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I’m not an audiophile who haphazardly throws money at components. Nor do I open my wallet because of some preconceived notion of what proportion of an audio-system budget “should” be allocated to a given product category. This thinking has led me to assemble and own, over the years, audio systems that some might say are unbalanced, at least in terms of cost. For instance, I’ve almost invariably chosen to spend large portions of my budget on loudspeakers, because I’ve found that a change in speakers usually provides me with the biggest improvement in sound quality. I typically spend less than a tenth as much on a digital source component, because in the last decade or so great digital sound has become so affordable.

In November 2017 I reviewed the Technical Audio Devices Micro Evolution One loudspeaker, aka the TAD ME-1. It now costs $14,995/pair USD, including TAD’s ST3 stands, and at the time we gave it a Reviewers’ Choice award. The ME-1 is pretty small at 16.2”H x 9.9”W x 15.8”D, but its size had little correlation with what I heard. Of the many things I noticed about the ME-1’s sound, what most surprised me was what I wrote about in the penultimate paragraph of my review: “It filled my Music Vault with full, rich, detailed sound that never fatigued me and never bored me.”

McIntosh Laboratory was founded in 1949, when vinyl was a growing source for music reproduction. But it wasn’t until nearly 60 years later that the venerable company, based in Binghamton, New York, introduced its first turntable model. The debut of the MT10 turntable ($11,500 USD) was polarizing: Those who first saw it loved it or hated it. I remember some of the comments: “A turntable with a meter? Why?!” or “I don’t care how it sounds, it just looks too odd.” But most of the people who panned it had yet to hear it.

Reviewers' ChoiceIn June 2016, when I reviewed Magico’s S1 Mk.II loudspeaker ($16,500/pair; all prices USD), I loved it. “The finest two-way speaker I’ve heard,” I declared. In late 2017, when Magico announced their new entry-level model, the A3, I was cautiously optimistic. The A3 struck me as a vitally important product for Magico, which had built its reputation on speakers whose performance ceilings were exceeded only by their sky-high prices. As with everything else in life, if you want the state of the art, you have to cough up the dough. The A3’s original price of $9800/pair put it in direct competition with models from many hi-fi heavyweights. And there was something else: Would the A3 look and feel like a Magico speaker? Most important, would it sound like a Magico?

Merrill Audio Advanced Technology Labs, LLC, was founded in 2010 by Merrill Wettasinghe, who not only earned a BS in electrical engineering and an MBA, and enjoyed a career in R&D and marketing with Hewlett-Packard, but has long had a passion for purity of sound. In 2011, Wettasinghe released the first Merrill Audio amplifier, the Veritas monoblock ($12,000 USD per pair, discontinued). The Veritas was considered a breakthrough product not only for its sound quality, but also for being one of the first amplifiers to be based on Hypex’s Ncore NC1200 class-D power module. At the time, it was also one of the few amps to use point-to-point litz wiring of ultrapure copper, rhodium-plated binding posts of solid copper, and top-quality XLR connectors -- all made by Cardas.

When I was a teenager growing up in South Los Angeles in the 1960s, the most vaunted among us were the guys who tinkered with their cars and souped them up with fuel injection, overhead cams, dual carburetors, heavy-duty MacPherson strut suspensions, and 8-track super stereos with speakers arrayed in the dash, the doors, and the rear deck under a tinted back window. This was the SoCal car culture celebrated by the Beach Boys in “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Don’t Worry Baby” -- male-teen sexual prowess sublimated and distilled into small fleets of superb, gleaming machines and gallant jalopies. A guy I knew in my neighborhood was always under the hood of his ’50s Dodge coupe, working some sort of magic I had no clue about. His father and uncles were partners in a gas station and garage, and my friend had been a grease monkey since childhood, at first just pumping gas and changing tires and spark plugs, but quickly advancing until he could swap out stock parts for custom, fine-tune an engine’s timing, raise a car’s suspension, and supercharge everything in his inline six engine until it could accelerate faster than a stock V8. He was a marvel among us and his wheels were so cool, he got all the girls we could only dream of dating.

Reviewers' ChoiceAs soon as Doug Schneider approached me about my reviewing Constellation Audio’s Revelation Andromeda phono stage, I hopped on their website and snooped around.

You gotta love these guys. They offer two -- count 'em -- phono stages, and not just because LPs are now big on Instagram. No, Constellation Audio is spreading analog love around, like soft butter on toast.

Reviewers' ChoiceIn late 1972, Audio Research Corporation released what would become one of ARC’s bestselling preamplifiers of all time: the SP-3. While available, the SP-3 earned praise for its low noise levels, wide soundstages, and awe-inspiring transparency. More than one audio publication described its overall sound character as “a straight wire with gain.” ARC sold thousands of SP-3s at $595 USD before discontinuing the model in 1976, but what I find interesting is how much of the SP-3 remains evident in more recent ARC models. By today’s standards, the SP-3’s faceplate of brushed bronze over satin black, rotary analog controls, and big pushbuttons look dated, but the three-box segregation of the faceplate and orientation of controls aren’t all that different from those of ARC’s SP-20 preamplifier ($9000, recently discontinued). Then there was the SP-3’s tube complement: six 12AX7s in the analog stage with two 12AX7s in the tone control circuit. This arrangement in the analog stage, albeit with different tubes, can be found under the hood of the subject of this review: ARC’s Reference 6 preamplifier.

I was so impressed with Rethm Audio’s Maarga loudspeakers, which I reviewed last year, that I spoke to Mark Sossa, of Rethm’s US distributor, Well Pleased Audio Vida, to arrange to buy a pair of Rethm’s magnum opus, the Saadhana. My timing was serendipitous -- Jacob George, the sound architect at Rethm, told me he’d made some improvements in the Saadhana, and that I’d be sent the first pair of units to incorporate them. The changes included a complete redesign of the bass chamber and driver configuration, improved woofers, and new isolation footers -- George promised substantial improvements in the already excellent bass reproduction.

Gryphon Audio Designs’ very first loudspeaker was the Cantata, a stand-mounted two-way, released in 2002. But the Danish company had been founded 17 years before, in 1985, by Flemming Rasmussen, who retired in 2018. Until the Cantata came along, Gryphon had been known only for their massive class-A power amplifiers and other electronics. With the Cantata, an all-Gryphon system had become a reality, and to this day, many of their customers have systems in which every link in the audio-signal chain, cables included, is a Gryphon product. The Cantata was produced until 2008, and in 2009 Gryphon launched the original Mojo, which remained in production until 2016. By then the Mojo had been joined by several other Gryphon speakers, all rather large floorstanders. The Mojo S, reviewed here, was debuted at Munich’s High End in May 2016, and is the only minimonitor among Gryphon’s four current speaker models.