It’s easy to understand why consumers look at the sky-high prices of high-end audio electronics and loudspeakers and immediately switch gears – they opt instead for something well-reviewed and affordable, like a Sonos or Bose speaker. There’s also the fact that high-end components and speakers tend to require a little more out of the consumer; the setup process tends to be more complicated and there’s more research required (you need to make sure whatever you’re buying will work with what you already have, after all.)
You’d maybe think that the mainstream adoption of digital streaming would’ve hurt high-end audio, but it has actually done the opposite. It’s given them the chance to appeal to a new generation of listeners who want something better than just an average sounding smart loudspeaker as their stereo. (Especially, now that more streaming services are expected to release high-end lossless versions. Case and point, Amazon Music HD.) The problem is that most of those consumers don’t want to spend upwards of $5,000 on an entry-level audio system.
Fortunately, there are high-end audio brands that understand that quality needs to be affordable.
Cambridge Audio AXA35 Integrated Amplifier
Cambridge Audio recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with the launch of its Edge A integrated amplifier which retails for $5,000, and the $1,700 Alva TT turntable that wirelessly streams your records to any amplifier that can decode Bluetooth aptX HD. For the rest of us with smaller budgets, the AXA35 is a very worthy alternative with a number of features that make it one of the best affordable integrated amplifiers on the market. Its 35-watts-per-channel may not sound like a lot of power, but the AXA35 can drive most bookshelf loudspeakers with very little effort and a surprising degree of low-end control. The internal phono section works like a charm with high-output moving magnet cartridges, and the build quality is second to none at this price point. There is no internal DAC but connect your laptop with an AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt and you have a $650 set-up that takes a backseat to nothing at this level.
Dali iO-6 BT Headphones
Dali is one of the last premier European loudspeaker brands to enter the luxury personal audio category. Its iO-6 BT are active noise-canceling headphones that deliver excellent sound quality with support for both Bluetooth aptX and aptX HD. They utilize a 2-inch paper cone driver that sounds very natural across the entire frequency range, and there is a lot to like about the durable, yet lightweight design that has one of the most flexible headbands we’ve tried so far. Dali has clearly designed the iO-6 for the commuter or business traveler who is concerned about durability and battery life; 30 hours with ANC and the ability to switch to a wired 3.5mm connection at any time.
Klipsch RP-600M Loudspeakers
The legendary brand that brought us the Klipschorn, La Scala, Cornwall and Heresy horn-loaded loudspeakers is suddenly popular again in the world of high-end audio (a reality that has some of its competitors a tad concerned). The Heritage series loudspeakers start at $3,000 for the brand-new Heresy IV, but the model garnering the most attention these days is the RP-600M. These bookshelf speakers offer a glimpse of the Heritage experience but at a much more affordable price; they deliver with better dynamics, presence and pace than any other speaker in its class. If you’ve avoided loudspeakers like the RP-600M because you read somewhere that horn-loaded tweeters can sound too forward, you will be quite surprised by the top end of this loudspeaker that is quite restrained for a Klipsch. The RP-600M are lively transducers, but not fatiguing at all with a warmer sounding amplifier.
PSB Alpha P5 Loudspeakers
Paul Barton has been designing award-winning loudspeakers for almost forty years; earning PSB a global reputation for excellence at prices that are considered affordable in the high-end category. PSB doesn’t refresh its product line-up every year to look trendy – making products like the Alpha P5 newsworthy because of its remarkable performance for the price. These two-way bookshelf loudspeakers look minuscule next to the Klipsch RP-600M or ELAC Debut 2.0 B6.2, but there is no question that they offer a more balanced sounding presentation that would work for most people with something like the Cambridge Audio AXA35 integrated amplifier. The Alpha P5 do not require a lot of power and have an excellent bass response for such a small loudspeaker. Pull them out from the wall on a solid pair of stands, and they disappear in your room; leaving you alone with the artist and their music.
Yamaha WXA-50 Streaming Amplifier
If you’re old enough to remember integrated amplifiers like the Yamaha CA-2010 (1977-1980) which delivered power, layers of resolution, and had one of the best internal phono pre-amplifiers around – the WXA-50 Streaming Amplifier is going to be a huge letdown. If you’re looking for an inexpensive desktop amplifier that is powerful (55 watts per channel), compact, and offers access to your favorite streaming services through Yamaha’s MusicCast app, the WXA-50 will be exactly what you’re looking for. Spotify Connect and Apple AirPlay are both supported (using your iOS device or Spotify Premium subscription), and the amplifier features a 24-bit/192kHz DAC for high-resolution audio playback using music stored on a USB thumb drive or networked music server that you can connect via an Ethernet port on the rear of the amplifier.