201101_coverLast month, in "Establishing Benchmarks, Part One: Systems," I introduced my current project which is: to aquaint you with several high-end audio systems, each of which, in my opinion, sets a benchmark for performance at its price. I’ll roll out the first system in the next couple of months, but before then I need to tackle a few issues. And if you’re going to find value in my advice, I'll make some assumptions that you’d probably like to share.

The price points are first. The easy way out was to assemble systems at low, middle, and high prices, the cost of each step up perhaps twice that of the one below. I liked that idea, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to proceed. If I choose a $3000 system as the entry-level setup, for instance, would $6000 and $12,000 be the best prices for the mid- and high-priced systems? No, because there’s not enough room between those prices to accurately represent the vast array of components audiophiles have to choose from.

After giving this some serious thought, here’s what I’ve come up with, and why:

$5000: I chose this upper-limit budget for the entry-level system because it’s an amount that many serious audio enthusiasts can afford. Sure, it’s more than the average person would spend on a stereo, but then, even a $5000 system will not be assembled from mass-market devices. Nor am I putting together an office or bedroom system. No, this will be a system that can fill a room of medium to large size with almost-full-range sound and have few or no ergonomic limitations. Most average consumers wouldn’t accept a highly compromised system for their five large, and neither would I -- this system would sure keep me happy, and I’m pretty picky.

$30,000: This is the controversial one. Why not price the second system at $15,000, or maybe $20,000? Isn’t $25,000 a ridiculously high jump in price? Yes. But several factors are at work here. First, the $5000 system is a real overachiever, representing performance that only a few years ago might cost twice that. Plus, I wanted the middle system to be dramatically better than the entry-level system in every way. This $30,000 system will be able to fulfill most audiophiles’ wildest dreams, and will include components that could be passed down to the next generation without skipping a beat. Bottom line: It’s really that good.

Cost-no-object, sort of: A few years ago I embarked on one of the most enjoyable adventures of my career in writing about high-end audio: Assembling The World’s Best Audio System 2009. That system was conceived without thought of cost or practicality, and sure enough, its final price tag of $360,079 put it far beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest audiophiles. Extraordinary as it was, it was fantasy for most -- including me. My goal for this system is to assemble the best audio system I can, but do it in a fashion that is still somewhat conscious of price. Ultimately, I’d like to put together a system that is extraordinary in every way, with almost zero compromise, but whose total price ends up being less than expected -- in real money, not the Monopoly money I spent on TWBAS 2009! We’ll see if the state of the art really needs to approach a half mil.

If you find validity in this concept, here are the assumptions we’ll have to share: 

  • Limit the number of components, but have each one be of higher quality. This is important. Each system will have a single source component, the idea being that I’m trying to assemble not Swiss Army Knives, but specialized precision tools. It’s like buying a 5.1-channel speaker system with the same money you’d spend on a stereo pair: When you spread the funds too thin, you seriously compromise quality. I don’t want that. My goal here is to keep performance at the forefront; any compromise will be in overall flexibility, not sound. 
  • High-resolution digital recordings are the future of high-end audio, and the best bang for today’s buck. All three of these systems will feature music digitally streamed from a computer or music server. I won’t feature CD as a core component of any of these systems because, with a computer-based system, you can get better sound for less money and be more future-proof. 16-bit/44.1kHz as a limit? Nah . . . 
  • A high-performance system should be as full-range as possible. It’s easy to assemble an excellent small-scale setup using bookshelf speakers, but the bottom line is that most folks want good bass. I do, my friends do, and I bet you do, too. Each of these systems will be able to play fairly low in frequency with good power output. They’ll get better at this as the price increases, of course, but not one of them will fall off a cliff at 60Hz. 
  • Accuracy is paramount. After all, this is high fidelity. To the best of my ability, I’ll ensure that none of these systems imposes gross colorations on your recordings that will make them sound vastly different from what the recording engineers intended. They should let the music flow through them unimpeded.

 The first system is coming February 1 or March 1, depending on the availability of one of the core components. I think I’m perhaps most excited about the $5000 rig, and can’t wait to introduce it to you. If enjoying tunes is your goal and five bills is your budget, you should check it out.

. . . Jeff Fritz