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High end hi-fi -- the ultimate stereo

By Barry Neild for CNN

Audio experts say investing in high priced hi-fi is money well spent.

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Crimes are committed on a daily basis in the name of music -- from the fans who illegally download the latest Britney Spears tunes to, depending on your taste, the people who wrote the latest Britney Spears tune.

The advent of iPods has led to some of the worst offences, granting a new lease of life to thousands of albums that should have been left to gather dust at the back of the record rack.

But even if you've assembled the world's coolest CD collection, whether it be smoky jazz, monstrous rock or teeth-rotting pop, perhaps the worst crime of all is to play it on substandard equipment.

Although you may be satisfied with your stereo, many of us are apparently guilty of surrendering our music to audio technology that may look the part, with its smooth black finish and flashing lights, but simply doesn't sound it.

That's the view of a global network of audio aficionados whose tireless pursuit of the ultimate sound system leads into an often baffling jungle of equalizers, pre-amps, valves, and transistors that echoes to resonant call of tweeters and woofers.

For them, hi-fi must be capable of capturing the orchestral sweep, from thunderous timpani to soaring violin, or an Elvis show, from tremulous croon to softly creaking pelvis. In any recorded moment, you should not only be able to hear a pin drop, you should hear it fall through the air.

And for the true audiophile, when it comes to choosing a suitable sound system -- including , loudspeakers, amplifiers, compact disc players and turntables -- price is no obstacle.

"These are people making a lifestyle choice," says Steve Fairclough, editor of Britain's Hi-Fi News magazine, which keeps its ear to the ground of the music machine scene.

"They make decisions on hi-fi equipment in the same way that some people consider buying a yacht or a top-of-the-range car," he told CNN.

This was evident in 1992, when Dutch manufacturer Charles van Oosterum was commissioned by one music fan to build the US$ 1 million Grand Enigma System -- a loudspeaker stack that weighed 12-tons and was so large it had to be housed in a purpose-built bunker.

While higher prices do not necessarily equate to higher quality in the sound industry, says Fairclough, it is usually money well spent.

"The general rule of thumb should be that a 10,000 pound amplifier is ten times better than a 1,000 pound amplifier, but the truth is, it probably isn't.

"But in general, the top-end brands may put more into their research and spend more time in developing a particular product -- perhaps eight to 10 years -- which is reflected in the price."

Levitating shelves

Such is the effort poured into some hi-fi apparatus that some firms, including Australia's Continuum Audio Labs, whose Caliburn turntable retails at up to US$ 112,000, have reputedly received approaches from serious scientists amazed by breakthroughs such as levitating shelving units.

However, say the experts, even if you invest in one expensive hi-fi item, unless you have the right accompanying equipment and position it correctly, you might as well spend your cash on a pair of ear plugs.

Ricardo Franassovici, as charismatic chairman of London-based specialist hi-fi dealers Absolute Sounds, considers himself the "Marco Pierre White" of mixing and matching separate audio components to produce the perfect system.

Wilson Audio makes bespoke speaker systems for celebrities.

"There is a small family of brands that exist that can be called the ultimate. These are the hi-fi equivalent of Lamborghinis, Ferraris or Bentleys," he told CNN.

Among these, he says, is Wilson Audio, a Utah-based operation run by pharmaceutical researcher-turned electronic engineer David Wilson, that creates bespoke loudspeaker systems retailing at up to US$ 215,000 for customers including Wesley Snipes and Lenny Kravitz.

For compact disc players, Franassovici recommends models such as the US$ 15,000 CD-7 by the Minnesota-based Audio Research Corporation, which features an unusual retro-style valve output.

Valves, which have largely been replaced by solid-state transistors in most modern electronic devices, create "the fat, old-fashioned sound you'd associate with Frank Sinatra," he says.

Among the best amplifiers, according to Franassovici, are Krell, a Connecticut-based manufacturer whose Evolution component series would require an outlay of almost US$ 150,000 -- a price he says most hi-fi enthusiasts would be happy to pay.

"These people have a tremendous love of music. They aspire to get uniqueness -- the same pride of ownership that you would get out of owning an Aston Martin or a Ferrari. They are driven with a passion."

While such prices and passions may seem unfathomable to the dedicated MP 3 listener, Fairclough believes the iPod revolution may have a knock-on affect for the world of high-end hi-fi.

"The thing the iPod has done is get more people listening to music which, in generational terms, is a very good thing. People who are enjoying music now will be asking themselves how they can enjoy it even more in the future."

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