Mark’s Audiophile Journey

I am not a sound engineer or music producer. I do consider myself am an audiophile because I really care about the sound qualty of the music I listen to, but unlike some audiophiles, the audio equipment is only a means to an end and not part of my audio hobby. As a result, I tend to hunt for audio equipped that delivers the sound quality I desire, and then don’t think about audio equipment for years. Eventually an external event triggers a re-evaluation my equipment such as a move into a new space, a fundamental shift in technology, or equipment dying. For me this means I spent time evalulating equipent in 1978, 1993 (move, CD only), 2006 (computer audio and kids), 2012 (life changes), 2017 (move and life changes). I am willing to spend hours evaluating equipment blind A-B testing, etc to find equipment which made a significant improvement in sound at what I considered a reasonable price.

Reasonable Investment?

In this age of lossy streaming audio, earbuds and bluetooth speakers spending thousands of dollars on audio equipment would not be considered a “reasonable price” by many. On the other hand, I invested around $6000 in an audio system I used for 19 years which gave me significant joy. That works out to around $0.86 / day, and less than $0.20 / hour. That is less than many people spend each day on coffee. I think it’s been a good investment.

I often tell people that they should only spend money if they hear a difference. I am sure there are experts who can tell the difference between excellent speakers which cost $10K and the ultra high-end $100K speakers, but if you don’t heard a significant different compared to a $300 speaker, there is no reason to spend the extra money.

Audio products suffer from diminishing returns, improving sound quality of higher end products requires significantly more money. For me, “reasonable” has been components which I though delivered an excellent return on investment (e.g. before the quality to price graph is growing exponential). Generally I have tried to find products that would be classified by Stereophile as class B (or restricted class A) which were at the lower end of products that were classified class-C.

Current System

My media is mostly CD ripped into Apple Loseless, or loseless streams via TIDAL because I can hear the difference between good quality lossy (AAC 320kbps, VBR LAME) and CD quality lossless. I have not been able to hear a difference between 44/16 encoding and SACD, 96/24, Pogo, and other high resolution encodings, nor classic analog. I use Roon software as a way to control whole house music.  Music is played through:

  • KEF LS50 wireless speakers connected to a Bluesound Node via an optical TOSlink cable. Typical driven via Roon, but sometimes the Node is driven via our TV when watching movies, streaming over Airplay, or as a Spotify Connect device.
  • Apple AirPods Pros driven by an iPhone for around town when convenience trumps sound quality
  • Westone ES5 typically driven using EarStudio ES100 when I want good quality audio away from home.

History

Starting Out (1978)

I started on my audiophile journey in the late 1970s. I wanted a good sounding stereo but I didn’t have a lot of money. There was no way I could afford a system like my dad’s: Thorens turntable with a Dynavector Rudy cartridge, a Apt Holman preamp, driving a Mcintosh amplifier into Dahlquist DQ10 speakers which later got upgraded to Conrad-Johnson preamp&amp driving Sonus Faber speakers.

I realized that a using headphones rather than speakers would be significantly less expensive. A friend’s Advent receiver driving Stax earspeakers seems equal in sound quality to my dad’s system at a much lower price point. Alas, this was still too expensive.

My starting system was Technics turntable, Orofon cartidge, NAD 3020 integrated amplifier driving a first generation AKG 240 headphone. Later I added a pair of Boston Acoustic speakers, a Marantz PMD 221 portable cassette deck and a portable CD player and finally got a pair of Stax.

Upgrade After Move (1993)

In 1992 I moved to the San Francisco bay area. I had a bit more money, and the cones on the BA speakers needed to be replaced. After much consideration I settled on a pair of Martin-Logan Aeius hybrid electro-static speakers which lead to a Classe 70 power amplifiers paired with a Classe 4 pre-amp. During the move I decided to switch exclusively to using CDs. My cassette deck and turntable were dropped and my CD player was upgraded to a Marantz 67SE CD player. 

Computer Audio & Kid (2006)

I purchased an iPod to replace my portable CD player. I used a pair of Etymotic EP4 on the train, and a Stax SR-001 in the office. I was enjoying play lists and not having to swap CDs. I decided it was time to fully embrace computer based audio. I picked up a Squeezebox and starting RIPPING my CDs to FLAC which I later converted to Apple Lossless.

At the same time I built a second audio systems so when the kids were listening to music in the family room, the adults could enjoy our music in the living room, The family room system was also integrated with a TV and a Mac Mini.  During this time I tried a wide variety of component including some DIY designs. I was pretty active on gear trader, managed to borrow some friends gear to try.  Eventually we settled on a Bryston integrated amplifier with NHT speakers, and a DVD/CD player.

Death and Solitude (2011)

In 2011 my wife died, and the same day my Classe 70 started to malfunction. In a time of sorrow, music was critical to me. In the past I had liked Chord’s power amplifier. I stumbled on a good deal, so I replaced the failing Classe without a lot of testing.

Over the following months I found that I was listening to music late at night. I didn’t want to bother the kid so I was using headphones. Alas, I had sold my Stax years earlier and I didn’t like using my in-the-ear monitoring for extended periods of time. I stopped by an audio store planning to purchase a pair of Stax, only to walk out with a pair of Sennheiser HD800 which sounded better to my ears than the mid-range Stax.

Over the next couple of years I tried a variety of headphone, headphone amplifiers, and DACs which I was able to borrow from friends, purchase, or trade. Most of the equipment I had for more than a couple of months is listed on my head-fi profile.

Ultimately I found three headphone I wanted to keep. I couldn’t justify the cost of the Stax SR-009 + BH amplifier. I found that while different, I liked  the Stax SR-007mk1 driven by a KGSSHV amplifier and a Sennheiser HD800 driven by a Headamp GS-X mk2 equality. I decided to keep the Sennheiser HD800 system and sold the Stax for two reasons. First, I could get more money for the Stax. Second, I could drive the Sennheiser HD800 using portable electronic while the Stax required me to be tethered to a wall outlet and large amplifier (e.g. more versatile).

Marriage and Simplicity (2017)

In 2015 I got married and started using speakers for most of my listening so my wife and I could share the listening experience. I wasn’t using my headphones that much. I decided that sound quality from the Chord Mojo feeding the HD800 was sufficiently good on the rare occasions I used headphones, so I sold the rest of my headphone gear, a head-fi heresy no doubt. Later I sold the Mojo and HD800 because they weren’t getting used.

We then moved the Aerius no longer really fit in our living room. After a fair bit of soul searching I decided that I was willing to compromise a bit of sound quality for marriage harmony. I also was actively looking to simplify life.

The KEF LS50 wireless was exactly what I was looking for. The size and look appealed to my wife. The sound quality for general use was good, and excellent if I used them in a near field configuration. Since the speakers had a built in amplifier and DAC which was designed to pair with the speakers we didn’t need a lot of equipment in the living room, just a device to stream lossless audio (originally directly connected via USB to a Macintosh, later connected to a Bluesound Node). My trusty Aerius and assorted other gear was sold to a co-worker who appreciated it’s sound quality.

Hall of Fame

The following are products which I thought delivered particularly good performance given their cost at the time the product was released (great ROI)

  • Magnepan (pretty much any model) Speakers
  • Quad ESL-57 Electrostatic Loudspeaker
  • Etymotic ER-4 In the Ear Monitors
  • Martin Logan Aerius
  • KEF LS50wireless Speakers
  • NAD 3020 Integrated Amplifier
  • Advent 300 Receiver
  • GAS Ampzilla II
  • Dynaco ST-70 Amplifier
  • Headphone amplifiers designed by Ken Gilmore
  • Audioquest Dragonfly DAC
  • Chord Mojo DAC
  • Lavry DA-10 DAC
  • Marantz CD63 Mk II CD Player
  • Rega Planar 3 Turntable

Products which I found class leading (though they weren’t cheap)

  • Amplifiers designed by Nelson Pass
  • Apogee Stage Speakers
  • Aerial 10T Speakers
  • Stax SR-9 Ear speakers

Classics We All Wanted

  • KLH Model Eight FM table radio
  • Thorens TD-124 Turntable

Other Peoples Lists

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