Be forewarned: If your stomach knots in pain at the very thought of expensive, high-end audio cabling or AC conditioning products, you may want to bypass this article, which contains many references to such items. Ditto, if you’re averse to systems costing comfortably in the six figures, such as the one that is the subject of this column.
And to that amount, you can add the money that Serge, the proprietor of this system, put into remodeling a common living area to suit his system in his new split level house. Serge refused to have the system hidden away in the basement, and when you see the pair of 3.5-way, 93db-efficient Focal Utopia Maestro speakers ($100,000/pair) standing on the left as you enter the house, with their gleaming-black piano finish, you understand why. Modifications to the room included moving a window out of the way of where his system would be, replacing the wiring in the walls, and installing four dedicated AC lines to power a setup that doubles as a high-end home cinema.
Speaking of money, when I talked to Serge, I never got the impression that he’s got bags of it to burn on whatever might catch his fancy on a certain week. Rather, it’s obvious that audio is a priority in his life, something that’s at least as important as where you live, and maybe even more so. Over the years, Serge built himself a system that he says has finally put a halt to the upgrade bug, although he did describe the audio hobby and, more specifically, the upgrade process to me as a drug—“once you take the pill, you have a need to try things out”. But he insisted he kicked the habit: “This system is on another level than anything else I’ve ever had. I’m good now.”
Serge comes from a musical family that includes musicians on his father’s side and an audiophile uncle on his mother’s. He grew up in a midsized town, but, as luck would have it, attended a high school situated across the street from an audio store he’d visit during lunch time. There, the owner would give him lessons in a subject absent from his school’s curriculum: quality sound reproduction and audiophile gear. The store’s very existence was all a bit too much for the conservatively minded townsfolk. “People would say the owner was crazy,” Serge said. “They warned me not to go there, that it would cost me a fortune. But I didn’t listen.” One day, the owner introduced Serge to his first cable comparison. “He used a toaster with its stock AC cable, then with a special cable. With the special cable, the coils turned red much faster than with the stock cable. I was impressed.”
It turned out to be a formative moment in Serge’s life that would help shape his audio-world view. More so than anyone else I’ve met, Serge is a die-hard believer in the benefits of using high-end cabling and AC conditioning in quality systems. “You don’t put cheap tires on a Corvette,” he said. “Too often people underestimate AC power products. So they’ll change an amp or another component, but supplying your system with better AC can bring you a bigger performance boost than from a new piece of gear.” He adds: “Your system is only as good as its weakest link.”
The AC conditioning units Serge swears by include products by DR Acoustics and Furutech. Serge seemed particularly smitten by DR Acoustics’ Creon ($3995) and Antigone ($7495) AC conditioners, which use no capacitors, resistors, or transformers, and, according to Serge, never run out of power. “I plugged my amps (two 1000Wpc, class-D Anthem Statement M1 monoblocs—$4590/ea.) into the wall and into the Antigone. The Antigone won hands down.” Feeding Serge’s amps is an Anthem STR preamp ($5250).
Serge’s last upgrade, performed a short time before I arrived, was the cherry on the sundae. It included adding a DR Acoustics Pegasus Extreme power cable ($5695) connected to the Antigone, 6 Furutech NCF Clear Line passive AC filters ($300/ea.), an assortment of Furutech AC outlets, wall plates, and cable lifters ($various), and two pairs of bi-wired DR Acoustics Red Fire Ultra speaker cable ($6995/each) . “Up until that point,” said Serge. “I saw no end to my upgrades. Then these last ones just pushed my system’s performance into another world. I couldn’t be happier.”
I could see why. The sound I heard was, in a word, majestic. Other apt descriptors would be substantial, muscular, and clean, even at high volume. “The better a system’s sound quality,” Serge said. “The more you can raise the volume because you’re hearing less noise.” There was a pristine purity to the sound that seemed to allow echoes and harmonic trails to fade away at their leisure into the furthest reaches of a very wide soundstage.
On a track by Adele where the singer is accompanied only by her piano, her voice hung solidly between the speakers, her every vocal intonation seemingly etched in space. The piano had realistic size, weight, and presence, as I imagined a real piano might sound like if it were right there in this room with me.
If you like bass, this system, which combines 10 woofers, including the Focals’ four and the six from a 4500W, 7Hz-plumbing Paradigm Signature SUB 2 subwoofer ($13125), can produce prodigious amounts of it. Electronic tracks at high volume energized the room with bass whomps and tremors the neighbors must have felt. Even so, the bass never seemed bloated. If it was on the recording, it was in the room. The listening experience was invigorating.
After the music ended and I’d caught my breath, I asked Serge which of his components had improved the sound of his system the most. The “Focals, then the NAIM front end: a NS01 server ($6500), ND 555 DAC / streamer ($25,000), and 555 PS DR external power supply ($15,000).”
Did he generally consider speakers to be more important to the sound than the source? “Everything starts at the source,” he said. “You can have great speakers but if your source is average, your speakers can’t restore information your source can’t deliver.” Speaking of sources, I wondered out loud why he didn’t have a vinyl setup. “With the Naim, I don’t miss vinyl.” Also mentioned among his favorite products was his Paradigm subwoofer, which, I imagined, would also be well-suited to those times when you want to invite friends over for a rave.
Aside from AC-related products, were there tweaks he’s tried that were especially effective? “Inovaudio decouplers ($40/ea.) under the speakers. After I’d installed them and played music, my wife yelled from the other room: ‘What did you do? The voice sounds so much better’.”
Did he have any sage advice about the hobby to share? “Don’t do like my uncle, who bought a 6-cylinder Mustang to save money only to later regret not having bought the 8-cylinder version. Don’t underspend on your audio system. Spend more to get more. Not only will it result in better performance, but your product will be easier to sell on the used market.”
Final words? “Whatever you do, don’t underestimate clean AC power!”
If you have a system you’d like to talk about in our “No, I have the best system in the world!” series, let us know by dropping us a line here.
- 2 Anthem Statement monoblocs Series M1 $4590/ea.
- 1 Anthem STR preamp $5250
- 1 Paradigm Subwoofer 2 $13,125
- 1 pair of Focal Utopia Maestro speakers $100,000
- 1 Naim NS01 Server $6500.00
- 1 Naim ND 555 DAC / Streamer $25000
- 1 Naim 555 PS DR Power Supply $15,000
- 1 DR Acoustics Antigone AC conditioner $7495
- 1 DR Acoustics Creon AC Conditioner $3995
- 1 DR Acoustics Antigone Pegasus Extreme Power Cable $5695
- Various DR Acoustics Red Fire Ultra Cables $various
- 1 25ft DR Acoustics XLR Delta Subwoofer Cable $2995
- 1 DR Acoustique Cable RCA 25 Pieds Classe Delta $2995
- Acoustic Panels by Acoustique Alain Provencher $20,000
- Various Furutech AC Line Power Accessories $various
- 17 Inovaudio decouplers under the equipment and stand shelves $40/ea.