"Vintage" high end gear vs new and upgrade path?

I'm pondering a couple issues that relate to each other.  Let's start with vintage vs new part.   The system is ripped straight from the 90's but was pretty much a Stereophile "A" class setup in its day.  Here it is: 

  • Rega P3 with numerous upgrades & Exact 2 cartridge (new)
  • Threshold FET10/pc phono preamp,
  • Sonic Frontiers SFT-1 => Assemblage D2D-1 ==> SFD-2 Mk3
  • Krell KBL preamp (recapped) ==> ML No. 332 amp  (recapped)
  • Maggie MGIIIa's (recent factory rebuild)
  • Music server (repurposed HP server) w/ Asus Xonar card feeding D2D-1
Issue 1:  Have >>analog<< electronics really improved much in the last 25 years?  My sense is that the lower and midrange gear is better, but does that translate to the high end?  This stuff sounds pretty damn good and I'm skeptical that I'd be able to make much improvement without spending vast sums of $$.  What would the weak link be here?

Issue 2:  Despite improvements in digital I'm also skeptical about how much real sonic improvement there has been in high end DACs, especially when it gets beyond 24b/96khz source material (system above is good up to 24/96).  I'm also skeptical about the claimed improvements from DSD over PCM, so I'm ignoring that for the time being.   Obviously connectivity, music servers, the digital audio chain and computer anything has improved greatly and is vastly cheaper than in 1995.  But how far does that actually extend to the sonics?  My sense is not so much.

At the end of the day I'm interested in any upgrade(s) that would create a real, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck improvement without spending $10k.  But I've convinced myself that so much of what I read about would be only yield an incremental sonic improvement, and maybe even a downgrade.  I need a strategy - which might just be "leave it alone and just enjoy."  Any comments welcome, thanks.
I also run an older amp, preamp & speakers (and it's magical), so can't advise you on newer stuff. I will say however some of the largest improvements I've made are tonearm & DAC related. Switched out my rega tonearm for an older Victor tonearm & it was a huge improvement in sound-stage definition, then switched that out to a newer Polestar, which was also an improvement. In regard to digital, I'm very happy with the new Parasound Zdac & old Pioneer stable platter combination. 
Those maggies are great i still miss mine yrs later . I ran krell on the bottom and cj tube on top with pv12 pre  it sounded killer . Still look for that airy sound . (With 2sunfires) I like it all , but with all due respect the anologue is your weakest link imo planers love a great anologue front end .Just  my opinion but i would look at room treatment,ac and interconnects and the top would be front end .
Speaking of Maggies, the Tympani line of Magneplanars is a special case. The speaker had become too expensive to manufacture to allow Magnepan to continue offering it without raising the speakers retail price above either A: what they wanted to (to keep their image as a value-orientated company), or B: what they thought the market would bear. They reportedly have admitted that the Tympani T-IVa was (actually, is---they are available used, and can still be repaired by Magnepan) superior to any of their current models, even the $14,000 MG 20.7. The cost to manufacture a Tympani model Magneplanar (three 16" X 72" panels hinged together per speaker) now would require Magnepan to price the speaker above what they are willing to, for the above reasons.
Go for it my friend.
I'm on your side.....
Now I'll tell you how to max out your analogue front end to give you better sound than most of the high-end crowd can even dream of.
Don't get the Rega arm but take boxer's advice and get a good vintage arm with removable headshell like the Victor he mentions or the Micro Seiki MA-505.
Then you get the Yamamoto carbon fibre headshell (direct from Yamamoto in Japan).
Then you get a used Shure V15/III from HiFiDo for about $230 (don't bother about the condition of the stylus).
Then you get a Jico SAS direct from Jico in Japan and insert it into the Shure.
Then my friend, you sit back and listen to sounds that you've never heard before......😎

From reading your question and revealing your impressions it pretty much mirrors my experiences and biases for the most part. I believe your analog front end could certainly be improved upon but at what price and are you willing to pay it?

I am of the firm belief that electronics HAVE NOT improved that much over the past 25 years, at least I can’t hear it. Passive components that make up those electronics certainly have in many cases. I currently have two vintage era components and they are have both been upgraded with newer parts, including capacitors, resistors, diodes, wiring etc with dramatic improvements. Of course the key here is starting with components that were good to begin with in which case you certainly have. Digital on the other hand HAS improved and might be the biggest bang for the buck improvement you can make.

Sometimes "better" and "improved" are really synonyms for "preferred". In my particular case I definitely prefer my upgraded 25 year old preamp compared to 5 different newer ones I’ve listened to in my system 3 of which are current. The upgrades made a big improvement but I wouldn’t have sprung the cost if I didn’t really like what I was hearing to begin with. So that should be the first question you might ask in going forward, do you really like what you have but want to improve on it? In which case it is a lot easier than switching out things to "improve" with a less certain outcome.

The points BDP24 makes are valid as well, some products made in the past would be prohibitively expensive to manufacture today although might be preferred to current offerings. In your case I would focus on less expensive tweeking that could certainly improve on what you have without overspending and see what happens. The key thing I have come to realize is that what at first may seem an improvement may later be seen as an unwelcome intrusion! Things aren’t always what they seem as witnessed by the constant "improvements" that audiophiles strive to achieve. Sustained enjoyment of recorded music should be the end goal and is the only thing that matters in the long run.

You'll be forever chasing your tail unless you establish a frame of reference. If it's the recreation of live music, for example, then what venue... a nightclub... first tier center Lincoln Center? Once you establish that then you can easily judge what component helps or hurts -- regardless of the sonic gymnastics or the technology. That's the best strategy I can think of and the one I've always used. I have been using the same speakers and amplification front end for over 20 years.

Vintage,  definitely the way to go :-)

Good Listening

I think the capacitors in the vintage gear has, for the most part, really been improved upon. Not sure about the circuits.

At the very least, replacing coupling caps in tube preamps is usually a big deal.

If I had a Sonic Frontiers 2 or 3 with upgrades, I would have a very difficult time finding any preamp I thought sounded meaningfully better.

As for PCM, I can't hear any better beyond 96/24. I seem to slightly like DSD better, but even with a DSD DAC, I whince at the file sizes. MQA for me is pure snake oil with no noticeable improvements I could not attribute to re-mastering.

What I will say is that the current crop of DAC's is usually always pretty smooth and dynamic. It's worth listening.


Thanks to all of you for your comments.  Seems like you're all kind of confirming my own feelings, or at least that we're all more or less of the same mind.  It's worth elaborating a little.....

I don't actually listen to the analog all that much and I'm no longer in the business of collecting vinyl.  I kind of view the Rega setup as "the capability to be able to play vinyl" rather than as a core listening mode.  Now, perhaps that's because the P3/Exact 2 combo just doesn't quite deliver (it's hard for me to swallow that the Threshold pre-preamp is a weak link).  In that case maybe I'm not really excited about vinyl because I haven't heard it right.  So, that said, I guess there's only one way to find out. :-)  Thanks for pointing out a pathway.

Digital, on the other hand, is 99% of my listening and another story altogether.  I can't say that I'm dissatisfied with it in any way.  The biggest variable, by far, is the quality of the source material.  When it's good the listening experience is jaw dropping.  It's fun to sit down MP3-listening youngsters and say "Just listen to this!"   They invariably react like they'd been seeing in black and white their whole lives and just acquired color vision.  It's a magic ear candy. 

Anyway, the digital upgrade path is still murky. The SFD-2 MK3 + D2D-1 combo was regarded as spectacular in it's day, but that day was long ago.  It's also pretty esoteric equipment - not many were made in the first place and they haven't actually been heard by many people.  Good luck finding a review for the SFD-2 MK3.  Comparisons with current or "better" gear are impossible to come by.   Comparing to older stuff, Mark Levinson No. 36 for example, isn't very helpful either (and I'd think that a No. 36 owner would be in much the same boat that I'm in.).  

Other challenges:  I'm gradually transitioning to my music server as the primary source.  The current system can handle 24b/96khz PCM, which is fine for my old ears.  But before shelling out  a lot of $$ I'd like to find some way to make educated guesses on what to look for.  Listening to gear in other systems is pointless IMO and I'm not really in a position to audition equipment - no local high end shops or audiophile community. 

Thanks again and keep the ideas coming!

Here's the perspective of a guy running 1988 Sound Labs and late 90s era Lamm amps: Digital servers/streamers and DACs have improved greatly and the computeraudiophile.com  community is a much more informed place to get up to speed than here. Yes, a few folks here are on top of it all, but there are many ways to get far better digital sound than when you built your system.
Since you mention using a server already, you are probably well positioned to take advantage of it all.
Many manufacturers offer home trials with inexpensive returns (e.g. 10% restocking fee) and if you are located far from audio buddies & dealers, it's worth going this route. When exposed to many DACs, servers & top flight disk players, I became convinced that improvements in this area are many and competitive forces have brought price/performance ratios far better than when Wadia, EMM & DCS were dominating digital playback(IMHO, a decade or more ago). 
Ethernet isolation, better digital filters, power USB implementations, better power supplies, more convenient control apps & more are all common. 
I want to be clear i wasn't saying anything you have is not great gear.I stated that imo  vinyl will make those maggie sing and if it were my upgrade path i would look at my tt cartridge 1st as the weakest leak in your system.( if your not into or willing to dive back into vinyl again i get it )We never heard about your cabling ,room treatment etc.The room acoustics are often overlooked and it puzzles me .In my situation and many others properly treating a room is like a major component upgrade and in most cases around a g..
Good luck
I like your setup 

I agree with Spencer's comments. They are both thoughtful and certainly worth exploring based on my personal experiences as well.

Yes, electronics have improved over the years. 

However, to benefit from such, it may take you well outside your established price point to see/hear a noticeable improvement.

I also agree that slight adjustments make more sense to me that huge large scale upgrades.

The TT arm and cartridge for instance.  The DAC.  DAC technology has greatly improved and you can find some really good used DACS on the market.

But, if it were me, I would listen to what I have and enjoy. When I hear something that isn't satisfying, causes listener's fatigue, lack of space, etc. I would slowly go down the one item at a time upgrade path until I am at a point where I am happy.

I coach high school track and field also and I always tell my athletes that there is always someone better, faster, can jump higher, etc.  So don't get caught up thinking and believing that you are the best. Maybe on that particular day you were, but...

In the case of audio equipment, there is always something out there that is better.  However, to get to that point may cost a ridiculous amount and (depending on the person) may not be worth it.

Listen and enjoy and go one step at a time.

I think your Rega arm and dac may be the weakest links.  I upgraded a Rega arm about as far as I could, but when I moved to Origin Live replacements, it made a huge difference.  IMO, the old Rega arm is good, but entry-level, no matter what you do to it.  As others have pointed out, digital has made greater strides in the last decades than analogue.

Current high-end is pricier than ever for equipment of a same or better quality so upgrade is right path for given budget.

I have to agree with many of the thoughts here. I do see a huge difference in Digital I feel its just much better now then years ago. but that said 'ive actualy had a feeling for the last few years that my system was just too clinical and lost the music some how. I've sold  my AudioNote M2B pre, some  rather nice 45 tube based mono blocks ( just not enough power imo at 2w)and  my AudioNote ANE speakers and picked up some used Living Voice Avatar 2's (94db)and found a vintage Luxman (japan only 100v) L560 Integrated 50wc pure class A amp. I've sold my Oracle Delphi mk3 with the Rega rb600 and build up a Garrard 301 with a wood plinth and new Jelco 12inch arm. i'm using my Van Den Hull MC10 still as I like it. i'm now listening to music way more then I have in years. and to be honest that 1986 vintage Luxman blows the doors off my friends $25k custom tube mono blocks (300B based 18wc) the tube amps sound wonderful don't get me wrong but they just lack drive and toe taping enjoyment. So i'm running a 50+ year old turntable and a 20+ year old amp. Oh I run a pioneer HZ-1 Head amp, into the lux's mm section, that's almost 20 years old as well.



http://www.dasacoustic.com/en/gallery/g301-two-tonearm-version/ (basically i'm running this plinth and a grease  bearing 301 with the Jelco 12" 750l)

I've never been happier, i may not have the ultimate detail but i have musicality in spades i'm not listening to the equipment anymore i'm listening to the music...


Oh just a note i agree with lloydc about the rega nice arms for the price but that Jelco is much better for the money . better built easier to set up as well imo

oh here's a nice link on the lux some one asked me.

Thanks to everybody for the input.  My sense from all of it is that there's a lot to be gained by upgrading the TT/arm/cartridge.  That's certainly not a shock. 

That said, I'm less convinced about the digital chain.  Certainly there have been enormous improvements in digital audio, but I'm not entirely sure how that translates into sonic improvements, especially towards the high end. 
But that's kind of a self thread high jack, so I'll take it up elsewhere.  In the meantime  I think I'll fiddle around, maybe tinker at the margins and follow minorl's advice:

But, if it were me, I would listen to what I have and enjoy. When I hear something that isn't satisfying, causes listener's fatigue, lack of space, etc. I would slowly go down the one item at a time upgrade path until I am at a point where I am happy.


In the case of audio equipment, there is always something out there that is better. However, to get to that point may cost a ridiculous amount and (depending on the person) may not be worth it.

Listen and enjoy and go one step at a time.

Thanks again to all!
Your current system has potential to be much better, without spending $10k.

Weak links are the c1990 Rega P3 combo and your digital setup.

If you want to improve the Rega in the most cost effective way, then look into having the arm rewired, install a new endstub and underhung counterweight, and purchase the P3 upgrade package.  I would also investigate MC cartridges....$1500 will get a great cartridge and SUT.    

You mention that vinyl is not a primary source for you.  In this light, upgrades to your Rega would be best.  If vinyl becomes more important, I would look into a better table and arm.

Vintage MM cartridges are another value oriented improvement.  A new (used) body and replacement stylus will cost less than a brand new cartridge.  A TOTL Empire or ADC can be found for less than $200, another $200 for a stylus assembly (or $3-400 if you commission a custom rebuild) and you have a cartridge that would cost $1k+ if purchased new today.   Many have praised the JICO SAS styli.  Understand that JICO no longer makes this profile, but has announced they will again in the future (when?).

Digital has improved substantially.   A better DAC will make a very audible improvement.  In fact, over the past few years,  price to quality ratio has moved more quickly in digital than in any other area of high end.  Advancements in electronics certainly help, but also the success of the headphone industry.  Economies of scale in this area have enabled companies to offer outstanding DACs at great value prices.

Hardware (preamps, amps and speakers) have not advanced very much over the past 25yrs.  Improvements have been in quality of parts, and in execution.  Passive parts can be upgraded.  Some say older high end equipment may be inherently better because of more robust power supplies, and discrete rather than encapsulated or IC parts.  Careful upgrades of caps, resistors and wiring can deliver a lower noise floor and greater transparency.

You have the foundation for a great system that will last you another 25yrs.  But like a classic automobile, it requires periodic maintenance to perform at its best.
OK, sound advice, which all helps paint a picture, with one exception:
Digital has improved substantially.   A better DAC will make a very audible improvement.  In fact, over the past few years,  price to quality ratio has moved more quickly in digital than in any other area of high end.  Advancements in electronics certainly help, but also the success of the headphone industry.  Economies of scale in this area have enabled companies to offer outstanding DACs at great value prices.
I've heard similar "digital has improved" comments like this again and again and again. Others say the same thing in this thread.  That's what got me concerned about the whole question in the first place.  However, after more digging I'm now quite convinced that it just ain't so, or at least not when stated so broadly.  See thread below.

I've now come to recognize a related issue:  when it comes to "vintage vs today" questions few people have actually heard the "vintage" equipment in question, so we get general assessments that necessarily don't apply to the specifics.  This seems particularly true in the case of things digital.

My own happy conclusion, more than ever, is that the super high end gear from the 90's (more or less) represents a kind of golden age of 2-channel audio. :-)

Older DACs may sound better when reproducing 16/44 resolution for reasons outlined above.....better power supplies, discrete vs encapusulated circuitry etc.   But that is where the comparison stops.  Once you get to higher resolution files, then no matter how good the older DAC may be it will not sound as good as a newer DAC playing high res files or disks.   

Have you compared your SF digital gear to anything newer ?   You really can't determine the answer until you do.....

My digital experience is Marantz CD63se, Audio Alchemy DDE, then Meridian 200 2 box Dac, then Phillips SACD 1000 (while it worked), now Pioneer Elite DVi79 for discs and Bluesound Node 2 for files.   I heard improvements with each successive upgrade.  The Meridian did a better job with Redbook than the SACD1000, but I purchased the later for hi res duty.  The Pioneer Elite sounds as good (sometimes better) than the 1000, while the Node 2 does redbook files and everything else as good as I have heard.

Go all the way with the rega: motor, tone arm wire, sapphire sub platter, weight at end of tone arm, new platter in exchange for glass platter, and wind up with the sound of a Sota Sapphire.
I hate to mention it because there are few of them out there and I want them all, but the pairing of my vintage SA9800 and my KEF LS50s is nothing short of magical.  I have had several fellow audiophiles visit to listen and honestly it ruins them.  The combination of the rarely since achieved stats of the SA9800, careful setup and room placement and the clarity of the LS50s is spectacular.
As someone who can't hear any difference in audio equipment or paraphernalia, except in speakers and phono cartridges - including in blind tests - and since I gave up vinyl over 25 years ago, my focus is always on speaker upgrade and room treatment.

For 2-channel I use all vintage (Pioneer SA-8800, C-72/M-72, Kenwood 7030) - because I like the looks - with a Schiit Modi DAC (given my programming background and understanding of how they work, I doubt if I could tell one DAC from another, but this is one piece of equipment I haven't tested blind). Vintage doesn't sound any different to me. My second most important piece of equipment is a laptop with REW and UMIK-1.

If you like Magnepan it seems that's your first obvious upgrade path. I will be using Maggies (MG-10QR/CC3/MC1 tri-center) in the HT of my new house (unusual, I know, but I'm not a "dynamics" or SPL guy for TV or movies), but for most of the rock music I listen to I prefer speakers with flat FR on/off-axis (Revel, PSB, Paradigm Sigs, KEF Reference, Technics, etc. ... I own the Sigs and Technics, and would love to find a pair of KEF 201/2). I think Maggies are fine for classical and jazz. I think what everyone prefers in speakers is too variable for recommendations, but Toole has proven that most people prefer flatter FR in a blind setting.

My feeling is, if you can't hear it blind, it doesn't exist. I understand with the lack of brick-and-mortar it's getting harder to do, but if possible test blind on everything else before you buy. If you can hear a difference blind, fine. If not, it saves you a lot of money if your ears say "watts-is-watts and wire-is-wire". Unlike some of the hard-core "scientists", I think single-blind is close enough if you have the right person doing it.

And as a musician myself, forget trying to recreate the live experience. It's a Don Quixote-esque quest.
My opinions on vintage vs modern circuit design;

Vintage equipment is most likely using discrete class A circuit designs which IMHO are better sounding than anything modern built with op-amps. A good example is my Spectral DMC 10 phono stage. All discrete transistors and sounds wonderful. Since many discrete transistors are no longer being made (or are very expensive), most modern designers have been forced to go to operational amplifiers. Op amps have improved tremendously since the 80's, but may not sound as good as discrete designs, even today.

Coupling caps, if used, will need to be replaced with modern equivalents. Film caps not so much (unless you are talking Mundorf or similar). These have been improved in modern versions a great deal. In older equipment high capacitance polypropylene were almost non-existent, but today can be obtained for reasonable prices (and will fit size wise). In older designs teflon caps were very rare, but can be obtained today.

In digital the newer products have the edge, due obviously to higher IC computing power and VLSI circuitry.