My Home Audio (and Video) System
I got my first Audio/Video receiver in 1997. I still remember it. It was a Sony STR-DE715, which at the time was basically their middle tier offering. It had all of the features I wanted: Dolby Digital surround sound. Yep, that’s all I cared about at the time, being the dilettante that I was. Now, 15 years later, things have changed.
Before I go any further, there’s something about me that’s important to know: when I get interested in something, I go all in. That means lots of informal research and generally low-level obsessive behaviors, which is exactly what happened when I woke up one day and decided that I was officially going to be a card-carrying audiophile. Since I was (and still am) on a tight budget, bang-for-the-buck was a big factor, so I went through extensive testing of various components over a period of a few years. It took me the longest to make a decision regarding my main speakers. I demoed several models and types over a period of about two years. I won’t go through all the gear I’ve owned since that 715; suffice it to say that some of it I loved and lost, while some of it I was eager to replace.
I should also note that I am going to leave out a discussion of the following: (1) 50″ Hitachi Plasma, (2) Apple TV2 (3) Apple PowerBook G4. Although these are central to my home entertainment system, I decided to leave them out because I want to make this more of an audiophile’s post, focusing on a “traditional” stereo. I’m not playing the Luddite here, though; I have a home network that beats or rivals that of anyone I know. The server I set up rocks, and functions as a remote backup, Web server (take that, Cox Communications), and home entertainment media server. I can
ssh into it wherever I am using a reverse-tunnel protocol coupled with a nice RSA-key handshake and
put whatever I want, whenever I want (it’s sort of like those hokey Microsoft ‘to the cloud!‘ ads, but it actually works). So, as much as I’d like to go on and on about that stuff, I’ll save it for some other time.
This post is long, more so than I had intended, so let’s get going. I’m going to start this off with a pair of speakers that I have been enjoying as mains (for the uninitiated, this means main left and right versus surround left and right) for the first time in a LONG time: the venerable NHT Super Zeros.
Surrounds: NHT Super Zero
The link above is for the new, re-released version of the Super Zeros; the originals were discontinued sometime in the early 2000s. NHT wised-up and issued a slightly updated version in 2011. Corey Greenberg reviewed the Super Zeros when they first came out in the mid-1990s; it is, in my experience, rare that I am in such emphatic agreement with a product review. I find that most reviewers lack a good sense of objectivity, which renders the information they provide fairly unreliable or inert. In the case of the Super Zeros, though, one could be forgiven for blurring the line between subjectivity and objectivity. I won’t gush about these guys too much, and instead I’ll just say one thing. Over the past two weeks, my wife and son have been out of town, so I dragged some gear out of hiding (from my son). Instead of immediatedly hooking up my floorstanding mains right away, I decided to use them as impromptu stands, placing the Zeros on top of them, and inverted so that the tweeters were a little closer to ear level (told you I was a card-carrying audiophile). Here’s that one thing I was going to mention: I had to force myself to disconnect the Zeros after a week-and-a-half so that I could give the floorstanders some air time. And I love my mains. Like really, really love them. This should tell you most of what you need to know about these diminuitive Zeros. Well, let me add one more quick thought. I don’t swear in my writing (real life – quite another story), but sometimes a well-placed explitive conveys a message with just the right amount of gravitas, so here goes: The NHT Super Zeros, pound-for-pound, dollar-for-dollar, kick the shit out of any speaker I’ve ever heard. My mother bought a pair after she heard them at my place when I demoed them for her with “Homeless,” from Paul Simon’s Graceland, and I remember insisting that she never sell them. To me, now as then, they’re like a work of art and should be kept or passed on through your Last Will and Testament. This is turning into a Super Zero review, right?
Mains: NHT 2.5i
There’s something about having to use a 3/8″ drive rachet with a 14mm socket to attach speaker cables to a speaker. I don’t know, it somehow imbues a confidence that says “Damn. These things seem like they mean business.” And how. I fell in love with these speakers when I first heard them at my audio dealer’s store (you can see the right channel speaker in the picture above). The problem was the price tag: at $1500 they were all but hopelessly out of reach. While $1500 might sound like a lot of money for speakers, you have to understand what these speakers sounded like relative to other floorstanding speakers that were twice as much or more – as good or better. Whatever the engineers at NHT were doing, they were doing well and with efficiency. Not long after I heard the 2.5i’s, they were discontinued. Then, not long after that, I got a phone call from my audio dealer (yes, they called me at home); they had just acquired a pair of 2.5i’s from NHT. This particular pair had been used as demo speakers by NHT during tradeshows. They called me because they knew how much I loved these speakers. Indeed, they loved them as well; so much so that they threatened to drop NHT as a product line after the company discontinued the 2.5i’s. He also let me know that because of their status, he was going to sell me the speakers at a ridiculously low cost: $750. I sold my (then) current speakers that same day and forked over the remaining difference for the 2.5i’s. I haven’t looked back since. To paraphrase Christopher Walken: I had a fever, and the 2.5i’s were the cure.
Center Channel: Sound Dynamics RTS-C2
Sound Dynamics was a company based out of Canada that, as far as I can recall, hung around for just a couple of years. I spotted this unit at my dealer’s store when I was (obviously) shopping for a center channel speaker. At the time, the center channel that I was heavily favoring was the top-of-the-line NHT, which was going to set me back something like a cool $700. By comparison, the Sound Dynamics center channel came in at around $300 retail. While the NHT was the objectively “better” speaker of the two, it was one of those situations where the difference in cost did not translate to the difference in sound. In fact, for the money (I ended up paying $200) the Sound Dynamics was a remarkably good performer. While the cabinet design is solid (over 20 pounds) and it doesn’t add any appreciable “color” to the timbre of the audio. It also has exceptionally good frequency response and range. Perhaps most important is that it stands up to the abuse that I put my system through on a regular basis.
Subwoofer: NHT Sub One
This monkey sports a single 10″ and a 250 Watt, Class-D amplifier designed by Sunfire. Translation: enjoy, neighbors. You’re going to listen to OutKast, and you’re going to like it.1 What else is there to say?
Amplifier: Cambridge Audio Azur 540R
This was what replaced my beloved NAD T763 after its motherboard fried due to poor soldering. I really miss that guy. That being said, the 540R is not only a non-slouch, it’s alarmingly…everything: powerful, clean, and with exactly the connectivity I need. Most receivers nowadays come with enough configurability that you can wire up audio and video to half the rooms in your house. While I might be there one day, I’m not there now. It’s really more of a choice of function: I kind of just want a room to serve a specific purpose without compromise. In the “entertainment” room where everything is housed, I go whole-hog with the system. Extending it to other rooms feels kind of forced and transient to me, so I don’t really want an amp or receiver with multizone capability. I digress. The 540R made its presence known to me before I really ever even listened to it: its volume (space occupied, not dB/Watt/meters) belies its mass. Picking it up for the first time, I was honestly shocked at how heavy it was. A guideline that I have stuck to over the years is that all other things being equal between two functionally identical audio components, the heavier one always wins. Why? Two things, each of which make up the bulk of any component’s mass: chassis and power supply. The 540R has a nice, solid, heavy-gauge chassis and comes loaded with a beefy Torodial Transformer and capacitors you could rest a coffee mug on. More power means, well, more power. More importantly, it means cleaner power under higher stress loads. You know that crackly sound you hear when you turn up the volume on your stereo? That’s a kind of distortion that comes from an overloaded power supply. That’s your amp begging for mercy. That sucks. With the 540R, this is never even in the realm of concern; it’s a non-issue.
Digital Source: Sony DVP-S9000
This is a super-sick DVD/CD/SACD player that I purchased in 2002 from a store in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was with my brother killing time when we wandered into this particular store (which, I believe, was Tweeter). At the time, the S9000 was Sony’s top-of-the-line model, and their first DVD/CD/SACD-capable player. I knew how much it retailled for ($1500), and I thought it would be funny to watch my brother’s expression when I asked the sales clerk how much it cost. Turns out it was a demo model, and they would sell it to me for $600. I couldn’t really afford to spend that kind of cash, but I also couldn’t argue with a $900 discount. You can surmise what happened next. Several years ago, right before the warranty expired, I sent it off for a quick refurbishing as the drawer was getting a little sluggish. After a few weeks, I hadn’t heard from my dealer, and was beginning to wonder where my player was. As a testament to how bad ass this thing is, it had been shipped back sometime during the previous week, but my audio dealer had held onto it so that he could listen to it in the store. He and the rest of the employees were enjoying it for themselves for a bit, and didn’t want to give it up. It’s important to note that by this time I had become good friends with the owners and employees of the store where I purchased almost all my gear, so it wasn’t like they were being huge jerks or anything. They “new” that I wouldn’t mind if they borrowed it for a little while. This player is such a beast, and weighs in at a staggering 25 or so pounds. It has an incredible sound to it that sets it apart from any other digital source I’ve had the privilege to audition, and that’s just when playing regular CDs. Firing up a SACD is a whole other level of listening pleasure. I hope it never dies.
Analog Source: Pro-Ject Debut III and NAD PP2 Phono Preamp
While I am an audiophile, I am a musician and lover of music first and foremost. It is, effectively, why I have invested countless hours of my life into demo’ing, and inordinate sums of money purchasing, the system I have in front of me right now. Ignoring the useless and wrongheaded debate of “which sounds better: digital or vinyl?,” let me say this: I love everything about vinyl.2 This combo, which together cost a grand total of about $450, is a one-two punch that I cannot see myself living without.3 The simplicity of LP playback warrants an equivalently brief discussion of this part of my system. It just sounds good, and is always unexplainably satisfying. While I am acutely aware of its aural shortcomings relative to other, more expensive gear, I am not in the slightest bothered by this. In the end, it is the music and the experience that I care most about, and this table and preamp deliver.
Power: PowerVar ABC-1200
I mentioned power earlier, and how important it is to good sound. I almost posted this without mentioning my PowerVar power conditioner. While not an audio component per se, I still consider it a central component of my system. You can see it in the photo above (on the floor). My wife has expressed her distaste for this particular piece of equipment on more than one occasion. I bought this beast (it weighs over 50 pounds) about 10 years ago on ebay, when ebay was still a place where you could get great stuff on the cheap. It retailed for around $1200, but I snagged it from a medical practice that was closing shop for $75. It provides 1200 VA continuous power. It has the power draw of a moderately large home appliance, and it ensures that my system always has consistent power, regardless of what is happening in my house, or in the neighborhood. This means there are no power dips during peak power consumption times (i.e., in the morning and evening, when people are starting or ending their days).
In my opinion, this section is more or less obligatory, since as an audiophile you have to talk about cables.4 I am of two minds on the subject. There is not so much a debate as an insistance that certain cables impart certain sounds, or, in what might seem at first like a paradoxical statement, that certain cables impart no sounds or quality to the music. The latter really is the more desirable of the two, since a cable that adds something to the signal transmission is by definition introducing distortion. The goal is to get a sonically inert cable. Further discussion goes well beyond the scope of this post. If you want to know more, just search some audio forums and prepare yourself to be amazed at how overly-serious people get with this topic. Rule: oxygen-free copper and good insulation are really the only things you need to worry about. In the world of audiophilia, the pursuit of perfect cables has divested many an otherwise rational human of hundreds, sometimes thousdands of dollars for a one meter pair of left/right RCA connectors. Insane. I have decent cables throughout my system. They’re well made, and they don’t impart any noticable distortion. Good enough. The brands I use are Tara Labs, Monster, and Audioquest. I haven’t bought a new cable in a long time, but the last time I did get new cables I got my audio dealer to make some in house out of RG-6 coax and stock aluminum plugs. They cost me about $4/meter. Compare that cost to, say an equivalent Monster Cable, and the cost is usually $20 to $30. I promise you the custom made guys are every bit as good, maybe better.
That’s it. This post ended up far lengthier than I ever intended or thought it would. Summary: I love my stereo. It brings music to life. It is my labor of love.
- I am not really an asshole like that. I am actually very respectful and cognizant of the fact that I can easily get my rig up to concert volume and enjoy crystal clear sound. From my neighbor’s front yard. Across the street. 75 or so feet away. Really. That’s not bullshit. ↩
- The answer to this debate renders the question itself moot: the original recording and mastering are ultimately what makes the audio waveform, not the substrate. ↩
- In terms of audiophile-grade gear, it doesn’t getter any better for this relatively staggeringly low price ↩
- Full disclosure: I am a cable junkie. I have enough cabling to wire a home theatre, LAN, and a small business for telecom. I’m not kidding. The Rubbermaid tote I keep them in must weigh 40 pounds. ↩