Cheapskate Audiophile

As a geek videophile audiophile there’s the tendency for that interest to be conflict with my critical side that questions our modern consumerist capitalist economy. I believe that balance can be found, as long as one accepts that it’s nearly impossible to be entirely non-comsumerist without checking out of modern technological society altogether. Yet, it is possible to temper the consumerist side while still having enthusiasm for good audio and video and the aesthetics of sound and vision.

In particular, I think I’ve always been an audiophile. I’ve been obsessed with sound and music since I was a child, and I’ve always been interested in finding better, more pleasing, more realistic sound reproduction. While in high school in the mid-80s I bought my first component cassette deck, amplifier, CD player and turntable. All of this gear was decidedly “mid-fi” by audiophile standards, but still whet my appetite for sound that was significantly better than the boomboxes and discount-store compact stereos used by most of my peers.

Cheapskate Speakers: BIC RTR 43-2

Cheapskate Speakers: BIC RTR 43-2

While I’ve been willing to spend some amount of disposable income on audio gear, I’ve also been hestitant to lay down the kind of cash required to buy in to what is considered the “high-end” of audio gear. This is the world of $1000 CD players, $5000 turntables and $10,000 speakers. Certainly, the kind of craftsmanship and design excellence that goes into many of these products has real value. At the same time I think much of it is the audio equivalent of Ferraris and Lamborghinis — semi-impractical exotica meant to give the affluent something to spend their money on, while giving the less-affluent something to aspire to.

My experience in slogging around in the low-end of the high-end has proven to me that good sound does not have to be an exotic rare commodity only for the rich and golden-eared. In fact, very pleasing and accurate sound can be had for as the same or less money than it costs to buy a home-theater in a box system at Wal-Mart or Best Buy.

There are multiple paths to being a cheapskate audiophile, many of them DIY. The more industrious or crafty amongst us build some of their own gear, either from kits or from scratch. Others perform minor modifications on mass-market gear that results in sonic gains.

Possessing neither the skill nor patience to take these routes I instead keep my eyes and ears open for the bargains — gear that achieves unusually good results at an unusually low price-point. The ‘net is a real boon for all of us cheapskate audiophiles by giving us easy access to this sort of info that otherwise would come by word-of-mouth, technical books or low-circulation specialty magazines and newsletters.

Top to bottom: T-Amp, TEC Pream, SoundBlaster Extigy

Top to bottom: T-Amp, TEC Pream, SoundBlaster Extigy

To demonstrate I’ll show off my current cheapskate system which I use in my home office for music listening and audio production. The core cheapskate item in the system is the Sonic Impact T-Amp, which I’ve written about before. It’s a cheap, plastic $25 stereo amplifier based on a new digital amplifier design that rocked the audio world three years ago by producing sound more like an amp some 20x its price. The T-Amp is rated to produce 15 watts of power, and I think that’s probably stretching it. More likely, it delivers around 8 watts into most speakers. But they are still an incredibly clean, transparent 8 watts.

8 watts may not seem like a lot of power, but in fact it’s quite enough for reasonable listening levels, especially if you have reasonably efficient speakers. By “efficient” I mean speakers that don’t require much power to generate sound, usually expressed by power per sound pressure level in decibels. A pair of speakers that is rated for 91 dB at 1 watt will sound roughly twice as loud as a pair rated for 88dB at 1 watt (decibels are logarithmic). 91dB is a pretty loud listening level for a home environment, so you can see how much of the power in a 100 or 200 watt amp goes fairly unused most of the time.

I’ve paired my T-Amp with some very inexpensive bookshelf speakers that happen to be pretty efficient. They’re made by a company called BIC which was once a very well known name in American audio. Now they only make speakers, though they generally receive good reviews even from audiophile publications. I actually paid $9 for this pair of speakers (model 43-2) some six years ago. Yet they sound like they could cost 10 – 20x as much. They don’t have much bass, so I’ve paired them with a subwoofer I bought for $50 around the same time. With a sensitivity of 90dB at 1 watt they work well with the T-Amp.

Being quite bare-bones, the T-Amp only has one input and a single power/volume control. So, in order to have more than one source I had to find a switch that wouldn’t color the sound too much. After reading a recommendation from the excellent TNT Audio website, I bought the TEC integrated preamp, which cost more than the speakers and T-Amp combined: $80. Now I can have my Mac audio, a CD player and a tuner connected to my T-Amp at the same time.

A very unfortunate aspect of modern digital sound is that the audio inputs and outputs in most computers are pretty horrible. Frankly, the quality of sound coming from most MP3 players is going to be better than what comes out of what’s built-in to your PC or Mac, though Macs tend to be a good measure better. If you use a computer for music listening I can’t recommend highly enough that you get a USB audio interface/sound card. Even some of the least expensive ones will sound better than what comes out of your PC. Part of the reason for this is that a computer is full of components that generate all sorts of RF and electrical interference that come out as noise and distortion in the audio signal. The other reason is that computer manufacturers really cheap out on the audio hardware, figuring most people won’t notice or care. Even if you spend just $50 on a USB audio interface, that’s probably 50 – 100x what the computer manufacturer spent on what’s in your PC.

I was just reminded of this fact because for the last eight months I’ve been listening to the built-in output from my MacBook Pro. No doubt it’s better than my last PC, but I still never found it all that great or engaging. So today I dug out my Sound Blaster Extigy USB audio interface that I bought five years ago to go with my old Windows PC. Back then it was one of the first USB audio cards on the market, and cost around $130. When I plugged it into my MacBook today I was blown away by the improvement that I heard immediately.

In the last couple of months I had been thinking about trying to find better speakers or some other improvement for this system because I was finding the audio to be dull and uninvolving. I’m glad that I remembered I had the Extigy and decided to plug it in. I learned that the weak link was the sound source, and any investment in speakers would have resulted in a tiny improvement by comparison.

You see, another principle of being a cheapskate audiophile is resisting the impulse to out and buy new gear when maybe you can repurpose, reimagine or reuse gear you already have–or that someone is willing to give you. The Extigy is no longer made or supported, but luckily the built-in drivers in any Windows, Mac OS or Linux PC will support basic audio input or output.

Magnavox CDB-610 CD Player from 1990 (bottom)

Magnavox CDB-610 CD Player from 1990 (bottom)

When I want to listen to CDs I prefer to use a CD player rather than the CD drive in my computer. I find that a decent stand-alone player generally sounds better and is more satisfying. I’d like to tell you that I’m still using the CD player that I bought back in high school. Unfortunately it bit the dust somewhere in the mid-90s. I ended up replacing it about six years ago with a similar model (Magnavox CDB-610) that is a little newer, manufactured in 1990, and actually a little better, too. Many CD players of this vintage made by Philips (Magnavox is a Philips brand) have maintained a very good reputation even though they were relatively inexpensive even for the time (~$200). I think I paid $20 for this one on eBay.

Yes, I must admit that assembling this motley crew of gear required a little bit of effort and knowledge. But not too much effort — I mostly stumbled upon most of it and seized on opportunity. All of it was acquired in the internet age. Therefore I was able to quickly research all of it and use reviews, message board opinions and other data to help me decide if the $9 or $80 bucks would be worth it. Aside from the CD player I had never heard the gear in person. I would be very reticent to drop $500 or $1000 on a piece of equipment I’d never personally auditioned (unless there is a very generous return policy). But $9 isn’t much of a risk.

I bought everything online, but similar results can be obtained by seeking out used equipment locally. Thrift shops can be good locations provided you have some idea of what you’re looking for. A good independent repair shop can be another great place to seek out audiophile bargains. Though they’re a bit of dying breed, they’re usually labors of love in addition to being small businesses and you’re likely to find someone there who knows the gear well and will let you audition it. Finally, don’t overlook the classifieds and Craigslist.

Again, yes, it helps to know what you’re doing, but then that goes for buying microwave, digital camera or car, too. If you care at all about sound and fidelity it will be worth doing a little research. If you don’t care so much and the $79 mini system suits your needs, that’s fine too (though I wonder why you’re still reading this).

One caveat I’ll throw out about internet research is the trendiness of blogs and message boards. Every so often the remarkable quality of some piece of inexpensive or vintage gear will bubble up and spread like wildfire across the blogosphere. While it’s great to get this information, the rapid spread of a trendy meme tends also to have a market affect. That affect is hundreds or thousands of people rushing out to buy what was previously an obscure, underappreciated or undiscovered item, which might also be available in less-than-mass quantities. That’s where supply-and-demand kicks in, leading to the risk of the item being priced out of the cheapskate zone.

It can be easy to get caught up in the hype around a newly discovered “bargain” such that one finds onself willing to pay double or triple the original bargain price as you become increasingly convinced that this new find is really worth paying a premium. I only have one word for those who find themselves in this predicament: resist. While I can recommend my $9 BIC RTR 43-2 speakers very highly, they’re not the only decent cheap speakers on the planet. And if you find a pair but the seller wants $100 for the pair I have no apprehension advising you to walk away.

The T-Amp went though one of these cycles back when it was “discovered” in 2005. When the blogosphere went wild for it the few stores that had them online went out of stock quickly. Other less scrupulous stores starting marking them up to double or triple the original $30 price, and eBay sellers started fetching $100 or more as retail supplies became scarcer. Of course, supplies eventually replenished — that’s when I got mine. The whole point of the T-Amp was it’s low price, and momentary scarcity didn’t justify a higher price.

There is a certain DIY element to being a cheapskate audiophile — it’s about discovering your own values and hacking together systems that sound good to you. The opinions of other knowledgeable and experienced folk can help you in your journey. But in the end the choice is yours because you’re the one who will be listening and enjoying your system (I hope).

My last thought concerns the upgrade-itis that is often endemic to being a geek -phile. There always seems to be some newer, better, more expensive piece of gear that promises to make your system better or help you get one step closer to audio nirvana. I know first hand that it’s seductive, especially since the whole hi-fi industry is obviously geared towards getting you to buy new shit.

The simple truth is, however, that you can be very happy with the gear you have, especially if you’re thoughtful when you select it. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective on things. Rearrange the speakers to see how they sound in a different location. Or try listening to an album you haven’t heard in years. Maybe dig out an old piece of gear and hook it up to see how it sounds in your current system. Remember that what compelled me to write this rambling essay was rediscovering my old audio interface, plugging it in, and finding my little cheapskate system come that much more alive.

Another tip to you if you’re particularly susceptible to upgrading is to stay away from the hi-fi press, gadget blogs and the like, or take them in small doses. They’re all geared to the upgrade and replacement cycle that is modern disposable capitalism at its best. But it can’t affect you if you don’t read it. I used to subscribe to Stereophile magazine, until I realized that it just made me fantasize about expensive audio gear, resulting in me trying to convince myself I needed a $1000 integrated amp and that I could afford it. While I still page through it in the library or online every so often, it’s not a monthly immersion.

Most of us live in a capitalist consumerist economy, but that doesn’t mean we have to get in line and dutifully buy and upgrade, even if we like having nice sounding gear. There’s no shame or paradox in being a Cheapskate Audiophile. I’d argue there’s the potential of more enjoyment and satisfaction in being Cheapskate Audiophile, too. As a Cheapskate you spend more of your time listening to and enjoying your sound and music rather than paging through glossy magazines or reading blogs worrying about if your system sounds as good as it could, or fantasizing that your sound would be just a little more perfect if only you upgraded speakers.

So, go forth and listen!

And if you’re happy with the system you’ve got now, then step away from the computer and put on an album already!

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