Let’s have a discussion about context and system building. Both are topics that have bothered me tremendously over the past 23 years as a reviewer and editor within the consumer electronics category.
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.
Reviewing products like the Magnepan LRS, or Q Acoustics 3050i is a pointless exercise if we don’t explain how to build a system around them.
Telling you that a $750 pair of loudspeakers sound great only gets you so far.
How can you maximize that purchase 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 $800 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 52 year-old 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).
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.
The concept of “affordability” is slightly tricky.
Everyone has a different budget. Some people can afford to spend $100,000 on a stereo system and that gives them the ability to try components that 99% of the population will never get to experience. It’s not a contest.
I know people who have spent that amount of money and have been stuck on the high-end merry-go-round for years. They’re never happy with the sound of their system and clearly care more about the equipment than the music.
Most people that I know have a very specific budget for their home stereo system. $3,000 to $5,000 is the most they would ever consider spending on a system and that’s actually a very good place to be.
Tune out any audiophiles who tell you online that you’re not really “serious” about music or hi-fi if you don’t spend a lot more. These are the same people who justify spending $3,500 on power cords before selling them at a loss on Audiogon or go through components like you have gone though masks during the pandemic.
Run away from reviewers who only seem to review products that are equivalent to one semester in a private U.S. college. They don’t care about helping you build a system or expanding the knowledge of consumers in regard to better sound quality.
It’s about playing with expensive stuff they can’t afford.
At the end of the day, the only opinion that matters is your own.
Chapter One: 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.
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.
Emotiva, NAD (not the C 316BEE V2), Schiit Audio, Bryston, Audio Research, and Pass Labs all work well with Magnepan.
The LRS need a lot of space. A minimum of 3 feet from the wall behind them. You also need to angle the panels so that the tweeter potion of the panel are further from your ears than the woofer. I have my LRS turned so that the woofer panel is almost 2 inches closer to my listening position.
The LRS also benefit from either a heavy paving stone placed underneath the legs or a dedicated stand like the Magna Risers.
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. Having tried my Schiit Ragnarok 2 Integrated Amplifier with the LRS, the issue that reared its head was power.
The tonal balance and overall sound quality was excellent, but the Ragnarok 2 ran out of steam rather quickly. If you don’t mind limiting the volume to conversation levels, the combination can work rather well.
The Schiit stack is more money but it will deliver greater headroom and dynamics.
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.
Don’t expect a lot of deep bass from the LRS – that’s not why you are buying it.
Magnepan has also introduced the LRS+ for $995.95 USD but we have yet to listen to them so it is impossible to recommend a model that we have not heard.
There is also a 5 month waiting list right now for the LRS or LRS+.
Magnepan LRS Loudspeakers ($650/pair, locate dealer)
Schiit Audio Vidar Stereo Power Amplifier ($799 at schiitaudio.com)
Schiit Audio Saga+ Pre-amplifier ($399 at schittaudio.com)
Total: $4,046 (not including cables)
Chapter Two: 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.
The Q Acoustics 3050i work exceptionally well with the NAD C 316BEE V2 that has some extra punch in the midrange. The internal phono stage is a good tonal match for the Goldring E3, Ortofon 2M Blue, Sumiko Wellfleet, and Nagaoka MP-110.
The price differential between the NAD and 3050i might raise a few eyebrows but I’ve run that specific combination for over 2 years and swapped out the C 316BEE V2 for 9 other amplifiers and it is the best affordable option.
The Rotel A12MKII would also make a lot of sense in this scenario but it does raise the system price by almost $600.00 USD.
The 3050i does not get enough respect from the hi-fi press and that’s problematic because it offers so much value for the money. The build quality is quite high for the price and they do feel rather substantial when you set them up. The feet can be somewhat wobbly on carpet and I would stick with a hardwood floor if you can.
Ditch the foam port pucks that are designed to be inserted if the loudspeaker has to be placed closer to the wall due to space limitations. I have my 3050i set up in my dining room along the long wall and there is only 8″ between the wall and the rear of the cabinet.
They sound more open and spacious without the pucks and the low end impact is more than enough in a room that is 16 x 13 x 9 with two openings into the living room and kitchen.
The 3050i have a rather polite presentation unless you drive them with the right amplifier and they can become almost boring if the rest of the system doesn’t have some top end energy and the midrange is fleshed out. The NAD just works on both accounts.
The Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Streamer is more expensive than the Bluesound NODE, but it also delivers the right tonal balance for the amplifier and loudspeakers. It also scales up really well with more expensive components if you decide to upgrade in the future.
Q Acoustics 3050i Loudspeakers ($999 at qacoustics.com)
Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Streamer ($1,299 at Amazon)
QED Reference XT40i loudspeaker cable ($159.95 at Amazon)
Total: $3,955.95 to $4,556.94
Next article in this series: Audiophile System Builder: Linear Tube Audio, Decware, Omega
See all Audiophile System Builder recommendations.