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The Audiophile System Builder: Part II – Monitors, Tubes, and the Integrated Amplifier

NAD C 356BEE Integrated AmplifieIn our first installment of the “The Audiophile System Builder” we focused on desktop systems with self-powered loudspeakers priced under $1,000 that offer excellent sound quality and value. But what if you want a system that can tackle a  living room or den while keeping the investment down around $2,500?

The notion that one has to spend more than $10,000 for a real high-end system has been propagated by the press for many years, and to the detriment of the industry. Does $10,000 buy you a lot? Absolutely. Is it more fun to do it for $2,500 without feeling like you had to cut corners? We think so. We think the four systems we suggest this week are not just audio appetizers, but full-on sonic buffets. This week, our builds are all centered around integrated amplifiers paired with a great set of loudspeakers. We’ve also tossed in some source components and cables to round out the package and help deliver the best possible sound. 

Magnepan MMG SpeakersThe Golden Gopher

  • Magnepan MMG Loudspeakers – $600
  • NAD C 356BEE Integrated Amplifier – $800
  • Wadia 151PowerDac Mini – $800
  • Schitt Audio BiFrost DAC (USB) – $450
  • Pure Music 1.88 software for Mac – $130
  • JRiver Music Center 17 for Windows – $50
  • Analysis Plus Black Oval 12 speaker cable (8-foot pair with Banana pins) – $240
  • AudioQuest Forest USB Cable (1m) – $30
  • AudioQuest  Big Sur Interconnect (1m) – $100

Total: $1,820.00 – $2,350.00 depending on system configuration

If there is one thing that Minnesotans know almost as well as ice hockey, is how to build a great sounding piece of audio equipment. The state best known for snow, MST3K, and the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” is also home to 3M, Medtronic and two of the largest retailers of consumer electronics; Best Buy and Target. Minnesota is also home to three of the top brands in home audio; Audio Research, Bel Canto Design, and Magnepan. The recent purchase of Audio Research, Wadia Digital, McIntosh, and Sonus Faber by the Fine Sounds Group in Italy has resulted in the relocation (on the manufacturing end) of Wadia from Michigan to Minnesota adding another premium brand to the Gopher state.

Magnepan has been building its planar-magnetic loudspeakers in Minnesota for more than thirty years and has developed a cult following around the globe who prize their ability to reproduce an almost holographic soundstage and very high levels of resolution. Maggies reproduce vocals like few other transducers. The diamond in their line-up, however, is their most affordable loudspeaker; the $600 MMG. If you have ever wondered what a really good high-end loudspeaker sounds like, but were too intimidated by the prices to take a serious look, the Magnepan MMG are a great place to start, and possibly end your journey. If you are a bass freak, and listen primarily to metal, rap, or techno – these speakers are not going to be your cup of tea. If your musical tastes lean more towards pop, jazz, blues, electronica, rock, and small scale classical music, these loudspeakers might force you to rethink how you listen to music.

The only real caveat with the MMGs is that they require robust  power from an amplifier that is stable pushing a  4 ohm load.  AV Receivers fudge the numbers when it comes to their power output into 4 ohms, so steer clear of all but the most well-endowed pieces of a manufacturers top of the line offerings. NAD is one manufacturer which serves up great sounding amplifiers that offer enough power and grunt to drive the Magnepan MMGs, and its C 356BEE integrated amplifier is a solid choice for this system. The MMG are slightly laid-back sounding loudspeakers so they benefit from the NAD’s tonal balance which gives the sound some additional energy in the midrange and lower treble. The NAD/Magnepan combination not only offers excellent sound quality, but it’s a great value for the money. The C 356BEE can also be used as a headphone amplifier and allows for the addition of a phono preamplifier if you are looking to add a turntable to the system.

On paper, the Wadia 151PowerDac Mini looks like it could never drive the MMGs, but amazingly enough it does, and very well for a Class D amplifier that does things a tad differently. The Wadia is designed for an all-digital system and it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb. Pairing it with a more forward sounding pair of loudspeakers would be a mistake as its tonal balance is slightly forward leaning; hence the reason it works so well with the MMGs. You trade some color for clarity with the Wadia/MMG combination, but for $1,400, it’s a steal. Lord Darko down under has been taking the MMGs through its paces and we both agree that the combination works.

The Wadia does not offer any analog inputs, so connecting a turntable is out. The NAD needs a DAC and we highly recommend the Schitt Audio BiFrost USB DAC that is ridiculously good for the money. It’s a perfect match for the MMGs and also made in America.

super3desktopThe Lana Turner

  • Omega Speaker Systems Super 3T Desktop loudspeakers – $600-$900 depending on finish
  • Zu Audio Union Cube loudspeakers – $1,200
  • Line Magnetic Audio LMA-218 Mini integrated amplifier – $750
  • AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC – $250
  • Pure Music 1.88 for Mac – $130
  • JRiver Music Center 17 for Windows – $50
  • Analysis Plus Black Oval 12 speaker cables (4-foot pair with Banana pins) – $160

Total: $1,810.00 – $2,490.00 depending on system configuration

If you have ever wondered why audiophiles have obsessed over tubes for more than fifty years, this is a great time to take the plunge. What has traditionally been a rather expensive endeavor is now far more affordable as manufacturers have shifted their manufacturing overseas, saving on both parts and labor. However, that is not to say that all tube amplifiers manufactured in Japan or China are inexpensive or using substandard iron in their transformers. Premium brands such as Shindo Labs, Leben, and Luxman are all built like tanks, expensive, and glorious to listen to. China has become a source for such quality products as the MiniWatt N3 integrated amplifier, but the production of that inexpensive gem has ceased due to a business dispute, and we would recommend staying away from any knock-offs.

In the US, manufacturers such as Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson, Wavelength Audio, and Fi charge a lot for their esoteric wares and that’s just the tip of the audiophile iceberg. While the generalization that all tube amplifiers sound better than their solid-state competitors continues to be propagated, we’ve heard more than a few over the years that did not justify their lofty asking prices. But good tube designs matched up to the right pair of loudspeakers can breathe life into music in a way that solid-state can’t replicate. The tube experience involves more texture, warmth, and a feeling that a living soul is standing before you.

Line Magnetic Audio is a relatively new brand being imported into the United States by the same distributor that handles Shindo and Leben, and while not quite in the same league as its far more expensive siblings, its sonic quality is still exceptionally high, and at much lower asking price. $750 is not inexpensive for a 3-watt, single-ended integrated amplifier with only one input and a headphone jack, but the LM Audio Mini 218 can pack a seriously mean wallop on your desktop or bookshelf with high efficiency loudspeakers like the Omega Super 3T desktop monitors or the Zu Audio Union Cubes.

Both require only a few watts to really open up and shine. Neither loudspeaker is designed for large rooms, unless you drive them with something more powerful and add a subwoofer to the mix. Both are exceptionally good loudspeakers with rock, pop, and even electronica; the Union Cubes are more forward sounding and create a wall of sound versus the Super 3Ts which are more laid back. Both are manufactured in the United States and offer a lot of performance for the price.

The only caveat with the LM Audio Mini 218 is that it has only one input – which is fine if you’re only looking to play content from one source – but if you want to run both a music sever and a turntable, you’ll have to get used to switching both manually. Vinyl playback through the integrated and either loudspeaker is just mesmerizing. We’ve also included some analogue options at the bottom if you are so inclined.

If you decide to stick with digital playback only, add an AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC to your computer and you are in for a major step-up in sound quality.


kef_Rseries_10The Benny Hill

  • Dynaudio Excite 12 – $1,200, KEF R100 – $1,200 or GoldenEar Aon 3 loudspeakers – $1,000
  • Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier – $895
  • Meridian Explorer USB DAC – $300
  • Pure Music 1.88 for Mac- $130
  • JRiver Music Center 17 for Windows – $50
  • Analysis Plus Black Oval 12 speaker cables – $240
  • AudioQuest Evergreen interconnect (1 m with 3.5 mm pin/RCA) – $30

Total: $2,515.00 – $2,795.00 depending on system configuration

British turntable manufacturer, Rega Research, is pretty much the king when it comes to affordable turntables that absolutely rock and last forever. It’s hard to go wrong with the Rega RP3/RB303 table/arm combination for under $900, but Rega also offers an entry-level table called the RP1 which comes with a tonearm and Rega Moving Magnet cartridge for only $445.00. Rega, however, is also quite good at making electronics and loudspeakers. Its $895.00 Brio-R integrated amplifier is a particular standout. It is built like a tank, small, powerful, wonderfully expressive and full of vigor, and it comes with a built-in phono stage for high-output moving coil or moving magnet cartridges if you want to add a turntable. 

All three of our loudspeaker suggestions for the Rega integrated lean toward the warmer side of neutrality and have midrange performance for under $1,200 a pair that was unheard of until recently. All three work well with all types of music, can play quite loudly, work on a desktop or on bookshelves or a credenza and are relatively easy to drive. The Dynaudio and KEF have better build quality than the GoldenEar Aon 3, but the design from Maryland pulls an “Omar” on the two monitors from the U.K. and Denmark with far more heft in the bass. 

The Meridian Explorer USB DAC is a steal for $300; taking about a company that makes $30,000 digital loudspeakers and digital playback devices, so you’re getting Bentley quality at Fiat pricing. It’s wonderfully balanced sounding and a good match tonally for all three loudspeakers.

paradigmmilleniaoneThe Timmy Ho

  • Paradigm MilleniaOne 2.0 Loudspeakers – $600.00
  • SVS SB12-NSB Powered Subwoofer – $650.00
  • NAD C 326BEE Integrated Amplifier – $550.00
  • Schitt Audio BiFrost USB DAC – $450.00
  • Pure Music 1.88 for Mac – $130.00
  • JRiver Music Center 17 for Windows – $50.00
  • AudioQuest X2 speaker cables – $37.00 (20 feet bare wire)
  • AudioQuest Evergreen interconnect (1 m with RCA/RCA) – $30.00

Total: $2,367.00 – $2,447.00 depending on system configuration

Toronto-based Paradigm (not like anyone in the lower 48 has ever heard of Mississauga, where its actual HQ is located) is all about delivering high-end sound at real world prices, and it deserves every ounce of its success. Paradigm invests a lot of money into R&D and builds its own drivers in-house. Even its least expensive products are designed to be technically superior to competing loudspeakers costing 2-3 times the price. The diminutive MilleniaOne loudspeakers we’ve suggested in this system  have been reviewed to death – good luck finding a negative review.

While they were primarily designed for the desktop, you can place them on bookshelves, or even mount them on the wall. We think you’ll love what these tiny speakers can deliver. The MilleniaOne thrive on power and the recommended NAD receiver is a good match primarily because it tames the MilleniaOne’s somewhat hot top end. Paradigm’s products are detail mavens, but the treble can be a bit over the top with the wrong amplifier. 

Paradigm manufactures some of the best subwoofers money can buy, but the Millenia Subwoofer is too expensive to keep this system under $2,500, so the SVS SB12-NSB is an excellent alternative. The Schitt Audio BiFrost USB DAC has a warm tonal balance and that’s what the MilleniaOne need to sound their best. The BiFrost is excellent at reproducing depth if it exists on your digital tracks and that plays well to the MilleniaOne’s imaging capabilities.

But I really want to add a turntable…

Adding a turntable to any of these systems is a great idea, but it is going to add around $600-$900 to the final cost, so it’s something to keep in mind on the long-term if you can’t swing it right now. These three entry-level options both sound great and can be improved over time with a better cartridge and phono preamplifier. If you decide to go with the Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier, you’re already ready for either table suggestion because it has a great phono stage already installed.

  • Rega RP1 with RB101 tonearm/Rega Carbon Moving Magnet cartridge – $445
  • Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable/arm with Ortofon 2M Red Phono cartridge – $400
  • Music Hall MMF – 2.2 turntable/arm with Music Hall Moving Magnet Cartridge – $450
  • Rega Fono MM Phono Stage – $400

Any of the four systems listed above will offer a genuine taste of the high-end and completely alter your perception that one needs to spend more than $10,000 for a great audio system. That you can get away with it for 1/4 of that price is the smart way to go.

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