IT’S BEEN A busy year for the Witchdoctor review team, and while I personally didn’t quite get to all the products intended, I managed to listen to some exceptional hi-fi gear along with a few brilliant headphones and earphones.
The fact that there aren’t hundreds of products on the list should make for an easier job of choosing the top few, and narrowing that selection down to a winner. However, when the contenders are so good, then it comes down to a fine balancing act, comparing performance against value and looking at the competition while throwing a fair amount of purely subjective gut instinct into the equation.
The top contenders this year came down to:
ATC’s CA2 is a bit of a gem. In fact, it’s a serious diamond. For a conventional enough preamp in the sub $3000 price range, the CA2 really does an amazing job of making music. Hooked up to ATC’s active speakers or my Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem power amps and Theophany M5 Series 2 speakers, the CA2 is a stunning performer; so much so that I was entirely happy to award it a five star rating at the $3999 that I thought it cost rather than the actual $2699. As I said in the review: “ATC’s CA2 is a stunning stereo component – if you’re in the market for a sub $5000 preamp, you really need to take a listen before you spend any of your folding stuff or dig out the plastic. You might just save enough money to upgrade some other bits in your system.”
DeVore Fidelity speakers seem to have built up something of a cult following. For a smallish company competing on the world stage, DeVore has a bigger presence than one would expect. However, after listening to the Gibbon 88s, it’s plain to see why. These speakers are by no means inexpensive but at the end of the review, there was no doubt that they’re well worth the asking price. They’re capable of playing music with a light touch that’s as delicate as a rose petal, yet they’ll enthrall with louder music as long as their volume limits are respected. They’re gorgeous too, which adds to the pride of ownership in a big way. The review said: “Not everyone wants Cerwin Vega-style punch and few people can accommodate a pair of 15-inch Tannoys in their lounge, which is where more delicate but vastly capable speakers like this come in. In the right room, and with their absolute volume limits and low frequency extension kept in mind, these speakers would be on my list of must-listen-to speakers for anyone shopping for in this price range.”
Viganoni and Viganoni’s eccentric yet deeply charismatic Sachem Pure preamplifier is something of a Kiwi-made wonder. I’ve heard Franco Viganoni referred to as “a solid state Shindo” and that’s high praise indeed. The comparison is accurate enough – two men of vision, passion and conviction designing hi-fi gear expressly to reproduce music exactly the way they want to hear it. The Pure is designed to be accurate and faithful to the original recording, to the absolute sound if you like and it fulfills this aim perfectly. At $7000, it’s designed to partner around $10,000 of monoblock power amplification so it’s right up in high-end territory, but the sound is something special. The review had this to say: “The sound is engaging, works with low level late night listening as easily as it does with the volume knob pushed way up, and it’s as refined as anything I’ve heard for less than silly money. And that’s probably the best aspect of the Viganoni & Viganoni amps: they’re not exactly cheap, but set up right they’ll match just about anything out there.”
Focal’s Chorus 816V floorstanding speakers were the first Focals to cross my path in a review situation, and they’re brilliant speakers. For many buyers, moving over the $3K mark is a big step but once run in, the 816V’s are such a pleasure to listen to (and to look at) that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that they don’t cost at least a thousand dollars more. From the review: “They’d be close to the top of my short list if I had three grand to spend but I’d say that potential buyers should definitely match them with some high quality amplification and a good source – don’t short-change the potential here.”
Rotel’s RA-11 integrated amplifier blew my socks off during its review. It sounds pretty darn good for an integrated amp in the thousand-dollar range but Rotel also managed to cram in a huge feature set. That the designers got all these very useful bells and whistles in there without losing any of the sonic goodness is a testament to some very finely judged component buying and some clever engineering work. I didn’t want to give it back because it was just so much fun to listen to. The review conclusion read: “This is an unfeasible amplifier – there’s no real way it can be as good as it is for the price considering how much it does. But don’t stop to second-guess either the prowess of the Rotel engineers or the lunacy of the local pricing, just go and grab one, especially if you’re into Pandora or Spotify and Bluetooth audio.”
So those are the contenders. I’ll announce the winner before 2014 hits. ASHLEY KRAMER