Jazz demands more—and less—from a stereo than R&B and rock do. Here’s how to put together a top-rank system for swinging tunes
Ask an audiophile what kind of stereo system a rock fan is likely to have, and they’ll probably describe a JBL setup with muscular amps and huge woofers. Ask them what a classical fan might have, and they’ll likely cite elegant English speakers in a walnut finish driven by a classic McIntosh amp. But ask them what a jazz fan might have, and they may draw a blank. Single Din Radio
I’ve had innumerable friends who love jazz, and their systems don’t seem to share a note in common. But they should. Jazz—especially in its most revered form, the acoustic combo—places subtle demands on a system that might not concern fans of other genres. In some ways, though, acoustic jazz is less demanding on a stereo system than most genres.
Here are my tips for putting together a stereo system that’ll work beautifully for everything from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five to the latest Julian Lage album.
You Can Get Started With just about every audio system, the most important consideration is the speakers. They have the biggest impact on the sound—and on your decor.
Jazz fans don’t necessarily need to invest in big, expensive speakers. In most acoustic jazz, the lowest note commonly encountered is the low E on double bass, at 41 Hertz—and even with that low note, the harmonics at 82 Hz and up will probably be louder than the fundamental tone, depending on the recording. A good bookshelf speaker with a 6½-inch woofer is a safe bet, but even most speakers with just a 5¼-inch woofer will sound full enough for acoustic jazz. If you’re into fusion—where you might hear a bigger kick drum, or an electric bass with a low B string—consider getting a small tower speaker for extra bass.
The first decision you have to make with a speaker is whether you want passive or active. A passive speaker has to be connected to an amplifier and to some sort of source, which could be a turntable, a CD player, a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) or a Bluetooth receiver. An active speaker has at least the amplifier built in, and many incorporate a Bluetooth receiver, a DAC, and a WiFi-based streaming technology such as Apple AirPlay 2 or Google Chromecast.
The advantage of passive speakers is that you can use whatever electronics you want, and you can upgrade the electronics and add new sources as your budget increases or technology changes. The advantage of active speakers is simplicity: They usually require just one cable to connect the two speakers, plus an AC plug for power—and you may not need any other components, unless you want to add a turntable.
Fortunately, you can get great sound either way—but it’s vital that you get a good speaker, one that can reveal the sonic details and ambience in the best jazz recordings. A well-designed, high-quality speaker will practically transport you into the recording venue, whether it’s Columbia’s old 30th Street studio (where Kind of Blue was recorded) or Carnegie Hall. You want a two-way or three-way speaker with a sturdy cabinet that doesn’t ring or resonate much when you knock a knuckle on the side; online reviews can give you some clues about which models will serve you best.
You can spend whatever you want on speakers, but over about $3,000 per pair, you’ll probably start to see diminishing returns on the extra investment. My favorite passive speaker to start with is the Triangle Borea BR03 bookshelf speaker, an impeccably engineered, nicely styled speaker with a 6½-inch woofer, a 1-inch tweeter and a price that often dips as low as $400 per pair. For an all-in-one active model with built-in Bluetooth and streaming, I’d start with the $799 SVS Prime Wireless Pro system, or the similarly capable but much sleeker $1,399 KEF LSX II system.
The Other Players If you’re getting passive speakers, you’ll need an amp—and again, there are countless good choices at a range of prices. The simplest option is an integrated amp, which combines a preamp (for volume control and source selection) and an amplifier. One great, modestly priced option is the $499 Denon PMA-600NE, which packs a 45-watt-per-channel amp, a DAC for connecting a computer or digital streaming device, a phono preamp for connecting a turntable, and Bluetooth into a single chassis. You might want to add a turntable too; decent models from U-Turn and Pro-Ject start at $199 and $349, respectively.
Whichever way you decide to start, and whatever you decide to spend, it’s important that every jazz fan has a good stereo system. Practically every jazz album since the late ’50s is recorded to sound best on a set of high-quality stereo speakers, and you can’t fully appreciate the art of the musicians or the recording engineers otherwise.
SORTING OUT STREAMING For sound quality, WiFi streaming is preferable to Bluetooth, because Bluetooth’s limited bandwidth requires that the sound be compressed, a process that sacrifices some fidelity. For Apple iOS devices, the most common system is Apple AirPlay (or AirPlay 2), and for Android devices, it’s Google Chromecast. Amazon Alexa and Spotify Connect are other popular options that work with iOS and Android.
Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.
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