Stereophile's Products of 1996

This is the fifth year Stereophile has named a select few components as "Products of the Year." By doing so, we intend to give recognition to those components that have proved capable of giving musical pleasure beyond the formal review period.

There are six individual categories: Loudspeakers (including subwoofers); Amplification Components (preamplifiers, power amplifiers, etc.); Digital Sources (CD players, transports, processors); Analog Sources (phono cartridges, turntables, tonearms, FM tuners, etc.); Home Theater Components (other than video); and Accessories (everything else).

The two most important categories, however, are the "Component of the Year"—the Best of the Best—and the "Budget Component of the Year"—the Best Sound for the Buck. There's also an "Editor's Choice" award, which JA reserves to himself to single out the single superb-sounding product that has impressed him the most. Usually, to be eligible for "Editor's Choice," a component must have been continuously available for at least a decade, but this year as last year, the performance of the chosen component allows such rules to be bent.

The formal voting procedure consisted of two steps: First, Stereophile's hardware reviewers were asked to nominate up to six components in each of the eight categories. To be a contender, a product had to have been reported on in Stereophile between the November 1995 and October 1996 issues, either in a full Equipment Report or in a Follow-Up. Most important, only those components for which a writer had put his opinion on the line for public scrutiny could be nominated. We then put together a ballot form that included all components that had been nominated by three or more writers and/or editors. This process ensured that most of the nominees in most of the categories would have been auditioned by most of the reviewers.

Twenty-one of the magazine's editors and reviewers gave three votes for their first choice in each category, two votes for their second choice, and one vote for their third choice (if they had a third choice). JA tallied the votes; address your compliments and complaints to him.

Presence's picture

I still have my Dunlavy SCVIs but would disagree with JDs philosophy regarding not spending the money on better wire and crossover components - what JD considered "Floobydust"....
I owned the SC V, SC VI, HRCC and two pair of the Alethas and found the copper wire in all of them to severely oxidize [bleeding green] over time. And the Solen capacitors used in the crossovers sounded mid-fi at best - The Humble HomeMade HiFi Capacitor Test rankings were very useful in finally settling on the Duelund CAST to rebuild the crossovers. Several steps up in SQ from the original product release.

CG's picture

It's disheartening how many of the manufacturers of these products are now long gone.

On the other hand, a big round of cheers to those who still are doing ok today.

DaveinSM's picture

Yep, seeing this makes me think that a form of golden age of audio has passed us by. I myself recently had to part with my beloved Thiel CS3.6 after well over a decade of enjoyment (moved to a smaller listening space).

Such great speakers. A bit bright like most Thiels, but set up properly they had very impressive bass reach and the imaging was so good that listening to them in the sweet spot was like wearing a giant set of headphones. Point source imaging could be spooky-good, depending on source material.

CG's picture

It's not just the gear.

I think that recordings have changed in direction, too.

At one time, the goal of recording was to somehow capture a live performance that could be replayed in the home. Yeah, there were lots of limitations, but they did the best they could. (Check out some of the recording reviews over at Analog Planet)

Now, most modern recordings can't be captures of live performances, since much of the recording artistry is a simulation of some kind.

I won't make a value judgement on that, because that is the way it is and people enjoy what the artists produce.

But... It hardly makes any sense to use "high fidelity" reproduction gear to play back music that was never conceived to be a facsimile of a live event. It's almost counter to the music itself. Unless you're interested in older music, whether recently recorded or not, a fancy home stereo isn't the right tool for the job.

A kind of golden age probably did pass. That's a good assessment.

DaveinSM's picture

I agree with you on this. Faithful reproduction of the source material means that we're just hearing what the mixer/mastering person had in mind when they cooked up the recording.

Back in the days of tape and overdubs, they were limited by the numbers of tracks, but I don't think it's a coincidence that some of the most iconic studio performances were performed with very little studio interference. This is especially true of a lot of classic rock from the 60's and 70's, before the volume wars started in the 80's.

A lot of musicians will tell you that real musicians "bring it" live, and they do it every time. None of this studio Autotune junk that they can't reproduce without a rack full of digital equipment. Plug in that guitar and mic and "bring it".

It seems that the real demand for 'high fidelity' sound reproduction is reserved for well-mic'ed, live recordings of classical music, especially symphonies. Such recordings still seem to remain the most demanding for a high fidelity system in terms of imaging, dynamic range, frequency response extremes, and just overall (attempting to) faithfully recapturing the experience of hearing it live.

I still think that challenging studio recordings can and do reward the use of 'high fidelity' reproduction that is offered by quality gear. Just about the entire Steely Dan catalog qualifies in my opinion. Talk about great sounding recordings on top of great music! Their studio recordings scale up with the quality of the equipment. Hearing Aja on the car radio or on a boombox is most definitely a different and less rewarding experience than hearing it on a truly capable, well set up, full-range stereo system or even a good pair of headphones. I know this from copious experience.

CG's picture

I think it goes beyond classical music.

For example, I've been listening to some recordings from the "New Orleans - The Living Legends" series of late, as described over at Analog Planet. They're just great to listen to. Those recordings were pretty minimalist, with the emphasis on capturing real musicians playing together in a real room, not even a studio.

But, that kind of recording really hasn't been the trend over the past five decades. Some of The Beatles' albums couldn't have been performed live even if they'd had the desire, just as one example. That wasn't their intent.

Over time the most popular music has moved away from being centered around musicians playing together in the same room. There's almost infinite tracks that can be mixed from musicians and sound machines anywhere with the possibility of zillions of splices (I've read that some popular ~3 minute songs are really splices of more than 100 snippets of the best takes made over several sessions. And, that's just for the vocals.) The engineer or producer may have ten times the influence on the recording than the musicians, because they're the ones who are actually making the music. That's just how the music biz has gone.

Again, I'm not going to make a value judgement on all that. It's just the way it is.

There's no real point to put together an exotic home audio system in an attempt to recreate a live performance, when that's not what the music is about in the first place. As I said before, it's the wrong tool for the job. The number of us who like the idea of hearing The Louis Cottrell Trio sounding as close as possible to the original performance is really small.

Plus, not many people are very impressed by a fancy audio system. If someone shows off their $75K kitchen, people ooh and ahh. If someone tries to show off their $10K audio system, people carefully look for the back door. If you want to impress someone, spend your money on a larger deck or grill system.

In a way, it's remarkable that the home audio business has stayed as vibrant as it has for so long.

DaveinSM's picture

Really, not trying to impress anybody about how expensive my system is. I bought it for my own enjoyment.

Honestly, a "fancy audio system" doesn't have to be for the purpose of recreating a live performance to have value and add enjoyment. That's a very narrow viewpoint to perceive value.

This is not a value judgment on the quality of any of this kind of music. But it's really ridiculous to say that even the most tin-eared novice couldn't hear the difference between an "exotic home audio system" and, say, a Bose system. The better sounding the source material, the more it will benefit from a really good playback system.

The home audio business has weathered threats from the computer industry because people still care about great sound. In fact, it has adapted by offering a niche for those who aren't satisfied with the quality of sound coming from their smart phone or their amazon echo.

As with everything, there are diminishing returns as the amount you spend climbs. $10k isn't all that much for an entire system, but if you select wisely for your room and listening tastes, it should be worth every penny. And I'm talking about listening enjoyment, not some sort of imaginary prestige.

Robin Landseadel's picture

There's handheld digital recorders you can get from Guitar Center with better specs [not to mention easier in use and editing] than the Nagra D. That's how much better average modern digital gear is compared to SOTA digital gear in the mid 1990's.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Tascam, Sony and Yamaha are to name a few, who make portable hand-held digital audio recorders :-) .......

Robin Landseadel's picture

I've been told that the most highly regarded handheld digital audio recorders are from Zoom. I've got two Tascam handheld recorders, used mostly for needledrops. Record to 24 bit, process as 24 bit, dither down to 16 bits when finished. 24 bits is very useful for eq, de-clicking, normalizing levels before printing to 16 bit. These recorders are so much easier to use than the Nagra D. The Nagra D was not small, was not all that easy to use, and as John Atkinson pointed out: "However, when I went to play some tapes in June 2020, the rotating head scanner failed, presumably due to a lack of lubricant." Really a bad idea, a very non-standard, complex and difficult to maintain piece of gear using a non-standard recording media.

Did I mention that my Tascam DR-40 recorder went for considerably less than $200, is capable of 4 channels of 24 bit/96khz, uses Micro SD cards as the storage medium for recording, is about as portable as any audio recorder made outside of Langley Virginia? There's better implementations of this sort of design available [two of those channels are permanently attached to the cheap microphones attached to the recorder]. John Atkinson pointed out that he moved over to the much greater flexibility of computer based recording 16 years ago, along with most folks in pro audio.

supamark's picture

"Really a bad idea, a very non-standard, complex and difficult to maintain piece of gear using a non-standard recording media."

It's how pretty much all digital was recorded for about 20 years. Even cassette based systems like the ADAT used a rotating helical scan head, otherwise to get the effective tape speed needed it's practically flying off the reel (3M system ran at 45ips - nearly 4 feet of tape per second). Most CD's were mastered using 3/4 inch U-Matic cassettes in the 80's and DAT (basically a tiny video tape cassette system) was the standard for the 90's.

The only "difficult" aspect to me is they probably should have gone w/ a cassette format instead of open real. I've used their analog tape recorder, it's nice but kinda fiddly/delicate.

CG's picture

What idiots!

They should've used SD memory cards from the start. Same for that Edison guy. :8^)

Robin Landseadel's picture

I had several DAT machines, two of which had the tape mechanism blow out. The repair cost for my $800 Technics DA-10 machines [essentially a crippled Panasonic 3800] would have been $900. So I eventually moved on. Yeah, I realize the original implementations of digital recording were bleeding edge technology. Doesn't make it good technology.

jimtavegia's picture

I to have 2 Dr-40s, 2 DR-2ds, and a DR 680 MK2. My Sony 690 DAT still works and I use it, but in 1996 this Nagra was a big deal. I think back to the first stereo VHS recorder player I bought for $700 and today it would be a joke. I know the Nagra was $25 grand, but a lot of R&D was applied to the low number of units sold, and the recordings made with them are nothing to be dismissed. I own many of them.

I just bought a Project S2 digital converter for $299 and I can hardly believe how good this little DA box is and it has brought my old 2003 Sony DVP NS 755Vs to life.

Today you almost have to work hard to make bad digital. My first CD player was expensive in today's terms and would be no match for any $300 Cd player today. Time heals all wounds.

I just took a friend's old R2R up to a shop for repair and looked inside to see if it was just a belt. It was not, but what a mechanical nightmare inside. He wanted me to transfer some tapes to digital for him. I am hoping the cost of repair is at least reasonable for him.

tonykaz's picture

They always made the "Greatest of the Greatest"..

"Jazz at the Pawnshop" was recorded by an amateur with a little Nagra Tape Machine, wasn't' it?

Nagra stuff ( today ) is still kinda magical. It's end-game gear.

Arne Domnerus gave us that wonderful gift that keeps on giving decade after decade.

My favorite all time Jazz recording, even considering Gene Harris.

Tony in Venice lock down all over again & again, phew

ps. can we please have more recordings like "Jazz at the Pawnshop" ???

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'Jazz at the Pawnshop' was recorded by Gert Palmcrantz, who was one of the most distinguished sound engineers in Sweden ..... See, Wikipedia for details :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'Jazz at the Pawnshop' was recorded on an analog tape recorder, Nagra IV :-) ......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'Jazz at the Pawnshop' in vinyl and various digital formats is available at Acoustic Sounds :-) .......

tonykaz's picture

The ONE, must have, Jazz recording of all time!

according to Tony in Venice

tonykaz's picture

Nagra are still crediting you and Bob Ludwig as being leading Recording Mastering persons using their Gear. ( along with a rather long list of Movie work being done with the little D ).

Tony in Venice

rnrmf's picture

Did Stereophile ever list recommended cassette players under the analog category? If so, what year did that end?

John Atkinson's picture
rnrmf wrote:
Did Stereophile ever list recommended cassette players under the analog category? If so, what year did that end?

Stereophile reviewed and recommended several cassette recorders in the 1970s and 1980s, from Aiwa, Revox, Sony, and other manufacturers. The very last cassette recorder we reviewed was the Arcam Delta 100 Dolby S deck, which J. Gordon Holt wrote about in October 1994 and was a finalist for the Analog Product of 1994, see

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

rnrmf's picture

Thanks for answering, John!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It is some what surprising that Stereophile never formally reviewed the highly regarded Nakamichi Dragon analog cassette player :-) .......

tonykaz's picture

I wasn't much of any sort of Cassette promoter but I did carry JVC dual decks and Harmon Kardon decks at Esoteric Audio. We specialised in high-performance Vinyl Playback systems.

I had a small few customers that chased ultimate cassette performance to challenge our 33.3 VPi Koetsu gear. These guys owned the Dragon and 1000zxl machines. They were remarkably high performing tape systems. Our local WXYZ TV station had the Nak gear in thier Studios.

When it was revealed that Jazz at the Pawnshop was captured with the little Nagra machine, my tape world estimations changed.

Now, SD memory cards and Solid State Memory in a shirt pocket player have obsoleted all of the DIY hobby tape recording for easy carry convenience.

The Cassette ere sort of ended around the middle 1990s, didn't it?, replaced by Car CD players and Sun Visor holders for a couple dozen CDs that got all scratched up.

It was fun while it lasted. ( much like 33.3 )

Tony in Venice

ps. I still crave an Afromosia Linn LP12 with Valhalla and a Ittok/Asak in mint condition.

DaveinSM's picture

.... I miss the days of three head, dual capstan loaded decks like the Nakamichis. They truly pushed the format to its performance limits. Designs like the Dragon and RX-505 (?) were over the top in complexity, sophisticated design, and esoteric build quality, with prices to match. Isn’t that a large part of the essence of high end?

Robin Landseadel's picture

Yeah, bad designs badly executed, overpriced and overhyped, that's the audio high-end alright.

DaveinSM's picture

No one’s forcing you to buy anything. Dude, why are you even here? Not all “high end” gear is overpriced.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I am here because I see people extolling a lot of gear that was faulty when it first appeared. The Nak cassette decks being a case in point. They used different EQ than anyone else, the tapes made on a Nak would not have the correct eq if played on a non-Nak deck. I have lots of experience with lots of audio gear, particularly in the 1990s, and my experiences were not good, mainly because the gear was not good. No one is forcing me to buy anything, I understand that. But High-End audio, particularly starting around the mid-nineties, turned into a bad investment, mainly because the gear got too complicated, too easy to fall apart, and too hard to repair. I'm not so concerned with overpriced gear, though if it's in Stereophile these days, it probably is. I'm concerned with gear that simply doesn't deliver the goods that's still being hyped.

DaveinSM's picture

Ok, fair enough, though you do realize that a lot of vintage Nakamichi decks are still out there and being bought, sold, and used. Cassettes are inherently more mechanical and complex than digital media, too. Those things with more mechanical moving parts have to be maintained.

... you may not want to look at the next Stereophile homepage entry after this one. It features a $45,000 phono preamplifier. Turntable, cartridge, and rest of system not included. :-)