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RMAF 2016: High-End Sound Wafts From the Bargain Basement

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Is it possible in this day and age to buy a high-fidelity stereo system — brand new — for a Jackson over five bills? I know that sounds like a tall order, or even a total impossibility, but I’ve just heard the proof with my own ears.

Some of the busiest rooms at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest were the “entry level” exhibits. Lined up together on the second floor, there were five systems you could audition, ranging from $500 to $5,000. I decided to spend some time in the least-expensive room, just to see just what was on offer for relative peanuts.

As I went through the door, I saw what looked to be a mom, dad and two pre-teen (I’m guessing) children. The youngsters were pressed close to a desktop, studying a rig that was playing a vinyl record, and asking plenty of questions. Both were wearing big smiles and making frequent hopeful glances behind them.

The system they were listening to was made up of a pair of Audioengine A2+ speakers ($249), which somehow pack into their diminutive packages a 15-watt amp, a Burr-Brown DAC, USB input and video shielding. Each speaker contains high-quality drivers, too — a 2.75-inch Kevlar midrange/woofer and a 0.75-inch silk dome tweeter.

(Interesting side note: Did you know high-end titan Wilson Audio uses a silk-dome tweeter in its entire line, including the new $109,000-a-pair Alexx? It’s not the same one, of course, but you get the idea. Audioengine is not messing around here.)

Feeding the A2+ mini-rig was a turntable from U-Turn Audio, a great Boston-based company run by some cool young guys. They not only put together the business start-up, they make their products right in their hometown. None of that China outsourcing for these New Englanders. (The room’s host, who wasn’t associated with U-Turn, wouldn’t believe me until he checked the shipping box.)

U-Turn’s belt-drive Orbit table comes in a Basic version ($179) that includes your choice of Audio-Technica, Ortofon or Grado moving-magnet cartridge. The Orbit on display in Denver had an Ortofon OM 5E. Stepping up the signal was U-Turn’s tiny, sleek Pluto phono preamp ($89).

Do the math and you’ll see that I’ve just described a complete vinyl-driven rig for just under $520. I’ll give you minute to ratchet your jaw back up off the floor.

OK, we’ve established these two products won’t dent your MasterCard too severely. But, more to the point of this hobby, how did they sound together?

The kids requested some Eric Clapton, and soon J.J. Cale’s “Can’t Let You Do It” was shuffling out of the Audioengines, with Slow Hand sounding like he still was channeling his idol after 2014’s tribute album. Clapton’s voice sounded great (you could tell he was applying some gritty studio processing the way J.J. used to), the loping pace of the rhythm section was spot-on and the bass, while not deep, didn’t intrude into the midrange.

All in all, the combo produced a very pleasant, highly listenable sound. There was a taste of the high-end in the smooth highs, especially, and no glaring faults. The system wasn’t going to embarrass the $5,000 setup a few doors down, or certainly the five- and six-figure rigs throughout the rest of the hotel, but for an office, bedroom or — fingers crossed, kids — a first stereo system, it would be hard to beat.

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Rocky Mountain Audio Festival coverage brought to you by Noble Audio. Visit them at https://nobleaudio.com/.

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About John Stancavage (185 Articles)

Contributing Editor for Part-Time Audiophile