The Big Question: Where on earth should I start with upgrading my budget hi-fi?
It’s a problem that most hi-fi lovers have encountered. We start with a modest hi-fi set up, and love listening to our music on it. But over time, the inevitable desire to upgrade arises. Now, it’s easy to say, “No problem, just bin your system and get better kit all round.”
That’s fine for those lucky few for whom financial restraints aren’t a problem. But most of us have to take a more considered approach, upgrading one part at a time over a couple of years, perhaps.
So, which component is the one to upgrade first? In the days when vinyl was the only option, it always paid to get a better record deck. Nowadays, things aren’t so straightforward.
This month’s three intrepid readers have been invited to our test rooms to decide (unknown to them) between upgrading a CD player, amplifier or speakers.
Warren (above left) is a records manager from Purley. He streams his music from a PC to his precious DacMagic
Whathifi.com user name: Gerrardasnails
Tom (above middle) is a Highways Engineer from Kent who has no fewer than three 5.1 systems at home, including KEF’s mighty 3005 eggs
Whathifi.com user name: bbalitom
Nigel (above right), from Sutton in Surrey, is in commercial finance and has a high-end system, with Moon amplification
Whathifi.com user name: BigAir
Hidden beneath a large sheet on a sturdy stand behind the comfy sofa in our listening room is a good, budget system: NAD’s C545BEE CD player and C326BEE amplifier are delivering a signal to Dali Lektor 2 speakers. Five-star products all, each costing around £300.
We play Nigel, Tom and Warren three pieces of music – from Radiohead, Joss Stone and Bizet’s Carmen Suite – and, to get the ball rolling, ask for their first impressions.
WARREN I wasn’t impressed. On the Joss Stone track, her voice came across as really sharp with that system. The treble was just too much for me. And the Radiohead track, which I know well – it’s one of my favourite songs – was all over the place, really.
TOM I agree with that. We’ve had nothing to compare this system to, of course, but on first impressions, I think the treble was quite high, on both the Radiohead and the Joss Stone tracks – and it was noticeable with the bell coming through on Carmen Suite.
WARREN I don’t listen to classical, but that didn’t sound too bad to me. Still, I’ve written here that it could sound a lot better. I’m basing these comments on my system at home, which is budget to mid-range, and it sounds a lot better than system 1.
NIGEL Well, I didn’t think it was overly trebly, to be honest. I didn’t think there was much treble really coming through, as far as it being highlighted within the mix. There wasn’t much by way of bass either; it was all in the middle range.
I thought the separation was reasonable, and the vocal projection wasn’t too bad. For speakers of this sort of size and budget, the vocals were relatively natural, and not too bad at all.
“I’m glad we’ve all got ears! Joss Stone was much more musical…” – Warren
Now to make things just a bit more interesting. Without revealing to the trio what we are doing, we replace the NAD CD player with the Award-winning Cyrus CD 6 SE.
TOM I definitely prefer this one. I felt the treble that we said was a bit high in the first system seemed softer. I don’t know the Radiohead track well, but I noticed a bass guitar that I didn’t notice in the first.
NIGEL Particularly on the Radiohead, which isn’t a piece I know well, I noticed much better timing, drive and rhythm. It seemed more musical and natural.
The first time we heard it, it sounded like there was a lot of background ‘hash’ and maybe deliberate digital whatever thrown in there. That was a lot more controlled in the second system – you could get what they were driving at. There was much less hash and it seemed less muddled, with a better tone to bass notes and more detail coming through.
WARREN I’m glad we’ve all got ears! The Joss Stone track was much more musical. The vocals were smoother and less fatiguing. Radiohead, too, was much, much more involving. The bass was tighter and deeper, and the separation between all the instruments was a lot better.
“That musicality I enjoyed seemed to disappear in system three” – Nigel
Now we reinstate the NAD CD player into the system, twist the Lektor 2s off the Blu-tack on their stands, and replace them with ATC SCM 11s – just less than £900 worth of speaker. This is the only part of this test that we don’t do ‘blind’, for reasons of practicality; but our three listeners are unaware of anything else we may or may not have changed behind them.
WARREN The classical straight away had more guts to it. It was louder, basically! Much more musical; you could hear different instruments that you couldn’t hear before. It was just a much nicer sound all round.
TOM My thoughts are very similar to Warren’s. I could definitely hear more in the classical piece. With Joss Stone, straight away, the bass guitar was improved, and the vocals were a bit softer again with the high trebles.
Overall, for me this was an improvement on the second system, which was a much bigger improvement on the first.
NIGEL I disagree with the two guys on actually enjoying that one more – I didn’t enjoy it as much as system two.
I agree with regard to it being a bigger scale of sound, that there was more fullness there. An overriding thing I’ve got written down for all three pieces is ‘more forward’. Vocals and, with the classical piece, the violins seemed a bit more in your face. And I didn’t enjoy that as much.
Yes, everything was a bigger scale, quite a full sound, but I found it less musically satisfying. I don’t know if, in changing the speakers, you’ve done something behind us as well to the electronics, because I found that I lost some timing and musicality in this change. That bit that I enjoyed in system two seemed to disappear with this one.
For the final change to our decent budget system, we reinstate the Lektor 2 speakers, and replace the NAD amplifier with Cyrus’s 6XP.
"It makes me laugh: thousands of pounds worth of equipment, and what do you use to anchor the speakers? Blu-tack!" – Tom
NIGEL On the classical piece, my initial thought was that there was some musicality that I liked, with timing and bass rhythm, and I possibly felt dynamic swings improved, from quiet to loud, on some of the bigger notes. But that is completely at odds with what I thought for the next two tracks! It didn’t really inspire me to anything.
TOM I definitely preferred system three [the speaker change] to this one, but I preferred this to two. With Radiohead, there was a definite improvement compared with the second system, and across all the tracks, I felt the bass was improved. But it was marginal.
WARREN I kind of agree with Tom here again. On Carmen, I found it better than the first two, but nowhere near as good as number three. On all three tracks, the separation was the problem for me . With the Joss Stone track, the bass was not bad, but the middle tones just didn’t have the detail. It seemed to be a bit woolly.
With the Radiohead In Rainbows track, again the bass was pretty good, but that’s about it really. The only thing it had over the first two was that it wasn’t too sharp for my ears. Other than that it was kind of a bit too ‘safe’.
“There was definite improvement in bass across all three tracks” – Tom
There are diverging opinions here, then – perhaps understandably. What our reader panel has undoubtedly done, though, is help to highlight the difficulties of upgrading a system one component at a time.
We believe that upgrading the CD player gave the system better timing, which was noticed by all three of our listeners. However, any improvement in detail and dynamics that the CD player provides (and in the right system, it certainly does) gets a little lost through the NAD amp and Dali speakers. So, while a better sense of organisation and timing was evident, the other components in the system could not reveal enough of what else the CD player can bring.
Changing the speakers, on the other hand, gave a much more even tonal balance, greater bass weight and more transparency, so it was possible to hear more of what the NAD electronics can do.
Finally, upgrading the amp gives stronger dynamics, because now the speakers are better controlled. It’s also allowing more of the NAD CD player’s qualities to come through to the listener.
The answer to this Big Question, then, would seem to be that there is no longer a simple answer. Each change to the system will bring about different improvements – and bear in mind that a double change can bring about a synergy that may not be in evidence by altering only one component. Get auditioning…
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