System Overview – One Importer’s Take on the High-End

December 7, 2011

One of the things I love most about hi-fi is the sheer variety of brands and products available. From mainstream to esoteric to boutique, there’s a surfeit of options out there. Some audiophiles mix and match the products in their system until the components on the rack read like a veritable United Nations of audio manufacturers or engineering philosophies.

Revel's beryllium tweeter

Another breed of music lover insists on a one brand system (Linn and Naim devotees spring to mind), while others prefer to run with one brand of electronics with a divergence into a different manufacturer’s speakers to keeps things interesting. Then there are the accessories, racks and cables to mix the situation up even more. This is a look at a high-end system that’s been assembled using complementary brands selected from one importer’s stable.

Tom Davidson runs Orange Road Audio, an Auckland based AV importer and distributor. I’ve known Tom since he first arrived on the local landscape with Simaudio’s Moon electronics and Spendor’s loudspeakers. Both of which were brands I wanted to listen to, so of course I managed to make a plan to hear them when I could.

The range of brands at Orange Road has subsequently grown, and then grown again to cover a wide selection of high profile manufacturers. We’re not talking about obscure stuff known only to the anorak wearers, these are some well-known brands – try Nordost, Mark Levinson and Conrad Johnson for example.

I recently noticed a post on the Witchdoctor forums from a certain Mr. Neil Young (the local one, not the Canadian icon unfortunately), which made reference to the arrival of some Mark Levinson components and a set of Revel speakers at Turned On Audio in Onehunga. This obviously meant that a shop visit was in order, which would give me a chance to check out the dCS Debussy DAC that was also in-store.

Mark Levinson No. 326S preamplifier

What we have here is a stereo system that would be a nice way to dispose of some of your end-of-year bonus (if you’re the CEO of a bank) or some of your Lotto win (if you’re Joe Citizen). It’s also the kind of system that could be considered an exit system, as in once you own it, you take your exit from the frenzied process of buying hi-fi gear and enjoy your time in the world of contented listening.

Starting with the bits that make the noise – we have a set of Revel Ultima Studio 2 floorstanding loudspeakers. Designed and built in the USA, these sizable multi-driver units are second from the top of Revel’s range, sitting just below the bigger Salon 2 flagships. The Ultima Studio2 is a three-way system, with two 8-inch titanium woofers, a 5¼-inch titanium mid and a 1-inch beryllium tweeter. The grilles are held on with magnets, leaving the face of the speaker looking clean, elegant and very much in keeping with the excellent build quality and glossy finish.

Precious metals - beryllium and titanium

Amplification is provided by Mark Levinson, which is part of Harman, a company that just happens to also own Revel, along with JBL, Harman/Kardon, AKG and Lexicon. The Levinson amps are the No. 326S preamplifier and the 33.6kg 300 watt per channel No. 532H power amp – a slender black box and a big black box respectively, which look restrained but purposeful on the wooden rack. The preamp is a single chassis model with the interior divided into three separate sections with a steel box shielding the power supply – at over 14kg, it’s a solid feeling component.

Cabling comes from the upper levels of Nordost’s range – Valhalla speaker cable and interconnects, which cost a pretty penny but promise a level of performance to match the outlay (cable sceptics need not apply). Sources are digital, a Moon 750D CD transport/DAC and a dCS Debussy DAC offering prospective punters a choice of disk vs. diskless digital playback.

The only thing missing is a turntable. In fact, if I did fall into a fat stack of dollar bills and felt inclined to take this system home, I might just opt for a DAC like Moon’s 300D and throw some of the source money at a turntable, cartridge and phono stage. Then again, this discussion came up while I was poking around the system and the theory was that if you’re laying down this much money, then placing a turntable on top of the rack isn’t going to drive your bank manager to a bottle of cheap whiskey or your missus to the madhouse.

Nordost Valhalla close up

So how does it sound? Good question. The Turned On Audio shop floor usually contains a mix of customers, well meaning tire-kickers and enthusiasts, who pop in to look, chat, listen to music, abuse Neil and occasionally even buy stuff. I didn’t want to be rude and occupy the system like an invading army and my time was also short. Without at least a few hours of uninterrupted time in front of the system, it’s hard to make any definitive statements. There’s also the fact that the various components were also still being run-in to consider.

Based on the tracks I heard over a couple of visits however, you’d better believe that this is a combination that demands further investigation. You could probably say that about almost any collection of random gear at these price points but there are strong indications of synergy here – perhaps the fact that the speakers and amps come from the same parent company has something to do with it. Then again, it may just be serendipity.

Effortless would be the right place to start describing the sound, not so much in terms of power, that goes without saying with 300 watts of power on tap, but more in terms of an unforced musicality that seems to be easy to listen to for long periods of time. Revealing without being forensic, crisp without embodying any solid-state harshness. An evening session with the remote control, a stack of CDs and no interruptions will have to be arranged to clarify these initial mutterings.

The spreadsheet stacks up as follows:

Revel Ultima Studio 2 speakers $28,000

Mark Levinson 326S preamplifier $18,000

Mark Levinson 532H power amp $14,000

dCS Debussy DAC $18,000

Nordost Valhalla 3m speaker cable $15,000

Nordost Valhalla 1m interconnect $7,000

Nordost Valhalla 1m interconnect $7,000

All up you’d be looking at $107,000ish or $109,000 with the Moon 750D instead of the dCS DAC but realistically, you need to budget on a decent (i.e. excellent) hi-fi rack, three decent (i.e. same again) power cables and a handful of equipment supports. Call it $125,000 and you’re in the ballpark if you just don’t want to do any analogue playback.

Moon 750D CD transport/DAC

Quite an ensemble then, perfect for some lucky devil with pockets full of dollars. This will be the first in a series of overviews and reviews of high-end systems ready to roll in local stores. I’m off to have a look at some bits and bobs at Linn NZ soon as well as the latest and greatest creations from Image Loudspeakers, not to mention some very high-end gear that’s been installed in a purpose built, vaulted ceiling, two-channel listening room in the middle of the Waikato. Good times.

Mark Levinson No. 532H power amp

dCS Debussy DAC


  1. Hi Steve,
    the rack is made locally and is available from us at Turned On Audio. This one has the optional sandbox isolation shelves installed. A rack like this one is around $1200 give or take… cheers.

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