Prices listed in US$.
Other than being able to enjoy my favorite music in great sound quality, a benefit of being an audiophile is the opportunities it presents to meet great people. Okkyum Kim, whom I met through my wife, is one of those people. When we first met, it turned out he and I shared a passion not only for audio but for classical and heavy metal music, two of my favorite genres. We clicked right away. Okkyum is also a respected violin maker who won the bronze medal in the Cremona Triennale Violin Making Competition in Italy (2009) and the gold medal in the International Violin Making Competition in Mexico (2008). It goes without saying he has golden ears for sound, and that’s why I recruited him to accompany me and lend his ears for this “Best audio systems for 10K” installment.
Which brings me to Ian Forte, sales manager and our host at Audio Element in Pasadena, California, where our audition took place. A musician, Ian studied audio engineering at Hollywood’s Musicians Institute. It’s there that he gained an appreciation for high-end audio. So—not only was I going to be kept company during this audition by a person who was habitually familiar with the sound of real instruments, but by two.
Said Ian: “Audio Element has been in business since November of 2013—it’s going on its 9th year! We view ourselves as a group of people who are passionate about what we do and are committed to putting the customer first. We all love listening to music and discovering ways to make our favorite music sound even better. What we love even more than that, is spreading that passion and knowledge to our customers, so they can appreciate their favorite music in a new light as well.” To this, I thought: “A philosophy after my own heart.”
The trip to Audio Element wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Walking might have been faster. Traffic from my home in Irvine to Pasadena was so bad, the trip took almost 2 hours. We arrived at the store late, very late, but when I called Ian from the road to let him know about our predicament, he was very gracious about it and assured me I didn’t need to apologize. Once we’d finally made it, Ian opened the door for us, but not before he’d donned a mask when he saw that we were wearing ours.
Stepping inside, I was struck by how beautiful the interior of the store was, in a most original way. With its high ceilings and stylish, breathy space, it appeared expansive, clean, and well-organized. It was obvious the powers that be had put a lot of time, thought, and heart into its décor. Standing in a listening room that looked impeccable, with not a hair, or cable, out of place, it hit me that this was probably why my wife was so hesitant to visit my listening room at home, no matter how often I invited her. She was probably not fond of its messy, mad scientist vibe. Time to change things up aesthetically, I thought, which meant that already Audio Element was a source of inspiration for me, even before a note of music had been played.
Okkyum and I chatted with Ian for a bit, when I asked him how sales had been during the pandemic. His answer: they’d had a record sales year in 2021, and the trend was still going. When I asked what he attributed that success to, he repeated a refrain I’d heard a couple of times before: Because of the pandemic, people spent less on the outside world and more on the inside one—their home. He added: “At least that was the case for a lot of the people who came to see us.”
As an Audio Element representative, Ian said that his focus was on spreading knowledge.
“I’ve listened to a lot of different types of audio equipment over the years, so I know a lot about how different gear sounds and interacts with each other. We hear from people all the time that before they found us, they bought a system from Amazon or some other website but found the experience daunting, and ultimately returned everything before coming to us. It’s easy to do a bunch of research online and buy a bunch of gear that got great reviews, except that when it comes time to hook it all up at home, it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. This can be a frustrating experience that makes the buyer feel like they made a huge mistake, and it can put them off from the hobby. It’s that type of feeling of dissatisfaction I like to help people avoid. It’s important to know what gear works well together and what doesn’t, which oftentimes you can only get from a knowledgeable representative. I love providing this type of knowledge to customers, just as much as I love to show them how good their favorite music can sound through a good audio system.”
By this point, I felt confident that I could recommend Ian to any of my friends looking to buy audio products—on the condition, of course, that the system we were about to hear sounded good. So came the moment of truth when Okkyum and I sat down in front of the 10K setup, which Ian called their popular Krypton Music System. The system is normally sold with a turntable and a digital front end, but, for the purpose of this column, which requires that only a digital source be used, both the turntable and the usual DAC were replaced by a more expensive DAC. The system consisted of a pair of 89db Audio Physic Classic 15 speakers, a tubed, 100Wpc Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III integrated Amplifier, a Bluesound NODE streamer, a Chord Qutest DAC, and Cardas Audio Iridium Cabling.
The Krypton Music System sells for a package price of $9,995. Ian suggested the best upgrade from here would be to swap the Bluesound streamer and Chord DAC with the Auralic Altair G1 DAC/streamer. When sold with an analog source, the system comes with a Rega Planar 6 turntable fitted with a Hana SL moving coil cartridge. He said the Cronus Magnum III integrated amp has a great built-in phono section so it would be easy to just plug in a turntable.
I asked Ian to play my first test track, Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”. Using Tidal, which was the streaming service of his choice, he found the song and hit the play button. Mind you, this is not exactly one of those glorious-sounding audiophile tracks. Like with so many other recordings from the 70s, this one has a pretty obvious bass roll-off. That’s why I play this track, or one like it, when auditioning an audio system, because if the system sounds inherently thin, or has a bass issue, or lacks midrange transparency, a recording like “Kodachrome” will magnify those traits. A full-sounding track with a lot of bloom would help mask them.
To my surprise, “Kodachrome” sounded more fleshed out than expected on the Krypton system. So I decided to move on to tracks with proper bass: Dave Brubeck’s Take Five and, by request from Okkyum, the Eagles’ live version of Hotel California. The depth of the bass coming out of the unassuming Audio Physic Classic 15s blew us away. And, thanks to the system’s excellent resolving power, that bass never came at the expense of making the music sound slow or veiled.
Our surprise grew even more when we played Vitali’s Chaconne performed by the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. This was also a request by Okkyum, who has heard this recording countless times. He confirmed that the Krypton system reproduced the music with lifelike realism, and that’s also what I heard.
This Chaconne recording is also interesting in that it uses an organ accompaniment instead of the usual piano one. And that organ goes deep, very deep. On a system that obscures midrange information or lacks bass control, the Chaconne is guaranteed to muddy the sound. Not so on this system. The glorious organ notes reached all the way down into the abyss, while the sounds from Heifetz’s violin soared delicately above, or cut through the air with startling dynamics.
I was so astonished by the seeming incongruity between the deep bass I was hearing and the smallish size of the Audio Physics that I snuck over to the rack to see if I’d spot something unusual, like a separate sub or a secret woofer on the cabinet. There were none of those. According to specifications, the speakers can go down to 38Hz, but it felt like I was hearing lower than that. Seeing our reaction, Ian offered an explanation: “It’s the unique cabinet design of the Classic 15. It really helps in giving the speakers their excellent bass response. Paired with the right source, amplifier, and cabling, the bass can seem much fuller and richer than the specs might lead you to believe.”
We listened to a few more tracks, and our impressions remained the same. The bass was the main star, always sounding deep and substantial, without ever harming the rest of the frequency range, imaging, or stereo separation. Separately, Okkyum and I had heard many high-end systems prior to this visit, most much pricier than this one, but we both agreed that neither of us missed any of them while listening to this 10K system.
After we thanked Ian and left Audio Element, Okkyum and I went for dinner, where we were still talking about the Krypton Music System’s amazing sound quality. We reached the same conclusion: for the sheer enjoyment of music, you really don’t need more than the Krypton system. That’s how good it sounds.
List and price of components in the Krypton Music System:
- Audio Physic Classic 15 Speakers ($4295)
- Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum III Integrated Amplifier ($3295)
- Bluesound NODE Streamer ($599)
- Chord Qutest DAC ($1945)
- Cardas Audio Iridium Cabling ($450)
- Rega Planar 6 ($1500)
- Hana SL mc cartridge ($750)
- Auralic Altair G1 DAC/Streamer ($3245)