6 Greatest "Mid-Priced" Bargains in High-End Audio

Equipment report
Categories:
Audio,
Floorstanding,
Phonostages,
Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Loudspeaker cables
6 Greatest "Mid-Priced" Bargains in High-End Audio

Synergistic Element Series

Interconnect: Element Copper, $1200/1m, Element Tungsten, $2000, Element CTS, $3600. Speaker (8' pr.): Element Copper, $1700; Element Tungsten, $2800. Element CTS, $7500

The Element Series represents Synergistic’s innovative and costly Galileo System technology in full trickle-down mode. Tailored to real-world budgets Element comes in three performance levels including the world’s first wire to feature pure Tungsten conductors (the real sleeper of the series), an entry-level copper version, and finally the heady CTS, a premier combination of copper/tungsten/silver. In full CTS plumage it’s difficult to classify its sound as cool or warm, light or dark. Rather it cues off the recording itself. Spatial relationships and ambience retrieval are its true métier and it defines orchestral layers at will. There’s an astounding collection of inner contrast as it elicits music’s gradations, dynamic, micro-dynamic, timbral, and transient. The backgrounds are silent and black. It can sound purely transparent, even romantic from top-to-bottom but it’s also a tough-minded critic and ruthlessly revealing of a recording’s failing. Galileo maybe out of reach for the masses, but Element is Synergistic’s pièce de résistance for the rest of us. synergisticresearch.com

Bryston BDA-1

$2195

AT’s new reference DAC, the Bryston BDA-1 reveals previously unattainable (from digital) worlds of information about both the sound and the specific performance of the music. More than any other DAC AT has heard, the BDA-1 allows listeners to hear how instrumental lines relate to each other, how rhythms trade off, why the composer wrote the music as he did, and why each musician plays his line a particular way. Surprisingly, none of this is rendered analytically; rather, the Bryston’s presentation is warm, relaxed, and analog-like. In addition, the BCD-1’s front panel features an incredibly useful LED arrangement that displays both the incoming sample rate and, should the user select upconversion, the upconverted rate. The back panel includes a bounty of digital source options, including the sonically superior BNC. The USB input is dull and resolution-limited, but the BDA-1 is otherwise an exceptional product. bryston.com

Parasound Halo JC 3

$2350

It was only a matter of time before electronics design-legend John Curl would author a phonostage for Parasound. Dubbed the JC 3, it’s a dual-mono design. Each channel is housed in its own extruded aluminum enclosure, and further isolated from the power supply with thick, low-carbon-steel partitions. With top-quality parts throughout (Curl notes that the passive EQ parts’ values and quality are the same as in his renowned Vendetta SCP2B phono). With every rotation from an LP collection the JC 3 conveys a heady mix of profound silence and kick-butt energy, a kiss of romance through the mids, and an ability to extract low-level information and define it in acoustic space. Through the JC 3 there’s a warm breath of life in every musical image. parasound.com

NAD C 390DD

$2600

NAD’s C 390DD might perform the same functions as an integrated amplifier with an integral DAC, but looks can be deceiving. Rather than convert digital signals to analog and then amplify those analog signals with multiple conventional gain stages, the C 390 DD takes in digital data at any resolution up to 192kHz/24-bit and converts the PCM data directly to the pulse code signal that turns the output transistors on and off. This “Direct Digital Amplifier” technology debuted in the $6000 M2 and now trickles down to the C 390DD. This new unit benefits from three years of additional R&D and more features including a modular design in which most of the digital inputs are on replaceable cards to accommodate changing technology. And being software-based, the C 390DD’s programming can be upgraded as well. Throw in an automated program that removes the worst bass peaks and dips and you have an extremely capable and compelling product. Sonic strengths include extremely wide dynamics with a sense of ease on even the most demanding peaks, tight and powerful bass, and a treble that errs on the side of smoothness rather than resolution (a good thing when partnered with many mid-priced loudspeakers). nadelectronics.com

PSB Imagine T2

$3500

These elegant floorstanding speakers of moderate size offer a surprisingly “big” sound, with dynamics sufficient to present large-scaled music convincingly and enough bass to cover orchestral and rock music, though pipe organ enthusiasts will want to add a subwoofer or two. The T2s vanish into the soundfield and present a suitably expansive sonic picture when the recording justifies it. They sound very low in distortion with a pure midrange and a very clean treble. And they have a truth to timbre, a tonal neutrality, that is top level, showing a clean pair of heels in this regard in particular to many high-end speakers of far higher price. Orchestras have a life-like tonal realism that is startling, pianos sound like pianos, vocals like people singing. Paul Barton has produced a masterpiece here, and at a most reasonable price. psbspeakers.com

Magnepan MG 3.7

$5495

Maggie’s new, three-way, true-ribbon/quasi-ribbon planar 3.7 successfully addresses three issues that have long vexed “true-ribbon” Maggies: the seamless integration of that ribbon with the other planar-magnetic drivers; the retention of detail and dynamic range at relatively low volume levels; and the reduction of “Maggie graininess.” The solution of these problems combined with the famous virtues of true-ribbon Magnepans (neutrality, low distortion, high resolution, superb transient response, lifelike timbres, and natural imaging and soundstaging) produce what is, in JV’s opinion, the best buy in a high-fidelity transducer regardless of price, provided you have enough amp to drive the 3.7 and the space to house it. Note that the 3.7 does not produce deep bass below about 45Hz and, like all planars, it runs into membrane-excursion limits, slightly limiting dynamic range (particularly in the bass) at extremely high SPLs. magnepan.com

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