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HiFi buying guide

Part 1: sources

Geoff Husband's choice

[Italian version]

A hi-fi for UKP 500 (1,000 $), second-hand of course!
When I thought of writing this short piece I decided to use the resources available to me and post a question to the TNT forum asking members to recommend systems or components for complete one-source system costing no more than UKP 500.
It's an arbitrary price point I know, but a very crucial one if friends in the trade are to be believed. The general public believe an expensive stereo costs UKP 500, and sadly that means some sort of stack system. Any more and you are in the territory of the hi-fi fan. What a sad state of affairs.
A UKP 500 stack or mini system will turn off as many people to music as it will attract. So I decided to have a look at what could be bought for UKP 500 on the second-hand market that would really turn people on to music and hi-fi, a sort of first step in the addiction :-)

The replies from the forum came under two catagories; one giving a list of components that worked well together, but the majority saying that real hi-fi couldn't be done for UKP 500.
This came as a surprise to me and I ask the question; who is the real music fan, the person with a UKP 500 pound system and UKP 5000 pounds worth of records, or the one with a UKP 5,000 pound system and UKP 500 pounds worth of records?
Believe me I've met people who belong to both groups. I'm young enough to remember being a student who loved music and scratched around for the best value in hi-fi and records I could find to feed my habit, and it is to music lovers on a tight budget that this article is aimed at, not the "it's not possible to get a real feel of a venue for less than UKP 5000 brigade".
I've limited myself to a one source system here, no component costing over UKP 400 and to UKP 500 pounds total, however by mixing and matching it will be possible to make a system that makes music for UKP 200 pounds to UKP 1400. One other consideration is to be realistic about the future. If this UKP 500 is a one off purchase that will be expected to last for a long time it may well be very different to a UKP 500 system which you intend to be a first rung on a long and ultimately expensive ladder.

Before I start, a few words about the second-hand market. Firstly I live in Britain and France so my choices are limited to things available in those countries though I've tried to avoid components that are hard to find, or unsupported if things go wrong. Secondly the prices are a guide to what you can expect to pay in Britain on second hand private sales in the excellent free-ads type papers. Lastly with each component I'll try to point out the pitfalls of buying second hand.

CD Players

Of all the components a CD player is probably the riskiest buy. There are a lot of moving parts and switches and they are not, particularly at this end of the market, generally worth repairing if they go wrong. On the other hand the press and manufacturers are so intent on selling the latest model that the depreciation and therefore the bargain factor are high.
Make no mistake, a good CD player from four or five years ago is still a good player. Sadly it's very hard to spot the level of use a player has had, the give-aways being the switch logos being worn off, or a battered remote. When trying one out, use all the functions, open the drawer a few times, generally give it a hammering, then offer the vendor half the asking price!
You see second hand players should be peanuts. The same names keep cropping up, Marantz, Rotel and Technics. All produce good sounding budget players. There are far too many models to list, but you'll get to hear the beast in a system if not at your home. The models one-up from budget usually have better casework and "feel" but often sound no better.
For example a Marantz CD42 aught to be possible for about UKP 50 which is a rediculous amount for that quality. Thus a CD based system may well be cheaper than an equivalent analogue set-up. It may even be better to buy a new budget player around the UKP 150 mark and relax behind the guarentee leaving plenty for the rest of the system... If you are prepared to take the risk and go for an older high end machine around UKP 400 then you will get a better sound but be warned, if something goes wrong, you may well find the bin the cheapest option.
In this category I'd place the Micromega Solo H - a stunning looking and very analogue sounding player who's direct replacement now costs nearly UKP 3000! Similarly Meridian players seem common and will sound good.


CD players are cheap to make, they are mass produced electronics in cheap boxes. Quality turntables require quality engineering, and that is never cheap. The advantage though is that unlike CD players a TT in good condition and looked after should last practically forever, with just the occasional service or drive belt to help out. Worth remembering though is that every 1000 hours or so you'll need a new "needle", something which can cost between UKP 10 and UKP 5000+ pounds ;-)
When buying set the arm weight at zero and check it floats freely. Then grip the headshell and gently twist it back and forth, you shouldn't feel a click. Then place a fingers on opposite edges of the platter and press down alternatively to try and rock the platter. If you feel a click then the bearing is worn. Do this at several points of the platter. Then remove the mat and place a finger on the platters edge. Use your finger to rotate the platter. If the motion feels at all "gritty" then the bearing and/or motor is damaged.
Lastly switch the deck on and check it gets up to speed. The time taken varies hugely from deck to deck, often better decks taking longest. Belt drive decks sometimes make a buzzing sound as the belt slips on the pulley, LP12's do this and it's not a problem.

For me the base line performance for a hi-fi deck is the Rega Planar 2. Simple, solidly built with an arm far too good for it, it gives a performance on a par with a UKP 500 CD player. These are common and you should get a good one for UKP 100 pounds. It's bigger and slighty better brother, the Planar 3, goes for a little more, say UKP 125. If you want cheaper you need to go back in time a little and of the golden oldies the various Thorens keep cropping up, these are all good sounding and supported by the manufacturer, a TD 150 starting at about UKP 50.
Thorens arms are generally the weakest links, but considering the price not bad at all.

Around the UKP 100 pound mark you'll also find the AR EB 101, a proper suspended chassis deck with a decent arm, I'd take one of these over a Rega. For a tiny bit more money AR's legend is a similar beast with much better woodwork and a removeable armboard that allows for upgrades later.
You may also find this deck with other arms such as the worthy Linn Basic or best of all a Rega RB 250. In this form it's a fine deck capable of seeing off a poorly set up LP12. Other decks in this category, available for between UKP 100 and UKP 250 are the Dunlop Systemdecks, Manticore Mantra, Michell Synchro, Linn Axis and the suspended subchassied Aristons.
All, if in good condition, will give years of superb sound and access to cheap second hand music. As for the arms fitted the AR arm, Mission 774 and Linn Basik are pretty much on a par. The Rega is much, much better and the only arm you're likely to encounter at this price point that will happily cope with moving coil cartridges.

Given a UKP 500 pound budget you are just in superdeck territory, and especially if you intend to upgrade the rest of the system later, they are hard to turn down. THE deck at between UKP 250 and UKP 400 pounds is the Linn LP12.
It's become fashionable to knock this deck, a reversal of ten years ago when it was considered the only deck worth owning. In production since the early seventies it is very easy to find, and being a top deck is quite likely to have been looked after.
Yes, there are battered 25 year old examples but to be honest they're the exception and easy to spot.
They are very reliable - the exception being early Valhalla power supplies which will have been fixed by now - and even the oldest decks are fully supported by the factory and updateable. You should be able to find a late 70's early 80's LP12 in spotless condition with an arm for around UKP 250.
For UKP 400 pounds you should be looking at a late 80's model with an ITTOK. This combination was designed to be a top turntable compatible with five figure speakers and amps. There are many people who will back this combination to take on any CD player at any price. A good friend has just bought a 1991 Valhalla model with ITTOK and new AT OC5 cartridge for UKP 450.
His comment on first hearing it was "I'm never going to play a CD again am I?". His CD player is a well reviewed three box combination, with an LP12 like this you're going to forget front end upgrades for a long time...

BUT... The LP12 is not perfect. As I've said it is designed to work with top systems. It has a strong character, has massive (coloured?) bass and power, times impeccably and though not the best in the world in detail or imaging it will happily see off any CD or LP front end you'll see that fit the budget.
It's biggest downfall is that bass. It needs a dry, fast amp with top notch bass control, one of the reasons that Naim amps are a match made in heaven. Likewise speakers cannot be loose in the bass. Quite frankly the LP12 is just too good for most combinations you're likely to put together having just spent the majority of your UKP 500. The simplest solution is to team the LP12 with small speakers that are naturally light in the bass.
Though this is avoiding the problem rather than curing it the result can be very satifying and the LP12 will make the most of what bass the speakers have. Lastly the LP12 needs to be set-up properly. It's not the black art it's made out to be but it is fiddly. There is more than enough advice on the net on how to do this, just do a search for +LP12 +set-up...

Other superdecks? The problem is that old Pinks (Pink Triangle, that is) aren't well supported or that well put together and little else will come close.
You can get Roksan Xerxes, but they too are unsupported and their top plate droops making them unusable, not for me... The only other deck I'd consider would be a Rock.
Though it has been made in several guises, it is after all a very simple and well made beast, fiddly to use but with a very controlled sound that some may prefer to the LP12 - much more CD like.

Copyright © 1999 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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