In a hobby where dropping a hundred grand for a system is common, what can you get these days for, say, $1,500 USD? An interconnect, maybe? A cartridge? Tax?
Well, how about an entire rig? Even though the price tags of some gear in perfectionist audio can induce vertigo, there also are a growing number of companies seeking to bring good sound to audiophiles with thinner wallets.
To spread the word that such products actually exist in a pursuit called the high end, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest for several years has been promoting a series of “entry level” rooms. There the spotlight shines on setups where the whole shebang will run you anywhere from $500 USD to $5,000 USD.
In 2016, I was impressed with a lengthy audition of a $500 USD system that used a pair of Audioengine A2+ speakers ($249 USD), the belt-drive Orbit turntable from U-Turn Audio ($179 USD, with MM cartridge) and U-Turn’s Pluto phono preamp ($89 USD). Eric Clapton’s voice and guitar sounded just fine coming out of this combination.
This year at RMAF, I decided to move up a couple of price points. I started in the $1,500 room, which featured the KEF Q350 bookshelf speakers ($650/pair USD), a PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier ($500 USD), a Music Hall MMF 1.3 turntable (a new model, $300 USD) and a Schiit Mani phono stage ($130 USD.)
The Sprout was particularly amazing. In addition to its analog line stage and 50 watt-per-channel amp, the compact unit also offers a fully asynchronous DAC with 192/24 capability, a passive-EQ MM phono preamp, a headphone amp and a Bluetooth receiver.
When I visited, the room’s host was streaming Count Basie’s “Satin Doll” from a cell phone. The KEF speakers were projecting a smooth, cohesive sound. Highs were clean, the midrange was uncongested and bass was more ample than I would have expected. All in all, it would be a system any audiophile on a budget would be happy to have, and also could make a pleasing office or bedroom rig for enthusiasts who have more advanced equipment elsewhere.
To see what $3,500 USD more would buy, I walked a few steps to the $5,000 USD room. Here, the extra greenbacks got the listener some handsome floor-standing speakers, the Aurum Cantus Melody M-103SE PU ($1,800 USD), along with a Music Hall A30.3 integrated amp (another new model from the company, $999 USD) and a Music Hall C-DAC 15.3 CD player ($549 USD).
Also included was wire from Danacable (Duo speaker cable, $420 USD for 2.5 meters, and Onyx interconnects, $198 USD for 1 meter), as well as vibration-control devices from Ginko Audio (Super ARCHs for the speakers, $399 USD for a set of eight, and Mini ARCHs for components ($299 USD for 12). Even the rack, a Sanus NFA 245 ($339 USD) was counted in the total.
In an alternate configuration for vinyl fans, the Music Hall CD spinner was dropped in favor of a VPI Cliffwood turntable ($895 USD), pushing the ultimate price a few hundred dollars over $5,000.
The speakers, in particular, had me scratching my head. I wondered how Aurum Cantus could get these out the door at less than two grand. In addition to quite striking woodwork, they have a 7-inch carbon-fiber woofer/midrange and an exotic aluminum-ribbon tweeter. The crossovers contain high-quality capacitors. They also can be bi-wired. Frequency response was listed at 35Hz-40kHz.
A demo of Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler doing “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” from their duet album, Neck and Neck, suggested the system had much more than a taste of higher-end sound. The Melody’s tweeter produced detailed and polished highs, while the cone driver was equally revealing. It was easy to tell Knopfler’s picking from his idol’s, and the pacing on this track was splendid. The speakers may have lacked a bit of weight and lower bass, but overall they still were a minor miracle.
I often get commentators at Part-Time Audiophile’s Facebook feed and website who complain about all the expensive gear. As a lowly scribe, I feel their pain. Now, however, I have a few more links to refer those readers to. This is a trend I like.