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Unlike the usual year's-end best-of lists by writer we've done in the past which continue elsewhere to become a bit of a glut, I've decided instead on a kind of 2012 retrospective with sneaky glances at things to come. Though it really wasn't—that train departed years ago—to me it seemed like the Year of the DAC because I reviewed quite a few.

I didn't really play the cost-no-object leagues even though to many, myself included, CAD's 1543 DAC would be that. In the realm I'm most comfortable in, the three most exciting digital discoveries were the Asus Xonar Essence One Muses Edition, the Burson Conductor and the Metrum Hex. At $899 the Asus is poster child for what can happen when a mega corporation from another industry, here IT/computer, throws their massive engineering and supply network resources behind a new-to-them category. The Xonar Essence is a fully balanced DAC, preamp and headfi amp with socketed opamps whose base version starts at $599. The top unit I reviewed adds $300 to come with what the firm considers the very best opamps for the application. You can start at $599 and roll your way up if so inclined. I just got in the base and middle versions to pen an add-on to my review.

Team Burson Down Under seriously upped their ante with the new 3-in-1 Conductor to unceremoniously topple their former HA-160D from its best-of-class podium. At $1.850 the Conductor drives HifiMan's beastly HE-6 to perfection, makes for a very good preamp (sans remote) and sports a 24/192 async USB plus coax DAC with its own fixed output that's very well done. Coming next from Burson will be the TimeKeeper class A/B 50-watt stereo amplifier in the Conductor's enclosure which can be bridged for 200-watt mono. If this amp follows in the Conductor's footsteps, it should be a very serious piece indeed. Will it lose the announced fan though is my question.
Topping my DACovery mode was the Dutch Metrum Hex whose 2012's affordable super DAC award signed by yours truly, Frederic Beudot and John Darko says it all. What this machine delivers for below €3.000 should really scare the competition. And designer Cees Ruijtenberg has just taken off his gloves. At a Dutch show this year he previewed an entire Metrum system including power amps and electrostatic speakers. Should those forthcoming products reflect the same design intelligence and listening sensibilities—hard to believe they wouldn't—there's some exciting stuff coming down this Dutch pike.

In my ongoing search for headfi, perfection, 2012 hit the amplification mother lode with the release of Bakoon's AMP-11R. At $4.995 with two-tier ball-bearing gorgeously machined mini metal rack, strapping this class AB 15wpc amplifier to the Audez'e LCD-2 with ALO Audio harness seems like overkill. Until you hear it. Whilst the law of diminishing returns kicks in heavy past Burson's Conductor—i.e. we're well on the limpid side of twice the price, twice the performance—the Bakoon to date is my ultimate headphone amp. But it's a lot more than that. Driving copasetic speakers it performs on the rarefied level of Nelson Pass' FirstWatt SIT1/SIT2. And that's via its voltage-mode inputs. To hear the full Monty will require switching to Akira Nagai's current-mode inputs which will obviously feature on their forthcoming DAC.

Soo In Chae told me about a 50wpc stereo amp and 200-watt monos on the books plus the HPA-01 dedicated headphone amplifier because "more and more people love the AMP-11R as headphone amp. We thus wanted a more affordable model superior even to the 11R for this purpose. With an output impedance close to 1MΩ, expect up to 1/10th the headphone distortion with the HPA-01's current-mode output. We believe this will be a true game changer. It is a larger one-box solution with internal battery power supply derived from our EQA-11R." So if this chute gets properly greased, perhaps 2013 might see four new Bakoon products. I'm very stoked about that prospect. I'm also told that the January issue of Polish contributor Wojciech Pacuła's will have added excitement about Bakoon [right]. Expect a syndication of that in due course.
What's killed off years of amusement trying to mate tubes to loudspeakers via output transformers this year were the already mentioned FirstWatt SIT1 power JFET single-stage no-feedback amps. Preferring them to all prior attempts at accomplishing the same with valves, I've sold off all my tube amps (a pair of mighty Octave MRE-130 monos with SBB remains available). It's why the SIT1 walked off with one of our super-rare Lunar Eclipse awards this year. 'nuff said. Nelson is the man!

As counterpoint to Stereophile's two recent highly critical reviews of class D amps—Anthem's Statement M1 and Mark Levinson's N°.53—I crossed paths this year with two Bruno Putzeys-inspired designs, AURALiC's Merak monos based on a modified UcD400 board with Lundahl input transformer, a custom linear power supply and custom voltage-gain circuitry; and Acoustic Imagery's Atsah monos packaging Bruno's latest Ncore module with matching SMPS in a costly casing. Whilst the twice-priced Atsah were slightly better, the $5.000/pr Meraks garnered the award. Both exceeded various ICEpower implementations I'd heard this year and to my ears marked the precise point on the map where traditional premium class A amps roamed previously undisturbed.

With Bruno's own Mola-Mola brand launching formally at CES 2013 and hopefully a number of OEMs lined/primed up to issue their own Ncore interpretations, I predict that 2013 will be the year when class D emerges as an unconditional alternative to the best traditional amplifiers to kick off the next Mayan grand cycle. And since I mentioned AURALiC, based on their track record—I've heard each of their current products—their forthcoming DSD-ready 32-bit/384kHz Vega DAC with volume control looks to be potentially lethal. John Darko will pit it against the Metrum Hex for his own pages. This newer company from Hong Kong is super ambitious and super talented!
Back to headfi, mobile ambitions and looking forward, two products I'm particularly curious about for 2013 are the new CEntrance Hifi-M8 DAC/headphone amp with digital-direct iDevice port, a plethora of control functionality, connectivity options including dual XLR headphone outputs, hopefully nicely useful battery life and a class A headphone driver...
... and Fang Bian's new HifiMan HM-901 portable player that'll play 24/192 high-rez files and have an optional custom dock. The player should sound swell. My nagging question is about how good the custom interface will be to those of us used to the omnipotent iPod/iTunes GUI. One of our readers also informed me that to his ears—he's very familiar with the LCD-2—the new Fostex TH900 statement headphone could be the current crown jewel. At $2.000 it's certainly positioned accordingly. If the opportunity arises to give it a whirl on my noggin, I'll promise not to resist.

On the speaker front my biggest surprise this year came from the relaunch of Anthony Gallo's Strada. Working in front of a computer monitor many hours each day, ultimate sound on the desktop is important to me. Here the Strada 2 with matching TR3-D subwoofer issues a very decisive ultimatum. Its $2.000/pr sticker for the monitors including the requisite stands means it's justifiable for such use only when you're truly serious. If so, awesome is the word. How the same set will do in the farfield remains an investigation for the new year once Pierre Sprey's after-market stands shown here arrive. Anthony tells me that the $599 TR1-D subwoofer is identical to the TR3-D and merely lacks it +6dB bass-boost headroom. In the nearfield the TR-1D will be all you need. 2013 will have more exciting Gallo news.

Priced $500 less is KEF's LS50 Anniversary Model which I heard at the Swiss HighEnd 2012 show. Other publications have already reviewed it—more are about to—and their formal findings track my own informal ones. Somewhat like the Asus DAC but not from outside the industry, the LS50 shows what can happen when an engineering-driven firm throws all its resources behind a cost-effective show'-em-what-we-got project. There's more serious engineering in that little speaker than most smaller companies can throw at their very best. There's even an active version called the X300A that should have desktoppers and other den-izens of smaller spaces on alert.
On the bigger speaker front I encountered one exciting reality, three equally exciting promises. The first were the Lithuanian AudioSolutions Rhapsody 200. Their deliberately underdamped twin-port bass alignment first had me sock it to 'em with folded then screwed-in kitchen towels for their ports. Later the Ncore monos' ultra-low output impedance denecessitated said ruse. (I just had to use that word after The Mentalist's Simon Baker said 'biggify' to ask a colleague to zoom in on a camera capture of a potential suspect.) Marja & Henk apparently encountered a similar needs-damping issue with their forthcoming review of the smaller Rhapsody 130. We'll learn in due time how or whether they solved it.

On the still promised side sits the new Aries Cerat Stentor, forthcoming half-priced brother to my bigger Gladius from Cyprus. With its preview live you can read up to realize that it might actually be the superior performer. Even if it merely breaks even or lags a shoulder behind, it'll still be occasion to celebrate of course after taking such a very serious hit on price.
I'm equally stoked about my forthcoming encounter with the soundkaos Wave40 speaker I profiled here. A proprietary widebander from a German driver specialist meets an auxiliary Raal ribbon tweeter and nightmarish tone wood construction to likely occupy the final quadrant of the Zu, Rethm and Ocellia thematic. Which brings me to the Zu Druid V review that's been in limbo because the product hasn't been dispatched yet. I'm told my pair has been waiting for the arrival of the costly Duelund capacitors to kick off its 600-hour factory burn-in. With a full year ahead of us I'm confident that sometime in 2013 this tale will see its conclusion.
Personally sad news this year because I knew the man was the passing of Audiopax's Eduardo de Lima. I understand that his flagship Maggiore amplifier project encountered a costly detour with the Swiss connection to end up back in Brazil for superior manufacture which refined final cosmetics and performance. We lost a humble but unconventionally creative out-of-the-box thinker whose novel tube circuits didn't revisit overgrazed meadows but really explored their very own. Saludos, Eduardo! The company will continue under the aegis of Eduardo's former partner Silvio Pereira and Eduardo's son Lucas. Many new products nearly finalized by Eduardo before his untimely passing are already announced.

One product category I've not covered this year to the extent personal desire warrants is premium valve preamps. Since I've gone over to the dark side of transistor amps and DACs, my only hope of tubular redemption lies here. To be more than hope of course requires ultra low-noise wide-bandwidth high-resolution performance (easier said than done with the breed) and good functionality including remote-controlled volume with a numerical display. A reader loaned me the €24.000 Concert Fidelity CF-080 XSL which is sonically superlative but far too expensive and functionally bare-boned to be sensible. If the audio gods will it, 2013 should afford opportunities to investigate some of the sector's more affordable options. Should Trafomatic's Sasa Cokic really issue a direct-heated triode model—Emission Lab's high-gain 20B looks promising for a single-stage attempt—I might have my first sample.

On general site feedback and after 10 years of operations, we're up to about 200.000 unique monthly readers and still manage to polarize from 'favorite pub' to 'worst offenders', the latter probably for crimes against audiophilia, objectivity, double-blind listening, hard-core measurements, formally approved use of the English language and other common-sense items. Since our numbers are up, I can only figure that the put-off contingent is in the minority or simply keeps coming back for more punishment. Since we're free, I don't feel bad. To close out, I'll excerpt a reader letter from new retailer Fred Crane of StereoDesk: "It's an exciting time to be in audio. The envelope for what has been reference sound has become increasingly accessible to your average music lover even as cost-no-object designs attempt to keep the target moving. The proliferation of artist/engineers like Nelson Pass, Jarek Waszczyszyn, Sasa Cokic, Cees Ruijtenberg, Akira Nagai, Jacob George, Vincent Brient, Roland Krammer, Bruno Putzeys, Burson, Wyred, King Wa, Jackson and Slagle's Emia and a host of others have made the divide between the best and the public not so unfathomable." Indeed!

PS. Just one day after publishing the above, Louis Motek's LessLoss press release for the pending launch of their Laminar Streamer arrived - a memory-card player with proprietary ultra-low latency operating system doing nothing but streaming. As with the Resonessence Labs Invicta's card reader, the real challenge will be how accessing the meta data and their organization are handled. The concept itself—solid-state memory streaming sans standard OS to bypass OSX or Win 8 altogether—seems to be the logical next step of computer audio. Carrying 128GB of music on a stamp-sized card also would be most groovy. If this concept won't offer the ease of access and playback options like iTunes & Co. however, it won't stick. Hence color me purple with curiosity over what going on the streaming lam will actually be like in practice...