Saturday, December 31, 2005

Stereo Systems

Lisa's all-in-one stereo system broke, and she asked if I would get her one. "It doesn't have to be too expensive," she said, "it's not like either of us are picky about sound systems." "Wait a minute, I'm picky!" Then I realized that for my entire adult life, I had never even owned a pair of speakers.

So the day after Christmas, we took the time to visit Magnolia Audio/Video in Palo Alto (we were on the way home after a lunch with some of Lisa's friends in South San Francisco). My best audio system is a pair of Sennheiser 600s hooked up to a Headroom headphone amp. The combination sounds incredibly good, and I didn't expect to be able to approach the quality in a full size stereo system without a lot of money, but I wanted a calibration against what was possible.

I hate shops that employ sales people, so we first had to wait patiently to find a sales guy who would open up one of their listening rooms so we could hear what a really good system would sound like. Our first listen was to a pair of $1400 speakers mated to a $1400 integrated amp. This was our first experience with a true hi-fi system, and it truly was amazing. The speakers did disappear into the background and we could locate the singer and instruments in appropriate locations inj front of us. We were impressed, but not prepared to fork out $2800, especially since we knew our listening location would not be as ideal as a listening room in a hi-end audio shop.

We walked out to try to find another audio shop, but none of the other audio places were opened on the day after Christmas, so we came back and walked around. In the clearance area of the store, however, I spotted a pair of Boston Acoustics CR95 speakers at 50% off. ($300 a pair) Lisa admired the maple box, which would fit in with the rest of the decor, so we asked to audition it against other speakers.

The sales guy moved the speakers into the room and wired it up, and after some time, we got to compare it against a set of $1200 speakers. These sounded just as good to us as the more expensive pair, so I knew we would buy the speakers. Then it was a matter of finding an amplifier. We auditioned three Denons: the DRA 295, a 50W amp, the 85W version, and the 100W version. The 100W version was clearly bad --- the speakers sounded like they were being overpowered. (All amplifiers sound the same, so there's no point auditioning different brands --- shop by power, price and features) The difference between the 50W and the 85W version was subtle --- Lisa couldn't tell the difference, and I could barely tell the difference (and it could easily have been my imagination). Given that our apartment was so small that even the 50W could drive the speakers louder than our neighbors could stand, we saved the $100 and bought the 50W integrated amplifier ($230), which came with AM/FM and video capability. The Toshiba DVD player I'd bought 4 years ago would play CDs, so we were set except for cables, one set of which would be used to drive the amp from my ipod.

It took an hour to get everything set up once we got home, but the sound was still amazing when we were done. I was impressed by how good everything sounded, and Lisa spent a good part of the day listening to music just because of how good it sounded. In fact, the resolution of the system was so good that I quickly became disappointed by how the ipod sounded compared to the same CD played through the Toshiba DVD player. I'd spent the better part of 3 days turning my CD collection into 320-VBR MP3s for my ipod, and now it looks like I prefer the sound of the CDs to the convenience of the ipod.
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