The Fifth Element #8 Page 3

Marantz's SA-14 acquits itself so well with regular CDs that you can regard its SACD playback capability as having been thrown in for free. Nordost's Blue Heaven remains the "great cheap Chardonnay" of speaker cables, while their Red Dawn is a worthwhile upgrade. The CPCC power cord is the price/performance leader, and RPG Skylines will transform your life.

System 5: Elegant sophistication: $25,000

Aerial 8B loudspeakers: $7000/pair in hardwood veneer with "kickstands"
Jeff Rowland Design Group Concentra II integrated amplifier: $6500
Marantz SA14 SACD player: $2900
Wireworld Silver Eclipse interconnect: $800/1m pair
Wireworld Silver Eclipse speaker cable: $3900/3m pair
Symposium Acoustics Super Plus platforms: $499 each
Custom Power Cord Company Top Gun power cords: $650/6'
RPG Skylines: $125/2' by 2' panel
Show it off with: Tiny Island's Tiny Island (SACD)

Some of the enhancements and attractions here may be rather intangible, but for members of the style et luxe crowd who don't want to give up one iota of musical quality, the combination of Jeff Rowland's casework and Aerial's woodwork is something to behold. I can't resist, and my guess is that if fair Rebecca were to give her nod to one system, it would be this one—or the "Central Park West" system, below.

Aerial's 8B loudspeaker disguises its impressive bulk and weight by positioning its woofers on the side panel of a cabinet that's tall and narrow but deep. Perhaps it's the narrowness of the front baffle that creates what seem to be (to me, at least) a midrange timbre and overall tonal balance preferable to Aerial's more expensive 10T. Whatever the cause, the 8Bs' room-filling sound and pinpoint imaging are on a par with their meticulous fit and finish.

The first version of Jeff Rowland's Concentra integrated amplifier impressed me with its stately subtlety, although I had a few reservations about its treble presentation, which I found just slightly too reticent. The Concentra II embodies many improvements. The volume display and input indicator lights are now a restful blue instead of 1970s disco red. The rated power has jumped 50%, from 100 to 150Wpc. But most of all, the treble is more focused and lively. The Concentra II is gorgeous to behold and to hear, and Wireworld's next-to-best cable products complement the opulence of the sonic proceedings to a degree that is almost decadent.

System 6: Central Park West: $90,000

Wilson Benesch Chimera loudspeaker: $21,000/pair
Halcro dm 58 power amplifiers: $25,000
Accuphase DP-100 SACD/CD transport and DC-101 upsampler/converter: $27,990
Wireworld Gold Eclipse III+ interconnect: $1200/1m pair
Wireworld Gold Eclipse biwire speaker cable: $5900/2.5m pair
Symposium Acoustics Ultra platforms: $699 each
Custom Power Cord Company HCFi power cord: $1150/6'
RPG Skylines: $125/2' by 2' panel
Show it off with: Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna

What Ms. Romijn-Stamos gets for about $90,000 is seamless, fast, dynamic, and tonally true reproduction from the upper limit of hearing down to a (non-Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand) piano's lowest pitch, staggering volume capability, vanishingly low noise and distortion, and an enviable sense of envelopment in the space where the music was recorded.

Wilson Benesch's new Chimera loudspeaker combines most of the resolving power of WB's Discovery with most of the musical heft of their Bishop, and just about splits the difference in price. The Chimera has two isobaric woofer pairs instead of the Bishop's four, and is noticeably less flamboyantly proportioned. The Bishop in wood trim was merely "love it or hate it," but the Bishop in all black was a prop from an Alice in Wonderland bad dream scripted by André Gide with the assistance of way too much Pernod (footnote 2). The Chimera is not only a less controversial design statement, it's also much easier to move in and set up, and doesn't seem to give up much at all in the way of performance.

Accuphase's two-box setup plays SACDs and upconverts conventional CDs to 192kHz. Its flexible input architecture and sophisticated digital volume control obviate the need for a preamp, at least in all-digital systems. As in most high-zoot SACD players (and many swank CD players), a simple sliding front drawer for disc-loading is apparently disdained as infra dig, so you have to mess with top-loading and a puck thingy. But once you do, you're rewarded with rich, spacious, fatigue-free sound. Combine the Accuphases with the Halcro amplifiers' extraordinary musical authority, and new vistas emerge from treasured recordings.

e-mail me if you need contact information for any of these products.

Footnote 2: Just doin' my bit for l'exception culturelle française.