Disclaimer: I'm selling a pair... but for looks, it's hard to beat the Shanling SP-80 tube amps, and of course the Shanling CD-T100 player is just as special. Maybe they would be your boss' style if the Sims were out of the question.
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It sounds like your wife wants something that is inconspicious, given how it is going to be used. Why not consider an all in one piece like the Arcam Solo which is solid state or the Audio Analogue Enigma which uses tubes. Either piece will run you a max of $1500 new, which frees up a lot of cash for speakers.
As for speakers, I like the Focus Audio FS 68se which have both sound and looks to die for. They run about $2000.
As a caveat; my requirements were similar.
Minimal footprint (unobtrusive), no spikes allowed, most excellent sound. (high WAF).
I'll put the music enjoyment factor of my combination up against anything in the price range.
Blue Circle NSCS integrated amp. (www.bluecircle.com)
Shahinian ARC speakers (www.shahinian.com) They've been making speakers for a many a year. Their products are loved in Europe.
The synergy is outstanding. The sound unfatiging.
You have lots of options, but you will first need to decide on the speaker in order to determine what kind of amplification you need. For instance, there are lots of great amplifiers that are nearly invisible, like the Redwine Clari-T or Scott Nixon Chip amps. The are tiny and can be hidden easily. However, they are low power and would require an efficient speaker.
If a small discrete system that sounds great is the goal, it can be done for well under your $8000 max budget. Here are a couple of choices:
1. Arcam solo driving the speaker of your choice (Disclaimer: I haven't heard the Arcam, I'm going off of reputation)
2. Decware Zen Select tube amp, cd player of your choice driving a pair of Parker Audio 95s. The Parker speakers are designed to work with the 1.5 watt Zen tube amp and they are very good and they are a narrow floorstander. The stock speaker is not the worlds best looking speaker, but it is also available as a kit and could be built in your choice of finish.This system could cost well under $3000 and it might be much better than you would expect.
2. A quality CD player w/built-in remote volume control driving a pair of Active Speakers. A nice combo might be a Resolution Audio Opus 21 driving a pair of Quad 12L actives. This system would be discrete(hide the CD player, no amp required) and would likely sound fantastic. Used price would be less than $3200.
Personally, I think it will come down to the speaker you require to meet your esthetic requirement. From their, the amp/souce choice can be decided.
If you happen to choose a MUCH LESS expensive option, the Redwine Audio modified Sharp SD-EX111 is excellent and is an all-in-one. If you can find one, it might cost under $500. Add a decent speaker and you are set! It also has a tuner as a benefit. I own the stock Sharp SD-EX111 and it is possibly even sufficient for the low-volume requirement. They cost under $200 if you can find one.
I was in the same boat, and found the following setup. The wife approves, neighbors and friends are in awe (total speakers + cd + integrated amp priced around $4000):
- Jolida JD100 & 1501RC = about $1,500 new for the set (looks great and matching looks for cd and int amp keeps wife acceptance high)....plus can upgrade to multi-channel Jolida setup with DVD player in future
- Tyler Accoustics Taylo 7U in Rosewood (used for about $2500)...thin design, front ported floor standers w/o need for black stands (my wife factor would not allow black stands...wouldn't match cherry furniture)
- Bob Timberlake cherry finish furniture (GREAT match with the Rosewood Taylos)
Thanks for your responses.
"a Consonance Droplet to a Wavelength Duetto feeding a pair of Cain and Cain speakers"
I thought about no pre, and the Consonance would make that possible - but - will the sound suffer?
A one piece would probably please my wife, but probably not me. I have never heard an Arcam piece that held up next to same priced competition. I just have never been impressed.
Speakers - I'm really thinking Salk vs. Tyler. But both of these manufacturers make floor standing models that are no bigger than their small monitors with stands. Wouldn't I always (usually,anyway) get more/fuller sound out of the bigger box - all other things equal?
IMO the Manley Stingray is a stunner. It is not to everyone's taste so be sure to show it to her first. But everyone who has visited my home, even the non-audio folks, have spent time admiring and oohing and aahing over it. It is unique without being glitzy, which is hard to pull off. Add incredible sound, modest cost of ownership and a very affordable price, and what's not to like?
when used with the variable outputs ... the tube output stage is analog and will operate similarly to having a tube preamp ... cannot imagine that using a preamp, even a multi-thousand dollar one, would make an improvement.
the Duetto is a classic and will provide awesome sound for years and Cain and Cain speakers are museum quality pieces
Personally, I don't think you need a pre-amp if you get a quality CD player that was really designed to work well connected directly to an amp. The Resolution Audio Opus 21 really sounds great connected directly to an amp and the added transparency more than makes up for any potential (I've never heard any) loss of dynamics. Plus the benefit of space savings is a huge consideration in a place where looks are concerned. Heck, you could even get the Resolution Audio Integrated amp that matches and have a very good compact system.
I've owned Tylers and I've seen Salks on several occassions. The Salk is in a different league when it comes to looks. The Salks are stunning where-as the Tylers are merely acceptable aesthetically.
You may be shocked at how good some of the tiny chip amps or swithcing amps sound when driving an appropriate speaker. Some very expensive systems would be embarassed by one of these systems. If the goal is discrete, these could work, but if the goal is to look rich or impressive, they won't.
I've heard Cain and Cain Abbeys on a couple of occassions and they are OK, but did not impress me. They are very attractive IMHO and I wanted to own a pair, but they just didn't meet my expectations. I haven't heard the more expensive C&C speakers.
I love the aesthetic qualities of the Droplet, but haven't heard it. Would love to own the Duetto. They are built in my hometown. They also retain their value and a used one could easily be purchased, auditioned and resold at zero/little loss if you didn't love it. Of course, the Duetto would not power the Salks or Tylers.
Enjoy the hunt and let us know what you end up buying.
I'm partial to the Pathos Classic One MKII tube hybrid integrated amp(soon to be released MKIII). One of the most beautiful integrated amps I've seen. It sounds better than any pre/amp combos I've tried over the years! Your system would be super looking with the droplet and the Pathos!
Pathos is coming out with a stunning looking cdp as well.
Sonus Faber makes some beautiful speakers!