Which Audio System is Best?

Which Audio System is Best?

Written by B. Jan Montana

As I mentioned in my review of T.H.E. Show SoCal 2023 in Orange County, California (Issue 191), after every show I cover, some of my fellow San Diego Music and Audio Guild members want to know which system was best. This is a loaded query, like – which restaurant or movie is best. It’s entirely dependent on the tastes of the consumer and their state of mind. Both tend to change over time.

In college, I listened primarily to folk music. I bought an Empire 398 turntable with a Shure cartridge, a Quad 33 preamp and 303 monoblocks, and a pair of Wharfedale speakers with 12-inch woofers. I replaced the cone tweeter with a Philips dome, and was in audio heaven for a couple of years.


An Empire Troubadour 598 turntable similar to the Empire 398 B. Jan owned. Courtesy of eCoustics/Eric Pye.


Quad 33 preamp. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Greatarti.


Quad 303 power amplifiers. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Michael KR.


When a graduate apartment became available, I had a much bigger space. In college, more space means party time. So, I swapped my Wharfdales for an Altec Lansing Voice of the Theatre system. It was great in a room full of drunken dancers, but almost unlistenable for critical listening. That was OK while I was a graduate student, because other than Saturday night, I had no time for anything except work anyway.

Just before graduation, I got an offer for my entire system that I couldn’t refuse, so I sold it to pay down some of my student loan (at that time, the thought of student loan forgiveness was unheard of).


Big sound: vintage (year unknown) Altec Voice of the Theatre product literature.


During my early working years, I bought several low-budget systems before getting a pair of Celestion Ditton 66 speakers. I coupled them with a Sansui AU-717 integrated amp, a Thorens TD 125 turntable with an SME arm, and a Grace F9E cartridge with ruby stylus. This was an exceptionally good system for the day and I had it for many years. Although the system I have now is better, I wish I’d never sold that one.

When I moved into a house with a 1,200 square foot living/dining room area, I bought a modern version (for the time) of the Altecs; four Sound Dynamics speakers with 15-inch woofers and machined aluminum horns. I placed one in every corner, and powered these 95 dB-efficient speakers with a pair of 200 watt per channel Soundcraftsmen Pro-Power amplifiers.


Thorens TD 125 turntable. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jacques.


That allowed me to throw the best monthly parties in town (no, I hadn’t matured much since college). 50 to 60 people used to show up including everyone who was anyone in this small prairie city. This included my dentist, mechanic, chiropractor, two motorcycle store owners, the proprietor of the town’s biggest hotel, a couple of lawyers, some media personalities, and a few members of the city council. That was a good thing because they were very good at calming down the police whenever they came to the door.

Which system was best in this group? Overall, the Celestion system. It was great for rock, but was also terrific for folk, classical, and fusion music.

Strictly for parties, however, the horn speakers were better. They cut through a crowd of people without as much high-frequency loss. Different tools for different jobs, different strokes for different folks.

When SDMAG members ask me which system I liked best after an audio show, the answer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best system for them. So, I always ask:

"Well Larry, how big is your listening room? What kind of music do you prefer? At what volume do you listen? What’s most important to you, soundstage, resolution, dynamics? What’s your budget? What constraints does your wife place on aesthetics?

You live downtown in a two-bedroom apartment? Your budget is $10K for the whole system? Your speakers must be no bigger than the microwave? OK, I don’t think 'which system sounds best’ is the right question for you. The speakers we voted 'best sound of show’ are 7 feet tall and cost almost $100,000. 

Why don’t you ask me some more relevant questions?”


Header image: Grace F9E phono cartridge. Courtesy of LP Gear (www.lpgear.com).

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