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Through my countless correspondences with Tommy over the year, I began to understand why his company name JohnBlue Audio Art stresses that last word: art. But Tommy is not just an artist. His approach is art through science. For everything he does with his audio creations, he has scientific substantiation behind it. He is not betting on guess work nor relegating reason to artistic instinct. He persists by hard work through experiments, experiments, experiments. The artist in him makes him unshakably passionate about his beliefs. That's the artist: stubborn, obsessive and uncompromising.

My first encounter with JohnBlue was with the JB3 speaker. It wasn't an instant pleaser for me and we almost had our irresolvable artistic clash. But it turned out to be a good learning exercise to appreciate a different approach to audio aesthetics. From a skeptic, I was gradually converted to a keen appreciator. Tommy insisted that I keep the JB3 as a long-term loaner while he was working on something to convince me further. Two months ago he sent me a pair of JB3 speaker cables. I could not believe what I heard after I put them on, playing Tommy's hand-picked demo CD. That pair of 3" JohnBlue full-range drivers could rightfully claim being full-range. Their bass is real bass. I shall report in full detail in the upcoming review.

Then I had the TL66 monoblocks. For me, reviewing two similar amps so close one after the other was a nightmare. The Elekit TU-879S and JohnBlue TL66 are both pure Class A single-ended beam tetrode designs that can freely roll between 6L6, EL34, KT66 and KT88. With a price difference of one to three, the dearer unit was bound to be handicapped before the race even began. To avoid preconception or distraction, I deliberately abstained from listening to the TL66 while I was seriously auditioning the TU-879S. Once the TU-879S review published, the TL66 had fully burned in. The idea of doing another round of 6L6 amp sessions with the same tube rolling variations sans break appeared daunting. But as it turned out, this became the most stimulating page in my humble book of tube gear experiences.

Physical comparisons showed the obvious: A single-chassis DIY kit with one driver tube serving both channels vs. two-chassis monoblocks with dedicated driver tubes per channel, PCB vs. point-to-point wiring, over 180 parts and components vs. less than 30. Without giving too much away prior to the formal review, I can sum up the sonic differences and similarities between these amps thus: None of these should shy away from comparisons. The Elekit is the best value tube amp under $1,000 and the JohnBlue is the most qualified contender for tube amps under $3,500. With the Elekit, the best sounding tubes remain within the 6L6 family. With the JohnBlue and to my flat-out surprise, the winner was the Mullard EL34. This is the only instance where I'd gladly trade in my favorite 6L6. And this is the second time only I have been so taken by a tube amp for its magical valve bloom. The first time was with the Italian 2A3 monoblocks The Dream by Synthesis. Those cost more than $7,000, four times the price of the JohnBlue. Six months ago, I had The Dream on loan from a friend for a few days before he shipped them out to a buyer. That could have been me if I had known they were up for sale. So the JohnBlue TL66 became the best contender to fulfill my unfinished dream.

The third time Tommy sent me a bolt from the blue was with his KingRex T20U modification. To satisfy the international markets, KingRex products have to comply with stringent CE, FCC and RoHS codes and regulations. However, in Taiwan, they market a special JohnBlue version. I have been discussing the JB mod with Tommy and received from him the required parts quite some time ago. But the idea was unnerving just thinking about it because I had handed out the Blue Moon award to the T20U back in September 2007. How could I face myself if I started telling readers that the amp could be made even better? Aw shucks, any review runs the risk of getting outdated and outwitted eventually. I thought winters in Hong Kong were cold but not before I came to Canada did I know the true meaning of really cold. One's standard has to adjust with time and experience. Ditto for amps. I can only tell you about winters in Nunavut once I've suffered them first hand (and foot and nose and so on).

I shall give you all the mechanical details about the modification in my upcoming review with all the scientific rationale from James and Tommy, for every replacement of every part and not just gut feel. Now let me share with you the outcome of my A/B comparison. The improvement is instantly audible. The frequency response extends on both ends. Highs become airier and clearer, bass deeper and warmer. While nothing is laid bare in the middle, the midrange is enriched. The volume pot now only needs to sit at 12 noon vs 1:30 or 2:00 on the original version. The valve-like charm is even more pronounced with bi-amping when each unit is batter-powered by SLAP! driving Klipsch F2s. When I close my eyes and listen to Anton Rubinstein's Works for Piano [Centaur CRC 2235], I have to ask myself: "Is this a recording or is this real performance?"

Back to reality and certain star recordings. There's nothing I heard this year that I didn't like but two names definitely make my list of best piano interpretations of 2008: Paul Lewis and Gergely Bogányi. Paul Lewis' monumental project of the Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas actually spanned over three years from 2005 to 2007 through four installments released on Harmonia Mundi [HMC 901092, HMC 901903.05, HMC 901906.08 and HMC 901909.11]. Despite many formidable pianists and authoritative interpreters before him, Lewis' endeavor is in my view the best among equals. He did not attempt to tear down what the great masters have established yet he managed to breathe new air into the world's most recorded sonatas. Every familiar musical phrase inspires afresh through his insightful reading and creative prudence. It's always tempting even for the most disciplined pianist to try something new once in a while. Yet the outcome usually makes one feel aghast like the excessively fast tempi and exaggerated dynamics you'll find in Gilels' No. 13 [DGG 400 036-2] or Pollini's No. 21 "Waldstein" [DGG 435 472-2].

You'll never find such sporadic breakaways from tradition in Lewis and yet he sounds special. The first movement of his "Waldstein" for instance is the least aggressive and yet the most intense. The middle and last movements are slower and lighter than most yet the tone is the purest and the emotion the deepest. Of the limited complete cycles I have collected, there's always been a give and take. The academic aura of Backhaus [Decca 433 882-2] is respectable but sometimes I wish for more sparkle. The full-blooded Ashkenazy [Decca 425 590-2] was once my favorite but after a while, I wished for more subtlety in certain numbers. The scholarly Brendel [Philips 412 575-2] occasionally surprises me with a little tongue in cheek. The intricately crafted Barenboim [DGG 413 766-2] can be stimulating at times. All in all, I could never before say that one set fulfilled all 32 sonatas to my heart's content. Until now. With every piece of work, whether it be the earlier youthful sonatas (by the way, his two sonatas of Op.14 are imbued with a spirited rubato that laughs in the face of discipline but is so natural that the 'robbed' tempi are hardly noticeable), fully ripened maturity or the transcendental final three, Lewis always finds something important enough to make a statement. When he makes it, he takes his time to articulate it, letting it flow out naturally from his heart.

Contrary to Lewis, Gergely Bogányi's Complete Chopin Nocturnes [Stockfisch SFR357.4051.2] are highly controversial, not only breaking away from tradition but breaking some reviewers' hearts. Like his fellow countryman György Cziffra before him, Bogányi is a pianist with a big technique and an even bigger passion. This kind of pianist inevitably invites misunderstandings and in the worst case, criticisms of wearing their hearts on their sleeves and exploiting mannerisms. Sometimes Ivo Pogorelich and Stanislav Bunin do cause me doubts of trying to be different for the sheer sake of it. But I've never doubted Cziffra. And with this one Chopin album, Bogányi has won over my heart. He has rediscovered all the twenty-one Nocturnes for us. My wife and I have played a few some years ago and collected well over ten different recordings but soon lost interest in playing and listening for many years. After listening to Bogányi, we started playing again and wanted to play every piece. We spent days and nights comparing other recordings and found most of them almost unlistenable now, even those we once loved so dearly like Maria João Pires, which unfortunately is made even more lusterless by comparison due to DGG's thin and bright recording. (Thanks to Philips, we still like Claudio Arrau.)

The way Bogányi plays put a spell on us. We are aware of his 'wavering' tempi but they are so natural that we are convinced they are best to express the inexpressible. Overall, Bogányi chooses far slower tempi to give the works more breadth and a greater sense of invocation. Most of the nocturnes are in ternary form with a tempestuous center section. While most pianists would make the most of the dynamic contrast for dramatic effects, Bogányi glides gracefully through the middle section with dignified impeccability. His golden touch makes every note, every tone more delicious like dark chocolate melting. (My wife's analogy is like the fire deep inside the darkest core of a sapphire viewed under a microscope.)

Part of the magic undoubtedly comes also from the recording or shall I say, the piano. In this audiophile-grade instant, the instrument is an Italian Fazioli F 308. Remember how we used to say that an amp lets you tell a Bösendorfer from a Steinway? Wait until you hear the Fazioli. Compared to Bösendorfer founded in 1828 and Steinway in 1852, Fazioli seems a toddler with a history of only 30 years. This privately-owned piano factory was founded in 1978 by Paolo Fazioli, himself an accomplished pianist who later changed course to study mechanical engineering at the University of Rome and now personally checks every instrument before it leaves the factory. With limited annual production (no more than 80 in 2002), Fazioli is the rarest and most expensive piano hardly ever listed in the piano bluebook. According to Jeremy Nicholas' reportage in The International Piano Magazine (January/February 2002), a recent piano poll commissioned by the French magazine Diapason had the following finding: "Only three makers, Fazioli, Steinway and Feurich, were judged to be of 'exceptional quality', just ahead of Bösendorfer and Grotrian-Steinweg. However, when a panel judged each piano on its technical merits and then heard blind two different pianists play extracts from various works, the same poll awarded Steinway, Feurich and Bösendorfer four stars; Fazioli was the only manufacturer accorded five." The unique tuning system of the Fazioli is different from the patented 'duplex scaling' of the Steinway. "On this standard duplex scaling, the harmonic is completely unrelated to the note itself; on a Fazioli, by contrast, the strings that do not come into contact with the hammer are tuned so that the harmonic produced is exactly in tune with the individual note." With the Fazioli 'movable duplex point' tuning system, whenever a string is struck, the supposedly non-vibrating parts of the string vibrate at the frequency of a partial of the string's fundamental tone - a fifth to be precise, except for the few upper notes tuned to unison. This makes the sound of a Fazioli exceptionally rich. Happy 30th anniversary to the world's best piano then!

Last but not least, the best orchestral music of the year. Three Kingdoms [Rhymoi Music RMCD-1018] is an orchestral suite based on the epic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms composed by Ning Wang. Dr. Wang is currently the professor and director of the Composition and Multimedia Departments of the China Conservatory of Music. He is a prolific composer who is equally eloquent at operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music and art songs as he is at electronic music and music for film and TV, with many of his compositions adorned with local and international honors and awards. Three Kingdoms the novel was written in the 14th century and is acclaimed as one of the four great classical novels in Chinese literature, with 800,000 words in 120 chapters to its colossal credit.

Said to be 30% history and 70% fiction, the novel covers the warring period in 2nd and 3rd century China, retelling the legends of war and peace, beauties and generals, loyalty and betrayal, wit and vengeance between colorful characters not too dissimilar to Merlin and King Arthur. Through Dr. Wang's skillful orchestral fusion of east and west (over ten top-notch Chinese traditional instrumentalists and a huge western orchestra enhanced with chorus), the twelve programmatic movements are like colorfully orchestrated movie soundtracks filled with descriptive melodies that traverse themes from a heroic rescue to a solitary ride, from a romantic wedding to a mournful funeral.

Just imagine Hans Zimmer's Gladiator and Tan Tun's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon joining forces on an even grander scale. Take for example the two battle scenes, The Battle of Red Cliff and The Battle of Guandu. Composers with lesser ambition and technique would have avoided putting two potentially repetitive scenes into the same work. Dr. Wang took the challenge and skillfully distinguished the two with imaginative brush strokes strategically applied onto two contrasting musical plots. In Red Cliff, we hear the vivid story-telling approach through a mix of melodies detailing the parade of battle ships, a Chinese Merlin redirecting the wind and the fire incursion leading to the ultimate defeat of the huge invading navy. In Guandu, the composer relies heavily on a battery of percussion instruments to depict the crash of heavy infantry and cavalry. Superbly recorded in DSD format at the CCTV recording studio with post-production finished by JVC-XRCE Master Center in Japan, the sound effects are earth-shaking (English booklet is enclosed).

But don't just take the Chinese reviewer's word for it. The American music critic Joshua Cheek reviewed the album and wrote: "Three Kingdoms offers not only marvelous scenes on the canvas of history but also a source for thoughts, an insight and outlook into life itself. It touches the heart and sings for the dream."