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The notion that high-end audio can’t offer strong value propositions is ridiculous. If you choose your components wisely, you can assemble and own an incredible-sounding music-reproducing system that will virtually transport you to the best clubs, concert halls, and recording studios in history—a system that will last for decades as it provides thousands of hours of listening enjoyment to you and your family.

Who among us hasn’t thought about what matters most in an audio system? The subject often comes up when the total cost of the high-end audio components we’re buying to assemble a system must fit within a certain budget. For example: If you believe that garbage in results in garbage out, then what will most matter to you will be the source component—a turntable, a DAC, a CD player—which means you’ll be willing to spend relatively more on that component. Many audiophiles find that the most significant audible differences among high-end brands tend to be between speaker manufacturers; consequently, those audiophiles are likely to spend the lion’s share of their budgets on getting the best-sounding speakers they can afford. Still others will tell you that the magic resides in the preamplifier—and many of those folks will swear that, all else being equal, what makes the biggest improvement in sound is a tubed preamp. Coming up with an answer to the question of which component matters most, and then acting on that answer, is part of the fun of being an audiophile.

In all of high-end audio, is there a more loaded question? And if ever a question could be answered with “Depends who you ask,” this is it.

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 . . .

Last month I kicked off this series of three articles with descriptions of two stereo systems I’d like to put together to listen to my favorite music through. I began with the lowest-priced setup, the Small Wonder System, priced at $5700 (all prices USD). Then I moved considerably upscale, to the vinyl-based Warm and Classic System, at just shy of $30,000.

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.

Last month, I wrote “The Best Loudspeaker Brands for Both Luxury and Performance: The Definitive List,” a shortlist of the best luxury and high-performance loudspeakers on the planet. Only four brands made the grade, though I listed two more as conditional entries. I knew I’d raise some hackles -- the extreme exclusivity of that list put off some readers and posters to various online audio forums. But anytime you state that one thing is better than another thing, or that anything is “the best,” you’re going to alienate some people -- and that’s never more true than when discussing high-end audio. I stand by what I wrote.

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.

I was recently in the market for a new SUV. The odometer of our family’s 2012 Toyota Highlander had recently rolled over to 200,000, and I was feeling less confident that the car would hold up through a couple of long road trips we’d planned. I began my search as most people do these days: I went online and read reviews. I’d been super happy with the Highlander, so of course my first thought was to buy another one. I scrolled through comparison tests from YouTubers as well as the usual magazines -- Car and Driver and Motor Trend among them -- to see what others thought of the current-model Highlander and its competitors. Having not shopped for a new vehicle since buying the Toyota new in 2012, I had no idea just how much the market in midsize SUVs -- and the pecking order among them -- has changed.

In my multiple articles on luxury audio over the last decade, I’ve missed some things. Today, I come to you a changed man -- or, at least, a somewhat more experienced audio journalist.