System Reset

Just though I'd share my journey with my fellow Agoners as I essentially start over with my system. Any suggestions/input would be greatly appreciated.

Hitting Reset

Every once and a while there comes a time to overhaul to system. Hopefully it’s an exercise in getting closer to the music without spending a fortune. I have long accepted the fact that there is a law of diminishing return in audio and that taking that next leap in musical satisfaction will come at a considerable cost once a certain level of system sophistication is attained…or does it? That’s the fun of this passionate quest for musical bliss, putting together a terrific system without mortgaging the house.But being the stubborn audiophile that I am, I refuse to give in. I might accept the fact, but that doesn’t mean I like it. What I usually end up with when trying to elevate the system on the cheap is taking a lateral versus a vertical move. I get a different flavor, but not an elevated experience.


One night while listening to some new LPs I planned on reviewing I simply got bored. No matter how much tweaking, cable swaps, repositioning, cleaning, etc.…I just got bored. If my system had a mind it would know that boring me IS NOT a good sign. This resulted in a hiatus from listening for two months! The system that once propelled me into musical nirvana now hardly raised an eyebrow. This attitude peaked on Super Bowl Sunday when we had guests over for the game and we decided to “jam” during halftime. We threw on Gratitude by Earth, Wind, & Fire and the system never sounded so flat, dull, disjointed, just simply bad. If it weren’t for the fact that my guests aren’t audiophiles, the mediocrity of the sound did not disappoint them. In fact, they were so enamored with sound coming out of these large panels (Maggie MG3.6r) that they enjoyed it immensely! But for me, I couldn’t wait until the game started gain so I could get out of the room! Something had to be done and it needed to be done quickly. I need my music fix and not listening is not an option.


So my hiatus began. My first step was reassessing what I wanted from a system and if I had the proper components to deliver what I wanted. What I want from a system is simple (not cheap). I want to be so close to the performers that I can reach out and touch them. I want to be immersed in the musical performance. I want to attach myself emotionally to the performance. I want to be more than a casual listener. I want to be moved and stimulated. All of this I want, yet obviously I wasn’t getting it. I assumed that I had gotten used to the system and now that the new had worn off, I began to detach emotionally from the equipment and listen to what is there, not to what my brain is telling me should be there. This filling-in-the-gap listening process is probably what kept this particular assembly of components around as long as it did. Mind you, there were the usual signs, shorter listening sessions, sometimes going days without listening. Even my lovely wife (a beautiful audiophile widow), knew something was up. When I start exhibiting these behaviors, she knows to expect boxes to start going in and out of the house in short order!


My first assessment was the Maggies. I began to realize the discontinuity between the ribbon tweeters and the panels. Listening to two separate transducers never became so obvious to me. The lack of midbass was also an issue. I didn’t want to position them around the room (short wall vs. long wall) so moving them back and forth, switching tweeter locations, toe-in, etc. became an obsession. The more I moved them it seemed the farther from ideal they became. The next, and probably the most bothersome was the incompatibility with my love for point source loudspeakers. The last dissatisfier was their need for power. As impressive as the Ghent audio amplifiers were, they are what I would now call a “Hi-Fi Spectacular” amp, not musically accurate. No matter what combination of interconnect or speaker cable I tried, I couldn’t get the reach out and touch transparency I wanted and what I had read the Maggies were capable of. Being that I had a budget, getting mega-watt tube amps to feed these beasts I surmised was out of the question. So my solution was to get rid of both and pursue an amp/dynamic speaker combination that would get me closer to the musical truth. You may ask why did I but the Maggies in the first place….good question. I like a big soundstage, but with pinpoint imaging and I’ve heard some of the most magical music through Maggies over the years. In fact my first hi-end speakers were Maggie Tympani 1D’s! With the 3.6r’s I got big for sure, but pinpoint imaging…not even close. So up for sale they went. The Maggies sold in about 2 hours, the Ghents in 2 days.


Having a love affair with Totem Acoustic speakers I made my mind up to find some good Mani 2 Signatures. I’ve heard them without mega power and they sounded quite nice…as I remembered them. As providence would have it a pair popped up and I purchased them. The amplifier used which impressed me when I originally heard the Totems were Quicksilver M135s. I knew I would have little luck in finding those, but again as fate would have it I found a pair of Quicksilver V4 at a giveaway price. So I assembled the new speakers and amps expecting a flash to the past filed with musical truth. What I got instead was anything but! Wow, the Totems just didn’t click at all and I have their dedicated stands which are filled and weight 75 pounds each. No dice, no bass or dynamic swing. I got that imaging though, but no bass. Given that the V4’s were current I decided to keep then and quickly move on top another speaker after a week of suffering.


Back to researching I went. I went to the local dealer to listen to Vandersteens. The model I liked were $14K…that’s not going to work…so back to reading I went. Then I happened upon a thread about the new Scansonic loudspeakers. Call it luck or destiny, but a pair of Scansonic MB2.5’s popped up, again at a giveaway price, so I took a chance. They arrived in mint condition and hardly played. So while I was at it I said to myself, self…the Calypso may be getting long in the tooth and the Line Magnetic LM515CD was getting little use as a CD player, so I began looking for dac/preamps. My short list included the PS audio Directstream which had been on my bucket since its release. The others that caught my eye were the Mytech Brooklyn and Manhattan (Both of which have phono sections and I need DSD)…that led me to think…hey maybe the Fosgate is expendable, too! So yes, that went all to new homes along with the Ghent and the Maggies and lucky me a PS Audio Directstream came up at a desperation price! Of course I purchased it. Then PS Audio sent me an email saying the price of the NPC went from $1899 to $999. This is only significant due to the fact that when I purchased the Fosgate it was a tossup between it and the NPC. (I already had a DSD recorder.) So I got the NPC.


Next was the preamp. I wanted transparency, tubes, and expansiveness…nothing new. Only one placed I looked towards and that was Audio Research. Lusting after their preamps since the glory days of the SP-10, I kept an eagle eye out. The debate centered around which to buy. Do I get an old Reference…very old actually in my budget…or a newer current production unit? After toying with the idea of a Reference 2 MKII, but running low on the budget, I fell into a “like-new” LS-17SE. Another no-brainer and yes, I’m listening to everything as I write this.


Writing alone is a clue to my nirvana since it’s the music that inspires me to write/review/listen to music. Ok…I’ll admit that it’s been less than a month and I’m still in my new system honeymoon period, but I’ll be doggon if I’m in a space I’ve never been before. My system notes so far…

  • All the hype surrounding the Scansonic MB 2.5 speakers is true. They disappear like mini monitors yet have A LOT of midbass…not low bass, but mid bass. I stuff the ports with insulation to tame the 100hz peak in the room. This has worked wonders. I let the Pioneers supplement the MB’s which I run full range. The Pioneers are set to ½ gain and 40hz, placed in the corners. Pinpoint imaging. An expansive soundstage, sharp transients, and reach out and touch clarity (above 100hz). The tweeter is special to, probably its strongest point. It reminds me of the Volent tweeter I so miss.
  • The Quicksilver V4’s DO NOT sound like classic tube amps. No muddiness, slowness, or bloat. Utter transparency is all I can say. They have exactly what the Ghents lacked…musical realism. Timbre is spot on and imaging is impressive. I’ve not gotten the urge to tube roll, though I substituted the JJ KT88 for EH KT88s when I received them because they were poorly packed and the tubes were broken.
  • The PS Audio Directstream is the real deal…all that I could have hoped for and more! Used directly into the Quicksilvers I heard a level of transparency never realized before. Its as if many veils have been removed between me and the music. I expected an improvement over the Line Magnetic LM515CD…no slouch in its own right, be goodness, this is jaw dropping! The DS is in another universe by comparison.
  • The NPC phono preamplifier, while it has its benefits and sounds ok, its no more than respectable. It certainly has enough gain (72db with the Zyx), something that the Fosgate lacked with the ZYX 4D. I have it feeding the DS through IS2 It’s certainly not better than the Fosgate it replaced. It almost sounds like a mono preamp as everything played through it lacks lateral dimensionality. It’s quick, dynamic, and quiet, and has bass…not too tough when using the 4D, but in comparison to the holographic nature of the Fosgate there’s no contest.
  • The Audio Research LS17SE does what its supposed to do. Let the magic shine through. My concern was that the transparency of the DS would be harmed by this preamp. I’m glad to report no such destruction happened. I needed a way to feed the Tascam for needle drops and it fits the ticket. I also needed balanced inputs/outputs and this has them. Couldn’t be happier now. I was worried about possible thinness with the 6H30 tubes vs 12ax7s in the Calypso (yes I was using NOS this and that, blah, blah, blah….), but it just preserves what going into it and is way more transparent than the Calypso as well as much quieter. What more could I ask?


So where do I stand now with the system?

  • As I begin to ramp up reviewing again…still getting used to the system, there are some changes I’m going to make. I’m returning the NPC for a better phono stage. It is by far the weak link in the system! I played Tin Pan Alley via Tidal through the DS and compared it to phono…the timbre was very close, but the Tidal version had wall-to-wall air and spacing. The NPC had everything jammed in the center with much less separation of instruments. There were more difference but this is what stood out immediately. I don’t know what I’ll get yet, but I’m looking.
  • I need subs and good ones, too. I’m not a bass freak, but I like bottom end. With the current setup the MB’s don’t go low enough, ports stuffed or not, and I’m looking for subs that won’t mess up the transparency I now enjoy but fills in the bottom oomph that’s missing. The Pioneers are still amazing, especially for the money, but I consider them bass augmentation, not subwoofers.
  • I’m still figuring out how to connect Tidal through the Bridge II which is supposed to offer even better sound. That would be awesome!
  • I want a new record cleaner. The gentleman that purchased the Maggies told me he’s working on a ultrasonic record cleaner with vacuum drying with a target price of @ $1400. I’ll be looking forward to that. In the mean time the VPI 16.5 will continue its ritual.


So now I’ll continue to listen and enjoy my newfound musical system. Will it be subject to further improvement? Well of course! But now that law of diminishing returns is really kicking in hard I’ll have to spend wisely. As the budget increases I will be purchasing Wilson Audio speakers to replace the Scansonics. But for now I’ll settle for being mortal and enjoy what I have for the moment. I have purchased so much new music I’m looking forward to adding to my recommended jazz list.


"But now that law of diminishing returns is really kicking in hard I’ll have to spend wisely. As the budget increases I will be purchasing Wilson Audio speakers to replace the Scansonics."

I really enjoyed reading about your audio journey, but this last sentiment has me scratching my head.

Here’s why: "Back to researching I went. I went to the local dealer to listen to Vandersteens. The model I liked were $14K…that’s not going to work…so back to reading I went."

Wilson over Vandersteen? Really?
Yes. The Vandy's while intoxicating didn't move me like the big Wilsons.  It's obvious I buy used and used Wilsons like early generation Maxx can be had for less than new Vandys I auditioned. But this is from my memory....I heard them many years ago and they left that "one day I'm gonna get these ", impression. Heard them in DC the day after seeing Stanley Clarke at Blues Alley in Georgetown.  The Vandys  at least in this too small room with heavy acoustic treatment driven by 50K of Audio Research at an authorized dealer, sounded Hifi spectacular. The Wilsons, driven by top of the line VTL, took me there! I left with the same impression as when I first heard the Levinson HQD system at Sound Components in changing....breathtaking...I lost my audio virginity!

I'm going down to Wilson dealer today to begin listening process again. Haven't  heard Wilson in a while so I may or may not get that same feeling.  My tastes have certainly matured over the years so I'm now very hard to impress.  I'll f/u with my experience and see where it leads. 

By the way, I had Stanley's East River Drive Cd when I auditioned the Maxx's. With Stanley's performance fresh in my head, even my wife was surprised by the similarities.  The guys in the shop hadn't  heard Stanley on the Maxx'so and they came into the room to enjoy also!

I might not be an audio expert but I know my music, jazz in particular. I'mean gonna throw stuff at the Wilsons today the likes I'm sure they haven't heard that is assuredly not the usual audiophile drivel.  My short list of tunes will include
1. Aaron Diehl
2. Christian Sands
3. Wynton Marsalis - live at blues alley, an amazing live recording
4. Blue Note Critics Choice

This is the first trip. Second trip will focus on vocals. Subsequent trips will focus on acoustic recordings....the new Coltrane A Love Supreme on vinyl is amazing.

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When i have a week i will read this.
ebm3,240 posts05-05-2016 12:57pmWhen i have a week i will read this.
I'll be thinking about this all night.
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Thanks for sharing your journey. I liked reading about it. 
 ebm post removed. whatta bummer indeed. lol

Mike, well written, a nice journey you took, and shared with us. :)

However, I will politely disagree with you. I had the same perspective as you; I thought I was bumping against the top end of sound quality, where the "law of diminishing returns" kicks in, with moderate systems. Exposure to finer gear in my room convinced me of two things;
1. The spectrum of performance is much greater than I had presumed, and 2. I had to spend more to reach it. Trust me, nothing else would have motivated me to spend more, had the performance not been there.

The law of diminishing returns seems to me as less an absolute, and more a value judgement.  :)

BTW, the Maxx 3 was one of my favorite speakers at a few shows.  

I was disappointed by the fact the the local Wilson dealer only carries limited models of Wilson. Thery're more of a home theater company. However, I did decide to order a Audio Alchemy PPA-1 Phono pre w/external power supply (PA-5) for audition. Funny that I chose this path, but when I was stationed in San Antonio I used an Audio Alchemy Phono Pre (Vac-in-the-box) with a Kiseki Blue Goldspot/Project 6.1 TT. Was quite pleased with the results. It went into a Reference Line Preeminence 1B passive to Airtight ATM-1 driving Totem Model Ones. Actually I was a bit more than pleased...quite satisfied. But life and war interrupted things and....

Anyway, seeing Audio Alchemy come back with a more ambitious Phono pre is something I look forward to auditioning. I'll compare to PS Audio NPC and comment.