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To Hans Wetzel,
I'm calling on you for advice again. I am finally getting around to moving to a computer-based audio system and, of course, have lots of questions. I have started ripping my CDs using Apple's iTunes to my Dell laptop for use in my library. I have an Oppo BDP-105 that, as you know, has a USB input. The question is: What do I use with it? Maybe an Apple iPad, but the 128GB version is not cheap. Apple's 160GB iPod classic -- would that work? Or an Apple MacBook Air, which is $1000? I need to be able to use a remote to search the library so it may have to be an Apple product, as opposed to a cheaper non-Apple product. What product would you recommend to connect to and store my music library on, as well as being able to navigate in my listening chair?
Thanks for writing in again, Gerald. The Oppo BDP-105 has a wonderful reputation, and should work well to play both your CD collection, as well as your computer-based collection going forward. I wouldn't recommend the iPod or iPad -- neither would work well for the purpose you discuss.
A MacBook Air (the least-expensive laptop Apple currently sells) is still pretty expensive, and comes with a solid-state drive that won't be big enough for you. What I would suggest is grabbing a used 13" MacBook Pro -- anything made within the last couple of years will do just fine -- and just make sure that it's one with a regular hard-disk drive, and comes with all of its associated CD-based software. You could also get a used Mac Mini, though that would potentially require you to purchase a monitor as well.
A simple web search will show you how to wipe your hard drive and reinstall the system software, ensuring that the machine won't be bogged down by the detritus left over from its previous owner. You could then transfer your entire iTunes library directly from your current Dell laptop, and should have a pretty solid little setup for not too much money. Don't bother replacing your USB cable with an "audiophile" one until the rest of your system is to your liking, since it won't yield the performance dividends that other upgrades might. An audio player such as Audirvana might make a decent investment, but, bluntly, if your digital collection consists solely of your ripped CDs, iTunes should be all you need.
I'll also briefly tell you what I plan on doing in the coming months. My workhorse of a laptop, a 17" MacBook Pro from mid-2009, is due to be replaced once Apple updates their Pro line of notebooks. I plan on replacing my current laptop's hard drive with a new one at a cost of no more than $100-$125, so that I minimize the risk of a drive failure. If you're putting all your music in one place, it makes sense to play it safe, and a newer drive will certainly help your chances, while also giving you way more drive space, and, in turn, space for music going forward. For another $100, you could get a cheap external hard drive as well that can serve as a storage backup for your machine so that you won't lose your music if one of the drives fails. I plan on doing this wirelessly with an Apple AirPort Time Capsule, which is their version of a wireless router with a built-in hard drive. Check back in November or December for my editorial about building a modern-ish music server for a relatively small sum. If you do it right, the thing should last for years with no problem! Let us know how the project turns out! . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
You asked me to keep you posted, so I’m sharing my final actions and decision.
Yesterday I worked out a deal to borrow KEF R700s, which I used to conduct a side-by-side comparison with the Focal 836 W Prestiges. Upon listening to the R700s, I was immediately surprised with how much bass they produced. In fact, it was quite boomy. Unfortunately, the demo pair were missing three of their four port plugs, so I didn’t have the opportunity to tighten things up a bit. Also, since I didn’t have the R900s, I could only imagine that they would have greater bass. However, given that I’m a bit of a bassaholic and that I could tune out some of their boominess with the plugs, I quickly dismissed my reaction.
Treble/mids -- this is where I felt the comparison was similar to if I had the R900s. Just as I noticed the boomy bass of the R700s, the R700's midrange sounded more cupped or boxy compared to the 836’s midrange. Imaging also seemed better with the 836es than the R700s. After approximately two hours of auditioning the two pairs in question, I decided that I preferred the 836es. I was a little disheartened because I went into this wanting to buy the KEFs, but I had to go with what I liked to hear.
Then some Focal Electra 1008 Be speakers were thrown in the mix. After I decided on the 836es, I asked if there was a speaker in the Electra line that was close to my “original” budget. In all of my research, I never included the Electra series because at that time I thought they all were outside of my budget. Well, I immediately fell in love with the 1008s and, after negotiating for more Wife Acceptance Factor, decided to up my budget. I’ve never heard highs and mids that sounded that good. Also, for a bookshelf, they produced just as much bass as the 836es. However, there were two negatives to considering the 1008s. First, they are not as efficient as the 836es and second, I learned that the stands were not included. Well, to make this shorter, I decided to up the budget and spring for the larger 1028 Be speakers.
Thanks again for responding to my initial inquiry.
John, it's funny how things work out, right? Do not for one second think that you're somehow making a wrong choice here. While the R900s are definitely my cup of tea, they may not be for everyone. And I know what you mean by the R700s having a "boxy" sound to them. Their sound is not as divorced from the cabinet as a more sophisticated, or at least a smaller, loudspeaker would be. Also, Focal has been making good loudspeakers for a long time, so I think you did well.
As far as springing for the Electra line, I can't blame you. Frankly, I think the Electra line is the looker of Focal's various ranges, and their beryllium tweeters are phenomenal. While surely a step- up in price, I would probably have made the same decision that you did. Enjoy. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I realize I may not get a return answer here, but it is certainly worth a shot, as they say. I am debating between the Rogue Audio Pharaoh integrated amplifier (the big brother of the Sphinx that you reviewed earlier this year) and the Hegel Audio Systems H300 integrated amplifier-DAC. Since the Hegel H300 is your reference, is it possible to let me know which sounds better since I cannot audition either piece?
I have scaled down my system and did have tubes in my EAR (Esoteric Audio Research) 868 preamplifier. I decided to go with an integrated and am using Vienna Acoustics Mozarts. I love them but am in a quandary as to which integrated I should use. The Hegel has received rave reviews and the Rogue Pharaoh is so new it has none. The Pharaoh does, however, have tubes. I know you have only heard the Rogue Audio Sphinx, but from what I have heard, the Pharaoh is similar, but much better and with more power. Thanks so much.
What a pickle you're in, having narrowed your search down to these two. Well, I can't speak much to the Pharaoh, since, as you say, it's so new that it has yet to be reviewed. Maybe I can finagle a review sample at some point! Despite this, I do have some comments and suggestions.
You are probably well aware of the regard in which I hold the Hegel H300. It's really, really exceptionally good, and not just for the money. Its noise floor is the lowest I've heard from the various hardware I've had through my listening room. It has a properly resolving amp with high power (it's rated at 250Wpc into 8 ohms) and tiny amounts of distortion. And it has a full-fledged digital-to-analog converter that's quite good. And a real, bespoke remote. And preamp outs and home-theater throughputs. The thing is a high-end Swiss Army Knife. We recently had the H300 measured on a test bench and it produced some of the best measurements that we have seen from an amplifier, irrespective of price. For all of those reasons, I think you and many others could be happy with an H300.
That said, I was really taken with Rogue's Sphinx, which offered really compelling performance for the price. If the Pharaoh has an improved power supply and amplifier circuit, then I would imagine its $3495 asking price is well worth the money. It's also about $2000 less expensive than the Hegel, which costs $5500, though its 175Wpc output is less substantial, and it does not have any digital inputs/DAC. You mention the Pharaoh has tubes, and that you have (or had?) a tubed preamp before. For this reason, I'd probably recommend the Pharaoh. The Sphinx's midrange was downright lovely, with a hint of that delicious tube richness, but with all the accuracy and acuity that a solid-state, class-D design can bring. I suspect you'd miss that quality in the Hegel, which almost hits you in the face with its sheer clarity. For a tube fan such as yourself, then, Pharaoh all the way. While it's easy to respect the Hegel and its abilities, it's easier to fall in love with the Rogue for the tube sound. Oh, and Rogue's website claims that the Pharaoh is currently available for an introductory price of $2995. If that's the case, I'd suggest moving quickly! . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I’ve been researching floorstanding speakers that cost between $4000/pair and $6000/pair for several months and have narrowed my decision to Focal's Chorus 836 W Prestige ($4499/pair) and KEF's R900 ($4999.98/pair). I’ve had the opportunity to audition the Focals, but the nearest retailer that carries the R series is over four hours away, assuming that they have R900s on the floor. Your review of the R900s was very helpful to my research. Could you compare and contrast the Focal Chorus 836 W with the R900?
You've picked two great brands, and two solid loudspeakers. But there are certainly differences here. The most obvious one is the design of each speaker. The French, undoubtedly, have a much better notion of style and presentation than the Brits. So the Focals are a lot more interesting to look at, while the KEFs are -- while well-constructed -- a bit staid looking. Different strokes for different folks on that front. On the other hand, the Focal uses a traditional three-way approach of tweeter, midrange, and three 6.5" bass drivers, while the KEF uses a coaxial driver sandwiched in between two larger 8" bass drivers. I can almost guarantee that the $500 premium for the KEFs will get you deeper bass response than the Focals.
Doug Schneider, who reviewed the Focal Chorus 836 W last year for SoundStage! Hi-Fi, a sister site, was smitten by their "rich midrange," and found them quite capable on the whole. The Focal company has a long history, and know their way around a loudspeaker, so I have no doubt they are well designed and sound every bit as good as Doug explained in his review. But there's a primary difference between the two that's worth exploring. We measured the Chorus 836 W in Canada's National Research Council's anechoic chamber. It is a reasonable performer with a relatively flat listening frequency response. It also offers an amplifier a pretty benign electrical load. Take note of the "Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise" graphs, however. There is some distortion in and around the midrange that is not ideal. Contrast this with measurements we took of KEF's $2599.98/pair R500 loudspeaker, the R900's baby brother. In the "Listening Window" graph, you can see that the frequency response is approximately as flat as that of the Focal's, but with two differences. Whereas the Focal has a bump up in the bass around 100Hz, and a non-linear top end, with a fall in treble energy followed by a sharp rise, the KEF remains pretty flat on both ends. Furthermore, in the "Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise" graphs, you'll see the KEF has pretty much zero distortion from the midrange on up. While it has a sharper rise in distortion in the bass region, we are not nearly as sensitive to this distortion as we are distortion in the midrange, where many vocals and instruments play. Blame evolutionary biology for that.
Measurements alone can't tell you that one speaker is definitively better than another, but they can provide insight into a how a speaker will perform. In this instance, the almost-$2000-less-expensive KEF R500 in some ways outperforms the far-more-expensive Focal. The R900’s measurements will not be exactly the same as the R500, but you can expect them to be similar, with what I suspect to be significantly less distortion in the bass, thanks to the much larger and more capable bass drivers on offer.
Which one's better? Judging from the measurements above, I would bet that the R900 can play cleaner, louder, and deeper than the 836 W. On the other hand, the 836 W is a lot more interesting to look at, is several hundred dollars per pair cheaper, and, based on what Doug Schneider wrote about the pair he listened to, is likely to have a more alluring midrange. Which, I hate to say it, means that you need to clear out your schedule one Saturday to make the trip and hear the KEFs. Call ahead and make sure they have a pair of R900s for you to hear. For a pair of speakers that will probably serve as your daily companions for the next decade or so, I think it's a minor hassle in the grand scheme of things. Whichever you choose, you're getting a quality loudspeaker. Let us know how it goes! . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
Great review of the Definitive Technology BP-8020ST SuperTower loudspeakers. I've been looking to upgrade from my PSB Image T5. I've looked at the Mirage OMD-15 and I wonder if these are speakers you would recommend since you have the larger OMD-28s. I am also considering GoldenEar Technology's Triton Two or DefTech's larger BP-8060ST or BP-8080ST. These will be connected to my PrimaLuna ProLogue Two with a Logitech Squeezebox.
While I haven't heard the PSB T5s that you own, I have heard several Paul Barton designs, as well as talked to the man on one or two occasions. I am confident in saying that you have a very good pair of speakers, and while you will probably hear some differences in the list of competing products that you mention, odds are that in some ways you'll be moving sideways, rather than upwards, in terms of sound quality. You've mentioned a number of loudspeakers here, and so I'll tackle them in order.
While I owned Mirage's final flagship loudspeaker, the OMD-28, I never had a chance to listen to the OMD-15 ($2500/pair when last available). They look to be a relatively easy load to drive, and by reputation I hear they have surprisingly deep bass. You would need to take some time and effort to set them up correctly to maximize their performance, as they'll definitely need breathing room due to their omnidirectional dispersion. Their imaging is . . . different. Different than just about anything. If they're like the OMD-28s I used to have, they probably sound enormous, but at the expense of image specificity.
Which leads me to the DefTechs that you mention. The Forward Focused Bipolar Arrays found in their SuperTower series, whereby the rear drivers are 6dB down from the front drivers, works very well. They create a soundstage which is almost as cavernous as the Mirage OMD-28s I used to own, but with terrific imaging to boot. It's worth noting that they do have a crisp, crystalline sound to them, perhaps sounding a little sharper and brighter than your PSBs. But this will be offset by the tubes in your PrimaLuna integrated amplifier. I think any of the SuperTower models that you mention would compliment your existing setup.
As for the GoldenEars, they have a different personality, which I found while reviewing their Triton Three loudspeaker. They have a more sophisticated disposition, as their High Velocity Folded Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter has a smoothness that the DefTechs do not. This quality is not necessarily better, just different. The slightly warm, smooth, laid-back character of the GoldenEars probably falls to the one side of your PSB T5s, while the more strident and surgical character of the DefTechs falls on the other. Having reviewed a speaker in each line, I can say with confidence that you cannot go wrong here. High efficiency, active bass sections, and deeply capable everywhere else. My preference would be for the BP-8060STs, as their $2000/pair price, the same as GoldenEar's Triton Three, gets you that enormous bipolar soundstage, and almost all the bass of the larger 8080 model. But definitely listen to both lines of speakers before making a decision. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I had gone ahead and placed my order for the PSB Alpha PS1s before I read your response [to my previous letter], as my Audioengine A2s’ power-supply line had broken (I'm waiting on its replacement).
As for my concerns with the PSBs’ ability to be angled downward, I was able to use the Audioengine speakers’ stands with no issues at all -- they work fine.
As for the bass, I find the PS1s’ bass very good! They’re tight, snappy, and not exaggerated. I've always been impressed with PSB speakers, but this is the first pair I've owned. The PS1s just sound more balanced, more articulate, from top to bottom.
The A2s are still great speakers in their own right, and I'll find another home for them, whether as our bedroom's TV speakers or in the kids’ room, paired with an old Fiio E10 headphone amplifier/DAC. I may still try and hear the Emotiva Airmotiv 4, as the Emotiva headquarters are located just outside Nashville, and I'm about an hour and a half from there. That would be a pretty cool little road trip!
Thanks again for the informative review, and keep 'em coming!
Jay, I’m glad that you’re enjoying the Alpha PS1s, though I’m hardly surprised. If I had the space for them, I’d definitely keep them around. And as I said in the review, if they’re good enough for Paul Barton to be using on a daily basis, they’re likely good enough for just about anyone else. Thanks for reading, and keep your eyes open for a review of KEF’s X300A powered loudspeakers in the next few months. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I read your review on the KEF R900. I currently have the R700s. I noted your praise of the synergy with the Hegel Music Systems H300 integrated amplifier-DAC. I am considering purchasing Hegel's H20 amp for my system. Can I do any better than this for the money?
While I don't have experience with Hegel's H20, which was reviewed on our sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi back in 2011, I do have several comments. The first thing is that the H20 costs $5750. The H300 that I reviewed last year, and subsequently bought for myself as a long-term reference, is $5500. It's also worth mentioning that the H300 makes 250Wpc to the H20's 200Wpc. Of primary importance, however, is that the H300 has a newer architecture than the H20, and Hegel's folks have told me the H300's performance is scarily close to their flagship H30 monoblock amplifier and P30 preamplifier, both of which are way more expensive than the H20. This is to say nothing of the built-in DAC that has performance approaching that of Hegel's flagship $2500 HD25. Having heard the P20 preamplifier, which is $2900 and wickedly good for the price, I'm pretty confident in saying that the H300 is a bargain and seriously worth considering over "just" purchasing an H20. While there may be a few benefits to having a standalone amplifier, I think they're eclipsed by everything else that falls in the H300's favor.
Can you do better? Yes, though probably not for the same money. I can't categorically say it's better than its direct competitors, because I've only briefly listened to a few of them. Peachtree Audio's $4499 Grand Integrated X-1 comes to mind, as does Electrocompaniet's $7499 ECI 6DS. But I harbor great suspicion that either of them have quite the performance of the Hegel. What is close-ish in price to the Hegel, and likely state of the art, is Devialet's new $6495 110. It has a good deal less power than the Hegel, at 110Wpc into 6 ohms, but the R700s are a reasonably easy speaker to drive, provided you're not looking to earn noise complaints from your neighbors. I wrote about their new line recently, and -- fingers crossed -- am due to receive a review sample of the 110 in the near future. It's worth mentioning that I don't say "state of the art" lightly. No one makes an audio product like the Devialet with its Analog Digital Hybrid (ADH) architecture. If you have a dedicated audio system, I'd seriously think about saving up for the Devialet. If, like me, your stereo pulls double duty with a television and all its connected devices, the extra power and connective flexibility of the Hegel might make some more sense. In either event, these integrated solutions are the way of the future. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
Talk about timing! I came very close to buying the PSB PS1s this morning. One of my concerns was of the bass, and how it compared to the Audioengine A2. Well, your review helped answer some of those questions. My plan is to move the A2s into the master bedroom's television-based system, and our little 2.1 PC speakers to the kids' "media" (television, computer) room. I'm also considering the Emotiva Airmotiv 4.
My one question concerning the PSB, since you've had some experience with it, concerns speaker placement. Due to desktop space, I currently have my A2s on a shelf, angled down slightly to have the tweeters at a more desirable angle. I noticed the PS1 is slightly curved at the bottom of the front baffle. Do you think that the round edge would make it difficult to angle down? I suppose I could do some rearranging, but my first preference would be on the shelf. Thanks again for the informative review. I'm still stoked about the whole "personal/PC/desktop" audio scene. It just gets better and better!
Glad you found the review helpful, and that you're as excited about the desktop audio segment as I am. The PSB is one of several really promising products out there at the moment. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on Emotiva's Airmotiv 4 ($349/pair), as I have no experience with it, though a folded-ribbon tweeter at that price point looks quite appealing.
As for the PSBs, its curved bottom segment will make it a little more challenging to angle down than a traditionally shaped loudspeaker, but I'm sure you can jam something under each speaker's rear to get the angle you're looking for. It's not elegant, but it doesn't have to be for $299 speakers. Write back if you wind up getting a pair to let us know what you think of them. There won't be a good deal of bass, but everything else should sound extremely clean. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I really enjoyed your review of the Definitive Technology BP-8020ST SuperTower loudspeakers ($1198/pair). I wonder whether you've heard the DefTech StudioMonitor 65 ($898/pair)? I'm curious to know if it might solve the problem of the detached bass you mention by its not having a powered, built-in subwoofer.
On the subject of the StudioMonitor 65, I'm hoping to compare it to a set of PSB Imagine Bs ($1099.99/pair), which the Crutchfield people think are more suited to music -- a wide range of classical in my case -- than the StudioMonitor 65. Any thoughts on that? Finally, have you heard the Epos Epic 2? The few reviews I've read sound promising, but there's nowhere to audition them in my state that I know of.
The BP-8020STs are great speakers. For rooms on the smaller side, they're super compact, and the built-in subwoofers make them reasonably full-range. While I haven't heard the StudioMonitor 65s, I would bet they are quite good. They use DefTech's newest BDSS midrange-woofers, while the 8020s use a modified older design. However, the 65s would also require stands, and they wouldn't have the output capability of the 8020s due to their much smaller cabinets, or the bass depth due to their lack of built-in subs. I would suspect, however, that the 65s are more seamless in their driver integration, and probably have a more sophisticated midrange sound, courtesy of their BDSS drivers. It's also worth mentioning that the 8020s are bipolar, which will make them sound much larger than the 65s.
While the detached-bass issue is worth taking into consideration, the greater concern for me would be the tweeter on offer. The DefTech aluminum tweeter definitely has a crispness, a liveliness to the treble that something like the PSB Imagine Bs probably lack. The PSBs will probably sound a bit smoother through the highs, while sacrificing a little bass extension when compared to the DefTech StudioMonitor 65s. I have not heard the Epos Epic 2, so I can't offer anything on that front.
In all, there's no clear winner among the speakers you mention. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. On an objective level, I imagine (sorry . . . ) that the PSBs offer the most evenhanded and resolving performance, while also having a nicer cabinet, but at a premium in terms of price. My choice would be the BP-8020ST, simply because I like the enormity of the bipolar sound and the ability to have nearly full-range performance for about $1200. Hope this helps. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
I recently read your article, “Paradigm Lost,” and it got me thinking about the two Paradigm products in the Shift series. What do you think is a better value between the Shift A2 and the Millenia CT? Both are within $100 of each other and I believe both can be used for music and home-theater playback in a small room. I was wondering what your thoughts were about these products.
That's a great question, Rajan. In my mind, the Millenia CT is best used in conjunction with a television. It is much, much better than a sound bar; it will give you pretty deep bass, and is more manageable than the Shift A2 as far as positioning goes, even with the sub. I'd bet the Millenia is the better choice for home theater, for what it's worth, because the dedicated sub is deceptively good, if not quite as excellent as the satellites. The remote control is also handy, as far as TV use is concerned, but I would imagine not so much when used on a desk. You can only use the Millenia CT with its included remote, which means that if the little guy goes missing, you're quite out of luck.
On a desk or bookshelf, I think the Shift A2 is the better choice, what with its auto on/off functionality, lack of need for a remote, and more compact packaging, as it doesn't have a sub. Performance-wise, I would imagine the two systems to be fairly similar, short of bass extension, which obviously tips in the Millenia CT's favor. So my final advice would be to pin down exactly how you'll use a pair of speakers and go from there. I use the Millenia CTs with my television, but would probably go with the Shift A2 in most other applications. Both are quite good, however, so you can't go wrong with either. . . . Hans Wetzel
To Hans Wetzel,
Nice job on the review of the Rogue Audio Sphinx, Hans. Your review matches my experience very much, as my system is neutrally balanced and I can hear changes very well. Mark O’Brien, Rogue’s proprietor, has voiced the Rogue very much like the rest of his amps -- neutral. This gives the average guy like me a chance to hear the system as a whole and its balance. Changes can be made easily by substituting tubes. I hear the occasional hot sibilance you heard and found adding a Pangea Audio power cord helped to tame it. I find very little to grumble about other than some control looseness. But the amplifier is solidly built and exudes an old-school American quality I find very pleasing. This is great value for money and I think this would make a great choice to power those new Magnepan Super MMGs!
Thanks for reading, Vic. The Rogue is a really solid piece of equipment. While it’s not totally neutral -- that tube does tend to offset the class-D section somewhat, and the sound is a little rounder than you’d expect from a dead-neutral design -- it’s still terrific for the price. I would imagine that substituting new tubes will void the Rogue’s factory warranty, but it does offer some options going forward. And I’m glad to hear you had success with the Pangea Audio power cord. I’d also agree that the Sphinx would not be a bad choice for the Magenpans, though I am not positive how it would fare pushing a 2-ohm load, which can sometimes happen with panel-type speakers. I’m not sure what load the Super MMGs present, mind you. Regardless, enjoy the Sphinx. It would be my top choice for an integrated under $2000. . . . Hans Wetzel