The recent crop of entry-level products that were introduced this past year has delightfully inspired me. Contributing efforts from audio show organizers like RMAF further emphasize the opportunity (and perhaps the need) for more stimulation along the border of 2-channel loudspeakers and personal audio. While the absenteeism of 30-40 year olds in the high-end continues to shape the gulf between the two parties (I blame the rise of home theater), plenty of fun can still be had by a hearty high-five across the chasm of age, price and audio technicalities.
The choice of headphone audio isn’t always based on disposable income. With the continued rise of $4k+ headphones and $10k+ rigs, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is serious intent, not just merely convenience pushing the hobby forward. More detail on the pros and cons of each collection of music makers can be found in Tyll’s piece on the matter [here], but for both those headphonies looking to take the next step as well as disposable income kings simply looking for really good sound, myself and a couple of contributors to PartTimeAudiophile threw in our hats for a list of recommended gear for those looking to take the leap. What you see below is by no means definitive, but rather a conversational startup intended for enthusiasts with varying degrees of budget.
1. Andrew Jones’s ELAC
It is no accident that ELAC kicks off this list. Head engineer Andrew Jones has a long history in audio making loudspeakers that impress, and his new budget endeavor has been turning heads for a few years now. Andrew did comment at the last show that the term “budget”, for his applications, probably shouldn’t exceed $1k, which makes his entry-level Debut Series speakers (like the B6 bookshelf and F5 tower speakers, for example) a tremendous value and a very easy pick. Scot Hull of Part-Time Audiophile, was [very enthusiastic] about the Debut Series, but suggests that the best-sounding speaker (at least, so far) in the Andrew Jones line comes from the new up-market Uni-Fi Series line of speakers, especially the floor-standing UF5 ($1k/pair). The UF5, like its new UB5 ($500/pair) stand-mount stablemate, features all-new driver tech, and both push the performance needle way past Debut Series. However, the larger cabinet and 3-way design in the UF5 just cranks out the most full and coherent sound currently available from these offerings. I heard the UB5 paired with the new Peachtree Nova 150 amplifier at [Newport 2016]. In a package that rounded out at $2k, the combination produced a sound that was very lively and detailed, with blatant disregard for its own cost. Other amp pairing options of course do exist, given the flexibility of the “budget” amplification category. Andrew has historically used the hybrid class A/class D Audio Alchemy DPA-1 ($2k) in his live demos at shows, but you could easily get away with less cost, like a Rega Brio-R ($800).
2. KEF Audio
Another bookshelf that easily falls under the same umbrella as the ELACs is the popular KEF LS50 ($1.5k). Rising to fame in recent years after an anniversary reboot, the LS50 captured hearts with its studio monitor aesthetics and 2-way coaxial, orange-tinted Uni-Q driver. It’s now an official part of their regular lineup and comes in a wider selection of color options, but KEF keeps it lively around this pricepoint with tons of products to entertain any budget and application. For those in the market, Scot actually recommends taking the slight step up to the 3-way R300 ($1,800). Paired with the likes of Peachtree, NAD C 356BEE ($800) or even the Calyx Integrated ($2.5k) impressive sound should be easily attained for more modest collectors.
3. Spatial Audio and Red Dragon
Few loudspeakers have impressed me more this year than the Spatial Audio Hologram Series. The M4 Turbo starts at $1,600/pair and maxes out with the M3 Turbo S at $2,600. The dipole, open-baffle loudspeaker sports looks hot enough to turn heads, and the sound is simply outstanding for the cost. Designer Clayton Shaw pairs the M3 with the acclaimed Red Dragon S500 stereo amp ($2k) at audio shows. The combination is punchy, uber-transparent and has plenty of low-end reach courtesy of two 15” drivers; the top driver also hides a concentric wide-bandwidth compression driver to handle the rest of the spectrum. The simplicity of it all works in a very real way. Paired with either a digital of analog source, a combination will offer up a healthy taste of the ultra-high end, and do it for less than $5k.
4. Magnepan 1.7i and Wyred4Sound
Long time favorite of the entry-level audiophile, Magnepan produces an assortment of loudspeakers derived from the same technology as some of the top headphones currently dominating the market. Their tall, planar-magnetic, panels are iconic and the company has always been known for value within the market. Magnepan’s 4-foot-tall MMG starts at a mere $600 for a pair, but Scot points towards the company’s 1.7 model ($2k) as the “tipping point” for those with high fidelity aspirations. The 1.7 is a 3-way design with a “quasi-ribbon” driver and a sensitivity of 86dB. The Magnepan website recommends going with direct-coupled, class A/B but much success has also been found with Wyred 4 Sound’s class D amplification as well.
Wyred4Sound is another interesting company that starts their amplifier pricing around the $1.5-$2k mark. The company’s compact form factor “m” line includes the mINT integrated ($1,500) as well as a pair of matching 250w (8 ohms) mAMP mono blocks ($900/each) that utilize class D ICEpower technology. Less overall cost, better power efficiency, and smaller footprints all point to distinctive advantages over traditional class A/B amplification in the case of the 1.7i. The separate monos pack plenty of power to drive panel speakers like the Maggies and still deliver a nice clean sound with plenty of dynamics. Wyred also offers a full slate of digital products and has an upcoming headphone amplifier in the works.
PTA contributor Rafe Arnott picks:
These are two-channel set-ups that I feel would offer excellent value to musical approaches for dedicated headphone audiophiles. Two are geared toward those prefer LPs, or CD, and two for those who listen to more digital/streaming. Think of it as a traditional vs new school approach to listening; both have unique aural qualities, and bring emotionally-appealing engagement to playback.
The LP/CD systems tend more richer, fuller playback that expands on the analog experience, the digital/streaming systems are more forward in their presentation, with a nod to a more modern hi-fi sound. Neither type of sound is “right” more than the other, but they are definitely different and both will appeal to certain mindsets, aesthetic values, and musical preferences.
5. Harbeth P3ESR and Croft Phono Integrated
Best for LP or CD based systems, the speaker and amplifier abilities here include rich timbral accuracy, tone, musicality, and a truly human touch. Incredible spatial imaging, surprising in-room bass response, and powerful presentation from the little P3s will be a welcome home for headphone peeps. The Croft’s 40 watts is more than ample for most reasonably efficient speakers. Tube rollers will delight with two 12AX7 dual-triode tubes used for the phono stage. A third 12AX7 is used with a pair of P9NK50 MOSFETs for constant-current source, and voltage amplifier in the output section, which is built around two J162 and K1058 MOSFETs. (Approx. $4k total)
6. Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE and Oto Phono SE Signature
Taking the Harbeth/Croft pairing up a significant notch in every aspect, the Oto Phono SE Signature will make you sit up, and raise eyebrows if you’re not familiar with tube powered, transformer-based output in amps. If tonal accuracy, timbral realism, multi-note deep, authoritative bass response, a huge sound stage, lightning-fast transients and piano/cymbal note decay to die for float your boat, then this tube-based/high efficiency two-way system is a real end-game option. This is a 10 W pure Class-A, Parallel-run, Single Ended amplifier, featuring two EL84 per channel, and dual-12AX7 input stage. Like to tube roll, and have symphonic-level playback? You’re done. (Approx. $15k total)
7. Focal 1008 BE and Micromega M-One
For digital streaming or a NAS-based system, the new M-One is a Devialet Expert at the half the price, which cannot be overlooked. I heard the M-One at AXPONA paired with Focal speakers (Sopra III), and was deeply impressed at 16/44 files being fed into the M-One via USB from a laptop. The sound was emotionally engaging, featured non-fatiguing high-frequency extension, rich with timbral hues, punchy, gut-rumbling bottom end and a deep, 3-D sound stage. While the 1008 BE is not exactly budget, when paired with the M-One I think you have a world-class, end-game system that has few peers even at 3x the price point. (Approx. $9k total)
8. Meridian DSP5200.2 and Auralic Aries
With this system your source is all you need, you could even skip the Aries in a pinch, and jack straight into the Meridian 5200.2 loudspeakers, but the addition of the Aries opens up serious streaming possibilities, and future-proof expansion. What I’ve heard of Meridan DSP loudspeakers, I have been very impressed with, and the simplicity of their set-up, and ease of use is incredible. They offer fantastic speed, bass, and imaging with startling clarity, and colorful tonal hues that are suffused with microdynamics, punch, and a large sound stage. These speakers do a fantastic job of disappearing into the room, and with the Aries you can have 25 million songs in high-res from Tidal at your fingertips on an iPad, laptop or iPhone. Why ever get up to change the music again? (Approx. $15k total)
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