Far too many audiophiles get worked up posing and defending arguments about what is the absolute best high-fidelity equipment extant. I suspect that the loudest voices are not particularly objective, tied as they often are to the validation of their own purchases. Check out the blogs -- it can be crazy out there.
Calm down, people. High-performance audio can and should elicit passion, but that passion needs to be grounded in common sense, balance, and a systems-oriented approach. I’ll let you in on a little secret: There is no “best” out there, at least in any absolute or blanket sense.
Last month I wrote about the super products that I’d buy without hesitation. Those wallet-busting components ranged from $15,000 to $165,000 USD -- not chump change to anyone I know. But put them in your listening room and you’ll be rewarded with the best sound that money can presently buy. But even when their prices are set aside, they aren’t the most practical audio components. Each Magico Q7 loudspeaker weighs 750 pounds, and the Gryphon Mephisto amplifier isn’t exactly light at 250 pounds.
Thank goodness you can get great sound without having to spend huge sums of money and/or housing a multi-ton system.
So assuming that cost is an object -- as it is for most of us -- here are some of the products I’d buy today. It might surprise you to see just how little compromise you need to make in high-value, high-end audio gear. These products aren’t necessarily cheap, but each offers huge value within its product genre; and their prices fall below -- sometimes far below -- those listed in last month’s column.
The longer I review high-end audio gear -- I’ve been doing it going on 15 years now -- the less inclined I am to buy it. You’d think it would be the opposite. After all, I’m exposed to an endless supply of the best products available. Do I cherry-pick review samples for myself? Of course. Being the editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network has its privileges, and I regularly exercise them when it comes to selecting products for my own use. It helps to have at my disposal the Music Vault listening room, a sonically neutral lab in which to audition the best components extant. So, yes, I get the best stuff, and it’s a blast to do this “job.” (I should also mention that I see my fair share of mediocre products, and the occasional real dog that doesn’t deserve the time it would take to pan it. But that’s another story for another time.)
The July/August issue of Positive Feedback Online includes an article by Teresa Goodwin titled "Why I’m a Subjectivist." She begins by proclaiming, "In our world of music enjoyment there are subjectivists and objectivists. I’m a subjectivist." Her definitions are thus: "Objectivists believe in a dictatorial unyielding totalitarianism of science over human interaction with music. Subjectivists believe in total freedom to enjoy music however one chooses, without any scientific validation."
It was December of 2006. I’d flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport from Wilmington, North Carolina, and got stuck there for what seemed like days (but was actually only half a day). I was on my way to visit Andrew Payor, of Rockport Technologies, in Rockport, Maine, who would give me a tour of his facilities. I would then listen to his current line of loudspeakers. I would then have the most pivotal experience of my audiophile life.
An enticing prelude
For me, The World’s Best Audio System 2012 began when I met Howard Gladstone, president and CEO of Plitron Manufacturing, parent company of Torus Power, who was responsible for supplying power-conditioning equipment for the megasystem. We became instant friends, exchanging pleasantries as we traveled for 20 minutes in the courtesy shuttle from ILM airport to the Holiday Inn in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.
At this point, The World’s Best Audio System 2012 has been well documented. Nevertheless, having just spent three jam-packed days flying from Los Angeles to North Carolina and back for a engaging and engrossing Saturday “happening,” I’m happy to share some of my impressions.
Commitment. On reflection, I remain amazed by the sheer amount of effort expended by everyone involved to make TWBAS 2012 such a success. Following his decision to have another go at assembling an all-hands-on-deck supersystem, Jeff Fritz spent countless hours researching leads, contemplating complementary components, and balancing the already available against the potential of cutting-edge opportunities still in process. And that was just the beginning.
Well, as I write this, it’s not really over -- we’re still about 12 days out from the start of The World’s Best Audio System 2012, which takes place March 30-31. But if you’re reading this on April 1, then the event is over, as it finished up just last night. Whew! You can read all about it and see all the photos on www.SoundStageGlobal.com. I’m hoping that all went smoothly, of course, and that the sound in my Music Vault listening room set new standards for the high-fidelity playback of music recordings. That is/was, after all, the ultimate goal of the entire exercise. But a lot of things would have had to come together to make that happen, and the variables and pitfalls are many.
By now you know which components comprise TWBAS 2012, which means it’s time for me to tell you why I chose them. This is the potentially controversial part -- the part where you learn about my decision-making process, and what differentiates these products from the pack.
But before I tell you why I chose each particular product, I should tell you what criteria I based my choices on. You’ve likely already figured this out, but I did not hear even one of them beforehand -- many were still in the R&D phase when I chose them. I don’t suggest you buy your state-of-the-art stereo system this way, but the unknown is part of what makes TWBAS 2012 so exciting -- like diving from the top of a skyscraper in a wingsuit.
On August 1, 2011, on our Ultra Audio website, the SoundStage! Network published “TWBAS 2012: The Selection Process Begins.” At that point, as I began the methodical process of deciding precisely which components would be mated in The World’s Best Audio System 2012, the virtual slate was clean. But as that process continued, I couldn’t help but reflect on the history of The World’s Best Audio System. It’s been one wild ride.
The whole thing began in 2003, when I first had the idea of setting up and writing about a no-limits-of-any-kind supersystem in my own listening room. It sure did light my fire -- what audio writer wouldn’t want such an assignment? The first TWBAS article, published in February 2004, profiled an audio system comprising products from Halcro, Wilson Audio, EMM Labs, and Shunyata Research. From then on, “TWBAS” was a regular column on Ultra Audio, a place in which I wrote about the best individual audio components I could find. Since then I’ve written some 40 installments, not counting multiple “Opinion” pieces and related features published on other SS!N sites: The TWBAS archives are spread across multiple versions of the SoundStage! Network’s Ultra Audio: the original articles (February 2004 through February 2009), the middle installments (up through June 2010), and the current iteration.
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