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Slagle Transformer Volume Control
Graduating from the resistive passive controls to the new breed of transformer volume controls, the Slagle gives you unbelievable sound for the money. For $200, you get a kit including the autoformers and switch from Dave Slagle at Intact Audio. Then, you either assemble it into a box yourself or find a tech to do it for you. I had mine made with three inputs and silver wiring in a cheap Radio Shack box .

To put things in perspective, I went through a passive preamp phase in the early 90s, owning and trying passive preamps from Purest Sound Systems, Electronic Visionary Systems, First Sound and custom-built passives based on Noble pots, vintage stepped Daven attenuators etc. The Slagle surpasses these older designs but I've also compared and preferred it over the AudioZone TVC.

A recent comparison with the new $3,000 Ayre K-5xe preamp shows that like many passives, it gives up some mid-bass impact but not bass extension. There's gobs of detail with creamy smooth mids and highs. In my opinion, this is the way to go for high-end sound on a budget.

Juicy Music Blueberry valve preamp
This all-tube preamp stands out as a solid, no-nonsense product from designer Mark Deneen. It cuts cost by forgoing thick faceplates, fancy knobs, engraved lettering and other high-end audio jewelry features and puts the money where it counts - the sound. The integral phono stage is a real gem. It's full-bodied with lots of bloom. Tonal balance is superb. The line stage could be tighter in the bass but a new version has supposedly addressed that.

Starsound Technologies Audio Points & Coupling Discs
My first enlightenment in the area of resonance control versus resonance damping came with my purchase of a pair of the Belgian European Holophone Systems Soprano speakers. I first heard these speakers at Hart Hutchens' shop in Verona/ New Jersey in the late 1980s. To my knowledge, they never got reviewed in the mainstream media.

The reason I bring these speakers into this discussion of Star Sound's products is because their design was not about killing off all of the resonance in the speaker cabinet (like Thiel, Wilson and many other U.S. designers) with high mass and local damping. Instead, the speaker designer allowed the cabinet to resonate and transmit this energy through coupling into the bare wood floor via its broad base. EHS made violins most of the year, building speakers for just one season annually. They understood resonance and how to harness it to best effect. As a result, the speaker had explosive dynamics and is one of my favorites to this day.

The Star Sound Technologies Audio Points and their companion coupling discs operate on this same vibrational energy transfer principal. Unbeknownst to me, this company has been marketing their Audio Points since 1989. I'm sorry I just discovered them now.

I initially contacted them because I wanted to get some simple discs to protect my hardwood floor from the Audio Physic Step SLE stand spikes. Robert Maicks, president of the company, recommended that I also get the Audio Points since they operate together as a system. Being overwhelmed with other audio tasks, I only got around to installing the discs. I noticed improvement in transient performance and soundstage focus and wrote about this in my review of the JAS Orior speakers. When my friend Charlie King came over for a visit, we flipped the speakers over and installed the Audio Points (1.5AP-E) and inserted them into the coupling disc mate (APCD-2). The beveled point on the Audio Point locks snugly into the beveled recess on the disc. It's one of these things that just feels right going together.

We had already listened with just the discs in place but were not prepared for the considerable improvement wrought when the points and discs were used together. Not only did the transient performance and soundstage focus jump another notch but a curious thing happened. The tendency for the Steps to sound forward on certain hot CDs (e.g. Michelle Wilson, Lucinda Williams) virtually disappeared. Charlie and I went through our toughest CDs in this regard and now all of them were rendered from eminently listenable to very enjoyable. Apparently, the Audio Points drained away the excess upper midrange energy in the cabinet, leaving behind the music. They also added to the solidity of the bass on my Audio Physic Luna subwoofer.

Tom Lyons, sales manager for Star Sound Technologies, points out that the points and discs will reap more improvements with some speakers
than others. It depends on the vibrational characteristics of your speakers and stands. Sometimes, the local damping method (with Sorbothane or other viscoelastic materials) will work to your particular situation. However, the Audio Points are a well-made products with a longevity in the marketplace that is rare for any tweak/accessory. That tells me Star Sound has done their homework correctly. Well worth a try.