by Rafe Arnott
Loudspeakers Under $5,000
Harbeth P3ESR – $2,100
Having lived with the diminutive Harbeth P3s for some time, I can tell you they have few peers in any price range for their ability to represent spatial imaging of the sound stage from recording to recording. They don’t go deep (rated at 20 KHz – 75 Hz), but the bass that is there is tuneful, and true in tone. What they do do is excel incredibly well in the midrange and treble – those areas where the bulk of instruments and the human voice spend most of their time. Through the beautiful little P3s the world of acoustic, folk, and jazz takes on an entirely new meaning for those looking to hear more deeply into the recorded moment, and do a little time-traveling. These are one of the very best transducers under $5,000 with which to start a true audiophile, and music-loving journey.
Shindo Latour Field-Coil – $67,000
I’ve been dying to hear the big Shindo Latour Field-Coil loudspeakers for years, but they are as rare as hen’s teeth (so the old saying goes) and it wasn’t until a month ago that I had the opportunity to spend time with these gorgeous transducers that were fronting a full Shindo system. Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful designs I’ve encountered in my years as a hi-fi reviewer, and writer, the Latour sound is achingly human, present and organic in it’s reproduction. The speed of the low-mass, field-coil powered drivers used is breathtaking and makes every other long-throw driver speaker design being used sound damningly slow and artificial in many aspects by comparison. Rated at 30Hz – 20KHz, they are just short of full range but on the numerous LPs I heard through them in listening sessions I was a part of, I never once felt that lower frequencies were lacking. In fact, I was usually sitting there shaking my head because I couldn’t get over how alive every recorded performance was playing back through this system. The sheer palpable and innate human presence that these speakers projected has to be experienced to truly understand or appreciate.
Amplifier/Preamplifier/Integrated Under $5,000
Sudden A21SE Integrated – $3,250, +$800 for phono stage
When I was choosing an amplification path to start down several years ago I demoed a number of solid-state (ss) amplifiers before finally settling on a SET (Single Ended Triode) tube design. The only SS amp that I had on loan that I was truly loathe to part with after the tube amp arrived was the Sugden A21SE integrated. At 30 Watts into eight Ohms, it’s not a giant killer in the power department but every one of those 30 Watts is in pure Class A mode. Real bass heft and control, a liquid midrange and silky-smooth highs are hallmarks of all Sudden designs, but at roughly $4K USD the A21SE is the sweetest spot in the lineup for my tastes. This is an end-of-line integrated amplifier.
Easily one of the most expensive amplification pairings in the world, the Tidal Presencio and Assoluta monoblocs look the part with their flawless, hand-polished, gleaming black and chrome casework. But looks in this business (while they can definitely play in part marketing) are not what the gear is all about. It’s the sound. This combination, which I’ve heard paired a few times over the last 20 months, have to be one of the most astoundingly powerful and real-sounding preamp/amp combos available anywhere, at any price. When inserted into the circuit path of an all-Tidal system they are jaw-dropping in their holographic imaging capabilities which are only matched by their complete lack of tonal or timbral colouration to source material. It’s a disappearing act of Orwellian proportions because you can’t help but look at them – so you know they they are in the system – yet your ears tell you they have vanished. Described by my fellow scribe Scot Hull as “the Rolls Royce of high-end audio” I can’t think of a more apt metaphor in every sense.
Shindo Monbrison Preamplifier/Shindo Cortese Power Amplifier – $24,000
Audio Note M6 preamplifier/Kassai monoblocks – $85,000 (approx.)
Kondo Overture II Integrated Amplifier – $32,000
Pass Labs Xs Preamp/Xs 300 Monoblocks – $118,000
Digital Source Under $5,000
Naim Nait CD5si – $1,470
Most audiophiles are at least familiar with UK high-end audio manufacturing stalwart Naim Electronics and their CD5 (now in 5si guise) has been around long enough to have garnered it’s share of acolytes. With PRaT (Pace, Rhythm, and Timing) at the heart of all Naim products, the CD5si is no exception. This disc spinner’s ability to propel the music forward kept me on the edge of my seat whenever I spend time listening to it. Fantastic timbre, tone, and bass extension, the Nait 5 is probably one of the best bargains in high-end audio today for silver discs. Take advantage of the low cost of CDs, buy a Cd5si, and use the money leftover from whatever other digital front-end you were looking at buying to grab a few hundred CDs.
Digital Source Cost-No-Object
Aurender W20 Music Server – $18,000
If you’ve ever been to an audiophile trade show, then you’ve seen Aurender W20 and N10 digital servers being tasked for their bulletproof reliability and innate musicality in almost every high-end room at every show. The fact that Aurender has become so ubiquitous in so many ubër-priced hifi systems is no accident. It’s a huge amount of research & development, a no-compromise design approach and the highest-calibre parts. They’ve built their reputation on providing gear that does its job with ease, without fuss and at a price point for sound quality and build quality that they could probably charge twice as much for. I’m all about a holistic approach to system building and component matching, but in my experience Aurender digital music servers seamlessly slot into every system I’ve heard them curated with. If streaming digital music or using a NAS (Network Added Storage) is your jam for recorded playback then check out Aurender.
Turntables Under $5,000
Rega RP8 w/Apheta 2 MC Cartridge – $4,195
With a skeletal plinth ‘stressed-beam’ bracing between the bearing housing and the Rega RB 808 tonearm mount, an involving, emotion-inspiring cart in the Apheta 2 and a separate DC power-supply for it’s two-speed motor driving a float-glass, flywheel-effect platter, the RP8 embodies decades of research & development by Rega frontman Roy Gandy into rigid, lightweight, vibration-rejecting turntable design. The sound is all about the music, and despite it’s spacey, future-shock look, the focus is all about whatever album you’re spinning because this ‘table disappears once the sound hits your ears. Tight, developed bass with a propulsive midrange and sweet, transparent highs makes for a transcendent analog playback experience that will satisfy for years to come because with this design you will not be bitten by upgraditis unless you have well over $10,000 USD to spend.
Döhman Helix 1 – $37,500
I first heard the Döhmann Helix 1 at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2015 and was deeply impressed by it’s level of detail retrieval, inky-black background, and astounding bass reproduction. I had to find out more about the design, so I contacted the man himself – Mark Döhmann – to get the 411 on the ‘tables design, and what the research & development must have looked like to arrive at such a concept. It was a long, involved conversation, but I came away with a better understanding of the turntable’s design concept of complete isolation from vibration to enable the ability of a cartridge to extract the maximum amount of electro-acoustic data from the microscopic grooves of an LP. The result is a stunning clarity, and transparency to the presentation of the recorded information therein, with a focus on dynamics, vocal, and instrument subtleties, tone, timbre, and timing.
Accessories Under $5,000
I’ve had the P10 feeding clean AC power to my personal, and review equipment for almost a year now, and I can tell you that I don’t foresee a day when this power regenerator leaves my sight. I live in an apartment close to downtown where truly horrific electricity comes slithering in constantly. A quick look at one of the many power-monitoring options the P10 LCD screen offers tells me that I have anywhere from113~119 volts of fluctuating, polluted, avarice-filled AC seeking out the delicate electronic circuitry of reference-level hardware that I usually have on hand for review. But thanks to the PS Audio P10 they get fed nothing but a constant, clean, stream of rock-steady 120-volt juice with which to perform their various electro-acoustical performances. If you haven’t tried the p10, arrange a demo. I have it under ‘Accessories’ but it’s really a core component in today’s world of frazzled public power utilities.
Artnovion Room Acoustic Panels – $TBD Upon Custom Assessment
There are those who say that the most important component of any audiophile sound system is the room, and I don’t think they are necessarily wrong. The best gear in the world will flounder, and fail miserably in an unsuitable room environment, or even sound sub-par and cause those helming a demonstration to flail their arms and curse the maker (choose your own) for a square rooms, off-angle corners, stepped ceilings, or random, ignoble wall outcroppings. All of these conditions can create havoc for sonics: standing waves, flat frequency areas, dead zones of bass or non-sympathetic resonances. The folks at Artnovion know this and are using scientific research into materials and mathematical models for sound dispersion to help them design and build some of the most advances composites known to audiophiledom to combat these sonic pitfalls. Does their approach work? In my experience it works incredibly well, and judging by the amount of Artnovion panels now present in most hifi brick-and-mortar establishments and a dizzying array of demo rooms at audio trades shows, there’s a lot of people who agree with my assessment. Pricing varies in every application, so you must contact your local Artnovion dealer for your specific needs.