HighGear_Hero.jpg

High Gear

From the finest hand lever espresso machine to a speaker that looks as beautiful as it sounds, seven examples of unparalleled electronic—and aesthetic—excellence

It’s impossible to argue with the convenience of a smartphone. The ability to sample a huge library of songs, remotely control the temperature of your pied-à-terre, or summon a town car with the swipe of a finger has transformed the world of traditional technology. Some things, though, can’t be replaced by a touch screen and an app. Below, a selection of gear that goes beyond functionality to thrill, through stellar performance, distinctive design, and old-school analog excellence. Marrying hallowed traditions with inspired innovation, these seven pieces are a welcome reminder of the power of tactile beauty in an increasingly digital world. After all, a perfectly designed home deserves gadgetry to match.

LINN LP12

High-Gear-Linn.jpg

Some products have revolutionary impact, transforming an industry as soon as they hit the market. Others evolve over time, slowly cementing their dominance via a series of quiet, incremental improvements.

The Sondek LP12 is one of those rare beasts to have done both. Upon its release in 1973, it torpedoed the consensus among hi-fi connoisseurs that loudspeakers were the key element in any stereo rig. Using a suspended chassis system to re-engineer the interface between stylus and vinyl, it wrung so much more sonic information from the groove of a record, music lovers found themselves working their way back through their collections, tuning into details and dynamics they’d never heard before.

Not content with this paradigm shift, however, the engineers at Linn have subjected their creation to a continuous process of improvement ever since, making upgrades or adjustments every year, as well as rolling out several ancillary pieces—power sources, tone arms, etc.—most christened according to the quirky house style that prefers the model names include the letter “k.”

Once you start listening to a Sondek LP12, you will come to understand the moniker assigned to the most popular cartridge sold with this canonical piece of kit: the “Adikt.”

B&W 800 Series Diamond

High-Gear-BW.jpg

About halfway through Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling, epic masterwork tracing the international tentacles of the narcotics business, there is a harrowing scene in which professional assassin Francisco Flores, aka Frankie Flowers, is tortured by members of a rival cartel. As a tactic to get Frankie to break, an interrogator turns good cop, encouraging him to reminisce about his high-flying lifestyle. Giddy with relief, Flowers lists some of the lovely things that had furnished his home, beginning with…a pair of B&W loudspeakers.

That is how synonymous this British brand, founded in 1966, is with audiophonic excellence. The just-released “Diamond” edition of its flagship 800 Series pumps out silky sweet highs, crisp mid-range, and mind-boggling bass, and its statement-making design incorporates an Art Deco–style rear grille worthy of a vintage Bugatti. Which, of course, is no small endorsement in the World of Ralph Lauren.

AUDEZE LCD-4

High-Gear-Audeze.jpg

There are three compelling reasons to invest in what many consider the highest-performing headphones on the planet.

First, their technical prowess is unparalleled: The LCD-4’s Double Fluxor Magnet Arrays generate 1.5 Tesla, the most powerful magnetic flux density found in a product of this kind.

Second, they exude luxury. The enclosures are handcrafted from Macassar ebony, and the leather-and-carbon fiber headband makes them feel remarkably lightweight and comfortable to wear.

Third, they’re actually a bargain, despite their four-figure price tag. One of the few things that nearly all audiophiles agree on is that top-tier headphones—and these are the best—can offer a richer, more detailed listening experience than external speakers that cost 10 times as much. In other words, you can tell your significant other—or accountant—that you’re not spending $4,000—you’re saving $40,000.

NAGRA “JAZZ” AND “CLASSIC”

High-Gear-Nagra-Jazz.jpg

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “What piece of stereo equipment would let me channel the young Jean-Paul Belmondo,” here’s your answer.

As any self-respecting cinéaste knows, the movies that shot the likes of Belmondo to fame in the late 1950s and early 1960s were made possible by new technology. Maverick directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut had a vision of how they wanted to shake things up; but it wasn’t until the arrival of lightweight, portable equipment that they could put their ideas into action and take to the streets, capturing the youthful energy that was transforming Paris.

One of the key pieces of gear driving this revolution was a sound recorder produced by Swiss company Nagra—a gorgeously designed machine, complete with what may be the coolest-looking knobs and dials of all time. In 1997, the company began producing ultra-high-end audio components, channeling their mastery of professional recording into some of the world’s most desirable consumer electronics. Named for the Montreux Jazz Festival, with which Nagra partnered for many years, the Jazz preamplifier is, to quote a review in French audio bible Haute Fidélité, a “magnifique électronique à consommer sans moderation” (a “magnificent piece of electronics to consume without moderation”).

Meanwhile, its companion, the Nagra Classic power amp, is a large, brushed-aluminum box that exudes as much macho swagger as Belmondo, and then some. Meticulously machine-tooled, it features controls so perfectly calibrated and pleasing to the touch that you may find yourself playing with them even when this beautiful beast is turned off.

OLYMPIA CREMINA

High-Gear-Cremina.jpg

Elegant? No. Easy to use? No way. High-maintenance? Unapologetically. Worth it? A thousand times, si.

The Olympia Cremina is made in a small, family-owned factory in the Swiss canton of Glarus that looks out over a landscape more suggestive of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music than Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. But while the Italians may be the best in the world at stylishly sipping an espresso, it’s their northerly neighbor who makes the durable, precisely engineered, lever-operated machine for producing said heady, crema-topped brew.

Be warned: Acquiring a Cremina involves an investment of time as well as money—countless hours spent calibrating the grind of your beans, refining your tamping technique, perfecting your pull, and learning some of the maintenance tips and tricks that will keep your machine running clean and smooth for the next half-century or so. It’ll all be worth it, though, as the Cremina happens to produce some of the world’s finest espresso.

December Box Bronze Dimmer

High-Gear-Dimmer.jpg
December Box designer-artist-craftsman Mark Williams is a secret weapon wielded by in-the-know New York City architects and interior designers, who turn to him when they come up against a peculiarly tricky design challenge. Most of his work has been for private clients, with the exception of one signature item that he developed in response to a challenge of his own: Searching for a dimmer switch for his bedside lamp, he couldn’t find anything that wasn’t “cheap, cheesy, and plastic.” Stumped, he set about constructing the ideal solution, and ended up with what is essentially a piece of gorgeous, practical sculpture. Handmade from bronze that has been treated with a cold-acid-patination technique to achieve the perfect finish, this is gadgetry at its most elemental: functional, beautiful, and with the kind of heft that reaffirms its owners status as a person of substance, impeccable taste, and insider knowledge. Not to mention lights that are always perfectly dimmed.
back to top
Jamie Pallot is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and co-founder of Emblematic Group, a virtual reality studio. He is the former editorial director of Condé Nast Digital and editor in chief of Style.com, and has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar, among others.
  • Photograph Courtesy of B&W
  • Photograph Courtesy of Linn
  • Photograph Courtesy of B&W
  • Photograph Courtesy of Audeze
  • Photograph Courtesy of Nagra
  • Photograph Courtesy of Olympia
  • Photograph Courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation