Kramer’s Product Of The Year For 2012

AFTER A SLOW start to 2012, I managed to review, listen to or fiddle with a a decent stack of audio products ranging from relatively inexpensive to somewhat pricey, including everything from basic aftermarket earphones to some pretty damn lovely stereo components.

A few pieces of equipment that crossed my path really stood out and are worth a second mention. So here’s the short list:

Shindo Aurieges Preamplifier

The Montille stereo power amplifier and Aurieges MM preamplifier from Shindo Laboratory of Japan were nothing short of amazing in their ability to just make music instead of sounding like hi-fi gear (review here). Now there’s nothing wrong with hi-fi gear sounding like hi-fi gear, but the Shindo pairing (and the Living Voice Avatar II speakers that I had with them at the time) had a naturalness to their sound quality that lifted them to a level well beyond the norm. These amps are hand made and utterly desirable, even at their $16K+ price point.

In for review at the moment is a set of ATC’s SCM20SL AT active loudspeakers. I’ve wanted to hear these speakers at home for a long time, and without preempting the review, they’re very special indeed. Active loudspeakers make a great deal of sense and with good recordings, these sound superb – as good as anything I’ve heard in their price range. With bad recordings on the other hand… well, you’ll have to wait for the review but suffice to say, they’re good enough to make it to the short list.

I didn’t get a chance to run Ekco’s EV55SE valve integrated amplifier through a full review – Andy Baker did that (here) – but I was lucky enough to get my hands on it for most of December. To say that it’s a gem doesn’t do it justice. From the impeccable build quality to the sheer abundance of sonic excellence on offer, the EV55SE makes a strong argument for the glory of valves (my thoughts on the Ekco are here).

Rogue Audio’s Metis Magnum valve preamp (review here) put on a great show, matching up beautifully with my Sachem power amps and Theophany speakers. Then I started messing around with the valves and got a much better picture of just how good this preamp is. With a set of matched vintage Brimar valves in place instead of the Chinese valves, the Metis Magnum performed at an entirely different level, proving that it really is quite a stonking bit of American-made audio gear. There’s a full write up coming just as soon as some deadline pressure replaces the post-New Year mellowness.

Sony’s four-driver XBA-4 earphones became a firm favourite of mine in a very short time thanks to their almost perfect tonal balance and their deeply revealing nature (review here). However, Logitech’s UE 900’s are currently in for review and seem to be every bit a match and more for the Sony’s. The full review of the UE 900’s will be up soon, but both ‘phones are exceptional ways to get the full picture of exactly what’s on your portable device.

Cambridge Audio’s Azur 651A integrated amplifier, DacMagic Plus DAC and a set of Paradigm’s Studio Series 7 Mini Monitor loudspeakers showed that budget hi-fi gear doesn’t have to look, feel or sound cheap (review here). There’s a great deal of value for money on offer here and it’s encouraging to think that neophytes can get this much sound quality for not much money.

Of all those products, the pair that would have been my products of the year were the two Shindo amps. They really are exceptional pieces of high-end audio kit, but despite their killer performance, picking my products of the year wasn’t all that hard.

Cambridge Audio’s Azur 851C CD Player/Preamp/DAC and 851A integrated amplifier are easy winners of my Products Of The Year (review here). In fact, they’re so good as a pair that I chose both.

They seem to be the absolute class leaders at their respective price points. The build quality that just shouldn’t be possible for the money, and the huge feature sets are impressive enough, but with sound quality that is out of all proportion to their price tags, these components are on another level when it comes to value for money. Armed with twice the cash required to own them, you might better them in one area, perhaps two but you won’t match or beat them in every way. The 851C is a champion performer with silver discs and with computer audio but the 851A is an absolutely killer product that could easily be matched to much higher priced speakers – the sound quality alone justifies its price and a five star review. The rest is a massive cherry on top for potential buyers.

It’s a great time to be into hi-fi. The products available today from the entry level to the very top of the ladder are amongst the best we’ve ever seen. And it looks like 2013 will be another great year for music lovers and audiophiles everywhere. ASHLEY KRAMER

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