The Joy of Used by Robert Learner

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by Robert Learner on November 29 '07

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The awful truth is that most new audio equipment is worth half of what you paid for it the moment you power it up. This isn’t the 10 percent a year depreciation of your car; it’s freefall.

Why an immediate fifty percent drop in value of a newly bought component? There’s just not a ton of demand out there for mid-to-high end stuff, and many owners are serial equipment floppers. Furthermore, audio equipment is largely solid-state so there’s little physical wear, and most of the good stuff is somewhat to ridiculously overbuilt. Yet further, unlike the rapidly changing videoscape, audio technology is relatively mature and slow to improve. Low demand, high reliability and lack of obsolescence yields a glut of good used equipment and great opportunity for the savvy music lover on a budget.
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Going used with some equipment has gotten me tremendous leaps in sound quality that I otherwise couldn’t afford. To reiterate: I’m not talking about ‘a subtle, but palpable improvement in the naturalness of the timbral presentation augmented by a somewhat widened soundstage particularly notable on well-miked choral recordings yielding a slight-yet-unquestionable gain in “thereness.” The same money spent on used gear vs. new can get you from good to WOW.

Opportunity established, let’s look at the pros and cons. Buying new gets you an audition if you go brick and mortar, a pristine piece, a warranty, and dealer expertise and support. This means 3 or 5 or even 20 years of free repairs, on call troubleshooting of problems, and the comfort of knowing that no other fingers have sullied that volume dial. For most buyers, this is the way to go.

Buying used has risks: amplifier tubes can burn out, CD/DVD transports can fail and speaker drivers can physically deteriorate -- and these breakdowns are more likely with older equipment than new. However, in twenty years of owning all kinds of equipment, used and new, I’ve had virtually no problems. The few I have had were dealt with quickly and fairly by the manufacturers, warranty or not.

If you’re willing to accept these risks in pursuit of killer bang for the buck, the next questions are where and what to buy. Many dealers carry used and demo stock; buying this way gets you a real live look at the piece, perhaps a short warranty, and an audition if you’re lucky. The downside is price -- you won’t find the typical 50 percent markdown of used stuff at a dealer.

There are several online sources for used equipment. Audiogon is probably the largest classified listing site. Forums like AVS and Audiocircle have listings as well. Ebay, of course, is the largest auction source.

The main risk here is the scam -- either misrepresented equipment or payment issues. You should insist on pictures, check member feedback of your seller (or buyer) on sites that offer it, communicate clearly and frequently, and expect the same in return. Then you just have to go with your gut. I’ve heard of problems here and there but haven’t had any myself, and I think this is the norm.

Now we come to what to buy. Best case scenario, you’ve heard the piece and have the opportunity to buy it used. My guess is though that most stuff bought used is done so on reputation rather than direct experience. Let’s say you’re looking to buy a used amp at around 2K to replace the $800 amp you bought new. Assuming the 50 percent of retail cost for used, that’s an amp that retails for five times as much your existing one. Should be a significant improvement. After determining what technical specs your speakers require from an amp, you will likely see a plethora of listings on Audiogon that fit your price/performance parameters. At this point, you can and should haunt user forums for experiences with the pieces, talk to audiophile friends and forum members, read and re-read reviews and pore over manufacturer sites to hone in on what is the right choice for your system. Yet even after all the research, it’s a crapshoot; you plug it in and hope. Frankly, a 5K amp should sound good with anything, but there are good relationships and there are great ones, and who doesn’t want great? Your best insurance is to buy an established brand at a good price. An imperfect fit in this scenario can be resold with minimal loss, and you live to buy and listen another day.

My living room system consisted of a pair of ATC 20-2 active speakers bought as dealer demos, fronted by a couple of excellent components I’d picked up used at about half of retail: a VTL 5.5 preamp and a Cary 303/200 CD player. In addition to having a digital input (a feature all CD players should have IMO), the Cary also has a built-in volume control so if you don’t need a bunch of inputs, you can skip a preamp and drive your amps directly with it. It’s a really versatile piece.

Over time I’ve copied most of my CD collection onto a hard drive using the Apple Lossless codec in iTunes for capture. 99% of my listening in this system became using a Squeezebox to access the music over my wifi network, and feeding the Cary with its digital out. I didn’t need to accommodate multiple sources anymore, and the Cary has the balanced outs required by the ATCs. Bypassing the beloved VTL and driving the 20-2s directly with the Cary yielded a notable transparency gain vs. having the VTL in the signal path, but subtly less bass and drive. However, once I’d heard the increased clarity and ease this setup afforded, there was no turning back.
Though now sold on the one piece DAC/preamp concept -- less in the path yields more transparency -- I didn’t want to sacrifice drive, the more powerful sound I got with the VTL inline. Boomer that I am, I wanted it all.
WANTED: A used DAC/preamp in excellent condition with balanced outs and an analog input if possible. EOE (tubes are encouraged to apply) D.I.A.L.B.O.B

To elaborate: a DAC/preamp with the balanced outs and adequate voltage gain to drive my ATCs. As I’m skipping a preamp, I also want a set of analog inputs to accommodate my future vinyl plans. This requirement drastically narrows the field and could be waived if the otherwise right girl comes along. According to my wife I’m not perfect either but remain a keeper -- I tend to agree on both counts.

More: with their extreme transparency and detail, the ATCs are microscopically revealing speakers in a room that is hard and unforgiving. Now I am not a fan of BS smoothing of highs: guitars can be harsh and moonshine should curl your teeth. But as room treatments and even heavy curtains are out for our clean, contemporary-styled living room, a piece with a half degree lean toward romance, away from the lab bench, wouldn’t hurt. A tubed output stage might be just the thing (miss that VTL!), but again, it would be too field-narrowing as a requirement.

OK, now that I’ve defined what I need, and set my budget ($2500), I talk to people, read reviews and gain both empirical knowledge of DAC/preamps and what’s out there, as well as some gut feel for what might work synergistically with my ATCs.

I’m firmly in the camp that you build a system speakers first. Within a given price range, they can sound radically different and distinctions are often instantly discernable. Distinguishing among good 1K CD players, for example, can take repeated listens; it’s more a shades of gray thing. Find the box or panel you like, then paddle upstream.

Based on my specs, I’d IDd the following preamp/DACs:
MONARCHY MODEL 24: I’ve heard and liked Monarchy amps, and the tubed output stage appealed. Owned a Monarchy jitter corrector in a system past that worked well and is thus indicative of a company that understands digital. Good reviews, and was offered one for a ridiculously good price. Single ended only though, not the balanced outputs I needed. The designer CC Poon was very helpful in suggesting some transformers that would enable such output, but in the end I decided to skip the complication despite what may have been the value champ.

EMM DAC2 SE Met all the physical requirements, talked to some owners who corroborated the view -- a state of the art dac and preamp from a company that defines the leading edge of digital playback. Way too expensive at least $8500 used, however. But to quote Mickey Rourke (name the movie): ‘If you don’t dream, whaddya got? Nightmares.’

AUDIO AERO PRIMA DAC MKII SE A company whose digital products get almost universally rave reviews that are also unusually consistent about the sound - analog-like meaning lively and tangible, yet/and highly resolved at the same time. There’s clearly a house sound here and in fact, all AA digital products use a version of the Solution for Time Abstract Re-Sampling (S.T.A.R.S) system from Anagram Technologies which dejitters and further processes the digital signal, and the miniature 6021w tube for the output stage. The SE refers to a cap upgrade the North American distributor makes which is universally thought to be a worthwhile improvement There are two analog inputs as well which accommodate my vinyl plans.

I’ve liked what I’ve heard of AA gear in setups at shows, but never in a known system where I could discern its effect. In the end it’s not much more than instinct, but a strong one, that the AA would work well with my ATCs. At $2800 or so used it’s a bit of a stretch to my budget, but audio stuff always manages to get my wallet to flex. Furthermore, at the price and given the reputation of Audio Aero, I ought to be able to resell with minimal loss if the pairing lacks chemistry.

Flex and sunder are different things, and my wallet did the latter. I was about to pull the trigger on an Prima DAC SE for $2850 when a good dealer who I’d done business with over the years offered me an upgraded EMM DAC2SE demo for $4900. That’s over $3500 less than any used unit I’d seen and included a full warranty. The timing was obviously karmic, so I jumped. I’d never had a truly state of the art component before (poor boy!). Every review, everyone I talked to who owns or owned an EMM piece raved. It’s electrical characteristics suggested a fine match for my ATCs, and if it leaned toward the ‘analytical’ side of things qualitatively as some suggested, well I’m a fan of accuracy and truth. My kids would eat rice for a few years.

Such was my excitement upon its arrival, I tore it from the box like a wolf at a fresh carcass. I am state of the art. Hooked my bleeding-edge processor with a proprietary ‘house made’ (no Burr-Browns or Crystals for this baby) DAC that upsamples all data to SACD-type rates to my high resolution-studio reference-supremely truthful ATC 20-2s with their ‘house made’ cured salmon I mean bass/mid driver specifically designed to reduce magnetic hysteresis and...

it was OK. Finally got the supermodel up to my apartment and you know what...
OK, OK, I need to time to appreciate the EMMs subtleties; it’s a grower not a show-er. The state of the art doesn’t brag, but damn if the Cary didn’t sound at least as good.

A week goes by and suspicions mount. This just can’t be state of the art, or if it is, count me out. I’m starting to think that despite the SE sticker on the upper right corner of the unit, it hasn’t been upgraded. There’s no way externally to tell other than the sticker which could easily be slapped on. Calls and emails to EMM yield that popping the hood will end the mystery -- upgraded units have one blue circuit board and the new yellow one (a composite laminate featuring microscopically smooth copper traces significantly reducing skin effect issues!), as opposed to the two blue boards of the old unit. Twenty Torx screws later, I pop the hood and it’s blue and blue. Now I’m blue. And as it turns out, about to get bluer.

My dealer says he’ll look into it; the unit was sent to the distributor for the upgrade and it’s an SE as far as he knows. Nauseating story short, everyone points the finger at each other -- my dealer, the distributor and EMM. The upgrade is $5K, and no one will even meet me halfway toward the cost though everyone acknowledges it’s the customer who’s getting screwed here. After two months of trying to broker some kind of deal between parties that have stopped communicating, I give up and send the EMM back to the dealer for a refund. So much for state of the art. Buying used/demo/sight unheard can be an adventure. And if something looks to good to be true...
The Audio Aero I’d almost bought was now sold, and no other units were up on Audiogon. I place a ‘wanted to buy’ ad for one and wait. And wait and wait. There are hundreds of DACs for sale on Audiogon, a few with the functionality I’d like, but I want the Audio Aero Prima DAC MkII SE. I’m going to listen to my instincts about what to listen to with my ATCs.

Finally, I get an email from Audiogon member Aljordan aka Alan. He’s thinking about selling his. Seems to be a straight up guy, the piece looks fine in the pictures sent and he’s very knowledgeable about the piece. His member feedback is spotless. Our issue isn’t money -- I listed $2850 as my price and Alan wants $2900, but is including some extra tubes and an extra silver faceplate to go along with the black one presently on. The only hiccup is that Alan is a reluctant seller -- it’s such a good piece he’s having a hard time letting go. He’s buying a house and could use the extra money, but... I’ve learned to be patient about these things (and things in general). I dislike any pressure for a ‘fast deal’ (beware), this stuff is, after all, a want, not a need. And I know that eventually another one will come up. Having said that, I’m thrilled when he greenlights the deal, my check is posted within the following minute.

Once bitten, I unhurriedly ease the piece from the box and pop the top. Yup, there are the caps that ID it as an upgraded SE unit. I jack in my ATCs XLRs and Squeezebox’s SPDIF, and power up: the blue display comes on confirming that my 16bit/44.1KHZ input is being upsampled to 24/192 via the STARS system. Checking that the volume is not too high, I press play...

WOW. This is immediately the best digital I’ve every heard and continues to be. It is a serious leap over my Cary, which it should be with a 2K greater list price. It is everything as advertised -- alive, detailed, tactile with superb flow. As an experiment, I hook it to my Llano amps which feed my VMPS RM40s -- these sound immediately better than they ever have; they go deeper, sound cleaner, and present a picture that’s simply more ‘whole’. I now feel truly done with my living room system, and by buying the AA used and the ATCs as dealer demos, I’ve saved over $6100 of off retail. That’s huge. And huge bang for the buck as well -- I think the sound quality I’m getting for about $7500 is at a peak of the value curve. It’s a thrill to listen to.

Buying used takes research, patience, and some risk tolerance. But doing so can get sound quality and satisfaction leagues better than what you’d get at even discounted retail, leaving substantial money left over for music, food, rent, bowling, or hey, even to save.

Next up is what may well be an extremely high value new system made up with a combination of Swedish and Chinese-made components repped by Sjofn Hifi: Guru QM10 speakers fronted by a Xindak C06CD player and A06amp. Supra interconnects, speaker cables, power cords and power conditioner were sent along as well. This is the exact system I was impressed with and reported on at the HE2007 show. Cost for all of the above is about $3600. Hej Du!

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