You don't have to shell out thousands of dollars to build a system that'll make your music -- whether it's on PC, whether it's on your phone, whether it's on a record collection -- sound amazing. We got hold of a simple, three-piece stereo audio kit with two bookshelf speakers, an amp and a turntable that will handle just about anything you throw at it, and all at a price that didn't break the bank.
This article was originally published on February 16, 2017.
Interdyn's audiophile-in-a-box system is built of three component pieces. Put them together and you have the perfect starter kit for an audiophile-grade, two-channel home audio setup. Every cable you need is included, whether it's power or speaker wiring -- pre-terminated lengths with banana connectors at either end, so everything is literally plug and play -- or a braided length of stereo RCA cable to connect turntable to amplifier.
Priced separately, the components would set you back around $1750 -- $549 for the Pro-Ject Audio Debut Carbon DC, $699 for the Pro-Ject Audio MaiA amplifier and $499 for the Polk Audio Signature S15. As a kit, Interdyn (one of the largest home audio product distributors in Australia) is selling all three for $1500.
The system is, for a two-handed setup, relatively compact. The largest part is definitely the turntable, made larger by its included (but optional) dust cover. The amp is small enough that, if you were seriously short on desk space, you could hide it away atop one of the bookshelf speakers. To be honest, this is more important than you might think: finding a high quality system that doesn't take up a bunch of room is important if you're living in an apartment or working with a smaller room.
And this Pro-Ject/Polk system is designed for small to medium rooms. You'll be best putting it to use in a living room or home office, either where you're listening up close or listening in a confined environment. In a larger space, where you're necessarily using higher volume levels, it might run out of puff.
Pro-Ject Audio MaiA: a tiny, versatile multi-source amp
At the heart of the system is Pro-Ject's MaiA -- a small integrated stereo amplifier that has a ton of connectivity. It can drive up to 37 Watts at 4 Ohms or 25 Watts at 8 Ohms across its stereo output channels, so it's not the most powerful thing in the world -- but it's more than enough for the efficient Polk bookshelf speakers that Interdyn sells the kit with.
MaiA is an acronym, as it turns out, that stands for 'my audiophile integrated amplifier'. And it lives up to that promise -- feed it a high quality source, whether that's a lossless FLAC audio file from a PC connected via USB, or a quality piece of vinyl, and it sounds lovely paired up with those Polk Audio speakers. It's powerful enough to drive weighty bass thumps, but also has the high-end detail to make cymbal crashes and electronica sound engaging and lively.
I found it easiest to judge the MaiA's sound quality with a direct comparison to another couple of affordable compact USB DAC amplifiers I had lying around, the Audioengine D1/N22 and the Topping T23. The MaiA solidly bested them both for the amount of detail it was able to deliver from a high quality FLAC file of Taylor Swift's 1989 (it's a good album, don't judge me). I was concerned the system wouldn't have any low-frequency oomph, but it does.
But where the Pro-Ject Audio MaiA really sets itself apart is with the ridiculously diverse range of inputs that it supports. You've got a phono stage for plugging in a turntable, a couple of stereo analog RCA inputs, three digital inputs, a USB DAC to directly connect your PC, and Bluetooth to hook up your mobile for convenience. And as well as stereo audio amplification for speakers, it has an excellent headphone output stage (albeit with a 6.5mm jack) to boot.
One thing worth keeping in mind, though, is the limited power output of the MaiA restricts the range of speakers you'll be able to use it with. That's not a problem at all with the kit itself, but it's a consideration for future upgrades. You won't be driving any floorstanders with it; this is an amplifier made for near-field listening and the occasional record-listening party.
Polk Audio Signature S15: compact but powerful speakers
Polk Audio's Signature S15 is the newest part of the three-piece setup: the Signature range was announced late last year, and the S15 is the compact bookshelf runt of the family -- a speaker that'll happily hide away on a small computer desk or side table in your living room, but with the potential power and sound quality to make your audio sources sound great and fill a small to medium room with sound.
Polk actually pushes the Signature S15 as surround sound rear speakers for a 5.1-channel or Dolby Atmos setup, but they also do very well as a simple, compact and straightforward forward-firing stereo audio setup. That classic combination of 1-inch tweeter and 5.25-inch woofer makes for a good range of relatively flat frequency response, but these aren't critical-listening monitors: instead, the sound the S15 produces is musical and fun, with an emphasis towards powerful bass and crisp treble.
With those tweeters rated up to 40,000Hz, the Signature S15 has excellent clarity -- the speakers are singingly crisp, almost too sharp with some tracks -- but this makes them excellent for listening to vocal-led tracks, where voices are lent a sense of extra definition and precision that most other entry-level speakers we've heard in the S15's circa-$500 price range just don't have. For their size, Polk's S15 speakers are surprisingly capable.
Despite only being rated down to 50Hz of low frequency extension, the Signature S15 has great mid-bass response: it's punchy and powerful and tight, not boomy or flabby at any point. A lot of that comes from the fact that the S15 is rear ported, so if you have them sitting within a few inches of a wall, you'll get reflected bass that adds to the speaker's overall warm, enveloping sound signature.
Pro-Ject Audio Debut Carbon DC: a simple, beautiful turntable
Comparing turntables isn't something I have a great deal of experience in, so I'm not going to pretend I have any huge feedback on the Debut Carbon versus my previous Audio-Technica LP60 except to say that it sounds gorgeous. You get a lovely warm and smooth sound out of vinyl -- it's not clipped like a CD or digital file, with a roll-off at the extreme upper and lower frequency ranges -- but that definitely doesn't mean it's lacking in detail and clarity. With an appropriately high quality system, like this one is, you can hear a great amount of fine nuance in tracks -- anyone that thinks of vinyl as old, low quality sound is just wrong.
It's a beautiful piece of equipment, too -- minimal in its design, with the platter and tonearm being the only things on a glossy black base. It does pick up fingerprints like nothing else, so make sure you have a cleaning cloth nearby -- but it's worth it. The platter isn't suspended in any way, though, so if you're looking for maximum clarity and fidelity you'll have to place the Debut Carbon on a steady and flat surface free of any vibration.
Just about my only complaint with the Debut Carbon is that its power switch is hidden away underneath its fascia, off to the lower left side of its front -- so you'll have to slip your finger underneath every time you want to get it going. You also have to change the speed of the Debut Carbon's platter manually whenever you're switching between 33 and 45rpm records, although I don't think many listeners at all are going to be doing very often.
Being manual, too, you'll be moving and dropping and lifting the tonearm yourself rather than just pressing a button. No complaints there from me -- it's part of the experience.
For an entirely reasonable asking price, this Pro-Ject/Polk stereo in a box kit gives you a great entry into the world of high quality two-channel audio. You have everything you need, and it's a quantum leap in quality from playing your music on a little Bluetooth speaker or a set of powered PC speakers... and it's a kit you can grow with. Each of the three pillars can be upgraded in the future.
If you find yourself seriously getting into vinyl, you can swap out the Debut Carbon -- as excellent as it is, I'm sure you could find a reason -- to something ritzier. The speakers are probably the most obvious point to upgrade, although you'll have to shell out a bit more than the package's asking price to get something noticeably better. And the little amp, although it's short on power output, has so many features for its footprint that it's hard to think of a rational alternative.