Information for High-end Beginners

This section of the site contains information for those who are interested in learning something basic about high-end audio. It contains, for example, an answer to the question, What Is High-End Audio? It also contains some suggestions about how one can begin one's involvement with this particular hobby; a guide to some of the lingo one hears used by audiophiles; and some discussion of the various pieces of an audio system.

Let me say straight-off that 'high-end' does not have to mean expensive. Although one can spend an enormous amount of money on a truly phenomenal system, high-end is more about attitude than it is about money: The goal is to get the best possible musical reproduction, given one's budget. It is more than possible to put together a musically satisfying system for less than one thousand dollars, and to do it with all new equipment. If one is prepared to buy some of one's equipment used, as I usually do nowadays, then one can put together an excellent system for far less.

Contemporary high-end audio exists, in large measure, as a reaction to the rise of what we might call 'consumer' audio in the 1970s. Cheap transistors made high-powered, reliable equipment with fantastic measurements (low total harmonic distortion, e.g.) widely available. Manufacturers began to compete on the basis of those measurements, and then on bells and whistles. Somewhere along the way, though, something got lost. The consumer companies occasionally produced wonderful equipment, some of which is still sought after. But great measurements, it turned out, didn't mean great sound, and a lot of the stuff sounded like crap. And so the contemporary high-end was born in the form of small companies producing equipment with an eye to outstanding sound rather than stunning measurements. This equipment was unsurprisingly more expensive: There are no economies of scale here, and most high-end products are built the old-fashioned way, by human beings with soldering irons. But much of it still sounds fantastic even today. Which is to say: A lot of this stuff was built to last. I often see Krell KSA-100 amps for sale, for example, and these came to market, as Krell's first product, in 1980. (For more reflections on the history of high-end audio, see Steven Stone's "History of High-end Audio" in Audiophile Review.)

I've decided not to make any specific recommendations here about manufacturers. For one thing, I lack relevant expertise. For another, who cares what I think? But most importantly, such advice is best given by a knowledgeable friend or dealer who can discuss specific needs, desires, and budget. But I will record here what has been part of various sytems I've had over the years, for illustration.

The first is what was my bedroom system maybe five years ago. I regard it as very solid: Though it has its flaws, immediately obvious in comparison with a better system, music played on it sounds like music, and that's what matters.

Marantz PM-57 Integrated Amplifier (bought new) $250
NAD 512 CD Player (bought new) $250
Kenwood KT-615 Tuner (used; new $400) $70
Paradigm Titan Loudspeakers (demo) $150
Premiere Speaker Stands $75
Audioquest F-14 Speaker Wire; two ten foot runs $15
Audioquest Ruby Interconnects; 2 1m pieces (used) $50
TOTAL $860

It would have been possible to save a good bit of money here had I bought a used amp: I've long lusted after an old NAD 4020, and once even bought one (it turned out to be broken); that could have saved $100 or more. I'm less inclined to buy used CD players, at this price point, as their motors tend to be a bit gimpy (and expensive to replace); I doubt I could have done too much better on the speakers, either. Still, we're looking at a very decent system for well less than $1000.

Here is another 'affordable' system, which produces quite astonishing sound for the money. It has the disadvantage that it's CD-only: The Creek OBH-10 has but one input. But if, as many people do, you just listen to CDs, you're just wasting the other inputs on your pre-amp anyway, unless for some reason you need long runs of cable, which won't do with a passive. A passive pre-amp like this one is also very transparent. Anyway, this system one comes in at about three times the price, but I'd estimate the sound is ten times as good. So we haven't hit the point of diminishing returns yet. Not nearly.

California Audio Labs DX-2 CD Player (demo) $300
Creek OBH-10 Remote Passive Pre-amp (demo) $175
Classe Audio DR-10 Amplifier (used) $600
Thiel CS.5 Loudspeakers (demo) $1200
FMS Wave Guide Speaker Cable, two five foot runs $60
Audioquest Ruby Interconnects; 2 1m pieces (used) $50
TOTAL $2385

This, as I said, is a very serious system, for $2385. Something like it could have been a fair bit cheaper, had I managed to find (say) a used pair of Thiel CS1.2s.