In my last two columns I wrote about four stereo systems I’d like to assemble and hear. The first, “Six Stereo Systems I’d Like to Hear, Part One: The First Two,” detailed systems priced at $5700 and $30,000 (all prices USD). The second, “Six Stereo Systems I’d Like to Hear, Part Two: The Middle Pair,” increased the investments to $37,222 and $106,200. And for this third and final article of the series, I’ve thrown financial caution to the winds.
But wait, there’s a twist . . .
Those of you who’ve long read my writing on this site, first called Ultra Audio and now SoundStage! Ultra, would probably have no trouble predicting the component types I’d have been most likely to write about this month: big cone-and-dome loudspeakers with super-inert cabinets, massive solid-state monoblocks capable of outputting enormous power, a super-resolving DAC with integral volume control, all connected with expensive interconnects and cables and housed in a huge, well-treated room. You probably could also have easily predicted the brands—I’ve had my favorites over the years—and that they’d coalesce into a virtual system that, were it ever to be made a reality, I’m sure would sound out of this world.
But if you already knew most of what I’d be writing about here, well . . . what fun would there be in reading it?
So, instead, I’ve done something different. I’ve asked two of my most esteemed colleagues—Gordon Brockhouse, senior editor of SoundStage! Simplifi; and Hans Wetzel, contributing writer to SoundStage! Ultra—to tell me, and now you, about the virtual systems of their dreams. And to make things even more interesting, each writer has been given parameters to write within.
Were I in Gordon’s shoes, I’d have no clue where to begin the job I tasked him with: to virtually assemble the ultimate desktop system. I told him that he could spend as much Monopoly money as he wished—but that the resulting system had to fit within the confines of a typical desktop. Big floorstanders? Out of the question.
Hans had a different burden: assemble a cost-no-object stereo system that his wife, Amy, would not find a visual horror. Amy has very discriminating taste in interior design, room décor, and all things visual. Hans’s setup would have to look as good to Amy as, hopefully, it would sound to him.
Each man accepted his challenge, and away they went. Without further delay, I give you . . .
Gordon Brockhouse’s Knowledge Worker’s System: Focal, exaSound, AudioQuest, IsoAcoustics
What I call the Knowledge Worker’s System basically consists of Focal’s Shape 65 nearfield monitors ($1998/pair), which I reviewed last year (they won Reviewers’ Choice and Product of the Year awards), and exaSound’s e62 DAC ($2799).
The Shape 65 is an analog active speaker with a 6.5″ woofer powered by an 80W class-AB amp, and a 1ʺ aluminum-magnesium inverted-dome tweeter powered by a 25W class-AB amp. The features that make the Shape 65s work so well as studio monitors also lend themselves to desktop audio. Their rear-panel shelving and EQ controls let you compensate for less-than-ideal positioning. Their side-mounted passive radiators—rather than rear reflex ports for bass loading—mean that they can be placed close to the wall behind them. They come with feet that let you tilt the speakers up or down to aim them at the listener’s ears, and threaded holes in the back for wall mounting. And they have high-pass filters, in case you want to add a subwoofer (though their bass is damned fine on its own). They sound fantastic; and with their molded front baffles, dark walnut veneer, side-mounted passive radiators, and wire grilles, they look stylishly retro.
The exaSound e62, small enough to easily fit atop a desk, supports high-resolution audio to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512 via USB, has full MQA unfolding and decoding, and also has coaxial and TosLink S/PDIF inputs. It has both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs—a nice feature, especially as the Focals have balanced and unbalanced inputs. If you want to add a sub, you could use the XLR outs for the Focals (and adjust their high-pass filters accordingly) and the RCA outs for the sub (and adjust its crossover filter and level control accordingly). Like all exaSound DACs, the e62 is Roon tested. Another nice thing: The e62 has a very capable headphone amp, a nice plus for desktop audio.
The e62 is brand new, and I haven’t yet heard it. But I’ve heard its predecessor, the e32 Mk.II, and I liked it. In fact, I used it as part of the test bed for my review of the Focal Shape 65. The main difference between the two versions is the e62’s support of DSD512; the e32 Mk.II maxes out at DSD256.
I’d add some accessories to this system, beginning with a suitable USB link. I haven’t made exhaustive comparisons, but my AudioQuest Cinnamon 2m USB link (0.75m/$89.99) delivers good results. Second, I suggest IsoAcoustics’ ISO-L8R155 desktop speaker stands ($109.99/pair). I’ve used these with a variety of speakers, active and passive, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, they “delivered a real improvement in clarity, speed, focus, and dynamics.” The IsoAcoustics stands come with a variety of spacers for angling speakers up or down and placing them at the desired height—very useful for desktop audio. Another possible upgrade is the Teddy Prado power supply for the e62. I can’t testify to the benefit of this product, never having heard it, but exaSound offers it as a bundled option for the e62. A final accessory, this one required, is interconnects. I use 6ʹ and 15ʹ Benchmark Media Systems Studio&Stage balanced interconnects in my living-room system; for desktop audio, 2ʹ cables ($37 each) would likely be long enough.
This system is expandable. For desktop audio, I assume most folks’ primary source component will be a PC or Mac computer, so that’s how I’ve configured it. But if you want to add streaming, exaSound has a very nice Roon Ready streamer, the Sigma ($750). I’ve noted the ability to add a subwoofer or two, and the e62’s good headphone amp. Finally, as I mentioned in my review of them, the Focals are great for nearfield use, but also work very well for living-room stereo. Add the Sigma, and you can move this setup into a family room and have a dynamite Simplifi’d music system.
Total price: ca. $5000 without streamer or optional power supply—pretty steep for desktop audio, but a lot less than the typical Ultra system.
Hans Wetzel’s Impeccably Tailored Forensic Accountant System: Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems, dCS, CrystalConnect, Børresen Acoustics
I found this entire exercise deeply uncomfortable—even if I had the money to splurge on such a system, I don’t think I have it in me to actually spend six figures on audio gear. But it was also liberating. Price no object, what would I want to be sat down in front of with Qobuz Studio Premier standing at the ready?
I’m an integrated guy, so front and center would be a Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Momentum integrated amplifier ($45,000). My very first integrated was a D’Agostino creation, the Krell KAV-300iL ($3200, discontinued), and I loved that thing for the power, clarity, and effortlessness of its sound. Thinking about what D’Agostino was able to conjure up for a retail price of $3200 makes me giddy at the prospect of listening to something from him that’s 15 years newer and 14 times more expensive. Its black aluminum, copper accents, Swiss watch-like power meter, and fully balanced circuitry create a tasty proposition. Marry all that to a power-output spec of 200Wpc into 8 ohms—or double that into 4 ohms, or quadruple that into 2 ohms. Great stuff.
The Momentum doesn’t sport a built-in DAC, and that’s good—I would love, love to hear what dCS Ltd.’s Vivaldi One SACD/CD player-DAC ($80,000) would do with any ones and zeros hurled in its direction. I adored what dCS’s entry-level Bartók DAC did with digital signals, and am fascinated at the prospect that sound of even greater fidelity might be attained with the Vivaldi One—which, like the D’Agostino Momentum, is available in black.
Spidering out from this hardware would be a loom of CrystalConnect’s Future Dream interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords (total price for this system ca. $60,000). I love Crystal’s minimalist aesthetic, and appreciate that their slim conductors are made of monocrystal silver and silver-gold alloy—and that they’re the opposite of the garden-hose cables most audiophiles associate with high qualities of build and sound.
My wife, as is her wont, shot down my first choice of loudspeaker, Bowers & Wilkins’s legendary Nautilus ($60,000/pair). I get it—the Nautilus is . . . provocative. She did grudgingly approve my next choice: the Børresen Acoustics 05 ($120,000/pair), a gorgeous combination of wood and metal that looks almost like a Danish Sonus Faber. And I suspect the 05’s sound would be to my liking.
I think that precious little musical information would elude this beautiful and insightful rig. Sign me up. Virtually, I guess. Sigh.
Total price: ca. $305,000.
Jeff Fritz here. Thanks, guys—I’d love to hear both of these systems. I like that Gordon chose two products, one each with its feet in home audio and pro audio. A desktop stereo system could be assembled from these components for either environment, what with so many home recording studios cropping up during the pandemic. Although this virtual system was specced out for home use, it adds cool factor—you can tell your friends that its components are just as capable of helping a musician create as they are of reproducing those creations in the listener’s home. What a wonderful way to whittle away the hours as you work at your desk.
As for Hans’s system, I’m amused but not surprised that he chose an integrated amplifier. When you consider the sleek design of the Børresen Acoustics speakers and the fact that you won’t have to contend with big, bulky monoblocks and a separate preamp, an integrated makes sense in terms of saving space. Hans even gave some thought to the look of the cables—Crystal is, after all, the jeweler of the cable industry. And the one-box Vivaldi One from dCS—a company best known for its digital separates—also works within the constraints of limited space (or a low tolerance for too damn much audio gear, right, Amy?). Nonetheless, what this system is not is hidden, or even unobtrusive. Although Hans was aware of how it would fit into a room—his—he didn’t forget that it had to look outstanding. I can easily envision that it would do just that.
This article ties a nice bow on my three-part series. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of all of this virtual stuff. I hope that a day will soon come when we can all get out and do all the stuff we haven’t been doing for a year now—including hearing some great audio systems reproducing some fantastic music. That would be a joy.
. . . Jeff Fritz