High Fidelity: Building a stereo system for under $2,500

Two issues ago we looked at the Pro-Ject Debut III turntable, a high-value record player that could (or should) turn any digital devotee into a vinyl believer. But most of us have records and CDs in our collections, and my experience with the Debut III got me thinking about its place in a complete stereo system.
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By Todd Whitesel

Two issues ago we looked at the Pro-Ject Debut III turntable, a high-value record player that could (or should) turn any digital devotee into a vinyl believer. But most of us have records and CDs in our collections, and my experience with the Debut III got me thinking about its place in a complete stereo system.

I set a budget ($2,000) to put together a complete solid-performing system that includes an amplifier, both digital and analog sources and speakers. For that price, I was confident I could come up with a rig that could keep listeners happy for many years.

You might be thinking, “I already have a stereo system, and it works just fine.” If you’re happy with what you have, carry on; if you think there’s room for improvement, hear me out. I think many would be surprised at the sheer variety of audio gear that exists beyond the few (and inventory-starved) big-box retailers that front most strip malls. While most large-scale stereo equipment manufacturers fled the field long ago to produce home-theater products, many smaller companies stuck it out and continue to refine their offerings.

NAD Electronics is one such company. This Canadian firm has been making affordable and respected audio gear for more than 30 years. I have owned several NAD components over the last six years and have found each piece to be well-built, reasonably priced and excellent performing. For many audiophiles, NAD has been the first step into the world of high-end gear without high-end prices. Given my target budget, NAD was a logical choice.

I recently received NAD’s newest CD player, the C565BEE, for review and started thinking about its place in a complete stereo system. NAD also sent the PP-3 digital phono preamplifier, which I hooked up to the Pro-Ject Debut III turntable. I also had NAD’s C326BEE integrated amplifier, so I was able to keep much of the system in the family. I would argue that there is a certain synergy in using components made by the same manufacturer. Such consistency in design philosophy and build process should, in most cases, yield better sonic results than assembling a grab bag of gear from different sources.

For speakers, I went to another Canadian company, Axiom Audio, and its M22 v2 — its top-end bookshelf speaker. Axiom not only makes affordable and great-sounding speakers, the company sells directly to the public, eliminating middle-man markups. Axiom also offers free worldwide shipping, a 30-day in-home trial guarantee and a 5-year warranty. Their customer service is excellent. What’s not to like?

C 565BEE CD Player

Like Johnny Cash, the C 565BEE comes dressed in black. The front panel has 10 control buttons, a two-line display that can be toggled to show various disc information, a USB input and three-function control knob: play, pause and skip. The back includes inputs for nearly any connection you can think of: line out to an amplifier or receiver; an RS-232 serial cable interface to connect to a Windows-compatible PC; digital audio in (optical) for connecting other CD or DVD players; digital out (coaxial, optical); a +12V trigger in, for controlling the player through an amplifier or other equipment; and an IR In, which facilitates remote control of the unit when connected to the output of an IR (infrared repeater). Whew!

The included remote is well-designed and intuitive to use. All the player’s features are easily accessed and changeable via the hand-held unit.

NAD should also be commended for its commitment to going “green,” manufacturing a product free of lead and other hazardous materials. A built-in power saver ensures that the C 565BEE uses less than 1 watt on standby mode.

I spoke with NAD’s product development manager, Greg Stidsen, who further explained some of the 565’s features. He was particularly enthused about the player’s updated DAC (digital-to-analog converter), made by Wolfson Microelectronics, a supplier of DACs to many audio manufacturers. As well, the 565 includes a Sample Rate Converter that up-samples standard 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz recordings to 96 kHz or 192 kHz. This is a user-selectable option that can be changed on the fly or defeated if desired. The 565’s DAC works in tandem with the Sample Rate Converter to deliver 24-bit resolution and a sampling rate up to 192 kHz. In effect, this player provides the same sonic benefits of a Super Audio CD player for red-book CDs.

You can further customize the sound by employing one of five digital filters. Though I appreciated having this option, after running through each filter several times across many discs, I heard little difference between any of them and wouldn’t bother using this feature.

Another new feature is the front knob, which allows users to scroll forward or backward through multiple songs on a CD as well as other devices. With USB and SPDIF inputs, one can take another digital product and use the player’s internal DAC. The CD transport includes a CD-text feature, displaying the album title, artist name and song title.

I don’t listen to MP3s very often, but I did have fun using the 565’s USB input to play back some MP3 samples I keep on a 2 GB memory stick. The player is capable of playing files of resolution up to 320 kbs/VBR — the biggest bang for your MP3 buck. If you have a lot of MP3s, the 565 can accommodate up to 128 folders and more than 65,000 files in one device. It also supports playback of CDs formatted with MP3 and WMA files.

C326BEE integrated amplifier

The C326BEE is an updated version of the company’s venerable C320BEE amp. The amp has a continuous power average output of 50 watts into 8 Ohms and features seven line inputs, including an MP3-type front socket; two tape in/outs; a headphone socket; soft clipping to protect speakers from being overdriven and damaged; defeatable bass and treble controls; and a full-system remote. The sound of the C326 is neutral, if slightly warm. Those accustomed to bright-sounding receivers or treble-heavy sound will notice immediate differences, but it’s that characteristic sound that forms the basis for higher-end audio gear, whose designers slave to get their products to play music back with as little coloration as possible. That’s what you’ll get, even with NAD’s entry-level gear.

NAD PP-3 phono preamplifier

The PP-3 represents part of an industry trend toward micro-components, packing performance and value into a small box that can be tucked neatly away if desired or stacked on another piece of gear. The unit is easy to set up. Simply plug the turntable’s signal output cables into the input sockets on the back of the PP-3 and, if present, connect the turntable’s ground lead to the PP-3’s ground connection via the “GND” screw terminal on the back of the unit. Select your cartridge type (moving coil or moving magnet). Then connect to an amplifier or receiver’s line-level input, such as “Aux,” and you’re ready to play records.

The PP-3’s USB port makes transferring vinyl to CD easy, and even comes with a USB cable and software (Vinyl-Studio Lite) to facilitate the process. According to NAD’s specs, “The PP-3 consists of a low-noise discrete MC preamp followed by a low noise op-amp-based RIAA MM stage incorporating a 12 dB /octave infrasonic filter to attenuate turntable ‘rumble’ noise.” Thus, the PP-3 has been engineered to compensate for various levels of unwanted operating sound. Unfortunately, the vinyl-to-CD transfer works with PCs only, so I was unable to try it out on my Mac.

Axiom M22 v2 speakers

Axiom’s M22 v2s are bookshelf speakers (19.8" high x 7.3" wide x 8" deep) that feature dual 5.25-inch aluminum woofers and single 1-inch titanium tweeters. At 16 pounds each, the M22s have some heft and are offered in four different finishes. The gold-plated binding posts accept a variety of speaker-wire terminations, including bare wire, spades and banana plugs. The build quality is excellent, and the speakers look great, making them an eye-catching addition to any smaller listening area. Rated at 8 Ohms, the M22s don’t need much power to come to life, but come to life they will with virtually any recording.

The Axioms have a crisp, clean and detailed presentation, particularly strong in the midrange and treble. Although they’re limited by design for bass reproduction, the M22s never fail to impress me and seem to get better with time. (Most manufacturers assert that speakers require from 50 to 100 hours of “break in” to achieve their full potential.) They’re not speakers for rap, but for jazz and a lot of pop and rock music, they’ll treat you well. To get your bass fix, pair the M22s with one of Axiom’s subwoofers.

Listening — CDs

My go-to CD to test a player and system is Jade Warrior’s 2008 release Now. It’s one of the best-sounding CDs I’ve heard, with remarkable detail emerging from Glen Harvard’s vocals, Jon Field’s flute, Dave Strut’s bass and the instruments that round out the mix. This system brought the gentle “Talisman” to life, with sparkling — often startling — acoustic guitar and bass reproduction.

Pricilla Harem’s In Concert With The Danish National Orchestra & Choir had a good sense of depth — operatic in many places. Gary Broker’s vocals are stately and rich, delivered with remarkable control and confidence that comes through on the recording.

Michael Champion’s crystalline guitar instrumental “Cad Lake,” from 2008’s Time Past, Time Passing, has a beguiling richness that sounds good on nearly any stereo. It was telling, however, when my fiancée came home one evening as it was playing on the C 565BEE in my upstairs listening room. She thought it was me! Her personal bias aside, I know what she was getting at. It sounded like Chapman was playing live for us, right there and then.

One of my Top 20 favorite records is the self-titled first Manassas release. This side project brought together the formidable talents of Stephen Stills, Chris Hillman, Dallas Taylor and others for a gleeful romp through country, bluegrass and rock. The double-LP remains a benchmark for acoustic music. Played through the 565, the bass on the country-meets-gospel of “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free” was positively booming. I’ve never heard it so good. The vocal harmonies on “So Begins The Task” were equally impressive, richly layered yet complementing the smooth pedal-steel guitar lines that underlay the track. As good as those songs sounded, nothing prepared me for the opening acoustic riff of “Bound To Fall,” which rose like a caged bird given freedom. There was a palpable sense of Stephen Stills’ hands running frantically over the guitar, trying to keep up with his own musical ideas. “Move Around,” with its gorgeous French horn and keyboard accents, again, sounded as good as I’ve heard before.

An earlier NAD player, the C542, has been in my system for several years and made a convenient and logical point of comparison for the new player. What differences did I detect? Without getting too esoteric, the biggest differences are in the sense of space, air and separation of instruments. Something else was making me nod in approval but I couldn’t figure out what for several days. The 565 — and for me this is the biggest difference I hear with better CD players — somehow “corrects” the tempo of the songs during playback by providing that sense of space and air around the instruments to put everything in context. In other words, the music doesn’t rush forth like a tidal wave, it flows like a steady brook. I was struck by how often songs that I’ve heard time and time again just sounded right, closer to live music than a studio manipulation. That said, my old 542 made a strong showing. Would I give it up for the 565? Yes.

Listening — vinyl

Like the recently reviewed Pro-Ject Phono Box II, the NAD PP-3 delivered performance that belies its size. It won’t blow you out of the water, but it will bring your vinyl records to life, delivering that same sound neutrality I spoke of regarding the C326BEE.

Journey’s 1977 album Next features very good mixing of instruments and voices, allowing Gregg Rolie’s vocal nuances to be heard along with Ross Valory’s thumping bass, Neal Schon’s guitar antics and Aynsley Dunbar’s always excellent drumming. The PP-3 captured the magic of the recording and others I played.

Sundered Records’ reissue of Johnny Cash’s Original Sun Singles ’55-’58 sounded very good through the PP-3. Tunes such as “I Guess Things Happen That Way” and “Big River” had a strong presence, with the only sound coming through the speakers being the music. The drive of Cash’s guitar and plucky performances of backing buddies guitarist Luther Perkiness and bassist Marshall Grant was clear and compelling.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s debut album is incredibly dynamic, ranging from the gentle musings of “Take A Pebble” to the bombastic “Knife Edge.” Again, the PP-3 performed admirably with this recording, but it was the Axioms that really shone. Carl Palmer’s crisp cymbal work was extremely detailed and the decay of each sustained longer than I would have suspected. Greg Lake’s vocals were immediate, almost breathy in places, and Keith Emerson’s piano lines had the vigor of a live performance. Even the thunderous “Knife Edge” had good bottom end, though it made me wish I had a subwoofer to pair with the M22s to hear what they could do with a bit of bass help. Still, I enjoyed what I heard and being more of a mid-range guy, didn’t miss much.

Final thoughts

The final tally shows I came in a couple hundred bucks over budget with this system. Was it worth it? For more than a month, I ran this system through its paces and came to like it more and more. I went back and forth between this and another system costing nearly twice as much (more on that later) and felt that, for the money, I could live with this setup and want for very little — though it can and does get better. If music matters to you and you’re considering an upgrade or replacing an older system, this grouping of gear should make your ears happy for years to come.

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