How a $1 Million System Changed Me

How a $1 Million System Changed Me

I’ve listened to many audio setups over the years but I only recently heard a “cost-no-object” system. It happened in the Focal-Naim showroom at Montreal Audiofest 2024. Its cost? Close to $1 million dollars if you include cables and acoustic treatment. My verdict? Mind-blowingly good, and I’m not someone who would naturally equate higher price with better performance. In fact, this is coming from a sceptic who’s been disappointed by megabuck systems countless times.

The recording I listened to on that system was Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly (Universal/Decca). The dynamic range and complexity of this recording will mercilessly reveal the differences in HiFi gear between the extraordinary and merely great. Thanks to this, I can safely conclude that the Focal-Naim system was extraordinary.

A smiling Jonson next to a Focal Grand Utopia Evo speaker

My first encounter with Mahler’s 1st symphony was via a cassette tape on a cheap portable player. Considering the medium’s serious sonic limitations, this was a laughable way to listen to Mahler’s music. But it didn’t matter. The music penetrated me. And then I listened to this piece on a few different setups, all of which were, by my current standards, bad. It didn’t matter. Mahler’s hold on me remained unchanged.

Then I became an audiophile. Played on superior systems, Mahler’s music took on new dimensions. With higher resolution and wider dynamic range, they opened new doors to the composer’s soul. This isn’t just my opinion; a lot of people say the same—there’s little music that can benefit more from improved sound quality than Mahler’s symphonies.

So, I started to get obsessive. How do I further improve the reproduction of Mahler’s sonic world in my room? I started to demand more and more from my audio setup, as well as my wallet. Imagine a dog owner who gets increasingly more demanding as he teaches his dog new tricks. At first, he is content with the dog’s first roll (hooray!). Then he wants her to play dead. When she manages to do that, too, the owner wants her to fetch a remote. It goes on and on but the truth is the owner wouldn’t be satisfied even if his dog learned to operate a turntable.

This was how I reached a point where I could no longer enjoy Mahler on any system… until I heard it on a $1 million one.

Discontentment doesn’t come from getting too little. It comes from getting less than expected. Unfulfilled expectation is the universal formula for unhappiness. This formula consists of two parts: 1) Having an expectation, and, 2) trying to fulfill it. And all I was focused on was the second part while failing to see the elusive nature of my expectation, which is that it would change into another expectation as soon as I fulfilled it. I was shooting at a moving target. It was an endless game of catch-up.

Perhaps the best way to keep our expectations low is to avoid getting exposed to better experiences. Then we wouldn’t know about them, right? But I don’t want to live like that. I want to have great experiences, especially with audio.

So how do we solve the dilemma of enjoying great things while keeping expectations under control? The solution is to have the correct emotional takeaway. Next time you listen to a mind-blowingly good sound system that is beyond your financial means, calmly observe what’s about to become your takeaway from the experience. Will it be lust? Envy? Despair? Dissatisfaction with your own system? If it’s any of these things, you are not playing the game to your advantage.

The best response to any great experience is to have a fond memory. You just experienced something special. And you remember the experience, not just in your head but in your entire body. The memory is embedded in your nervous system. And it’s pleasant. You are fond of it. That’s what you want to take home. That’s your takeaway.

Just like everyone, I enjoy eating out with loved ones. So, on special occasions, such as my wedding anniversary, my wife and I go out and eat fancy. Those are great experiences. But they don’t diminish our enjoyment of simple meals we eat at home. In fact, the memory of eating together at a fancy restaurant enhances the experience of eating at home. Why? Because we remember, in our beings, the core nature of the experience: savouring a wonderful meal with someone we love. This kind of memory brought us back to our beginnings.

Listening to Mahler’s 1st symphony on that million dollar system created a similar memory. Or should I say, it revived the memory of when I heard the piece for the first time on that cheap tape player. It brought me back to the beginning, creating a satisfying sense of having come full circle.

The $1 million dollar system (in CAD): Focal Grand Utopia Evo speakers ($360,000/pair), Naim Statement NAP S1 L/R power amplifiers ($129,999 for left and right), Naim Statement NAC S1 preamplifier ($129,999), Naim ND555 streamer ($29,899), NAPS 555DR power supply for ND555 ($17,549)

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

Dear readers,

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