The Sound Apprentice Goes Hi-Fi (Finally)September 24, 2013
After narrowing my speaker choices down to the Axiom Audio M3v3, Hsu Research HB-1 MK2 and the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1—and spending countless hours over saturating my brain with ohms and sensitivities, charts of frequency responses and hundreds of reviews—I had to bring my speaker hunt to a close.
Weeks had passed since The Spirited Uncle M offered to assemble a 2-channel hi-fi system for my own listening room, and it was beyond time for me to choose the beginner audiophile speakers that were going to get me started on the path towards Audio Nirvana.
And now, the moment you've all been waiting for! Drum roll please....
Axiom Audio M3v3 it is then. With its 6.5” aluminum-cone woofer and 1” titanium dome tweeter, the M3v3s are highly-reviewed and boast an 8-ohm impedance and sensitivity of 92db, 5-way gold-plated binding posts, ported anti-standing wave cabinets, and frequency response down to 50hz.
Did I choose the best speaker out of the original list of nearly a dozen (see last post)? I don’t know; the below-$400 market is saturated with options. Am I happy with my purchase? Yes; and for now, as my first set of hi-fi speakers, that’s what matters most.
I ultimately chose the M3v3s because I simply got overwhelmed trying to make odds out of all of the reviews I had read. Since everyone’s ears are different, everyone has different opinions. Over all, these had more positive reviews than not, and because Axiom Audio focuses on audiophile-quality components for music and movie lovers alike, I felt they were the ideal brand for me. And since I intend to move these into a pure home theater setup when my living arrangements change, the M3v3s are easy to expand into a 5.1 or 7.1 surround setup (don’t worry, I have plans for a separate dedicated listening room and a family/home theater room). What’s more, The Spirited Uncle M approved; he had previously auditioned them and said they were an excellent choice for the beginner audiophile on a budget.
Speaking of that blasphemous word, to save a few extra bucks I went with Axiom’s “B-stock” offering. Since Axiom is a Canadian company that sells direct to its customers, the prices are already good, but the Factory Outlet (slightly blemished cabinet finishes, but mechanically/sonically perfect) prices are even better—10% less, plus free shipping and their full 5-year warranty. In the case of the M3v3 bookshelf speaker, this came to a delivered cost of $340 vs. $378 full retail. I went with the black oak cabinet, and honestly, I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference between a B-stock or not; it looks perfectly fine to me, and that extra money can go towards music, cables, or any other tools of the trade I’ll inevitably pine after as a beginner audiophile.
The Proby Gets a NAD
With speakers finally chosen and delivered, my probationary period was nearing an end (see “Appointed to Apprentice: The Speaker Hunt Begins” if you don't know what this is about), and it was time to finally start setting up my first hi-fi system. Because of space constraints (my listening room is roughly 10’ x 12’), The Audiophile recommended starting out with an integrated amplifier to run my SAT box, HDTV, and PS3 into. Thanks to The Spirited Uncle M’s uncanny resourcefulness when it comes to acquiring audiophile accessories, I was presented with a used, yet nearly pristine, NAD C 326BEE Stereo Integrated Amplifier.
Deemed by NAD as their “performance vs. value champ,” the C 326BEE draws on features directly from its leading Masters Series M3 amplifier, including innovations from the acclaimed Bjørn Erik Edvardsen: Distortion Canceling Circuit, BEE Clamp in the power supply, an improved tone control circuit and revised PCB layout that all work together to reduce distortion and noise.
Considering this amp was awarded a 5-star ranking by What HiFi? at its debut, and won The Absolute Sound’s Editors Choice and Product of the Year awards, this was an exciting entry point for me.
The NAD’s two channels of continuous 50W of power easily get the M3v3s rockin’ my little listening room. It also features a headphone socket for when I get into the realm of head-fi, a tone control defeat switch (which I leave on), dedicated subwoofer outputs, main-amp input & pre-amp outputs and 7 line inputs (all gold plated) for expandability, and a detachable IEC power cable (so I can eventually start experimenting with the wide world of power cables).
All-in-all, it’s an excellent first amp to start with. Now you’re probably wondering about a CD player (apologies to all of you vinyl lovers, but I won’t be going down that path).
PS3: A Good Transport?
Before bringing over one of the dozen or so CD players in The Sound Lab’s collection, we agreed to try my Playstation 3 (PS3) as a main CD player despite The Spirited Uncle M's reservations. As I previously mentioned, my PS3 unit is the original “fat” model that is not only an excellent Blu-ray player, it’s also a SACD player. When Sony makes game consoles, they generally use high-quality lasers and DACs. Some of you may know this because the original Playstation (with certain serial numbers) is popular among the class of audiophiles who modify them to include analog (RCA) outputs and different remote controls because they claim the laser and sound quality is really that good.
Anyway, with the PS3 having an excellent laser and support for BD, DVD, CD, SACD, streaming capabilities, and a variety of firmware upgrades geared towards making its DACs more “musical,” we figured why not give it a shot.
I have the PS3 hooked up to my Sony HDTV via a phenomenal DH Labs Silver Sonic 1.4 high-speed HDMI cable. For those who don’t believe HDMI cables can make a difference in sound/video quality, I will tell you now that you are indeed mistaken, but I will save that discussion for another post. From there, audio is sent into the amp via a high-quality IXOS 3.5mm mini plug to RCA cable.
Overall, the sound is good, albeit “bright.” The PS3 definitely has great clarity for movies and gaming, but as a music CD player, I didn’t find it to be especially “musical.” It definitely has that digital/processed sizzle to it, while the lower mid-range and bass feels especially recessed. Despite trying the various sampling rates available—48 kHz or 44.1/88.2/176.4 kHz—I just couldn’t get a warm, full-bodied sound out of it for music playback, even when using the multi-port output and Sony's oxygen-free copper component AV cable with gold-plated connectors running directly into the NAD. What’s more, after extended play the internal fan kicks into high-speed, introducing a fair amount of noise into the system. While I love the PS3 as a Blu-ray player and gaming system, it had to go as my main CD player. As you can imagine, The Audiophile had a fair share of spirited "I told you so" remarks:
“AUDIO CLASS 102A: Now you know (understand) why I said I would not use a PS3 or any Playstation for a transport. When you introduce a FAN into the design of an audio component, the Audio Gods will PISS in your EARS. And then they'll laugh because you thought it would be a good multi-player and save you money. I believe the Audio Maniac has made a good point. MONEY TALKS AND BULLSHIT WALKS.”
Enter the Rotel
As my first hi-fi CD player, The Spirited Uncle M provided me with a classic Rotel RCD-855 from his collection after first detailing a set of handling procedures I am to follow when using any of his gear. This is one fine vintage CD player (and don’t worry Uncle, it will be returned in the same condition).
The RCD-855 was produced from 1989-1991 and originally retailed for $399. Today, I’ve heard of people finding still-working units at Goodwill stores for as little as $10! Most collectors and other audiophiles selling pristine units expect ~$100, however.
Regardless of what it’s worth, it’s an excellent sounding machine thanks to its dead silent operation and the highly-acclaimed and desirable Philips dual 16-bit TDA-1541A DAC chip and 4/19 swing arm laser assembly. All in all, this is an excellent CD player for the beginner audiophile to consider; it’s built like a tank, has excellent internals, is incredibly “musical” with it’s warm, natural sound and stellar imaging, and it can be found for a song!
So What About the Sound?
As you can imagine, the Rotel/NAD combo immediately put the PS3/NAD combo to sound shame. Playing “Stay the Same” by Bonobo as my reference track (a favorite that I can’t seem to stop playing) for an A/B test revealed a substantial jump in clarity, warmth, body, mid- and low-end resolution. The sound stage grew exponentially in comparison while the noise floor became practically non-existent. Andreya Triana’s voice came forward and was full of warmth, while Jack Wyllie’s sax came alive in all of its throaty glory. Highs are crystal clear and shimmer throughout the room. I was in awe. I truly didn’t expect such drastic improvements from just a CD player swap. Yes, The Sound Apprentice has a lot to learn.
As for the Axiom Audio M3v3s, I think they’re very good speakers. Being my first set of hi-end speakers, I don’t have anything to compare them to in my listening room, and I don’t feel that it’s fair to compare them to the NHT or B&W speakers I’ve heard in The Sound Lab since the equipment and environments are drastically different. But I am very pleased with the sound nonetheless. I listen to a wide variety of music that includes dubstep, jazz, rock, reggae, folk, and other genres, and I have not been disappointed yet. The dynamic range from low to high is well-covered and presented in clean transitions. I find the bass response to be great for a compact bookshelf speaker, and the clarity of horns and voices seems accurate. To my ears, these sound like a rather “neutral” set of speakers throughout the dynamic range. There's no boomy bass, muddy mids, or screeching highs. Sometimes it seems like the mids roll off a little bit, but that could be attributed to the recordings I am listening to as well.
Obviously as my first hi-fi setup that tiptoes into the audiophile-grade, this will serve as my reference point for all future equipment and accessory changes. And I promise you, there will be a lot of tweaks and changes to come along the path to Audio Nirvana.
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The Sound Apprentice’s First Hi-Fi System