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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.

Audiophiles are an eccentric bunch. When we start describing sound the way a sommelier might describe a bottle of fine red wine, it can be difficult for even the most openminded non-audiophile to take us seriously. Speakers, DACs, and amplifiers are the easiest suspects for which to make an objective case. You can measure them, and correlate your subjective listening impressions to draw broad conclusions about how good a component sounds.

Reviewers' ChoiceMagico’s A series of loudspeakers is interesting for several reasons—certainly in terms of their design and sound, but also in how this series fits into Magico’s entire history of speakers. Those of you who recall the introduction in 2010 of Magico’s first Q-series speaker, the Q5 ($59,950/pair when introduced, all prices USD), will know that those who first saw and heard it thought it a groundbreaking product. Its all-aluminum cabinet was displayed at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, with one side panel removed. Attendees were mesmerized—the lattice of braces and bolts and high-tech drive units began an era of Magico’s history that saw huge growth, not only in terms of units sold but in stature within the industry. The company’s founder, Alon Wolf, was making speakers his way. They looked like nothing else, and they sounded like nothing else.

Based in Songnam City, South Korea, Allnic Audio was founded in 1997 by Kang Su (“K.S.”) Park. Park has always been keenly interested in music and electronics—his older brothers, both electricians, taught him the basic principles of electronics at an early age, and soon he was building his own audio components. However, according to Park, at the time neither Korean culture nor his parents valued the electronics trade. When he attended university in Seoul, he studied for and received a degree in French language studies.

Reviewers' ChoiceIn May 2020, when MSB Technology announced their S202 stereo amplifier ($29,500, all prices USD), I thought it a perfectly sized power amp. I could move its 90 pounds myself, and its dimensions of 16″W x 7″H x 19″D meant that it could fit many places, including the shelf of an average-size, high-end audio rack. Still, I could see, even in the photos, that it was a substantial machine. Its contoured aluminum case and chassis—in this model they’re the same thing—were obviously the results of lots of CNC milling, and inside, its jewel-like parts and layout made clear that the S202 was a lot more than a pair of tiny class-D amps rattling around inside an otherwise empty box.

In 2011, Classé Audio introduced the CP-800 preamplifier-DAC ($6500, all prices USD) to replace the well-received, analog-only CP-700 preamplifier ($8000); both models are now discontinued. In 2013 I reviewed the CP-800, our editorial team named it a Reviewers’ Choice, and I made it my reference preamplifier. The CP-800 remained largely unchanged until late 2016, when it, too, was discontinued.

Reviewers' ChoiceTo many audiophiles, this one included, luxury loudspeaker maker Estelon has largely been a mystery. What I knew about Estelon before this review—and I follow the upper end of the hi-fi market closely—was entirely superficial: They’re based in Tallinn, Estonia, in northern Europe; before COVID-19, they displayed their wares at Munich’s annual High End show; the shapely forms of their speakers are often described as elegant; and those speakers are not inexpensive.

Reviewers' ChoiceA little less than two years ago, I reviewed Audio Research’s Reference 6 preamplifier ($15,000, discontinued; all prices USD). Little more than a day of listening later, I’d decided I wouldn’t be sending my review sample back, and ever since, the Ref 6 has been my reference preamp. Asked to review the Ref 6’s successor, the Reference 6SE ($17,000), my answer was a no-brainer: Yes.

It’s not imperative for me that an audio component be visually flashy or fancy. I still love the clean, classic simplicity of, say, the basic burnished metal faceplate of a vintage Conrad-Johnson or Audio Research model—no knobs or buttons other than a power switch. That said, there’s something about watching the myriad meters of my reference system of McIntosh Laboratory amplification components dancing in a blue glow—my experience of the sound is enhanced by the system’s visual appeal.