High-end audio is about the faithful reproduction of music. But high-end audio gear is about other things, too, such as materials and their applications in audio components. If we’re talking about speakers, those materials could consist of anything from wood to composites to fiberglass and carbon fiber, or metals such as aluminum, and even pours such as concrete.
Recently I happened on Herb Reichert’s review of Harbeth’s Monitor 30.2 40th Anniversary Edition loudspeaker, originally published in the April 2018 issue of Stereophile. In it, Reichert states, “Many a day, I think Edgar Villchur, inventor of the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker and the dome tweeter, ruined audio, and that audiophiles will never stop denying how artificially colored the sounds of domes and cones in boxes really are.” I hope Herb’s tongue was planted firmly in his cheek when he wrote those words, but they don’t read that way to me.
All else being equal, newer is generally better—a conclusion I recently came to (and not for the first time) after another round of car shopping. I’d rather have a newer-model car than the outgoing model, if only for the former’s updated infotainment systems: these days, at least for a family such as mine, with two teenagers, Apple’s CarPlay is a necessity. And newer vehicles offer other, more basic advantages: greater fuel efficiency, improved safety features, and better build quality all around.
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 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.
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