Several years ago during dinner at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, TAS editor Robert Harley mentioned the idea of traveling around the country and writing up some of the more exotic audio systems owned by individuals who were dedicated to producing the finest sound possible. This Monday I managed to carve out an extra day on a trip to San Francisco and had a chance to listen to three megabuck systems in the Bay area. You might think that listening to three systems in fairly short order would be a confusing experience. It wasn’t. Instead, it highlighted the contrasts between them.
The first system I heard consisted of Rockport Hyperion loudspeakers, a Rockport Sirius 3 turntable and Koetsu cartridge, Aesthetix linestage and phonostage, and Convergent Audio Technology JL-3 and Audio Research 610T amplifiers. The owner is Michael Grellman of the late and lamented “Fi” magazine. Grellman has placed his stereo in a big room, which allows him to spread out the speakers wide apart. The soundstage delivered by the Hyperions was airy and spacious. This beautiful loudspeaker is quite seamless and never aggressive. In fact, I rather relished the lush and full sound. On one Beatles cut, John Lennon’s voice simply slowly unfolded with great ease. This was a system set up for a music lover, which Grellman is. No surprise there. Grellman prefers the CAT amps to the ARC, and I could see why. The CAT definitely had more dynamic punch and superior timbral accuracy. The ARC, by contrast, offered a somewhat wider soundstage, most likely due to its higher power.
The next pit stop was to visit a friend of Grellman’s named Steve Williams who lives nearby and owns the new version of the Wilson Alexandria. Like me, Williams owns the Playback Designs CD player. He’s reinforcing the Alexandria with (gulp!) no less than two Gotham subwoofers, which each boast two 13” drivers.
Williams also owns a handsome Studer tape deck. He played me a recording of the famous Russian violinist David Oistrakh re-released by the Tape Project. The sound wasn’t good; it was phenomenal. Forget trying to nitpick. This was way beyond that. It tugged at your heartstrings, at least it sure was tugging at mine. The combination of Studer, Alexandria and the 18 watt Lamm amps delivered some of the most sumptuous, organic sound I’ve ever heard. An SACD of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique came close. Line upon line of music was unraveled with the utmost delicacy. That kind of gossamer-like delineation is breathtaking, particularly from a big loudspeaker.
Time, then, for a breather. Grellman, a generous soul if there ever was one, whisked me away to Amoeba records in Berkeley, where I scored some nice classical LPs, including—lo and behold!—Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on a Mercury pressing. In addition, I procured a copy of Max Reger’s string trios on the Acanta label. It remains easy enough to acquire orchestral works, but not so simple to find chamber music on LP these days. At Grellman’s insistence, I also picked up Richard Betts’ “Highway Call.” “It’s mastered by Bob Ludwig,” Grellman expostulated. Who was I to argue? Heads turned all over the store as soon as Grellman mentioned Ludwig’s name. It was a narrow escape: we had to duck the mob that headed directly for the bin we had been looking at.
The final Grellman-led foray was to the Magico factory, where Alon Wolf develops his loudspeakers, much praised by both Robert Harley and Jonathan Valin, who is currently reviewing the Magico M5. I had never met or even talked with Wolf before, who, I quickly realized, gives intensity a new name. He does nothing by half-measures. He took me straight to the top—to his horn system, which hovers around $400,000. Not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. He was using a server and a rare Microsonics DAC, plus a Boulder 2060 amplifier on the tweeter and Soulution amps. This speaker can be run completely actively, with up to five amps per side.
How did it compare to the other systems? No hint of horn shoutiness or edge. Zip, zero, nothing. Resolution was off the charts. At 120 db efficiency, you’d expect that, too. The strings on Pepe Romero’s guitar zinged into the room. It wasn’t luscious but it wasn’t clinical sound, either. It was astounding in its fidelity, speed, dynamics, and transparency. A work of art. I’d like to hear it strut its stuff in a larger room than the one at the Magico factory.
What’s the bottom line from listening to these three megabuck systems? First, they’re really, really good (but you kind of guessed that). Second, you can hear the differences between them. Third, it’s going to cost you a fortune to get a system that can, in a sense, break the sound barrier by which I mean one that, when you listen to it hour after hour, isn’t sonically hampered in some critical area of musical reproduction. Finally and perhaps most important: you better know darn well what’s in your heart of hearts when it comes to the sound you truly love if you’re going to choose one of these systems. Me? I’m living with the memories and they couldn’t be more memorable.