The Guide to Getting Rich Sound for Cheap

Written by Andrijan Apostoloski on 12th August, 2019

The path to getting your quality sounding setup can be a very long road, specially if you are not technically enriched in that field. In this guide learn what to look for in order to get your studio or room the best sounding setup while not spending a whole fortune for it.

Understanding and appreciating good sound comes naturally with time if you are a music lover and distinguish between what is good and what is bad. The dynamics, the clarity and the colour of the speaker all vary, and in this vast industry there are many products out there that cost a lot and create this illusion that you need to spend a lot of money in order to get a good sounding rig. Because buying audio equipment is a long-term investment, I hope that you find this guide helpful to your path of getting your very own music reproducing setup.


My setup and detailed review.
Believe me, I love finding victims to talk about audio equipment and tell them why my gear is so special and blabber with days about all the technical advancements they did achieve back in the day. I love talking and blabbering about how it beats many new offerings and for this guide I truly wanted to avoid to brag with my own stuff, but after writing a traditional guide which I found very chaotic and not sharing the true cores of what I wanted to do with this article, I decided to do both: Officially brag about my equipment and hopefully teach someone something about finding very good quality gear of their own while not spending a whole fortune, hahah!

Speakers: Bowers & Wilkins DM-14, 1980

There is a story of how I got these speakers and how I found my perfect pair of monitors that don’t fail to deliver 3 years after. A friend was looking for a set of speakers at this old hi-fi shop when these caught my attention hiding somewhere in the corners gathering dust. The looks and that B&W badge were the things that just made me ask the seller to connect and turn them on for me. And oh boy, my ears thanked me and by the end of the day I ended up swapping two bicycles and some cash to leave home with them.

Below I will discuss the specifications and what they mean in the real world. Try comparing these with the gear you want to buy and keep in mind that all these vary with the product and the market it is built for. These in particular are Digital Monitors, passive monitor series from Bowers & Wilkins with very neutral and flat sound that require good amplification but deliver astonishing results. They are the basis for further developed John Bowers Active One.

The specifications of these speakers:
Cabinet setup: Sealed, compression
Driver setup: Two 7″ Bass/Mid Units, One 1″ Tweeter
Frequency Response: 50Hz – 20KHz ± 2dB
Power Handling: 25W and above, no upper limit because of protection
Dimensions (HxWxD): 567x256x295mm
Sensitivity: 1w / 86dB
Weight: 17kg without stands and 19kg with stands
Distortion: 30-200Hz ≤3%, 200Hz to 20KHz ≤0.5%
Impedance: 8Ω nominal, not falling below 6.4Ω throughout 20Hz-20KHz

Driver and crossover setup
This model in particular has a very interesting setup which isn’t traditional as it is called “2.5 way” because of the way the crossover acts and divides frequencies between the drivers. The idea behind it is to have both lower drivers act as bass drivers while the upper mid-bass being a mid-range as well. The upper mid-bass driver rolls of a bit higher on the frequency range allowing the cabinet to reproduce the lows very well and again achieve that mid-range clarity of a 2-way setup.
It’s a very interesting topic to discuss, but it is known that most legendary cabinets are 2-way because of the simplicity and straightforwardness of the crossovers, as most of the manufacturers that try to do 3-way systems (X-way meaning how much crossing points in the crossover exists to filter frequencies to a specific driver) do not do it well and have frequency holes where the crossover acts.

Cabinets
The cabinets are screaming quality and an over-engineered product in sight. The design is a relative thing for everyone, but I am definitely in love with this kind of industrial design, a black front with wood all around is the way I’d go for every speaker in my life.
They weight at 17kg and are made of real wood veneer, in my case with walnut finish (real walnut finish, yeah).
The sturdiness of the cabinets give the power of clarity between all the frequencies and give these cabinets the ability to play the most complex audio tracks without having a hassle of any kind.

Frequency response
The frequency response is a specification that you will see in most of the good speakers today. Please note that because this is a passive monitor I am taking this section in that way, but for a speaker to sound good it must not have huge spikes in the frequency response range. I’d absolutely ignore most speakers with more then ±4db variation from 100Hz and up.
The frequency response of ±2dB from 50Hz to 20KHz is even astonishing today and is something that Bowers & Wilkins should be proud of to bring in the 80s in this kind of product. Just to have some references to compare to, I have these two interesting products that are some of the best offerings in the 7″ (Dynaudio) and 6.5″ (Yamaha) active monitor segment today.
Dynaudio Core 7 (€3250 or more) which states ±3dB from 44 Hz and up.
Yamaha HS7 (€400 or more) which states ±3dB from 55Hz and up.

Of course, keep in mind that this is not a direct competition as many factors vary. I just found the best from different price ranges and put them against a 1980 passive monitor. When frequency response is shown in the specifications most of the manufacturers will put the whole spectrum of audible frequencies that the box can reproduce. For example if you can hear a little bit of 30Hz in some box, they will put 30Hz – 20KHz in the specifications.
In the world of studio monitors however the measurement is done with the variation of ±1db to ±3db from a selected range of frequencies. This means that in that range the cabinets are able to reproduce those frequencies with that amount of variations in the output meaning that the signal that comes out of them is very flat and neutral, not colored and without additional distortions of harmonics from the drivers, cabinets or the crossover itself.
The DM14s can be put head on head with a €3250 setup of today’s high-end monitor offering and that is one important factor saying that high end products of the past were built with longevity and quality in mind without cutting costs on materials and such.
Also a big factor that you need to know about the comparison I did is that both of the Dynaudio and Yamaha are bass-reflex based cabinets (meaning that they have holes in the cabinets so air flows for bigger and easier bass results). Personally I have always loved sealed boxes more but often they have less bass then bass-reflex boxes, and in this case you can see that the sealed cabinet of the B&W is up to the “Best of 2019” monitors that are sold today. I’d say even better considering the fact they don’t have any holes in them. Proper.
Please note that although this part of the specifications is more important for people that look for studio monitors, a signature for a quality speaker will always be a steady frequency response above 100Hz. If you are buying a speaker for home listening then you should go and take a listen for yourself with your familiar music: if it sounds good, go for it.
The gradual variations upto ±3db can be considered as acceptable, as anything above that can give you ear fatigue after some long time listening.

Power Handling
Officially these speakers require a minimum of 25W without an upper limit. What this means is that just to drive them and make them sound like anything you will need 25 watts on 8 ohms. In reality however a very powerful amplifier that can deliver at least 100W of clean power is required to fully open up their potential.
They do not have an upper limit (they can be even paired with a 200W amp) because of their built-in protection system which goes into action if the signal becomes too much or distorted. This will save your tweeters and speakers from blowing up and will give you countless of years pure music enjoyment without having to worry.

Sensitivity
The sensitivity means how much decibels of audio will they reproduce while being powered 1 watt measured at a distance of 1 meter. Their level of 86 can be considered as low-efficient speakers meaning that they need a salty amount of power in order for them to “open up”, but this is a very big factor that gives the stability in the frequency response low distortion results they achieve.
The biggest SPL (maximum level of sound loudness they produce) is 106dB although I’ve succeeded in achieving around 109. This is not the loudest when comparing to other speakers, but just as an example most of the live rock concerts vary from 108 to 114dB, so it isn’t very quiet either. It’s just that these aren’t made to be party speakers, they are made to be a professional tool that will be neutral and always give the most realistic reproduction of sound at all times.
Personally, I never go near the limit as it becomes unbearably loud.

Weight
The weight is a sign of what a quality product is, specially in the field of speakers and audio equipment which is stationary. When seeking your own set of speakers please take a moment to listen to the heavier gear first, they often are worth the kilos behind them.
The Bowers & Wilkins DM17 for example, which have the same mid-bass driver but only one and a tweeter which is mounted outside of the cabinet weights at 9kg. For that size of the cabinet that can also be considered to be very heavy.

You now have some idea about how heavy (at least try to find somewhere near this!) your speakers should be. And keep in mind that this is without any amplification of any sort inside for this particular models.

Amplifier: Philips FA-960, 1987

The most important part after the speakers is the thing that powers them, the amplifier. Luckily these can be found in the price range of €200-400 for a really good one that will last you forever. A rule that you should always follow when buying an amplifier is for it to be more powerful than the actual speakers themselves. If you are going for active monitors then you can completely ignore this for now.

So let me introduce you to my brutalist-kind-of-looking fella made from Marantz and branded as Philips as they owned Marantz back in the days. While doing the research before buying this particular amplifier I found out that it was made of the same internals as the Marantz PM-87 (which goes for $900+ on eBay, huh!) and had very good reviews going online.

You can read a full guide and information on this link by Dutch Audio Classics where they explain in details why is this a hefty amplifier that is under the radar and deserves to be grabbed if you have the chance. Also, it is the highest range amplifier built/branded as Philips to be ever released so far. In the same 960 family of products the CD960 CD player is considered to be one of the best CD players to be made back in the days and the standalone DAC960 digital to analog converter also has a cult following. It is just because Philips never made amplifiers this one got under the rug, but that’s why the prices for it are crazy good for the value it offers, so grab one if you can.

The FA-960 is a stereo-integrated amplifier meaning that it has a pre-amplifier (volume control), input switches and some minimal controls such as loudness and things I never use. Comparing it to the PM-87 it is 4kg lighter due to different construction material of the casing itself and a bit less powerful trafo that gives the output of clean continuous 100 watts on 8 ohms comparing it with the 120 watts on the Marantz.
Essentially however it is the same internals and same chip driving the sound with minimal amounts of distortions and variations in the sound, meaning in practice this can be used perfectly to match the Bowers to achieve the neutral and monitor sound I was looking for my setup.
With amplifiers there are many factors to consider and lots of specifications to go through. At the end however those are just numbers, the pairing needs to be done in person and you must hear it yourself as some amplifiers colour the sound and add their own signature to it which sounds pretty good when paired to certain speakers, but can sound dull or weird with others.

In this case I’ve read that this is a very dead amplifier. Awesome! I need dead for this setup. Dead meaning neutral (lifeless, not exciting) which is proved by the very linear frequency response it gives, it literally doesn’t color the sound at all meaning that it is the perfect candidate to match with my passive monitors.

Although it is a integrated amplifier which means it has a volume knob, different inputs and a phono prestage, there is a feature called “direct CD” which ignores all the equalisers and additional things the signal goes through and when you activate it the signal passes through the amplifier stage directly to the speakers transforming it to a semi-power amp which is very suitable and perfect for studio usage.

The most important specifications of this amplifier:
Power Output: 100 watts of continuous output at 8Ω, 125 watts dynamic power
Distortion: .008% at 100 watts at 8 ohms (1 kHz), Power Bandwidth (D <= .03%): 10-30,000 Hz at -3dB
Frequency Response: 18-70KHz ±1dB
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 106dB
Damping Factor: 180
Weight: 14kg

Power Output
This one can output a continuous 100 watts and deliver up to 125 watts of dynamic power at peaks. I am talking about clean continuous watts, which in reality are enough to run most of the speakers you can find.

Distortion
The distortion levels are unhearable with human ears with a laughing 0.008% of THD at continuous 100 watts delivered measured on 1KHz. In all my time having it I haven’t heard the amplifier clip or have trouble delivering the signal to the speakers.

Frequency Response
The crucial part for me was to have a very linear and neutral frequency response which allows me to have a bedroom studio setup with vintage high-range gear made for home listening. The amplifier delivers a hefty ±1dB (which the difference is literally unhearable with human ears!) across all of the human capable hearing spectrum from 18Hz to 70KHz. Most humans with no damage in their hearing have their range up to 20KHz and that is where the limit of our nature stops.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SnR)
The amount of noise in the signal influenced by amplifier internals. Because this is a very well built amplifier that was made in Japan by Marantz with internals of one of their legendary PM-84 amplifiers, the signal clarity is amazing and it reaches the level of 106dB. The higher the better, meaning that in the end you get only the signal that you input through without any additional hiss or noise from the amplifier itself.
A quick check you can do to test this on a lower class amplifier is to have the volume turned up to the maximum while having nothing playing and just listen to the noise the amplifier creates from its components. On the Philips you can virtually hear nothing at all while doing this.

Damping Factor
The ability to control the speaker cone itself, damping factor is a very crucial part of having a monitor setup so the speakers can be punchy and tidy, specially when they are heavy and not so sensitive like in my case. The damping factor of 180 is considered to be on the higher scale while having more than a number of 100 is very acceptable.

Some comparisons with today’s offerings, again…
decco125 SKY (€800, 120w @ 8Ω)
Frequency Response: 20Hz–20kHz, ±3dB vs 18-70KHz ±1dB on the Philips 👊
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 100dB vs 106dB on the Philips 👊
Damping Factor: ??? vs 180 on the Philips 👊
Distortion: 0.030% vs 0.008% on the Philips 👊
Channel Separation: 60dB vs 65dB on the Philips 👊

NAD C388 (€1700, 150w @ 8Ω)
Frequency Response: 20Hz–20kHz, ±0.03dB vs 18-70KHz ±1dB on the Philips
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 106dB vs 106dB on the Philips 👊
Damping Factor: 150 vs 180 on the Philips 👊
Distortion: 0.005% vs 0.008% on the Philips
Channel Separation: 80dB vs 65dB on the Philips

Yamaha A-S701 (€800, 100w @ 8Ω)
Frequency Response: 10-100KHz, ±1dB vs 18-70KHz ±1dB on the Philips
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 99dB vs 106dB on the Philips 👊
Damping Factor: 240 vs 180 on the Philips
Distortion: 0.019% vs 0.008% on the Philips 👊
Channel Separation: ??? vs 65dB on the Philips

Overview

I hope you understand my point and what to look for in the specifications. Of course on paper it could be a very different thing, so I strongly suggest not going blindly just because of the specifications, although these that I pointed out are very good signs that you are getting a high quality product to last.
The age does not matter as you can see that in the both sections these high-end audio equipment of mine from the 80’s still pair or is even better then most of today’s offerings which are at least twice in the price that you’ll need to pay. And I am 100% sure it is not only on paper, I’ve had the chance to listen to €1000 studio monitors which just disappointed me when comparing them to my passive Bowers & Wilkins. When you have an idea of what to look for, the power is in your hands to invest in something that you will use for the rest of your life.

Old vs. new?
Buying older gear can be tricky. Of course finding gems that were high-class equipment back in the days will be a very lucky day for you, but even then there are things to consider such as their shape and history of ownership. If you decide to buy new gear please take into consideration the specifications that I’ve marked in this guide and try to get as near as possible to get good results. If you are buying vintage gear open Google and do your job for few days before.

I truly hope I helped and gave you the right path for your investment in your own audio gear.

Need help?

Feel free to write a mail to kontakt [at] frekvencii.mk with your story and what you have in mind.