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The Audiophile System Builder: Part III – Herring, Hemp, and Hong Kong

System Builder HedIn our first two installments of the “Audiophile System Builder” we focused on assembling a desktop audio system for under $1,000, and a more sophisticated system for your den or living room that will set you back $2,500. Don’t get us wrong – $2,500 buys you a lot and it should. But is there any rational reason to step up and spend double that amount? And when does the law of diminishing returns start to kick in?

Think about it this way: Is there any single item you own more of than music? Unless you have been listening to the same 10 CDs for the past ten years (or are an unabashed pirate), it is likely that you own hundreds if not thousands of albums (CDs, downloads, records) which had to drain a rather sizable portion of your savings. We’re willing to wager that the average person has spent more than $5,000 during their lifetime on music alone. For some of us, that number is in the $20-30,000 range. Knowing all that, why do people balk at the idea of spending a similar amount of money – if not more – on a product that will allow them to take full advantage of their music?

$5,000 is a really interesting number. If we handed $5,000 out to a random reader (calm down…not happening, sorry) and told them to buy $5,000 worth of stuff, we’re pretty sure that at the end of the day a dedicated stereo system would not be sitting in their living room. You can buy a lot of really cool things for that much money including a fancy smartphone ($300), MacBook Pro ($2,000), tablet ($200), 55-inch 3D plasma ($1,500), and even a few custom made suits from an outfit like Indochino ($1,000). Not a bad haul for an afternoon.

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If I didn’t have enough audio equipment right now at home to fill a space cruiser, I would either spend it all on clothing, hockey tickets, or stuff for my wife and kids. The point is that we easily rationalize spending all that money on items we know we’re going to have to replace in the short-term, but we get all tight with the check book when someone dares suggest that we invest that much money in a lifestyle product that will last and enrich our home for many years to come.

The three systems this week are a diverse cross-section of products that work well together, offer a different tonal perspective, yet deliver tremendous performance for your hard earned money.

super6xrsalnicotIt’s got some Labrador in it man…

  • Omega Speaker Systems Super 6XRS Loudspeakers – $2,150
  • Red Wine Audio Signature 16 Integrated Amplifier – $2,000
  • Line Magnetic Audio LMA- 211 IA Integrated Amplifier – $1,650
  • Schitt Audio BiFrost USB DAC – $450
  • Pure Music 1.88 for Mac – $130 or JRiver Music Center 17 for Windows – $50
  • Analysis Plus Black Oval 12 loudspeaker cable – $240 (8-foot pair with banana pins)
  • AudioQuest Forest USB cable – $30
  • Analysis Plus Oval interconnects – $90 (1m pair)

Total: $4,210 – $5,090 depending on system configuration

Connecticut-based Omega Speaker Systems has somewhat of a cult following among those who value what single-driver loudspeakers bring to the table; coherency, intimacy, and a real sense of presence when driven with the appropriate amplification. Louis Chochos also likes to build his own drivers stateside and while that may increase his costs and influence the final price, the results speak for themselves with his flagship Super 6XRS loudspeakers that offer tremendous bang for the buck with only a few watts of power. Chochos favors Alnico magnets for his proprietary 6.5-inch HempCone drivers.

The Super 6XRS are a relatively compact floor-standing loudspeaker (35”H x 13”W x 9”D) that weighs more than 35 pounds each and Chochos offers them in a variety of laminates and veneers to make them work with different home decors. The Super 6XRS are also very easy to drive and that’s a major part of their charm.

Efficient single-driver loudspeakers love tubes, but that doesn’t make it mandatory in this situation as Chochos voiced them to work well with affordable solid-state integrated amplifiers such as the Rega Brio-R, and the hybrid battery-powered Red Wine Audio Signature 16. The Signature 16 offers only 16 watts, but that’s plenty for the Omega loudspeakers; the warm tonal balance of the Signature 16 is a perfect match.

If stepping up to a tube integrated amplifier gets your blood flowing, the LMA-216 IA from Line Magnetic Audio is a perfect alternative to the Signature 16; the push-pull integrated uses EL-34 output tubes and can really rock out with the efficient Super 6XRS. For slightly less money, you trade control in the bass region for a more transparent presentation with airy highs.

Connect your computer to the Schitt Audio BiFrost DAC and you are ready to go on the digital front.

But what about playing records?

This is the type of system that excels with analog but our advice is to build this system in stages. Add one of the combinations listed at the bottom over time and you will enjoy your investment for the long haul.

A little hard of herring?Dynaudio X12

  • Dynaudio Excite 12 loudspeakers – $1,200
  • Bel Canto Design e.One C5i Integrated Amplifier/DAC – $2,000
  • Rega Brio-R Integrated Amplifier – $900
  • Peachtree Audio decco65 Integrated Amplifier – $1,000
  • AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC – $250 (if you select the Rega Brio-R)
  • REL T-7 Subwoofer – $1,000
  • Pure Music 1.88 for Mac – $130 or JRiver Music Center 17 for Windows – $50
  • Analysis Plus Black Oval 12 loudspeaker cable – $240 (8-foot pair with banana pins)
  • AudioQuest Forest USB cable – $30
  • AudioQuest Evergreen interconnect (1 m with 3.5 mm pin/RCA for use with AQ DragonFly USB DAC) – $30

Total: $3,700 – $4,600 (depending on configuration)

On a bad day, Denmark’s Dynaudio is one of the top five loudspeaker manufacturers in the world offering state-of-the-art engineering, quality construction, and exceptional performance  for your money. The Danish firm manufactures its own drivers; including some of the best tweeters in the world which have found homes in some of most expensive loudspeakers money can buy. Dynaudio’s rather extensive line-up does get extremely expensive as you start looking at the Focus and Contour models; the Focus 260 at $5,000 is a really fine loudspeaker that makes one wonder why you need to spend a penny more for a reference quality stereo, but the real diamond in the rough is their $1,200 Excite 12.

If space is limited requiring a tabletop or bookshelf loudspeaker, the Excite 12 should be on the top of your audition list. If you have the space for a pair of stands and call pull them out a few feet from the wall, the Excite 12 will never disappoint.

The Excite 12 are relatively easy to drive, lean slightly to the warm side of neutrality, and don’t favor one type of music over the other. What makes the little herring so appealing is how balanced they sound; transparent, punchy, and wonderfully sweet and airy sounding on top.

Couple the Excite 12 with the REL T-7 subwoofer and you have a full-range loudspeaker system to rival products that are twice the price. Our favorite thing about the Excite 12s is that they sound excellent with a wide range of electronics, which means you don’t have to spend more than $2,000 to hear them at their best. Any of the three integrated amplifiers listed above will breathe life into your music collection, but we are rather sweet on the Bel Canto which offers a robust amplifier, 24/192 DAC (via its S/PDIF input or 24/96 via USB), additional inputs for other sources, and a moving magnet phono preamplifier. The Bel Canto also includes a headphone amplifier making it a rather complete package.

For $1,000 less, the brand new decco65 integrated amplifier/DAC from Peachtree Audio offers a real challenge to the Bel Canto and frees up funds (just like the Rega) for a great analog source. The decco65 also includes an excellent headphone amplifier and 24/192 DAC which will allow you to playback high resolution audio tracks. If you select the Rega Brio-R, just add the AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC and you’re ready to playback your digital music collection.

 A little dim sum bolognese, Mr. Bond?Sonus Faber Venere 1.5

  • Sonus Faber Venere 1.5 loudspeakers – $1,200 – $1,500 (depending on finish)
  • Sonus Faber Venere stands – $400
  • Bel Canto e.One Reference 150S stereo amplifier – $1,600
  • Wadia Digital 121decoding computer – $1,300
  • Pure Music 1.88 for Mac – $130 or JRiver Music Center 17 for Windows – $50
  • Analysis Plus Black Oval 12 loudspeaker cables – $240 (8-foot pair with banana pins)
  • AudioQuest Carbon USB cable – $119 (0.75 meters – 2.5 feet)

Total: $4,910 – $4,990 (depending on configuration)

Leave it to the Italians to turn the entire audio world on its head when it acquired Audio Research, McIntosh, Wadia Digital, Sonus Faber, and Sumiko by the Fine Sounds Group, creating an audio juggernaut bent on global domination. Having already relocated Wadia’s manufacturing from Michigan to Minnesota where Audio Research resides, it was only a matter of time before Fine Sounds did the unthinkable: build Sonus Faber loudspeakers in China. The movie caused an uproar among the Italian’s customers who willingly pay a small fortune for the handcrafted loudspeakers designed and built in Italy. The reality is that Sonus Faber is only making one line in China, and based on early results – it’s remarkably good. When you empty your wallet for a pair of Sonus Fabers, you expect design, performance, and craftsmanship that are above and beyond. To suggest that Fine Sounds would so much as entertain releasing a substandard product with the illustrious name is just silly. 

The sleek looking Venere 1.5 loudspeakers offer a more modern take on the classic Sonus Faber form and make a lot of sense if you are trying to appeal to a younger audience whose perception of high-end audio is centered around the image of old white men sitting alone in the dark listening to music through expensive boxes made of ticky tacky. Boring. The Venere 1.5 can work just fine on a media console or credenza, but they become a breathing sculpture in your living room on their stands. They also sound better with some space around them so spend the extra money on the stands. The only issue with the Venere 1.5 is that they are slightly more aggressive sounding than their older siblings; which means that they need an amplifier and source that are going to pull them back from the edge while building on their strengths – imaging, detail, and presence. 

Enter the Bel Canto amplifier and Wadia DAC. Both are manufactured in Minnesota. The Bel Canto is a Class D amplifier with more than enough power to drive the Venere 1.5 into the next room, and the Wadia has the resolution and balance to make the Italians velvety smooth. Plug your computer into the Wadia and control the volume through its digital pre-amplifier. A 21st century digital system without peer at this price point.

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 $445-$2,000 to the final cost, so it’s something to keep in mind for the long-term if you can’t swing it right now. These five 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 or Bel Canto, you’re already ready for either table suggestion because they have great phono stages 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 RP3/RB303 tonearm/Dynavector 10X5 Moving Magnet Cartridge – $1,390
  • VPI Traveler/Dynavector 10X5 Moving Magnet Cartridge – $1,795
  • Rega Fono MM Phono Stage – $400

images via Dynaudio/Sonus Faber/Omega

Ian White
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ian has been a full-time A/V journalist since 1999, covering the world of high-end audio, video, music, and film for Digital…
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