Well, I’m glad that’s over. 2020, that is. For much of last year, most of us remained cooped up, with little chance to hear new gear in proper listening environments. Many of you shopped virtually, ordering equipment without first having heard it, instead relying on reviews, dealer advice, and the goodwill of other audiophiles willing to share their experiences on message boards—hardly ideal, but better than nothing. With no High End show in Munich, Germany, to go to—not to mention all the other canceled audio shows around the globe—many product launches were pushed back or conducted online. The result? I didn’t get to hear nearly as much new gear as I do in a typical year. I suspect you’ve had the same experience.
That lack of in-person auditioning led me to much conjecture. Sure, I ended up reviewing a handful of new products, but that number pales in comparison to what I usually get to hear at even a single audio show. Just as you probably have, I’ve spent hours perusing manufacturers’ product webpages, wondering if I’d like this or that model. Bottom line: I’ve been building stereo systems virtually, and that’s what this article is about: having a bit of fun setting up stereo systems on my computer screen.
Below are two systems I haven’t heard but would like to. They’re the first of six such systems I’ll be writing about, and based on my experience I think these systems hold great promise. Perhaps, sometime in 2021, I’ll get to hear some of them—or maybe you’ll hear one of them and will write in to let me know how it sounds (see below). Either way, these two stereo systems, and the four that will follow in the next two months, are ones I’d love to assemble in my listening room and put through their paces.
In each of the following installments of this series I’ll present two more virtual systems, each higher in total price (all in USD)—and, hopefully, sound quality and build quality—than anything that came before. And the first two are . . .
The Small Wonder System: PMC, Lumin, AudioQuest
Wanting a small, unobtrusive stereo system would mean, if I were Gordon Brockhouse over at SoundStage! Simplifi, a powered or active speaker system: compact, self-contained, and mostly wireless (can’t get around those power cords). I can’t argue with that type of system . . . but I like standalone speakers and electronics, mainly because they let me separately update the speakers or the electronics—something you can’t do with most active or powered speakers. So even in this smallish-footprint system, I’m still going with separates.
The Small Wonder System I’ve come up with starts with the PMC twenty5 21i loudspeaker ($3299/pair), a relatively tiny two-way minimonitor from that venerable British speaker maker. What I like about the twenty5 21i is PMC’s Advanced Transmission Line technology—a venting method that makes possible bigger bass from small woofers. It should help these little guys produce a bigger sound than you’d otherwise think possible from cabinets measuring only 13.4″H x 6.4″W x 11.2″D. I’d get mine in the Walnut finish.
To drive the twenty5 21i’s, let’s get a Lumin M1 integrated amplifier and network music player ($1995), which will output 60Wpc into 8 ohms or 100Wpc into 4 ohms—plenty of power for the little PMCs. With native support for Tidal and Qobuz, and accepting digital resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD128, the Roon Ready M1 is an all-in-one solution for a highly capable compact system. Connect the Lumin to the PMCs with AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables ($399.95/8ʹ pair), and you’re almost done (you’ll need a network connection).
I expect that this system will sound much bigger than its footprint in your room, and the high quality of the materials that make up each component will immediately indicate that your system is high end. Place the Lumin and the PMCs on a credenza in your family room, control the Lumin with its app, and you’re in business. The total retail price of my Small Wonder System is a hair under $5700—a pittance compared to the enjoyment you’ll potentially get out of it.
The Warm and Classic System: Sonus Faber, Yamaha, Technics, Sumiko, Wireworld
We got early word of the new Sonus Faber Maxima Amator two-way floorstander ($15,000/pair) from our Italian friends at Sonus Faber—it caught my attention as soon as it was announced, and Hans Wetzel got one of the first pair to review for SoundStage! Ultra (coming 1/15). I’ve been a fan of the Sonus Faber sound for some time now, most recently when I reviewed their Olympica Nova III floorstander ($13,500/pair)—and I loved it.
The Maxima Amator is even more physically attractive to me than the lovely Olympicas. I’m absolutely drawn to its real-walnut cabinet and marble base, and the window in its rear panel through which you can see the crossover components. This two-way design would be great for a smallish listening room, and its classy construction would be a pleasant welcome every time you entered that room.
I’d pair the Sonus Fabers with the Yamaha A-S3200 all-analog integrated amplifier ($7499.95), reviewed this month by Roger Kanno on sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi. The A-S3200 is capable of outputting a solid 100Wpc into 8 ohms, which should be enough propellent for the Maxima Amators. The Yamaha’s classic front panel, with its power-output meters, would also go nicely with the Sonus Fabers, presenting a classic hi-fi vibe supported by modern engineering that ensures that the old-school design flourishes—e.g., the shapes of the Yamaha’s front-panel controls—aren’t just for show.
As for a source component for this system, the phono stage in the Yamaha begs to make that source a turntable. I’m no turntable guy, but for this Warm and Classic System I’d consider changing my digital ways. So let’s stay with the Classic theme and get a Technics SL-1200G direct-drive turntable ($4000). Like the Yamaha’s, the Technics’s visual design harks back to years past, but its internal engineering is thoroughly contemporary. It comes complete with tonearm and many cool construction features, such as a platter made from three different materials: diecast aluminum, brass, and an elastomer damping compound.
To select a phono cartridge, I consulted with Jason Thorpe, the analog expert who writes our “For the Record” column, and he didn’t take long to come up with a recommendation: “I’d suggest the Sumiko Songbird low-output moving coil ($899), which leans just slightly toward the richer, smoother end of the spectrum. It should match up well with the snappy, dynamic nature of the SL-1200G.” Done deal.
Finishing touches: I’d be most tempted not to buy a dedicated equipment rack for the Warm and Classic System, and instead opt for some traditional furniture of solid wood. I think that would add to the system’s vintage appearance, though I acknowledge that any turntable requires a firm, level surface to sit on—so let’s make that solid-wood furniture heavy and well made. As for wiring, I’d budget about $2500. Some owners of Sonus Faber speakers have reported good results with Wireworld products, so let’s go with the Wireworld Eclipse 8 line for speaker cables and interconnects.
The total system price comes to a buck under $30,000. I expect this system will sound good with any music, and will give its owner the tactile pleasures of interacting with finely crafted equipment for many years. It’s a system that will never go out of style—you’ll be able to pass it down to your kids.
Next month I’ll virtually assemble two more systems, both priced higher than the two described here. My expectations for their quality of sound will of course be higher, and their sounds should fill larger spaces and go lower in the bass than this month’s two-way-based setups. If you’ve come up with a virtual system of your own and would like to share it with us, attach your description of it to an e-mail with permission for us to publish it and where you’re writing from, and we’ll post as many as we can. Meanwhile, as I ponder next month’s selections, I’ll keep listening to my real audio system . . .
. . . Jeff Fritz