Building a Reference Home Music System

By Chuck Hawks

After owning and enjoying entry and mid-level audio systems, perhaps you are ready to move up. If you are like most of us, you moved from a compact music system to a simple, usually receiver based, component music system. This may have been assembled by purchasing used components. Your component system has evolved over the years as your income (and musical taste) has improved and now you are thinking of upgrading your music system, creating what I call a "personal reference" system.

This can be done in stages, although ultimately it will mean replacing most or all of your components. Of course, you may have a favorite component you would like to retain. Accessories, including interconnects and speaker cables, are transferable.

There is a variety of ways to approach building a balanced, personal reference system. For the purposes of this article, I am going to use examples from the Marantz, McIntosh, Rega and Klipsch lines. These are relatively well-known, widely distributed, audio brands with which I am familiar. Further, they are made in first world countries (USA, Japan and the UK) by skilled workers and are available in my general area. (I am writing this article, so I am going to stay with what I know.) Obviously, there are many other reputable manufacturers of high quality components and no slight is intended to any of them. Your personal reference music system should incorporate the brands you know and trust. An important factor is what brands are available in your local area, for unless you live in a major city, it is unlikely that all suitable brands and models will be available for audition and purchase.

The ultimate limiting factor for most of us is discretionary income, disposable funds, or in the vernacular, money. Unless you are a multi-millionaire, the most expensive, ultimate components are probably beyond your financial reach. Therefore, the first step is to determine how much you are willing and able to spend upgrading your audio system. This is a personal matter, but in this article, we will use 2011 suggested retail prices. A system of equivalent quality could be assembled from used components for about half the new price and sometimes even new components can be purchased at a discount .

A personal reference music system, as discussed here, will be stereo (two channel) and include loudspeakers, a power source (either an integrated amplifier or separate power amplifier and pre-amplifier), AM/FM tuner, CD player and turntable. (If your ideal reference system is multi-channel, read on; the basic idea remains the same.) If you budget about $2000-$5000 for each of these components, you are looking at spending somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 for your reference music system; less if you require fewer program sources.

At 2011 suggested retail prices, this allows purchasing upscale, but not "price no object," components. For your money, you should get excellent music reproduction and the admiration of your audiophile friends. Of course, your non-audiophile friends will scornfully exclaim, "You could buy a car for that!" They are correct, but you don't want a car, you want your dream music system. They will never understand that, unless or until they are bitten by the "audio bug."

The lower end of this price range is still a substantial investment and you can buy a very respectable music system, even purchasing new components. For example, this is a $9,190 system:

  • Klipsch Reference Series RF-7 II loudspeakers ($3200/pair)
  • Marantz Reference Series PM-15S2 stereo integrated amplifier, 90 watts/channel into 8 ohms ($2500)
  • Rega Radio 3 AM/FM stereo tuner ($845)
  • Marantz SA-15S2 SA-CD/CD player ($2000)
  • Rega P2 turntable with cartridge ($645)

If you have always yearned to own a particular manufacturer's components, you might choose to buy as many components as possible from that manufacturer. It would be hard, for example, to go wrong with McIntosh components for your dream system.

One audiophile friend of mine did exactly that in 1971 and the results were impressive. He chose a McIntosh MR77 stereo FM tuner, C28 stereo pre-amplifier, MC2105 stereo power amplifier and ML1C loudspeakers with MQ101 environmental equalizer. His only non-McIntosh component was a Dual 1219 turntable. (McIntosh did not offer a turntable at that time and, of course, the compact disc had not yet been invented.) This was an impressive system at the time and it still is today. One of the advantages of high-end audio components is that they last a very long time. Another is that they retain their value. This system would cost more to buy used today than it did new in 1971.

Another approach would be to decide that you want to build your reference system around your dream loudspeakers, using suitable pre and power amps from a respected manufacturer. The program sources might be from the same, or other, manufacturers. This is, perhaps, the most popular way to assemble a reference system. Here is an example of such a system:

  • Klipsch Heritage Series Klipschorn loudspeakers ($8000/pair)
  • Marantz SM-11S1 stereo power amplifier, 110 watts/channel into 8 ohms ($4000)
  • Marantz SC-11S1 stereo pre-amplifier ($3000)
  • McIntosh MR85 AM/FM stereo tuner ($2800)
  • McIntosh MCD301 SA-CD/CD player ($2800)
  • Marantz Reference Series TT-15S1 turntable with cartridge ($1500)

If you bought all new components, this impressive system would set you back about $22,100.

A mix and match reference system would use the best component of each type you can afford, new or used, resulting in a kaleidoscope of brand names. The best stereo system I have ever owned was assembled this way. It consisted of Altec-Lansing A7-500 loudspeakers, a Marantz 250M stereo power amp, McIntosh C26 stereo pre-amp, McIntosh MQ101 environmental equalizer, Marantz 125 stereo AM/FM tuner, Pioneer PL-41 turntable with Shure M91-ED cartridge, Harmon-Kardon CD-491 cassette deck and Sony CDP-620ES CD player.

All of these were highly rated components at the time and are still respected. I enjoyed that system for about 20 years. Since I purchased all of these components (except the Shure phono cartridge) used, I paid a fraction of their new prices. Indeed, at the time I could not afford to assemble a personal reference system by buying new components. Not until recently, when I began downsizing my music system, did I feel a need to replace some of those components and I am still using the same Marantz power amplifier and tuner.

I worked full time for about 35 years (after college) before becoming an "overnight" success as an outdoor writer just a few years ago. Consequently, by the time I could afford to purchase my first new component (Klipsch RF-7 II loudspeakers), I had officially become a senior citizen! The RF-7 II's remain my only "purchased new" components, although my present personal reference system includes (in addition to the aforementioned Marantz 250 power amp and Model 125 tuner) a Marantz SC-11S1 pre-amplifier and a McIntosh MVP871 SA-CD/CD/DVD player. The latter pair are current models as I write these words, but they were both purchased used. If nothing else, I am living proof that a person of modest means can assemble a personal reference music system!

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Copyright 2011, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.