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One of the great things about hi-fi is that there’s something for everybody. Like in any other industry, the big players care less about pleasing the eccentric fringes, and more about capturing as large a slice of the “average” audiophile base as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s good business. But it doesn’t exactly encourage risk-taking, or flourishes of design and engineering ingenuity, because the goal is less about enticing the most audiophiles, and more about discouraging the least. The older I get, the more mundane that notion seems to me. Life is short. And while affordable hi-fi should be all about performance per dollar, the more boutique nature of the high end demands that a loudspeaker be both performant and provocative.

About a dozen years ago, some three years into the hobby, I’d stay up late at night listening to my audio system, finding increased pleasure in the richness and clarity of the sound I was getting and discovering that chimes and bells sparkled all the more somehow on Santana’s Abraxas, that Duane Allman’s guitar solo on “Stormy Monday” had added dashes of crunch and longer tails of sustain, and that pianist Alfred Brendel’s arpeggios rang more sensuously and his trills were exquisite to a degree that made them seem like the paintings of dancing deer in a cave at Lascaux. “It’s the electricity in your line feed,” a close friend said. “It’s cleaner late at night when there isn’t all that crud from appliances and air conditioners backing up into the grid.” Simply put, late night power was like a thinking man’s martini—pure gin unadulterated by vermouth—all kick and no pollutant flavorings. My friend suggested that I get something called a line conditioner. “It’ll clean up your power before it hits your system, and then you might get that late-night performance all the time.”

Note: measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.

As a 14-year-old kid, I remember poring over my brother’s issues of Stereophile and ogling Bowers & Wilkins’s then-new Nautilus 801 and 805 loudspeakers. Those models were the stuff of dreams to my younger self, who never imagined being able to own a pair, let alone being able to review them. The Nautilus 800 models were legendary and set a benchmark in my mind for what top-flight loudspeakers should look like, with their beautifully curved cabinets, swooping tweeters, and trademark Cherry finish. Sheer perfection. In fact, I’d happily own a pair of Nautilus 802s today if the price were right. So, 22 years on, when the opportunity arose to evaluate a pair of the English firm’s brand-new 805 D4s ($8000 per pair, all prices in USD), it felt like I’d finally made it.

Reviewers' Choice

A little over a year ago, I reviewed EMM Labs’ DV2 digital-to-analog converter-preamplifier ($30,000, all prices USD) and concluded that it was the best-sounding DAC I’d ever heard. That remains true, and so in January of 2021, when Meitner Audio—headed by Ed Meitner, EMM’s founder, chief designer, and the brains behind the product lines of both EMM Labs and the lower-cost Meitner Audio brand—released its MA3 DAC-preamplifier ($9500), I naturally requested a review sample.

Reviewers' ChoiceI’m an old-school kind of guy when it comes to audio. I like the physical medium, be it analog or digital. I want to see and handle the disc, read the liner notes, and appreciate the artwork or pictures that come with a recording. Luxman is old school, too—literally. Founded in 1925, this Japanese company has been making high-quality audio products ever since.

Hemingway Audio Cable’s website bills the brand’s product as “The best audio cable ever created.” Reminiscent of slogans by companies like YG Acoustics (“The best speaker on earth”), ESS Laboratories (“Sound as clear as light”), and Kyron Audio (“The ultimate music experience”), this audacious assessment reminds us that the marketing claims of many audiophile companies aren’t exactly understated. Still, my friend Dave, an audiophile and cable aficionado, strongly advised me to audition Hemingway’s Z-core power cords.

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Reviewers' ChoiceWhen I first laid eyes on the Director Mk2 preamplifier-DAC from Sound Performance Lab (aka SPL), it reminded me of a military-spec ham radio. Small yet built like a tank, it sports at the center of its faceplate a large Volume knob. At upper left is a small, red dot-matrix display, and at upper right two needle VU meters and a Standby/On toggle. At lower left is a smaller knob for selecting Mute or one of its 11 inputs, and at lower right are two toggle switches, labeled Tape Monitor Off/On and VU. The Director Mk2 is small—11″W x 4″H x 11.8″D—and weighs just 13 pounds, yet somehow exudes presence. In my many years of reviewing audio equipment, I’ve never seen such a small yet intriguing-looking preamplifier-DAC. It costs $3599 (all prices USD).

Every so often something comes along that changes everything. In childhood, the new kid gets a yo-yo, you go to a drive-in and there’s pizza during the intermission, you visit Yosemite National Park for the first time, the Beatles are on Ed Sullivan, and your father finally fires up the Dynakit Stereo 70 he’s been building and the lavish music makes the drab living room disappear. As an adult, transformative moments in audio happen so rarely that you grow used to mere incremental improvements, but then the faded pastel of your listening experience is blasted away by the bold colors of something truly radiant. The Helius Designs Viridia turntable and Phaedra tonearm were just that for me, and I’m still basking in their glories.

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Sound Performance Lab (SPL) is based in Niederkrüchten, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, and has manufactured professional and home audio gear since 1983. With a deep background in studio mastering, SPL founder and chief designer Wolfgang Neumann got the idea of starting his own company while managing a recording studio in rural Germany in the late 1970s. In those days, the US dollar was valued at roughly 3.5 times the deutschmark, and importing US-made studio gear wasn’t cheap. This led Neumann to begin the tinkering that ultimately convinced him he could design and build better-sounding products and sell them at prices significantly below those of imported US equivalents. By 1983, he’d begun selling his products under the SPL brand, but struggled with distribution until, in 1985, he met Hermann Gier.

Reviewers' ChoiceSo there I was, listening to the MSB Technology S202 stereo power amplifier ($29,500, all prices USD) paired with my own MSB Discrete DAC ($9950 base price, $21,380 as configured) through Magico A5 loudspeakers ($24,800/pair). I marveled at the system’s resolution and quietness—“blacker” backgrounds I’d never heard. The sound of this system was so good, so right—so everything—I kept thinking that if I were an audiophile who didn’t have to review gear for a living and I owned such a system, where could I go from here? Would I need to “go” anywhere at all? I was so impressed by the sound that I wrote about it in my last month’s “Opinion” for SoundStage! Ultra, “Building a Supersystem Around Magico Speakers and MSB Technology Electronics.” I could have just stopped chasing better sound and been thrilled with that setup for the long haul.