Downsize Your Audio System to Upgrade Your Music

Old School Photography

Digital technology is pervasive.  It touches and transforms every part of modern life, and hi-fi audio is no exception.  Therein lies the following tale.

Not long ago, digital tech rapidly transformed the world of photography.  At first, digital photos were too grainy to replace conventional chemical-based, film-and paper-process photos.  But as time passed, digital photography improved steadily and continued to replace chemical photography bit by bit until the transformation was eventually total.  Serious photographers everywhere are using digital cameras now.  

These days, high definition photo files rule because they surpass old style chemical photography in every possible way.  Kodak, Inc., the icon of the old photography market, has disappeared from the scene and chemical-based photography is remembered as a quaint historical phase.

Hi-Fi Audio is also experiencing the same kind of transformation.  It should not be long before it becomes complete.  The audio market is different from what happened in photography but the transformation is inevitable and already far along in progress.  The audio industry is in chaos as some nimble companies make the jump and others who can’t think differently cling to making what’s obsolete continue to work at all costs – like Kodak did.  And it costs them everything.

Today's Digital 35mm Camera

In mid-2012, I became interested in relocating myself into an expatriate lifestyle.  It was quite a project to figure all the angles but I found the paradise I sought.  I gained in many respects and in some others I suffered losses.  It was totally impractical to consider moving all my furnishings, my car, and my beloved tube audio system.  Between shipping and customs costs, I would have wound up paying for everything all over again.  So I ditched it all and moved like an immigrant to my new home.  I gave away most of my possessions (including 500 CDs) and sold my car, and alas, my stereo.  That final item is the real focus of this post.

In the audio system sale I realized over $5300 for the whole shebang on Audiogon.  After considerable research, I decided to downsize to something less costly and less grandiose than a full scale tube audio rig with a dedicated Transporter digital server and 2 CD Players.

Remember Old School Stereo Gear?

I picked up a Dragonfly DAC so I could listen to my laptop with my Sennheiser HD 600 cans.  Next I decided to try Audioengine’s A5+ speakers on audition because people love them and I could fit them into a suitcase and still expect some decent performance.  Of course, when I fed digital music from my MacBook Pro through the Dragonfly to the A5+ speakers I was totally wowed.  In fact you could call it shock and awe.  No way were the speakers going back.

My first experience with Computer Audio sounded better than the previous rig despite the very high performance components it included.  I was into the new gear for about $729.  After relocating, I added more gear to improve the new system.  I gave my iPad 3 point position as server, replacing the $2000 Transporter without losing any significant functionality.  The iPad got a TEAC DS-H01 Dock with a DAC inside to talk to (for $149 on sale.)

Being a tube nut, I tried adding a tube headphone amp as a tube buffer (Bravo Audio Ocean for $129) and it paid off in spades, delivering the warmth, sweetness, and smoothness I had come to love in tube amplification.  Then I splurged and added the Audioengine S8 Powered Subwoofer for $349.  Good move -- it filled in the deep bass wonderfully.  Now the total cost was up to $1356.  I had all the same functionality I had in the old system for under $1500.  The new system cost was only about 25% of the amount I recouped by selling the old gear.  I had paid well over $10,000 for it all new.  Even if I include the cost of my laptop and iPad, the total is way less than the used system brought when sold.

Plug a Little DAC Into a USB Port and -- Music.

The paradoxical lessons in this experience can be summed up in several insights –

1.    It’s really easy to spend more than you have to when your goal is great sound.
2.    Old school gear does not deliver solid value in price/performance like newer digital gear does.
3.    Amplified speakers that are well designed can not be beaten for value and performance.
4.    Tube audio does not have to be totally abandoned since it only takes 1 tube to get what you want.
5.    The iPad 3 does it all as a music server, especially if you have a network drive and another computer to tap.
6.    Generally, great sounding audio is getting a lot less spendy as digital takes over.
7.    “High end” audio sound is far more democratic now and becoming ever more so. 

And last but not least, many of my friends out there in audio land could actually sell their present systems, buy down to higher performing digital gear, have better music and a more compact system that sucks much less power and still realize a profit of 300% or more in the bargain.

I think we’re near a tipping point though.  This window of opportunity won’t be open for long because obsolete audio gear rapidly loses value as time passes and as digital tech gains prominence. Digital sources will totally dominate soon.  So if you’re considering a radical move, don’t sit on your hands.  If you get in touch I’ll help you figure out how to pull it off.