A Journalist's Choice
The systems included: Aurelia & Elac, Naim & Q Acoustics, Creek & Totem, Rega & Audio Note, Rega & Dali, Exposure & Aurelia, Goldenote & Penaudio, Cambridge Audio & KEF. Apart from KEF R500, all speakers were 2-way standmount models (including Totem Arro), their fs around 60-70Hz.
All decently sounding systems but the real point behind them was the intention. The systems were composed of components that clearly carried a Hi-Fi status, mind, and are generally conceived as being something else than typical mass market components.
The way in which suppliers allocated money varied quite a bit from a system to another. In three of the systems the front end took 70% of the total, while in one system electronics covered 30% and the speaker the rest. Five systems saw the situation fifty fifty. On average, the share of the cables out of the total was 10-15%.
Having gone through all the eight systems, 2-3 weeks for each, I begun to think what would I, as Hi-Fi journalist, recommend for somebody who's got extra 3-3,5 grands for his first Hi-Fi system.
Of course, if allowed, I'd have an enormous temptation to recommend a DIY-inspired system. For example, a pair of PHY 8-incher HP21 (795e/pc) or the cheapest Voxativs (about 1000e/pc) widebandwidth drives together with, say, Almarro's least expensive EL84 single-ended amp, or similar, if that turned out to be too expensive (the A205A used to cost about 1,500 euros).
The units would need a baffle or a cabinet, but such could be quite effortlessly and with little money built out of spruce plywood, for instance. Add to that an old Technics etc. CD/DVD player as the source, and the sound would be of fairly high quality by all measures; I'd say higher than what would be available for similar money on the market.
Another idea would be to look for certain vintage hardware. 3500 euros should be enough for vintage Tannoyn monitors and for them a Dynakit, Fischer etc. tube amp. If a transistor amp were preferred, Musical Fidelity A2 or a Meridian 500 Series Integrated would do the job nicely. As for the CD player I'd choose one by Marantz, Revox or Micro Mega from the 1990s.
Naturally, recommending a DIY or vintage system would not be fair to dealers/importers. In addition, putting together such a system requires not only luck, but also experience. It is better for a novice audiophile to start from another direction.
There is the possibility to consider a suitably priced commercial speaker, not vintage in itself, but kind of vintage heir (BBC monitor) such as a little Spendor or Harbeth or Rogers. Or the excellent Audio Space clone, if that's still available.
Of the speakers suggested by the retailers, the speaker that came closest to such a vintage spirit both in appearance and soundwise was Audio Note AX-Two. It is not an "easy" speaker in any ways, and not everybody likes its dark-speaking presentation. On the other hand, it is a sort of "connoisseur" speaker that in the hands of a skilled enthusiast, is capable of creating a tense emotional bondage with music. Let my recommendation then be as the speaker Audio Note AX-Two (and hats off to Snell).
If the target person were an advanced amateur I'd recommend that he would spend most of the remaining money (c. 1500e) to finding a first-class preamplifier, and only after that consider the rest, the power amp and the source. But I admit it would be more practical to find an appropriate integrated amp.
In an ideal world, I'd go for ot VTL's fantastic IT-85 integrated. It'd got enough tube power to drive the Audio Notes with ease. It's price is too salty for the purpose, however (let's hope VTL would begin again to produce a 30 watter for less money).
If a tube amp, it would preferably be a PP pentode (EL34/KT88) amp with plus 30W power. Not simple to find for the money left. Less expensive PP EL84 amps such Master Sound fine Piccolo would typically be underpowered. There are certain reasonably priced tube amp kits available (Pännäri Revenge series, Uraltone, to mention two from Finland) but who would assemble them?
It is clear that the solid state amps recommended by the retailers (Exposure, Creek, Rega etc.) would not in general terms face problems in driving the Audio Notes. But where to find the kind of transistor amps, which would combine Lavardin's sonic transparency, Primare's power and dynamics, Euphya's musicality and so on? Again, not readily available at this price point.
One attractive idea, and let that be my suggestion too, would be to acquire an affordable Class AB solid state power amp (or an integrated with a pre-out), and mate it with Ifi Audio's iTube (309e) buffer/preamp. iTube is a great little piece of audio in many respects: it allows the beginner to experiment between various options, and thanks to its GE NOS 5670 it might be able to give the sound of a transistor amp a pleasurable overtone.
A candidate for the power amplifier could be 35W NAD C 245BEE (699e) or Rotel RB 1582Mk2 (900E).
Personally, I would not care too much, which CD player would be connected to iTube's line input (iTube sports adjustments). Perhaps the money would be better spend if it went to a separate DAC, then used eg. with an existing DVD player.
There are so many fitting DACs to choose from that I'd mention only three: HRT, M2TECH and Cambridge Audio (DacMagic XS cost 149 euros).
No money left for Crystal Cables or Acrolinks, I would take the good old Kimber 4TC (350e per 2.4m pair). This 20-year-old basic wire is able to rock with many kinds of electronics and looks like a genuine hi-fi cable.
Interconnects? Air insulated RG-59, terminated with Switchcrafts.
The speaker stands? Wall ingots/bricks from a nearby construction store.
All that in less than 3500 euro!