MANY of us will, down the road, want to forget 2020 and what it brought to the world. We would hope that such a situation never arises again, not in our lifetime… once is once too many!
However, there surely have been side notes for each of us… in terms of reassessing priorities and re-adjusting perspective. For audiophiles, perhaps, there was more time to listen to their hi-fi systems with a keener ear. The fortunate ones who still have an income, food on the table and a roof over their heads… a time to count their blessings and plan their lives ahead accordingly.
This site, being a platform for hi-fi enthusiasts, has had its downers through the year… but it also gave our team the time and space to rediscover their systems and look ahead. We asked the guys two questions:
- What did you discover about your hi-fi system this year?
- How is this going to influence/affect your gear acquisition plans going forward.
I am among the more fortunate who have been able to work from home and spared some of the trials caused by the current worldwide pandemic. I used to listen more through my in-car system during the work week than the home hi-fi. It has made me realise that as much as I love the sound of my main hi-fi rig, the percentage of time spent with it is comparatively little against time spent listening to music through other devices. Hard to argue that an unjustifiably disproportionate amount had been spent thereon.
Another realisation is I can’t turn on the home rig (my home office is the same room the audio system sits in) as it would be detrimental to my ability to concentrate on the work that brings in the bread. I have to fight the temptation to sit just a moment or two in the centre seat as I know time can run away so quickly if I do not keep the discipline. I have never been one to need a boss physically looking over my shoulder to deliver on the work, so strangely, while there is more time to listen, in theory, there hasn’t been that whole lot more in practice! And the work amount hasn’t let up but actually increased in the line I am in.
While I have a few decent pairs of headphones, the amount of time spent on Zoom meetings has led me to think of selling just about all of them off. I find myself without any desire to strap on the Stax SR30 and Sennheiser HD650s, preferring the lesser sonic performance, but infinitely more comfortable fit, from my Sennheiser HD414s when needing to listen to music after the workday via headphones.
The bottom line discovery for me, which is actually more an affirmation since I think I had always known that, is how thankful I am to have the means, space and moments of solace to savour the beauty of music through an illusion engine capable of channeling a high degree of the original creation the musicians, engineers and other parties worked on to bring us. I may spend less time with my system than I would like, and that hasn’t changed much, pandemic or otherwise, but when I do get to, it is indeed an experience and a privilege. That bunch of crazy metal cases, wires, wooden boxes and racks etc do indeed help make life more enjoyable, more so in these times.
I don’t believe anything has changed as far as my outlook on how and when to acquire gear is concerned. I am fortunate to already be in a situation where gear-lust has abated or nearly been extinguished. If anything, the idea is to try to reduce box-count without too big a diminution in performance. A two-box preamp-power supply with a separate phono stage and monoblocks may have been the stuff of dreams before, now since fulfilled, but I hanker for a good little do-it-all integrated amp to simplify things.
Unexpectedly, the pandemic seems to have (at least in this neck of the woods) revived the two-channel audio market, albeit, more at the upper echelons thereof. A few of the local audio salons are increasing or have increased their showroom floorspace or number of outlets, and some really “uncheap” premium brands that had never previously made it to these shores have secured local representation. Dealers mention that their high-end stuff sells out quicker than in the “good old days” before we had to social distance.
While I don’t shop at that level, this new flurry of buying means more used high-end gear is coming into the market, some of which could prove too tempting to resist, even to a content soul. Never say never, wise words from the spouse of the late Mr Connery.
It comes as no surprise to no one that this year has meant that we have spent more time at home. For audiophiles, it has meant more time with our systems and perhaps a deeper appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses that it might have.
It can mean that we work with what we have, and I have made some small purchases to ease the way my systems work. In doing so, I have realised that my main system has a superb and easy way of rendering music. It needed a little tweaking – mostly speaker positioning. In my experience, this influences the performance of your system without spending any money.
2020 is the year that we learn to be grateful for what we have – and not what we desire.
For now, given the uncertainty of finances, I am holding off on any major purchases and instead optimising what I have with small purchases. More importantly, it’s always a good time to appreciate the music you have.
To that end, I have still continued to collect music, especially new issued vinyl of classic jazz records – most notably the Blue Note Tone Poet series which have simply been amazing.
Stand out record of the year – the recently discovered and newly issued – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Just Coolin’
Unlike others who are indulging to their hi-fi system a lot more due to enforced stay-at-home practices this year, I have used my listening room significantly less than I ever have in all my ears as an audiophile. However, my life is not devoid of music – I’m actually listening to a lot more music than before!
There’s really no contradiction here. My dining table (now taken over by a notebook with external screen, keyboard and work materials) faces the living room, where a simple system has been set up. It sounds decent, but not a high-end system by any stretch of the imagination. The source is a cheap Chinese-made streaming preamp (review here) which feeds a Malaysian-made power amp and a pair of LS3/5a clones. The entire system cost under RM4,000 (US$1,000, estimated, as amp and speakers are no longer in production).
To boot, I’m not even listening in stereo or even have speakers firing my way. They are orientated at the sofa in front of me and firing at a 90-degree angle from my right to my left, so the right speaker is closest to me and the left a few meters further away.
The point is, I have music playing via digital streaming almost from the moment I wake up until the lights go out before bedtime. If it’s not music, then it’s providing the sound from the TV for AV fare or gaming.
It’s allowed me to broaden the genres of music I listen to and go deeper into those that I like. I have gone through entire catalogues of my fave artistes, including many of their albums I do not physically own. When my playlist ends, the system algorithm (both Spotify and Tidal) automatically continues to belt out music from artistes I would not have normally selected or whose albums I would not buy.
It’s not entirely new to me – I have always prioritised the music itself instead of how well it is played back, and this period has only reinforced by belief that you do not need to be stuck in the sweet spot to enjoy music.
I still fall back on the main system when I want a really immersive musical experience, but with my ears fed with an almost-constant steam of music, that appetite for this is greatly diminished.
The itch that needs to be scratched is now is to improve this secondary system. A higher-quality streamer is now rising in my list of priorities and I might just add a turntable to the living room system. But then again, the quality of my work is going to suffer if I’m going to have get up every 20 minutes every time the record ends!
Punctuated by Covid, 2020 has essentially seen life flipped on its head. With the benefit of more freed time, listening to music has been decidedly more languid and extended.
Inexplicably, the additional time to listen has skewed my preference for equipment with gravitas, dynamics and presence. Looking forward, I’ve got headphones, cartridges and phono stages on my “to acquire” list.
Like almost everyone, in 2020, I ended up being desk-bound at home a fair bit and that has gotten me to set up a desktop system with whatever little I could piece together to fit a small footprint. It ended up being vinyl-centric, based around a Technics SL-10 turntable with a PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier providing the juice to drive my Sonus Faber Minima Vintage speakers sitting on top of IsoAcoustics stands. With a bit of adjustments here and there, it sounds amazing with an incredible soundstage within the nearfield set-up.
Although I did occasionally play Tidal or Spotify through the Sprout, vinyl is the better option ]as it made me to take a breather to stretch instead of being glued to the chair. What surprised me most was hooking up my CD player… it was a blast rummaging through my CD collection, bringing back fond memories of yesteryears. As a result, 2021 won’t be a gear-driven year for me but instead, I do see my CD collection growing a tad after such a long hiatus.
Hi-fi gear has improved a lot. In the past, I found that a good system can transport the listener to the venue of the recording. But now, I find that a good system can bring the performers into the room. Basically, what I find is that with a good system, intimacy of the experience is enhanced. More details can be heard which translate to make you feel as though the performers are very near to you.
In audiophilia, there are many products being churned out. Making my system sound better is like an addiction, I want more. So getting new gear for my system will be based on listening comparison. If the new gear can make my system sound better, I would be very interested to purchase.
In my attempt to assemble a full digital streaming system, the Rega Elex-R, KEF LS50 (1st generation), Chord Mojo and BlueNode 2i have proven to be a synergistic and musical combination, at least to my ears. I am amazed by the amount of insight, transparency, depth and agility this system has given me, especially during the confined moments brought by this pandemic.
I’d like to think less is more – so swapping the Elex-R to an integrated amplifier with a higher power output, built-in DAC and native streaming capabilities (Hegel H120 or H190 perhaps) or a full active system such as the new KEF LS50 Wireless II would help reduce the gear count. It will be exciting to try out these combinations in the near future.
We moved to a new place and I lost my designated man-cave in the process. Co-existing in the more limiting confines of the new space meant compromising on a few things, among others the amount of gear and space I can have in order to manage any chance of maintaining any semblance of domestic harmony.
Tidal and its expanding MQA catalogue opened new possibilities, allowing me better accessibility in exploring more music and not necessarily just getting caught up on the fidelity side of things.– Khairan Nasir
Anticipating this, I consciously worked on de-gearing and traded my traditional set-up for a pair of KEF LS50 Wireless active speakers. A smaller box count potentially meant fewer “hi-fi” issues and expectations from my gear but I was also pleasantly surprised to discover how far streaming services have come. Tidal and its expanding MQA catalogue opened new possibilities, allowing me better accessibility in exploring more music and not necessarily just getting caught up on the fidelity side of things.
On hindsight, I should have done this earlier. While there will always be a better sounding set-up, the ease with which I can get music playing at home is now a lot simpler and more accessible. I can’t see myself having it any other way now and would much rather spend my time just listening to music.
The year 2020 brought me some new hi-fi and home theatre excitement. On the analogue front, I sort of reached where I want to be but there was this itch to match a better phono stage with my Kronos Sparta turntable. Each time I used a different phono stage my system for review, I realised that my turntable could do much more.
On the digital side, it seems that I am still on the journey. I realised that although I have a huge collection of CD, I have yet to own a CD player that really matches the rest of my system. I do feel my CD player is a bit on the dull side, hence most of the time spent on digital is with my Sony HAP Z1 ES hi res player. As I am also a movie buff, I am actually deprived from enjoying HDR and Dolby Vision for the past six years also. Being an early adopter of 4K, I purchased a 4K TV way before HDR and Dolby Vision was finalised. But enough is enough, I say.
I am happy indeed with the journey I went through this year. But the question of for how long still remains.– Elhefe
With that, I went through several different options before I landed on gear that can deliver close the gaps that I experienced above. With the “work from home” situation since March till now, it gave me ample time to research and demo different phono stages and CD players. I wanted more from my Kronos and I want a livelier CD presentation. After several months of this, I purchased the SPL Audio Phonos and also McIntosh MCD350 SACD player. On the home theatre side, I finally upgraded my six-year-old 4K TV to a Sony X90H Full Array LED TV. I am happy indeed with the journey I went through this year. But the question of for how long still remains.
My hi-fi system is a mix of analogue and digital. Vinyl, CD, network attached storage (NAS), hard-disk player, Spotify… and Tidal. Music enjoyment is no longer about sitting at the sweet spot and trying to find flaws in the components… I realised this for myself some years ago, this year just sealed it. And this means I’m happy with what I have.
For vinyl, I sold off the expensive deck and accessories, and settled for an old direct-drive Technics and refurbished Rega Planar 3 from the 1990s. Both are extremely pleasing to my senses. My CD player is a decade old, and I’ve still found no reason to “upgrade”. I sold some of the wires and accessories I had, that I found made little or no difference to my music enjoyment. There’s a peace of mind now, knowing there are few or no excessive elements in my hi-fi system.
New equipment? No more, enough said. I’ll live with what’s doing the work well these days… for as long as I can see ahead. Why fix anything that ain’t broken?