I’ve written before about the benefits of being the daughter and sister of two avid audiophiles. People who are interested in good hifi and music tend to get periodic bouts of upgradeitis, and I occasionally benefit if second-hand sales are sluggish for a particular item. In fact, after a trip home to my parents at Christmas, my whole hifi stack — apart from my venerable but much loved Rega Planet CD player — is now composed of family hand-me-downs, for which I am very grateful. The most recent additions are two Marsh Sound Design items: a P2000 pre-amplifier, and a A400S power amplifier.
My Dad has had these for quite some time (I think they are actually a couple of amps back in his set up), and he had been trying to sell them second hand for ages. Despite the fact that he reduced the price a couple of times, he had no takers, which is a great shame. Buyers missed out on a bargain, but their loss is my gain. My Mum is quite tolerant of stacks of audio equipment, but she tends to get a bit testy when unused equipment spends years cluttering up spare rooms, accumulating dust and attracting stubbed toes. The power amp in particular is a huge and weighty beast, and had been occupying a large square of carpet in the spare room for several years, so she suggested to Dad that I might like it cluttering up my house instead.
As often happens, I returned home after a Christmas visit to my parents with a much more heavily-laden car than when I arrived. As I mentioned, power amp is huge and very heavy, and in addition to that and the P2000 pre-amp, my Dad lent me a phono amp — an Aqvox Phono 2 CI — which he is currently not using, so that I could continue to listen to my turntable, as the P2000 doesn’t have a phono stage built in. The Aqvox is yet another bit of amazing kit, but that’s just on loan. Fitting all this kit into my current setup was a bit of a challenge. The power amp was just slightly too tall to fit in my equipment rack, so it has to sit on the floor next to it. This works OK, as long as we discourage the cats from sitting on the nice warm surface, thereby filling the innards up with cat hair. Everything else fitted in OK, so I had a happy few hours replacing my old Audiolab 8000A, and wiring in all the new equipment.
The Aqvox actually gave me the most trouble. It has a lot of dip switches to set it up for different kinds of cartridges, and you can use balanced connectors (with adaptors for RCAs) or RCAs themselves. It sounded muddy and horrible at first, so I was sure that I had got the settings wrong somehow. It turned out that moving magnet cartridges like mine don’t play nicely with the balanced connector inputs, and I had got the input loading set wrongly. Once I had fixed that, suddenly, magically, it all sounded wonderful.
I don’t think I’ve ever had such a great-sounding system. Every upgrade you make tends to bring improvements, but the amp and pre-amp seem to have brought a stunning improvement to the sound. It reveals new details in CDs I’ve listened to many times before, without any of the harshness that CD sources can introduce. However, the most astounding thing is the clarity and solidity of the sound stage.
I guess we all tend to listen to music from computers and iPhones over headphones or small speakers more often now. And at the time, the music sounds perfectly fine. It is often a background in these circumstances anyway, so you’re not really listening to it properly. When you listen to a good system, on decent speakers, sitting in the sweet spot of those speakers and really listening, well — it’s like night and day. You forget how physical the sound is, what a presence it can have. You forget how musicians can be located in 3D space, and their voices or instruments can sound solid and physically present in the space with you. You hear the singer’s breathing, the guitarist’s fingertips rubbing gently on the strings, and the blart of brass seems positively technicolour. It is astounding, and completely involving, in the way that listening on small speakers or headphones really can’t really reproduce.
I’ve been having fun with this system. My brother’s turntable adores the new components and has never sounded better, and my dear old Rega Planet has a new lease of life. Again, I have never heard it sound so wonderful, and I have been trawling through my CD shelves and literally hearing new things in the old familiar recordings.