What's the weak link in my system?


     I've pieced together the best budget system I could afford over the years but I'm just not thrilled with the sound I'm getting. Can anyone help me identify the weakest link (s) in my system so I can upgrade? I only have the budget to upgrade one piece at this time. I'm most interested in listening to vinyl.
Currently Configured:

Pro-ject Genie 1.3 Turntable w/ Sumiko Pearl Cartridge
Bellari VP 130 Phono Pre w/ Tung-Sol Tube & Replaced Power Supply  
Marantz CD 6006 CD Player
Parasound P3 Stereo Preamp
Parasound A23 Power Amp
PSB T6 Platinum Speakers
Bluesound Node
AKG K702 Headphones
Audioquest Daimondback Interconnects
Audioquest Rocket 33 Speaker Wire

Also Have:
NAD C235BEE Integrated AMP
Monitor Silver RS6 Speakers
Marantz SA8260 SACD Player (Used to sound great but doesn't work consistently - not sure if worth having repaired)
Musical Fidelity V Can Headphone Amp


So.... I think I have put together the best possible system configuration using what I have. What would be the weakest link / first to upgrade? Turntable? Phono Pre? Pre-Amp? Suggestions of products to upgrade to without breaking the bank? I've accumulated a bunch of stuff but I'm really a novice so any and all feedback would be greatly appreciated!   

jdm11
What is it that you don’t like -- from a sound quality output / performance perspective?

In other words, what’s missing for you?

Be as specific as you can...it will help you with direction and choices.
I would say the best way to describe what I don't like about the sound is:

- Vinyl playback is good on Jazz / Jazz Vocalist Lps (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole; Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Art Pepper) and Blues but Lps like Beach Boys Albums where there is a lot going on & on Rock Albums the sound seems a bit muddled and distant. 

- CDs sound a bit harsh and thin.

- I'm looking for a more "3D" kind of sound with depth and warmth but clarity as well (not muddled or fuzzy).

-Bass could use more punch but this isn't my biggest problem.

Also to rule the sources out as a cause my vinyl collection is quality - a lot of Analogue Productions, 45 RPM, Mofi, ORG, etc. I've invested a lot in the collection over the past 15 years and I just don't feel I'm getting the best out of it.

Thanks!           
Well maybe what you are hearing is that vinyl is a challenged medium. Noise, distortion and dynamic range are all far less than what real music needs, or than what digital sources can deliver. Hence a muddled sound.
Marantz cd players are excellent, so if the sound is still harsh, it is either your expectation that is wrong (real music can sound rather harsh), or the speakers, or the hard acoustics of the listening room.
In any system the weakest links are not modern electronics, but the speakers and the room. If it is the speakers, try auditioning Harbeths. They excell at avoiding listening fatigue.
Narrow opinions on everything do not equal expertise at anything. Quite the opposite in fact.

Dave
Hard to tell. Do you use any power conditioner?
I would probably get motor controller for the turntable first, then think about trying some passive or active power conditioner, then better cartridge and phono stage, then cables and power cords.
Thank you willemj interesting observations re: expectations. There could be something to that but I have to say when the vinyl playback is good - for ex. Hugh Masekela Hope 45 RPM - I think THIS is what music is supposed to sound like! I prefer the sound to CD even though the Marantz is, as you mention, well regarded. Which makes it all the more disappointing when quality pressings of  Pet Sounds or Sgt Peppers vinyl sound distant and muddled; hence my confusion. I'm wondering if one or more of my components is limited moreso than the medium. I'll def look into the Harbeths thanks for that. My listening room is set up the best it can be and I don't have an option of switching to a different room (kids!).  

   
 
Thank you inna. I do use a Furman power conditioner. Your suggestions make sense though I'm wondering if it would make sense to just purchase a better turntable before putting money into a new cartridge and / or phono stage?
It certainly might. I just didn't want to say that your entire analog rig could use a big improvement. In my mind, upgrading turntable is a serious step, almost as serious as upgrading speakers. Ususally, most people keep their good turntables for a long time so it would make sense to do a big upgrade, not just one or two steps.
the obvious upgrade would be to add a quality dac for your digital sources. i like your amp/pre and speakers.
Have you read this?
http://www.soundstage.com/revequip/psb_platinum_t6.htm

Seems like the PSBs need a bit of care regarding setup. All speakers benefit from placement, but for some it's essential.

The only other thing could be your turntable, because we all know that all CD players, amplifiers and cables sound pretty well alike. Sorry.
That kind of gets to the heart of the question I guess. Is the turntable the weakest link and if so is my other gear good enough to warrant buying a significantly better turntable because I can't afford to replace the turntable and the preamp, etc. If the other gear is sufficient what would be a good example of a turntable to consider?
The subjective magic of vinyl is that it compresses the dynamics. So the softer sounds are lifted a bit, and this gives an impression of more detail, but it is at the expense of more realistic dynamics. Add a hefty dose of harmonic distortion that many find euphonic, and you have most of what the attraction of vinyl is about. Remember, the vinyl sound can be emulated to perfection in the digital domain (studio mastering systems have such plug ins). So it is a deviation of the neutrality. It is also a money maker for small industries. Of course, you are perfectly free to enjoy this candle light view of the world.
I am of a generation when there was only vinyl, and I still own one of the famous vinyl systems of the day. I love the mechanical beauty of the SME arm, and I even sometimes enjoy the ritual, but for purely audio quality it is easily beaten by even a modest CD/BD player or a Chromecast Audio.
Thank you loomisjohnson - I've been reading up on DACs - so many brands and reviews and opinions out there though it's a lot to sort through.
 
Thank you cd318  - that was an interesting read particularly in relation to recommended proper speaker placement on for the PSBs. I can make some adjustments there. 
Thank you willemj. As I said I'm a novice and don't want to throw good money after bad so I appreciate the information you've imparted. 
jdm11,

Be careful not to swallow every pill crammed in your face. Your preamp/amp/speaker combo looks pretty solid. In that case, sources are your best bang for SQ improvement, excepting the one thing I do no see discussed:

Have you experimented with speaker placement? Are your speakers spaced a good way from the rear wall? What are the dimensions of your room and what types of acoustical treatment have you installed?

Dave
+1 for Dave ...

The room should come first. Get it dialed in. A good place to start is with a ten-pack of SR's HFT's and install as directed. 

Frank
Thank you Dave. I don't; my disposition is naturally diplomatic. Listening room is 18 x 22 with hardwood flooring and one door. I haven't installed any acoustical treatment so the walls and ceiling are sheetrock. I also have experimented some with speaker placement but the link posted by cd318 above is an article suggesting specific spacing / placement for the PSBs which I'll try. Good to hear the feedback on the preamp / amp speaker from you and loomisjohnson and by inference from inna as well as the vote of confidence in the Marantz from willemj. That helps narrow it down to take a harder look at turntable, phono pre, speaker placement and acoustical treatments. Any suggestions?      
Thank you Frank I just read your post. I had never heard of those before I'll check them out! 
Problem with big turntable upgrade is that soon after that you will want to follow up with cartridge, phono stage and tonearm cable upgrades. But if you are thinking about it, I would not upgrade either cartridge or phono stage right now, especially the latter.

+2 for Dave

Concentrate on the room and setup before replacing any equipment. I know it's difficult to use spikes on hardwood floors, but hopefully you at least have something on the bottom of the speaker cabinet, rather than sitting directly on the floor. Do you have an area rug on the floor between you and the speakers? If not, get one.

Experimenting with speaker placement and (not or) getting your room acoustics improved should be your priority right now IMO.

Someone here started a thread on trying placing household pillows on the floor. Not a long term solution to be sure and make sure the wife is not home, but worth a try to see since you have a bare wood floor right now. Gotta get that wood floor between the speakers and you covered even if with just a moderately priced rug and a heavy pad underneath.

Lots of good feedback here on GIK brand acoustical treatments for bang for the buck and I know from experience that SR stuff is great, if pricey. If you are handy and willing, you can make almost identical products to the GIK yourself and save a ton of money. I can tell you how if you wish as I did just that several years ago. You can see my bass traps on my Virtual System page. One warning: do not be pressured into buying a ton of absorption products all at once. Start with some quality bass traps like the GIK Tri-traps and some economical panels for the first reflection points on the side walls. You will be amazed.

I hate to write this, but based on recent experience, after room acoustic treatment and given your current source situation, I would recommend that you invest in a good computer audio setup. A good DAC and music streamer (not PC/MAC) can sound pretty fantastic.

Don’t know your financial limits, but a used DAC in the $700-$1000 range to pair up with your Bluesound Node and a subscription to Tidal Hi-Fi would be a great start. Read up on DACs at computeraudiophile.com and digitalaudioreview.com (Jon Darko) before buying. Pay more attention to the input filtering, analog section, and power supply (preferably external) than the specific DAC chip/DAC section at this price point. 

I still ultimately prefer my TT but big investment is required to get excellent sound, so take inna’s advice there.

Good luck to you,
Dave
Since you have invested in good vinyl and have been at it for good long while imo another cartridge would be a logical step. I had the pearl. Nice cart but there are better for a not unreasonable amount to use with your table. I like Grado but that's me. Certainly warm no problem with depth but that's a room speaker thing ime. 
Every power conditioner I've tried has killed dynamics and openness in my system except the Emotiva CMX-2 DC Blocker and Filter. I've tried Furman, PS Audio, UPS units and a DYI one. The CMX- blocks most of the DC on my line and all of my sources plus preamp are plugged into wiremold power strips and then into the CMX-2. My amp is plugged directly into the wall. You can get the CMX-2 for $100 from Amazon with a 30 day trial (free shipping both ways with Prime). I would try your system first without the Furman. 
There are very notable exceptions re: power conditioners but agree with sbrownmw that your Furman may not be doing your system's SQ any favors...

Dave
@dlcockrum 
There are very notable exceptions.....

No kidding. : )
many variables and not enough info. how big of a room do you have? room treatment? speakers/listening chair using the 1/3 ratio for positioning?
if the room and system is setup, i'm assuming you asking what is your weak link because you want to replace the equipment, if this is correct, how much do you want to spend?

IMO, sorry to say, but both your analog and digital equipment are your weakest links. For digital, ALL cd players under few thousands of $$$ sound terrible unless they are specifically built with a very good quality dac, even the oppo is compromised compared to a decent cd player/music server/mac mini with a nice external dac. I used to own a really nice wyred 4 sound dac2 dsd dac which was < $2000, but when I spent 3x that for my new dac, performance increased accordingly. I would suggest at 1st using your cd player and buy a very good dac with the best digital cable you can afford.

I don't agree with previous comments about analog sounding compressed, just the opposite if you get a nice analog setup. But there is a price you have to spend to get great sound from analog, its not cheap. I spent almost 3x more for my analog setup than my digital setup and when the vinyl album is mastered well, it sounds better than straight redbook digital. DSD/MQA sound as good as good analog but it costs more to get this capability from your digital setup. This would entail getting a music server or pc/mac server setup to stream MQA or read DSD ripped music.
IMO, you will need to spend many times the cost of your digital setup to get equivalent sound quality from analog. A $300 cartridge, $100 tonearm isn't going to cut it. You will need to replace all of your analog not just 1 piece. If you replace just the tt, what about the arm? cartridge? you can put a $300 cartridge on a $50,000 turntable and it will still sound like a $300 analog setup. If you start with the cartridge, you are limited with the tonearm you are using, so you won't be able to get a GOOD cartridge. you could spend the $$$ and get a good tonearm and cartridge and use your existing tt base/platter, but you are limited what type of arm will fit your tt. If on a tight budget, look at the vpi scout or vpi prime. You can get a nice ortofon/soundsmith/grado cartridge that you can afford and still have room to upgrade the cartridge at a later time, these turntable packages are that good. I just upgraded to the VPI 3d arm for almost $3000 and it was a large improvement over the vpi metal arm i was using prior, so every little piece can make a big difference.
You can get a used external dac with dsd/mqa and even with a music server capabilities built in used for a couple thousand $$$.
Same goes for a used VPI setup. The grado sonata cartridge is a nice entry level piece for around $500-$600, or a soundsmith zephyr or carmen cartridge for the $$$ are excellent. 
Good luck.
It appears that we are in complete agreement rbstehno. Nice.

Dave
You scare the man with big $$$, though I know what you are talking about. I'll just say what I have. Some will think it is all junk, though in fact it is not, it sounds very acceptable with enough room for improvement. Everything except the cartridge was bought used:
Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck/Spacearm - $1350.
Goldring 1042 MM cartridge - $375 from the UK.
Acoustech PH-1 phono stage - $650.
Purist Audio Colossus cable from phono to integrated amp - $330.
This set-up is hard to find used but I took my time.
lots off good suggestions here but one that seems to be missing is your phono stage the Bellari is good for a starter system but from what I've heard lacks quite a bit. you should take the next step up there something like the IFI Iphono2 ($499)or similar will give you much improvement and more flexibility.  if your budget allows think along the lines of a used Manely Chinook. I have not heard your Cart but maybe a entry MC would liven things up there are some good ones under $500 like many of the Audio-technica's.
Since you enjoy spinning vinyl and have a good collection, upgrade your TT and cart. You can do much better than the entry-level Project, for starters, it doesn’t seem to have much vibration control. You need a solid platform or base (plinth) to isolate the rig from vibration in the room and from the TT itself. Some TT's use a suspension system, some use a solid base with bracing and damping.

In the mean time, I agree that you need to set up your speakers and the room correctly. If music sounds congested, the speakers are not positioned well and you could use some absorbtion or diffusion on the wall behind the speakers. This will result in a more focused image.
Look thru the Virtual Systems section at how our members place their room treatments. Also read thru the GIK site for info...and you don’t have to use every panel they suggest. Also, you can make your own panels.

http://www.gikacoustics.com/basics-room-setup-acoustic-panels-bass-traps/


Thanks so much everyone I really appreciate the time and thoughtfulness that went into these responses. I'm getting a ton of great information. 
As others have said, focus on speaker placement, listening position, and possibly placing equipment stand to one side of listening position as opposed to between speakers. Treat the room using acoustic panels behind speakers, at primary reflection points on sidewalls, and behind listening position. Use bass traps in corners. GIK and ATS Acoustics are two companies that can help with this. They offer much information/products online.

After addressing the above, then consider upgrading your components. I agree with those that consider your preamp/amp/speaker combination to be fine and feel they would support improvements on both your digital and analog sources. Once you have optimized your room/system placement start another thread regarding each source.That said, my thoughts are to consider using a separate DAC to support the CD player as a transport as well as the Bluesound Node. With vinyl, given that we are talking table/arm/cartridge/phonostage the upgrade path becomes more complicated, and can be more expensive. I think I would start with the cartridge, then look at the phonostage.

Good luck with whatever avenue you choose. 
Did you try eliminating the power conditioner from the system?
As for speaker placement and room modes, the simplest way to procede is to use REW (room equalization wizard, a free software package, see here: https://www.roomeqwizard.com/) and a cheap calibrated microphone to measure in room response. I am sure you will be horrified. Next, move the speakers around and add some rugs etc, as per advice here, to see if you can improve the response. If you want to improve the response more, you will need to use a parametric equalizer, either in software or in hardware. See here for a software one: https://sourceforge.net/projects/equalizerapo/

Great advice on the digital equalization. Then you can just throw your turntable and LP collection away. lol

Dave
Sure, if you want good audio you have to say goodbuy to the vinyl romance anyway.  However, if you really want to hang on to your vinyl setup, you can also do the equalization in hardware.
Moving speakers around trying to find the best locations is like trying to solve 3 simultaneous equations in 4 unknowns. You'll never be able to find the absolute best locations without the out of phase track on the XLO Test CD. The best you can do is find local maximums. This is one of the few cases I can think of where measurements are superior to listening.

willemj,

With the confidence that you exude in your opinions on every topic, you should post your system on a Virtual Systems page so we can all see what you have chosen and your experience level. Short of that, we can only hope that your advice is taken with some caution.

Dave

As I teach my students, the truthfulness of a statement does not depend on who is making it, (let alone on the content of their living room). However, I don’t mind. I have two serious systems:
1 main system in the large living room
Speakers: Quad ESL 2805 (at full range), with B&W PV1d subwoofer and Antimode 8033 room eq. Crossover at 33 Hz, and 4th order slope.
Amplifier: Quad 33/606-2 (both refurbished, of course). The pre amp had its input senstivities modified to match modern sources (this is very important).
Sources: a modest Panasonic BD player, a Panasonic Plasma TV, a Chromecast Audio.
Souces still connected but no longer used: Linn Sondek/SME/Shure V15iii turntable, and Quad FM3 tuner (I now use internet radio for its superior sound quality).
And for those of you who are interested in cables: ordinary heavy duty speaker cable and quality interconnects with Nakamichi connectors, put together by a pro audio engineer.
Upgrade plans include firstly a second sub for even smoother response, and perhaps a DSpeaker X4 pre amp for improved room eq and its inbuilt DAC (but maybe it will be an Oppo 205). The Quad 33 is getting a bit long in the tooth.

Secundary system in my 18 sq m study
Harbeth P3ESR as desktop speakers, raised to get the tweeter exactly at ear height (crucial for all dynamic speakers, and often overlooked).
Amplifier: Quad 405-2 (refurbished of course), input senstivity lowered by inline attenuators.
Volume control: Emotiva Control Freak
Source, desktop PC, with external ODAC usb dac.
Because the speakers still had a slight bass boost as a result of the proximity to the desk surface I equalized them a bit with the equalizer APO.

So as you can see I live by my conviction. Also, I am not one prone to the upgrade virus. My first system was QUAD esl57 with the 33/303 and that Linn SME combo and that was in the mid seventies. I later added a Philips cd player, subsequently replaced by a Marantz unit when we wanted a DVD player and similarly now the BD player. If and when there will be enough UHD video content, I will probably replace that with an Oppo 205 (perhaps also used as a pre amp). For years, the system in my study used the Rogers LS3/5a monitor, until I replaced it by the far better Harbeth P3ESR.
I do like having my tv screen attached to the stereo. I am not a home video buff, but I like better sound when I watch tv, and I think the video is an important part of the recorded opera/ballet experience. A good example is the magnificent Gergiev recording of the Ballets Russes at the Mariinski theater.

willemj wrote,

"Sure, if you want good audio you have to say goodbuy to the vinyl romance anyway."

goodbuy is almost certainly a Freudian slip of some kind. 

Many here are not as students but as colleagues. I trust that you do not treat your colleagues as students, at least not with any success.

We have one thing in common: not proned to the upgrade virus, at least not for me in what I call the "Foundation System" (downstream of source).

Your sources and cables preclude confidence in your recommendations. Low resolution from the former leads to false perception regarding the latter.

Placing a big flat piece of glass between your speakers is a sure-fire way to kill imaging and soundstage, but perhaps your (now) unique and excellent speakers minimize that in your main system.

As long as you are happy, that’s what counts.

Dave
Geoff, sorry about the spelling mistake - English is not my native language.

Dave, you made a philosophical mistake that is taught in undergraduate class. That is all I said.
Beyond that, I knew you would play the heads I win, tails you loose game. Still, that does not mean you are right. I know I will never convince you because science and the scientific method are irrelevant in your phantasy world, but here is a proper test of the Chromecast Audio: http://archimago.blogspot.nl/2016/02/measurements-google-chromecast-audio_27.html
As it so happens, I also listen to real live (acoustical) music, and I must say that on the main system the recorded version (if recorded well) comes pretty close, apart from the inevitably more limited dynamic range compared to a live symphony orchestra or choir. But then, we don't live in concert halls or churches.
Not sure what you mean by the piece of glass, but go and listen to a live classical concert, and you will discover that there is not that much soundstage and imaging going on either when you close your eyes.
No worries, willemj, I was only yanking your chain. ⛓
It is good that you listen to a lot of live music and especially that you enjoy your system. My point is only that you have little to no evident experience with any of the recent digital gear, nor cabling, so it is not helpful to post your opinions on those things. Looks like you could contribute quite a lot of good advice on the music threads...

As for turntables, I doubt that you will be effective at changing anyone's mind on that one way or the other, so why not give it a rest. 

The big flat piece of glass is the plasma TV you listed as part of your system.

Dave
OP, a good example of a turntable to consider would be Rega or VPI

but if the room is taken care of as per the post above, I’d rip the CDs onto a mac mini or purpose designed storage system and get a good DAC, while paying attention to galvanic isolation - Schiit makes one called Eitr and it can be returned if there is no improvement

you have the best or one of the best $500 CD players from a few years ago, but that does not mean it is the best possible way to get digital sound from a CD to your pre-amp

also be sure you have the best recording/mastering of any music you care about

you have a very good system already so improvements in SQ will not be inexpensive
If somebody likes vinyl I wouldn’t suggest getting rid of it. I have some very good sounding vinyl that beats an equivalent digital source. 

In my reply above, I didn’t mention anything about cables because this is a controversial topic and the poster has a few purchases to make before looking at cables. at audio shows, I have attended seminars/demonstrations comparing cables worth $200 all the way to $8000 all from the same vendor and I heard differences between each cable. My thoughts were always, is it worth the upgrade for the price? I go for great cables that cost usually less than $1000 each. 

If if I was setting up a system I would wait to buy everything that you need in your room and bring in 5 or 6 different cable brands in your price range and do a cable shootout. It’s actually fun and then you can rest after your purchase knowing you bought the best cable that sounds best in your price range 
I have a budget system, too (WAY more budget than yours!). So maybe my experience will be useful.

I went with the advice I was getting, that the turntable and arm are the most important item in a vinyl playback system. Which meant replacing an old Technics with an old Thorens TD-160 (I told you it was a budget system).

Then I kept following the advice, which was to get as good a cartridge as you could afford. I was enjoying an old Grado with upgraded MZ8 stylus ($200 here in Canada!), which has a very attractive warmth and depth (as others have noted), but when a Linn ASAK came up for sale for $50, I bit.

Then I needed an MC preamp, so I bought a Pro-ject Phonobox S, but it was WAY too noisy. I found a Rotel receiver with an MC stage, for dirt cheap, so I am using this until I can afford a big ticket item like an AR tube phono stage (my Tannoys are bi-amped, with an old Electrohome SET amp powering the aluminum horn-loaded tweeters, and an old Nikko Alpha II powering the woofers. It sounds very nice.

So, long story short:

Best Turntable/arm you can afford
Best Cartridge/Preamp you can afford
Then the regular order - speakers, amps, accessories/room treatments

Hope that helps.

after months of torture in winter i found that sound improved greatly with the increase in the relative humidity in the room. Was generally about 20-30 % in winter, and around 50% in summer. so get a humidifier would be my advice. not only the stereo equipment itself but also all the furniture etc affects what you hear. obviously sound bounces off them. 

If you don't know ... then nothing is weak.    Once you hear something, you will know.
There are so many things to consider. Always make your front end the best u can possibly afford. If it starts out crap, u can't hope for anything more at the end. Not saying your cart sucks, but invest in the very best u can. I had the preamp u are using and it sounded good for what it is. High current amps and good speakers are a must. I realize, this comment doesn't give u a lot to go on, just saying. As with women, the front and back end are a must.