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The Guttenberg Challenge: Affordable Loudspeakers from Dayton, Micca and Pioneer

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I get pulled into a lot of debates. Political discussions around the proper role of government. The role of morality, whether in the market or in personal life. The proper view and use of Science or it’s tools. The value, purpose, and goals of education, the penal system, life in general.

You could say that I think too much. You could also say that I have no sense of self-preservation. I would probably blow a raspberry at either suggestion.

But one topic that keeps coming back to me is the issue of affordability.

I’ll admit that the prices in audio’s high-end have me more than a little uncomfortable. Quite a bit more. And while that feeling seems at odds with the stuff I read about in most mainstream mags, Art recently published an editorial called “Skin Deep“, wherein he openly mocked the $20,000 price-anchor that the high-end seems to be pivoting around. It’s an unsettling little piece, and done with assurance and authority by perhaps the most prestigious writer in today’s audiophile press.

You have to applaud Art’s sense of outrage: “I’m sorry, but an interconnect is not, under any conditions, worth as much as a new car.” It’s ballsy to see Stereophile take such a stance — even the views and opinions expressed in that piece are soley those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Stereophile, it’s parent company, it’s affiliates, or anyone else on Planet Earth. The fact is, they published it and that means something. To me, at least. But $20k? That’s quite a ceiling.

Looking at my own system, I note quite a few extremely expensive components. While most do not, perhaps, reach as lofty as that $20k price point, some sail past. I’m not going to defend my taste, my income or my lifestyle other than to say that the pieces are what I thought best, at a time when I had the money to do something about it. What I will acknowledge is that even the price of one of those multi-thousand dollar components is way past what “normal people” spend on audio (or “art” generally) in total, and that it’s probably well past what most would-be audiophiles would spend, too. If I were in a confessing mood, I’d reveal that this truth has been … pounded … into my consciousness. Thoroughly. To the point where even took notice. And I’m dense.

Of course, all this brings up an interesting point. Is this hobby actually affordable, in any reasonable interpretation of the term “affordable”? Is high-end audio an intrinsically elitist luxury niche, populated exclusively by the 1% and those hoping to someday climb into such company? Or is there room for more interpretations of “good sound” that might actually appeal to those of us without a HELOC, a trust fund, or a secret tunnel into a conveniently neighboring bank vault?

At the New York Audio Show back in September, I led a panel with Art Dudley of Stereophile, John Darko of Digital Audio Review and Steve Guttenberg of CNet’s The Audiophiliac, around the somewhat arbitrary topic of “What’s Next: a 21st Century Audiophile“. I’ll admit — sitting with those fine fellows really felt weird.

But during that discussion, Steve made a wild claim that high-quality sound could be had for $100For the entire system. And, interestingly, he wasn’t talking about headphones. No, he meant speakers, amp, and source. I’ll admit, when he threw that out there, I laughed. Touring a regional dealership recently, I tried to remember what $100 would have bought me. Maybe a set of footers? An adapter? An anti-static brush? Like I said, I laughed. Well. In my head. I’m not sure I actually let that donkey shout out of my skull, but maybe I did.

Regardless, Steve immediately followed up with actual references — a $30 Class-T amp from Lepai, a pair of B652 loudspeakers from Dayton Audio, and a Bluetooth receiver, and as along as you have a smart phone, you’re good to go.

Guess what I did? I didn’t laugh. I took notes.

About a week later, my own Dayton Audio loudspeakers showed up. I opted for a pair of B652-AIR loudspeakers, a $20 upgrade over the $40 base model that includes AMT tweeters instead of the soft-dome ones. The $20 Lepai showed up a day later. I already had some Geek Out USB DACs (I appear to have a set of these for some reason) from LH Labs and a mini-to-stereo cable from Audioquest. I was ready.

Taking my first look at “Steve’s Budget Bits” in the flesh, as it were, it became pretty obvious that this was not going to rock the Big Rig out of my listening room. But … what occurred to me was that it could make an absolutely incredible small-room system. Maybe a dorm? Or an office rig. For me, I started flashing on “desktop system”. A killer desktop system.

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The problem, which probably should have been obvious, is that both the amp and the speakers only accept bare wire — and no, 10-gauge won’t fit. Neither would the 12-gauge. Scrambling, I recalled a spool of “burial grade” OCC that I was using with a pair of Flagstone PlanterSpeakers from Madison Fielding. More stripping and cursing later, I had the system wired and running.

I’ll offer this. It’s okay.

Interestingly, the speaker+amp combo actually sounds more interesting than a lot of headphones in the sub $250 segment, in that I can get some actual sound staging and visceral bass response. Like most headphones, the bass only approaches healthy instead of actually bathing in it, but the mid-to-top end is actually quite enjoyable — and reasonably resolving. I think I’d stop short of actually recommending either the speakers or the amp, but with some desktop stands to bring the tweets on level with my ears, the sound is enjoyable. Perhaps apropos of nothing, I actually found myself thinking that these little Daytons would be very credible for use as surrounds in a 5.1, 7.1 or 9.1 home theater system. At $60/pair, that’s really not bad at all. But as a hi-fi rig? I really wasn’t feeling it. Sorry, Steve.

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As part of the same sweep of budget-shopping, I picked up a pair of $60 Micca MB42 Bookshelf loudspeakers. I want to say these were recommended at some point, but I’m not sure where or by whom, but, at that price, I figured, what the hey.

However they caught my eye, I’m just glad they did — while they’re the smallest of the bunch, the Micca are a terrific little pair of speakers. The 4″ driver is certainly a big step down in size from the 6.5″ on the Daytons, and it swaps a nifty little AMT for a silk dome tweet. But what it might trade on the down-low, it gains directly in terms of coherence. The top-end is sweet, the band through the mid-bass is very transparent. For every bit that I wasn’t feeling the little Daytons, the Miccas were working it out. This might be the ultimate desktop speaker and of the three, reminds me most clearly of a studio-monitor in its frequency response — very linear. And that’s not a bad thing.

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Musically, the best of the bunch were a pair of $95/pair Pioneer SP-BS22 LR loudspeakers. If you’ll pardon the cliche, these boat-tail shaped loudspeakers, designed by Andrew Jones, play at an entirely different league. While the Micca brought a very compelling desktop package, the Pioneers are clearly wasted here on the desk. In fact, putting them on your desk is pretty much an invitation to do nothing productive.

They’re not perfect, sadly. First, that big rear-facing port means they’ll do best a bit off the wall. Not a big deal, but it does make desktop use problematic. Second, the little 4″ driver can only do so much, too — don’t expect cavernous bass. Third, and perhaps most problematically, was a mid-bass bump that lent a little extra to male vocals — I noticed this watching The Daily Show clips … because Facebook. Anyway, I swapped the other speakers in and out, and found that the Dayton’s do this too, though a little less, and of the set, it was the Micca that provided the most linear response through this part of the band. An interesting result. With music, this was much less noticeable and I suspect has more to do with the voicing of the loudspeaker and trying to flesh out a design that simply cannot “go there” on the low-low end. For what it’s worth, this attempt to cheat physics is a pretty common “design feature” that I’ve found with just about all non-studio-monitor stand mounts, headphones, and in-ear monitors. That soupçon of extraness, placed just-so, makes them all seem a bit more interesting to listen to, and without it, sound a little thin.

To-may-to, to-mah-to. Yous picks yer poisons. Anyway, with that expectation properly set, the speakers will happily over deliver.

Bass reach and thwack is a big step up from the Micca; while that may seem a little odd given that they use the same size driver, but the port on the back of the Pioneers is about an inch larger and the cabinet is at least twice the size. And then there’s that voicing thing.

With pluses in the “FTW” column around bass, improvements continued. As with the Miccas, the imaging could be crazy-specific, but the little Pioneers did something that the littler Miccas couldn’t seem to manage: depth. Even sitting on little stands on my desk, the Pioneers clearly added a third dimension to the sound stage. This was a “hey, wait a minute” moment, too, and I might have lost an hour or so listening, positioning, and trying to coax that sense into a full-blown scale. I had best luck with them about a foot off the wall, but I’m guessing that higher volume playback than the extreme near field setup I was fiddling with will require more space. And, I learned, more space also squares out that mid-bass hump. It’s still fun, but much less chesty, though I’m sure John Stewart will be disappointed to hear that.

Like the Micca, the Pioneers actually have “real” 5-way binding posts, so no worry about wires. The veneer is pretty nice, and given the price point (and the finish on the other two speakers), this was a very healthy step up the fit-and-finish ladder.

I’m having a hard time not loudly recommending these speakers, but these little suckers are for keepers. Mine! Mine!

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With these speakers, I also had a chance to test out the much-more-expensive Class T amp from Trends Audio, the new $225 TA-10.2 SE. Again, this amp wildly outclasses the little motorsports mount from Lepai, but at 11x the price, that’s not unexpected. How does it better it? The top end, actually. It’s just a whole lot sweeter and a lot less grain. But the Trends amp is only 10 watts per channel. Fine for your desk, but that’s about it. At least, with these speakers.

The Dayton Audio DTA-120, however, is “only” $99. Like the other two, it’s a Class T, but this one features headphone outputs. Not sure that matters to me, but it’s a nice touch. And, happy of happy, it sports 60 watts per channel! Guess what? Both the Dayton Audio loudspeakers and the Pioneers practically jump with this amp. You know. With joy? Boy howdy does that make a difference.

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Okay, so here’s the skinny.

The Lepai amp + Dayton speaker system was $80. The Dayton amp + Pioneer speaker system was $200. That’s a big spread, in real world money. The first system is “movie and dinner out with the wife and kids” money. The second is “super-special anniversary dinner with the wife” money. It’s probably not fair to say that the second takes the first out back and beats it down to a bloody stump, but there you go.

I’m pretty sure that means I’m failing the Guttenberg Challenge. Especially since I had to add the source in still. I was using a Geek Out from LH Labs, which adds at least $200 to the total. Don’t shoot — it’s what I had. Did I mention this is a part-time gig? Anyway.

What I do know is that this current system is completely rocking my desk. And I’m loving it.

So, what have you put together for two-channel listening for less?

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The Speakers

Dayton Audio B652-AIR

  • Frequency Range: 70Hz-20kHz
  • Nominal›Impedance: 6Ω
  • Sensitivity: 85dB
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 7″ x 12″ x W x 6″

Micca MB42

  • Frequency Range: 60Hz-20kHz
  • Nominal›Impedance: 4Ω
  • Sensitivity: 85dB
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 6″ x 9″ x 6″

Pioneer SP-BS22-LR

  • Frequency Range: 55Hz-20kHz
  • Nominal›Impedance: 6Ω
  • Sensitivity: 85dB
  • Dimensions (WxHxD): 7” x 13” x 8”
About Scot Hull (976 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and "The Occasional Magazine"

34 Comments on The Guttenberg Challenge: Affordable Loudspeakers from Dayton, Micca and Pioneer

  1. Andysound // January 22, 2015 at 2:58 PM //

    I wonder how these 3 options would compare to the current version of the classic Yamaha studio monitors (the white woofer cone ones)…? They’re certainly more expensive being self amplified, but I always wanted to try what arguably has been used to produce and mix so many recordings of yesteryear. In my case it’d have to be the 8″ woofer version of the Yamahas, since coming from the Car Audio Sound-Q side, I’ll need a bit more than just ‘natural’ bass, on demand. Thanks for any feedback!

  2. Second-hand is a pretty outstanding way to go. I’ve picked up a pair of cosmetically beat up Mirage M90-IS speakers and a Rotel RB-850 for 120. Got a JAVS DAC-2 March Edition DAC/headphone amp for 90, and I’m otherwise using my desktop PC for a source via TOSLINK. Does quite well. Those Pioneers are outstanding for the money as well. Grabbed a set on sale for 70ish.

  3. Best cheap amp is the peter daniels audio sector amp for $95 in kit form. You’ll need to get a transformer. It’s a great amp at any price. I just sold my tube amp collection of SET amps that’s how much I like it.

  4. I’ve talked to a friend (music-loving non-audiophile) about his stereo options, probably $2k max. He loves this idea of powered speakers w a dac to be completely wireless. I don’t think he’ll consider anything else now that he knows that option exists.
    Separately, it does seem clear the issue is building a great system that’s affordable compared to most of what’s reviewed, but above a dorm room budget. Here’s my proposals and my actual system. I seriously considered the LS50’s at one point:

    BMC PureDAC $2000 is there a cheaper dac with good volume control, not just digital attenuation?
    Odyssey Stratus Stereo Plus $1500
    KEF LS50 $1500
    or
    Speakers from Spatial or PSB a bit more

    For anyone who wants to use analog sources. Most people not obsessed with the “absolute” sound would be thrilled using a Unison Rsch hybrid integrated. I think the Unico sound ls clearly out of favor in the press, but wouldn’t be for most people.

    some dac $1500 So many around this price point
    Unico hybrid integrated amp $2000 I still miss my Unico SE sometimes.
    KEF LS50 $1500

    My actual stereo
    BMC PureDAC $1,200 Agon
    Unison Research Unico CD as transport
    Odyssey Kismet monoblocks $2,400 Agon
    Spatial M2 speakers now they’re $3k new. My room’s too small for the M1’s
    JL e112 sub $1k ebay. I’d like to replace this with the new Fathom 110 sub.

  5. Colorado_Al // December 19, 2014 at 10:03 AM //

    I’d add the monoprice 8250. Amazing speakers for the price! Not as good as the Pioneers but $35 for the pair!
    http://www.monoprice.com/mobile/Product/Details/8250

    For desktop, check out the M-Audio Av40 studio monitors. $120 retail. Simply awesome.

  6. journeymanpt // December 18, 2014 at 4:06 PM //

    Hum, really good article, only nag I got Scot is the fact you use audioquest cables on an “affordable” system, don’t get me wrong but maybe the cables are even more expensive than some of the components. In so called “affordable” setups one should use affordable cables asn this means going for the plain vanilla stuff in my modest opinion. Anyway really nice article.

  7. What desktop stands are those?

  8. Scot, great to see this topic. While I’m just “back into” hifi after a 30 year hiatus, I’ve read your stuff and that of many others. Of course, I’m at that point where I can spend more…but I won’t ever get to that $20,000 price point (well, maybe I have more than that when I throw in my home theater rig…) But, alas, I think that we need much more about affordable, good (enough) sounding systems to get folks “back” into hifi. (I still recall my first Yamaha receiver/amp purchase back in the 70’s…wood cabinet, voltage meters, etc.) I live in a small metro area (just over 300,000 people), and there isn’t a single store where you can go and hear hifi equipment like you could in the 70s and 80s…sad, sad, sad…

  9. I would vote for powered/active speakers as being good candidates.

    I also propose a formula for a very cheap ‘high end’ system involving some DIY – not quite as low as $100, but not all that much more, and you might have some of it lying around already.

    http://therationalaudiophile.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/what-price-the-truly-rational-audio-system/

    • I’ve been a big fan of powered speakers ever since I first heard a Tannoy AMS12. When they’re done right, the end result can be surprisingly good even if the disparate components aren’t up to the standards of people (like me) who prefer to freebase our Kool Aid. Nobody who’s listened to a Focal SM9 or a PTE Phoenix is going to suggest that powered speakers are inherently bad.

      That’s not to say that powered speakers are always the best choices, though, and DIY isn’t the kind of gateway drug that has broad appeal. I’m trying to imagine what my Brother-In-Law’s reaction would be if I gave him cheap speaker advice that started with “do you have a table saw?” How much worse would it be for me to give my liberal arts major friends advice that starts with “do you have multiple sound cards, calibrated microphones, and a plunge router?”

      Students, apartment dwellers, and folks working eighty hour weeks tend to get turned off when the first steps down the path involve running power tools in violation of their leases. Even if a person has the space, you already have to be up to your neck in the deep end of this obsession to decide that hacking together a stereo is how you want to spend your weekend.

      • Hello Malachi. You’re right, of course. DIY only appeals to a few people, but on the other hand quite a few audiophiles seem to love spending their weekends aligning cartridges, examining stylii with microscopes, cleaning and demagnetising tape heads, fitting acoustic room treatments and all that. It is the kind of thing that some people think of as fun! My version of DIY was making new baffles for old enclosures, so not truly hardcore DIY.

        The main point of my blog article, though, was the idea of a cheap “formula” that differs from any low cost commercial design I’ve seen. “Low cost” doesn’t actually stipulate “small”, but is our perception of what a low cost system is capable of, limited by an assumption that it must also be physically small? Would some humungous 12″ woofers and low cost mid and tweeter, fitted in voluminous sealed enclosures, with DSP crossovers and active amplification (the Lepai amps only $20 per ‘way’, for example) knock the performance of jewel-like two way ported speakers out of the park for not much money? I reckoned that such a no-compromise system (in terms of the ‘topology’) might eliminate so many of the factors that limit the performance of much more expensive systems, that it was worth turning my hand to DIY. In the end, I think I was right: the result simply isn’t on the normal continuum from low cost to high end – it’s a combination of high end scale and ‘aspiration’, unusual topology, and cheapo generic parts not being pushed beyond their limits, with some possibly-novel DSP features. I know I am biased, but I have never heard a system like it, and I didn’t need to lose several years of future retirement to pay for it!

      • I love that you’re enthusiastic. I’ve built several systems like that myself. They have significant virtues — as long as you don’t make a fetish out of it. It’s neither good enough nor obsolete enough to be fetish-worthy yet.

  10. There seems to be an idea that we all need the best sound system possible, which I would suspect scares people away from hi-fi as a hobby. Instead, the focus should be the best sound system for our budget, and something that can be upgraded if that budget grows. While the $100 system might be simply “okay,” for a beginner it might be an eye opening experience over the cheap computer speakers they picked up at a big box store. A glimpse into what their music could sound like.

  11. Russ Stratton // December 15, 2014 at 12:46 PM //

    Check out the Monoprice powered studio monitors. I’ve heard the $170 pr. 5″ two-way and they seriously rock. http://www.monoprice.com/Product?c_id=115&cp_id=11504&cs_id=1150401&p_id=605500&seq=1&format=2

    There’s also an 8″ two-way for $200 pr. but I haven’t heard them. http://www.monoprice.com/Product?c_id=115&cp_id=11504&cs_id=1150401&p_id=605800&seq=1&format=2

  12. Aaron Fahrtzmeller // December 15, 2014 at 2:52 AM //

    could we get the view of a full-time audiophile instead, part timers twnd not to be very committed!

  13. I also have the pioneers but and a big but…. I modded the xover and tweeter…trumps many high dollar monitors. Cheap too.

  14. All three speakers seem relatively hard to drive at around 85db. I noticed this is the case of just about every low-cost speaker on the market which can’t possibly be good when mated with most budget gear (esp. Receivers). My guess is that this is largely responsible for the general dissatisfaction with budget gear.

    I wonder how this same experiment would fare with more efficient speakers – if there are any in the sub-$200 price point? I’m partial to Zu, but they aren’t in the same budget. Hsu speakers maybe? Would love to hear some opinions/suggestions on this.

  15. Another great post, PTA. I like the snow, and whatever comes next season. Spirit is needed.

    While I very much enjoy reading about the hi-fi industry, I hesitate calling it a hobby for myself. Doing so, in my view, requires a never-ending circulation of this gear and that great — this speaker or that speaker — and so on and so forth, and lots of patience too.

    If not for a lightning strike, my Carver CM-1090 integrade of 20+ years would still rocking. In other words, my version of an affordable hi-fi hobby is to lock in on gear and never look back. Boring? No doubt. Affordable? For sure.

    And I agree with your third photo. A glass of whisky always pairs well with a proper hi-fi hobby.

    Cheers

  16. Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney // December 14, 2014 at 1:14 PM //

    I feel like it’s worth pointing out that even the most expensive desk system you describe here still falls well within the range of what I spent on my first “really good” boom box in the 90s. This is “I saved up from my summer job” type spending…. which is pretty sweet.

  17. Tere is one more option for those with a lot less to spend on their two channel system than 20K..It’s called Second Hand. In Canada it’s called Canuck Audiomart. One could, looking at current listings, put together a very satisfying system for about 5K. Isn’t that how much most new cars devalue as soon as you drive them off the dealers’ lot? For less than 20K (a lot less) you could very easily put together a great system.Setup and room treatments are key to any system sounding its’ best, no matter how much the system costs. One need only read some of the less than stellar reviews of mega buck systems at the various audio shows to know this is true. Let the .001% have their exotica, they need to reasure themselves somehow…

  18. bluecoastrecords // December 14, 2014 at 11:36 AM //

    By the way, Scot.. I’ve been meaning to mention… your article on the gender gaps was excellent! Cookie

  19. Why not just go straight from laptop headphone output to amp? For this level of system and the intended purpose of this experiment, that’s much more realistic than including the geek out. I use the pioneer speakers with the original little Miniwatt tube amp with my TV. Around the same price range as your $200 system. Yes, it’s underpowered with only 2.5 watts into those pioneers, but for watching basic TV and with only headphone out from my laptop, the tube goodness helps add some dimensionality tame the tweeter silibance a good bit. A positive trade off for the power for this application.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // December 14, 2014 at 11:30 AM //

      I suppose I could have just gone that way, but I was hoping to do a full system — CD player, or better still, vinyl. But the search for “acceptable” sources didn’t really track with the rest of the bits, so we can expect that in Part Two, assuming I get around to it.

  20. It’s really hard to believe you’ve entered ‘the everyman’ mode for this one. I’ll say it again as you probably won’t look at this post either, STOP THE SNOW SHOWERS, please? By the way, Art and Steve reply to emails and Tweets, probably more difficult to do than reply to a comment on your own Blog.

    I actually sprung $100 for a T-Amp, nice little amp/integrated, blow you away, nope….but for those that don’t have a plethora of gear in their house it makes a nice backup…and would make for a nice office or bedroom system.

    Have to admit I’m still stuck in the world of vinyl and cd’s so I can’t comment on the Bluetooth.

    And those Pioneer speakers are darn nice….not as nice as an old pair of Rat Shack Optimus 7’s with the wood veneer – pull out the driver and change a Cap and resistor and you’ve brought that little baby into the 21st century–sweet sounding speaker.

    So what do my comments really mean? If you haven’t figured out from living through our brief ‘recession’ that you don’t need every little thing that comes along, that in reality what sitting on your plate if better than 95% of the rest of the world’s plate, they you need to step back and take another look at yourself. Art Dudley’s spot on in his earlier assessment….who’s going to be reading this drivel in 20 years?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // December 14, 2014 at 11:29 AM //

      I like the snow. The snow stays. At least until after Jan 4th when the snow stops. FWIW, I wish I could get leaves blowing around in the Fall, too. It’s all a bit whimsical. As if we’re to say, don’t take this too seriously. As if to say, who’s going to be reading this drivel in 20 years?

    • I gotta disagree. Those Pioneer speakers are much easier to live with than an old Optimus 7. Heck, the Altec Model One on my desk is easier to live with than the Optimus 7, and they used to hand those things out as gimmes. The Pioneers are SUPERB.

      The real issue, though, is that folks like you and me are just weird. We don’t mind dealing with the vintage preservation song and dance, or the inevitable Craigslist nutjob waving a revolver at us. Most folks, when faced with the prospect of spending their lives dumpster diving and soldering instead of listening to music, are likely to say “screw it,” and buy something that they can actually pay for with a credit card.

      • Well hell I’ll spring for the Pioneers then…the Minimus 7’s have been modded, maybe that’s why I still ‘don’t mind them’ but they wouldn’t be a daily listen by any stretch.

        And you’re spot on about used, tubes or SS…just about anything but speakers and I’ve gone that route as well.

  21. Some years ago I bought a Denon/Mission “desktop” (billed as such) mini-system. Little mini Mission monitors, Denon receiver/CD player combo. What a terrific little system, very English sound. I still have it, still sounds sweet (to me). Interestingly, I recall systems using larger Mission boxes but I didn’t sound quite so nice. Anyway, the system sits in a bedroom where it can fill the room and still sound good.

    As far as $20,000 price points and such, $20,000 actually sounds cheap these days what with show reports featuring many systems over $150,000. Small car? Heck! small house in most places. Seems the audio biz has decided that catering to the 1% is where it’s at, but I think that’s wrong.

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