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September 2008
Enjoy the Music.com
Best Audiohpile Products Of 2008 Blue Note Award
Best Of 2008 Blue Note Equipment Awards
As Chosen By Editor Steven R. Rochlin
And The Staff At Enjoy the Music.com

Click here to e-mail the staff

 

  Welcome to our eighth annual audiophile equipment awards! Our Best Of 2008 Blue Note Award recipients have been carefully chosen after much debate and consideration. It is a very rare occurrence that we bestow such accolades towards a products. While there are many great pieces of equipment now available in the marketplace, the below list is compiled from products we reviewed within the past 12 months of what we found to merit extra special attention. During the past year, Enjoy the Music.com has reviewed approximately 150 products, including those covered within our Viewpoint articles and our sister publication Superior Audio. Items from Superior Audio are awarded here, so they do indeed count as items to be recognized as earning special recognition.

As always, let is be said here and now that we make no apologies that in 2008 our staff found only 20 products plus free software to receive an award. We do not carry over products from the previous year's award or include items that were never officially reviewed to fatten up the list. We do not add products in hopes of satisfying an advertiser, so conspiracy theorists can look elsewhere to satisfy their desire.

The critically acclaimed staff at Enjoy the Music.com now presents to you our choices for Best Of 2008 Blue Note Equipment. And the winners are:

 

Source Components

The Cartridge Mans Music Maker III
Price: $1195
Click here to read the complete review.

  While pushing the 'affordable' envelope just a smidge, the Music Maker III weighing in at $1195 is simply a fabulous sounding cartridge. Its extended line contact stylus profile digs deep into the grooves to extract information that other cartridges only wish they could find. The Music Maker III not only about detail, it is about making music (pun intended). The tonal balance is extremely good top to bottom without coming across as being forward or pretentious in the least. If you are in the market for a new high output cartridge, you owe it to yourself to try the Cartridge Mans Music Maker III. — Scott Faller

 

 

Source Components

Trans-Fi Terminator Tonearm
Price: $859 (US - no pump or smoothing tank) or ฃ499 (UK - complete)
Spare Wands: ฃ100
Click here to read the complete review.

  The Trans-Fi Terminator an extraordinary tonearm. It without doubt performs up with the very best yet it costs sub $1,000. Compared to traditional pivoted arms you need to learn new setup techniques and how to handle the arm, it is not difficult, just different to what you may be used to. The Terminator eschews complexity and bling finish, applying all its effort into making your records sound undistorted, clear, dynamic, 3D and accurate. Live with The Terminator for a short time - you'll be totally convinced by this parallel tracking airbearing arm. — Clive Meakins

 

 

Source Components

VPI Aries 3 Turntable, VPI JMW 10.5-Inch Unipivot Arm, & Dynavector DRT XV-1s Moving-Coil Cartridge
Price: VPI Aries 3 Turntable is $7700, Dynavector DRT XV-1s is $4500
Click here to read the complete review.

  Especially when comprehensively upgraded (as reviewed), this gorgeous example of fine industrial art comes within a whisper of the ultimate performance of VPI's flagship HR-X table, for about $5000 less. It is easy to set up and virtually tweak-free thereafter for long, uncomplicated and musically rewarding service. It is truly a pleasure to use. The Dynavector XV-1s is simply the finest cartridge I have ever heard: uncanny tonal fidelity and octave-to-octave balance, jaw-dropping dynamics, rock-solid imaging and a vast, dimensional stage, and flawless trackability in the JMW arm. My records, old and new, have never sounded so vivid. — Wayne Donnelly

 

 

Source Components

Raysonic CD-168
Price: $2550
Click here to read the complete review.

  The Raysonic CD-168 would absolutely be a piece of equipment that I would put on my short list of products that I would love to include in my reference system. The CD-168 utilizes a pair of Burr-Brown PCM1792 DACs, which at least makes it likely that the player is fully balanced. This seems to be the case as the overall music quality was improved by utilizing the balanced interconnects rather than the unbalanced. The tubed output stage provides all the benefits you would expect from utilizing tubes in your system without many of the drawbacks you might find in lesser units. There is an extremely lifelike and warm quality to its musical reproductions. The unit produces excellent detail and an enveloping soundstage not found in lesser units. — Brett Rudolph

 

 

Source Components

McIntosh MS300 Music Server
Price: $5300
Click here to read the complete review.

  The MS300 features a CD player capable of playing CDs, CD-Rs, CD-RWs and MP3 discs. It represents the one of the best examples of a CD player coupled with the ability to serve sound throughout a network in the home. In all the recordings I played, I found that the unit was able to hold its own against even my most favorite of CD players. The only types of music I found it had the slightest trouble with were jazz and certain blues recordings. This appeared because it seemed to have a slight bit of trouble in the separation of instruments, which were within the same upper midrange. Although even this did not take away from the fact that it was an outstanding performer. While it is slightly more expensive than other products that do primarily the same thing, it is worth the difference in a multitude of ways. — Brett Rudolph

 

 

Preamplifier / Processing

Benchmark DAC1 USB
Price: $1295
Click here to read the complete review.

  Sonically the Benchmark falls into the neat, clean, just-the-facts school of sound. It eschews any trace of euphony in favor of harmonic neutrality and straight-no-chaser low-level detail. The DAC1 is first and foremost a monitoring device. All the user can alter is the volume of playback. Given its very reasonable price and limited yet extremely useful set of features it's no wonder that the Benchmark has come to be the de-facto standard against which all other digital preamps are measured. Personally, I could happily live with a DAC1 for a long time. I suspect most audiophiles will come to a similar conclusion. — Steven Stone

 

 

Preamplifier / Processing

Concert Fidelity CF-080 Line Preamplifier
Price: $18,000
Click here to read the complete review.

  There is no doubt in my mind that Masataka Tsuda's designs push the state-of-the-art forward. His "secrets" have nothing to do with complicated and overly designed circuitry, but reside in the potent combination of a minimalist (but not too simple), Zen-like design philosophy and perfectionist execution focused on parts quality and circuit layout. The end result is fantastic transparency and clarity - a closer approach to the live experience in the home. What is most amazing about the sound of the CF-080 is that I found it impossible to characterize as either tube or solid state. Most vintage tube preamplifiers sound distinctly euphonic, slow and mellow, with a fat midrange and an overly liquid and fuzzy harmonic tapestry. Transistorized designs, on the other hand, deliver an abundance of detail, but tend towards a cool, sterile presentation, lacking emotional combustion, and generally failing to flesh out a believable spatial impression. I'm still shaking my head in disbelief: a tube gain stage and tube rectification, yet transient speed and low-level detail retrieval that rivals or exceeds the performance of all line stages I have auditioned over my entire audio lifetime. — Dick Olsher

 

 

Preamplifier / Processing

Spread Spectrum Technologies Ambrosia Preamplifier
Price: $7500
Click here to read the complete review.

  It would appear that James Bongiorno is still riding tall in the saddle. Part musician and part audio magician, and a national treasure in my humble opinion, Bongiorno delivers the goodies yet again. The Ambrosia is a sensation at any price point. Here's a massive full function preamplifier complete with MM and MM phono capability that for me bridges the sonic gap between solid-state and tube designs. It combines the exceptional transient response of solid state gear with the smoothness of tubes. There are even tone controls provided, which gave me the opportunity to tweak the system's tonal balance to my liking. If you already own a tube or hybrid amp, the Ambrosia should prove most complementary. — Dick Olsher

 

 

Preamplifier / Processing/ Amplification

Lyngdorf TDAI 2200 integrated amplifier with built-in room correction
Price: $7500 fully configured
Click here to read the complete review.

  The Lyngdorf TDAI 2200 delivers a level of ergonomic control and sonic subtlety that makes it unique among digital or analog integrated amplifiers. The TDAI 2200 reveals inner detail with as much grace and verisimilitude as anything I've heard. It renders musical detail so you don't have to expend excess mental energy to listen into a mix, but the information isn't presented in a sterile or excessively matter-of-fact way. Even after a long day of listening even at substantial SPL levels (for me that means 88dB to 90dB peak levels) I wasn't fatigued. After only a couple of hours with the Lyngdorf TDAI 2200, you, too, will discover the joys of RoomPerfect are hard to deny and difficult to live without. — Steven Stone

 

 

Loudspeakers

VMPS 626Jr Loudspeaker
Price: $1175 per pair
Click here to read the complete review.

  Think oversized bookshelf speaker, stand-mounting, and three-way design. The end result is simply put: sheer madness! Bottom line: the VMPS 626Jr represents an insane level of sound quality at its asking price. It all starts with a cast of excellent drivers, featuring a true push-pull ribbon midrange that is something special indeed. Properly integrate the drivers using a first-order series crossover, throw in a decent cabinet, and you end up with a speaker than competes with models costing even three times as much. The grill incorporates a constant — directivity waveguide for increased dispersion. I preferred the tonal balance with it off, but ended up with a narrow sweet spot. The old adage about good engineering does not cost any more than bad engineering applies here in spades. — Dick Olsher

 

 

Loudspeakers

Salk Signature Sound SongTower QWT Loudspeakers
Price: $1795 per pair; Optionalvifa DX19 tweeter version available for $1695 per pair
Price as Tested with OW4 tweeter $1895 
Click here to read the complete review.

  The more I listen to the Salk Signature Sound SongTower QWT, the more I like them. They are extremely transparent and very well balanced from top to bottom. The entry level Salk floor standers are by far the best sub $2000 speaker I have ever heard, and are easily competitive with models from other manufacturers at double their cost. Jim Salk will point out their magical midrange, but I think he is a bit short sighted (to mix metaphors.) The SongTower QWT is a totally magical package, omitting only the very lowest octave, which isn't a big concern: many recordings do not have any information below 40Hz. For those who want it all, an optional matching subwoofer is available. If anything, my review of them, positive though it was, was not positive enough. Each pair is custom built in the buyer's choice of real wood veneer, one pair at a time. Because of this, there is a waiting period, but take my word for it, the wait will be worth it! — Nels Ferre

 

 

Loudspeakers

Reference 3A Grand Veena Loudspeakers
Price: $7,990 per pair, high gloss black piano finish is $8,800
Click here to read the complete review.

  Given the space to strut their stuff, the Grand Veenas bring a neutrality and immediacy that spoils you for most other speakers under $20,000. You can pick these up for $7990 (maple finish) or $8800 (high gloss black piano finish). Reference 3A design their own bass and midrange drivers and directly connect the midrange driver to the amplifier. Then they use the simplest and highest quality components to match the tweeter and bass driver output levels to the midrange. An expensive Murator Exciter sitting above the tweeter ensures a completely open sound even if we aren't supposed to hear that high. These speakers represent an easy load and work well with tubes or transistors. I'm not crazy about the looks but that's about all I can say that's negative. On the plus side they made the very best of every recording I threw their way. — Phil Gold

 

 

Computer Audio Software
cMP and cPlay
Price: Free
Click here to read the complete review, with follow-up seen here.

  My product of the year has to be the two software programs cMP and cPlay and their included instructions for turning a computer into a top-notch digital audio and video player. The developer calls this the "Memory Player" (no relation to the other player of the same name selling for mega-bucks). Developed by "cics", who wishes to remain anonymous yet should be given a medal, if one follows his instructions one can produce for themselves a CD, DVD, HD-DVD playback system that will rival anything out there for less than $8000. The cMP program allows transfer of disc information to the computer with 100 percent precision by re-reading a disc until it is sure that all the digits are there, at the same time shutting down all unnecessary Windows applications and subprograms, thus decreasing computer noise. cPlay then loads the music digital information to RAM, thus decreasing jitter to negligible values compared to disc or hard drive playback. The software then does digital signal processing with up to 24-bit/192kHz precision before sending the data to DAC conversion. The price can't be beat! — Bill Gaw

 

 

Accessory / Tweak

PS Audio Quintet Power Filter
Price: $500
Click here to read the complete review.

  Sonically, the PS Audio device also achieved some repeatable and noticeable results. The overall sound of the system was less mechanical, more refined, and more musical. MP-3's from i-Tunes especially benefited from the PS Audio Quintet's ministrations. Depth, which was usually lacking from mp3s, increased to the point where some of them almost matched the CD originals. If I had to choose between spending $500 on more premium cables or on the PS Audio Quintet, I'd choose the Quintet in a heartbeat. Sure, cables matter, but in my humble opinion clean AC power and reliable spike protection matters more. — Steven Stone

 

 

Accessory / Tweak

Balanced Power Technologies BP-2 
Price: $1199 (base unit), $85 each for Oyaide outlets, $300 for the EP2000 filter, $75 for the machined aluminum faceplate.
Click here to read the complete review.

  For those looking to gain that last ounce of musicality from their system need look no further than Balanced Power Technologies. They offer a wide array of transformer based power conditioning to meet nearly any systems needs and budget constraints. In addition, they also offer a host of affordable supporting products like power cords, interconnects and cable lifts. In fact, they are just about to announce a line of speakers. When it comes to their core competency, power conditioning, the gains in clarity, focus and reduced noise floor after the installation of the Balanced Power Technology BP-2 into my system was quite dramatic. This cured my system of the background noises (no matter how low they were) it suffered from. For me and my system, the transformation (and yes it was a transformation) was quite stunning. If you don't use any power conditioning in your system currently, you owe it to yourself to visit the BPT website and investigate it further. They offer a 30 day in home trial for their conditioning products. — Scott Faller

 

 

Accessory / Tweak

Bybee Golden Goddess 'Super Effect' Speaker Bullets
Price: $4,200 per set of four
Click here to read the complete review.

  These are, hands down, the most exciting add-ons this writer has ever encountered-the crowning achievement (so far at least; he's still at it-of Jack Bybee's impressive audio career. I don't believe there is any audio system, no matter how astronomically priced, that would not benefit tremendously from adding the Bullets. Not many people will be ready to fork over four grand, eight if you bi-wire, for an upgrade. I would urge the dedicated music lover who wants the most musically truthful sound attainable to give serious thought to transforming his or her system with the Bullets. In these days of escalating prices, you can pay five figures left of the decimal point for a pair of interconnects for what the Bullets can do is a solid investment. I don't think any typical system upgrade, whether it be new cables, better preamplifier or amplifier, upgraded CD player, etc. — for which you might spend that kind of money, or even a lot more, is likely to deliver the kind of fundamentally altered and exalted musical experience offered by the Bybee Golden Goddess 'Super Effect' Speaker Bullets. — Wayne Donnelly

 

 

Accessory / Tweak

AVM Anti-Vibration Magic
Price: $95
Click here to read the complete review.

  While I have had the privilege to review a couple of very high profile components this past year, nothing has excited me more than a small tweak covered in my Mid-Winter Tweakfest review. Like the ERS paper and the Sound Dead Steel products I've covered in previous years, this modest product produces results far in excess of its modest cost. Painting a fuse or a band around your small signal tubes, or a DAC chipset or soldered connections can result in improvements I would value at least at $1000, if not twice that. Even these modest applications have transformed several of my components. If the price of the small bottle scares you, find a couple of buddies to chip in with you. In the right places, a little bit produces huge improvements. AVM could turn the High End and home theater industry on its ear. It is available through accentusaudio.com and audiyo.com. — Rick Becker

 

 

Budget Beaters!

Adam A5 Recording Studio Monitor
Price: $699 per pair in matte black finish or $769 in glossy white or black
Click here to read the complete review.

  The Adam A5 produces a very direct window into the music. It refuses to play the fake super deep bass tricks like an LS3/5 or the audioengine A5. You do get honest, deep bass down to 55Hz, which is quite impressive for such a small design. The ART (Accelerating Ribbon Technology) tweeters unit is based on the original works of Dr. Oskar Heil, and thus is a dream come true for those seeking ultimate transparency and speed. As such, it has brought me hundreds of hours of musical bliss and in rediscovering some of the greatness in minimally mic'ed recordings. To deliver such impressive results, driver technology and features for a relatively low price tag is truly an triumph! The Adam A5 speakers are so good they will be residing in my digital audio/video workstation for engineering and mastering duties! — Steven R. Rochlin

 

 

Budget Beaters!

Trends UD-10 USB DAC
Price: $110
Click here to read the complete review.

  Not only does the UD-10 allow you to convert a USB audio signal to multiple Coaxial, Toslink, or AES/EBU digital outputs, but it also delivers an analog signal. Either a USB connection or an external battery can power the UD-10. In my system For $110 I dare anyone to find an audio device that does so much so well. The Trends UD-10 is simply a must-have for anyone with a computer-based recording or playback system. — Steven Stone

 

 

Budget Beaters!

Glow Audio Amp One
Price: $488
Click here to read the complete review.

  What do I like about the Glow Amp One? Pretty much everything! I like the way it looks, I like the design plus I like the use of an EL84 Pentode configured as a Triode. What else? Well, I like the amp's build quality, I like the USB input and I like the guys... and the price. But perhaps most importantly, I like the sound. What I like so much about the sound of the Glow Amp One is its eminently listenable nature. On older recordings, to quote one of my favorite hi-fi clich้s, there was simply more 'there,' 'there.' Why? I imagine it has to do with the sheer simplicity of the amp. Oh yeah, one more thing. With the right speakers, this baby can rock with the best. — Jeff Rabin

 

 

Budget Beaters!

Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 Reference Monitor 
Price: $848 per pain in natural finish, $898 for piano black
Click here to read the complete review.

  My review of the Sierra-1 was an unqualified rave! Having lived with them since then has only confirmed my enthusiasm. It has been almost a year and still find myself thinking "I wonder what this will sound like on the Sierra-1?" Whenever I find an amazing piece of music away from home, I look forward to finishing reviews so I can have the Sierra reclaim their proper place in my system. Immensely satisfying from top to bottom, with a near-perfect balance of truth-revealing accuracy and psyche-soothing euphony. Add to that an impedance load, price and size that puts no undue strain on my amplifier, wallet, or wife. Not just "great for under $1000" or "great for a small speaker", the Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 Reference Monitor is simply great! — Clarke Robinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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