True audiophiles are a rare, mysterious phenomenon. They scoff at what you and I consider top-of-the-line audio equipment, and wouldn't dream of touching an iPod. What do you buy for these strange creatures?
Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX Series 3 loudspeaker
Might as well start at the top: Wilson Audio Specialties current top-of-the-line loudspeakers weigh nearly 1,200 pounds per pair, are 5'7" tall, look like giant metal praying mantises, and are guaranteed to make your music sound like angels singing on high. You'll pay $68,000 for the epiphanic joy these loudspeakers will bring, and that's not even including the cost of shipping (which is probably high, given that they weigh about half a car). The list of specs and audiophilic descriptions of the sound it produces are too long to replicate, but suffice to say that these are the speakers that convinced us that we need audiophiles. $68,000/pair. [Wilson]
Sennheiser HD800 Headphones or Shure SE310 Earbuds
Headphones are actually one of the more affordable items in an audiophile's arsenal, although of course "affordable" is an extremely relative term when you're talking high-end audio equipment. Sennheiser's $1,400 HD800 headphones may look like a Cylon is eating your face from either side, but by all accounts they sound absolutely incredible. If you're looking for earbuds, Shure's line is hard to beat—an audiophile will appreciate the almost impulse-worthy SE310s. Sennheiser HD800: $1,400, Shure SE310: $155.
Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DAC
Audiophiles aren't just vinyl-loving holdouts from 1975—they're a forward-looking group, and they certainly haven't ignored the computer's contribution to music consumption. But pumping audio through the built-in DAC in a computer just isn't going to cut it for true audiophiles; it's filled with noise from a computer's internals and all kinds of sacrifices had to be made in quality, for size and power reasons. Enter the QB-9 DAC. It has a single input, USB, and includes all kinds of complicated mechanics designed to turn your computer into a legitimate high-end audio source. $2,500. [Ayre]
Mark wasn't thrilled with it in his review, but his issues—confusing UI browsing and a slightly cheap-feeling exterior—apparently haven't mattered to audiophiles, as they've embraced the PMP. The S9 has Cowon's vaunted sound quality, but that's not what separates it from the also excellent-sounding Samsung P3, Zune HD and Sony X-Series—it's the codec support that sets it apart. It supports FLAC, OGG, and APE, and that coupled with a surprisingly cheap price make it a solid buy for a digital audiophile. 32GB for $260. [Newegg]
Peachtree Audio Nova
The Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier is an easily recommendable purchase—it's extremely well-reviewed (Stereophile rated it "Best Budget Product of 2009") and it's a great do-everything amp. The 80wpc deck has USB inputs for your computer, two optical inputs, and two coax, plus three analog line-level, with enough outputs and plugs for any additions to your setup you might want to make in the future. Plus, it's pretty good-looking for audio equipment. 1,220. [Amazon]
Oppo BDP-83 Blu-ray Player
Sometimes even an audiophile likes to break from listening to music and maybe watch a movie, and Oppo's BDP-83 is one of the best (and best-sounding) players on the market. It's notable because it also supports SACD and DVD-Audio, so it can replace an existing player while adding Blu-ray functionality. $500. [Amazon]
Subscription to Stereophile Magazine
Throughout my research on audiophile equipment for this guide, Stereophile kept popping up, and was a consistently solid, unpretentious and easygoing source. They've got a good eye on price—they might recommend a $68,000 pair of speakers, but they also won't shy from recommending something as inexpensive and ubiquitous as an iPod. One year for $13. [Stereophile]
DON'T BUY Anything Without Asking First
Audiophiles are intensely personal about their equipment. Once you get up to a certain level of quality, choosing between products becomes a matter of individual preference—you might think Shure's SE310 earbuds are a great gift, but the audiophile who receives them might prefer the soundstage of Etymotic. I recommend you force your audiophile to fill out an Amazon gift guide. It takes some of the surprise out of the holidays, sure, but it'll be worth it—you'll know you're buying something your audiophile will genuinely like.
Special thanks to Stereophile's Best of 2009 guide.