It’s not how she looks; it’s her personality that counts. That’s both a cliché and a half-truth – a relationship falls as much to physical attraction as it does to emotional and cerebral nourishment. And so it goes with hi-fi gear. There will be folks lining up with their half-truth in two to tell you that it’s not how it looks, it’s how it sounds is ALL that matters. To which I reach for my best British retort: bollocks.
Consumer behavior is a complex beast. People buy stuff because for numerous reasons: because it serves a purpose, yes, but also because it looks cool and because it can be shown off to friends. If functionality were all that mattered Philippe Starck would be out on his arse in the streets of Paris. Aesthetics matter. Anyone that tries to tell you otherwise has either reached spiritual nirvana or is utterly naïve.
In the hi-fi showcase of life, people seek approval and validation. What we own is (unfortunately) intertwined with our sense of identity and – the very core of our being – the ego. Think about it: how many times have you seen someone take offence that someone else dissed their new speaker/amplifier/headphone purchase? Taking offence at someone who dared to criticise something with which you played no part in creating is a philosophically curious situation. (In more extreme cases) for some, owning hi-fi gear isn’t just the pursuit of a better sound; it’s a prop for a lack of meaning in life or diminished self-esteem.
Symbiosis. It cuts both ways too: remote viewers call for photos of new purchases – the easiest route to vicarious pleasure, but paradoxically odd given that these are often the very same folk who opine that sound is all that matters. Nope. Aesthetics are important to the manufacturer’s pride in his creation, the consumer’s sense of visual appeal and (let us not forget) third party approval from friends, partners and forum dwellers.
Think of it another way:
“It’s all about the music, man”, he says. An all too easy escape chute when the debate gets tense. Alas, it isn’t true either. If it were all about the music (maaaaan) we’d all be listening to music through our laptop speakers and white earbuds (as nearly all of my non-audiophile friends have a wont to do). We are audiophiles because the quality of music reproduction matters. But that doesn’t mean we have to eschew aesthetics in pursuit of the finest sound. The boxes that make the music happen often have to sit in our living spaces. We share those living spaces with others. Our rigs have to look good as well as sound good; that demands a certain level of consumer pragmatism.
To this end, with a preponderance of black or silver choices, I’ve gone into the white. I’ve compiled a system that’s aimed at Ikea/iMac devotees – those with more specific colour demands – whilst maintaining a high level of audible satisfaction. [Nit-pickers note: the PSAudio GCPH phono stage is stashed inside the cabinet.]
Rega RP3 (AU$1099)
This is pretty much a definitive budget deck. At the end of 2011, What Hi-fi slapped a ribbon on the RP3/Elys combo, calling it “Product Of The Year” in the turntable category. It’s easy to see why. Rigid, low mass plinth upon which sits a glass platter makes for kiler sound and clean aesthetics. The one seen here is fitted with an Ortofon Blue cartridge that was migrated from my previous ‘table, a Rega RP1. The RP3 communicates deeper musical engagement than its baby brother. Well worth the extra cash and perhaps easier to find discounted in-store.
Trafomatic Audio Premise (AU$4999)
With his Kaivalya monos receiving raves across the board, Sasa Cokic distilled their essence into a gloss-white-lacquered push-pull integrated. The Premise twirls with EL84 tubes; this means super-fast, super clean reproduction without the butterfat that can burden lesser EL34 designs. Musical layering is another standount. Cleverly, Cokic has designed the Premise so that it can be used as a power amplifier and triode/ultra-linear modes are top-plate switchable to suit mood and musical flavour. The former brings a shade more romance, but the delta is sufficiently subtle that you won’t spend all day yo-yo-ing between the two. A glorious and grandiose amplifier that once again proves that bang-for-buck can still be found at the high-end. Don’t be misled: this might look like show-pony hi-fi but the Premise offers performance that you’d be extremely hard-pushed to find for less money. You can show it off to your audiophile mates, it sounds sublime and your partner will be less likely to object to it as a lounge-room centerpiece. A modern classic.
PSB Imagine Mini (AU$799)
Running contrary to conventional wisdom – that you should drop majority dollar on loudspeakers – and running with the grain of DAR – hi-fi gear for more modest listening spaces, Paul Barton’s teeny-tiny standmount ticks (bass excepted) all the boxes. The Imagine Minis don’t go low but they are speedy and agile. This makes for an exciting listening experience where players are cleanly separated. Lower frequencies are suggested more than they’re reproduced. If you live in a small apartment and are mindful of your neighbours, this PSB model could be just the ticket. They excel with three-dimensional staging, which doesn’t collapse too easily when separating speakers on a longer wall. The titanium-dome tweeter ensures spatial cues are reproduced with a keenness that stops short of becoming over eager. Recording space ambience is more easily discerned than via a pair of Usher S-520. If you suspect inner detail is suffering from obfuscation, it won’t be the Imagine Mini – you’ll need to look further up the chain. Predictably, imaging is stellar and vocals dart into the room. Too small for my Atacama stands’ top plate, PSB’s tailor-made stands that screw the speaker into place would no doubt polish the sound and the visual appeal. Against the back-drop of furrowed brows and chin-stroking, PSB’s Imagine Mini standmounts are FUN.