Finding the Perfect High-End Stereo Equipment Can Be a Journey into Musical Madness
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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Once you get to a certain level of performance, the differences are minor--or even imaginary. The quality gap between mainstream stuff and audiophile is huge and real. But once you leap across the divide and land on the audiophile side, the steps you take afterwards are relatively small. Audiophiles are into these differences, but musically they are minor at best after a certain level of performance. As a buyer, all you want is to hit a home run. How far out of the park the ball goes is of interest only to baseball nuts. Do you really need to buy the Mark Levinson No. 30.5 digital audio processor for $15,950 (with a separate No. 31 transport at $8,495)? Not a chance. The difference between it and another home run hitter of a CD player at a fraction of that absurd price is marginal--and of no interest except to audio nuts.
Because I write about wine for a living, however, I long ago learned that to get the good stuff, you can't ignore the crazies--you must consult them. Wine is esoteric enough, but audio gear is a world of madness unto itself. A good rule of thumb: If you've heard of it, it isn't any good. High-end audio, like estate-bottled Burgundies, is composed of hundreds of small producers that--until you drop down the rabbit hole--you will never see advertised. Your friends will never have heard of any of the brands. But then again, nobody ever told you just what a world of pleasure awaits those who venture in.
"Consulting the crazies" in any field is tricky. Crazies aren't stupid. They're just, well, a little nuts. They push the boundaries and--here's their value--they bring us a level of quality and refinement that we wouldn't otherwise ever see. Consulting the crazies means reading their publications. Two stand out: the previously mentioned Stereophile, which is the biggest and best; and The Absolute Sound, which is the wackier of the two. The trick in consulting crazies is separating plausibility from lunacy. For example, do we really need pure, stranded silver speaker wire that sells for $100 a foot? ("The Kimber 4AG is an expensive hyper-pure silver cable that can offer a glimpse of audio heaven," reports Stereophile.) Nevertheless, the audiophiles are on to something.
All right, how do you begin? For starters, never make a purchasing decision until you've heard the equipment in your home. You don't listen to music in a vacuum. The size of your room, its furnishings, how loud or soft you'll be playing and what kind of music you most listen to will all affect your decision. Listening in a store, no matter how well set up, is unenlightening. That's why all good audio shops will let you take equipment home. If any shop is reluctant, walk out.
When shopping for components, the first thing to remember is that in really good audio, the hip bone is always connected to the leg bone. This is to say that buying a great pair of speakers and hooking them up to a mediocre CD player, or powering them with a mediocre amplifier, is wasted money. This is why the madness sets in so quickly among audiophiles. They are forever trying to "tweak" the weak link. And there are plenty of links.
You would think that, if money were no object, someone like Bill Gates of Microsoft would simply go out and buy the so-called "best" and--voila!--he'd have the perfect system. Yet it doesn't work that way. Different speakers work best with different amplifiers. And the shape, size and "liveliness" of a room can make huge differences in sound. But unless you have a huge amount of money, you've got to prioritize, which means investing more money in certain items and less in others.
Put most of your money in the CD player and the speakers. The computer sorts long ago warned us about garbage in/garbage out. The same applies to audio. To a stereo system, music is just a set of signals. If they are garbled or muted from the start, that is, because of a mediocre CD player, then it doesn't matter how good the speakers are, does it? Even the greatest speakers are mere messengers. If what the CD player has to say isn't much, well then, having such terrific speakers will not help.
Choosing a CD player that really delivers the goods is easier than selecting speakers (more on those in a minute). A multitude of producers now create CD players that truly can be described as audiophile quality--and that won't cost more than a car. Remember though, that each has its particular "sound": some are brighter-sounding, others emphasize smoothness. Don't choose the first one you hear. Take home several and compare, in combination with several different speakers.
There's a new development, by the way, that you should pay attention to. A tiny California company called Pacific Microsonics, Inc., has come out with a silicon chip, which it has trademarked, called High Definition Compatible Digital, or HDCD. In effect, it does for compact discs what the Dolby noise reduction system does for tape players: It makes the music sound more real. It's an authentic advance.
What's more, like Dolby, HDCD can be used both in the recording process at the studio and in your home playback system. Even compact discs not encoded with HDCD (which is only just being introduced) sound better when played on a CD player with the HDCD "decoder." A number of audiophile CD player manufacturers have incorporated the HDCD chip into their digital-to-analog converters. Others are offering inexpensive upgrades on their older equipment, where feasible.
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