Listening to great music on a superior sound system is one of life’s sublime pleasures, and once you’ve been bitten by the audio bug, it’s impossible to go back to soundbars and earbuds. At its best, a carefully assembled system can paint a spellbinding sonic landscape.
While home theaters employ surround sound for maximum effect, most serious music listeners prefer a stereophonic setup with left and right speakers to replicate the experience of hearing real performers in a real venue. Approaches to speaker, electronics and turntable design are almost as varied as the products themselves, and both subjective impressions and objective measurements play a part in evaluating these components. Just as important is achieving synergy between every link in the aural chain, including cables, audio furniture and especially the room, whose acoustics are inextricable from the quality of sound.
To end up with a first-rate music system, one has to have an aesthetic in mind. We’ve assembled three component groupings to appeal to three very different types of audiophiles. The Purist, clearly a Porsche 911 GT3 Touring driver who values finesse over brute strength, approaches a stereo as he would a martini, confident that fewer ingredients are the shortest route to the heart of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. By contrast, the Historicist, who enjoys wiping a soft cloth over his Morgan Plus 8 almost as much as driving it, finds it impossible to improve on the perfection expressed by landmark audio gear of the past. And so an original pressing of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue transports him, neat single-malt scotch in hand, back to 1959. The Maximalist, who likely has a Bugatti Chiron parked in the garage and Bordeaux first growths in the cellar, favors big gear and big sound. Eyes closed and ensconced in Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort armchair, our listener envisions Jimi Hendrix mid–“Voodoo Child,” live at Woodstock.
In addition to exceptional performance, build quality and reliability, what all these components share is exclusivity, and though uncommon, each is worth seeking out from a good brick-and-mortar dealer, whose experience with setting up the system—where an inch difference in speaker placement can radically alter performance—is as critical as the components themselves. Judiciously assembled and installed, each of these systems will take its listener to a destination that, once reached, may be impossible to leave.
Simpler systems can reveal the subtlest nuances in a recording, rendering music that draws in the listener with detail and intimacy often unmatched by more elaborate configurations unsuited to smaller spaces. Paired with an impeccably designed integrated amplifier, the accurate, natural sound of a classic British monitor allows you to indulge in the glorious mid-range—the soul of the concerto or rock concert—served up by digital sources or, more satisfying still, turntable-based analog that extracts the notes’ unadulterated essence.
1. Moon River 404 Reference Integrated Amplifier and 505 Phono Stage
This Swedish integrated amplifier is a one-stop control center that satisfies a minimalist who wants both digital and analog functionality. The separate phono stage runs MM and MC cartridges for analog lovers who own multiple turntables. Integrated amplifier from $5,000 with DAC and phono stage modules available; phono stage $8,000
2. Bergmann Audio Modi Turntable with Thor Tonearm
Bergmann’s Danish-made turntables feature an air-bearing suspension for silent, vibration-free playback. The tangential tonearm glides on a cushion of air and traces the grooves with finesse, a reminder that extracting the most from a system begins with a good analog source. $20,000 with arm
3. Graham Audio LS5/5 Loudspeaker
Loudspeakers made to meet BBC studio-monitor standards are legendary for their “British Sound.” Graham brings landmark 1970s design into the present using new materials that achieve clarity and volume unattainable with the original driver technology. From $22,000 per pair; dedicated stands additional
4. Bluesound Node
The pint-sized Node offers a compact solution for streaming online services, internet radio or a digital music library. Bypassing its internal digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and feeding a higher-quality external DAC instead, this tiny device offers remarkable sound, sourcing music from the cloud. $599
The Historicist revels in the greatest inventions of audio’s past. Vacuum tubes—done right—envelop a listener with sound at once warm and revealing, especially when mated to a speaker designed 65 years ago that refuses to be bettered for transparency, speed and an uncanny ability to replicate the human voice. Records, played on a turntable and cartridge just as old, deliver “the closest approach to the original sound,” as loudspeaker-maker Quad oft touted. CDs remain a satisfying music source and are conveniently spun.
1. EAR 912 Preamplifier
The late Tim de Paravicini’s vacuum-tube designs are as timeless as they are sophisticated, and his legacy continues with EAR. Handmade in England, the rack-mountable preamp is intended for professional use in studios but is equally suited to the best home stereos. $13,500
2. EAR 534 Amplifier and Acute Classic CD Player
A push-pull tube design with 50 watts per channel is an ideal way to run any but the most inefficient loudspeakers—and makes the Quad electrostatics sing. The Acute 4 is a reminder that CDs remain a staple in serious music libraries. Amplifier $6,795; CD player $6,795
3. Quad 57 Electrostatic Loudspeaker by Electrostatic Solutions
Until the Quad, loudspeakers sounded like music in a box, and it took “Walker’s Wonder,” so nicknamed for its creator, Peter Walker, to bring instruments and voices alive with an electrostatic design whose impact on the industry makes it one of the most significant audio products ever made, and certainly one of the longest-lived. Professionally restored examples of the Quad 57, produced from 1957 through 1985, mesmerize with a “you-are-there” realism that, once experienced, has many listening to nothing else. $7,000 per pair
4. Thorens TD 124 Turntable
Designed in 1957, the Swiss-made idler-drive turntable brings LPs to life with energy, immediacy and force. Restored to perfection by original Swiss distributor Schopper (pictured) or stateside specialist Artisan Fidelity, a fettled TD with an Ortofon SPU-style moving-coil cartridge is an irresistible combination. From $8,500
Audio’s equivalent of a hypercar, the Maximalist’s system is accomplished at about the same cost and delivers thrills in kind. But just as ordering the most expensive dish on the menu is no guarantee of a decent meal, components in a price-is-no-object stereo must be selected with care to create a synergistic whole. This system from the Audio Salon in Santa Monica, Calif., does just that, configured with weapons-grade gear to produce state-of-the-art sound whose scale, weight and corporeal presence bring music to life in ways the artists intended.
1. Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Relentless Epic 800 Mono Amplifiers
Each high-current Relentless Epic 800 amp generates 800 watts, perfect for power-hungry, difficult-to-drive loudspeakers. At 380 pounds each, the Epic 800s aren’t even the largest amps in the Relentless lineup! $199,500 per pair
2. TechDAS Air Force Zero Turntable
The most ambitious turntable yet from engineer Hideaki Nishikawa addresses every technical limitation of record playback with its 660 pounds of mass, a sophisticated air-bearing suspension, five layers of platters to dampen vibration and an air-suction system that firmly holds the LP down. With a tonearm and cartridge of commensurate caliber, the sonic sky’s the limit. $550,000 with optional tungsten top platter, $60,000 SAT CF1-09 tonearm and $56,500 HRS base
3. Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX Loudspeaker
A holographic soundscape with stentorian bass, transcendent treble and everything in between, Wilson’s 685-pound monoliths employ driver, enclosure and crossover technologies that have imprinted current industry practice as have no other brand’s speakers. From $335,000 per pair
4. dCS Vivaldi Apex
Following the realization by audiophiles that digital’s promised “perfect sound forever” was anything but, British brand dCS advanced the medium to a previously unattainable level of refinement. Composed of a dedicated digital-to-analog converter (DAC), upsampler, master clock and CD/SACD transport, the four-component Apex optimizes each function of the digital playback process, proving that it’s more than zeros and ones that define the quality of digital sound. $140,000
5. Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Relentless Preamplifier
Audio veteran Dan D’Agostino continues to astonish with a three-chassis, no-holds-barred preamplifier that delivers huge dynamics—the ability to go from soft to loud passages without compressing the sound—built to please the eyes as much as the ears. $149,500