Doug Schneider w/Salon2Most audiophiles would agree that I have a dream job. My position as publisher at the SoundStage! Network allows me to request review samples of audio components of all shapes and sizes, at any price, and mix and match them to create the best systems possible. It’s an opportunity few have. But I don’t abuse the privilege; instead, I use it to assemble systems that I can reference in my reviews and write about in order to educate and inform our readers.

So it seems fitting for this last month of the year to write about two systems I assembled in 2011 that tremendously impressed me. They provided the best sound I’d ever heard in my room or anywhere else -- both of them. But they were different in a few ways, which I’ll describe. These are my 2011 state-of-the-art stereo systems -- times two.

System One

I assembled the first system earlier this year, when I reviewed the Devialet D-Premier integrated amplifier/DAC. In terms of the number of components involved, it was the simplest super-high-end system I’d ever set up. My Sony Vaio laptop was connected to the Devialet D-Premier via a Blue Circle Audio USB Tunnel, which converts USB to AES/EBU; the D-Premier was then connected to a pair of Revel Ultima Salon2 speakers, which I’ve long used as a reference and consider to be one of the best speaker values in ultra-high-end audio. The speaker cables were Nirvana S-L, the same wires I’ve been using for eons.

The full list price of this system is about $40,000 USD (the Salon2 retails for $21,998/pair, the D-Premier $15,955, and the rest of the stuff totals about $2000) -- not cheap. On the other hand, no system I’ve heard, in my room or any other, has exhibited the high level of resolution that this one did. I attribute this partly to the system’s simplicity -- there were fewer components to muck up the sound -- but mostly to the Devialet D-Premier. To my ears, it is unsurpassed in how much detail it can pass along from a recording without ever sounding overanalytical, clinical, or etched. The D-Premier is also able to control the Revels astonishingly well, particularly in the bass, which more than likely has something to do with the Devialet’s exceptionally high damping factor.

Doug Schneider w/Devialet D-Premier

Very high resolution and superb control weren’t the only things this rig did well. It was truly full-range (20Hz-20kHz), utterly neutral across the audioband, and had no sonic characteristics that I could label as flaws. The D-Premier also has an uncanny way of remaining remarkably composed as it scales up the Salon2s from very low to very high SPLs -- perhaps too composed for those who like a little raucousness at high volume levels, particularly if they’re into hard rock. To me, this setup was as close to perfect as I’ve heard at anywhere near this price.

If I were to try to improve on this system, it would be mostly at the front end. I might try a different computer to serve my files, or perhaps the Bryston BDP-1 digital player, which I wrote about for System Two, below (but which wasn’t yet in-house when this system was going). I’d also try the wireless option that Devialet now offers, but which wasn’t available when I reviewed the D-Premier; completely detaching a computer from the D-Premier isn’t only more convenient, there might be some performance benefits. Or not. Finally, I might be inclined to try a power conditioner and/or a fancy audiophile power cord on the D-Premier. I plugged the Devialet’s stock power cord straight into my wall outlet (a dedicated circuit, mind you) for the entire review.

But that’s getting too deep into the small details. I’ve heard speakers that cost far more per pair than this entire system, and I’ve heard systems that retail for five times this combo’s price, and I haven’t been nearly as impressed by any of them as I was by this rig’s transparency, resolution, and neutrality across the audioband. So while 40 grand is by no means cheap, it’s actually quite a bargain for the incredibly good sound of this three-component system: state-of-the-art stereo sound made simple.

System Two

Vivid Audio’s Giya G2 loudspeaker retails for $50,000/pair -- $10,000 more than all of System One -- and looks unlike anything anyone’s seen before. You’ll love it or hate it. But looks aside, can any speaker be worth that kind of cash? You’ll have to wait to read my full review to get all the nitty-gritty about that, but for now, suffice it to say that if someone wants speakers better than the Revel Ultima Salon2s, and perhaps better than almost every other speaker out there, the Giya G2 is definitely worth checking out -- provided you can pony up.

Vivid Giya G2

The Giya G2s were the heart of System Two, which was far more complex and, dare I say, "traditional" than the first one. Unlike the D-Premier-based system of only three main components, this one comprised many boxes, each with its own task -- a configuration most audiophiles seem to prefer. At the very front was the Bryston BDP-1 digital player (reviewed this month). This fed a Simaudio Moon Evolution 650D DAC-transport (review forthcoming) via a DH Labs D-110 AES/EBU cable. The 650D was connected to the JE Audio VL10.1 all-tube preamplifier, which I reviewed in May, with balanced Nordost Valhalla interconnects. However, the VL10.1 I’m writing about now wasn’t identical to the unit I reviewed in May -- JEA requested that the first sample be sent back for some modifications to its power supply, which resulted in two things: less hiss and even better sound.

Unfortunately, the D-Premier had to be returned to Devialet before the arrival of the Vivid Giya G2s; otherwise, I would like to have tried the Vivids with the D-Premier (and, perhaps, not used many of the other components) to hear if the Devialet worked as well or better with them than with the Revels. But then I received Ayre Acoustics’ new VX-R stereo power amp (review forthcoming), which proved an ideal match for the Giya G2s. Balanced Valhalla interconnects ran from the JEA VL10.1 to the Ayre VX-R, and the same Nirvana S-L speaker wires were used to connect the VX-R to the Vivids. Once again, I used only stock power cords and no power conditioning.

This system’s retail price doesn’t quite reach $100,000, but it comes close enough, with more than half that sum attributable to the speakers. Still, there are speakers alone that cost more than 100 grand, and nothing I’ve heard anywhere in any room has, overall, sounded better than this setup.

First off, the Giya G2s sound exceptionally neutral, exceedingly transparent, and definitely full range -- the depth and power of their bass are amazing. They’re also capable of astonishing dynamic contrasts. Fellow SoundStage! Network writer S. Andrea Sundaram said that he hasn’t heard a speaker capable of reproducing the scale of a full orchestra -- I think this is probably the speaker that can come closest. The G2 can play loud, but it also plays whisper-quiet, and still sounds exceedingly well balanced while doing so. Every reviewer should be able to have on hand as a reference a speaker such as this: a truly full-range, genuinely neutral speaker that can play at any volume level with ultra-low distortion. As for that last, we know because we measured them in the National Research Council’s anechoic chamber; those figures will be included in the review.

JE Audio VL10.1

Nor is any other component in System Two a slouch. Bryston’s BDP-1 feeding Simaudio’s Moon Evolution 650D via AES/EBU, at all resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz, is the state of the art in terms of delivering every bit of musical detail digital playback offers. The combined price of these two components is just over $11,000, but in über-hi-fi terms, they can be considered worth it by those who want the very best sound. The JEA VL10.1 isn’t the pinnacle of neutrality, nor is it as quiet as a state-of-the-art solid-state preamp, but man does it ever have a rich, full-bodied, gloriously thrilling, thoroughly transparent sound. It’s so inviting to listen to that I’ve been using it more than any other preamp I have -- which is why I plugged it into this system. At $5000, it’s a steal.

Ayre VX-R

As for the Ayre Acoustics VX-R ($14,950), it readily dispels the myth that all solid-state amps sound the same. The VX-R has the purity, ease, and vibrancy of tubes, yet all the power, heft, and control you expect from high-powered solid-state. It also looks smashing, with casework that can be considered a high-grade piece of industrial art.

The cables . . . well, they draw no attention to themselves whatsoever -- exactly what you want cables to do -- or not do.

That’s the description of the parts. The whole is even better: a system that plays every kind of music with ease and at any volume level. The incredibly lively sounding Vivid Giya G2s sound marvelous at very low volume levels, yet remain astonishingly well controlled when cranked past 11. That this system sounds incredibly neutral but never clinical, analytical, or cold is something I attribute to the refinement of the Ayre VX-R, the smoothness of the JEA VL10.1, and the extraordinary resolution of the Bryston-Simaudio front end, which unravels scads and scads of detail without ever sounding too in-your-face. Synergy at work, and as transparent and detailed as almost every other system I’ve heard. Almost . . .

Remember: Two systems for 2011

Resolution is the one place that System Two is runner-up to the first. This deserves some explanation.

I was floored by the transparency of the combo of Sony Vaio, Devialet D-Premier, and Revel Salon2. Its sound is best described as a sonic black hole -- sounds emerged from absolute nothingness. It’s not just that "a veil was lifted"; I heard things in recordings that I simply hadn’t known were there, and haven’t heard again since the D-Premier went out the door. People are eager for high-resolution playback -- music files that exceed the CD standard of 16-bit/44.1kHz -- because they want to hear more musical information. If they haven’t listened to their music through something as resolving as Devialet’s D-Premier wired directly to a pair of speakers, I think most people would be surprised at what’s on their CDs that they might not yet have heard. Einstein is said to have said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." These days, a system based on the D-Premier is about as simple as you can make a topflight, high-performance audio system.

So resolution is one place where System One bettered System Two, albeit by the smallest margin. But in many other areas, the Vivid-based System Two was audible steps ahead -- most notably, in its ability to play every kind of music at any volume level with ease and complete composure, and do nothing objectionable or flat-out wrong. People who have heard the Vivid Giya G2-based setup have said, "That’s the best system I’ve ever heard." I wholeheartedly agree.

What a year brings

The two best systems I assembled in 2011 are the two best systems I’ve ever heard. Do I expect to be able to assemble an even better system next year? It’s possible, but I’m not banking on it -- great leaps in sound quality such as these two systems displayed don’t happen that fast. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some years passed before I heard an improvement as vast.

But it’s important to remember that leading-edge technology almost always trickles down to lower-priced components; it’s quite possible that next year there will be something of commensurate quality to Systems One and Two but costing far less -- and maybe, next year at this time, such a system is just what I’ll be writing about.

. . . Doug Schneider