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2019 Golden Ear Awards: Alan Taffel

Lyra Etna Cartridge
$8995
Jacob Heilbrunn raved about the SL version of this mc cartridge, but that model’s very low output renders it a specialty product for use only in systems with very-high-gain phonostages. The non-SL version is the Etna for the rest of us. Thanks to its healthy 0.56mV output, more than double that of the SL, you can use it with virtually any phonostage. No doubt the SL, with its lower-mass coil, will extract somewhat finer detail and offer slightly sharper transients. Yet, as Lyra itself notes, the standard Etna is capable of livelier dynamics and a better S/N ratio. More to the point, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with the standard Etna’s sound, which is phenomenally smooth and naturally warm, without being overly romantic or ripe. The Etna is a champ in its own right when it comes to transients and resolution, but avoids any tendency toward the analytical. In this way, it combines the best traits of Benz-Micro and Clearaudio cartridges, while avoiding their respective pitfalls. Most importantly, the Etna is simply mesmerizing to listen to. This cartridge marries listening ease with kaleidoscopic colors and haunting spatiality. Musical engagement is a foregone conclusion.

Technics Expanded Reference Class
$53,000–$73,000
The Technics R1 Reference System, released in 2016 to inaugurate Technics’ Reference Class line, marked a triumphant comeback for this too-long dormant high-end Japanese brand. At $53,000 for the whole shebang—network audio player, stereo amp, and full-range speakers—the R1 system remains as compelling as ever, consistently ranking among Best in Show contenders. Its secret? The R1 components wield innovative technology to address some of audio’s most intransigent problems. The result is solid-state electronics that produce the dimensionality of tubes, digital sources with analog alacrity, and dynamic speakers as coherent as planars. In the years since the R1’s introduction, Technics has expanded the Reference Class to include two new turntables: the gorgeous SL-1000R ($20,000, including ’arm) and SP-10R ($10,000, drive only). In keeping with the Reference Class dictum, these models employ vanguard technology to cure the cogging that has long plagued direct-drive motors. With that problem banished, and without belts to slip or stretch, these ’tables feature what is arguably the most advanced drive system extant. Sonically, they fit perfectly into the Reference Class’ stable, which features a directness and purity that is rare, beguiling, and intensely musical

Bowers & Wilkins 800 D3 Loudspeaker
$30,000
This isn’t the 800 D3’s first Golden Ear, but it’s such a skilled speaker—and such an outstanding value—that it deserves a second accolade. Since my initial review of this B&W flagship, several speakers have passed through my listening room. Very few were better overall than the 800, and those that were cost considerably more—at least double the price. Yet I would always go back to the 800s, knowing I’d be getting a transducer that effectively erases itself from the playback chain, delivering highly resolved, astonishingly dynamic music. B&W spent many years developing the 800’s drivers, and their resulting minimal mass and uniformly pistonic motion is audible in the form of vanishingly low distortion, a very black background, and the rare ability (for dynamic speakers) to sound good even at low volumes. Yet the 800 can easily muster the full scale of an orchestra, including deep, honest bass. As my original review noted, in terms of technology, pedigree, finish, and sonic performance, the 800 D3’s price should embarrass some of its competitors. Well, this speaker is still out there, just waiting for folks like us to take advantage of that.

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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