This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below
2008 was an amazing year in my little corner of the audiophile world. For too short a period, I had in my house one of the very best systems I've ever had a chance to hear - distortion free, smooth and sweet, intense and intimate, powerful and dynamic. For the first time I experienced a true at-home connection with the recorded event. And isn't that the always elusive goal of audiophiles? The Esoteric P05/D05, McCormack VRE-1 preamplifier and Genesis GR360 amplifier all had a role to play in reaching this level of a true connection with the music.

I am apparently not the only one believing in the synergy of those components. Steve McCormack and Gary Koh successfully presented the same electronics at RMAF last October but with the Genesis G5.3 speakers instead of the Ronin Paper Dipoles I used at home. Instead of highlighting one component over another then, I'll just pick my favorite system this year, recognizing the phenomenal synergy displayed by those three components together. Culminating at $35,000, it is certainly not a cheap combination but it reaches a level of transparency and intimacy with the music that I have yet to hear for, cough, "so little cash". Of course electronics of this caliber need speakers cut from the same cloth of vanishing distortion and dynamics. Here the RPDs that were my 'favorite' pick last year still fit the bill very nicely. Although pairing $4,500/pr speakers with those electronics will seem odd to most, it worked better than I had ever anticipated, proving once more that the RPDs will upstage their own performance far beyond their price if mated to superior electronics.

I wish I'd had the spare cash available to keep this amazing setup together but I consider myself very lucky to have been able to enjoy it for a few weeks in my listening room. More significant is the fact that those reviews allowed me to interact with two very emblematic characters of our audio world.
Steve McCormack and Gary Koh have very different backgrounds as their respective interviews revealed but both pay the same level of attention to details in the equipment they create. They share one ultimate goal - removing the last little bit of disbelief that stands between you and the musical performance. Those human encounters are what make audio reviewing fun and 2008 certainly was most rewarding in this regard.

Music-wise, 2008 was not quite as rich as I would have desired although adding a turntable to my system allowed me to peruse the flea markets in France this past summer and unearth a few decent bargains. I even found one or two vinyls I used to own ten years ago and was able to bring back to my collection for less than a euro a piece. Police, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Genesis, Jacques Brel, Gardiner's recording of Gluck's Don Juan... there are still some good deals to be had but they are dwindling fast as used disc sellers are getting hip to the value of what they possess.

Undoubtedly the most gratifying musical discovery of the year was a European group playing early instrumental and vocal baroque music. L'Arpeggiata led by Christina Pluhar is composed of ten very eclectic musicians and depending on the album, a number of guest instrumentalists and singers. Each musician plays a number of different instruments. Some I'd never heard of are modern recreations of musical instruments played in the early 1400s which have since disappeared. Until I read the very detailed and artistically conceived booklet accompanying the first CD I bought, I had never heard of a chitarra battente, a colascione, a psalterion or a lirone.

La Tarantella is probably their most accessible and enlightening disc especially if you enjoy the various musical styles of the Mediterranean. The Tarantella is a very diverse musical style that was popular in southern Italy from 1400 till the mid 1800's and resisted many attempts from the Catholic Church to eradicate it. Dancing the Tarantella remains to this day the only known remedy to the poisonous bite of the tarantula, a large spider found in southern Europe which was believed to induce various states of stupor, excitement, fever, tremors and in the case of teenage girls, some very liberated behavior. Dancing the Tarantella was of course a kind of group therapy which had a tendency to get somewhat out of hand and end up in displays the good fathers did not approve of - not unlike the raves of today.

That anecdote aside, tarantellas are extremely varied in style, topic and rhythm as the tradition had it that each poison responded to a different music style and the person afflicted could not be relieved of her ailment until the right music was hit upon. The rare reported cases of death from a Tarantula bite all relate to the inability of the victim to find the right music, especially in the unfortunate case where someone was bitten by two different spiders with incompatible musical tastes. This would force their victims to dance endlessly to death without ever reaching a state of fulfillment.

Scientists today believe there may be some element of truth to the origin of this legend but the culprit would be a far smaller spider, Latrodectus tredecim guttatus, found in the cereal fields of southern Europe at the time of harvest. Its poison may actually cause some of the symptoms attributed to the far more visible yet mostly harmless tarantula. Whether dancing was a true relief to the fevers or the symptoms became a good overtime excuse to imbibe some libations uninhibitedly around harvest time which the church would have frowned upon otherwise... well, your guess is as good as mine.

It does not really matter either. This tradition has given us some wonderful and varied short dance pieces whose influence can be found throughout the Baroque era all through France. More surprisingly to me, I could also find intriguing similarities with music played today in North Africa, the near Middle East and certain parts of South-Eastern Europe. It's not a strong lineage but did show rhythmic and tonal connections I had not expected.

Whether you start with the Italian Tarantella or the Spanish/Portuguese-influenced Los Impossibles, Christina Pluhar will take you into a new world of early European folks music that is fascinating. The fact that all the discs are gorgeously recorded and their SACDs among the technically best I have ever heard is just the cherry on top.

2008 also yielded yet another integral cycle of Beethoven symphonies and orchestral pieces, this time by Anima Eterna and Jos van Immerseel. I would gladly forsake this one into oblivion as the recording quality is relatively poor and the interpretation of those often traversed pieces mostly non-revelatory. Yet there are a few nuggets in this cycle that make purchasing the whole set worthwhile. And they are not what you would have expected. I followed Immerseel's progress from his earlier days as a harpsichord soloist to his tackling of the lighter romantic repertoire with Anima Eterna and was hoping for a refreshing read of the earlier symphonies not unlike what Gardiner and Harnoncourt did two decades ago. Yet it is actually in the heavier later works that his more Baroque tonal colors brought some true revelations. The Eighth and Ninth symphonies are the real nuggets here with ear-opening tonal contrasts and hues and I wish those two were available as separate discs instead of in the full-edition box set. Some of the ballet music as well is remarkable but anything earlier than the 6th symphony just sounds flat and uninspired.

Why even mention it? Well, because you can also discover Jos Van Immerseel at his very best in the set of Beethoven's pianoforte and cello sonatas with Anner Bylsma on cello. I like Coin and Cohen slightly better for a 'period' take on those pieces but Bylsma and Immerseel play as equals in a surprisingly romantic rendition of the sonatas. Of course this does not quite reach the intensity levels of Barenboim & Dupre or Serkin & Casals but it is nonetheless a very enjoyable set of performances. Jos van Immerseel is too often overlooked in the Baroque school of music and if all of his efforts are not necessarily worth remembering, the last two of Beethoven's symphonies and his contribution to the cello and pianoforte sonatas with Bylsma should at least help establish him as a peer to the Kuijken family without any difficulty.

By contrast to Immerseel's reading of the symphonies, one amazing Beethoven cycle is in the process of emerging under the baton of Paavo Jarvi and the Chamber Orchestra of Bremen. It's not the most likely place for the birth of a revelatory Beethoven cycle yet it is happening. The first three implements (Symphonies 3 & 8, 4 & 7, 5 & 1) succeed exactly where Immerseel mostly failed, which is successfully merging interpretation styles into something new and intriguing. Clearly Jarvi falls into a more classical style than Immerseel but at every corner he surprises us with tempi and tonal colors borrowed from the more Baroque
ensembles. The small size of the Bremen Chamber Orchestra gives him a very reactive ensemble that can accelerate and slow down effortlessly to create unexpected contrasts throughout the symphonies. The high-quality recording and SACD encoding again add to the credibility of the reproduction. I do not know if this cycle will take rank next to Karajan's, Bernstein's, Harnoncourt's or Gardiner's but it has all the early signs of a true classic in the making.

I'll finish my music selection with three slabs of vinyl that saw a lot of play time at Beudot's this past year. The Gorillaz' Demon Days
is like all Gorillaz albums, a clever patchwork of electronica styles covering a huge range of influences. Putting aside for a minute that it is a great disc to test the bass performance of a system, I actually love to unravel the complexity of their compositions and try to discern the multitude of influences. At times dark, Reggae, funky or plain good rap, it is never quite what you expect and some of the lyrics are plain hilarious in a very dark humor sort of way. Forget the CDs, Demon Days has to be enjoyed as a double LP. Sony for once offers us a superb mastering job and two beautifully crafted black discs that I would put against any SACD for sheer sonic quality. The fact that Sony is not trying to rip off their young customer by charging less than $17 for the double album is a welcome bubble of hope for the anti-MP3 crowd.

Speaking of rip-offs, three LPs for $110 easily qualifies in my book yet Janos Starker's interpretation of Bach's Six Cello Suites is nothing short of magical. Someone wrote how it really was a polyphony for solo instrument and that could not have been closer to the truth. If you like the suites for Cello, just bite the bullet. Forget the SACD and CD versions and go directly to vinyl; Starker will be waiting for you in the listening room. Captivating.

Last but not least, Ella and Louis. The Speaker Corner re-edition of the Verve release is every bit as good as the original which I
own but without the clicks and pops of course. Run away from the Universal Records (Japan) remaster. In addition to being more expensive, you also run the risk of getting a scratched and dirty copy right off of the bat. And the remastering job done by Universal sounds no better than the Speaker Corner's version. Ella's voice was at its still youthful peak then and Satchmo's is so closely miked, you would think he is standing right in front of you. His trumpet too has all the necessary bite and energy without being etched or bright. My only reflection on this disc is that the two giants didn't seem to have as much fun together as on other live takes yet their vocal excellence is at its very best.

That's it for 2008. A stroke of fortune brought together separate pieces of electronics through the vagaries of audio reviewing to conjure up a true synergistic ensemble that delivered performance far beyond its (already quiet elevated) sticker. A few hits and a few misses on discs with l'Arpegiata remain probably the most striking revelation of the year and one that I will explore in far more depth in 2009.

I'll leave you now on two more somber notes. I could write about the recession and the fact that a number of manufacturers today may not be offering their gear eighteen months from now but I am sure other writers will linger on this. Instead I'll send my thoughts and prayers to a great reviewer, to the guy who got me into reviewing and never doubted for a second that I could actually do it in a way that would interest the readers. He is now battling cancer with the same strength, energy and firm intention of having the last word as he puts into everything he does or writes. I know he won't want me to reveal his name so I won't but just know that one of the best voices in our audio world is fighting a far more difficult battle than deciding whether CD sounds better than vinyl. If you can spare a minute, send a few silent and anonymous prayers for him. I am sure they will somehow reach him.

For my second somber note, I want to say a few words about how lucky we are as a group. If we are audiophiles, it means we can hear, grab a remote, hit play or skip or put a vinyl disk on a turntable. There are many around us who can't for all sorts of reasons but some simply because their body refuses to obey their brain any longer. Be it due to disease, accident or stroke, those people are locked into their bodies with a fully functional mind.

In recent years, science has made some great strides which actually allow people to take control of simple programs and robots with their mind and brain waves. Maybe such science will one day reveal what music is all about and why we all enjoy it in different ways but for now it is mostly about giving people back their lives - or at least a tiny fraction of it with a sense of purpose and independence. Again, I won't mention why this is of interest to me and my family but take the time to watch this twelve-minute video. It is a bubble of hope for many of us and if anything, serves as a great reminder of just how lucky we all are.

Whether our music system be for audiophiles or music lovers, whether it costs $100 or $100,000, I doubt any of the people in the video would really care. They would find most the audiophile quibbles on the internet forums quite childish indeed. Maybe 2009 could be the year when we all take a minute and think about the meaning of all this before calling perfect strangers names on forums. I know, nobody cares. Still, that would be a nice way to start the New Year. With those sobering words, may 2009 be a year of rebirth for our world and in the darker times, may music carry you through them.