Style and Substance

There’s a lot of different factors that go into choosing a system, particularly if it’s your first step into Hi-Fi. If this was the only consideration was how it sounds, then we would all have a set of MB2s powered by a glowing stack of Audio Research (Or at least I would…). But we also have other considerations. Like budget. Like Aesthetics. Like where am I going to put it?

Linda came into the store recently, looking for a record playing system. Linda, like many her age, lives in an inner city terrace with limited space. She was looking for a set of speakers that could live on the mantle of her fireplace. As her first system, she didn’t have a huge budget, but she wanted something that would sound good and look the part too. She arrived with a stack on vinyl ready to audition.

Reidun started by hooking up a set of Monitor Audio Bronze 1s, along with a Cambridge Audio AM10 and Project Elemental turntable. Here we have a very respectable entry point system. The Bronze 1’s are a go to speaker at the price point – Monitor Audio is one of our best selling products across the line due to their good looks and great value for the money. The Cambridge AM10 is a stalwart at the price point – very capable and with a built in phono stage. The Project Elemental is about as simple as a turntable can get, but still manages to squeeze in an Ortofon OM5E. It comfortably outperforms the similarly priced fully automatic models on the market.

So, with the initial system setup, Reidun and Linda played a few records. Chet Faker’s Built on Glass and Radiohead's Pablo Honey  got a spin and the initial results were good. Aesthetically, Linda quite liked the amplifier, describing the blue lights as “a good blue. Not too smurfy”. There were some reservations about the Project Elemental, which she found unappealing. The speakers however were very much to her style. Given that they would end up being mounted on the mantle and close to the wall, the supplied foam bungs would be used. This reduces a bit of the boominess in the bass that is associated with the port being too close to the wall.

After a cup of coffee and another listen, Linda asked “can you vary the sound in any way? They sound flat, not enough … (she indicates audio dynamics with her hands) …”. She says she doesn’t like the style now. Linda, like many people just stepping into the world of Hi-Fi, is having trouble describing exactly what she feels is missing. There is a certain language to Hi-Fi that we develop over the years to describe what we’re hearing. A quote attributed to a great many people says that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’. Describing Hi-Fi, with all our baffling terms like, brightness and openness, can be much the same.

Reidun listened very carefully to what and how she is saying things when she describes her responses to what she is seeing and hearing. For Linda, the word ‘style’ does not only apply to the way a product looks and feel, but also the way the music it produces makes her feel. Reidun understood what Linda was looking for and went and retrieved the larger Bronze 2. With a front port, they suit the fireplace mounting really well. Linda liked the looks, describing them as really pretty, but found the sound ‘sharper and too crispy’.

Now, it would have been tempting to reach for another set of speakers at this point, but Reidun knew that the Bronze 2s are a very capable speaker. They certainly have a ‘brighter’ presentation than others at the price point, but that also means they have plenty of detail. Rather than swap the speakers, it was time to change the source. The Project Elemental was swapped out for a Rega Planar 1 and the sonic improvement was immediately obvious. There was much more depth on offer and the harsh edge was gone.

Reidun spent a bit of time explaining the importance of Hi-Fi reproduction as a chain. Any information that doesn’t come from the first link in the chain can never be reintroduced later. This maxim is especially true with vinyl, as extracting as much analog signal from the groove is the aim of the game. Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn fame advocated spending as much of the budget as possible on your source component. Sure, that’s exactly what you would expect from a man peddling expensive turntables, but it remains true to this day that you can get excellent results from a good record player and modest amp and speakers.

After a bit of consultation over budget, Linda wanted to find out what would happen if she went to the next stage. In came a Rega Planar 2, with its better glass platter and tonearm. Again, there was more on offer with deeper bass and more space. Sonically, the difference more than justified the extra $300. Visually though, it wasn’t quite there. The glass and gloss finish didn’t sit well with Linda, who described the look as too ‘hectic’ and not in keeping with the more classical look of the speakers.

By now, Linda was asking lots of questions and Reidun was explaining the differences in cartridges, styli shapes, platters, bearings and power supplies. Linda was keenly interested, and they wandered the store looking at examples of different models. Wandering upstairs, they encountered the Michell Engineering Gyrodec and just had to have a listen. Hooked up to a stack of Audio Research and a set of PMC MB2SEs, the system was well in excess of $100k. At this point we do like to caution customers that it is possible to do an irreparable injury. By listening to such a godly system, how can one come back down to the realms of mortals? Luckily no harm was done – Linda loved the system but didn’t quite think the budget would stretch that far. We do find it important to showcase systems such as this to our customers – it’s great to know just how good your music can sound if you progress far enough down the path.

Luckily though, the Gyrodec gave Reidun an idea of a turntable that might fit the bill, so they went downstairs and looked at a Project The Classic. Linda had actually spied this turntable as she walked in, but without knowing the difference that the source makes to the final product, she had dismissed it as being outside of the budget. But after some discussion with Reidun she now knew that the quality of the construction and materials had a major impact on the sound.

Visually it was perfect – that unmistakable retro vibe, yet with a hint of the modern in the materials used. The contiguous aesthetic of the walnut finish with Monitor Audio Bronze also made an excellent synergy of style. The carbon fibre tonearm completes the package. We partner it with the Ortofon 2M Blue, a superb match for the turntable. It didn’t take very long to state its claim sonically – a quick listen brought more dynamics and a bigger presentation, with lots of detail but no harsh edges.

One final change was still coming though – the Cambridge AM10 was swapped out for a Rotel A10. These two amplifiers are very similar on paper, but the Rotel just pips it in terms of phono stage. With such a good turntable the slight increase in budget pays dividends, with a more natural and expressive midrange. The cleaner visual style also suited the vintage looks of the turntable and the two will look great sitting next to one another.

So after an enjoyable listening session we arrived at a really interesting system. It’s not the type of system that someone would put together if they sat down and picked out a series of well-reviewed components. It’s the kind of system that can only be discovered through a demonstration. It’s the kind of system that has come together through listening to what the customer wanted and how the components interacted.

The budget is heavily biased towards the source - in fact, the turntable was more than half the budget. But this is not a system out of balance. The speakers and amplifier are both supremely capable. Rarely do they get partnered with a source that allows them to shine. Both could be described as being on the brighter end of the spectrum, but with such a lovely mellow source they are beautifully balanced. It’s also a system with strong visual appeal. Unmistakably a Hi-Fi system, but one whose looks complement each other and create a great looking package. We Hi-Fi enthusiasts are sometimes so lead by our ears we neglect our eyes – it’s nice to know that when we stop to consider the visual appeal we can still build a system that sounds so good.

So the final system is:

  • Source: Pro-Ject The Classic with Ortofon 2M Silver Cartridge $1,599
  • Amplification: Rotel A10 Amplifier $649
  • Speakers: Monitor Audio Bronze 2 Loudspeakers in walnut finish $599
  • Cable: 6 metres of Chord C Screen Speaker Cable $72

 A total of $2,919

Reidun packaged it up for Linda at $2,500. You can pick one up for that price too.