You're going to get a lot of input on this. Here is my 2 cents worth.
There is a Naim 32 preamp and Nap 160 amp listed here for $600. There is also a pair of Linn Kan I active speakers with a Naim active crossover (Naim Naxo) at $995. Find a used Sparks power supply and your CD player of choice and you are there.
This is a very compact yet superb sounding system that will retain it's resale value. Naim North America has very good service available on all models and Linn provides service as well.
I'm going to get some grief for saying this.....but in following the Audiogon forums for a year now Linn and Naim are rarely mentioned or recommended. These manufacturers must really rub the audiophile community the wrong way. IMHO the pieces I mentioned may be the best buy at the moment here at Audiogon.
I would spend the rest of my funds on a Sony CD player and Chord interconnect for the same.
What speakers do you intend to drive with your amplification choice? The amp and speakers have to be mated correctly. Your description of goal, types of music, etc. in your plans like you might like a decent Push/Pull tubed amp or even a Single Ended Triode amp. BUT, you should have fairly efficient speakers for the PP tube amp (8 Ohm, 90 dB) to drive, and you MUST have very efficient speakers for the SET amp (14 Ohm, 97 dB +).
Were you thinking along the lines of an integrated amp, solid state, tubes? Tell us more, and you'll get better advice.
I've actually heard Naim mentioned quite a bit in my queries. I also picked up a copy of Listener magazine (recommended to me) and they cover the Naim 32.5 preamp as a tremendous value in vintage hi-fi. They seem quirky enough for me to like them.
I agree with lugnut. You can't go wrong with that Naim 32/160 pre-power combo for $660. You can get a nice Rega Planet CD player for under $400. Pair this with your choice of inexpensive speakers and you've got a wonderful system. Rega, B&W, Linn, Mission, all make some nice inexpensive speakers that are suposed to sound good with Naim gear.
The nice thing about the old Naim gear is that the value is stabilized. The values are even starting to rise on some items. I think this is due to the fact the Naim still services every model, no matter how old.
I forgot to mention you would need another NAP 160 for the active arrangement. Still, it would be inexpensive, killer sound.
I would definitely consider Ayre because new they are over $3K but you can find them here for just over $1K. I bought mine new and have done the upgrades. They are super quiet and have exactly the sound characteristics you are looking for. You can listen to it all day long.
I suspect Naim is overlooked cuz their stuff is ugly and appears to be mid-fi (I know better, just an observation though). Linn...so many folks are anti-Linn for a few reasons. Ivor is an insufferable egotistical moron, and many Linn owners have drank the Koolaid and refuse to acknowledge there is anything else worth owning. The arrogance is turn-off. For what it's worth I would suggest you give YBA or BAT a listen, they tend to have a warmer sound. Solid state with a pseudo-tube presentation.
Another line of electronics that might appeal to you is McCormack. Every piece from the Micro units up through the big amps and pre-amps is a great value and has an understated look that's very attractive, at least to me. A used DNA-0.5 amp and TLC-1 pre-amp for a total of around $1,300 is tough to beat in solid state gear.
Depends on how old you are willing to consider going and how much you ultimately want to spend, but older Threshold and Conrad/Sonographe gear is very nice overall. I have a Sonographe SA 250 amp mated with an old Threshold FET 2 preamp and it works great with a total investment of about $900. Add to that a Sony ES CD player or the Rega mentioned above and you have a pretty solid front end.
The Sonographe was much smoother than the Adcom GFA 555 it replaced. There are also some great reviews out on the Adcom GFP 750 line pre amp but that piece alone will probably set you back $800 used.
Dear Jeff, Ivor may be insufferable and egotistical, but "moron" is not a term applicable to him. Also, in many cases that I have personally seen, the "Ivor Koolaid" was the antidote for the poison and belly-ache that audiophiles got when they bought inferior equipment at higher prices from other dealers. I understand the frustration people show at the arrogance of many Linn dealers, especially in the early days. But the products are very good. Not the absolute ultimate, but better that alot of stuff that costs more and has high "salon appeal". I usually try to mention this when the subject comes up. Too many blame the products for the sins of the company owner/dealers.
I, too, would recommend that Linn/Naim gear that Lugnut saw in the Audiogon classified.
What about the speakers? Don't we need to know what sort of speakers this guy is going to try to drive first before we can carry on with a slew of amp recommendations?
Have you set a budget?
If so how much?
Cables and innerconnectors (power cords maybe also) need to considered. Depending on the system I'd recommend at least trying to figure out a minimum wiring budget right from the get go.
Is it unreasonable to say a minimum of $500 for a beginning set of cables and innerconnects?
Should you choose the speakers first?
I belive that when you're building a system you first need to get a quality source. Put a large chunk of your budget there. Then move on to a good solid amp. If you've puchased the best sounding source and amp you can afford it's possible to use a pair of well designed, but inexpensive speakers. This type of system should be one based on expensive speakers with a lesser source and amp.
With all due respect to Gold001, I would suggest the opposite. Decide where you are going to be when listening. In another words, your room and listening postions should be considered first. As speaker to room interaction is probably the most variable consideration, consider speakers second. As speakers have particular needs, consider amps third. Consider preamps fourth. Sources fifth. Cables last.
First and foremost... Budget first. (And don't forget about cables in the budget. Many beginners do.)
Room size / configuration second. The speakers should be appropriate to the room.
But the source components are the most important purchase!
Source components will sound good in any room. If they don't they are junk.
Likewise good speakers are good speakers. (What sounds good to you?)
I agree the cables are the least important but as stated earlier make sure they are part of the budget.
If you are married ascetics can be important when it comes to having your partner as a willing participant in the world of musical entertainment.
Is an equipment stand in the budget?
Here is my 2 cents Andrew...You are right, high price does not necessarily mean high quality and good sound. A good CD player is the Cambridge Audio D500SE, for about $300 used, this is a great buy. It can do 24/192. For speakers check out www.zalytron.com .They have a kit using a 6.5" Seas driver with the Raven R1 tweeter in an MTM configuration for a sensitivity of 93-db and overall impedence of 4 ohm. Range is about 42 Hz--30 KHz .For your Amp i would strongly recommend the Decware Zen84C-Select SET tube amp. This amp costs about $700 new, used maybe 400-500, but it's a GIANT killer and it has a volume control, so no need for potentiall coloration from another equipment (the pre-amp in this case). This combo, even with the audiophile cabinet from Zalytron will cost you, I am guessing here, probably $2500-$2700 TOTAL. But get ready to get your socks knocked off. We are talking natural, involving sound that will make you forget you are listening to reproduced music! Your equipment will be as transparent as possible without sounding bright at all and they will pull a disappearing act...Try it
If you're looking for new equipment, the LFD Mistral integrated amp has gotten nothing but positive feedback from very respected people. Musical Fidelity products also tend to have the characteristics you mention.
If you're looking for used gear, I would echo the McCormack suggestion for several reasons. First, the equipment is well made, sounds great and is available used online at ridiculously low prices.
Second, you wanted a manufacturer with integrity and Steve McCormack is as good as I've found. In my experience, he is very free with his time, knowledgeable, helpful, and always available via email or phone.
Third, his products allow you to easily upgrade for modest prices. He has several levels of revisions for his products. You can also simply upgrade by inexpensively adding another amp to your system and biamping.
Fourth, I don't think I've ever heard of anybody having a mechanical problem with McCormack gear. I'm sure it happens, since we're dealing with electronics, but I just never hear it unlike some other manufacturers.
If you have been out of the loop for a while, I think the most interesting new stuff is coming from TacT.