May 1, 2009

The Smoke Settles on The World’s Best Audio System 2009

As I write this, I’ve packed up the last of TWBAS 2009 components -- at any rate, those that are heading back to their respective manufacturers. I’ve enjoyed the last few weeks. I’ve logged in many hours listening to the system, attempting to ingrain in my memory the sound that has transfixed me both on a musical level and as an audio reviewer.

First, I’ve just loved listening to my music collection through this system. It "disappears" as well as any I’ve had, and in that respect it has increased my connection to the music. As corny as it might sound, I feel as if I know the musicians better than I did before.

Second, as a reviewer, I know that I’ve now experienced a new benchmark. I know that aural memory is not infinite -- or even very long. I also know that, as I move other components into and out of the system, new frames of reference will evolve. But what I think will remain with me a long time is the knowledge that transparency, resolution, neutrality, and dynamic capability ultimately add up to, in the best of circumstances, that oft-cited but rarely defined term: musicality. If you want to get close to the music, those qualities serve as a direct pipeline to your recordings. It’s like taking a smooth, direct route to your destination that avoids all the roadblocks and potholes that would otherwise detract from your enjoyment.

I stated in "TWBAS 2009: The Event" that the "effort" of assembling this system was ultimately what the project was about. In a real sense, that is what reviewers, and all who are infected with audiophilia nervosa, are challenged with. We know, even if we don’t admit it to ourselves or to others, that the chase for perfection is a large part of what motivates us. If we ever actually attained perfection, would we really appreciate it? I can’t answer that definitively. I’d like to think so. But in the back of my mind, I wonder if I’d say to myself: Can it be even perfecter?

So, in that vein, I continue my quest for TWBAS. I know the target is elusive, and I know that there will never be a system that all audiophiles will agree is head and shoulders above everything else. But that matters little. The point is that I have to chase my TWBAS. Because of my experience listening to TWBAS 2009, I feel that I have a clearer direction for where I need to point my ship.

My reference system has changed because of TWBAS 2009. As much as I would have liked to keep TWBAS 2009 intact, there were logistical and financial considerations that strongly opposed that idea. But, I’m thrilled to say, some things are remaining.

First, I’ve used Shunyata Research products for many years now. The addition of the Hydra V-Ray II power conditioner is a clear improvement over the older design. The King Cobra and Anaconda power cables are parts of a chain that I would now scarcely consider doing without. They are world-class.

Seldom does a component come along that is so singular in design and performance as to have no peers, but the Behold APU768 is one of them. At once preamplifier, digital-to-analog converter, upsampler, and room-correction processor, it performs all of those functions in a combined way that I have yet to hear equaled. In fact, it handily outperformed my reference preamp and a host of very good DACs. Add to the equation the room-correction functionality, which I’m coming to regard as an essential feature of any system I’d want to own, and I’m left with only one choice: to do whatever I can to keep the Behold APU768 permanently in my system. If there were a way I thought I could equal its performance with multiple other components, I’d certainly attempt it, because it would likely be a lot less expensive. But then I think that perhaps the very fact that all of its functions are built into a single unit, with no need for all those extra interconnects, might very well be one reason it is capable of magic.

And, last, the Rockport Technologies Arrakis: It’s just the best loudspeaker I’ve ever heard. I frequently read descriptions of new technologies that will supposedly usher in a new era of loudspeaker performance, and I’m quite sure that, at some point in time, loudspeakers will advance greatly over what any of us has yet heard. I’ve examined the possibilities of digital-active design, for instance, and most forward-thinking engineers see the promise of what these new technologies can attain when implemented at the highest level. But in the here and now, at least from what I’ve heard, none of it means a hill of beans. The digital-active speaker systems I see and hear on the market seem to have other shortcomings that their designers have not yet addressed: from pedestrian cabinet design to outdated driver quality to the questionable electronic transparency of the new design elements.

In short, the future is still the future. The Arrakis is the here and now -- a tremendous concept followed up by equally ambitious execution. That’s a rarity in any field. Vance Havner once said, "The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs." Andy Payor has done just that with the Arrakis, a product whose state-of-the-art performance is easy to hear -- for those who would seek it out.

Doug Schneider and Jeff Fritz

So I guess it’s safe to say that I’m not done. I’m already considering ideas that will hopefully bring me that much closer to fulfilling the promise that is TWBAS. The show must go on, and I can think of no better place for that show than Ultra Audio. And I’m glad to be right in the thick of it.

. . . Jeff Fritz


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