Welcome to our ninth annual audiophile equipment awards! Our Best Of 2009 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 120 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 2009 our staff found only 22 products 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 blood-thirst desire.
Our staff here at Enjoy the Music.com, with hundreds of years combined expertise, now presents to you our choices for Best Of 2009 Blue Note Equipment. And the winners are:
I've had some great products to review over the past year and the OPPO BDP-83 Universal Player stands out due to marked improvements over what's been available. This is the first truly universal player in that it will play back every type of 5-inch disc that is still available as of this date.It will either decode all of them in an excellent fashion or transmit the data through its HDMI output to an external receiver or pre-pro for decoding. While there will be two more universal players available in the next few months, both will be five to ten times more expensive than the OPPO's $499 retail price. Such a steal.
Audiomods, the business name for Briton Jeff Spall's interpretation of the classic Rega RB-250, is my vote for a 2009 Blue Note Award (note: price varies depending on options and USD to Pound Sterling exchange rate.) Not just the usual rewire and upgraded counterweight (although that is part of the Audiomods RB-250) it is a complete rebuild of the arm, saving just the original arm tube. Adjustable VTA is standard, as well as upgraded bearings with specialized lubrication. Serial number 52 has found a permanent home mounted to my SOTA Star Series III turntable. Each arm is built to order and well worth the short wait.
Are you tired of searching for a particular CD in your collection? Do you want to enjoy endless free music available online? Would you like the turntable or cable TV sound (or whatever) sent from the living room to another room wirelessly? Do you want a system that will not chew up your Wi-Fi system's bandwidth? If you answered yes to three or more of these, then you may be a prime candidate to migrating from an old-school system to the joys of a NAS/controller based system. The internal DAC and analog outputs are very enjoyable musically and are great for my bathroom and bedroom. Those who want truly high-end sound quality will opt for using an external DAC. The Sonos system is such a joy to use due to its intuitive and user-friendly design. Setup was super easy and if i had any questions they were extremely fast to answer my e-mail (or via online live chat). With excellent sound quality, ease of use, endless free music from online sources plus my music collection, i can not fathom why any audiophile would bother with a CD player given options now available such as that offered by Sonos. The stand-alone CD player (or transport) is dead and shall not be missed within my home.
Preamplifier / Processing
SoundTradition's Live! MC-10 features the Hashimoto HM-3 MC step-up transformer and two selectable impedance settings. Hashimoto Electric Co., Ltd, embodies some 60 years of transformer design and manufacturing experience. Their stated goal is to produce the best sounding and highest-quality audio transformers and their products have earned a stellar reputation for sonic excellence. In fact, their design philosophy focuses not just on excellence in technical measurements but seeks to capture the inherent beauty and tonal balance of live music. Matched with several excellent MC cartridges, including the Dynavector XV-1s and the Shelter Harmony, the MC-10 displayed the rare ability to immerse the listener in the music's emotions. And it had no trouble at all facilitating a rock-solid soundstage and amazingly palpable image outlines. Fasten your seat belts! Dynamic contrasts were easily navigated as the music shifted "gears" from soft to loud without even a hint of compression. Rated as an astounding sonic bargain, the Live! MC-10 is a perfect illustration of the maxim that money can't buy you sonic happiness. You could spend thousands more and not come close to the MC-10's inherent musicality. It can hold its own even in the company of ultra high-end analog gear. When the dust settled, I found it impossible to resist its musical powers and purchased the review sample.
Preamplifier / Processing
Priced at only $299 direct from the manufacturer, the Devilsound DAC attempts to deliver exceptional sonics for a mere pittance. It features a 16-bit non-oversampled D/A converter capable of handling up to 48/16 signal. The Devilsound DAC is quite small - it takes up less space than a pack of cigarettes (remember those?). It also has both RCA and USB connection cables attached. The Devilsound has more than adequate output level to support a passive preamp such as the Reference Line Preeminence.
Even when compared to a much higher-priced DAC, such as the Bel Canto DAC3, the Devilsound ranks very well. TheDAC3 has a blacker background with no hint of noise, as well as a slightly more dynamic overall presentation. But the Devilsound is its equal in terms of depth, soundstage width, and even low-level inner detail. I was especially impressed with how well the Devilsound matched the DAC3 in terms of three-dimensionality and imaging palpability.
If forced to choose between the Devilsound USB Dac and the similarly priced High Resolution Technologies MusicStreamer+ DAC I'd be hard-pressed to decide which one I prefer. The Devilsound has the edge in terms of three-dimensionality, but the MusicStreamer has a blacker background. If I were on an extremely tight budget, the inclusion of both USB and RCA cables with the Devilsound would probably push me in its direction. If I had to run some distance from my computer to my analog preamp, the MusicStreamer+'s flexibility in terms of connection cables would be important. You can't go wrong with either DAC since both deliver excellent performance at a ridiculously affordable price.
Preamplifier / Processing
The longer I've lived with the MHDT Havana NOS tubed DAC, the more I love this thing. Believe it or not, after turning a major manufacturers rep onto to this DAC, I actually got a call back chastising me for not raving more about this piece of gear. I have to say, after all this time with the Havana I agree with him. At roughly $900, you simply won't find a better sounding non-oversampling DAC regardless of price. After (the mandatory) swapping the stock tube out for something better (WE-396), this DAC conveys digital music better than anything I have heard to date. It is clean, accurate and extremely resolving. Add in its USB conversion capability, couple it to Foobar/ASIO and you now have not only great sound but the ultimate in convenience. The MHDT Havana non-oversampling USB tube DAC comes with my highest recommendation.
Preamplifier / Processing
The DAC stands on its own as a great achievement, but there is no denying that it shines most brightly when partnered with the Reimyo transport. While the Reimyo system did not fool me into thinking I was listening to vinyl, what it did was make the fact that it wasn't significantly less important. If you are interested in listening to the best that digital has to offer, then you owe it to yourself to listen to the Reimyo digital front end. And if you are in the market for a state-of-the-art digital to analog converter, I cannot imagine your doing better than the Reimyo DAP-999EX. I already miss it.
Preamplifier / Processing
Concert Fidelity's designer, Masa Tsuda, asks a good question: Why is there a need for 18-bit or 20-bit DAC conversion in CD playback system, when there is only 16-bit worth of data on a CD to begin with? In DAC-040 he undertook a radical approach given that the goal was to find out what 16-bit sound is really like and exploit its possibilities. Substantial listening tests and measurements were conducted during the development process to determine the audibility of filter circuits and DAC performance parameters. Masa was willing to trade measured specifications for audible results. In the end, both the digital filter and analog low-pass filter circuits bit the dust and a NOS Philips multi-bit chip DAC was chosen not because its performance was judged to be superior to that of other NOS DACs but because it was felt that the best approach was to simply eliminate problems inherent in the architecture of today's FIR type digital filters. At the end of the day I have to confess that I'm unable to resist the DAC-040's siren call. Vivid harmonic colors, superb rendition of instrumental timbres, and an analog-like presentation that draws the listener into a spacious and solid soundstage. Zero oversampling truly is a gateway to a kinder, gentler, and ultimately more musical digital experience. It's hard to believe that a NOS Philips multi-bit DAC chipset can be engineered to put current 24-bit/196kHz Delta-Sigma DACs to shame, at least in musical terms. But then, as I'm sure that Mr. Tsuda would agree, it was never about the specifications.
The Bosangwha Rev.2.3 does have a personality achieving a very musical, transparent and enjoyable experience. Musical Laboratory* is the Ying to certain 'old school' Super High Wattage solid-state amplifier Yang. My experience of three different single chip solid-state amplification units seem to all have a personality of delightfully letting the music flow. Add to that, extremely small microdynamics s are resolved with great ease. The sheer smoothness and ability to resolve top to bottom both in frequency and dynamics is outstanding. If you have never heard a properly designed single chip solid-state amplifier, the Boswangwa Rev. 2.3 should be on your short list for a listen.
Created by an audiophile the Moscode 402Au is a near perfect blend of older tube design and solid state MOSFET power. Shaping an expansive stage with an envelope of space around each element in the performance this 200 Wpc amplifier exhibits power layered over a dark and silent background. The 402Au amplifier is the culmination of many years of developmental effort by designer manufacturer George Kaye, it is one of the best sounding amplifiers that have auditioned.
The original Spectron Musician III was my Blue Note amplification choice in 2006. That amplifier marked a major milestone for this writer, overturning my long-term preference for tube amplification. I would not normally revisit an amplifier on the basis of incremental improvements, but in this case I have decided to make an exception. The Musician III Mk. II looks identical to the original amplifier, but a lot has changed under the skin, and the resulting notable improvements in sound call for special recognition.
My full review describes the design and parts changes that Spectron has carried out over the last three years. If you could hear the latest iteration side-by-side with the original, I am confident that the sonic improvements would be easily discernible. But what really has my juices flowing is using these amplifiers in monoblock mode. Apart from the obvious benefits of monoblock configuration -- massive power providing near-infinite headroom and freedom from clipping -- the monoblocks sound even faster, sweeter and more relaxed, have superior bass depth and pitch definition, and throw a larger, more dimensional soundscape than a single stereo Musician III.
No, they don't mimic the special quality of tubes -- a kind of creamy sweetness in the harmonic presentation. It is easy to understand the appeal of that tube sound; it has had a grip on me for years. But what the Spectrons do is, to my mind, ultimately even more impressive. The "full boat" Musician III Mk II monoblocks --with the Bybee A.C. internal Bullets and V-Cap options -- have a crystalline purity in the reproduction of every voice and instrument that sounds more to me like the essence of live, unamplified music -- which I attend, on average, more than once a week year-round-- than any other amplifier, at any price, based on any technology, that I have ever heard.
The Bryston 7B SST Squared C-Series Mono block Power Amplifiers can produce 600-watts of thunderous power, into an 8ohm load, while still sounding just as good playing at a whisper. Credit that to the design criteria of the SST Squared to keep an ideal power curve through the "first and last watt". These are versatile amplifiers with both single ended and balanced inputs as well as an input sensitivity switch for gain adjustment. Being a mono block design they also offer the owner the flexibility of placing the amplifiers as near as you would like to each loudspeaker. This means you can keep loudspeaker cables short and interconnects long to lower cable resistance. Listening to my loudspeakers with their 96dB/W/m of sensitivity was no problem as these amplifiers are some of the quietest I have heard. I found them to have a tube like transparency giving a very "live" overall feel to the music. Considering that they come with a 20-year warranty I was even more impressed.
Headphones / In Ear Monitors
A set of custom canal earphones for $350 sounds like a bargain. For an extra $100, you can get a Kleer wireless module. Now you're talking. I have no real need for the wireless module, which incidentally works remarkably well, but the Sleek phones do a grand job for less than half the cost of the class leading Ultimate Ears UE10Pro earphones. They are customizable at the factory not just for color, finish and artwork, but for placement of the input socket and frequency response preference. I found them easy to insert, once I worked out which was right and left, and comfortable for extended periods. I opted for a flat frequency response and these things are smooth and musical, quite extended at both ends. Custom fitting is a revelation, and the price of admission has just been slashed.
Starting your own company is no small feat. Eric Alexander has paid his dues in the audio industry with larger companies and his time is now. The OB4.5 is a $550 (per pair) monitor that looks like a $550 monitor but plays in the league populated by loudspeakers with heavy five figure price tags. Let your kids decorate it or have Eric dress it up in fine veneer if you can't handle the black satin. You will also have to settle for moderate listening levels and a polite but tuneful bass. But its shortcomings are few. With a full-range driver on an open baffle it gives you superb focus, transparency, timing and phase coherence. Place them out into the room on solid stands and it delivers a wide, deep soundscape with excellent definition. Need more bass? Add a Tekton S12 subwoofer for $650 (or two) with Aperture Subwoofer Technology-an open baffle monopole design, similar to the monitors, that goes deep, reveals the tonality of the recording and blends seamlessly with the monitors. At $1200 for the monitors and subwoofer, this combination is an absolute category killer and one of the biggest bargains in high-end audio.
I like 'em... .a lot. They do loads of stuff very well. That slight dip in the midbass I heard was easily compensated for by running some tubes somewhere in your system in front of the 6T's. Then again, that statement could simply be written off as one of my personal preferences in how I enjoy my music served up. The Aperion 6T's provide loads of quick, tight bass providing your amplifier is up to the task. The midrange is remarkably clean for reasonably priced speaker and the highs are clean and well extended. Weighing in at just under $1400, the 6T's present a tremendous value not to mention, killer sound.
These rather large and heavy speakers have an amazingly wide and deep soundstage, precise imaging, are very true to the source, and can play very loudly -- and the rightfully deserved popularity of the THIEL CS2.4 sans SE (Special Edition) was at least in part due to these admirable traits. But if you have the extra scratch it certainly is worth it to go for these very special (sorry) limited edition speakers. Added to the standard CS2.4 the 'SE sports high grade "boutique" capacitors, a cost-no-object crossover, heavy aluminum spiked supports, and veneered in a Birdseye Maple using a deep red stain formulated specifically for the CS2.4SE that THEIL calls Vermilion Maple which they claim is, and I will vouch for them, "a rich and luminous finish boasting deep, dimensional grain with an elegant hue". Even if the Signature Edition only slightly improves upon the standard CS2.4's sound I think one is in for quite a ride upon auditioning this model. The CS2.4SE is a limited production run, so only 150 pairs of the CS2.4SE are going to be manufactured. Anyone considering a full-range dynamic speaker in this price range (and quite above), is most likely going to be extremely satisfied after an audition, and as a consequence of the encounter, a likely purchase.
I can understand what many open baffle guys have been raving about for years. Front and rear dept, soundscape and full enveloping of music is found here. Add in the brilliance of Italian midrange and super smooth highs plus extremely deep bass and the Nightingale Concentus CTR 2 is what you get. While I never felt the need to tweak them, those who are tweakaholics have easy access to virtually everything and can go about their business. My time with the Concentus CTR 2 was a gift as it were. In life sometimes you find love, sometimes you 'lose' that love. For it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. And that, my friends, is what sums up my feelings for these loudspeakers. They were so good I wish they could have stayed within my reference system for many years.
They do not pretend to be anything other than what they are — among the very finest loudspeakers at their respective price points. While the number of models has been reduced recently, the $5000 jump from the Partial Eclipse to the Super Victory, and the $5500 jump from the Super Victory to the Total Victory IV are not subtle, whether viewed from the pocket or the ear. While they thrive on tube amplifiers, they are robust enough to handle muscle amps. Just be prepared to make adjustments to your upstream components. The Coincidents will tell you all about them, and let you know when you've got it right. But even if the rest of your system is not quite up to the standard of which the Coincidents are capable, you will most likely still enjoy the music. Your non-audiophile guests, on the other hand, will be simply stunned.
The Shuguang Treasure Series 6CA7 ($240 matched pair) and KT88Z vacuum tubes, available exclusively in North America from Canada's Grant Fidelity and worldwide from other distributors. While the 6CA7 is highly recommended, the star of the show is the KT88Z, so much so that I sent payment and kept the review quad. The Treasure Series KT88Z has literally transformed my system, helping it reach a level of performance that I did not think possible without far more expensive equipment upgrades. If you are thinking that $480 to $600 (for a matched quad) is a steep price to pay for the pleasure of tube rolling, you have missed the point of the Shuguang Treasure Series tubes- it is not "tube rolling", they are an amplifier upgrade. And while I am not big on NOS tubes, a number of readers have told me that the Treasure Series tubes easily bested their favorite NOS tubes. One caveat- be prepared for a 300 hour break in. The Shuguang Treasure Series tubes change (and improve) dramatically during this period.
Accessory / Tweak
The equipment footers from Black Ravioli of Scotland get my nod as a recipient of a Blue Note Award. I don't know how they work, but they eliminate vibrations from entering equipment better than any other feet I've had in my listening room. Two of the several different types were reviewed. Unhappily the North American distributor went belly up due to the recession, but they can still be purchased directly from the manufacturer.
Accessory / Tweak
At just $199 for a two meter length, Magus gives more than a glimpse of the high end. Featuring micro-monofilament technology trickling down from the reference quality Valhalla series, Magus is slim, flexible and startlingly blue. It incorporates three high-strand-count 99.99999% OFC copper conductors. Nordost's own spiral spacing and extruded Teflon construction provides a virtual air dielectric. The result is a cable with lightning reflexes and strong imaging, but you won't hear this until they're fully cooked. Allow several hundred hours for best results. The male connector is a substantial Wattgate plug and the female is a low profile IEC connector with gold plating. Until you can afford the very best, Magus will make a mockery of the cords that come with your components and keep your wallet safe.
Accessory / Tweak
The Bybee Wire Power Purifier's metal chassis and cover, internal damping and shielding, and high-quality Hubbel outlets give this unit very high marks for quieting performance, and I hear none of the dynamic truncation that many conditioners produce. With its ability to remove the deleterious effects of 1/f noise, as well as its power factor correction and time alignment functionality, the Bybee Wire Power Purifier lets music sing beautifully.
I'm not a home theater guy. I love movies, but my cinematic tastes don't run to big explosive films, and my 60" Sony lives in my bedroom, not the listening room. When I was done with evaluating audio performance, I took the Bybee Wire Power Purifier back and plugged my TV, DVR and new Oppo blu-ray DVD player into it. Voila! Much better fine detail and color saturation, many fewer digital artifacts. So if you are a home theater enthusiast, you have another reason to give this baby a thorough tryout.
Back in the mid-1990s the original Bybee/Curl Pro power conditioner that was the model for this unit retailed for $3,000. Today the Bybee Wire Power Purifier, with its significantly improved sonic benefits, carries a retail price of $4,500. Considering the upward spiral in the prices of fine audio equipment, it seems to me that this price is an excellent value for what is unequivocally the most musically rewarding power conditioning component I have yet experienced.
What this Power Purifier does is to move the sound of the system away from sounding "electronic" -- i.e., affected by the various noises and distortions that to some extent afflict every audio system -- and toward a purer, more naturally musical presentation. With the Bybee Wire Power Purifier in place, no matter what musical genre I am exploring, I am drawn more deeply into the experience than is possible when the Power Purifier is removed. That makes an enthusiastic recommendation a no-brainer.