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This year's crop remains with the Realsization theme for four surprisingly affordable entrants. And two without awards. That warrants an explanation. The Supratek Cabernet Dual remote-controlled valve preamp didn't net an award because, as an $8,000 statement valve preamp, it occupies a component category which I don't have extensive experience with and so lack comparative context for. Interestingly, the revised Cabernet Dual gained 2 x 6H30s and dropped in price to $5,000 since. In my system and based on what I've heard before, this Supratek is the best preamp yet. Kondo, Shindo and Lamm admirers are advised that I have not heard examples of their brands' preamps in my own system. I can't make any comparative comments. But the point of this list isn't a set-in-stone universal ranking. Rather, it's a Personal Favorite Discoveries of the Year affair. On that count, the Supratek belongs. Big time. In fact, it shares the lime light of personal enthusiasm and excitement with the second nominee who also remains without a formal award.
The Yamamoto HA-02 didn't book an award since I only had one pair of headphones on hand to test it with - the audio-technica ATH W-1000s. Their 40-ohm impedance worked like a charm on steroids with the amp's 50-ohm Neutrik output. The popular Sennheisers tend to be 300-600 ohms. Without trying them to confirm the Yamamoto's universal performance, I didn't feel comfortable issuing an award solely based on -- fabulous Japanese -- headphones which don't enjoy wide distribution.

As far as personal enjoyment of this recent acquisition goes, the $995 Yamamoto however shares my year's highlight honors with the Supratek.

am an unrepentant tube head, can you tell? In the end, I always come back to valves. That's how I'm wired.

Raysonic's CD128 is such an over-the-top concoction of superlative build quality, designer cosmetics and high-level sonics for its $1,699 asking price that it's become my top digital recommendation for sane wallets. Of course you can get more resolution, ultimately, but this player is so dynamic and full of tone that you won't think about it unless you had a lot more money to spend.

Melody Hifi's I2A3 integrated amplifier with two pairs of push/pull Sovtek 2A3s bracketing a quartet of 6SN7s and a single central direct-heated 101D triode is sonically a near stand-in for my Supratek/Yamamoto A-08S combo but offers 18 watts rather than two and gets you into the black with one rather than three boxes. And for less than 50% the sticker shock. $3000 to be precise. Just keep dust and finger prints off the piano lacquer.

Lest you labor under a misapprehension -- that tubes are an absolute requirement to crack this list -- Vinnie Rossi's $1,399 landmark Red Wine Audio Signature 30 integrated with the Tripath digital power processing heart, long-lasting battery power and DacT attenuator is my final year's end nominee. Vinnie's new Signature 70s will soon steal the thunder from the one-box stereo machine but anyone not even close to taxing the latter's 30dB-gain 30 watts shouldn't look farther and pocket the difference. This demure black box is a sonic miracle and its ongoing order status verifies that this isn't some arbitrary isolated opinion. Bloody hell, 2006 was a great year for high-performance value-driven audio.

It's a popular reviewer trend to shift progressively upscale with one's hardware. It's part of the game and additionally signals -- at least superficially -- gravitas and status. A fella owning Wilson and Halcro, dCS and Argento is clearly the far more serious writer than one who owns... I'll let you fill in between the cracks. All I'll say on the subject is that some ultra-expensive HiFi can indeed sound very very good. It simply remains out of reach for most and many may question whether it has to be as expensive as it is. Used as a reference, it quickly imposes an ivory tower distance to common reality. Personally, I prefer to stay a bit closer to the ground these days. Mind you, it's all relative. You could still consider me airborne and I'd concur on the Zanden digital. Fair enough. But this isn't about competing. It's about enjoyment and having fun. In the end, my ticket to superior sound for less is an efficient and benign pair of speakers; a modestly powered integrated valve amp; and a single-box CD player. Keep it simple. Also, keep it compact and aesthetically attractive so your rig gets used rather than condemned to where nobody else but you has to see it. Four out of five components here fit that pricing and compaction bill to perfection. And one is a luxury item that still seems worth every penny asked, especially with the new lower price...