Holiday Buyers Guide 2006: Audiophile Gear

The word “audiophile” gets bandied about so much that it seems in danger of losing its true meaning as a descriptor for a grade of products that is of such high quality that most of us can’t hope to afford then. But this year saw quite a few items blurring the line between audiophile and consumer audio, as higher-end components are finding their ways into almost-affordable products. The eight deliciously designed audio toys below are my favorites of 2006, and while they’re not exactly cheap, you don’t have to be Paris Hilton to get one in your holiday stocking this year.

Wireless Audio: Audiophile Goes Digital

Now that audiophiles have given the thumbs up to going digital, thanks partly to lossless compression, they can take it to the next level: wireless. The Sonos ZonePlayer ZP80 consists of two small boxes (each with digital outputs) and a nifty LCD controller stream audio files from your PC to your stereo via a WiFi mesh network, and you can control multiple simultaneous streams independently for up to 32 rooms. Sonos also has a partnership with Real for a month of unlimited streaming access to the 2.5 million track Rhapsody catalog.

If you want to leave your PC out of the equation, The Olive Opus is a killer digital music server, complete with premium components like four 24-bit/192kHz Burr-Brown DACs, a linear power supply, and a high-end CD player/burner. The super-quiet hard drive comes in 400GB, 500GB, or 750GB capacities, so you can store tons of CDs in WAV, FLAC, or MP3 format and send them to your receiver via digital outputs. An integrated networking module lets you create an ad hoc network or connect to an existing network via 802.11g wireless or wired Ethernet so you can access Internet radio or your iTunes music collection. You can even connect your iPod directly.

Speakers: Less Is More

Speakers are getting smaller, but their sound seems to be getting bigger thanks to better DSPs. I was shocked when I heard the Klipsch RT-12d digital subwoofer in a recent demo. It doesn’t look huge, but the front-firing 12-inch subwoofer and two passive rear-firing 12-inch radiators (hooked up to an 800-watt on-board amp) pump out such tight, punchy, and powerful bass that you’ll think you’re in a club. The three-sided design lets it fit snugly in the corner of a room, taking advantage of room acoustics to give you an extra boost at the low end. The integrated DSP is controllable via a top-mounted LCD to digitally tailor the sound for your room.

I’m generally not a fan of all-in-one audio systems, but Geneva Lab is really onto something with its Model L (100 watts) and Model LX (600 watts). They combine a CD player, an FM tuner, an iPod dock, and an excellent pair of speakers in a single cabinet (aluminum stand is optional). The glossy finishes (black, red, or white) look ultra-chic, and the red LEDs behind the speaker grille are a nice touch. But what impresses me most is the surprisingly wide sweet spot and crystal-clear sound.

Purists and hard-core gamers may scoff at virtual surround, but Bose’s new Companion 5 2.1-channel speaker system for PCs does a great job at making you think sound is coming from where it isn’t. The two satellites and compact Acoustimass are very compact and attractive in their graphite-colored case. The handy control pod lets you adjust volume (or mute) as well as connect headphones and a secondary audio source. Of course, you’ll pay for the name as well as the quality, but these are my new fave 2.1-channel PC speakers.

DAW: A Princely Workstation

When I saw the Open Labs MiKo Portable Media Workcenter in action for myself, I drooled a bit. Prince uses one of these bad boys on stage, which is a good enough recommendation for me. The base configuration combines a single- or dual-core 2-GHz AMD Athlon 64-bit processor, 80GB hard drive (pre-loaded with Windows XP), 512MB of RAM, three-octave musical keyboard, QWERTY keyboard, dual-layer DVD burner, 4-in/6-out soundcard, MIDI controllers, tons of I/O options, a full set of DJ controls, and a 15-inch touchscreen LCD. Talk about taking it all with you.

Headphones: Ultimate Three-Ways

The headphone buzzword this year is triple-driver, and these two are tops in my book, but for different reasons. Shure’s triple-driver E500PTH in-ear headphones cram three tiny speakers in each ear bud, plus they come with a Push-To-Hear module that can be inserted inline between the headphones and your portable audio player so you can hear what’s going on around you at the flick of a switch. Yes, the headphones sound great too, with seriously beefy bass and very impressive detail.

I heart the UE 10 Pro’s unbelievably expansive sound just as much as I love the tighter sound of the Shures—maybe even more. They use the same high-frequency driver as the one in UE’s top-of-the-line custom personal monitors used on stage by just about every major act you’ve ever heard of. They’re cheaper and more comfy than the Shures, but you don’t get the fancy PTH module.

What does all this audiophile goodness mean for you, the consumer? It means you don’t have to sell your first-born for a pair of Krell speakers just to get sound quality that’ll blow you away. If you can shell out the bucks for any of the items above, your ears will thank you over and over again—just promise me you won’t use any of them to listen to your illegally downloaded 128Kbps Britney Spears MP3s.