Thu, Sep 08, 2005 - Page 13 News List

An audiophile finds heaven, but it isn't cheap

Finding the best hi-fi on the market in Taipei sounds easy but the fact is you usually get what you pay for

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

The IFA consumer electronics fair in Berlin last week assembled what it called the most expensive hi-fi in the world. That sounded like a fun thing to do, so I decided to go in search of a superlative of my own: the best home audio hi-fi for my NT dollar.

"That's a lot like asking what's the best car in the world," said Jason Ma (馬俊龍), the president of Wilson Audio, where I found my winner. "Some people like BMWs for the way they drive, some people like Mercedes Benz for their comfort and luxury, some people would prefer a Ferrari. It's the same for audio equipment."

Ma's outfit took best-of-show at the Taiwan Audio Association's International Hi-End Hi-Fi Show in Xindian (新店) last month, quite an honor for an event that fills several floors of a hotel each year with hundreds of exhibitors. The show's winning speakers were a pair of Wilson Audio's flagship Alexandria X-2, six-driver loudspeakers constructed from a material known only as "X" that is harder and heavier than steel. A pair takes six weeks to manufacture.

"Wilson makes arguably the best speaker. From tuner to speaker, Goldmund makes the best complete hi-fi system in the world," Ma said.

He explained that many speaker designers work to craft a product made to play certain types of music and this is especially true of hi-end equipment. Here, the designers' target audience is audiophiles interested in obtaining perfect reproductions of their most treasured concert recordings -- usually opera or classical music.

"When the musicians are trying to achieve perfection and the recording engineer was working for absolute clarity, those are the recordings for which high-end audio equipment is made," Ma said. "These speakers aren't made to go in, say, a nightclub because electronic music and hip hop don't require the kind of definition these speakers offer. You just need a lot of volume and a lot of bass."

Understanding the design of the product is key to understanding why it sounds as good as it does, Ma said.

"Designers might try using a variety of woods to build a speaker, first trying them in one way, then another, or in using combinations of wood," he said. "When you start to hear the difference in sound created by different woods -- like the way a wine lover tastes a variety of flavors in a single glass -- then you're becoming an audiophile."

Goldmund eschews wood in its speakers because, as Ma explained, woods take on a life of their own in an acoustic environment, often vibrating differently than what is intended and producing an unwanted ambient noise.

Though design is integral to sound quality it can also be purely cosmetic. While gold is an excellent design choice for a speaker or tuner's fittings because it is an excellent conductor of electricity, a gold-plated volume knob only adds to the price tag, not the sound quality.

Think you're ready to upgrade to one of the world's best home hi-fis? Before you can lay back in your Lazy Boy and enjoy your new stereo you'll have to listen first to an altogether less pleasant sound: the cash register. The Wilson Alexandria X-2s in Ma's back showroom cost NT$4.5 million.

The front showroom Goldmund Epilogue 1 speaker system is NT$9 million. It includes two speakers, each with 12 drivers, and a pair of amplifiers to power them. The system bandwidth extends from below 20Hz to more than 28kHz. Goldmund is famous for never listening to its products before marketing them. Rather, each instrument undergoes several scientific measurements to make sure it meets intended benchmarks. The human ear, they say, cannot hear the truth.

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