Welcome to our eleventh annual audiophile equipment awards! Our Best Of 2011 Blue Note Award marks our celebrating the very best products we have reviewed during the previous year. Recipients have been carefully chosen after much debate and consideration. While there are many great pieces of equipment now available in the marketplace, the below list is compiled from products we reviewed within the past 12 months that we found to merit extra special attention. During the past year, Enjoy the Music.com has reviewed many products including those covered within our Viewpoint articles plus our sister publications Superior Audio and DIY Magazine (both of the latter now part of our Review Magazine).
Let is be said here and now that we make no apologies that in 2011 our staff found only 18 products to receive an award. With well over 120 products having been reviewed, with quite a few being world premieres, that does not mean everyone gets an award or some grade like in elementary school. This is not to say that other products do not merit your attention, it is simply that only the very best of the bunch should stand out and be recognized clearly and concisely. Take note that we do not carry over products from our previous year's award. We do not add products in hopes of satisfying advertisers, so conspiracy theorists can look elsewhere to quench their blood-thirst desire.
Our staff here at Enjoy the Music.com, with hundreds of years in combined expertise, now presents to you our choices for Best Of 2011 Blue Note Equipment Award. And the winners are:
Buying equipment by using some arbitrary alpha-numeric list, or even our own Blue Note Awards, can be a crapshoot. Your system could wind up being nirvana or it could lead to upgrade neurosis. This is precisely why over the years i have time and again conducted reviews of complete systems from a single manufacturer. Buying into the system concept means you are 'all in' to what their chief engineer / designer feels a music reproduction system should sound like. This system was so impressive that it literally made me rethink my entire reference system and make changes accordingly. How many reviewers are willing to admit that and make efforts to rebuild their entire system from scratch? i did! Gryphon Audio Design does a remarkable job in giving their customers ease of use, aesthetic beauty and, what matters most to us audiophiles, excellent sound quality. Everything worked great, all the time, every time. Even when i used my own custom FrankenDAC and speakers with the Atilla integrated amplifier, it was easy to fall in love with the music being produced. -- Steven R. Rochlin
Like its predecessor, the Oppo BDP 95 has got to be the value choice of the year. Its gotten rave reviews in just about every high end magazine out there, including this one of course. I've been using it now for about six months, using its balanced XLR stereo, 5.1 channel analog and HDMI outputs and find its analog outputs to give a truly high end audiophile sound far surpassing anything out there near its price tag, while also producing superb video. Plus it has the ability to play back music files off of a USB or E-SATA hard disk, and download music and video in high definition from VUDU, Netflix, Blockbuster, Picasa, and many more. At $999 its truly a steal. -- Dr. Bill Gaw
This was an easy choice. The Kleos cartridge is Lyra's replacement for their deservedly successful Helikon, which was last priced at $2,555 before it was discontinued. For many years this cartridge was considered by many a bargain at this "reasonable" price because it delivered a sound as good or better than many cartridges priced much higher. If the Helikon was a bargain, the Kleos is a steal. Describing its sound would just be a recitation of all the qualities an analog-loving audiophile is looking for in a cartridge – outstanding frequency response, lifelike midrange, stupendous soundscaping, and outstanding rejection of surface noise – just to mention a few. If one is considering stepping up to a better Moving Coil cartridge than Kleos, one is going to have to spend a heck of a lot more money – for example, Lyra's twice the price Titani. Since the review, Lyra is now distributed by Audioquest. -- Tom Lyle
At the heart of every good system there is a preamp with some simple controls – volume and source, and you’ll want a component that gives a good electrical match to a variety of sources and will happily feed your power amp. If it is not too much to ask, the preamp, whether a separate component or built into an integrated amp, should not do anything to distort the signal. Ed Meitner has designed a superb looking unit which accepts two balanced and four unbalanced inputs and provides both balanced and unbalanced outputs, plus a loop circuit. The superb volume control moves in 0.5dB increments over most of its range, and allows each input volume to be adjusted independently, invaluable for a reviewer like me. Extensive listening through reference level partnering equipment has failed to reveal any sonic limitations. It appears to be distortion free across an enormously wide frequency band and have superb reflexes and tone color combined with pinpoint imaging. I would expect no less at $15,000. -- Phil Gold
I found this unit by chance and it was one of those sleeper products that I always look to find. At the modest price of $595, this phono preamplifier is well built and provides an excellent listening experience. Add the outboard power supply and you have a really solid performer. The MC1 Plus provides deep bass with a very large soundstage. It also gives the user several options to customize and match most cartridge setups. The MC1 Plus gets my vote for the Blue Note Award and it is the unit that I continue to use in my system -- Alfred Fredel
With tonal colors solidly saturated, vivid, and remarkably realistic, this unit accomplished all this without conceding either low-level detail or spatial resolution. One of its endearing strengths was the finesse with which it unraveled layers of orchestral harmony. Overdubs, massed voices, and transient decay presented absolutely no problem. The soundstage excelled in conveying depth perspective and "painting" image outlines with precise brush strokes. The KE-50A represents the closest approach I've heard from a push-pull power amp to single-ended triode magic, but with sufficient dynamic headroom to drive a significant subset of real-world loudspeakers. It is the sonic equivalent of a vintage Port wine. Kick back, take a sip, and enjoy the music! Best in class and a must audition for anyone serious about reproduced music. -- Dick Olsher
My I can’t say enough good things about the Fusion3. I’ve never been so impressed with the sound of an integrated as I have this brilliant little piece of kit. She isn’t much to look at but when you feed it a high resolution signal this amp/USB DAC combo breathes life into music. 24 bit music is here to stay and the Fusion3 is an extremely affordable foray into this (and the 16 bit) realm. -- Scott Faller
My Blue Note award goes to the Grant Fidelity W-30GT vacuum tube integrated amplifier. Editor Steven Rochlin called it the "Swiss Army knife" of integrated amplifiers, and that is not a bad analogy, although I think it fits for a different reason than what Steven intended. He made note of the features- tube preamplifier and power amplifier, 24/192 Digital to Analog converter, headphone output amplifier driven off of the KT88 output tubes, and last but not least, an honest to goodness 12AX7 based tube phono stage. Me? I fondly remember the buttery smoothness, high resolution and robust construction. Buyers who can stretch their budget a bit are strongly encouraged to order the W-30GT with the upgrade Shuguang Treasure/Psvane vacuum tube combination. The W-30GT is the quietest tube amplifier I have heard to date, and worked without issue during the time it was in my system. It competes with components well above its price. -- Nels Ferre
My Blue Note Award this year is going to the new Von Schweikert VR-35 Export Deluxe loudspeaker. On the front panel are two twin six inch (170mm) bass-mid range ScanSpeak drivers with composite cones consisting of paper, plastic, resin, and carbon fiber. Using an M-T-M array setup a One-inch (25mm) Silk Dome Dual Ring Wide Surround Radiator is mounted in-between the two bass-midrange drivers for an increased sound field with better imaging and off-axis response. Around back facing the wall is a ten inch (250mm) rear-firing Scan-Design woofer crossed over at 80 Hz using a Triple Chambered Transmission Line hybrid. The VR-35 uses premium drivers, hand-picked at the factory for Grade-A response (+/- 1dB) and features five-way binding posts with a polished rhodium plate for better looks, sound and a bi-wiring option. It comes with US-made copper foil and Teflon dielectric caps manufactured for VSA by a major OEM company which by themselves have a combined retail cost of $3,600. Six caps are needed (3 in each loudspeaker) with a retail cost of about $600 each. These foil and Teflon caps allow the VR-35 to obtain a high degree of transparency. Made to be placed close to the rear wall it did not dominate my room allowing for more living space in my modest home. After a long break-in period followed by a few days of placement experiments it finally dawned on me just how incredible the VR-35’s actually are. All my efforts paid off as one magical musical experience after another revealed previously hidden treasure within my CD and Vinyl collection. Their motto that, "Every Listening Session Will Become an Event Not Soon Forgotten..." was one with which I can whole heartily agree. For $7995 it must be considered a worthy contender to the throne. Albert Von Schweikert, through the creation of the VR-35, has given us a design that can be tucked out of the way due to size, shape and placement considerations, does not cost a small fortune and sounds like loudspeakers costing considerably more. My review sample came in a pure black cloth outer covering with a piano black finish on both the top and bottom caps. They VR-35's were elegant looking, meeting my wife’s high standard of approval. We loved them so much, we purchased the review sample, what else can I say. -- Anthony Nicosia
This year brings two excellent components from north of border. The guys at Reference 3A keep going back to the woodshed with this venerable two-way speaker. Long a favorite of our trusty editor, Steven R. Rochlin, the latest revision came my way last December. What can I say? Steven has good ears. Before you shell out $2995 on these bookshelf speakers you need to ask yourself one question. Am I am head-banger? If so, look elsewhere. If not, try these on for size. The direct connection of woofer to amplifier and the phase coherency in this design give you a remarkably faithful transducer which is surprisingly easy to drive, not that sensitive to position and capable of pinpoint imaging. A keeper. -- Phil Gold
For being the first piece of equipment to allow me to listen to headphones without the in-the-head imaging effect, I have to give my Blue Note Award to the Smyth Research Realiser A8. Not only does it image music properly, it can almost perfectly reproduce any loudspeaker setup up to 7.1 channels and give a believable surround soundfield for any individual. Thus you can actually reproduce the sound of any system you can listen to. With its included Stax headphones, I can almost perfectly reproduce the sound of my 7.1 tube amplified horn speaker system any place I can plug in a source, the unit and the Stax's headphone amplifier. If it weren't for the loss of the deep bass' chest thrill, I might be tempted to sell my system and be happy with the Smyth unit. At its list price of $3360 including the Stax headphones and amplifier, its a steal. -- Dr. Bill Gaw
In-Ear Monitors (IEM)
Ultimate Ears developed the 18 Pro Custom for the most discerning audiophiles and music performers. As such, nothing but the very best for the company’s flagship IEMs were used. A combination of their new experience-driven team, a six-speaker Ultimate Ears sound signature with new technologies including a new cable built for durability and reduced distortion are augmented by three acoustically tuned sound channels and multiple passive crossover points. What has won me over as my now preference for the Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom over the JH Audio JH13 Pros is the touch of extra bass and a slightly better fit due to using a touch more plastic material at the outermost of my ear. Add to that, the far more durable cable on the Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom is also very much appreciated as during drumming the cable, at times, does get a little workout. Another benefit is that the Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom felt better during my recent 13+ hour each way airplane ride. Great fit, durable cable and excellent sound quality... what more can you ask for? -- Steven R. Rochlin
Accessory / Tweak
The Music Rails, unlike the familiar passive noise reduction products from Jack Bybee, are active components designed for installation in the DC sections of power supplies for a revolutionary degree of quieting (up to 45 DB below incoming line noise. Putting them into my aging VTL TL 7.5 Series II preamplifier proved revelatory. I had been planning to sell the VTL in favor of the superb Einstein "The Tube Mk. II" line stage which I awarded a 2010 Blue Note, but with the Music Rail upgrade the VTL is now the best preamplifier I have ever heard. This degree of noise reduction pays off in previously unattainable capture of low-level details and microdynamics – actually a unique listening experience for this grizzled audiophile. Terms such as "revolutionary breakthrough" are bandied about promiscuously in audio writing; this time it’s justified. -- Wayne Donnelly
Accessory / Tweak
For the second consecutive year I am highlighting a uniquely unconventional room treatment system that produces a significantly enhanced listening environment using physically small and visually unobtrusive elements rather than the familiar types of traps and diffusers. The Steinmusic system’s 5x5x4-inch Harmonizers are electronically active, but are not connected within the system's signal path. Changing the Intensity level quite audibly alters the in-room sound, but that interaction is strictly with the room itself, not the electronics of the system. The Magic Stones, which are equally important to the effect, are totally passive devices. The properly dialed-in Steinmusic system has transformed my listening room with dramatically improved tonal beauty, harmonic completeness and dramatic new levels of clarity and intelligibility of vocal and instrumental performances. Leave your prejudices behind, and try something genuinely new–you won’t be sorry. -- Wayne Donnelly.
Accessory / Tweak
With perfect components in a perfect system it is possible to achieve outstanding reproduction without power conditioners. But most of us require a little help in dealing with the polluted grid, the ever thickening cloud of EMI/RFI and the noise generated by our components themselves. I was hoping the PowerCell4 would give me a taste of the very high end in power conditioning at a small fraction of the typical cost but I learned it requires their Tesla SE T3 Active Power Cord to achieve such greatness. The unexpected and atypical benefit is the flexibility offered by the Enigma circuits that plug into the active shielding on the power cord. These circuits allow you to fine tune your present system and make adjustments in the future when you acquire different components. Ted Denney takes an uncommon world view in approaching electromagnetic cell technology and it has paid off in an extraordinary way. -- Rick Becker