One good thing leads to another. Luck comes in doublets or even quadruplets if you push harder. That's basically how I would describe my audio yearbook 2007. Subsequent to the discovery of Trends Audios' TA10 in 2006, my journey through low-budget Tripath amps flourished with two more additions: the KingRex T20/T20U and Winsome Labs Mouse. Everything thereafter seemed destined to revolve around my favorite audio format: multi-channel SACD. All of a sudden I found myself surrounded by lots of amps, speakers and colorful musical notes while the less colorful monochromatic bank notes quietly parted my wallet. Indeed, in addition to my four Trends Audio TA10s, my multi-channel setups have now multiplied to four KingRex and Winsome Labs - each.
The Taiwanese company KingRex was basically an alien on Planet Audiophile. Yet within one short year, they managed to send off shock waves one after another, jerking audiophiles out of their indifferent lulls. The first wave delivered the T20 integrated amp based on the Tripath T2020-20 DPP chip. With 2 x 20 watts at 4 ohms, this cold-running amp exudes heart-warming musicality so pure and engaging that it is not too dissimilar to tube amps. Then came the second wave. The T20U beefed up the package with a USB/DAC based on the tested and trusted Burr-Brown PCM2707E. At $270, a mere $20 premium over the T20, the T20U is the best-value USB Tripath amp for price and size. (North American retail prices have adjusted slightly since the reviews were published.) Since I don't normally listen to music through computers or the like, I happily use the two pairs of T20/T20U (a total of four stereo amps, all augmented with PSUs) to drive my eight pieces of Loth-X BS-1 in a multi-channel setup, rotating with the Trends TA10. Then came the third wave. The KingRex Pre-Amp features the auto-select input NOR gate and diamond buffer that enhance musicality, provides an ample 20dB of gain and makes the most welcome partner to low-power Tripath amps for only $360.

Winsome Labs' Mouse changed my perception of Tripath amps overnight. I knew there were Tripath chips with high output power. I just didn't expect this tiny Mouse would drive my Mark & Daniel speakers with such agility and control. Based on two Tripath TP2050 chip sets in parallel mono configuration, one power amp chip per channel delivers 45 wpc at 4 ohms with 0.01% THD and powered by an SMPS rated as high as 30V/3.3A. The Mouse will bring the elephants to their knees. At $400 each, using a pair to bi-amp Mark & Daniel's Sapphire undoubtedly gives the biggest bang for the bucks. So I added one more Mouse to bi-amp the center channel Sapphire and one more to drive the rear channel M&D Topaz.

Surprise, surprise. The other pleasant surprise came from Mark & Daniel. My first encounter with this unorthodox speaker design team dates back to their Maximus-Monitor, which has forever changed and raised my expectation of two-way speaker design with its deep solid bass and full spectrum coherence so unreal for any speaker of this size at three or four times its price. I didn't expect Mark & Daniel to come forth with so many new models so soon yet each is embedded with a distinctive design/application purpose. Nor would I anticipate them to revive my interest and arouse my sense of ownership so compellingly. The Sapphire and the Topaz redefine musicality with ultra resolution - and vice versa. The Maximus-Mini is -- allow me to quote John Potis who articulated it so well -- "exceptionally open sounding. Focused, smooth and utterly coherent, they perform on a plateau much higher than one normally assumes of such an inexpensive -- and petite -- speaker". I am now the avid collector of five and a half pairs of Mark & Daniel speakers (with the odd girl out being the unpaired center channel Sapphire) and relish them all as permanent reference tools in four of my listening rooms.

That brings us to Myoss, my favorite 30" speaker stands seemingly tailor-made for the Mark & Daniel mini monitors. Although the original M&D compound marble 27" speaker stands are wonderfully built, aesthetically harmonious and offer superb value at $700 a pair, I needed that extra 3 inches for the front left and right Sapphires to match the height of the credenza where my center channel Sapphire is seated. Myoss is a made-up word for Make Your Own Speaker Stands. I have made two versions, three legged and four legged, and they come to less than C$140/pr before tax. I shall share with you step-by-step assembly in the near future. Until then, some pictures. As you can see, the beauty of the three-legged version -- let's call that Myoss 3 -- is that there's no top plate yet the supports are adjustable to provide an imaginary top plate area the equivalent of 5.5" x 4.5" minimum and 11" x 6" maximum. That should be good enough to accommodate various miniature bookshelf monitors, from John Blue's JB3 to Mark & Daniel's Maximus-Monitor. The four-legged version, Myoss 4, has a top plate measuring 7.5" x 10" and a height of approximately 28.5". It has no bottom plate and a very small foot print. You'll appreciate that when you do the vacuuming.

From vacuum cleaner to vacuum tube amplifiers, Dared's MC-7P offers the best value tube preamp with MM phono stage and remote control for $1,000. Dared somehow has never been too active in North America and many reviewers would be hesitant to recommend their products, fearing it would cheapen their image. But I trust my ears and have no image to lose. Price aside, this is one of the most original, striking looking preamps extant. Just when we begin to get tired of high-tech robotic tube rings or low-tech tube cages, Dared dares us with gold-plated solid brass tube capsules that weigh 7oz. each and individually shield the four 12AT7 and 12AX7 tubes [semi-translucent overlay below - Ed].

Featuring class A circuitry, a gold-plated PCB, internal silver wiring and audio-grade parts like Auricaps and Vishay non-inductive resistors, this preamp emits admirably low background noise. In fact, the MM phono stage is as quiet as some standalone solid-state counterparts like my Ensemble PhonoMaster for instance. Simply replacing the factory Shuguang 5Z3P rectifier tube with an RCA 5U5G improves the dynamic range as it does audible extension. Roll a few NOS 12AT7 and 12AX7 - this is definitely the best-value tube preamp money can buy.

On the software front, the most rewarding discovery has to be the Norwegian production company Lindberg Lyd SA. (Lyd means audio or sound. SA is Ltd.) 2L as the label is simply known, was founded by Morten Lindberg. Morten has been passionate about SACD and making a serious investment in the new format through advanced equipment and state-of-the-art technology like DXD since 2000. (Details of his equipment list can be found on the website.) I've listened to a few 2L SACDs and found their approach to somehow differ from the others. They don't shy away from using the surround channels to their full potential, dedicated to actual instruments or vocal parts instead of just ambience. The music is noticeably more engaging and involving, putting the listener right in the center of music making. From an audiophile point of listening, three-dimensional holographic palpability is more readily attainable even if you sit a couple of feet outside the so-called sweet spot.

From what I understand, all 2L multi-channel projects are discrete 5-channel recording employing five microphones and five recording tracks (sometimes augmented with backup or fill-in microphones and tracks). Depending on the repertoire and recording venue but whenever possible, they avoid cardioid microphones with narrow directional characteristics. Take the Mozart Violin Concertos [2L 38SACD] for instance. The left and right channels are captured with omni-directional microphones, the center channel with a wide-diaphragm microphone (call it split omni-directional/cardioid in character), directed at the soloist. The surround channels are covered by two wide cardioids. The members of the orchestra form a circle, five microphones set up in the middle pointing outwards. That places the listener in the position of the conductor. Vibrancy is in the air. The tone of the instruments is vividly natural. The Gregorian Chant recording by Consortium Vocale Oslo [2L 43SACD] also conjures a lifelike presence without exaggerating hifi excitement. Both these titles are DXD processed. The result is a sonic quality that exemplifies high definition and fine, smooth texture.

What is DXD? As we know, SACD has adopted a digital processing called DSD, Direct Stream Digital, or more technically correct, DSD64. Based on the Redbook-specified 44.1kHz sampling frequency, that means the data stream will go through a 1-bit/64 times oversampling process to achieve a date rate of 2.8224 Mbit/s. DSD signals further require a noise-shaping process to sustain the dynamic range of 120dB within the primary bandwidth of 20Hz to 20kHz which causes the noise spectrum to increase above 22kHz. One obvious solution is the process known as DSD128. It increases resolution to wider bandwidth by doubling the oversampling rate to 1-bit/128 times. The downside is that data size also doubles to require bigger media storage, rendering it impractical for commercial applications.

DXD, the acronym for Digital eXtreme Definition, is based on the 44.1kHz sampling frequency but takes on 24-bit/8-times oversampling to create a 8.4672 Mbit/s data rate, three times that of DSD64. The result is higher definition without the penalty of ultra-high frequency noise. Although DXD is merely a data conversion process to provide more headroom during the editing and final authoring stages, it remains in the PCM/DSD domain and its sonic benefit has been duly recognized. The DXD technology developed by Merging Technology of Switzerland and Digital Audio Denmark has been adopted by Philips/Sony. Lindberg Lyd was the first European production company to materialize DXD recordings.

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4 , 5 - Thorsen, violin / Gimse / Trondheim Solistene - [2L 38SACD]
This album contains 80 minutes of music doubled in separate CD and SACD discs due to the fact that the Redbook layer in hybrid SACDs can only hold 74:30 minutes of material. Soloist Marianne Thorsen and the ensemble Trondheim Solistene lead by cellist Øyvind Gimse are not the so-called concert stars we are familiar with - yet they outshine them with virtuosic vitality and musicianship. In fact, the energy they manage to inject into Mozart makes most other Mozarts feel like lifeless porcelain dolls. Without a doubt, these are the best Mozart violin concertos ever played on my rig - musically and sonically. The only unresolved puzzle for me is the "Finale" in K219 where the Turkish Theme faintly recurs at 7:50 - 8:00. A daringly improvisational approach? That's Morten's response to my query anyway.

Islandsmoen: Requiem - Sveen, soprano / Kielland, Alto / Øien, Tenor / Moe, bass / Det Norske Solistkor - Hansen/Kristians and Symphony Orchestra - [2L 36SACD]
Graduated from the Oslo Conservatory, Sigurd Islandsmoen (1881-1964) went on to study in Leipzig with Reger, returned to Norway as organist and assembled his own orchestra and choir promoting German-Austrian choral works. His own compositions include cantatas, operas, symphonic works, chamber music and pieces for piano and organ. Norway is a Lutheran country yet Islandsmoen's Requiem was based on Roman Catholic liturgy, which was of course the musical heritage handed down from Mozart, Cherubini and Verdi. However, I find this work unusually rich in melodies as well as atypically colorful in orchestration. It does remind me of the Requiem composed by Suppé in 1855. (A good reference recording is Virgin
7243 5 45614 2 9.) Both works are scored for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, mixed choir and large orchestra. They share one feature: being entertaining throughout without even a single boring let alone mournful moment. For a requiem you say? Yes. Unbelievable but adorable. Multi-channel SACD puts the mixed choir in the rear, the orchestra in the front and the soloists in the middle. Musicality and ambience are seamlessly coherent. Performance is utterly moving.

Halvorsen: Suite for violin & piano / Suite Mosaique for violin & piano / Stimmungsbilder / Norwegische Weise / Elegie - Skalstad, violin/Aspaas, piano - [2L 16]
Like Grieg, Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) was another Leipzig-groomed Norwegian musician composer. He toured Europe extensively as a violin virtuoso championing his own compositions. He spent most the time in Russia concertizing and teaching and was awarded a precious 1688 Rogeri violin by his Russian sponsor in St. Petersburg, with which this CD was recorded. Listen to his Suite in G minor, Stimmungsbilder (Character Pieces) and Suite Mosaique. You'll understand why calling him the Scandinavian Paganini would not be such a farfetched claim. It's a superb performance with an intuitive partnership by violinist Per Kristian Skalstad and pianist Tor Espen Aspaas.

Plagge: Mare / Concerto Grosso No.3 - Madsen: Grotesques and Arabesques -Kruse: Boogie Retention - Aurora Quartett - [2L 37SACD]
A rare recording of uncommon Norwegian piano works played by four pianists on two pianos. Members of the Aurora Quartett are Apostolos Palios, Alexander Vitlin, Julia Severus (founder) and Alina Luschtschizkaja. Their repertoire ranges from transcriptions of symphonies and orchestral works to contemporary compositions.

Mare by Wolfgang Plagge (b. 1960) is a tone poem for two pianos with descriptive power and boundless imagination. I'm especially fond of the colorful Ravel palette and the mysterious
Satie mood of the second movement, the poetic eloquence of Nocturne and the thundering rhythm cross-fired between the four pairs of hands in Tempestoso.

Grotesques and Arabesques by Trygve Madsen (b. 1940) comprises six movements named after composers: Dmitri, Maurice, Richard and Arnold, Claude, Sergei. If you think you hear J. S. Bach in Dmitri (Shostakovich), that's because the Russian composer upheld Bach as his model in counterpoint and also composed his own 24 Preludes and Fugues. Maurice to me sounds a little like Prokofiev (Cinderella) has transfigured into Ravel. Try to picture Vienna in the wine, women and song days of Richard Strauss and Schönberg, then Richard and Arnold is not so deep. A highly attractive piece.

The expertise of Bjørn Kruse (b. 1946) is Jazz. Boogie Retention is an abstract reminiscence of his early Jazz era and a sensational multi-channel experience with the Aurora Quartett. Two pianos never sound this real in two-channel.

Over the Hills and Far Away - Sagstad/Kristians and Blåseensemble - [2L 31SACD]
Another march album and, thank God, not Sousa again! Excuse the bluntness, this is the most civilized recording of marches. The title track, Over the Hills and Far Away by Grainger is a warm, cheerful, tuneful English folk song arrangement. Richard Strauss' Militärmarsch was down-to-earth entertainment for the royal court and so unlike the philosophical Strauss we know while Prokofiev's March Op.99 (from his opera The Story of A Real Man) is unmistakably him. In the more classical vein, we have Mendelssohn and Weber. The Marcia for wind ensemble by the latter, with its nocturnal feeling, reminds me of Dvořák's Serenade Op.44.

From France, we have two picturesque representations from Saint-Saëns: Marche Militaire Française and Orient et Occident. From the land of the Vikings, Grieg's moving Sørgemarsj (Funeral March) is filled with grieving pathos for an old friend who longed for the composer's home-coming in vain. Johannes Hansen's Valdres March is injected with carefree spirit. Johan Halvorsen's Entrance of the Boyars is so Slavonic that you'd think it Mussorgsky or Borodin. Ole Bull's Grand March is all pomp and circumstance but with a Nordic accent, a great sonic demonstration for orchestral layering, with incredible clean deep contrabassoon and bass drum. And finally, from America, Ives' Overture & March '1776' and Barber's Commando March round up the list. 1776 of course refers to Independence Day, July 4, 1776. If you know Ives' favorite style of compound rhythms and motives, then you'll come to expect his theatrical way of handling the clash between the British and American armies, dramatically recorded in 360 -degree surround sound.

Bartok: Sonata for solo violin / Sonata No.2 for violin and Piano / Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano - Follesø, violin/Nyman, clarinet/Hadland, piano - [2L 28SACD]
This is a master performance of these popular Bartoks by 'unknown' artists. In Sonata for solo violin, Norwegian violinist Annar Follesø captures Bartok's vagabond Gypsy spirit with his passionately fuoco double stopping and deft glissandi that seem to have wings on his bow. In the sentimental third movement "Melodia", you'd be amazed that one solo violin could conjure the epic breadth as embracingly as Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Joining forces with pianist Christian Ihle Hadland in Sonata No.2, the duo exemplify ensemble partnership with poetry and intensity.

With clarinetist Bjørn Nyman, the trio documents one of its finest collaborations in Contrasts. I have two other authoritative interpretations of this work: First, the 1940 historical monaural recording by Szigeti/Goodman/Bartok [Sony MPK 47676], which can't be challenged in a sense because not only was Bartok himself on the piano, the work was tailor-made for Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti. The second is the 1998 Saratoga Festival live recording by Juillet, Collins, Argerich [EMI 557035-2].The first one is sonically compromised no matter what excuses you find. The second is sprinkled with live performance sparkles but shows an overdose of mannerism at times (as for example in the final movement where everyone seemed to be trying too hard to overwhelm the audience.) The Norwegian ensemble takes on a more objective approach yet remains candidly fervent and spontaneously radiant, achieving a wholesome rendition overall - not to mention the best sonic quality of the three.

Wieniawski: Complete Work for Violin, Volume 1 - Janowski, violin/Plagge, piano - [2L 2]
Wieniawski: Complete Work for Violin, Volume 2 - Janowski, violin/Plagge, piano - [2L 30SACD]
Polish violinist/composer Henryk Wieniawski (1835 - 1880) was educated in Paris at the age of eight. His Grand Capricio Fantastique Op.1, composed at the age of twelve, was a mature and virtuoso piece. He toured with his younger brother pianist Josef as a duo and soon became known as "The Chopin of the violin" and "The Paganini of Poland". In St. Petersburg, he met Anton Rubinstein, who appointed him soloist to the royal court, a post he kept for 12 years in addition to teaching. Returning to Europe after an American tour, Wieniawski taught at the Brussels Conservatory. This extensive compilation of his major works for violin and piano is a good representation of the legendary violinist whose style influenced the Russian and Belgian schools.

Of the ten pieces in the first CD, all are Polish-flavored encore pieces, like Polonaise Brillante, Kujawiak, Rêverie ... except for two: Gigue is a fast-paced Scottish reel dance with occasional Celtic pathos and Le Carnival Russe is a set of variations based on a Russian folk melody. The second CD includes two world premiere recordings: Allegro de Sonata Op. 2 written by the Wieniawski brothers at the age of thirteen and eleven; and Grand duo polonaise Op.8. Other main attractions are Fantasie Orientale, Adagio Elegiaque and Romance sans Paroles & Rondo Elegant.

The performing duo of this album are Polish violinist Piotr Janowski and pianist Wolfgang Plagge. Janowski won the first prize of the Wieniawski International Competition at the age of sixteen before he graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory, then furthered his study in America under Heifetz, Galamian, Szeryng and Francescatti. Violin virtuosity and Polish pathos seem to be two conflicting elements but this duo somehow unites them in a musical melting pot.

R. Strauss: Violin Sonata Op.18 - Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 25 - Holthe, violin/Aspaas, piano - [2L 34SACD]
The one and only Sonata for Violin and Piano by Richard Strauss, Op.18 -- like his piano solo works Five Pieces Op.3 and Piano Sonata Op.5, and Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.6 -- is imbued with youthful passion and spirited energy. On the surface, it's the logical extension of Beethoven, Brahms and Franck. Yet the symphonic undercurrent refuses to subside. The scope and ambition of the work is actually foretelling the advent of a true symphonist who has metamorphosed from Liszt and Wagner. Even the heroic key signature of E major is a reincarnation of Beethoven's Eroica and paving the way for his very own Heldenleben. The freely romantic first movement with its sweeping, whirling and outspoken sentiments is literally the prelude to Don Juan.

Enescu is another symphonist and violinist. His Violin Sonata Op. 25 speaks of a different kind of personal emotions and patriotic pathos. Interspersed with Roumanian folk melodies, gypsy dances and cymbalom effects from the piano, the work is a tough test for interpretational skills as well as sonic realization. Putting two contrasting works together demonstrates the immaculate partnership of Kolbjørn Holthe and Tor Espen Aspaas for an absolute standing ovation.

Grieg: Choral Music - Grex Vocalis - [2L 45SACD]
The power of DXD is here: High definition yet as smooth as an analog source! Grex Vocalis (The Singing Flock) was founded in 1971 and is now lead by Carl Høgset, himself a member of the vocal group Quarttro Stagioni. This rare but pleasurable repertoire by the most popular Norwegian composer includes Seven Children's Songs (performed by female choir) and Album for Male Voices. Works for mixed choir includes Last Spring and the religious compositions Whitsun Hymn, Ave Maris Stella and Four Psalms.

One exceptional quality of Grex Vocalis is their silken harmonious voices polished to a well-balanced pearly luster and blended together so naturally that they remind us of the Philadelphia signature sound of the Ormandy era. (Funny how we compare vocals to instrumentals and instrumentals to vocals, isn't it?) No kidding, the first few bars in Last Spring had me wondering: "Aren't these supposed to be unaccompanied vocals? How come there are strings?" Listen to the lively interactions and cat meowing in Children's Song, the layering of parts in Farmyard Song, the rhythmic dancing pace in Halling and you'll know this is no ordinary choral recording. For patriotic moments that touch your heart even you're no Norwegian, sample The Norwegian Mountains and Fatherland Hymn.

Gjeilo: Stone Rose - Gjeilo, piano/Barber, flugelhorn/Coucheron, violin/Martens, cello -[2L 48SACD]
Born and studied in Oslo, Ola Gjeilo furthered his education at the Royal College of Music in London and the Juilliard School of Music in New York where he met Tom Barber and David Coucheron and later formed a jazz quartet with Johannes Martens. Currently residing in New York City, Gjeilo's debut album naturally draws inspirations from and reflects fragments of the Big Apple. Freely improvisational in style, intimate and reflective in mood, this is easy listening with a sense of purpose and direction, roaming freely from jazz to pop to classical from track to track. The dream-like serenity of Snow in New York and the uncontrived beauty of January, for instance, are unforgettable after just one listening.

Julevariasjoner - Plagge, piano - [2L 32SACD]
Pianist composer Wolfgang Plagge's Christmas Variations does not evolve around the usual (and sometimes boring) Christmas carols. Of the 15 tracks, I'm only familiar with three tunes: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem and one I recall as a Christian hymn I've sung in high school. The rest only a Norwegian would know. But don't let that spoil your fun. Actually, you won't because they are all enjoyably involving. With Plagge's improvisation delicately progressive, simple and effective rather than dazzling and exciting, the harmonies peaceful and tranquil, the results are absolutely mesmerizing.

Merry Christmas. And many more.