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Axl: the humble audiophile

March 6, 2012

I have attempted to build an audiophile quality stereo without busting the bank.  I have a small listening room which helps – I can get away with smaller components.  Each year I spend about $500 for a new major piece and I slip in another $100 or so for some accessory.  This has been a multi-year project.

THE AMP: The centerpiece of my set up is my integrated tube amp – a Jolida FX10.  A 7 by 8 inch cuboid of 10 watt goodness.  I have had lots of stereo equipment over the years, but this is the most life changing piece I have every owned.

Tube amps are amazing.  For years they were just for deep pocketed audiophiles, but over the last few years there have been several minis introduced in the sub $500 category.  The FX10 is a contender in this category.

This mighty mouse has an absolutely wonderful sound.  Warm, live and fat is the way I describe how it sounds.  Don’t be deceived by the watts – in a small room with efficient speakers this thing rocks.  The best thing about this amp is you can play it very loud without listening fatigue.

This unit is very simple: three inputs and volume.  If you want to hear one, check out the Needle Doctor in Minnesota – they typically have one in their showroom.

This is a real conversation piece.  Most people have never seen a tube amp and this tyke shows off by running naked in its glass house (what good are tubes if you can’t see them?).  Turn off the lights and let it glow.

One final endorsement – my wife who politely and lovingly tolerates my audio fetish was blown away the first time I auditioned the FX10 to her.  Her response was that the music sounded live.  To get this kind of response from someone who has little passion for hi-fi equipment was one of the best endorsements I could ever think of.

THE SPEAKERS: Every music head will tell you – don’t go cheap on speakers.  Every wife will tell you don’t get big and ugly.  I have a pair of V6 Paradigm Atoms.  They meet the needs of my ears and my wife’s eyes.  These are mini bookshelf speakers and as entry-level as you can get in the Paradigm line (but by no means cheap at about $450).  You can spend a lot more for bookshelf  speakers  and not get anything close to the quality of the Atoms.  Like the FX10 these are mighty mice.  They deliver a very clean sound.  They have plenty of color in all ranges and in all styles of music.  Like any small speaker they are a bit weak on the bass and so I do augment them with a low-cost sub-woofer (see below).  Paradigm has moved on to a V7 – I have not heard them so I have no idea if they are a much of an advance or not.

THE TURNTABLE: I have increased my vinyl listening to about 70% of my man-cave hours, so last year I upgraded my 30+ years-old Sony. The great thing about vinyl is the more effort and investment you put into its play, the more you are rewarded with great sound.  If you compare an investment in a turntable/cartridge vs. a similar investment in digital there is no comparison in the payback – vinyl pays extreme dividends, digital is merely incremental.  Even a LP in poor condition will sing through pops and crackle on a good table.

My Pro-Ject Audio RPM 1.3 Genie looks as cool as it sounds.  I chose a bold fingernail polish red to really make it pop on my stereo shelf.  It struts past my other components like a Victoria Secret model (although the FX10 holds its own on the looks front). Never under-estimate the importance of ascetics in equipment (thank you Steve Jobs).  Does a cool looking table play better – no – but why not have some fun?

Pro-Ject chose quality over bells and whistles – this is a fully manual table – you have to get off your butt and lift the arm when it hits the catch groove.  The only bell and whistle is that it does have a nicely damped arm lifter.  A side note: another great thing about vinyl is it forces engagement with your music – you need to clean the record, you need to set the arm in the groove, you need to flip the record,  and most of all you need to coddle the record.

This is a very quite table – both in the playback and in the mechanics (of course my reference is my old Sony that magnified surface noise and was mechanically loud).  Pro-Ject put a lot of emphasis on low/no vibration.  It has heavy platter and my favorite feature is that it has fully isolated motor – the motor does not touch the table in any way beyond the belt.  My only complaint is that if you don’t have the motor on the right surface it does put off a hum – I silenced mine with a $1 placemat from IKEA (this also cured another “feature” – the three nylon cone feet designed to further reduce noise and vibration – those buggers slid like bowling shoes on a well oiled lane on my shelf – the placemat locked the table in place).

I operate the factory mounted Sumiko Pearl cartridge.  The combo of this table and cartridge is such an upgrade from my old table – I can’t even imagine what a $500 cartridge would do to the overall sound.  The Pearl seems like a decent cartridge.

The vinyl renaissance has created a plethora of great tables in the $500 range (about the minimum you can spend for audiophile quality).  I am sure this table’s competitors are equally good, but I have been fully satisfied and would strongly recommend this table for the budding and budget conscious audiophile.

THE PHONO PREAMP: Current day amps rarely have built-in phono preamps.  Back in day this was a standard feature.  But hey this gives you an opportunity to tune and spice up your system.  My first recommendation on phono preamps is to find a reliable dealer who will let you audition a few at home in the context of your own system.  I had a $250 budget and so I bought the Bellari VP130 and a Pro-Ject Phono Box USB from the Needle Doctor with plan that I would return one.  I returned the Pro-Ject – there was nothing wrong with it – this is purely an ascetic choice.

The Bellari has a wonderfully rich and warm sound and great bass without sounding like you are in some lowrider booming down the street.  See full review on another post. This is the cheapest way to turn your solid state system into a tube system (assuming you listen to vinyl).

THE CD PLAYER:  My least favorite component in my system is my Pioneer DV-563A DVD Player.  I originally bought this because it was the lowest cost device to play SACDs and DVD-Audio discs.  It is serviceable, but not audiophile quality.  Enough said. Fortunately I mostly listen to vinyl and digital via my Mac.

THE SUB-WOOFER– I guess I undermine my two-channel cred by having a sub-woofer, but with a pair of small bookshelf speakers I figure I have an excuse. I keep it at very low volume – just enough deep end to feel the groove.  I have an inexpensive ($100) Yamaha YSTSW216 to do the job.  A guilty pleasure until I get some righteous speakers, which is not a priority – I am very happy with the sound of the Paradigm Atoms augmented by a little deep end.

ITUNES: It is impossible to be a music fan today without a computer and access to the internet.  For me it is my nearly 5-year old MacBook, several hard drives, an ISP and an iPod.  I am sure there are better audiophile options than iTunes but I just want the convenience of effortlessly downloading or ripping music and synchronizing with my iPod for on-the-go listening.

When I first started with digital music I had 15 gig iPod and I used low resolution bit rate to get more music on it.  When I upgraded to a 120 gig iPod I started ripping at 320 vs. 128.  I recently turned to Apple Lossless.  I subscribe to emusic, because I think it a good deal, but I am starting to get frustrated with their low resolution rips. The more I have improved my stereo the more I have been frustrated with low resolution rips.

THE DAC: One accessory that has helped a lot with my digital music collection has been my low-cost DAC from Jolida: the FX DAC Mini ($120).  This greatly improves the sound of my Mac.  I am sure a high-priced DAC would even be better, but this does the trick.  The DAC bypasses my Mac’s sound card and converts the digital to analog signal in a way that is more sympathetic to music than the typical computer (even a Mac).  Audiophiles get pretty religious about DACs, but I spend most of my listening time with vinyl or my iPod so I just need a serviceable digital listening experience in my man-cave.

MISCELLANEOUS ACCESSORIES:

The clamp – I recently picked up a record clamp for my turntable (JA Michell Record Clamp). See another post for a short review.

The dry brush – For day-to-day cleaning of the inevitable airborne dust that settles on LPs I use a simple carbon-fiber brush.  I use a Pro-Ject “Brush It” because it was a low-cost carbon-fiber record brush from a reliable brand at the Needle Doctor ($15).

The wet brush – I have been using a discwasher with distilled water for 35 years (they are still available).  Distilled water has been highly effective and cheap.  I have never bothered to use the official fluid – distilled water works great.

The stylus brush – Another item I have had for 35 years is my discwasher stylus brush.  What I like about this model (they are still available) is that the brush is retractable (so it is not sitting there collecting dust), it has a nice wide brush head (1/2 inch) making it easy to work with and it has a magnifying mirror so you can examine the stylus.

The record cleaning machine – 2012’s big purchase is a Nitty Gritty record cleaning machine.  There are several varieties of vacuum based record machines out there.  I bought this one because it was the least expensive model on the market and because I thought it had a particularly innovative design.  I will have a full review in a future post.  But my first impression is that this is a required accessory for the serious vinyl collector and how did I live without it?  Easy, I did not even know such a thing existed a year ago.  I buy a lot of cheap used records and although they are in decent shape they are nearly always filthy.  This bad-boy makes them new.

The pixie dust – For special records that I plan to play a lot, I will apply Gruv Glide.  The biggest thing it seems to do is get rid of static and lubricate the record (the de-static effect seems to last several plays).  Now that I have a legitimate record cleaning machine I will probably use this product less. It was a great bridge until I got a record cleaning machine.

The wish list:

  • An OPPO BDP-95 Blu-ray Player.  Although a video player on the surface, this is primarily an audio device.  A “CD-payer” for audiophiles.  It is primary advantage (besides great sound) is that is very universal – as a one guy said, the OPPO will pay any shiny disc including quarters.  Google this unit and you will read amazing reviews for a $1000 component – on par with units multiples of its price. Unfortunately this thing is double my annual audiophile budget – so I may have to skip a year or give up beer (unlikely).
  • Upgrade my tubes – this will probably have to wait until current ones burn out. A low-cost starting point would be to upgrade the tube in my phono preamp.  No particular brand – I will rely on the boys at the Needle Doctor for advice.
  • Upgrade my cartridge – no model chosen – I have a couple years to research it.
  • I would like to set up a better digital library.  I need to set up some redundancy/disaster recovery and I would like to make my collection available on my own personal cloud.
  • Beyond that I just want more recorded music  – especially some of those high-priced audiophile vinyl reissues!
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From → Audio, Spending

8 Comments
  1. Richard Young permalink

    Axl, how\what do you use to store your vinyl? Could you post\e-mail me some pics, please?

    richarddyoung0102@gmail.com

    TIA – Rich

    • Rich – about 30 years ago a cabinetmaker buddy of mine made me a custom record shelf. It has 6 compartments that hold about 200 albums per compartment. A beautiful piece. Added to that I have a 2-shelf lawyer’s bookcase that was designed for vinyl – there was a time when this was a common thing you could buy at a furniture store (that holds about 200 albums per shelf). On top of that I have a bunch of wood crates I bought at garage sale a few years back. And finally I have my original album peach crate (actually a melon crate). So in summary I have mess.

      A guy I met on record day told me about a good low cost solution from IKEA. He was using IKEA’s EXPEDIT series shelves. They are heavy duty – a little overs-sized for 12 inch albums, but close enough. They come in a variety of sizes.

      Good luck – vinyl takes up a lot of space!

      • Richard Young permalink

        Axl, thanks for your response; I’ll check out IKEA:)

        Rich

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