June 2010

Out of This World

There’s only one good reason to buy the world’s most exotic and expensive audio products: because you love music. Buy a Ferrari and everyone will know you have a Ferrari. Buy Wilson Audio’s $26,900-per-pair Sophia W/P speakers and no one but you and your houseguests will see them—and your guests probably won’t recognize the brand any more readily than they’d recognize the sound of Chu Berry or Serge Chaloff.

That’s the nature of super-high-end audio. Most of the products are made by companies few people have ever heard of, sold at stores they’ve never visited, and sometimes so far removed from ordinary components that they might not even recognize them as audio gear. The speakers might weigh hundreds of pounds. The amps might use tubes instead of transistors. The system probably won’t be sourcing material from iTunes, and it might not even have a CD player. And the prices will be more in line with what you’re used to paying for a car than what you’re used to paying for an audio system.

The payoff, of course, is incredible sound. The best top-of-the-line audio systems have an almost spooky ability to bring your favorite artists to life right in your living room. They can even make the walls seem to disappear, replacing them with the acoustical signature of the Village Vanguard, Carnegie Hall or wherever the music was recorded. For thousands of devoted enthusiasts worldwide, the destination is well worth the cost of the trip.
You need to hear this extreme gear to appreciate what it can do. Until you get that chance, let’s take a look at some of the major players and products in ultra-high-end audio. The field is dominated by tiny companies you’ve probably never heard of, but the products have earned acclaim among the world’s most demanding audiophiles.

TALKING SPEAKERS

Think of speakers like the tenor sax player in a jazz quartet: They’re not solely responsible for the sound you hear, but they play a dominant role—and they’re surely the most visible element. Most super-high-end speakers command attention both visually and sonically. Many stand 5 to 7 feet high and feature gleaming metal or automotive paint finishes. Some cost more than $100,000 per pair.

A perfect example is YG Acoustics’ Anat Reference II Professional. The $107,000-per-pair speaker is a stack of three separate cabinets, each of which is built from computer-machined, aircraft-grade aluminum panels. The combined weight of the three cabinets is 440 pounds, or roughly the weight of an upright piano. Why so heavy? Because the mass and stiffness of the metal helps prevent the cabinets from vibrating. Vibrations in a speaker cabinet alter the sound in a bad way, sort of like when the wires on a snare drum vibrate in sympathy with other instruments. Ideally, you should hear only the vibrations of the woofers, midranges and tweeters. The result of YG Acoustics’ vibration phobia is an extremely clean sounding speaker that spreads the performers out across your room as if they were on a low stage right in front of you.

Wilson Audio was one of the pioneers in making speakers from exotic materials—and perhaps the pioneer of the high-end superspeaker. The company builds its speakers from its proprietary X Material, an acoustically inert composite that barely vibrates at all. Its first product cost $28,000 per pair—back in 1981. The company’s WATT/Puppy is the best-selling speaker in history to sell for more than $10,000. It was recently replaced by the Sophia W/P, which, like the WATT/Puppy, is remarkable for its pinpoint imaging: Not only will it seem as if Sonny Rollins is in the room with you, but it’ll also seem like you can hear the contribution of each soundhole on his Selmer. If $26,900 per pair for the Sophia W/P seems a little parsimonious, Wilson offers even pricier models, including the $158,000-per-pair Alexandria X-2.

Awesome as the YG Acoustics and Wilson Audio speakers are, they still somewhat resemble ordinary speakers. Some competitors have discarded the conventions of loudspeaker design altogether, resulting in products that are way over the top. One of these is Avantgarde Acoustic, which fits large horns to its tweeters, midranges and (sometimes) woofers in order to increase their sensitivity. Fed with only 1 watt of power, the company’s $62,000-per-pair Trio speaker delivers a staggering 104 decibels, and distributes its gorgeous, delicate sound evenly across a room, creating less of a “sweet spot” than most speakers do. Ferrari-style paintjobs contribute to the Trio’s singular look.

In search of a more spacious sound, many audiophiles gravitate to electrostatic or magneplanar speakers, which use large plastic film diaphragms instead of the usual speaker cones. These speakers produce an enveloping ambience, with detail that few conventional speakers can match. Several manufacturers offer these speakers, but the one that seems to muster the most mystique is Sound Lab. The company’s flagship electrostatic speaker, the $32,470-per-pair Majestic 945, stands 104 inches high and measures 39 inches across. The Majestic 945 is to conventional speakers what Charles Lloyd’s sound is to John Coltrane’s—airier and more ethereal, if less robust.

POWER STATIONS

Like high-end speakers, high-end amps often command prices of $25,000 and higher. That seems like a lot for a device that does nothing but increase the power of an audio signal. But many of these amps are also extraordinary examples of industrial design, combining such components as tremendous heat sinks, gigantic transformers and even old-fashioned vacuum tubes inside visually striking, precision-machined metal enclosures.

Case in point: the Ypsilon Electronics Aelius amplifier, which has a tube input stage for a warm, natural sound, combined with a transistor output stage for raw power and better bass definition. Each Aelius weighs 97 pounds, puts out 220 watts into an 8-ohm speaker, and can drive any speaker ever made. The Aelius’ unique machined top vents keep the amp running cool and looking cool. Because it’s a monophonic amp, you need two (and $34,000) for stereo.

The Aelius strikes a balance between power and finesse, but many audiophiles prefer something more extreme: Either they amp up their systems with maximum power (sort of a Billy Cobham approach) or they go for finesse with a low-powered tube amp (more of a Paul Motian style). A great example of the former philosophy is Boulder Amplifiers’ 2060 stereo power amp. According to the company, this $36,000 amp puts out 600 watts into any speaker, whether 8 ohms, 4 ohms or even 2 ohms. Its design looks like the creation of a mid-20th-century modernist architect.

Swedish manufacturer Engström & Engström takes the second approach with its Lars type 1 integrated amp. The Lars puts out 16 watts per channel using a vacuum-tube circuit based on vintage designs similar to those Charlie Christian might have heard. Although amps like the Lars must be used with a very sensitive speaker in order to deliver a useful volume, audiophiles rave about their natural sound quality. The $100,000 Lars type 1 consists of two units, each containing a mono preamplifier and a mono amplifier, but only one of the units has volume and source controls.

Almost all amp companies make matching preamplifiers to accompany their amplifiers, usually at prices comparable to what they charge for amps.

FOR THE RECORDS

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about what sources a super-high-end audio rig uses; I’ve seen an Xbox 360 hooked up to a half-million-dollar system. But most audiophiles will insist that it’s not a real high-end system unless it includes a turntable. A surprising number of record players carry the same kinds of five-figure prices.

The standard-bearer for extreme turntables is probably Clearaudio, a German manufacturer whose creations look more like Star Wars props than like audio gear. The company’s $27,500 Master Reference AMG Wood CMB turntable employs a 3.2-inch-thick acrylic platter powered by three motors and an external belt. The Master Reference is typically fitted with Clearaudio’s $9,500 TT-2 tangential-tracking tonearm, which tracks records the same way the original masters were cut. You’ll also need a cartridge; Clearaudio offers a broad line at prices up to $10,000. Seeking a better turntable than this may seem as absurd as seeking a better alto player than Charlie Parker, but for those who demand the best and are willing to pay for it, Clearaudio offers the $150,000 Statement.

With the $250,000 Reference II, Swiss manufacturer Goldmund has created a turntable so far out of the ordinary it can barely be called a record player. The Reference II might as well have been carved from solid rock: It sits atop a 550-pound supporting table, and its five-layer composite record platter weighs 44 pounds. To minimize degradation of the tiny audio signals coming through the pickup coils, a phono preamp is built right into the cartridge. This signal is then converted to digital, so you can connect the output directly to one of Goldmund’s digital preamps. Tabletop buttons control start/stop and speed, and also raise and lower the tonearm.

Of course, few jazz fans can afford these extraordinary products. Hell, even the most successful jazz artists might blanch at these prices. But jazz fans who haven’t heard an ultra-high-end system owe it to themselves to check one out. Audio store owners are always eager to show off what their systems can do—and they’ll be more than happy to play any discs you bring. After all, even if you can’t afford a few hundred thou for a new system, any high-end dealer is sure to carry something that gets you most of the way there at a much more affordable price.

2 Comments

  • Jun 26, 2010 at 07:53PM Mark Wellman

    For most of us, reviewing this audio gear is a waste of time. Why don't you focus your attention on stuff that sounds good that real people can afford?

  • Jul 30, 2011 at 12:37PM BrianKA

    Enjoyed this trip into audio dream land. Thanks.

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!