Extreme Audiophilia: Exploring the World of Six Figure Audio Setups

By Wesley Fenlon

Forget bargains on audiophile-grade earbuds and speakers. See how much you could spend if you really cut loose.

$150 for a pair of computer speakers? That's a cute joke. $1500 for a pair of Bowers & Wilkins floor-standing speakers? Still not nearly good enough. $11,500 for a pair of JBL's Synthesis 1400 Array loudspeakers? Now we're getting warmer. There's a common question among forum threads and online articles when it comes to audiophile equipment: what's the best sound I can get for the least money? What $200 earbuds deliver the most pounding bass? Which $300 headphones produce the most accurate soundstage? But when your life savings isn't on the line, asking the opposite is far more entertaining. What's the best sound I can get for the most money?

The audiophile rabbit hole descends deep, deep past pathetic bookshelf speakers and home-theater-in-a-box collections that run a few hundred bucks. It goes down and down, to a dark underworld where turntable cartridges cost $7500 and speakers are backed up by $12,000 amplifiers. It's the kind of extravagance and extreme quality you'd expect to find in one of those jaw-dropping custom home theaters, but let's get real: all those life-size statues play havoc with acoustics. Sound is paramount.

Those $11,500 JBL speakers mentioned above actually rest near the low-end of ridiculous hi-fi audio systems, and adding in digital/analog signal processors, playback equipment, and amps jacks up the price of the perfect listening environment. To dream up the monster of all monstrous audio setups, I talked to a friend who dabbles in audio engineering and Steven Rochlin, editor of Enjoy the Music, who has been reviewing audiophile equipment for over a decade. With their suggestions as guides, I immersed myself into the depths of AVS Forum, Head-Fi to unearth the best audio gear most of us will never be able to afford.

Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Amp

Speakers are the sexy lead guitarists of the glam rock audiophile listening room. They're front and center, showing off their virtuosic talents and setting your heart aflutter with one-of-a-kind style. To highlight some of the coolest and priciest speakers available, we hunted down some of the most critically-acclaimed speakers out there that cost at least $10,000 a pair. Some of them have the whole package: ravishing good looks and amazing sound.

Unfortunately, they don't all quite fit into the glam rock analogy: the Meyer X-10, for example, has about all the sex appeal of a modern-day Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. The Stones aren't looking too good these days, and the X-10 is one boxy, boring speaker. But that's by design: they're made for music studios, where accurate sound reproduction is paramount. They're praised for peerless dynamic range and run about $42,000 a pair. But few audiophiles have ever heard of them: they're not a big name in the consumer market.

Bowers & Wilkins' Nautilus speakers, on the other hand, are legendary $60,000 per pair beauties. The aging-like-a-fine-wine David Bowie to the Meyer X-10's Rolling Stones, if you will. You'll be hard-pressed to find a cooler pair of speakers, and the Nautilus design has been a cornerstone of the high-end since 1993.

Photo credit: Flickr user dgeert via Creative Commons

"If you were dealing with an audiophile who liked to randomly set fire to piles of money, you'd likely see something like this in their speaker setup," suggested my friend Daniel Andrews, who divides his time between computer engineering, writing music and audio production work.

The majority of expensive, high performance loudspeakers fall somewhere between the X-10 and the Nautilus: amazing sound and cool design, but nothing so flashy as B&W's seashell casing. There are also speakers that take a totally different approach: digital.

"If you used a digital signal path, in which the speaker itself handled all the digital to analog conversion and amplification, you might consider using speakers such as the Meridian 8000," Dan suggested. "MSRP is something like $65,000 a pair. For this configuration, the digital signal often travels over a Cat5 Ethernet cable."

After digging through best-of lists and the most frequently recommended speakers on sites like AVS Forum, the Revel Ultima Salon2 topped the list at a not-so-outrageous $22,000 per pair. Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond also received top marks. They're Abbey Road approved, and only $24,000 per pair!

Photo credit: Abbey Road via Bowers & Wilkins

"For such a high-end setup, you would typically use mono-block amplifiers (meaning each speaker channel has its own dedicated amplifier)," Dan advised. Like speakers, amps can be ugly or flashy and still cost a boatload of money. Mono block amplifiers have separate power supplies to draw more power, and their single channel focus eliminates crosstalk.. At $50,000 for a pair, the Krell Evolution One symbolizes the excessive pricing of extremely high performance amplifiers. That's potentially twice as much as you'd pay for some of the best speakers in existence.

Amplifiers come in a variety of flavors: some use solid state technology, some use vacuum tubes, and some use both. Integrated amplifiers offer stereo or multichannel amplification with a pre-amp built in. Each type has its own defenders, but tube amps offer one big advantage: they look really, really damn cool. The Conrad-Johnson LP125M monoblock amps cost $9500 per pair, but their vacuum tubes make a bold stylistic statement you can't get with silicon technology. Ayon's integrated Triton 3 costs even more at $12,000, but just look at that mass of curved metal. Still, not expensive enough: the VAC Statement 450S ticks off the high price checkbox at $39,000.

Potential expenditure: $115,000 for speakers and mono amps.

Playback and Processing Audio

Once you drop $50,000-$100,000 on speakers and amps, the music being played back over that equipment better be the absolute tops in quality. Ensuring that requires spending a boatload more. The analog vs. digital argument rages eternally, here, but getting as close as possible to the source material is one way to measure quality.

"[Speaking] as a retired recording studio musician and dabbling audio engineer, the real question should be 'How close to the master tape/file is your system capable of achieving?' said Steven Rochlin. "With recording studios using 24-bit/192kHz for mastering, then the answer is a system that can playback 24-bit/192kHz."

Oracle Delphi Mk. VI

There's actually a ton of debate about whether we can even hear a difference between 16-bit audio and 24-bit, but why risk losing even the tiniest bit of sound meant to be in a recording? In the analog world, vinyl records are still the go-to playback source. But getting the most out of them requires a high performance record player, and the needle being pressed to vinyl makes a real difference. Perfect record playback means only the vibrations produced by needle-on-vinyl contact are reproduced as sound: no vibrations from the turntable platter, or tonearm, or vinyl wobble. Vinyl naturally has a "warmer" analog sound than digital, but with the right equipment you'll hear none of the background fuzz or pops often associated with records.

Isolating background noise comes at a price: Soundsmith's Hyperion cartridge uses a cactus needle as a cantilever and costs $7000 as a result of that luxury. Turntables, much like vacuum tube amps, offer designers an opportunity to go hog wild with the flash to accompany the features. $100 will net you a cheapo turntable with a cheapo cartridge already attached. $8500 will get you something like the Oracle Delphi Mk. VI with no cartridge at all. You can see where that money went, too: straight into the aluminum and thermoplastic chassis.

Still, that's a drop in the bucket compared to the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable, Cobra tonearm, and Castellon turntable stand rig, which costs about $90,000 all told.

On the digital side, it's actually possible to play 24-bit audio with a decent sound card and the right recording. DVD-Audio can also do 24-bit/96kHz playback, but a key component of any playback system is the digital-to-analog conversion that turns a file into something a speaker can output as a sound wave. That's usually built into a CD/DVD audio player, which is why some players cost about $5000. Dedicated D/A processors can cost $5000 all by themselves, to be used in conjunction with a PC pumping out audio via USB.

Potential expenditure: $215,000 for speakers, mono amps, a turntable, DAC processing and a digital music player.

Aural Feng Shui

We're easily past the $100,000 mark at this point, between a pair of speakers, amplification, and the playback hardware to get music blasting. There are little costs that add up along the way, too, like audio cables. Unsurprisingly, in prime Monster Cable fasion, a lot of "high quality" cables that cost thousands of dollars are nothing special at all. Ultimately, the equipment is only as good as its surroundings. Don't set up a pair of Ultima Salon 2s in a cave, in other words.

"The #1 priority should be the room and how the speakers interact with it," Rochlin said. "This is without a doubt, even amongst us experts, the most important aspect to achieve the best results."

A Barcelona Hotel Uses 2200 Ceiling Baffles to Absorb Sound. Photo Credit: BASF Chemical Company.

Sound waves reflecting around the room will throw off your pristine balance of a listening experience. Pros use tube traps and dampening materials to cut down on reverb. The dimensions of a room will affect the reverberated sound. And things get more confusing: not all sound reflectivity is bad. Speaker positioning can make a room sound larger than it actually is.

Rochlin suggested the book Get Better Sound by Jim Smith for audiophiles looking to properly tweak their rooms for aural bliss. The pricier option: hiring an acoustic engineer to come figure everything out for you. Sound augments like tube traps are probably the easiest audiophile accessories to DIY, and thus the cheapest to integrate into a listening room. Alternatively, buying a few diffusors, absorbers and corner traps will only cost a thousand dollars or two. Pocket change, right?

Potential expenditure: $250,000 and beyond. Who knows what kind of remodeling we could get into in the pursuit of perfect acoustics?