My Audiophile dilemma…

So yes, I guess you could consider me an ‘audiophile’ in the sense I care a lot about the nuances and details that go into audio components in order to produce the best sound quality possible.

This goes back to my hobby as a guitarist. As a guitarist, I absolutely obsessed with over every component in the signal chain to make sure the tone was as great as it could be.

In a guitar there’s so many different variables, some differences could be:

-Tonewood used; ie. spruce vs mahogany vs koa vs alder vs ash vs basswood etc 
-the type of lacquer applied to the guitar; nitro lacquer is preferable to poly lacquer because it’s a thinner coat and allows the guitar to be more transparent and ‘breathe’
-the type of neck joint. Supposedly hide glue makes the best neck joints and dovetails are preferable to mortis and tenon and set necks have better sustain than bolt ons
-having the best sustain; to this end top loading bridges on Teles are preferred over string throughs, and the components of the bridge all matter. I actually changed out the standard stainless steel saddles on my Stratocaster for KTS Titanium saddles, and there’s also brass saddles on offer and the 2TEK bridge which you would need an entire guitar built around it to take advantage of it.
-Even the tremolo springs and block matters and I swapped out the standard zinc block on my Strat and standard springs for a KGC Brass tremolo block and Raw Vintage tremolo springs in order to get the best tone, so yes even small things like that matter
-The nut; I changed all my guitars to use Graphtech nuts from the standard bone or synthetic bone ones. Although I hear the Earvana Nuts can be interesting too. 
-The strings; I’ve cycled between MANY different brands in search of the best tone. Standard Fender, D’Addario and Ernie Ball ones, Dean Markley Blue Steel, DR Strings, and even some more boutique brands like Sonotone and Curtis Mangan, but my go-to has always been Elixir Strings.
-and of course the pickups; I’ve spent countless hours researching the best pickups for my guitars. There’s SO many different boutique brands. There’s bigger brands like Fender, Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio, Lace, Tonerider, EMG, bigger ’boutique’ handwound brands like Lindy Fralin, Bill Lawrence, Kent Armstrong, Jason Lollar, Joe Barden, Bare Knuckle, TV Jones, Throbak and smaller 1-2 man shops like Sheptone, D Allen, Klein, Curtis Novak, Don Mare, OC Duff, Tone Specific, Radio Shop etc so yeah there’s an entire cottage industry of pickup winders. My Strat has handwound pickups by Rumpelstiltskin pickups, who is a 1 man operation in Virginia – I specified 5.8k in the neck with Alnico 3 magnets, 5.8k in the middle with Alnico 5 magnets, and 6.3k in the bridge with Alnico 5 magnets. All with heavy formvar wire. Yes, I go down to that level of detail with my specs
-And that’s just the guitar itself. then my signal chain just goes on from there. I try to use the best guitar cables – Mogami, Rattlesnake Cables, Lava Cables, Bullet Cables are currently what I use. 
-All my pedals except for the first one in the chain (Boss Waza Tuner) and last one (Boss RC5 looper) have true bypass; the first and last pedals have buffered bypass to maintain the highs
-My guitar amp is a handwired (by one guy in San Francisco!) American style 6V6 Class A tube amp with tube rectifiers for more sag. I use Celestion Alnico Blue speakers for that beautiful bright sound. 

So yeah you can tell the level of detail I go into when it comes to tone with my guitars and equipment.

So it comes as no surprise that when it comes to my audio equipment I also have a similar level of meticulous attention.

For a very long time, I used soundbars for both my PC and my home theater. I used a Creative SoundblasterX Katana for my PC, which produced decent sound especially for the price, and could get very loud and was very versatile. I used a $200 Samsung soundbar and then later a pair of Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 speakers as my home theater sound system for a long time too.

I also cycled through a bunch of different music players. At first I used my phone for music – my iPhone 3G/4S, then my Sony Xperia Z3C and then after that I moved to some entry level DAPs like the Pioneer XDP, Sony Walkman A17, Fiio M7 and Sony Xperia XZ1C.

For earphones and headphones I’ve ran through a gamut of Etymotic, Sennheiser, Shure, Klipsch, Monster, Beats, Audio Technica, Denon, Fender and Master&Dynamic ones ranging from $50 to $300 but never really had a truly high end one. 

And for a long time, I thought this was good enough for me. But until this year I finally decided to give everything an upgrade, both my home sound system and my portable sound system. It only seems right given the level of attention I give to my musical equipment.

So gone are my soundbars and in comes a dedicated 5.1 system for my home theater and 2.1 system for my PC. And the choices are many again. I thought about so many different speakers, especially for the bookshelves.

My budget was $3000 for the home theater system and $3000 for the PC system so I looked at the Triangle BRO-3s, Dali Oberons, Monitor Audio Bronze 100, Wharfedale Diamond 12.2, MartinLogan 15is for the home theater setup (I had less budget per speaker for the HT setup since there’s more speakers that’s needed). In the end I settled for the MartinLogan 15is ($450 MSRP ea, got them for $280 ea refurb) for the front, a MartinLogan 8i for the center channel ($450 MSRP, got them for $320). And MartinLogan 2is for the surrounds ($150 each). Just to complete the MartinLogan package I added the Dynamo 400 sub ($500).

For receivers, I looked at Denon, Onkyo, Marantz, Yamaha, Pioneer, Sony and went with the Marantz NR1510 ($700) mainly because of its smaller frame, which made it easier to fit under my TV (I actually had to buy a TV stand to raise my LG C9 up a bit more though). In addition it had the streaming services support and all the I/O I was looking for. If I had a bigger budget and used my HT more, I might gone for an Anthem receiver though for the ARC room correction. I decided I didn’t need a dedicated streamer like the Blusound Node or more expensive options like the Naim Uniti or Simaudio Moon ACE since I would just play music mostly from my PC using my desktop system. 

So in total I got a $3k system for $2300. Fit under my $3k budget and still had money to spare. Home theater upgrade done.

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Then it comes to my PC system. There was ALOT of bookshelf speakers and integrated amps I contemplated.
For bookshelves, I looked at the Monitor Audio Gold 100, Bowers&Wilkins 706 S2, Focal Aria 906, KEF R3, Dynaudio Evoke 20s for the PC setup. I also looked at some near field monitors like the PMC DB1 Golds and looked hard for some Harbeth P3ESRs (but they were beyond the budget). I ended up settling for the PMC DB1s (MSRP $1500, got them for $1100 open box) for their combination of smaller size (which made it easier to fit on my desk) and great near field listening experience. It was a substantial upgrade over the Klipsch R-41PMs I was using before.

For subwoofers there’s really only two brands I looked at which was SVS (very well known and good value) and REL (maybe not as good value as SVS but well known). I ended up going with the REL Tzero Mk3 ($500 MSRP, got them for $400) due to their small size and simple operation. 

For integrated amps, I looked at the NAD C368, Marantz PM8006, Rotel RA-1572, Cambridge Audio CXA61, and PeachTree Audio Nova150 – and ended up going for the Rotel because of the substantial I/O, phono input (for my Fluance RT85 turntable), 120W continuous output power, Class AB operation (I liked the Peachtree’s power but it was Class D), the dedicated DAC/PC input and it was on sale (MSRP $1700, got it for $1200) 

So in total I got a $3700 setup for $2700. Fit under my $3k budget again with money to spare. Done

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and for my portable system setup, I gave myself a smaller budget of $2k since in general headphones/IEMs don’t cost as much as speakers do. 

For this I was again in a dilemma. So many choices on DAPs and IEMs. I wasn’t going for an over ear or on ear headphone because those are not as portable. For home use, I would rather just use speakers and for traveling, IEMs are fine and can cancel noise passively. So I decided to look for a good pair of IEMs instead of full size headphones. 

For DAPs, it’s always a tradeoff between focusing on great sound performance and having a lot of features, for some reason. All the really good sounding DAPs like the Caiyin N8, Dethonray Prelude, Hifiman R2R2000, Luxury&Precision LP6, Astell&Kern SP2000T, Lotoo Paw Gold Touch are very expensive – but lacking in non sound quality related features. The AK SP2000T and Caiyin N8 are especially intriguing due to having nutubes inside them! But they are all over $2k (except for the Dethonray but its features are really basic). Meanwhile other Chinese DAPs like the FiiO M11 Pro / Plus, Shanling M6 Pro, HiBy R6 2020 are all very fully featured Android DAPs that have all the bells and whistles, but I feel maybe they are lacking something in sound quality compared to the first group I named (of course they are cheaper so its to be expected). I currently have the Astell&Kern SR15, and was thinking about upgrading to the Astell&Kern SR25, but then I actually saw a really cool Gundam limited edition Astell&Kern SE100 model online – it’s from 2.5 years ago so it’s a dated model for sure, but it’s original MSRP was $1700, and selling for $1000. I was so close to pulling the trigger on the HiBy R6 actually due to the features but also thinking about the Dethonray Prelude DTR+ because of the great reviews about the sound quality but then remembering that it doesn’t even have a touch screen or analog click wheel. I was also thinking about the Caiyin N6ii, iBasso X300 and Lotoo PAW 6000 which are great Chinese DAPs but cost a bit over budget at $1200. So then I saw the SE100 and was like this is the great in between pick because it (probably? hard to find comparisons online) has better sound quality than the HiBy R6 / AK SR25, but it also has a more modern interface than the Dethonray Prelude, while not costing so much more than them. And it’s right within my budget. Yes, I know it’s dated, but still. This was the best in between for me for good UI + good sound quality within my budget, and I pulled the trigger on it. Plus it’s a limited edition, so it looks cool and I didn’t have to pay extra for that.

IEMs around the $1000 budget are many – there’s well known brands like JH Audio, Noble Audio, Audeze, Meze, Empire Ears, 64 Audio, Campfire Audio, Sony, Westone, Shure and more obscure Chinese brands like TSMR, See Audio, THIEaudio, Kinera etc I must admit the Audeze Euclids really intrigued me but couldn’t find any good deals on them. I focused on a few in particular the well known Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020s and the 14 BA driver THIEaudio Voyager 14. Both are around $1000 – in terms of specs the Chinese brands can’t be beat for the price, but the Western brands have their dedicated following as well. Previously I was using the 3BA Astell&Kern Michelles (collaboration with JH Audio), which were fine since I got them at a discount, but wanted something more. Then I discovered that Astell&Kern recently did a collaboration with Campfire Audio, and released the Solaris X. This was also at a discount online for $1200 (MSRP $1500) and it was perfect since it pairs very nicely with the AK SE100, so I got that one too. 

My mini review of the AK / Campfire Solaris X:

“Granted, I haven’t tried the Andromedas or Solaris to compare to, the only comparisons I have are to my AK (JH Audio) Michelles and Tansio Mirai LANDs. Compared to the Michelles, the Solaris X is noticeably richer and more detailed with the layering, with a wider soundstage with more detailed and prominent mids. Compared to the LANDs, the Solaris X is a more relaxed, laid back presentation and the soundstage to me is slightly wider and deeper as well, whereas the LANDs are more forward and lively. They are both very detailed IEMs and about the same when it comes to imaging. The main issue that me and my friend noticed with the Solaris X (using an AK SE100 DAP as the source) is the trebles are recessed a bit, they’re still there but we would have liked it if AK / Campfire would have added some more treble – but this might have been AK’s goal all along is to create a more smoother presentation as I’ve never tried the original Solaris. The TSMRs (and maybe the Michelles too from memory) definitely have more prominent treble and are a nice balanced pair of IEMs overall but I find the TSMRs trebles can even be overextended a bit and if the volume is turned up can become slightly sibilant as well. The Solaris X never has those issues and of course in Campfire tradition are easily amongst the most sensitive IEMs on the market, but because of the laid back delivery I have a hard time believing they will ever get harsh even at higher volumes.”

So there, I got a $3200 portable audio setup for $2200. Slightly over budget on this one, but its ok I still saved alot.

Alright, shopping done. That’s a lot of money spent, but I felt like because I’m an ‘audiophile’ these were actually upgrades years in the making that needed to be done…