how to build an upgradeable system
Get better sound only by adding components, and not losing on trades or sales
scale with upscale: build a high-fidelity separates system that grows with you
So you want a kick-ass music system, but have no idea where to begin? There are a few ways to build up the system of your dreams:
1) Buy a top-notch system and just never buy again. The trouble is, few of us are happy with the system we can afford to buy at one go.
2) Buy a great component, and run it mismatched (or even have it sit in a box) until savings allow for a matching component.
3) Buy an entry level system, and sell or trade your way up component by component.
4) Start with a well-chosen, relatively inexpensive system that sounds great out of the box, but gives you plenty of upgrade options that don’t involve selling or trading your gear.
This article is all about option (4). We start with a system many people would be happy to never upgrade again, and all improvements are made by addition. We’ll focus on electronics because loudspeaker choice is far more subjective and room dependent. Once you get the electronics down, it’s a lot easier for the experts at Upscale to hook you up with the perfect loudspeakers for you, your system, and your room.
Get going with a streaming DAC and power amp, $4,299
The Lumin D2 ($2,300) is a streaming DAC that will play music off Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, your NAS drive, or a USB hard disk filled with music. Lumins all have a wonderful analog quality to their sound, and match beautifully with PrimaLuna.
The PrimaLuna EVO 100 is an EL34 tube based power amp with 40 W output and, though this is the baby of the PrimaLuna line, it weighs nearly 40 lb. This is because it has big custom-wound output transformers for great dynamic contrast.
Connect the Lumin to your router using an Ethernet cable (or use the Wi-Fi option mentioned on the product page). Connect it to the PrimaLuna using an RCA interconnect such as AudioQuest Red River. Connect the PrimaLuna to your speakers using speaker cable such as AudioQuest Rocket 33. Download the Lumin app to your smartphone or tablet. Sign into your favorite streaming service, and you’re ready to go!
Live happily ever after with a system that combines digital ease with tube magic. Until the itch comes back...
Add a preamplifier, $1,999
Add the PrimaLuna EVO 100 Preamplifier. This will let you bypass the volume control on the Lumin D2, allowing the DAC to send out a full-blooded line-level signal. The PrimaLuna EVO 100 preamp will bring even more of that tube magic--the holographic imaging, the organic textures, the shimmer and midrange glow that keeps people addicted to vacuum tubes decades after this technology was supposed to be obsolete.
Add another power amplifier, $1,999
The EVO 100 power amp can be run in monoblock mode. This means you can have one whole amp for the right channel, and another whole amp for the left channel. The EVO is 40 W in stereo, and when you flip the little switch at the back to turn it into a mono amp, it becomes 82 W. So not only does your amp double in power, you add another 82 W to the system, taking it to 164 W of massive tube power.
What does this mean? You just get more. More dynamics, more separation, more musicality. Each amp is now handling just half the signal from before, and so it’s idling along with less noise, and has a lot more “headroom” to allow for big transient signals from drums and other dynamic sounds in your music.
Add a power conditioner with power cable, $1188.95
The new AudioQuest Niagara 1200 power conditioner plus AudioQuest NRG-Z3 power cable works magic. You have to watch Kevin’s video (on the product page): he tests it with a mains noise analyzer, and you won’t believe the difference between the wall outlet and a Niagara outlet. Regular power outlets are incredibly noisy these days both because of overloaded grids, and the proliferation of gigahertz transmissions (cellphones, Wi-Fi). This noise affects every single circuit in your system, masking low-level detail, damping micro- and even macro-dynamics, robbing you of that sense of air and space this system is transparent enough to deliver. A power conditioner is a massive upgrade because it affects all of the electronics in your system.
Add REL Acoustics subwoofers, $1,998
We said we wouldn’t talk about speakers, but subwoofers--specifically REL subwoofers--are one of the most profound upgrades you can make. Which model you choose depends completely on your speakers and room, but with this system, you’re likely to be at the level of a pair of REL Acoustics T/7i, $999 each. By this point you have a killer hi-fi system, and this is a great place to stop. But why stop when you can make it sound better and better and better and...
Add audiophile power cables, $759.80
If you’re skeptical about a power cord upgrade, you probably haven’t heard one. This is the most easily heard cable change, and when you upgrade from the stock cables on the Lumin D2, PrimaLuna EVO 100 pre and powers (that’s four AudioQuest NRG-Z3 at $189.95 each), you’ll notice better dynamics, a far greater palpability, and heightened sense of scale and realism to the music.
Add an audio stand, $399
A dedicated audio stand makes a difference to the sound, helping components dissipate vibration. The Solidsteel S2 is a solid choice, and Salamander also makes some great options.
Upgrade speaker cables, $1,199.95
If you had 10 feet of the Rocket 33 ($429.95), a jump to Rocket 44 with AudioQuest’s Dielectric Bias System will improve your amps’ control over the speaker drivers. Bass will get deeper and tighter, imaging will improve, and there will be a greater flow and ease to the music delivery. Technically this one is a replacement, not an addition, but maybe you're ready now to start a second system in the bedroom?
Add external power supplies, $459
Add speaker isolation, $399.98
You choose from IsoAcoustics Gaia I, II, or III depending on loudspeaker weight. It’s likely you’ll need the Gaia III ($199.99 for a set of four). With the feet, imaging tightens up, and the speaker becomes much more coherent from the top to the bottom of the frequency range. Our favorite result though, is that bass gets significantly deeper and tighter.
Add equipment isolation, $59.99 or $73.99 each
In a well set-up system, vibration control is an easily heard upgrade. Under power amps, it tends to improve bass response, and under source components it drops the noise floor, and improves air and imaging. Many of us at Upscale use IsoAcoustics because the Gaia feet work so well, but Nordost Sort Kones are also a great option.
Add audio-grade ethernet cable
Think this doesn't make a difference? Once you start playing around with the digital side of your system, you'll be surprised by how much of an effect digital sources and cables have. Any cable plugged into your system is a potential source of noise that can couple with analog stages and mask low-level information. Noise can also affect digital circuits by increasing jitter--a measurable distortion to any timed digital stream.