If you haven’t already, please nip over to SoundStage! Access and read Dennis Burger’s January editorial, where he explains that he’s a simple guy who would be happiest with a simple (albeit high-quality) system. However, as a reviewer, he needs a bunch of gear hanging around so that he can evaluate separates such as DACs, amps, and speakers. Then check out Dennis’s podcast on the same subject.
We’re oil and water, Dennis and I. It’s vital, though, to be very careful about the approach of my editorial, because I know that the society we inhabit places an inordinate amount of importance on status and the ability to purchase expensive products. I’m headlining the Ultra end of things, so to do my job, I need a bunch of expensive boxes—expensive, nutty components that we all aspire to own. Don’t we? Of course we do.
Because I respect Dennis as both a writer and as a human being, I think it’s important to frame his mindset, his desire for a simple, uncomplicated system, as an extremely admirable goal. Back when I was going through some tough times, I was strengthened by the philosophy of Epictetus and his guide to the Stoic life, The Enchiridion. The Stoics were not known for owning expensive stereo systems. So surely, the last 20 years I’ve spent assembling my big rig would result in me getting kicked out of the Stoics Club, my laminated wallet card ground into the dirt beneath a sandaled heel.
Gordon Brockhouse’s LS60 system
But Dennis would fit in just fine. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants,” said Epictetus, and the dude would likely turn away in disgust from my extravagant conglomeration while nodding approvingly at Dennis’s minimalist endgame: a KEF LS60 Wireless active speaker system in his listening room, where the thermostat is set to 60°F in the winter and 85°F in the summer (Dennis lives in Alabama). Gordon Brockhouse has an LS60 system in his living room, and it looks wonderful. I haven’t heard it but I have no reason to think that it sounds anything other than world class.
I have a fairly simple system in my living room. A Hegel Music Systems H120 integrated amplifier-DAC feeds whatever speakers I’m not using in my main rig at the moment. Right now, my Aurelia XO Cerica XLs are on point, and it’s a great-sounding system. But it’s a thin shadow of what’s going on in the basement.
Aurelia XO Cerica XL loudspeakers
Just last week, I hooked up the new DALI Epikore 11 speakers and they’ve turned me upside down. This is by far the most impressive sound I’ve had in my system, and it’s so huge, so bewilderingly immersive that I find myself giggling at the massive scope of what these speakers can do.
A Musical Fidelity M8xTT turntable alongside a DALI Epikore 11 loudspeaker
I’ve got two world-class turntables (my VPI Prime Signature and the new Musical Fidelity M8xTT) set up on a custom-built rack, a massive powerhouse amp just off to the left, with speaker cables worth more than my motorcycle jammed up the amp’s anus. My wife would say I’m out of control, and several acquaintances would agree with her. But I’ve got a plan.
VPI Prime Signature and Musical Fidelity M8xTT turntables
My job here at SoundStage! Ultra is to search out even crazier stuff. It’s got to be gear that has a purpose, though—components that bring something to the show other than massive size and insane cost. And here’s where we swerve out of Dennis’s lane and headlong into Doug Schneider’s. In a recent editorial on SoundStage! Hi-Fi, Doug explores how to tell if a hyper-expensive product is actually worth the outlay, or just expensive for its own sake. This, Doug posits, is the definition of “oligarch audio.”
Music thrills me, and I love to listen to it on a high-quality system. So, whenever I make a change that elevates playback quality, I’m ecstatic. A case in point: when I first mounted the DS Audio DS 003 optical phono cartridge on my VPI Prime Signature, I was astounded how dynamic and alive my system sounded. The DS 003 didn’t impress me by its appearance, nor was it obscenely expensive. It was the sound quality that blew up my skirt. Now I’ve got the twice-the-price DS-W3 cartridge that I reviewed on January 15, and it’s also wowing me. But it still costs under five figures, so I’ll pronounce, right here and now, that there’s value in this little guy.
DS Audio DS-W3 optical cartridge
A different example is these here DALI Epikore 11s that you’ll read about sooner rather than later. They are nutty! I’ve been chasing down a speaker like this, from DALI, the Danish speaker manufacturer that just happens to be the second largest in the world, since my visit to the DALI factory in 2022 to see how its statement speaker—the Kore—was made.
During my time at DALI, I found myself charmed by the modesty of its management. While they were extremely proud of their accomplishment with this imposing speaker, I detected a distinct uneasiness, almost embarrassment, about the final price. At the time, the Kore retailed for $110,000 per pair (all prices in USD). DALI is a sensible company, and it became clear to me, through several off-the-record conversations, that the guys there were vaguely uncomfortable with the concept of setting out to build a speaker this expensive, but felt they had to do it to make a speaker that would be taken seriously in the world of high-end audio.
DALI Epikore 11 and Kore loudspeakers being made
Doug made clear in his editorial that expense on its own isn’t an indicator of quality. I’ve seen a number of products at hi-fi shows with ridonculous price tags that offered extremely questionable value.
When I saw how the Kore was made, the parts that went into it, the workmanship, the intricacies of its design, I was extremely impressed. And more to the point, the quality of all those aspects unquestionably contribute to the sound quality of this enormous speaker.
Contrast the Kore (and by extension the production, $60,000-per-pair Epikore 11) with a product like the Wadax Atlantis Reference music server, which retails for over $56,000. I feel like a bit of an asshole picking on this particular component, as there are many others that I could have plucked from my experiences at various shows. However, the Atlantis stands out because a) its functionality can be replicated, near as I can tell, by a Raspberry Pi with an external hard drive, and b) I’ve yet to hear any coherent explanation of how a server can, without manipulating the data, make any meaningful difference in sound quality.
Wadax Atlantis Reference music server and DAC (center)
It seems to me—and I’d be happy to be proven wrong here—that Wadax has taken a settled piece of technology and built a giant rigmarole around it. The huuuuuge machined-alloy chassis sure looks the business, but what purpose does it serve? It has no value as a heatsink, as there would be with an amplifier. This is size, weight, and expense just for the hell of it. Couple the Atlantis server with Wadax’s Reference DAC and you’ve got a digital front end that retails for well over $200,000. Again, I haven’t listened to this setup, and I’m sure it sounds great, but I can’t see any real value here. The server and DAC seem like they were built to impress by a combination of size, expensiveness, and sheer arm-waving. So you’ll likely never see the Atlantis server—or anything like it—flow through my system.
Back to my motivations. Am I chasing better sound? Or more components, more possessions?
Why yes. Yes, I am.
Look, I’m not immune to a sexy-looking component. I’m easily swayed by a beautiful chassis, by a well-crafted amp with huge heatsinks, an enormous gingerbread turntable, a giant helping of industrial design. But there has to be something behind the curtain. With turntables, I just love a huge dollop of acrylic and polished steel. But I can just as easily see the appeal in a minimalist turntable such as the Rega Research Planar 10.
Rega Research Planar 10 turntable
In fact, I’d rather choose a ’table such as the Rega over a shiny but poorly designed monstrosity that’s all hat and no cattle. Point being, any piece of gear that gets into my system has to make great sound; if it also looks the business, so much the better.
Form must follow function. But once all the functionality boxes are ticked off, there’s no harm done if a company dresses up a component and charges more for an aesthetically pleasing form. Look around your room right now; is there any artwork hanging on the walls? What’s the actual purpose of artwork other than to please the eye? I view my stereo system in a similar light. As well as pleasing my ear, it’s right there, in the middle of my room, and I have to look at it whenever I’m listening to music. So I’m willing to pay more for aesthetically pleasing components, for a couple of extra coats of lacquer or a heavier, more solid remote.
Musical Fidelity M8xTT turntable
“Why not be Dennis?” I sometimes ask myself. Life would be much easier—two speakers, each with its own power, streaming music straight from the ether. I’ll reiterate—that’s not what SoundStage! Ultra is about, and it’s not really my way. I’ve always tried to chase the cutting edge, and I’ve always been thrilled to add another box to my system. I believe there’s some truth to the concept that splitting each task into a separate chassis results in discrete components that do those tasks better. Besides, if you want to upgrade, say, your phono stage or DAC, you can do so without having to replace the whole shebang. This is the main reason that integrated amps (or preamps) with built-in DACs don’t appeal to me on an atavistic level.
I figure that when I finally retire from my gig here at the SoundStage! Network, I’ll whittle down my system a bit, but I have no doubt that it will still be built around separate components. And until then, I’m going to keep an eye open to ensure that there’s value of some sort in the components we review.
. . . Jason Thorpe