February 11, 2017 Budget Gear Event
By Larry Deniston, SFAS Director of Membership Support
The SFAS tried something new for our February 2017 event. We featured budget gear (under $1000) supplied by our members to find synergies and great sounding gear at a reasonable price. We requested that members offer up gear suggestions for the SFAS’ leadership team’s consideration and not surprisingly, we received more submissions than we could reasonably evaluate in an afternoon. We culled down the gear to three speakers, two amplifiers, three DACs and some different USB cords and interconnects. At the end of the afternoon we also tried a nice pair of DIY solid-state mono block amplifiers.
The event was held in the new section of Leslie’s audiophile garage and the set up was simple. We used an inexpensive power strip and cheap speaker stands with the equipment set up on a sideboard table. We listened to the first one-and-a-half to two minutes of three diverse songs (listed below) played through an Apple laptop computer.
As mentioned above we had more choices of equipment than we had time to audition and ended up deciding to focus on digital gear that is currently available in the consumer marketplace. SFAS may consider similar events in the future that would focus on budget analogue gear, vintage gear and more focused budget gear (large systems and small systems) pending membership interest.
Speakers: Totem Dreamcatchers ($700), ELAC Debut F6 ($760) and ELAC Unifi UB5 ($500)
Amplification: Parasound Zamp v.3 ($300), Emotiva A-100 integrated ($229), Gainclone DIY Mono blocks ($1000)
DACs: Parasound Zdac v.2 ($300), Micromega MyDAC ($400), Schiit Bifrost Multibit ($600).
Speaker cable: Blue Jean/Canare ($120)
USB: Budget (included with a printer), Cardas ($225)
Interconnects: Anticables Level 5.2 ($310), High Fidelity CT-1 Reveal ($699), Anticables Level 6.2 ($570).
The audition began by playing the three songs with the Parasound electronics and the Totem speakers; then we swapped out the speakers and listened to the same three songs again. We then put in the third pair of speakers and listened again. Next we replaced the Parasound amp with the Emotiva amp and listened to each of the three pairs of speakers again. Before moving to the DAC challenge, the group agreed that going forward we would use the Emotiva amp along with the floor-standing ELAC Debut F6 speakers for the remainder of the afternoon. We then tried the different DACs, USB cable and interconnects following the same process of listening to the three songs with each iteration (with the exception of the USB cable where we only listened to one song). The next swaps involved trying the High Fidelity interconnects and the more expensive version of the Anticables. The last swap was to replace the Emotiva amp with the Gainclone DIY amp which we listened to through the ELAC Debut F6 and the Totem speakers.
It was a busy afternoon of constant and sometimes intense listening. The attendees were asked to record their thoughts and impressions on sheets that were collected at the end of the event.
The speaker comparison had the least amount of consensus, which I guess is not too surprising as a speaker’s sound can be more of a personal preference (e.g., the amount of bass a speaker is able to produce can be a deal breaker for some and not for others) plus speakers are more sensitive to the room size and placement. Some felt that the Totems sounded best, while others preferred the ELACs. There were a number of interesting comments regarding the ELAC Unifi UB5s, some folks indicating that they felt that they were too bright while others felt that they were the best sounding speaker. This really demonstrates the importance of listening to the equipment, preferably in one’s own home and not relying entirely on reviews.
The group’s observations regarding the electronics was better aligned. There was general consensus preferring the Emotiva amp over the Parasound amp and preference for the Micromega DAC over the Parasound DAC and the Schiit DAC over the Micromega DAC.
People’s general impressions were not favorable when we swapped out the Anticables with the High Fidelity cables, but it should be noted that High Fidelity cables need a long playing time to sound their best and this event didn’t allow adequate time for the High Fidelity cables to sound their best. People did note that they appreciated the improved sonics from the higher end Anticables.
First, it must be said that there was not any combination of gear that didn’t actually sound good and that all the gear was a bargain for the sound quality. Plus the total cost of the system(s) may be calculated so people have an idea of what kind of budget they may need for an “entry level” system.
The Hi-Fi garage is a large space that challenged some of the smaller gear and did not necessarily provide a fair comparison between gear designed for smaller rooms and the larger or more powerful gear. I was very impressed by how engaged, thoughtful and discerning the participants were, providing excellent feedback and helping make this event work smoothly. Overall, the event was a success with members appreciating the opportunity to listen to so many different types of budget gear in a single venue in one afternoon.
“O Caminho” by Bebel Gilberto on the self-titled album: https://www.discogs.com/Bebel-Gilberto-Bebel-Gilberto/master/108425
“Hotel California” by the Eagles on Hell Freezes Over, : https://vimeo.com/152270117, https://www.discogs.com/Eagles-Hell-Freezes-Over/master/59534
“Requim in D minor”, by Mozart performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra:https://www.discogs.com/Wolfgang-Amadeus-Mozart-Scottish-Chamber-Orchestra-Susan-Gritton-Catherine-Wyn-Rogers-Timothy-Robins/release/6865012