Oh, the sacrifices we make for this hobby of ours! My curse and blessing is a second-floor listening room I call the Music Vault, where I do the listening for all of the reviews you’ve read in my column, “The World’s Best Audio System.” Equipment doesn’t just magically appear there, though I wish it did.
We all know that, generally, the better the audio component, the heavier it is. The problem of moving heavy gear into the Music Vault is compounded by the stairwell leading up into the room, which includes a small landing with a 90° left-hand turn -- and maneuvering really heavy gear up the stairs and around the bend is an absolute nightmare. Let’s see . . . I’ve hauled Wilson Audio Specialties X-2 Alexandria speakers (600 pounds each) and a WATCH Dog (almost 300 pounds), JL Audio’s Gotham g213 (almost 400 pounds), and Rockport’s Altairs (515 pounds each) and their modular but even more mammoth Arrakis (900 pounds each). And there have been many small-fry products, like the EgglestonWorks Andra (215 pounds) and the PBN Audio Montana Sammy (250 pounds) -- around here, we don’t consider anything “heavy” until it tops 300 pounds. For anything over 500 pounds, we hire outside help.
But, as Harry Callahan once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” When I decided on the speaker for TWBAS 2012, it became obvious to me that something had to change. I can’t yet tell you that speaker’s name, but I can say that it’s a one-piece model, it’s extremely heavy, and it’s taller than the Rockport Technologies Altair. To get a pair of them up into the Vault, I had to figure out something new.
Anyone who follows politics can spot a talking point a mile away. A talking point is an oft-repeated statement designed to convince those listening or reading that a particular stance is correct. The problem with talking points is that they so seldom contain any substance. You hear them again and again until you fall asleep from boredom, still left wondering what the politician’s stance on the issue is, actually.
Audio reviewers have their own talking points. Often, after reading a review, I wonder just what the real deal is with the product reviewed. I know the reviewer thought it was good, but I still don’t know if the reviewer thought it was better or worse than the competition. Why? There are many reasons. The reviewer might not be confident enough in his or her skills, or hasn’t heard enough of the competition, to go out on a limb and declare a winner. Perhaps the reviewer doesn’t want to offend anyone, and figures that treading the middle ground is the safest bet. Perhaps there really isn’t much difference at all between two products, and they’re essentially interchangeable. Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t know which is better. Regardless of the reason, the reader is left wondering.
In 2008, I developed an event based on my column, "The World’s Best Audio System," which I began writing in 2004 (current archives, preceding archives, column beginning). The idea was simple, somewhat controversial, and highly ambitious: With cost not a consideration, pick the absolute best audio components available at any price, assemble them into a singular super stereo system in my Music Vault listening room, and have representatives of each company fly to North Carolina (where I live) for a celebratory gathering. If you were a regular reader of Ultra Audio back then, you probably followed along. (If you missed it, see "TWBAS 2009: The Arrival" and "TWBAS 2009: The Event.")
On the AV Science Forum, a message board dedicated to high-end audio and video, The World’s Best Audio System 2009 (TWBAS 2009) garnered incredible traffic, with almost 140,000 views and over 1100 responses to a thread announcing the project. In fact, the TWBAS 2009 articles generated much interesting discussion in über-high-end-audio circles worldwide. Why did you pick those components? Did you really think this system was the best? Who are you to proclaim what’s best, anyway? I still get e-mail about that event. In fact, "The World’s Best Audio System" produces 28,500 Google hits today.
Now it’s summer 2011, and I’ve begun planning The World’s Best Audio System 2012. The goal of TWBAS 2012 is nothing short of assembling and writing about the most cutting-edge audio system of all time. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
In somewhat of a break with the traditional thinking of bigger is always better, The Beauty of Music is not about superhuge speakers and 1000W amplifiers. This system was assembled for one purpose: to get the small details as right as rain, to reconstruct the gestalt of a musical performance without fail, and to bring to the listener all the nuance and beauty that can be wrung from the most stellar recordings. Sure, you can buy bigger, more bombastic sound for less money; but the audible synergy of the components comprising this system is special -- like that perfect family photo snapped at just the right moment.
The Beauty of Music
|Tidal Piano Cera loudspeakers:||$23,990/pair|
|Gryphon Audio Designs Colosseum power amplifier:||$43,500|
|Gryphon Audio Designs Mirage preamplifier:||$25,750|
|dCS Debussy digital-to-analog converter:||$11,999|
|Apple MacBook Pro laptop:||$1800|
|Amarra music player:||$695|
|AudioQuest Redwood speaker cables:||$6900/8' pair
|AudioQuest Sky interconnects:||$4600/2m XLR pair (two pairs)|
|AudioQuest Diamond USB cable:||$695/1.5m cord
|AudioQuest NRG-100 power cords:||$1279/6’ cord (two cords)|
There’s no doubt in my mind that the goal of high-end audio is to reproduce the sound of live music in the home. That’s the endgame, the ultimate: Make it sound real. As if we’re really there with the musicians.
But live music isn’t an audio reviewer’s real reference. A reviewer’s reference comprises a selection of hopefully well-recorded and well-rounded audio tracks played through his or her audio system. That system -- the reference system -- is what the reviewer uses to evaluate and compare audio components. A reviewer doesn’t switch back and forth in quick succession between a live venue and a listening room, attempting to hear differences. No. A reviewer plays the same recordings over and over, comparing how they sound with the reference system intact vs. how they sound through that same reference system, one of its component replaced by the product being reviewed.
Given that, what should a reviewer's reference system be? It should be as accurate -- that is, as neutral -- as possible. I can go into the nuts and bolts of the meanings of accurate and neutral another time, but essentially, these terms mean that what comes out of an audio system should be the same as what goes into it. A reviewer should try to assemble a reference system that is as close to this ideal as possible. Among other things, this means using electronics within their safe operating ranges (e.g., amps that don’t clip with most speakers). With electronics, that’s pretty easy to accomplish these days. Pick a Bryston, a Coda, a Gryphon, or a Simaudio amp, for example, and source components that include modern D/A converters, and you’re almost there. What’s usually hardest to get right is the speakers -- typically, the most flawed link in the chain of audio components.
At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, I wrote a series of articles about what I think are the best loudspeakers in the world, specifically interviewing some of the industry’s most talented designers. The "Jeff Fritz on Super Speakers" section of our CES coverage on SoundStageGlobal.com was quite popular, so I thought it fitting I revisit some of the brands I discussed then. Here are some details of what’s coming soon to your audio dealer -- and perhaps to my review queue.
The newest version of the Tidal Piano Cera ($23,990 USD/pair) should be installed in my listening room by the time this editorial appears. This is a two-and-half-way design (1.2" tweeter atop a 7" mid-woofer and a 7" woofer) from the mind of Jörn Janczak, owner and lead designer of Germany’s Tidal Audio GmbH. Using brand-new, all-black-anodized drivers built by Accuton specifically for Tidal, and a new, graphite-coated version of Accuton’s ceramic tweeter, the Piano Cera looks very promising. What seems to be special about its design is not the drivers, however, but the crossover filters. Yes, Tidal uses expensive Mundorf and Dueland components -- impressive, but other companies use these brands, too. What’s intriguing are the measured results, which I’ll delve into in detail in my review. The Piano Ceras that I heard at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest were coherent and transparent in the extreme; I look forward to putting this newest version of the speaker through its paces with my music in my room.
Most of us can remember the first time it happened, the moment that sealed the deal for us: It sounded like magic, like real music being played in the room, and we were hooked -- audiophiles for life. The components of the system that made that moment possible will always hold a special place in our memories.
The first super-high-end amplifier I owned was a Threshold 400A. I bought it from a former Threshold employee for $500 and used it to drive a pair of Klipsch bookshelf speakers in my apartment. They really made music. After the Threshold came a Krell KSA-250, also bought used. That amp served me well for several years, and I remember thinking that I’d never need another. We all know how that story ends.
My nostalgia for these long-disassembled but much-beloved systems -- the ones that got me started in high-end audio -- inspired me to revisit the Krell and Threshold brands and some of their most storied products. As much as anything else, I wanted to relive those days of Audio First Love -- but I also wanted to hear how some of yesterday’s best would sound in my current system. And heck, if nothing else, it would make for an interesting article. So off to Audiogon I went . . .
I settled on two models of power amplifier (old speakers are too risky, old sources just not so good): the Threshold SA/12e monoblocks and the Krell FPB 600 stereo. For those who don’t remember these models, here’s a brief synopsis:
The $5000 Full-Ranger (all prices in $USD) accomplishes many things that a music lover would want. It’s neutral across the audioband, especially smooth and clear in the midrange, and has enough bass whomp to let you party like a rock star. Well, party like an American Idol finalist, anyway. The $30,000 Resolution Monster was assembled to appeal to someone who wants to hear much deeper into their music than the Full-Ranger will allow, but it will also play loud and clean during a party. Expensive? Yes, but this setup has very few real-world limitations.
If you’ve followed my “Benchmark Systems” series of articles this far, you know that the price of the first system I’m profiling has an upper limit of $5000. I’m listening to it as I type this paragraph, and I can tell you that it’s superb -- not in an oh, isn’t that sweet kind of way, but just plain superb -- without qualification. Sitting in front of it listening to your music, I’d bet you’d never guess its cost (all in USD unless otherwise noted).
The $5000 Full-Ranger:
|Aperion Audio Verus Grand Tower loudspeakers:||$1798/pair|
|Bel Canto C5i integrated amplifier and DAC:||$1895|
|DH Labs Silver Sonic T-14 speaker cables:||$303/8’ biwire pair with bananas|
|AudioQuest Carbon USB cable:||$149/1.5m|
|Apple MacBook laptop (used/refurbished):||$400 (est.)|
|Decibel music player:||$0 (est. under $100; soon)|
Last 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:
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