Acquiring and setting up a great audio playback system can be time-consuming, expensive and frustrating. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked…and honestly answered before you make your first purchase. And of course, the establishment of a realistic budget is always a good place to start. Gone are the days when all you had to do is purchase “console” stereo system, move it into your listening room and sit back and enjoy your vinyl LP collection.
So how do we go about setting up a high-resolution capable stereo playback system? What components are required and how much should you expect to spend? These are just a couple of the questions that pop up when considering a new acquisition or when someone enters the world of great quality audio. I’ve been to trade shows that let vendors pitch complete systems that stay within a budget. So I thought I would write a few articles about the basics with a special focus on the “weakest link” in the playback chain. After all, you can download or acquire discs that have fantastic fidelity, play them through a good quality server and a state-of-the-art USB DAC, hifi amplifier into a sucky pair of speakers or headphones and suffer through lousy audio.
Great sound can only happen when you have good quality equipment at every stage of the playback process. We have to live the fidelity of the weakest link in the chain. And it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg…really!
So here’s my list of highly recommended equipment that will deliver high-resolution audio in full high fidelity. And the total cost will be quite reasonable. In fact, you could spend the same amount of money on a single power cord!
Let’s start with the main component of your system…a dedicated piece of hardware that can spin discs, play files, deliver great sound as analog or digital streams and connect to the internet. Of course, I’m referring to the Oppo BDP-103/105. I’m a big fan of their equipment and the way they stand behind their machines. If you have ever come by the AIX Records booth or demo room at a trade show, you will have seen me standing behind my Oppo hardware. And if I ask a passerby if they have a Blu-ray player, the chances are quite good that if they say yes, they will also indicate that they have the same machine that is on my table. Or they will say, “I’m considering an Oppo…I’ve heard great things about them”. So for $1300 (or $500 if you want to use a different external DAC), you can get an Oppo BDP-105. It’s a music server, great DAC, terrific BD player for HD-Video and has a great headphone amp. Highly recommended.
If you want a state-of-the-art DAC capable of almost 130 dB SNR, then the new DAC2 from Benchmark Media is the way to go. It supports all of the PCM rates and DSD as well. You can use it as a preamp and connect the balanced (or unbalanced) outputs directly to an amplifier or plug in a set of your favorite headphones and start listening to high-resolution audio systems right away. The Benchmark has a very nice remote control as well. The price on the Benchmark is around $2000. If that’s pricing you out of high-resolution audio, consider the original DAC1. It’s still a great DAC and you can get one for about half the cost of the new version.
To keep our budget as low as possible, I would opt for a set of headphones rather than amps and speakers. I’m personally not a big headphone guy. But there are some great headphones out there including the new Oppo headphones that I’ve been using lately. I can’t even tell you the model but they lent me a pair back in January and they’re unlikely to get them back. They are comfortable; the sound is extremely detailed and smooth…a perfect match for the high-resolution signal flow that I’ve described above. They haven’t finalized a price but I imagine they will come in below $2000…maybe well below.
That brings our total cost to around $5000 or less. Don’t spend your money on expensive interconnects and power cords…until after you’ve spent some time enjoying real HD-Audio files through this system. Heck if you’re on a very tight budget…wait on the Benchmark and simply use the Oppo’s headphone amp.
I recognize that there are other lines and manufacturers out there that make great equipment. But I can say that I’ve used the stuff mentioned above for many years and can honestly say I recommend it. And no, I am not paid by these companies to say nice things about them.