Musings of a Budget Audiophile

My system improved significantly this past year, mostly in the last few months.  The definition of a budget audiophile is very fluid, but I think my system qualifies as there are individual cables available that cost orders of magnitude more than my entire system that has a retail price of around $8,000.  My system is the following:


Bluesound Node 2

Maverick Audio TubeMagic D2 DAC with upgraded Sparkos Labs op amps and a 1950s Western Electric 396A tube

Pathos Classic One MkIII Integrated Amplifier with 1960s Mullard Tubes

Focal 836v floor standing speakers

APC H15 Power Conditioner with a dedicated circuit and PS Audio outlet

Blue Jeans Cables for interconnects and speaker cables

W Audio Power Cords


I had always considered that my system sound great and was primarily limited by setup and the limitation of my listening space.  When I rolled the Mullard tubes in the Pathos amplifier my system unquestionably took the next step.  That process led me to look into a tube upgrade for the buffer output stage in my DAC where I discovered that I could upgrade the three op amps in the DAC which amazing results (I can't say that the rolling the tube made any difference).  I've always been more on the skeptic side of things when it comes to audiophile tweaks, but have dabbled with a few over the years just to satisfy my own curiosity.  I picked up a couple of inexpensive W Audio power cables on Amazon and was blown away with the different they made in my system.  I know that the power cable on my amplifier made a clear improvement, but I cannot definitively say that it made a difference with the DAC because I have never isolated that change.  I needed a longer power cable for the amplifier so moved the short one to my SACD player where my initial impression was negative so I moved it to the power conditioner where it seemed to have a positive result though nothing definitive.

While I'm still of the mindset that the key to loving a system is the speakers, I now have a deeper appreciation for the difference that clean power can make.  I don't know what I believe about power cables, but I suspect that the shielded design is the mostly likely reason that I saw a benefit in my system along with the tubes in my amplifier being sensitive to the change.  My cable management is a challenge sharing a cabinet with my home theater setup.  I've never really heard a difference in my limited experiments with speaker cables and interconnects, but maybe I would now that my system is at another level.

I'm continually surprised as I've found unexpected ways to truly elevate my system.  For now, I couldn't be more satisfied and plan to just enjoy it for a while.


Happy New Year!


More than a few of us know the value of fine tuning what you have, by which we include not only fine tuning speaker placement and cable routing but things called tweaks like vibration control and acoustics. Dangerous, because you can improve resolution so much that then your cable differences become easy to hear and you realize cables are every bit as important as speakers. But still worth doing because you can elevate your system way beyond anything you can imagine right now without spending a tremendous amount of money. 

It is one thing to spend thousands on one component and be impressed with improvement. It is a whole different thing to rummage around in the kitchen clutter drawer pull out some rubber bands and use them to get improvement you can really hear and appreciate for cost equals zero.

A retail of $8k for a system can produce amazing sound.

Particularly if you are good enough shopper to have invested $4k

for the whole package which is entirely possible.


Be a  patient fellow.

It looks like you stream. Optimize the router connection.

Speakers are good. Sell the conditioner and DAC and upgrade

the DAC. The one you own may be great but I assume not.

You got a great start!


This is a lovely system and one you've paid good attention to.

I have to agree with @chorus that the DAC is the weak link. It's a $200 or so DAC and while you've modded it, I think your system deserves much better. I don't know about selling the power stuff as suggested, but finding your way toward a much better DAC -- especially one which mellows those tweeters along with some of the glare of digital -- would open up a new field of listening pleasures. My two cents.

@chorus I'm not a particularly good shopper, but did get a great deal on the amplifier which is the only reason that I have it.  I don't stream and just have an external hard drive connected to it.


@hilde45 The DAC could very well be my weak link, but I do believe that it performs above its price point.  It has a DSD capable chip (underutilized?) and the addition of the discrete op amps really improved things significantly.


When I rolled in the Mullard tube in the Pathos the result was a much warmer sound while also significantly increasing the level of clarity.  The only downside was that the warmer sound eliminated some of my highs that I've always enjoyed with the Focal speakers.  The improvement with the Mullard tubes was unquestionable so it was easy to adapt.

When I installed the three Sparkos Labs op amps (all three are in the signal path of both outputs) the sound because slightly brighter, but more significantly the bass became more visceral.  Prior to the op amp upgrade I had always preferred the clarity of the solid state output and considered the tube buffer output to be dull in comparison.  With the Sparkos Laps op amps my preference is for the tube buffer output with the solid state output sounding bright in comparison.  At this point I was thinking a lot about getting a tube DAC with Jolida being one of particular interest.  There was a slight brightness that made me think that a tube would benefit.

When I added the W Audio power cord (expecting nothing in return) the resulting sound somehow became more live/real sounding with even more micro details coming out.  I would also describe the sound as being slightly more laid back/relaxed and any thoughts that I had for getting a Jolida tube DAC seemed to fade away.

Before I upgraded the Maverick Audio DAC I did pick up a Schiit Modi Multibit DAC.  It played tricks with my mind because I did enjoy the way it sounded, but I was only comparing it to the solid state output on my Maverick Audio DAC.  When I realized that this was the case I hooked the tube buffer output up and discovered that it sounded identical to the Schiit DAC so my multibit experiment was done.

At some point I'm sure I'll be interested in trying a "better" DAC, but I'm honestly not sure what improvement I could expect though I've said that before.  For now, I'm just enjoying listening to my favorites again for the first time.



That’s a nice setup.  Nothing budget about it.  Ever try a straight DAC, no tube buffer?   Might be interesting to compare especially in that you are already running a tube amp.  

@millercarbon I've never had a goal of owning wildly expensive gear and really consider the Pathos to be better than I had really expected to ever own.  I also lean toward being satisfied over constantly searching for something better.  The tube rolling opened a window into some ways to optimize my system that really made a difference and now I think I'm settling back into a place of being satisfied.  Maybe when my Krell S-300i amplifier sells I'll get the bug again.

@mceljo  - Happy New Year! Enjoy your tweaked out system. Your upgraded Maverick DAC looks like a fantastic bargain in a budget priced DAC.

I think you could have more open sound for not alot of money by upgrading interconnects.

@mapman The Maverick Audio DAC has a solid state output that runs in parallel with the tube buffer.  I often have them hooked up in parallel so that I can switch between them.  I preferred the solid state output prior to the op amp upgrade and then the tube buffer became my preference.  Prior to the op amp upgrade the solid state output was identical to my CD player so I have a reference point for before and after all of the upgrades.

@slaw How familiar are you with Blue Jeans Cables?  What design characteristics would you expect to result in an improvement in my system?

A few years ago, I decided to take out all of my ICs and start from scratch with BJC throughout my system and listen. Then slowly made changes starting at the source  (in my case, my tt), then followed the signal. The BJC was OK but lacked openness and transparency. In each and every change, there was a increased emotional connection to the music on every aspect. 

I can't answer your question regarding design, just what I heard.

@slaw That sounds like the type of experience that's worth consideration.  Too often on this forum I see blind suggestions being given.


(1) What components were in your system when you did this?  I interested in the specific equipment, but more so in the general level of it relative to mine.

(2) What cables did you try and find to be an improvement?  Did you try multiple different cables or was it a one-and-done situation.




First, if you benefitted as much as you say with your power cord change, it stands to reason upgrading ICs would be beneficial as well. 

At the time of my experiment I had VPI Classic 3 Sig SE, Dynavector Karat D3, K&K Trio phono preamplifier, SMc amp, Martin Logan Depth I, Usher Mini One Diamond. 

I used several phono cables, first VPI, which had a ground loop issue, Anti-Cables level 3 which sounded very nice and was an easy upgrade over the BJC. At this time I went with the Anti-Cable level 3 throughout the rest of system, systematically, one component at a time, in order to evaluate these changes. 

Listened  this way for months. Next I tried a Bob's Devices mid line cable silver over copper with Cardas RCA. This was a step up over the Anti in my system. This stayed for over a year. 

Next bought a 1 M Black Shadow with KLE Absolute Harmony RCA from fellow member Mark Tunis. It was an improvement at a lower price than Bob's. I'm actually still using that phono cable now. I'm now using more expensive cables by Noteworthy Acoustics throughout the rest of my system. 

So, this was in my analog only system. I've always done the work of evaluating for myself, products that interest me. That's the best way to learn. 


I believe you should stick to your plan. Don't worry, be happy:). 

If anything you might keep an eye out for a DAC upgrade.  Be in no hurry. 

I bet your Pathos is a great fit with the Focals. I once own the Classic One MKII. 

A beautiful piece, sonically and ascetically. 

@slaw It appears that "not a lot of money" to you means spending as much on interconnects as I did my DAC.  I'm certainly open to exploring interconnects and appreciate the benefit of your experience, but it'll take a much more budget cable to convince me of the potential improvements before I jump in at that level.  The W Audio power cords cost less less than $50 which is why I gave them a try.

I do have the silver plated BJC digital audio cable from the Bluesound Node and the DAC.  I think I'd consider replacing the stereo RCA cable between the DAC and amplifier as a first step as I believe that there's a lot more potential for improvement on the analog side of things.

I have the the Orchid DAC that uses the 5670 tube also.  One of the biggest sound improvements I've made is the 5670 to 6922 adapter and some NOS 6922 tubes.  I would think the tube would work in the Maverick DAC also if there's room.

Dr Robot....o


The BJC cables are excellent value…but…you can do a lot better for not much money. Anticables, PBJ Kimber, Audioquest all make quality rca cables right at $100. Free improvement idea: get all your digital gear node, dac, hard drive, etc on the conditioner but not on the dedicated power circuit, plug the Pathos into the dedicated circuit on the wall. Use a very heavy extension cord to get the digital stuff  away from your pathos power. Finally for about $15 buy Jim Smith’s book Get Better Sound.

Congrats ! you are getting there, enjoy the music..

For grins, check out Burr Brown Op amps, i am not a fan…but..many are..

@danager I did consider trying an adapter with a Mullard tube, but Tube Depot only has a 5670 to 6922 adapter and not the other way around.  Based on the lack change from the stock GE to the WE 396A I wouldn't expect a significant change from a switch to a 6922 type.  I certainly could be wrong, but then I'd have wasted the coin for the WE 396A and I am not ready to admit that and move one :-)

@tomic601 Interesting idea for the power setup. The other available outlet supports my home theater gear, so I’m not sure how well that would work out.

I purchased the Maverick Audio TubeMagic D2 DAC with the Burr Brown OPA627 op amp upgrade. The dual discrete Sparkos Labs op amps were a clear upgrade in the DAC.

I don’t think my setup would support the rigid anti cables products.

I just purchased Audioquest Chicago interconnects to play with.  I had a little Christmas money burning a hole in my pocket...

Ebay 5670 to 6922 adaptor

That tube will wear out (mine did) and the 6922 option sounded better for less money the WE 5670 replacement


@tomic601 The Audioquest Chicago interconnects showed up today.  I put them in and am so far enjoying them.  It'll take a bit of listening to really evaluate them, but I'd say that they are smoother and have a more visceral presentation compared to the BLC interconnects.

I have not done any A/B comparisons between the BJC LC-1 and Audioquest Chicago interconnects beyond the initial switch, but I can say that my system sounds amazing and I do consider that the Audioquest cables are an improvement.  I'd describe it as sounding a little smoother, a little fuller throughout the mid range, and a little more visceral presentation.

I've been sucked into A Life of Tango by Alfredo Marcucci the past two nights.  The first ended with a power outage and the second when my wife came downstairs for the evening since she finds the CD annoying.  I have not really listened to it since the power cord and interconnect changes.

Any recommendations for a similar level Audioquest digital coax cable?  The voodoo rabbit holes continues.

I put the Audioquest Cinnamon digital coax cable in my system last night and I can't say that I immediately noticed any difference.  I only listed to one song prior to the swap and then again after before going to bed, but I might be able to convince myself that the result was positive.  At this point I'd definitely put it in the range of placebo potentially having an effect.  I don't consider that placebo was in play for the power cord or interconnect upgrades.  The only thing I can say with any conviction is that my system sounds as good today as it ever has without question.

but I might be able to convince myself that the result was positive.

The industry counts on this.

I replaced a digital cable with a Audioquest Carbon coax, and noticed a improvement, but the coax it replaced was 25 years old and cost only $30. :-)

@secretguy Indeed they do.  The digital coax is certainly not something that I'd look at upgrading further based on my experience, but I'd choose the Audioquest over the BJC if I had to keep only one.  I didn't really expect any improvement from it, but since I was surprised by the power cable and interconnect upgrades I figured that I'd give it a try in my system.


@mr_m That's quite an upgrade in price point.  What led you to jump in at that level?


I just started using that old coax again because with the new dac I bought I was now able to use it in my system for the first time in years. The recommendation for the Audioquest coax was from a fellow where I had purchased it from. He had tried several cables and considered it the best choice. Along with discount I felt the price was reasonable.


As for sound comparison the AQ. did what most upgraded cables do for me, that is significantly smooth out the upper midrange and take away glare and grain, something I'm very sensitive to. Overall it delivered a touch more detail too.