How much can a high-end Hi-Fi change your home sound experience? A lot – if you know where to go and what to buy. “The whole audio world is changing,” says Kostas Metaxas, the designer behind Metaxas Audio Systems. “Sure, younger people have been brought up streaming through headphones, but audio is now part of the luxury market – and for that you need incredible-looking and incredible-sounding products.”
High-end audio can also be incredibly priced: this is a specialist market in which £25,000 could buy you a pair of cables. Can it possibly be worth it?
“The joke about this type of tech is that it’s very hard to care about, until you hear the products,” says Metaxas. “At this level all that technicity is aimed at giving music a realism that’s entirely believable.”
Dan D’Agostino, famed audio electrics designer behind the eponymous brand, agrees: “We wouldn’t get the sound quality without taking a ‘no limits’ approach to the materials and components we use – and with that the proof really is in the pudding. Audio is that much harder to upgrade compared to TV not just because it’s that much more expensive, but because it’s also that much harder to understand,” he says.
In the world of high-end Hi-Fis, these are the systems hitting the high notes...
D’Agostino Relentless Monoblock
Audiophiles get very excited about amplifiers, the devices that convert low voltage signals from the source equipment into a signal punchy enough to power the speakers. It’s the heart of the audiophile’s system. And designer Dan D’Agostino’s Relentless Monoblock can take you, as Spinal Tap might have had it, all the way from zero to 1,500 watts, or, depending on your set-up, a whopping 6,000 watts.
That’s possible thanks to a unique audio turbocharger. A metal shield dampens transformer noise to almost nothing, while each capacitor is specially mounted to stop vibrations. As for all that copper – yes, it looks good, but it’s also a heat sink to protect the internal components.
Metaxas T-RX Tape Deck
A tape deck, seriously? Yes, tape is back. It’s the new vinyl. In fact, as Kostas Metaxas stresses, serious artists never stopped recording on tape. “There’s a richness to it that hasn’t yet been beaten – some artists just haven’t yet reconciled themselves to the fact that today’s digital recording methods negatively affect the sound,” he argues. Building on advances in motor design that have come out of the fledgling electric car industry, the sculptural, recording-or-playback T-RX is the 21st Century version of something you might have thought went out of fashion in the '70s.
Ballfinger Open Reel Tape Machine M063HX
Well, we did say that tape recorders are back. Ballfinger’s playback-only model takes cues from the Dieter Rams school of design, with anodized aluminium and wood-clad surfaces. The machine has two-speed direct drive spooling, 12-inch reel capacity, real-time counter and electronically-balanced inputs and outputs. Somehow, it’s not surprising that the wonderfully-named Ballfinger also makes watches.
Cessaro Horn Acoustics Omega 1
Horn-speaker specialists Cessaro makes a point of stressing that this top-of-the-range model is not designed for typical living rooms – it is, after all, 2.8m tall and weighs 4.5 tonnes – so you’d need to reinforce your floor. But it’s exemplary of the spectacular looks of much audio design today. “Absolutely the aesthetics are crucial in this market,” explains Metaxas. “These products are part of the world of luxury goods – they have to be objects of art to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.”
Audio Research VSi75 VT Integrated Stereo Amplifier
With an ‘open chassis’ and perforated cover in silver, the VSi75 runs with an industrial aesthetic – even the remote control is carved from a block of aluminium. An integrated amp designed to be the centrepiece of an audio set-up, it offers 75 watts per channel but somehow manages to sound more like 200. But you have to be patient to enjoy the full effect – Audio Research says you need around 600 hours playing time for this unit to be properly broken in. Who knew a Hi-Fi needed breaking in?
Continuum Audio Labs Obsidian Turntable and Viper Tonearm
There are belt-driven turntables and then there are those that come with a massive nested platter designed to dampen vibrations, a super-quiet custom-built motor and an arm in hardened stainless-steel with sapphire jewel bearings. “It’s not uncommon for Hi-Fi equipment to have the same build precision, and some of the methods, of high-end horology,” notes Metaxas. “It’s the mechanical, technical build of these products that sees them appeal to men in particular, much as cars and watches do.”
YBA Signature CD Player
Don’t let this simple silver aluminium box deceive you: the Signature weighs a whopping 28kg. That means there are a lot of components inside this player, designed by Yves-Bernard Andre, the name behind YBA. CDs are top-loaded, while at the back of the streamlined component are analogue and digital outputs. Importantly, every component, from CD reader to output, is active, which helps to reduce distortion to practically nil – with the disc read in part by a patented, laser-beam system to produce a super-precise audio signal.
Sennheiser HD 820 Headphones
You may enjoy listening to Mariah Carey as though she’s in the room with you. Others may not. Even the audiophile may have to wear headphones some times. The HD 820's come with a closed back, said to sometimes create distortion, but here the problem is solved by using Gorilla Glass and sound-absorbing chambers that prevent sound waves reverberating within the cases. As Metaxas notes, one thing that separates the audiophile from younger music lovers is that the latter is more likely to have grown up used to using headphones. “It’s hard to get the visceral feeling high-end audio equipment can offer using headphones,” he concedes. But if you have to use them, it pays to invest.
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 2GO Streamer
OK, so no serious audiophile would choose streaming as their ideal music source – but then they’ll admit they can’t spend all their life sat in an armchair alone in the middle of a darkened room. This is where the 2Go comes in: it’s a wi-fi and ethernet-enabled device for digital playback or storage. If you’re thinking, ‘well, my smartphone can do that’, the 2Go comes with 4TB of solid-state library playback and, at up to 768khz, a next-level sound quality for a portable device.