The last several months I’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink on luxury purchases, high-end sound quality, and where they overlap. It began in August 2020, with “The Purchasing of Luxury Audio and the Pursuit of Hi-Fi Are Two Different Hobbies,” in which I examined why people make luxury purchases in general, how this global appetite for luxury goods includes high-end audio, and why an audiophile who seeks only the high-fidelity reproduction of recorded music might be completely removed from such an experience.
Then, in September, in “I’ve Changed My Mind About Luxury Audio,” I told you why I’ve reexamined my own thoughts on the subject. In recent years I’d grown less interested in the idea of buying audio gear for reasons other than sound quality, perhaps ignoring the fact that for many people, some of those other reasons actually increase their enjoyment of their purchases. I’d concluded that that’s perfectly alright with me -- the world is big enough for all of us.
Last month, with “Luxury High End: Heart vs. Head,” I thought I’d finished the series. In that article I juxtaposed the reasons someone might make the perfectly rational choice to buy an audio component that reproduces music with high fidelity, while someone else might just as rationally decide to buy something far more elaborate -- something that not only accomplishes that first goal of music reproduction, but also satisfies other cravings that are just as important to that buyer.
This month, it’s personal.
I don’t buy as much audio gear as I used to. Back then, when I heard and saw something I felt I just had to have -- it seemed to happen about once a year -- I made it manifest in my listening room. Over a span of ten years, I reviewed and owned many of the high end’s best products. (Which ones? If you’re interested, you can read all about them in the archives of my series “The World’s Best Audio System,” which ran from February 2004 to January 2014.) I had a $300,000+ stereo system until 2017. Since then I’ve reviewed some very ambitious, even luxury products -- but not as many as before.
I’ve spent a lot of money on audio gear, and I was completely satisfied with most of those purchases. Just like anyone else, I have my hot-button priorities in shopping for components, and over the years those priorities have gotten only more exclusive. It’s gotten to the point that, these days, I find it hard to buy anything at all. Whatever component I’m considering, there’s always something wrong with it. An internal voice whispers, “Take a pass on this,” and I obey it. Sure, it’s saved me a lot of money -- but it’s also cut down a bit on the excitement of high-end audio as a hobby.
In the market for speakers?
The loudspeaker is the last and most important link in a chain of high-end audio components. The listening space itself aside -- most of us can’t just go out and buy a new room -- speakers have, by far, the greatest impact on the ultimate sound quality of a stereo system. My decades of audio experience have also told me that speakers are the hardest things for a manufacturer to get exactly right, and the easiest to mess up.
You can buy a perfectly decent loudspeaker for very little money. You can get really nicely built speakers for not that much money. You can also spend a boatload and get mediocre sound, or drop a mint and get speakers that were built in a glorified garage -- and look it.
In this article, I’m having none of that. My goal is to give you my definitive list of speaker manufacturers that meet my criteria for luxury and high sound quality in the same speaker model(s). But for my list to have any meaning or value, I need to spell out those criteria:
Price matters. By definition, a low-priced product cannot be a luxury product. For the purposes of this list, any company that doesn’t make a loudspeaker model costing north of $100,000/pair (all prices USD) is excluded.
Cones and domes only. Although I’ve spent years listening, at audio shows and in dealers’ showrooms, to horn, planar-magnetic, electrostatic, ribbon, and hybrid speakers of all sorts, I’ve never heard any that produced what I thought was the very highest-fidelity sound. If any of those types of speakers are your thing, that’s great -- but they’ve never been mine, so I can’t include them here.
Engineering and measurements. Before I will even consider buying a speaker, I have to see its acoustic measurements, and know that its manufacturer is seriously focused on loudspeaker engineering. These serve as critical checks and balances to what I hear in listening tests. The specifics of “good measurements” are beyond the scope of this article, but across-the-board excellence in acoustic measurements is an absolute prerequisite.
Extreme attention to detail. If there’s orange peel or other flaws in your speaker’s painted finish, you’re out. Joins not perfectly aligned? Out. A crossover with a rat’s nest of wiring? There’s the door. I don’t want to see a microscratch, an uncentered bolt, or even the smallest, merely cosmetic flaw in a drive-unit cone. Nothing. If anything’s wrong with a speaker and my eye or finger finds it, its maker is crossed off my list.
Pedigree. This is sure to piss off many readers. But any brand that makes this list must have a well-established history of excellence that people know. If/when I want to replace the speakers, I want to be reasonably sure of a good resale price. I also want continued support after I buy them, and that’s best ensured by a company with a sound history and a stellar reputation to protect. Garage operations are not on my list.
Intangibles. The companies on my list do everything well, but every one of them does some things -- or even just one thing -- extraordinarily well. If I can’t point to at least one specific area in which a speaker maker exceeds almost all others, then they’re not eligible for my list.
If you’re going to buy a six-figure loudspeaker that performs with the highest imaginable fidelity to the source and is built to extraordinary standards, select something from this short list and you’re golden. In alphabetical order, here they are.
In high-end audio, Alon Wolf is a relentless force. His company, Magico, is always mentioned when the best loudspeakers are discussed. What I most admire about Magico is what makes this company special: They have always simultaneously pursued multiple avenues to improve their products. Take, for example, their cabinets. The enclosure of the Mini II (ca. 2007, ca. $30,000/pair), arguably Magico’s first commercial product, was made of a combination of wood and aluminum. That changed about a decade ago, with the introduction of the Q5. The Q5 was unveiled at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, and I recall the looks on attendees’ faces when they entered Magico’s room to see the latticework of aluminum bracing inside the speaker.
From then on, what we saw from Magico got only more complex. Soon, hybrid enclosures of carbon fiber and aluminum dominated their speaker line. Recently, carbon-fiber skins over internal matrices of aluminum honeycomb first appeared in the cabinet of Magico’s flagship model, the M9 ($750,000/pair). But cabinets are only one of the ways Magico has pursued excellence. They were the first to use graphene in a loudspeaker cone -- in fact, in speaker model after speaker model, Magico’s driver cones are constantly revised, for the sole purpose of increasing those models’ sound quality.
But as far as this list is concerned, those advances would be for naught without stunning finish work, and Magico has mastered that, too. They’re dead serious about quality control -- I’ve owned and reviewed Magico speakers, and I’ve never seen one that didn’t pass my own micro-inspection. The anodizing of the aluminum, the clearcoat over the carbon fiber, the joins between disparate materials -- it’s all accomplished with the tightest tolerances I’ve seen. Magico pursues perfection -- in measurements, build, finish, and an appearance that appeals to many. This is all due to the extreme dedication of Alon Wolf & Co., for whom mil-spec precision is only the starting point. For all that they do right, they easily meet my stringent criteria.
Rockport Technologies was recently purchased by Josh Clark. I’ve since talked with Clark, and am convinced that he’s committed to continuing what for many years has been the obsession of founder Andy Payor. Payor is still at Rockport, designing and building speakers, but under Josh’s direction the company is growing its footprint, and seems to me to be stronger than ever. Rockport is the definition of all that is best in boutique audio, and its reputation as the last -- or first -- resort of the most persnickety audiophiles is well deserved. Every speaker that leaves Rockport’s facility in South Thomaston, Maine, reflects the personal attention lavished on it by Clark, Payor, and the few Rockport master craftspeople. That these speakers are measured, listened to, and quality-controlled to the nth degree is evident in every aspect of every unit of the four models Rockport currently makes. Payor is a consummate engineer. Whether designing a sailboat, a house, a turntable, or a loudspeaker, he personally ensures that it’s engineered to achieve the very highest level of performance possible at the price point. But even before a Rockport speaker model goes into production, its every detail must be, in a word, exacting.
Rockport currently makes one model priced in the six figures: the Lyra ($177,500/pair). Its cabinet comprises two housings of aluminum, cast with integral stiffening fins and recesses for drive-units. These housings are separated from and bonded to each other with 150 pounds of damping compound. This creates a massive, 560-pound enclosure that is optimally damped and incredibly stiff, and that has no fasteners to loosen over time. I’m no engineer, but if this isn’t the most ideal speaker enclosure ever conceived and made, I don’t know what is. Couple that cabinet with custom Rockport drivers, a finish quality in the top 2% of all audio products, and quality control personally attended to by Payor and Clark, and you have a recipe for what is as close to perfection as you’ll ever find in high-end audio. Which makes Rockport Technologies a shoo-in for my list.
For many years, Italy’s Sonus Faber was known for its stunning wood finishes and really nice sound quality. Then, in 2007, it was sold to the Fine Sounds Group, and is now part of the McIntosh Group. The immaculate wood finishes the company built its reputation on remain, but the acoustic design of their loudspeakers has only improved. Today, Sonus Faber makes some of the most technically sophisticated loudspeakers on the planet, and they marry that to qualities of build and finish that are almost ridiculous in their attention to detail. Their wood finishes, with touches of leather and other posh materials, are simply the best you can find in a loudspeaker -- and there are a lot of wood-finished speakers out there.
But the excellence that is Sonus Faber’s goes beyond engineering and the resulting great sound, even beyond exquisite build and finish qualities. In those areas Sonus Faber competes with the very best there is, but one native advantage that they have over almost all other companies came to the fore when I considered them for this list: Italian design consciousness. Italian architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni famously stated, “Quite simply, we are the best . . . we have more imagination, more culture, and are better mediators between the past and the future.” It’s hard to argue with that. More than with any other brand I could name, a certain something draws the eye to Sonus Faber speakers. Can you really look at the Sonus Faber Aida ($130,000/pair) and not see, in addition to its perfection of detail, the beauty of the design itself? Combined with engineering excellence and the resulting top-shelf sound quality, and qualities of build and finish that are beyond reproach, that physical beauty is a tangible factor that perhaps no other brand on my list or any other can match. So Sonus Faber must be on my list -- of course.
In 2017, when I exited the super high end, I bought what might be seen as a consolation prize: a pair of Vimberg Tonda loudspeakers ($38,000/pair). I’ve been thrilled with them, and recommend them unhesitatingly to any audiophile looking for a great floorstanding speaker for under $50,000/pair. Vimberg is a sub-brand of Germany’s Tidal Audio, and the models from both brands outwardly look very similar. But that’s where the similarities end. Tidal is another thing entirely from Vimberg. Jorn Janczak, Tidal’s founder and guiding force, is obsessive about his company, as can be seen in everything Tidal makes. First there’s the impressive list of materials: the exclusive-to-Tidal 5” diamond midrange driver, the proprietary Tiralit and Tiradur cabinet materials, the use of polished stainless steel, and the insanely expensive crossover components -- everything that should be there is there. As for engineering, Tidal covers all the bases -- the measurements of their speakers are excellent in every parameter, even in some that other great companies ignore.
But as exalted as all of these qualities are, they alone wouldn’t have gotten Tidal on my list. Tidal stands at the very top of the industry for its promise to perfect every detail, down to the most microscopic and seemingly least consequential. Their build and finish qualities, inside and outside the speaker, are the best I’ve seen on any audio product of any type. No part of a Tidal product is less important than any other part -- that’s not the Tidal way. Their top model is the La Assoluta ($625,000/pair). This 1069-pound jewel must be seen in the flesh to be believed. The same could be said of its little brother, the Akira ($255,000/pr.). I could go on and on -- suffice it to say that you probably haven’t seen what’s possible in precision loudspeaker design and manufacture until you’ve been in the presence of a Tidal loudspeaker. That’s why Tidal makes my list.
Conditional: Göbel High End and Estelon
Göbel High End is a German company that recently made its mark with the introduction of its Divin line of loudspeakers, of which the top model is the Majestic ($500,000/pair). This loudspeaker is huge, at 89” high and almost 1200 pounds each. When I heard and saw this model in Munich, at High End 2018, I was beyond impressed. I’ve experienced Göbel’s speakers at only a few audio shows, but everything I’ve seen from afar from this company -- photos, measurements, reports from the field, etc. -- lead me to believe that Göbel High End might be a candidate for this list. I just can’t verify it yet.
The same can be said for Estelon, based in Estonia. Their top model, the Extreme ($239,000/pair, $259,000/pair for the Extreme Limited Edition as shown below), features a motorized upper housing that lets the listener adjust the height of the upper-frequency drivers to optimize the sound for the main listening position -- an impressive function that, as far as I know, is unique in the industry. These speakers are elegant in appearance, are made using first-class parts, and have sounded sublime at shows. I hope to review an Estelon speaker by year’s end.
Others for your list?
Some other fine loudspeakers that might make your list are available from such manufacturers as Focal and Gryphon Audio Designs. Those two companies in particular satisfy most of the requirements for inclusion, only just missing the mark. Vivid Audio makes some super-high-performing speakers, but has yet to venture into the luxury sector -- their most expensive model, the Giya G1 Spirit, retails for a “mere” $86,000/pair.
I have complete confidence in the four loudspeaker brands I unconditionally recommend here. If you’re in the market for a luxury loudspeaker that is also of extremely high fidelity -- or if you demand the very highest level of audio performance wrapped up in the very bleeding edge of manufacture -- then these are the four brands to audition. They’re the best of the breed.
Next month: my choices for electronics.
. . . Jeff Fritz