Help improve my sound!
July 9, 2008 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Help improve my sound! After listening to some pristine, rich & dynamic music at a friend's studio, I've decided to improve my own setup. The catch? I don't want to spend thousands and have no interest in audiophile snake oil. Recommendations? Details on my existing gear inside.

Note: I should point out that I was listening to uncompressed AIFF audio at the studio. While I've no plans to get rid of my MP3 files, I want to get the most out of my vinyl and lossless digital.

My current setup:
Mac w/iTunes
Small Mackie Mixer (A glorified switcher, sometimes used for podcasting)
Pro-Ject Phono Preamp
Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable
M-Audio Stereophile Monitors

What I heard at the studio:
Mac w/iTunes
Apogee Ensemble D/A Converter
Mackie HR824 Monitors

Is there a nice spot in the middle? Should I ditch the powered monitors and pursue an amplified solution? Recommendations would be much appreciated. I'm open to anything, but would like to keep things at or below (preferably below) $1k. Thanks!
posted by aladfar to Technology (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When you say studio, do you mean that you were in a recording studio, like with fiber panels (egg crates) on the walls? And was the room small, like a control room where a recording engineer works? Because I'm afraid that this matters. It's not just the gear, man, it's the room. Or at least a big part of it is the room. So give us some deets on your environment...
posted by zpousman at 2:56 PM on July 9, 2008

The monitors are the big part, for sure.

I love my KRK Rokit 5's. Got both for about $300. You can get the bigger sizes for a few more dollas, plus a sub.

You might also want to look at your room's acoustics. This is going to make a big difference.
posted by Espoo2 at 3:00 PM on July 9, 2008

That being said, those mackies are famous for a reason.
posted by Espoo2 at 3:01 PM on July 9, 2008

@zpousman: You're quite right about the room - while not a recording studio with acoustic paneling, it's a well thought out mixing studio with properly positioned monitors, etc. Not perfect, but a good space for listening.

My space is quite lacking by comparison. My desk is beside a noisy street and my closet is fronted with mirrored (and highly sound reflective) doors. I realize that I can't replicate a studio sound in this environment, but I'd like to improve things a bit.
posted by aladfar at 3:05 PM on July 9, 2008

Agreed on environment and the monitors. After that, I'd look into a DAC and/or a better phono stage. There are a lot of products out there and it all depends on what you like and your existing equipment.

Any decent DAC will probably sound better than the analog output of your Mac. Used ones are a much better value than new ones.

Which Pro-Ject phono preamp do you have and what type of cartridge are you using with your tt? If you're handy with a soldering iron and aren't afraid of voiding your warranty, it's relatively easy (on the scale of things you could be doing with a soldering iron...) to tweak preamps to your liking.
posted by strangecargo at 3:15 PM on July 9, 2008

@strangecargo The preamp is a Pro-Ject Phono Box II between it and the turntable, I'm pretty satisfied with the vinyl side of things. Before tweaking the preamps, I want to hear it all through decent monitors, etc.
posted by aladfar at 3:18 PM on July 9, 2008

After listening to some pristine, rich & dynamic music at a friend's studio, I've decided to improve my own setup. The catch? I don't want to spend thousands and have no interest in audiophile snake oil.

Studio monitors aren't aimed at audiophiles at all, and aren't supposed to make audio sound "good". They are supposed to be as transparent as possible, with flat frequency response and a clear stereo image. The reason is that this will allow them to reproduce the audio as exactly as possible, so that you can mix and master in a way that translates to speakers and listening environments that do color the sound. When you pay for expensive studio monitors it is this extreme degree of transparency you are paying for, and transparency isn't something you necessarily want if you aren't using studio monitors for mixing audio (at least not to this degree). So I suggest that going for higher-end monitors for better listening will be a bit of a money-sink given that it sounds like you want to listen to music on them. Probably equipment designed for just listening (which I don't know much about myself) would be a much better value, and actually might sound "better" (rather than more transparent) at equivalent prices.
posted by advil at 4:09 PM on July 9, 2008

Advil is right - if you aren't recording or mastering music, you don't need/want studio monitors.

Also, working on room acoustics is one of the cheapest ways of improving sound, if you do it right.

You haven't mentioned your budget either; that's the dominating factor.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:09 PM on July 9, 2008

Whoops, sorry I see now that your budget is $1k max.

That's too little for me to offer expertise, as I think you have to spend at least several thousand to get a truly good-sounding set up.

In any case, the most important component is the speakers, and that will narrow down what kind of power you want/need. I love my Magnepans. If you don't need tons of bass, the MMG's fit into that budget range.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:12 PM on July 9, 2008

Upgrading your speakers could really help. I don't know them but they do not look like what you seek. You may also want to attend to your amplification. There is an old saw in hifi that you should devote half of your budget to speakers. I think that is wrong. You amplifier, especially the preamplifier, is an incredibly important part of achieving great sound. You were in a studio and I would bet that they had excellent amplification equipment. NHT and PSB make some very good budget speakers. As long as you are not a rap fan or otherwise addicted to bass, a pair of bookshelf speakers on stands is your best low cost option. I particularly like the Mission M71s for a low cost, near audiophile speaker. Mission keeps changing model numbers so I am not sure what the current equivalent is, but they were about $300. If you have more to spend, look into Triangle speakers as well. However, since you liked the monitor sound you might want to stay with NHT, PSB, Mission, Wharfdale etc. These strive for a flat response with particular accuracy in the midrange. The Triangles emphasize speed and dynamics, giving a quite lifelike reproduction. For electronics, NAD has some very good amps in the lower end such that for a grand you could get excellent speakers and an excellent NAD amp. If you really want to amaze your ears, and astounding volume is not a goal, see if you can audition some single ended triode amplification. It is really back to basics stuff, but sometimes in simplicity comes purity. Here is an amp that you can make yourself (the link is a bit NSFW as the guy has a tasteful picture of his nude wife on the page which doesn't really show anything, but you wouldn't want someone watching over your shoulder to see that). I made one and it really sounds great. I have many amps (it's a sickness, I know), many of them quite high end, and this little thing hangs in with them, but it does lack power. For small combo jazz (my favorite), folk, etc. it has plenty of oomph. For classical orchestra or power rock, it needs special speakers which cost $$$, although the Triangles are pretty high efficiency so get you most of the way there.
posted by caddis at 9:08 PM on July 9, 2008

OK, so that was stuff within your budget. If you like the sound of studio monitors then you must try to audition a pair of Harbeth Monitor 30s. They alone are triple your budget, but consider the sound (careful, this stuff is like crack, the only thing that keeps me from a full on addiction is my wife who does not want the living room turned into a sound studio with ungodly amounts of electronics, sound traps etc.).
posted by caddis at 9:20 PM on July 9, 2008

This is a project, there is no one stop solution, and never forget about the importance of room accoustics. You definitely want to go with amp + speakers. It gives you so much more flexibility to mix and match, and learn about the effects of different things. And, you have a lot of reading to do! These things are always the case, but 100x more when your budget is small.

Model numbers change so frequently that it is very hard to make good recommendations.. My system consists of Sound Dynamics 300Tis with an Adcom GDA-600 DAC with an ASIO capable sound card, and various old receivers and integrated amplifiers I find here and there. 300Tis were long held up as the standard in bargain entry level high end audio speakers, and if you can get a pair for about $300 you'll be very happy with them. As said above, almost any stand alone DAC is probably fine, and you probably want something more modern than my Adcom (for example, something that can handle 192kHz 24bit)..

From your local Craigslist: Here are some NHT 2.5s and a CC at $180, which looks like a good deal, and they'll make caddis happy :P These Mirage SM-2.5s are probably not bad at $85 - I love API, the maker of Mirage, Sound Dynamics (now defunct), Energy, and some other brands. These Celestions should be good at $135, but the model, Ditton, could mean several different products..

Perhaps someone else will take up the call and spot a good deal I missed :P

Some other general ideas.. Don't spend money on anything except pre-amp, amp, source (DAC, CD player, turntable, whatever), and speakers. Some other things that people spend money on, but you shouldn't: low-level interconnects can theoretically make a difference, but good quality generic stuff is fine; speaker cable can't really make a difference, get a nice thick gauge of copper and don't worry about it; digital audio cable actually used to matter, I think (due to jitter, long story), that time has probably passed; and, you know, wooden volume knobs, CD weights, god knows what, which is all junk.

Oh, one more thing.. Don't underestimate the value of well mastered, well processed, recordings. Poorly compressed mp3s will always be a disaster, no matter how you play them back. Audiophile remasterings normally offer legitimate improvements, and sometimes extraordinary improvements, over regular releases.
posted by Chuckles at 9:41 PM on July 10, 2008

It's been some time, but I thought I'd close this thread with a note about what I ended up with. I purchased the Peachtree Decco (the Sonos hutch in the back is a great place to stash a phono preamp) and a pair of Era D4 speakers - both made by Signal Path. All told, it was a bit more than I planned to spend, but I'm very happy with the results!
posted by aladfar at 10:18 AM on September 16, 2008

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