The Cartridge Man Music Maker III
This latest iteration of the Music Maker builds neatly on the strengths of the II. It's often the case in HiFi that the search to improve a product ends up compromising certain qualities that made the original version special. Well, this fortunately hasn't happened with the III. In fact, on all grounds the III is a considerably better cartridge than the II. In particular, we gain greater clarity, a lower noise floor, faster dynamics and a better sense of space. It's really an excellent cartridge and above all, the II's ability to render music as an experience rather than a hi-fi thing has been retained in spades. It's a cartridge I love listening to and set up on the Hadcock arm, it's best described as an absolute joy.

Schroeder DPS Tonearm/Jan Allaerts MC1B MK2
It seems a bit perverse to be recommending these products for your Christmas stocking, given both have long waiting lists. But if you can hold out, they are more than worth the wait. Frank Schroeder's arm is not just unique and innovative, it represents a milestone in what to me is the most fascinating and difficult of arenas, namely the bit about how you hold a cartridge over the groove.

The MC1B MK2 is Jan Allaerts statement high output cartridge (.6mv) and I was surprised by just how big an improvement it is over the already remarkable MC1S. As with all Allaerts cartridges, the MK2 is completely handmade. Underneath the gold leaf covered aluminium casing that acts as a Faraday cage, the 2 sports a rare
earth magnet with a whopping max. BH (Kj/m3°) of 280 as opposed to 41 BH (Kj/m3°) in the MC1B. The coil windings are 15 micron diameter hand-wound copper (half the diameter of the impressive Dynavector DRT XV-1S), and the stylus is of course the famous Geiger FG-S High Tech, with a highly polished finish and a rounded radius of 2.5 micron. The connector pins are solid gold while the terminals are soft iron, ground and
milled by hand to preserve the electromechanical characteristics of the metal. The Allaerts MC1B Mk2 should be understood as one of the highest achievements of the cartridge-making art and for this listener -- when combined with a high quality arm, turntable and phonostage -- it sounds like redefining what is possible from analog reproduction. Its rendition is as flawless as I've heard, straying neither towards the fiery or the analytic. Instruments have an unprecedented level of vividness and clarity while never sounding etched. Harmonics, air and tonal color are exquisitely reproduced.
Most significant of all, it works towards vinyl's strengths, pushing that elusive combination of boundaries which recreate the illusion of being there.

Living Voice OBXR2 Speakers
They may look like a pretty normal floorstander but their sound is anything but. The product of one of the most refined ears currently working in audio, they are capable of producing remarkable timbre and nuance. An ancillary benefit is their soundstage: given high quality amplification, set far apart and toed in, they leave instruments hanging in space in an uncannily realistic way.

Marten Design Coltrane Altos
Ludicrously expensive, very demanding of what comes in front of them, not easy to drive and with a soundstage that doesn't quite compete with the Living Voice OBXR2s, the Coltrane Altos redeem themselves in spades by managing to create -- or recreate -- one of the most emotionally involving musical soundscapes I've come across. To some extent this is due to their world-class bass integration (surpassed, it's true, by the Coltranes), but the synergy between drivers, the depth and purity of notes (not to mention their heft, transparency and rhythmic drive), takes them to places I've not experienced before.

At low volumes and with less than stellar amplification, they simply cannot justify their price differential over the better high-efficiency speakers but once you turn up the volume, the effect is simply visceral and immensely moving. It's like the difference between watching a brilliant film on TV or at the cinema. You come out of an evening with them utterly overwhelmed, wanting to talk to others about what happened. They can make music not just a listening experience but a profound and meaningful event.

The Tron Syren Valve Preamplifier
Britain's new contender for the world-class valve preamp stakes, the Syren is as seductive as they come. One box, four inputs and a remarkable phonostage is the basic recipe, but inside you will find a virtual Gotha of parts, from the Nextgen WBT binding posts to the mil. spec circuit board made from a proprietary material. Graham Tricker is one of the country's greatest experts on valves and a very talented engineer whose priority is to put the music first. The Syren is a delicate, highly sensitive device which requires care, serious isolation and careful matching to reach its best. But once achieved, the rewards are all there. We gain exceptional purity, the kind that makes you think of spring water
bursting from a mountain rock. This emerges as an attentiveness to the musical moment that has an almost Zen-like elegance: attentive without in anyway drawing attention to the fact that it is doing so. On Art Pepper's Today, we are presented not with that clinical inner detail that leaves the whole to make sense for itself, but a plasticity of color, an immediate recognition of the genius of the player and what he can get out of his instrument. It's a focus not so much on his skill as his inspiration. Yet the inner detail is there, like being able to see the leaves on trees, to see blades of grass rather than a green mat, but never in a way that becomes etched, harsh or stark. Or without losing the plot. On Lara St.
John's violin (Bach's Partita Nos. 2 & 3 BWV 1004 & 1005 on Well Tempered), we hear the ribbing of each string, its tonal essence, almost the individual vibrations as the sound is bounced off the wooden chamber and naturally amplified by it. Yes, the fingering is evident, but it is not foregrounded at the expense of the musical purpose. Scale or presence is the difference between a mediocre and grey reproduction and the recreation of a musical event containing all the passion, artistry and talent of the actual performance. This means not that the artist is transported into your
listening room but that you are transported somewhere nearer the recorded event; not so much that you hear better but that you feel the presence of why the particular artist you're hearing is extraordinary. It's the opposite to background music, the opposite of muzak. This scale or presence is one of the first things that can be overproduced out of a recording (if it was ever there). But the Tron has it to give away. The phono stage is truly astonishing. It may lack some of the bass heft of the finest transistor stages but it is capable of making an unusually beautiful and seductive sound, the kind that is so sophisticated that it can make others sound, frankly, a bit banal. Superb is the word I was hunting for.