Nationalists will proudly point to the great American orchestras--the grand symphonies of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the brash bands of Cleveland and Chicago, or the sophisticated ensembles of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Eurocentrics will politely nominate the symphonies of London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Dresden, while the Russians will no doubt make the case for the orchestras of St. Petersburg or Moscow.
In the end, it really all comes down to two orchestras: the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic) and Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic). Both have long and storied histories playing and often premiering the greatest works in the repertoire under the greatest conductors of the past 150 years. And both have distinctive tones: the super-suave Viennese orchestra's is rich, smooth, and creamy, while the super-virtuoso Berlin orchestra's is crisp, polished, and powerful.
But the big difference is that while the Wiener always has been the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera with a sideline as a symphonic orchestra, the Berliner has always been an exclusively symphonic orchestra, and there's a bright clarity to its playing and a deep familiarity in its performances that not even the Austrian orchestra can top. Plus, despite the undoubted virtuosity of the New York, London, St. Petersburg, and Viennese orchestras, nothing can touch the sheer skills of the Berlin band. At its best, every piece it plays sounds like it was written for it.