Audiophilia For A Song

Budget Audiophile -- Near-field PC System
Save money by combining an inexpensive PC with a budget audiophile system to listen “near field” while you’re on-line. It doubles as your AV system. Pictured is an HP Mini PC, a Creative DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) and Emotiva Airmotiv 4s active (powered) speakers.

We’re living in good times when it comes to audio equipment, if you’re into that sort of thing. And a lot of people are. You can buy and sell all kinds of vintage gear, and there have been great strides in entry-level audio equipment over the years. To be sure, you can still buy mostly low-quality gear from your local big-box store, and that’s not always cheap.

But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get that satisfying entry-level audiophile sound. Now, different people define the term audiophile differently. It serves us well here to use the term loosely and include those who love musical reproduction as well as the music itself. But there’s some level of enjoyment in the quality of sound. A concern that it sounds accurate, not just listening to background music or something you might hear at the poolside.

That said, this is a money blog, so my concern here is for maximum savings of your money. So how can you be an audiophile on the cheap?

I have to admit that I’ve bought and sold my share of components over the years. I even stopped for a long, long time, just to start up again at one point. Fortunately, I didn’t have the means to purchase upper-tier equipment. And I was able to recoup some of the cost of my purchases by reselling what I had. But that’s the problem with a hobby such as this. It can get quite expensive in the buy-and-sell arena if you don’t keep a lid on it. You could easily spend some cRaZy money.

In tandem with my last round of audio buys, I began a quest to downsize my possessions and (hopefully) upsize my budget. We already lived in our small-size, inexpensive ranch home. So as things cycled out, I began to buy smaller and less-expensive replacement items that would mesh better in a smaller home. Smaller computer, smaller printer, smaller vehicles, and so on. Then I began to look at my audio equipment and went on a quest to find the smallest system I could find that would produce acceptable audiophile-quality sound at an decent volume for my tastes. I really didn’t need 75 wpc cranking in my small living room. But I occasionally like to turn the volume up without distortion so it can be heard without straining the amp or drivers.

I auditioned and purchased several components in this quest for small. I realized in the process that my listening range is near-field ~95% of the time (sitting at my PC) and mid-field the other 5% (sitting on the couch in our small living room). So I determined that all I really need for my listening enjoyment is a nice powered (active) speaker system connected to a DAC hooked up to my PC. An active speaker system is one where the amplifier(s) are inside the speaker(s). And, since I have a small listening area, I wanted to see how small I could go and still be satisfied with the sound quality and volume.

Speakers Auditioned

In this context, then, I auditioned the following:

  • NAD D3020 amp with PSB Alpha B1 speakers (also PSB Imagine Mini, but those aren’t inexpensive)
  • KEF X300A speakers (powered/active)
  • PSB Alpha PS1 speakers (powered/active) and Subseries 100 subwoofer
  • Definitive Technology Incline speakers (powered/active)
  • Emotiva Airmotiv 4s speakers (powered/active)

 

NAD D3020 amplifier with PSB Alpha B1 passive speakers.

The NAD D3020/PSB Alpha B1/Imagine Mini setup sounded quite nice, but it was the most expensive and the least-small option. Still, it gave me a baseline quality of music reproduction and volume that I could be happy with while comparing other options. I auditioned them alongside the KEF X300A speakers, and, after a lengthy A-B comparison, decided I didn’t really care for the KEF’s.

The KEF’s provided the volume and fairly hefty bass. But the warm sound of the PSB’s made them seem a bit harsh to my ears. The crossover in the KEF’s was at a lower frequency to blend with the lower bass driver, which itself was nice. But the resulting overall tonal quality just wasn’t as satisfying to me. Plus, the PSB’s seemed to have a livelier sound-stage compared to the flat one produced by the KEF’s. That’s not to say that some tracts didn’t sound better through the KEF’s. So perhaps my opinion was influenced by my selection of musical material.

Next, I auditioned the PSB Alpha PS1 powered speakers. But they simply couldn’t produce enough juice and seemed a bit anemic. To me, they just sounded like PC speakers.

Definitive Technology Incline Active Speakers (not seen but included is a Polk PSW-111 Subwoofer)

The DT Inclines were a step above the PS1’s, produced better sound and could be cranked pretty loud. Although they weren’t quite as nice as the NAD/PSB combo, I might have gone this route if it weren’t for the next selection. They fit the price / size / volume / sound-quality test for the most part. But they weren’t quite there in the last two criteria.

Once I auditioned the Emotiva Airmotiv 4s (pictured at the top of the page), I knew I had found the setup for me. Fortunately, they were on sale for $100 off at the time, so they cost $299 for the pair. These speakers, in a near/mid-field setting, satisfied the criteria of being the smallest speaker I could find for my listening area with the budget audiophile-quality sound I desired. And the volume cranks loud enough in this setting without distortion. That doesn’t mean they won’t distort if I really push them to the max. But by that point they are pretty loud. So that serves as a good volume-limiter for my ears.

In addition, I found these particular speakers did not require a subwoofer to produce sufficient low-frequency, unlike the other options except the KEF’s. So I was also able to eliminate the subwoofer from my setup and further satisfy my quest to downsize.

Now, keep in mind these speakers are for near-field, small-room listening, and they are perfect on stands for my application. They would not likely work for a dedicated / larger listening area as your only speakers, if that’s what you have. But for someone seeking to downsize and save on the budget, they are some truly great sounding speakers. And they did not cost an arm-and-a-leg even for budget audiophile quality reproduction.

If you’re in the same situation, this is an example of what you might do for listening enjoyment while jumping off the buy-sell-go-round of audio equipment. Maybe you can do better, maybe not — depending on your tastes, of course. But if you’re looking to truly trim the budget, make sure to consider all of your options. Then, stick with your decision.

 

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