Image courtesy John Keogh under Creative Commons

For as long as I can remember, music has been a integral part of my life. I’ve had conversations over the years with folk who openly admit take no interest in music – something I find alien and a bit odd. Are they defective? How can music not move you? To have no opinion on what is good or bad? [I have plenty of opinions on such matters, which usually result in me being described as ‘music fascist’ or something similar by those who know me best]. I like almost anything, although music charts these days are generally a barren wasteland, gutted by ‘tin-eared, graph paper brained accountants’ and MTV, as noted by Jello Biafra*.

The Beginning

On turning eighteen, I came into some money I’d been left by my Grandad; angler, Brylcreem enthusiast and hi-fi lover. My Mum & Dad inherited his old brushed aluminium ITT hi-fi after his death, and what I realised, years later, were Grado cans. My sister had bought a car with her inheritance – a Fiat Tipo. When I revealed my intention was to buy a stereo with mine, my dad wondered why I didn’t want to spend it on a car too. Fifteen years later, I still have the hi-fi. Does anybody still own a Tipo? I’m still smug about that. πŸ™‚ At any rate, Grandad would have approved!

I spent about six months prior to my eighteenth birthday studying and researching the market. If I was going to be dumping a sizable chunk of cash on a hi-fi, I wanted to make a good choice. I looked closely at some rather nice milled aluminium Musical Fidelity gear, but eventually went the Arcam route. Award winning, built in the UK and within budget. I had an Alpha 8SE CD Player, Alpha 8R Amplifier into a pair of Acoustic Energy AE109 floorstanders. I went all digital too, with a Sony Minidisc recorder replacing cassette [remember when Sony used to innovate?].

The Evolution

The minidisc player is long gone now, but the core of the system remains. The Alpha 8R is now paired with an Arcam P75+ power amp to biamp the AE109s. I remember the jump in performance as vocal tracks became more separated from the music and the soundstage became more expansive, it was like taking the earplugs out. Sceptical others were surprised to hear the difference too. People have a habit of underestimating their ability to notice the improvements component upgrades bring – until I forcibly sit them down, equidistant from each loudspeaker and stick on their favourite song.

The Alpha 8SE was eventually replaced by a DV88, Arcam’s first DVD player, which also happened to be a highly capable CD player. My sister actually won it doing the crossword in Q Magazine. I could never have afforded the purchase back then, it was about Β£1000 in the shops [I read online that someone had picked one up from a dealer for Β£75 recently!]. She got a new hallway carpet, and I got a cheap upgrade. These days, it’s retired from DVD duties, as my Β£100 bluray player has it beat. Since I bought the Sonos ZP90, it doesn’t play too many CDs now either. The addition of a BK Elec Gemini II subwoofer filled in the regions that even the AE109s couldn’t reach. This wasn’t strictly required, but I bought this for my home cinema, but have found it to be quite capable musically too.

The Future

The ZP90 streams our music from the NAS on the network, [Lossless, of course]. My iPhone, or Margaret’s Android act as interface for queueing up, skipping tracks etc. It works beautifully. Clearly Sonos have watched Apple’s approach to usability and simplicity. When I had a poker night recently, everyone downloaded the apps to their phones and just started queuing up their favourites! One feature where the Sonos really pulls ahead of it’s rivals is that it isn’t just a streaming device, it’s a multiroom system too. I also have a Sonos S5 in the kitchen which wirelessly and seamlessly interfaces with the ZP90 in the lounge. The S5 is small and light enough to be taken into the garden on rare sunny summer days for barbecue entertainment. Sound quality is decent for an all-in-one of this size.

As I say, since I bought the Sonos, I rarely play CDs now, but a month or so ago, I put on GusGus’ Polydistortion, what a difference! The Sonos sound quality had become my new ‘normal’, and I’d forgotten just how good my CD player sounds. A quick switch back to the Sonos and the lossless version of Polydistortion confirmed the ZP90 was nowhere near the quality of the old DV88. A solution was required.

I found it in Arcam’s [are you seeing a pattern here?] rDAC to which the ZP90 now offloads its digital to analogue conversion duties. The rDAC is using the same Wolfson DACs [designed in Edinburgh!] that Arcam use in their top of the range CD player.

Lossless files through the ZP90/rDAC now rival/exceed the quailty of the DV88. In fact, the DV88 is just the CD transport now, it too is offloading DAC duties to the rDAC. The final piece of the puzzle is a Spotify premium subscription which allows me to stream 15 million tracks at a decent 320kbps, through the Sonos and around the house. I think I’ve bought my last CD. Although I’ll still purchase albums I fall in love with as FLACs where possible.

But anyway, I’m done buying hi-fi componentry, for a while at least. Bits of it are getting fairly old now, but a good stereo doesn’t become bad overnight. Admittedly, the AE109s are too big for this room, but careful placement and tuning has more or less ironed out all outstanding issues there. In fact proper speaker placement is the best hi-fi upgrade you can give yourself, regardless of cost. A 5ΒΊ difference in angle can really tame harsh high frequencies and improve stereo imaging, it’s all trial and error of course, but an evening or two with a small selection of songs can transform your listening experience from a good one to a great one. And that Spotify Premium subscription you’ve been putting off? Do it!

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* I’m acutely aware of the irony whenever I hear the ‘five grand stereo’** line in Holiday in Cambodia. What would Jello think?!? Should I be keeping it real with a Β£50 Matsui stereo? Don’t suppose there’s any chance of some Dead Kennedys remasters anytime soon… πŸ™‚
** Mine didn’t actually cost 5k, but I feel chastised nonetheless!

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