The Fifth Element #39 Page 2

My Favorite Things: Hardware
I now feel like cuing up John Coltrane's version of that song. Anyway, on to hardware. If you want to refresh your recollection about what I've written about something in the past, please just do a search, either within Stereophile's website, or via or

Most days, I'm tempted to think that the darTZeel NHB-108 Model One power amplifier (Stereophile, September 2003, Vol.26 No.9) is in a class by itself. Then I remind myself that there are a couple of "contendahs," such as the ASR Emitter, that I haven't heard. The darTZeel's drive limitations may mean that it is not the solution for every system, but it is just so lovely to listen to. However, [deep sigh] it ain't cheap.

For more affordable solid-state amplification solutions, I really like the Audionet SAM V2 (June 2006, Vol.29 No.6) and Sugden A21a integrated amps (November 2003, Vol.26 No.11). In tubes, I love Unison Research's S2K single-ended KT88 integrated (November 2002, Vol.25 No.11).

A teaser of a coming attraction: Bobby Palkovic, of Merlin Music Systems, assures me that as soon as his back-order situation improves, he'll lend me an evaluation sample of the little Ars Sonum Filarmonía tube integrated amp, which he's been importing in a very low-key manner for a couple of years. Low-key, because for every one he sells, he gets two more orders. (Actually, that's a figure of speech. If it were the literal truth, within two dozen order cycles Bobby would have 100% of the US amplifier market and a personal fortune larger than the GDP of most of the countries in the UN.)

The Filarmonía, which I admired and hefted at a Home Entertainment Show but have not yet heard hooked up, is pretty much a tribute to the Dynaco ST-70, maxed out with a very clean industrial design, premium capacitors, transformers, and wires, and Cardas binding posts. And it has a volume control. (Take a peek at The US price is a reasonable $3500. When it arrives, I will obtain three likely loudspeaker candidates.

Going beyond integrated amplifiers to the nearly extinct category of receivers, my fondness for Magnum Dynalab's MD-208 FM-only receiver (October 2005, Vol.28 No.10) remains as strong as ever. It not only sounds eminently listenable, it is well designed in terms of operation, has fetching Nuevo Retro looks, and is very reasonably priced.

Digital is a bit tougher, because the highest end of the High End is a moving target. In the past year I've auditioned wonderful premium-priced digital products from Audio Aero, dCS, EMM Labs, Esoteric, MSB, and Daniel Weiss. There was not a bad apple in the basket. Any (comparatively slight) preference I might express would be so determined by my system, listening room, and personal biases that I think it would be the sheerest folly for anyone to zero in on one premium digital product just because I like it.

In affordable digital, I remain very impressed by Grace Design's m902 combination DAC, line stage, and headphone amp. Previous affordable faves from Marantz, the SA-8260 and SA-14 SACD players, have both been replaced, but I have not yet heard the replacements.

In loudspeakers, my optimum all-rounder nod (taking economic practicalities into account), goes to Wilson Benesch's ACT. The ACT could be the last loudspeaker for a lot of people. That said, I have not yet heard the new Quad electrostatic models, which should be worthy competition.

For more-affordable speakers, I retain a soft spot in my heart for the unique polyradial Shahinian Obelisk, despite the fact that the passage of years and the slide of the dollar mean that its list price is now $5500/pair. In my experience, the Obelisk gives the most bang for the buck to lovers of large-scale orchestral works and pipe organ. (Note: The partnering amp must have massive current and damping factor.)

As much as I like the Obelisk, judicious listeners Ken Kessler and John Atkinson don't quite share my enthusiasm. As JA allowed in giving the speaker a place in "The Hot 100" products on the occasion of this magazine's 40th anniversary in November 2002: "If you love their sound, they're the best speakers in the world for you." If the Obelisk's price is too much, Shahinian's Compass, at $2800/pair, is very good, but doesn't have its larger sibling's stunning bass extension.

Let me now tease you about another fave rave from the distant past: the ASA Pro Monitor, at a price ($5500/pair) very close to the Obelisk's. ASA is a French company that until recently, despite occasional efforts over the past decade, has lacked steady US distribution. Many many moons ago, in the pages of the The Abso!ute Sound, I praised ASA speakers' refinement and musicality.

ASA speakers did not sound "typically French"; the comparable brands that pop first into my mind are Sonus Faber and Wilson Benesch. Walter Swanbon, Harbeth's US importer, has recently committed to reintroduce ASA to the USA through his dealer network. (Swanbon also imports Lavardin amps from France, and Audiopax equipment from Brazil.) Perhaps when the Ars Sonum Filarmonia arrives, I can snag a pair of ASA Pro Monitors—unless JA wants to assign them for a full review.

As I've written before, the way some people go about buying audio equipment makes about as much sense as feeding celery and mayonnaise to tuna in hopes of getting tuna salad. Perhaps the most self-defeating things people do are to neglect room acoustics, or try to solve room-acoustics problems by lateral equipment swaps.

In my opinion, the best $1500 you can spend to get better sound is a Level 1 consultation with Rives Audio. The procedure, I admit, involves some amount of detail work so that the Rives people really know what your room is like and can thus make truly personalized recommendations. If you don't want to go through that drill, my one-size-fits-all recommendation is to put eight or a dozen RPG Skyline Diffusors up at your ceiling's first-reflection points.