The Fifth Element #8 Page 2

Plinius' 8100 is the award-winning 8150/8200 without phono stage or processor loop, and with a smaller power supply—fair tradeoffs in view of the $1000-lower price. I'm sure I drive designer Peter Thomson to tears by habitually describing Plinius' dynamic and open sonic signature as "pepperminty," but that's the word I fix on as the specific homeopathic antidote to butterscotch. Years ago, Brian Damkroger and I were slack-jawed in admiration at the huge but completely musical sounds that a Plinius/Alón system was making in Las Vegas; for $2000, the 8100 delivers at least some of that magic.

Marantz Professional's PMD 340 CD player has a broadcast-quality transport and an idiot-proof user interface. Love those huge, light-up buttons! Nordost's Solar Wind delivers much of the Blue Heaven's performance for significantly less money. The incremental expenditure over the first system brings you more resolution and a greater sense of musical flow.

System 3: Remarkable Coherence and Finesse: $9000

Acoustic Energy AE1 Series II Reference loudspeaker: $1995/pair (stands: $995)
Arcam FMJ A32 integrated amplifier with phono stage: $2100
Arcam FMJ CD23 CD player: $2200
JPS Labs Superconductor FX interconnect: $299/1m
Petite Superconductor+ speaker cable: $699/8'
Show it off with: Dido: No Angel

One of the most pleasant surprises for me at Home Entertainment 2001 was wandering into a suite and being stopped dead in my tracks by some Baroque music playing over an Acoustic Energy/Arcam/JPS Labs system. I briefly stuck my head into the larger rooms of the suite, quickly decided they were less inviting than this system, and sat down for a while and just enjoyed the music.

For me, this was an object lesson in system synergy—my previous experiences with Acoustic Energy loudspeakers had been more energetic than acoustical. Combined with Arcam's stylish CD player and integrated amplifier duo, the AE1 Series IIs, heard in my own room, are tonally rich and ripe. The overall sonic presentation of this system is both detailed and solid, with a remarkably tall and wide soundstage.

System 4: Optimality: $15,000

Shahinian Obelisk loudspeaker: $3400/pair
Magnum Dynalab MD 208 FM receiver: $2970
Marantz SA14 SACD player: $2900
Nordost Red Dawn interconnect: $400/1m pair
Nordost Blue Heaven speaker cable: $619/3m pair
Custom Power Cord Company 11 power cord: $280/6'
RPG Skylines: $125/2' by 2' panel
Show it off with: Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne sung by Frederica von Stade

Especially for lovers of concert music, I think that this is the optimal system. Above $15,000, the returns are increasingly marginal, and, with a nod to Adam Smith, one could argue that "the market has spoken," at least in this matter. Stereophile's most recent reader survey indicated that the average reader's expenditures on stereo equipment totaled about $11,000. Adjusting that for inflation and including some extras to enhance system performance results in a system price of about $15,000.

Averages, of course, can be deceptive. If half the members of your family are anorexic and the other half are clinically obese, this does not mean that, on the average, any specific family member maintains a healthy weight! But that reader-survey figure does suggest that a substantial number of people with the means to spend more on stereo equipment choose not to, perhaps because, in their circumstances (such as the amount of time they can listen and how loud they can listen), spending more doesn't make sense. My experience has been that, compared to a carefully chosen system at this price, incremental sonic gains cost exponential increases in dollars spent.

The Obelisk is the least expensive speaker in the Shahinian line that fulfills all of Dick Shahinian's design desiderata. Its complex dispersion pattern is said to mimic the behavior of soundwaves in a concert hall, and its 8" woofer, coupled to a weighted 10' passive radiator at the end of a transmission line, provides visceral bass weight and impact. The Obelisks' wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling soundstage and beguiling tonality have made them the final speaker purchase for many music lovers.

Magnum Dynalab's classically elegant MD 208 receiver is sufficiently powerful to drive the Obelisks, but, more important, its FM tuner is of audiophile quality (love those analog meters!) and brings in boatloads of music for free. The MD 208 is an ideal solution for a music lover who wants entrée into real high-end sound but does not want to become a stereo-equipment hobbyist. And for such hobbyists flirting with the idea of getting off the equipment-upgrade merry-go-round, the MD 208 could be that all-important first step in the program.