The Audiophile’s Dilemma: When to Upgrade your System?
The Audiophile Dilemma - We never seem to be satisfied....
We’ve all been there, right? We’ve taken years putting together our ‘system.’ It might be a 2-channel music-only system. It might be a 7.4.2 Dolby Atmos AV system, doing double-duty as both a home theater system and a music playback collection of components. But one thing is for sure: It’s ours, and ours alone.
That’s the great thing about the component AV hobby: every system is unique, a reflection of the tastes, priorities, and biases of the owner. We research. We listen. We see, touch and feel. It’s as if you put your car together by choosing your own engine, then you selected the transmission, the convenience options, the body style and color, and so forth. No two cars would be alike. Many people have developed an emotional attachment to a particular brand over the years and their assemblage of AV units always includes one or more devices from that brand.
That was certainly true for me, for many years. When I first got interested in the hobby of “hi-fi stereo” in the 1960s, my dad had AR (Acoustic Research) speakers. AR was quite the company back in the 1950s through the 1970s. In the 1950s, speaker technology and the understanding of acoustics were far more limited than it is now. Most speakers could hardly reach below 50Hz or so, and these were the really big ones like the Bozak Concert Grand or the Klipschorn.
Refrigerator-sized Bozak Concert Grand
Then, in 1958, 2-channel stereo was invented and all of a sudden, you needed two speakers in your living room. Two Concert Grands in a typical 1950s 13’ x 16’ ranch home living room? Not a chance. As I said in my previous article “Sealed is Not Acoustic Suspension”:
Quite fortunately for us, an enterprising young inventor named Edgar Villchur had an idea for getting solid, extended low-distortion bass from an enclosure barely 1/8 the size of the best existing speakers. Although not a formally trained acoustics engineer, Villchur was one smart, savvy individual. He looked at the current loudspeakers of the day and saw that their cone’s motion (the so-called “restoring force” that brought the cone back to its original resting position once the input signal had ceased) was controlled by that speaker’s suspension—the surround around the outside of the cone and the pleated “spider” that centered and supported the voice coil. Together, these two components were responsible for most of the cone’s control as it traveled back and forth in response to the input signal. Because of their suspension design and the requirement that the suspension exercise such tight control over the cone’s motion, these drivers had a very low compliance (the driver moved stiffly back and forth). Mathematically, in Thiele-Small parlance (language that wouldn’t be spoken in the loudspeaker universe until the early ’70s, almost 20 years into the future from the time of these speakers), these low-compliance drivers are known as having a high total Qts, usually above .4 or so.
Villchur saw the inherent limitations that a man-made suspension had on driver control. Both the edge surround and the spider were subject to fairly significant unit-to-unit variations, manufacturing irregularities, material inconsistencies, labor/assembly errors, and so on. Villchur found a better way.
He used air as the restoring force for the driver’s cone, not a mechanical man-made suspension. Air is “perfect” from an engineering standpoint, because it behaves in an absolutely predictable, consistent manner and there are no unit-to-unit variations or manufacturing irregularities. In order for air to supply the cone’s restoring force, it has to be “springy” enough to bounce back, if you will, when it’s compressed. It will do so with essentially perfect linearity.
So Villchur designed a driver with the opposite characteristics from the drivers that existed at the time. His driver would have extremely high compliance (a low Q driver). The edge surround and spider would merely hold the cone physically in place, but they would not exert dominant control over the cone’s motion. The air spring trapped inside of the sealed cabinet would do that. As the driver moved, the air spring would control its motion, with far greater linearity and lower distortion than a conventional speaker.
By adjusting the driver’s mass (thus raising or lowering its free air resonance or FAR), the strength of the magnetic field around the voice coil, and making the enclosure slightly bigger or smaller to maintain the proper air spring, the designer could achieve a desired low-frequency extension for his particular design goal. The famous “Hoffman’s Iron Law” was always in play (LF extension, sensitivity, and smaller enclosure size—pick any two at the expense of the third), but within reason, a designer could obtain strong, deep bass response with very low distortion in an enclosure 1/8 the size of a Bozak Concert Grand.
Villchur’s “acoustic suspension” design made it possible to get truly accurate, powerful bass into the low 30 Hz-range from a cabinet that was only about 1.5 cu ft in volume—only 25 x 14 x 11” deep. Truly a “bookshelf” speaker. Any normal-sized room could easily accommodate two of his AR-1 speakers, and their bass response was superior to those refrigerator-sized dinosaurs—tighter, cleaner, more extended.
AR quickly introduced smaller, less expensive versions of their first model and other companies followed suit, so good-sounding compact speakers that could be used in pairs in any room became available at the same time that solid-state stereo electronics with reliable silicon transistors began to really take off. AR was followed quickly by the KLH Corporation, and then by Advent and EPI, all offering compact speakers utilizing the acoustic suspension design principle of low-frequency loading. These were meticulously-engineered speakers, with their designers—long before the days of instantaneous computer simulations working through thousands of iterations—painstakingly jockeying woofer parameters, enclosure size, cabinet stuffing schemes, etc., all in a frantic competitive effort to wring an additional 3 or 4 Hz of bass extension while maintaining acceptable efficiency and impedance characteristics at a given price point.
If the high-performance bookshelf speaker as pioneered by Villchur’s AR-1 hadn’t been available right at the beginning of the stereo era, the market would likely have developed quite differently.
To continue this discussion of AR’s contributions to the audio industry, in addition to acoustic suspension, they were the company that invented the dome driver (both midranges and tweeters in 1957) and they also pioneered the first use of ferrofluid cooling in the voice coil gap in 1976. In addition, In the early 1960s, AR introduced the biggest-selling belt drive turntable ever, simply called the AR Turntable. By the mid-1960s, AR had an astonishing 32% share of the American speaker market! The AR-3 (the 12-inch 3-way with the industry’s first-ever dome drivers) is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
AR-3 of 1958 with first dome drivers (Image courtesy of Tom Tyson)
Now back to my dad: He and I had a very close relationship. We not only enjoyed stereo together, but I picked up my life-long passion for jazz and classical music from him. In addition to music, we also shared interests in baseball, boxing, aviation, and cars. I even worked with my dad all throughout my school years from Jr. High School through the end of college. He was an independent self-employed land surveyor, and I was his main assistant in the field for about 10 years. Smart, humble, funny, and generous, he was a great guy. My biggest life influence, by far.
Therefore, if my dad had AR speakers, it was only natural that I’d be drawn to AR speakers also. He could only afford their least expensive model (the AR-4x, an 8-inch 2-way that was the biggest-selling speaker in the country for several years in the mid-late 1960s), but it was an AR. So that’s what I wanted too: AR.
AR-4x 8-inch 2-way of 1969
The Early Years and First Upgrades
I put together my very first stereo system in 1972 as a senior in high school. All my friends were starting to put together their first systems as well. Large Advents were a really popular speaker in the top local stereo store, so many of my friends picked those. Since my dad had ARs, I was pre-disposed to AR speakers, so I chose the AR-2ax, a 10-inch 3-way speaker about 24 x 13 x 11” (a “large bookshelf” speaker). The Large Advent and AR-2ax were similar in size and price and they were natural marketplace rivals, like the Red Sox and Yankees. The Advents went a little deeper in the bass, but it was a tad bright and rough through the upper mids. The 2ax was very smooth and neutral, but a little “polite.” Take your pick. They were both really good mid-sized/mid-priced speakers in 1972.
AR-2ax 10-inch 3-way speaker of 1972
My 2ax’s were driven by a Dynaco SCA-80 integrated amplifier. (Most of us went the integrated amp route and didn’t buy receivers.) It was a kit, which saved the owner about 35% vs. the cost of a factory-assembled unit. Two of my friends also bought SCA-80 kits. After getting the hang of the soldering iron, it went together easily enough. (Many of today’s younger audio enthusiasts have never even used a soldering iron. Certainly not at age 17, like we were.) The Dynaco was 40/40 watts RMS and delivered a solid amount of juice for not a lot of money.
Dynaco SCA-80 40/40 integrated amplifier
My turntable was a Phillips 202 manual table with cueing, so I didn’t have to lift and place the tonearm on the record by hand. I fitted it with a Shure M91ED cartridge, which was one of the better cartridges around at the time.
Phillips 202 manual turntable, Shure M91ED cartridge
It was a great system, especially for a high school kid. Really good. It was situated downstairs in our finished basement, away from the rest of the house, so I could listen to my Miles Davis, Weather Report, and Buddy Rich jazz records at loud SPLs, anytime I wanted. It was great. I loved it.
I upgraded my amplifier later that year from the Dyna to a Kenwood KA-7002. A friend of mine and I began calling the Dyna amp the “rasp and mud machine,” because its tone controls were awful-sounding—they just added ‘rasp’ (treble) and ‘mud’ (bass). Not clean and clear at all. This is when the notion of how electronics actually sounded first began to make itself known.
The Kenwood was a really beautiful amp, with very versatile tone controls (it had selectable bass and treble “turnover” frequencies), pre-out/main-in jacks, fancy real walnut endcaps, etc. It just exuded finesse and luxury. I couldn’t wait to install it in my system.
Kenwood KA-7002 50/50 integrated amplifier
The tone controls certainly sounded much better than the Dynaco’s, but did the amp itself actually sound better? I think it did. The bass seemed tighter and a very slight “veil” seemed to be lifted when listening with the Kenwood. This was my first upgrade and the idea of wanting—indeed, rooting for— the latest piece of gear to sound unequivocally better was something new to me.
Later that summer, my friend picked up a used Dynaco PAT-4/Stereo 120 pre-amp/power amp combo (using the exact same circuit topology as my SCA-80 integrated amp, but 60/60 watts RMS instead of 40/40). We connected it to my system just to try it out (replacing the Kenwood) and the old SCA-80’s sound returned: somewhat ‘floppy’ bass, rasp and mud tone controls and a slight veil over everything. So, yes, to our ears the KA-7002 amplifier was a definite sonic improvement over the Dynaco. (Yeah, yeah—there was no instantaneous A-B between the two amps, but the fact that the differences were so apparent to all three of us [another friend was there] just seemed to emphasize the point that much more.)
Dynaco PAT-4 pre-amp and Stereo 120 60/60 power amplifier
By the way, I’m still using that Kenwood amplifier in a secondary system. It still works perfectly and sounds great. The whole story can be found in the article "Old Integrated Amplifiers in Today's Modern World".
Around 1974, I ditched the Phillips and went to a Dual 1229 automatic turntable, because I liked the convenience and safety of the fully automated start and stop. The turntable itself didn’t sound different or better than the Phillips, but when I got the Dual, I went to a top-of-the-line Shure V15 Type III cartridge, which was a nice step-up from the upper-middle M91ED. Cartridges and speakers are transducers (devices that convert one form of energy into another) and as such, they are less precise by an order of magnitude than a purely electronic device. A speaker converts electrical energy into mechanical (acoustic) energy, while a cartridge does the reverse—it converts mechanical energy into electrical energy. So, like a speaker, a cartridge has a huge impact on the system’s overall sound, and different brands of cartridges had ‘family’ sonic signatures just the way speakers did. You had to be careful—a bright cartridge paired with a bright speaker or a rolled-off cartridge with a rolled-off speaker was a bad combination.
Dual 1229 fully automatic turntable
Talk about an audible upgrade! The V15 Type III was light years past the M91ED: More detailed, smoother, “sweeter,” effortless, as if it had the ability to extract everything that was hidden in those vinyl grooves and do it with precision. The V15 Type III was my first ownership experience with a component that was regarded as being in the “best” category, and I loved it, both sonically and emotionally—the idea of owning the “best.” Even the very best cartridges were still affordable, so I made myself a promise at that time: I’d always buy the very best cartridge I could. The best I could get. If you’re playing a record and the cartridge isn’t extracting every last nuance of sound possible from the record, then there is nothing any component downstream in your system can do to fix it. Simply said: Garbage in, garbage out.
Every time Shure came out with a new top-of-the-line cartridge, I bought it. The Type III became the Type IV, then the Type V, and finally the Type V MR. The V MR is still regarded as one of the very best phono cartridges ever made. I heard a definite and satisfyingly obvious improvement with each new cartridge. This was upgrade money well spent.
Shure V15 Type V MR cartridge
The Middle Years—Upgrading the Upgrades
I graduated college in 1976 and still had the same system. I was perfectly happy. Everything worked just fine and sounded great. But the 1970s were a time of great activity and excitement in the stereo biz. (See “1970's Golden Age article".) So right around the turn of the decade, a local store was advertising the top-of-the-line Kenwood integrated amplifier (the KA-8100) and its matching tuner (KT-8300) at closeout prices—50% off! How could any self-respecting audio enthusiast resist?
I couldn’t. So, I bought them. The amp was 75/75 watts of super-clean power. The 8100 had two independent massive power transformers, one for each channel, and tons of finned heat-sinking. It laughed at low-impedance loads and always ran cool to the touch. It had all kinds of pre-amp features and flexibility. Kenwood integrated amps from that era are still very highly sought-after items today on the used/refurb market and a specimen in near-new condition will fetch a very high price. And be worth every penny.
Kenwood KA-8100 75/75 integrated amplifier (front view) and the innards, showing the dual transformers
The KT-8300 was an astonishing tuner. It was able to pluck out over-the-air FM broadcast stations as cleanly and clearly as one could possibly want. It was easy to compare it to the KT-7001 tuner (the matching tuner to my 7002 amp). Did it pull in more stations or not? Were weak stations clearer and stronger on the 8300 or not? Yes and yes. Done. Upgrade justified. No modern-day FM tuner section in any of today’s AV receivers comes even remotely close to the performance of the best tuners from the 70s and 80s. Plus, the KT-8300 was flat-out gorgeous and had that amazing weighted flywheel tuning where you could spin the dial and the pointer would zip smoothly and silently from 88 to 108 MHz in one continuous, silky motion. So elegant and perfect. Equipment in the 1970s-80s had such an unabashed romantic appeal, such panache. I was soooo happy with these newest Kenwoods. This was an upgrade that definitely delivered the goods.
Kenwood KT-8300 AM/FM tuner
However, did the KA-8100 actually sound better than the KA-7002? I can’t say that it did. It might have been a hair quieter and it seems to have been able to play just a touch louder, but unlike the 7002-to-Dyna comparison, the 8100-to-7002 contest would likely have been statistically indecisive in a true blind A-B. Did I care? No. I enjoyed owning the 8100/8300 pair every second for 17 years until I gave them to a friend around 1997 when I worked at Boston Acoustics. Jay, you were a great guy and great co-worker, but I wish I still had them.
The Never-Ending Chase
But you know how it is…..you upgrade one part of your system, and you just need to upgrade another part of your system to keep up, to take full advantage. So, it was time to look at my speakers and do something there.
I’d had my AR-2ax’s at this point for eight years (1972 to 1980). For an audiophile like me, always looking to upgrade, eight years is a long time for speakers, but the fact that they could keep me satisfied for that long says an awful lot about their intrinsic quality. Still, it was time, especially with the new Kenwood electronics. I was in the consumer electronics business as a manufacturer’s rep and I knew all the other reps. If I wanted a particular piece of gear, all I had to do was call that rep.
Well, I knew what speakers I wanted. I still had that brand loyalty to AR. In 1978, AR—a technological and sales share leader in the market since the mid-50s—had rocked the speaker industry back on their collective heels with the introduction of the amazing AR9. It’s tough to overstate how amazing a loudspeaker this was in 1978, but I’ll describe it in more detail later in this article.
The AR9’s series was known as the Vertical Series. Two models down from the 9 was the AR91, a 12-inch 3-way floorstander with a 1 ½-inch dome midrange and a ¾-inch dome tweeter. The 91s had bass that extended to 35Hz (-3dB), and their mids and highs that were absolutely unsurpassed in their day for smoothness, accuracy, and flat-out realism. A properly restored and correctly functioning set of 91’s, fed by today’s clean source devices, is still an extremely impressive speaker, without any questions or excuses.
AR91 12-inch 3-way Vertical Series of 1978
Did they sound better than my AR-2ax’s? This may have been the most dramatic single component upgrade in my entire personal audio history. The 2ax was a fine speaker, satisfying, reasonably accurate, and amenable to virtually any genre of music. But, in all candor, it had that “older” sound from a less advanced era of audio components. For lack of a better term, like all speakers of its day (1958-1970), it had a slightly nasal or “woody” coloration to its overall tone. Far less than many competing speakers (most of which, unlike the 2ax, would be absolutely unlistenable today), but still a bit more than modern ears and tastes are accustomed to.
Not so the AR91. It sounded like it was from a totally different era than the 2ax, like there was far, far more than just eight years between their designs. In those days, the art of audio design was advancing by leaps and bounds, at breakneck speed. The difference between mid-60s and mid-70s audio gear was like the difference between fine surgical instruments vs. stone knives and bearskins.
I felt that my Kenwood-Dual-Shure-AR91 system was a great, great system. It was very close to not being able to improve upon from a practical standpoint, especially being single and living in an apartment. There were many a floor stomp from above indicating, “Turn it down!” This was pretty close to audio nirvana. I had no more “upgrade itch” at this point. I’d still read all the magazines, visit the stores, advise my friends, set up their systems, but personally, I was totally happy.
A Different Kind of Upgrade
There is another category of audio purchase: It’s neither a system expansion (a new component where none existed before, like adding a tape deck or outdoor speakers), nor is it an ‘upgrade’ replacement to a current unit.
This is the just-for-fun category. You see something—a piece of used gear, a new doo-dad that seems really cool, whatever, and you buy it. Maybe you’ll use it full time, maybe not. If it’s a piece of used gear that you’ve always liked and you end up using it full time, then you enter that interesting space where you start trying to convince yourself that it’s as good as the component it’s replacing. Even better. It’s classic, it’s nostalgic, it’s good-looking, it’s got a real history.
Such was the case for me in late 1980. While working for Panasonic in sales, I happened to make a sales call on this nice independently-owned stereo store in southern Connecticut. I spotted these really nice used speakers in excellent shape. Classic. Rare. To me, highly desirable.
AR-LST-2’s. The store’s owner says to me, “These are LST-2’s, not LST’s.”
“I know what they are.”
The AR-LST was perhaps the most highly reviewed speaker ever in 1972 and it established benchmarks for flat frequency response, power handling, low distortion, and smooth far-field power response that were eons past anything the speaker industry had ever produced up until that point. If you weren’t heavily involved in stereo gear and speakers in 1972, it’s pretty much impossible to understand what the LSTs were all about. Despite their very high price in 1972 ($600 ea., which was very, very expensive in 1972), they were runaway bestsellers.
AR tried to capitalize on their unexpected sales success by coming out with a less expensive version, the LST-2. The 2 used a 10-inch woofer instead of a 12-inch and had three each of the dome midranges and tweeters instead of four each. Not as successful, sales-wise, as the original LST, and their relative rarity made the LST-2 even that much more intriguing.
AR-LST-2, lower-priced version of the famous LST
The LST-2’s were actually a slight step back from the AR91’s that I had at the time, but they had great nostalgic value and looked cool as hell. Plus, they weren’t exactly pikers, performance-wise. They sounded great, but they sounded unquestionably ‘older’ than the 91’s. Both the LST and LST-2 were from the same timeframe that had produced the famous AR-3a and my AR-2ax’s. Nice speakers, still fun to hear, but ‘older’ sounding, with that slightly nasal, “woody” coloration and somewhat reticent high end. I had both the 91’s and the LST-2 together for a while, both connected to my Kenwood KA-8100. I’d A-B them often and try to ignore the fact that the 91’s were just so much better.
Then a few years later, I moved to Massachusetts and gave the 91’s to my sister and her husband and took the LST-2’s with me. Nostalgia wins. I’d bought a nice condo in MA, but the LST-2’s were a strange shape, hard to place in a normal living room, so I put them upstairs in my master bedroom with the Kenwoods, as an FM-only system. AR-LST-2’s + the Kenwood KA-8100/KT-8300 pair? Probably the best bedroom system ever.
Upgrade time again! Time to buy an entirely new system. I decided to go the separates route this time, to step into what I considered the actual “high end.”
I was still working at Panasonic at this point, and we certainly had the “inside” with a lot of audio dealers. I asked one of them for an “industry accom” on an Adcom GTP-450 tuner pre-amp and a GFA-555 200 WPC power amp. This was serious audio equipment. I mean, the Kenwoods were nice and all, shiny, flashy, lots of bells and whistles, but this Adcom stuff was serious. Whoa.
Adcom GTP-450 and GFA 555 high-performance separates
I needed speakers that could take full advantage of the Adcoms. I still had that affinity for AR speakers, so I called the local AR rep and bought their top-of-the-line Connoisseur 50t speakers at a ‘deal’ price. (I returned the favor by getting the AR rep a good buy on a 27” TV and a 4-head VCR. It was great to be in this industry!) The 50’s were impressive speakers, both sonically and looks-wise. They had a 12-inch polypropylene acoustic suspension woofer, a 6 ½-inch polypropylene midrange and a 1-inch titanium dome tweeter. The woofer-to-mid crossover was very low at 250Hz and the mid-to-tweeter crossover was a very low 2500Hz. The cabinets had a truly beautiful real walnut veneer with rounded bullnose edges and, man! They sounded great: clean, powerful, with very “80’s” precise imaging. I remember Poh Ser Hsu (yes, that Hsu) coming over to my condo to visit one time and I played him the 50t’s. He was quite impressed. These were a solid step-up from the 91’s. I can recall listening to the 50t’s and thinking that I was approaching the upper strata of audio excellence, that these speakers were right at the point of Diminishing Returns—that point where additional expenditure would not return a commensurate increase in sound quality. A step-up from the 91’s? Yup, no question. I was happy.
AR Connoisseur 50t 12-inch 3-way from 1987
Work-wise, things got a little strange at Panasonic, so after spending 10 years there, I went to Bose. They had just finished the development of the AM-5 Series II. Before we started our shipments to the dealers, everyone in Sales and Marketing had to take a first-run production set home and evaluate them as if we were the end customer: How was the packaging, was the manual clear, was the product good-looking and nicely finished, were the included speaker wires long enough, were the stripped and tinned leads long and pliable enough for easy connection, and above all, how did they sound? We had to live with them for a full month and then write up a detailed user’s report. There were probably 50 of us in the test group.
This was an extremely impressive QA exercise on Bose’s part, because they willingly threw away a full month’s worth of sales (1000s of units) on the biggest-selling, most highly awaited speaker in the entire industry—just to make sure it was absolutely perfect.
Bose AM-5 Series II, the industry’s biggest-selling speaker in 1990
And it was—the packaging, presentation, fit-and-finish, all impeccable. And it sounded exactly the way Bose intended the AM-5 II to sound, so in that respect, it was “perfect” also. Remember, it’s not like Bose was aiming for this to sound like a $20,000 B&W 801, and the closest they could get was the AM-5. No, this was intentional, and Bose knew (and knows) their market and their customer. You can read more about this in my in-depth article about Bose and their corporate philosophy.
Still, all that aside, there was certainly a great deal of anticipation on my part when I got to compare the AM-5 II’s vs. my AR Connoisseur 50’s in my own home. Well, it went exactly the way all of us here at Audioholics would have expected it to go. Those big 12-inch 3-way ARs—quite expensive and very close to no-compromise speakers for 1990—were very formidable performers indeed. They made the AM-5’s sound like a portable radio. And not a particularly good radio at that.
Once I confirmed that the AM-5’s worked and were dealer-shipment-ready, I packed them back up in their carton and left them there in the corner of my living room for 28 days of the 30-day evaluation. When the month was over, we had the option of either returning them or buying them for a ridiculously low price: waaaay below ‘employee accommodation’ pricing. If I remember, at the time the AM-5 II’s MSRP was $750, which means that Dealer Cost was $375. (50% margin is standard in the speaker industry.) That means employee pricing would have been around $337.50 (Dealer less 10%). I think we got these for $200 or $250, something around there. Crazy. There was a nearby Mobil gas station that I went to regularly at that time, owned and run by a nice younger guy. I’d gotten friendly with him over the years. I offered him the speakers for a good price and he totally jumped at it.
Man, I liked those AR 50t’s. They were great speakers, deep, powerful, uncolored, detailed, not harsh, and amazingly competent. You just felt they could handle anything that came their way. We all know that feeling—the feeling that our speakers are truly masterful and can’t really be thrown off their stride by anything they’re likely to encounter.
That was the end of my audio upgrading for quite a while.
My Upgrades Take a Long Hiatus
A funny thing happened to my audio system and my series of upgrades: I got married.
Real life. I inherited step kids. (Fabulous, fabulous kids, an amazingly wonderful occurrence in my life. And….they were already past the diaper stage! If these kids were audio amplifiers, they’d be 400 watts per channel, stable into 2 ohms, 20-20kHz, at <.02% THD.)
But household resources began being directed towards upcoming college/grad school tuition and then for weddings. Audio wasn’t part of the financial equation. I needed to put together a decent system that didn’t take up a lot of room and just be happy for a while.
I gave my AR50t’s to my dad. He loved them (What’s not to love?) I sold my Adcom stuff to a co-worker at Bose.
Eight months after I got married, I left Bose and went to work at Boston Acoustics, and my speakers became a succession of BA speakers that were under development, prototypes, or evaluation units.
I promoted the Kenwoods back to first-line service again, powering BA speakers like the SubSat7 3-piece system, and the CR8 7-inch 2-way bookshelf speaker. Nice enough speakers. Certainly far superior to the AM-5 II, but not in the same universe as my dear, departed AR50t’s.
Boston Acoustics SubSat7 3-piece and CR8 7-inch 2-way—decent mid-priced speakers
This was my personal audio Dark Period. I thought it would never end.
Being Rescued from the Audio Desert
Finally, after nearly a decade of wandering aimlessly about in the blistering, unrelenting heat of the Audio Desert, thirsting for real, satisfying, high-quality audio, I couldn’t bear it any longer. I had to have real audio again. I had to hear my jazz the way it was supposed to sound, full of life and emotion, with zest and verve, with sonic quality so compelling that you couldn’t wait to the hear next album. And then the next. And the next.
We all know that feeling, right? It’d been missing from my life for far, far too long.
College was underway for the kids. We were surviving it. We had it budgeted. We knew we were going to make it through to the other side. After running all the numbers, figuring the yearly tuition increases and other household expenses, holding back a little for the unexpected “surprises” that always rear their ugly heads, what was this? A little extra?
And just like that, I was buying real audio equipment again. I bought a Parasound pre-amp/power amp combo, the P/HP850 pre-amp and HCA1000 power amp (100W a side). Really nice stuff. Not the top-of-the-line or their most powerful, but definitely no-excuses quality. The real deal. It was great timing too, because, in 1999, Boston Acoustics introduced their VR-M series of high-end speakers, which included the VR-M50 and 60 bookshelf monitors and VR-M80 and 90 floorstanders. There was also a PV-1000 subwoofer with the same elegant styling and a 1000-watt amp on board. This was the best equipment BA ever made during my 11-year (1992-2003) tenure at the company. Great stuff.
Our Engineering Dept would make production-quality units for at-home evaluation just prior to dealer shipments, for perhaps six or eight of us. These were non-serialized products, but production quality in every way. I got both the VR-M50’s and VR-M60’s. I purchased a PV-1000 under ‘employee discount.’
Parasound P/HP-850 pre-amp and HCA-1000 100/100 power amp
Now I had a real system again! The Parasounds, the BA VR-M monitors, and the PV-1000 sub. It sounded great, just great. It looked great. It exuded impressive quality. I was totally happy. I had a real system once more. It was soooo much better than the parade of mediocrities that had marched past my ears for almost a decade. It was like breathing real oxygen-rich air again, like seeing the sun after being trapped underground in a fake reality with artificial sunlight, like tasting fresh locally harvested, home-cooked food after being forced to subsist on a non-stop diet of synthetic microwave meals.
Boston Acoustics VR-M50 and 60 monitors, PV-1000 subwoofer
You forget how much you missed it. You forget how much a part of your being, your essence this is. It’s like being made whole again, after being dismantled a small piece at a time, so slowly that you didn’t even realize that your audio sensibilities were being reduced to just a mere fraction of what they used to be.
All was good. I was back in the game. I had a real system, with real speakers. Life was good and I was perfectly willing to stay like this for a long time.
And I did, for about nine years. Then I got wind (I think on the Classicspeakerpages.net discussion forum) of a used set of AR9’s for sale near me in great shape for a terrific price.
The AR9. What a speaker, what an amazing contribution it made to audio history. Like the AR-1, AR-3/3a, and AR-LST before it, if you didn’t live through those times, if you didn’t experience first-hand what those speakers meant to the audio industry, then no historical recounting by me 40+ years after the fact is going to make any real impact on you. You’ll roll your eyes and think, “Ok, I suppose they were nice speakers in their day, but c’mon, they weren’t like these RBH SVT’s or Revel F328Be’s or Perlisten S7t’s.” Of course not. No one is saying that any 40-60-year-old AR speaker can hold a candle to any good modern speaker in terms of absolute performance.
But the audio industry was in its infancy back then and these were the speakers that paved the way for today’s high-performance models. Those old AR speakers were the ones that ushered in the use of dome tweeters, gave us our understanding of driver radiation patterns, room/bass interaction, the benefit of a vertically aligned driver layout, the importance of on-axis/first arrival vs. far-field power response, and set the standards for low bass THD and deep bass frequency-response extension. The AR9 was the culmination of all the amazing innovations and new concepts that AR invented and introduced between 1954 and 1978.
The AR9 was a large 4-way floorstanding speaker, with dual 12-inch acoustic suspension woofers side-mounted in “Allison” fashion, an 8-inch lower midrange driver, and 1 ½-in upper-mid dome, with a ¾-inch tweeter. It was the industry’s first speaker to recognize that drivers should be vertically aligned, not side-by-side, for optimum, interference-free radiation. It had a ½-inch thick heavy felt “Acoustic Blanket” on the baffle board to eliminate the early reflections and diffraction that ruin imaging. It could handle prodigious amounts of power. It had bass like no tomorrow. It was crystal clear, transparent, and neutral. Its real in-room frequency response as measured by the major magazines in their test reports, was 29-19kHz, ± 3dB. Real, in-room. Not bad. Not bad at all. It pioneered more new concepts at once and performed at a higher level than any other speaker of its day, by a mile. It was by far the ugliest large speaker ever made, ungainly, lousy veneer, stupid-looking side woofer grilles, portly proportions, but it could sing like an angel.
The groundbreaking AR9 of 1978
So I call the guy up. He’s an engineer. Went to MIT, lives in Boston, about 45 minutes north of me in Foxboro. I call my best audio buddy, Jason, and I tell him, “C’mon. We’re taking a ride.”
We wend our way through the back streets of Back Bay Boston, fighting the heavy city traffic, and we double park in front of his apartment building because on-street open spaces are non-existent. We walk up the front steps of the old brownstone and ring the bell.
He answers the door. He’s a young middle-aged guy, too young to have bought the speakers new in 1978. Indeed, he’s the second owner. We go into his living room where the 9’s are set up and he plays them for us. They’re in B+/A- cosmetic condition, astonishing, really, considering their age and the fact that he’s the second owner. He volunteers that he has recapped the crossovers with fresh new capacitors and re-done the foam surrounds on the woofers and 8-inch lower-midrange drivers. He’s an MIT engineer, fer cryin’ out loud, so I accept on faith that he’s done both correctly!
They sound incredible, just like they’re supposed to and exactly how I remember the 9 sounding. Jason is 20 years younger than me (like many of the Audioholics crowd) and he had no real awareness of the 9 or any knowledge of its history or significance. His jaw hits the floor and his eyes widen like he’s seeing you-know-who without her clothes. They sounded like my AR91’s on illegal, super steroids. Mr. Engineer tells me his price. I offer him a few hundred less, we agree in the middle and we’re both happy.
The speakers make it back to my house without mishap and I plunk them down in my music room man cave, with its ideal dimensions and specially acoustically treated walls with absorbers/diffusers. I’ve purchased new electronics to go with them: A Parasound 2250 New Classic power amplifier (380 wpc 20-20kHz, .05% THD into the 4-ohm 9’s) and matching Parasound 2100 pre-amp. The CD player is an NAD 545BEE with Burr-Brown DAC. This is really good stuff. I still use it, some 13 years later.
My current electronics: Parasound 2250, 2100, and NAD 545BEE
In my home, they sound even better than they did in his apartment. Another friend of mine, a bit older than me and a music/equipment aficionado of the highest order, is so impressed that he literally calls me to make future “appointments” of when he can come over and listen! I can’t believe I have these speakers. The ultimate AR speaker. My dad would’ve been so pleased for me, so happy that I had them. “Now son, ya gotta wait until everyone’s gone, out of the house for a while, then you can goose ‘em up real good! They’ll sound so nice. Atta boy, now we’re talking.”
I keep the 9’s for 10 years. I love them. Every time I play them, I feel like Dad is right there with me, listening, enjoying the heck out of them. Up until that point, it’s the most satisfying audio upgrade I’ve ever made, by far, both sonically and emotionally.
You might think that the AR9 was my last audio upgrade, my last speaker, right? Wrong! We never get tired of this stuff, do we? We always want more. So I made another speaker purchase. I gave the 9’s to Jason and I bought Legacy Signature SE’s. A truly amazing speaker as you can read in the review I did in 2020.
Legacy Signature SE—my “last” speakers
The Experience of a Life Altering Audio Upgrade
I will bring this long article to a close by saying this: The Legacy SE continues to amaze me with its phenomenal sound to this day, two years after I purchased them. When I play them, I can’t believe I own speakers of this quality. We had friends over for dinner recently and my system was providing background dinner music, light jazz, a piano trio. Our family room (where the system is) is open to the kitchen where we were seated. Even at low volume, my friend said to me, “Wow, that sounds amazing. Can you turn it up a bit?” We step into the family room. I turn it up. His face goes pale. “It sounds like they’re right there! I’ve never heard anything like this!” Even his wife can hear it and is totally flabbergasted.
Some system upgrades are simply emotionally gratifying. Some are only marginally significant from a sound standpoint. And some upgrades are so impactful and important that they remain life-altering for years and years. I’ve had two of the latter: The AR9’s and the Legacy Signature SE’s. But every upgrade, both large and small, has been met with anticipation, excitement, and enjoyment. This is a hobby—more than just a mere “hobby,” right?—of almost indescribable joy and importance. Although the equipment varies from enthusiast to enthusiast, we all share the same emotions and feelings, don’t we?
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Recent Forum Posts:
Looking at those vintage speakers reminds me of a memory, from my early childhood. My father drilled a small hole in the wall and ran some bellwire into another room, where he connected another speaker. This was ground breaking stuff it was the late 40s or early 50s. I can remember half the street came down to hear it.. Crazy now but back in the day, To have your own wireless, was considered something special. And a speaker in another room. was very special. Don't laugh, it was just after the war, and most of us had nothing, You where lucky to have a house that wasn't bomb damaged
I really think I'm done buying speakers…. Yeah, yeah just like any other addict, "I've heard him say that one before…“ but after 2 years of mucking around with positioning and bass treatments, I've got the T&A's dialed in so perfectly that they finally sound like what I would have imagined 13k speakers to sound like. Learning a thing or two from my Allison CD-9s, I started by bucking conventions and pushing the towers all the way back to the wall, and then making small forward increments to improve staging. Understanding SBIR and placing speakers accordingly has an incredible payoff.
Once it hit ”just right," I found myself with that gobstruck smile on my face… This is IT! Suddenly I knew that it would be extremely cost-prohibitive to eclipse this level of bliss, and I knew I was done.
The only other speakers I'm keeping upstairs are the Eosone RSF600's because of their unworldly soundstage. They are the most 3D-sounding speakers I've ever heard. I can see why some folks get dipolar speakers and refuse to ever go back to monopoles. I have the best of both worlds and can switch back and forth freely. It's a great place to be.
In the normal world, you are looking at how much speakers/subs your room can take, how much noise is in your listening environment and how much treatment can your room accommodate. Also, if your amps have a SNR below 120dB as well as broadband distortion less than 0.01%, there's a good chance you will hear no difference between competitive models. The only difference will be with amps that are more likely to change their behavior with highly reactive speakers (less load intolerance).
Having been around for a million years, here are my thoughts:
- You upgrade speakers after about 10-15 years. They'll still sound good, but will no longer be great for their price and could be somewhat worked out. Speakers keep getting better all the time.
- If you've bought really great electronics these days (Benchmark AHB-2 or such), you only replace it when it fails. Swapping out amps regularly is a fools errand.
- Also, when are talking about any DAC's, pre's, pre/pro's, that stuff is so good now that there is no improvement they can make that will be audible with an upgrade in most cases. Sorry, but it's true. If you have a $500 home theater receiver, sure. If you have really good separates, it's most likely a waste of time and money. drive them into the ground until something goes wrong… just like a car.
The salesman told me, “Some of these power amps (really great stuff) were bought here a year or two ago.” These guys were chasing the upgrade dream where it's not about the sound, it's about the status of owning the equipment and how good that makes them feel.
Steve, I think you'd be hard pressed to find better passive speakers, at their price, than the ones you have. Personally, in my home theater, I'm using five LS50's and four, Rythmik servo subs. Hey My rig can produce more bass, more cleanly than yours. So what? You still have a great pair of speakers that probably has nicer treble. So what?
Do I want a better system than this? Sure! Do I need one to clearly hear the music in a treated room with Dirac running? Most likely not.
Unless you envy equipment more than the music it's playing or you bought a piece of crap to begin with, there is no reason to replace anything in your system until starts failing or you are doing a big upgrade. Do not become an audio equipment junkie.
Thank you for the article going back in time…………..