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					          The Absolute Sound’s



     Anthony H. Cordesman, Neil Gader, Wayne Garcia,
        Robert E. Greene, Jim Hannon, Robert Harley,
   Chris Martens, Paul Seydor, Alan Taffel, Jonathan Valin



The Absolute Sound’s annual Golden Ear Awards
feature is the place where our editors and most
frequent contributors honor those components
that have won a place in their hearts. Some of
these components are long-time references that
have withstood the test of time. Others are
newfound favorites that may be destined
to become classics. In either case, the
products selected for Golden Ear Awards
are special, indeed.
    Unlike our Editors’ Choice Awards—
a compendium of every product we
recommend, agreed upon by a committee
of the senior editorial staff—Golden Ear
Awards allow writers to express their indi-
vidual views of which components they
think are truly great, and why. The diversity
of products selected here not only reflects
the industry at large, but also each writer’s
quest for the absolute sound. —RobertHarley

                                                             The Absolute Sound August 2007 
                                  The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                       PassLabsXonophonopreamp,
                                                                       X0.2preamp,andX600.5amp
                                                                       If the Krell Evolution Series were cheaper and had a phono
                                                                       preamp equal to its preamp and amp, I would have chosen that.
                                                                       For someone who loves analog, however, the Pass combination
         Anthony H. Cordesman                                          is the better option and far more affordable. Close to the best
                                                                       of transistor and tube sound with excellent neutrality and the
                                                                       ability to drive any speaker around. passlabs.com (X600.5
                                                                       reviewedinIssue164)

 KimberKableSelectspeakercable                                   EMMLabsCDSAintegratedplayer
 andinterconnect                                                     No CD player can totally overcome the limits of the medium,
 There are some great cables out there, and much of your choice        and the CDSA is very, very expensive. A superb CD and SACD
 should depend on system synergy. I have long, however, found          player, however, it offers subtle musically natural detail, the
 Kimber to provide the most musically realistic balance of             best imaging and soundstage I’ve heard other than from digital
 timbre and detail at any price. In the case of the Kimber Select      masters, and excellent overall timbre without digital hardness
               cables, no top-of-the-line, high-priced mix of in-      in the upper octaves or artificial softening of the sound. It also
                    terconnects and speaker cables has provided        does a remarkable job of salvaging bad to mediocre CDs. A
                      equally realistic musical listening with so      must-audition even if you can afford it. (I could not afford it
                      many different components—a truly great          and bought it anyway.) Price: $9995. emmlabs.com (review
                      set of cables from a firm that clearly listens   pending)
                       to music, rather than wanders off into an
                       alternative universe or designs its products    VPIHRXturntable
                        to sound different and slightly boost          andJMW12.7tonearm
                        the upper midrange to heighten detail.         Harry Weisfeld can’t stop upgrading this combination and each
                         Expensive to be sure, but one good thing      generation is just a bit better (all are fully upgradable). Total
                         about Kimber is that it offers the same       reliability and consistency. Amazing detail without any loss
                         excellent value in sound for money from       of warmth and deep bass. Not a trace or wow and flutter or
                          the bottom to the top of the line. Price:   bearing noise. An arm that works superbly with any modern
                          Varies.kimber.com(notreviewed)            moving-coil or moving-magnet cartridge. Equally important,
                                                                       VPI’s most affordable turntables offer much of the same sound
                          TacT2.2XP                                   quality. Price:$11,000.vpiindustries.com(reviewedinIssue
                          Pure analog may still produce the most       150)
                          natural detail, but the latest TacT
                           comes very close, offers more accurate      AIX,Chesky,ClassicRecords,andTelarc
                            timbre than any analog combination         Thank God someone still pushes recording quality to the state
                            can hope to approach, provides phase       of the art.
                             correction and exact balance, allows
                              you to tune frequency response to
                              compensate for digital brightness
                               or different LP equalization curves,           “The Black Swan is a truly
                               and throws in an excellent D/A
                                converter. The fact the new unit
                                                                               musically natural speaker
                                does automatic room correction                that can reveal the soul of
                                 without an additional computer
                                 makes its use remarkably easy.
                                                                                   acoustic music.”
                                Price: $5488 (with analog and
                                D/A modules). tactlab.com
                                 (reviewedinIssue168)               GershmanBlackSwanloudspeaker
                                                                       I’m not giving up my far more expensive TAD-1s, and I am
                                                                       struck by the sheer consistency with which the Thiel 7.7s,
                                                                       Magnepan 20.1s, and new Quad electrostatics offer superb
                                 Gershman Black Swan                   sound for a given taste at a given price. The Black Swan is a truly
                                                                       musically natural speaker, however, and one that can reveal the
                                                                       soul of acoustic music. Truly worth auditioning. Price:$30,000.
                                                                       gershmanacoustics.com(reviewedinIssue168)


6 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                 The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                      PioneerS-2EXloudspeaker
                                                                      The Pioneer S-2EX (along with its floorstanding big brother the
                                                                      S-1EX) is an offshoot of Pioneer’s professional TAD family and
                                                                      has benefited from much of the R&D that this “skunk works”
                                                                      facility has learned about cabinet construction, exotic materials
                      Neil Gader                                      like beryllium, and coincident-driver technology. The result is
                                                                      an oversized, stand-mounted three-way with studio-tough cre-
                                                                      dentials, bunker-busting dynamics, and the kind of holographic
                                                                      imaging and soundstaging that will have even the elitists nodding
                                                                      in admiration. Thanks to its brilliantly executed coincident
PSBAlphaB1loudspeaker                                              midrange/tweeter technology there is no shoutiness, no cupped-
It’s hard to figure why the PSB Alpha B1 sounds as good as it         hands artifact. The S-2EX’s ability to delineate an orchestra-worth
does. Outwardly, it looks like any number of prosaic, under-          of musicians across a soundstage is utterly intoxicating. And, sig-
$300 econoboxes. There’s one crucial difference, however. In          nificantly, it’s a bass-reflex design with all its attendant benefits
two words, “Paul Barton.” It’s Barton, the eponymous founder          but without the port penalty—i.e., with no overhang. Frankly
and chief engineer behind this Canadian company, who drives           not everyone will gravitate toward the Pioneer’s brand of tonal
his team to infuse PSB speakers with unerring musicality and          honesty. It won’t romanticize sharply edged recordings, and some
tonal accuracy. Derived from a long line of critically reviewed       might argue that its overall character has a clinical component.
Alphas, the newest B1 has been honed, refined, recontoured,           However, it will define the quality of a recording—from great
and fussed over by Barton in a way that only a fellow stickler        to lousy—like a dictionary. In many ways it is perhaps the first
could understand. Barely twelve inches tall, this little blaster      speaker to successfully bridge the divide between the pragmatism
grabs hold of a signal with the determination of a pit bull and       of the studio ethic and the yearnings of the audiophile heart.
gives it a sling-shot ride that says “bite me” to the competition.    Price:$6000.pioneerelectronics.com(reviewedinIssue169)
                                     Clobber it with dynamically
                                       charged orchestral material    PliniusSB-301amplifier
                                       or groove-driven hip-hop,      Yes, at 310 watts per channel the Plinius SB-301 outputs a lot
                                       and the B1 yawns. Sure,        of power. But I’ve come to the hard-nosed conclusion that
                                       it’s not perfection—there’s    there is no such thing as too much power—only too little. That
                                       a bit of a presence slump      said, the brawny Australian—sporting enough heatsinks to cool
                                       near the crossover point,      a reactor—has yet to find a speaker that it couldn’t improve,
                                       the tweeter isn’t the last     whether by enriching harmonics, detailing treble response,
                                       word in silken refinement,     or lending transient speed a good kick in the pants. Think of
                                       and the soundstage is a bit    the Plinius SB-301 as a personal trainer for your loudspeak-
                                       amorphous. But all told,       ers, because it will put even the most flat-footed among them
                                       the proof in this pudding      through their paces in ways that you may not have thought
                                       was the simple fact that       possible. It removes the flab from the low frequencies, broadens
                                       I couldn’t turn ’em off!       the dynamic envelope, and reconditions transient responsive-
                                       That’s what a great speaker    ness. Like virtually every Plinius product I’ve heard over the
                                       should do. At $279 the pair,   past ten years, this amp has the timing down. Like pieces of
                                       there is now no excuse for     a puzzle, every element of a performance slots in decisively
                                       anyone to feel excluded        with the other elements—the full picture emerging, vivid and
                                       from the high end. Price:     continuous. But it’s not all macho and mayhem; in fact, the
                                     $279.psbloudspeakers.com       upper treble is as sweet and graceful as I’ve ever heard from a
                                     (reviewedinIssue170)          solid-stater, high power or low. The SB-301 flat-out raises your
                                                                      system up until it’s more than you ever thought it could be. If
                                                                      that doesn’t merit a Golden Ear, than I don’t know what does.
                                                                      Price:$6995.eliteavdist.com(reviewedinIssue169)
                     PSB Alpha B1




                      “The Alpha B1 has been fussed over by Barton in a
                       way that only a fellow stickler could understand.”

                   8 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                 The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                     30Hz region and extends way beyond our hearing capability
                                                                     (100kHz), with a huge soundstage that belies the speaker’s
                                                                     small size (it’s just 3-feet tall), and, most importantly, regularly
                                                                     manages to make me forget that I’m listening to speakers.
                                                                     That’s not to say that the Mini Exquisite sounds just like live
                   Wayne Garcia                                      music—no speaker does—but that it’s so good that you will
                                                                     almost always be caught up in the sound of the music, not the
                                                                     sound of your stereo system. Price: $45,000. gttgroup.com
                                                                     (reviewedinIssue167)




 T       he Golden Ear issue is a time to reflect on the
         components that have given us extra-special musical
         pleasures over the past year, and sometimes beyond
 that time frame. Golden Ear Awards can also be viewed as
 something of a snapshot of our current reference systems.
                                                                     MBL1521ACDtransport&1511EDAC
                                                                     The high end boasts many superb design talents, but MBL’s
                                                                     Juergen Reis is something else again. Here’s a guy who
                                                                     designs world-class loudspeakers, analog linestage preamps,
                                                                     and power amplifiers, as well as digital components. Perhaps
 And in that regard I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve had many      most remarkably, Reis shows weakness in none of these
 superlative items come, go, and remain in my system since GEs       areas. Although one may prefer components from other elite
 last appeared in these pages.                                       manufacturers, MBL’s stuff holds it own with them all,
                                                                     and for some of us represents the best that solid-state and
                                                                     digital have to offer. Moreover, across the board and within
                                                                     each of its product lines, MBL gear offers a remarkably
 KharmaMiniExquisiteloudspeaker                                   consistent sonic presentation—one that is all you could want
 First up is Kharma’s Mini Exquisite loudspeaker. Though it’s        when it comes to resolution, air, bottom-end grip and power,
 an exceptionally transparent and highly resolving design, the       and explosive dynamics, and is simply ravishing at revealing rich
 Kharma Mini is anything but sterile sounding. Like the Sonus        layers of tone colors. I could easily have singled out MBL’s 9007
 faber Elipsa, the Kharma manages to be very beautiful sounding      monoblocks or its 5011 linestage, but will instead reserve this
 as well as extremely revealing of recordings and other system       Golden Ear for the 1521 A CD Transport and 1511 E DAC.
 components. Yet the Kharma is even more detailed, dynamic,          Why? Because I never knew that CD playback could be so
 and open than the Elipsa—as well it should be for more than         engrossing. Prices: $9130 & $8910. mbl-usa.com (reviewed
 double the Elipsa’s price. Oh, I know, lots of folks will think     inIssue164)
 you’d have to be ready for the funny farm to spend this much
 money on what is, admittedly, “only” a two-way speaker. But         SonusFaberElipsaloudspeaker
 what a two-way! And I’d also bet these skeptics haven’t heard       GrahamPhantomB-44tonearm
 the Mini Exquisite. Because if they had they would experience       As it happens, the two final products that round out my list are
 a speaker that, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned,         reviewed in this very issue—Sonus faber’s Elipsa loudspeaker
 delivers a truly seamless frequency range that begins in the mid-   and Graham Engineering’s Phantom B-44 tonearm.




       MBL 1521 A CD Transport




0 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                  The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                       LyngdorfRoomPerfectTDAI2200digital
                                                                       amplifier/room-correctionsystemand
                                                                       CoplandDRCdigitalroom-compensation
                                                                       device
                                                                       Listed together, they are in fact quite different, each superb
                Robert E. Greene                                       in its own way. The Lyngdorf unit, a digital amplifier with a
                                                                       room-correction system incorporated, chooses a “target curve”
                                                                       automatically. Its one-touch setup makes its own decisions
                                                                       about what you ought to hear. But they are good decisions,
                                                                       respecting the intrinsic sound of your speakers while adjusting


 O          utstanding among my review items of the past
            year were an exceptional speaker system and
            two quite different but both very effective digital
 room-correction systems. In addition, I encountered—and
 purchased—a digital-to-analog converter that to my ears was
                                                                       things sonically to remove room-induced problems. No
                                                                       tweaking required; five minutes of setup to hearing something
                                                                       really good; fine amplification, too.
                                                                          For the seeker of more personalized perfection, the Copland
                                                                       DRC, a correction-only unit that goes in the tape monitor loop
 essentially ideal, and not terribly expensive. People sometimes       of your preamp, can also be run satisfyingly in an automatic
 say there is nothing new in audio and cite the masterworks of         mode, but its glory is the possibility of adjustment by the user.
 decades past. But this year’s crop gives this the lie. The sounds I   Using adjustable filters on top for its own basic correction,
 heard out of this year’s awardees would have been inconceivable       controlled by a PC with the program exhibiting the measurement
 not all that many years ago. Progress is definitely being made.       results before and after, it can allow you to find your sonic Holy
                                                                       Grail, however you conceive it. And the Dynaton digital engine
                                                                       gives wonderful results, whatever target curve you choose for
                                                                       yourself. Lyngdorf price: $7280. lyngdorf.com. Copland
                                                                       price: $2500. divergent.com (Lyngdorf reviewed in Issue
 JamoR909loudspeaker                                                 170;Coplandreviewforthcoming)
 This speaker combines the advantages of dipole operation
 with the power and bass extension that membrane speakers              BenchmarkDAC-1
 (electrostatics or planar magnetics) can seldom offer.                You can spend as much as it costs to buy a nice new car on a
    The two 15-inch woofers per side and the dynamic-driver            digital-to-analog conversion device, but at a far more modest
 midrange (SEAS magnesium) are operated as dipoles in an               price the Benchmark offers truly superb performance, right
 open baffle. The speaker thus offers the differentiation against      there at the top. To my ears, we are not dealing here with
 room acoustics and early reflections of a planar dipole, but          compromises to save money. Just the opposite: This unit,
 with power and bass extension (-3dB, 27Hz) that few planars           originally designed for professional use and not particularly
 can even dream of. Set up correctly—distance from walls is            impressive to look at (it’s little), has a sound I found impossible
 required and listening distance is quite critical—these speakers      to fault. Grainless, solid, detailed, continuous, distortion-less,
 can offer both a high level of neutrality and a startling sense of    whatever words come to mind for what you would like to hear
 the spatial and acoustic scale of orchestral music, while giving      will describe its sound—utterly free of the types of digital sonic
 up nothing to smaller speakers on small-scaled material. A            artifacts that people objected to in the bad digital of the past.
 great speaker for all kinds of music. Price:$14,999.jamo.com       A good piano recording, say, can sound so realistic as almost
 (reviewedinIssue167)                                               to breach the boundary between real and reproduced. This is
                                                                       about as close to the live microphone feed as you are likely to
                                                                       get at home. And its jitter-suppression operating system also

 “The Lyngdorf makes its own                                           makes it unnecessary to use a fancy transport to get superb
                                                                       results. It sounds great with the Pioneer DV578—for which
 decisions, but they’re good ones.”                                    I paid less than $150! A revolution in a little box. Price:$975.
                                                                       benchmarkmedia.com(reviewforthcoming)




                                                    Lyngdorf RoomPefect TDAI 2200


 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                 The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                      QuadESL-2805loudspeakers
                                                                      Several visits by Quad’s David Patching to AR-A’s legendary
                                                                      listening room were the inspiration for Quad’s new ESL-
                                                                      2805 electrostatic loudspeaker. With AR-A’s modifications,
                                                                      Patching heard what the Quad panels were capable of when
                     Jim Hannon                                       manufacturing constraints were removed and massive bracing
                                                                      to the frame and base was applied. He promptly set the Quad
                                                                      design team to the task of getting as close as possible to
                                                                      the structural integrity AR-A had achieved. The result is the
                                                                      brilliant ESL-2805, which also includes improvements in the
 SME20/12turntable/arm                                              manufacture of the panels so they are now capable of higher
 While the Eben X-3 loudspeaker and Art Audio Vinyl                   excursions and sound-pressure levels. The ESL-2805 is one of
 Reference merit honorable mention, my three selections have          the most musically satisfying in high-end audio at any price,
 some connection to the late Alistair Robertson-Aikman (AR-A)         extending the Quad’s dynamic ceiling and bass performance
 of SME. The SME 20/12 was AR-A’s last turntable system, and          envelops. Moreover, it reproduces music with a sonic realism
 he drew from lessons learned in the design of the SME 30/2           and naturalness that are compelling and addictive. These are
 turntable and V-series tonearm, the SME 3012—a twelve-inch           among the very best speakers for those of us who love to get
 tonearm designed by AR-A almost a half-century ago—and               lost in the music, and combined with other low-distortion
 the more recent SME 312. Its 312S is a lightweight, stiff, and       components, like the SME 20/12, can compete with much
 non-resonant twelve-inch arm with a magnesium armtube that           more costly reference systems in musical terms. Price:$8999.
 offers the midrange openness and soundstage depth of a great         iagamerica.com(reviewedinIssue169)
 linear tracker with the bass solidity and extension of the best
 pivoted arms. It is arguably the best twelve-inch arm ever. The
 accompanying table is a larger, more massive version of the
 SME 20/2 and catapults the performance of the 20/12 into the
                                                                           “The Quads reproduce
 top ranks, offering a sonic alternative to SME’s flagship 30/2             music with a realism
 turntable. With its black, black backgrounds, ultra-low bearing
 noise, superb isolation, precise speed accuracy, and rock-solid           and naturalness that are
 speed stability, the 20/12 offers everything one could desire in a       compelling and addictive.”
 reference turntable system. But this sonic masterpiece also has
 a sense of effortlessness that transports the listener right into
 the soul of the performance. Price:$26,499.sumikoaudio.net
 (reviewforthcoming)                                                 Pro-JectRM-10turntable/arm
                                                                      While not on the same plane as the SME 20/12, Pro-Ject’s
                                                                      new RM-10 comes closer to the performance of that turntable
                                                                          system than any $2500 ’table/arm combo has a right to.
                                                                           If you can stretch your budget to this level plus a good
                                                                           cartridge, like the Sumiko Blackbird, you will be rewarded
                                                                           with a surprising level of detail, bass articulation and
                                                                           control, and transparency. The single piece armtube with
                                                                           headshell was inspired by the SME V, except it is molded
                                                                          from carbon fiber instead of magnesium. The RM-10
                                                                          improves upon the already fine performance of the RM-
                                                                          9 with a longer arm (ten inches), the addition of metal
                                                                          granulate in its tear-drop plinth, and the inclusion of the
                                                                          Ground-It Deluxe isolation base. Better still, it also adds
                                                                         magnetic repulsion to take 90% of its more massive platter’s
                                                                         weight off the bearing. The result is a sound that sucks you
                                                                         further into the performance, offering blacker backgrounds,
                                                                         more weight and solidity in the bass, and a cleaner window
                                                                         onto the soundstage. The addition of an optional electronic
                                                                          speed controller can improve pitch stability, rhythmic
                                                                          drive, and detail. With it, the RM-10 gives one a glimpse of
                                                                          what a reference turntable system can do: Make you feel,
                        Quad ESL-2805                                  at times, like the performers are in the room. Price: $2500.
                                                                      sumikoaudio.net(reviewedinIssue172)


 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                 The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                      EsotericP-03universaltransport
                                                                      andD-03D/Aconverter
                                                                      This massive, 130-pound transport/DAC pair is built to a
                                                                      standard that’s extraordinary even by the highest standards
                                                                      of the high end. Employing Esoteric’s mighty VRDS-Neo
                   Robert Harley                                      transport mechanism, the P-03 Universal Transport can handle
                                                                      CD as well as stereo or multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio.
                                                                      When matched with the D-03 digital-to-analog converter, with
                                                                      dual XLR jacks for carrying high-resolution digital along with
                                                                      a separate clock line from the D-03 to the P-03, the sound of
 Basis2800Signatureturntable                                      this digital front end is among the few best I’ve heard. The
 andVectortonearm                                                   Esoteric combination is characterized by that rare combination
 This latest iteration of the Basis 2800 is the culmination of        of ease with resolution, sensational dynamics, and holographic
 more than two decades of research by A.J. Conti into optimizing      soundstaging. I should add that the P-03’s video performance
 turntable design. The ’table employs many proven design              (it outputs 1080p on HMDI) is of reference quality.
 techniques along with several innovations and refinements that       Prices: $17,200 (P-03), $13,300 (D-03). teac.com (reviewed
 advance the art. And in a single stroke of genius, the Vector        inIssue171)
 tonearm’s novel design delivers the performance of a unipivot
 tonearm without azimuth error—a problem that has plagued             JLAudioFathomf113subwoofer
 unipivots since their inception. The sonic result is an LP front     This remarkable subwoofer goes lower and plays louder than
 end that is extraordinarily neutral tonally, with no false midbass   any other subwoofer I’ve auditioned. But that’s not the criterion
 warmth or other colorations imposed on the music. Instead,           by which one should judge a sub. More important are transient
 the 2800/Vector combination gets out of the music’s way to           fidelity, articulation, and most of all, the ability to blend
 a degree I haven’t before heard in a turntable. It’s almost like     seamlessly with the main loudspeakers—qualities the Fathom
 taking the turntable out of the signal path. This transparency       has in spades. Amazingly, the Fathom f113 combines effortless
 to the source extends to the super-quiet background, stunning        brute-force impact with extraordinary finesse, speed, musicality,
 resolution of low-level detail, timbral realism, and massive         and pitch definition. And it does so at an eminently reasonable
 dynamic contrasts. The level of listener involvement delivered       price. Price:$3200.jlaudio.com(reviewedinIssue170)
 by the Basis 2800 and Vector is unparalleled in my experience
 as a reviewer, no matter what the source. Finally, the Vector’s      MusicInterfaceTechnologies(MIT)
 lack of tracking error and distortion not only fosters a greater     OracleMAandMagnumMA
 relaxation and musical involvement, but also protects your           loudspeakercable
 record collection from cumulative damage. Prices: $12,900          MIT’s new Oracle MA cable is insanely priced at $24,900 for an
 (2800),$3450(Vector),$21,750(fullyoptionedwithVector         8' pair, but it’s also insanely great. I’ve used MIT’s older Oracle
 tonearm).basisaudio.com(reviewedinIssue172)                     V2 as my reference for nearly five years, and couldn’t envision
                                                                      how the new Oracle MA (for “Maximum Articulation”) could
                                                                      be that much better. But putting Oracle MA into the system
                                                                      rendered a jaw-dropping increase in bottom-end weight, spatial
                                                                      resolution, and sheer naturalness. This cable must be heard to
                                                                      be believed. The bottom-end tightened up, with simultaneously
                                                                      greater warmth, pitch articulation, and dynamics. Instrumental
                                                                      images within the soundstage were presented with more air
                                                                      and space around them, greater precision, finer gradations of
                                                                      depth, and an indescribable feeling of realism that bordered on
                                                                      the spooky. If you’re one of the few who can afford a cable at
                                                                      this level, you must audition Oracle MA. Note that MIT’s $7995
                                                                      Magnum MA (which uses a less elaborate implementation of the
                                                                      same technology) delivers many of the same sonic qualities for
                                                                      considerably less money. Had I not heard Oracle MA, Magnum
                                                                      MA would be my reference. Prices: $24,900 (Oracle MA),
                                                                      $7995(MagnumMA).mitcables.com(reviewforthcoming)




     Esoteric P-03 Universal Transport




6 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                  The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                       sold out. But who knows? Perhaps if prospective customers
                                                                       show sufficient interest the folks at Musical Fidelity might
                                                                       decide to make more of them. That would be, as Martha
                                                                       Stewart might say, a good thing. Price:$7000.musicalfidelity.com
                                                                       (notreviewed)
                    Chris Martens
                                                                       NottinghamAnalogueSpace294
                                                                       turntable/Ace-Space294tonearm
                                                                       My situation is this. I love listening to vinyl and have heard
                                                                       top-tier systems from Walker and others, which are everything
 MusicalFidelitykWSACDplayer                                      they’re cracked up to be. However, there is no way I can afford
 Last Fall I upgraded my system, swapping out my reference             to spend $30k, $20k, $10k, or even $5k on my analog rig (my
 Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD player (reviewed in Issue             spirit is willing, but my checkbook is not). What’s a passionate
 144) for its next-generation counterpart, the kW SACD player.         but not ultra-well-heeled analog lover to do? Buy a Nottingham
 Since the Tri-Vista was a fine player in its own right, I assumed     Space 294 turntable and Ace-Space 294 tonearm for the sub-
 the kW SACD player would provide only small, incremental              stantial but not crazy expensive sum of $3995, that’s what.
 improvements in sound quality, but it did more than that. From           Let’s concede up-front that the Nottingham system is
 the moment I installed the kW, I noted that it was quieter than       somewhat unorthodox. The ’table has a 14-inch platter and
 its predecessor and offered greater top-to-bottom resolution          an always-on, low-torque motor with no on/off switch
 and focus, yet without any increase in edginess or glare. On          whatsoever (you must start and stop the platter by hand). It
 the contrary, the kW had an unflappable, big-hearted demeanor         also has a 12-inch unipivot tonearm where azimuth adjustments
 that helped me focus on the best aspects of recordings without        are performed by rotating the headshell out at the end of the
 becoming overwhelmed by their flaws.                                  long-grain, carbon-fiber arm-tube. But odd though these details
     I’m drawn to this player as I am to few others because of its     may seem, they pale in comparison to the sound this ’table/
 expressive, detailed sound and harmonic richness, and because         arm combo unleashes, which is truly breathtaking. First, the
 it lets me hear what’s going on way out back in the far corners       Space 294 turntable is tomb-quiet and sure-footed, so that
 of soundstages. What is more, this player makes CDs sound             even without Nottingham’s optional outboard power supply it
 almost as good as SACDs, though the qualities it brings to            has speed stability and noise issues well in hand. Second, the
 SACD playback are even better still.                                  Ace-Space 294 arm makes a nearly ideal platform for some
     Interestingly, the kW provides both vacuum-tube and solid-        of today’s nicest mid-to-high-priced moving-coil cartridges,
 state output stages. Most of the time I prefer listening through      letting them show off their transient speed and resolution,
 the tube stage, but I’ve occasionally found recordings that sound     while maintaining underlying richness, bass solidity, and three-
 better through the solid-state stage. Either way, it’s a wonderful    dimensionality.
 luxury to have the option of switching between stages at will.           In short, the Nottingham always makes me anticipate the
     Overall, this is the best-sounding sub-$10k digital player I’ve   delicious moment when the stylus settles into the groove,
 yet heard, which makes it that much harder for me to tell you         and sweet, sweet music starts to pour forth. What could be
 Musical Fidelity didn’t build many of these units, and that—so        a better treat for your golden ears than that? Price:$3995.
 far as I am aware—the worldwide production run has already            aslgroup.com/nottingham/(reviewedinIssue172)




                                                                          “The Nottingham always
                                                                           makes me anticipate the
                                                                        delicious moment when the
                                                                        stylus settles into the groove,
                                                                            and sweet, sweet music
                                                                          starts to pour forth. What
                                                                          could be a better treat for
                                                                        your golden ears than that?”
                                                               Nottingham Analogue Space 294 ‘table/Ace Space 294 arm


8 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                 The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                    Wayne Picquet (Wpkae87@aol.com)—one of the most highly
                                                                    regarded 57 restorers in the world—will bring them back to
                                                                    pristine condition physically, aesthetically, and sonically. Or
                                                                    have him provide both the 57s and the restoration for $3600/
                                                                    pr. The operative word is restoration: Picquet does not, perish
                     Paul Seydor                                    the thought, “modify” 57s (though he will fit IEC power-cords
                                                                    and Edison-Price binding posts if desired); he restores them
                                                                    to original condition except that it’s doubtful the Quad factory
                                                                    under Peter Walker on the best day of his life ever built 57s
                                                                    with the fit, finish, and attention to detail that is lavished upon
 QuadESL-2805loudspeaker                                          every pair that leaves Picquet’s shop. Worth it? To own a classic
 This latest version of Peter Walker’s ESL-63 is for me Quad’s      that still eclipses most of the competition? You’re joking, right?
 best ESL ever. With a redesigned housing that substantially        Price:Makeyourbestoffer.
 increases structural strength, mass, and rigidity, the 2805
 retains all the virtues for which the 63/988 is renowned, while    HarbethHLCompact7ES-3loudspeaker
 improving dynamic range and bass response. Price: $8999.         Allan Shaw’s latest version of his almost twenty-year-old design
 iagamerica.com(reviewedinIssue169)                             is practically a textbook on how to make a low-coloration,
                                                                    high-accuracy, compact two-way. Price: $2995. harbeth.com
 QuadESL-57loudspeaker                                            (reviewedinIssue171)
 This selection may raise some eyebrows, but there is something,
 well, disproportionate about our Golden Ear award not              GrahamB-44Phantomtonearm
 numbering among its recipients the speaker that tops every         One of the two best arms I’ve used—the other, the SME V.
 list or poll known to me of the greatest audio products ever       But Bob Graham’s masterpiece trumps the SME in allowing
 made. Currency? Try this for starters: At least half a dozen       for precise adjustment of every parameter of pickup mounting
 reviewers here and in the U.K. still include this sixty-year-old   and alignment, with an ease, speed, and repeatability that are
 design (!) among their standing references, including two          peerless. (In my recent survey, swapping pickups rarely took
 from this magazine (Jim Hannon and myself). Availability?          longer than fifteen minutes.) I doubt there’s a pickup from
 It’s the rare week that eBay doesn’t contain one or more           which the Phantom will not extract optimum performance.
 pairs for sale. Strike your best bargain, then ship them off       Price: $4300. graham-engineering.com (reviewed this
 to Quads Unlimited of Longwood, Florida (www.quadesl.              issue)
 org/Parts/PKPanels/pkpanels.html), where for $2300/pr.
                                                                    ClearaudioStradivari&DynavectorKarat
                                                                    17D3cartridges
                                                                    When I reviewed the Clearaudio pickup in Issue 172, I gave
                                      “The HL is                    it my own personal “Golden Mean” award because it so
                                                                    effortlessly dovetails warmth and detail, control and ease,
                                     practically a                  liveliness and relaxation. It richly deserves a Golden Ear—as
                                     textbook on                    does the Dynavector Karat, and a long overdue one it is. The
                                                                    17D3 is the latest version of a great pickup that has stood the
                                         how to                     test of time. In any contest it’s so phono-finish-close to the
                                     make a low-                    very best regardless of price that its $895 retail makes it also the
                                                                    best of best buys, the only proviso being that its performance
                                      coloration,                   is so high it benefits from the finest associated arms and ’tables.

                                          high-                     Price:ClearaudioStradivari,$3000;DynavectorKarat17D3,
                                                                    $895.musicalsurroundings.com,dynavector.com(reviewed
                                        accuracy,                   inIssue172)

                                       two-way.”                    BenchmarkDAC-1
                                                                    The Benchmark DAC-1 is the smartest $1000 I’ve ever spent
                                                                    on digital playback. I’ve used DACs costing from three to
                                                                    fifteen times the price of the Benchmark, yet the DAC-1 easily
                                                                    challenges them all—as often as not, even bettering them.
                                      Harbeth HL Compact            If you are looking to upgrade a CD player, the functional
                                                                    characteristics of which you like, you can’t do better than the
                                                                    DAC-1 without spending literally thousands more. Price: $975.
                                                                    benchmarkmedia.com (review forthcoming)


60 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                  The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                         Like other mind-altering merchandise, the Opus 21 is
                                                                      addictive. Once you’re exposed to its unique combination of
                                                                      near-telepathic convenience and musical charms, it’s hard to
                                                                      turn elsewhere. Of all the components I’ve reviewed in the past
                                                                      few years, this is the one I most often recommend to friends, the
                      Alan Taffel                                     one that most frequently astounds guests (“The sound is coming
                                                                      from that?”), and the one I keep trying to find excuses to buy.
                                                                      Other—usually costlier—high-end gear can match the Opus
                                                                      21’s sonic virtues, but I know of none that delivers its carefree
                                                                      musical enjoyment. Price: $3500–$7500 (configuration-


 T       his year, my Golden Ear Awards go to two products
         that epitomize the recent, welcome trend within the
         high end to deliver pre-eminent engineering and sound
 quality at surprisingly reasonable (if not quite budget) prices.
                                                                      dependent).resolutionaudio.com.(reviewedinIssue167)

                                                                      EmpiricalDesigncablesandpowercords
                                                                      By now most audiophiles admit, if grudgingly, that cables
                                                                      and power cords do make a sonic impact and warrant some
                                                                      investment. But when the cost of wire equals that of actual
                                                                      components—in some cases very expensive components—the
                                                                      outlay can seem so…disproportionate. Enter Empirical Design,
 ResolutionAudioOpus21system                                      whose line of interconnects, speaker cables, digital cables, and
 Resolution Audio’s Opus 21 is a mind-altering product—a              power cords I have owned and has served as my reference for
 stylish, unprepossessing set of components that will change          a decade. Why? Because these are the rare products that are
 your thinking about “stacks” (who knew they could sound so           so invisible sonically, so “right” musically, there simply is no
 good?) and about traditional high-end products (must they be         incentive to pursue an improvement. Also, they cost hundreds
 so massive, costly, and tweaky?). This system induces severe         rather than thousands of dollars—an order of magnitude
 cognitive dissonance by functioning exactly like an all-in-one       below what has become fashionable.
 box—though it actually ranges from two to four, depending on            ED products may be rationally priced, but they are in no
 your needs—while sounding uncannily like a sprawling, fully-         way budget offerings. The carefully engineered, aesthetically
 mortgaged, two-inch-face-plated high-end rig.                        clean designs utilize top-notch parts (including stellar Neutrik
    Resolution achieves these paradoxical virtues the old-            connectors on the interconnects) and proven topologies.
 fashioned way: through clever design. For instance, the              Furthermore, the manufacturer offers a level of flexibility I’ve yet
 Opus’ modular chassis (they literally snap into one another)         to encounter elsewhere. Need an AC cord with inverted polarity
 communicate not through interconnects but via a high-speed           or a floating ground? No problem. And trust me, you haven’t
 bus that enables them to act as one. At a deeper level, its          heard a truly open-sounding interconnect until you’ve tried an
 analog and digital architectures are likewise bold and ingenious.    unshielded run.
 Together, these elements yield a spatially outsized, wonderfully        Over the years quite a few well-regarded, elaborately priced
 textured sound. This stack can unravel the most complex              wires have flowed through my system, usually at the suggestion
 musical passages, or create that elusive, intimate “you are there”   of a review component’s manufacturer. In each case, I have duly
 atmosphere.                                                          put the EDs to the test, and in each case their lack of coloration
                                                                      and ability to step aside for the music has handily prevailed. As
                                                                      a bonus, these cables are relatively unimposing and easy to work
                                                                      with—both refreshingly atypical attributes. But clearly the ED
                                                                      line’s most arresting virtue is the performance it delivers at a price
                                                                      that is so…proportionate. Price:$350per3-footpairforanalog
                                                                      interconnectorspeakercable;$79–$144(model-dependent)
                                                                      per3-footdigitalcable;$124–$230(model-dependent)per4-
                                                                      footpowercord.empiricaldesign.net(notreviewed)

                                                                      Resolution Audio Opus 21




6 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                  The Absolute Sound’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                       Gader’s never spent a summer evening in a smallish room with
                                                                       a pair of 610Ts glowing like a fire pit in front of him. With
                                                                       twenty-three tubes per monoblock side, the 610Ts are just a bit
                                                                       on the, uh, warm side. Happily, they are also on the angels’ side
                                                                       when it comes to sound quality. Simply put, these are the best
                   Jonathan Valin                                      amplifiers I’ve ever heard—in my opinion, the best amplifiers
                                                                       money can buy. Blessed with the sweetness, transparency, and
                                                                       delicacy of triodes, the transient speed, frequency extension,
                                                                       and sheer grunt-power of the best solid-state, and the air,
                                                                       bloom, and three-dimensionality of the finest pentodes, the
 MAGICOMiniandWilson-BeneschTorus                                 610Ts leave nothing on the table, and nothing to be desired.
 “Super-System”                                                        In more than thirty years of designing superb electronics,
 It remains debatable (and Lord knows it has been debated on our       ARC’s William Zane Johnson has never made a better product.
 Web site, AVguide.com) whether any stand-mounted two-way              Price:$40,000.audioresearch.com(Ref3reviewedinIssue
 loudspeaker—even one as extraordinarily well made as Alon             169; PH7 reviewed in Issue 172; Reference CD7 and 610T
 Wolf ’s Mini—is worth $26k. That’s a question only a potential        reviewsforthcoming)
 purchaser can decide for himself. What isn’t debatable is the
 Mini’s sound. From about 45–50Hz to well beyond 20kHz,                WalkerProsceniumBlackDiamond
 the Minis are the lowest-distortion, highest-fidelity speakers        recordplayer
 I’ve auditioned, capable of sounding more lifelike more often         Certain rivals may had begun to creep up on Lloyd Walker’s
 than even the best and most expensive competition. Because of         classic Proscenium Gold air-bearing ’table and air-bearing
 their astonishing lack of box, driver, and crossover coloration,      tangential arm, but once he updated the Proscenium with
 the Minis come closer to disappearing as sound sources than           his fabulous new ceramic tonearm (turning it into the Black
 other speakers of my experience. Their soundstage is vast; their      Diamond), he left the competition back where it started—in
 imaging is lifelike in size and dimensionality; their tonal balance   second place. Like the Mini/Torus and the Audio Research
 is dead neutral; and their transient speed and low-level dynamic      610T, the Black Diamond offers fidelity at a level I simply
 and harmonic detail come very close to what one hears in the          haven’t achieved before. Price: $40,000 (including setup by
 concert hall. This said, all by themselves the Minis will not plumb   Lloyd Walker and Fred Law). walkeraudio.com (reviewed
 the sonic depths—no two-way will. However, the addition of a          inIssue167)
 pair of Wilson-Benesch’s novel Torus Infrasonic Generators—
 push-pull subwoofers that function a bit like Maggies with            AudioSpaceReference2preamplifier
 carbon-fiber diaphragms—supplies the very deep bass that              In the midband, the Audio Space has less of an electronic
 the Minis lack, and does so with a very Mini-like absence of          signature than any other preamp I’ve heard, making it a
 box, driver, and crossover coloration and distortion. While I         genuinely open window on the music. Price:$9900.gini.com
 have never been a fan of yoking subs to bass-shy two-ways,            (reviewedthisissue)
 this is a match made in high-end-audio heaven—as
 close as I’ve come, in almost forty years, to                                            AirTightPC-1moving-coil
 the absolute sound. Systemprice:$44,790.                                                    cartridge
 magico.net,soundorg.com(reviewed                                                              Exceptionally fast, detailed, and
 inIssues163and170)                                                                           neutral, the PC-1 takes the moving-
                                                                                                  coil cartridge to new levels of fidelity.
 AudioResearchReference                                                                        Price:$5500.axiss.com(reviewed
 3linestage,RefCD7,PH7                                                                       thisissue)TAS
 phonostage,andRef610T
 poweramplifier
 Since I’ve reviewed Audio Research’s
                                                                                                    “Simply put,
 2006 TAS Preamp of the Year Award-                                                                  the 610Ts
 winning Reference 3 linestage (in Issue
 159) and its superb PH7 phonostage (in                                                             are the best
 Issue 172), and will review the CD7 in
 Issue 174, I’m going to concentrate on
                                                                                                     amplifiers
 the yet-to-be-reviewed 610T power amp.                                                               I’ve ever
 In his Golden Ears, Neil Gader says that,
 when it comes to amps, he’s concluded
                                                                                                       heard”
 that there is no such thing as too much
 power. But then I’d bet that our Mr.                                                          ARC Reference 610T


6 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                       HP’s Workshop
           HP’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards
                                                                       dramatically—hence the designations from the softest to the
                                                                       loudest (the p’s the softest, as in pppp; the f’s the loudest, as in
                                                                       ffff)—and capable of doing this in any portion of the frequency
                                                                       range. The first-generation ART did not have much in the
                                                                       way of bottom bass and almost no contrast down yonder,
                                                                       but what it did have was a significant expansion in the upper
                       Linestages                                      middle bass (where there is considerable musical energy, not
                                                                       by coincidence). In this respect, the c-j had a “golden glow,”
                                                                       not unlike that to be found in Boston’s Symphony, which has
                                                                       its own resonant patterns in this very same range. That original
                                                                       ART also exhibited audible tube rush at the lower frequencies,
Conrad-JohnsonAnniversary                                           which intermodulated with the music signal. But there was no
ReferenceTriodeSeriesIII                                            denying its midrange magic and lack of distortion.
The third-generation of c-j’s ART is here, and just about in               I think all of us guys who review gear (and we are mostly
time for the company’s thirtieth anniversary. It was introduced a      guys) have a sobering experience when we hear significant
decade ago to celebrate the occasion of 20 successful years for        improvements to gear we earlier vigorously applauded when
c-j’s founders, Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson, former Federal            we hear in them the future. Which leads me back to one of the
Reserve economists, who fell for the musical magicks of tubes          basic HP Audio Principles: You cannot imagine how a great
long before they decided to make a business out of their               component can be bettered until you hear it bettered. Looking
designs.                                                               back now upon the first ART (reviewed for Fi magazine) and
   The ART grew out of an experimental linestage the men               the second generation, I wonder, given the strengths of the
kept in the lab as a reference by which to measure the quality         latest ART, if I was too forgiving. Of course, I wasn’t, at that
of their work. It is a product from which I have learned how to        time.
listen more deeply into the soundfield. In its first two iterations,       In the second-generation ART [reviewed in Issue 129], the
I found I was able to define two fundamental aspects of                tube noise was reduced to a figurative vanishing point, and the
reproduced sound for the first time. One was the key concept           frequency response extended, with much definition and impact,
of continuousness, itself slippery and difficult to describe for       into the 30Hz region. This also changed the dynamic envelope
those who haven’t encountered it. The other phenomenon,                and shifted the emphasis on dynamic swings further down
still not widely understood in my opinion, is the relationship         the spectrum. This had the effect of changing the “character”
between a component’s dynamic envelope and its character.              of the c-j house sound, reducing the euphonic golden glow,
   A word, first, about the dynamic envelope. Think, if you will,      and allowing something closer to the individual character
of the entire frequency spectrum that can be reproduced by             of different halls to shine through more clearly, and at the
a component, especially an electronic one. Music, especially           same time, allowing this reviewer to wrestle with the concept
the unamplified kind, is capable of expanding and shrinking            of continuousness, which was now more obvious and less
                                                                                                Conrad-Johnson Anniversary Reference
                                                                                                              Triode Series III preamp




                                                                                                     The Absolute Sound August 2007 111
                                              HP’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

 ambiguous. The fact that the noise reduction and some other            its version of the musical “truth” and be happy exploring old
 circuitry improvements extended the response and dynamics              favorites in his collection. Part of what makes a great-sounding
 of the upper octaves allowed me to hear the fact that sound            component has to do with balance, that is, the relationship
 was of a whole cloth. Sallie Reynolds, in that issue, likened          between the spectra of sound. The LA-150, in its new edition,
 continuousness to a waterfall (where the water seems or is of          has bottom-octave response—and this includes the dynamic,
 one flow).                                                             as well—that you seldom get in any linestage, much less one
    I wouldn’t be giving this product a Golden Ear if I didn’t          at $5200 or so. Oh yes, you can have deep, deep bass (vide, the
 think the third generation was another significant improvement,        Burmester 011 preamplifier), but you almost never, in any price
 one that moves the ART into the category of elite gear that,           range, get the explosive transient dynamics you get here. (Try
 while not sounding real (nothing does), sounds less unreal than        the last minute of Cut 9 of The Thin Red Line soundtrack.)
 all but a handful of the best of today’s design work.                     What is more remarkable—and to these ears, a bit of
    So what has been wrought here?                                      legerdemain—is the midbass response, which is even more
    First, the price has gone up. No surprise there, given the          propulsive, dynamic-contrasty, and three-dimensional. It almost
 pressure on the individual components that made up the                 never happens that you get this kind of jolt from the bottom
 workings of electronic (and other) gear. Part of this, sez Lew         two octaves without one of them being obscured, usually the
 Johnson, comes from the increasing competitiveness of the              very bottom (that is, below 40Hz). There is a price to be paid
 burgeoning Chinese industry and part from recent developments          for this, but first let me suppose that I know why Barber has
 in Common Market countries where lead in audio gear has been           done this. Most speaker systems these days, and maybe even
 banned, forcing designers to look for alternative, and more            the one that Barber himself uses, really do not have much in
 expensive, materials. The original ART was priced at just under        the way of a bottom octave, and among their number are some
 $15,000; the second generation, introduced four years later, was       highly touted and highly expensive big systems, say, from out
 a thousand dollars higher. The III will set you back $25,000. It       West. With the LA-150, you’re going to think your speakers
 includes both parts and circuit upgrades.                              have bottom-end response like they never did before. And it
    Some of Lew Johnson’s notes: All of the polystyrene                 won’t sound “wrong,” either. That’s because Barber has elicited
 capacitors have been replaced with Teflon CJD capacitors, and          from the electronics a correspondingly alive and dynamic upper
 “this accounts,” he says, “for nearly all of the price increase in     midrange, though not enough of one to make you think it’s
 the unit. Do a web search on 2.0 microfarad Teflon capacitors          a euphonic coloration, so skillful is the design. And all this is
 and you’ll find them retailing for more than $300 each.” The           bathed in glorious “tube” sound, like a darker version of the
 ART III contains 32 of that value, and smaller ones, too.              classic gear when Audio Research ruled the waves, and with
    The two cascaded regulated power supplies have been                 even lower distortion.
 replaced with a single one for each channel with “greater                 If you have something like c-j’s latest ART on hand, you’ll
 capacitance…the result is that the tube stage now sees twice as        soon enough become aware of a diminishing top octave (yes,
 much capacitance directly as in the other ARTs.”                       most high-frequency transients do get through) in this unit, and
    Johnson says revisions in the ground paths have resulted in         of the loss of focus in that awesome midbass. But then again,
 lower overall noise and that similar adjustments to the audio          you may think the c-j sounds, by comparison, a bit anemic in
 circuit have improved high-frequency transient response.               the midbass, until you ears make the adjustment to its rightness
    Consider this Part One of the review, with the second to            there. This I mean as a tribute and compliment to Barber,
 follow (if all goes well) in the next issue. One of the reasons for    whose window on the world of sound is entirely convincing
 the delay is the result of an intensive effort over the past several   when taken by itself as, you might say, its own singularity.
 months on my part to assemble a total system that represents              A few more thoughts. According to Barber, the original
 a breakthrough in reduction of the distortions and colorations         linestage, introduced six years ago, used a Russian 6C45, a
 that make present-day reproduced music sound so, well, so              single triode, as the gainstage (which probably, Barber thinks,
 unreal, so unlike a simulacrum of the real thing. (Many of those       accounted for a harsh sound that made me disregard the unit).
 products are getting their Golden Ears here, instead of there.)        The Mark II version uses a 6350 instead (a tube used elsewhere
 Price:$25,000.conradjohnson.com                                      in the circuit), and with very little feedback.
                                                                           The unit comes with a remote I am not nutso about. The level
 JouleElectraLA-150MkII                                             and balance adjustments are not subtle, unless, as I learned from
 Not everyone, putting it mildly, has 25,000 dollars to live with       Barber, you touch the controls only lightly, as an experienced
 and experience the component whose lack of an electronic               typist might. It is a plain, utilitarian-looking piece of gear.
 “signature” is at the current state-of-the-art, a component in            What is interesting about the LA-150’s price is this: Given the
 which the line between the music and the illusion of the music         radically increasing cost of its internal electronic components
 becomes paper-thin. Nevertheless, a master designer—and                (resistors, capacitors, even wire), thanks to developments on
 make no mistake, Judd Barber of Joule Electra is that—can use          the international market, five thousand has become almost
 his craft to achieve a wizardly concatenation of the ingredients       an entry price for real high-end electronics. That the LA-150
 that make up a linestage to get a kind of musical magic. This unit     sounds the way it does represents a victory of design witchcraft
 is so seriously seductive that many a veteran listener will accept     over commercial realities. Price:$5250.joule-electra.com


11 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                             HP’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                     other amplifiers, at best, merely suggested. I’m not sure how
                                                                     to describe this, since in normal usage, we audio reviewers
                                                                     sometimes use slightly hyped language in an effort to get across
                                                                     the way something strikes us. I have, in the past, for instance,
                                                                     described the way some components (vide, the c-j ART) can
                       Amplifiers                                    focus in on a singer or player and give a sense of the three-
                                                                     dimensionality of that particular instrument. Here, we get the
                                                                     3-D effect, but that extends to the backside of a human voice
                                                                     or played instrument. I am trying to suggest that, with no loss
                                                                     of focus and no euphonic second harmonic, we can actually
 WesternElectricWE-97-A                                            hear “behind” images in the soundfield, an effect no doubt
 Offhand, I can’t think of any company’s first electronic occasioned by the 97’s retrieval of extremely subtle ambient
 component that can immediately take its place in the rank of cues, the kind you take for granted when you’re listening to
 classic designs, but this high-powered triode amplifier from the unamplified music. With this amplifier, the 3-D effect extends
 revivified Western Electric is a formidable contender. To be to the rear stage, where images are just as vivid as they are in the
 sure, this is not a product of the Western Electric of old, but foreground with the best electronics. It’s as if you’ve suddenly
 rather its new incarnation courtesy of one Charles Whitener, both extended and expanded the depth of the soundspace so
 who just over a decade ago bought the rights to the name (and its field is as large as that of the original hall, and all this in a
 that of Westrex) from AT&T, as well as to the much admired listening room not majestic in size. And there is not a trace of
 and sought after 300B tube, itself in the category of legend “bloat” in this effect. Smaller spaces remain smaller.
 among hard-core searchers after the Grail. And at                                    To top it off, there is not, in my present setup,
 the cool price in 1996 of $1200, why not?                                            a problem with the midbass, which so often
    This amplifier, a monoblock, will set you                                               happens in triode amplification, and the
 back a not-so-cool 50 grand, and for                                                       fundamental bass, including pedal points
 stereo, of course you’ll have to have                                                      and thunder (even the real life volcano
 two, not one. (The early buzz was                                                           eruption on “The Lost World,” courtesy
 that a solo amp would cost $90,000,                                                         of Hearts of Space), actually becomes
 so perhaps there was a divine                                                               frightening in its reality. Yes, frightening.
 intervention.) For that 50, you’ll                                                              And no, I haven’t nearly finished
 get eight 300B tubes and a 100                                                               its evaluation with other speakers and
 or so watts of RMS power into                                                               other electronics, nor have I gone in
 8 ohms. Whitener says it won’t be                                                           depth with Whitener about the tubes and
 long (say, the Winter Consumer                                                             why he says that they have an impulse
 Electronics Show) before a tubed              Joule Electra Destiny                       response far better that of any other tube
                                                 ZVN-350 amplifier
 CD player, linestage, and phonostage                                                     and one he believes that gives the 300Bs
 come along. Further down the pike, the company will also offer a unique advantage. More to come. Price:$100,000perpair.
 an amplifier built around the even more legendary 308B, “the westernelectric.com
 highest powered class A triode power tube ever developed,”
 Whitener says. The WE-97 was the work of the design team JouleElectraDestinyZVN-350
 of Chiwai Lau (who has designed electronics for his company, This 300-watt monoblock design from Judd Barber comes
 Canary Audio), David Evett (the front panel), John Cheves, the without transformers and is a worthy competitor to the Western
 production engineer, and Whitener himself. An old audio hand, Electric, with or without its beautifully-built and sonically
 one David Berning, will work on the company’s future projects enhancing $4000 stands, and for about $70,000 less for the pair.
 (he has retired from the National Institute of Standards and If you suspect I shall have a Battle of the Giants, you suspect
 Technology). The amplifier was the logical result of Whitener’s correctly. Price: $25,000 the pair. joule-electra.com
 reintroduction and manufacture of the 300B tube in 1996. He
 says this: “Assembling amplifiers is no great feat. The trick is in Burmester911MkIII
 the topology.”                                                        Quite simply one of the best-sounding solid-state amps
    Up until now, the only triode amplifier that I thought as to thus far lighten our doorstep. It is an advance over the
 uncolored as some of the best tubed designs was the Sapphire earlier Burmester electronics in that it is not only close to
 300B, a minimally powered unit with exceptional sound at the completely neutral but it shows no trace of the normally
 frequency extremes, and an across the board neutrality and ubiquitous transistor texture and grain in the upper octaves.
 lack of tonal coloration that left me wishing for more. The 97 More interesting yet, to these ears, is how happy it is driving all
 provides the missing more. And it does something that startled sorts of speakers, from the ultra-revealing Kings to the sweetly
 me. It captured (on the Nola Grand Reference Mk IV Series II, euphonic Coltranes. An amp for all seasons, and virtually all
 one amp for each of the four towers!) an ambient field that all setups. Price:$17,220.burmester.de


11 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                            HP’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                      amps (specifically, the Grand Marquis and the Destiny), great
                                                                      tube bass, not transistorized sound as was the Clearaudio’s.
                                                                      In this sense, the Blue Pearl has an overall character different
                                                                      from and superior to the EAR Disc Master’s: It sounds like
                                                                      there’s more there there, with the Blue Pearl. Price $82,000.
                       Turntables                                     acousticdreams.net

                                                                      EARDiscMasterMagneticDrive
                                                                      I have been debating whether or not to give this remarkable
                                                                      product a richly deserved Golden Ear. Why not? The near hen’s
 BluePearl                                                          teeth scarcity of units in the United States—would you believe
 One of the frustrations of the latter-day analog age is the          there are just five? Additionally, the review sample I have on
 skyrocketing costs of turntables, even when playing the vinyl        hand has given us no end of grief because of a slipping belt
 LP is now the rage in some parts of the world—check out              that is not an easy fix. But these are, I am going to assume,
 turntable sales in eastern Europe. The frustration for this          the sorts of problems that can and will be cured. Otherwise,
 writer is that, given both the politics of reviewing and those       and you have my word on this, I’ll get back to you with a (lack
 celestial costs, it is well-nigh impossible for me to hear all of    of) progress report. Oh yes, the price of the table has risen to
 the serious contenders in order to put some sort of context or       $17,500, up from, in the importer’s words, “$16,000 before the
 ranking to their individual excellences. So some must remain         price increases for the entire line that took place in January,
 mysteries. It’s okay for a given reviewer, say Michael Fremer of     thanks to greater manufacturing costs and the plummeting
 Stereophile, to say that Australia’s Continuum is the best in the    value of the dollar.” 1
 world, but really, how can anyone buttress or butt heads with           The strength of the design lies in the complete absence of
 that assessment? And really, why pay $100,000 for a turntable        turntable motor noise, a situation I likened, analogistically,
 when the long playing record, at least in this part of the globe,    to being in a car that rides above the surface of the highway.
 is no longer the predominant playback medium? Indeed, you            Yes, you might hear turntable noise if your LPs were poorly
 might ask, why pay the $82,000 being asked for this table from       mastered, but on the best discs, the silences allow one to hear
 Britain, which comes sans arm and cartridge, but happily we          far more deeply into the bottom octave where greater dynamics
 suppose, with the arm mount. (We used, in its evaluation, the        and weight are to be found. In this sense, hearing a magnetically
 Graham Phantom and our reference, the superb DynaVector              driven table might be likened to the complete absence of
 XV-1S. Cost: $8500.)                                                 low-frequency generated motor noise common to every CD
    There is a detailed story behind the ’table, and the mechanical   (but of course, without the glories of analog sound). Further
 wiz who worked on getting it workable, one Martin Easton, of         experience with the table, particularly in comparison with the
 the old country, which we will tell in the more elaborate review     mightily expensive British Blue Pearl, reveals a distinct sonic
 to come. But a few tidbits, sufficient one hopes unto the day.       personality, light at the very bottom and far from ice-cream rich
 The table, constructed out of Blue Pearl, a form of granite,         and smooth. Price:$17,500.info@ear-usa.com(reviewedin
 weights 300 pounds, and its platter a hefty 26. It is driven by      Issue163)
 a separate Maxim motor, and its platter floats on opposing                                                            1
                                                                                                                        Clearaudio, clearly
 magnets, though it is belt driven through its three                                                               the more experienced
 speeds. Its importer, Bruce Fethering of                                                                           builder of ’tables, has
 Acoustic Dreams, says its speed is                                                                                 a $100,000 magnetic-
                                                                                                                      drive turntable now
 accurate with 0.001 per cent,                                                                                      on the market, which
 thanks to a digital speed                                                                                          I have not, sad to say,
 regulator which sends out                                                                                               had on hand for a
 its code 15,000 times per                                                                                        comparison. If anyone
                                                                                                                  had told me back when
 revolution. Hmm.                                                                                                  the high end was new
    Thus far, there have                                                                                            that turntables would
 been a few glitches, upon                                                                                          reach such dizzyingly
                                                                                                                      high prices, I would
 which we shall report                                                                                            have responded “Yeah,
 on the day. What does it                                                                                                 when cows jump
 sound like? Well, it is by far                                                                                    over the moon.” Well,
 the smoothest sound of any                                                                                               mooooo, Bossie.
 table in my experience, with
 a bottom end that, unlike
 the last Clearaudio Everest’s,
 is deep and extended, like                                                                                 Blue Pearl turntable
 that of one of the Joule OTL


116 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                             HP’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                                   Compact Disc Players

                     Pickup Arms                                       EMMLabsCD-SA
                                                                       two-channelplayer
                                                                       Quite simply, the best two-channel CD (and two-channel
                                                                       SACD) playback device of the many, many we’ve tested in
                                                                       Sea Cliff over the past year. Quick reminder: In the evaluation
                                                                       of CD players I undertook [Issue 153], I came to see that the
                                                                       best digital and the best analog sounds existed in two parallel
                                                                       universes—that is, as Wilma Cozart Fine had argued with me
                                                                       when doing CD versions of her Mercury classics, each at its best
                                                                       brought out different strengths of the music itself. The trick to
                                                                       getting great digital is reducing the multitude of distortions that
                                                                       came part and package with the original transfers and players.
                                                                       The Ed Meitner design comes closer to that goal than any other
                                                                       player I’ve heard, and does so to the point that you can listen
                                                                       with pleasure, and for hours and hours. More on this to come.
                                                                       Price:$10,000.emmlabs.com




                                                                                             Interconnects
                                                                       
                                                                       NordostOdin
                                                                       I wouldn’t have guessed that Nordost could improve upon its
                                                                       Valhalla designs by an order of magnitude, and so it was with
                                                                       some skepticism that I approached the new Odins, especially
                                                                       after I learned of their jaw-dropping price: $16,000 for the
                                                                       first meter of the interconnects (considerably, considerably less
                                                                       per meter for longer lengths) and $20,000 for the first meter
                                                                       of their speaker cables. This would seem to close the case for
                                                                       shorter cable lengths. Nor would I have guessed that the Odins
  Graham Phantom tonearm                                               would make the Valhallas sound like, say, the very best solid-
                                                                       state amplifier (perhaps a Keith Johnson/Spectral design) and
                                                                       the Odins like the super-powered Western Electric triode WE-
 GrahamPhantomB-44                                                   97s. I never thought the Valhallas a bit “threadbare”—and am
 Bob Graham has been at the forefront of unipivoted arm                deeply chagrined to say that’s how I feel about them now. More
 design for many a year, and this time he has got it exactly right.2   to come. Price:Interconnects,$16,000(perpair,onemeter;
 Earlier Graham models, much admired by the high-definition            $2000perpaireachextrahalf-meterpair).Speakercables,
 “precision” school of sound (those who want to hear every             $20,000(perpair,onemeter;$3000eachextrahalf-meter
 detail in the recording, even at the expense of the music itself),    pair).info@nordost.com
 sounded too tight, too white, and too dry on top, with not a little
 bit of chatter. I never got the sense of a relaxed sound, which is    2
                                                                        Graham says that one of the things that makes his unipivot design different is
 what the real thing has in spades. But with the Phantom, he has       that the pivot point extends downward, rather than upward as with competing
                                                                       models. The arm itself, he notes, is made up of a combination of lightweight
 designed an arm whose presence I cannot hear in the highest           and heavy materials for the supporting structures, and these include tungsten
 resolution systems. The fine adjustments here really do help you      carbide, ceramic, aluminum, and brass. Graham also says he hasn’t gotten
 zero in on optimum performances with the widest imaginable            round a classic bug-a-boo of unipivoted arms, that is, the necessity “for some
 possible range of moving-coil designs. Price:$4300.graham-          sort of lower-weight balance to keep the arm upright…with the unfortunate
                                                                       by-product of applying an immediate counter-force to any lifting of the arm
 engineering.com(seeEditors’Choice,Issue165,alongwith          from its normal ‘rest’ position, with unpredictable results upon its tracking
 WayneGarcia’sreviewthisissue)                                     force.” He calls it Magneglide, and it’s explained on his Web site.


118 August 2007 The Absolute Sound
                                          HP’s 2007 Golden Ear Awards

                                                                  voice, its “character” (and it does have something of one), but
                                                                  be derned if I know words to nail it. There is no box coloration.
                                                                  The upshot? A reference, and that’s all there is to that. Price:
                                                                  $74,000 (effective July 1). hansenaudio.com (reviewed in
                                                                  Issue168)
                Speaker Systems                                   MartenColtrane
                                                                  Talk about a seductive sweetheart of a speaker system, the
                                                                  hybrid Coltrane is just that. The top end is handled by a diamond
                                                                  tweeter and is as transparent and sweet-sounding as any I’ve
 HansenKingv.2                                                  heard, but not as dynamic as, say, the dual Heil arrangement
 This sophisticatedly sculpted and designed multidriver           on the Burmester B-100s (that said, almost nothing else can
 speaker system, used anew with some of the latest deluxe         match the Burmester for true high-frequency dynamic levels).
 high-end designs (from conrad-johnson, EMM, Audience,            The lower frequencies are attended by two ceramic drivers,
 e.g.), reveals even more plainly its overall coherency and lack  whose essential colorations are euphonically just glorious,
 of the colorations that so plague cone-type drivers.                         but maybe too rich for those with diabetic ears. I
 With most multidriver speaker systems,                                            haven’t heard other makes of speakers that use
 discontinuity runs rife and, in terms                                             ceramics in their drivers (Kharma, for one),
 of listening ease, ragged on the                                                  and I only superficially auditioned a diamond
 ears. Not The Kings, which are                                                    tweeter ensconced in an Avalon system at
 as untroubled and smooth as still                                                 a Consumer Electronics Show. I can tell
 waters, so much so that they allow                                                you there’s not much in the way of extreme
 you to ignore their own “sound”                                                   bottom response below 40Hz, but the speaker
 and concentrate either on the other                                               is so nicely balanced you’ll not likely miss it,
 components feeding them, or on the                                                unless you are big on Mahler or on full pipe
 music behind it all.                                                              organ recordings. The Coltrane never sounds
    This may sound obvious, but if                                                 raw or ragged, and it keeps dynamic swings
 you’ve listened to so-called full-                                                in check. Price: $50,000. ear-usa.com (see
 frequency-range multidriver designs,                                              Editors’Choice,Issue165)
 you’ll know that few truly are capable
 of wide bandwidth response, either                                                BurmesterB-100Hybrid
 in the frequency or dynamic domain.                                               Out of the blue, at least for this company,
 The Kings go down flat to a point                                                 whose solid-state electronic designs have
 below 30 (amazing) Hertz, and up                                                  been among the world’s best, comes a
 as far as the ear cares to hear. And                                              speaker system worthy of those electronics.
 the soundfield they project can be as                                             Burmester’s earlier attempts to come up with
 big as the recording requires, or as                                              a speaker the equal in sound to its electronics
 delicate and sculpted. There are two                                              were, well, there’s no kind way to put it, mostly
 minor burbles: a slight loss of focus                                             a mess, at least in terms of continuity and
 in a narrow band between 80 and                                                   coherency. With the B-100, there is radiation
 100Hz, which may or may not be                                                    pattern discontinuity because of the side-
 dependent on the way we have them                                                 firing woofers, a phenomenon that can be
 set up in Room 2— even so, this                                                   minimized (if not eliminated) by exceedingly
 is far from obvious and you’ll only                                               careful placement. But in terms of character,
 hear it if you listen over hundreds of                                            it speaks with one voice, and its dual high-
 hours. The designer, Lars Hansen,                                                 frequency Heil drivers allow the widest range
 urges their placement in a larger                                                 of dynamics in the top octaves this reviewer
 acoustic environment (say, Room 3                                                 has heard from any speaker. Its character is
 here in Sea Cliff). I don’t think the                                             decidedly neutral, perhaps ideally so, since it
 domed tweeter perfectly blends with                                               can sound rather cool and chilly with high-
 the cone drivers, but once again, the                                             tech transistors (excluding Burmester’s own
 discrepancy is one nit you’ll have                                                lovely 911 Mk III) and warm and inviting with
 to pick to hear—meaning that in                                                   blockbusters like Joule’s Destiny, a 300-watt
 normal listening, The Kings speak                   Burmester B-100 Hybrid        monoblock design sans transformers. Price:
                                                          loudspeaker
 with one voice. I haven’t been able to                                            $69,950.burmester.de(seeEditors’Choice,
 find a descriptive term to describe that                                          Issue165)TAS


10 August 2007 The Absolute Sound

				
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