By Xin Feng PhD 01/11/02
Let me make three things very clear first:
Oh my goodness. I feel I
should stand on the street and grab people by the lapels and say "before you buy
another $500 Sony receiver, listen to this amp!" The music it creates is simply
gorgeous (at this price point, of course.)
I had exactly the same feeling when I got my NAD C740 which is C340 plus a FM/AM tuner. I threw away immediately my 3-year old Sony GA7ES A/V receiver. I still keep condemning myself again and again, why I had not done this earlier? I could have been enjoying real music three years earlier! It was also three years ago that I trashed all my $$$ Sony headphones after my discovery of Grado 60, but why I still bought that $$$ Sony receiver then? I never feel so stupid. I could have been much more productive working in a musical environment a NAD creates. I rejoice that I returned the Sony MZ-R700 MD and got the Sharp MT877 instead.
To find out the best audio you can afford to, there are two magazines you've got to read: Stereophile and What Hi*Fi?. You don't have to read all the issues of Stereophile, but you may not miss the Spring issue, which contains Stereophile's annual "Recommended Components". As pointed out by Stereophile, anything listed there, no matter it is a class A or D, is far more musical than mass-market junk. Class C is where you can find audiophile stuff from without paying an arm and leg, especially those marked with "$$$". For example, from class C, you can build an audiophile-level audio system below $1500 like this:
I bet you never heard of these three brands: Marantz, NAD, Energy. I knew only one of them, the Marantz. The above configuration is actually my current home audio system and I can neither be happier nor live without them. I'm not a real audiophile who buys $$$ speaker cable (yes, you heard it right, just the wires, not the speakers), but I do want good music - reproduction of serious performance of instruments or vocal. I did not use a NAD amp because the Sony ES A/V receiver had all the home theater features and its huge transformer and heat sinks plus the "ES" mark were somehow translated by me into good sound. I heard at that time that mass market stuff was no compare, but I still thought the ES (Elevated Standard, Sony's top line for audiophiles) could not be too far away from audiophile-level. As I said, that was a huge mistake and the difference is like day and night. I suffered from that mistake for three years, that's like 1001 days of traffic school. Think about it!
With the Sony ES, each day was the same like here in California valley: sunny and dry, plain and dull, nothing so exciting, nothing so sad neither. I always had to turn the volume up and up to try to hear more details or enable bass boost to try to feel some punches. No help, what I got were my neighbor's complaints and headache after a while of listening. With the NAD, I've found that I always turn down the volume again and again because it is so punching even at very low volume. Now I enjoy full four seasons. I laugh and cry. I have the birds singing in the morning, clouds flying at noon, thunderstorms at sunset, star dancing on the evening sky and the thorough silence in the midnight. I have the punches of deep bass and meanwhile don't miss a single note no matter how faint it is. I hear and feel lots of emotional things that I never had from the Sony ES. This is the real music -- emotional and touching. This is the real life should be -- of passions and feelings. Even FM sounds so good from it. Suddenly, all my CD collections sound totally different -- not "digital" at all! For the first time of my life, I hear human performance other than machine sound from a pair of speakers. All the good words in my dictionary are not enough to express my joy with this NAD and the regret for not having it earlier.
If you prefer a hi-end mini system because you are a student living in a small dorm, or you want great music on your computer desk, go get the NAD Music System. Read the great Stereophile review and you'll be convinced about your $799 investment. Yes, for that amount of money, sure you can buy a mini set of JVC or Sony with tons of features and fancy looking, but one thing you'll miss is the music. Too bad, this thing -- the music, happens to be the major function. Don't make the mistake I made three years ago. The music from a mass-market audio system is like what you hear from my 7-year-old practicing his student violin. The danger is: you know immediately how bad that violin sounds, but you don't realize how bad the JVC or Sony sounds until you hear the NAD. With the $799 NAD now available, there is no more reason to buy mass-market junk. Actually, there is still one thing though: you cannot find a NAD in your local BestBuy or CircuitCity. That's the way it is -- if you can find it there, it would then be mass-market junk. You have to order it from a specialized store or buy it online. Believe me, you can buy a TV from your local BestBuy, but never any audio stuff. If you do need a portable, get a Sharp MD from Minidisco.
If you just want to find out some cool audio stuff including those from mass-market, then, What Hi*Fi?, an English magazine, is your #1 reading. For example, you'll see the Sennheiser MX500 earbuds get 5 stars there, so does Sharp MD. Unlike most American audio magazines, which only give boring test data without clear verdicts, the English give you subjective reviews for almost all the stuff currently on market and bravely trash any junk regardless its brand name.
Why mass-market stuff can never sound musical? Let's take the Sony SRF-S83 as an example to explain why. As we found in my article, its key capacitors are cut down to half of the designed values. A 330uf is replaced with a 220uf one and two 220uf ones are replaced with 100uf ones. For a $60 radio, why Sony still wants to save 5 cents by using smaller capacitors? Remember, we are talking about mass-market here: if Sony sells 1 million units of SRF-S83, that's $50,000! As mass consumers who usually use crappy headphones never know the difference, so why not?
Mass-market stuff are not always cheap, but they are always compromised on sound quality. They are rich in features and on looking, because these things easily grab your attention and let you forget what you are really looking for. People, including me of course, are born weak to lure, like our mother Eve (note: "eve" is "eye" without mouth; mouth is for language; language is the way of thinking; therefore "eve" is "eye" lost mind).
Therefore, even though consumer electronics giant like Sony has the most advanced R&D facilities to invent Walkman, MD, etc., its mass-market audio components (headphones, amps, MDs, etc.) is no compare to those from small professional audio companies like Grado and NAD. I, as a scientist, did not believe this, but now I'm fully convinced by this NAD after spending (wasting) years of time and thousands of dollars on Sony audio stuff.
Thank Internet and websites like this, we'll see more and more consumers realize what have been missing from mass-market audio and finally begin to enjoy real music. While Internet and MP3 shakes the monopoly of pop-stars-based "music" industry, real music and real audio and record industry find their way. As I said before, what makes pop music popular, is the low quality of mass market audio. Cheap, small and carefree solid-state amps send music into massive homes, but serious music are simply not listenable from them. Things will change as more and more people realize that expensive Sony does not necessarily mean hi-end and nowadays hi-end audio does not have to be expensive. For example, the stereo in my GEO Prism'97 (you know, it is a cheap car) has only a FM/AM tuner - no cassette, no CD, just an ancient volume/switch knob on an ugly black face plate, but it serves classic music from FM very well. Somewhat grainy, but musical. Hat off to the designer! In contrast to that, the stereo in an expensive Toyota Camry'99 has them all plus full digital controls, but sounds just digital - pure machine sound. Before the Internet era, how the hell could mass consumers find the name "NAD"? And without NAD, who can be dare enough to become an audiophile in face of bankruptcy?
Disclaimer: I have no any relationship to NAD. I'm just one of happy C740 owners.
P.S.: Rotel also offers some audiophile components at very affordable prices, but unfortunately I never have any experience with its products. NAD's unique ISC (Impedance Sensing Circuitry) supposedly drives different speakers from 2 to 8 ohms equally well and you may care less about matching your speakers.
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Xin Feng Company