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2018 Golden Ear Awards: Anthony H. Cordesman

VPI Avenger Reference turntable and JMW 12 3DR Reference 3D-printed tonearm
$20,000 (with JMW 12 3DR)
VPI provides another great example of just how much better turntables and tonearms are getting as a result of the “return” of LPs. It has a remarkable ability to reveal all the musical detail in a given record and to get the best out of very different cartridges. I don’t share the touch of “digiphobia” that sometimes leads audiophiles back to LPs, but it is clear that VPI—and a number of other long-standing and new manufacturers of cartridges, tonearms, turntables, and phono preamps—is leading a renaissance in such equipment that offers one hell of a listening experience and does so at a wide range of prices. This continuing analog renaissance is also a tribute to HP’s memory. He was among the first to spot the sound qualities in LPs and analog front ends that have led to analog’s continuing competition with digital—qualities that the VPI Avenger turntable and JMW 12 3DR tonearm exemplify.

Pass Labs XP25 phono preamp, Xs stereo preamp, and XA160.8 mono power amplifier
XP25 phonostage, $10,600; Xs preamp, $38,000; XA160.8 monoblocks, $27,300/pr.
I keep a range of preamps and amps in house, but it is a tribute to Pass Labs—and to the enduring quality of the electronics produced by Pass and a number of other top high-end firms—that I have kept these units as references for several years instead of rushing to replace them with the latest something else. We rarely talk about the possibility of “investment grade” audio—products worth keeping for years. Each of these units, however, has provided me with years of continuity in setting a comparative standard for my reviews without falling significantly behind the new and different models of preamp and power amp that I do adopt in the search of the latest and greatest. Given my experience with Pass Labs, I can almost be certain that each new version of its products will sound better. Sometimes, however, it is the person who keeps the best toys that wins in getting a great system, and not the person who constantly seeks the latest “cutting edge.”

Legacy Wavelet processor and Paradigm Persona 9H loudspeaker
Legacy Wavelet Processor, $4950; Paradigm Persona 9H, $35,000/pr.
A tie award to two very different approaches to room correction. First, Legacy has adapted its Wavelet to provide a “universal” DAC/preamp/room-correction system that can be used with virtually any speaker, adjusts for both frequency and room response, and provides a wide range of options and memory capabilities to rectify frequency response for a large number of recordings. Second, the Paradigm Persona 9H is a superb speaker system for the money and also provides dedicated room-frequency compensation in a more purist form. Both products show that room compensation is now available in far better sounding forms, can deal effectively with room interactions and speaker locations, and significantly improve key aspects of the realism of the listening experience in any system. The promise of digital processing has been around for years. Legacy and Paradigm show that this promise is now really being kept.

By Anthony Cordesman

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