AUDIO DEALER & CUSTOM OEM
I'm currently re-locating from Michigan to Boston, Massachusetts. Anything that I list on Audiogon or other websites will be my only activity for awhile until I get re-settled. However, I'm always happy to share my experience and suggestions with anyone building an above average audio system. Let me know if I can help in anyway.
An Ideal Way To
Create A Reference Quality Audio System
I’ve spent several decades building, selling, and recommending various audio system designs that I found to be way above average. I’ve explored low powered and high powered systems. Low efficiency and high efficiency speakers. Vinyl compared to digital. I am an audio OEM (original equipment manufacturer), consultant, and dealer for commercial products that I absolutely love. I am extremely selective about what I sell or recommend and work with only a few companies. Having access to anything I can get my hands on does not interest me. Rather, you will find that anything I recommend to be "way above average" and a unique positive value.
I’m currently working with only a few products that I personally use and believe in. I have no interest in selling everything “under the sun” just to make money and will not get involved in that "game". Rather, I work hard to make sure that my customers really benefit from the advice and highly focused products that I represent.
Richard Becker, Aum Acoustics
One of my best transactions ever. Richard provided helpful, responsive, and knowledgeable communication that helped me with my buying decision and also gave me some insight into potential future system choices. All the normal stuff such as packaging, shipping, and condition of the items purchased was excellent. Highly recommended.....thanks Richard for an outstanding transaction.
Mitch, Purchased Metrum Jade DAC
This has been one of the finest transactions it is possible to imagine (anywhere): honest, upfront, efficient, helpful, and generous with answers and advice beyond the call of duty. Indeed, the seller takes it as his vocation to offer fine components and help their being set up to derive utmost musical satisfaction. I cannot recommend him more. I bought DAC and made an (audio) friend.
SDube, Purchased Metrum Pavane DAC
I Know What Live Music Sounds Like!
I’ve spent a number of years as a professional jazz piano player. I know what music sounds like when it’s “up on stage” right behind my head and next to my left and right ears. I intimately know the visceral experience rendered by musicians and I try to re-create that experience with my own audio system approach. I know what various instruments sound like and I use this experience to evaluate any audio system that I listen to. My musical playing style is improvised similar to what you would hear from Keith Jarrett playing a concert grand piano solo.
I find myself going into a “trance” when I play like that and the music comes through me from somewhere other than my mind. I consider this a highly heart based and emotion ladened experience and I’m able to get in that unique position because of the many years I’ve spent perfecting my playing ability so it becomes automatic and I don’t need to think about it one bit. I can play in a totally dark room and my listening ability is extremely fine tuned. In fact, I'm "fussy as hell".
My Goal For Recorded Music Is Similar
I listen to the fine details in recorded music and expect to hear brushes on cymbals, the flesh on strings, the breath in a trumpet or flugelhorn, the huge volume and almost painful sound a saxophone player can render, vocals up close and “breathing” into a microphone, and numerous movements of the musicians and audience. When I don't easily hear these things, I get upset and go through tremendous efforts to get recorded music to sound closer to what it sounds like "live". It all counts in my opinion . . . but . . . at the same time, recorded music coming out of my audio system can’t be fatiguing or too bright and also must be 3 dimensional and real sounding. Trying to get recorded music to sound like this is a real challenge since when played through a really excellent audio system, it never can sound like real music – “live”. It can only come close and the key is for the listener to be captivated with an addictive sound quality that replaces the live performance.
Yes, It's Still Expensive
But Not Cost Prohibitive,
. . . If You Know What You're Doing
What I just described also needs to be affordable. A high quality audio playback system will easily cost between $5,000 to $25,000. It really doesn’t need to cost more than that and if it does, the system owner is probably more interested in listening to equipment rather than the actual music.
Coming up with the audio system I recommend today has been a really difficult challenge and one that I tried to solve for myself through buying, selling, and building my own equipment over several decades. What I found is that speakers between 90db to 95db efficient sound best particularly if the crossover network is simple and easy to drive. Lower power amps also sound best (i.e. 10w/ch to 50 w/ch) particularly when the circuit doesn’t need to be “challenged” to increase power beyond 50 watts. Single ended, class A, low powered amps are excellent but of course can’t easily drive many speakers. Choosing a speaker that you like becomes a serious endeavour and there aren't many amps that you can successfully pair well with the best sounding speakers.
You cannot exceed the limitations that each speaker design provides and instead, you must be happy with the good things that the chosen speakers can provide. This balancing act is a real challenge. Get it right and you'll be rewarded. Get it close but "no cigar" and you might end up one of those people that constantly buy and sell equipment not even realizing that something you already sold might be the best solution - for you. It happens all of the time and is more common than not!
The Volume Control "Brick Wall"
The volume control in your system is also a serious “brick wall” that prevents most of us from really enjoying the full quality of a recorded CD or record. There are a ton of observations and rules that I’ve gradually uncovered (common denominators in any system design) and my exploration, research, and development has been deep, extensive, and extremely expensive over the many years that I’ve been doing this. I truly am a musician looking for recorded music that can hold my attention and cause my emotions to soar. Anything that has listening fatigue (even to the slightest degree) does not interest me. Yes, I love detail but I don’t chase detail for it’s sake only. It must be presented in a full 3 dimensional format that is addictive and takes my brain out of the picture.
I've Owned Over 40 DACs
In The Last 3-5 Years
The most enjoyable DAC in that huge array (the best I've ever listened to) is the Metrum Pavane. I owned a level 1 Pavane shown in the photo at the top of this page and now am using a level 3 Pavane in my personal system with a USB/AES converter bringing the signal into the Pavane via an AES cable (not the USB cable).
To obtain superb sound quality, I pair my own LDR based custom volume control with my Metrum Pavane DAC going direct to my custom 6922 tube buffer and then to my First Watt SIT-3 power amplifier. I obtain a sound quality that is absolutely beautiful. This equipment combination provides the best sound quality I've heard for the least amount of money spent and is a reference grade audio system that is enjoyable for a very long time. With this system in place, there is no need to upgrade components or change anything. The quality of your audio will be amongst the best. Cost? Probably very low in comparison to what it competes with.
I've spent many months fine tuning the tube buffer that I build (high end tube amp replacement) and it eliminates the need for a 20k plus active preamplifier. I run the single 6922 family tube at 30V (YES! 30 volts instead of the typical 300 volts or higher used in traditional active preamps), use custom Vishay naked resistors, a pair of Belleson regulators, a pair of 2.0 uF V-Cap cuTF coupling capacitors, a cnc'd 1/8" thick aluminum custom chassis, gold plated printed circuit boards, a custom built medical grade toroidal transformer, plus other superb parts. This is not a commercial product (yet) but is the absolute best I can put together and the absolute best I've ever heard. I have spent over 9 months perfecting the sound quality of this buffer and a huge amount of money during the R&D process.
My Personal Approach
Is A Very Good One
What I’ve eventually learned is how to put an audio system together that is easy to listen to, addictive, 3 dimensional, absolutely real sounding, and incredibly beautiful. It's as close to listening to "live music" as I've ever heard using audio playback equipment. What I’ve tried to avoid is spending money on things that don’t provide an acoustic or a solid longevity benefit. However, to end up with this knowledge has cost me an utter fortune. Many of today’s high end components focus on spending HUGE amounts of money on the exotic design of the chassis that holds the circuits. That generates a tremendous unnecessary cost particularly with constant buying and selling of these expensive components. I can help you determine how to spend your money wisely and how to end up with the best sounding audio system within a reasonable budget limitation.
Many of the so called "high-end" audiophile components are getting ridiculously expensive and this is primarily due to a couple of major factors - the fancy cases that many consumers value and the retail markup due to the use of distributors and dealers. This distributor/dealer markup can make up to 75% of the retail price of your audio equipment and most consumers have no idea that they're paying for average parts cased in an unnecessary and expensive looking chassis. In addition there are also non-physical items that add to the markup cost of a component (without actual audio value) like name recognition, status, and perceived value.
Do it right and build your system appropriately . . . and be extremely careful. Circuit design is #1 and SIMPLICITY is a goal for all components in a system. Quality construction providing longevity counts but only after the other 2 goals are also included. There are a ton of items you need to have in place before you should spend more money on exotic chassis design or middle man markups no matter how good a component looks. What it sounds like is most important! Fortunately, really superb equipment can be well built and include high-quality parts, and when that's the case, you don’t need to worry about resale value down the road or suffer the huge expense of constant buying and selling without being satisfied. Spend your money wisely, obtain good professional honest help, and you’ll benefit long term.
Why I Only Listen To Digital
I’ve abandoned listening to vinyl because of the high level of physical effort required to play a record. It’s the most uncomfortable and difficult medium to listen to. Up and down and moving around doesn’t interest me plus I rarely like all of the tracks on both sides of a record. I’m lucky if I find more than one or two tracks of interest. Rather, I want to create my own play lists and focus on single tracks and set them up for the type of mood I want to be in. The only way to do that is to listen to digital recordings using a really high quality digital analog converter (DAC).
Also, the volume control solutions that I recommend (LDR based passive volume control or auto former or transformer based solutions) are typically single ended and use RCA jacks instead of XLR balanced connections. Because I prefer singled ended power amps, I’m not concerned about creating a balanced system. Balanced systems require twice as many internal components and as a result cost considerably more than equal quality singled ended systems. With reasonable cables lengths, there isn’t much of an advantage for balanced over single ended designs (except for some headphone designs that do sound better balanced). For me, RCA jacks and single ended simple designs rule. If you were in a recording studio, long cables would be used and hence the grounding that a balanced system can provide would become important. With home audio, however, it’s rarely needed.
Both Speakers & Headphones
I like listening to music through my speakers and my headphone use is fairly limited. My favorite headphones (and the ones I own) are the Sennheiser HD800S. I don't like headphones on my head and these are some of the most comfortable available. I use them when playing my piano keyboard controller into my iMac Pro computer with some of my favorite piano sampled software (Spectrasonics Keyscape or Bechstein Digital for example). I use a Sennheiser HDVA600 headphone amp and run them balanced out of my Metrum Pavane and then balanced into the HD800S headphones. My Pavane DAC allows for a single ended RCA connection for my speaker based system and a balanced XLR connection for my headphone amp. Both connections are live simultaneously and I only need to shut off the amp I'm not using (speaker or headphone). Make sure the DAC you choose does the same.
I'll probably replace the HDVA600 headphone amp that I'm currently using when I find one that has the superb sound quality of my speaker based system. For now, I'm considering between building my own Bottlehead Mainline headphone amp or the new Headamp GX-X mini headphone amp. Tubes versus solid state and I need some time to work with both to determine which is the better sounding headphone based system (for my recording use) that parallels my superb speaker based system. For now, the HDVA600 does an excellent job and I'm not really motivated to make this change right away.
My singled ended RCA outputs (from the Metrum DAC, my custom LDR volume control, and my custom tube buffer) power my First Watt SIT-3 and my balanced XLR outputs on my Pavane DAC power my headphone amp. The Pavane outputs both run simultaneously so it's really great to be able to use two amps at the same time. I turn off each amp I'm not using (First Watt or headphone amp) when using the other. If was to build a highly modified Bottlehead Mainline amp, I will need to install a 2nd pair of output RCA jacks in my LDR passive volume control and then that solution would work well. Time will tell which is the better option.
I'm not a Sennheiser dealer and I pay street price for those headphones and amp just like you do. That's how much I really like the HD800S headphones. Even though the HDVA600 isn't the ultimate headphone amp, it does sound really excellent when paired with the HD800 series headphones and when the headphones are run balanced. So if you are an HD800 or HD800S user, you definitely will like the HDVA600 amp but will have to purchase it used since it has now been discontinued by Sennheiser. Their current headphone amp/DAC combination unit doesn't have a great sounding internal DAC and I wouldn't recommend that solution.
Products I Sell & Recommend
I. METRUM NOS DAC
I've owned over 40+ DACs in the last 3-5 years. The Metrum Pavane DAC is my absolute #1 favorite of that entire bunch. It has the most analog sound quality of anything I've heard and has no listening fatigue. It is a joy to use. An alternative is the Metrum Adagio with built in voltage controlled volume control. However, this eliminates your ability to "tone down" the solid state portion of your audio system and it adds way too much gain so is not a good flexible solution in my opinion. Yes, it sounds good. No, it doesn't allow for heading toward a "live music" sound quality since it eliminates your ability to add a tube preamp or tube buffer in your audio chain.
Metrum's DACs are expensive and I'll be searching for either an even better alternative or maybe different but excellent sound quality at a lower price point when I get to Boston. More to follow later since I do have some plans that I'm considering.
- Metrum Acoustics Pavane Digital Analog Converter - best & highest quality - my absolute recommendation for now
II. PASS LABS & FIRST WATT POWER AMPLIFIERS
I own the First Watt SIT3 18w/ch Power Amp. It is the most amazing sounding power amp I've ever heard and is better (in my opinion) than my previous Linear Tube Audio Ultralinear 20w/ch amp that I just sold. However, gain is only around 11db and you really need a preamp (ideally with a tube stage and even more ideally, the triode tube buffer that I build) to add some gain. With my Aum Acoustics triode tube buffer connected in front of this power amp, sound quality is absolutely superb!
The exotic custom single triode tube buffer that I build is a superb combination with this power amp and actually, any Pass or First Watt power amp. My buffer adds about 6db of gain and I use my own custom LDR based volume control in front of the buffer. Pavane DAC (level 3) to Aum Acoustics LDR volume control to Aum Acoustics Triode Buffer to First Watt SIT3.
My speakers are 91db (one capacitor value, two inductors, no resistor) and a nice easy to drive 8 ohms (not dipping below 7 ohms). This buffer SIT3 combination is plenty loud for a small to medium room.
You have a larger room? Then I would recommend the First Watt F7 or Pass XA25 power amps.
If you spent several times the cost of these First Watt or Pass components, you probably wouldn't gain better sound quality and probably less. The only limitation is to make sure the power of these amps match your desired speakers.
III. MUSIC PLAYBACK SYSTEM
(I'm Not A Dealer For Audirvana or Isotope Ozone 8
But I Highly Recommend This Software Combination)
I've been around the block many times and have tried most supposed really superb music playback approaches. I've used the Sonore ultraRendu with Uptone Audio's Ultracap LPS-1.2 ultracapacitor power supply as well as other servers and music streamers including Metrum's Ambre. However, without a doubt, I I get better music sound quality using my Apple iMac computer and Audirvana music playback software combined with iZotope's Ozone 8 plugin. I'll explain more later since it will require a serious discussion and it is a really important one that we need to have.
This playback approach, the one I'm using, is the absolute best way to listen to your music using Audirvana and Izotope's Ozone 8 mastering plugin. Audirvana licenses iZotope's playback engine software so the Ozone 8 plugin fits perfectly and expands the usefulness of Audirvana way beyond it's single engine potential. Ozone 8 has many different playback engine's available and each has sonic differences that make various music presentations sound their best. The key is Ozone 8's new Master Assistant button that uses built in algorithms that are used to make a particular music track automatically sound way better than the original. You don't need to know what you're doing. Just click the Master Assistant button and your music track sounds a lot better.
- Audirvana Music Player Software + Izotope Ozone 8 Mastering Software Plugin - every audio recording has been mastered differently. This software plugin allows you to re-master your music collection to help remove the deficiencies. Roon and other music player approaches don't allow you to do this.
Play Music From Your Hard Drive
Stream Music From Qobuz
Sream Music From Tidal
Stream Music From High Res Audio
Use Plugins Such As iZotope Ozone 8 To Expand Capabilities
Use iOS or Android Devices For Remote Control
IV. USB CONVERSION & DC POWER
(more to follow later)
- Kecees Dual DC Power Supply (12V for LDR and 7V for Matrix converter) - I'll share more about my experience when using the UpTone Audio LPS1.2 ultra capacitor based power supply versus the Kecees when I get back to working on this website later this year. Yes, there is a difference. However, I have ended up choosing the Kecees over the LPS1.2 for powering my LDR volume control and will explain why later on.
- Matrix USB Converter - It would be difficult to find another converter in this price range that would be better than the Matrix unit. I'll share more about it later on.
- DC Power Cables (for Kece and Matrix) - More about these later on.
V. AC POWER CABLES
(more to follow later)
- Aum Acoustics DIY Furutech AC Power Cables - I have built my own Furutech power cables for a number of years and find them some of the best available at the lowest possible price point. Cables have a huge markup and this is where you can waste a huge amount of money! For power cables, make sure all of yours are the same. I'll be creating a DIY cable solution later on and will share it when it's ready.
- 3rd Party Recommended AC Power Cables - Purchase the lower cost power cables I'll provide first then put your money into your speaker cables and interconnects next. Once you do this, you probably won't end up upgrading your power cables.
- Power Conditioner - I like Furutech power strips that don't "condition" power but rather carefully perfect it through the best outlets and outlet box. Again, more about this later.
VI. 3RD PARTY INTERCONNECTS
(more to follow later)
VII. 3RD PARTY SPEAKER CABLES
(more to follow later)
VIII. YOUR PREFERENCE FOR SPEAKERS & POWER AMPS
MY PERSONAL PREFERENCE & HIGH-END SOUND QUALITY RECOMMENDATION?
I've built my own modified Tony Gee designed Plutone speakers using one of the best sounding capacitors I've ever owned, the Dueland Cast PIO hybrid copper/silver capacitor. I've modified these speakers so they really "sing" (bottom ported sitting on IsoAcoustic Gaia footers on a 1 1/2” granite slab). If you're interested, I would be glad to share my build files with you. I cannot find a better sounding speaker anywhere near the raw cost of the parts in this speaker build.
My parts cost is over $5,000 and I use 1" thick Baltic Birch cnc'd plywood for the modified Plutone construction. I've added damping sheet material to the interior panels and glued the sheets with proper adhesive (not stick on) so the 1" panels now probably act more like 1 1/4" walls. Prior to this build, I built 1/2" resonant cabinets using Troels Gravesen's corner speaker design (same 8" driver). However, I didn’t like Troels crossover design plus the inert heavy birch plywood in the modified Plutone build sounds substantially better than the 1/2" resonant baltic birch cabinets I used for the Gravesen corner speakers. In both cases, I found that the 8" Troels designed (built by SEAS) paper driver is the key to making this speaker truly reference quality. It now is my favorite driver in any speaker I've heard, used, or built.
I changed Tony's design (to improve sound quality) while keeping the same interior volume. My speakers are bottom ported (not rear ported as in Tony's design) and sit on Isoacoustic Gaia footers. The footers then rest on a 1 1/2" slab of granite that is on the top of a stand with Herbie's footers on the bottom. I kept the birch ply Plutone speakers natural finished (using oil based wipe on poly) and dyed the wood bases transparent black with some wood grain showing through.
The combination is beautiful and much like a custom spruce top dark finished sides and back acoustic guitar. The rear panels are removable (to allow easy tuning and access to interior parts), have WBT binding posts installed, and I've spent several months fine tuning the internal speaker wire through careful listening. I've never heard better sounding speakers at any cost and of course, selecting the right gauge, type, and best sounding wire also contributes.
Part of the success of this speaker system is the pair of 8" Troels Gravesen designed SEAS built JA-8008 HMQ drivers and the uber expensive Dueland Cast PIO hybrid capacitors. Troels has found that 8" speakers sound the best with 80% of our music and particularly with vocals and primary instruments and I now agree. This is the 3rd pair of speakers I've built using that 8" speaker. Paired with the top of the line Scanspeak D2908/7140 Beryllium dome tweeters and Tony Gee's Dueland Cast PIO based crossovers, these Plutones provide one of the best sound qualities available anywhere. They play well into the 40hZ area and hence there is no need to add a subwoofer to get them to sound like "live" music.
These are my "desert island" "keeper" speakers. They have a 91db sensitivity with an easy crossover load (8ohms). Only one cap value, two inductors and no resistor. Couldn't be better! If you're interested, I would be glad to share my design files that you can use to have your own birch ply panels cut by a cnc company. However, most people want to purchase something ready made. If you could purchase these Plutones ready made (using my modified plans for the build of this Plutone variant), they'd easily retail for $10-20k and are well worth that price. Build these yourself and end up with something remarkable and a delight to own! My parts cost is around $5k for this speaker system built properly. Combined with the equipment suggestions I've included above, you will not be able to improve your sound quality without spending a huge amount of additional money.
Only when you have the best possible chain between your source (computer or server os some kind) and speakers will changing your speakers make a worthwhile difference. Put your money into a DAC like the Metrum Pavane and use a pair of lower cost speakers if you don't have a lot of money to begin with.
I'll be providing a "commercial" speaker solution once I get to Boston. However, if you're interested in getting a pair of Plutone speakers built, I can help you with how to go about finding a good CNC company and putting together this speaker so it sounds its absolute best. Purchase the driver/crossover kit from Tony at Humble Home HiFi and do the speaker construction here.
I can assure you that by using the Metrum Pavane level 3 DAC and a lower cost pair of speakers to get started (if you can't or won't spend the money on the Plutone build), you'll have a winning approach and will benefit substantially if you take my advice. With these items in place you can then focus on acquiring everything else you need.
Purchasing my custom tube buffer that I'm using would be the "icing on the cake" and the addition of this amazing sound quality would benefit you most. Time will tell if I make this buffer available commercially. However, I definitely would consider building one for a highly motivated audiophile that follows my suggestions.