Raleigh News & Observer, Fall 1996

ON THE BEAT

By David Menconi

Sounds heavenly: a $116,000 audio system

Raleigh – Given the market conditions in the Triangle, $116,000 may not buy you the house of your dreams. But it will get you the stereo of your dreams, one that sounds good enough to put your jaw on the floor and keep it there.

Raleigh stereo dealer Audio Advice had such a system it its store for a demonstration one day last week, and it almost made me want to take out a second mortgage.

Understand, I’ve never been a stereophile. I prefer to put my money into software rather than hardware. Up to now, I’ve been perfectly satisfied with my primitive Technics receiver and 20-year-old Marantz speakers (about which an acquaintance once said, “Wake up and smell the ‘90s, dude.”

But that old stereo was sounding awfully tinny after I took a test drive of the B&W Nautilus speakers (price tag: $40,000) powered by Mark Levinson electronic equipment ($66,000) Even the cables to hook the system up aren’t cheap: They add another $10,000 to the cost.

Believe it or not, however, $116,000 isn’t the outer limit of audiophile excess. If you’re determined, it’s possible to spend seven figures.

“The object is to re-create a live event in your living room,” said Audio Advice store manager Randy Cribb. “Some systems come closer than others. Obviously, a pair of $500 bookshelf speakers ain’t gonna sound like this. But you can go even further if you want. There are companies that make $100,000 speakers.”

Thanks, but the $40,000 variety did me just fine.

The speakers look like museum sculptures, their glass-reinforced plastic exteriors painted with the same acrylic finish used on German sports cars (you can even use car wax on them). They’re about mounted on polished terrazzo slabs, they weigh 200 pounds each. The tapered coils, the fins sweeping off the back and the lack of sharp corners give them a retro-futuristic look – like a cross between a snail and the voluptuous front end of a ’57 Buick.

Actually, the Nautilus speaker’s design is patterned after the human inner ear. And this speaker will tickle it, no doubt about that.

But there is a down side to owning a system of this caliber: It instantly renders a large part of one’s music collection virtually unplayable. With anything badly recorded or poorly mixed, the flaws are all you notice.

“A good audio system is like a powerful telescope,” said Cribb. “If there are flaws there, you’ll be able to hear them.”

Exhibit A was “First Band on the Moon,” the new album by Swedish pop group the Cardigans. It was almost impossible to concentrate on anything about it other than the terrible hiss.

On better-recorded music, however, the system was incredible. High-tech gear is especially good for pondering the subtleties of singing. Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years” took on new dimensions in which frontman Mick Hucknall conved as much ennui with his languid between-line breaths as with any words he actually sang.

Little things became prominent. The quiet xylophone solo on the outro to Dire Straits’ “Love Over Gold” started in the left speaker and seemed to float in pulsing waves to the right speaker again.

Even more impressive was the sense of presence. Listening to Dire Straits, I would have sworn Mark Knopfler was actually in the room, finger-picking his Stratocaster and crooning in to a microphone five feet in front of my chair. And when Cribb dimmed the lights and I listened to Harry Connick Jr’s “Where or When,” the effect was positively eerie.

It sounded so realistic, I could practically sense the movement of Connick’s hands on the piano keys, or his head turning toward the microphone. It was overwhelming.

About 100 customers showed up Thursday to sample the system. Nobodfy reached for his wallet to buy the complete system, said Cribb, but the store did have a few takers on some of the electronics components.

“This is a wonderful extravagance,” he said. “Nobody needs anything like this, obviously. But some people want it. Just like some consumers buy a Ford Taurus, some want to buy a Ferrari or a Bentley Turbo. There will always be people who want that extra performance, even though the increments come at a much higher price as you move along.”