Most Wanted 2012

 

 

  

Triangle Art Reference SE turntable (introductory price $18,500)

In terms of looks and workmanship, the Triangle ART Ref SE is a work of art. Sonic-wise I would easily place it among the best available - and certainly a cut above anything I've owned. Boasting Lloyd Walker's fabulous motor controller as well makes it hard to figure how this level of analogue playback can be had for under $20K puts it on rare turf. The $18k asking price will expire after April 1st. [Clement Perry: herein CP]

TW-Acustic Raven One Turntable ($7,000)

  

The TW-Acustic Raven One turntable never ceases to amaze me with its unique ability to immerse me into the musical performance. Its attack, sustain, and decay of notes remind me of why I got into this hobby; experiencing the impact of a live performance right before my eyes/ears in my own home. Over the years I have had the opportunity to own many turntables from well-known manufacturers, but was never as mesmerized as I am by the Raven One and its shear musicality. This is one boogying turntable and I don’t envision it ever leaving my listening room. Add to the Raven One’s musical enjoyment factor, its excellent build quality, ease of set up and use, and the unprecedented customer service offered by TW-Acustic’s importer, Highwater Sound (and its owner Jeff Catalano), and the Raven One is a very easy choice to recommend. (Lew Dardick)

Audio Consulting of Switzerland Silver Rock phono preamplifier ($26k)

After two visits to the home of Serge Schmidlin, located right outside Geneve, in the quaint little town of Vaud (Switzerland) - and after extensive listening to an his legendary all-battery-powered system - did I become convinced battery power was the only way for this music lover. Unfortunately, the conditions are too complex and costly for me at present. That's when I was offered a chance to hear Schmidlin's mighty Silver Rock battery-powered phono stage. I, of course felt honored as you would too after hearing this rig. So far, with the Silver Rock in the system, it's been one of those "died and gone to heaven" type experiences. I can only imagine what the rest of his components would do. It's hard to believe folks that just starting out with battery-powered phono stage, could infuse this much magic into my own rig. Yes, and it's only the start!

Pyon Sound Iris Reference Uni-pivot Tonearm ($5500)

Though relatively new to the western world, I've been a long time fan John Yoon-Sung Park's products which include his isolation racks, reference turntable and Iris tonearm. This, his latest tonearm in the Iris Reference has taken his design to the next level. One thing I see clearly here is Park's talents with regard to aesthetics, engineering and design because this latest is truly a work of art. Park warned me about how good his newest Uni-pivot arm would perform. I was astonished at how utterly free this 12-inch serves up the music in a most natural manner. On first blush, male vocals just became more full-bodied and lush without any hint of heaviness in or around the bass. 

 

 The PTE MMMC Phonograph Preamplifier ($1600)

An absolute marvel for the asking price. Its variable load adjustment (via internal dip switches) makes the PTE phono preamp ideal for various type phono cartridges. Natural is the word that comes to mind when listening through this most open, airy and detailed phono device. [CP]





Bybee Golden Goddess Super-Effect Phono Bullets ($2100)

Based on Jack Bybee's powerful Nano technology knowledge and background. These three-inch long RCA plugs provide the same sonic impact at my phonostage as his twice as expensive Speaker Bullets. In short, their performance is clearer one; sweeter on the top and more transparent throughout. [CP]






 





Audio Desk Vinyl Cleaner ($3800)

Based solely on this German gem's performance, I would have never believed a record cleaner could improve my vinyl records to this degree. Most of my records, to the naked eye, are clean already so I never thought they needed this level of cleaning. I was wrong. [CP]

 











 

 

Laufer Teknik Memory Player 64 Full Version ($17,500 with Direct 2 DAC): I’ve had some form of the Memory Player in my system since mid-2007 and have always been happy with its sonic performance. The improvement brought by the 64-bit platform cannot be understated. The new Graphic User Interface of the MP64 FV is vastly improved over all previous iterations. Compared to the previous 32-bit MP, all areas related to transparency and resolution are vastly improved as a result of the vanishing noise floor. Music through the MP64 FV is intoxicating; the more I listen to the new MP64 FV, the more I am drawn into my music collection. The new MP64 FV doesn't sound like any CD player I have ever owned and I would rate it as the best digital source available. (Michael Girardi)

Laufer Teknik Memory Player 64 SL (Slot Loaded: $15k transport only) Reviewed here [CP]
 

 


 

Acoustic System International (ASI) Grand Stereo Amplifier ($39,550) and Live Line twin-enclosure preamplifier ($31,650)

These truly superb electronics are a collaboration between Franck “Resonator Man” Tchang and Milan Karan of Karan Acoustics to create new cost-no-object, statement products. The chassis uses special aircraft aluminum imported from Switzerland. All the chassis design work is done on an in-house CNC machine. All the parts, capacitors, condensers, toroidal transformers (to name just a few) are custom built to ASI designs. The Grand Stereo amplifier is a powerhouse delivering 650 watts into 8 ohms and 1,800 watts into 2 ohms in Class-A operation, using an innovative active bias. From the very first notes, it was obvious that the ASI Grand Stereo and Live Line preamplifier were something special. Not just good, but extraordinary. These are truly superb electronics. (Key Kim)

Burson Audio Conductor ($1,850)

The mates and mate-ettes (are there any mate-ettes?) down under at Burson are absolute masters at designing into audio devices 'that which cannot be bread-boarded.' I’m not sure if they go for ritualized sacrifices or rain dancing or what- but Burson have this uncanny knack for creating devices that transcend musically both their relative price points and the ‘me too’ linearity of their solid-state frequency response curves. Like it’s still supremely musically relevant HA-160D forerunner, the Burson Conductor head amp/preamp/DAC takes the precision, detail retrieval and 'accuracy' you'd expect from a well-designed solid state piece, kills a small chicken, does a rain dance, and infuses the 'well-designed solid state amplification device' with rhythm, soul and joy. You know what? That's probably it. The words 'rhythm, soul and joy’ are probably laser etched somewhere onto the circuit trace or something. Yeah- I’ll bet that's it. In essence, the Conductor is the best headphone amplification device I've ever heard-- all grown up now and off to finishing school at Oxford. Tighter bass, blacker backgrounds, more detail, more 'neutral' and more better. I know what you're thinking-- and the answer is yes; it can still get drunk at parties and go home with random hook-ups when you need it to. It just leaves flowers on the pillow and doesn’t forget to text or call the next day. (David Abramson)

 

Kondo-Audio Note Overture Integrated Amplifier ($41,558)

A push-pull pure Class-A design, using two EL34s per side to produce 32 glorious watts per channel. All parts are carefully chosen after many hours of listening tests and meticulously constructed by artisans. Kondo-Audio Note uses nothing but the very best custom-made quality parts employing Kondo’s signature handmade silver foil capacitors and silver lead resistors. The one word that constantly came to mind was: purity. I can easily say that it is by far the best integrated design I’ve heard and certainly competes with the best separates. (Key Kim)
 

 

BSG Technologies QOL “Signal Completion Stage” ($3,995)

The QOL Technologies Signal Completion Stage is an analog electronic component that can be connected between source components and your preamplifier or between your preamp and amplifier. RCA and XLR connections are available on the unit. The QOL’s purpose is to retrieve embedded source information that otherwise goes undetected by your system’s electronics. During several months of use I came to conclude that I couldn’t do without it in my substantial system. The QOL conveniently allows you to compare what the circuit does in and out of the signal chain by the simple push of a button, on the unit or on the remote control. With the circuit in operation, and at its best, the sound was incredibly holographic in a very natural way. Spatial cues and the harmonics of voices and instruments were much more evident. For me, the QOL’s positive effect is directly related to the quality of the source engineer’s technique. Results can vary from little effect to an outstanding listening experience. The later has usually been the norm in my system. It is a piece of equipment that has become indispensible for my listening pleasure. (Dan Secula)

 

Classe Audio CP-800 Preamp/Processor ($5,000)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Classé produces yet another component that is beautifully built, thoughtfully designed and sonically peerless. I’m sorry folks but this company is just that consistant. The CP-800 linestage is definitely from this same mold but with a definite nod towards the future. This may well be the preamp “Zeitgeist” for this era in audiophilia. It ties together present and future audio/video needs in a gorgeously built and relatively affordable package. Pair it with the CA-M600 monos, and for less than $20k, there may be nothing close for some time to come. (Dave Thomas)

Jones Audio PA-M300 Series 2 Mono Amps ($24,000/pair)

An impressive looking and sounding debut from this Black Diamond Washington based company. The PA-M300 monos’ effortless power, musicality and soundstage spaciousness were the hallmarks of their performance during my review period. They handled the dual 12” drivers of my Escalante Fremonts with great ease. Design and build quality rival the best of the European designs. Truly a rare bargain among high-end mono amps of their size and power. (Dave Thomas)

 

Pass Labs XVR-1 Electronic Crossover ($5,000)

When I added a used pair of Maggie MG20s to my system earlier this year I was happy that the previous owner had replaced the stock crossover with the Bryston 10B electronic crossover. But when I replaced the Bryston with the Pass Labs XVR-1, I was downright euphoric. The range that the maggies is covering is amazing (planars aren’t supposed to have this much musical bass). Kent English of Pass told me: “If you truly "fall in love" with the XVR-1...... you'll start imagining graphs.” He was write… mostly. (Dave Thomas)





Sanders Sound Systems Magtech Stereo Amplifier ($5,000)

                

This powerful amplifier (500W into 8 ohms, 900W into 4 ohms) is the most consistent amplifier I have ever heard. Regardless of the load it performs equally well at all frequencies and never shows strain. At the same time its transparency and low noise floor allow it to fully reflect the character of upstream components and subtle nuances and harmonics. To accomplish that, Roger Sanders developed (patent pending) a voltage regulated power supply that maintains a stable voltage regardless of load or reasonable changes in the line voltage. This enables the maintenance of stable bias and unchanged distortion levels. In addition to outstanding audio performance, Roger Sanders stands behind his products (both amplifiers and loudspeakers) with a 30-day, in-home, risk-free trial. That includes free round-trip shipping anywhere in the world from the factory in Conifer, Colorado. Sanders products carry a lifetime warranty for the original owner. (Donald Shaulis)
 

Vitus Audio RL-101 Linestage ($11,250)

  

The latest preamp from legendary designer Hans-Ole Vitus’ “Reference Series” product line is a real winner. It possesses much of the musical and build-quality DNA of the company’s “higher-end” product lines but at a much more grounded price point. Yes, I know $11K is still a lot of dough for a preamp but the RL-101 is still a Vitus product in every sense of the word. If you’ve ever seen or heard this unit, you’d know just how much of a bargain it truly is. (Dave Thomas)

Von Gaylord Starlet Integrated amplifier ($3,495)


An absolute marvelous sounding integrated built on a triode output design. At 50 watts per, the Starlet has enough power to make you get up and dance but is also sophisticated enough to move your soul. Exactly what every statement product ought to do but rarely at this price. Amazing. [CP]

     

Von Gaylord Audio (Return of The Legend Speakers and VG-1 Plus $18,995; Uni Monoblock Amplifiers, $16,995; Uni Preamplifer $15,995; Return of the Legend Speaker Cables $4,995/10ft pair; Return of the Legend Interconnects $1,995/1 meter pair) Von Gaylord Audio lets you take the guesswork out by offering a complete audio system. The powerful Uni monoblock amps drove The Return of the Legend speakers and VG-1 Plus effortlessly. The sound was transparent, warm and full-range. (Key Kim)

Wyred 4 Sound mINT Integrated ($1500.00)
I've dubbed this compact miniature design, the "The Little Amp that Could!" And by that I mean drive big speakers like the TIDAL Piano Cera with ease while serving as an excellent DAC for my PS Audio Perfect Wave transport and iMac laptop. All this while occupying half my rack space! [CP]
 

 

Leonardo Planar loudspeaker ($65k)


 

                               

Certainly the most powerful planar-magnetic loudspeakers I've ever heard coupled with a bass output that rivals the best box enclosures regardless of price or prestige. Its high sensitivity rating of 93 dB makes it a perfect match for tubes. However, unless you're driving 600-watt tubes, I found these Italian marvels to sound their absolute best when driven by solid state devices. One of the most amazing and dynamic loudspeakers I have heard in a very long time. [CP]

 

My Audio Design 1920 Loudspeaker ($)

In the tradition of the legendary BBC and Rogers LS3/5a comes the diminutive but hugely musical My Audio Design (MAD) 1920. Minimalist in size and looks but when connected to a highly resolved system in a moderate listening space can be downright Goosebumps inducing. Rigid stands a must to get the best from them. (Dave Thomas)

 

 

Stein Music Master Class SP 1.1 loudspeaker ($12,000)


Seldom have I been moved by the single-driver loudspeaker approach. The smaller Ascendo C5 loudspeaker does come to mind for its purity, tonal accuracy and focus. Ditto this floorstander created by none other than the Wizard of Odd himself Holger Stein. Built from the ground up, the 8-inch coax driver designed on this piano-finished floorstander is hand-made by Stein himself (is there anything he cannot do?). With a 93 dB efficiency quotient, I got a remarkable sense of musical rightness and sound stage via the Wyred 4 Sound mINT integrated. But intense musicality is apparent once I strapped on the Von Gaylord Starlet integrated. This speaker is aimed at those seeking emotional involvement rather than a visceral one. For it doesn't enjoy being driven hard or loud for that matter. At the right volume, it performs beautifully. [CP]
 

Tekton Design Lore-S Loudspeakers: ($1,399 in durable painted satin finish)

Designer Eric Alexander has come up with an incredible sounding floor-standing speaker in the Lore-S. Employing upscale Seas drivers in this mid-size 2-way, the designer has pulled off a striking blend of coherency and natural frequency balance that provides a wealth of harmonic details at a very affordable price. These speakers sound fantastic in small to medium-size rooms and I can absolutely recommend the Lore-S without any reservatio
ns excepting that true bass freaks might want to add a subwoofer. (Frank Alles)




Tekton Design M-Lore speakers ($649/pair)
It is just a damned shame the phrase “paradigm shift” has been co-opted and by now very likely patented by the Paradigm speaker company in that they have cleverly named a small, cute powered speaker the “Shift.” Nonetheless- I will resolutely risk legal action by applying this phrase to the Tekton Design M-Lore loudspeakers. I typically request for review products I think I'll probably like, and most of the time I'm right. After all, I know myself almost as well as my (imaginary) Scottish Fold cat Friskers does. Now and again I am floored, stunned and bemused. The M-Lore essentially ended the hunt for my “perfect speaker.” No, not THE perfect speaker, but MY perfect speaker. My perfect speaker is easy to drive, visually unobtrusive, makes passionate love to opera, classical and jazz, and can also play anything I ask of it at deafening levels, is coherent as an electrostat, supremely dynamic at low to medium levels and positively spookily realistic in gestalting you with that “musicians are hanging out in my room and drinking all my expensive scotch” thing. Plus, the M-Lore at only $649.00 a pair represent something even rarer in high-end audio… a stupid-good bargain!


The Tekton M-Lore is therefore not the “best value in affordable speakers, blah blah blah...” How trite. Nay! It is the best value in anything that is a material good in this here Amur-i-can free market economy. Designer Eric Alexander is supernatural. Okay- so that's over the top. Hey, it’s a free market economy-- sue me! Seriously, the M-Lore... is all you need. (David Abramson)















 

Vaughn Triode III Loudspeakers ($8,000): Think about a romantic evening with lights dimmed down low, fine wine and the love of your life snuggling at your side, and you’ll have an idea of how the Triode IIIs can make you feel. They have a very intimate presence and ease about them. I did not expect that these little known babies would sing like they do, and compete with speakers twice their price. I kept saying to myself as they improved day after day… “Are you kidding me? No $8,000 loudspeaker should sound this good. Excellent, smooth high-end extension, check. Deep articulate bass, check. And their biggest strength, beautiful, textured, weighty midrange, highlighting subtle nuances in vocals. A bit of toe-in and the Triode IIIs completely disappear leaving voices dead center with instruments hanging in the air. Only a low-powered SET amp is needed, since there is a built-in 300 watt class D amp driving the 12 inch subwoofer. Yet, the speakers are smooth and well integrated from top to bottom. The Triode IIIs are not even broken-in completely and I am afraid that I won’t be able to let them go after the review is complete. (Lew Dardick)

 






























 
 


Artesania Audio Exoteryc Rack ($8500)
Remarkably solid and minimalist in design and concept, yet we found it easy to hear this tubular metal rack's sonic benefits. The Exoteryc isolates each component independently by way of its Acoustic Anti-Resonance Treatment technology. Don't know how to explain its sound because it really doesn't have one. Incredibly neutral. Made my previous rack sound dull and colored in the frequency extremes. The Exoteryc's cleaner highs and quieter lows improved the overall solidity and control of my system.  [CP]

Entreq Audio Apollo Cables (Speaker wire $16,000 USD/2.2M pair, Interconnect $8,300 USD/1.1M pair, Power cord $8,300 USD/1.8M pair)

Per-Olof Friberg’s stunningly accurate and noise floor vanquishing cables have taken a system that I was already thrilled with to a whole new level. A greater focus on rendering music as naturally authentic as possible is what these capable have achieved while still minimizing interference to nearly non-existent levels. The speaker cables are truly spectacular and worth their not insignificant price tag. (Dave Thomas)
 

 

Entreq Silver TellUs ($2200) and MinimUs ($350) Ground Conditioners

This Swedish-based manufacturer of fine cables launched a multi-level assault that features their PowerUs, CleanUs and TellUs/MinimUs series of both active and passive conditioners - plus a new type of grounding device. Of these, I have TellUs/MinimUs Ground conditioners in my system and I am proud to report they not only work but work alongside other AC line conditioners too (as the manufacturer stated). So far, I am enamored by the level of delicate ease and smoothness that has resulted based on just grounding my components to these devices. Impressive indeed.  [CP]

HB Cable Design PowerSlave Acrylic (AC Power Strip: $6,995 w/o power cord)

             

While there is no question of the quality of construction, nevertheless, it is merely a power strip. But it far surpasses what other transformers, filters, regenerators, etc. have done for the sound of my system. The soundstaging is precise and real. I have found that their PowerDragon power cord ($5,400 for 1.5 m) also greatly improves the performance, and other power cords, such as the Exemplar Portals, work quite well too. It is expensive but a must to remain in my system. (Norm Luttbeg)

 

HiFiMAN HE-400 and HE-500 Headphones ($399 and 699 respectively) These HiFiMan Planar Headphones reminded me of my first exposure to Stax Electrostatic Earspeakers way back in the late’70’s, which at the time blew me away. They are, in a word, a “revelation,” unraveling a wealth of musical detail with impressive dynamic range. The bass performance in particular is excellent capturing the realism of drums and bass instruments like very few headphones can. My full review may be posted by the time you read this! (Frank Alles)












 

 

Highend Novum PMR Initium ($1350.00)
A "mini-me" version to the bigger Novum resonator we all went gaga over. At roughly half the size of the standard PMR, the Initium serves as a perfect companion for placement around the room especially when space is an issue. Adds sparkle and dimensionality to an already excellent product.  [CP]

 

 

 

 

Jorma Design Unity Power Cord ($2,000/1.5m, $450 each additional meter)

Jorma Design is a small Swedish company which exclusively manufactures high-end cables. The cable is handmade and crafted beautifully with an exceptional fit and finish, like the finest European automobiles. The Unity has a natural sound that is easy to hear and it thrilled me with its unusual realism. (Key Kim)
 

 



MG Audio Cables (Planus II speaker wire: $55/ft, Planus CU Interconnect: $300/M pair, Planus AG interconnect: $800/M pair. $200 for termination on all cables)

      

Very nicely made and executed ribbon cables. The Planus II speaker cables mated particularly well with my Maggie MG20s and the interconnect rendered music with an impressive amount of refinement. These cables are a shockingly good value given their price and performance. Hurry up and find them before the company figures out that they’re grossly under priced. (Dave Thomas)
 

Mojo Audio Enigma and XPC-7 AC Power Cords ($299.95 and $499.95/1.5m with upgrade plug sets @ extra cost)

Due to the use of high-quality conductors, cryogenically treated plug sets and solid construction techniques, these Mojo Audio power cords are the most musical, detailed, and best-balanced AC cords I’ve ever had the pleasure of installing in my reference system. With the Enigma cord on my preamplifier and the heavy-gauge XPC-7 cord on my power amplifier the sound has never been so spacious, dynamic, and mesmerizing. (Frank Alles)


Purist Audio 25th Anniversary cables ($17k speaker, $8k interconnect AC cords $10k)

This level of performance does not come cheap. Easily the most dynamic and liquid sounding cables to have graced my listening space. Provides an overwhelming sense of tonal rightness and does magic for voices and strings while its quickness gives my low-end a new level of definition and command.  [CP]

Skogrand Markarian 421 speaker cables ($7,500)

See review here [CP]

StillPoints Grids for ESS Rack ($370 for 20 and 40 inch racks and $390 for 26 inch racks)These replace the acrylic shelves on the ESS Racks. These ½” stainless bars form a double X with multiple threaded holes for mounting feet to support components to the technology of StillPoints. The key here is removing the deadening of sound because of acrylic. With both StillPoints Ultra SSs and Fives, sound is more dynamic, bass more controlled, soundstage more real, and ambience more evident. I am replacing 5 of my 6 shelves and greatly relieved to have the acrylic out of my system. These are a must for those with SP ESS Racks. (Norm Luttbeg)
 

Synergistic Research PowerCell 10SE MKIII Power Condition ($5500) 

The PowerCell 10SE MKIII and Element Series AC power cables are engineering breakthroughs that are well made, deliver on their promised performance, and have taken my system to a level I never thought possible. They improve all areas of the sonic performance (soundstage, noise floor, microdynamics, etc) yet provide a more natural and musical presentation. The great thing about Powercell 10SE MKIII and Element Series power cables, are that once purchased you can forget about that link in your audio system. “Synergistic” is how I would describe the effect and approach of the PowerCell 10SE MKIII, Element Series power cables, and MiGs. They are my new reference. (Michael Girardi)
 

Synergistic Research Element Series AC Power Cables