Not unlike the late Victor Kiam who was so impressed with his Remington razor that he purchased the company, I was so awed with Manley Labs' aptly named Stingray that I bought it - the amp, not the company. Time has not lessened my enthusiasm. In fact, my opinion of it has only increased. The uniquely styled Stinger has an engaging and robust presentation along with a beguiling smoothness and warmth only tubes seem capable of. But do not assume that tubular reference implies the Stingray is all fat and flab in the butt-kicking department because it just ain't so. Yes, there is plenty of bottom end grunt but it is taut and well defined, with excellent pitch definition. There is no trace of the hardness or chalkiness of similarly priced solid-state amps. Here's a case of getting your cake and eating it. And one mighty fine-looking cake it is, too. In my review, I enthused, "Sonically, the Stingray delivered an expressive, vibrant, energetic, fix-
bayonets-and-charge attack allied to awesome foot-tapping rhythmic boogie. Along with this brio, there was a beguiling sweetness, deftness and delineation of detail that ably drew out all the sorts of nuances that made for an involving listening experience and exhibited a terrific sense of musical flow and yes, even humanity. This integrated amplifier easily climbs to the top two or three I've heard thus far. At this price point and even if you are willing to spend more, you'd be nuts to pass up the Stingray for serious audition. It's seriously good fun". Need I say more? The Manley Labs Stingray is my Amplifier of the Year.
The Pro-Ject 1 Xpression along with the Speed Box and Tube Box was a revelation this year. Where can you get this level of musicality from a source costing well under $1500? And it's analog to boot. While Austria's Pro-Ject has achieved remarkable penetration in most markets, it's a relatively unknown entity in North America. That is quickly changing. No, the Pro-Ject is not the end-all be-all of analog playback, but it is superb value and if you got a pile of records hiding in your basement or attic, the 1 Xpression combo will blow your mind. I concluded my review thusly: "I suppose proper audio reviewer decorum should cause me to temper my rather enthusiastic assessment of the 1 Xpression and its companions with the knowledge that more expensive options will offer greater insight and resolution. I suppose if you are one of those 'philes who is obsessed with sound, you will probably pick out faults and look elsewhere. But
if you are like me and crave music, this Pro-Ject system will take you to the Promised Land for far less than you thought possible or necessary to spend". The Pro-Ject 1 Xpression, Tube Box and Speed Box are my Source Components of the Year.
Having been bowled over with the Isoclean PT-3030G isolation transformer and 60A3 line filter, I was expecting to be underwhelmed by this plain-Jane contender from Colorado. Not so fast, bucko. The Audio Magic Stealth XXX line conditioner, while not having quite the same effect on sonics as the Isoclean, is turning out to be just as impressive. The nearly three-times as expensive Asian duo majored in image density, weight and tonal richness. The Stealth excels in opening up soundstage depth and width while reducing noise and glare to levels even lower than the Isoclean. There is a clearer, more defined
separation between performers (providing the recording is not a product of isolation booths and phony added ambiance). The bass also appears more extended yet simultaneously more defined and articulate. Strings shimmer rather than screech, trumpets blat instead of blare and sopranos soar instead of shriek. At first glance, the Stealth in no way compares to the Isoclean in build quality. In fact, they sit at polar extremes. The Isoclean combo weighs at least eighty pounds and has absolutely gorgeous build quality. The Stealth amasses just a few pounds -- no more than a mass-market DVD player at best -- and is encased in a rather bland black metal box. Yet, this unassuming box is equally effective at combating the evils of line noise and in some aspects actually surpasses the Isoclean. At this point, I can not honestly say which is better. Perhaps there is no better, just different. I'll have more to report on the Audio Magic Stealth XXX at a later date but for now and in terms of price vs. performance, it is my AC Line Product of the Year.

Walker Audio's SST contact enhancer and Audience's Auric Illuminator are dollar for dollar two of the most cost- effective tweaks in audio. Both work. Both are cheap. Unlike the Stingray, both will fit in a Christmas stocking. The effects of this dynamic duo are obvious and will enhance listening pleasure in any system. However, for whatever reason, the SST appears to work best on tube pins and AC connections. Just try Walker's SST on the prongs of your power cords and the Illuminator on a nasty-sounding CD and prepare to be amazed. If I am wrong, you've only wasted a hundred bucks. The Walker Audio SST and Audience Auric Illuminator are my Accessories of the Year.

Wilco: A Ghost Is Born [Nonesuch 2-79809]
A Ghost Is Born is Wilco's third masterpiece (Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are the other two) and has spent many hours this past year spinning in my CD player. This record, like all Wilco albums, is a stylistic departure from its predecessor. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's Pro Tools inspired studio machinations are replaced with a more stripped down feel, with most of the recording done live in the studio. Jeff Tweedy's increasingly oblique lyrics continue to evolve along with the influence of Sonic Youth's Jim O-Rourke who is largely responsible for the more experimental approach Wilco has taken in recent years. A Ghost Is Born is not quite as unified a vision as YHF but full of terrific performances including some tasty Neil Young-ish guitar solos -- particularly on the first track --, a long, bizarre, noisy instrumental dirge that could be Part II of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, and a pair of bubble-gum, finger-snapping pop tunes.

J.S. Bach: 6 Cello Suites [Mercury/Speakers Corner SR3-9016]
Janos Starker's Mercury recording of Bach's Cello Suites is well known to generations of audiophiles and music lovers and still considered a high-water mark both in interpretation and sound quality. Speakers Corner, which has apparently succeeded Classic Records in reissuing select portions of Mercury's back catalog, has lovingly restored this recording on 180g vinyl. When it comes to Bach and other Baroque composers, I tend to favor period instruments and performance practices over modern styles. However, Starker's technique and reading do intrigue me. Plus, I have never heard a cello reproduced with such amazing presence and palpability as on this recording. Of course, the CD issue does not even come close. Excellent packaging and liner notes round off this outstanding release. Well done, Speakers Corner.

Roy Orbison: All Time Greatest Hits [S&P 507]
Mastering maven Steve Hoffman, well known amongst audiophiles for his wonderful work on DCC's gold discs some years ago, is now involved with S&P Records. This new firm is committed to reissuing selected recordings on high quality vinyl and digital media. Roy Orbison's music and influence hardly need any introduction so all I'll say is no CD version of these classic songs approach what's on these two slabs of black vinyl glory. And don't let audio snobs tell you an expensive analog rig is mandatory to fully appreciate these records. Nonsense, all you require is a decent, functioning setup. How about a Pro-Ject 1 Xpression?

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.2 'Resurrection' [CSFS 821936-0006-2]
2004 yet again offered a bumper crop of new Mahler recordings. While I enjoyed Ricardo Chailly's weighty and measured performance of the 9th Symphony, I was just as impressed by Karel Ancerl's leaner, meaner, more violent interpretation recorded in 1966 and recently reissued by Supraphon. However, Michael Tilson-Thomas takes the palm for an absolutely overwhelming live performance of the 2nd via the San Francisco Symphony's own record label. I do not recall ever hearing the closing pages of this monumental work with such scale, searing power and raw emotion as this. Partly due to the impressive fidelity of the recording and Maestro Tilson-Thomas' attention to the minutest musical detail, I hear subtle lines and nuances I have failed to notice in all other recordings. While the tension does seem to sag in one or two spots, this one easily tops my Mahler 2 list. The chorus and soloists are exceptional too. The dynamic range on this hybrid SACD/CD is nothing less than astounding. Whoa!

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 1-4; Paganini Rhapsody [Hyperion SACDA67501/2]
To be honest, I have never been a great fan of Rachmaninov. To me, listening to CDs of his oft recorded piano concertos has been akin to eating a box of Krispy Kreme donuts; way too sickly sweet and therefore on my list of foods to avoid. This recording changes all that. I have never heard these war horses played with such vitality and panache as on this disc. In the liner notes, pianist Stephen Hough criticizes the over-done romantic effects many of his peers have lavished on this music. It appears so many well intentioned interpreters have ignored Rachmaninov's score notations over the years; we are now accustomed to hearing this music played a certain way, much to the detriment of the composer's original intent.

According to the folks at Hyperion, "These days a new recording of the Rachmaninov concertos has to be very special for it to be worth doing at all and it was not lightly that Hyperion proceeded with this project. Stephen's very conscious return to the fast and lean performance tradition of the composer himself, avoiding the sentimental 'Hollywood' approach that has become so prevalent, coupled with the supreme level of the performances themselves has truly created a Rachmaninov cycle for the new millennium!" In this awesome-sounding hybrid SACD/CD on Hyperion, Hough pays scrupulous attention to Rachmaninov's instructions, particularly those calling for flexibility and imagination by the pianist. The results are brilliant performances ably accompanied by conductor Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony. With the exception of the Paganini Rhapsody, this exceedingly enjoyable disc was captured live at public concerts over this past summer. The sweet hothouse atmospherics this composer is renowned for is still here but there is also a remarkable freedom from the almost stifling and overwrought sentimentality that has generally spoiled these works for me. Sonics are superb.

Hopefully, over this past year I have piqued your curiosity enough to investigate further some of the products I have reviewed. Perhaps you might give this list to your significant other as stocking stuffer suggestions for the holiday season? However, it is doubtful a turntable would fit: Happy Holidays to my 6moons colleagues and to you, our readers.