Oh, the frustrations of the speaker search


Yesterday I had a nice opportunity to audition a couple of speakers I felt fit my potential budget and listening preferences. To clear that up:

Budget = $1,200 MAX
Music preferences = 70% prog metal/rock (Tool, Opeth, Dream Theater, Rush, etc.), the rest is a mix of female/male vocalists, movie soundtracks, jazz.

The speakers I went in to audition were Golden Ear Aon 3's and PSB Imagine B's. The shop had an Ayre CD player connected to an NAD C 356BEE integrated amp. Tracks used for demo: Alison Balsom (Trumpet Concerto in E Flat); Tool (Forty Six & Two); Porcupine Tree (The Sound of Muzak); Zac Brown Band (Free); Hans Zimmer (Man of Steel - Terraforming).

My impressions: the Aon 3 ribbon tweeters were doing some really cool things in the treble region, but I didn't like the timbre up there. The midrange was very distant, lacked PRAT, but smooth. Bass was very present (most bass I've ever heard for a bookshelf), but had a rather "bloated" sound to it. I just got the sense that the midbass was bleeding too much into the midrange, causing the lack of presence in vocals and guitars. Soundstage was very nice, but not a whole lot of instrument separation going on. Decent in the detail department. Imaging was solid.

When he switched to the PSBs, I immediately noticed a more defined, taut bass section. Not as much quantity as the Aon 3's, but much tighter and cleaner, IMO. I preferred the midrange handily with the Imagine B's, but definitely noticed the glariness of the metal dome tweeter (as compared to the ribbon in the Aon 3). Overall, I felt the Imagine B was better balanced and the midrange had much more life (positive sense) to it. Soundstage was maybe a bit less in width, same in depth. One thing that I felt was lacking, though, was instrument separation. Imaging was solid.

It was at this point that I felt truly torn. These speakers did things so differently that I really had no idea which one I'd go with (if I had to choose). What made this even more complicated, is the salesman placed a pair of Aerial Acoustics Model 5B on the stands...

Crap. I was glad and mad at the same time after listening to these speakers. Immediately apparent: INSTRUMENT SEPARATION!!! Details, clarity, resolution, timbre. All those words started flooding in my head. Truly balanced sound with a beautifully rendered midrange. Absolutely no glare or harshness to the treble (despite being aluminum dome tweeters...implementation!). Bass quantity was nice, but actually sounded muddy (was very surprised by this).

In the end, it made me realize that even a $2000+/pair speaker can have its flaws (granted still being run by a mid-grade integrated in the NAD). So now I have a reference point, however I don't know if I'd ever be able to achieve that kind of midrange/treble bliss at my price point for the genres I enjoy.

I realized, in the end, that I can live with some bass misfortune (as it can be corrected by cables, electronics, placement, room treatment, etc.)...but I really MUST have that type of midrange/treble that can be so well rendered and discernable, while also being able to ROCK.

This search just got a lot more complicated...
heywaj10
Wait till you see what happens when you hear them in your room, as room acoustics will also have a strong effect on the performance of a speaker!
For prog/metal/rock in particular if you liked the little GEs and PSBs, stretch your budget a bit perhaps, maybe consider speakers with larger drivers and or cabinets and maybe even a tad more efficient where possible. Little speakers will struggle to deliver the power and impact that ones typically wants with that kind of music at reasonably high volume levels.

I've heard both the PSBs and the GEs and I think you summarize them quite nicely! I think the Aeon 3's in particular to be a very good value for a speaker that size and price. The polite top end of the Aeons could help make for longer listening sessions without fatigue with that kind of music. For their size and price, hard to beat. But bigger may well be better in this case, if you work to find something bigger that can fit in your budget range. More efficient may be nice also, again, depending on what amp will be used and room size/acoustics.

What amp would you be using?
For that kind of music mainly, a pair of classic OHM Ls could be hard to beat. These are front ported and use an 8" woofer, and two tweeters, one low, one high range, and a simple crossover design. They are awesome with prog/metal music! I still have my original pair bought in 1978 that I rebuilt myself recently. Opeth, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree.....this kind of music excels on these still! Not too shabby for the rest either, though large soundstage and imaging is harder to coax out of these than many more modern designs. A used pair on Ebay in decent condition could cost less than $200. OHM still reffurbs and supports these and sometimes can provide refurbs with modern drivers and components in refurbed cabinets for just a TAD more than their orginal $500/pair price tag back in the 70's. They are OHMs best selling model ever. Worth consideration maybe. FOr power and glory with that kind of music, neither the GEs or PSBs with their smaller drivers and cabinets will hold a candle.
Two words: "Used Frieds" available often on the Bay. They are not sexy, but they will do everything you want and more. If you can grad a pair of A3s, Q4s, or Q5s, you will love them guaranteed.
fwiw

my NAD 325 was a bit bloated and warm in the bass and rolled off on top. It was still very musical but colored to these ears and it would not surprise me if the 356 had a similar tonal balance.
Mapman: I've thought of the OHM Walsh Micro-Talls and the Tekton Lores. I don't think I'd have room for something the size of the OHM Ls. My fiancee and I are in the beginning stages of house hunting. Chances are, I'll probably have (at best) a 12x14 room to work with, I imagine.

This was my initial reason for thinking of just going bookshelfs. That being said, my concern with the Tekton and Ohms would be instrument separation, detail retrieval, and bass impact. I imagine both excel with bass impact by design, but will detail be strong and will there be a high level of instrument separation, so not to get more of the "wall of sound" that usually accompanies speakers ~$1000?

Amp-wise, that will be a decision made depending on the sound of speaker I choose. Because of this, I fear the prospect of being able to audition Ohms and/or Tektons in-home, only to potentially have to return (if disliked) and pay the restocking fees + shipping costs. That's not a small investment for a "trial" in the case it doesn't work to my liking.
See if you can find a pair of (used) Totem Sttaf speakers for sale. Great sound from a small floor-standing speaker. Incredible range and solid construction.
Micro walsh talls should perform well in a room that size. I have slightly larger 100s I use in my small 12X12 rooms, and they are a perfect no compromise fit there. That size might come refurbed from OHM in Walsh 2 cabinets perhaps like mine if available at the time close to your price range, less maybe if you can find used.. I also use a pair of Dynaudio Contour 1.3mkII monitors in that size room, and those are exceptional as well, with perhaps just the slightest room to benefit from a sub. Those used would fall in your price range. I could see Goldenear Aon 3's working pretty well in a room that size as well. Aon 3 sound reminded me somewhat like OHM Walsh sound but with more polite top end due to folded horn/Heil type tweeter and smaller sweet spot, and less robust low end.
Personally I wouldn't place any judgement on any speaker when you are powering it with a low price integrated. Pretty much you aren't going to get a great sound with a cheap amp. If you only have a very limited budget you should consider spending most of it on a really good amp and get whatever speaker you can with what is left. That is the way I would do it. I would far and away prefer to have a 300 speaker with a 2500 amp than the other way around. I'd steer clear of NAD they just don't sound all that great in my opinion.
I get caught up in your descriptions of the recordings that infer you listen to acoustic music to evaluate good sound, yet most of the selections are Prog Rock groups with the exception of one classical piece. Using selections that are recorded extremely well will do the best job of bringing out the good and bad points of the equipment in use.
You are apparently a good listener, so that is half the battle. as for getting a great amp and a mediocre speaker, most people would recommend doing just the opposite. I started out with SAE equipment, then Hafler, and finally scored
a used Levinson 23.5 (after saving up for quite a while). My speaker evolution went from ADS bookshelf to ADS floorstanders and finally to B&W's. Patience was the only thing i had in abundance- that and a clear goal to get high-end gear sometime in the future.
BTW, the ADS speakers were damn good for Steely Dan but not as good for Metallica. But they did jazz and classical music wonderfully well given the price level. And since You mentioned Aerial Acoustics- this is the same guy who designed ADS back in the 70's & 80's. I am certain they can do justice to bass frequencies. As for an amplifier, a used Rowland model one (60w/ch) in good shape could be a great tool to drive a good speaker.
but... these examples are
pieces I would consider. You need to do a lot more listening- just don't deny yourself the experience of auditioning some REALLY good equipment so
you know where you want to go for now and for later on.
Interesting responses so far. Without knowing anything about your room or your gear, but based on your mix of musical preferences I would have suggest you check out the following:

1- Vandersteen (new or used, whichever model works in your room)
2- (used) 80s-style speakers: JBL L200 or Cerwin Vega xls-28
3- A pair of Klipsch Cornwalls with replacement (steep slope) crossovers
4- Maybe a used set of Dynaudio Audience 82s
5- Something new from Tekton Designs or Zu

There are probably hundreds of other choices, including the ones mentioned by others, above.
If you are looking for small speakers, consider a pair of Totem Model 1 Signatures. Great bass for small speakers, nice sound in all registers, image very well. Need a good amount of power.
BTW, I had to work hard to get any of my newer, "better" speakers to deliver prog rock like the type the OP identifies as well as my OHM Ls did quite effortlessly. I had the Ls standing in as my mains during my last speaker upgrade to newer and pricier OHM Walsh models. The Ls, with an 8" bass driver and being a tad more efficient and limited in absolute low end extension, just worked well with the amp I had at the time (A Musical Fidelity A3CR), especially for that kind of music. I had to make a much larger investment in amp especially to get as good or better performance with the newer, larger, more full range OHM Walsh speakers (Dynaudio monitors also, but to a lesser degree).

OHM Ls + the same NAD integrated heard would do VERY well and for minimal cost. The urge to upgrade might only come in if larger scale classical music becomes a focus.
French_fries: A bit confused of your first statement, as I noted in my OP that I listen to 70% prog rock/metal. I even omitted bringing some of my "harder" stuff knowing that some compressed recordings may not help me evaluate the actual nature of the speakers. The music I used in this particular audition gave me a good range to listen to and understand how these speakers perform across the board.

Good point, however, on the importance of auditioning REALLY GOOD equipment. I just don't know how good is feasible for my future budget. I may not be able to push past the $1,000 envelope for an amp once that time comes.

In terms of auditioning, though, how does one really draw significant conclusions about specific equipment? Often times, different equipment is in different show rooms (not to mention stores), with different speakers, and different cables, etc. I for sure will not have the free reign to go through the merry-go-round (WAF) to continuously swap in/out different components in home for audition.
There is a lot of good advice here, let me add my own. Consider getting a copy of Get Better Sound by Jim Smith. His set up advice has made major improvements to my systems, both stereo and home theater. He deals with so many topics, there are bound to be items that will improve your set up. Some of his recommendations may be rather long term, or seem extravagant, like his idea of having either stereo subs or none! I had two mono subs, SVS 13 Ultra, crossed over at 40HZ. I didn't think going stereo would matter, but it did! Please yourself as far as specific speakers, but consider this book will let you improve your overall experience.
Your negative impressions of the Aon 3s indicate that perhaps they weren't broken in yet. A flabby bass and recessed midrange can be two symptoms of that. When I heard the Aons my impression was the opposite--transparent midrange and clean, tightly defined bass (as well as the smoother treble you did hear. It could also have to do with speaker placement and system matching. GoldenEar is also coming out with their new Triton 7, an all-passive floor stander with MTM driver array on the front and passive radiators on the sides. All for around $1300/pair.
...and here is MY bit of advice. Listen to as many speakers as you possibly can - in and out of your budget. You will eventually learn what pleases you and will know instantly at that point that the speaker that puts a smile on your face and a tap in your feet is IT.
>> If you only have a very limited budget you should consider spending most of it on a really good amp and get whatever speaker you can with what is left. <<

Wow, I doubt I have ever read a worse piece of advice ever given here. The differences between amps are *vanishingly* small when compared to the differences in speakers.

I would recommend quite the opposite - buy the best speakers you can afford and then find a suitable amp to drive them. You don't listen to the amp, you listen to the speakers and the interaction between the speaker and the room you place it in...

-RW-
Stringreen & Rlwainwrite

PLUS 2
LOL! whoever said that purchasing a loudspeaker was going to be an easy task?? No, it simply isn't for all the reasons you mentioned. The lower your budget, the more compromises in the design which will impact the sonics. Thus, your budget is meaningless when you have decided what criteria the speakers must have namely:
I realized, in the end, that I can live with some bass misfortune (as it can be corrected by cables, electronics, placement, room treatment, etc.)...but I really MUST have that type of midrange/treble that can be so well rendered and discernable, while also being able to ROCK.
It probably will be possible to find a speaker in your budget but it most probably will be used & you might have to buy it unheard.
Rlwainwright's advice is correct IMHO.

And, above all, hardly anyone has paid attention to Rcprince's advice - that is the key. You've only heard the speakers at the dealer's. you have yet to get them setup in your own room. They probably will sound different (often worse) in your room & you'll be back to square-1.

The best that you can do is to find a speaker that is mostly agnostic to the electronics it hooks up to. No way around the room - every speaker interacts with the room & some are meant to interact very heavily (such as AudioNote speakers which are put against the wall deliberately to reinforce bass OR linearray speakers which use the floor & ceiling to make the baffle practically infinite).
A flat impedance & flat frequency response speaker will be mostly electronics agnostic. This will remove 1 variable & the interaction with your room is what it is. You'll need to acoustically treat it to get the response you want. Plenty of material on the web for that (a whole diff subject worthy of another PhD for you. Selecting a speaker will be your 1st PhD. ;-) )

Nobody can help you here as your speaker selection is for your room, your music, your budget & your enjoyment. We can steer you but you have to do the leg-work. Keep hunting! All the best!

06-27-13: Stringreen
...and here is MY bit of advice. Listen to as many speakers as you possibly can - in and out of your budget. You will eventually learn what pleases you and will know instantly at that point that the speaker that puts a smile on your face and a tap in your feet is IT.
That's what I often do, and not just with audio but with musical instruments, cars, quality footwear, etc.

Example: I test drive cars I can't afford, noting what I particularly like about these cars such as handling, ride quality, responsiveness and especially power delivery. Then I test drive the cars I can afford and pick the one that provides the emotional response most like my favorite of the expensive ones. It definitely works with speakers too, but you must be careful that the acknowledged deviations from the expensive exemplar don't become negative obsessions later.
I knew I might ruffle a few feathers saying to get a good amp instead of speakers. I agree that speakers make the most difference and contribute the most to a system. But I know for sure you can't make expensive speakers sound good with a cheap amp. You can make cheap speaker sound good though with a good amp. Cheap NAD amps or outlaw or any of the sub 500 amps just don't sound good. I've never hear them and I bet that is the problem. You hook any of those speakers up to a decent system and they will sound pretty good. You can make a pretty good sound happen for around 1000 used with an integrated amp such as the creek destiny or naim nait. But go to much lower and I don't care what speakers you have they won't sound good. If you only have a 1500 budget at least 1/2 should go to amp. If you have a 10,000 budget them you could spend 3x as much on the speakers and it would make sense. But bottom line is without a decent amp you can't make your speakers sound very good. The statement is a little extreme, no one is going to pair a 5k amp with 300 speakers but I contend that would indeed sound better than the opposite of that.
I disagree that speakers make most of the difference. I think the preamp makes the biggest difference. That is MO. It comes down to some system matching and that just takes experimenting with your own ears.
NAD is not that bad. SOme people may like it better than many others. Its definitely a good value! I use a very old NAD 7020 re3ceiver pre-amp section in my second system. It is my spare unit I use when needed normally when something else goes down, a pinch hitter originally, but it sounds so good that I have had no reason to take it out.

You gotta hear stuff in your room before you can know what is possible for sure. OPs gotten lots of good suggestions and seems to know what he is looking for, so it'll work out fine. NAD is a decent choice to run most any of the speakers mentioned in that price range pretty well. SOme (radicals like me) might even say it is not a bad SS alternative to an inexpensive tube amp, if that's what floats you boat. More so than many SS amps in that price range. Good luck!

Small speakers will limit the "power and the glory" of prog/metal/rock music in particular even in a small room (unless you add a sub maybe). I'm a prog-head as much as most anyone and have been there, done that. I'd get the speaker/room interaction right first. Almost any decent amp can drive most any small speakers with limited low end extension very well, though no two are likely to sound exactly the same. There are many very good choices that need not cost a fortune and lots of good information from knowledgeable people about them to soak in as well.
Thank you all for your well thought out responses and advice. It's certainly a long journey ahead. Forunately, time is on my side, as the new home situation isn't even resolved yet. I will try and follow the path of simply auditioning as many speakers as I can to see what flavors work best with my musical tastes.

Hopefully I don't go pissing off some audio shop owners/salesman for repeatedly visiting but purchasing nothing...here's to hoping!
Hey, FWIW, if interested in OHMs for a good price, now might be a good time to call and see what might be possible.

OHM Annual SUmmer SHutdown Sale

OHM Super Walsh 2.2000's on sale could be A VERY GOOD SNAG!!!!

I bought my F5 series 3 OHMs a few years back at this time of year. With sale price and max 40% trade in I saved over 50% off complete brand new speakers.

I also have a pair of OHM Super Walsh 100Series 3 refurbed OHMs I bought used on Agon for $600 a few years back. 2.2000s are newer and improved similar size drivers in the same (vintage Walsh 2) cabinets. They look exactly like the picture. Footprint size is very modest and these might leave nothing to want in a small room like yours if the price is right. if you talk to John Strohbeen, I'd recommend telling him exactly what you are looking for soundwise and describe your room, etc. That would help him steer you right. Good luck whichever way you might go.
This is a good thread I enjoyed reading. My experience is, the better the amp, the better the bass. Also, I have found that an excellent pre and power amp make even cheap speakers sound pretty darned good. I am an 'old prog' fan, Gentle Giant, Yes, Elp etc etc. There are just sooo many speakers I wouldn't know what to recommend but the PSB are not bad and should be considered. YES (thinking Close to the Edge or Relayer) sounds fairly good on my AR 11's but they are bigger than you want I think and definitely require a very hefty and refined power amp.
You might want to try the PSB Synchrony B. It is a step up from the Imagine series. I use the PSB Synchrony One, which has the same tweeter, and dont find any harshness. but I listen strictly to vinyl, and my Manley Steelhead phono preamp is tube based, so that might make a difference. In any case, the Synchrony B will give you everything the Imagine does, only better.
Ejlif, never say never because I did exactly that!

When I was in the speaker search, I bought a cheap pair of Cambridge Audio Sirocco S-30's to hold me over so I would have something on my system while I searched, and I was actually impressed with how well $200 speakers sounded with a $5K Bryston amp. It is a good gap solution so you don't feel rushed.

speaker selection is probably the most daunting task because of so many options and variables.
"06-27-13: Rlwainwright
>> If you only have a very limited budget you should consider spending most of it on a really good amp and get whatever speaker you can with what is left. <<

Wow, I doubt I have ever read a worse piece of advice ever given here. The differences between amps are *vanishingly* small when compared to the differences in speakers.

I would recommend quite the opposite - buy the best speakers you can afford and then find a suitable amp to drive them. You don't listen to the amp, you listen to the speakers and the interaction between the speaker and the room you place it in..."

I couldn't agree more. From my experience, hifi is about loudspeakers and their environment. The rest is pretty much incidental.
"From my experience, hifi is about loudspeakers and their environment. The rest is pretty much incidental."

Well, the rest can certainly matter, but not as much as getting a handle on room acoustics which includes getting the right speakers set up the right way. That's 80-90% of the battle for many (but not all, especially for "audiophiles" who tend to be looking for exactly a certain sound they deem as good or best).
Heywaj10, one thing to keep in mind in your search for speakers is what amp will be required to make that particular speaker ROCK, as some speakers can require much more from the amplifier than others. After doing a little research, it appears that from the speakers you auditioned, the Aerial 5B is the most demanding. Reviews of this speaker do state the bass as being well controlled. With its 86db sensitivity and recommended power of 50-200 watts, it is a possibility that the NAD may have just not been up to the task when playing with some volume. The only way to know is try them on a different amp. Another speaker that you made reference to is the Tekton Lore which has a sensitivity of 98db. Knowing that every 3db is either a double or half in power depending on the direction, and if we are using amplifiers of equal high quality, the Lore’s will only need 12.5 watts to have the same capability of the 5B’s with 200 watts. Here’s the breakdown on how I determined these numbers,
86db – 200w
89db – 100w
92db – 50w
95db – 25w
98db – 12.5w
Again, assuming the same quality, it is obvious that a lower wattage amp will be less expensive than a higher one, however there will be some exceptions to this.

So, do you blow your budget on amp or speakers? Neither, as they should be considered together. I have seen too many people buy speakers, only later to realize that the remaining budget was not sufficient for an amp to get the maximum performance. Also, a very high quality amplifier can play a budget speaker to its maximum, however overall performance will be limited by the speaker.

I absolutely agree that room acoustics will greatly affect the sound, but it is still important to have a good speaker/amp match, especially since you want to ROCK.
YEs, high efficiency speakers will go louder with less power, but you also have to figure in the bass extension.

Generally, smaller speakers that go lower with less drop-off and at higher volumes to boot without breakup or distortion require a lot more power, as indicated. That's where smaller, affordable, high efficiency, high power Class D amps come in. All the bang needed for most any speaker in a small package that need not cost a fortune in that the AMP is more efficient (as opposed to the speakers).

Smaller speakers that are highly efficient in general will not extend much to the lowest frequencies, where the most power is needed and efficiency drops accordingly. This is basic physics! For a high efficiency speaker to go low, it has to be larger to be able to pressurize air effectively at low frequencies with less power.

This is basic physics and good guidelines to consider when buying.

For prog rock music, you want speakers that are relatively flat well down in to the 40 hz range or so at a minimum, more if you want to catch all of Rick Wakeman's organ, etc. So larger more efficient speakers and less powerful amp or smaller less efficient speakers and more powerful amp, those are the two ways to go. You need smaller speakers with some low end that can achieve some decent SPLs (can't be TOO small and must be well built with good quality drivers to hold up), so you will need an amp that is up to the task. NAD is not a bad choice but I would be considering a 250 w/ch class D amp like those from Wyred 4 Sound possibly for the very best results with most of the smaller speakers that will likely fit your bill.
Mapman, my post was merely to get Heywaj10 thinking about the amp as he shops for speakers, rather than ignoring it, purchase speakers, and then think about it.

I have not made any recommendations on speakers, but will say I am somewhat confused by yours.
In your 1st post,
For prog/metal/rock in particular if you liked the little GEs and PSBs, stretch your budget a bit perhaps, maybe consider speakers with larger drivers and or cabinets and maybe even a tad more efficient where possible. Little speakers will struggle to deliver the power and impact that ones typically wants with that kind of music at reasonably high volume levels.

I've heard both the PSBs and the GEs and I think you summarize them quite nicely! I think the Aeon 3's in particular to be a very good value for a speaker that size and price. The polite top end of the Aeons could help make for longer listening sessions without fatigue with that kind of music. For their size and price, hard to beat. But bigger may well be better in this case, if you work to find something bigger that can fit in your budget range. More efficient may be nice also, again, depending on what amp will be used and room size/acoustics.
Seem to be recommending larger more efficient speakers, and I do agree they typically deliver more power, impact, and dynamic range at higher volume levels.
Then in your last post,
For prog rock music, you want speakers that are relatively flat well down in to the 40 hz range or so at a minimum, more if you want to catch all of Rick Wakeman's organ, etc. So larger more efficient speakers and less powerful amp or smaller less efficient speakers and more powerful amp, those are the two ways to go. You need smaller speakers with some low end that can achieve some decent SPLs (can't be TOO small and must be well built with good quality drivers to hold up), so you will need an amp that is up to the task. NAD is not a bad choice but I would be considering a 250 w/ch class D amp like those from Wyred 4 Sound possibly for the very best results with most of the smaller speakers that will likely fit your bill.
This post sounds like you are recommending smaller speakers with a class D amp that is twice the budget that Heywaj10 has stated for an amplifier.

Given the maximum budget of $2200 for amp and speakers, and being able to ROCK, it is probably best to stay away from speakers with the lowest sensitivity.
Tls, there are many ways to go within the general guidelines. The devil is always in the details. I was recommending OHM Ls specifically at first which use a larger 8" driver and are moderately efficient and can be had refurbed for half the cost of other speakers of interest because I think those are particularly good for the money for that kind of music in particular (I have a pair and have heard them on a good modern amp and system which makes a big difference over the typical Japanese receiver or integrated these used to be run off back then) and most probably do not realize those might even be an option these days. They sold for $500 a pair in 1978 and can be had for similar cost still today but with an updated design and modern drivers.
I do not agree that spending most of the budget on a good amp is the best way to go. I do agree that the differences among amps are marginal, when compared to the differences among speakers.

The first step is to get a speaker that has the characteristics that you are looking for. You should also consider that the room that you are talking about isn't big and it isn't going to be hard to fill it with music.

Personally, I'd be looking for a good pair of stand mounters. Generally speaking, a pair of $1200 stand mounters are going to be better built than a pair of $1200 floor standers. If bass is what you're worried about, then think about getting a decent sub woofer. In a smallish room, a little REL T3 would do fine.

The amp can come as an after thought. There are many good deals to be had on used amps for under $500 or so. What comes most immediately to mind are the Aragon 2004 and ATI 1502. I've also seen many other brands for sale here on Audiogon.

I believe that the speakers have more of an impact on the overall sound of the system than the amp does. If you have crap speakers, putting a $5K amp on them isn't going to make them sound good. You can't polish a turd.

On the other hand, good speakers will usually sound good, even with mid fi amplification.
Hey guys,

After some solid thought process going into all this, I think I'm starting to come through the clouds. Re-evaluating everything, I have a solid plan (which will obviously take some time to play out).

Step 1: Save for speakers, audition, audition, audition. Budget will up to $2,000/pair.

Step 2: Buy a receiver/amp that will suffice to begin with (even something from Craigslist locally for ~$200). Utilize my Bifrost from the headphone rig as my source. Sell off other items of the headphone rig to help pay for the speakers.

Step 3: Save for an integrated amp: I really have my eyes set on the likes of a Wyred 4 Sound STI-500.

Step 4: Save up for and upgrade the dac to a high*er end unit (the likes of Wyred 4 Sound Dac-2, or even Schiit Statement).

Step 5: Save up for a sub. Something like an SVS12 sealed.

With proper planning and budgeting, I imagine I could assemble such a system within a year or so (from the initial starting point). Not a bad deal. Obviously this is kicking my budget way up. However, I have a hard time with the fear of purchasing something sooner, of lesser quality, and having severe buyers remorse quickly.

The bear in all of this is speakers, which actually makes me wonder if I should swap steps 1 and 3, and skip #2 entirely. I think I truly need to first determine what "sound signature" I like with my music: forward with "pop" (i.e. bookshelf monitors) or setback with "openness" (i.e. planars, omnis). Oye.
If you have the room to place your speakers a good 4 feet or more in front of the wall behind them, you should go for the Magneplanar MMGs free in-home, satisfaction guaranteed trial.

I know you are suspicious about the likelyhood of satisfaction from at-home trials in general, but you should still consider an exception for these speakers because:

1. They are renowned for their spaciousness and imaging qualities.
2. They are renowned for being among the very best budget speakers available, providing "a taste of the high-end" and performing far, far above their $650/pair price.
3. They really do beat the living daylights out of similarly priced (and many higher priced) box speakers.
4. They are unquestionably resolving enough to evaluate upstream components critically.
5. They rock!

Besides the need for space behind them, they also have a very small sweet-spot when aligned correctly - i.e. pointed directly at your head. If you can live with those two requirements, you can live with these speakers, until you have already spent $4-5000 upstream, and have a similar amount to replace them with! ;-)
After reading about 90% of this post, I wanted to weigh in on the discussion. Although this viewpoint is the minority, I have to agree with Ejlif & Fingerpaws...your not going to make an expensive pr of spkrs sing with an inexpensive amp but you will make a good speaker sound absolutely great with a great amp.

A similar analogy is this: Several years ago, I went to an audio show and heard a beautiful SET amp w/a very good pr of single driver speakers. The sources were a 1985 1st generation technics cd player and a cheap Sony close and play crappy turntable. It sounded amazing.

If it were me, I'd continue to listen to speakers to see what you like. Also, are you looking for tubes or solid state? There are a lot of very good tube int amps coming from China these days that will smoke its solid state competition in the same price range. Also, the class D amps are very good as well.

I see you are also considering a 250 watt amp. How do you know that you need all of that power if you don't even know how big your new listening room will be? Regardless of what anyone else says, it's all about system synergy and Fingerpaws also hit it on the head when he said your room is most important as well.

One more reason that I agree with Ejlif is that you will get much more bang for your buck on used speakers than used amplification. Last year I bought an $1100 pr of Celestion 100's on ebay for $200 and an $850 pr of Linn Helix LS150's for $125, both are amazing monitor speakers. Good luck in your search.
In the end, it made me realize that even a $2000+/pair speaker can have its flaws

Write this down with the date, frame it, it will be something to cherish in the years to come.