I truly dislike best audio product of the year lists. It is a virtual impossibility that the list-makers have listened to every component in a particular product category and, hence, the lists are essentially meaningless. Still, each year several product categories contain products which are truly special and deserve to have their praises sung. In this, Audiophilias first full year of high-end publishing on the internet, I thought it appropriate to recognize those components and accessories which, in my mind, stood out from the rest of the pack. Please note that not all of these products have been, or will necessarily be, reviewed in these virtual pages, although they have all been auditioned in familiar systems and listening environments.
1997 saw a definite move away from the multi-box digital front end, towards a unified, single-box approach. Still, many audiophiles continued to pair dedicated transports with stand-alone D/A converters in order to keep abreast of the latest developments in digital-to-analogue conversion. At the disposal of such audiophiles in 1997 were D/A converters which set new standards in price-performance. One such product which merits particular mention is The Parts Connections Assemblage DAC-2. For a mere US$499 in kit form, the DAC-2 offers high-quality parts, including dual 20-bit Burr Brown DACs, the Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 HDCD decoder/filter, and, most importantly, excellent sonics. Although some listeners report a bit of brightness in the DAC-2s presentation, this seems to be highly dependent on the partnering transport and never manifested itself throughout my auditioning. The kit is easily assembled by novice builders and is backed by an assembly guarantee by the folks at TPC. Those more interested in listening than soldering can order a fully-assembled version for US$549. A parts upgrade kit (unauditioned) is also available for US$149. While not intended as a state-of-the-art digital processor, at under $500, the DAC-2 gets you far closer than it has any right to and is, therefore, worthy of high praise.
Although still being auditioned for an upcoming full review, the preamplifier which really caught my attention in 1997 was the oft-praised Audible Illusions Modulus 3A (US$ 1895 with MM phono board, US$ 2395 with John Curl Designed Gold MC phono board). One of the last of a dying breed of truly full-function preamplifiers, the relatively affordable Modulus 3A combines a simpler-is-better circuit topology, an outboard power supply, and excellent parts and build quality, to produce sonics which, in my opinion, are rarely heard at its price point. The 3A is available with either a moving magnet or a high-gain, moving coil board designed by John Curl (designer of the famed Vendetta Research SCP-2 phono preamp), or as a line-stage only version dubbed the L1. Full review online soon.
Two very different loudspeakers, at very different price points, proved to be particularly noteworthy in 1997. First was ProAcs Response One SC (US$ 2100), the update to that British companys long-respected Response One S. The Response One SC proved, yet again, that mini-monitors have much to offer in terms of soundstaging, imaging, and tonal accuracy. While deep bass was out of the One SCs reach, its tonal balance proved very satisfying. The One SCs new bass/midrange unit excelled at reproduction of the human voice, and its extremely refined tweeter was smooth, detailed and fatigue-free. A truly superb loudspeaker at a real-world price.
At a much more lofty, but not unreasonable, price, was the tri-amplified Waveform Mach 17 with active crossover (US$ 6995). Whether driven by relatively inexpensive solid-state electronics, or six channels of tube power, the Mach 17s thrilled with their ability to reproduce music with the dynamics, power, and beauty of the live event. Imaging and soundstaging were on par with the best Ive heard, the members of a symphony orchestra being clearly delineated in space on the best recordings. The Mach 17s were capable of moving some serious air and were easily capable of rendering the bottom octave. With their reasonable size, furniture-grade cabinetry and high level of craftsmanship, the Mach 17s will blend seamlessly with most shared living spaces. While some prospective purchasers might be put off by the Mach 17s need for six channels of amplification, the recent appearance of several high-quality, six channel amplifiers could ease the potential financial burden of building a system around this loudspeaker. Those wishing to own some degree of the Mach 17s magic at a lower price point might be interested to hear that Waveform has plans to build a non-active version requiring only a single stereo amplifier.
The bargain priced, and virtually unknown, D Lin Audio Silver Bullets 4.0 interconnect (US$ 180/metre) emerged as my favorite cable of 1997. The Silver Bullets 4.0 features four, small-diameter, high-purity silver conductors, high-quality Cardas RCA terminators, and one of the most fatigue-free and tonally neutral presentations Ive heard. Those biased against silver conductors due to their reputation for brightness will be pleasantly surprised by the 4.0s lack of such a sonic signature. The price of the Silver Bullets has been kept firmly in real-world territory as D Lin Audio markets the cables exclusively over the internet. Their reasonable price and superb sonics led me to purchase two pairs for my reference system. Based on the success of their initial efforts, I expect well be hearing much more from D Lin Audio in the not-too-distant future.
The new Black Diamond Racing Record Clamp for the VPI series of turntables recently made its way to my turntable (courtesy of Madcap Audios Jonathan Badov) with surprisingly good results. Although the clamp was just a prototype at the time of auditioning, it was near enough to its final form that I feel safe discussing it here briefly. The clamp consists of two circular blocks of carbon fiber, one containing a threaded hole through its center, the other a non-threaded hole. The two-part clamp is tightly screwed down over the threaded spindle of a VPI turntable in place of the stock VPI clamp. I listened to the clamp in two Aries-based systems (including my own), and was quite amazed at its positive sonic benefits. Most apparent was a much improved sense of rhythm and pace - the stock VPI clamp seemed to impart a slightly slow, plodding feel to the proceedings, diminishing some of the musics life and energy. Although Im at a loss to explain why, the new clamp made music significantly more interesting and involving. At a projected price of about $200, Black Diamond Racings VPI clamp appears to be one of those rare audio accessories whose asking price is more than justified by its sonic effect. A full review is forthcoming.
Finally, Echo Busters Room Treatment Products round out my list of accessories of merit for 1997. Not only are the Echo Busters one of the best ways I know of to tame the acoustical problems which plague most listening rooms, but they are also attractive (as far as room treatment products go) and very cost effective. While there are other competing products available (such as Michael Greens RoomTunes), in my opinion, the Echo Busters are more effective, equally affordable, and less visually intrusive.
-- Andrew Chasin