Seems like I was penning my Favorite Discoveries of 2008 only yesterday. Now here we are a year later. Where did the time go? Reflecting back, a continuing highlight was being able to share my enjoyment of music and audio with friends rather than hunkering down in my man cave for solo sessions. My good friend Jim started up an informal group of like-minded music heads called the Barrie Audio Appreciation Society or BASS. Members are of course referred to as BAAStards. We’re an ever evolving group who meet irregularly throughout the year to kick back, drink beer, sample wines, tell tall tales, argue, have fun and share our passion. Don’t ask about membership dues, newsletters or a website. Serious we are not. Our eclectic mix of personalities includes two manufacturers and at least one retailer. All of us bring different insights and experience levels to make for lively discussions. I always look forward to these impromptu unstructured meets and view them as my psychological reset button.

My first favorite discovery of the year is still under review but I am so taken with it, I must share it now. One of the many issues I have with computer-based audio is the challenge of playing back anything in native sampling/bitrate above 24/96. Currently the only way is an internal or external pro-audio sound card. Most of those retail for close to—or well over— $1,000. While ASUS did recently issue a pair of internal cards for $200, that doesn’t help laptop users. Firms like Bel Canto and Ayre have recently released USB DACs that will pass a 24/96 signal from a computer’s USB port. And there’s the Weiss Minerva for 24/192 but it demands a Firewire connection. Work is afoot on many fronts and 24/192 USB devices should become available next year.

However, you can get 24/192 from a computer for €99 right now. As far as I know, M2Tech has beaten everyone to the punch on this. M2Tech’s hiFace looks like an oversized USB memory stick with an S/PDIF or BNC jack attached to the other end. By using proprietary drivers, the hiFace can transmit high-resolution audio in native mode right off your laptop out to a 24/192-enabled DAC. Setup is a snap and you don’t need to buy a fancy USB cable either. Your current RCA or BNC-terminated digital link will do. There’s a bit more to the hiFace—especially which media player to use—but that will get covered in my review. For now I can tell you that listening to a few 24/192 albums I downloaded from Linn Records plus select tracks from Reference Recordings and 2L, the sound quality proved to be staggering. If you are at all interested in downloading high-resolution music and playing it back at its native sampling/bitrate but don’t want to spend four- or five-figure sums, get a hiFace. It's definitely the coolest audio product I tried all year.

Two of my favorite discoveries this year are cables which continue to be the whipping boys for the cranky pseudo-engineer crowd. Believe what you want. If 18awg zip cord does it for you, fill your boots by all means. Don’t rain on my parade and I promise not to rain on yours. Wireworld’s Equinox 6 and Silver Eclipse 6 cable looms were noteworthy for their overall neutral balance, openness and remarkable freedom from low-level noise. While the more expensive Silver Eclipse offered greater levels of transparency and resolution, it were the less expensive Equinox cables which truly impressed me with their price/performance ratio. However, Wireworld’s power cables stole the show. Even the $189 Aurora 5² was remarkably effective and free from the excess bloat and exaggerated bass that characterizes many power cables I have tried. Their way with dynamics and bass articulation was beyond reproach—especially the $699 Silver Electra—as was their near total elimination of the sort of low-level AC noise that obscures fine musical detail. During a post-review phone conversation with David Salz, he admitted that he spent considerable time working on the power cords and was especially proud of them. He should be. These power cables are excellent and the cheaper Equinox 6 gives you most of what the expensive one offers.

MIT’s Shotgun S1 cable loom was equally impressive but in different areas. Weight, drive, image density, texture and dimensionality are where the Shotguns scored high. Prior to my review, I wasn’t sure what to make of those black plastic boxes but after several weeks of use and a number of email/phone exchanges with MIT founder Bruce Brisson, I’m beginning to understand some of the technical concepts involved. I’ll have more to say in the coming months when the considerably more expensive Magnum M1.3 system arrives but for now, I remain pleasantly surprised by the Shotguns' effect on music playback - so much so that they’ve become my primary cabling system. While the house sound of MIT and Wireworld differs, both brands are worthy of further investigation for those looking for a complete cabling system.

My last two choices did not receive an official review since I purchased them outright as my personal digital source. With CEC’s belt-drive TL51X transport and Audiomat’s new Tempo 2.6 DAC, I now have a digital front end that synergistically matches the wonderful musicality, vibrancy and aliveness of my Audiomat Opéra Référence integrated amp. This digital pairing—and I’m reluctant to admit this—actually beats the crap out of my current analog setup. I smell an analog upgrade coming on soon. While some decry CEC’s belt drive for its alleged lack of subterranean bass and the robotically rhythmic drive some prefer with digital, it sounds terrific to me with its fluidity and dynamic expressiveness. I certainly prefer spinning silver biscuits on the CEC to fiddling with a computer. Together, the TL51X and Tempo 2.6 DAC allow music to come alive to a higher degree than anything else I’ve heard at their price and possibly higher.

No, the Tempo 2.6 doesn’t have a USB input, upsampling or switchable filters. And I could care less. As I see it, USB still has a way to go before I’ll take it seriously. I have little use for upsampling or switchable filters (just make it sound right) and as to using a computer as my primary digital playback source, I’ve got a string of four-letter words to describe that annoying mess. Having said that, I’ve got that handy hiFace gizmo for native playback of any 24/192 music I might download. It works dandy with the Tempo although I still prefer the sonics of the CEC/Tempo with 16/44 playback over my laptop/hiFace/Tempo. I have no doubt that the future for digital playback will be some sort of hard drive or other magnetic storage device but there's more to come first in connectivity, ease of use and musicality before I lay down my cash. It rarely pays to be an early adopter.

To digress for a moment, if the AC mains becomes more polluted with each passing year as many claim and audio designer after audio designer espouses the importance of robust power supplies, why is it that just about every new digital product hitting the market these days sports increasingly wimpier power supplies? I can think of several highly regarded digital components that feature one—or possibly two—12/15VA transformers and maybe 40,000uF of capacitance. Analog output stages also seem a little dodgy to me. I wouldn’t be whining if they retailed for under $1,000 but most of these DACs retail for several times higher. What gives? Perhaps it's because consumers seem more interested in features these days. I guess it’s no surprise that manufacturers focus their attention on features while cutting costs on power supplies which nobody really sees anyway.

You should consider that the stuff which comes out of your wall outlet ultimately becomes what you are listening to. In stark contrast, my Audiomat Tempo 2.6 sports two 100VA trannies and nearly 200,000uF of capacitance. I can’t say for sure but bet that’s one of the reasons why this DAC is so musically impressive. I’d be curious to know what our more technically-minded readers out there think about this.

What would a year-end music list from yours truly be without a little Mahler? I’ve got two recommendations this year. First up is Ivan Fischer’s excellent account of Mahler’s good-natured and least neurotic of symphonies, the Fourth [Channel Classics 26109]. Sound, performance and interpretation are top notch. I quite enjoy Fischer’s middle-of-the-road approach which is free of Bernstein's overwrought emotional hand wringing but possessed of Haitink's direct no-nonsense approach without being as boring. Of the twenty or so recordings I have heard, this one is right up there near the top with Inbal and Szell.

Until recently I had never heard of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra or conductor Jonathan Nott. However, if this fine recording of the Ninth [Tudor 7162] is any indication, this might be a combo to watch. There’s no shortage of great Ninths but there’s not much I’ve heard in recent years that’s swayed my allegiance with Karajan, Ancerl and Barbirolli. Nott’s recording to me is far more engaging than Alan Gilbert’s recently released dynamically flat hohum version or that of Chailly, Abaddo, Boulez or Tilson-Thomas. Nott’s reading is a big warm-hearted expressive version with excellent full-bodied sound and wonderful playing. Maybe it's not a first choice but one worth exploring if you are a Mahler nut as I am. Both Fischer and Nott are available on hybrid SACD for those who like to cling to dead-end formats.

Like a fine wine, Sonic Youth just keeps getting better with age. I’ve been listening to them for nearly 25 years and can’t think of an Emotional Rescue i.e. clunker in their catalogue. Always inventive, always exciting and always noisy, they have perfected their art of deconstructing conventional pop music and turning it inside out to create these angular sheets of sound. The Eternal [Matador Ole-829-1] is one of their best efforts. Aw hell, they’re all great. Buy ‘em all but get the vinyl for the cool artwork and the glorious warm tubey sonics.

I had never heard of Alfredo Casella [CPO 777 265-2] until an enthusiastic review on prompted me to pick up a copy of this excellent disc featuring Casella’s Third Symphony and his tasty orchestral rhapsody Italia. Unfortunately Casella was a Mussolini supporter and after World War II quickly fell out of favor, hence his music all but disappeared from the concert halls. That’s a shame. Casella had a truly unique symphonic voice and an awesome talent for orchestration. What a lovely disc of wonderful music making this is. I find myself performing a little air conducting whenever I spin it up particularly during the wild emotional romp of Italia. Dear CPO, more please!

Richard Hawley
, sometime guitarist of Pulp, is an accomplished artist in his own right. Like his previous albums, Truelove’s Gutter [Mute 9417-2] takes its name from a landmark in Hawley’s hometown of Sheffield, England. This is grand symphonic stuff of bittersweet beauty and sadness. I can understand why some refer to Hawley as the Roy Orbison of the UK but to me he’s Richard Hawley, a gifted songwriter with a lovely baritone of just the right amount of nicotine and Scotch flavoring. I feel so blue…sigh.

Naïve continues to reissue the Quatuor Mosaïque’s Haydn String Quartets [Naïve 8923 & 8924] originally released on Astrée/Auvidis either singly or in mid-priced box sets retailing under $40. These are beautifully recorded performances played on period instruments with clarity, balance and a terrific insight into Haydn’s unique joie de vivre. These recordings will delight and enchant and I can’t think of a better place to dip your toes than here if you are new to Haydn.

Sticking with Naïve, I heartily recommend this budget-priced <$20 box set of various Vivaldi concertos including the ever-popular Le Quattro Stagioni [Naïve 30455]. The four discs offered here are part of Naïve’s ambitious project to record the entire output of Vivaldi who it appears was far more prolific than I originally thought. The four discs included were previously released but rank quite highly with many music critics.


Using period instruments, textures are light, tempi free flowing and excitement levels are high. Fabio Biondi’s zesty recording of the Four Seasons is worth the price of admission alone.

Julie, Julie, Julie. What a babe. If I flew a B-25 Mitchell back in her day, it would be her fulsome figure I’d have painted on the side of my plane too. Julie London was definitely primo nose art material. As a teenager in the 70s, I only knew her as nurse Dixie McCall from the TV series Emergency and probably like many guys my age, had a crush on her in a sexy older-woman fantasy kinda way.

At the time, I had no idea of her iconic status as a singer, pin-up girl or motion picture actress. Nor did I know that her costar Bobby Troupe (Dr. Joe Early) was her husband and wrote Route 66. Who knew?

This year BoxStar re-released her first album Julie Is Her Name [Liberty/BoxStar BSR 3006-45] on a pair of delicious-sounding 45rpm LPs mastered by Bernie Grundman on all-tube gear. I am usually wary of the current vinyl-reissue craze. I find most overpriced and in some cases sonically inferior to the original vinyl, not to mention that some of this stuff has been reissued to death. I mean, how many versions of Something Else do we really need?

Recorded with just guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Leatherwood, this album just oozes sex and with London’s closely miked sultry smoky voice, it’s as though she were sitting on your lap whispering in your ear. Assuming you are familiar with the concept of panty remover music, Julie Is Her Name is surely trouser removal stuff.