Most Wanted 2016
Aurorasound VIDA – Vinyl Disk Amplifier ($4,990.00 XLR output adds $1,000): Key Kim's 2014 MW award and subsequent review (here) piqued my interest in this elegantly built phonostage from Japan. The Aurorasound VIDA incorporates state-of-the-art semiconductor technology (LCR-type network) and old-world craftsmanship to create a top performing phono amplifier. I concur wholeheartedly with Key's sonic descriptors: "...its black background is what sets the stage for its remarkable resolution, openness, and harmonic integrity." (Clement Perry)
Audio Technica OC9/III ($1,200.00. Pricing appears flexible. Best do some research): The Audio Technica OC9/III is the latest version of a basic design that is now over 30 years old. Warmer, more detailed and quieter in the groove than its predecessor, this third versions maintains the OC9 lineage’s core virtue of offering excellent sound at a reasonable price. If you crave a bit of the finesse and liquidity of a good moving coil, but aren’t willing to mortgage the house to get there, the OC9/III will get you pretty far down the road. It’s the working man’s moving coil, a hi-fi classic, and a definite upgrade over the last version. It’s the best OC9 yet. (Greg Simmons)
Etsuro Urushi MC cartridge ($8,000.00): I’ve been listening to this gorgeous jewel-like Urushi lacquer finished cartridge for about three months and it continues to be music to my ears. It features a super-fine line (80u) diamond mounted in a sapphire cantilever. Etsuro Urushi took my analog set up to the next level. Simply put, everything improved; it rendered music with more detail, open, and transparent with a harmonically enriched, full bodied sound and throws a wonderful 3D soundstage. What can I say? It’s my new reference. (Key Kim)
Tavish Design Vintage 6SL7 Phono Stage (MM / MC) ($599.00 assembled): I originally ran into Scott Reynolds, the owner and designer of Tavish Design at the New York Audio Show in 2015. Tavish is a small manufacturer of affordable, high end vacuum tube audio products. The Tavish Design Vintage 6SL7 Phono Stage is a spin off of their Classic Vacuum Tube Phono Stage, using the the 6SL7GT, a tube long loved by audiophiles for its linearity and low noise. It comes in both kit form and pre-assembled, with Sovtek 6SL7GT tubes standard and Tung Sol Reissue 6SL7GT offered as an option. The Vintage presents a nice depth to the soundstage, with focused imaging, tight transients and a generous depth to percussive instrumentation. It delivers low frequency impact and wonderfully subtle micro-dynamics with great drive, rhythm and sparkle. As I commented in the review, having never heard a 6SL7 before, the time I spent with this tube was like making a new friend. When you audition the Vintage, as I hope you will, do pay the upgrade cost for the Tong Sol’s… you’re welcome (Greg Voth).
Ayon Audio Odin III Gen 4 Stereo Amplifier ($26,500): The Odin, a 50 watt per channel direct heated triode stereo amp, is a state-of-the-art tube amp made in Austria and is among the best I’ve heard. Its ability to throw an open soundstage filled with images of high density and energy while being highly resolving yet neutral in tonal balance was uncanny at creating the recording’s venue. The Odin presented bass that was better defined and more powerful than most solid-state amplifiers I ever listened to. The attack, slam, and sustain with extraordinary decay has a way of transporting one to the live event. (Michael Girardi)
Classé Audio Sigma Mono Amps ($3,999.00/pair):
My recognition of the Classé Audio Sigma MONOs should not come as a surprise to anybody. They are state-of-the-art, high-end audio products that are attractively styled, thoughtfully designed and fabulous sounding, while still being reasonably affordable. I flat out loved these amps. If it weren’t for the fact that I spent a week in Las Vegas where I married my longtime sweetheart, I’d probably be working out a way to purchase two sets of these amps; they’re that good. But what I can do is give them my highest recommendation because they certainly deserve that. You, dear readers deserve to go and check these awesome amps out. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for your first true audiophile system or upgrading an existing system. The Sigma MONOs are definitely next level products. I can’t imagine a moderately priced system that these amps won’t improve. And should you ever be in a position to use two pairs of mono amps, let your search begin and end here. (Dave Thomas)
Decware Zen Mystery Amp ($5,695): The Zen Mystery Amp is a push-pull tube amplifier based on an ultra-linear design. It’s a Class-A design, using two KT66 per side to produce a powerful 40-watts per channel with zero negative feedback. Right from the start I was impressed with the gorgeous midrange that one expects, especially from a tube amplifier. Neither euphonic nor syrupy, this design boasts a very rich harmonic palette. The sound is musically convincing and thus engaging: voices and instruments had a believable color, texture, and presence with palpable weight and solidity. How does Steve Deckert offer all this performance for asking price on only $5,695.00, with lifetime warranty? I don’t quite know but the Zen Mystery Amplifier is one of the best-kept secrets in high-end audio… ‘til now. (Key Kim)
Digital Audio Company Stereo Maraschino ($1000): Small, lightweight and as far as appearances and heavy-weight amps go, this little baby is almost laughable. Once installed however, I was gobsmacked with actually how good this little digital dynamo performed. Iinstalled this standard 48v version (a more powerful 60v version avalible for $1500.00), right up against the New Audio Frontiers 300B SE ($18k) and Grandinote Demone mono amps ($45k), and though not in the same realm in terms of overall sonic attributes, I could state for the record: the Stereo Maraschino produced a sound that was far more rewarding than I thought possible based on its size and price. Has a sweet, tube-like presentation with great low-end foundation to boot, thanks to its digital power-supply. Really impressive design. Review forthcoming! (Clement Perry)
Grandinote Demone mono amplifiers ($45,000) and Domino preamp ($13,000): My first experience with these Italian-made devices occurred at the 2012 High End show in Munich, Germany. Didn't know it at the time, but never heard a ribbbon/planar loudspeaker in the new Leonardo's produce so fine a dynamic coupled to amazing low-end control as when driven by the Grandinote gear. Subsequently found out later while visiting the Leonardo facility in Italy how important their performance was related to the Grandinote electronics. No other amplifier they had on hand could reproduce music in the same incredibly warm and musical fashion, with a sense of control only solid-state designs can boast.
Well, now the Grandinote Demone and Dominos are here and connected to the Swiss-built SoundKaos Wave 40 loudspeakers where they're producing harmonic delights that I had expected only from tubes. Add a sense of control, dynamics and finesse that's associated to only the finest solid-state devices. Review in the works! (Clement Perry)
HiFiMAN Edition X V2 Headphones ($1,299.00): Well, I started with the Edition X V2 headphones early in the year and found them to be immensely musical and articulate. But I complained to HiFiMAN’s Fang Bain that the headband wouldn’t adjust low enough so I put the review on hold while that was addressed and other improvements were made. The resulting V2 surpassed my expectations providing a better fit to my noggin, more realistic soundstaging, and a blacker background with impressive retrieval of fine details I haven’t heard from any loudspeakers. Highly recommended! (Frank Alles)
LampizatOr 211 PP True Balanced mono amplifiers ($12,850/pair): They feature a unique push-pull Class-A design using a pair of 211 SETs to produce a powerful 85-watts per channel. It is not like a typical push-pull design; most of the time push-pull sounds inferior to SET because of the phase splitter circuit. Instead, the 211 Balanced amps do not split the phase. On the contrary, this monoblock is effectively two SET mono amplifiers in one chassis sharing an output transformer. The signal is as pure as the SET but also provides error cancellations and humming cancellations due to mirroring of the signals. The 211 True Balanced amps render music beautifully with SET purity, transparency, and midrange with power and authority. (Key Kim)
New Audio Frontiers 300B SE Integrated ($18,000 Reviewed here): The Supreme 300B Special Edition is one heavy integrated amplifier. At ninety pounds it is perhaps the heaviest integrated amp I've encountered in recent memory. Even a casual glance at the Supreme 300B SE reveals its Italian heritage—it is gorgeouswith a wonderfully sculpted rose-gold and black chassis. This faceplate sets off a trio of control knobs for power, volume and input selection, and its carved mahogany side panels give it high marks for aesthetic excellence. At $18,000, the Supreme 300B is not inexpensive, but considering what else you can spend eighteen grand on, that may not get you half-way there, this purchase is a steal (Clement Perry).
Parasound Halo 2.1 Channel Integrated Amplifier ($2,500): The Parasound Halo 2.1 is a great sounding unit, with a feature set and preamp based on other well-regarded Parasound products and it’s power amp stage is a John Curl design, as are the circuits. The Halo 2.1 includes some future-proof features - digital inputs, on-board crossovers and high quality, gold-plated connectors and both balanced and single-ended inputs. The theater bypass/amps input makes the Halo not only suitable for two channel use but also for powering the left and right channels in a surround sound system. With the Halo superior to any surround receiver, it can take the load off the receiver by powering the left and right channels separately, leaving the receiver to power the center and surround channels. However, in bypass mode, volume adjustments must be made from the surround sound receiver’s remote.
The Halo 2.1 provides 160 watts per channel into 8 Ohms and features a dual-mono power supply with an over-sized toroidal power transformer and the power amplifier section has good stuff under the hood. My power-hungry speakers, with their 83 dB sensitivity, were driven to a fair listening volume in our large loft, though at a higher volume knob position than I like. The Halo’s onboard DAC was warm, dynamic and engaging and the Halo’s included phono section was a very good sounding addition, with adjustments of both MM and MC cartridges included. (Greg Voth)
Silbatone RP300 Stereo Power Amplifier ($100,000.00): While this Korean-designed amplifier only produces less than 10W of power per channel, typical of a 300B driven amp, there is nothing typical about its sound. The way that the 300B has been executed here has never, nor will ever be, equaled anywhere else on earth. While one may flinch at the asking price, the fact that it is itself not only a beautiful piece of art, but produces timeless works of musical art every time it plays, goes a long way to justifying its price tag. A more detailed review is to follow soon. Meanwhile, if you are thinking of dipping your toes into the 300B world, do not make any decisions until you have heard this amplifier. Why? Because it redefines what is possible from the 300B vacuum tube. (Stephen Yan)
Wells Audio Majestic Integrated Amplifier ($3,599.00): At one point in my late 20's I owned a $40,000 stereo system; all Naim and all bought second hand. Out of necessity, I also owned a couch, a desk, an inflatable mattress and... that was it (It was all I could afford after buying the stereo). Later, I came to realize this was not a balanced lifestyle. I also came to hear audio equipment that pushed the exact same sonic buttons for me for much less moola. Eventually, I bought a more comfortable, non-inflatable bed and other furnishings. My few remaining friends stopped describing me as “eccentric.” Flash forward 20 years and in 2016, for about 1/6 the cost of my former uber system, I managed to surpass it in nearly all regards. Indeed, in combination with my trusty Tekton Lore Reference loudspeakers and Aqua Hifi DAC, the Wells Audio Majestic amplifier became the engine for the most musically consonant system I've ever assembled in my home, bar none. The Majestic came in for review and ended up changing what I now expect from my hi-fi. It made music sound more like life and less like a bunch of electrons putting on a puppet show than any other audio device I've ever had in my home. Dead quiet, unassuming, minimalist, potent and palpable, the Majestic is for me an involving music machine that has set the bar high indeed. The best part? To own it, I don't have to sell my non-inflatable bed. (David Abramson)