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Personal 2020 highlights

Another year, another beer? Though born in Germany, I don't drink beer. Hate the taste. A very selective gear overview of the year will have to do. Picking personal favorite discoveries, I ended up culling an exact handful, one per five component categories. In alphabetical order, here goes. Click on any image to re-read the original or pending review.

AGD Productions Vivace & Audion. Despite these being lookalike not real vacuum-tube amplifiers, the three letters of the brand aren't shorthand for Alien Gimmicky Design. The brand is Alberto Guerra Design for the Italian designer who now lives and works out of Los Angeles. Holding 10 patents across novel power module topologies, GaN driver IC and power Mosfets, he was personally involved with International Rectifier now Infineon and their R&D into gallium-nitride transistors to replace conventional silicon variants for high-speed switching applications. Against such specialized parts know-how, it was predestined that Alberto would eventually apply them to his very own class D power amps. Placing his transistorized output stages inside the glass envelopes of familiar audio tubes isn't just a conversation starter. It's a clever modular wrinkle. Already announced is a higher-power GaNTube which will convert the standard "KT88" 200-watt Vivace mono into the "KT120" 350-watt Gran Vivace. Pluck 'n' play. At slightly less power than the standard Vivace, there's also the half-priced Audion mono. I and Warsaw contributor Dawid Grzyb were equally impressed by Alberto's tech to hand out two independent awards.

Denafrips Terminator Plus. I'll be back? Few could have foreseen that the mighty Terminator would find itself upstaged by the Plus but this year a newer stronger quicker more lethal cyborg did land. Katchinngg! Still a discrete R2R DAC, still capable of high-rate DSD, still happy to upsample x 32 to 1'411.2/1'536kHz PCM, what's new isn't just the motherboard. New and decisive are 45.15/49.15MHz temperature-controlled super clocks powered from their own constant-current spur off the shielded and encapsulated linear power supply on the machine's lower deck. Those clocks are externally accessible via two BNC to sync a matching source like the firm's own Gaia reclocker or Avatar CD transport. In our system, the resident Soundaware D300Pro and D100Pro reclockers likewise slave to the Plus so that its superior clocks control the incoming signal. That's audible in the (cough) time domain as less micro-blur softness so higher focus, contrast and separation. With this unexpected feature, the organic fuller sonics of the company's prior flagship received a resolution injection which also detours the typical upgrade path of external master clock. The best clock is always closest to the converter so internal. It should sit in the same box as the D/A within just a few centimeters of circuit trace.

Hifistay Mythology Transform X-Frame. Behind that long name hides a radically effective resonance-attenuating equipment rack from South Korea. CNC machined to fare-thee-well precision, modular and handsome in a steel'n'glass loft aesthetic, shelves are optional. The design pursues multi-stage roller-ball isolation in the coupling elements between floor and stand, upright to upright and brace to component or shelf whilst the hollow uprights add damping with specialized fill. Even the X braces are adjustable in their angle to make the rack wider/shallower or narrower/deeper by degrees. Racking isn't something one does repeatedly when the thing about proper foundations is that one leaves them alone once laid. The emphasis is on 'proper'. Engineered broadband resonance attenuation is far more effective hence vital than most give it credit for when the considerable expense of the best could just as easily buy new speakers or amplifiers. And that seems sexier than worrying about what our gear sits on. I'm here to tell you that unattended, this subject leaves a lot of resolution and linearity under the table and you're not enjoying the best your existing gear is capable of. Once you run full-range speakers or a subwoofer, comprehensive mechanical isolation becomes mandatory.

Kennerton Audio Wodan. As I'm fond of saying, only the room-luckiest big speaker systems stand a chance of competing with superior headfi on resolution, bandwidth and linearity. That's just a fact. So is that what constitutes the top tier in loudspeakers—hello €500'000/pr insanities—drops two zeroes with equivalent headphones. And you certainly won't need 1'500-watt 258kg D'Agostino Relentless amplifiers to drive even the hardest-of-hearing cans like HifiMan's Susvara. A 25wpc Bakoon AMP-13R gets you to the top floor without any stops. Into this scenery drops St. Petersburg's Wodan, a high-sensitivity planarmagnetic from Russia that's dressed in solid wood, real lamb's leather and steel. Unfamiliar with their line, I'd requested their 'fastest and sonically lightest' model by referencing my two favorite residentniks, RaalRequisite's SR1a ribbons and HifiMan's Susvara orthos. So sky god Wodan flew my way. For €2'222 as reviewed, it proved virtually undistinguishable from our far dearer Susvara yet far easier to drive. It already flew back to Russia but I'm told their revised flagship will find its way back to Ireland in 2021. Never mind that, Wodan was my headphone discovery of 2020!

Passive Preamp icOn 4Pro Model 3 SE. Another long name, more packed contents. This one represents the autoformer-passive preamplifier category with a twist of not lemon but prime steak aka precision bass. Say what? In the SE version, it includes a fixed active hi/lo-pass xover to send perfectly mirror-imaged data to mains and subwoofer alike. Mine is set to 40Hz on a 4th-order Linkwitz/Riley. Mains attenuation begins at 100Hz to be down -6dB/40Hz, -24/dB/20Hz. Our Zu Submission sub does the reverse so its far inferior variable Hypex plate-amp filter is bypassed. Nearly 20 years on the job weren't sufficient for me to try this earlier (tisk tisk) and be blissfully oblivious to the very real benefits on microdynamic expressivity of our stand-mounted monitors. When a two-way's mid/woofer no longer sees low bass, its voice coil won't heat up extra by trying to play lower than it can. As a result, its voice-coil impedance doesn't rise to increase resistance which also limits output higher up. Simultaneously the main amp no longer sees the phase angles and impedance maxima of the monitor's port to be happier, too. If you want small speakers to sound maximally big—they'll already stage like demons by design—a sub that integrates properly with active analog hi/lo-pass filters will add serious scale and heighten your sense of recorded space. It'll also un-stress your mains to sing with new authority. That you'll have real low bass to go with it goes without saying. Sometimes ignorance isn't bliss, just ignorance.

With all good things six in our pages, not to worry. I've reserved the 6th spot for a triple 2021 preview espresso on pending assignments I'm most buzzed about. Again in alphabetical order, these are:

Æquo Audio's Adamantis for introducing radical new nano-composite materials. With his award-winning Ensis and Stilla, Dutch speaker auteur Ivo Sparidaens has proven to work outside the box. With his first fully passive design, that will escalate to a clam-shell chassis made from his very own Diluvite™ materials. Magico, Rockport and other purveyors of inert cabinetry will need to keep an eye out. According to its published measurements, this stuff goes well beyond aluminium and carbon fiber. Unlike graphene, it can also be used for real-world not molecular thicknesses so even Diluvite driver cones and domes should be in the future. Hi-tech speakers? From Holland with love just around the corner. If you want to play at this level, MDF just doesn't cut it anymore.




Aurai Audio's M Zero Junior for becoming the new affordable flagship of gifted designer Alain Pratali. It will combine back-to-back custom tweeters for bipole treble on top; an open-backed custom Supravox 8" midrange for dipole radiation across music's center; and a custom carbon 10" Supravox woofer in a 4th-order bandpass alignment, thus a hidden driver inside the box that communicates with the outside world through triple vents in the back. Given his precedents of M1 and M3 speakers, my expectations are high. A sub €10'000/pr true flagship speaker seems like an oxymoron these days but Alain is adamant that his shall deliver. Naturally so are the Dutchies at Æquo and for what it is, their Adamantis at €14'500/pr isn't outlandishly priced either. Options, options.



ModalAkustik's MusicBass with RiPol loading and external Ridthaler subwoofer crossover for, at least in my book, promising to be perhaps the ultimate no-box directional bass maker with ultra-flexible purist analog lo/hi-pass This year all their sales were still strictly domestic so German only but starting in 2021, distribution will open up to other countries. That should make this a most timely assignment. Given my recent success with the icOn 4Pro SE marrying our Zu Submission subwoofer to Acelec Model One and sound|kaos Vox 3awf monitors in holy hifi matrimony—beware monogamists—I can't wait to see what this unusual and unusually attractive subwoofer will do by contrast for our big system.

Here's to 2021 kicking off with a bang. If more house-locked intermissions are to be in our future, hopefully many of us can enjoy them with good music and good sound. Cheers to that I say, nohito mocktail in hand!