB100 its outstanding detailed response down to 25Hz with a peak SPL of >116dB

• PMC ATL™ (Advanced Transmission Line) with 2 sections
• PMC 10” / 250mm carbon fibre & Nomex™ piston driver
• 3” Edge wound voice coil
• Matching response for use with AML1, IB1 or IB2 models
• Phenomenal bass response down to 25Hz
• Shallow cabinet – 350mm (13.78”)
• Specifiable 4mm sockets or Neutrik NL4™ input
• Recommended amp power up to 250W
• Activation option with Bryston PowerPac 300™ (SB100-A)

They also recommend using the PowerPac.

Oh and don't mention 'hogs' :-)


Welcome to the dark side - well thank you ;-) I was pleased to read your views on using the Benchmark with the AML1. I will take your advice on trying the speakers in my room before spending more $$ on a cross over, sub and amp.

Also great point about the CDP.


Thanks - it is an option to keep what I have plus add a sub, but I think I need to scratch my active PMC itch.

Given the TL design of the PMC's it may be wise to stick with their sub. The PMC AML1 are tuned at 5.5 feet TL length which does not match the subwoofer at 9 feet TL length. I am not sure what that does to the phase when you combine two. (bass extension enhanced speakers are generally a bit harder to combine with a sub) Since they are active it is possible that they simply compensate electronically for phase to get a perfect seamless match. Ask your dealer - PMC have an outstanding reputation.
Oh - and just one thing - pro-speakers are often viewed as "harsh sounding" and "non-musical" or simply analytical or worse as "PA sound" by many audiophiles.. Certainly with modern pop recordings (many are terribly compressed) these type speakers will make you suffer at high volumes with such ugly source material - so there is a valid reason for wanting a speaker with the usual BBC-Dip - being the ticket to a generally more consistently pleasant sound. However, I would say PMC's are not as forward sounding as some pro designs - so if you are worried about longterm listening enjoyment in making the move from audiophile to pro then PMC is probably a good choice.
Do yourself a favor and go to the PMC dealer and listen to the OB1i with
Power Pac 300s if possible.

I have decided to arrange a home demo of the PMC AML1 active speakers along with PMCs SB100 sub powered by a Bryston PowerPack 300 and using a Bryston cross over.

I hope this set-up sounds as good as it should.

I will feed back my findings.

I have a pair of PMC AML1 set up in my room. Amazing sound from these speakers - they appear to defy the laws of physics. The bass is fast and quite deep, but it is the transparency where these speakers excel.

There is no need for a sub in my room!

All I need to do now is decide if I can live with a system that may not need upgrading!

Congratulations - since it is plenty loud enough for your room then you can blame the source music if you don't like the sound - the speakers are just playing the music as nearly transparently as is possible with today's technology.
I find this thread to be interesting in that you bought a very detailed DAC to match an extremely detailed speaker. I have read that most don't care for the DAC1 and the Merlin together as it kind sound thin but very revealing. However, Montywoo favored this? Guess it goes to show how different our audio tastes can be. BTW, I just sold my DAC1 as the union of my Merlin VSM's wasn't that great. Looking forward to a more laid back DAC.

You are so right - the DAC1 unmodified can sound lean, but in my view it sounds 'honest' - it adds and takes nothing away from the source/sound. I had my DAC1 modified by Empirical Audio - Steve Nugent and it is streets ahead of the unmodified DAC1 (in my opinion) and out performs almost every CDP I have played.

The PMC AML1 would also be classed as very detailed by some, but I describe it as once again 'honest'. With a well mastered recording they excel, but with a poorly mastered one it just conveys how rubbish some music can sound.

After living with the demo pair of PMCs I am not 100% sure they better my Merlins. Both speakers have similar attributes. The only way I can describe how I feel about them both is: PMC hits you hard and fast and makes you sit up and listen. Merlin do everything just right and you can listen hour upon hour upon hour and love every minute.

PMC hits you hard and fast and makes you sit up and listen

Dynamics will do that. It will also bring out detail as contrast is essential to your hearing ability (due to the well known masking effect).

Try Weekend in LA George Benson "On Broadway" or Tower of Power Soul Vaccination "What is Hip" live. These two recordings sound so much like a real live performance you may be scratching your head.
Ahhhh Shadorne.... Tower of Power Soul Vaccination is one of my all time favs' and you are right it does sound as if you are right in there!

As funk trumpet player myself I really appreciate Tower of Power - Amazing through these PMCs!

You are right the PMCs put you front row at the venue.

I have some serious thinking to do over what I do next with my system, but it looks like the idea of active PMCs, a DAC and a Mac is a simple yet amazing solution!


Just to through a curve ball into the Benchmark DAC1/PMC AML1 active speaker combo - today is the last day I have the PMCs before they are returned and I had a friend of a friend drop buy with a Manley 2 channel passive EQ.

I know this is probably heresy with fellow audiophiles, but if you need a 'touch' more bass, then try hooking up your DAC1 to the EQ and then to the PMCs - you can get some amazing results.

"Mid life audio crisis", finally, a name for my affliction! I too found the Merlins to be a bit lean, I solved that with the addition of a REL Storm III sub. I now have all the bass I could ever want, in fact, you really have to dial it down so as not to over emphasize the bass and to achieve a seamless integration. Because the Merlins' BAM module filters out extreme low frequency information that the Merlins cannot play, the usual method of connecting the REL to the speaker output posts on your amp with REL's "Speakon" cables (stacked/piggybacked with your regular speaker cables) is no good. You have to go with the line level connection to your preamp or processor. The REL is a musical sub that nicely rounds out the Merlins.
Here's my gear:
Amp: SimAudio W5 solid state amp
Preamp: Joule Electra LA-100 Mk3 tube preamp
CD player and dac: Wadia 860x, w/digital inputs and with GNSC Statement mods
Apple iMac as music server, connected to an Empirical Audio USB Freeway 2 usb to spdif converter, which then goes to the Wadia's digtal input using it as a dac
Speakers: Merlin MSM-M's, biwired with Cardas Golden Cross speaker cables
REL Storm III subwoofer, via line level connection to second preamp outputs
Analog interconnects: Cardas Golden Reference
Digital interconnect: Marigo Apparition 5.8 Signature
Power cords: Elrod EPS3 Signature on amp and Wadia 860X, Elrod EPS2 Signature on preamp
All are plugged into a Sound Applications CF-XE conditioner which uses an Elrod EPS3 Signature 20 amp power cord to plug into a cryo'ed Oyaide R1 wall outlet.
Life is good!
You are so right - the DAC1 unmodified can sound lean, but in my view it sounds 'honest' - it adds and takes nothing away from the source/sound. I had my DAC1 modified by Empirical Audio - Steve Nugent and it is streets ahead of the unmodified DAC1 (in my opinion) and out performs almost every CDP I have played.

How does the modified DAC1 compare to the Cosecant USB DAC v3 (now with ASYNC mode)
I have no idea how the modified DAC1 compares to the Cosecant DAC v3 - I have no intention of changing my Empirical Audio DAC1 - it really that good in my opinion!
Okay - close your eyes all you hard core audiophiles... I have finally done what I set out to do and that is to simplify my hi-fi and use a Mac/DAC1 as a source.

Gone are the Merlins, Joule, Berning, Audio Aero and Cardas and now my system consists of a Mac/DAC1/Drobo/PMC AML1/Zaolla cables and some room treatments.

A couple of things I have learned on this journey - a Steve Nugent modified DAC1 can sound truly amazing, small active speakers can convey emotion, presence and stature, and room treatments make such a large difference. Oh and the probably the most contentious is that I have found I only need to spend a fraction of the money on cables to get great results.

Equally as important is the pro audio forum communities welcome us and offer great advice - don't be afraid to ask dumb ass questions, but be prepared to learn almost a whole new language :-) and be prepared to walk into a pro audio store and be dazed and confused by the array of all the kit.

For any out there who are hesitating in making this type of change, as I was, have a go you won't be disappointed.

All the best,

Congrats Monty! Good to hear that you survived the crisis and are doing fine!
Hey Shadorne - thanks for the message. I've never been happier with my system!

I'm taking time to listen to music, just sitting back and enjoying the tunes, without worrying about tweaking etc...

And with the cash I've made I'm buying more and more music.

All the best,

Glad you are happy with the new system. Sorry you had to spend so much and then sale it to get there.
Yeah - my only regret is that I have lost a little cash - but hey life is tooooo short to get stressed over that!