It seems just a few weeks ago that I was typing my 2008 Favorites article which concluded with a plea for sending healing thoughts to John Potis who fought  cancer at the time. Little did I know that John would depart this world just a few days later leaving a wife and two daughters behind. I miss John—one of the stronger voices of reason and common sense in our hobby—but I am sure this is as nothing compared to the grief his family has lived through every day since. The Potis family relief fund is still active. As the first anniversary of his untimely death approaches, a little help from all of us sure wouldn’t hurt. If I were to guess, one of the things that would probably have irritated John this year—it certainly irritated me—was the sudden appearance of "World Premiere", "North-American Premiere", "Exclusive" and such ahead of a good chunk of reviews published online.

I have no gripe whatsoever when such claims follow true journalistic work - like unearthing a new manufacturer or technology that brings something revolutionary to the market where the writer goes out on a limb to let the world know. Then a little bragging might be well deserved. Just don’t have me believe that all reviews published every month in any given magazine qualify.

No, the only thing those words mean most of the time is that a writer was first on a manufacturer’s or importer’s delivery schedule; or that he wrote his review faster than anybody else. By my definition, that doesn’t really qualify for bragging rights. Just pointier elbows or less care.

Once it got even better when I pointed out to an editor that I had reviewed one of his "world premiere" pieces of equipment almost a year prior. His answer was that the combination of gear reviewed in their article was indeed a world premiere even if the separate pieces were not – which was true. I’m being pretty sure that no other reviewer uses Zu Essence speakers driven by a Genesis GR360 + MDHR amplifier. By that definition, all my reviews from now on shall be world premieres - laughable and pointless!

Is that what publication in this hobby has descended to? Instead of trying to actually find something useful to say, something that will help prospective buyers in their search for specific gear, something that helps get across a cogent description of the sound or feeling to expect (a very challenging thing to do at least for me), we are now competing to publish first. Has this anything to do with quality, content, value, objectivity or similar which should really be driving us?

In striking contrast, one of my 2009 accolades goes to David Kan for taking eight months to pen a follow-up on the JohnBlue Audio Art JB4 speakers that I had not particularly enjoyed; for doing it in a fashion respectful to my findings as well as the designer’s intent; and for ending up with an article that gives potential buyers plenty of useful additional considerations I had not thought about. Now that’s true and dedicated focus on behalf of the reader’s best interest. Who cares it wasn’t a premiere. It was unique in intent and quality – albeit not so for David who doesn’t know how to do a review that’s not thorough and in-depth yet unique in that he took the time to understand everybody’s perspective and distillate the information in a form that leaves the reader more enlightened. Find another reviewer who willingly does that in his spare time and I’ll buy him a beer any day. So my "Favorite Reviewer of 2009" accolade goes to David for all the reasons above, with a free beer on me when we finally get a chance to meet face to face.

I did review a lot of gear this year and many discs too yet identifying my personal favorites in either category was almost a no-brainer. I know our editor allows us up to five hardware entries for a year gone by but three pieces of equipment just begged for my recognition above anything else.

The first component I have lived with for now approaching six months yet I did not review it. That pleasure went to Srajan who granted it one of our Blue Moon Awards. I mean the Wyred4Sound STP-SE preamplifier. To put things simply, I had been living with the Esoteric C03 preamplifier (another Blue Moon recipient) for over half a year and was ready to write the rather large check needed to keep the C03 permanently when Srajan’s review of the STP published to shatter my expectations. The W4S STP-SE, he wrote, was musically barely differentiable from the C03 in its +12dB setting, was fully balanced like the C03 and went for less than $2,000 compared to the C03’s $10,000. Mere days after that review published, I bought the STP-SE and ran both preamplifiers face to face for weeks, finally coming to the same conclusions as Srajan.

In most systems, the C03 set to +12dB and the W4S will be twin brothers, with maybe a hint more bass weight and warmth for the W4S and a hint more articulation and litheness for the C03 - fragile nuances at best. Thus the C03 had to justify its x 5 price difference on built quality (a home run for Esoteric when compared to the W4S which plays not in the same league yet has quality parts where it matters) and its unique 3-stage user-adjustable gain structure with its inherent voicing options.

For a full-time reviewer, this flexibility in gain and associated ability to balance between transient truthfulness, bass weight and harmonic complexity for what best fits a component under review is obviously invaluable. Yet for a hobbyist with a third kid on the way, the bargain STP-SE is the winner, pure and simple. The W4S is one of my favorites of 2009. Actually, it is the one I would mention if I were only allowed one. It is a giant slayer if ever there was one.

My second nominee is the Zu Audio Essence loudspeaker. Srajan reviewed them, I wrote a follow-up (incidentally a world premiere follow-up by the way - and yes, I am being sardonic) where you can find my comments and impressions. While not perfect, they certainly are the most enjoyable speakers I have ever owned to actually listen to music with - instead of associated gear. I might get tempted to upgrade within their line if they start introducing a RAAL ribbon (instead of the already quite good Tang Bang unit the Essence employs). For now, I am content with my system which is a feeling I have not had in a long time.

I do appreciate how the vagaries about Zu’s business model—direct sales, sales through retailers, direct sales again— may have left a sour taste with many folks; and how concomitant prices in Europe are not sustainable when compared to importing directly from the US; but the factory-direct price of the Zu Essence is the second greatest value you can buy today (see the above paragraph if you’ve already forgotten N°.1). Don’t let non-musical considerations get in the way. Order a pair to find out for yourself.

If you look over the awards I bestowed this year, you’d expect my third hardware nominee to be the Weiss Minerva Firewire DAC. Until very recently, it probably would have been, too. But then the Esoteric E03 phono preamplifier arrived and my world changed. I now understand why many still consider vinyl the best source from amongst the readily available format. Yes, reel-to-reel is often better but availability is marginal at best compared to vinyl which itself is nowhere as diversified as CD or MP3. Funny how the worse a format gets, the more readily one can find it. That must reveal something about our civilization. I am not sure yet what but I’ll pen a world premiere revelation article as soon as I figure it out. I also understand how some folks agonize over alignment, VTA, downward force and other FVHs (fucking vinyl headaches) because with the proper gear, they actually do make a difference. Whether that’s an advance over blissful ignorance remains to be seen though.

All kidding aside, the E03 hit me fair and square in the face and knocked me out. I suspect a good dose of unexpected system synergy was at play. I have built a system that is tonally dense to start with, then fine-tuned it for timing fidelity and transient truthfulness.

Here the E03 brings extreme resolution, transparency and dynamics to the table without removing any of the qualities I have nurtured in the rest of the system. This Year-End feature isn’t about awards but personal favorites. This can coincide but doesn’t have to.

The E03 is simply the phono preamplifier I will keep over all the others I tried - because I love it best in my system and with my music. It may not work in all setups, especially if one were after a cozy British sound. Should your priorities match mine however, it is a must listen.

When it comes to software, reviving our music section was quite an endeavor while the entire music industry suffered through a depressive traumatic disorder. It proved to be nothing else than pushing a very big rock up a very steep hill. Yet a few companies believed in us. You can see their ads and links on our music reviews page. My most sincere thanks go to all of them who actually believed in trusting a Chinese, Canadian, French, American and German enthusiast to pull together a quality music reviews section. My more personal thanks are due to Morten at 2L, Kai at Speakers Corners and Catherine at Linn Records, for responding positively and all their support throughout the year. Return the favor and check any of their records we’ve written up this year. There is very little that’s not exceptional.

Those acknowledgments rendered, I actually want to tip my hat to the growing independent French record company Naïve. I love Vivaldi not just for his famous works but all his compositions, be they religious or profane, operas or concerti. His output was immense but the compositions that actually were recorded with high-quality orchestras, singers and mastering engineers is quite small if we disregard the endless installments of his few global hits that are overplayed and very often abused beyond recognition.

Naïve is presently working through an integral recording cycle of all the material preserved at the National Library in Turin. Vivaldi’s full legacy includes some 450 autograph partitions found in his house in Vienna when he died in 1741. This colossal endeavor called Vivaldi Edition began in 2000 and will last until around 2015 to include more than 100 albums once completed. The orchestras, soloists and conductors are all first rate if not always international stars. And the recording quality is among the best I’ve heard from CD in recent years, with a slight bias towards warmth and richness.

The truest treasures for most of us will be those never or rarely recorded pieces of little jewels waiting to be rediscovered and appreciated once again. New Discoveries is a disc comprised of nothing but newly unearthed gems. If you mean to start the series somewhere, this is as good as it gets - Vivaldi bonbons with a novel flavor.
The disc combining the famous Gloria RV589 and its slightly lesser known cousin RV588 will be more controversial due to the uncensored Autobahn speed adopted by its conductor. It is striking though. You need to give him credit for that. Thankfully the soloists are phenomenal and turned what could have been an absolute debacle into a rousing success. How they kept up the pace he imposed without tripping I don’t understand—singing Vivaldi isn’t easy to start with so at that speed, it should be impossible—yet they pulled it together not just honorably but beautifully. I merely hope they lynched the conductor once this inhumane recording was in the can.

Naïve is also working through all of Vivaldi’s operas slowly but steadily. Farnace is a hit as is Orlando Furioso (just give that one a try - if you know the similarly entitled Haydn opera, it will be a shock) and I truly love La Fida ninfa (I got it for Sandrine Piau who is simply divine) but being unfamiliar with it, have many more to listen to. It’s discovering a gold mine, with the only limit available time (and budget too but we’re talking about love here so let’s not get cheap). I don’t know how I missed this collection for nine years or why it is not better known but if you have any interest in Vivaldi whatsoever, you’ll hopefully give it a chance. Simply avoid the blockbuster concerti and focus on the nuggets first. I promise you’ll get addicted quickly.

I obviously can’t finish the music section without dropping in one of my infamous French operas rescued from utter darkness by what can only be called unconditional devotees. This year’s composer is a little better known, a student of Cherubini’s. Daniel Francois Esprit Auber could have been forgiven if he had chosen to hide under a rock just to escape the name his parents gave him but instead he became one of the most prolific romantic opera writers in all of France and certainly the most praised during his glory days. Parisians all know him for lending his name to one of the most important Metro interchanges in the city center and the stop to get off and hit some of the most famous luxury shopping centers. Obviously he would have preferred to be remembered for something else but ask any true Parisian and they will instantly know where the Auber station is - although they’ll have no clue who he was.

In his younger years he collaborated on lesser works with Herold and Boieldieu but quickly acquired his own fame via his collaboration with the star librettist of the time, Eugene Scribe. Their first work together hit the stage in January 1823, the last one in January 1864 for 41 years of popular successes! The Mason alone, composed in 1825, played the Opera Comic 525 times - and that does not take into account all the performances throughout Europe.

Their first memorable collaboration though dates back to 1828 with La Muette de Portici. I wish I’d observed the public’s reaction to an opera named after a mute lead who utters no sound throughout the entire performance. More importantly, one of the opera’s arias —"Amour Sacre de la Patrie" or "Sacred Love of the Homeland"—engendered a riot when performed in Brussels in August 1830 just at the onset of the Belgian revolution which ended up with the Dutch being ousted. Who says music can’t move nations? As we know, the ousting did not last long. Dutchies are now back in force and ours just reported on exhibits about pussies on vinyl sleeves.

I highly recommend the EMI version of La Muette with Alfredo Kraus and June Anderson (and no, she does not sing the mute part although her detractors believe she would then have done more justice to the role). It’s still available but I would not wait long. This disc was out of print for almost a decade and I doubt it will be reissued once this series sells out. Their most famous collaboration of Fra Diavolo arrived two years later. It became famous for being more of a comedy but is far from their best libretto or music. You can skip it and come back to it later with plenty of good versions to choose from.

Instead I would recommend that you jump ahead to 1833 and Gustave III ou le Bal Masque, the French Grand Opera’s equivalent of and inspiration for Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. Unfortunately the only recording to ever do justice to this opera—Michel Swierczewski’s version with the phenomenal Laurence Dale who interrupted his tenor career far too soon—-has been discontinued. If you find it used, buy it. You’ll thank me later.

Le Cheval de Bronze (1835), Le Domino Noir (1837 – pick the version with Sumi Jo, at least her French is accurate and understandable), Les Diamants de la Couronne (1841), Haydee (1847) and Marco Spada (1852) are all worthy of your attention at some point or another but Manon Lescaut (1856) is their absolute masterpiece in my mind. Puccini and Massenet both adapted the same story of the worry-free young woman who ends up dying in exile. Although Auber’s version is the least often played, it is my favorite. Particularly the third act and Manon’s death are of rare intensity and emotion.

The 1974 EMI recording with Mady Mesple and the Choeur et Orchestre de Radio France under Jean-Pierre Marty was reissued a few years ago. It’s the only version that may still be found although it could take some research to find it at a reasonable price. If you get very lucky and run into the 1990 performance with Elisabeth Vidal as Manon and Patrick Fournillier directing the regional orchestra from Picardie, just buy it. It eclipses the Mady Mesple recording in every way possible.

And that’s it for 2009, folks. It was a busy year but lots of fun. For 2010, expect the conclusion of my journey through phono preamps with the NAT Signature phono. Right after that, I’ll more or less fall off the face of the Earth. Baby number three is on the way!

Well, I won’t completely disappear (apologies to who had begun celebrating). I will probably line up a few articles throughout the year starting with a surprise guest interview of somebody who’s agreed to help me with the acoustics of my new music room. The contractors are working out the final details as I write this. I love what this guy builds. I love even more his approach which is all about individualized advice and respect of the living environment – no big bass traps where the wife doesn’t want them. It’s all about harmony and design. Stay tuned and have a great 2010. Mine will be phenomenal, with lots of sleepless nights to maintain perspective on what’s really important.