Blog, Music

Stereo 2.0

We’ve been slowly working on redecorating the living room here at the Mortensen Mansion West, and one of the things I wanted to feature was a high-quality, streamlined audio-visual experience. Today’s adventures included a visit to Just Audio to take a look at speakers. When I walked out the door, my idea was to take a listen/look at a pair of Polk TS15s or TS20s. They had the TS15s, along with a gaggle of other wonderful new speakers, including the mind-blowing KEF LS50s and MarkAudio-SOTAs. Needless to say, the latter were not in my budget (the LS50s are around $1,300 a pair and the SOTAs were even more!). Helpfully, they asked if I had to have new speakers, or if I’d consider some used KEFs that would be more in line with my budget. Sure, why not?

KEF Q10 bookshelf loudspeaker.

I was introduced to a pair of nearly vintage Q10s in reasonably nice cosmetic condition, which we connected to the same receiver we’d been using to audition the Polks (a whopping McIntosh was used for the new KEFs and the MarkAudio speakers) and other lower-priced speakers. The Q10s, which KEF produced between 1993 and 1996, were the second generation of their Uni-Q coincidentally mounted two-way speakers (this is a fancy way of saying coaxial, sort of), which has been further refined over the years, making its way into the current LS50s.

Most of what impressed me about the LS50 was present in the Q10 — a well defined bass that wasn’t threatening or overwhelming, smooth mid-range, and crystal-clear high frequencies. Being an older, more traditional design meant that they are also reasonably attractive, even without grills. I’m sorry KEF people. The LS50 is not a particularly attractive speaker.

The kicker was that they were extremely well-priced. Marked at $299 for the pair, Just Audio were running a sale of 50% off used speakers. Sign me up.

I’d also decided that I wanted a new, or at least new-to-me, amplifier for the living room stereo as opposed to bringing my Pioneer SX-450 up from the basement. FM tuning was not a priority, as the plan was to play only records, CDs, or streaming music using an Amazon Alexa Echo Input. Initially, my mind went straight to the idea of a Pioneer SA-series integrated amp (the SA-7500 was always a favorite of mine), or some other similar vintage model, but I quickly came to the realization that what I really wanted in the living room was something more modern, and easier to use. Streamlined, I reminded myself.

Emotiva TA-100 stereo receiver.

That brought me back around, after much consideration and consternation, to the new Emotiva TA-100 we’d used to audition the speakers. It’s made by a US company based in Franklin, Tennessee. Through the Q10s, it sounded great, with plenty of power. There were ample inputs available (far more than I have use for) including a built-in DAC allowing a USB-connected computer to see the receiver (yes, there is a tuner) as a “sound card” for playback of digital files directly. There’s also a MC/MM-switchable phono preamp and line level inputs and outputs. Those outputs include a mono-subwoofer output, a stereo output pair, and a full-range mono output. Well, that’s nifty.

To say that the TA-100 front panel is minimal is an understatement. As you can see above, there’s a display, a headphone jack, a couple of tiny buttons for source selection, a power switch, and a knob to control the volume. At the risk of being chauvinistic, This is a very “wife-friendly” receiver. The remote control does allow access to a few more controls — bass, treble, and balance, and the ability to dim the display. You can set some FM presets, too, if you want.

So, that’s been the start of our new stereo system in the living room.

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A huge plus is that Donna has really been enjoying the new gear. She generally doesn’t care a lot about this kind of thing, and generally doesn’t really notice the sound of a stereo system. In this case, she’s made more than a few comments this evening about how really nice it sounds. We’ve been listening to a mixture of music streaming over from Amazon (Alison Kraus, Thelonius Monk, and Blood Sweat and Tears) and CDs (Dire Straits and Empty Pockets) since she arrived home late in the afternoon.

I still need to choose a proper CD player and turntable for the living room. For now, I’ve got the analog outputs from our Samsung Blu-ray player connected, but it makes a really lousy CD player. For one thing, the controls when playing CDs are really funky. A CD plays through fine the first time it’s inserted, but repeats the last track over and over once it gets to the end of the disc. Or, it just stops playing. Or something. Subsequent insertions start at the last song and repeat that ad-infinitum. And, the thing is so light-weight that even a light tap on the controls sends is sliding across the shelf. Samsung’s decisions as to what audio should come out the analog jacks and the digital connections is also more than a bit confusing.

Emotiva make what appears to be a very nice, if slightly pricey CD player (model CD-100) that I’ll consider. It shares the same design and control aesthetic as the receiver. And, I like the idea of supporting a US company. Incidentally, that’s why I went into the shop specifically to listen to the Polk speakers. Not only are they a US company, but they were founded in Baltimore. Anyway….

For the turntable, I’m pretty well set, at this point, on a Denon DP-300F, and I’ll swap in my Ortofon 2M Red cartridge/stylus. The Denon is an automatic belt-drive turntable with a servo-controlled DC motor, making it simple to setup and use. It will end up being drawer-mounted below the receiver. I see that the DP-300F is currently available for $100 off the regular selling price, so I may be ordering that sooner than later, and ahead of the CD player.

Finally, for those interested, the furniture chosen for this part of the room includes Ikea’s Billy bookcases, and a Besta “tv unit” with Uppleva tv bracket. The TV is a Samsung 43” 4K model, and it’s connected to a Samsung soundbar/subwoofer providing a fairly nice movie viewing experience (although, we may abandon these in favor of the simple stereo system).

Manufacturer product photos for this article were picked up from the Emotiva web site or from the Turntable Lab web site. Original photos from the Mortensen Mansion were made with a Google Pixel 2 smartphone and edited in Snapseed on an Acer Chromebook R11.