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2019 on a budget

As a companion piece to 2019 Standouts, here I harvested this year's archives in a more budget frame of mind. Of course one man's idea of a benign beautiful budget is another's bullish burden. Relativity inserts itself regardless of the progression of the decimal point to the right. But given the general scope of far higher price points we also cover, here are my six bearers of a £675 to €3'000 budget in alphabetical order. All of them are products I'd happy and proudly own. Two I now do in fact. As it turns out, source and cables excepted, you could build a complete system from this list.

Buchardt Audio S400 [€2'000/pr]. Danish acoustic design by former Dynaudio man Kasper Raun. Danish-engineered drivers manufactured in Indonesia's SB Acoustics plant whose top transducers even show up in Wilson speakers. A patent-pending cast aluminium tweeter wave guide modeled with the very latest in 3D laser scanning. Overall manufacture in the Danish/Sino Hansong factory of mainland China's Nanjing. Denmark-direct sales to cut out dealer margins. This two-way monitor in black, white or veneer with an oval passive radiator 'round back endeavors to deliver the best possible returns on cost vs. performance not in obscure Inspector Morse code. Regular Warsaw contributor Dawid Grzyb penned his own take to agree. Mads Buchardt's S400 succeeds big time. The combination of ¾" tweeter with 6" mid/woofer crossed in at 2'000Hz then augmented by a 5×8" long-throw auxiliary bass radiator nets a published -3dB point of 33Hz. Actual experience does happily sign on that dotted line. As such this modest-looking highly tweaked box without any subwoofer assist is really all most people will ever need to cleanly go loud and low whilst staging as big and broad as monitor speakers are wont to. And yes you will still need a stand. Should that strike you as cosmetically incongruous, our next entry has you covered.

Davis Acoustics Courbet N°5 [€3'000/pr]. This compact dealer-sold French 3-way tower with rakish parallelogram enclosure and four unique drivers—Davis also supply or have supplied custom drivers to Apertura, Avantgarde, Goldmund, Jadis and MBL—was a personally big surprise. Its soft-dome tweeter with tapered tube absorber and 6th-gen kevlar midrange with big decompression bore in the back augmented by paralleled 5" Carbon-fiber woofers with front port operated at very high resolution and speed. The fit'n'finish of my white loaners with Birch plinth was first rate, the speaker easily driven by the 25 watts of Bakoon's AMP-13R. I seriously considered acquiring the set as a permanent member of our heavily rotating speaker inventory. Only practical considerations of having to store it away when not in use won out against it. Everything else—looks, build quality, size, ease of moving about, performance and value—pulled very heavily the other way. Sometimes calm reason simply must prevail to not turn a personal home into a warehouse or quasi dealership. But for all those who consider stand-mounted speakers wasted cubic volume where a tower of equivalent height and foot print will add more, this French would be that long moist kiss of youthful passion.

Denafrips Hestia & Hyperion [€775 & €1'095 ex VAT at press time]. Sold worldwide through Alvin Chee's Vinshine Audio portal in Singapore, this pre/power combo from mainland China represents the first new tier of analog separates from a designer who already gained fame for his discrete R2R DACs with adaptive I²S and native DSD. Fully balanced, his first preamplifier with three inputs, pure class A bias, relay-switched precision resistor-ladder volume, big display, metal remote and black or silver skins hops atop the matching but deeper fully balanced class A/B power amp. That outputs 80/150wpc into 8/4Ω to follow the credo of sane not overkill hifi.

As has become signature Denafrips style, lavish build quality embarrassed kit priced five times higher which comes from higher-wage countries then gets marked up with far more bloated margins. Even when it doesn't like Goldmund's discontinued Swiss Job range, raw build quality still won't equal this brand's. With a warm organic sound slightly opulent but dynamically very butch, these separates epitomized "Harbeth sonics on push/pull EL34" as their review summarized. They also turned out to be ideal drivers for our Zu Druid VI. This was another 'coulda' which I deliberately let get away to keep our shelves from bowing even more.

Midi 120 [€2'200]. Gifted Polish designer Jarek Wasczczyszyn of Ancient Audio's purist valve audio marque also works with four colleagues under the Fram banner. That's Norwegian for forward and so is their Midi 120, an ultra-compact aluminium-jacketed two-way active with two passive radiators and the footprint of a CD jewel case. All drivers are sourced from SB Acoustics whilst the internals are proprietary class D and include Jarek's patented sound processor. Its code considers the entirety of the design including enclosure volume, enclosure dimensions, material behavior, internal standing waves, driver response, driver matching, the passive 1st-order analog filter and undisclosed parameters including user-selectable EQ to apply global error-forward correction. Shipped with small oak plinths to create mild rake when used on the table top, there are also optional all-metal tripods for stand mounting. That's how I run my pair off the work desk, with S/PDIF signal from an Audiobyte Hydra X+ right off my computer work station. A single RCA cable connects the active right speaker to the passive left unit for PG13 master/slave action. With bandwidth of 45Hz-22kHz and true high-end sonics, this is high-performance lifestyle audio for those who shop then live with their ears and eyes and spend a lot of time in front of a computer.

Mutec MC-3+USB [€999]. Its front panel silk screen calls it a "synchronizable digital audio master clock & audio reclocker & USB interface". For regular home not pro audio purposes, I'd call it an advanced USB bridge. But it does come from a Berlin-based pro audio company—think of a German Weiss Engineering, Mytek or Benchmark Media—so featurization and lab looks which are heavy on little colored lights go well beyond most of us homies. Our kind usually needn't sync up a handful of digital devices to run off a shared master clock. Just so, even dumbed down to just USB-in|S/PDIF-out use via coax, Toslink or AES/EBU reaps demonstrable sonic benefits. If your source kit of transport and/or converter features the necessary word-clock inputs, you can run those off the Mutec to "go digital pro".

This little deck is one sterling example for how shopping a pro-audio house can secure performance for pennies on the high-end audio dollar where different margins, over-built enclosures, fat fascias and brand mythology charge extra for perception and resale value. Strip those things away and change the brand name for one with little to no recognition in our glossies. Now the smart money can find true overachievers in a parallel universe.

Puritan Audio Labs PS106-DC [£675]. From a very no-nonsense bloke in the UK come Puritan Audio Laboratories and this 6-outlet power filter with optional DC blocker. I spotted them in the lobby of the alternate Munich show's hotel this year doing a demo involving test gear to show how their goods cleaned up the hotel's utility power. Sold with a 20-amp power cord, this well-made strip includes non-sacrificial 30'000A surge/spike protection, star grounding, max-power routing, cleansed earth and an electrically and magnetically shielded case of 43x23x11cm WxDxH that weighs a substantial 2.7kg. All common outlet sockets (UK, Schuko, France, Belgium, Switzerland, USA) are available and the design approach is utterly free of voodoo and big words. For not much money, it has outperformed costlier purist passives from Furutech yet adds active filtering and complete protection for peace of mind. Two hifi importers who've added this brand to their portfolios wrote in saying the same – "no bullshit, no bling, no silly money, just yeoman performance out of sight behind the rack". To me that pretty much describes what we should expect from effective power distribution.