Crass consumerism strikes again
July 27, 2007 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Tell me how much I need to spend on audio preamp(s) and amplifier(s) to make my home stereo system sound jaw-droppingly great.

Ze muzeek, she eez my life, so two years ago I upgraded some of my very low-end stereo components to these moderately better ones:

Goldring GR2 turntable

NAD C542 CD player, and

Orb Audio speaker system (two "MOD2" double-satellite assemblies + a subwoofer)

WAY better sound, baby, but that's when the money ran out, so I couldn't replace the basic Onkyo receiver with a nice preamp(s) + amp(s) to make the most of the other components.

Now I have some pennies saved and have started looking at equipment and reviews. This is where you come in. I might could swing $1500 tops for the whole enchilada if absolutely necessary, but I'd like to spend as little as it takes to get good quality gear -- new or used -- that actually makes an audible improvement to my non-audiophile, non-engineer ears. And even if I do drop the whole $1500, I'm not exactly sure how to divide it between the different components so that I'm investing the right proportion in each one.

The question:
To get preamp and amp equipment that is of comparable quality to the rest of my system and that will help it live up to its full potential, how much should I be looking to spend on each of the following:

1) phono preamp
2) line preamp
3) or instead of 1+2, a single preamp with phono stage
4) monoblock or two-channel amp(s) with max 110 wpc output (25-75 watts is probably plenty for my small, decently efficient speakers in a 13x20ish foot room)

Or if you think the existing Onkyo receiver is up to the job and I should put my wallet away, g'head and say so.

Other info:
-- This is just for music; I have zero interest in home theater audio. My musical tastes run the gamut.

-- SS or tube is fine, but I doubt that decently isolated hybrids are within my budget. As a vinyl-loving middle-aged Luddite who digs warm, rich sound, I'm drawn to the concept of vacuum tubes, and the basic Antique Sound Labs preamp and monoblock amps are appealing and affordable. But I don't know if I'd like the reality of tube gear. It would have to go in this type of open rack and would have at most a few inches of clearance above it, and I'm not sure that's sufficient for ventilating tube components. Also, I'd get cranky if I had to let the thing warm up for an hour before it stopped sounding like shit.

Please take it easy on the acousticalese; IANAPhysicist.
posted by FelliniBlank to Shopping (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not much of an audiophile, but the AMC 2100 amp ($250) and 1100 preamp ($200) combo is a great deal.

The 2100 is currently powering my Athena AS-F2 speakers, and previously powered my Magnepan MMGs. I've had both the amp and preamp since 2000, and they still sound great. There's not much written (that I can find) about AMC...but here's something.
posted by amb at 8:20 PM on July 27, 2007

The Onkyo is probably ok but if you want to replace it I'd look at Rotel or Arcam.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 8:32 PM on July 27, 2007

Best answer: Well, the sky is the limit here, but you already knew that.

Audiogon is your friend for great preamps and amps. For jaw dropping sound, you are not escaping, even used, for less than about $1,500 for the preamp and similar for a pair of monoblock amps, and really, for "jaw dropping" it might be more. That being said, you can get great, yet not jaw dropping, sound for less. The deals on used equipment are so good it almost seems foolish to go new, unless you are building it yourself. Here is a BAT VK 5i preamp, very nice, I have one and can vouch for its open, airy, accurate and very solid sound. I would try to get the price closer to $1,500 though. Here is a great Musical Fidelity amp to go with it. I think this combo will drop your jaw, IMHO.
posted by caddis at 8:54 PM on July 27, 2007

Forego the "audiophile" amps and get some rated for production audio.

The professional rackmount amplifiers are low noise and built like tanks.

Look to Alesis, Crown, Samson.

For around $400 you can get a very attractive new fanless Alesis stereo amp which will put 150W per channel of extremely clean, flat, audio into 8Ω of load.

For a little more, you can get a lower-wattage, but better specification Crown

Amps like these are what the studios use for their passive monitors, so anything you are hearing that sounds different if you use "audiophile" amps is coloring, plain and simple.
posted by tomierna at 5:17 AM on July 28, 2007

so anything you are hearing that sounds different if you use "audiophile" amps is coloring, plain and simple.

don't believe it. the pro amps are decent, but you can do better, cleaner with less not more coloring and artifacts, and you are seeking "jaw dropping" about which I doubt the pro amps will meet that standard for you. high end consumer amps use higher quality parts, and tend more toward class A operation (which sounds far better than class AB or B). there have been some exciting breakthroughs in amplification technology in the past few years and I truly think that you will find jaw dropping sound out of a $400 amp in the near future (say within ten years), but you aren't getting now, IMHO.
posted by caddis at 6:51 AM on July 28, 2007

Seconding Audiogon. The Krell KAV300iL gets great reviews. I bought an Arcam integrated amp on Audiogon and am extremely pleased with the sound. You could look at the Arcam A90 with a phono stage. I've heard jaw-dropping sound from a Musical Fidelity amp similar to the one caddis mentioned above, but the speakers involved also carried a jaw-dropping price tag.
posted by reeddavid at 12:54 PM on July 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips, everyone. I'm familiar with Audiogon, but I always try to stay away from that cash-sucking vortex of lurid temptation until I have a definite game plan in mind. I won't be able to afford the truly jaw-dropping for some time, so "markedly better" would have been a more accurate phrase. Also, since I'm upgrading from bargain basement Best Buy-type sound, my newbie jaw is likely to drop a whole lot more readily than you who are used to serious audio might imagine.

The key is to get something that's more than just one baby step up from where I am now, something maybe a tad better than the rest of my system but not way, way beyond my sources since they're the linchpin. With your help and the research I've been doing, I have a better sense of direction now.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:52 AM on July 30, 2007

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