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Esoteric P1/D1Reviewers' ChoiceAlmost every month, I hear about a new, midpriced digital-to-analog converter that’s supposedly taking the audiophile world by storm. These flavors of the month typically include the latest, greatest conversion chips and cost $2000-$3500 USD -- sometimes much less. They almost always come with a story about a guy who bought one, got better sound than he was getting with his $125,000 multibox digital stack, sold the latter, and laughed all the way to the bank.

It was just after I’d had a conversation with an audiophile friend about a $500 flavor-of-the-month DAC that Scott Sefton, Esoteric’s marketing specialist, offered to send me for review samples of the company’s new statement models. At the time, the Grandioso line comprised the M1 monoblock amplifier ($21,000 each), the two-box P1 SACD/CD transport ($40,000), and the D1 mono DAC ($20,000 each). There is also, now, the Grandioso C1, a two-box preamplifier ($40,000).

Blue Circle Audio BC60X1I considered myself lucky. I’d finished reviewing Blue Circle Audio’s PLC Thingee FX-2 six-outlet power conditioner with XOe low-frequency filter module (affectionately known as the 3PO), which enlightened me as to what a well-designed, well-thought-out $500 power conditioner could do. The FX-2 cleaned up the incoming power and made the very best of what I had to plug into it sound better than it had any right to. This at a time when I was having trouble getting my money’s worth after having invested so much of it, and time, in power-line conditioners (PLCs) of various prices but never finding anything that performed to my total satisfaction. I was all set to buy the FX-2 -- I saw no reason not to spend $500 USD for a PLC that performed as well as it did. (See my review of the Blue Circle Audio PLC Thingee FX-2 for a description, and for everything I had to say about its sound.)

Octave Audio V 110I am, in general, no fan of vacuum tubes, and said as much a few years ago in an editorial that earned me scornful e-mails from readers. I have been guided to that conclusion by a philosophical stance and by sonic taste. While I greatly respect the multitude of people who prefer tubed to solid-state amplification, and welcome their presence in the marketplace, tubes have just never held my interest. Earlier this year, I resolved to review a tubed integrated amplifier and give this archaic technology a fair and impartial perspective. Enter Octave Audio’s V 110 integrated amplifier.

JL Audio CR-1Usually, within a given line of loudspeakers made by a given company, as the models increase in cost, the aspect of their sounds that sees the most change is the bass response. Look at a speaker line from almost any brand and you’ll see, at the bottom of the price hierarchy, a smallish bookshelf speaker, usually a two-way. Above that will be, perhaps, a bigger bookshelf model, followed by two or three floorstanders, the largest being three- or four-way models. Often, all of these speakers will use the same model of tweeter and similar if not identical models of midrange drivers; it’s the woofers that grow in size and number as you ascend the ladder of price and size.

fo.QLike many audiophiles, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with tweaks. I’ve gone from being crazy about tweaks to being anti-tweak to somewhere between those positions. Presently, I use only those tweaks that significantly improve the sound of my system, as opposed to merely change the sound.

However, despite my substantial history of tweaking, I’ve only rarely experimented with the many products that are claimed to control electromagnetic fields and/or resonances when wrapped around or covering cables, connectors, component circuits and interiors, and speaker cabinets. There are several reasons for this.

First, since there is virtually nowhere such products can’t be placed, they can sometimes enable astonishing levels of audiophile neurosis. A friend and I once visited a guy who had covered literally his entire system -- components, speakers, cables, fuse box -- with a product said to diffuse EMI and RFI. When I saw that system, I told my friend that, if I ever did that, he should, regardless of any sonic benefit, shoot me.

Devialet 400Reviewers' ChoiceAlthough he didn’t found Devialet until 2007, Pierre-Emmanuel Calmel, a Nortel Networks engineer, dreamed up what would become the heart of the company’s products in 2003: the Analog Digital Hybrid (ADH) amplifier. The ADH concept is elegant: an analog amplifier provides the output voltage, in parallel with a digital amplifier that supplies most of the current. This hybrid approach to amplification, Calmel surmised, would use the best attributes of each amplifier type in a package that would exceed the performance of either configuration on its own. Although this sounds simple enough, the implementation of ADH in the company’s original product, the D-Premier, was anything but easy. According to the company’s press materials, it took 100,000 lines of code and “many sleepless nights” to realize the goal of ADH.

Audio Research VSi75The tubed integrated amplifier is the ne plus ultra of audio. Strong words, those -- fighting words, even. But think it through: The tube integrated is the Platonic ideal of amplification. It’s one box that performs all the required, necessary tasks -- and nothing more.

While it’s true that technology stands still for no man, it seems that every pimply, shining-morning-faced schoolboy with a MacBook seems to think you need to add a DAC to every bloody component in order for it to do anything actually useful. While buying a DAC-in-the-amp might be reasonable if you plan to upgrade next year, I’m firmly against locking today’s computing technology into a product you might want to use for a few years, and doubly against it when considering an audio component of reference quality (and high price). Digital technology changes so rapidly that it just doesn’t make sense to incorporate it into an expensive amp or preamp that you might actually want to keep.

Triangle Magellan CelloTriangle Manufacture Electroacoustique, of France, has been making loudspeakers for over 30 years. Although the company doesn’t enjoy the footprint in North America that would give them the broad name recognition of a Paradigm or a Bowers & Wilkins, they are one of the larger speaker manufacturers in Europe. Boasting their own anechoic chamber -- something possessed by only a very few speaker makers -- and designing and manufacturing their own drive-units, Triangle has impressive technical capabilities that must be the envy of many companies.

Today, Triangle has six loudspeaker lines with models ranging in price from hundreds of dollars (their Color models) to many thousands, for the flagship Magellans. Clearly, Triangle wants to serve a diverse market by covering as many different price points as they can manage. Wanting to experience the best of what Triangle offers, but also wanting a speaker whose size and cost were still approachable by many serious audiophiles, I chose the smallest Magellan floorstander: the Cello, which retails for $12,000 USD per pair.

Audience Au24 SEReviewers' ChoiceAudience’s top cables comprise its Au24 line. The second generation, the Au24 e cables, appeared several years ago, and were reviewed by Vade Forrester in February 2009.

The third generation, the new Au24 SEs, debuted last year. Besides cables, Audience also manufactures power conditioners, crossoverless loudspeakers with very clever 3” full-range drivers, and a surface treatment for optical discs. If you were to ask Audience how they characterize themselves, they’d probably say that they’re a company of audiophiles and engineers.

Zanden Audio Systems 120Reviewers' ChoiceOver the past six years, I’ve noticed that a few elite audio manufacturers have been incorporating, into their newest phono preamps, other equalization curves in addition to the standard one established in the 1950s by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These ultra-choice tubed and tube/solid-state models range from the Audio Research Reference 2 ($12,000 USD) and Allnic H-3000V ($13,900) up to the Zanden 1200 Mk.3 ($25,000) -- mighty tall cotton for the average audiophile. But there’s good news. Zanden has now developed a solid-state phono stage that’s relatively affordable -- the 120, launched at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, lists for $7500.