Ultimate high-end speakers are conceived with the same zeal Ferrari and Lamborghini apply to their no-holds-barred sports cars.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Sales of ridiculously expensive and absurdly powerful cars are holding steady, and the same can be said for extreme, high-end speakers. Granted, there's no practical reason for the existence of the new 450-horsepower Audi R8 Spyder 5.2 Quattro supercar ($161,000), or a Klipsch P-39F tower speaker ($20,000), but if you can afford them, why not? High-end speakers have one very practical advantage over extreme performance cars; they can provide satisfaction on a daily basis. Few Ferrari and Maserati owners use their flashy wheels as everyday rides, and far fewer are brave enough to drive them anywhere near their top speeds! No, these prized possessions remain stowed in garages most of the time.
Prices listed in this top-10 list are for pairs of speakers, and if these are all out of reach, please don't fret, as the next top-10 speaker list will feature the best sub-$1,000 speakers on the planet. Or check out my "Top-10 must-have audio bargains" list.
I've auditioned many of these ultra-high-end speakers personally, so I can attest that they can take you places everyday speakers never go.
When size matters, go for the gusto and consider the Transmission Audio Ultimate ($2 million). It's a rather large speaker--each one consists of six 7-foot-tall panels. Each Ultimate houses a total of 40 15-inch subwoofers, 24 8-inch woofers, and massive arrays of 2-inch-wide and 1-inch-wide ribbon tweeters. I've just described a single channel/speaker; double those numbers for stereo! A pair of Ultimates are nearly 40 feet wide!
High prices ensure exclusivity, and if that's what a few select, well-heeled audiophiles are looking for, Moon Audio's Titanmega tower should fit the bill. It's offered in a strictly limited edition of three pairs, and each pair is hand-signed by the designer. Each pair will also be named after its buyer and once the third pair is built, the Signature Titan is history. Even by high-end audio standards the pricing structure is a little unusual: Signature Titan #003 can be yours for $500,000, but the cost for #002 doubles to $1 million! Sounds crazy, but #001 has already been sold for $2 million!
If the Moon's hard-edged styling is a little hard to take, check out KEF's curvy Muon ($140,000). Designed by Ross Lovegrove (a top industrial designer who counts Sony and Apple as clients), the Muon is a masterpiece of 21st century industrial art. It's fabricated from malleable sheets of heated aluminum, and it's hard to keep your hands off its undulating curves. The system includes power amplifiers, and the Muon's sound is sophisticated, pure, and clean.
The Magico M 5 runs $89,000 and weighs 360 pounds, so it's a hard one to ignore. I spent some time listening to these beauties at Sound By Singer in NYC, and have to admit I was smitten. That hasn't always been the case with Magico speakers, but the M 5's hyper-detailed sound was offset by a visceral presence; this is a speaker you feel as much as hear. It's the sheer precision of the sound that most impressed.
Avantgarde Trio Classico. This German manufacturer has elevated the horn speaker to new heights of design and performance. The massive round horns make for a daring design statement, and contribute mightily to the Trio Classico's sound quality. I've heard Avantgarde speakers in various stages of development over the years, and always thought they were very special. Dynamics--large and small--are rendered without compression, which is why Trios can sound shockingly realistic. Sold with bass horns, the Trio Classico runs close to $200,000!
YG Acoustics Anat Reference II Professional ($107,000). Before I heard the speaker I thought YG Acoustics' motto for its flagship model, "The best speaker on earth," was an outrageously bold claim. After I heard it I still wasn't completely convinced of the "best" assertion, but it's certainly in the running. I was hard pressed to find anything to criticize about the sound: bass power, definition, midrange transparency, upper treble purity, soundstage focus, and low distortion are truly exceptional. Cabinets are fully CNC-machined from solid slabs of different alloys of aircraft-grade aluminum.
The Dynaudio Evidence Master ($100,000) takes a decidedly European approach to state-of-the-art speaker design. Dynaudio engineers and builds all of its speakers in Denmark, and the sound is understated, yet highly resolved. It's a modular design: the Evidence Master has three individual sections, the upper and lower cabinets house the bass drive units, the middle section contains the midrange and dual treble drive units, and the crossover is isolated in its own compartment. The Evidence Master's measured frequency response is unfailingly accurate, with precisely controlled dispersion in both lateral and horizontal planes.
The Cabasse La Sphere ($140,000) is a technical tour de force from France. The spherical design is the world's only four-way, "point source" speaker system. Yes, the 28-inch sphere looks weird in photos, but slightly less so in real life. The form-follows-function spherical design allows the speaker to disappear as a sound source, so you just hear the music. The La Sphere comes with its own set of dedicated power amplifiers.
The Steinway Lyngdorf Model D is what happens when a legendary piano manufacturer teams up with a Danish hi-fi designer. The two-channel, self-powered system is finished like a Steinway, and does a great job of reproducing the sound of a grand piano, and all sorts of music. The Steinway Lyngdorf Model D Music System takes approximately eight weeks to assemble by hand. The system includes two tower speakers, a 1,600-watt digital amplifier, and a CD player/head unit. The two-channel system runs $188,000; home theater Model D systems start at $267,400!
I saved my favorite for last, the Focal Grande Utopia EM ($180,000). It's huge and imposing, but it can generate a bigger, more realistic sound than any speaker I've heard to date. Great with large-scale orchestral music, it can rock the house without raising a sweat. The individually adjustable driver cabinets allow the installer to focus the sound to the precise listening position of the Grande Utopia EM's proud owner. When I win the lottery, this is the one I'll buy.
The level of craftsmanship and build quality of all of these speakers are extraordinary. Have you heard any of these speakers, or any extreme audio? Share your experiences in the comments section.