The US$375 Stereo

by F.

So It was time to upgrade our stereo system. The decision to do so was fairly easy because we didn’t have stereo system. We had a Bose Wave Music System, which I would not recommend. In fact, I would not recommend any Bose products because I think they are overpriced and the sound is too fiddled with for my taste.

Being the cheap sphincter that I am, and being into getting the most for the least, I started to look around at iPod docks. I mean, it had been a long time since I’d bought stereo equipment. Maybe the docks were so good now that they could replace a stereo. I listened to quite a few and generally was underwhelmed. I wanted to like the Apple HiFi, but it seemed a little steep at $345. Reviews were generally bad. (I’m talking about reviews by people who actually know what good stereos sound like.)

A little research and I found AudioEngine, a US company that makes a kind of iPod dock called the AudioEngine 5 Desktop Speaker System. They offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, so I ordered their product for $349. There are lots of raves about these speakers and it’s not hard to understand why once you have them. They sound tremendous. The fit and finish is beautiful. These guys just put the rest of the iPod docks to shame. (For now.)

I was enjoying my AudioEngine setup but it doesn’t have a remote. I didn’t mind so much but my wife wanted to be able to adjust the volume and mute when we were sitting on the couch. Sounded reasonable, so we decided to get an AV Receiver. I looked around and read various reviews, but since I wanted to hook the AudioEngines up to the receiver, I wanted something with a pre-out. (The AudioEngines are active.) I can’t say I performed an exhaustive search, but I found this Harmon-Kardon 3485 which had one, along with 125 watts-per-channel and 0.07% total harmonic distortion, which looked pretty good.

The 3485 isn’t a 7.1 HT thingy. It’s a stereo. Old school. We are not that much into HT (yet), so I thought I’d give the 3485 a try. I ordered it from JR in New York and paid US$250 including shipping. Then I thought, “I could put the AudioEngines in the kitchen and get some more speakers for up in our family room.” So I did a little searching to see what was good in speakers. Now, neither my wife and I wanted some gigantic tower speakers in our family room. I mean, I had a dorm room once and I don’t want to bring back those memories. So we opted for bookshelfs. Luckily, there are so many great bookshelf speakers out there, it’s easy to find something to your liking.

But, again, I’m a cheapskate, so I bought these Athena AS-B1.2s. I was a little worried at this price point, but the reviews were really good, so I bought them. I got all my goodies and hooked them up and have to say that, for a total, including tax and shipping, of US$375.00, this is a killer rig. Blows the Apple HiFi off the stereo stand. And the AudioEngine’s? They are great, but for about the same price, the HK 3485 and Athena B1.2s are way better. Way.

So, if you’re a fairly unsophisticated consumer of stereo equipment, but know a good thing when you hear it, consider the HK 3485 with the Athenas. In addition to music, I listen to a lot of spoken word stuff, and the Athenas sound beautiful. In fact, this set up sounds so good I’ve gone back to listening to CDs rather than 128kbps tracks I ripped or got from iTunes. I think I can tell a difference, though with 256kbps I’m less sure of myself, unless I plug my Grado SR-60s into the HK 3485, which is bliss.