Last month, I wrote “The Best Loudspeaker Brands for Both Luxury and Performance: The Definitive List,” a shortlist of the best luxury and high-performance loudspeakers on the planet. Only four brands made the grade, though I listed two more as conditional entries. I knew I’d raise some hackles -- the extreme exclusivity of that list put off some readers and posters to various online audio forums. But anytime you state that one thing is better than another thing, or that anything is “the best,” you’re going to alienate some people -- and that’s never more true than when discussing high-end audio. I stand by what I wrote.
My first inclination was to do the same thing this month, this time with electronics. Last month’s article elicited tremendous interest from regular SoundStage! Ultra readers -- the readership stats were off the chart -- and surely electronics looked at from a similar vantage would have similar appeal. But when I sat down to begin this article, and considered which brands to include in another very exclusive list, I realized that I had a problem: Fewer attributes separate the best electronics from the merely very good than separate those categories of loudspeakers -- electronics brands are harder to differentiate. This is why, throughout my 20+ years of audio reviewing, I’ve preferred to write about speakers. So instead of another definitive list -- which I’m not confident I could come up with anyway -- I’ve taken a slightly different approach.
Below is what I’d shortlist if, on the bases of high sound quality and luxury, I were assembling a system of electronics to drive a pair of one of the speakers I discussed last month. But for this list I’ve relaxed one of the strict criteria I imposed on speakers -- although all of the electronics listed below are very expensive, I set no specific price minimum.
But first, I’ll describe the system in which they’d have to fit.
Monos and digital . . .
For power amplifiers, I’d choose only monoblocks. True, I own a Boulder Amplifiers 2060 stereo amp, but it would surely be outperformed by the newer version of that amplifier platform, and in its monoblock configuration -- in short, the Boulder 2150. Monoblocks ensure the best stereo separation and, all else being equal, deliver more power and are less prone to changes in sound quality when driving speakers of low impedance -- a serious consideration when you’re driving monster speakers at high volume levels in a large room. And because I want lots of clean, low-distortion power, I want solid-state. Of course, all the build-quality details that I demanded of the speakers listed in last month’s article apply here as well -- no compromises anywhere.
And to drive those mono amps directly, I’d choose a digital-to-analog converter with a built-in volume control. I believe that the simpler the signal path, the better, and have always found that a volume control properly implemented within the DAC provides a great configuration for a minimalist yet still amazing-sounding system. However, such a system imposes a limitation: It doesn’t include a phono preamp. Many of you wouldn’t consider a system such as the one I’m describing without including a turntable and the requisite electronics. To each his or her own.
So, without further ado, and in alphabetical order within category (all prices USD) . . .
Boulder Amplifiers 2150: I’ve been hooked on Boulder amps for years. For the past two years I’ve owned a mint example of Boulder’s previous generation of 2000-series stereo amplifiers, the 2060. But given a bigger budget, I’d consider moving up to their latest 2000 mono model, the 2150 monoblock (1000W into 8 ohms, 2000W into 4 ohms, 220 pounds each). The 2150, one of the quietest amps in existence, is tonally ultra-neutral, and unflappable when driving any loudspeaker -- if those are your hot-button must-haves, look no further. And as for build and finish quality, they don’t get any higher than Boulder’s. This Colorado-based company does all its own aluminum machining, and founder Jeff Nelson’s obsession with circuit design means that each amp housing contains almost no wiring. The result is as clean and precise in terms of construction tolerances as exists in high-end audio. Price: $110,000/pair.
Gryphon Audio Antileon Evo Mono: I’ve always loved this Danish company’s amplifiers, and have written about many of them through the years. Each one was a winner -- from the Essence stereo amplifier reviewed by me just recently to the flagship Mephisto I reviewed a few years back. But if I were buying a Gryphon amp, I’d almost certainly go for the mono version of the model that sits between those two: the Antileon Evo Mono (175W class-A into 8 ohms, 1400W into 1 ohm, 185 pounds each). The Evo has a hint of the classic Gryphon sound -- big, bold, tonally full -- yet is transparent and detailed enough to make a high-resolution system wow the listener with fine detail. The mono version of the Antileon Evo is the ultimate expression of this long-standing amplifier platform from Gryphon, which is known for premium class-A amplification. And their combination of dark-anodized aluminum and black acrylic creates perhaps the most iconic look in high-end electronics. If you love the strength and majesty of the mighty Gryphon amp, there’s no substitute. Price: $78,000/pair.
MSB Technology M500: Although MSB Technology is primarily known for their digital-to-analog converters, don’t forget that for many years they’ve also been making power amplifiers. Still, when this California company introduced its M500 monoblock in 2019, it was close to a relaunch for them of this product category (500W into 8 ohms, 1000W into 4 ohms, 135 pounds each). With a silky look to match their DACs, including machined case components to die for, these beauties promise the absolute best performance when paired with MSB’s own Select DAC. Featuring state-of-the-art specifications (e.g., a signal/noise ratio of 136dB) and robust internal construction -- for example, the gold-anodized core enclosure that houses the power supply -- the M500 is as impressive an amp as any on this list, and would be fabulous for my dream system. Price: $118,500/pair.
Simaudio Moon 888: With the launch of the Moon 888 mono amplifier in 2017, Simaudio broke new ground for themselves. This model plays in the big leagues, producing, you guessed it, 888W into 8 ohms (1776W into 4 ohms, 200 pounds each). A pair of Canadian-made Moons will drive any pair of speakers to their maximum capabilities. The attention to detail Simaudio has lavished on the Moon 888’s internal and external construction makes it a natural choice for this list -- for starters, check out the custom cast-aluminum heatsinks and the chrome transformer housings. Price: $118,888/pair.
dCS Vivaldi DAC: Equipped with this UK company’s proprietary Ring DAC architecture, based on their Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chips, the dCS Vivaldi DAC is one impressive component -- and its built-in high-resolution volume control means that it fits my preferred system configuration. The Vivaldi DAC is upgradeable, in the sense that, for even better sound, you can add the Upsampler ($21,999) and/or Clock ($16,499), two standalone dCS components available separately. Visually, details of the Vivaldi DAC’s precise construction include a finely contoured front panel that reeks of luxury. Price: $35,999.
EMM Labs DV2 DAC: Ed Meitner’s Canadian-made DV2 marries his flagship DA2 DAC ($25,000) to his recently developed VControl volume control, the latter a very-high-resolution, 50-bit digital volume controller. The DA2 and DV2 are based on Meitner’s proprietary, fully discrete, single-bit digital-to-analog conversion technology. The DV2’s circuitry, including its custom clock (also designed by Meitner), is housed in an aluminum enclosure of vault-like solidity. With a large display on the front panel and a plethora of inputs on the rear, the DV2 offers tremendous system flexibility and control along with fantastic build quality. All in all, the DV2 is a one-box solution perfect for the very best high-end systems. Price: $30,000.
MSB Technology Select DAC: It’s hard to imagine choosing a state-of-the-art digital front end without putting the Select DAC from MSB Technology at the top of a very short list. This very happy owner of MSB’s entry-level Discrete DAC ($21,425 in the configuration I ordered) can only imagine how much better the Select might sound. This all-out assault on digital supremacy is built to a higher standard than any other DAC I’ve seen. MSB uses no off-the-shelf DAC chips -- the Select is equipped with eight of MSB’s Hybrid ladder DACs -- and its modular design gives the owner a generous choice of customization options. The Select is famous for its ability to directly drive a power amplifier with absolute transparency, which makes it perfect for my system. Base price: $84,500.
Other considerations . . .
Many different routes can lead to the creation of a stellar system of electronics. The products thumbnailed above are the ones that would populate my shortlists if I were shopping to assemble a system with state-of-the-art sound and luxurious build quality -- and had a lot more money to spend than I actually do. Each of these products, in my estimation, is a sure thing in every one of my required parameters. It goes without saying that your own shortlist might look very different.
Questions remain. Owning only audio components worthy of being called the highest-performance and most luxurious is all well and good. Assembling those components into a synergistic whole that extracts the best performance from all of those components is the defining mark of that system’s excellence. The above lists present dozens of possible combinations of gear. How would specific pairings of these models interact in terms of sound? Would all three DACs work synergistically with every choice of power amp? Would AC power quality affect some of these models more than others? Then there’s the loudspeaker issue: All else being equal, would pairs of Rockport Technologies Lyras and Tidal Akiras dictate different choices of power amp? If long-term satisfaction is the goal -- and at these prices, how could it not be? -- such questions would have to be answered before purchase.
This is where the support and expertise of a good dealer are musts. Check out the SoundStage! Talks video in which I speak with Mike Bovaird, owner of Suncoast Audio in Sarasota, Florida, about just how much a good dealer can contribute.
Me again . . .
I’ve enjoyed the last several months’ worth of articles exploring luxury audio. It’s refueled my passion for the super high end, and I’m hungry for more. Although I’ve been more than happy with my current audio system (see “System Finished: MSB Technology Discrete DAC”), these days when I look in the mirror, I see in my eyes the twinkle of an upgrade. In coming months, I’ll make sure you’re the first to know what that turns out to be all about.
. . . Jeff Fritz