Used Prima Luna Prologue 2 and Klipsch Forte II or Totem Arro. Probably around $1500. Less if you are patient and wait for a good deal.
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One of my absolute favorite systems in that price range is the Audio Refinement complete with B&W CDM 1NT's. A fantastic set up when I had it.
I still own the audio refinement (this is my fifth one) although don't own the B&W's anymore. Just a simple great system that is good with female vocals, strings, acoustic music and even folk and bluegrass.
I've had a number of moderately priced integrateds and I would completely agree with S7horton on the recommendation of the Audio Refinement Complete. Another fine choice would be any of the Creek integrateds, like the 4330.
Then spend all the rest of your money on speakers. Ones I've enjoyed in your price range are the Meadowlark Kestrel and the Soliloquy 5.0. Harder to find but wonderful for the money are any of the speakers built by Ruark or Castle.
I have had very good luck with an Audio Aero Prima integrated amp driving Soliloquy 6.2i speakers . The AA amp is a hybrid , a tubed pre section into a mosfet amp .
The Soliloquy's are a 2-way floorstander that are quite smooth and on the warm side , very good synergy together .
Purchased carefully , this combo can be had within your budget .
Tvad: I have never heard of Prima Luna Prologue 2 and Klipsch Forte II but I did read various discussions regarding the Totem Arro. I've been told that they have great soundstage and that they can be slightly on the bright side with wrong component matchup. This may be a great fit for me since I have always preferred bright to a dark sound. I've heard that tubes go well with Totems and that these Arros require a lot of power. Also, is it true that a tube amplifier will cost more than a SS amplifier of similar performance?
S7horton: ARC is one of the amps I am considering. In your opinion, how would you characterize the sound of this amp? Is there any weakness to this amp? I'll be sure to check out the B&W CDM 1NT. Thank you for your suggestions.
Sfar: Creek integrated (4330) vs ARC. What are they main differences in terms of sound signature between the two?
Meadowlark Kestrel and the Soliloquy 5.0. I'll definitely check both of these out. I know there is not set rule regarding this matter but within a certain budget, what is the rule-of-thumb regarding the percertage that should be spent on speakers/power/cables? Thanks!
Audiokinesis: Maggie MMG for $550 new? That's a great price. I'm definitely going to buy all my gear used from this site. If these become available here I'll be sure to consider them. What kind of sound would you ascribe to these speakers? Thanks.
Saki70: Audio Aero Prima integrated amp driving Soliloquy 6.2i speakers. I'll be sure to read more about them. Thanks.
I can live with something that's slightly bass shy since I'm so used to it but I absolutely need excellent treble extensions . I love the sound violin and anything that compromises the sound of instruments is something I would like to avoid. This is a great site for a newbie. Thanks for the advice everyone. Please keep them coming! :)
Of course there is a weakness to an amplifier that listed for $1000 and can be had on the used market for 500. It doesn't have the high end sparkle, it's not extremely powerful, and it can sound, at times, too warm.
But, for the price and the power, it's fantastic. The best I've heard in that price range. I haven't heard it all, but I have had:
Musical Fidelity A3
Musical Fidelity x150
Antique Sounds Labs 1003 DT
Pathos Classic One MkII
Anthem INT 2
Musical Fidelity A308
Musical Fidelity puts out some great integrateds in my opinion, even if they do update their equipment every six months. But, none of those (except the A3) can really be had for 500 or under.