Welcome to our twelfth annual audiophile equipment awards! Our Best Of 2012 Blue Note Award marks our celebrating the very best products we have reviewed during the previous year. Recipients have been carefully chosen after much debate and consideration. 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 that we found to merit extra special attention. During the past year, Enjoy the Music.com has reviewed many products including those covered within our Viewpoint articles plus our 'sister publications' Superior Audio and DIY Magazine -- both of the latter now part of our Review Magazine.
In 2011 our staff found a mere 18 products to bestow an Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note Award, with fewer still in 2010! Let is be said here and now that we make no apologies that in 2012 our staff found only 8 products to receive an award! With hundreds of products covered and reviewed in 2012, with quite a few being world premieres, that does not mean everyone gets an award or some grade like back in elementary school when we were mere little children. This is not to say that other products do not merit your attention, it is simply that only the very best of the bunch should stand out and be recognized clearly and concisely. Take note that we do not carry over products from our previous year's award. We do not add products in hopes of satisfying advertisers, so conspiracy theorists can look elsewhere to quench their blood-thirst desire. In fact giving away so few awards as we do is the anti-norm for a company hoping to get free commercial promotion, since such awards always find their way into being featured on Web sites and of course within print advertisements.
Our longstanding staff here at Enjoy the Music.com, with hundreds of years in combined expertise, now presents to you our choices for Best Of 2012 Blue Note Equipment Award. And the winners are:
Talking of throwing amplifiers at speakers, here's one you shouldn't try to throw. It's massively built and weighs in at around 80 lbs. It looks every inch the contender and I would put it up against the big power amps from a list of prestigious audio companies. Most of those will run well into five figures. You may find this one a relative bargain at $8495. It seems to blend the best qualities of tube and solid state, although it has no tubes inside. There's nothing you can throw at it that it won't drive, although in some applications you may prefer to use a pair of KWA 150s in bridged mode, which boosts output from 150 wpc into 8 Ohms (275 wpc into 4 Ohms) up to 450 wpc into 8 Ohms (650 wpc into 4 Ohms). That's a lot of muscle but what you will be most impressed with is the refinement, the superb control over bass midrange and treble, the wide stable image and the rich tonal color. – Phil Gold
Pass Labs XP-10 Line Level Preamplifier and XA 60.5 Monoblock Amplifier
The XP-10 comes with a host of features and its remote control (made from billet aluminum to match the XP-10's front faceplate) has a sturdy comfortable feel to it. Besides the normal volume, selection, mode and muting buttons you can also adjust the left/right balance between loudspeakers. If used in your surround sound room there is a pass thru function to connect to a home theatre processor. On the back panel are both XLR/ RCA inputs and outputs. The new eighty-three volume control steps made an easy undertaking of the task to finding listening levels which were not either too loud or too quiet. Reproducing rapid transients, giving fullness to vocals, the ability to recreate large dynamic swings all within a well-defined wide soundscape made listening to music through the XP-10 a pure pleasure.
The Pass Labs XA-60.5 monoblock amplifiers have a billet aluminum faceplate like that found on the XP-10. The faceplate sports a recessed display meter, standby mode button and attractive blue lighting. Add all this to side heat dispersing fins that angle upward rather than straight out to the sides made for attractive amplifiers destined to be displayed openly rather than hidden out of sight. It was not their beauty alone that impressed me but rather the way they brought music to life. The XA-60.5's gave the illusion of a piano truer to life in size and musical pitch than I would have thought possible. Their ability to throw a large front to back soundscape giving three dimensional proportions to the layering of musicians was very impressive. Sixty watts of Class-A power should be enough for most of us, but when needed these amplifiers automatically slide over to 120-watts Class AB.
Sometimes two plus two equals four and other times it equals five. As good as they were separately their synergy when operating together was even more amazing. This pair of preamplifier/amplifiers sounded close to a tube setup without having to actually use tubes in your system. An extended vast soundscape, holographic imaging, precise placement of musicians in the soundstage, instruments heard with excellent truth of timbre and vocal reproduction to die for, please how much more do you really need? – Anthony Nicosia
Q-tron PA-12 OTL Tube Amplifier
Q-tron's inverted Futterman OTL circuit with additional proprietary distortion and noise cancellation circuitry redefines what is possible in a push-pull design. The PA12 uses only two 6C33C power triodes per channel, biased at 50% of their maximum rating, to provide 25 wpc of output power. In addition, the inverted Futterman circuit is responsible for much lower source impedance (i.e., higher damping factor) than is possible with a standard Futterman output stage. If you have ever wondered how a tube amp might sound without gratuitous second and third order harmonic distortion, well the PA-12 provides the answer; in a nutshell, stunning transparency, clarity, and detail resolution. It is, in the finest meaning of the term, a reference-grade amplifier in that it does not hide program material imperfections behind a euphonic veneer. I know that it's a class AB design, but my ears tell me a different story: it sounds much like a fine pure class A amp! I've auditioned plenty of OTL amps over my audio lifetime, and that includes the David Berning ZOTL types. I can confidently state that the Q-tron PA-12 beats them all. The PA-12 delivers the full promise of OTL technology. A toast, cheers, skål, to Hans Beijner on a fantastic achievement in both technical and musical terms. Highly recommended for audiophiles and music lovers alike. – Dick Olsher
Reference speakers therefore must be reasonably efficient and present not too complex a load. Of course they also have to be of the very highest fidelity that I can afford. The YG Carmel fits the bill perfectly. Not only does it sound better than any other speaker I have heard in my system, but it achieves this with every amplifier I've thrown at it. The Carmel is so alive to the music it can be quite startling. It won't go as loud as its bigger brothers or some other wonderful speakers from Magico and Hansen for example, but for a speaker of this relatively compact size (41" x 11" x 15") it is exceptional in virtually every way. Its bass does not reach as low as some rivals but it is as quick as the midrange and pitch accurate. The high frequencies are absolutely outstanding, which is its big advantage over the Wilson Benesch Act 1 I have enjoyed for so long. I also think it's a strikingly good looking speaker, it's quite unfussy as to where you place it (no porting to worry about) and its imaging puts bigger speakers to shame. The only drawback is the $18,000 price tag. – Phil Gold
Talon Hawk 2 Loudspeakers
This year it was no contest as my choice for the Blue Note Award goes to the Talon Hawk 2 loudspeakers. These dynamic stand-mounted beauties are expensive, but they are worth every penny. It is quite impossible to fully appreciate their many strengths in just one paragraph, but in my review I proclaimed them as "an amazing sounding two-way speaker with modern styling" and that their reproduction of vocals was "spooky real". I go on to say that recordings "take on the semblance of a crystal clear window into the recording studio or hall in which they were recorded", which is in large part due to the speaker's portrayal of the treble frequencies, which is unmatched in its ability to differentiate between subtle shadings of character. These relatively small speakers were also at ease reproducing the sound of a large orchestra, but because of their relatively small drivers and cabinet they were unable to produce much low bass, if any at all. Since the review was published I have received a sample of Talon's matching Thunderbird subwoofer and Rives' sub-PARC subwoofer amp and crossover (review forthcoming) which plunges the system's lows to 15 Hz, and is a perfect match for the Hawk 2. – Tom Lyle
By far, the best thing I've reviewed this year that has brought my system to a new level of enjoyment is not a piece of equipment, but a process. Specifically, the Perfect Path Technologies Silver Paste cleaning and treatment of all of the electrical contacts from the connection of the wire at the telephone pole to all circuit breaker contacts in the junction boxes and AC outlets in my media room, discussed here and also reported on here. The effect has been further heightened by treating all AC, interconnect, speaker wire and as many internal equipment contacts as possible with the same paste as described in this article. While the former requires the owner Tim Mroz and a licensed electrical contractor to do, the latter can be accomplished by any audiophile with some smarts. While the cost is not inconsiderable, considering what we pay for the average component or wire, the effect is well worth the expense. Plus, my electrical bill has dropped by about 15%.
The best piece of equipment I've reviewed this year is actually a system that could be considered a tweak, the Stein H2 Harmonizers ($1100 for H2A, $1195 for H2B) with stones ($50 for five) as reviewed here. How and why they work has no scientific explanation that I can find or think of, but to anyone that's been in my room and heard the effect has been sold. Whether they work on the room, or the individual listener's physiology, I have no idea. They open the room up, and relax the presentation such that the music is more musical. Whether witchcraft or science, they do work.