How To Get Big-Ass Audiophile Gains By Spending Little Money
Have you ever noticed that recently it seems like somebody is always in your pocket for money somehow, some way? Eggs can now cost as much as $8 a dozen. A gallon of gas here in California has settled in at around $5. Hell, a Sausage Biscuit with cheese meal at McDonald’s across the street from Nobu in Malibu and with an ocean view, granted, costs over $10. While inflation is down in the United States in 2023, we’ve had a wild ride and your AV system is likely as impacted by high costs as any other place that you spend money on in your life. While we’ve avoided a recession for more than 15 years now, that doesn’t mean that The Fed understands your technological needs, wants, and desires. Thankfully, I do and I’ve got some places for you to look for value that costs very little (or no money).
Are You Following the Recent Audiophile Revolution in Class-D Amps?
In the past few years, there has been a total revolution in what some mistakenly call a “digital amp” (let’s call it a “switching amp” to be more accurate) which has changed the world of amplifiers in ways that we’ve never seen, ever in the history of the hobby or even music playback as a whole. Powered by advanced semiconductors, this new crop of Class-D amps offers more power in a smaller, cooler-running package that has the performance specs of amps costing five to 10 times as much. But wait… there’s more: these amps use close to no power from the wall and run remarkably cool to the touch. They are less expensive because they don’t need all the heavy and expensive metal work, including bulky but ultra-cool-looking heatsinks. They are easier to ship, take up less space, and sound better than you might expect. I recently did the Pepsi challenge with a Gallium Nitride amp with my reference Pass Labs XA25. I ended up liking the Class-A design from Nelson Pass better, but the performance and price were very close. The heat issue with a Class-A amp inside of an equipment rack is still top of mind for me. The idea that these new Pascal, PuriFi, Hypex or GaN amps can compete with the best, more traditionally designed audiophile amps is an amazing place to find audiophile value today.
Read our NAD M23 Class D Amplifier Test Report to see how far Class D as come.
Kill Your Coffee Table (A Free Upgrade)
This is an addition-by-subtraction project in that coffee tables are physically reflective surfaces that often are placed in front of your speakers and your main listening position. Your first-order reflections are often the first acoustical problems that AV enthusiasts deal with when first addressing their room. Adding some basic absorption on the side walls and ceiling (homemade or commercial) a few feet in front of your speakers makes for an impressive improvement with an overall cost that could be a few hundred dollars for a store-bought acoustical treatment. Physically removing your coffee table and perhaps replacing it with a sonically absorbent carpet is a great upgrade that might leave you with a better-looking listening room too. Consolidate remotes into one smart remote as well as install some side tables for books, lamps, remotes, drinks, snacks, and other things that you need to be comfortable and be in good shape.
Velcro Cable Ties Are an Audiophile’s Best Rack Accessory
For around $10, you can get a package of removable and reusable Velcro cable ties for any cable clutter that you might have in your rack. Unlike plastic ties which require making a mess to free your cables when making system changes or upgrades, this fabric with Velcro wire ties allows you to manage your AV cables that reduces a lot of mess and makes your AV investment look like it is worth a million bucks.
Cable clutter and having a messy rack is not respectful to the design, energy, and excellence that goes into making the gear that we invest our money into. This is a super-easy, nearly no-cost solution that can make your system look better. Proper cable management also has the added benefits of reducing noise or crosstalk in your system by isolating power cables from line-level and speaker level connections.
Fix Your Bass and the Rest Will Follow
It sounds crazy, but when you make improvements to your lowest frequencies, the rest of the sound in higher frequencies can improve. There are some great ways to make your bass better, especially if you run subwoofers. Many of today’s subwoofers have room correction software that can be used in the form of an app from your phone to get some vastly improved performance. When investing in subwoofers, also consider the configuration of the subwoofer that you might want. Ported box designs move more air, and thus are more popular in home theater settings looking to WOW with that visceral, low bass. Audiophiles and music-first systems tend to go for a sealed box design as they won’t blow your pants legs back and forth like a big, ported box design, but they are a little more tight-sounding and controlled. But just like you can drink white wine with a steak and not get in trouble around here… go with the type of sub that you like best and that works well in your room. Using 2 subs instead of one means you will have smoother bass response across your listening area and it will be more amenable to the benefits of EQ to flatten out the bumpy response.
This System utilizes dual SVS subwoofers with Focal Speakers - image courtesy of SVS
Most AV and audiophile listening rooms collect sonically muddying, standing bass waves in the corners of their listening room. There are ways to deal with this problem that involve construction, such as using RPG’s very effective Modex Plates. These acoustical treatments go in the drywall bay and eat these long, standing bass waves nicely but they are a bit invasive to install for the more entry-level AV enthusiast. There are cylindrical bass traps that you can buy at retail and place in your room’s corners (start in the front, then move to the back of the room next as budget and aesthetics allow). I must warn you that these “audiophile cat scratching posts” can be ugly looking and the companies want to sell you more than one for each corner. Starting with a pair of moderate bass traps in your corners is a no-setup-needed, low-three-figure upgrade that can really upgrade your sound. Using big house plants is a great way to both visually hide some bass traps in your room as well as add some diffusion to your acoustics. While those cityscape diffusers are excellent both on the front wall between your speakers and the matching position on your back wall you can get the same effect with an IKEA Billy Bookcase or two filled with books, CDs, or even vinyl as they too will help you diffuse your sound with low-cost furniture and items that you already have.
Who Are Secret Designers and What Value Do They Bring To Affordable Brands?
There is a long history of audiophile designers taking on projects for other brands that might not bear their names. Nelson Pass famously designed the Adcom GFA-555 amplifier over 30 years ago. Adcom is back today and they make a GFA-555ms, which is a modern version of their classic amp for well under $1,500. Dan D’Agostino, the founder of Krell, designed the Aragon 4004 amplifier which brought that big Krell bass sound to people at a budget that more could afford back in the early 1990s.
Today, not everybody knows some of the secret designers out there and how to find them, but we will tell you a few here. Rumor has it that Dr. Hsu (of Hsu Research) designs Monoprice’s high-output but low-cost subwoofers. Others have confirmed that Morris Kessler, one of the most prolific OEM makers of power amplifiers here in Los Angeles, consults Monoprice on their affordable and often excellent power amp designs. Andrew Jones is known for speaker designs for KEF, Pioneer, and ELAC. Today, his high-value speaker designs are found in Mobile Fidelity’s line of speakers. Peter Madnick, known for his work on Audio Alchemy in the audiophile long ago, designed MoFi’s excellent phono stage products. The guy who wrote the book on loudspeaker design, Vance Dickason, has designed a few of the better Internet-direct speakers that truly perform well. Circling back to Nelson Pass, he offers his “kitchen table” no-frills brand of First Watt products that are far less fancy as well as far more affordable to consumers. You can save even more money if you build the amp yourself, as that is a HealthKit-like option available today. When you can find one of these hidden values, it is often good to take advantage if the opportunity seems right.
It is easy to forget that your next steps forward in your AV journey don’t have to always cost you a fortune. The long-term growth of your system can come from the additive effect of improving something here and upgrading something else there. Like a high-performance race car getting lighter and thus faster, your AV system will benefit from each of these little tweaks while giving your checking account a little bit of a breather. What are some cheap audio upgrades you've done that yielded BIG fidelity gains? Please share them in our related forum thread below.