SoundStage! UKBy now, for those who have been following this project for the past five months, we have collected the four key components. For you who are new to this series, the idea was, for a number of reasons, to put together a single-source system for $6000 (please check the previous five columns for the full mission statement) with a singular proviso: that any item would survive when it came time to upgrade any other part of the chain.

Thus, it wasn’t merely the price ceiling which proved challenging, the figure arrived at because it is the 2021 equivalent of what I spent—$700—when I bought my first system back in 1968 as a hi-fi-hungry teenager with a gig at KFC. That $6000 was a difficult enough target even now, despite us living in a world where inflation has bypassed hi-fi equipment and you can still get a decent turntable for under $500, and a pair of bookshelf speakers with genuine pedigree for even less.

Ken Kessler

Rather, the tough part was selecting an analogue front end, a tube phono stage with output control, stereo power amplifier, and speakers, any of which could be upgraded in any order without any one of them letting down the rest of the team. Think about it: a $1000 record deck that could handle a serious moving-coil MC when the time came, or a sub-$3000 power amp that could drive a pair of hungry Wilsons or Magicos.

As you can imagine, this called for products which by definition exceeded the norms of their price categories and defied obsolescence. But here is where I stamp my little fists and throw the toys out of the pram, as I rail against those of you who have nagged, berated, or otherwise pissed me off because you are blindly pro-digital or anti-tube, and who have lectured me on my ignorance/inexperience/baldness/whatever. I happen to favour tubes and vinyl, hence the way the system developed. It is not a political statement or declaration of war. It is merely my preferred way of listening to music after 53 years as a hi-fi owner. For you who hate tubes and vinyl, there are countless other pages provided by SoundStage! to peruse.

My last word on your objections and unsolicited suggestions: I could easily create a $6000 package with a killer CD or SACD player or a streamer (God forbid . . .) and a glorious solid-state amplifier, and it would be terrific, but that is not what I wanted. If this were a sports car website and I was looking for the perfect two-seat roadster, I would not expect to be harassed by readers who prefer SUVs. If digits and transistors are your thing, mazel tov. But they have nothing whatsoever to do with this project at this stage. You’ll see what I mean in a few months.

Anyway, we have come to the point where our spend so far consists of the Pro-Ject Debut Pro turntable/arm with Ortofon-made cartridge supplied everywhere except in the USA, where the deck is fitted with a Sumiko ($999); the EAR Yoshino Phonobox with volume control, but in the basic black case rather than the costlier chrome ($1795); the Bob Carver Crimson 275 power amp ($2750); and as revealed last month, the Magnepan LRS panel speaker ($650 per pair). The total—less local taxes, which are not my problem—is $6194.


Ah, you’re thinking: Kessler missed his budget. Well, not quite, because I also factored in a ten percent discount, as audiophiles have the same haggling gene as the traders in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, diamond hawkers on 47th Street in Manhattan, and Las Vegas hookers at 1:00 a.m. on a Tuesday night when there’s no convention underway. Sneer if you wish, go into denial, but I did my time in audio retail, and know for a fact that you guys make Scrooge look like John Beresford Tipton. (Google him.)

Anyway, there’s something which I did not factor into the budget when this project began, simply because it was not an issue in 1968. I had not considered one crucial element which separates hi-fi systems assembly in 1968 vs. 2021, something which, had you even raised the subject back then, would have you thrown out of the hi-fi emporium, or locked up, or both. All are purchases which were once considered accessories or afterthoughts, but which are now as key a part of the procedure as the main components. I am referring to cables, stands, record clamps, spikes, feet, platter mats, ad infinitum, which weren’t even a thing 50-plus years ago.

Let’s cut to the chase, because one of the audiophile fetishes I abhor is missing the forest for the trees. I know audiophiles who spent as much time or money on AC cables as on, say, their speakers when they didn’t even have the primary hardware sorted. I am not criticising them for obsessing about one particular facet of audio—I admit, for example, to open-reel tape dominating my thoughts vis-à-vis hi-fi, to the neglect of other elements—but rather, I am talking about a sense of proportion. In other words, if you have a $500 budget for a CD player, don’t spend $250 on the player and $250 on the interconnects. In my world view, the ratio should be $475 for the unit and $25 for the leads. OK, OK, maybe $450/$50.

With the system we’re putting together, as it comes straight out of the boxes, the only necessary items not supplied to get it up and running are a record clamp, preamp-to-power amp interconnects, and speaker cables. As the Maggies are floor-mounts, the need to allow for speaker stands is eliminated, while the Pro-Ject Debut Pro comes with a decent interconnect, the company’s Connect it E, and a good felt mat. They do not need immediate upgrading, either.

That said, the Debut Pro certainly benefits from a clamp or puck, and there are numerous models on the market from under $25 up to the middle hundreds. My preferred choice for that duty is Pro-Ject’s own Clamp it because it’s lightweight and it works, but $99 will cut into the allocation for speaker cables. Remember: the ultimate target, allowing for a ten percent discount, is $6600 at retail, so we have only $400 left in the kitty.

Ah, cables! I have lost friends because of my stance on cables, and have blanched at colleagues who say, “Well, if that’s what it costs for the performance they deliver . . .” My problem is not about sound, nor the fact that they are as system-dependent as a cartridge matching its tonearm. The dilemma for me is that cables are priced—in common with nearly all high-end cartridges—with little bearing on reality for parts costs, labour, perceived value, or anything else.

I have never said that cables don’t make an audible difference. The issue, however, when funds are not unlimited, is obvious to me: What makes a bigger difference and is a wiser way to spend your money? A $10,000 amp and $500 speaker cables, or a $5000 amp and $5500 speaker cables?

In my role as a reviewer, I have had to maintain a selection of cables to allow for proper matching when assessing equipment, and over a range of price points. I will never, for example, hook up a $450 CD player to a $600 integrated amp with a $10,000 set of interconnects. Conversely, I will not run a D’Agostino Momentum into Wilson Sasha DAWs with zip wire. My arsenal of wires, all in current or recent production, come from Atlas, Micromega, Yter, and Townshend Audio, and for my extreme system, different models from Transparent. All perform as wished, but each has its own sound.

Karen SumnerKaren Sumner

But what to do with only $400? Remember: I wanted this system never to be a burden as the years go by, with an upgrade path should the user feel the need at some point to freshen the sound. Transparent Audio’s Karen Sumner came to the rescue by virtue of one particular business practice which may or may not be offered by the brand’s rivals. (If so, in which case, this will apply to them, too.) The deal maker is that Transparent has a scheme to allow customers to upgrade their cables, with a trade-in of the old toward the new. It beats the hell out of taking an ass-kicking on eBay.

Karen and I had a falling-out over my stubborn refusal to equate the value of cables with, say, a Leica M10 or a Patek Philippe Calatrava. Détente ensued, however, when she reminded me that not only did Transparent have the aforementioned trade-in scheme but that it manufactures entry-level models which do not require an offshore bank account, a seat on the stock exchange, and the sacrifice of your firstborn.

Indeed, when I told her $400 was all I had left to spend for a pair of pre-to-power amp interconnects and speaker cables, and even though she still wanted me to respect her formula that the cables budget should be equal to ten percent of the total, Karen came up with a perfect solution. Which is why she’s so successful, and I drive an 18-year-old Honda.

Link and WaveLink interconnects and Wave speaker cables

Karen sent, via the UK distributor, two sets of interconnects and speaker cables to try in the system. I settled on 1.5m lengths for the interconnects and 8′ for the speaker wires (I got a kick out of mixing feet and meters), the implicit challenge being that I must try both. For the basic setup, she recommended Link TL1.5 interconnects for $120 for 1.5m (or 1m for $100) and Wave TW8 speaker cables at $250 for an 8′ pair. This added $370 to the tally, still allowing for a decent bottle of Chianti.

But then she made me eat my words with the alternate wires which she supplied. If I were prepared to bust the budget by a few hundred bucks, the next stage up would be the MusicLink ML1.5 interconnects for $250 for 1.5m (or 1m for $200) and the MusicWave MW8 speaker cables, an 8′ pair costing $500. That came to $750, or $350 over budget. And no Chianti.

Music WaveMusicLink interconnects and MusicWave speaker cables

While the ultimate verdict on the system is still a month or two away, as some parts of it still need a few more hours on them, a buddy who helps me with my setups agreed with me on two things. The first is that the MusicLink and MusicWave are unmistakably more open, with better slam and delivery than the admittedly superb Link and Wave. “Worth every extra dollar,” he concurred. The second is that the differences and gains were far more audible between the speaker cables than the interconnects, especially the gains in the bottom octaves.

This provided an unexpected third solution: buying the shorter pair of Link interconnects for $100 but opting for the Music Wave speaker cables at $500. This would limit the extra spend to $600, or only $200 over budget. Decisions, decisions. But here is what’s certain: the system is now complete and ready to rock, thanks to the addition of even the less expensive of the two sets of Transparent cables and (I know, I know: I’m really cheating here) a Clamp it. But as you’ll see, maybe it’s time to break a few rules.

Next time: Ken fires it up.

. . . Ken Kessler