This Is My Rack

In every review I write of a surround receiver or speaker system, I tap out a graf on associated equipment used to audition the product. You can always find it between the product description and the listening notes. Whenever I read an audio review, I feel cast adrift if the reviewer doesn't disclose what's in his reference system. After all, the receiver I use to review a set of speakers, or the speakers I use to review a receiver, may exert a significant effect on the product's performance and how I perceive it. So does the room, for that matter, and maybe I'll tackle that subject someday. I use asymmetrical long-wall placement in a room with six sides where no two sides are the same length. That should make for an interesting blog. In the meantime, here's a more detailed description of what's in my rack, moving from top to bottom.

In the Rack

Micro Seiki BL-51 or BL-21 turntable: Vinyl is a high-resolution medium and I actively use it as demo content. I've written about the first of these in detail. The second one is a smaller and lighter version with a similar carbon-fiber tonearm and the belt running beneath the platter instead of around it, making way for the Japanese-style speed strobe (which I love). It will migrate around the apartment as needed: desktop, bedroom, wherever. I don't require reference components to be current models—only that they work well and sound good—but these are the oldest, both probably 30 years old.

Onix OA 21s stereo integrated amp: Why do I use this amp as a phono preamp? Because it has the best phono stage for a moving-magnet phono cartridge in my gear collection. The alternatives are a tubed Bellari VP530 USB phono preamp and a solid state NAD PP-1. Occasionally I do actually plug speaker cables into the Onix and use it as an amp. It also anchored my desktop 2.1 system for several years. It has a vivid presence region and sounds bright with some content, though that revealing quality in the phono stage perfectly complements my mellow-ish Shure cartridge. The Onix is about 20 years old. The company is now under different management and its current products bear no resemblance to my OA 21s. Tip of the hat to Steve Guttenberg who introduced me to the OA 21s at Sound by Singer. Another tip of the hat to Roy Hall who sold it to me.

Shure M97xE moving-magnet phono cartridge: I often call this the poor man's audiophile cartridge. It has a reliably musical tonal balance with firm bass, a fully developed midrange, and highs that are not quite as open and refined as a megabucks moving-coil (alas, I have no megabucks to spend). With its big brother the V15 currently not in production, the M97xE is Shure's top model. It shares the V15's metal body and stabilizer brush but has an elliptical (as opposed to a more expensive micro-ridge) stylus. Rumor has it that the V15 and M97 are identical except for the stylus. Some folks have gotten good results by plugging an M97 replacement stylus into a V15 body. I have a V15xMR, the last version made, and managed to snap off its beryllium cantilever, so I plan to try this experiment when I retire the BL-21's supplied Grado ZC+.

Samsung SMT-H3362 cable box: This is the third cable box I've had from Time Warner Cable in 30 years as a Manhattan subscriber. The first was analog, built like a little tank, and I liked its top-panel buttons for changing channels. The second was my first high-definition cable box. But that wasn't HDMI capable, so now I'm on number three. It is connected directly to the TV, not to the receiver. Occasionally I use the TV's analog output to feed a soundbar just to hear how newscasting voices and fast food ads will sound.

Panasonic DMP-BD87 networked Blu-ray player: One of the few products I use that's a relatively recent model, circa early 2012, it serves as my spare Blu-ray player when the Oppo (below) isn't feeling well. With wi-fi and a limited set of online video features, it is my go-to component for Netflix. Due to space constraints on the rack, the cable box sits directly on top of the Panasonic player. This is directly contrary to the advice I give consumers but so far they haven't fried one another.

Pioneer Elite VSX-53 surround receiver: In my long experience with Pioneer receivers, they've always performed well, and the user interface—though it might be as off-putting to a newbie as any other AVR—is like a comfortable old pair of walking shoes to me. The VSX-53 ($1,100) is a step up from the VSX-52 ($900) which I actually reviewed. Running in its pure analog direct mode with vinyl, the VSX-53 can take me to nirvana, and it does equally well with lossless Blu-ray content. I use its AirPlay and dongle-assisted Bluetooth capabilities occasionally. Several more model years will probably elapse before I replace it. Picking my reference piece from a line that doesn't turn over as often (Arcam, Cambridge, NAD, et al) might raise fewer embarrassing questions, but I don't like to change my reference receiver often. One of the Pioneer's precedessors, a Rotel RSX-1165, was in use for eight years and I still miss its front-mounted heat fins, muscular dynamics, and musical civility. Only the lack of HDMI forced me to retire it. If cost were no object and I could have any current-model receiver I wanted, it would be an Arcam AVR600.

Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition universal disc player: My reference signal source for BDs, DVDs, and CDs is Oppo's first Blu-ray player in an upgraded version with higher-quality SABRE32 DACs, making the 7.1-channel analog outputs fit for high-end use. Once in a while I plug the stereo analog outs into my Jeff Rowland Consonance preamp and blast two-channel out of my Jeff Rowland Model One amp (neither currently on the rack). The Oppo had to go home to have a sticky disc drawer fixed but otherwise has proven as solid as a rock. I plan to use it for many more years.

Marantz DR 6050 CD-R/CD-RW dubbing deck: The Oppo is sitting on it. Though this dual-drawer CD recorder is not connected at the moment, it does live on the rack, and I sometimes use it to burn vinyl, feeding the phono preamp into its analog input. That gives me a CD-R copy that I can rip in any codec of my choice, and if I change my mind about the codec, I can use the CD-R to re-rip it. The alternative would be to record into a laptop from the USB output of the Bellari phono preamp but I like having the CD-R option both for playing and for multiple conversions.

The guest receiver berth: The bottom shelf of the rack is for whatever surround receiver is under review. Having to lift the heavy black box only a few inches off the floor is a great comfort, though offset by the inconvenience of squatting or sitting behind the rack to plug in cables. The current occupant is an Onkyo TX-NR828.

The rack itself is a Sanus AFA with black particleboard shelves and thick round aluminum columns. Its rock-solid sturdiness is an asset. With heavy components coming and going, my system is rough on racks, and the prospect of a glass-shelved rack crumpling into shards makes me cringe. The AFA's modular construction allows the easy addition of extension shelves. My version has four original shelves and one extension. One side is slightly tilted away from the wall to allow easy access to back panels.

Outside the Rack

Paradigm Reference Studio 20 v4 speakers: I am happily wedded to my stand-mount speakers. I use a 5.1-channel configuration, adding smaller Paradigm Cinema 70 satellites when height or back-surround channels are needed. I value the Studio 20s for their accuracy, well-rounded tonal balance, and tight, disciplined bass (which slightly mitigates my room's standing wave). But most of all I value their chameleon-like versatility and utter candidness about whatever amp I plug them into. Give them clean power and they sing; give them dirty power and they do nothing to sweeten the unpleasant truth. In either case they guide me as I evaluate and write. While they are not the most recent iteration of the Studio 20—the latest version has a curved cabinet and other refinements—I continue to use them because they are practically wired into my brain. They are my frame of reference, and if I were to change my frame of reference, I would change my perception of every receiver I review. When I recently visited Sony's listening rooms in Tokyo, I found the designer of its receivers using a set of B&W Matrix 801s that are even older than my Studio 20s. He values his frame of reference as I value mine. When the Paradigms are not in use, I stack them sideways in a corner, where they take up very little space.

Paradigm Seismic 110 subwoofer: I need my sub to be adept at producing accurate and powerful bass but small enough to be easily pushed out of the way when other subs are visiting. This sweet little demon combines a high-excursion 10-inch driver with an 850-watt Class D amp in a semi-cylindrical shape with extraordinary build quality. Regrettably, I'm unable to regularly use its built-in room EQ (which involves a USB-connected laptop running the Paradigm PBK-1 Perfect Bass Kit) because it would affect my evaluations of receiver-based room correction systems. The EQ cannot be turned on and off; the only way to remove it is to run the program and nullify previous settings. But if I ever stop reviewing surround receivers and reconfigure my system for selfish pleasure, running the PBK setup would be my first order of business. I know from experience how well it quells my room's standing-wave-induced bass bloat.

cdunphy's picture

I had a demo unite of vsx 53 and I loved it. unfortunately it broke. I now have an elite sc 65 just starting to listen to it but I think it will sound as good as the 53 or better. I have had one wierd problem with 3 elites that I have owned (also the vsx 700)when I play in direct or pure direct(driving def tech studio monitor 55's ) with itunes or hd tracks file it sound terrible but when I play it on ext stereo it sounds incredible .Have you had any problems with your elite?

Mark Fleischmann's picture
The VSX-53 has performed reliably so far -- if I didn't, I'd replace it fast, and the manufacturers of speakers I review with it would deserve no less. The SC-series receivers have the new D3 amplification and you're probably going to like the confident dynamics. The difference in your music files may stem from the fact that the direct/pure modes strip away the room correction while the main stereo mode maintains it. This probably indicates that the MCACC room correction is working well or at least making the sound more to your taste.
utopianemo's picture

Sir, I always enjoy your reviews. I've paid particular attention to your reviews on the Marantz and Pioneer Elite AVRs, as I am upgrading soon. I am primarily looking at the Elites and Marantzes right around the $800-$1300 range.
I am very interested in the Elites because of their D3 amplification, because it consumes less electricity, and it stays comparatively cool, and because of its significant output…..and because you say it sounds really good while doing all these things.
I am very interested in Marantz because they sound beautiful and I’ve never heard anybody say anything less.
So which sounds better to you? If Marantz, how much better?
Thanks for your time.