upgrade advice for budget-minded beginner

I was looking for some advice on possible upgrade paths. I'm new to this A'gon community and want to get the most out of my "investments" since I'm a college student with limited funds. Currently, I have B&W 602s with an old Denon DCD1000, Yamaha M-60, and a Kenwood pre that needs to go. My noise floor is just awful, the highs are very forward and bright, and alot of music sounds lifeless and overtly digital.
I was considering the Onix reference 1/SP3/XCD88 combo for $1500, but wasn't sure if the Ref1's would be a huge step up from my 602s thus justifying the purchase. Also, I've never heard a tube amp, and although the characteristic naturalness and soundstage abilities seem to be what I'm looking for the supposed lack of woofer control and low wattage make me a bit nervous.
Another option I was toying with was keeping the Yamaha M-60 and adding an Eastern Electric Minimax preamp and possibly CDP to my setup hoping to take the edge off the highs, open up my soundstage, and eliminate background noise.
Basically, I was wondering what people that have more experience with this hobby think would yield the most "bang for the buck" in my situation. I want a deep and broad soundstage, natural sounding mids, musical highs, and authoritative bass but don't want to spend an arm and a leg to get it (like everyone else, I'm sure!). I'd appreciate any input, and am sorry about the length of the post.
Sounds like you have a well thought out upgrade path and have done some research. Congratulations on using some of those research skills that got you to college! If you think you might like to try tubes you may want to consider one of the Jolida integrated amps (the JD-202 is a great place to start). THey hold their value fairly well if you want to upgrade in the future and simplify/consolidate the system. Plus with all of the different EL34 tubes available and mods you can stay very bussy tweaking within a tight budget. As for CD players you can get lots of good stuff in the $300-500 range. Find a dealer that will let you take the stuff home before you buy it. The only way you'll know is by listening in your room with your speakers.

Good luck and happy hunting!

I would focus on replacing your power/pre amps with an integrated amp. There are two that I would recommend with no hesitation:

1. NAD C320BEE (solid state; $400 list)
2. Prima Luna Prologue 1 or Prologue 2 (from $1095 to $1345).

I own both amps and have written reviews about each amp and posted them here on Audiogon (review #'s 1038674345 and 1109673309). Both amps are exceptional performers in their price range and would do fine by your B&W's, which are good speakers.

Depending on your budget, if you decide to upgrade your CD player, the Music Hall CD 25 ($540 list) pairs beautifully with both amps as well. If you would like to go with a CD/DVD player; I have been very impressed with the SONY RDR-GX300, a cd player/dvd recorder that can be had for $350 new. The SONY is not at the Music Hall level, but it is not so far behind either.

Regards, Rich
I would second the NAD for a budget integrated. Plus teh 320BEE gives you main-in/pre-out for future amplifier/preamplifier upgrades. Not really the same sound as a tube integrated but a great value no question.
definatly go as far as possible with the CD upgrade.
I second the Music Hall CD25. It's an excellent CD player for the money.

I also agree with going for an integrated amp. I would recommend one of the Jolida's, especially the Jolida 302b (tube integrated, my favorite of Jolida's line). You would have a killer system with the Jolida and a Music Hall cd player. This integrated will also tame some of the brightness you've been experiencing, while also taking care of the lifelessness.

Good luck!


i believe the onix cd player you are considering is mechanically the same as the music hall cd-25. i can tell you from my own experience that the gear put out by onix is really excellent. if you are concerned about budget, the onix solid state integrateds are also excellent bargains. you can get a b-stock a60 for $299 at av123.com. the a60 is as good as or better than alot of the more popular "budget" integrateds out there (audio refinement, nad, etc.). i also second the recommendations for jolida integrateds... very good sound, and excellent resale should you want to upgrade or change in the future.

if av123.com has an in home trial available, i would go for the package. i've read nothing but good things about each of those components, and my experiences with onix equipment has been resoundingly positive.
The Eastern Electric M520 integrated just made the cover of Hi-Fi World UK.

A glowing review.
Well, Ethanh had the Onix xcd-88 in mind then why pay $240 more for the Music Hall CD-25, same unit. If you want to tame the brightness the Onix or Music Hall wouldnot help without mod. The Rega players in this case would be better choice. I agree with the Jolida upgrade path. Happy listening.
I will chime in here and say that no specific piece by itself is worth recommending, because it is the whole that is important. It is my philosophy that the speakers and the source (CD or LP) are the most important links in the chain, and the amps and wires are secondary. If you like the sound of your speakers and you have grown accustomed to them, then keep them. The NAD is a great suggestion, as is the Marantz 7200. They have flexibility and a good clean sound for the money. I would have you spend most of your money on the CDP because if you get something you really like now, you will keep it for a long time. You might consider the Njoe Tjoeb 4000 which is a modded Marantz, although the Music Hall has a great sound and is a great piece for the money. Don't neglect the room for your setup. Even the best system will sound bad if the room and acoustics are bad. Good luck and let everyone know how it works out.
Hi Ethan,

No need to go integrated and lose upgrade flexibility.
If you do go integrated, Plinius is the best sounding for the money.


Easy to sell at same price if you change your mind after a while.

Go for better known and musical pieces like:

PREAMPS: Dump the Kenwood pre. for $200 you can get an Apt Holman preamp. Vintage and solid state but very smooth and musical. Well made. Not plastic junque.
For $500-$600 the tubed Conrad Johnson PV-10 or 10A. Smooth, musical, holographic, newer, reliable.

CD: Dump the Denon CD. Any Rotel is much smoother and more musical. NAD not bad but there is better out there. Music Hall CD-25 is a nice one for a bit more $$$. Don't do Theta. Forward and aggressive sounding to me. Or if Denon has digital out, add a DAC such as my Musetex for sale at $450. Or older Audio Alchemy is cheap, smooth, musical.

POWER AMP: Yamaha not bad. Try it with the CJ preamp before changing. B&Ws do agree with tubes but more power is better. And very expensive.

WIRES: Cardas or Audioquest. Buy the best you can afford but Cardas Neutral Reference or AQ Python will make a world of difference.

SPEAKERS: I like B&Ws and yours are fine as is for now to me.

Al Slater from Plateau Audio (lion)
Hi Ethan. Rich's advice (Rar1) is excellent, as usual. Notice that he's talking about your front end. For many of us, speakers are the last thing to upgrade. This is because it is easier, musically, to live with speakers that partially reveal a great source, than to live with speakers that let absolutely all of an ordinary source come through.

If the Onix is really the same as the old Music Hall 25/Shanling CD-S100 I used to have and traded to my brother for a nice guitar, go for it. It is the best you can find for the money, even including vintage. Upgrade the power cord when you can, it will like that.

I like the NAD C320 BEE so much, I bought... no not the company, I bought three of the amps. If you are an audio phool you might get more pleasure out of buying ( and restoring ) vintage for the same money, but the NAD is simple to use, does all you need and sounds great. If you are a borderline phool, it is tweakable, with better jumpers, power cord and terminals.

Note that this combination of source and amp is not going to cost a whole lot. Easy to find too. You can get the C320 BEE used here ( and maybe the CD-25 too, but for only a tad less than the Onix new ).

Once you have all that, plus cables, your next upgrade step will be... no not the speakers. Start all over again at the source, and work downstream through the amp. Then you can change the speakers!
A good rule of thumb to follow when upgrading is to listen to the system in your room before you buy (if possible). I would also say that speakers determine the huge majority of what you hear, w/preamp, source, and amp coming in second, third, and fourth. (I would not sink any money into fancy cables, as cables are for the most part a ripoff.) Third, not all tube equipment has a warmer sound, and tube equipment can often be slightly noiser than SS. And above all else, trust your ears over the opinions of others, fancy ads, or reviews, as many an Audiogoner (myself included) has fallen for the ol' "If the experts think it sounds good, it must sound good" trap. Good luck!
I would get a better pre-amp and see how things sound. Consider the excellent solid state Nakamichi CA-5 Pre-amp. The Denon CDP would come next. I wouldn't necessary disregard older CD players. Rotel's RCD-855 is a great CDP. Don't laugh but my CDP in my main system is an 1986 NEC CD-650. Had an a chance to audition the Thule CB-150 CDP and was very impressed. You never mentioned your cables. This is extremely important. I'm using a mix of cables and IMO the Wireworld Oasis 3 is a fanastic IC for the $. You really don't need to spend a whole lot. Good advice from all the previous posts. Good Luck!
there is a partially upgraded Jolida 102b tube amplifier; it is one of the better chinese tubed units available. Would be surprised if not already sold at it's 375 price. This unit responds very well to basic parts upgrade as it has a good basic design and good transformers; just cheap part to hit a price point. With about 20 watts on tap I'd give it a try with your B/W speakers; you might like it. This is an integrated amplifier with a real active preamp section with four line level inputs so you would replce both your existing preamplifier and amplifier in one cheap fell swoop.

You can do upgrades to the unit (better capacitors, power supply mods, NOS tubes) down the road as your budget permits. Response Audio sells these units modded and stock and will also work on yours. You should be able to find them with a search.

The simplest way to "tame" you bright sounding CD player (which most are until you hit serious money) is to acquire a decently priced digital converter with a tube analogue output stage. The three units I would recommend, from least to most expensive are:

a) California Audio Labs Sigma II...exc entry level unit with single triode tube (12ax7/ecc803s) in output stage..has one optical and one coaxial input..price for a sigma II, which is extremely rare, would be perhaps 300 give or take 25 bux.

b) California Audio Labs Alpha.....this unit was the more expensive model and uses a pair of triodes in the output stage....Alphas are regularly up for sale for between 400 and 500 depending on if the original box (a real good one for shipping) is present, or not. This model has an AES/EBU (xlr) intput in addition to the coaxial and optical.

c) California Audio Labs Alpha with 24/96 board....this is the hard to find one....only way it was identified was by a label on the rear of the unit. That, or an inspection of the innards by somebody familiar with the product. This one soundds better with standard CD recordings; dunno why but it does. This one will set you back probably 600 if you can even find one.

California Audio Labs is long in the dustbin if audio history so if one fails you may have an issue getting it repaired. Might want to stick with the Sigma due to its low cost.

d) Audio Note DAC 1 Signature...this is the older (not the 1x) model and is very, very nice sounding and really takes the edge off of digital recordings. I had one for ten years and recently replaced it with the current Audio Note 1x Signature. Probably 550/600 but they rarely come up

e) Audio Note 1x Signature...the recently discontinued small chassis unit is very nice sounding, too, and has the non oversampling technology of the current models that replaced it. I bought one some months back for 700 inc shipping from Singapore; very nice unit but moved it along when I got hold of the current version at the Right Price.

Don't worry about your CD player until you listen to it with a decent quality tubed dac; you'll be surpised at how much better everything will sound.
If you're willing to buy used, and I highly recommend it on a budget, here are a few ideas of items in the classifieds right now. I would pair an original Rega Planet cd player at around $275-300 used (an outright steal at the current used prices) with a Naim Nait integrated for around $500. Or alternatively instead of the Nait try a vintage tubed integrated like one of the many Fisher Models for $350-500. With upgraded components you might find your speakers a bit more to your liking, and you can always upgrade them later when budget permits. Good luck and happy listening!
thanks for all the advice everyone.
The integrated tube amp idea was what I originally planned, and yeah, I was aware the XCD88 is identical to the Musical Hall player which is why I thought 1500 for a 40x2 tube amp, CD player, and two sets of monitors (Ref1 and Ref.5) seemed like a killer deal (if anything I could give away the cheaper pair of speakers for Christmas). The only reason I'm skeptical is because
1) I've never heard of "Onix" and am afraid it's some cheap, chinese crap.
2) My B&Ws seem pretty power hungry and I wasn't sure if 40 watts per channel would be enough. My Yamaha stays in Class A until about 20 watts but can go up to 160 and still more complex music tends to sound compressed at high-ish volume levels (could be due to the pre, but I'm not sure).
I know my Kenwood preamp is crap and needs to get the hell out of my system, so I'm really just debating on whether I should buy a bargain pre like the Eastern Electric or a CJ (was considering a Dared but I'm scared they're even crappier than I imagine them to be) and see where things go, or just spend the extra cash now and change nearly everything.
As far as cables go I figured as long the right AWG was used it didn't make a difference. I'm using generic 14AWG speaker cable and 3ft. car audio RCAs. I just figured there wouldn't be an audible difference from cables with a lower-end system like mine.
Again, thanks for the help and I'd be happy to hear any more suggestions.

The Onix is not cheap, Chinese crap, at least not any more so than the dozens of other well regarded companies that have their manufacturing done overseas. Onix used to be a very well regarded British outfit, and made some really great gear, including the A60 and an almost legendary tuner. I believe the company went bankrupt, and the name and product designs were later purchased by av123. Obviously, the A60 and A120 still exist, but the other products are new designs by various people. The tube integrateds are actually manufacture and designed in Australia by Melody (the solid state integrateds are, I believe, still made in China), and I can't tell you about the speakers. However, if build quality is your concern, I really don't think you have anything to worry about. I've seen and heard a few Onix pieces, and they are great bargains, simple as that.

On a final note, cables will definitely make a difference, particularly when you upgrade your components as you are planning to do. It would be a shame to get great performing products, only to limit them by using inferior cables! There are, again, quite a few sources for excellent, budget cables. Signal Cables are available here for very reasonable prices, and Paul Speltz's Anti-Cables seem to be getting very favorable reviews. You could wire your entire system for less than $100 from these two sources.

Actually, one more final note... I have no affiliation with the above products and/or vendors. I've been a budget audiophile for several years now, and just passing on some of my positive experiences with these products.

Good luck, Ethan, and happy listening.


As a side note, I have been using the Prima Luna Prologue 5 (power amp @ 36 wpc @ 8 ohms) with Acoustic Research 302 speakers. The AR's are a 3 way, 10" woofer; acoustic suspension design speaker and have an sensitivity rating of 85db's @ 8 ohms. In my living room which measures 25 X 15 X 8.5, the Prima Luna drives the AR's pretty loud without distorting. And granted my perception of loud may be different than your perception (comes from living in an apartment house).

I believe that your B&W's check in at 88 or 89db's. Doubling the sound output equates to 3db's, so your B&W's will play louder than my AR's with the same power (give or take). So, you should be OK with a 40 wpc tube amp. You will often hear that tube watts are different than solid state watts (which is not intuitive by any means), but in practice it does seem that a 40 wpc tube amp plays louder than a 40 wpc solid state amp.

Admittedly I am not a big fan of most B&W's, but I always liked the 600 series. If you do go with tubes, perhaps consider pairing them with high efficiency; no crossover speakers. A speaker like the Omega Super 3 , which lists for $540 pairs nicely with tube amps. There is not a lot of bass, but everything else is very musical and dynamic.

Regards, Rich
The Onix SP3 is cheap and Chinese, but it is far from being crap. I've had this amp for a week now and this unit with the Onix Reference 1 LE monitor speakers and Onix XCD-88 CD player could hold its own to a Conrad Johnson CAV-50, Arcam CD73 and Joseph Audio Reference monitor system that I considered buying. I'm glad I saved my $4,000 and went with the Onix system. It looks better and offers better pace, rhythym and timing than the C-J integrated (which I would still be happy to own if I didn't own the Onix). Also, the Onix SP3 allows me to upgrade the power cord and I can tube roll and put in EL34 power tubes (a la the C-J Cav-50) if I want that romantic, lush tube character.

I'm using my cash surplus for other goodies like a DAC and Mac Mini for a PC music source.