David Berning Audio 211/845 Amplifier
In the new 211/845, David Berning has created the most ambitious realization yet of his brilliant ZOTL circuit that allows a tube amplifier to operate without an output transformer. The 211/845 offers 60W of pure Class A triode tube power (via either 211 or 845 output tubes) with no feedback. The 211/845 conveys the beauty of instrumental timbre and voices with a stunning realism and immediacy. The impression that everything between you and the music has been stripped away is palpable. In this regard, the 211/845 simply has no peer, tube or solid state. Surprisingly, the bass is well defined and tuneful, although not the last word in dynamic impact. The highish output impedance and limited current delivery dictate that the 211/845 be matched with a loudspeaker of appropriate sensitivity and impedance. But when given the right load, the Berning 211/845 is nothing short of magical.
Critical Mass Systems Maxxum Equipment Rack and Amplifier Stands
Price varies with configuration
It’s not an overstatement to say that the Critical Mass Systems Maxxum equipment racks and amplifier stands vaulted my system’s performance to a new level. I heard a much quieter and deeper background, coupled with greater clarity of low-level sounds, particularly micro-transients. These qualities combined to infuse the music with a density of subtle musical information that was mesmerizing. The CMS supports make the music sound more coherent, with greater clarity of individual lines, superior transient fidelity, and the ability to help the loudspeakers disappear into the soundstage. Although expensive (a three-shelf rack is about $18k; the amplifier stands are $5650 each), the Maxxum supports are built and finished to the highest standards. Note that CMS makes less expensive products that have received similar praise (their entry-level Sotto Voce received a Golden Ear Award from Alan Taffel in Issue 254).
Basis Superarm 9 Tonearm
Although Basis Audio’s Vector IV tonearm is outstanding, the company’s Superarm 9 plays in an entirely different league. This arm’s ultra-low resonance gives it a relaxed ease, particularly through the midrange. Instrumental timbres are clean, liquid, and free from glare. One listen to vocals through the Superarm 9, and there’s no going back. Fine details are vividly brought to life, particularly transients, giving the presentation greater density of information without added forwardness. The bass is phenomenal, combining great heft and weight with dynamic agility. A reference-quality tonearm.
Meridian 808v6 CD Player and Explorer2 DAC
This update to Meridian’s flagship CD player/DAC incorporates several performance improvements, but more significantly, adds decoding of Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) files. Even when decoding conventional digital, the 808v6 is in the top echelon of digital playback, with a smooth tonal balance, superb dynamics, and absolutely rock-solid and extended bass. But feed it an MQA-encoded file and the 808v6 takes on a whole new life, with tremendous dimensionality, tangible air between images, utter liquidity of timbre, and more realistic transient reproduction. The 808v6’s substantial price puts it out of range of most listeners, but fortunately you can hear what MQA is all about in Meridian’s $299 Explorer2 DAC, which also is deserving of a Golden Ear Award. The Explorer2’s sound quality when decoding MQA files is exceptional by any measure, and all the more so when considering its price.
Constellation Audio Altair II Preamplifier and Hercules II Monoblock Power Amplifier
$80,000 (Altair II), $180,000 per pair (Hercules II)
Constellation Audio took what was already the highest resolution and most transparent solid-state electronics I’ve heard, the original Altair preamplifier and Hercules monoblock power amplifiers, and vaulted them to a new level of performance in the Series II. The original Hercules delivered reference-quality midrange and treble, but with a somewhat polite bottom end. The II’s bass is now outstanding, with plenty of heft, weight, and dynamic impact. Surprisingly, the qualities for which Constellation is known—exceedingly high resolution, transparency, treble delicacy—are even more apparent in the new Hercules. The Altair II is also improved, in both sound quality and user interface. As colorless a piece of electronics as you’re ever likely to hear, with no sonic flavor of its own, the Altair II allows the finest micro-details of timbre, transient information, and spatial cues to pass through without imposing its own signature on the music. These are world-class, reference-quality electronics that would be at home in the most demanding systems.
T+A PDP 3000 HV CD/SACD Player and DAC
This CD/SACD player and DAC from Germany’s T+A may be the best all-around value in digital today. Solidly built and a joy to use, the PDP 3000 HV features a custom-made transport mechanism made mostly from metal, rather than plastic, parts. As part of its no-compromise approach, the PDP 3000 HV features completely separate signal paths, DACs, and even analog-output stages for PCM and DSD sources. When playing DSD, the PDP 3000 HV uses different filters depending on the DSD rate. Sonically, the T+A performs with the best of them when decoding PCM sources, and offers the finest SACD playback I’ve heard.
MartinLogan Neolith Loudspeaker
The Neolith may be the greatest bargain in upper-end loudspeakers today. MartinLogan swung for the fences with this new electrostatic/dynamic hybrid, mounting a roughly 4' x 2' XStat electrostatic panel atop an enclosure that houses a front-firing 12" driver and a 15" rear-firing woofer. If a loudspeaker is judged by how realistically it renders the sounds of instruments and voices in your living room, then the Neolith is surely the state of the art. The Neolith is simply sensational in its ability to present instruments and vocalists as tangible objects in space. This palpability of images is as good as it gets. The resolution of fine detail, ability to portray transient speed (both starting and stopping), and reproduction of the scale and grandeur of large-scale classical music are also beyond reproach. Surprisingly, the cone woofers integrate seamlessly with the electrostatic panel. The bottom end is not as tight and controlled as some other state-of-the-art contenders, but that’s picking nits in the context of the Neolith’s stunning musicality.