The Best Stereo System I've Ever Heard

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The Best Stereo System I've Ever Heard

The Best Stereo System I’ve Ever Heard

Robert Harley

I’ve heard quite a number of very ambitious playback systems over the years, but none as good as the system I experienced last week in Rockport, Maine. I was visiting the factory (actually, it’s more like a craft shop) of loudspeaker manufacturer Rockport Technologies and spent about two hours with their top-of-the-line Arrakis loudspeaker. Rockport founder Andy Payor also took me through the other speakers in the line, and explained to me the design and construction techniques behind his loudspeakers.

The $165,000 Arrakis is a four-way system employing two side-firing 15" woofers, two 8" upper-bass drivers, two 5.25" midrange drivers, and a dome tweeter. All the drivers except the tweeter use Rockport’s proprietary cone technology which feature proprietary, variable-section thickness cones formed from skins of carbon fiber that sandwich a Rohacell core.

The enclosure is unique in high-end audio; it is made from inner and outer molded composite shells with the center filled with a custom epoxy. The enclosure is as much as 6" thick at certain points. The baffle is made the same way, but with a structural carbon-fiber outer structure. By laminating and casting composite materials this way the enclosure can have any shape, including compound curvatures that are impossible to achieve any other way. Moreover, the enclosure is made from only two pieces; the baffle and the main cabinet comprising the enclosure’s five other sides. The result is a solid, inert platform for the drivers that doesn’t introduce diffraction. Internal wiring is from Transparent Audio.

This particular system was tri-amped with six channels of Gryphon amplification (a pair of Coliseum Solo monoblocks and two Antillion stereo units) and an outboard crossover. This active portion of the system eliminates from the amplifier/driver interface the capacitors and inductors of passive crossovers (the system used a passive crossover between the midrange and tweeter). The source was either Rockport’s legendary Sirius III turntable with a Dynavector XV-1s cartridge going into a Gryphon Legato phonostage, or the Blue Smoke music server playing high-res and standard-res files through an MSB Platinum DAC. The preamp was a Gryphon Sonata Allegro. Interconnects and loudspeaker cables were Transparent Audio Reference MM2. Some credit for the system’s performance goes to the large, purpose-built listening room.

The Arrakis was stunning in every way—tonally, spatially, dynamically, and in resolution. What struck me is that the design is so beautifully balanced, with no shortcomings in any area. Every sonic-performance criterion that contributes to the musical experience was fully realized.

The main point of departure from other great loudspeakers is that the Arrakis had absolutely no discernable personality of its own. Many loudspeakers disappear into the soundstage, but the Arrakis took the concept of “disappearing” to another level by seemingly removing itself tonally as well as spatially from the playback system. The Arrakis simply didn’t sound like drivers reproducing music, but rather sounded like music itself. The tonal colorations were so low as to be imperceptible. Similarly, the Arrakis reproduced low-level detail with stunning realism; it was hard to believe that dynamic drivers were capable of such electrostatic-like delicacy. There’s a passage midway in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dance No. 3 in which the string players, unaccompanied, make a barely audible scraping sound with their bows across the strings. The sound, which isn’t a musical pitch at first, gradually emerges from total silence and slowly becomes recognizable. The Arrakis resolved the extremely low-level dynamics of this passage right down into the silence. Many loudspeakers have a “step-function” in this passage; the lowest-level sounds are absent and then suddenly appear rather than ramping up in volume. Moreover, the Arrakis beautifully revealed the mechanism by which the sound was created, a testament to the speaker’s resolution of very low-level signals.

The Arrakis is a very “big”-sounding speaker, spatially and dynamically. The soundstage not only had tremendous depth, but also stunning resolution of the spatial relationships between instruments, and between instruments and the surrounding acoustic. Dynamically, the Arrakis had an amazingly wide envelope, reproducing super-fine detail to massive crescendos along an unbroken continuum. This speaker was completely and totally unruffled by any combination of musical complexity and high playback level. It possessed the same sense of ease and composure during the most demanding fortissimos as during the quietest passages. The Arrakis was a paradox, possessing a gentle and finely filigreed manner at one end of the dynamic scale, coupled with a sense of power, slam, and massive impact at the other end.

The bass deserves special mention; it had a weight and authority without sounding thick, bloated, or smeared. Despite the sense of heft, the bass had a wonderful agility, pitch definition, and tunefulness that infused music with a lively and upbeat flow. Listening to the Reference Recordings high-res HRx files (176.4kHz/24-bit) of Dick Hyman playing solo piano, it struck me that I’d never heard the lower registers of piano reproduced with such realistic weight, timbre, dynamics, and authority. In fact, I’ve never heard a piano reproduced with such realism, period.

The result was the closest I’ve ever come to the playback system seemingly vanishing, leaving only the musical expression. The Arrakis is without question a landmark achievement.

Postscript: Many of the technologies in the Arrakis are found in Rockport’s less expensive products. In fact, the $94.5k Altair can be thought of as half an Arrakis, with one set of drivers rather than the Arrakis’ mirror-imaged pairs of drivers per enclosure. Both use identical drivers, crossover parts, cabinet construction (although the Altair’s baffle is glass fiber composite rather then carbon fiber). In a brief listen, the Altair sounded superb, as did the $27.5k Ankaa.