HP’s 2010 Editors’ Choice Awards

HP’s 2010 Editors’ Choice Awards

Preamplifiers, Linestages, and Phonostages

conrad-johnson GAT linestage
The GAT is the successor to its highly praised ART, the Anniversary Reference Triode, produced in limited editions over the past decade. More than that, the GAT is the company’s tribute to the late and much-loved Carnell Gatling, who was as much a part of conrad-johnson as Lewis Johnson and Bill Conrad, its founders.. Like the ART, the GAT will be limited to a total of 250 units, with a retail price set at $20,000. (But, let it be said that there followed two more limited editions of the ART as its designer found ways to enhance and improve its sound.) How much better does it sound than the ARTs? Johnson himself is reserved in his commentary, suggesting that some may find it so; others under different listening conditions may not hear much of a difference. I do not share those reservations, if that they be. This linestage does not have the characteristic (and colored) golden glow of most of the company’s signature sound, achieving something higher, but its break-in time can be a frustrating for those waiting for the top octaves to match the glories of the frequencies below. Review in progress.

conrad-johnson TEA-1 phonostage (“bc” version)
Who would have thought (certainly not I) that hard on the heels of the superb Zanden phonostage (the model 1200) one just as good in every respect, from dynamics to frequency extension, would make an appearance? Of course, this phonostage (which I call the Tea Bagger just to annoy Lew Johnson) doesn’t have the equalization gizmos of the Zanden, but it costs about a third (and yet, still more than the entire McIntosh 2300, phonostages and all—see below). There are four models of the Tea: the “b,” the base model, minus the fancy Teflon caps, at $5000, the “bt” like the base model only with a transformer to help step-up the signal; and the “bc” which is like the base, but with Teflon capacitors (at $8500), and a plain ole Tea, with both the Teflon and transformers at $10,000. My version, currently under evaluation and now in heavy use, is the “bc” version, and I am using it as one of the two tubed reference phonostages in a moving-coil cartridge survey now underway. Review in progress.

Joule Electra LA-300ME MAB linestage
The MAB signifies Marianne Barber, designer Jud’s late wife, one of the most ebullient of women, a full-blooded character (she loved her occasional Bombay gin cocktail and the motorcycle rides with her husband). Their marriage stayed a romance and so Jud designed this in her honor when her health failed. I think you can hear something of her in the deeply romantic sound this linestage elicits from the sources fed it. I do not mean “romantic” in the sense of being highly colored and euphonic, but in the sense of something more ineffable I am yet unable to put into words. Jud Barber’s best design work and that is saying something since he has never designed anything amusical. Review in progress.

McIntosh C2300 full-function preamplifier
McIntosh’s return to all-out tube design manages to accomplish two not always congruent goals, a first-class and full-fledged preamplifier with both moving-iron and moving-coil inputs for LPs, and construction quality unheard of in a $6000 unit: illuminated meters, balanced inputs, and a noise reduction system that eliminates any noise from its tubes. More than that, it has a purity of sound, a lack of tube coloration the likes of which I’ve never heard from tubed gear. What it does is get out of the way of the music. Who would have thunk that a McIntosh product, built to luxury standards, would ever be a best buy? Review, Issue 198.

Turntables and Pickup Arms

Clearaudio Statement
When I first reviewed this turntable assemblage, it seemed indisputable (to me anyway) that it was the world’s best device for playing LPs. It still so seems, despite one small miscalculation: The lightweight straight-line tracking arm that comes with this $150,000 behemoth is, despite its linear crossing of the LP (as does the original LP cutting head), not in the same class as the rest of this ne plus ultra in construction and design. Indeed, I had underestimated the quality of the supplied ultra-expensive Goldfinger cartridge ($10k), which, in the Graham Phantom II mounted on the ’table, became a world-class contender. But that aside, the Clearaudio’s audible superiority comes from its magnetic drive (which gives a freedom to the sound of LPs as well as a depth and dynamic to the bottom octaves that resembles the best from excellent CDs) and multiple layers of suspension and isolation, which include a central pendulum that provides total (and I mean total) freedom from shocks, even those caused by earth tremors or, aboard a yacht from ocean waves (it is said—I wouldn’t know). It is also beautiful, a kind of crowning achievement.

Graham Phantom II pickup arm
Let me put this plainly: The best pivoted arm I’ve ever evaluated, and a uni-pivoted one at that. One of the key things that makes it so lies in its ability to track, with a good moving-coil cartridge, all frequencies on the record, not just a few in key areas of the midrange. See Review, Issue 196. [Additional arm wands for those with more than one cartridge, $750]

VPI Classic (revised) turntable
The Classic, correctly named, has been made even better with a few quite small changes, which give it an even smoother sound. These are tiny changes, but consistent with Harry Weisfeld’s mechanical bent. The man is always on the lookout for a sonic improvement, no matter how slight. Oh yes, the changes, as told by HW himself: “I grounded the motor with an aluminum heat sink, the platter was changed to one piece of aluminum rather than two pieces, with a damping ring attached to its bottom (to make it quieter), and the arm increased by 6mm “for lower tracing error and better tracking.” And the price remains the same. You yourself can do a bit of improving if you opt to pay for the stainless-steel version of the Classic’s arm ($200), which I recommend for cleaner sound from your cartridges, and $700 for the stainless-steel record clamp that fits over the outside edges, the best way of the LP. The speed stability is so good thanks to Weisfeld’s design (based on earlier turntables, those from the golden age of same) that I think you can get by without the SDS speed control device (at $1200), which makes speed changes easier than does adjusting the Classic’s belt. A steal at $2500, this one does not suffer by comparison with the Clearaudio Statement and has prompted me to retire the much-loved Scoutmasters.

Triplanar Model VII UII pickup arm
A long-time reference standard in conventional pickup arms.

Phono Cartridges

As this issue goes to press, I am in the midst of a two-part phonograph cartridge evaluation. The first part, which will be published quite soon, will cover moving-coil designs. At the moment, I am using the Clearaudio Goldfinger as the reference, a situation that may well change given the field of competition I have assembled, which includes Ortofon’s best cartridge in a generation, the A-90; an update of the Dynavector XV-1s—the XV-1t; the modestly priced and quite surprising unit from Shilabe; as well as the ZYX, the striking Haniwa, the Air Tight Supreme, and maybe a look at the new version of the My Sonic Labs Supreme (depending on how A.J. Conti, the new importer is feeling). And, perhaps more.

Part II of the series was inspired by my experience with the Soundsmith Sussuro moving-iron cartridge, which, in the VPI Classic, sounds like a good moving coil, not a high-output moving-iron or magnet design. It, like the Goldfinger for moving coils, will serve as the reference, against which the others will be compared. To that end, I have on hand the London/Decca Jubilee, the Goldring 2500, the Ariston (ne ADC), and two Shure models, the update of the legendary V-15s. And, maybe even more to come.

CD Players

EMM Labs XD-S1 CD/SACD player (two-channel version)
The sonic evolution of CD players at the high end has become so intense that it is small wonder that hard on the heels of his outstanding TSD two-piece two-channel system, Ed Meitner has achieved his magnum opus, a statement CD player that has no traces of the things we normally associate with “CD sound,” that is, an identifiably “digital” character, or, for that matter, an identifiable characteristic coloration. Review in progress.

47/Lab Model 4704 Pi/Tracer
The first CD player that had the liquid sound of the best-tubed and analog units, though it was neither. What it is is cantankerous and cranky in conventional use. It was, however, a first in showing where modern compact disc players are now headed. Oh yes, and, still remarkably easy on the ears.


McIntosh MC2301 monoblock amplifiers
$22,000 the pair
As far as I’m concerned, this 300-watter is the state of the art in tubed amplifiers. A masterpiece of the design art. It is so pellucid in its freedom from an identity of its own as to be extremely difficult to evaluate using contemporary audio terminology. Review in progress.

Bryston 28B (SST2 revision) monoblock amplifiers
$16,000 the pair
Since I first reviewed this 1000-watt monoblock (Issue 189), Bryston has twice updated its innards, each an audible improvement over the original. Yet it is the latest version (SST2) that is, putting it simply, a solid-state breakthrough, so much better than the original that I am flabbergasted (and a bit perplexed). It is faster by a good bit, with absolutely no edge or enhanced “definition”; indeed, it sounds much airier (particularly at the top) and more relaxed than did the original, while exhibiting more subtle dynamics, both at the micro- and macro-ends of the spectrum. All of this is bathed in a pool of ambience that never sounds like too much second harmonic distortion (or, to these ears, euphonic in the colored sense at all). Need I say this is the most musical solid-state design I’ve heard, and from what I once would have considered the unlikeliest source? Update in progress.

Speaker Systems

Scaena 1-4 Speaker System
This very expensive and elaborate system, a descendant of Mark Porzilli’s original Pipedream system, has much of the definition of a great electrostatic, without the limitations (compressed frequency range and dynamic response). It has an elaborate woofer system, in this case, four 18-inchers in all, reaching down well below 16Hz if you’re not careful in its adjustment, as well as a smooth crossover to the more or less conventional line array of midrange drivers and planar ribbon tweeters. All this requires two separate amplifiers (one, obviously for the woofers, and I don’t recommend the one that is supplied), as well as some knowledge of how to adjust its sophisticated (and hard to decode, for me anyway) crossover. A considerable amount of experimentation is necessary for optimal room placement. No easy matter, and you’re not likely to hear it optimally set up in any audio show. There are now eight models offered by Scaena, with different configurations of the number of drivers and woofers, mostly fewer than in this, the top of the line. The least expensive assemblage is priced at $46,000. Reviews in Issues 180 and 192.

Reference 3a Grand Veena (Revised) Speaker System
I had to return the original Veena and thus don’t have it on hand for a comparison with the updated version. So I cannot describe the sonic results of the many very small changes done to the Veenas and to the others in the Reference 3a line. Some of those changes include cryogenic treatment of all the connectors, wiring, and drive parts in the system(s), new internal wiring (copper with Teflon dielectric). Check out info@reference3a.com, if you want to know all. I found the originals one of the rarest of the rare, a speaker system that covered virtually all of the useable frequencies you’re likely to encounter seamlessly and with musical authority. Perhaps I detect greater smoothness and a bit more “life,” but it is hard to say for sure since the amplification driving the new units has substantially changed as well. But one thing remains exactly so to these ears: The Veenas are a best buy at the price. They cover all but the cycles below 32 and go up beyond the hearing of bats and cats, without an audible break and with complete coherency and sonically invisible crossovers. The only thing they don’t do that something like the larger Scaena does, besides plummet the 16Hz region, is to move as much air and pressurize the room as the absolute does.

Magnepan 20.1 Speaker System
It has earned its classic status. It is distinguished by Jim Winey’s superior true ribbon tweeter (as opposed to those pretenders to the throne) and its improved midrange planar units. These in a sexy-looking panel that produces a most coherent balance and is capable of superb articulation and musical naturalness. It has weaknesses, particularly in both dynamic extension (and range) at the lowest frequencies, and finding a woofer that mates with it naturally is not easily done, if at all.

Multichannel Equipment

The Super Maggie System: two 20.1 speakers ($12,990), two 3.6 speakers (rear channels ($10,000), two CC-2 center channels ($995 each) with five Nola Thunderbolt Woofers, ($1995 each)
Edge: GAV six-channel modular amp ($5995)
magnepan.com, edge.com, nolaspeakers.com

What I was looking for in the multichannel room was a system that could play back music in a way that approached the absolute, while, at the same time doing justice to music DVDs and motion picture soundtracks. The addition of the Nola Thunderbolts (still one of the cleanest, most musically natural of all those on the market) gave the power for the thunderous bass some movies require, without coloring the bottom octaves (as, say, on organ recordings) unnaturally. (The Maggies, despite their many excellences and articulative abilities, have dynamic limitations in the bottom octave.) The low-slung CC-2 speakers I chose because they did not interfere with the video screen and stacked two together—and a Nola sub—for a better match with the left-right 20.1s. By the time you read this, Magnepan will have helped re-configure the system for what it considers a superior center-channel effect. We shall see. Or rather, hear.

EMM Labs Special Edition CDSD multichannel SACD transport and DAC-6SE decoder
$13,500 (transport), $9,990 (DAC)
Ed Meitner’s best work in the multichannel medium. He has, since its introduction, concentrated his design efforts on two-channel DSD players, since, in the American market, that is where the action is. (Too bad Sony, which produces multichannel discs outside the U.S., has no confidence in the market here, thus undermining the company’s own innovation, its DSD high-def system.) Hope it’s not Meitner’s last word in decoding surround sound from SACD discs, since his latest design work suggests how much more realism we could achieve in “surround” or multichannel reproduction.

conrad-johnson Met-1 tube multichannel control center
This unit has now been discontinued by the company, which is getting out of the multi-channel business. (Some units available at $3000. See source.)

Krell S-1000 solid-state control center
This unit, which deeply impressed me, and which now turns out to be harbinger of new and much improved designs from Krell, will, by the time this reaches print, be discontinued and replaced by a S-1200, Krell’s “super” control center. In its ease of operation and its (relative) freedom from the transitory sound of earlier Krell decoders, it was, for its day, something else.

Cables and Interconnects

Nordost Odin
Speaker cables: $19,999, first meter ($4000/.5m additional)
Interconnects: $13,999, .6m ($2000/.5m additional)
Power cords: $10,999, 1.5+m; $15,999, 2.5+m; $25,995, 5m
No need to beat around the bush here. Nordost’s Odin line is clearly, to these ears, the state of the art, but at a staggering price. Not only do these elicit the ultimate in resolution from every component to which they are attached, they do so in a natural and unstrained way that makes them virtually invisible sonically, and what is more, they bring this quality to every system into which they are inserted, not acting as some of their competitors do, as tone controls that sound “right” only on systems to which they are purposely matched. Review in progress.

Elation cables: $6000, 1m ($1200/.5m additional)
Interconnects: $6000, 1m ($1200/.5m additional)
Power cords: $1800, 1m ($500/.5m additional)
A great jump forward from the Emotions, Kubala-Sosna’s previous “statement” product, one that demonstrates a kind of sweetness of sound, as well as greater purity, transparency, and wideband frequency response. Review in progress.


Audience Power Conditioners
aR12-T, $8000; aR6-T, $4600; aR2-T 9, $4100
These are the versions of Audience’s superior power conditioner, all with the much more expensive and much more impressive Teflon capacitors. The numerical designation indicates the number of connections each unit accepts. Audience makes less expensive non-Teflon versions, which do sound better than most of the competition, but once you hear (or rather don’t) the T-versions, you will have to have them. What these units do is as significant sonically as would be the substitution of a superior tubed electronic unit into your music system. We just inserted the aR2-T unit, designed to handle big power amplifiers (vide, the 300-watt McIntosh 2301), and found a great amplifier achieving state-of-the-art status.

VPI HW-27 Typhoon record cleaning machine
As good as disc cleaners get. Absolutely essential if you want to get the purest “clean” sound from your LPs. And relatively simple to operate, even if noisy and a bit slow.

L’Art du Son CD cleaner
$55 (175ml bottle)
You can’t say you’ve heard your CDs sounding as good as technically possible unless you’ve used a CD cleaner, each brand of which sounds unlike the competition (some brighter, for example). The L’Art sounds the most natural, while eliciting the kind of detail from really good CDs that shrink the sonic differences between these and most LPs. (I didn’t say the differences were eliminated.)

Caig DeoxIT Gold contact cleaner
This used to be called the Pro Gold and we’ve used it for years to keep the electrical contacts in our systems clean (essential for the best performance from your gear, especially if you live near the ocean, and even if you do not). This is one of those accessories that makes a difference bigger perhaps than you might expect and for a rock bottom price. A dirty contact, and they all get dirty eventually, interferes with the clean transmission of the audio signal, thus reducing dynamics, clarity, and transparency.

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