Business. Pleasure. Self interest. Reader interest.
Charting one's course between these occasionally conflicting poles remains an adventure. One area in which 2009 generated new data for this editor was on the subject of show reports or more specifically, personal attendance. When a publication is young, attendance is mandatory to introduce oneself and solicit review gear. Many years later, those two reasons are no more. Then it's purely about promoting the industry at large to give back. An established magazine's viability no longer depends on attendance. Skipping carries no penalties whatsoever. Review loaners are a mere phone call or e-mail away. So is learning about new products.

Justifying show attendance becomes predominantly about support for the industry at large. And that's a very good reason. But is it really the most effective way? Taking a hard look, one might state with certainty that a show report accomplishes nothing more than list new products one would learn about a few weeks or months later regardless. No show report can cover product features in their entirety as well as an eventual review. And listening impressions at shows are so notoriously unreliable that hinging a report on those is dubious at best.

Now compare this to factory tours. All else being equal, they make for far superior opportunities to learn and then share information that can't be found anywhere else about a company or its products. Not even the maker's own websites. Granted, that's only because audio companies at large fail miserably at telling their own story effectively. But this doesn't invalidate the opportunity this presents to a committed journalist. For evidence, take the Renaissance Audio, Nagra and Soulution tours I penned a few weeks ago; or the RoadTour Serbia and Ocellia reports from farther back. This finally gets me to the point of personal favorites, the stated purpose of this Year-End feature after all.

I had more fun—and accomplished more on a business, pleasure, self and reader interest level—than any personal show attendance I can remember. Hence comprehensive factory tours feature amongst my personal favorite discoveries of the year (and they're admittedly activities, not products). This being the case, my plan or hope for 2010 is to do many more of those, possibly to the utter exclusion of personal show reports. I'd certainly continue to syndicate such reports. Yet given the paucity of justifiable time away from the desk and a choice between factory tours and show reports whereby to fulfill that particular and very necessary function, I should prefer the far more personal, optimized and in-depth opportunities which factory tours present - to me personally and our readers in general.

When it comes to hardware discoveries, relevance to the multitudes—cough—and personal excitement, I confess that costly gear doesn't really get my juices flowing. I'm fully cognizant that there exists a level of products and performance which go beyond where I play. And there are writers and publications dedicated to such products where personal comfort with the associated price tags is more appropriate to covering them. My focus is elsewhere. And elsewhere as a motto has been the mini mission statement of our home page from the very beginning since June 2002.

2009 was a great year for very good cheap audio; and truly supreme audio still within reach. My personal favorites cull from those two sectors. In alphabetical order, they are the Crayon Audio CFA-1 from Austria; the Dayens Ampino from Serbia; the FirstWatt J2 from America; the MiniWatt from Hong Kong; and the Trafomatic Audio Experience Head One also from Serbia.

In many ways, the Crayon is the wickedest of them all - transistors with a Swiss SMPS that together sound like the ideal marriage of direct-heated 45 triodes and solid-state. The price is right, the build quality is beyond dispute, cosmetics are deluxe but not gaudy and functionality and power are applicable to most scenarios. Most have never heard of this Austrian firm which builds in Germany. Even I know nothing about their background. Product development seems slow and their website is truly marginal. Perhaps I should put them on top of my list of prospective candidates for a 2010 RoadTour? Regardless, in its price range and well above, this is the integrated amplifier which comes closest to curing diehard valve maniacs of their need for glowing bottles. Read the review for my assessment. I'm still sorry I sent it back and not a check instead. By definition, that makes it a favorite.

This little integrated amplifier from the former Yugoslavia caused its maker great grief in the wake of my review. His pricing had not really accounted for worldwide delivery fees which, as numerous 6moons readers learnt quickly, could nearly approach the price of the machine itself. Nothing kills excitement faster than spending equal amounts on the concrete and the nebulous, the object of desire and the tariff to shipper and customs. But none of that takes away from what Dayens has accomplished with its Ampino. It sets a reference mark for what can be done with proper engineering, good parts, efficient manufacturing and personal resourcefulness while keeping the sticker squarely in the unbelievable sector.

Having covered Nelson Pass' FirstWatt amplifiers F1 - F5 in person and extensively and this year the latest J2, I have nothing to add but refer you to this interesting thread which captures my feelings precisely. It's not only fun to discover hifi gear of great merit while making certain contrarious observations that conflict with held beliefs or even bleed certain sacred cows. It's equal fun to discover validation from those who, perhaps with grave doubt and suspicion, experiment for themselves only to arrive at the same conclusions. The J2 doesn't sound like tubes. But, devotees of particularly the 45 can end up loving it just as much or more. For the how and why, activate your web surfing skills. Suffice it to say that JFETs as power amp output devices have a most glorious future.

Anyone who subsequently reviewed the MiniWatt from Hong Kong went ape just as I did. Marrying a SMPS to tubes in a chassis comfortably held within one's palm and with pricing that factors in global delivery for $40 or thereabouts, these folks have done their homework. To put it bluntly, any reviewer worth his salt shaker really ought to own a MiniWatt and an Ampino just to be reminded about what's possible for next to nothing. It doesn't invalidate that more money buys better or even much better. It merely puts things into perspective to demand 'sufficiently more' as prices escalate. In my opinion, these two integrated amplifiers, one sand, one glass, rewrote expectations for 2009 to approach cult or classic status with those who paid attention.

I'm an unrepentant headphone slut and Sasa Cokic's revised but not renamed Experience Head One clocks the lead in Casa Chardonne's assortment of Woo Audio Model 5, Yamamoto HA-02 and (currently on review) Red Wine Audio Isabellina HPA. Those all are mighty fine machines which other listeners might prefer for this or the other aspect but I most fancy the Serbian. Its still-to-be-written review shall tell all. It's somewhat disingenuous to not also mention headphones in the same breath but the fact of the matter is, I haven't concluded yet which of my four—AKG K702, audio-technica W5000, Grado PS-1000, Sennheiser HD800—is my favorite. Except that for physical comfort reasons, the AKG is out. The detailed cannery-row breakdown will be for 2010. Needless to say, the Serbian handles them all to perfection and makes a really good preamp too compliments of a tube one doesn't see every day.

iPod & Co. get a bad rap with audiophiles. Having acquired mine late this year, I'm definitely a way-late adopter. I'll simply say this: it's great fantasizing about sex, it's better actually getting some. For all the talk on the audiophile forums, I often question just how much time many of them spend listening to their systems. And the iPod concept of anywhere and anytime truly epitomizes the Be Here Now concept Baba Ram Das popularized in the West. It's not about elitist sound snobbery.
It's about getting some in the most unlikely of places. Mine is leashed to an ALO Audio Rx amplifier for a one-unit piggyback affair while a pair of Bang & Olufsen ear clips serenade the cochleas. Bypassing the iPod's line-out with the 30-pin-to-stereo-mini interface sounds far better than you'd expect and once the matching DAC bows that'll tap the iPod digitally, this'll be one ultra-serious midnight oil burner. Did anybody say sex? How quaint when you've got a rocking iPod rig.

No woman no joy. No CDs no sound. Granted, CDs are interchangeable with LPs, R2Rs or music files. But the point is made. If your library is tiny but your hardware inventory sprawling, something could be seriously askew. To settle down on just 10 favorite CD discoveries would usually be contingent on phase of the moon and other such vagaries. Yet applying a simple "most often spun = favorite" arithmetic, things did whittle themselves down. I don't know about you but the older I get, the more staying power lyricism and simplicity command over dazzling virtuosity and kick-ass energy. In short, what I most listen to for pleasure tends to be less complicated and more down tempo. My short list for the year certainly is that. Also, these albums aren't even necessarily discoveries I made this year. I just listened to them an awful lot. That makes them even better choices. They've become personal classics as it were. All you need to figure out now is whether my musical taste might equal yours; or suggests that you should categorically eliminate everything that follows.

Hector Zazou & Swara In the House of Mirrors
[Crammed Discs]. Next to Mercan Dede's Nefes, this is my ultimate super-audiophile organic ambient album with possibly the best-recorded ethnic strings in my entire collection. It makes for superb demo material if those you're trying to impress have proper stamina for introspection and needn't be hit over the head with cannon shots, orchestral climaxes, foaming valkyries and the like. With master instrumentalists from Uzbekistan, India, Galicia, Spain and Hungary and a truly expert touch of electronic wizardry for honest enhancements rather than cheap effects, this album is great music beautifully recorded that also dives deep into the capabilities of a system's tone, transient fidelity, decay lengths and ambient recovery.

Mercan Dede Nefes
[Double Moon]. Studio magician, Sufi sympathizer, supremely gifted ambient chill-out doctor with a real flair for magical soundscapes peopled by top-notch instrumentalists and vocalists, Nefes continues to rule as a masterpiece our man will have a hard time topping (Su is a close second). Challenging from an audio perspective is the combination of acoustic instruments and infrasonic synth trickery, all of which is deliberately layered in densely mapped artificial soundstages. Though young and with a punk hairdo, Mercan Dede is clearly an old soul who has somehow tapped into the mystical strain of Turkish music and keeps mining it with ever greater persuasiveness.

Andy Sheppard Movements in Color
[ECM]. Think Jan Garbarek and the piano trio of Tord Gustavsen. Those pointers suffice to set expectations on the right course. The fact that the label is ECM adds superior sonic production values and the associated ambience of moody, expansive, lyrical, exploratory, sophisticated and more. This album belongs to the genre I privately call rainy day music when the general mood is a bit somber and introspect and your musical soundtrack is meant to complement it in a positive way, not overpaint it with tropical sunset colors.

Bebo y Cigala en Vivo Blanco y Negro
[Sony BMG, Calle54 Records]. The successor to the chart-topping Lagrimas Negras goes live, adds a concert DVD and expands the program to 19 generous tracks. Where one lottery win is great, two are better still. This is that. If you've somehow missed all the fanfare, it's an octogenarian Cuban pianist (father of the equally famous Chucho Valdez who returns the favor with Concha Buika's celebration of Chavela Vargas hits) and a famous Flamenco cantaor doing Cuban boleros and son. It had never been done before but caught on like dry timber does to a single casual spark. In our household, it's an all-time favorite particularly on DVD which adds the visual dimension.

Marcel Khalife Caress
[Nagam Records]. If you love Anouar Brahem and Dhafer Youssef, this Lebanese oudist should complete your triumvirate. The unusual thing about Caress is how the Al Mayadine Quartet combines piano, percussion, bass and steel drums to connect Arabian music with Jazz and avantgarde while inserting sly Andalusian accents. More unusual at least for our household is that my wife bought her own copy before I discovered mine. She listens upstairs, I downstairs. For the first time ever, I was told that "we already have that". It's thus a twin endorsement of sorts. The final track "I pass by your name" is a huge domestic hit, all delicious nine minutes of it. In fact, I'd buy the entire album just for that - and it's a great disc beginning to end.

AL-Andalus Ensemble 21 Strings
[Al Andalus Productions]. I seem genetically hardwired to the time in Spain when the three monotheistic religions coexisted peacefully for seven centuries and birthed some of the greatest art Europe had ever seen. Music inspired by that period—hybrids of Arabian, Hassidic/Sephardic and Spanish/Flamenco—really grabs me by the short hairs. 21 Strings by the oud/guitar couple of Tarik and Julia Banzi plus violinist Charlie Bisharat is one such premium example. It culls from the Banzis' previous works all of which I own but stands above them for its quality of musicianship. The level of intensity is higher, the added chemistry of the violin perhaps the catalyst. If you're into string tone expertly recorded, this is it, hombre, visions of the Alhambra and all.

Yasmin Levy Sentir
[World Village]. Talking of Al-Andalus and Ladino music can't fail to mention Yasmin Levy whom one might regard as the uncrowned successor to the late Ofra Haza. Yasmin's voice is a thing of wonder while her very peculiar delivery will make friends and foes alike. As she matures, a certain amount of artifice will mellow and with it, a tendency to overemphasize dynamic enunciation for effect. But there's zero doubt she's a prodigious talent and her father a living repository of Ladino repertoire which he collected throughout his life. Levy is a major world-music diva in the making and Sentir a perfect opportunity to sample her present stature.

Thierry 'Titi' Robin Ces Vagues Que L'Amour Soulève
[Naive]. Payo or non-Gypsy, this French guitarist who plays bouzouq and oud with equal fire nevertheless lives the Roma lifestyle to the bone and connects it artistically all the way back to its ancient roots in Rajasthan. Self-taught, he has developed his own unmistakable style which combines Arabian maqam, rumba gitano from the South of France, Roma strains and Indian influences. This album continues his tradition beautifully and in a tangible way to practice the One World/One People concept. The recording quality is very good also.

Tsabropolous & Lechner Melos
[ECM]. At the Athens Hifi show, I had unexpected opportunity to experience Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropolous in a solo concert. Melos on the ECM label teams him with Anja Lechner on cello and U.T. Gandhi on percussion. His two collaborators add just the perfect amount of spice and timbral interest to allow the pianist to relax into poetry rather than having to entertain an audience solo with more grandiose gestures and volatile hammering. Everyone I've played track 10 "Promenade" wanted to buy the album. No exceptions. What more needs to be said?

Taksim Trio
[DoubleMoon]. I saved the very best for last, the cherry on the cream with pistachio sprinkles and rose water.

This album embodies what's best about modernized ethnic music. It connects the past to the future and allows neophytes who'd otherwise be cultural and stylistic outsiders to imbibe the heart vibrations of a foreign country without a single word uttered.

Giants on the current music scene in Turkey, Aytaç Dogan on kanun, Hüsnü Senlendirici on clarinet and duduk and Ismail Tunçbilek on acoustic and electric baglama have truly magical chemistry here.

The lyrical webs they weave are of the kind one wants to get lost in. Noble, melancholic, mysterious, playful, the Taksim Trio bridges various moods in a master-class performance on this, their first of hopefully many more albums. If I could only list one CD for the entire year, this would be the one. Oh Gollum, where art thou?

With each passing year, my personal activity level seems to increase, the work load escalate. It's all purely self-inflicted of course. A simple 'no' would do the trick each time. But the thing about honest enthusiasm is, it feeds on itself. Until I grow up and figure out what real job to get—or burn out this audiophile/music virus— I shall hang with this program for a while longer. Kudos to our team of collaborators old and new. Some fought cancer successfully, many lost their day jobs. Some moved residence, others built out music rooms to disappear from active duty for a while. All of them do their best to share their audiophile exploits with you. Their ongoing support to this site is most highly appreciated. Bottoms up to another year of fun and games and a big thank you also to our loyal readers who more than once pointed out spelling cramps, formatting errors or hipped me to exciting companies and products I would otherwise never have heard of.