SWEET HARMONY
What Hi-Fi Sound and Vision|January 2022
Seven setups, 20 products, countless hours of listening joy. Let us guide you to your dream system

You can’t play a symphony alone, as they say. Without the different parts of an orchestra, working perfectly together to produce the music, its effect would be somewhat less impressive.

When it comes to putting together a hi-fi system, then, it pays to take some cues from the music itself. Your favourite tunes (the reason you need a hi-fi system) have themselves been carefully thought-out in terms of arrangement and orchestration. All of the discrete instruments involved work together in literal harmony, with the talents of each musician and the sweet music they create individually woven together in a wonderful and cohesive whole.

So when it comes to putting together the components of a hi-fi system, you’ll want to do justice to that creative process with a carefully curated series of components.

Over the next 14 pages we’ve put together seven systems designed to suit a variety of listening preferences, lifestyles and budgets, ranging from a simple but excellent smartphone-based portable combo to a highly recommended hi-fi purist’s dream at around a cool 10 lakh – which, considering the talents of those products, if you have the money, is actually something of a bargain.

Whatever your needs and budget, there’s sure to be something here to guide you to your perfect system. All of the products we’ve included have our guaranteed seal of approval – there are more What hi-fi ? Award winners and five-star rated products here than you can shake a stick at. Follow us then, to hi-fi heaven.

ON THE GO SHOPPING LIST

SONY XPERIA 1 III ₹1,85,000*

AUDIOQUEST DRAGONFLY COBALT ₹29,499

AUSTRIAN AUDIO HI-X50 ₹25,439

SYSTEM COST ₹2,39,938

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can’t get top quality sound from a smartphone. Get the components right, and there is a decent case to be made for a phone and a pair of headphones standing up very well as a hi-fi system. Give those two a bit of a polish with a thumb-drive sized DAC, though, and you’re in for a real treat.

It’s clear that a decent standalone personal music player from the likes of Astell & Kern or Cowon, say, will perform a bit better – but having one of those means carrying an extra, relatively bulky, handset; and this combination will provide most of a standalone player’s hi-fi capabilities in one neat package. And, as we all carry a smartphone around with us nowadays (we do all carry a smartphone around with us nowadays, don’t we?), the addition of a Dragonfly and a decent pair of headphones is a no-brainer for all but the über-serious music obsessive.

It seems Sony is on a hot streak when it comes to smartphones. The Xperia 1 III is the company’s latest flagship phone and while certainly falling in the ‘evolution rather than revolution’ category compared with its predecessor, is another excellent handset that is well worth considering if audio and video performance are key factors for you when choosing a mobile.

Crucially for us, Sony has eked out yet more audio and video performance from the new handset over the Xperia 1 II, which gives us even more reason to recommend it over what was already an Award-winning smartphone. Comparing the two phones, we’d be more than happy to recommend either based on their sound performance but we are impressed to hear there are marginal gains with the new model.

Bass notes sound a little tighter, meaning more control and agility, and it’s clear the Xperia is capable of dynamics to rival any phone on the market – and, indeed, plenty of dedicated hi-res players.

It’s not our primary point of concern for this particular feature, of course, but the world’s first 4K 120Hz phone screen sounds good on paper and it looks even better in reality. The refresh rate really does make scrolling through anything that much smoother, but it really comes into its own when playing games or watching video content. The Xperia 1 III refuses to ramp up the colours to lure your eyes, instead sticking steadfastly to offering up images that are remarkably faithful. Throw in bags of detail, smooth motion and careful handling of black levels and skin tones, and we think it will be hard to beat the video performance on offer here. Which, of course, is something we could never say about a personal music player.

Hit the road, DAC

The Sony is a lovely music player in its own right; but we still believe it is well worth adding AudioQuest’s DragonFly Cobalt digital to analogue converter. The DAC backs up its not inconsiderable asking price with the clearest, tidiest and most dynamic presentation we’ve heard from a unit this small.

It begins with a new, more advanced ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip, with which AudioQuest promises a clearer and more natural sound than from the older Dragonfly Red, while the PIC32MX274 microprocessor draws less current and increases processing speed by 33 per cent. Improved power supply filtering, meanwhile, is said to increase immunity to wi-fi, Bluetooth and cellular noise.

The DAC’s LED will shine one of six colours to indicate sampling rate: red for standby, green for 44.1kHz, blue for 48kHz, yellow for 88.2 kHz, light blue for 96kHz or purple when decoding MQA. And the Cobalt does wonders in cleaning up performance, no matter what kind of file we feed it or whether it’s streaming from YouTube, Spotify, Tidal or playing from our own hi-res library.

Lines are indelibly drawn round the edges of each instrument, with granular detail on offer to complement the cleanliness and military precision. The Cobalt isn’t necessarily concerned with polishing your music, only the lens through which it can be seen: bedroom recordings can still sound intimately lo-fi, purposefully screeching treble remains uncensored and grisly riffs still drag their knuckles along the floor.

You could spend your time analysing the music if you like – the Cobalt makes that easy with its wide-open soundstage and impressive clarity – but AudioQuest has not lost itself entirely in the detail, still offering a keen sense of rhythm and expressive dynamic range. In both senses there is measurable progress over the cheaper, older versions of the Dragonfly. Timing is greatly improved, with beats locking in like puzzle pieces. The Cobalt’s hard work is also heard as it belts out grand dynamic shifts before donning its reading glasses to contour those more diminutive quivers. Put simply, the DragonFly Cobalt increases drive and dynamics, and takes things up to another level for a not unreasonable amount of money.

Fuss-free system

Which brings us to the third and final piece of this portable hi-fi puzzle. Austrian Audio is a fairly new company, but the people behind it are ex-AKG employees and some of the most experienced in the industry. That maturity shines through in the Hi-X50 on-ears. The headband structure is nicely designed and sturdy with it. The extensive use of metal in the headband, folding hinges and mounting brackets gives these cans an aura of quality lacking in more plasticky rivals. It helps that components prone to wear and tear, such as the headband cushioning and memory foam earpads, can be easily replaced, too.

These headphones are nominally for home listening, as the supplied threemetre cable suggests; but you can also buy a shorter 1.2m cable for listening out and about. And we believe you should do just that, despite the ‘professional’ tag these headphones are saddled with. There’s certainly nothing we found during testing or in the specifications to suggest that price-compatible portables will have any issue here – unless you count the Hi-X50’s forthright nature, that is.

These headphones won’t suffer fools gladly: if your source or the recording is bright or aggressive, these cans won’t sweeten the results. They’re ruthless but also pretty balanced on the whole, and that’s evidence of the company’s studio roots coming to the fore.

In this system, with the Sony smartphone and AudioQuest DAC doing sterling work, the Austrian Audio Hi-X50 truly prove their worth. We listen to a range of music, and these headphones never miss a beat. They resolve lots of detail and manage to organise it into a musically cohesive presentation. It’s a pretty even-handed sound, without much in the way of undue emphasis on any part of the frequency range.

Unlike the slightly more expensive and open-backed Grado SR325e, these headphones aren’t an overtly exciting listen. Mostly, they simply reproduce the signal they’re given. While there’s a tendency to favour analysis over enthusiasm, it’s never taken far enough to be called unemotional or clinical. If you want to hear deep into the recording and track subtle instrumental strands, these cans do it better than almost anything else we’ve heard at this level (certainly if you stick to closed-back rivals – which, if you are listening out and about, we really recommend you do).

At this price, there’s little to criticise when it comes to dynamic expression and low-frequency punch either. The Hi-X50 simply get on with the job with little fuss.

A phrase, indeed, that neatly sums this whole portable system up. These three impressive pieces of audio equipment combine together beautifully to create a revealing, dyamic system that will bring many hours of musical enjoyment.

OLD-SCHOOL

SHOPPING LIST

REGA PLANAR 2 ₹50,000

REGA IO ₹75,000

TRIANGLE BOREA BR03 ₹POR

SYSTEM COST ₹POR

Back in the days before ‘smart’ products, before flat-panel televisions, before the internet even, we would have called this an audiophile budget system. It’s rather old-fashioned, then – and we like it that way.

Old-school it may be, but this trio of products combines wonderfully to make beautiful music; and that, after all, is what all this is about. The whole point of investing in a stereo system is to enjoy your music as much as possible – and if this is your budget, you will be hard pressed to beat the upbeat sound you’ll enjoy from this system.

The two Rega products are together partly, of course, for the synergy one gets (or at least really ought to get) from two pieces of equipment from the same stable; but the io is also here because it has a rather fine phono stage. And the Borea BR03 speakers reinforce all those excellent Rega strengths. To hear your records at their best, you won’t find a more fun-sounding system at this price. (Just don’t forget to budget for decent stands for those Triangles to sit on.)

It takes 2

Let’s start with the turntable. The Planer 2 has been around in one form or another for 45 years or so, and it has evolved nicely over that time. It is fitted with Rega’s RB220 tonearm, which features ultra-low friction ball bearings, a stiffer bearing housing than on previous Planar 2 arms, and an automatic bias setting. All of which makes it virtually plug and play. That should please newcomers who want to enjoy vinyl with minimal fuss – but do be aware that, as implied above, the Planar 2 doesn’t have a built-in phono stage, so it needs to hook up to a stereo amplifier that has one; take a bow Rega io. Or you can always buy a separate phono stage if you’re adding the deck to your current system.

Pretty much all manufacturers have their own sound, and Rega’s decks have a reassuringly familiar sonic signature: balanced and authoritative with impressive scale and natural musicality.

Tap, thump and punch

It gets us toe-tapping to New Dorp, New York from SBTRKT’s Wonder Where We Land album the moment the first beat thumps into being. The Planar 2 delivers the bass line with punch, its low end earning its wings for handling the depth and texture of the guttural bass guitar in the album.

Any hi-fi kit that’s going to get the best of SBTRKT has to be fairly methodical in its handling of flittering tinny beats, slicing percussions and frenetic rhythms, and while the Rega has the necessary precision and rhythmic know-how to coordinate them accurately in the soundstage, its delivery is also entertainingly enthusiastic.

The ability to tie all the musical strands together and paint them on a precise and spacious canvas seems to come easy to the Planar 2. And, as mentioned above, the synergy gained when the turntable is combined with its stablemate amplifier is impressive.

The Best Buy Award-winning io borrows the power amplifier and phono stage from its Award-winning elder sibling, the Brio. And indeed Rega’s consistency with components and their implementation makes the io instantly recognisable as a descendant of the Brio. Which means it has a remarkable sense of rhythm, punchy dynamics, and impressive agility and detail. All of which makes for a truly fun, entertaining listen.

It may not have the sonic sophistication of its big brother, but the io’s directness and buoyancy makes it a compelling amplifier.

It sports two line-level inputs (two fewer than the Brio) and that all-important (for this system) moving magnet phono input, so you can hook up the Planar 2 turntable as well as a couple of other components such as a CD player or streamer, perhaps – if, that is, you have the urge to move out of the analogue realm and into the heady digital world of the 21st Century.

A 3.5mm headphone jack completes the io’s fairly modest connectivity list. It sits on the front panel alongside a volume dial and a small plastic button that cycles through the inputs.

The io’s plastic front panel gives it a pretty unremarkable aesthetic – Rega certainly isn’t trying to hide the fact that most of its efforts have gone into the performance of this little powerhouse.

The compact, half-width aluminium chassis feels well built – the same goes for the satisfyingly simple remote control – and its low-key, minimalist design should suit some hi-fi traditionalists (what was that we were saying about ‘audiophile budget system’?).

The final component in this three-piece system comes, appropriately enough, from Triangle.

As with any pair of new speakers, it pays to get to know the Borea BR03 and their preference for placement. Triangle recommends a minimum of 2m between speakers and also between them and your listening position. It also suggests placing them at least 40cm away from a back wall and 50cm from a side wall. And, of course, on speaker stands.

And we have to agree. Even though they are front-ported, these Triangles don’t shine quite as much when placed up against a wall. They will certainly do a job, but the overall balance and stereo imaging suffer. With room to breathe and a little toe-in to shore things up, the Borea BR03 are able to perform at their best.

The twin-pronged diffuser hovering just over the silk-dome tweeter is there to help reduce the directivity and improve the dispersion of higher frequencies. Beneath the mid/bass driver sits a pair of bass reflex ports. To some, the front of the speakers may look a tad unbalanced, with the ports a little cramped next to the mid/bass driver – but if that’s the case for you, there is always the option of covering them up with the magnetic speaker grilles.

The Borea BR03 deliver a huge sense of scale, much larger than rivals such as the formidable B&W 607s, for example. They can also boast impressive separation and precision.

There’s detail and insight across the frequency range and, given their size, the quantity of bass is perfectly acceptable. Some might lust after a more musclebound delivery, but it’s the detail and quality of bass that gives the Triangles an edge over many rivals at the money. There’s texture in spades.

Timing brings synergy

The Boreas also demonstrate an excellent sense of timing – one of the many areas where they are in wonderful synergy with the Rega pairing here.

It’s not often we stumble across a pair of speakers at this price that sounds as sophisticated as the Triangle Borea BR03. For the money, they are savvy musical performers with a great sense of scale and an even greater appetite for presenting music in a transparent and mature manner. Perfect, in fact, for an audiophile budget stereo system.

DOUBLE DIGITAL

SHOPPING LIST

BLUESOUND NODE (2021) ₹61,512

MARANTZ CD 6007 ₹36,999

MARANTZ PM6007 ₹36,999

WHARFEDALE DIAMOND 12.3 ₹83,000

SYSTEM COST ₹2,18,510

This is quite a contrast to the Rega and Triangle set-up. The most obvious difference at first glance is that there is no turntable, and that source duties are taken up by a pair of digital units – one ancient, one modern as far as digital players go. If 40-odd years can be counted as ‘ancient’, of course.

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