What component is most frequently upgraded when music lovers seek more enjoyable music listening? If you guess "speakers," I agree.
High performance speakers are being developed continually. Recent advancements have brought new and exciting possibilities with lower price points, smaller sizes, better industrial designs and also audibly stellar performance. Depending on what's in your present system, you might even be able to sell what you want to replace, upgrade to new gear with a better sound, and come out ahead.
In a previous post with a title similar to this one, I covered upgrading an older all-analog stereo by adding a digital front end that connects at the preamp inputs. What if you now listen to an oldie-but-goodie all-analog stereo, or a system that includes some digital sources, but you’re unsatisfied with your speakers, or with both your amplifier and speakers?
Let’s look at upgrading the final two stages of your audio system (amp and speakers) to achieve or improve HD quality sound on a budget between about $250 and $525. Yes, that’s truly enough coin to make serious improvement but not so high it can’t be possible at some time for many listeners. You may be able to achieve a sound that most music lovers would consider audiophile quality, on this small budget.
Let’s leave your preamp and all your players and sources in the front end of your system unchanged. Let’s also assume the gear now driving your speakers matches the quality level of the upgrade being considered. If not, you might go to the other article mentioned above to see how to get there with digital sources and then return to this post. Installing digital sources gives you instant access to millions of great recordings. Then you just need your whole audio system to deliver the goods, speakers and all.
Let’s also stipulate this is a living room audio system and not just computer speakers or a desktop or personal stereo. You have options -- the powered speaker choices below connect to any sources, including DACs (digital to analog converters.) These new speakers may sit beside your computer monitor or across the room and drive the whole space with great sounding music.
Path One -- Keeping Your Amp
You can simply upgrade to better speakers. Just connect the speaker binding posts to your amp outputs and go. Your old speakers can sell on Audiogon.com to recover some of the cost. Consider the Audioengine P4 Passive Bookshelf Speakers (at $249.)
Path Two -- Upgrading Your Power Amp
You could get new passive studio monitors and a new amp to drive them. You would be hard pressed, however, to find speakers and a separate amp that will meet the sound quality and also budget we’re discussing, even if you buy excellent used gear. The Audioengine P4 Speakers and N22 Amp were engineered together to match each other and so achieve great sound output from a modest power draw. At $448 for a completely new analog section, some readers will find this an attractive option.
But read on for another suggestion on how to do this. Again, you can sell both your old speakers and amp on Audiogon.com, the leading online marketplace for used audio gear.
Path three -- Upgrading to Powered Speakers
You can lose the tired old amp and replace it with powered studio monitor speakers. Powered speakers have gained status in the past few years. Not long ago, any speakers with built in amps were crappy little plastic computer speakers but not so any more. Some very respectable hi-fi quality powered speakers are now being produced. If you can wrap your head around seeing the amplifier “disappear” from your system and work with speakers that connect directly to sources, certain powered studio monitors easily achieve the sound quality you want. Remember, there’s a market for your old amp on Audiogon.com. I’ve sold thousands of dollars worth of gear there over the years.
Two main choices in bookshelf size powered monitors spring to mind because I’ve seen glowing reviews for both lately. I have extensive positive experience with one of the brands. They blend right into a system that has your existing preamp and your old turntable and/or CD player and make powerful, beautiful music from all the sources.
The first is Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers (starting at $399 a pair.) This sensational product has earned huge amounts of industry-wide praise for performance and value. It’s hard to believe you can buy a pair of speakers that deliver sound like these do for so little. They include a custom-matched two-channel monolithic solid-state amplifier in the left speaker, which drives both stereo channels.
Another option is Adam Audio’s A3X (about $659 a pair) which review at least as well and include some exotic ($$) tweeter technology. Except they break the budget we set so they don’t compete equally on price. This is partly because each speaker carries its own amp. Another inequality is the main driver technology – it’s a half-inch smaller and not made of woven Kevlar like the Audioengine A5+. The top model solid Bamboo A5+ pair (currently $469) has a slight performance edge due to stiffer solid bamboo cabinet and it looks wonderful with any décor. Which look does your spouse or partner like best?
This A+N is the best quality speaker upgrade currently available from iHi-Fi.com. It would put you in front of my own personal choice. I greatly prefer listening to these more than my previous passive speakers (Joseph Audio RM7si Signature studio monitors) with separate amplification (Prima Luna tube preamp and amplifier), which all together cost seven times more the A5+. The A5+'s matched speaker-to-amp design, and 50W RMS per channel, is better in many ways. When I sold the old gear I got the new audio system for part of that cash and the rest was profit. Crazy good upgrade.
If you’re keeping your amp, iHi-Fi offers the P4 Passive Speakers from Audioengine (see the top photo above) which handle 10 to 125 watts per channel. These have the same voice as the A5+ and they also come in a Bamboo cabinet option (at $325) but they are smaller with a 4-inch main driver. If you want an amp upgrade for these, iHi-Fi offers the Audioengine N22 Amplifier (at $199) to drive them. It includes a separate high-quality Burr-Brown headphone amp.
This analysis makes clear why the Audioengine A5+ is the value king of the current market in authentic hi-fi, powered, studio monitor speakers. Please see iHi-Fi’s Audioengine Catalog for full features, specs, reviews, and FAQ’s on the P4 Passive Speakers, N22 Amplifier, and A5+ Powered Speakers. All these items sport copious glowing reviews.
Who's the Audioengine Authorized Dealer that offers free shipping, a 30-day audition with money-back satisfaction guarantee, and no sales tax? iHi-Fi does. So if you decide to try the P4 Speakers, with or without the N22 Amplifier, and you end up wanting to switch to the A5+, you can exchange them on a whim. Just return all items shipped in like-new condition and iHi-Fi refunds your card or issues credit for your exchange.
What happens to the preamp that was feeding your amplifier? Consider keeping it. You need it to switch between the different music sources you have connected to your system without re-plugging wires. It will work with either of the Audioengine speaker choices offered above which come with both standard RCA and 3.5 mm mini-jack connections.
Remember, at iHi-Fi you also always get the factory Audioengine warranty on parts and labor. We’d love to be your supplier for this upgrade or anything else we carry.