Thursday, July 11, 2013

DIY Hi-Fi On a $300 Budget

I've recently gotten back into vinyl in a big bad way. Yes, I have always bought records throughout the years, but recently after doing research on the benefits on not having to deal with the over-compression plaguing CD's these days (known as the "loudness wars"), I've decided to only buy vinyl if and when available. Now, does that mean that many new albums produced today are not directly taken from the CD? Of course not, but it will always at least be on par with the CD quality and in most circumstances the over-compression stems from post-audio-engineer and takes place in the CD duplication factory. That means that 95% of the time, even if an album was recorded digitally, if the engineer is worth his salt, the vinyl will still be more listenable. Also, I personally just prefer to have a more substantial physical product to hold and study at the end of the day.

I work alot in the field of audio, so when I get time off, I want the biggest bang for my buck when it comes to creating the best sound possible from any given album. The problem with this is that a true Hi-Fi system can run you upwards of $20,000 depending on how much of an audiophile you are. Although I do want the best sound possible, I have limitations to what I am willing to spend to hear an album (you could get a car for the price of some systems after-all). This led me to piecing together my new setup from scratch which although the sound may suffer just a tad, it's basically unnoticeable to anyone except the best trained ears.

Hi-Fi systems can be broken down into this: The Needle, The Turntable, The Preamp, The Receiver, The Speakers. In the purchase of each of these, I was determined to get the biggest bang for my money possible. Some of these deals I had to hunt down, but most are readily available for anyone to purchase.

The Needle & Turntable:
With a bit of research, I found THE introductory model of turntable. It is the Audio-Technica LP60. For under $100 it is THE best deal on the market, however it's stylus (needle) and belt are a bit lacking for quality. This is best remedied by a company named LP Gear who sell a $99.95 LP60 that comes with a new diamond tipped needle and carbon fiber belt. The only downside of this model may become apparent when hitting the last few songs of a side of an album. As the needle gets further away from the outside, the downward pressure is greater. Too much downward pressure creates distortion and is bad for your LP's. This is fixed on most systems by adjusting the counter-balance of the needle-arm, however this introductory model does not have a counter-balance and must either be returned to the factory if the problem arises, or, you can follow my quick tutorial HERE to learn how to do a DIY counterbalance.

The Preamp:
The LP60 comes with a built in line-level preamp that is of decent quality, however the biggest piece of a HiFi system is the placement of a tube preamp in front of the receiver. After researching tube amps for weeks, I came upon the "Little Bear P-3". This is a DIY kit that comes with every piece you need to assemble you're own tube preamp. It is Chinese in origin, but the build quality is very solid. Communicating to the seller is occasionally hard to near impossible as English isn't even their 3rd language (pretty sure they just run everything into Google Translate) but they are easy to work with and very appreciative of your business. I had a problem with the left channel output of mine and they immediately sent me a replacement board for free. It takes just a bit of "balls" to assemble this as you are working with a transformer after-all, but just assemble it with common-sense in mind and look at the pictures on the site to mimic it's wiring and you're gold. The thing is quiet, has zero unwanted noise, looks beautiful when plugged in, and sounds absolutely amazing. I would recommend purchasing an in-line power cutoff so that you don't have to unplug/replug the system every time you wish to use it. The only downside is that the stock Chinese tubes aren't the highest quality, but that is easily fixed with a few quick, cheap purchases from The Tube Store

The Receiver & Speakers:
Honestly, this may be a point of contention to any audiophiles reading this article. For the price, it is my opinion that you should go with one of the cheaper "all-in-one" surround sound systems on the market. You cannot beat the price of these and they open you up to other uses aside from just the turntable. I would never buy one of these new however and used is another bad bet, but I purchased my "open-box" system for $125 and it had an MSRP of over $400. Just get last year's display model and purchase the optional 5-year insurance policy and you've made a solid bet. Personally after hunting 3 Best-Buys in the area, I purchased this one. Just make sure that the reciever has an "RCA In" option and you're good to go. The bad thing about these cheap systems is that they jack up the watts by using inferior 3OHM speakers (smaller OHM = Bigger Watts). This is easily remedied by purchasing good quality 8OHM speakers that can handle the amp load... which I have yet to do.

So that's it! I spent under $300 and assembled my own DIY HiFi Setup. My plan is now to upgrade one bit at a time to achieve my perfect setup. First up will be the speakers, followed by a well-reviewed receiver, but for the time being, this setup sounds amazing and is on par with systems I've seen costing around $1200!

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