Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

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Hello GoodSound!,

I have a budget of about $2000 to spend on my amp and preamp. Should I get separates or an integrated amplifier?


Ten years ago, separates would have been the only way to go, as integrateds were somewhat frowned upon in the high-end-audio scene. Having two chassis has its benefits, as separating the amplifier section from the preamplifier section can cut down on electromagnetic noise. Integrateds are much more common these days, however, and often very good. The fact that some integrateds come with a built-in digital-to-analog converter makes them even more compelling.

I can't be sure of what exactly you're looking for with regards to your system, but I would probably suggest going with an integrated because of the simplicity and requiring less cabling to get quality sound. There are a variety of companies that make highly competent designs that fit a variety of needs. Without more information, I would suggest starting your search with Creek, Musical Fidelity, NAD, Peachtree Audio and Wyred 4 Sound. These are just a few, however. Let us know if we can be of more assistance. . . . Hans Wetzel

Hello GoodSound!,

I am looking to replace a pair of 20-plus-year-old Canadian-made, two-way, standmounted Energy Reference 22 loudspeakers for my two-channel stereo system used mostly for rock, pop, blues, folk, and an occasional movie. I purchased these speakers used in the early '90s and I believe they retailed for about $900 CDN per pair in their day.

Here is what I like about these old speakers:

1) To my ears these speakers have a very smooth and non-fatiguing quality, almost sweet. In their day (late '80s/early '90s), I recall that their tweeter was well regarded.

2) Considering their moderate size, they can play rather deep bass frequencies. An old spec sheet indicates a low-end -3dB point of 28Hz, which seems quite impressive compared to the data listed for most of today's speakers, floorstanders included. I very much like that they can play so deep and, therefore, do not need a subwoofer.

3) They are fairly forgiving of room placement (wall boundaries, etc). Supposedly something to do with being front ported?

4) Despite my listening (living) room being on the smaller side (about 16' wide x 11.5' deep x 8' high (approx. 1500 cubic feet) and my sitting position being only about 8' away, these speakers don't overpower me or the room at sane listening levels.

For me, their main negative point is not being particularly sensitive at 86dB (which is probably a rather optimistic rating), given that they are being driven with a somewhat smaller 50Wpc Simaudio Moon I-1 integrated amp (100Wpc-capable for 4-ohm loads). My sources are a Simaudio CD-1 CD player and Oppo Digital BDP-95 universal player.

After writing all this background info, here are my questions:

1) Might anyone at GoodSound! or SoundStage! have any prior experience with these older Energy Ref 22s and have any advice on current speaker brands and models that might be worth investigating as suitable replacements, given what I like about these old speakers as well as my present amplifier and listening-room sizes? My price range would be roughly around $1000 to $3000 CDN (before taxes).

2) Given my room size and listening distance from the speakers, would floorstanding speakers possibly be too much? Would they likely overpower the room, or not have space to properly radiate their sound? Would stand-mount speakers be the better direction to pursue?


While I don't have any personal experience with your Energy speakers, I am glad they gave you such enjoyment over the past 20 years. It's nice when you find a product that perfectly fits your needs. Finding a high-performance replacement for them shouldn't be too tough, however, as speaker design has come a long way since you purchased these. Given your room size and desire for a near-full-range speaker, I think a floorstanding speaker would be your best bet. Your budget of $1000-$3000 CDN is a perfect amount to spend, with the $2000 CDN price point being a consumer sweet spot.

You mentioned you are fond of your Energy's smooth and almost sweet character. PSB's $2000 Imagine T loudspeaker might work well for you, as two SoundStage! Network writers were very fond of the larger T2, and the entry-level Mini bookshelf. While the Imagine T might be a little bass-shy for your tastes, PSB speakers are well-built, measure remarkably well, and one of our writers described the Imagine midrange as "smooth" four times in a single paragraph! Another option in the same mold could be Aperion Audio's $1800 Verus Grand Tower, which our editor-in-chief so favorably reviewed last year, comparing them to far more expensive speakers. Aperion's 30-day money-back guarantee, with free shipping both ways, is a risk-free possibility for you.

Beyond these, there are a few other speakers with different designs and strengths that I would suggest looking into: Definitive Technology's 8040ST and 8060ST, Focal's Chorus 826V, GoldenEar Technology's Triton Three (which I'll be reviewing soon) and Triton Two, and Monitor Audio's RX8. This is by no means an exhaustive list, as there are many competent designs that could potentially fit your needs, but hopefully it will at least give you an idea of what's available. In light of your Simaudio integrated amplifier and Oppo universal player, however, I bet you'll be pretty satisfied irrespective of what speakers you wind up with. Let us know how your search goes! . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I am going to be purchasing a pair of bookshelf speakers and have narrowed my search to two sets: Energy CB-20 or the GoldenEar Aon 3. Do you have a preference? I am interested solely in sound quality. Regardless of the pair selected, I am going to be supplementing them with a sub.

I appreciate any insight you could give!

Brad H.

Energy makes some very good speakers for the money, as demonstrated by our review of the RC-10 back in 2006, and the CB-20 that you mention in 2009. It's interesting, though, that you have narrowed your search down to the CB-20s, which are $350 per pair, and the Aon 3s, which are $1000 per pair.

In terms of outright performance, the Aon 3 that Doug Schneider recently reviewed is the easy answer. Its folded-ribbon tweeter, 7" bass driver, and pair of 8" passive radiators makes for a compelling, if unconventional package. The Aon 3 will likely produce a larger, more robust sound than the CB-20 due to its larger cabinet and more capable drivers. Its treble will likely sound a bit "airier" and the bass will be noticeably deeper and tighter than the Energy's. All in all, the Aon will cost you almost three times as much as the Energy, but will probably provide a commensurate increase in performance. The best part of the Aon 3 is that it goes low enough that you might not see a need for a subwoofer.

If you're dead set on getting an accompanying subwoofer, however, I would probably go with the Energy CB-20. They're a capable set of bookshelf speakers that, with the right sub, can probably get you deeper bass than the Aon 3, and for less money to boot. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Your statement that the substitution of the Nordost Blue Heaven speaker cable for the AudioEngine 5+-supplied cable achieved better sound for the entire system somewhat puzzled me. Since the left speaker is directly connected to its built-in amp and then to whatever feeds a signal to the amp, doesn't the Blue Heaven speaker cable only influence the sound of the right speaker and possibly improve it? Wouldn't that result in an imbalance of sound quality between the two speakers?

I own the AudioEngine 5+ and a Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus and would love to better the sound. I did purchase better interconnect cables and a USB cable, but I hesitate getting a better speaker cable based on what seems illogical. Yet you say you got better sound with a single better speaker cable. Any idea why you got better sound? What am I missing here?

Alan Margolies

You are not missing anything, Allen. I tried a run of my Nordost Blue Heaven speaker cable very late in the review process, on a whim more than anything else, so I was surprised to hear such an apparent improvement in sound. My thinking at the time mirrored yours, but I decided to include the results, since the cable change made a dramatic difference. In retrospect, I should have been more diligent in listening for differences in quality between the two speakers. The folks at Audioengine confirmed for me that the quality of the cable connecting the amp to the drivers in the powered left speaker is comparable in quality to the included speaker wire meant to connect the active left speaker to the passive right speaker. Accordingly, I suspect you're right in thinking that my Blue Heaven swap only improved the sound from the right speaker. With that said, however, the sound did not strike me as unbalanced with the Nordost cable in place.

Regardless, I hope you are enjoying your system. I've heard nothing but good things about the DacMagic Plus, and I obviously know firsthand about the qualities of the A5+. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

I just ran across your article on "old-tech" vacuum tubes. I enjoyed your perspective. I recently started putting a budget stereo system together. Ironically, I just "lost" two different eBay auctions for a Krell KAV-300i. They both went at about the $900 price.

I've recently run across a few articles on solid-state amplification, which had your same evaluation on "tubes." They also went on to say that with low distortion and adequate power/current across the audible frequency range, any two decent-quality class-AB integrated amps will sound the same. One author even stated that the only time you really would hear the difference is if a manufacturer deliberately altered the audible frequency range in order to fool a reviewer.

Sometimes in this industry you have to decipher what's "snake oil" and what's reality. Spending $1000 on a power cord is ridiculous when there is 1000' of cheap 14-guage wire in the wall going to your receptacle.

Well, Krell was out of my budget -- I heard that same amp you mentioned years ago, and would have loved to have gotten my hands on one! Instead, last week I actually purchased a NAD C 316BEE. On a budget, I'm hoping I made a wise choice. Have you ever heard of NAD trying to alter their amplifiers to get a "certain sound"? I assume that would show up as distortion?

If I'm off base on my "thinking" towards amplification, please feel free to let me know. I would appreciate your input. Also, do you have a recommendation for a decent digital source, such as a good-quality DVD player?

Thanks for your time!

Dan Musielski

Thanks for writing, Dan. Sorry to hear about the Krells that got away. Unfortunately, I have never heard any of NAD's products, so I cannot speak to whether or not they voice their gear to have a certain sonic character. Based on reputation, however, I am sure that your new NAD C 316BEE will perform pretty well for the money.

Addressing the point on class-AB integrated amplifiers sounding the same, I'll say that while the included components of a randomly selected pair of integrateds may be very similar, the manner of executing a design may differ dramatically. There could be differences in the circuit design, the materials used, and the tolerances of individual components that, when aggregated, have an audible effect on the resultant sound. To the uninitiated, the sonic differences between two integrateds may be negligible or imperceivable, but if you know your music collection well enough and have half-decent accompanying speakers and electronics, a savvy listener can quickly tell the differences. And why not? Just like speaker design, where driver material, cabinet construction, and crossover design all have a profound result on the quality of the final sound, so, too, do the design choices that go into integrated amplifiers. These subtle differences can mean that, since certain manufacturers use certain methodologies and materials throughout their product lines, they have a "house sound" of sorts, but this is not distortion. There is some snake oil in high-end audio, but the bottom line is that almost every aspect of your system has some impact on the final sound, it's just a matter of degree. I think it's fair to say that $1000 power cables belong in some people's systems, but only those that retailed for the price of a new four-door sedan.

On your last question of a decent digital source, there are too many to list. It totally depends on your needs, but since you mention a DVD player, I assume you are looking for a universal player. If so, look for one with a high-quality digital-to-analog converter, which would offer solid performance for both movies and music. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention computer audio, however, where with or without wires, you can get CD-quality sound directly from a computer, smartphone, or tablet to your NAD. It might be worth looking into. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Wow! A dismissive attack on vacuum tubes and record players on an audiophile website written not as a letter to the editor, but by its editor as if his opinion was fact -- incredible.

Everyone has their preferences (and is entitled to them), but dismissing LPs and tubes altogether as outmoded just seems silly, especially in such a brief essay. Perhaps you're just trying to be controversial? It's one thing to say tubes and vinyl aren't for you, but quite another to dismiss them out of hand.

For my part, I've never heard a 100-percent solid-state amplification and digital-source system at any price point that didn't leave me just a bit cold. That includes high-resolution digital sources and top-end solid-state amplification. That's not to say there was nothing enjoyable about these systems, quite the opposite. Still, I wouldn't trade a less-expensive tube/vinyl system for any more expensive solid-state/digital system I've ever heard.

Some folks like vanilla and some folks like chocolate. Arguing that the "vanilla folks" are somehow misguided is just foolish. Same goes for preferences in audio. Yet audiophiles seem prone to being absurdly hidebound as to their particular preferences being "correct" and anyone who doesn't agree being "deaf." Unfortunately, it seems that many audiophiles enjoy looking down their noses at anyone whose system preferences, ideas about audio, taste in music, etc., don't agree with their own more than they actually enjoy listening to music.

Ironic then that an audiophile website devoted to less-costly entry-level gear and thus designed at least in part to draw in new high-end enthusiasts would publish an outright dismissal of a fairly large sector of the hobby.

Travis Cunningham

A few points in response.

My monthly writings, per their filing under the "Feature Articles" section of the website, reflect only my personal opinion. Accordingly, my intention is not to be controversial, but rather to illustrate my own views on various aspects of the high-end audio scene. I can see how many tube lovers would heartily disagree with me, however.

In turn, I think if you reread my piece you would find that I support this very subjective opinion with nothing but facts. Tubes are a 100-year-old technology that by definition are outmoded (or old-fashioned) within the context of high-end audio. Their characteristic warmth is a result of audible distortion. Lastly, they generally have a shorter lifespan and are less efficient than transistors. I don't think any of these points are in dispute.

Finally, I am in total agreement with you that everyone is entitled to their own preference. My piece expresses only my lack of understanding as to why many listeners prefer tubes and LPs over more modern designs. I don't believe I wrote that such listeners were in any way wrong or "deaf." I don't think that my hearing is any more correct than other listeners'. But where I take issue with your "vanilla/chocolate" example is that there is no objective criterion for evaluating the qualities of one flavor over the other that are not, on their face, arbitrary. In high-end audio, however, subjective opinions about equipment are often taken in tandem with technical measurements. On that basis, I don't fully appreciate why tube fans prefer a sound that is "colored," in a way, by vacuum tubes. My ultimate point was that solid-state designs are getting much better at capturing the musicality and warmth that you seem to find so appealing in tube/vinyl rigs, perhaps making the newest generation of solid state gear attractive to listeners like you and me.

Fittingly apropos of all this, I will be reviewing an amp/preamp pairing that includes a single vacuum tube to "smooth the harsh digital edge." I am very much looking forward to hearing the duo in action, and appraising it not to see if it accords with my personal taste, but on its own performance-related merits. I may yet come to like tubes! I hope this afforded some context and clarity on my original piece. Happy listening, Travis. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

Thanks for the reply. At the time when I e-mailed GoodSound!, I was having trouble deciding which "upgrade path" to take. In my previous "audiophile" life, I would obsess over the hardware, and as I began this process it started happening again. Then I remembered some advice I was given when I first entered the high-end world: speakers first, then work from there, and have fun.

As I write this, I'm waiting on a pair of A2s from Audioengine. Unless the A2s really impress, they'll go back and I'll try another pair. All of the speakers you suggested were already on my short list, with the addition of the EmotivaPro Airmotiv 4.

Being that I have no dealers near, I am doing the buying online and making sure I can return the product if its not satisfactory, which almost any reputable online dealer offers. I know I mentioned my budget for this upgrade being around $300. I've paid more for interconnects in the past, so this is pretty cool! It's real easy to just throw money at something, but the real challenge for me seems to be getting almost the whole slice, the most sound, for the least amount of scratch. I still keep up with a lot of the high-dollar stuff; it's fun to read about, but it's more fun when something a fraction of the price is about as good.

Thanks again,

Every component is important to one degree or another, but speakers should definitely be the anchor of any system. You're also right in saying that the real challenge is finding the products that offer the most performance per dollar spent. That's our goal at GoodSound!, and it's gratifying to find a product that really overachieves. 

The A2s are great little nearfield monitors -- my own mother has a pair! Good luck, Jay. . . . Hans Wetzel

To Hans Wetzel,

First let me say I've enjoyed GoodSound! for years. I no longer have a traditional stereo system; I've scaled back and now listen to music primarily on my computer. I have a Dell laptop, which is reasonably new and fast (for the time being). I'm currently using a pair of M-Audio AV 30 speakers.

I'm looking to improve my setup's sound. Where is the best place to start: speakers, DAC, etc.? I don't want to just throw money at it. I want to get the most bang for, say, $200-$300 or so.

Thanks again for your publication, and sensibilities on getting a lot for a little!


Thanks for the kind words about GoodSound! You are far from alone in primarily using a computer for your musical needs. That said, there are numerous directions you could go to maximize your sound quality for a modest sum.

Upgrading your speakers would be my first suggestion. While I have never personally heard the M-Audio AV 30, it looks to be a step up from more traditional and widely available computer speakers. With that in mind, to improve on the M-Audios might require a slightly larger outlay. For $398/pair, the NHT SuperPowers marry the pedigree of NHT's SuperZero 2.0s, which Roger Kanno favorably reviewed last fall, with built-in amplifiers for use as computer speakers. Another option would be Audioengine's $399/pair A5+, which I am very fond of. I suspect they don't quite match the NHTs for out-and-out resolution, but they more than make up for it with larger bass drivers, multiple inputs, all the wiring you could possibly need and a handy remote control. Both NHT and Audioengine sell matching subwoofers for their speakers should you crave a more full-range setup going forward. Orb Audio's Mod1s are another option, though I suspect they would be something of a lateral move from your M-Audio AV 30s.

Once you are happy with your speakers, I would suggest investing in a small digital-to-analog converter (DAC), of which there are many available for around $300. Audioengine, AudioQuest, CEntrance, Emotiva and Musical Fidelity are good companies to start with, but, frankly, most any DAC should noticeably improve the quality of sound coming from your Dell laptop.

I hope this helps, and let us know if we can be of further assistance! . . . Hans Wetzel

Greetings Andrea and Vince,

I read your reviews about the Alpha Design Labs GT40 and the Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic Plus.

In my system I use two-channel audio (no headphones) and I already have a DacMagic Plus. I was wondering if getting the GT40 would be an upgrade to my system by replacing the DacMagic Plus.

Any suggestions?

Thanks and best regards,

Vince has not heard the GT40, nor have I heard the DacMagic Plus. Based on his review and some other characteristics of the Cambridge Audio unit -- the DAC chips used, support for higher sample rates, multiple filters, and asynchronous USB -- I would expect it to outperform the GT40. The GT40 may be attractive to somebody who is looking for a phono preamplifier, ADC, headphone amp, and DAC in a single, affordable box. At its price, I don't find it compelling as simply a DAC. . . . S. Andrea Sundaram

To S. Andrea Sundaram,

I'm thinking about trying to replace the stock interconnect that came with my Denon DP-500M turntable, under the assumption that it's not particularly high quality and that a reasonably priced replacement might improve the sound quality. Is this worth considering? If so, are there special considerations for choosing an interconnect for a turntable rather than a digital source? And how do I deal with the ground wire?


Since your turntable has RCA jacks, experimenting with different cables is a relatively painless process. (You don't have to rewire the tonearm.) I wasn't able to find any specific information about the grounding wire for your Denon, so I'm assuming that it is a completely separate lead. Just leave that connected to your phono preamplifier or receiver. Otherwise, it's no different from any other source. Most reputable dealers will offer a return policy on cables, so I don't see any harm in trying. . . . S. Andrea Sundaram

To Doug Schneider,

I am curious if you have any reviews of Definitive Technology's new monitors coming soon. I've read quite a bit about these speakers, but I haven't seen any full reviews. Anything you can tell me?

Ryan J.

We actually have the StudioMonitor 55s and 45s in for review right now. Roger Kanno has one pair and Philip Beaudette has the other. The reviews will likely be published in the next couple of months. One of the reviews will appear here on GoodSound!, the other one will appear on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. . . . Doug Schneider