The Hub: Your newbie wants a system?

For most of the audiophile world, middle-aged duffers that we are, a "system" is simple to describe and understand in its basic form. You have a source: turntable, CD-player, tuner, tape deck; you have amplification, either an integrated or separate pre- and power-amps; and finally, speakers. Easy squeezy.

Question is: do your teenage kids/grandkids/neighbors/coworkers think of a sound-system in the same way? Probably not, given that they're used to gear that doesn't even have knobs or buttons. They're also used to expressions like "easy squeezy". I don't claim to understand, I just repeat what I hear.

Anyway, today's newbies have a lot of options available to them, some of which have only appeared in the last few years. I will attempt to muddle my way through the choices facing today's first-time buyers, but I once again welcome readers to share their own expertise, which is likely far greater than my own. I'm not as bad as Jay Leno's dad, who put a TV remote away in a drawer because he thought it might catch fire if he used it...but I'm close.

Unless your newbie is one of those discovering vinyl for the first time (more on that subject another day), the source is going to be digital, in one form or another. The simplest system will consist of an iPod or similar MP3 player feeding an amp; a way-cool and reasonably priced amp for such apps is this Class-T unit from Trends.

Earlier versions of the Trends TA-10 have been written up all over the planet, praising both sound-quality and build-quality. I've paid more than the $225 cost of this little guy just to SHIP an amp; the price of the Trends amp includes an AC adapter, connecting cable and a 2-year warranty! There's something appealing about conserving power, material and space, and this piece certainly does that. Pair its 15 watts per channel with some reasonably efficient speakers and an iPod (or iPhone!), and newbie can have a nice starter system for well under a grand; careful shopping might bring in a system as low as $500.

The next step up would be the iPod coupled to the Wadia 170i Transport, or a similar DAC-dock. The 170i bypasses the iPod's D/A conversion and output stage, yielding a cleaner signal to feed to the amp. The 170i even has video outputs and a remote control, allowing it to act as a music server. At $379 the Wadia is also a deal; it might still be possible to put together a system for a kilobuck, if one works at it. It's also an attractive unit, well made and not very big, in keeping with our modest aspirations.

A big leap up would be getting into the realms of NAS (network-attached storage), which can allow newbie to rip all of dad's CDs to a music server. One of the nicest is the Music Vault, which also handles hi-res downloads, unlike many units. Unfortunately, something of this sort takes the system well out of the "budget" range.

The options available in low-buck amps,CD players and speakers are legion, especially if newbie elects to go used. I can imagine a new digital dock front-end coupled to something like my thrift-shop system of a Sansui 5000a receiver and highly-efficient '70's Jensen speakers (grand total, $75); it would provide relief from earbuds and provide party tunes without breaking the bank. And it might even sound decent!

Brought a newbie into the fold recently? Let's hear what your recommendations were for a $1500-or-less system. Bonus points for systems under $100!
I used to think that I wanted a Wadia iTransport. But instead of going that route, I used my computer (mac mini) as a music server. I send it wirelessly to an airport express where I can add a DAC if I choose. I guess what I'm getting at is I don't see the point of the iTransport when you can do the same thing with your computer with one less step. Not to mention, if you are using an iTransport, you need to use a computer anyway - to load all your music.

I personally think that is the future of quality audio for youth.
I think many like the idea of all the storage being kept on an iPod. Obviously, files could be kept on both the 'pod and the computer, for home and mobile apps.

Either approach is valid; I think many find the task of setting up a music server daunting, and like the plug-and-play simplicity of the 170i.
I think the likes of Wadia and Music Vault are grossly overpriced marketed towards audiophiles with limited computer knowledge. Those of us who work with computers have known of this possibility, probably for a decade. I run a network-attached-storage, the Netgear ReadyNAS ($200-400), and listen to music on my laptop, hooked up to a USB to SPDIF converter ($35), and then to a tube DAC (mine cost me $1k, but obviously there are other options as low as $200-400). Software -- foobar2000 ($free).

To be honest, if I weren't so tube-curious, there are plenty of studio-quality sound cards for under $200 that could do analog conversion almost as well, and although the thought of plugging my AKG K702 directly into the laptop would probably bring shivers down a hardcore audiophile's spine, I find that for someone on a budget, you still get 80% of the quality without a dedicated DAC/head amp.

Thanks for the comments, although I think some manufacturers might find them a tad harsh.

Glad you've found a way that works for you; one way or another, we all have to. While I have a nice pair of Sennheisers HD 600s, headphones just don't do it for me.

Different strokes....
I think many like the idea of all the storage being kept on an iPod. Obviously, files could be kept on both the 'pod and the computer, for home and mobile apps.

Either approach is valid; I think many find the task of setting up a music server daunting, and like the plug-and-play simplicity of the 170i.

I agree either approach is valid, but maybe I used the wrong term. I wouldn't say that using iTunes is "setting up a music server". Which is really what I was referring to. If you use an ipod, chances are pretty high that you are also using iTunes to load the music. If you are, your "music server" is already set up. Nothing needed beyond that. You just need a DAC, just like you need a DAC with the iTransport.
Below are 4 different systems for $1500 or under with different priorities.

System One: Best for someone who wants the option of an Ipod for portable music as well as good sounding home system

Apple Ipod touch 32GB $300
Wadia 170i transport- used $300
Cambridge Magic dac-used $300
Quad 11L active speakers- used $500
cables $100

System Two: Best possible sound for $1500 home system

Apple iBook G4 30GB-used $300
Cambridge Magic USB dac-used $300
Quad 12L active speakers-used $650
PS Audio Duet conditioner-used $150
cables $100

System Three: Budget system for just $700

Apple iBook 12" 30GB-used $300
HRT Music Streamer dac $100
Wharfedale 8.1 Pro active speakers-used $200
cables $100

System Four: Best for someone wanting convenience. This system allows using the Ipod as a 'remote' for the system by connecting by Bluetooth to the dac as well as use of Ipod for portable music.

Apple Ipod touch 32GB $300
Chord Chordette Gem bluetooth dac-used $500
Dynaudio BM5A Active speakers-used $600
cables $100
Hi, Neal Van Berg here. I'm the designer and manufacturer of the Music Vault Servers. I confess that my servers cost more than if you started from scratch and built it yourself. On the other hand if you are not the DIY person and want a turn key solution with support if you have problems then the Music Vaults are a bargain. The other thing is the Music Vaults all deliver world class performance at their price.

I think Audiogon is for Audiophiles regardless of budget.