All photos by Tom Gibbs. For an itemized list of Tom’s system, see below.
When my article, “No, I Have The Best System In The World! #3: Inside a $50K Audiophile’s Paradise“, appeared almost two years ago, I had no illusions that my relatively modest system could compete alongside the ridiculously good (and crazy expensive!) setups that exist in high end audio. These cost-no-object systems are capable of presenting music with an intensity and scale that can be almost mind-boggling; I heard several at the Florida International Audio Expo in February that fit that description. But despite my fairly frequent exposure to extreme high end audio, I rarely return home disappointed in the sound of my own system, which I feel is sufficiently resolving to provide a very satisfying musical experience. It’s a constant reminder to me that there are great systems to be heard and enjoyed at literally every price point throughout the high end.
As satisfied as I was with my listening environment and equipment two years ago, change was in the air. Less than 18 months after my original piece was published, I found myself in the process of seriously downsizing, and began selling off the parts of my audio system I deemed no longer essential. As well as packing everything else for extended storage—my wife Beth and I were selling our custom-built, mid-century modern home and following our daughter Julie and her family to Charleston, South Carolina. We hadn’t a clue what our house might sell for, and definitely had no idea what price a typically much smaller home in Charleston’s crazy real estate market might command. Beth and I were both facing a downward shift in our obsessions, and while a hefty mortgage seemed likely, a dedicated listening room looked out of the question. I was even considering getting rid of almost all my audio gear, and, if necessary, settling with a compact powered loudspeaker!
As I pondered the future, a progression of near-miracles was simultaneously unfolding. I was able to retire from my job of 40+ years in advertising and publishing, while our house in Georgia sold for more than double what we originally paid for it. Sight unseen, we placed a contract on an under-construction new home near Charleston that was well within our budget. We then paid cash for the house, which we found out at closing was much larger than we’d anticipated. It had an entire second floor of space that Beth very graciously gifted to me for my audio pursuits. And she also got a much larger space for her textile studio, where she custom dies the wool from which she crafts extraordinary wall hangings and objets d’art. We both ended up with more space to pursue our obsessions, and here’s the real kicker: we’re now retired and mortgage free. Could it possibly get any better?
Now that we’re settled in the new place, when I sit down for a listen in either of my two dedicated audio rooms, I almost feel the need to pinch myself! In what was probably a lottery-fueled fever dream, I’d occasionally wonder how cool it would be to have a really nice reference system, and maybe a second room with a cool, vintage analog tube vibe. That is literally now my reality! My system has grown over the last couple of years (now in excess of $70k), and the new equipment additions have pushed my listening to an even higher level of resolution and goodness. Each of the rooms is basically set up to highlight the strengths of a distinctly different system. And each has a generously proportioned walk-in closet that allows me to store all the equipment boxes and audio accoutrements that would otherwise constantly clutter the listening space. Sweet!
The larger room houses the Digital system, where the components are focused on digital playback. It features a pair of the new Magneplanar LRS+ loudspeakers driven interchangeably by a new Naiu Labs Ella stereo amplifier or my pair of PS Audio Stellar M700 mono amplifiers. Both amplifier flavours have the power and current to drive the diminutive Maggies to reference levels, although I admit to having a bias towards the more costly German-made Naiu Ella. Digital library organization, streaming, and playback is provided by my network audio stack from Euphony Audio. It features a dual-PC Summus and Endpoint system that was recently upgraded to Euphony’s V4 OS. The Euphony equipment is connected to two recently arrived DACs, including the Gustard X26 Pro DAC, which is connected via BNC to the also new Gustard C18 10MHz Constant Temperature Clock, and a Topping E70 Velvet DAC, which includes the newest AKM chipset configuration. Balanced connections feed those signals to my PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell preamplifier, which then controls whatever happens to be my amplifier du jour. The entire digital system is fully balanced from end to end. My REL T1 sub is vital in augmenting the significantly rolled-off bass output of the Magneplanars.
The second, smaller room contains the Analog playback system, which is built around a pair of KLH Model Five loudspeakers. The primary analog source is my ProJect Classic EVO turntable fitted with the Hana SL moving coil cartridge that plays through my Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamp with its matching Michael Yee linear power supply. The secondary analog source is my heavily modded Rega Planar 2 turntable, equipped with an Ortofon 2M Mono cartridge, that plays through a Sutherland KC Vibe phono preamp. Amplification and system control is provided by my PrimaLuna EVO 300 integrated stereo tube amplifier. Although the room is predominantly focused on analog playback, I also have my Sonore UltraRendu streamer with an UpTone Audio linear power supply available should a streaming evaluation need to be made between systems. And my Yamaha BD-A 1060 SACD player is available to make regular review comparisons between SACDs and their LP counterparts. Because of the smaller room size and prodigious bass provided by the KLH Model Fives, no subwoofer is needed to achieve exceptional bass performance.
All interconnects, digital cables, power cables, and AC power conditioning are from AudioQuest, ADD-Powr, Audio Art, Pangea, Keces, and PliXiR. The cables and power conditioning are indispensable and add immeasurably to the performance of the individual systems. Resonance control products from AV RoomService lower the noise floor to an almost infinitesimal level. Wall treatments from GIK Acoustics, ASC Tube traps, and Owens Corning have tamed in-room echoes and resonances to the point of greatly improving both systems’ overall response curves. The overall cost of the extensive complement of AC conditioning, linear power supplies, cables, and resonance control devices (including wall treatments) makes up about 40 percent of my total system expenditure. Yeah, that’s a lot of dough, but the before-and-after difference in my system’s performance wasn’t subtle, it was near revelatory. AC conditioning, good quality cables, and resonance control make a huge difference!
I brought the AudioQuest Edison AC outlets with me from the old place and installed them in the new one. Each system is on a separate AC breaker, and having one Edison outlet per system is sufficient. Having all components connected to the same power source (each system has its own AQ Niagara conditioner) helps guarantee perfect grounding — I learned that from Gordon Rankin years ago. The new house also has ATT fiber optic internet service; it’s fiber all the way into the house, so there’s no possibility of noise transmitted via copper-wired ethernet connections. That said, some of the digital components still use ethernet network connections, and I still use the ethernet-to-fiber-optic media converters to eliminate network-related digital noise transmission between those components. The sound quality of network-connected audio is greatly enhanced by the reduced noise floor of an optical network.
While much of the core equipment complement hasn’t changed from my previous system, the one aspect that has definitely changed is the overwhelmingly good convenience factor. At the old place, whenever I needed to insert the PrimaLuna tube amp into the system for an LP review, I’d have to remove whichever amp was currently front and center in the system. Then I’d yank that 80 lb tubed monster from the floor and just about herniate myself getting it into place with the other components. And of course, there were all the obligatory cable swaps necessary to get everything up and running. I did this for years, but now I can simply walk into the analog room, fire up the PrimaLuna, and start spinning LPs — it’s pretty sweet. In the digital room, the occasional swap between the Naiu Ella amp and the PS Audio M700’s is totally uncomplicated — just a couple of cable changes, with no heavy lifting necessary.
I’ve heard this all before, and it basically goes like this: “Why in God’s name would I even think of pairing $1k, entry level loudspeakers with amps that retail for 3 to 10 times their price?” Having lived with the original LRS model for almost four years, the new Maggie LRS+ with their improved panel technology respond really well to top-shelf amplification. And they exhibit the kind of exceptional sound quality that one might only expect from loudspeakers of a much higher pedigree and priced much higher. Would a larger, more expensive Magneplanar model sound better? Probably, but with the level of performance that can be wrought from the LRS+ with good system synergy in my manageably-sized listening environment, I have no complaints, especially when I experience their near-holographic imaging!
Here’s a recent good example from the Digital room: the remastered 24-bit download of Kate Bush’s 1985 release Hounds of Love has been in regular rotation for about a month now. While I’ve been a huge Kate Bush fan for ages, I somehow missed the importance of this seminal record back in the day, and never acquired a copy. The remaster sounds great, and the combination of the Euphony/Gustard and/or Topping digital front end renders Hounds of Love with stunning, near-analog musicality. The Naiu Ella amp drives the Maggies with so much control and precision, they’re able to create a shockingly palpable illusion of Kate Bush live in the room! I’ve heard the big DCS and MSB digital systems many times, but at a mere fraction of their cost, the Euphony/Gustard and/or Topping digital front ends offer a really compelling and supremely musical performance.
In the Analog room, I’ve been listening to the new Impex Records 1STEP, 45 RPM release of Patricia Barber’s Nightclub. My Project ‘table and Hana SL cartridge manage admirably to extract an impressive level of musicality from the new LPs. The Hana is an exceptionally forgiving cartridge that traverses most pressings without highlighting groove anomalies that might be present. But the Impex 1STEP, AAA pressings employ a vinyl formulation that offers a new standard in analog LP quiet—there’s literally nothing for the Hana SL to forgive! I’d been using the DSD download of this title for equipment evaluation for years now, but the 1STEP release for Nightclub has managed, in a few short weeks, to become my new reference source for this classic album. The PrimaLuna’s EL34 tubes provide the KLH Model Fives with a sound that is both bold and robust, but that also simultaneously presents a near-hallucinatory impression of Patricia Barber’s voice and piano that defies belief! While I initially worried that the smaller room might not be a good match for the Model Fives, the sound I’m hearing is near perfection.
Yeah, I bounce back and forth between flat-panel dipoles driven by Class D amps and traditional sealed boxes driven by tubes, as well as yo-yo between digital and analog sources. But so far, I’m loving the ease and availability of having options! And now that I’m retired, when the FedEx guy shows up with a new box of albums or SACDs, I can drop everything, head upstairs, and spin away!
While the primary focus of the new space is audio, it also gives me plenty of room to display my Buddha statuary and RCA dog collections—both would likely have gone away if a much smaller home had been in store for us. Beth and I have always kind of had this obsession with squirrel-related art; she stumbled onto the mid-century modern squirrel wallpaper that adds a nice touch to both audio rooms. I love the bold look, and it helps us maintain something of a connection to the past. Dave Clark of Positive Feedback told me for years that my listening room was too stark and monochromatic—it needed colour. I think I’m finally getting there. At the very least, the new listening environment is a much better auditory and visual realization than the previous one. I still can’t believe the turn of events. In six short months, I went from focusing on seriously curtailing my audio obsession to living with what has become thus far my dream system(s)!
Prices listed are in $US.
- Gustard X26 Pro DAC – $1,500
- Gustard C18 10MHz constant temperature precision clock – $1,600
- Topping E70 Velvet DAC – $450
- Euphony Audio Summus/Endpoint network audio player/streamer – $5,000
- Sonore UltraRendu streamer – $999
- Yamaha BD-A 1060 SACD player – $600
- ProJect Classic EVO turntable with Funk Firm Achromat and Hana SL moving coil cartridge – $3,150
- Rega Planar 2 turntable with glass platter upgrade, Tango Spinner aluminum sub-chassis upgrade, Funk Firm Achromat, Michell stub and counterweight mod, and Tango Spinner Isolation Feet, with Ortofon 2M Mono cartridge – $1,300
- Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamplifier with Michael Yee linear power supply – $1,500
- Sutherland KC Vibe phono preamplifier – $900
- PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell balanced preamplifier – $1,899
- Naiu Labs Ella stereo amplifier – $10,000
- PS Audio Stellar M700 mono amplifiers – $3,498 pair
- PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated stereo amplifier – $4,695
- Magneplanar LRS+ with Magna Riser Airborne stands – $1,265 pair
- KLH Model Fives – $2,500/pair
- REL T1 subwoofer – $995
- AudioQuest Niagara 3000 – $3,900
- AudioQuest Niagara 1200 – $1,595
- ADD-Powr Eau4 ElectraClear Harmonic Resonators (2) – $900
- AudioQuest Edison 15 amp wall outlets (2) – $400
- Keces P8 linear power supply – $900
- PliXiR Elite BDC stacked dual linear power supply – $1,995
- UpTone Audio LPS-1 UltraCap linear power supply – $400
- AudioQuest Yukon XLR (4 pairs) – $3,090
- AudioQuest Yukon RCA (2 pairs) – $1,185
- AudioQuest Type 9 (2 pairs) – $1,640
- AudioQuest Carbon HDMI – $360
- AudioQuest Cinnamon HDMI – $210
- Audio Art Statement BNC – $560
- Pangea Premier SE USB (2) – $149
AC Power Cables:
- AudioQuest Blizzard w/DBS (3) – $2,685
- AudioQuest NRG Z3 – $350
- AudioQuest NRG Y3 (4) – $960
- AudioQuest NRG X3 (2) – $200
- PliXiR Statement Balanced – $600
- PliXiR Statement DC (2) – $360
Resonance Control Accessories:
- AV RoomService EVPs (LD/MD/HD) – $3,500
- AV RoomService CVPs – $250
- GIK Acoustics bass traps (2) – $300
- ASC Tube Trap panels (4) – $500
- Owens Corning Acoustic wall panels (6) – $650