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2014 Golden Ear Awards: Alan Taffel

CH Precision C1 Linestage/ DAC and A1 Power Amplifier
$32,975; $37,475
These highly modular components from new-but-pedigreed CH Precision represent the latest Swiss thinking on high-bandwidth, low-noise amplification and digital circuitry. Technology aside, the CH gestalt is linearity (in the frequency, time, and dynamic domains) and musicality in equal parts. The result is accuracy in the service of music rather than for its own sake. The C1/ A1 combo creates magnificent colors (but never euphony), dynamic fireworks (without overshoot), startling transients (minus any edginess), and jump-up-and-dance rhythms (with zero slop). Nor are spatiality and resolution slighted. These electronics reproduce every dynamic, timbral, and rhythmic flux. And although you can hear every little thing going on in the mix, it all comes together organically—as it does in real life. Order the C1 with the network card. Once you hear high-res streaming from a NAS drive to the C1, you will never go back to USB. As for the A1, the stereo version gets you about 95% of the performance of the monoblocks. But if you have an extra thirty-seven grand lying around, the monoblocks are unparalleled. (239)

Astell&Kern AK240 Portable Music Player
I never would have believed it possible, but the new Astell&Kern AK240 improves upon the already brilliant performance of its previously reviewed, now-discontinued AK Series predecessors. Like them, the AK240 brings true high-end sensibilities and performance to portable music—a liberating development. Finally, we audiophiles can now enjoy music at the sonic level we’re used to, without being anywhere near a reference system. Unlike iPods or iPhones, the AK240 can play high-res and even native DSD files, which can be either local or streamed across a network. That is a distinct sonic advantage, but even with lower-res material there is no contest. The AK240 delivers resolution, timbral nuance, dynamic inflection, ease, and authority that are unheard of in portable players. Compared to the AK100 and AK120, the AK240 boasts significantly quieter backgrounds, greater purity, and even higher resolution. More good news: An AK120 Mk II is on its way, with half the memory but also half the price. (Review forthcoming)

Rockport Atria Loudspeaker
The captivating new Atria is a true Rockport loudspeaker, brought to a more accessible price and size range. Thanks to its thoroughly modern design and painstaking components selection, the Atria has a sublimely low, artifact-free noise floor that yields wondrous detail combined with effortless listening. Although bass extension is necessarily curtailed in a speaker of this profile, lows are every bit as tight, impactful and informative as in larger, more expensive models. In addition, for all their detail retrieval and dynamic incisiveness—traits that are often associated with a lean tonal balance—the Atrias are tonally on the invitingly mellow side. The Atria loudspeaker is that rare component that is effortlessly “right” in its musical presentation. Best of all, this speaker emits a distinctive vibe of simply being happy to be making music. That vibe is contagious, and makes listening a joy. (241)

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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