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Reviewer on the Run: Part I – The research stage

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Building a stereo from scratch!

I have often read forum posts asking various questions about what to buy. “Which CD player should I get for my B&W speakers?” Regular forum readers see such questions regularly and the replies list a myriad of products that may or may not be useful. I personally always liked the “what if” posts. What if you had to start over – what would you buy?

Well, as fortune would have it I am in this predicament. As a teacher by day living in British Columbia Canada, I found a teaching job in Hong Kong that I simply couldn’t pass up. Good for the teacher life and potentially the social life but the problem, of course for the audiophile part of my life, is the electrical voltage, apartment sizes, shipping costs and the expense of having work done to convert my equipment to HK/UK voltage.

So, I am now in that world of starting with a clean slate. I have given myself a relatively small budget which I am somewhat flexible on depending what is out there. In Hong Kong, the prices of many audio components is considerably less expensive than in North America. Some of the big reasons for this are largely the lack of tariffs/duties in Hong Kong, the lack of sales taxes, and in most cases the importer is also the retailer. And, of course on Chinese made gear, shipping is negligible. So, for these articles I will attempt to provide the U.S. list prices.

So, where to start? Used, of course. Or I guess the popular term now is “pre-owned”. Well, two of the most famous locales for used equipment are Mongkok and Sham Shui Po (mostly famous for computers). Mongkok is a great place for pre-owned gear as well as new audio equipment. Why? Imagine a twenty-one-floor building and on each floor there is a stereo shop. But these aren’t the sort of dumpy stores selling old Crown amps that have beer stains on them. No, these stores sell some serious gear. It’s not unlike walking the halls of CES in Dagogo’s reports.

The advantage for the audiophile here is that you can keep the sound of things in your head. In North America, one store may carry one speaker but you have to drive an hour to get to the next store that sells the other speaker you’re interested in. Then, you are auditioning in completely different rooms with different room acoustics. One building of stores here means the entire building is made from the same materials and most of the set-ups are similar enough that things are fairly even. Listen to one speaker on one floor then go down one floor and you can hear a different speaker. Then go back up one floor and hear the first speaker again.

Some shops were all about cables. Some others were all about carrying as many brands as possible. Their idea, no doubt, is that customers would have to like one of their amps, CD players, or speakers. Of course the main problem with such a system is that all the speakers are connected to switch boxes and the room is far too large to really distinguish real quality. Indeed, it reminded me of the big box chains in North America with a wall of products. The unfortunate thing is that there were some potentially really nice pieces of gear but there is no way to really hear how nice it is.

So, the kind of store I gravitated to was a store like Hit Audio (pictured). They sell one speaker line and the store owner uses his ATC SCM 150 professional loudspeakers as an alternate to the Zu speakers. He notes that not everyone is a fan of speakers using ribbon drivers so they wanted an alternative. Moreover, he wants to prove to people that tube amps can drive difficult-to-drive speakers like the ATC.

The nice thing for an audiophile interested in tubes is to be able to audition not only tube amps from different makers but also tube amps of different designs from KT88, EL84, EL34, 845, 211, 300B etc.

Now, it is time to get back to the business of researching and eventually purchasing a stereo system.

I make no bones about the fact that I prefer Single Ended amplifiers and efficient loudspeakers. More than 20 years of auditioning all sorts of gear has helped me zero-in on my preferences. For someone starting out, you will need to spend considerably more time wading through the seemingly endless options. Given the space limitations of my apartment and possible future apartments for at least the next five years, the loudspeakers will have to be either standmounts or relatively small floorstanders. The amplifier choice should be determined to some degree on the kind of loudspeaker chosen. A big beefy powerful amplifier is not required for efficient speakers and indeed, such amplifiers may bully the loudspeakers, creating a seemingly over-controlled, thin, two-dimensional sound. Certain speakers don’t want to be manhandled – they want a softer touch.

I am mainly a turntable and CD player guy. My intention is to eventually get into computer-based digital, but the learning curve is deeper and my experience with them is smaller. Therefore, at this time as I want to get a system up and running and since I brought many of my CDs with me from Canada, I’ll be starting with the CD player as source.

Virtually every CD player you can think of in Hong Kong is from names like Wadia, EMM Labs, and Audio Notes to the myriad of Chinese brands like Shanling and Cayin. The goal, of course, is to get something affordable, well built, sounds very good, and has the potential for an upgrade. So the player has to have a decent transport mechanism and the ability to connect to an external DAC. Virtually every CD player offers digital outputs but they need to sound good in and of themselves as it may be several months or a year before I get around to adding a DAC. It is important to think about the here and now, not just about future upgrade potential.

I decided to target CD players in the sub-$1,500US price point. There are many fine ones here and I had shortlisted several new models from several different companies.

Stay tuned for Part II which will cover which CD player I ended up choosing and why.

Reviewer on the Run, Part II: CD player

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