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Thoughts on first analog system $3.5k budget

shayzorblade

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Long time listener, first time caller. Have been fortunate enough to enjoy my dac/headphone/iem setup for a few years now (micro iDSD Black Label into ATH-R70x and Moondrop Blessing 2) and am looking to make the jump to a passive bookshelf system.

From a source perspective, I generally listened to vinyl rips (cough cough) for many years before the overhead of constantly migrating my ~300gb digital library became too much of a headache; so Apple Music lossless is my digital source right now.

That all being said, I’m looking to dive into the analog space this time around; I’d like to build up a vinyl collection and have some room to grow my setup down the road. After a few months of dedicated research (much of it from ASR) I’ve narrowed down to a short list that I feel gives me a good foundation.

Speakers: Ascend Sierra-LX (~$1500). They measure well, I love the way they look, and they aren’t too difficult to power.

Amplifier: Topping PA7 (~$450). As I understand it I wouldn’t need the extra power from the Plus version, and I confirmed with the manufacturer that both variants use a dual chip system to avoid the heating issues with the PA5. I saw that there is a new PA5 as well, but the PA7 seemed “right” for these speakers.

Phono Amplifier: Parasound ZPhono XRM (~$450). Balanced input and output, specs indicate they should work great with MM now (90db S/N at 50db setting) and MC (88db S/N at 50db setting) down the road. I couldn’t find any measurements on them, but comparing their specs to the regular ZPhono I hope they’d land somewhere in between them and the Cambridge Solo/Duo. Plus, with the PA7 I appreciate continuing the balanced input chain.

Turntable: Pro-ject Debut Pro (~$750 with employer discount). Opportunity for full balanced output and MC cartridges down the road once the included Sumiko Rainier wears out. Would consider the Pro S too, but can’t get the above discount, so it’s a $450 jump.

All in for around $3.5k with cables, accessories, and a few records to start; it’s not an endgame setup but I feel like it’s got the right pieces for what I’ll use it for. I’ll also leverage my iDSD Micro for occasional DAC duty for digital playback which I think should do the job nicely.

Later on, I could pick up a couple of subs and add in a MiniDSP Flex Balanced as a dedicated DAC with proper bass crossover management, along with an MC cartridge.

It’ll likely be another month or two until I’ve assembled the planned setup, and hope to post follow-up impressions at that point too.

Would love people’s feedback and critiques (especially any recommendations to cross shop or compare). I’ve considered several alternates in this setup; but to leave myself with room to grow into a full balanced MC setup, and adding proper bass management for subs, I didn’t really find much else at this price point which compared favorably.
 

CDMC

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Why a balanced phono setup? At best, the SN ratio of vinyl is about 60db. For $150 you could get a Schiit Mani which is a great phono pre stage. You could take the $300 extra and step up to the Philharmonic BMR at $1700 which offers significantly better performance than the Ascends.
 
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shayzorblade

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Looked at the Philharmonics, and cross referenced them here with others for spinorama/preference score.

As well as Erin’s review/measurements.

Some criticisms there, and I feel like I’d be more inclined to go the route of a pair of non-meta R3’s.

As for why balanced? Great question, and perhaps I’ve caught a bit of a fixation “bug” here. I did a bit of reading on Amir’s excellent measurements for the Topping PA5 and read elsewhere a negative impact running unbalanced input into it. Which, early doors, ruled out the likes of the Schiit Mani and Cambridge Solo/Duo. By the time I landed on the Topping PA7 (which seems much more tolerant to unbalanced input) I had found the ZPhono XRM; and the MC capabilities it offers.
 

DVDdoug

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You can spend as much money as you want (or as much as you have) on your vinyl setup and you'll never get "digital quality". At a certain point the record itself becomes the limiting factor.

So if you want to go down that road, I'd recommend that you buy stuff that looks good or whatever makes you happy instead of worrying too much about sound quality. ;)

...I've had a direct drive Technics turntable since the vinyl days and although it hasn't had much use in the last few decades it still works for occasionally digitizing a record. With direct drive there are no belts or drive wheels to wear out and it's never needed any maintenance.
 

LTig

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Go for the cheapest phono preamp which measures well and invest the money saved into the pickup. The better pickup (needle - look for a line contact stylus) will make a much bigger step to better SQ than the phono preamp.
 

JeremyFife

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Sounds pretty good to me. You'll get a million different opinions about any analogue setup, so don't worry about them too much.
Couple of thoughts;
Perhaps be careful about that zPhono since you don't have measurements. You can't assume that all models in a range are the same. RIAA compliance especially.
Be realistic about your future upgrade plans - it gets expensive when you move up into MC. You know that vinyl is an inherently limited format so do you really want to spend (double your budget, more?).
Consider your upgrade path in terms of DSP (your miniDSP), speakers, subs and maybe room treatment ... and vinyl (which ain't cheap!)
Byw, the ifi Zen Phono offers balanced out if you are stuck on that. Measures decently.

Enjoy the music
 
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shayzorblade

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Thanks for the feedback everyone! I've decided to trial a couple options with regards to the phono part; I've ordered the zPhono XRM, Zen Phono, and Cambridge Audio Alva Duo, to do a side-by-side comparison with the rest of the incoming setup.

I also ordered both the PA7 and PA7 Plus; as I'd read some conflicting opinions on the overall power requirements of the Sierra-LX.

Will be a couple of weeks while I wait for it to arrive and test it all out. Will report back with (admittedly, subjective) findings.

Some additional notes: I think there are valuable and reasonable opinions here about such a setup for vinyl. I think I didn't make it fully clear; but I intend to use this setup for digital playback as well with my current DAC, so not all of the upgrade path ends up being vinyl-specific. Thanks!
 
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