3 Audiophile Systems for 3 Budgets

Yes, you can have an audio system that plays nicely with two-channel and surround sound—we asked 3 pros to mock up some proposals.


For years it seemed that in the mythical audio sandbox, two-channel audio and multichannel home theater couldn’t coexist. Two-channel guys didn’t like the concept of 5.1, 7.1 and other surround-sound incarnations, or the means it took to produce music and movie content in a surround format. And some home theater fans viewed two-channel audio as an antiquated solution that couldn’t deliver the bang of a true movie viewing experience. Over the past couple of years, however, the audio playground has become civil. Thanks to a maturation of digital audio technologies, including digital files, portable devices and new hardware products, a more symbiotic relationship between the two parties has developed … and your theater and listening rooms are the beneficiaries.

There’s never been a better time to appreciate both two-channel and surround systems, too. Music sales for the first time in years are growing, and factions within the music industry are even looking at expanding their products with options like better access to high-resolution audio files. So you’ll want a system that can handle powerful Dolby and DTS uncompressed surround-sound formats like what Blu-ray offers, as well as sweet stereo for everything from streaming audio to CDs and vinyl to high-res 24-bit/96kHz or 24/192 digital files.

Custom electronics professionals are being asked more and more to design and install systems that cater to all things audio. Last month we showed you three very distinct, fully completed audio rooms (“The Lowdown on Listening Rooms” ); for this issue we asked three veteran CE pros to recommend three theoretical systems that incorporate these various technologies. We also asked them to address the typical budget, performance and user-friendliness considerations to allow these solutions to easily transfer from the world of make believe and into reality.

Affordable, Modern and Versatile

Audio Video Experience is a full-service electronics sales and installation company on the scenic New Hampshire seacoast. President Andy Himmer is a music enthusiast at heart and that passion helps him empathize with his audio-loving customers’ plight of trying to balance cost, performance and a variety of technologies. To achieve this balance, Himmer says his goal is to offer something that is easy to use and sounds good without exceeding any sort of budget considerations. In his showroom, consumers can get a taste of a variety of products and systems that cover a range of prices and applications.

Himmer says that he often gravitates to manufacturers like Peachtree, Sonos, Music Hall, Wharfedale and Revel because their products deliver performance without sacrificing user friendliness or versatility at the price levels. “Traditionally, I don’t hear anyone saying they enjoy digital music. This solution works with digital and analog technologies and it isn’t a surround-sound system … its intention is to play music and it plays music while giving it some of that traditional analog warmth back,” he points out. “As far as the output of the Peachtree amp, it’s 65 watts at 8 ohms so it’s got enough power to drive a nice pair of bookshelf or even floorstanding speakers. We’ve had nice demonstrations with this amp matched with the Revel M12s. We do also demonstrate it with some Peachtree speakers and Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 speakers … you can’t beat those speakers at that price [$350/pair].”

Himmer adds that this combination of gear provides everything a music fan would want from a system now and later as their expectations evolve. “Most people today use streaming services or PC connections to their entertainment systems. This is just a nice solution that can be completed with a Macbook or PC,” he explains. “It also addresses the scenario in which people who own older receivers come in and say they miss vinyl, so this system is a way to reintroduce vinyl into their lives. In addition, they can listen to their digital library.

“This also provides the convenience of Sonos and fulfills their appetite for a variety of music. It really touches a number of consumer concerns: it’s affordable, it sounds great and it’s small enough that people without a lot of room don’t have to worry.”

Multimedia System Delivers Family Fun

Suburban-Boston’s Advanced Communications Technologies (ACT) is one of the most successful electronics installation companies for good reason: partners Paul Diggin and Keith Bartholomeu divide and conquer the many responsibilities of owning and operating a vibrant small business in an erratic economy.

Bartholomeu’s expertise lies in his understanding of analog and digital technologies and his diverse training allows him to excel in everything from home theater, to networking and automation. Diggin draws from his corporate business background, as well as his side job as vocalist for a Boston-area rock band.

The Gen X duo knows a thing or two about the convergence of analog and digital technologies and the role that new technologies play in this new age of home entertainment. Diggin says that once a budget has been established, it is important to design a solution that incorporates good audio and video quality with user friendliness, and the opportunity to grow the system as technology changes. “The Savant package gives [homeowners] cool control, plus it can be built on for other areas of the house,” says Diggin.

Using a mix of components that are familiar to A/V enthusiasts as well as the general public, Diggin chose products from Sharp Electronics, Sanus, Panamax, Savant and KEF. With Integra’s new DTR-40.4 A/V receiver as the heart of the system, this receiver can manage analog and digital sources, which could include cable/satellite boxes, gaming consoles and Blu-ray disc players, as well as streaming content from a home network and services like Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody.

Building upon the system’s fundamental A/V offerings, Diggin also notes that through the power of the Savant system homeowners can expand their control capabilities whenever they desire. Moreover, through the inclusion of the Panamax M4315-PRO power management product, users can remotely manage their system’s electricity in the event of a power failure or some other power-related event. With the M4315’s BlueBolt technology homeowners can also monitor their plugged-in devices’ energy consumption, plus the unit provides power protection and line filtration to help components last longer and run better. And considering most people already hold onto their audio gear much longer than video components, a little more TLC can go pretty far.

No-Holds-Barred Digital Dynamo

When it comes to designing the ultimate audio system, North Carolina-based Audio Advice has few peers in the electronics industry. Dustin Clemens, system designer for the design and installation company, is one of the industry’s leading authorities on digital audio, and he points out that part of his theoretical design submission represents what Audio Advice can do when asked to engineer a flagship, cost-is-no-object digital audio system.

Clemens’ design includes a Mac Mini that it has hot-rodded with solid-state hard drives, additional RAM and Amarra’s music player software. Along with the audio component picks, Clemens also specifies acoustical design, dedicated power outlets, Harmonic Resolution rack components and power filtration into the system to ensure that it performs to its fullest capabilities. “Surprisingly, there is one element of an ultimate, computer-based system that doesn’t require a processor or AC power—room acoustics. The best electronics in the world can’t overcome a poorly designed room,” he says. “The Harmonic Resolution Systems MXR Audio Stand is designed to provide a very low noise floor to the audio system, allowing the high-performance electronics to perform to full potential.”

As for the system’s main components, Clemens turns to two of the most revered names in consumer electronics: Audio Research and Wilson Audio. “I chose the new Audio Research Reference DAC for the quality of the digital-to-analog converter and the simplicity of its design. I’ve found that keeping the signal path shorter is rarely a bad thing and the Ref DAC includes an excellent analog domain preamplifier. It will hand off to several of Audio Research’s Reference 750 amplifiers powering a proven speaker array from Wilson Audio,” he explains. “Though the Wilson Alexandrias are not lacking bass response, I’ve chosen to increase their bass extension and dynamic capability with a pair of the company’s Thor’s Hammer subwoofers. The room was designed using the ‘golden ratio’ [proportions] and is really the most important component of the system.”

See also:
Ten Features for Your Next Audio/Video Receiver
Understanding the Differences in Tweeter Technology
Soundbars Room by Room

This article was originally published on April 1, 2013 and updated on September 28, 2015


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