From Canadian contributor Phil Gold, we present you with Soundstring cables, the Perreaux R200i integrated amplifier and the TEAC/Esoteric DV-50 universal player.

Soundstring Cables are new to the audiophile market, but their makers have many years of cable manufacturing experience behind them. I'm impressed with these products and will investigate them extensively in the new year. I find these cables effortless and extended - and that applies to the power, interconnects and speaker models. Best of all, these wires live up to their name. They are as flexible as string, a very big consideration in my setup. I predict that you'll be hearing a lot more from Soundstring. Their creations compete with the best, but at a relatively modest price - 6' power cord $575, 1 meter RCA interconnects $419, 8' speaker cables $532.

The $3,995 Perreaux R200i integrated amplifier from New Zealand makes a big impression out of all proportion to its size. The sheer grip which this beautifully crafted amplifier exerts over woofers creates strong rhythmic drive for music of all kinds and projects a wide and clearly defined soundstage. The chassis is constructed of non-magnetic materials and contains a true dual-mono layout with sophisticated electronic control circuitry. You may choose between silver or black finish, and you'll have a lot of fun with the unusually flexible remote.

With just three selections, one can hardly build a full system - but the heart of any system must be the source. Until we know who'll win the format wars, why not hedge your bets and buy a universal digital player? You can hardly do better than the $5,500 Esoteric DV-50 from TEAC. Not only can it play all the latest high-resolution DVD-A/SACD releases and extract the most from RedBook CD; you can make this machine the center of a combined music/video system. While you may get a hernia moving this beast into position, it will repay you with exquisite build quality, superb ergonomics and a detailed, powerful and spacious sound.

From our second Canadian contributor Paul Candy, we present you with the Meadowlark Kestrel2, the Song Audio SA-34 SB, the Unison Research/Underwood HiFi/pcX Unico Level-2 and the Audio Zone PRE-1/AMP-2 separates.

My Meadowlark Audio Kestrel 2s continue to amaze me with their natural, non-fatiguing but thoroughly involving presentation. I don't know of any loudspeaker this side of $2000 that presents such an expansive soundstage, or is as revealing of the artist's intent as these svelte, time/phase-coherent, classic transmission line designs.

Or as I said in my review: "What the Kestrels do is give you music straight up, without the softening or texturing of other speakers I've heard. They are quick and nimble and present a huge, well-proportioned soundstage. They possess an uncanny knack for drawing you straight into the music and are very easy to listen to". Visit Pat McGinty's website for more information.

Song Audio's SA-34 SB EL34-based SET integrated amplifier was a big surprise for me this year. Due to the SA-34's 4 watts, I had concerns over its ability to deliver the sonic goods. I was expecting wimpy power delivery and an overly warm and ripe midrange. On the contrary, it paired well with my 89db Kestrels and filled the room with a glorious, lively sonic landscape and nary a protest. The SA-34 had a seductive quality that drew me into countless listening sessions and did not restrict my choice of music at all. My review concluded that "this modest SET was extremely musical and simply loads of fun. Provided you pair it with suitable loudspeakers, the $1900 Song Audio SA-34 SB may offer you an ideal, inexpensive pathway to sonic bliss."

The Unison Research Unico with Underwood HiFi/ Parts ConneXion Level-2 mod gets my vote for best bang for your dollar this past year. For $2,295, you get an integrated amplifier that performs at a level far greater than its modest price would suggest. My only regret was not having the opportunity to compare it directly against the stock Unico and more expensive amplifiers such as the BAT VK300. However, considering the mere $300 above my Bryston B60, the Level-1 Unico, with the exception of low level noise, handily beat it. Furthermore, for an additional $400, I thought the Level-2's performance was a significant improvement over the Level-1. It had a full, rich midrange, airy treble, and considerable bass extension and power. The Level-2 Unico exhibited exceptional image density and was able to load a room with a wide, well-defined soundstage that you could walk into, with a wee dose of tube richness thrown in. Not bad for a few bucks shy of $2,300. Read the gory details in my review.

The Shape of Things To Come: I'm currently reviewing Audio Zone's AMP-2 monoblocks and as yet unnamed passive preamp with transformer-based attenuation (PRE-1?). The circuit topology is based on the incredibly minimalist design of the firm's AMP-1 which Srajan reviewed earlier this year. He was so impressed that he awarded a Blue Moon. I have yet to experience playback as pure, transparent and dynamic as this. This diminutive trio is endowed with such terrific leading edge transient fidelity and speed, it's currently blowing my socks off. Stay tuned for a full review. In the meantime, I'm seriously considering buying these and Srajan has handed me the Blue Moon stamp, with a proper credit forthcoming before the year's out. In the meantime, think of it as "Paul's lust objects of 2003".

Trying to limit my music picks to a mere 5 is no different than asking Liz Taylor to quit at 5 husbands. There were so many discs I could have included; here's a more-or-less random sampling. I am going to cheat. Therefore I have referenced three discs I reviewed earlier this year to sneak in a few extra goodies into my quintet of Year's Best nominees. To wit, Telarc's recording of Stravinsky's Firebird, Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up on Me and Rochberg's Symphony No. 5 on Naxos. Click on their cover art to read my reviews.

Now for my allotted five, I begin with
Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (arr. Schoenberg/Stein) & Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [Dorian DOR-90315]

No, this is not just another recording of these orchestral warhorses. This one's quite different. Mahler's 4th and Songs of a Wayfarer are here arranged by Arnold Schoenberg for the minimalist forces of a chamber ensemble. I usually have doubts regarding such enterprises, but this one really works. Slimming down the musical protagonists allows subtle details in Mahler's score to come to the fore. It's still the 4th, but the delightful interplay between different instruments is more apparent. The fourth movement and the Songs of a Wayfarer are given a terrific, insightful performance by Canadian soprano Susan Platts, whom I recently experienced during a performance of Mahler's 2nd Symphony. This was one of my classical highlights of the year. Sonics are up to Dorian's usual standard of excellence. The liner notes are a model of their kind, and so is the tasty Klimt cover.

The next vote goes to Coralie Element's Salle des Pas Perdus [Nettwerk 30273 2]

I bought this recording because I thought the cover looked cool. It had that 60s European pop look to it. As this is a Francophone recording, I have no idea what the lyrics are about. Lucky me, my wife is French-Canadian and I'll eventually get around to asking her to translate. Or maybe I'll embrace a second language and do it myself. However, she smiles and sighs when it's on so maybe that suggests the nature of the lyrics? This terrific recording mixes bossa nova and pop with classical and jazz arrangements. Coralie is endowed with a lovely, breathy and almost wistful voice. Think of Jane Birkin, Francoise Hardy and Astrud Gilberto and you'll have a good idea what to expect. Suffice to say, everyone I've played this disc for throughout the year has run out and bought a copy. Terrific sonics, too.

My next nod goes to Television's Marquee Moon [Rhino R2 73920].

I've waited way too many years for someone to finally issue a half-decent version of this classic and revolutionary 1977 recording. In 2003, not only was it reissued on terrific-sounding vinyl by 4Men With Beards, Rhino eventually waved its magic wand over this guitar lover's axe fest for RedBook CD. Both vinyl and CD sound infinitely better than any previous version. The packaging and liner notes here are among the best seen on a reissue yet. The CD adds five bonus tracks, including the single "Little Johnny Jewel". If you are not familiar with Television, they were hugely influential as the Velvet Underground and rewrote the book on guitar playing for countless alternative and post punk bands. The interplay between guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd will melt your mind. Verlaine's oblique yet poetic lyrics cleverly avoid the bombast and swagger of what was passing for Rock lyrics in the late seventies - an essential album then in any modern music collection.

Next welcome Duke Ellington's Complete Columbia & RCA Victor Sessions [Definitive Recordings DRCD11170]

Definitive Recordings, under Spain's Disconforme umbrella, specializes in state-of-the-art 24-bit remastered anthological recordings from the 30/40s glory days of jazz at mid prices. In many instances, the sound quality is superior to that offered by the major record companies for this material. This 4-disc set from the heyday of Duke Ellington needs no introduction. These recordings are culled from Duke's arguable best outfit that included legends Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Billy Strayhorn and Ivie Anderson. Wow, what a line up. This set includes all the master takes recorded for Columbia and RCA from 1935 to 1942, in surprisingly good sound. Even taking into account the sonic limitations of the day, these recordings are surprisingly alive and even visceral. The liner notes are decent considering the low price. When I go looking for inexpensive but excellent-sounding transfers from this era in jazz, Definitive Recordings is my destination.

My last-but-not-least entry is Daniel Lanois' Shine [Anti 8661-2].

Shine is the third and arguably finest studio album by Canadian artist/producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois is best known as an exceptional producer who has worked with the likes of U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan. His output as producer and artist demonstrate his remarkable ability to create dense, lush and warm atmospherics. Just listen to the Joshua Tree, Time Out of Mind and Shine and you'll be wrapped in Lanois' signature soundscape. Shine is a series of bittersweet, winsome and melancholic snap shots framed by a sparse yet warm and lush sonic landscape with some of Lanois' lovely steel guitar playing. U2's Bono and EmmyLou Harris guest on a few tracks. This is a great late-night album that seems tailormade for headphone listening while lying on the floor with a glass of wine. In fact, it reminds me of a time before corporate suits ruined commercial radio, when early AM radio DJs would play entire sides and in some cases complete albums. A lovely sonic slideshow for rainy days.