If you’ve followed my writing over the 20 years that I’ve been covering high-end audio, you no doubt know about my column “The World’s Best Audio System” (“TWBAS” for short). The last one was published in January 2014, but honestly, by then “TWBAS” had, to a large degree, petered out. I officially shut down the series in September 2014, with “Closing the Curtain on TWBAS.”
It should go without saying that the best way to choose a high-end stereo component is to listen to it. In a store is fine, in your home is better. To know if it’s really right for you, you need to hear it in the context closest to how you will actually use it. You also need to see its features, feel its controls, and closely examine its build quality. Listening to music through a high-end system is, by definition, experiential. You can do tons of research online before making a buying decision, but if you haven’t actually seen, touched, and heard an audio component in a context that’s relevant to you, you lack the most important and necessary information.
Has this happened to you? You go to sleep on Friday night with a potential audio purchase on your mind -- as you drift off, you find yourself comparing two products. Then, the first thing you think of on waking Saturday morning are those two shiny new speakers you were thinking about the night before. The natural thing to do -- after making a cup of coffee -- is to get online and pore over the details of the models you’re enamored with. This exercise is especially common for audiophiles. Yes, we do the same thing with cars, but usually it’s relatively convenient to stop by the dealer to have a look, and maybe take a test drive. For audiophiles, that’s often not feasible -- unless you live in a big city that still has high-end audio dealers inhabiting actual buildings.
I’d say that, month after month, 90% of the correspondence I receive from readers of SoundStage! Ultra asks, in some way or other, the same question: What should I buy? I’m not alone -- look at the letters addressed to publisher Doug Schneider over on SoundStage! Hi-Fi, or to Hans Wetzel at SoundStage! Access. What amp will drive these speakers? Assuming I can get them at the same price, should I buy component A or component B? Which product will sound better in my room? And so on.
For the SoundStage! Network’s coverage of the most recent Consumer Electronics Show, I wrote an article titled “CES 2016: Right Track, Wrong Track.” In it, I was critical of Thiel Audio, prompted by a line I read in an interview with Thiel’s chief brand officer, Rebecca Abrahams. Quoting Abrahams, Stereophile’s Jason Victor Serinus said that there was a “plan to revitalize Thiel Audio loudspeakers as a ‘luxury brand’ for ‘device-driven, music on demand, luxury-brand consumers who are on the go, connected to content via phones and tablets across devices’.” As I walked the halls of Las Vegas’s Venetian hotel, where high-end brands exhibit at CES, and passed by Thiel’s room, I saw what looked like a nondescript speaker in the doorway -- a recent Thiel model. This medium-sized floorstander looked like a model from any number of companies, and a far cry from a classic coincident-array Thiel.
We at SoundStage! announce our Products of the Year every January 1. Over on sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi you can read Doug Schneider’s “Opinion” article, which explains our selection process and gives a bit of insight into the products themselves. I guess you could say that Doug’s article is the “official” announcement. Here at SoundStage! Ultra, though, it seems more fitting to do something a bit more personal.
In this month’s “Searching for the Extreme: Bill Low, Founder, CEO, and Chief Designer of AudioQuest -- Part One,” Low stated, to SoundStage! Ultra contributor Peter Roth, “I view the hi-fi equipment ‘upgrade path’ as being like bringing flowers home to your system. Possibly, the most significant ingredient in the upgrade path is not the presumably better performance, but the novelty and renewal of the audio relationship that the new equipment enables. The change in audio quality and the renewal of the relationship are intertwined and inseparable.” As I sit here today and peer around my listening room, the Music Vault, I feel exactly as Low describes: renewed.
Audiophiles have lots of choices. Today, buyers can spend less and get more than ever before, and this is especially true with loudspeakers. Such brands as Bowers & Wilkins, KEF, Paradigm, and PSB offer multitudes of models that most aspiring audiophiles can afford. In terms of sound and value for dollar, these speakers can be really, really good.
I was having an e-mail conversation with a distributor friend of mine, Boris Granovsky, of Absolute Hi End, in Australia. We were discussing different audio brands and models, something we’ve done ever since we first met, a few years ago at Munich’s High End, at a dinner hosted by Crystal Cable (the maker of swanky cables based in Arnhem, the Netherlands), where we had an enlightening (to me) conversation about all things extreme audio. Boris is in the unique position of distributing not merely a few but many of today’s great audio brands. If you peruse his company’s website, you’ll see brands that typically are represented by competing distributors all under his one tent. He has more opportunities to compare top-shelf products than even most audio reviewers. This is why I enjoy hearing Boris’s opinions -- I feel think they’re exceptionally well informed.
One of the most popular opinion pieces I’ve written in the past few years, in terms of total number of reader views, was “Devialet, SAM, and the Changing of the High-End Guard.” In it, I described my experiences with the Devialet 120 integrated amplifier-DAC ($6495 USD) and, more specifically, Devialet’s Speaker Active Matching (SAM) function, which worked so well with Magico’s excellent S1 loudspeakers. I had high hopes for Devialet’s products -- still do, actually -- but now I’m beginning to wonder.
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