Best Audio Systems for $20,000: The Audio Note UK and Thorens Ensemble at Corby’s Audio

Best Audio Systems for $20,000: The Audio Note UK and Thorens Ensemble at Corby’s Audio


Don Corby of Corby’s Audio with his 20K system.

Prices listed in CA$.

Photos by Robert Schryer.

From the outside, Corby’s Audio, like Audio by Mark Jones I visited recently, looks nothing like your typical audio store. First, there’s no storefront window festooned with audio gear. Instead, its façade looks more like that of a large wooden shed tucked inside some trees. Corby’s Audio is, in fact, located in the countryside. Foot traffic? Not unless you count the forest critters. Rather than rely on passersby, Corby’s Audio relies on people who know the owner, Don Corby, or likes what he carries.

Before selling audio at his two-floor location, Don, a woodworker by trade, has, for the last 30-odd years, been running a picture-framing business, the wares of which he builds himself. The place is now split to accommodate both enterprises, with the framing business on the main floor and the audio business on the floor atop. Once a storage space, the second floor is now divided into two large listening areas, where the walls are lined with playback equipment, including a vintage Heinztman gramophone.

the Heinztman gramophone

Don traces his lifelong love affair with audio back to his high-school days, when he and two brothers who lived across the street from him had an ongoing, friendly competition to see who could put together the best stereo system. Don was always good with his hands, a talent he used to build or restore equipment, especially his favourite type of equipment—analogue front-ends. He’d sell hot-rodded turntables and equipment stands he’d built himself to help finance his audio habit.

Later, Don joined Canuck Audio Mart [CAM], the Canadian equivalent of US-based Audiogon, where his reputation as someone who knew about audio brought him a sizable following. “I was very active on CAM,” he told me during our interview. “I’d buy, mod, and sell equipment, mainly for myself, but also for others.“ His selling activity had grown to a point when he was struck by a revelation. “I thought, I may as well set up an account with a manufacturer and get the stuff wholesale,” he said with a laugh. There was also, crucially, the added convenience offered by his framing operation. “I already had the retail front end—the credit card machine, and the floor upstairs, which was heated and had a hole in the middle so I could pass equipment through the floors.”

Don puts on a record in one of his listening rooms.

That made launching a brick-and-mortar store six years ago a relatively easy thing for Don to do. With his hundreds of online followers, he already had a captive audience. “I had that trust built in,” he said. “And I built on that.” He started by hooking up with a couple of good brands, which brought in more brands.

I asked how he chose the brands he represents.

One of the listening rooms.

“I don’t sell products because they’re sellers,” he said. “I sell them because they’re products I like, and if I like them, I can sell them. Products I love—those I like to handle and use personally—are easy to sell.”

Unsurprisingly, considering the unanimity of positive responses I’ve received from other dealers I’ve broached the subject with, the pandemic was good for business. Was business, post-pandemic, still good? ”As of the end of June 2023—the second quarter—I’d already done 80% of the sales I’d done the whole of last year,” he said.

Those sales included, of course, models of products found in Don’s “Best Audio System for $20,000” that I was about to audition. The system included an Audio Note UK I-Zero integrated amp, an EAR Phono Box, a pair of Audio Note UK AN JD Hemp speakers, a Thorens TD1500 turntable equipped with an Ortofon 2M Blue, a Saturn 101C power conditioner, along with a bevy of Synergistic Research cables.

The 20K system

When I asked Don why he chose this system over all possible combinations, he said: “It’s compact but very musical. The Audio Note amp paired with Audio Note speakers is a very involving combination that’s great with all types of music.”

The sound I heard across a few bluesy acoustic tracks with female vocals delivered a great sense of touch, rich timbres, and a slightly sweet midband. Vocals were appropriately chesty and throaty, giving the singer a spectral physicality.

Double bass exhibited a palpable fullness, providing an undercurrent to the music that seemed to infuse it with a sense of organic flow and buoyant momentum.

Drums smacked and snapped with realistic timbre, sounding clear and well-defined. Overall, the sound offered good imaging, fleshed-out tones, a good sense of harmonic bloom off notes, and long and reverberant decays. The sound was natural, earthy, rich, and intimately musical.

I was impressed, by the sound of the system, but also by all of it—the floors, the space, the look, the food (Don had set up a tasty food-and-refreshments spread for his guests), and by Don himself, who’s a gracious, down-to-earth, audio-savvy guy who obviously loves the hobby.

To close off, I asked Don if he had any upcoming plans for the business. “The business is staying the same,” he said. “I’m not expanding. I’m not looking for new lines. I might thin out speakers because people don’t come to me for speakers. I’m known for front-ends and electronics, especially tubed ones. So I’m going to fly with those. When you get too many lines, it’s too much. You get too thin. You can’t sell anything.”

Component price list:

  • Audio Note UK I-Zero integrated: $4500
  • EAR Phono Box: $2000
  • Audio Note UK AN JD Hemp speakers: $7000
  • Thorens TD1500 table with Ortofon 2M Blue: $3700
  • Saturn 101C power conditioner: $1200
  • Synergistic Research SR30 speaker cables: $800
  • Synergistic Research SR30 interconnect: $500
  • Synergistic Research Power cables: $500×3 = $1500

Corby’s Audio:
26 Carlisle Rd, Freelton, ON
Tel: 905-689-1976

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

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