In our 3rd installment, George S. shares his audiophile testimonial and how going custom and esoteric has saved him money and upped the enjoyment factor of his system.

"The system that I put together which pretty much represented audio nirvana was as follows:
  • A custom Wavelength Duetto stereo amp that, according to Gordon Rankin, had output transformers and coupling caps superior to the production Duetto. I purchased the unit from a Wavelength Dealer as a demo.
  • An Emotive Audio Sira LE Linestage without the etched top plate. This was really a very very nice linestage and far superior to the Emotive Audio Erato that it replaced as well as the Blue Circle BC-3. The Sira was also purchased from an Emotive Audio dealer as a demo before the large price increase.
  • A pair of Merlin VSM SE loudspeakers with the AC BAM. Very nice dynamic loudspeaker that I had no real dissatisfaction with other than that I could not use an amp with less power than my Duetto. I was still desirous of modest-size, highly efficient loudspeaker so the search continued.

I first replaced the Merlins with a PHY-HP speaker made by Hans Kortenbach of Musical Affairs. It is essentially a large open baffle monitor with an integrated stand. Modest size, easy to move around, easy to drive and great great sound. Very dynamic, very open, very fast and great body and texture. A live-sounding speaker. I found it to be vastly superior to the Merlin based on my listening preference which is acoustic jazz and moderate to medium volumes. The speaker may not fare as well on high SPL rock or symphonies.

The Duetto sounded great with these speakers but again, I was interested in trying a lower-powered amp. I had tried
several DIY designs and no success in finding anything that eclipsed the Duettos. This included a DIY SE 2A3 (quite nice) and IT-coupled SE 300B, a Minn Audio Labs PP 6336, an SE 6V6, a Darling SE 1626 (quite nice), a DIY SE 45 and several others. All of these amps were less than half the retail of the Duetto.

I finally had Don Allen of Phoenix/Arizona build me a single-ended 45 using a SRPP 7062 driver stage and a 6BY5 rectifier, with Teflon coupling caps, EP chokes and OPTs. This was the first amp that I had in my home that actually sounded better than the Duetto. It set me back $1,500 total and the Wavelength was sold (though I still hold that amp in high regard).

I was so pleased with the Don Allen that I decided to give a VT-52 a whirl. I ended up having a VT-52 built that I like better than the Don Allen 45 so I moved on. Again, the new VT-52 set me back about $1,700 which was still a fraction of the Duetto.

By having the Don Allen 45 and the VT-52 amp built by Bob Danielak, I learned quite a bit. I then went on to have my 'Will Always Keep' amp built. It's a very very nice amp that can run several 45 variants, with a KC1 input tube and UX112A driver, all EP iron and Teflon coupling caps, no electrolytics in the power supply and some BG for cathode bias etc. It's a superb sounding amp. All in all, this amplifier learning curve cost me about half of what the Duetto had set me back.

After settling on a final amp, I moved towards a full-function preamp. I had been using an Emotive Audio Sira LE without the etched plate which has a retail cost of approximately $8,000 along with the George Wright WPP100C phono stage which is $1,000. I had tried a few other preamps after the Sira (a cheap Foreplay and a First Sound Presence) and did not find anything that sounded better. I did find the Placette passive RVC unit to be very close in terms of musical satisfaction so I sold the Sira to set aside funds for a project that had been rolling in my head as a result of conversations with the designer who built my amp. I finally settled on a DIY full-function preamp based on a Loesch phono section and a 12B4A line section. The unit exceeded my expectations, just an open window on the music and at about 1/3 the price of the Sira and the Wright units.

Speaker cables also resulted in major savings (my new ones cost me all of $150). I previously used 15-meter solid-core silver speaker cables. The Stage 3 Concepts Monument series in the latest edition cost $7,000 per 8-foot pair. My cables were about $4,000 at retail. I ended up selling the cables after buying a double 15-meter run of 'no-name' solid core silver cables. A side-by-side listening test yielded no discernible differences. This is after I had changed many cables finding meaningful differences.

So my original 'statement' system started out as:

  • Wavelength Duetto 300B
  • Emotive Audio Sira LE
  • George Wright WPP100C Phono
  • EAD Ultradisc 2000 as transport
  • Audio Logic MXL DAC (Electraprint Nickel IT transformer-coupled tube DAC)
  • Nottingham Analog Hyperspace turntable with 12" Anna Arm and Lyra Helikon cartridge
  • Merlin VSM SE
  • Stage 3 Concepts Monument Speaker Cables
  • Stage 3 Concepts Emperor Interconnects
  • Marigo Labs Apparition Reference Digital Cable.

This original system gave me 100% satisfaction. After going through my experience of actually looking for equal or better sound for less money, I found out a few things. I did not find any cable that I liked better than the Stage 3 Concepts interconnects. I did not find a transport/CD player that I liked better than the combination of the Audio Logic and the Ultradisc 2000. I did not find a digital cable that I liked better than the Marigo. I did change from the Nottingham Hyperspace/Anna Arm to the original VPI Aries and I like the NA setup better though the Aries was cheaper. I then changed to the Aries II and would say it is a push at best with the Aries, doing some things better - and at the Aries II is less expensive. The ESP Essence power strip is a bargain. I preferred it to an Equitech balanced power conditioner, the PS Audio power regenerator as well as several other PLCs.

My current system consist of:

  • Custom single-ended 45
  • Custom full-function modified Loesch preamp
  • EAD Ultradisc 2000 as transport
  • Audio Logic MXL DAC
  • VPI Aries II with JMW 9" arm and Helikon
  • Musical Affairs PHY-HP full range driver with a PHY-HP super tweeter
  • Harmonic Tech silver phono cable
  • Stage 3 Concepts Monument speaker cables
  • Stage 3 Concepts Emperor interconnects
  • Marigo Labs Apparition Reference digital cable.

My new system actually sounds better and the price for it was only a fraction of what I had originally paid. The sound is much more lifelike and tonally more accurate, very nicely balanced and there's very little by way of any electronic signature. The sound is cohesive and sports great toe-tapping factor. It's less of a HiFi-type sound and soundstaging and imaging are not what get your attention, though these things are done quite well. It is the lifelike quality of the music that captivates and becomes more of the focal point versus the sound. My big interest is in a sound that does not remind me of the fact that I am listening to a stereo system. I am not trying to reproduce the live event in my room. Rather, I don't want to be constantly hit over the head with reminders that "you are listening to a high-end stereo system". I would rather be pulled into the music, with the system being an afterthought.

For the record, here is a sampling of all the things that have passed through my room before I arrived at this particular combination:

  • Speakers
    • Spendor SP 9/1 (very good)
    • Odeon No. 17 (fair)
    • Meadowlark Shearwaters Hot Rod (good)
    • Reimer McCullough (very good)
    • Omega Grande 6 (very good)
    • Merlin TSM (very good)
    • Merlin VSM SE (excellent)
    • Aliante Royal Device Monitor (poor)
  • Preamps
    • Audible Illusion Modulus 3A (fair)
    • Blue Circle BC3 (very good)
    • Emotive Audio Erato, upgraded (very good +)
    • First Sound Presence (good)
    • Emotive Audio Sira LE (excellent)
    • Placette Passive RVC (excellent)
  • Amps
    • Graaf 5050 push/pull (very good)
    • Audio Prism Debut (good)
    • Unison Research Smart 845 monos (good)
    • IT 300B (good)
    • Don Allen 45 (very good +)
    • Single-ended VT-52 (very good +)
    • Woodside push/pull 6L6 (good)
    • Wavelength Duetto (very good +)
Cables have included Nordost, XLO, Harmonic Tech, Wireworld, Stage 3 Concepts, Alpha-Core and others. All this by way of your original concept to "demonstrate, by example and from the field how, with experience and having played in the pro leagues, one can successfully downscale without suffering or regret." George S.
Nick Z.'s previous most expensive system meanwhile was as follows:
  • Preamp: Jadis
  • Amp: Jadis A?70-watter
  • Speakers: Sonus Faber Guarneri, Magnepans etc
  • CDP: Meridian
  • Cables: some Audioquest, some homemade

This setup cost about $20,000 and has been replaced by:

  • Pre/power: Blue Circle
  • Speakers: Shahinian Obelisks
  • CDP: Music Hall and Apple computers with lossless compression for the songs...

"This is so much more enjoyable and I can move around and just listen to the music. And for the very best experience, at a cost of about $1,000 (this response was unanimous from every single person who likes music and has visited): I hooked up my big NAD to about 20 small Radio Shack speakers and wired them all around the yard, up on three palms, under ferns and chairs, on eaves - everywhere. I equalized the whole thing with iTunes' equalizer and never play it too loud. It's just plain wonderful to hear a good opera or jazz ensemble as you move through the rather small yard. Is it the setting which makes the experience so much better than sitting in a chair? Why do Caballe, Miles Davis and Mrs. Krall sound so much better - much better even though I am missing the lower octave, the ultimate highs? And even though there is no soundstage, there is them and I can focus on their voices and the music. Try it for yourself."