The Integrated        Option

Special Feature Article 

In Search of Audio‘s Holy Grail

I have searched. Believe me, I have searched. And I think I‘ve come out the other end.

Whenever my dad called me lazy, I would reply: I‘m not lazy, I‘m an "Efficiency Expert"! Somehow I didn‘t follow my own philosophy as an audiophile though. Like most card-carrying ‘philes I was so caught up in the search for audio‘s Holy Grail (TAS*) that I failed to grasp some simple facts:
TAS is a moving target, based on compromises that begin with your room. Understanding that, the sane thing to do is to seek a balance - "Synergy"! The beauty of Synergy is that it comes at many price points. If you read between the lines of exotic component reviews, you will find great consolation in the law of diminishing returns.

About 4 years ago I had over $30,000 tied up in SOTA separates. I had solid state, I had tubes, I had hybrids. Components flying in and out, as I searched for synergy. Always a purist: no remote to detract from the sound - up down, up down. My lazy ass, er, "efficient" side wanted remote control, but my purist, anal, side demanded that I get up down, up down! Why? Because remote control motor drives can compromise the music.

Day in the life of a "Purist" system owner- Come home, put on a CD, go to the listening position, hit the play button on the CD player‘s remote. Invariably, the sound is either too low, or too loud- each disc having a unique "just right" volume setting- back to the equipment rack, return to listening position, back and forth- up and down. This is further complicated when listening to a Favorite Hits CD, where each cut can have a different “just right" volume. More often than not, I tolerate less-than-ideal volume.

Is listening at the wrong volume level any more of a compromise
than the sonic compromise of remote volume control?

A day in the life of a "Purist" tube system owner: To all the above add: You come home planning to listen, careful to follow proper turn on sequence, so the tubes can warm up, without blowing something up. The phone rings- bummed out buddy, upset girl friend, or happy buddy, happy girl friend. While this is going on, you're thumbing through the TV channels. Something catches your attention. Hours later snugly tucked in bed, drifting off, it dawns on you that your precious, exotic tubes have been glowing to waste! Countless times I was too far gone, said #*&@ it, and left them on all night. Come time to buy new tubes, I realized the high cost of my inefficiency, or as my father would say: laziness!

So what does $30K sound like? After a lot of component swapping, to find my version of Synergy, it buys exceptional sound with either tubes, or solid state, but in the end I just wasn‘t happy! Why? Partly because I could not justify the money that continued to pour through my system, and partly because my house was overrun with all this stuff.

Dude, it‘s the 21st Century

Less is more. The plethora of SUVs shows that a lot of people are into multi tasking. About 3 years ago, I put my money where my mind was, and formed a one man AA group - Audioholics Anonymous, whose charter does not include quitting, but striking a balance between TAS, and its inevitable compromises. I need to listen to music every day, but even in my own bachelor pad, 70% of my listening is done while I am working/writing/ cleaning/cooking/eating/or watching sports on the TV (with volume muted). So for me, $30K was way out of line. I sold my assorted amps, preamps, and allotted myself a $10,000 budget (including cabling/power conditioning/isolation devices, and room treatments).

The heart of that system was a Plinius 8100 integrated amp with Remote Volume Control - $1995! The sound? M-U-S-I-C-A-L - a very nice balance between tube warmth, and solid state punch. A perfect fit for pre-hi-res digital.

It just goes to show you, it‘s always something! - Gilda Radner, SNL

The early years of digital were tough on an audiophile. You had to spend some serious money on separates, which included separate jitter boxes, in order to get decent playback. Between the wires, shelving, iso devices, and power cords, I felt I was taking one step forward, and two steps back. While searching for a one-box CD player to replace all this stuff, along comes HDCD, closely followed by higher resolution 24/96-DAC technology, shortly thereafter, upsampling, and DAD, which required a new transport; as well as murmurings of DVD-A, and SACD. My head was spinning. My primary concern was better sound from my 300+ Red Book CD library.

I finally settled on a CEC TL5100Z, one box, CD player/transport. It had 20 bit DACs, 8 Xs oversampling, Belt-Drive, handsome, and built like a tank. I had the power supply beefed up. It was a great port in this turbulent digital storm. In the process, I eliminated some $5000 worth of ancillaries. Between the CEC and the warm sounding Plinius, sonically, I was holding a pretty good hand. So, I made it through this DAC thing, too - but it was tough, I tell ya! I sure could have used an AA meeting.

Then along comes the Audio Aero Capitole CD player (24/192 upsampling CD player, with both a built-in killer preamp section and tube output (plus RVC). I‘m thinking, tube virtues, with minimal hassle, still only 2 components, but at an additional cost of some $6,000. Doing this would have pushed my $10K system cost closer to $15K, but no one was twisting my arm to keep it under $10K. The Plinius 8100 does not provide separate amplifier inputs, which meant replacing it with an amplifier. I also purchased an Antique Sound Lab Passive TI, a dual-mono, autoformer based preamp, a great bargain for under $400, but here we go again - up down, up down - worse yet, each volume step adjusts by a whopping 3 dB - impossible to fine-tune. Fortunately, I did not put the $6Gs together for the Capitole, because...

One short year later (Jan02), along comes the GamuT CD-1. Wow, what sound, and at half the Capitole‘s price- $2950. While the GamuT makes the format wars easy to laugh at, it remains heavily backordered. This opened the door for the Mutine Vecteur CD Player. It is very well made, and has received many exemplary reviews. Alan and I have had it in our systems, and agree it‘s a great value at $1890. However, I recommend you run, don‘t walk, to get an SACD shot, because it‘s highly contagious, though far from perfect.

SACD for 2 bits

Yes! The format wars are raging, and you guessed it: I‘ve - I‘ve - I‘ve taken a step back - I‘ve... fallen. Sigh. While I‘m not totally convinced SACD or DVD-A will survive, recent circumstances have allowed me to succumb to the SACD bug.

Now, the bug bit me because Sony introduced the DVP 999ES, a replacement for the sturdier DVP 9000ES- the talk of the DVD movie crowd 2 short years ago. The audiophile rap on the 9000ES (actually, all Sony SACD/CD players) was/is that the red book CD playback is nothing special. Said me, "Surely, Sony has the technology to include SOTA red book playback, but intentionally were not, just to hype SACD!" Until recently, the few SACDs available, were hardly barometers of SACDs true potential. The fact is the 9000ES was almost 2 years ahead of any decent SACD music.

Six months, or so, into the 9000ES‘ sales life, John Sunier** (among others) discovers that, at around 200 hours, the 9000ES‘ CD playback turns into a swan. Somehow I missed this revelation, only reading about it a couple of months ago. Low and behold, people are dumping their DVP 9000ES‘ for 2 bits. Here we go again. I rationalized that if I could find a CD player comparable to my CEC, but with SACD thrown in as a freebie, it would be worth doing. Having heard both extensively, if I was only looking for maximum red book play back, the Vecteur digs deeper, and is cleaner in the lower mid to bass regions, I think they‘re a toss up from the mids up.

Oh the times, they are a changin' - Bob Dylan

About 3 month ago, I replaced my standing $10K reference speakers, the Reference 3A MM de Capos. Every major (and minor) review magazine, as well as everyone who heard them here, have complimented their ability to throw an enormous sound-stage. I replaced them with a 4 times as expensive pair of Nearfield Acoustics Essence Loudspeakers (6 ft tall, 9 drivers and 18 tweeters per speaker/96 dB). This is a whole new sound staging ball game, much like what you would expect going from say Konica camera lenses to Leica. Even though my listening room is quite large volumetrically, between the number of drivers per speaker, combined with their high efficiency, plus my 525w powered sub, I could now look at low-medium powered integrateds.

One of the primary requirements for my affordable replacement solid-state integrated is flexibility, and of course "SYNERGY, which is the key to magic. It must have pre outs, not only so I can use my subwoofer crossover, but also so that I can use it as a separate RVC preamp. Why? Why, indeed! South Florida summers are long and brutally hot, no place for either Class A, or tube amplification. Wintertime, however, and the warm glow of tubes taking the occasional chill out - the equivalent of a fireplace, sounds romantic. I‘ve already got my eye on the Antique Sound Labs AQ 1010- integrated (18 wpc, 4- 300B tubes) with manual Alps pot, but with preamp bypass. However, due to my documented laziness, I need to figure in an additional $300 - 500 a year for tube replacement. Anybody know where I can find an AA meeting?

Funny, but the tube side was more locked down than the solid-state. So here I am, in search of a flexible, and affordable SS integrated with RVC - Remote Volume Control for less than $2000. When the student is ready...

News Flash:

BVaudio, based in Quincy, Mass, is selling an integrated amplifier, loaded with the type of technology one would only expect at 3 times their retail price of $1790, if then. Add to this, a remote volume control that functions solely in the digital domain, and you‘ve got something very unique in the sub $2000 category. If you link to BV‘s website, you will find numerous glowing reviews (including my own). I‘m a believer. What I find especially unique with the BV is its ability to light up the music from within, much like a tube amp. Happily, my tube Jones can wait until next winter.

Integrateds Rule!

Which do you think should sound better, $4000 spread over an amp, preamp, transport, and DAC (requiring 2 each additional power cords/shelves/ interconnects/iso devices) - or - $4,000 spent on one very high quality RVC integrated amplifier, and one high quality, hi-res CD player, where the interfacing of amp/preamp, and transport/DAC are maximized by their designers? Owning the Plinius 8100, for over a year, convinced me that an integrateds‘ amp and built-in preamp can compliment each other in ways few of the many separates that I owned, can equal. As I mentioned "TAS" is a moving target. Today‘s hi-res formats, ruthlessly expose limited bandwidth products, many of which were intentionally designed to compliment pre-hi-res digital‘s short comings. IMHO, the new SS standard is the squeaky-clean BVaudio line of products. But to fully appreciate their potential, I had to replace my power conditioner, power cords, and interconnects.

Audio Zen

Are you ready to join me on the path to audio peace? It‘s very Zen. Yes, you can put together a simple, user friendly, RVC, wonderful sounding system, including cables, power conditioning, and room treatments for around $10Gs, and live happily ever after. But that doesn‘t describe most who will read this, and though I try, not even me. Remember, between speakers and powered sub, I currently have almost $13K, but I blame my huge room for that. Smaller rooms would allow for a much smaller speaker budget.

- Hi, my name is Robert, and I am an Audioholic!
Co-owner of Audio Tweakers, Inc. www.audiotweakers.com


* = Didn‘t figure it out? TAS stands for "The Absolute Sound".

**It was John Sunier‘s glowing review of the DVP9000ES, along with the giveaway used prices, that moved me in that direction. Thanks John!

[By the way, Dan Wright of www.modwright.com offers some terrific modifications especially for the 9000ES - and other players - that take playback sonics of both stereo SACDs and standard CDs to another level. I’ve had nearly all of them and my 9000 really sings now. - Ed.]

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