March 1, 2009
2009: The Arrival
Ever imagined what it would be like to listen to the hi-fi
system of your dreams right in your own home? No practical, financial, or logistical
limits -- just the best audio system youve ever envisioned?
Thats basically what TWBAS 2009 is all about.
For the past 11 years Ive reviewed myriad high-end
audio components from around the world, many of them right here on Ultra Audio in
my column, "The Worlds Best Audio System," for which my brief has been to
write about "the best of the best." In those years Ive auditioned some
simply fabulous components in the contexts of some mind-blowing two-channel audio systems.
However, reviewing any given product, no matter how good, can have its drawbacks: Is every
other component in the chain perfectly suited to the device being tested? If I
werent limited by what was currently in my system, what would make the most ideally
synergistic match with the review component? Can I really get the best possible sound when
every part of the system was not chosen with every other part in mind?
So Ill start with the obvious: My goal for TWBAS 2009
is to set up a two-channel audio system that can be considered the best in the world.
Opinions will vary, debates will rage, and some very good companies that end up not having
been chosen for this project might be miffed. Nonetheless, TWBAS 2009 will represent my
attempt to get the best sound possible, period. No excuses, no qualifications, no limits
-- practical, financial, or logistical.
The above begs the most obvious of questions: How
would I go about assembling the best audio system in the world? First, I had to remove
- No international borders -- Id choose products
from all over the world.
- No dealer restrictions -- Id negotiate directly
with the manufacturers.
- No financial restrictions -- by necessity, this
system will be super expensive.
- As few logistical considerations as possible --
Id be using my dedicated listening room, The Music Vault, and begin by removing my entire
reference audio system.
Literally beginning with a blank sheet of paper (OK, a
blank screen), I set out to assemble a stereo system that would live up to this
The search for TWBAS 2009s participant components
a post on the "Ultra Hi-End HT Gear ($20,000+)" section of the AV Science
Forum that read, in part: "Im in the planning stages now and would like to
solicit opinions on what system, if you were me, youd like to hear. The skys
the limit." To date, the thread has had over 46,000 views and 850 responses. As the
thread unspooled and opinions poured in from audiophiles all over the world -- via the
thread, e-mails, private messages on the AV Science Forum site, even phone calls at all
hours of the night -- the reality of what I was facing sank in. I would be making some really
hard choices: Which companies should I include? Should I take seriously the
suggestions of the thread participants, most of whom were strangers to me? Should I rely
on products that I already know perform well, so as to have no unpleasant surprises?
Should I delve into intense research, to try to conclude, based on spec sheets and
manufacturers and designers white papers, which gear shows the most promise?
How about industry buzz? All of those considerations were valid, I concluded.
Nor did it end there, but already the real business of
choosing the participants for TWBAS 2009 had begun. The process lasted a couple of months.
Early on, I settled on two prerequisites: 1) The companies I ultimately chose would have
to send me their best gear, which I would carefully slot into the prearranged system
configuration I had chosen. 2) On setup day, each participating company would be required
to have a representative present at my home in Hampstead, North Carolina, to ensure that
all products had been installed correctly and were operating to the best of their
The system structure I decided on was as follows:
Company 1: Speakers
Company 2: Amplifiers
Company 3: Digital front end
Company 4: Speaker cables and interconnects
Company 5: Power conditioning and power cords
Company 6: Racks and isolation devices
I had some personal reasons for this particular system
configuration. Most obviously, I wanted a system based on a digital source, and my choice
of source would be heavily biased toward a digital music server. Why? First, because I
migrated from CD to a music server almost two years ago, for the servers better
sound and more functional user interface. Second, massive amounts of research and
development continue to be conducted by myriad companies in this market segment: if
high-resolution digital is the future of truly great hi-fi, as I believe it is, then this
is the area I wanted to explore in TWBAS 2009.
Two other areas of interest related to system
configuration: First, I separated power conditioning and power cords from speaker cables
and interconnects to leave open the possibility that two different companies might occupy
each slot -- after all, this project is about specialists making the best products in
their particular product genre. Second, there is no question in my mind that component
isolation is critical to really good sound. Therefore, racks and isolation devices got a
category of their own. The final tally, then, would be six equipment manufacturers.
But before I introduce the participating companies . . .
The one aspect of my reference system that would not
change is perhaps the most important: The Music Vault itself. Fortunately, it didnt
have to. Ive written about the design and construction of my listening room in great
detail: "Building The Music Vault: Parts
One, Two, and Three" will tell you all you need to
know. Acoustic engineer Terry Montlick, of Terry Montlick Labs, who designed the Vault, is partly responsible for
what TWBAS 2009 will ultimately sound like.
So without further ado, and in alphabetical order, here are
the participants, which of their products theyll be contributing, and partial
explanations of why theyve been chosen.
And it begins . . .
based in Germany, and Laufer Teknik,
based in New York, New York.
Ralf Ballmann of Germanys Behold and Sam Laufer of
Beholds US distributor, Laufer Teknik, have sent the Behold BPA768 power amplifier
($50,000) and APU768 preamplifier-processor ($58,000, as configured). (All prices in US
My overwhelmingly positive experiences with Behold go back
several years. I travel annually to Munich, Germany, to cover the High End Show for the
SoundStage! Network, and one of the highlights of those trips always seems to be the
Behold demonstration. Over the years, in fact, Doug Schneider and I have awarded Behold a
number of Standout Demo and Showstopper awards. Their room is always worth hearing.
Engineer Ralf Ballmann of Behold seems to grasp the melding
of digital and analog audio as has no other engineer Ive met. In fact, Behold claims
a number of "world firsts" for their cutting-edge electronic designs, many of
these involving the marriage of digital to analog technologies. For instance, Behold lists
the BPA768 amplifier as featuring "Digital control of the output-stage idle currents
making it a true class-A amplifier with class-AB power consumption. The D/A converter is
directly located in the analog output section of the amplifier . . . [and it] uses eight
D/A converters phase and time shifted to play back the analog signal for each audio
channel. [The BPA768] uses a motor-control DSP to compute all the parameters and
coefficients of a switch-mode power supply including the power factor correction (PFC),
generating the best possible built-in power conditioner."
The APU768 preamplifier-processor has a similar number of
impressive characteristics, being a "fully digital preamplifier with two
separate audio bus systems at a handling capability of up to 16 audio channels at
192kHz/24-bit sampling rates and 768kHz/24-bit stereo." Clearly, the APU768 and
BPA768 are not your run-of-the-mill preamp and power amp.
A significant feature of the modular APU768 that I felt was
a necessity for TWBAS 2009 was its room-correction option (which adds $15,000 to the base
price of $30,000; please see Laufer Teknik for pricing of individual modules), implemented
by Ballmann and the software developer, fellow German Jürgen Scheuring, of loudspeaker
manufacturer Ascendo. If true high fidelity is the goal of TWBAS 2009 -- and it is! --
being able to make minor yet audibly significant adjustments in frequency response is
mandatory. And last, the APU768 will accept a digital signal at full 24-bit/192kHz -- a
needed specification for the signals delivered by the music-server front end. The Beholds
are the most technically advanced electronics I know of, and a perfect match for TWBAS
Blue Smoke Entertainment Systems, based in Chicago, Illinois.
Ron Lapporte has sent his Black Box music server ($6995),
along with an ELO 1515L 15" touchscreen ($509) and a 2TB EX475 HP MediaSmart NAS
(network-attached storage) device ($975).
I heard about Ron Lapporte on the Net when I ran across his
former Illinois dealership, Ultimate Audio Video. Ron, a lifelong audiophile, had been
searching for that elusive "perfect sound" for many years, and his quest has led
him to some of the same components that Ive found extraordinary, such as Rockport
Technologies loudspeakers. His case of Audiophilia nervosa led him to open his own
audio dealership, where he could share his knowledge and experience with audiophiles
When Lapporte closed up his retail shop and began to
manufacture digital music servers, I was intrigued. It seemed that a single product
category had caused Lapporte to rethink his entire career, and resulted in the birth of
Blue Smoke Entertainment Systems. When I spoke at length with Lapporte about his new
product, he seemed genuinely excited with the results of the two-year R&D project he
had undertaken. And when he told me more about the actual development process of his first
product, the Black Box music server, my interest was piqued. The list of digital front
ends that the Black Box upstaged in Lapportes listening tests put me over the top,
and I signed on.
I shipped a portion of my music collection on a hard drive
to Blue Smoke a month before the TWBAS 2009 event to have the files converted from Apple
Lossless to Windows Media Audio files, the lossless format that Blue Smoke prefers.
Lapporte states, "We evaluated several operating systems for the Black Box, and for a
wide variety of reasons, we settled on Windows Vista. Vista actually has the most capable
audio subsystem of any of the systems we put through our lab. It was difficult work
ensuring that the architecture of the Black Box conformed to the industry standards
required by a mainstream operating system. It would have been much easier to move to a
closed system and take control of the hardware. The problem in doing that was
that we would lose too many benefits we found essential: compatibility, upgradeability,
open standards, extensibility, etc."
Blue Smoke Entertainment Systems espouses the benefits of
both listening and technical tests for their products, an approach that has always
seemed to me the most balanced and most correct. Both litmus tests are very much parts of
Cable, based in Arnhem, The Netherlands.
Gabi van der Kley has sent her Dreamline speaker ($18,750
per 3m pair) and digital cables ($10,250 per 4m cable).
When Doug Schneider returned to Canada after his November
2008 trip to the Netherlands to visit Crystal
Cable/Siltech, we talked at length about what hed seen and heard. It was
enlightening. Doug had been thoroughly impressed by what hed heard in terms
of audio quality, by what hed seen of the manufacturing of audio products, and what
hed learned of the engineering behind it all. As it happened, Id
simultaneously been hot on Siltechs trail, after a poster on the AV Science Forum
thread suggested that the brand might be a great fit for my project -- he thought Siltech
the best of the best. I contacted Gabi van der Kley and inquired about their products. To
say that I was surprised at the e-mail conversation that ensued would be an
understatement. Basically, it seemed that, in her opinion, Crystal Cable would indeed be
the best fit for TWBAS 2009. After hearing more about what goes into these products, I had
According to Doug, the Crystal Cable operation includes
significant investment in R&D as well as advanced manufacturing techniques. The alloys
of silver and gold that Crystal Cable uses in their Dreamline series are proprietary to
them, and their technical explanations of why they use those materials in the forms
theyve chosen appear solid. According to Crystal, their "conductors are
optimized to minimize audio signal errors to nearly zero distortion over the entire audio
spectrum and beyond. This is achieved by using a proprietary, annealed silver-gold
metallurgy which minimizes crystal boundary-induced distortions (very close to truly
amorphous levels). Although much debated if this is detectable, the common error made by
skeptics is that they tend to analyze voltage distortions, since that is what most
measuring equipment is designed to do. Not many people realize the importance of
current-induced distortions. Compared to voltage distortions, these current distortions
are several orders of magnitude higher, and are for the large part responsible for the
deformation of sound from an audio cable. Crystal Cable subsequently sets new standards
for audio performance by reducing current-induced distortion to vanishingly low
Having spent time with Gabi and her engineer husband, Edwin
van der Kley, at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, I can tell you that they pour their
hearts and minds into their products. Im thrilled to include that level of
enthusiasm and know how in TWBAS 2009.
Resolution Systems, based in Buffalo, New York.
Michael Latvis has sent his MXR-1921-3V audio stand
($10,660, plus $1990 for the optional birds eye maple finish), fitted with three
M3-1921 isolation bases ($2495 each), along with two SXR-1921-1V-B audio stands ($1795
each) with accompanying M3-1921 isolation bases ($2495 each). Grand total: $28,715.
Harmonic Resolution Systems (HRS) differentiates its
products from those of its competitors in at least two important ways. First, the means
employed by Chief Engineer Michael Latvis to mitigate all manner of vibration is, by any
subjective or objective standard, extreme. Second, from what I can see, the materials used
are the absolute best the industry has to offer. Latvis says, "If you look at many
designs with an educated eye, you will see the use of standard off-the-shelf
commercial-grade hardware. . . . Many companies use standard sheet metal, wood products,
low-cost commercial paint systems, industrial hardware, industrial extrusions, cut pieces
of wood, acrylic, foam filters, or even toss a skin of carbon fiber on something and call
this a high-tech exotic product. In our mind, a high-end product also has a high degree of
manufacturing expertise and art to it."
It seems logical that, particularly with a state-of-the-art
audio system capable of moving serious volumes of air in the low frequencies, the
need to isolate system components from the sometimes significant vibrations generated by
the speakers comes to the fore. HRS approaches this problem with hard-core engineering
coupled to qualities of build and materials that fit the pedigree of TWBAS 2009. Latvis
again: "If you look closely at HRS products you will see extensive use of
billet-machined aircraft aluminum, exotic hardwood veneers of only the finest grade, and
proprietary materials that HRS spent tens of thousands of dollars to create. . . . Each
piece is often carefully hand-finished with a particular texture that complements all the
other textures and colors in the system. Every shape and texture is not what was
commercially convenient but is what we think represents true high-end performance,
craftsman-grade quality, and exceptional manufacturing standards. Every piece of hardware,
and I mean every single piece, is 100% visually inspected to the highest standard,
using even 10x- or 20x-magnification inspection devices to make final decisions on the
level of perfection achieved. If it does not meet our exceptionally high standard, then it
does not ship to our customer." All that sounds right up my alley -- Im a nut
for build and performance quality.
Rockport Technologies, based in Rockport, Maine.
Andrew Payor has sent his Arrakis loudspeaker system
I chose Rockport Technologies for several reasons:
First was my ear-opening experience with the Rockport
Altair -- my reference speaker for the past two years. When I first heard the Altair, in
Andrew Payors Maine facilities in December 2006, I had never before heard such a
neutral, high-resolution, complete loudspeaker. Then, when I formally reviewed the Altair,
that first experience was only confirmed. I subsequently purchased the review pair, and my
fondness for them has only grown over time.
Second, Payors skill in engineering loudspeakers is
simply extraordinary. He explains: "The singular overall difference between Rockport
Technologies loudspeakers and our competitors products is also the defining
philosophy that makes our company stand out in the overwhelming sea of loudspeaker
companies. That is simply that we are willing to spend the time, effort, and money to properly
design and manufacture products that will allow the listener the most pure and
unadulterated view into the original recorded event as is possible. And, while other
manufacturers make outrageous, yet totally unsubstantiated claims about their products,
either in terms of the technology used in the manufacture, or how the use of a certain
technology translates into the listening experience, we can actually demonstrate
the superiority of our approach, both by measurement and listening. Also, high-performance
loudspeaker design is a multifaceted discipline where a number of critical
interdependencies exist in the electrical, mechanical, and acoustic realms simultaneously,
and hence must all be satisfied simultaneously to achieve an excellent and, by definition,
balanced design. This is an elusive and daunting task that must be addressed with real
solutions to real problems if authentic excellence is really the goal.
"Unfortunately, the consumer must wade through a
veritable orgy of misinformation, unsubstantiated or outright false claims about design
approaches and their impact on performance, or even clever new terminology meant to
distract them from the real issue -- that these loudspeakers are mediocre at best. We want
to be absolutely certain that the effort and money (which is ultimately that of the
customer) is expended in our designs in a way that will actually translate to the best
listening experience for the customer at any given price point. We have separated
ourselves from conventional audio products by virtue of extraordinary, relevant
applied technology and execution, and we have consistently attracted customers who
share our passion for music, as well as our passion for elegantly crafted, technically
superior equipment that, above all else, does justice to the musical experience. Our
designs are unequaled in terms of their intrinsic value and build quality, and this is
what makes them stand apart from the competition."
I cant add much to that.
Research, based in Poulsbo, Washington.
Grant Samuelson and Caelin Gabriel of Shunyata Research
have sent their Hydra V-Ray II ($4999) and Guardian Pro Model-2 power conditioners (two at
$495 each), and King Cobra (three at $3500 each) and Anaconda (three at $2000 each) power
cords. Grand total: $21,485.
I fondly recall Grant Samuelson enthusing about his
exceptional experiences with Caelin Gabriels Shunyata Research power cords well over
ten years ago. Grant was then a reviewer for the SoundStage! Network, but was so taken
with the Shunyata products that he eventually went to work for the company. Back then, in
the late 1990s, the market for high-end power-cords and power conditioners was still in
its infancy, and Shunyata Research quickly became a leader. That hasnt changed; in
fact, their reputation has grown.
Caelin Gabriel, the companys founder and chief
designer, has an impressive background that has lent itself perfectly to the task of
reducing electrical-system-borne noise in audio systems. According to Shunyata Research,
"While in college, Caelin Gabriels performance in the physical sciences
attracted the attention of the US military. Gabriel was recruited and selected for
training at a secret Navy cadre, and was subsequently assigned to the Military division of
the National Security Agency. The NSA is the governmental information-gathering
agency, with the worlds most elaborate high-speed computers and signal-decoding
equipment. Gabriel was involved in the extensive R&D of ultra-sensitive
data-acquisition systems. These systems were designed to detect extremely low-level
signals that required an outside-the-box approach to signal and noise isolation.
Equipment used by Gabriel and the team of NSA scientists could lock onto a correlated
signal virtually obscured by random noise -- a feat believed impossible by engineers using
commercial electronics of that era."
Shunyatas designs have been refined and improved over
the years, and today the companys products hold pride of place in state-of-the-art
systems worldwide. Based on the companys impressive track record and my own
overwhelmingly positive experiences with its products, the inclusion of Shunyata Research
in TWBAS 2009 was a natural choice.
See all of the TWBAS 2009 galleries.
TWBAS 2009 has arrived
Over the past several weeks, somewhere in the
neighborhood of $360,079 worth of equipment has arrived here in Hampstead. SoundStage!
Network colleague Randall Smith and I, and a few hired hands, have been tirelessly hauling
equipment up into The Music Vault for final assembly into The Worlds Best Audio
System 2009. Im happy to say that the components and manufacturers included in this
project are all "first choices" -- thanks to a group of first-class individuals
who all decided to play ball in the most elaborate audio adventure Ive ever heard
you read this, hopefully on or about March 1, were only a few days away from an
historic meeting of the minds: All involved in the TWBAS 2009 will combine their
respective talents to tweak this audio system into what we all hope will be sonic
perfection. Youll hear all about that weekend, its trials and tribulations, the
experiments and the tinkering, in the next installment of TWBAS 2009. Lets get down
. . . Jeff Fritz
Note: My thanks goes out to those who participated in the
AV Science Forums "Your Worlds Best Audio System"
thread. Their input was lively, sometimes contentious, but always highly entertaining, and
Manufacturer contact information:
D-91054 Erlangen, Germany
Phone +49 9131-503700
Blue Smoke Entertainment Systems
Phone: (847) 977-0220
Crystal Cable BV
Nieuwe Stationsstraat 10
6811 KS Arnhem
Phone: +31 26-353-9045
Harmonic Resolution Systems
2495 Main St., Suite 355
Buffalo, NY 14214
Phone: (716) 873-1437
27 Whitehall Street, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10004
Phone: (212) 269-6384
229 Mill Street
Rockport, ME 04856
Phone: (207) 596-7151
Shunyata Research, Inc.
5594 NE Minder Rd.
Poulsbo, WA 98370
Phone: (608) 850-6752