We’ve finally arranged, after five full years of Cottage Life, for music playback. There were complicating factors, notably my being a deranged audiophile; and the installation isn’t 100% complete. But it sounds nice, and I’ve already saved $259,404.01!

Downstream · We’d always wanted music and, within the first year or so, snapped up a pair of PSB Alpha B1s. From time to time, people who notice how nice the music sounds at our place ask me what they should buy, and I often begin with “there are loads of options, but if you just buy whatever PSB speakers and NAD electronics fit in your budget, you’ll be pretty happy.”

Anyhow, PSB has been selling variations on the Alpha for a really long time, usually at a price point around $299/pair; stupidly good for the money. Of course, you can do better; for only $199,701 more I could have had Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF loudspeakers. But the logistics of shipping them on our small boat were just too complicated, so I passed.

Midstream · I kept meaning to get a cottage amplifier but not doing it, because decent ones tend to be kind of big and, well, there were lots of other things around the place that needed attention first.

But then I kept hearing buzz in audiophile circles about Class T amplifiers, built around Tripath switching-amp chips; that they were tiny, cheap, and offered unreasonably good sound. I heard a demo over my own speakers and liked it. So, for the cottage, I went and splashed out a big $24.99 for a Lepai LP-2020A+; I guess all those 20’s in the name are to suggest its 20W power rating. Here it is, with a 15" MacBook for scale.

Lepai 2020A+

Once again, some compromise is involved. Given that I’m willing to settle for low power, for a modest $27,225.01 extra I could have stepped up to an Audio Note Jinro, which is maybe a little more stylish than the Lepai. I could ignore the fact that it’s rated for a mere 18W of power, but its 85-lb weight and 12"x11"x26" dimensions just couldn’t be made to work for us.

Upstream · In music systems, what’s upstream matters. Cottage music has to be digital because really, carting LPs back and forth? On that Mac the digital music is at least all stored in high-bit-rate lossless, so that’s a good start. But most audiophiles believe that digital-to-analog conversion is kind of hard, and in fact it’s reasonable to wonder about the unit in the Mac, with a parts cost to Apple of maybe (I’m just guessing here) a buck or two. On the other hand, when I’m not feeding the Lepai with a laptop, I’m doing it with a Nexus 7, and I’m sure its D/A is a pale shadow of the Mac’s. So maybe I should lash out $10,999 more and get a dCS Debussy D/A. But (and you’ll notice a recurring theme here) there would be size issues.

Then the cabling · Currently the soundwaves are entering the Lepai through a little male-to-male micro-headphone-jack thingie I bought in an airport somewhere to plug my Android into hotel radios.

Irony aside, I do really believe speaker wires make a difference. At home I use 12ga high-purity copper wire, pretty cheap per foot at Radio Shack or equivalent. Lauren kindly picked some up for me at an electronics supplier; it’s specially-rated for in-wall use and cost a big $70.

Which is more than twice the price of the amp. And it turns out the Lepai isn’t expecting you to do silly things like plug in 12ga, the speaker-wire grippers aren’t close to big enough and quite a bit of swearing and improvising went into getting it all hooked up.

Once again, I could have done better and grabbed a set of amp-input and speaker cables from Valhalla for only $21,479 more. But that kind of cable is supposed to lie on the floor of your listening room, which isn’t practical in a cabin with kids running around.

PSB Alpha B1s and Howe Sound

I still need to route the wires through the walls
or under the floor or somewhere, and get speaker stands.

How does it sound? · Who cares? Look at that view! Anything is going to sound good if you’re leaning back looking at that.

Oh, you really want to know? Well, the first music I put on was Unknown Rooms by Chelsea Wolfe but I forgot to notice the system because the songs are so great.

It sounds pretty decent, overall. It loses its shit if you try to play Mahler really loud, but then I don’t play music really loud at the cottage. And something’s doing a little sugarcoating in the upper bass; I put on shuffle-everything while I cooked, and when Brown Sugar came on, I thought mmmm, Keith’s rhythm playing sounds nice; only it’s not supposed to.

Let’s look at another instance of that view.

Howe Sound from Keats Island

There’s another category in the list of audio products: “accessories” — things like speaker stands and room treatments. I can testify that the right piece of Pacific waterfront, seen as an audio accessory, has a strong powerful effect on the enjoyment of music; but unfortunately the cost, as with most audiophile products, is high.

What Next? · Well am an audiophile dammit, which means I can never rest. The Lepai runs on a dinky power supply just like you charge an Android with; the underground says that if you use a slightly bigger one with more amps, it really helps. I think I’ll also get a decent little USB DAC and feed the Lepai with sensible off-the shelf interconnects. One of these years.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Dave (Sep 01 2013, at 10:25)

Thanks for sharing all the details, but all anyone wants to know after seeing that view is where is your cottage?


From: Dave Walker (Sep 01 2013, at 11:31)

Cool article - and you have one helluva view at the cottage. It would be cool to spin some Wagner up while looking at that, when there's a storm brewing.

When it comes to the tongue-in-cheek-for-scale recommendations (which also get wildly high ratings), I've been a fan of Peter Lyngdorf's wild full-dipole speaker designs for years - I run a pair of Dali Skyline 2000s, from which you can just about draw an evolutionary line to his Steinways - and if you want to do justice to a pair of Steinways, you should probably drive them bi-amped from a stack of Krells ;-).

Anyway, enough silliness; as your argument goes, good things can come in small packages. When it comes to that DAC, my favourite audio company (all my upstream is old 500 series) has a dinky little new mini DAC out, which looks to be getting very glowing reviews. You might want to keep a look-out for the Meridian Explorer. It strikes me that it would fit well with the cottage system.


From: Michael (Sep 01 2013, at 16:22)

Was just looking at amps and speakers the other day and thought "I wonder if Tim Bray has a guide to entry level equipment"!

Amazon won't ship that amp to Canada. Happen to know a Canadian friendly online retailer (or Vancouver brick and mortar store) that sells them?


From: Jeremy (Sep 01 2013, at 19:09)

In keeping with the budget focus, I doubt you could find a cheaper USB DAC than the Behringer UCA202:


B&H PhotoVideo have them at $30. You get a headphone amp and optical out thrown in.I have the UCA222 model, and think it's one of the best bargains in audio.

You can't do hi-rez through it, but if you've already ripped your content at 16/44 then that won't be an issue.




From: Bud Ryerson (Sep 15 2013, at 14:12)

Regarding the Lepai LP-2020A+, I would gladly give up the useless tone controls for a headphone jack. I does have a precise, clean sound.


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August 31, 2013
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