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My chronic addiction to Audiophilia nervosa has lasted more than 30 years now, and in that time I’ve owned countless components. Family and friends often joke that I should install a loading dock outside my listening room, to ease the swapping of gear in and out. At one time or another I’ve owned products from almost every major maker of high-end audio equipment, and in some cases -- Conrad-Johnson, Magnepan, Mark Levinson, McIntosh Laboratory, etc. -- several of their current and past offerings.
“Electrons don’t care what kind of wires they’re in,” an electronics engineer once said to me. He was being glib, but I knew him to be a serious man when it came to audio. He builds great tubed and solid-state gear and has good taste in music.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
McIntosh Laboratory is no stranger to that adage. Ever since its founding, in 1949, by Frank McIntosh and Gordon Gow, the company has designed and made audio components oriented more toward those who prefer to buy such a product once or, at most, twice in a lifetime. For that, I applaud them. In this industry, sustainable and profitable rarely go together -- you’re far more likely to see an only slightly revised version of the same product offered every two or three years instead of every five to ten, or even only once every decade or two. This may be forgivable for products in the rapidly evolving digital categories of streamers, DACs, even AVRs -- but for analog gear, and especially amplifiers and preamplifiers, it’s seldom necessary.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, there might still be some trusting souls who imagine that all audio reviewers are consummate professionals so seasoned in the ways of audiophilia that mistakes aren’t just few and far between, but nonexistent; that their judgment, honed through years or even decades of experience, is infallible; that the process of sitting down to conduct some critical listening is highly ritualized, even sacred. Let’s imagine what that rite might look like:
I do love an elegant-looking speaker. There’s something to be said for architectural grace. After all, accepting into your life and home a pair of full-size speakers is a serious commitment. The damn things have to sit there, damn near in the middle of your room. You have to stare at them as you’re listening. I could live with a pair of boxes made of MDF wrapped in vinyl, but I sure as hell would rather not.
I grew up in a family that adhered to self-discipline, hard work, and frugality -- in short, to the Protestant work ethic, a phrase first coined and a concept first formulated, in 1904-1905, by German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, who attributed to this ethic the rise of capitalism. So the idea of spending a lot of money on something for how it looks and feels, instead of for its main reason for being -- its utility -- gives me pause.
I go way back with Shunyata Research, and fondly remember the days of The World’s Best Audio System (TWBAS) events -- gatherings of manufacturers at my home for which I’d chosen and assembled into amazing systems the best audio components then available -- and the sense of discovery we all felt. My first TWBAS, in 2004, included products from Wilson Audio Specialties, EMM Labs, and Shunyata Research. TWBAS 2004 was a watershed for me -- at the time, it was, by far, the best sound I had ever attained in my home. Although that system’s sound would be greatly surpassed by subsequent TWBAS systems, the bar set by that first one was already very high. Shunyata was represented in TWBAS 2004 by their Hydra Model-8 power conditioner ($1995 at the time; all prices USD), various models of power cord from their Anaconda and Diamondback lines, and their Constellation Aries and Andromeda signal cables (these models were discontinued long ago; see archived articles for cable prices).
What most non-audiophiles say when they see my system for the first time -- after “Wow, those speakers are huge!” -- is this: “You still listen to records?” By which they mean vinyl LPs, their implication being digital playback formats are of course superior to analog, and that I should get with the times. As politely and non-condescendingly as I can, I try to explain that, in my opinion, the very best analog rigs reproduce recorded music with higher fidelity than the very best digital rigs. Their response is usually skeptical -- until I prove my point with a demonstration. Most doubters then become converts -- or at least feign agreement.
Some audio products look downright menacing. I include in this group Wilson Audio’s Sasha and Devialet’s Phantom speakers, and the electronics from Metaxas Audio Systems. But perhaps no other audio manufacturer so consistently produces gear that looks bent on world domination than does Denmark’s Gryphon Audio Designs, whose aesthetic is striking, to say the least: ultramodern, often black, and pure badass.
The year was 1997. I was in seventh grade, and had recently begun asking my older brother for his copies of Stereophile. He’d always talked about buying a pair of Wilson Audio Specialties’ famed WATT/Puppys, and having heard his system, I was eager to see what hi-fi audio was all about. Reviewed in the October 1997 issue, however, was a loudspeaker that would shift the spotlight -- if only for moment -- away from the super-high-end’s perennial heavyweight champ.
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