I can recall every stereo system I’ve owned over almost four decades of being in the hobby. The first few decades were spent on the seemingly endless ascent to what I thought was audio nirvana. As many have come to learn, it’s not necessary, or in some cases even wise, to attempt the climb. I’ve made some of the mistakes that audiophiles often make. I’ve fitted the wrong speakers to the wrong rooms. I’ve underpowered my system. I’ve shortchanged the source component. I’ve also paired products that I’ve liked on their own that had little sonic synergy when used together. That’s just to name a few.
It’s not a bad thing, really. It’s all about learning as you go, and I’ve certainly had a great time figuring it all out through the years. I’m not yet ready to say “I’ve got the magic formula.” But I do know that musical satisfaction is not tied to the cost or complexity of the components in your stereo system.
The setup I’m going to describe today is not the most ambitious I’ve ever had. The speakers are on the small side compared to many models I’ve owned, and the amplification comes by way of an integrated amp, not separates—the latter a seeming rite of passage for many audiophiles. You may also spot what appear to be mismatches in price, though in terms of performance, that just hasn’t proven to be the case.
What won’t be clear from reading this article is the way the system sounds. You really can’t grasp that fully without sitting down and listening to it. Of course, that’s true for all stereos. I can tell you about it, though.
Let’s start with the speaker model because I believe that choice defines the sound you hear more than any other component in the system. In this case, it’s the Sonus Faber Maxima Amator. This two-way floorstander from the famous Italian speaker maker is a relatively simple two-driver affair with the company’s best Reference drivers—a 7″ midrange-woofer and a 1.1″ soft-dome tweeter—housed in a solid walnut enclosure that is a true thing of beauty. The Maxima Amator is built to be seen and touched, with a marble base, glass-covered crossover network, and leather-clad front baffle. These speakers retail for $15,000 per pair (all prices in USD).
Powering the Maximas is a Rotel Michi X5 integrated amplifier-DAC. The Michi components are a source of pride for Rotel and they pack all of their engineering knowhow inside them. The X5 is a 96.5-pound powerhouse of an amplifier rated to deliver 350Wpc into 8 ohms or 600Wpc into 4 ohms. In addition to the traditional analog inputs, the X5 has a digital section anchored by an AKM DAC and is equipped with a full cadre of digital inputs. With sleek casework and an easy-to-read display, the X5 is a joy to use day to day and never runs out of power. The X5 costs $7499.
The Cambridge Audio MXN10 network music player is a compact—and inexpensive—device that connects to my home network via an ethernet cable. I stream music from Qobuz to the MXN10 with control provided courtesy of the company’s StreamMagic app, and the Cambridge feeds a signal to the Rotel through a coaxial (RCA) digital connection. Although I use the MXN10’s digital out so I can leverage the Michi’s built-in AKM DAC, the Cambridge is equipped with an ESS Technology Sabre DAC and analog outputs if you need them. The MXN10 carries a suggested retail price of $499.
The system is powered by a Shunyata Research Denali 6000/S v2 power conditioner. This six-outlet beauty is perfectly sized and sports all the latest Shunyata wizardry you need, not only to protect your connected stereo components but also to feed them clean power. You’ll silence the noise and have peace of mind at the same time. In my system, the Denali 6000/S v2 is connected to the wall with a Shunyata Sigma XC power cord. The Denali 6000/S v2 costs $6000 and the Sigma XC is $3250 for a 1m cord.
The lowest frequencies are reproduced by an SVS SB16-Ultra subwoofer. You can read about the setup procedure I used for the SVS and Sonus Fabers in an article from December 2022. The SB16-Ultra has a 16″ driver powered by a 1500W class-D amplifier. The SVS app controls the main parameters you’ll need to dial in the perfect sound. This 122-pound monster comes in Gloss Black or Black Oak Veneer, and though I won’t say it visually fades into the background the way some tiny subs do, the SVS is a good-looking product. The SB16-Ultra is sold online or at select dealers for $2299.99.
I reviewed the Siltech Explorer cables back in 2013 on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. The 180L speaker cables and 270P power cords are still in my system, and they’re still sounding great. It’s proof positive that good products aren’t obsolete just because they aren’t the very latest. Although these all-copper cables are the least expensive in the Siltech lineup, don’t let that fool you: they look and sound fantastic. The cables cost $1800 for a 2.5m pair of speaker cables and $600 for a 1.5m power cord.
The retail price of the entire system, cables and all, is $36,947. That is not an inconsiderable amount of money—you could buy a nice used car for that (remember when you could buy a nice new car for under 40 grand?)—but it is approachable, and I’d argue that what it gives up in footprint, it makes up for in its pedigree, which includes fantastic companies all around.
It’s the sound that counts
As we know, however, it’s the sound of a system that counts the most. And in this case, I chose to audition this system with a recording that many audiophiles know well: Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, recorded live in 1975 at the Oper Köln in Cologne, Germany (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, ECM Records / Qobuz).
The sound was at once cohesive and expansive. When playing back this solo piano music—Jarrett was playing an older Bösendorfer baby grand that was in poor playing condition—I realized this system is perfect for this type of musical repertoire. Perhaps the sonic success I heard is due to the seamless crossover network contained in the Sonus Faber Maxima Amator speakers, or maybe some other factor(s) altogether. Regardless of why, the sound of Jarrett’s piano possessed both clarity and wholeness. The piano is hard for speakers to perfectly reproduce, as you probably already know, and particularly so for those speakers with three or more disparate drivers. The two-way Sonus Faber may very well have an advantage in this regard, with its simplicity lending a truthfulness to the sound that’s not easy to come by with more complex speakers.
In terms of the signal being fed to the speakers, the noise floor of the system was vanishingly low. I heard no errant noise attaching itself to the notes I was hearing, betraying the fact that electronic components were feeding the signal to the speakers. Perhaps the most surprising aspect, however, was just how weighty the sound was when it needed to be. Lower-register notes had a fulsome quality that gives this recording much of its beauty. The piano never sounded thin or aggressive, but hearty and vibrant. At the same time, I could clearly hear Jarrett as he occasionally sang along to the music he was playing in the first track—detail retrieval was impressive. It’s hard to describe how beautifully played this improvised piano performance sounds and the emotions it draws from the listener. It’s a performance that’s even more incredible when you consider that Jarrett did not even want to play the piano available to him. ECM’s Manfred Eicher commented on how Jarrett changed his technique in some parts of the performance to compensate for the subpar piano: “Probably [Jarrett] played it the way he did because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with the sound of it, he found another way to get the most out of it.”
Maybe there is a lesson there for us as well. The combination of components in this system gels perfectly together, making great music recordings sound amazing. The space in which this system is housed may not be the perfect acoustic environment, and a few of you may be raising your eyebrows at the pairing of some of these components—such as $15k-per-pair speakers and a $500 network music player—but it’s the end result that matters most.
And in the end, this system is eminently satisfying.
. . . Jeff Fritz