What should be the first component when upgrading?

I currently have this terrible system:

-Infinity SM 62 Bookshelves (on stands)
-Sherwood RX-4105 Receiver
-Source is Apple Powerbook (iTunes) or iPod

This summer I bought Grados SR80 headphones and they simply BLEW my mind. I heard things in my music which I've NEVER heard before (and this is with MP3's!). I listened to practically every song over again because of this increased resolution.

So naturally I wish to upgrade my above system. I've been researching the last few months and have come up with a couple of options:

-Epos ELS-3/Wharfedale Diamond 9.1/PSB Image B25 speakers
-Cambridge Audio 540a v2.0/NAD C320BEE/used Marantz/etc. integrated
-Hsu research VTF-2/STF-1/STF-2
-Standalone CD player (cambridge audio 540c?)/NAD ...

I just found a VTF-2 on here for 275 which seems like an awesome deal. Just wondering which component you guys would replace and in what order?

I was thinking of getting the sub first because I could use it with my existing system and then upgrade the other components in this order (integrated amp, speakers, cd player) ....

But after reading some more on the forums, maybe I should keep my existing system and upgrade the cd player first (garbage in= garbage out) ...

Or maybe I should get the integrated amp first?

Seriously seeking guidance in building this budget system as this will be my fisrt foray into budget hi-fi .... what would you guys do??
Speakers, speakers, speakers always have the largest impact on the sound of your system. Unless the digital source is actually malfunctioning your money is better spent on speakers.

I think you have picked some decent components. I have a couple of comments, of course! :-)

I've read that the Hsu Research sub is a great bargain. It measures very well. I suggest you pick up the high pass filter: http://www.hsustore.com/high-pass.html.

In order to use the high pass filter, the integrated amp has to have both preamp out and amp in jacks. The NAD C320BEE has that, the Cambridge Audio does not. I have owned the C320BEE; it's a nice piece. By high passing the main speakers it will have ample power.

All of your speaker choices are good ones. I only suggest that you also consider sealed box designs from NHT and M&K. I used the NAD in my office system driving 4 ohm M&K nearfield monitors. I don't think you'd be disappointed with M&K.

Finally, I'd pick the NAD CD player that decodes HDCD instead of the Cambridge Audio player. I use the Cambridge Audio D500SE in my office system and I think it's a good player. I just like HDCD and matching components from the same manufacturer.

Good luck,
CD player first, then speakers, then amp.
I agree w/Muzikat with one exception. I would do speakers last. Once you have the front end set the you can in-home the speakers that best match you front end. What is your budget on the CDP?

I think this might be the system for you:

A set of Beringer Active Monitors,
A NAD pre-amp,
A Arcam CD-Player

If you like high-detail, high-resolution sound the Beringers would give you just that! In the first place, they use it in recording studios...

Check some of the models out.

Best regards,
Dewald Visser
Wait... why not keep the powerbook in the chain.. you are by now used to browsing your music via iTunes... right? External USB hard drive, and rip those CDs in apple lossless. Then get a good USB dac, like from Scott Nixon, and it will sound better than any CD player in the price range of the DAC ($500).
Or to simplify things even further (budget), check out the new 2 channel Outlaw receiver that received a very good review in Stereophile earlier this year, it has a USB input... powerbook straight in (it would not sound as good as a dedicated USB DAC though). But I think you should look at amplification first, be sure to check out integrated amps from Creek, Rega, Roksan, to name a few in addition to your list.
Good luck!
I'd do the amp first. It's the weakest link.
Absolutely...front end first. There's nothing wrong with running a hard-drive based system though, so your Powerbook is a good start if you already have your library on iTunes (forget about the iPod as you'll be limited to the internal DAC there and it can be easily improved upon). Best to rip to your hard drive in Apple Lossless or WAV files, though, if you want to get the best reproduction. So then your next step would be a good USB DAC to feed from your laptop (in place of the CD player option), unless you absolutely have to play those silver platters. I'd then move on to your amp and finally speakers (or both at the same time if you can swing it), paying careful attention to pairing off these two components. Do you live in a small space? The speakers you mention are quite small aren't they? Not that small is bad, but there are better choices. If you are sticking to small, monitor speakers I'd point you towards offerings by Silverline and used options by Soliloquy (no longer made). What kind of music do you like to listen to? That may be an important question in choosing amp and speakers. Don't skimp on the interconnects and speaker cables either. You don't have to spend a fortune there, as many would have you believe...IMO of course.

Have fun!

Well, I guess I disagree with the other suggestions, although I genuinely respect their approaches.

In my opinion, if you're looking to upgrade (whatever that means), and you're considering every aspect of your system as a candidate, then I suggest finding a speaker/amplifier combination that pleases you, and working backward from there. I believe speakers make the most obvious impact on a system's sound...especially when combined with synergistic amplification. I sometimes wish more speaker manufacturer's took the system approach that Bobby Palkovic of Merlin takes with his customers. Bobby will recommend very specific amplification and wiring to maximize the sound of his speakers. Whether you prefer the sound of Merlin is really a side issue. It's his approach that's so wonderful. As I said, I wish more speaker manufacturers did the same.

Without a decision made about the sound one wants to achieve through the selection of speakers and amplifier, I cannot understand how one can begin to select a source, because the quality of one's source can only be really heard after one's speakers and amplification have been upgraded to the extent that the budget will allow.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents. Worth about a penny.
I agree with Tvad.
I agree with Tvad, as well, but not, perhaps as strongly as others. As you can see, it's winding up a coin toss which is preferred. It certainly isn't an egregious mistake purchasing your source first. Between amp and source? I'd put my money on (in) the source.
count out cd-player from your upgrades.
it's a unit you're getting as an add-on component to your system while having a hefty collection of music in your i-pod that you would still be playing(or you're replacing your MP3 music with CDs?)...

think of amplification first in your case.
I would work back ward from the speakers.

Just floorstanders and/or a subwoofer will make the most impact on your current system.
I guess your budget dictates which component you should be upgrading first ie. the cheapest one. I think it doesn't matter which component you should be upgrading first since you're upgrading everything in the end aren't you? If I were to choose, looking at your list of components, I would say find the speakers first that appeal to you both sound and looks, then the matching amp and lastly the source.
With your current stuff. Do the speakers first.
Thanks for the responses guys, I figured most of you would say source first. Which I do agree with also, although I think speakers can make a big difference.

So here's the deal, my budget right now is kind of limited. I'm talking like around 700 or so for two of the components.

If I had to buy only two components right now (which is what I am going to do), which would I buy? From what you guys recommended, I think I should go for source and amp first ... will that be a significant change from what I have now? I don't want to spend that much for just a small change because I'm limited by my old bookshelfs.

As for room size, my room is smaller (12 x 15), so I think bookshelfs on stands are enough. I'm going to forgo the sub for now and am pretty firmly set on the Wharfedale 9.1's. Any amp recommendations to match these speakers?

How should I partition the 700? 400-500 for amp and 200-300 for source? Sorry for all the questions, but I really value your guys opinion and do not want to make a mistake and buy the wrong components. Thanks again!
It's funny that you would agree with the "front end first" recommendations, yet the (positive) difference you heard was from upgrading the end of the chain (via the headphones). Think about it...

ALWAYS buy the best speakers you can afford and then worry about the rest.

Rlwainwright, I guess you are right ... I kind of got lost in this whole gear thing, it's kind of overwhelming and addicting at the same time. Thanks for putting me in my place =)

It's just that I want to get the best system for the money and want to make sure I'll be getting the best "bang for the buck". Especially with a limited budget, I want to purchase the things that will make the biggest difference 'now', not once I spend the rest of the money on the other things.

Rethinking my strategy, I'm going to go for the Wharfedales and an integrated amp because right now those seem to be my weakest link. Unless you guys 'really' think that a serparate cd player is going to make a HUGE difference to what I'm currently using for gear right now, that's what I'll go for.

Thanks Rlwainwright
I think taht the problem here is that you are looking at a system that is limited at all links. Sorry but that is the truth. So you will only hear limited improvements until all pieces have been brought up to another level, IMO. Rl makes a good point about what you heard with the Grados. They are not all that forgiving and if you liked what you had, you might want to consider speakers first. You can get some pretty decent used speakers and CDPs for about the $700 you were considering. Maybe a Music Hall CD-25 which has dropped in price since the 25.2 came out. Probably about $300, which would leave you $400 for speakers. Not sure what monitors are out there at that price range, but if you do a search for used monitors or best speaker for small room our used bookshelf you should get some good answers. Off the top of my head, NHT, Energy, Omegas are good choices but here are lots out there.
The chicken or the egg controversy is well documented. I stand by source>amplification>speakers based on this theory: A great front-end will bring out the best in average speakers, whereas an average front-end will do nothing to bring out the best in great speakers. In an ideal world, speakers are designed to reproduce the signal they are fed. If the signal is crappy, speakers can't fix it. IMO, it's speakers last, just ask Ivor at Linn.
If you are going to do the front end and the speakers at the same time, I would suggest buying one of the current DVD players (Pioneer, Panasonic come to mind) considered to have decent sound for around $100-$150 and allocating the rest for speakers. I currently use a Panasonic DVD S-47 and it's a very competent player. I also have a pretty decent analog front end. In the past, I've owned a much more expensive, "audiophile approved" CD player, and in my opinion, you are giving up very little or nothing at all using a properly set up and tweaked DVD player with decent sound quality when compared to the "audiophile wannabee" players in the $300-$400 range or even well beyond that. Hell, I just put together a great system for my son using an older RCA DVD player (which I replaced with a Toshiba and then the Panasonic which is a fair bit better), a Pioneer PL 12-D turntable I bought at a garage sale for $5, an AT 120E cartridge purchased new and a Project Phono Box purchased used for $50, my retired Audiolab 8000A, and some JPW P1 speakers I purchased used. My system retails for a ton more money than this one. Is it 10X or 20X better? No way. It's a bit lacking in resolution, refinement and the extreme low end, but it's very musically satisfying and bags of fun to listen to!

You don't need to spend a lot to get great sound and most digital gear is grossly overpriced. Providing some decent access to used and reasonably cheap records, which fortunately I have, I'd rather listen to the $5 turntable with the $60 cartridge I just bought than probably any CD player up to or even slightly over $1,000. But then, that is a whole different discussion.
You are most welcome, Bob. Even though you always hear the adage "garbage in, garbage out" - and it IS true - I have found the most profound differences are between different speakers. And, the speakers are the only element in the chain that DIRECTLY interact with the room.

Also, speakers are the only unit in the chain (except for cartridges, but we're talking digital here) that convert one form of energy to another. In the case of speakers, it's electrical to mechanical.

Having said all that, I would recommend you try to figure out what speakers you find most pleasing in your price range and go with those. Buy used, nothing wrong with a used pair of speakers providing the owner exercised reasonable care and feeding [smile]. I can give some recommendations, but you need to decide for yourself. All of these speakers will *kill* your current pair:

1) Paradigm Studio 40 or Studio 60 - these offer *excellent* bang for the buck. The 40s will require stands, the 60s are floorstanders. I prefer the real-wood V2s over the V3s.

2)Epos ELS-303 - There is a pair of these on Audiogon right now for $540. Very good speaker for a good price.

3) NHT 2.5 - I have a friend who has these, they punch well above their weight. There is a pair on Audiogon for $500 - that's a smokin' deal.

Another vote for speakers. Get the best you can afford and work your way up from there.
It doesn't matter. The whole chain will only be as strong as the weakest link. If you have a preferred affinity for a particular component (i.e. "I really want to try a SET tube amp" or "I've always wanted to try some Magnepan speakers, etc.) then start with that component and then build around that.

Lots of advice and opinions. Ok here it goes http://www.slimdevices.com/pi_squeezebox.html at $249.00 either connected to your powerbook via ethernet or wireless is the way to go for your front end. End of discussion the analogue out far surpasses the Roku. It will play apple lossless and your existing MP3 files as well as WAV. Forget the integrated for now and upgrade the speakers. I would go with a pair of used Dynaudio Audience 42 if you can find them.

My desk system at work is as follows.
Denon CD Rreceiver UD-M31
Dynaudio Audience 42.

This is a great little system that puts me in the speakers are the most important camp.

Good Luck in your search.
I agree with the source. Improving the speaker is fine, but keep in mind the speaker can only reproduce the signal it's being sent. Improve the signal, you improve the sound....everytime. If the source, pre-amp, amp is the problem, changing to a better speaker will merely more clearly reveal the faults of the source, pre or amplifier, making the system sound worse. I seen that happen time after time as a retail audio salesman. Source first. PS: In my opinion, the reason the Grado headphones sounded so good is they are virtually void of phase shift, which most speakers have tons of.
How does one judge the sound quality of a source component without speakers/amp that will resolve the info being fed? Without headphones and an excellent headphone amp it's not possible. One can select a source component known to be resolving based on reviews and user opinions, but it's not possible to judge the component's sonics or compare them against other source components.

Catch 22.
Right on! That's why "source first" is wrong in this instance. And "chain only as good as it's weakest link" is faulty thinking, as I've argued before. It ain't a chain, it's a system.
I don't know that I am steadfast in that sense, because overall I think 'balance'in the chain, though if pressed I'd say source. The reason for the source-first camp is the old adage; garbage in = garbage out. If you start with garbage as the source, there is absolutely nothing down the line you are going to be able to do other than make the garbage smell a bit sweeter, but it's still garbage when it comes out the end. So if you take a source that is not capable of nuance, that is fatiguing, lacking in detail and soundstage, and harsh in the highs, I don't care what you put in the rest of the chain...you can have speakers that look like screen doors, or public waste cans, or giant horns from Dr. Seuss...you can have amps with enough power to light a city, preamps with glowing NOS tubes from the 1950's, and cables that cost enough to feed a family of four for a year; you can have all this stuff in place and it can be working in perfect synchronicity in a room that resembles a miniature world class concert hall and is acoustically perfect..you can add your clever lil' clocks and magic bricks and lead-weighted everything...you feed that crappy source through that otherwise perfect system and you will be treated to harsh highs and no soundstage and you will be fatigued from listening to it at length. You feed the signal from a Close-N'-Play turntable throuth that system and it's not likely to bring any smiles other than smiles of mild amusement at the novelty that you made it sound a lot better than it should. But it still is not going to be something you'll want to keep listening to. Reverse the situation and put a world class front-end with a world class middle components, and crap speakers and I'd bet you could listen and be amazed for a whole lot longer than compromising the source. These are extreme examples to illustrate the point, but the fact is it's all connected in a chain and you should go for balance and strength throughout. That said, I do think that speakers do make a big difference in the kind of sound your system produces...the sonic signature perhaps. This is an endless debate, repeated over and over here. There's my .02 lincolns again.

Reverse the situation and put a world class front-end with a world class middle components, and crap speakers and I'd bet you could listen and be amazed for a whole lot longer than compromising the source...This is an endless debate, repeated over and over here. There's my .02 lincolns again.

Jax2 (System | Reviews | Threads | Answers)
Marco, in general, I agree with your point, but without good speakers, one cannot judge a world class digital player against another...and we all know no two world class digital players sound the same. The differences between those two world class players will not be audibly apparent without resolving speakers and amplifier.

As you say, it's an endless Chicken-or-the-Egg debate.

Perhaps, as Drubin intimates, it's better to make incremental improvements in all components rather than upgrade only one component to world class level.
IMHO speakers/room setup add the most colouration, distortion and have greatest impact on the sound. One can almost always hear a marked difference between two types of speaker. (not quite such a marked difference between amps/sources/cables)

Speakers are what brings music to life. The room is what modifies the sound field. Room size/shape acoustic treatment selection and suitable speakers should be considered the most important with the rest of the equipment designed to suit. (Speakers that are difficult to drive should not be coupled with a low quality weak amp...for example)
"Perhaps, as Drubin intimates...."

Yep, provided you have lots of loot and patience.

I think its would be nice to have a 'plan' in the first place, but most folks tackle upgrading incrementally and empirically, I know I did.

If I was going to start at the beginning I'd start with the best speakers I could afford and then find the electronics that make them sing my tune.

IMHO, there are many great speakers (not necessarily expensive) that just need the 'right' electronics (for your sensitivities).

Using this method and being patient, you could get thru this hobby with a few bucks left to buy some good music.
Clearly, there is no right answer. On this we all agree.

Don't we?