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In two weeks' time, I'll be completing my first full year of apprenticeship at 6moons. As the least experienced writer in the family and having only encountered a very small amount of equipment, my favorite discoveries are proportionately and appropriately few. So this will be brief - unlike an Oscar acceptance speech.

The first discovery is from the toughest and most competitive audio category - loudspeakers. While other 2-way speakers beat around the bush by employing exotic materials for their drivers, Mark & Daniel have found the permanent cure to the Achilles' heel of 2-way design and then gave it the ultimate steroid shot. By lowering the crossover point from the usual 2-3kHz to 800Hz coupled with M&D's patented underhung Super Xmax bass driver (SX for short) that is now free from Frequency Modulation Distortion, bass reproduction from a monitor-size 2-way cabinet has never been so clean and meaty. And it didn't just end there. The reincarnated AMT tweeter is in fact a high and mid-frequency driver. Once again M&D pushed the envelop in Dr. Oskar Heil's air-motion transformer and created their own oversized version.

As featured on the Muse, Maximus and Aragorn, it is the world's first wide-bandwidth AMT with exceptionally large pleated ribbon diaphragm in a curvature that comfortably caters to 5-octave operation (800Hz to 22,000Hz). This tweeter also exemplifies even sonic dispersion, lower FMD and higher SPL output capacity. Better and bigger in a nutshell. And the sum is larger than its parts. With their innovative 2-way formula, M&D have substantiated huge improvements not just in qualitative but also quantitative terms. You don't need any instruments to measure the density of the sound they produce. You feel it right away. It's imbued with energy that carries itself to the far corners of the listening room with utmost clarity and musicality. Talking about musicality, I used to believe that musicality and resolution were like markings on two ends of a sliding scale. When you moved closer toward one, you drifted away from the other. Two companies re-educated me, proved my misconception and changed my beliefs forever. They almost struck me at the same time and they were NuForce and Mark & Daniel. For the first time, I could gain on both values simultaneously without sacrificing the other. It's like having two separate sliding controls that allow me to push musicality and resolution to the limit. I have reviewed and purchased two M&D models already, the Maximus and the Ruby, the latter jointly reviewed with Srajan who also purchased his review pair and awarded it a Blue Moon. I'm now eyeing the Apollo II as a review challenge if a loaner becomes available. You might say I'm sold on the brand, period.

Without much ado then, here's my vote to Mark & Daniel, not for any particular model in fact but for the M&D entity as a whole, for their daringly different marketing approach and radical departure and insightful technological implementation in speaker design philosophy which practically renew our audio expectations.

The second piece of equipment is a $99 integrated amp, the TA-10 from Trends Audio. Built around the popular Tripath TA2024 Class-T audio amplification IC, the TA-10 landed in my palm in a dark silver aluminium chassis measuring a mere 4½" long and weighing only 1.1 pounds. On the front panel (3" x 1 13/16"), there's an aluminium volume control knob and a blue LED to indicate operation. On the more cluttered back panel, there's your high-end audio-grade gold-plated 4-way speaker binding posts, power on/off toggle switch and 12 volt DC power supply socket. Unscrew four screws and remove the top panel, there's two mini trim pots for adjusting output bias to obtain optimum sound and minimize power-on transients, which are inherent to the Tripath chip but in fact barely noticeable. What's more, there are two jumpers for you to bypass the volume control and turn the integrated amp into a power amp. Apart from the air-core inductors and other goodies, DIYers will also notice all through-hole components on the PCB for easy modifications (as opposed to surface-mount parts). Trends Audio also provides customers with an AC/DC Adaptor which automatically accepts 100-240V AC (50/60Hz) and outputs 12V DC (3 amps). The IEC power inlet allows choosing your own power. Consider the TA-10 a truly audiophile-grade ready-made T-amp with endless DIY upgrade potential that still manages to smash the $100 price barrier. It definitely has my vote for the Best of 2006. .

My third discovery this year was a budget CD from who else but Naxos. Budget priced indeed but the reverse is true for sound quality. It's unapologetically audiophile class. Yet pure sonic virtue alone wouldn't merit this mention. It's the music by Lorenzo Palomo, a Spanish composer born in 1938. I'm surprised that so few of us have heard of this composer before. And so scarce are the recordings of his works. Being brought up in the oldest Andalusian town of Córdoba, Palomo was endowed with the most uniquely exotic musical language. Córdoba, built by the Romans before 200 B.C., ruled by Islam in the 12th Century and before the days of Flamenco and bull fighting the capital of the South, has been the convergence of Jewish and Moorish culture, Islam and Christianity, East and West. Palomo was composing for the piano and vocals since he was twelve, then studied piano and
composition at the Barcelona Conservatory. He graduated with honors in counterpoint and composition. Awarded a grant, he travelled to New York to study conducting. Returning home, he became an accomplished conductor and the continuing experience nurtured him into becoming an inventive orchestrator. Palomo achieved numerous outstanding successes with prize-winning compositions and commissioned works. The 1987 Carnegie Hall premiere of his Spanish Songs written for Montserrat Caballé; the 1996 Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra premiere of Andalusian Nocturnes written for Pepe Romero; the 2001 Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra premiere of Cienfuegos Concerto for four guitars and orchestra written for the Romero family; and the May 2006 Berlin Opera premiere of his cantata-fantasy Dulcinea are just a few.

This CD comprises two of Palomo's earlier successes, the Andalusian Nocturnes and the Spanish Songs. For those who love Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, Concierto para una fiesta, Concierto Madrigal, Concierto Andaluz and still crave more, Palomo's Andalusian Nocturnes will satisfy your appetite. There are six movements and each of them has a descriptive title: "A Toast to the Night", "Shattered Smile of a Star", "Dance of Marialuna", "Gust of Wind", "Nocturne of Córdoba" and "The Flamenco Stage". What makes Palomo's music more interesting than those of his fellow countrymen is the strong influence of Andalusian folk music with its Jewish, Moorish, Middle-Eastern and Flamenco elements. After the 1996 premiere, the audience burst into such a fervent applause that the artists had to encore the fifth movement. It is undoubtedly the most exquisite piece, not just the melody but also the aura it evokes. Beginning with a lyrical guitar solo that repeats twice, the muted strings join in to project a picturesque atmosphere of the cloudless starlit night - perhaps a little chilly. The emotional middle section swirls in but soon ebbs like a tide to return to the muted strings and solo guitar. The first and third movements are the longest and the most richly scored, with changing moods and virtuoso firework display. Palomo's orchestral splendor is prominent yet he carefully organizes the battery of instruments (including a rich array of percussion) to not clash with the soloist. These movements are so full of dramatic tension and programmatic potentials that they could have been the soundtrack for Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. The final movement is a colorful rendition of the flamboyant Flamenco, pulsating with palmas at the beginning. The interpretation couldn't have been more authoritative with Pepe Romero as the soloist and the Seville Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the same conductor as in the Berlin premiere.

The Spanish Songs recorded here were sung by the beautiful María Bayo, who in my view is more 'Spanish' than the celebrated Caballé to whom the works were originally dedicated. What's remarkable about these pieces is Palomo's incredible imagination (or gift) that let him paint in full Spanish colors without relying on the customary Spanish jargon and orchestral cliches. The melodic lines are fresh and expressive. The orchestral layers are well deconstructed and reassembled. Palomo knows where to stop the orchestra and let the singer sing, when to fire up the passion. Listen to "Tientos" (Touches) and "Plenilunio" (Full Moon). You'll be mesmerized by the magic of the Zarzuela. This is my whole-hearted music recommendation for 2006.