20 hi-fi icons that turn the volume up beyond 11

B&W Matrix 800 speakers (Early 1990s, US$18,000/pr)

Think iconic speakers from British company B&W and the obvious choice is the Nautilus, looking like a giant snail auditioning for a part in Aliens 6. But the company has a history of mad speakers, and the Matrix 800, with its triangular bass enclosures top and bottom of the midrange and treble sections, certainly fits the bill. Mainly sold in the States – then, as now, the Worthing company exported most of its production – the speakers look impressive in the picture. Then you realise they were as tall as very lanky blokes, at 1.86m (or 6ft 3in) – and weighed a substantial 240lb a pop. 

Here's some slightly odd video from DJKnight of the Matrix 800s in action  – and yes, they do occasionally come up for sale second-hand.

EAR Yoshino V12 amplifier (Current, £7000+)

If you didn’t know that designer Tim de Paravicini was a car nut – many a hi-fi industry bod will tell you stories of being terrified by his driving – then this £7000+ valve amplifier lets the cat out of the bag. Literally so: the design is inspired by de Paravicini’s love for the Jaguar V12 engine, and so for this clean-sheet amplifier design he went for two banks of six valves to provide the 50W per channel. They’re indirectly heated EL84/6BQ5s, valve-spotters, and used in Balanced Bridge Mode, in case you were wondering. No 0-100kph data is available.

Here’s a lovingly captured Japanese demonstration of the V12 in action.

Transrotor Tourbillon FMD turntable (Current, €25,000+)

Complete with ‘Smashy and Nicey’ power switch – that’s it down at the bottom of the picture, this is one of the high-end models in the extensive range made by German specialists Transrotor. And yes, we did swerve the fact that one of the company’s best-known models is called the Fat Bob, and is available in S, Plus (Fatter Bob?) and Reference versions.

The Tourbillon could be yours from €25,000 – without the arm(s) – and uses Transrotor’s Free Magnetic Drive bearing, on which that massive platter floats. Even better, it’s not even top of the company’s range, as this video shows.

Quad ESL57 speakers (Late 1950s, £50 each)

OK, so it’s a speaker design that’s well over 50 years old, and although well over 50,000 were sold many have been lost along the way as fashions changed.

They look like copper-coloured radiators, they have limited bass and volume, and yet Quad’s original Electrostatic Loudspeaker is still prized by audio collectors, and there’s a thriving restoration industry.

Over the years, and notwithstanding the lethal voltages within, they’ve been modified, ‘upgraded’ and even stacked in pairs to get more volume out of them, but while a pair of the current Quad ESLs, the ESL-2912, will set you back £8000, there are still originals for sale, as this video shows.

Michaelson Audio Chronos pre/power amplifier (1990s, £10,000)

Produced by a sister company to Musical Fidelity, the Michaelson Audio Chronos took its name from company company founder Anthony Michaelson, and its styling – described by one review as ‘Montezuma meets Gaudi’ from influences as diverse as the Hoover Dam and the Art Deco buldings around the company’s factory in Wembley. Well, Art Deco until they flattened the old Wembley Stadium, anyway.

Valve-powered, massively powerful and delivered in four boxes – preamplifier, power supply and two mono power amps – the Chronos was originally planned to look even wilder: the original sketches had chromed 1920s-style winged women on the front as handles!

CEC TL0-X CD transport (Mid-2000s, £12,000)

So a CD player costs – what, a couple of hundred quid? Not so in high-end Japanese audio land, where this amazing piece of machinery, with its ‘first colony on the moon’ looks, would have set you back £12,000 almost a decade ago.

It draws on classic record-player design, with a belt linking its motor and the spinning disc platter. Because apparently ‘micro-vibrations scatter light and reduce the integrity of the digital data stream.’ The player uses a stabliiser weighing 450g (or 1lb in old money), plus DRTS suspension – which stands for Double Rubbers and Triple Springs. Well, we guess you can never be too careful.

McIntosh MC275 amplifier (2012, US$6500)

The looks of McIntosh equipment – all black and chrome and blue-lit analogue meters – has remained unchanged throughout most of the New York company’s 50-plus-year history. It’s what makes a McIntosh a McIntosh, and a US high-end icon.

So what did the company do to mark its anniversary? Not one of its classic-looking products, but a special edition of its bare-bones MC275 vale amplifier, first seen in 1961. The circuit was the same, but some niceties like remote power control and up to date ‘toobs’ – as they’d say at the factory – were added. Oh, and it’s good for 75W per channel, which isn’t bad for a valve amplifier.

JBL Paragon speaker system (1957, US$1800)

Those were the days, when speakers looked like this: no, the JBL Paragon isn’t your granny’s radiogram, just a speaker, designed to deliver stereo sound from a single unit – and to blend in with the American living rooms of the Mad Men era.

It was designed by a Col. Ranger – they did good names in those days – and the original was no less than 2.75m wide, but the JBL engineers soon shrunk that down. The finished version was 2.69m wide (!), weighed well over 300kg and was delivered in three pieces by special delivery/assembly crews. At the time it sold for £1830 (£650 at the exchange rates of the time), and the equivalent of US$15,000 today. These days, perfect examples can sell for anything up to US$20,000.

Pro-ject 1 turntable (1991, £100)

Credited by many for more or less single-handedly revitalising the audiophile turntable market, Pro-ject is based in Vienna, but makes its turntables in the old Tesla factory in Litovel, Czech Republic.

The business started when company founder Heinz Lichtenegger went to a party and heard a turntable being used by a girl who’d come to Austria from Litovel; he asked where she’d got it, and the answer was ‘Out of the skip at the factory where my uncle works’.

When he went to explore the factory, he was told it was in the process of closing down – so he decided to keep it open by ordering more turntables, and today the factory still hand-builds Pro-jects, every one tested and listened to before shipping.  It now sells 40,000 turntables a year.

NaimUniti network music system (2009, £2000)

For a company famed for taking its time getting into CD players – for many years it didn’t think they sounded good enough – Naim didn’t hang around when it came to developing a streaming system. It already had its pricey – and known to just a few – NaimNet custom-installation multiroom system in place, but the arrival of the NaimUniti in 2009 changed everything.

After all, this was the company best-known for splitting even preamplifiers into two boxes, and for its ‘six-pack’ pre/power amp system filling entire racks, and here we had an all-in-on combining network streaming playback, CD, internet/FM/DAB tuners and a stereo amplifier complete with digital and analogue inputs. Not surprisingly, it was a huge hit for Naim, which now has a dozen or so streaming products on its books.

More after the break...

Marantz CD-63MkII KI Signature (Mid-1990s, £500)

Sometimes you just have to let the engineers do their thing, and that was the thinking behind the Marantz CD-63 MkII KI-Signature: ‘What if – ’ someone asked, ‘What if we took a standard CD player and let the guy who tunes all our top products go crazy on it to squeeze as much performance out of it as possible?’

Marantz’s Ken Ishiwata was no stranger to the idea – in the past he’d shifted a shedload of almost unsaleably unfashionable CD players by tuning them and putting them out at premium price – but the KI was the start of something big, with its copper-plated chassis, upgraded components and hand-signed certificate. Sales boomed, Ishiwata became Marantz Brand Ambassador, job done all round.

Apple iPod (2001, US$400)

There’s a certain inevitability about the iPod making an appearance in any line-up of iconic audio products – after all, its sales dwarf those of just about any other consumer electronics item in terms of volume, value, and the huge amounts of money so far channelled into Apple’s coffers.

Yet the iPod wasn’t a runaway success from the get-go – it took several years to start moving, not least because it would only play nice with Macs back in the early days. And it wasn't exactly cheap, even though the slogan promised ‘1000 songs in your pocket’ from its 5GB hard drive. To date, well over 350m iPods have been sold.

Sony Walkman TPS-L2 (1979, £100)

The original Sony Walkman almost wasn’t a Walkman – at least outside Japan. Worried that foreigners wouldn’t ‘get’ the name, Sony called it the Soundabout in the USA, the Freestyle in Sweden and the Stowaway in the UK.

Originally developed by engineer Nobutoshi Kihara for Sony boss Akio Morita to use on trans-Pacific plane trips, it was based on a cassette recorder called the Pressman, and faced early problems.

Sony bosses couldn’t see any market for a cassette machine unable to record, and Morita hated the Walkman name, only backing down when he was told how much it would cost to change the marketing campaign already underway! The last cassette Walkman machines made in Japan rolled off the line in 2010.

Nakamichi Dragon (1982, US$2500)

Talking of things cassette, here’s the ‘fiendishly complex but well worth the effort’ Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck – generally acknowledged to be one of the finest ever made.

With a huge range of adjustments and settings possible to screw the last bit of quality out of a format really only designed as a dictation system, plus battleship build, the Dragon was prized by those who could afford it way back when, and still sought after by collectors willing to pay well into four figures for a good one.

Parts are still available to keep Nakamichis going, and it’s a great product for surprising those who thought that good sound started with the CD.

Here be a Dragon fan-video.

PMC MB2S-XBD-A active speaker system (Current, £44,400)

Want to listen to your music on the kind of set-up they use in studios? This has to be one of the ultimate set-ups: designed for professional use, this one also finds its way into the UK company’s domestic catalogue – but then the name is the Professional Monitoring Company!

Big, brutal and magnificent in their ‘neo black’ finish, the speakers stand almost 1.75m tall, the three-way main monitors sitting above hefty bass bins, and the system comes complete with active crossovers and a stack of power amps to drive it. A PA rig in your front room? You’d better believe it – here it is in action.

Antelope Audio Rubicon DAC (Current, US$40,000)

Look, no beating about the bush – this is an atomic hi-fi component. No, there isn’t a Mr Fusion hanging off the back of Antelope Audio’s Rubicon, which combines a DAC with an analogue-to-digital conversion and a preamplifier, but it is controlled by Antelope’s 10M Rubidium atomic clock, claimed to be 100,000 times more stable than the crystal oscillator you’ll find in a traditional DAC or CD player. It’ll handle the highest-resolution audio out there at the moment, and – well, just clock the way it looks. Flash Gordon meets 1950s chrome, anyone?

Denon D-M39DAB (Current, £360)

OK, so it’s an unassuming-looking little micro system, combining a CD player, DAB/DAB+/FM tuner and amplifier in a single box just 21cm wide, but there are two significant things about the D-M39. One is that it comes from a company with an enviable track record in systems such as this, having more or less invented the micro hi-fi idea; the other is that the system sounds particularly fab, especially when you ditch the optional speakers and use the RCD-M39 CD receiver with some decent big boxes.

Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 9000 (1996-present, £3000)

Audio systems don’t get much more iconic than this, Bang & Olufsen’s striking six-disc player: for a while all TV and movie art directors needed to say ‘this character is a) minted and b) quietly sophisticated’ was a BeoSound 9000 lurking somewhere in the background.

It can be used on its dedicated monopole stand, or mounted horizontally or vertically on the wall, and if visitors aren’t impressed by your subtle Scandi-cool, you can always tell them that the CD player is designed always to stop discs in an upright position for easy reading, and that the shuttle accelerates faster than a Ferrari. You probably have one of those, too – in case you need to prove the point.

Linn Sondek LP12 (1972-present, £2700)

Classic, and more than reassuringly expensive, the Linn Sondek LP12 has been with us for more than 40 years now – a history marked by a recent limited edition, complete with a plinth made from wood recycled from whisky barrels, marking four decades of the company. Selling for £24,000, the run of 40 turntables were snapped up by Linn's dealers and distributors for their customers almost instantly, demonstrating the classic status of the LP12.

This is the model on which Glasgow-based Linn built its business. And a degree of building is required by LP12 owners: while you can buy a Majik LP12 around £2000, that price is just for the turntable itself - the motor unit on which you put the record. Complete with arm and cartridge it will set you back £2700, and a full-house current-spec turntable, incorporating all the upgrades made over the years, could easily set you back getting on for £18,000.

Setting up and adjusting a full-whack LP12 to deliver its full potential has taken on the aura of a 'black art', with the services of those who've mastered it very much sought-after. It's (relatively) easy to make one sound good; making one sound amazing is where the skill comes in.

Ray Dolby (1933-2013)

Not a product, but a whole raft of technologies – developed to change the way we listen by a man who’d much rather have been tinkering under the bonnet of a car or fettling his private aeroplane.

Ray Dolby worked on the original technology behind video recording, invented the noise reduction systems making possible multitracking and overdubbing in the studios of the 70s – so he’s probably sort of to blame for prog rock! – and turned the humble compact cassette into a hi-fi recording system.

And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, he came up with Dolby Stereo, which kicked off the boom in surround sound in the cinema, and later in the home with Dolby Pro-Logic, Dolby Digital and currently Dolby TrueHD. And coming soon to a cinema near you, Dolby Atmos, capable of no fewer than 128 audio channels!

Thanks, Ray.


Nice to see my beloved Chronos on such an iconic list

No QUAD 22? Garrard 303or404? No SME3001?? Transcriptors??? Phillips CD100 the very first domestic CDplayer? Research ladies and gentlemen.

...or SME ?

How about some details on the Antelope Rubicon, it's the main picture of the article, or am I missing something?

No Tannoy?

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