An Audio Odyssey

After my Infinity 3000P speakers (which I bought in 1981 while still in grad school) began to fall apart, I decided it was a good time to upgrade my entire system. I am on a budget, so the only way for me to get a solid hi-fi is to slowly build a system over a period of years. I can afford to buy one or two major components each year. I'm stuck using my mass-market gear along side my new hi- fi gear as I go. As I'm starting in 1998, I hope to have my hi-fi system in place by the end of 2001.


Thiel CS1.5 loudspeakers

I spent quite a bit of time auditioning loudspeakers. Listening to speakers can be like falling in love. When you find your speaker, you know it. I tried the Infinity Overture 3 first, a good speaker with lots of bass that can play loud. But, not being a compulsive buyer, I went home to do some research on the Internet. Things sure have changed since I last bought speakers 17 years ago. Many speakers are now made for home theater rather than music. I'm not into home theater so finding speakers for music was my goal. I found, by the way, that speakers made primarily for home theater tend not to do such a good job on music (especially the subwoofers, which produce the most awful bloated farts you ever heard), but that speakers made for music do a very good job on home theater. Even more important, I discovered a whole new world out there called the high-end. Listen to each component before you buy it, I learned. Don't buy components because they have lots of neat features; remember that the money spent on all those features might have been spent on making the component sound better.

So, armed with new knowledge, I ventured forth into various audio shops. I first listened to speakers by Polk, Definitive Technology, and B&W. Well, that was easy. The Polks and the DefTechs just can't compare to the B&Ws. B&W, however, makes a lot of different speakers, all of which sounded good. I listened to the B&W 603, 604, and the 804. I liked the 603 better than the 604 and almost as well as the 804. I was only a little confused at this stage of the game, but I had learned a little bit more about speakers. Two-driver speakers can sound better than three-driver speakers. Less expensive speakers can sound better than more expensive ones. I learned to start trusting my ears.

I went to a couple more audio stores and listened to speakers made by Celestion, Mirage, Vandersteen, Martin-Logan, and Hales. All of these were good. Vandersteen seemed the best value. Celestion, Martin-Logan, and Hales had the most refined sound. I was now more than a little confused. I really liked all of these speakers.

The fifth audio store I visited turned out to be the last. I first heard speakers from a Canadian company called PSB. Now I was hopelessly confused. PSB speakers sounded good too. What to do? Then I was introduced to the little Thiel CS1.5. Only 33 inches tall and cute as a button. It was all over. Never before had I heard such detail in music. "All right, that's it," I thought. I went back home to do a little more research.

The problem with Thiel speakers, I read, is that they are "ruthlessly revealing" of any defects in the recording or in other electronics in the system. "Not good," I thought to myself. You see, I listen to a lot of old jazz and blues that are very poorly recorded. I also had to keep my old mass-market cd player in the new system for a year before I could afford to upgrade. Back to the store I went, this time armed with some Duke Ellington recorded in the 1920s and some Howlin' Wolf recorded in the very early 1950s. No problem. Both sounded great on the Thiels. Having a mass-market cd-player in a system with the Thiel CS1.5 and the Classe CAP-100 hasn't been as bad as you might think. I notice tremendous improvement in sound from what I was used to.

I also read that the Thiels are small speakers that do not play particularly loud. Again I had no problem; they played quite loud enough for me. I also read that the Thiels do not have very deep bass, going down to only 42Hz. But when I auditioned them with the Rolling Stones' new single "Anybody Seen My Baby," they had fantastic bass, both tight and deep. I did further research and discovered that an acoustic or fender bass does not go below 40Hz. Only an organ or a synthesizer goes that deep. So not to worry. If I do decide to get a subwoofer someday for my Bach organ music, it will probably be the REL Strata II. But I'm not expecting this to happen. The Thiels are so nicely balanced that a subwoofer might not integrate with them very well.

Classe CAP-100 integrated amplifier

I listened to quite a few amplifiers in conjunction with auditioning speakers. The two I really liked were the Krell KAV 300i and Classe CAP-100. I didn't think the Krell sounded any better than the Classe, but it had an extra 50 watts of power which might be useful for future upgrades. Was that worth $500 more? Then something wonderful happened. Classe discontinued the CAP-100. My dealer offered it at $500 off on close-out. At $1000 less than the Krell, my choice was clear. And, believe me, 100 wpc from a good amp delivers plenty more quality than 200 wpc from a mass-market amp because the good amp delivers far more current, which is different from watts. See? I'm learning. Besides, the CAP-100 puts out 100 wpc into 8 ohms and 150 wpc into 4 ohms. The Thiels are 4 ohm speakers.

Soon after I bought my Classe CAP-100, I took it back to the shop to have the optional phono stage installed. Even my old Sony turntable sounds better through the new Classe. I'm listening to LPs again.

Target 5 shelf rack

I didn't have a stereo rack. I got this Target rack the day I went to pick up my Classe amp. Finally my system was beginning to look organized and I finally had room to put my turntable where I could really use it.

With the Thiel CS1.5 speakers, the Classe CAP-100 integrated amplifier, and the Target rack in place, I'm half way to heaven. The other half of my new system, a cd player and a turntable, with have to wait until the next couple of years. But that doesn't stop me from thinking about it now.


Meridian 508.24 cd player

This is a wonderful cd player that doesn't do anything wrong. Music is involving with a wonderful presence. You can hear each instrument separately. Certainly the Meridian is one of the best cd players in the world. It really doesn't pay to get good speakers and then skimp on the source. You've got to have source components that do justice to your speakers. I got this at a terrific discount from my dealer.

Cardas Crosslink custom built speaker cables
Kimber Kable PBJ balanced interconnect

I started out by running my Thiel CS1.5 speakers with Radio Shack solid 18 gauge hookup wire. I ran two wires to each post to cut down on impedance. Sounded pretty good, but the speakers probably weren't getting enough current. Eventually I got my dealer to loan me some entry level speaker cable. This was a big improvement. I had to have the cable custom built to fit the odd location of the speaker connects on the Thiels.

The interconnects from the box really didn't cut it. When I got the Meridian cd player, I upgraded to Kimber Kable PBJ balanced. This made a noticeable improvement.


We're off to the Philippines in 2000, so no serious audio purchases.


VPI HW-19 Junior turntable with AudioQuest PT-6 tonearm and Grado Reference Platinum cartridge

LPs? Oh, yes. I've got a ton of LPs and I wouldn't dream of parting with them. I have no opinion on the great question of our time, which is whether analog or digital is better. I love them both. I like CDs because of their durability. Static has a way of creeping into LPs no matter now well you care for them. But an LP at its best sounds just as good as a CD. And there is lots of great music that hasn't come out on CD yet.

I hope my old Sony turntable can hold out until 2001. I like the VPI turntables because they sound great and can be upgraded bit by bit. If I decide to spend a little less on a turntable, I might go for the Rega Planar 3 or even the Music Hall MMF- 2. Much depends upon how much analog listening I do on the new system.

Audio Power Industries (API) Ultra Power Wedge line conditioner

I feel safer with a good surge protector (have a cheap one now) and line conditioner. I don't really know which Power Wedge I'll get. I don't need very many plugs and I don't need it for video.

I'm sure I'll think of other things I want to get. A new cassette deck? A CD recorder? A tuner? A separate preamp?

The possibilities are delicious.

Or maybe I'll just sink all my money into music. Just like the good old days.