Source first – a dramatic demonstration

The idea of “source first” was made popular in the 1970s by Ivor Tiefenbrunn of Linn Products. The idea was that you spend most of your budget on the source. As a result, you would regularly find magazines recommending the Linn Sondek LP12 record deck (at around £400 from memory) with a NAD 3020 amplifier (£71 in 1979) and Acoustic Research 18s speakers (about the same price). To many, this seemed ludicrous, myself included. Although, when Linn brought out its own small speaker, the LInn Kan, it seemed to me to have borrowed a lot from the AR18s.

As an impecunious student, I owned two of these items in my first “serious” HiFi system. On reflection, I think I equated a serious system with one I could read about in the HiFi magazines. Of course, the Linn was the missing item (it still is – see my previous blog). My turntable was the Dual CS505, a respectable model more in keeping with the NAD and AR18s, in terms of price at least.

And over the years, I have generally stuck to a balanced system budget. This has been tweaked slightly recently when the rather disappointing and relatively costly Rega RX3 speakers were replaced with the cheaper Mycetias Audio speakers. In the front room, the Rega RS3 speakers seem about right for the Naim Unitiqute, which is of course source and amp in one box.

And then the status quo was well and truly upset. Every so once, I feel the need for a clear-out and resurrect some items from my HiFi history for sale on eBay. I was up in my attic and found my beloved NAD and AR18s speakers, and thought it’s time to either throw them out or put them up for sale. As always, the first step is testing the equipment.

Sadly, the NAD3020 lights up but doesn’t make a sound. Rather than simply throwing it out I’ll offer it as not working for parts on eBay. In turn that makes testing the AR18s speakers more difficult. Visually, the foam surround of the bass unit, which is often cited as likely to disintegrate looks OK. The other problem with the ARs is the flimsy sprung speaker terminals, one of which at least is missing a part. The solution is to take them downstairs and use a pair of speaker leads terminated with banana plugs which can be inserted into the speaker terminals, to try them on the end of the Naim Unitiqute.

The banana plugs make a satisfyingly solid connection once wedged into the speaker terminals. So it’s time to switch the Naim on. Firstly, the speakers work fine straight away. But there’s a bigger shock because they are not just working, they are sounding really great. So much so, I find something to listen to more seriously. First, I try Animals by Pink Floyd. Still sounding great. Then, I dig out my 192k downloads of Richard Thompson – First Mock Tudor then Amnesia. The great sound goes on. I remember the AR18s as. little bass light. Not with this source. They also had a reputation for a rather harsh treble, and I have to wonder if this suits my hearing as presumably as I get older and my high-frequency hearing presumably decreases.

But it seems like I owe Mr. Tieferbrun and numerous journalists something of an apology. Fed with the highest quality source I have ever given them. The AR18s have delivered a better sound than I have ever heard from them. Who knew? “Source first” really does work. In fairness, the Unitiqute as a combined source and amp in 2010 when bought cost over twice in cash terms what an LP12 and NAD 3020 would have cost in 1979, so probably still more, even in real terms.

So what now? I now have something of a dilemma. Sell the AR18s? Keep them? Sell the Regas? This is my living room and the AR18s could not be described as good-looking. I have decided that at the very least the AR18s have earned themselves a reprieve. In the spirit of HiFI as a hobby, I will leave them in place for the next few months and store the Regas. Watch this space for an update…

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