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The Audiophile System Builder

A buying guide to build a complete audiophile stereo system with speakers and components that work well together for under $3000.

ae1-lrs-3030i-speakers

One of the biggest failings of the audio/video press is that we don’t do enough to present equipment in the context of a system that people might actually want to buy. 

Telling you that a $2,000 pair of loudspeakers sound great, doesn’t help you if you don’t know what to partner them with.

You have to create a path for people who are new. And it has to be a reasonable one. 

Does It benefit the reader and industry more to discuss $500 products or $50,000 components? 

As much as we enjoy reviewing state-of-the-art products (because who wants to review a Prius when you can spend time with a Porsche) that very few people on the planet can afford, there needs to be greater focus on the products that might help increase the size of the base – who might eventually have the money to buy much better products.

My listening priorities as a 50 year-old Orthodox Jewish man with 3 kids in private school and college are not the same as a 25 year-old living in an apartment (or parent’s basement…time to get out).

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We agree, however, on one important concept; we both want to enjoy the music that we love with the highest level of sound quality that we can afford.

So, expect a greater degree of focus on more affordable products and within the context of a system that might make sense. 

The concept of “affordability” is slightly tricky. 

The focus of this column will be on systems between $1,000 – $10,000 that deliver a serious taste of audio nirvana. 

This is the way. 

Our focus for the first three systems will be the $2,000 – $3,000 range. 

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Hot Veal Sandwich

Chapter One: The Hot Veal with Extra Sauce 

I didn’t grow up kosher. My parents sent us to Hebrew school for over a decade, but we were in the pizza business and professional “foodies” long before that term ever came into vogue. I also grew up with Italians and Portuguese and my daily eating habits were heavily influenced by that crossover of cultures. Dim sum was a weekend thing. Hot veal sandwiches with extra sauce were a permanent part of my diet growing up in Toronto.

NAD was a big part of my listening experience growing up as well. I spent countless hours listening to stereo systems as a kid at Bay Bloor Radio and there was always a piece of NAD gear in my father’s equipment rack at home. 

It’s hard to build a bad sounding system around a NAD amplifier. 

Pair of Q Acoustics 3030i Bookshelf Speakers in White showing front and back
Q Acoustics 3030i

The Q Acoustics 3030i work exceptionally well with the NAD C 316BEE that has some extra punch in the midrange. The internal phono stage is a good tonal match for the Ortofon 2M Red MM cartridge. The Songbird/Modi 3+ combination is an excellent entry-level streamer/DAC source for this type of system. The Pioneer turntable retails for $699 on its own and can run with much better carts down the road. 

NAD C 316BEE Integrated Amplifier ($449, see our review)

Q Acoustics 3030i Loudspeakers ($399/pr at Amazon)

Andover Audio Songbird Streamer ($129, see our review)

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Schiit Audio Modi 3+ DAC ($99 at schittaudio.com)

Pioneer PLX-1000 Turntable + Ortofon 2M Red ($699 at Amazon + $99 at Amazon)

QED Reference XT40i loudspeaker cable ($159.95 at Amazon)

AudioQuest Cinnamon Optical Toslink cable ($99 at Amazon)

Total: $2,132.95

Bangers and Mash

Chapter Two: Bangers and Mash 

I love British loudspeakers. I inherited my first pair in 1983 as a Bar Mitzvah gift. A pristine pair of Celestion Ditton 33 MK IIs were my primary loudspeakers until 1993. They “disappeared” during a family move from Canada to New York City. Over the past few decades, multiple pairs of Spendor, Wharfedale, and KEF loudspeakers have been a fixture in our home. One brand that I never had the chance to try was Acoustic Energy; its distribution has been quite spotty and it’s great news for listeners that they have a really solid distributor in N. America in 2020. 

The Acoustic Energy AE1 are active loudspeakers with separate class AB power amplifiers built inside each enclosure. If you’re looking for active wireless loudspeakers, the AE1 are not for you. KEF makes some outstanding products like the LS50 Wireless II loudspeakers for $2,500 if that fits into your budget. 

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Pair of Acoustic Energy AE1 Active Speakers in Black without grille
Acoustic Energy AE1 active speakers

The AE1 have flown under the radar for way too long. They continue to amaze me each day with their exceptional transparency, detail, imaging, and dynamic punch. If you listen to a lot of electronica, you’ll really enjoy its low-end response and speed. This is not some boring audiophile loudspeaker with a lush midrange and no chutzpah when you want to turn it up. 

The only issue is that the two loudspeakers are not tethered together with a single piece of wire; two separate power cords, and a relatively long pair of interconnects (single-ended or balanced) are required to make them work. There is also only one input and two separate volume controls which were placed on the rear panel. 

They are ideal for a desktop system or placed on a credenza. Place them on a pair of IsoAcoustics loudspeaker stands and you’re good to go.

The issue is fixing the source/volume control limitations. 

Simple fix with a quality pre-amplifier like the Schiit Audio Lyr 3 which also includes a DAC and headphone amplifier. 

We’re keeping this system in the digital realm but adding the pre-amplifier to give you long-term flexibility and add a little warmth to the sound. 

Acoustic Energy AE 1 Active Loudspeakers ($1390 at Amazon)

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Schiit Audio Lyr 3 Pre-amplifier/DAC/Headphone Amplifier ($499 at schiitaudio.com)

Allo USBridge Signature Streamer ($249 at allo.com)

IsoAcoustics Aperta Loudspeaker Stands ($199 at Amazon)

Analysis Plus Purple USB ($99 at Amazon)

Analysis Plus Oval One Interconnects ($99 at Amazon)

Total: $2,535

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Grogu (aka Baby Yoda)
Grogu (aka Baby Yoda, The Kid)

Chapter Three: The Kid

Some audio experiences are transformative. Listening to the Magnepan MG-III loudspeakers for the first time in 1989 at a local dealer was utterly jaw dropping. The rest of the system was a mixture of Mark Levinson and Proceed electronics and I’m pretty sure the dealer was taking human organs in trade. Having worked the previous four years during weekends and summers at my parent’s pizzeria, I had actually saved up enough money to afford this monstrosity of a system. Sadly, that money was earmarked for 4 years of college in another country so I had to settle for what I already had at home.

What struck me at the time was the mind-blowing transparency of the loudspeakers. Certain aspects of the music just sounded real; the imaging, clarity, and sensation of a real person singing in the same room actually made me laugh in front of the dealer. 

I wasn’t some high-end virgin at the time, having spent my childhood inside one of the best stereo stores in the country. I had just never heard anything like that. 

Magnepan LRS Speakers in room
Magnepan LRS Speakers

What also struck me was the amount of power that those large panel loudspeakers required.

There are a million opinions online about the topic but the simple truth is that you can drive a loudspeaker like the Magnepan LRS (Little Ribbon Speaker) with any amplifier that can double its output and is stable into a 4 ohm load. A/V receivers are not great choices in this scenario. Their actual power output into a 4 ohm load is rather iffy. 

The LRS need a lot of space. A minimum of 3 feet from the wall behind them. 

Audio systems need to be forward thinking and reliable so it’s easy to suggest this pile of Schiit Audio components to be the heart of this rig. 

It has more than enough power, the right tonal balance, and a plethora of inputs (both analog and digital) for any source that you might already own or plan on adding in the future. 

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Don’t expect a lot of deep bass from the LRS – that’s not why you are buying it. 

Magnepan LRS Loudspeakers ($650/pair, locate dealer)

Schiit Audio Vidar Stereo Power Amplifier ($699 at schiit audio.com)

Schiit Audio Saga+ Pre-amplifier ($399 at schittaudio.com)

Schiit Audio Bifrost 2 Multibit DAC ($699 at schittaudio.com)

Allo USBridge Signature Streamer ($249 at allo.com)

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Total: $2,696 (not including cables)

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