2018 Golden Ear Awards: Neil Gader

Equipment report
Categories:
Stand-mount,
Phonostages,
Integrated amplifiers,
Music servers and computer audio,
Cartridges,
Equipment racks and stands
2018 Golden Ear Awards: Neil Gader

Lindemann Audio Musicbook:25 DSD network music player
$4995
Has Lindemann made being an audiophile a little too easy? Well, call me lazy but the handsome one-box solution known as the Musicbook:25 DSD allows me to dial up my tunes with the ease and alacrity of a short-order restaurant—the only thing missing are the fries. Equipped with an analog preamp, slot-load CD player, DAC (resolutions of up to 384kHz PCM and DSD256 with native DSD playback), and an integrated streamer with Tidal and Qobuz onboard, the Musicbook:25 has a mind-bending level of convenience and coddling that purist audiophiles instinctively run away from. But not me—not with this kind of performance on tap. Lindemann’s digital giant-killer offers superior overall musicality—from transient speed and naturalism to macro/micro resolution. Ambient and dimensional cues are solid and assured. Operationally I’d hoped for a more engaging music app and remote control, but these are minor grievances. For a component not much larger than a summer bestseller, the Musicbook:25 speaks volumes.

Clearaudio Charisma V2 cartridge
$2000
Clearaudio’s literature artfully describes the Charisma V2 as founder Peter Suchy’s “moving magnet masterpiece.” Over the top perhaps but once I cinched down the Charisma, I never looked back. It offers a full palette of timbral vibrancy and complexity, the classic midrange heft and bloom that I desire, and the dynamic electricity and top-end sweetness I demand. Tracking was unshakable and effortless, and the cartridge imparted transient cues with unalloyed naturalism. As with its vaunted moving-coil brethren the Charisma reproduces even finer gradations of light and air in the upper octaves, while maintaining overall neutral tonality. The Charisma also retrieves images like they are being monitored by LoJack. Premium features include the same boron cantilever and double-polished Gyger S stylus found in the Goldfinger Statement MC with the motor housed in a mass-loaded ebony wood body for added resonance control. Output is a real-world 3.6mV, so no need to sweat over a lack of gain in your phonostage. Like its name implies, you’ve either got it or you don’t. This cartridge has got it. 

Revel Performa3 M126 Be loudspeaker
$4000/pr.
To describe the M126 Be as merely the hot-rodded version of the nifty little two-way M106 does not adequately give it its sonic due. There are fireworks and ass-kicking dynamics, yes, but more importantly there’s a degree of silken, shimmering refinement that’s rare in this cost-conscious segment. Tricked out with a new 1" beryllium dome tweeter that’s paired with a ceramic-coated, cast-aluminum acoustic-lens waveguide, and a 6.5" ceramic/aluminum mid/bass, the M126 Be offers low-level resolution, timbral realism, and top-end air and speed that are improved across the board. The low-end response from this bass-reflex design is quick with little indication of nefarious port artifacts—acoustic bass, for example, is richly defined in extension and grip. Relatively easy to drive at 86dB/8 ohms, the M126 Be still craves good amplification. Revel’s philosophy has always mandated great in-room power response, and this leads to perhaps the most impressive aspect of this excellent compact—its continuity of soundstage presentation, which weaves an unbroken tapestry of images into the ambient soundspace.

Critical Mass Systems Sotto Voce equipment stand
$4500 (38" tall, four-level standard shelf version)
Can an attractive piece of audio furniture ascend to the level of an active component? That’s exactly what happened when my system boarded the CMS Sotto Voce equipment rack.  Sonic improvements were neither subtle nor trivial—bass tightened, low-frequency notes were unearthed, and pitch ambiguity was dissolved. On the macro front the Sotto Voce so fully conjured up a sense of weight and permanence with recording venues that my listening room seemed to fall away and fill with the presence and air of the given concert hall. On LPs it just seemed to drill down into the soundstage much deeper, mining larger amounts of ambient information. This in turn assisted in clarifying micro information. Perhaps most significantly, near-subliminal low-level noise plummeted. It’s that last aspect, a stillness factor, that opens the soundstage and releases low-level orchestral cues; it is the key to the SV’s remarkable ability to elicit dimensionality from a recording. The SV anchors my system like no other component in my experience. Plus, all CMS racks are upgradeable.

Parasound JC 3+ phonostage
$2950
If there’s one constant in the high end, it is that pretty much anything wizard John Curl signs off on is likely to be remarkable. And so it goes with the evergreen JC 3+. Although it is now a few years old, time hasn’t dampened its sonic bona fides one iota. A dual-mono design, with colossal chassis isolation, beefy power supply, massive power transformer, and isolated circuitry, the 3+ kicks low-level resolution up a notch over most of the competition by extracting the innermost dimensional aspects and low-level minutiae of music on LPs. Its ability to see into a symphony orchestra and define each section is uncanny. Backgrounds remain eerily quiet, instrumental timbres ripe as plums, and channel separation exquisite. As it is highly configurable, those who are prone to swapping exotic cartridges and seeking the last word in resolution will find it exceedingly appealing.


MBL C51 integrated amplifier
$11,100
Even as the segment of no-holds-barred integrated amplifiers continues to swell, MBL’s C51 endures. The first amp using MBL designer Jürgen Reis’ hybrid Class D topology known as LASA, the 180Wpc amp remains a sonic tour de force. I’ve lived with the C51 for a long while, and it’s easy to misjudge its depth, complexity and profound solidity. It has the touch of the classicist in terms of the import it places on the finest inner details, and its resolution of acoustic space is almost eerie in its specificity. Its airily extended top end is nothing like early-era Class D, which often squeezed and shrouded these octaves. Timbral and textural details are unerringly correct—sweet where appropriate, yet highly charged and aggressive when called for. Its key strength is the way it integrates individual criteria—pitches, imaging, dynamics, transients—and stitches them together into a seamless curtain of reproduced sound. With its soft, understated lines, svelte controls, generous connectivity, and jewelry-like finish, the C51 remains triumphant in its category.


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