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