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Personal picks of the 2021 litter

Most lust-inducing discovery of my year was iFi's new flagship DAC. After hearing it, I realized that had I the funds, I'd get three to replace the bigger costlier less flexible converters in my two speaker review systems plus the one in my dedicated headfi stack. From the populist sister brand of the UK's Abbingdon Music Research, this €3'249 half-width machine's claim to name is on-the-fly conversion of PCM to DSD1'024. That's enabled by a very powerful FPGA. It's why it goes by Pro iDSD Signature not iPCM. Prior such resampling, to lower-rate DSD on Lindemann and Métronome kit, had left me cold. I thought it too soft. iFi's latest take on the subject is rather more subtle and refined. Suddenly I was 'in'. One can still switch triodes into the input stage; engage the Gibbs Transient Optimized filter for PCM; or use the powerful transistor output stage to drive headphones. This iFi DAC might be small but it's decidedly oho.

My first-ever foray into class A power for the 21st century came compliments of Ivo LinnenberG's Georg Friedrich Händel monoblocks. Those combine a front-to-back balanced signal path of extreme bandwidth with a (wait for it) medical-grade switching power supply. A classic power doubler into lower Ω, this push/pull amp ran shockingly cool, shockingly quiet—absolutely no noise on 95dB speakers—then demonstrated "illuminated darkness" by creating new insight into the first two octaves. This rendered the bass registers just as resolved, adroit and lucid as everything above. On that score it was true muscle-amp performance. On subjective speed, it was micro-amp performance à la Bakoon/Enleum. On the eye score not sore, it was a lot more compact than the equivalently powered Gryphon Essence class A amp had been. On the scale it was a lot lighter than our hulking Pass Labs XA-30.8. Hence the paragraph's opener. Class A, push/pull then SMPS like class D – it's a very winning modern recipe which I'm told is already on the design table at Aavik as well.

A blast from the past was Enleum's AMP-23R. It replaces Bakoon's AMP-13, my fave low-power sand amp. Enleum add new cosmetics, refinements to their proprietary discrete op-amp current-gain circuit and a new bias circuit controlled by microprocessor and custom code. Whilst generic performance specs virtually match those of the predecessor, sonics have gained weight and resolution. Otherwise it's still a 25wpc/8Ω high-speed transistor amp with a single complimentary pair of lateral Exicon Mosfets whose outputs convert to 6.3mm headfi drive at the very highest level. Think ideal HifiMan Susvara groom. If you don't opt for the €500/3 isolation footers, you also save €1K over the now discontinued Bakoon. All you give up is the latter's Urushi lacquered control knob and industrial design which has it seemingly float on its inverted transformer cowl. For more power, 63wpc and 100wpc Enleum specimens are coming.

Still on the burner when I wrote this was Pál Nagy's Gradient Box, a fully remote-controlled outboard smart crossover for perfect subwoofer integration via precision low/high-pass filter paths, gain adjustments and shelving EQ in the pure analog domain so with zero latency. Currently available analog solutions from JL, spl and Wilson are manually controlled so you must leave the seat for each and every adjustment. That leaves a rare market hole which this new box from the UK's Manchester wants to fill. If you've already been on board with the unassailable logic that active bass in an independently adjustable subwoofer is superior to passive fixed bass built into loudspeakers, you might still have hesitated due to lack of a proper integrator tool. Now the Gradient Box really should have your fullest attention. It's from the same man who already gave us the fabulous icOn AVC passive preamps.

Continuing the subversive theme is the new DSUB15 from sound|kaos creator Martin Gateley. Like the ModalAkustik MusikBass, Voxativ Pi sub and what's built into the EcoBox DayDream and A Priori open baffles as well as certain Bastanis, it's a RiPol thus based on the expired Alex Ridthaler patent. As such it's a velocity converter not pressure generator. It significantly lowers its woofers' resonant frequency. It creates out-of-phase nulls at its sides and reduced output at its rear. That causes highly directional bass. Unlike the Kii Three, it's achieved without any DSP or related latency. It's a purely mechanical and acoustical effect based on a clever radiation pattern. It removes room loading, the excitation of common standing waves at 90° off the central axis and reduces box talk (the bleeding of internal cabinet reflections through the membranes). As a stacked Ply construction, it's heavy. As a purely passive device, it needs external electronics. sound|kaos are working on their own. Free room treatment is built in; or rather, the need for it eliminated across the bandwidth we set it to.

That was a proper fistful of annual finds. Let's leave a final 6th for the end to cover two interludes. Yes 2021 was strange. But that didn't equate to a bore on the hifi front. Innovation continued without taking a vexation. On that score, let's quickly head over to the 7th moon to get a bit futuristic. Vinnie Rossi revamped his catalogue and logo. Whilst prior models remain supported, they're discontinued in favor of his new Brama Collection. For Cupertino-level industrial design, this kit now runs with the very biggest of dogs. Gaudy, baroque and steampunk tend not to age well. Such styles are too specific in time and place. True timelessness requires a more classic design language. That such sterling examples would come from a small US boutique not a big corporation with an elite cadre of costly designers on the payroll is a surprise. But head on over to the linked industry feature to learn what's coming in 2022. After all, living with any hifi always starts with looking at it daily even when it doesn't play. Now it might as well look like a million bucks.

With a sharp if tiny full-color display and glass top looking like a baby's million bucks for €424 delivered to Eire, the smsl SD-9 deserves the realsization spot of this year's crop. Regular readers know. I view SD-card playback as the most cost-effective way to high-performance digital. It plays cancel culture on Internet/PC noise, Big Brother's watch and any need for USB decrapifiers. Without a CD player's moving parts, it doesn't need an overkill transport sled either. To navigate a card's contents, you just want an informative display with cover art, all-folder play modes, quick read-in of new files and a remote. To interface with a DAC, you want quality digital outputs like AES/EBU, even I²S via HDMI. If you're WiFi allergic, you must be able to defeat all network transmitters. This soft-cover book of a micro component does all that and lives on Audiophonics in France so one needn't paddle the Amazon or one of its many Chinese tributaries. I didn't expect the SD-9 to be so tiny. But sonically and functionally it turned out ace so a very happy buy. No need to spend more on a stationary digital transport dedicated to SD cards. Due to lack of additional remote buttons, playback modes do bury a few menu layers down. That's a minor inconvenience compared to Soundaware but doesn't interrupt playback. For little money and zero network use, it's a sterling find well beyond starter status. I'm told that networking is still a bit glitchy. SD alas is rock solid; and I²S shakes hands with Denafrips DACs. Which leaves one spot on this list; for cables.

True, they're the perennial black sheep of the hifi flock to get little love but lots of bahaha. Still, no cables no sound unless we go WiFi active speakers to max out at power cords. For everyone still wired to sound, cables remain vital arteries. Over many years, Lithuania's LessLoss have advanced proprietary noise reduction tech for wires, inline filters and power distributors. Called C-MARC for its Litz geometry, the most recent wrinkle adds a proprietary accelerated aging process called Entropic. It's not cryogenics though those factor. It's apparently not exposure to ultra-high Tesla coil voltages à la Audience and Synergistic either. Yet it leaves an unmistakable mark not just by rendering conductive copper extremely malleable. It affects the sound. Multiple reviews in our archives including syndications have the details. Boenicke Audio and sound|kaos exploit C-MARC for their products. The former commissioned a costlier scaled-up version for their own cables. Had I the funds, I'd opt for a complete LessLoss loom in the main system. I don't so my review set hustled back East. I'm simply convinced that for a very relaxed utterly grain-free but liquid sound, LessLoss' C-MARC Entropic range has the answer. If you aren't a lemming to follow the cables-don't-matter crowd, be a black sheep. Head the opposite direction. That's where the grass really is greener. Plate up as Gordon Ramsey would say. And that's my lot of favorite finds in 2021.