I began my column “The World’s Best Audio System” (TWBAS) on February 1, 2004. In that first installment, which introduced the first TWBAS event, I profiled the original Wilson Audio Specialties Alexandria X-2 loudspeakers, the Halcro dm68 mono power amplifiers and dm8 preamplifier, the EMM Labs DAC6e digital-to-analog converter, and a Meitner-modified Philips SACD1000 SACD/CD transport, along with a bevy of power products and cables from Shunyata Research. The total cost of that system was about $205,000. At the time, such a price would have been considered cost-no-object by most sane audiophiles.
Over the course of the next decade I spent considerable time and effort to make TWBAS enjoyable -- columns, videos, photo galleries, and hundreds of letters and postings on various Internet audio forums. In that time, by my count, we published some 65 “TWBAS” columns; most of them covered a single product that had been designed to challenge the state of the art in its category.
Today, the “TWBAS” archives span three separate sites. The first archive, on the original Ultra Audio site, covers the period from February 2004 through February 2009. The second archive -- this one on the then-redesigned Ultra Audio -- houses columns written from March 2009 through June 2010. The third archive, on the current SoundStage! Ultra site, takes us up to the final "TWBAS" column, on the Rockport Technologies Atria, posted on January `1, 2014.
TWBAS wasn’t only about the columns, however. The events themselves were enlightening, if sometimes crazy to organize. After the first TWBAS event, mentioned above, there were two more. Those systems were even larger in scale than the first, and the gatherings of manufacturers were more diverse in terms of countries of origin and types of gear. The TWBAS 2009 event comprised products from Behold, Blue Smoke Entertainment Systems, Crystal Cable, Harmonic Resolution Systems, and Rockport Technologies. While planning that system -- total cost $360,679 -- I began a thread on what was then a popular Internet forum for those interested in extreme audio. It garnered 1215 posts on avsforum.com in what turned out to be a fascinating conversation with audiophiles all over the world. TWBAS 2012 was made up of components from AudioQuest, Aurender, Esoteric, Magico, Silent Running Audio, and Vitus Audio. That system cost close to $600,000. Yes, I know -- crazy. The articles about that event are archived on SoundStage! Global.
There were other endeavors to think outside the box for TWBAS, one example of which was The Great North American Loudspeaker Tour. Over 12 days, I traveled around the US and Canada visiting companies that made some of the most extreme loudspeakers of the day. In the order of my visits, these were: Wilson Audio Specialties, YG Acoustics, Verity Audio, Paradigm, Rockport Technologies, and EgglestonWorks. Another highlight was when I built a custom listening room in my home, designed by acoustician Terry Montlick, that I dubbed the Music Vault. Writing the “TWBAS” articles “Building the Music Vault Part One,” “Part Two,” and “Part Three” was quite satisfying for me, and made me a huge proponent of optimizing the listening room. In terms of sound, nothing makes a bigger difference.
The Great North American Loudspeaker Tour: Verity Audio
There have been other highlights for me during the ten years of TWBAS. I had a blast driving from North Carolina to Maine with fellow writer Randall Smith, to visit Rockport Technologies and bring back a pair of their Arrakis loudspeakers. Randall also helped me haul upstairs and set up many of the TWBAS components over the years, and was invaluable in assisting at the events themselves. Believe it or not, I even have fond memories of explaining to my lovely wife, Andrea, what the next TWBAS arrival would involve, and her response: “We have to cut a six-foot hole in which wall?”
I’ve had a great run with it, but alas, there will be no more The World’s Best Audio System columns or events. It’s over and done with. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is difficult logistics. (I had to have parts of the TWBAS 2012 system forklifted into my room.) Also, my priorities have changed. I now spend less time fantasizing about ultracrazy audio toys because, since that first TWBAS, I have gained two children: a nine-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, who take up most of my time and energy.
But the biggest reason has to do with the high-end audio industry and my perceptions of it. I think that, for a while, I deceived myself into thinking that the more money you spend on audio, the greater the return. I now know that this is the great fallacy of high-end audio. Sure, within some lines -- Magico’s and Rockport’s come to mind -- the more you spend, the better the product indeed is. But from company to company, and within the lines of some companies, it’s anything but a hard-and-fast rule, or even something that’s only generally true.
I can think of no better example of cost not equating with performance than the components made by Devialet. My experience with their 120 integrated amplifier-DAC was a real ear-opener -- at only $6495, it embarrassed most other electronics, regardless of price. Trophy hunters looking for bragging rights won’t want to admit that, and I understand. I certainly would hate to find out that my $100,000 set of electronics can’t compete with a li’l ol’ Devialet. Because of this, it would be hard for me to justify continuing to write a column that discussed only the highest-priced gear.
What’s next for me? I’ll still be writing about audio products right here on SoundStage! Ultra. Though some of those products will be pricey, they’ll be fewer and farther between than in past years, and I’ll write about them only if I’m convinced that their qualities of sound and build justify their high prices. But mostly I’ll be reviewing products that I think offer Ultra performance at prices that hit what I think is the sweet spot of the audio industry: somewhere above budget gear, and well below price-no-object. Yes, I know -- that leaves open a large window of interpretation.
I hope you’ve enjoyed The World’s Best Audio System columns, events, and adventures over the past decade. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing them and corresponding with you about them. It’s time for what’s next, and I look forward each month to exploring, on SoundStage! Ultra, the possibilities of whatever that will entail. Ciao, TWBAS!
. . . Jeff Fritz