What Does a $453,000 Stereo System Sound Like?

Back in the pre-Internet days before we were constantly distracted by things on small screens, there was music, music and more music. Boomers and early Gen Xers lived for it. I’m not saying that these generations loved music more than today’s young people, but because we had fewer choices with our free time, we were able to immerse ourselves in music. If we weren’t glued to our FM radios, we were listening to our record collections on stereo systems that often cost more than a new Pinto. We sunk not-insubstantial percentages of our annual incomes into the best audio gear we could afford for our bedrooms and basements.

I caught the audiophile bug before I had a driver’s license. After I bought a 10-speed bike with proceeds from my first job, I moved on to buying audio equipment. My first system included a 12-watts-per-channel Sansui receiver, an Akai turntable (which I still have) and a couple of no-name bookshelf speakers. My parents were most disappointed, believing I was insane for spending nearly $500 on what they saw as a glorified radio for my room. “We have a perfectly good console stereo in the living room! A Viking from Eaton’s! It’s all you need!”

Didn’t matter. I developed an obsession high-fidelity sound. The Sansui gave way to a Denon component system. Then came gear from Carver, Yamaha, Pioneer, Onkyo, Mission, Klipsch, Marantz, Cerwin-Vega, Technics, Sonos, Sony, Sonance–the list goes on. When my basement is finally finished in about a month, I’ve got a NAD/PSB/Pro-Ject collection ready to be assembled. Heaven.

Last week, Danu at Bay Bloor Radio in Toronto–a guy who understands my need for audio perfection–dropped me a note about a demonstration system from Naim Audio of Britain. “You’ve gotta hear this thing,” he said. “List price is nearly half a million dollars!”

Half a million? For a stereo system? This I gotta hear.

This past Friday morning, I toodled over to BBR for a private listening session helmed by a couple of reps from Naim. In one of the listening rooms was the company’s Statement system: a pre-amp flanked by two matching mono power amps rated at 736 watts each (“One horsepower,” the rep pointed out.) Those are the three towers you see in the picture above and below. Retail price? Only $345,000–and that’s just for the pre-amp and the two power amps.

The towers were connected to a digital media player (the top component on the stand in the top photo) and a digital-to-audio-converter (the small box below it). Both had their own power supplies (bottom two boxes.) Added together, those components cost $80,000. Speakers were from Bowers & Wilkins (800 D3s, I think), which can be yours for $26,000. Add in some balanced cables to connect everything together and the total cost sat around $453,000. Before tax, of course.

“What would you like to hear?” asked the Scottish man from Naim.

For the next 45 minutes, we went through a series of recordings. Some were straight CD rips (44.1/16-bit) and others were Hi-Red Audio (96/24-bit). We listened to classical (Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor), rock (“Telegraph Road” from Dire Straits and assorted tracks from Pink Floyd), a Daniel Lanois/Bob Dylan collaboration and other miscellaneous bits of music.

So what did it sound like? Wow. I mean, f**kin’ WOW!

It’s impossible to put this audio into words. Clear, clean, transparent. Sparkling highs with no harshness. Tight lows with no distortion. Fantastic midrange presence. And the stereo soundstage! It was so vivid that I could distinguish the distance between the drummer’s crash and ride cymbals to within millimeters.

At the same time, though, glaring flaws in some original recordings became evident. In “Telegraph Road”–a 1982 analogue recording made with 2-inch tape running at 30 inches per second–the tape hiss barely audible on other systems became obvious and distracting. Over-compression on the mastering was evident, causing the vocals to be lost in the mix during louder passages. The Naim system turned one of my favourite recordings against me. It hurt my ears.

But “Mother” from The Wall was exquisite. So was the guitar solo in “Comfortably Numb.” The sound effects from the beginning of “Welcome to the Machine” were incredibly realistic. And although these were songs I’d heard thousands of times, the Naim system revealed nuances in the recordings and performances that I’d never heard before.

I could have sat there all day. I wanted to hear Hi-Res Audio from Roxy Music (anything from Avalon), Pearl Jam (you wouldn’t believe what’s also in the mix of “Alive”) and The Who (did you know that there’s an acoustic guitar playing all the way through “Won’t Get Fooled Again?”) Sadly, though, my time was up.

Would I spend the equivalent of a very nice house on a stereo system? How rich does one have to buy to afford something like?

Excuse me while I head out for a couple of Lotto Max tickets.

 

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

4 thoughts on “What Does a $453,000 Stereo System Sound Like?

  • March 19, 2017 at 9:58 am
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    Alan, you should attend the next TAVES show in Toronto. The vast majority of the show consists of mid-high end audio demonstration suites. It is usually in October but the show has a new venue this year so the date might have changed a bit. Google can confirm…

    Reply
  • March 19, 2017 at 10:42 am
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    How big was this system?!

    *goes to audio collection to find Who’s Next? for another, closer listen.

    Reply
  • March 20, 2017 at 11:30 am
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    How many decibels did this think crank out? Could I entertain the whole block? Maybe you could hear those horns on Red Hill Mining Town.

    Reply
  • April 3, 2017 at 11:51 pm
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    1. I find it really weird that the generation that was really into hi-fi seems to, for the most part, been suckered by marketing to downgrade into shitty small Bose speakers.

    2. I still don’t believe in hi-res audio. I’m 34 and feel my hearing was severely damaged by shows in my early 20s. Since ~23 I’ve worn earplugs to every show, but it seems like what’s done is done. I can’t fucking believe music-industry people can hear anything special in high frequencies in their 40s and 50s, never mind high-def/res audio. There’s a physical reason the CD spec was designed at 44.1 KHz…

    Reply

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