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How to Build a Budget Audiophile System with an Upgrade Path

by Jerry Del Colliano July 06, 2022
Building an Audio System

Building an Audio System

My Fourteenth birthday was a memorable one as my dad rocked a killer gift that changed the course of my life forever. He went to his local Bryn Mawr Stereo location in Maple Shade, New Jersey (a store that I would ultimately work for in Abbington, Pennsylvania when I turned 16 so that I could afford to someday buy a car) and bought a very excellent, two-channel system for me.

2-NAD-Receiver-125W

It was spring of 1988 and the system included a Nakamichi Music Bank six-CD changer, an NAD 125 watt receiver (yes, with AM and FM radio, which was my family’s business at the time), a pair of Polk floorstanding speakers and the requisite Monster Cable needed to get me up and rocking. And rocking, I did pretty much every waking hour of my life back then.

4-B&K-ST-140 

Over the years, I can’t tell you how many audiophiles that I’ve met who started their journey in the hobby with NAD electronics back in the day. Back in the 1980s, NAD was like Volvo is today. The gear was funky in design, low on features but high on sound quality, all wrapped up for a pretty fair price. With options like RCA “preamp outs” I had the easy path to add, say, a B&K ST-140 external power amplifier and use the NAD more as a preamp, which I absolutely did. Polk speakers got sold to buy ultra-quirky, Dahlquist DQ10s and later even Acoustat speakers that needed to be plugged into nearby Three Mile Island to have enough power to drive them. As a youth who was not old enough to drive, I was already diving deep into the audiophile hobby.

5-dahlquist-dq10-speakers

Dahlquist DQ10 Speakers

Today, not enough young people are into the audiophile hobby for it to continue as we know it unless something changes. There are plenty of reasons for the lack of interest: be it high student loan debt payments or the view that experiences (think: a weekend at Coachella or the Stagecoach Festival) are worth more than a tangible item like a pair of speakers. Millennials and Generation Z love music but with nearly no-cost, all-access to pretty much everything ever recorded. Their relationship with audio is very different from that of the generations before them, like my Generation X or my parents as Baby Boomers. We tend to see things like intellectual property and the value of assets more alike and very differently that the younger folks on their way up. There are all sorts of factors.

7-Pro-ject-Table-GreenI have a Millennial friend of mine who was very helpful in a recent side project that we worked together on, ask me about how to get started with an audio system. We’ve had many a recent conversation about what one might do, what to buy first-second-and-third, how to prioritize certain components over others and much more. The two of us discussed the quandary of new versus used audiophile gear and debated the importance of investing audio-dollars into blue chip gear with hopes of high resale value someday when the upgrade bug hits versus buying more disposable, consumer electronics that aren’t worth much at the end of a product cycle. We talked about how to integrate video into a 2.1 audiophile system and delved into how one might rip their CD (and other formats) music collections and enjoy them without missing the silver disc. We’ve even talked about the potentially important place that vinyl might have in his life/system, but how it shouldn’t be considered a high performance or high resolution playback source. We really got into it. No topic was off-limits.

Here are some strategies that we’ve looked at for a new school audiophile system for Andrew:

  • How much money would you spend on a turntable IF you wanted one? Could $500 to $750 get you a good one? Hell, yes he can.
  • Is the best, low-cost preamp not actually a mainstream $500 AV receiver from say the likes of Denon, Marantz or maybe Sony ES? If you someday bypass the internal amps (think: a Monoprice amp made for them by ATI that is still very affordable, Schitt Audio options and other entry level, high performance amps) not a great option? Said receiver will have HDMI switching for UHD-video. Bass management for a LFE (subwoofer) is covered as well as audiophile grade, digital room correction. Audiophile companies simply can’t afford the chips and-or the licensing that these big electronics companies can thus make today’s AV receiver a better-than-one-might-think option for a starter audiophile system.
  • Speakers are a very personal decision so my buddy has driven as far as “across the bridge” into the good ‘ol USA to hear speakers in Detroit (Rock City) as well as other locations hours to the north, closer to Toronto. He’s heard Canadian speakers that get reviewer love like Paradigms. He’s heard several speakers from the U.K. that are more reserved sounding like Bowers & Wilkins. He’s heard MartinLogans at Best Buy. Some Klipsch (he didn’t like horns) made it into the mix. Next is to order some online speakers in from the likes of Aperion, SVS, Tekton and RSL. These players are reviewer gems but don’t get the demo time at traditional retailers.
  • In terms of subwoofers, there is no way he won’t have one to start. Audiophiles have never really embraced the concept of the powered subs, but new-school audiophiles will. Missing the lowest registers of sound in your audiophile system is an easy and cost effective fix.
  • We talked about the controversy around audiophile cables. If you use a front end with room correction, then why do you need cables that have EQ built into them unless you are on a blind mission to try to find some audiophile heaven just for your ears versus using science to get measurably better performance in your room. We talking about non-EQ cables from Kimber, Wireworld and Monoprice. All affordable options, please…
8-GIK-Acoustics
  • Room acoustics has been one of the biggest topics of conversation. We’ve looked into options from GIK Acoustics and even ASC Tube Traps (God, they are ugly) to treat his first order reflections on the backwall, celling and sidewalls (about three feet in front of the speakers). We talked about ways for physical room treatments to “eat standing waves” that helps improve bass performance in any room. We’ve looked at “city-scape” looking diffusor treatments for perhaps behind his listening position that can have big sonic benefits long before one runs his or her room correction software.
9-SamsungFrame
  • Traditionalist will freak, but we’ve discussed how to integrate video into the system. Not for home theater but more for sports, streaming TV and other video-oriented content. We’ve looked at items like a Samsung Frame as well as more traditional OLED sets that are amazingly affordable and beyond high performance.
  • Equipment storage has been discussed. Too many audiophiles load their gear up between their main speakers and physically kill off their center image. Acoustician to the stars, Bob Hodas, talks about the easiest acoustical upgrade in many residential audiophile systems, just remove the coffee table between you and the speakers because it is JACKING UP your sound - badly. Gear will be located off to the side, perhaps with some amps (someday) between the speakers. These decisions affect your cable investment too, you will note.
10-Ecobee 
  • In terms of environmental topics, we’ve talked about items like an Ecobee thermostat, Hunter Douglas battery powered shades and more. We’ve talked about changing out lighting fixtures for pretty affordable, modern LED-based fixtures that don’t just focus and dim nicely but they are easily controlled (like the HVAC and the shades) on an app right on an iPad for example. No formal home automation needed, but the benefits enjoyed without having to bring a programmer and-or installer into your life.
  • Sonos has inevitably come up in conversation and was an early option with a soundbar and wireless sub, but the audiophile bug bit my buddy. Sonos is still in play as a media streamer and a way to get distributed audio around the house without pulling any wires or breaking out the drywall saw. I love Sonos for what it as a whole home solution is a bit of the end of the journey right at the start. There’s plenty of room for Sonos in both his audiophile rig as well as other rooms of the house, but we’ve moved into more performance-based products that have a better upgrade path for his audiophile future.

Conclusion

Needless to say, my buddy Andrew and I have covered a lot of ground over the past six weeks. He’s about to come into a nice chunk of money from a real estate transaction and good for him. He’s got $4,500 ear-marked for his audio system, which likely isn’t enough to accomplish all the goals above, but it is plenty to get him started in the hobby just as my dad did for me back in 1988. Since that memorable and generous birthday present, I have been both blessed and driven to seek the best in higher and higher end AV. Andrew is just getting started and I am having more fun working with him on how to make his system a modern-day, non-cliché audiophile masterpiece that pushes the limits of performance while staying well entrenched in the value category.

Tell us what advice you would tell a new Millennial or Gen-Z audiophile? What gear would you have them look into? How would you start the process of learning about the hobby? We want to hear your thoughts here. Comment below.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

ryanosaur posts on July 09, 2022 17:11
jinjuku, post: 1564268, member: 25055
Budget is always in context of the market and the price ranges in the market. Be it cars, houses, watches, or audio.

Given the audio cost curve with the real, non-bling, high end realistically falling in the 40-70K range, I think a budget system is typically between 1-2K.

If someone wanted to dip their toes into an accurate, quality, budget system my suggestion would be something along the lines of the JBL 308MKII and matching subs, a ~$200-$300 DAC that can take USB, Coax, BlueTooth.
Shady mentioned something similar above, about using the Studio Monitors as a beginning of a system.
I like it.
jinjuku posts on July 09, 2022 17:08
Budget is always in context of the market and the price ranges in the market. Be it cars, houses, watches, or audio.

Given the audio cost curve with the real, non-bling, high end realistically falling in the 40-70K range, I think a budget system is typically between 1-2K.

If someone wanted to dip their toes into an accurate, quality, budget system my suggestion would be something along the lines of the JBL 308MKII and matching subs, a ~$200-$300 DAC that can take USB, Coax, BlueTooth.
MalVeauX posts on July 09, 2022 16:39
Trebdp83, post: 1564246, member: 43634
Yes, “budget” is often used as an adjective that indicates, not just low cost, but “cheap” as in low quality. I consider its use in this way to be low class myself. Let's keep it as a noun. Perhaps a better title would have been “How Would you Build A Low Cost, High Quality Audiophile System?” This might perk up some ears rather than make some readers averse to a perceived negative connotation.

Agreed, “budget” is too often used. Words and phrases that are more associated with high value for cost and related to tiers of cost would be better in my mind. Too many arbitrary numbers out there. And the market shifted up this year already, so lots of numbers from early 2022 don't apply now. It's a living thing.

Very best,
ryanosaur posts on July 09, 2022 16:33
Trebdp83, post: 1564246, member: 43634
Yes, “budget” is often used as an adjective that indicates, not just low cost, but “cheap” as in low quality. I consider its use in this way to be low class myself. Let's keep it as a noun. Perhaps a better title would have been “How Would you Build A Low Cost, High Quality Audiophile System?” This might perk up some ears rather than make some readers averse to a perceived negative connotation.
I'll drink to that!
https://media3.giphy.com/media/Yj7VHJnylM2e4Ob3T2/giphy.gif
Trebdp83 posts on July 09, 2022 15:19
ryanosaur, post: 1564234, member: 86393
Let's not get confused between “having a budget” for a system and a “budget system”

We all know that words can matter, but in some instances semantic changes mean the world. A “Budget System” implies low cost. The article wasn't about “how to budget for a system,” after all.
Yes, “budget” is often used as an adjective that indicates, not just low cost, but “cheap” as in low quality. I consider its use in this way to be low class myself. Let's keep it as a noun. Perhaps a better title would have been “How Would you Build A Low Cost, High Quality Audiophile System?” This might perk up some ears rather than make some readers averse to a perceived negative connotation.
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