What should I upgrade first?

Hi Folks,

This is my first post so I’ll try to be brief but also provide enough information for your consideration as well. Any suggestions and guidance you can provide will be appreciated.

My question is what is the weakest link in my system and what should be upgraded first to improve the sound quality? My budget for the upgrade is about $1K.

My passion is two channel as I listen mostly to classical and jazz. My set up consists of a NAD C521BEE CD player, a NAD C162 pre-amp paired with a NAD C272 (150 wpc), Aerial Acoustics Model 7, and Cobalt Cable interconnects and speaker cables. Also, a good portion of my listening takes place at night at low levels and is sourced by my CD collection. I do have a tuner (Denon T-550 I think) but don’t do any serious listening using the tuner. I suppose I should also mention that I have a DirecTV HD receiver that will occasionally be used to play the music channels. This set up is placed in my family room so I understand I’m making acoustic compromises out of practical necessity. The Aerials are spaced about five feet apart and only about a foot away from the wall.

I have a 5.1 set up downstairs which is used mostly for movies…NAD front end (T751 and 550) with 3 M&K S-100Bs, S-85s for the rear and a single M&K KX-12SF sub. My receiver is only 60wpc which is becoming an issue in driving the S-100Bs when I do want to listen to music.

Back to my question, my initial thought was to upgrade my amp for the 2-channel system and move my C272 down stairs to drive the left and right fronts thus getting two upgrades for the price of one. I’ve been thinking about a used Classe CA-101, CJ solid state (Sonographe or MF 2xxx series), Bryston 3B-ST or Vincent SP-331. Then I started thinking that my CD player was perhaps the weakest link and I should replace/upgrade it. The options I’ve been considering for the CD upgrade were the Music Hall CD25.2 or a Jolida JD-100a. The third option which I know very little about is using a DAC. I’m holding out for the Oppo Blu-Ray so I’ve thought about perhaps incorporating a DAC with the Oppo.

Thanks for your time and I look forward to reading your comments.
If you look around ,a little ,you can find the Oppo now, they're out there. I think your CD player is pretty good, especially for its price range,and the Aerials are good enough to survive several electronics upgrades ,so I would agree that as far as upgrading your equipment goes the pre/power is the place to look, however, I feel that if it is in any way possible you may gain an even bigger improvement by addressing the placement of your loudspeakers within the listening room. I know this can sometimes be problematic,especially if your room is doing double duty, and you have a significant other to contend with, but often times even small adjustments to the speaker placement can reap large benefits in sound quality, and the best part is that it is absolutely free! You will want to start by having your speakers form an equilateral triangle with your preferred listening position. There are different opinions on exactly what the percentages for these dimensions should be but you should experiment with different set ups to determine which works best for your speakers in your room. One pointer I will give though, and this may cause some dissension, is that you should not place the speakers symmetrically within your room, which is the most common placement you see with peoples speaker,even at dealers, and they should know better, and it is the most common mistake. As long as your speakers are equidistant from your listening position forming a equilateral triangle, but not symmetrically placed, by this I mean each speaker is exactly the same distance from the front and side walls, there should be no channel imbalance between the two speakers. This type of placement will go a long way to eliminating the build up of any standing waves and will have the added benefit of significantly improving the imaging and soundstaging performance of your loudspeakers.
Oh, and I almost forgot. Unless your speakers are specifically designed to be placed near room boundaries, like Audio Note, or Linn, then they will almost certainly perform better well away from all room boundaries. Yes you will loose some bass, or more accurately, you will gain bass that is more natural and less boomy. As far as I know your Aerials were not designed to operate optimally in close proximity to walls or corners.
Pick up a Monarchy M-24 tube DAC, it's a tubed preamp, and a tube DAC.

You can run the digital output from your cd player into the DAC and this will upgrade your source. The preamp section is optional and you don't have to use it, but....it's a lot better preamp than the NAD...so I would use it.

This one product, will give you two upgrades for the price of one. Your amp and speakers are fine for now.

I ran a my Monarchy M24 into the power section of a NAD 325bee and it worked really well.

It was dead quiet. However, with other power amps (McCormack DNA .05 Rev A and Monarchy Sm-70 pros) there was considerable hissing. Although, once music was playing out of the McCormack it was very very good.

You won't have that problem just using the DAC. FWIW, I now have it paired with the $169 Oppo and a tube integrated and like it quite a bit.

I agree with Sogood51 in that it is very very versatile w/the preamp. You could swap tubes for a change/kicks.

There is an additional analog input in case you want to mess around with vinyl.. the digital side has coaxial and toslink inputs so you could even attach an $90 Airport Express, in addition to your CD player, for wireless internet radio or casual listening.

Just saw one go for about $800 used.
I like the general idea of adding a decent tube driven stage or two, starting with the DAC and/or pre-amp.
source first always.
There is a good article in the current Absolute Sound #193 on the Logitech Transporter/DAC. This would be a major improvement in your digi front end and could become the hub going forward. Although it retails for $2k it will show you whats to come in the digital realm. Just reading the article I was impressed and looking forward to seeing/trying one in my system/ It's only a matter of time before servers take the place of cd's in digital front end. This is one feature packed unit.
There is a good article in the current Absolute Sound
#193 on the Logitech Transporter/DAC.Although it retails for $2k it will show
you whats to come in the digital realm.
Zenblaster (System | Threads | Answers)

FYI, new-in-the-box Transporters are available on E-Bay for as low as $1250
including shipping.
I would recommend you not to change anything as far as your electronics//speakers are concerned.Instead spend the 1 grand on;

1.instaling a dedicated circuit with an audiophile-grade non nickel receptacles.

2.get some Finite elemente cerapucs for your electronics-all of them.

The improvement would be better than anything spent on electronics upgrade at this point of time IMO

Thanks to all for your helpful responses. Now, I'm thinking of possibly making two purchases, a DAC and a tube pre-amp.

I don't know much about tubes in general but especially not about pre-amps. I really liked the idea of the Monarchy M-24 especially when I read the reviews. However, a remote is going to be important (WAF), and from what I could tell, the Monarch didn't have a remote. On a different thread about tube pre-amps, a Sonic Frontiers was recommended. Is that a reasonable alternative?

With regards to a DAC, the two that come to mind are the Musical Fidelty V-DAC and the Music Hall dac25.2. Is there an additional DAC that should be on my list?

Thanks again for taking the time,
I thought I would follow up with regards to my purchases. I ended up purchasing the Oppo 980H and a stand alone DAC from Monarchy, an upgraded M-22. The Oppo improved the simplicity of my system by allowing one unit to play all forms of CDs/DVDs. The Monarchy DAC is an impressive piece of equipment; I'm equally impressed with it's performance. I'm very happy with my purchases and the sound quality the system generates.