Picking the right kit to make a system is crucial, but it’s easy to improve the sound even further with some affordable upgrades.If you’ve devoted the last few years to putting together your dream hi-fi or home cinema system, you’ll want to make sure it’s giving the best possible performance. In this article, we provide some pointers – a range of accessories, from speaker cables to interconnects, that are designed to make your kit sound better, or easier to use.
Sometimes a simple upgrade, such as adding a mains conditioner or an isolation platform, can do the trick. Or it might be a case of changing your amp, speakers or CD player.
All the upgrades we’ve suggested are ones you can add to an existing system without
having to ditch the whole set-up and start again. We’ve tried to keep the price of most items to around $1500, and it’s always worth asking your dealer if they’ll take some of your old kit as a trade-in to keep costs down.
1. Change the amplifier
NAD C320BEE | $599
NAD’s latest stereo products are rapidly taking over the budget end of the two-channel market. Pieces of kit such as this C320BEE amplifier and the C541i and 521i CD players – both of which also feature heavily here – are setting the pace below $1000.
This amplifier is an update of the previously highly successful C320. The BEE suffix marks it out as the handiwork of Bjorn Erik Edvardsen, a long-term NAD designer who was responsible for the company’s 3020 amp in 1978. That amplifier set new standards in budget hi-fi at the time and put in place the foundations upon which NAD is built today.
Externally the BEE looks very similar to the previous C320, but internally it has been heavily upgraded. The most important changes are the inclusion of NAD’s PowerDrive technology, which in theory makes a power supply act much
larger than it actually is, plus a significantly tweaked circuit design, and an upgraded toroidal transformer.
The result of this technology? Well, the amplifier blew us away.
So we know it sounds good in this combination, but just how much of an improvement – if any – is it over the Sony amplifier? The answer is immediately obvious and becomes increasingly so the longer you listen: the NAD C320EE is a significant upgrade. It performs better in every aspect of our listening tests and is genuinely a stunning product.
Slipped into place at the heart of our reference system it adds another dimension to the sound. It’s the extra sense of power and improved dynamics that impress on first listen and continue to grow on you as time goes by. The Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot’ has sudden shifts in volume and power that are relayed in a manner that sounds smoother and more agile.
But there’s also precision to feast your ears on: with this amplifier, the system uncovers an extra level of detail in Bruce Springsteen’s vocals on ‘The Rising’. His gruff style is handled impressively, with the passion and feeling really coming through, thanks to improvements in low-level dynamics and ambience.
Timing is also much improved, and this system copes admirably with the pacey hip-hop style of DJ Shadow. The solid and agile bass creates an improved low-end performance, which helps move the music along considerably. Unlike other component changes, using this amplifier doesn’t cruelly expose the weaknesses of any other part of the system. This means one of two things: either it’s not as big a step up as the CD player or speakers, or the Sony amp is the weak link in the chain.
2. Upgrade the interconnects
Townshend Isolda Deep
Cryogenic | $1299 RRP
When building a hi-fi system, we’d usually suggest that you set aside about a tenth of your total budget for interconnects and speaker cable. Working on that premise, spending that much on a pair of interconnects for this system may seem a little odd, but these are very, very impressive cables, and we were interested to see what benefits they had on our set-up.
The cables do make a difference to our reference system, and anything else we say in this review should not reflect badly on them: it’s just that the difference they do make is minor in comparison to adding a vibration-control platform or changing the speaker stands.
What they bring to the party is an ability to allow extra levels of detail and precision to shine through. The differences are not immediately obvious, but become apparent after extended listening. The fact the cables don’t make a bigger impact is due to the inherent limitations of the rest of the system. It’s just not good enough to partner these cables, which can only allow through the information that’s there, not add to it.
But we’d still advise you to ditch the free cables in favour of a good pair of interconnects.
3. Add a mains conditioner
DBA’s RC-300 Regulator | $1500 RRP
ISO-1000 Isolator | $1500 RRP
This mains distribution system may not add a heavy dose of chutzpah to your existing impressive kit-rack presence, but it can make a big difference to its performance. Audio professionals and audiophiles have known for years that the quality of the mains power supply to their equipment has a significant effect on sound quality. The technical reason for this lies in the variable and polluted nature of the mains supply.
It’s far from the pure source of constant voltage that you’d hope for because it’s heavily contaminated with radio frequency and other noise created by electric motors, arc welders and other equipment attached to the mains, and the voltage can vary markedly both in the short and long term.
When run together, the RC-300 on signal level components (CDs, DVDs and the like) and ISO-1000 on amplifier duty create excellent results. The high frequencies become pure, transients faster and the bass tighter. The mid-range benefits are significant, with greater warmth, immediacy and engagement.
The RC-300 accommodates six surface mount high-quality power outlets mounted on its top, an IEC power inlet and has a Jarrah wood top and a black powder coated aluminium front, rear and base. The ISO-1000 unit is supplied in a Jarrah cabinet with six surface-mounted high quality power outlets. For more information, visit www.dbacorp.com.au.
|Atacama Equinox | $899|
Basic racks are available for not a lot of money, but there’s one rack that really does tower above the others – the Atacama Equinox. This modular stand costs $899 for the base unit, which has two shelves, and $449 for each extra shelf.
The difference it makes to our reference system really has to be heard to be believed. Bass notes suddenly come to life, becoming easily discernible and offering considerably more insight into the music of DJ Shadow and Bruce Springsteen. The treble also loses its slightly hard character.
Vocals gain an extra degree of eloquence, as does the midband, which becomes more open and natural sounding. Rhythmically, things also tighten up.
This rack makes an enormous improvement to our budget system and for sound style it represents excellent value for money.
5. Change the speaker cable
|QED X-Tube XT300 | $40/m|
Speaker cable is all about letting information through, with as little taken out as possible. Therefore the more neutral the cable between your amplifier and speakers, the better things should sound.
We decided to test this out by doubling the amount of money we spent on our original cable, keeping things in the family by swapping QED’s Silver Anniversary cable for its brand new X-Tube XT300. This cable uses multi-strand copper conductors arranged in a tubular form around an ‘aircore’ – basically a tube with air in the centre.
With new cable, the sound has more weight and solidity, and the overall presentation of everything from classical to rock gains higher levels of authority and honesty. However, extended listening does throw up a couple of problems. The bass performance becomes a little bit overblown, a problem that becomes particularly apparent with Springsteen’s Lonesome Day and worsens with DJ Shadow.
It’s not really the cable’s fault, it’s just that wire this good begins to reveal the faults that lie at the heart of a budget hi-fi system.
Simply, it allows through too much information resulting in a more revealing, but in some ways less immediately listenable, sound. In this instance we’d stick with our original choice, QED’s Silver Anniversary.
6 Biwire the speakers
QED Silver Anniversary Biwire | $45/m
Investing in a second set of QED Silver Anniversary speaker cable is one of the least expensive upgrades here, and one of the most obvious.
While the single-wire version we used in the reference set-up works well, it doesn’t really get the best out of the very capable Acoustic Energy Evo One loudspeakers, which are designed to be biwired.
You can either buy a fresh batch of the biwire version of the cable – at $45 per metre – or simply buy another set of the single wire version. The latter option would involve some tinkering at the amplifier end, although the Sony amp will allow you to connect two sets of cable to one output.
The benefits are obvious straightaway, and the system improves significantly once the second run of cable is in place. The sound gains an extra sense of weight and solidity, Bruce Springsteen’s vocals on ‘The Rising’ sounding far more lifelike, and there’s more space around the instruments. Dynamics also improve, and there’s the impression of more headroom with the Flaming Lips’ excellent ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot’, where dramatic shifts in
the music are handled more comfortably. The bass also tightens up, but still retains the impressive extension that our reference system is capable of.
How much this upgrade costs depends on how long your speaker runs are, but even at five metres a side it won’t cost much to double up with single-wire cable, while upgrading to biwire is well worth the extra.
7. Add better speaker stands
Atacama SE6 | $499 RRP
We started this test using Atacama’s Nexus 6 stands, but we were intrigued to find out whether using a more expensive design would improve things. So we swapped the Nexus 6 for the company’s SE6 model.
The price gap may be small but these stands look a league above the Nexus models. Once assembled and filled with sand they are stylish and solid. The metal top-plate has a built-in spirit level, which makes it much easier to balance the trio of spikes on the bottom, giving extra stability.
However, the extra money brings more than cosmetic improvements: the sonic benefits are equally evident. It’s the bottom end that gains most, with the bass tightening up and gaining solidity. Thanks to this extra punch, timing is also improved, which makes a big difference with DJ Shadow’s ‘Private Press’.
Elsewhere, focus also benefits from the addition of more solid supports, with Bruce Springsteen’s vocals on ‘The Rising’ gaining detail and passion. Listen to large-scale classical works and the soundstaging also improves significantly.
The differences here aren’t as great as some of the other upgrades we tried – such as bi-wiring the speakers – but they are there. And if you’re suffering from a slightly loose bass, these stands are a sound investment.
Whatever your budget, placing your speakers on proper stands is infinitely preferable to just dumping them on the floor or a bookshelf. We highly recommend it.
8. Upgrade the speakers
KEF Q1 | $899
B&W has certainly got it right with these large standmounters, and we’d say they’ve cemented their position as one of the best speaker designs on the market in that price range.
The 602 S3s sound as big and bold as they look, and bring to a well-matched system a sense of authority and power that most similarly priced speakers can only dream of. They offer all the good points of sub-$2000 floorstander speakers but without dominating the room so much.
However, they are not solely about making a big noise. The 602s are also capable of an incredibly subtle presentation of classical music, and give impressive levels of detail and resolution. In fact, these are great all-round speakers and worth every cent of their $1199 price tag.
When placed on the Atacama Nexus 6 stands of our reference system, they undoubtedly bring a greater sense of power and authority to the musical mix.
The extra body they provide for the low-end stuff has a fantastically uplifting effect, especially when DJ Shadow’s ‘Private Press’ is in the CD player – the hip-hop beats gain depth and extension while retaining that all-important punch.
Springsteen’s vocals certainly benefit from the improved low-level dynamics and resolution that are the key factors of an impressive midband. Instruments gain greater room to breathe, and the E-Street band get to stretch their musical legs as a result. However, changing from the very capable Acoustic Energy speakers to the B&Ws highlights some deficiencies in our reference set-up.
These speakers are big, bold and powerful – as well as subtle – but there’s no doubt they need a capable amplifier to drive them to their full potential.
Unfortunately the Sony in our reference system is not that amp, and these speakers fall a touch flat as a result. They lack the bite and passion that we know them to be capable of, and the dynamics of the Flaming Lips set are lost. The sound is an improvement over the Acoustic Energy’s, but the B&Ws are nowhere near as impressive as we know they can be.
Play things loud and the system starts to struggle to fill the room, and the speakers lack the dynamic flair and authority that they have been praised for in earlier outings.
Part of the problem is that the Acoustic Energy Evo Ones are so good. The B&Ws bring some benefits to the system, and are a sensible buy as part of a long-term upgrade program if you plan to change your amp later. Trading in your old speakers might be a way to help you towards making that big upgrade.
But if your old speakers aren’t worth anything, and the dealer isn’t interested in doing a trade-in, and your funds are a bit tight you’d be better off trying KEF’s Q1s at $899. These make an excellent alternative to the B&Ws. They are terrifically articulate and informative, and beautiful to look at, too.
You can get the KEFs in three finishes – and they will grace even the most stylish of homes.
NAD C541i | $699 RRP
Upgrading to this more expensive NAD CD player certainly won’t spoil the aesthetics of your system. The 541i shares the traditional NAD looks of its budget brother, with only the subtle numerical difference in the badge and the HDCD logo giving it away. Around the back things are slightly more obvious, with an extra set of analogue outputs providing the more expensive machine with added multiroom flexibility and an additional digital output.
But does it offer a significant step up in performance? The answer is yes. It’s the increased solidity with Bruce Springsteen’s new album ‘The Rising’ that immediately impresses; the vocals gain a realism that was lacking on the C521i. The bass weight also improves, both with the Boss and the hip-hop beats of DJ Shadow’s ‘Private Press’, where the extra thump pays dividends.
At the other end of the tonal scale, the treble is more refined and offers greater insight into the snap of snare drums and the ambiance of acoustic guitars. On switching back to the C521i, it also becomes obvious that there’s a certain brashness to the budget player’s performance that the 541i smoothes over – but without losing the all-important bite and attack.
Rhythmically the 541i is streets ahead of the original player, and its timing with the complex beats of the Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot’ is first rate. There’s also an increased immediacy to the presentation that really brings the music to life.
However, trading up to the 541i does start to show the limitations of the Sony amplifier – something we discovered when using the 541i in combination with the C320BEE amp or other more expensive pieces of kit. With more capable amplifiers the differences between the two disc spinners are even more obvious.
There’s no doubt the C541i offers a significant performance upgrade, but offers less sound-per-dollar gain than it could do because of the limitations of the kit it’s partnered with.
What this does mean, though, is if upgrading the CD player is the start of long-term improvements to your hi-fi, the C541i is an excellent starting point, and you can make further improvements later.
10. Add an isolation platform
SAP Relaxa 1 $999 RRP
Unwanted vibrations are the bane of any hi-fi system; whatever the price of your kit, adding an isolation (or control) platform will improve things.
An isolation platform may look unassuming, but the difference it makes to a system can be substantial. Vocals become well focused and backing instruments have more space around them, while at the same time benefiting from extra cohesion.Switch to hip-hop and the extra base should prove itself tight and lean, while overall dynamics are improved as well. In fact, your system sound should improve remarkably and prove to be money very well spent.
International CES Innovations Award winner, the Relaxa 1 isolates electronic vibrations using strong magnets placed strategically — in other words, it’s floating on a bed of air. The Relaxa 1 comes in clear and black perspex and its dimensions are 515mm W x 75mm H x 315mm.
CD player: NAD C 521i $449 RRP
Terrific-value player, combining excellent dynamics, solid bass and an exciting sound.
Amplifier: Sony TA-FB940R $999 RRP
Has a beautifully balanced sound, with good weight and detail, that works well in a wide variety of set-ups.
Speakers: Acoustic Energy Evo One $715 RRP
These stylish budget boxes offer excellent levels of refinement and dynamics.
Doing it on the cheap
- Give each of the pins on your mains plugs a thorough clean with Brasso and a soft cloth. Why? Because cleaning your plugs will give a better contact with the mains and reduce interference. This will ensure greater clarity and detail.
- A simple alternative to paying for specially made damping feet or isolation platforms to put under your kit is to take a pair of squash balls and cut them in half. Then put each piece under the feet of your CD player, amp or whatever and – hey presto – you’ll reduce vibration from other components and improve the performance of your system even further.
- If you have an equipment rack, use a spirit level to get it as level as possible. This will give greater resistance to skipping on CDs, and the player will be better able to read the disc. Place the spirit level diagonally on the top shelf for the most accurate set-up.
So which upgrade works best?
We’ve run through a host of different options here to supercharge your system, and some worked better than others.
Much will depend on your own set-up, but we’ve picked the four options that brought the biggest improvement to our system and which will transform your listening experience.
1 Change the amplifier
While the five-star Sony amplifier we started with still offers impressive value for money, the extra cash spent on the brand new NAD C320BEE brings a dramatic improvement to the sound. It transforms the system’s performance, adding better detail, improved dynamics and a real sense of maturity and power. It’s also a worthy first step in the process of upgrading. It’s such an impressive piece of kit that it can partner the CD player and speaker improvements also mentioned here, without showing the strain of being used with more expensive components.
2 Buy a mains conditioner
We’re afraid hearing is believing with this option. It may not be the most glamorous alternative – your mates are far more likely to coo over a new amp – but the difference it makes to the sound is astonishing. And don’t forget, it can also be used to improve the sound and picture quality of your TV, DVD and VCR – in fact up to six components can benefit from this impressive piece of kit.
3 Biwire the speakers
Biwiring the speakers won’t cost a fortune, depending on the lengths required, but it’s definitely worth doing, the sound gaining extra weight and solidity. Of course, you’ll need speakers with twin sets of binding posts to do this.
4 Isolate your kit
Putting your kit on a proper rack is essential, and will cost around $899 for the Atacama bass unit featured here. You’ll minimise interference between the components and reduce vibration, all to the benefit of sound quality.
If you’ve got a little bit of money left over, you can partner this stand with one – or even two – of the Relaxa vibration control platforms, which offer an additional sound improvement.