We covered a lot of ground in the first installment of the Audiophile System Builder, and kept it limited to a few brands that we know have a lot of system synergy. The notion that you can just throw a bottomless pit of money at a stack of equipment and walk away with a great sounding audio system is a fallacy. There is a reason why dealers demonstrate specific brands together and while not every dealer gets it correct 100% of the time, you’re paying for a level of expertise which includes knowing which amplifier sounds great with the loudspeakers set-up in front of you.
Where it gets slightly tricky is when you decide to purchase everything online based on reviews or demonstration at a trade show.
Never buy anything after hearing it once at a trade show.
That hotel room sounds nothing like your room at home; and unless you plan on buying that exact system – you’re going to be very disappointed in the final result.
There are very few bad sounding components in 2020, but that doesn’t mean that everything will sound good in the context of your room (the most important component in any system), or with any other brand that you might read about and feel some weird tingle down the side of your leg.
It doesn’t work that way.
Your room matters. How you listen matters. What you listen to matters. Synergy really matters.
With that in mind, here are 2 systems that sound really good based on the following criteria:
- Desktop or bookshelf situation
- Headphone listening is part of your daily routine
- You care more about tone and transparency than flexing the walls
- Small stack of equipment that doesn’t take up a lot of space
Chapter IV: Back Bacon on a Kaiser
I stopped eating bacon almost 15 years ago when I went wide right and became more observant, but there was a time during my childhood (putting the blame on my parents here) when I looked forward to visiting Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market each weekend for a “BB” on a fresh Kaiser roll. The fat from the back bacon seeped into the roll and it all just melted in your mouth. There was real texture to the sandwich; everything about it felt organic and made from natural ingredients. Music should feel that way when you listen to it. There should be layers of texture that allows you to connect to the human beings on the other end. If it feels too precise or that you’re just listening to a machine, the system is utterly failing at reproducing that moment in time.
Decware Audio is a really interesting little company that has occupied its own niche for many years. There is nothing flashy about its products manufactured in Peoria, Illinois. The parts quality and reliability are excellent for the price and there is a bespoke nature to the designs that allow you to build exactly what you want. The Super Zen Triode (Model SE84CKCS-UFO2) can be configured as a two-source integrated amplifier and is a 2.3 watts/channel (8 ohms) SET design that will fill your soul with texture. The first time I heard one with a really efficient pair of loudspeakers, I was deeply impressed by its ability to reproduce the human voice. Get the loudspeaker right and you might rethink just how much you care about cavernous bass response or a hyperdetailed presentation.
There are a few single driver loudspeakers that meet our criteria from Zu Audio and Omega Speaker Systems. The Zu Audio Cube is perfect for a desktop or bookshelf due to its size (10.5” x 10.5” x 10.5”) and its 98dB sensitivity rating (8 ohms) makes it very easy to drive. The Cube utilizes Zu’s Nanotech high-output coaxial 10″ full-range driver which is heavy on tone and capable of excellent dynamic performance. Each loudspeaker weighs 27 pounds so a set of IsoAcoustics stands or a really inert shelf is mandatory.
Omega Speaker Systems have a very loyal following because they offer bespoke high-sensitivity loudspeakers that offer tremendous performance and craftsmanship. Louis Chochos is a detail-oriented designer and builder who offers excellent customer service and is willing to work with each customer to make sure they get the “right” loudspeaker for their specific situation. He builds beautiful looking cabinets that are designed to last.
The CAM (Compact Alnico Monitor) don’t have the slam of the Zu Cubes, but they are overflowing with texture and definitely more laid back sounding which might be preferrable in a nearfield listening situation. They are “compact” in comparison to other Omega models, but they are certainly not small loudspeakers (16”H x 12”W x 8.5”D) that will vanish on your desktop. They can be ordered with the bass port on the rear/front of the cabinet depending on your set-up location. They work really well in a bookcase with the port on the front of the cabinet. The 94.5 dB (8 ohms) sensitivity rating makes them ideal for the Decware amplifier.
There are a wide range of DACs and streamers that work well with either combination including the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt (which you can use separately as your headphone amplifier), Andover Audio Songbird/Schiit Audio Modi 3 Multibit combination, or Cambridge Audio CXN V2 streamer/DAC.
The second input on the Super Zen Triode gives you the flexibility to add another source like a turntable down the road.
Decware Super Zen Triode Integrated Amplifier ($995)
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier ($299 at Amazon)
Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Streamer ($1099 at Crutchfield)
System Total: $3620 – $4137
Chapter V: The Porterhouse
I was tempted to call this system the “Impossible Burger”, but I think that is a great disservice to the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL MZ3 which is neither a solid-state or tube amplifier. The LTA MZ3 is a reference level headphone amplifier, pre-amplifier, and integrated amplifier packed into a desktop-sized package that offers the best of both topologies. If you’re staring at the image of the MZ3 and focused on the top panel which clearly shows off its compliment of 4 vacuum tubes, you would be incorrect if you think it sounds anything like a traditional tube amplifier.
It does not. Not even remotely.
Does it demonstrate the ability to infuse almost every type of recording with immediacy, texture, detail, and a rather impressive degree of space?
The MZ3 can be transparent, detailed, and colorful at the same time if the rest of the system is up to the challenge.
The “integrated amplifier” part of the equation only outputs a single glorious watt of power.
One. Not even 1.5.
The rear panel has two sets of outputs, and three single-ended inputs which is a lot for a desktop amplifier.
Its tonal balance works well with a lot of headphones from brands like HiFiMan, Audeze, Dan Clark Audio, and Meze Audio. You don’t have to spend $3,000 on a pair of headphones to experience what the MZ3 is capable of.
Both loudspeakers mentioned above work just fine with that single watt of power but only if you are listening at your desk, have a smaller room, or don’t need to listen at loud levels.
The BorderPatrol SE-i DAC is also somewhat unconventional and works extremely well with the MZ3; this R-2R resistor ladder DAC offers no over-sampling and is limited to 24-bit/96kHz. If you need support for DSD or higher bit/sampling rates – you would be out of luck. In reality, 97% of all recorded digital music is available below 24-bit/96kHz so we’re not sure how big of a loss that really is.
The SE-i compliments the tonal balance of the MZ3 with a slightly more organic feel to it and that’s a wise choice if you decide to go with one of aforementioned loudspeakers or a pair of headphones that are slightly more analytical sounding.
The SE-i comes with a single USB input so you can use your laptop as your digital source device on the desktop if funds are tight. Run Roon or Tidal/Qobuz independently as your streaming platform and you’re good to go.
If you can spring for an additional $539.10, add a dedicated streamer like the recently revised Sonore microRendu v1.5; the microRendu is an audiophile microcomputer with Ethernet input and USB Audio output. It is also Roon Ready and can support gapless playback of both PCM and DSD. It also supports the following PCM sample rates up to: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 352.8kHz, 384kHz, 705.6kHz, and 768kHz.
The MZ3 can also be used as a pre-amplifier long-term if you decide that you want to add a more powerful power amplifier to your system; it’s a very versatile component and backed by an excellent company that has deep roots in the high-end audio community.
Linear Tube Audio microZOTL MZ3 ($3,700)
BorderPatrol DAC SE-I ($1,425)
Sonore microRendu v1.5 ($539)
IsoAcoustics Aperta Loudspeaker Stands ($199 at Amazon)
System Total: $6961 – $7378