If you’ve followed my writing over the 20 years that I’ve been covering high-end audio, you no doubt know about my column “The World’s Best Audio System” (“TWBAS” for short). The last one was published in January 2014, but honestly, by then “TWBAS” had, to a large degree, petered out. I officially shut down the series in September 2014, with “Closing the Curtain on TWBAS.”
Since then it’s occurred to me that, somewhere along the way, the quest for high fidelity began to give ground to the building of luxury systems. No longer were the most expensive audio systems purely about the best sound; increasingly, they became about the cost. In season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cordelia says, “I have to have the most expensive thing. Not because it’s expensive, but because it costs more.” Audiophiles won’t readily admit that they want to spend more money for the sake of spending more money, but from my experiences observing many audiophiles for umpteen years, I’ve found it true. I don’t see many rich guys auditioning PSBs, not being satisfied, then Revels, not being satisfied, and then, because they’re just so unimpressed by the sound of these “budget” components, continue on until they top out at $100,000/pair speakers. Many times, the rich guy’s budget is decided well in advance of the auditioning, and it’s solely that dollar amount that determines the shortlist of products to consider.
The reality of today’s high end is that companies must pay attention to the luxury buyer. The most expensive products -- even those from the makers most concerned with absolute fidelity -- must include a dose of bling to get noticed: exquisite finishes, super-thick machined-aluminum enclosures, and such exclusive benefits as setup by the designer himself, to name but a few niceties.
Who am I to argue with any of this? Someone who buys a super-expensive product should be satisfied with all aspects of that product: sound, build, finish, ergonomics, warranty, support, even resale. Still, for me, what must come first is the sound -- the kind of sound I like. Maybe that’s what you like, too; maybe not.
So it occurred to me that, every once in a while, I should offer my opinions on the state of the art of sound reproduction. I’m not a luxury buyer per se -- I’m not rich. But, over the years, I’ve spent on audio components a greater percentage of my income than has probably been prudent. Yes, those components were almost all bought through industry accommodation (read: dealer cost, typically 50% of retail), but they were still cringe-inducing amounts of money to me -- and my wife. Suffice it to say that I spend money only on products that I truly believe in.
Currently . . .
My audio system has been stable for a while now. With the addition earlier this year of a Soulution 560 digital-to-analog converter ($35,000 USD), my electronics chain is pretty well set. I purchased a Soulution 711 power amplifier ($65,000) at the start of 2015, and since then I’ve grown increasingly impressed by the Swiss company’s products -- hence the 560. By any measure, the Soulution components are insanely expensive, but the engineering that goes into them is as good as I’ve seen, and the sound that comes out is as good as I’ve heard. They sure aren’t the blingiest components -- their understated industrial design is clean but simple. But Soulution has nailed high fidelity. The sound is the thing . . .
. . . that is, when the Soulutions are paired with Magico’s Q7 Mk.II loudspeakers ($229,000/pr.). On Internet forums, I’ve been accused of being a Magico fanboy, and I guess it’s basically true. But I came by it honestly: my fanboy status is based on hour after hour of listening, becoming accustomed to a house sound that is more resolving and -- here’s a new one for you -- temporally consistent than what I hear from other speakers. What I mean by temporal consistency is that, from the lowest bass to the highest highs, the Magicos respond in lockstep to the instantaneously changing nature of music, moment to moment, microsecond by microsecond, better than anything else. In the olden days, some called this attribute speed. I think temporally consistent works better (at least I like it better). And, of course, Magico’s level of build quality is beyond reproach.
As for cables, I’m using first-generation Nordost Valhalla speaker cables, interconnects, and power cords. These have proven to be terrific over the years I’ve used them, and I haven’t been tempted to change. Sources are my Apple MacBook Air and an Oppo BDP-103 universal Blu-ray player, respectively connected via USB and coaxial.
Overall, I think it is safe to say that mine is a fairly simple, if ambitious, system. It fits to a T my personal need for the highest quality of reproduced sound.
Possibly . . .
Still, I’m aware that any number of products made by other brands might suit my stereo system just as well as these. For electronics, I really like Gryphon Audio Designs and Boulder Amplifiers. I’ve reviewed these brands in my system many times over the years, and they’ve never failed to impress. The Danish-made, class-A Gryphons generally sound warm and powerful, driving loudspeakers to produce a sound of genuine authority and gravitas. The Boulders -- specifically their 2000-series models -- sound neutral and linear, and in terms of low noise compete with the best out there: Devialet and Soulution. And, speaking of Devialet, yes: I still think their Expert amplifier models are absolute steals, with sound that’s far better than you’d expect for the prices.
Products I’m enamored of but haven’t heard outside of audio shows: First, any of the new Tidal Audio electronics. Although Jörn Janczak and his German company are best known for their loudspeakers, I have a sneaking suspicion that their electronics are just as good. And lastly, I have a hankering to hear the new Progression Monos from D’Agostino Master Audio Systems. Are these new classics -- the Krell MDA-500s of the present era? Time will tell.
As for speakers, I still love the offerings from Rockport Technologies and Vivid Audio. Rockport speakers produce some of the most beautiful sound I’ve heard -- has anyone ever heard an offensive-sounding Rockport system? The Vivids, on the other hand, are some of the most visceral-sounding speakers you can buy; they soar in the highs and hit like a truck in the bass, while “disappearing” completely from the room. I’m unsure about TAD’s speakers now that their designer, Andrew Jones, has defected to German brand ELAC. I can imagine that TAD’s speaker line is now in an extended holding pattern, without guidance from their mastermind. I am supercurious about Tidal Audio’s latest speakers -- namely, the G2 versions of their Piano and Contriva models. Tidal now uses proprietary cabinet materials and lower-distortion drivers from Accuton, and I’m sure Jörn Janczak has learned a few things since I last had any of his speakers in my room. I’m also drawn to Gryphon’s speakers. I’ve long admired the Trident II -- its powered and adjustable bass section seems as if it would ensure great lows in almost any room.
The more things change . . .
Do you sense some trends? My preferences for solid-state electronics and dynamic-driver speakers haven’t changed. I still get the most complete sound with those types of products. As for sources, I’m a convert to streaming music -- I’d say about 80% of my listening is now done via a different Tidal: the streaming service. I simply love discovering new music this way, and Tidal’s CD-resolution sound is superb. I’ve never been into vinyl; while I hear and see the appeal, the instant-on nature of streaming music better fits the way I listen.
Which leads me to anticipate your question: Why don’t you see an expensive music server in my setup? Because I have yet to hear a reason to ditch the modern computer. My Apple MacBook Air with Roon installed sounds great over USB -- at least into a DAC capable of excellent jitter rejection, like the Soulution 560. And the Oppo BDP-103, with its Media Control app, satisfies my need to pipe in content from various other Internet-based sources. (Yes, I also use my system for Netflix.)
I realize that this article contains little that’s new -- though I’m always on the lookout for new, exciting audio products, I’m not a flavor-of-the-month guy. But I can promise you that when I find something I consider the state of the art -- or even just really, really good -- I’ll write about it. Right here. On SoundStage! Ultra.
. . . Jeff Fritz