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Van Den Hul Frog Gold. Van den Hul cartridges have never been flavour of the month but they have always been perennials. This one sits in the middle of VdH’s extensive range with very little on paper to help it stand out apart from the astonishing name and the bright emerald green livery. But among VdH’s wide-ranging and loyal customer base there is a tenacious school of thought that holds this as the finest example of VdH’s art and I can absolutely see why. Mated to a Kondo SFZ step up, the Frog Gold is as lustrous, vibrant, colour rich and rhythmically tactile as anything I’ve experienced. It has a quality that will satisfy the demands of both the music lover and the audiophile alike and bring those two often conflicting demands into one greater synthesis.   

Combine that with the refreshingly modest fee—from £250 for a retip to £650 for a complete rebuild—and all in all this £2600 cartridge is a very compelling proposition indeed. I’ve no doubt that this is a cartridge which will hold its head high even in the most exalted company. For me it was responsible for the most musically enjoyable listening day of the year, which has got to make you sit back and reconsider the whole cartridge thing altogether. I’m looking forward to spending a very happy year exploring all its qualities.

Living Voice OBX-RW Mark II. I’ve had a version of these speakers for over ten years now, and passed through all the revisions.  In that period many fine speakers have come to keep them company but none have survived sustained comparison.  The RWs will not shake the foundations of a big room, nor would you choose them as disco monitors.  They are a world away from that kind of computer generated paint-by-numbers head-banging.  In character they are much closer to musical instruments, made to help you step right into the centre of what really counts. They have an ability to transport you into the spiritual and physical core of a musical performance that is in my experience unparalleled.  You get the gift of great insight, profound and lasting appreciation, and the kind of real and naked exposure to the art that just leaves you awed, jelly-kneed and filled with gratitude. 

This latest version builds on all the past achievements but takes them considerably further. They trade a touch of midrange warmth for greater bass definition and a more immediate and visceral sonic and tonal landscape. For 2012 expect to see matching subwoofers and rather amazing rear-firing horn super tweeters, which take them to a whole other level still.

Art Audio Argento LV. I stumbled on this amplifier by chance during a visit to Definitive Audio. It is a demand-led amplifier that has never really been advertised, reviewed or marketed. LV have been making them for long-term customers who have Kondo preamps but can’t stretch to the Kondo power amps’ prohibitive prices. It is an 18-watt parallel single ended 300B stereo amplifier with a 6H1π-eb input stage and 12BH7 driver stage.  Solid state rectified, it comes with an enormous Souther mains transformer which provides the HT voltages and the negative grid supply. There are no windings in the mains transformer for the 300B heaters. Instead the filaments are supplied by a massively specified separate outboard supply with its own rectification and regulation, which is connected by Kondo SPZ silver umbilical cords directly to the 300B valve bases.   

This is an area of amplifier design that is often disregarded but Living Voice feel that this part of the topology is just as important as the HT supply or the negative grid supply. There are also significant modifications to the negative grid and HT supplies. There is extensive use of Kondo silver wire in both the power supply and the audio circuit. Every aspect of the circuit has been developed and evolved over years using complex and demanding music to select component types and values, tolerance factors and so on. This is a specialized and particular recipe that is all about achieving the correct overall balance of virtues. These amps are complex and time consuming to make and LV do so reluctantly. But the results are spectacular. For me they have been a considerable discovery and for the first time I’ve heard a power amp that I could happily live with if for some reason the Kondo Gakuohs had to go. At £16,000 they are just over a quarter of the price, which is one of the reasons for their considerable popularity of late up at Definitive Towers where they’ve been popping out the doors like hot cakes.