Recently, my nephew and niece moved into a new home. As a housewarming gift, I decided to gift them a new stereo system. I gave them their first system when they moved into their first home. It was a pretty nice, well-matched, mid-1990s Teac 500 Series system consisting of an integrated amplifier, DVD/CD/DAC player, and a pair of PSB Alpha loudspeakers. With the newer, larger home, a downstairs system for their new Whisky/Music room was in order.
Some parts of a starter audio system haven’t really changed much in forever. You still need some form of transducer (usually a loudspeaker), an amplification device to drive the loudspeakers (sometimes built into active loudspeakers), some source(s) of music, and a way to select between said source(s)..
What do I mean by “source(s),” though? In the “good old days” you had only limited options that included perhaps a turntable, FM tuner, a tape recorder, and in the 1980s a Compact Disc player and that was it. Nowadays you have options that include streaming and digital files on various drives in addition to discs, both digital and analog. Not only are there more sources, but there are more ways to bring those files to your audio system, and more ways to try to control your music.
So, while it’s relatively simple for me to put together all the traditional pieces and parts of the new stereo without asking a whole bunch of questions, when it came to a front end, I had a whole series of questions, beginning with “How do you currently listen to music?”
There are many possible answers to this question.
When I visited the semi-completed room, I noticed multiple shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays, so I added a disc player to the necessary component list. The next thing was to examine the connections on the TV monitor. Does it have inputs and outputs? And what kind are they? The monitor in the Whisky Room was a “smart” one, with a multiplicity of inputs, but only one digital audio output option: Toslink. A newer smart TV would have included HDMI outputs, which if I had them, I would have used. Toslink is a mixed blessing. The bad news is Toslink is usually limited to 96/24 resolution, so getting anything higher is almost impossible (there are a few, very particular exceptions). The good news is Toslink, since it is a fiber- optic connection, galvanically isolates the TV from the audio system. This eliminates the possibility of hum from cable TV’s audio or other sources that might cause a ground loop hum. Any DAC I choose for this system must have a Toslink input option, so that nice IFI Zen DAC ($199.00) with only a USB input won’t work in this situation, but a Schiit Modi 3 ($129.00) will work just fine.
After cataloging what the space is like and seeing what I might have to work with in the way of connectivity, the next questions was how is music currently accessed? Wi-Fi? Bluetooth? Legacy sources? In this particular household, both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are used, along with all those silver discs I mentioned earlier. No records, so no turntable needed here. The final question is what music sites or services are used… Spotify, Tidal, YouTube?
After compiling all this info, I began assembling all the pieces and parts. On the connectivity front, the room was wired for ethernet, and the TV supports an Ethernet connection, but not Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The TV, since it was a smart one, also had an Internet browser built in. Since part of my nephew’s music consumption is via YouTube videos, I’m going to let all the Internet sources come through the TV.
The TV’s Toslink output will be going into the Toslink input on the Schiit Modi3 DAC. The DAC will also get the S/PDIF output from a Sony BDP-6700 Blu- ray/DVD/CD player ($119.99). The Sony also has an HDMI output for the TV. So, the system will have two digital sources: the TV through the Toslink and S/PDIF from the disc player.
The DAC’s analog output will be connected to a 100-watt per side Sengterbelle Integrated amplifier ($88.00) that uses a Sanyo/JVC8007 I sourced from Ali- Express. I chose this amplifier for three reasons. First, it is built around a good part. Second, it has a Bluetooth 5.0 input in addition to its RCA line-level input (remember the TV and the DAC have no Bluetooth inputs). Third, it sounds good when mated to the loudspeakers I had in mind for the system, which is a pair of Klipsch R51M loudspeakers ($249 per pair). Cabling came from my stash of Ali-Express-sourced cable.
I’m sure that some “high-end” audiophiles might say I “cheaped out” on this system, but the reality is when it was set up, and we did some sound mitigation on the room (both absorptive and diffusion) you would be amazed at how high a sonic level this system can perform. Not surprisingly, the S/PDIF digital feed from the Sony player was the best quality source since it can send 192/24 to the Modi.
Using a music Blu-ray as a source the system could impress even me with its clarity and speed. The only thing missing at this stage is a subwoofer. We plan to add a sub soon, probably a matching Klipsch, but I’m still shopping that part. There are many players to consider in the lower price range that are well regarded including offerings from Polk, MartinLogan, Klipsch, SVS, RSL, and others.
All-in, this system’s retail price is safely under $1,000. Not bad for a starting place and considering what this system can do today, what it cost, where it can grow to in the future, my nephew and niece are nicely setup.
Long term, it will be interesting to see how this lifestyle yet performance-based value system impacts them (specifically my nephew). Will he be lured into the hobby and start his “audiophile journey” or just stand pat with this pretty damned good system? I will report back in a few months with an update.