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For my wife and I, this year was about relocating from Cyprus to Switzerland. It also entailed audio travels to the Munich show, Serbia, the Milan and Guangzhou shows, Bologna and Sicily. On paper, Cyprus now is European. Switzerland remains the central hold-out which has not joined the surrounding European Union but did just join the Schengen agreement. In reality thus, Switzerland is far more European than Cyprus will ever be. The play-out / pay-out on audio matters has made itself felt just about the moment we landed in Geneva.

Invites to shows, factory tours and reviews are compounding. This presents both opportunities and a serious drain on that most valuable commodity when the operation of a business hinges on one central character - time. Each time I leave my desk, the clock stops on content uploads and the writing of personal reviews. Every leave of absence must be earned with advance cramming, then made up upon return while the assignment which justified said absence needs writing before the little grey cells stop remembering. It appears that 2009 will bring plenty of new opportunities to practice that difficult task of knowing when to, cough, say no. Being an enthusiast first, that's harder than it might appear.

On to another point. Critic's critics in our segment often belabor the gear hoarding they assume reviewers practice. But no matter how much gear one might amass, there's always one favorite system which one prefers over all others. And since you can only listen to one system at a time, all else, in essence, is gratuitous expense, coitus interruptus and unnecessary ballast that takes up space. But therein lies the rub. While being accused of gluttony, our sort is likewise accused of missed comparative opportunities, of creating lopsided contexts for review subjects. Like putting an expensive review preamp through its paces with components not remotely its equal. Or vice versa. Being mismatched electrically. Of conflicting design goals. Down that conga line, bada boom boom boom.

Investing into multiple audio everythings is expensive, impractical and, on a personal level, entirely redundant and counterproductive. For a reviewer however, the bigger the tool kit, the better of a job is possible. Not that the tool kit makes the man. But all else being equal, the reviewer with the bigger arsenal of tools can generate more comprehensive data to make for more interesting and useful reviews. That means investing into multiple sources, preamps, power amps, speakers, cables and so forth, preferably spread out over diverse price points, transducer technologies, circuit topologies, output devices and such. At the minimal rates reviewing pays to all but the full-time big guns if at all, it's obvious why most writers simply cannot afford to practice 'gear hoarding'. Or more accurately, the assembly of an enviably stocked tool chest "for all occasions".

As the sole full-time writer and only one to tap the revenues 6moons generates, I'm also the only one in a position that demands and justifies the creation of a 'non-civilian' hardware library whereby to conduct reviews that are embedded in the bigger picture. For everyone else on the team, it's far more sensible to acquire just one of everything - but then the best one can afford. In a roundabout but also very direct way, this brings me to my nominations. First is the Nelson Pass FirstWatt F5 amplifier. As a self-confessed and unabashed valve junkie, it's the F5 I keep returning to more and more often. Whenever I'm in the initial clutches of a new review tuber, it's for this transistor amp I reach to rebond with reality. Surprisingly often, how I weigh the remaining differences even with superior examples of the valved breed views the bigger bonus points as being on the side of the FirstWatt. Anything
else I could say on the matter would be mere window dressing. The FirstWatt F5 (and its brother from the same mother, the JFET output F3) gets my vote as the seminal feedback transistor design that's turned this valver fully on to transistors. For hedonistic sessions at that, not just silly splitting of audiophile atoms.

On a similar tack, the zero-feedback, single-stage, single-ended Yamamoto YDA-01 D/A converter doesn't sport glowing bits neither. But it's only failing in my book is its lack of USB or Firewire input. Its very reasonable-for-the-performance sticker keeps me honest whenever the tunes are cued up on my mondo APL'd Esoteric UX-1 and its 20 x 32-bit AKM converters, ECC99 transformer-coupled tube output stage yada yada. Half the time, I prefer the Yamamoto. Again, anything else said is just window dressing.

Enter the irrepressible Franck Tchang of Acoustic System International. In his ASI Tango R speaker, I've stumbled -- stolpert in German -- over a transducer that does more and better harmonic verismo than anything I've yet had, heard elsewhere or could think of wanting. From my Avantgarde Acoustic and Zu days, I'm still big on dynamics. But the inner light that only comes from fully developed overtones has cast its allure just as strongly to where I'd now rather throttle back some on the jump factor to get those goods. But the Franckenmeister's tricks don't stop with these loudspeakers,
particularly when you recall the acoustic resonators which are permanently installed in its breathing holes and the alloys those resonators are crafted from. The fittingly called ASI Liveline cables -- I already have the interconnects and matching power cords and speaker cables are inbound -- complete the Tchang picture. While there's endless roads to Rome, my current Damascus experience points me at Paris. And just as with the First Watt and Yamamoto, I'm filled with glee that none of these components are trophy audio or priced excessively. Naturally, what constitutes excessive is more relative than Einstein particularly at present but that's not on today's docket.

Which, to get back to gear that serves me as music lover and pen-wielding critic (and in said sequence), still leaves me with no high-power, drive-anything - er, cough 'n' blush, tube amp. My encounter with Octave's HP500-SE preamp and V80 + Super Black Box integrated suggested rather conclusively that when it comes to true pentode-mode push/pull valve amps with load stability to 2 ohms, Octave is the go-to firm. Our collaborators at Germany's came to exactly the same conclusion entirely independently. Consulting with Octave's boss on what to get, I've tagged the MRE 130 monos with optional outboard capacitor banks for next year. Despite the attractive accommodation, this remains serious money when a $2,500 First Watt amp gives me the shivers and plays louder than the Dickens on the speakers I own and adore. But how else to review speakers which loudly
demand a 100-watt wake up call? Or to know without doubt how much more bass control and unruffled demeanor is possible from tubes when the next single-ended triode amp throws its charms around? Why review only speakers which sing on 10 watts when reviewing is what you do full-time 7 days a week? Painting oneself in a corner gets boring quickly. And not just for readers.

Then the clock ticks some (or hopefully a lot more), one croaks and leaves it all behind. I bet you good Federal Reserve funds that in the afterlife when you sit judge and jury over your just concluded tour, you won't remember, much less relate to, something as mundane as what audio gear you owned. No matter what high or low place you might find yourself in. If you're one of those with just this one single life, that topic is even muter than mute. Dust to dust and all that Jazz.

For those who snap their fingers and keep track, yes, there will be two more hardware acquisitions during 2009 to round out the musical chairs options. For high-power transistors, I've committed to the ModWright KWA-150. For high-efficiency passive speakers, I'm reinvesting credit I have for selling back my Zu Definition Pros for the new Zu Audio Essence. Both acquisitions will be unheard, solely on the strength of prior ownership of their designers' products. Or as Sasa Cokic of Trafomatic Audio in Serbia put it: "We sold all our T-Audio amplifier production of one month for about 12000 euros but that entire sum we already spent on the audio business again, a CNC machine for example, a new work place etc." That's what small (and big) business owners do. They constantly reinvest into their operation to make it stronger and better.

So there you have it for my favorite hardware discoveries of the year, presented here in a wholly self-serving fashion but thereby constituting not just lip service but honest conviction. For what that might be worth. To you. Far more important than the hardware (after all, most of us remember well the goose bumps from crappy car stereos in our youth) are the discs we spin. And before you cry wolf for my avoidance of vinyl, go howl at another tree. I'm digital and could care less about SACD and DVD-A . The music that hot 'n' bothers me shows up only on CDs. And the stores that carry them could care even less about those other formats. Here are 10 finds then which I added this year. That doesn't mean they're 2008 issue, just that it took me until now to cross paths. Satisfaction doesn't mind one bit. Better late than never.