Welcome to our lucky thirteenth annual audiophile equipment awards! Our Best Of 2013 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.
In 2103 our staff found a mere 11 products to bestow an Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note Award, with only 8 in 2012. Let is be said here and now that we make no apologies that in 2013 our staff found only 11 products to receive an award! With a blinding array of products reviewed from late 2012 through October 2013, that does not mean everyone gets an award. 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. In fact, giving away so few awards as we do is the anti-norm for a magazine hoping to get free commercial promotion, since such awards always find their way into being featured on Web sites and of course within print advertisements.
Our longstanding staff here at Enjoy the Music.com, with hundreds of years in combined expertise, now presents to you our choices for Best Of 2013 Blue Note Equipment Award. And the winners are:
This year my Blue Note Award goes to the VPI Classic 3 belt-driven turntable. This is another fine product from the VPI lineup that besides hitting the mark musically does so at a price point most audiophiles will find downright inexpensive. For $6000 you can buy it in Piano Black or Walnut and $6500 in an attractive Rosewood finish. Despite its rather reasonable pricing (in high-end audio terms) VPI did not skimp on features. Included in the price isVPI's own JMW-10.5i SE Tonearm with anti-skate mechanism and a stainless steel armtube that includes Valhalla wiring. You also get a large knurled VTA tower along with VPI's VTA Base, allowing for on-the-fly adjustments of vertical tracking error, a most convenient feature. They upgrade you to their HR-X Stainless Steel Center Weight and added the larger new HR-X styled feet plus switched from the 600 to the 300 rpm synchronous motor. The Classic 3 comes with a heavier design plinth and let us not forget the stainless steel outer periphery ring clamp, one of my favorites. Really there is not much more you would want for unless you decide on the optional Dust Cover or SDS Motor Drive. But how does it sound you ask? Mounted with a Lyra Delos moving coil (MC) cartridge and heard via a Musical Surroundings Nova Phononema phono stage this table sings sweet musical notes. My rather large vinyl collection loved me even more after my permanent purchase of this table as it breathed new life into performance after performance taken from deep within the groves of my records. In fact my poor CD player has been giving me strange looks what with me spending so much time with my new true love, the Classic 3 turntable from VPI. Anthony Nicosia
OPPO BDP-105 Disc Player
This is the proverbial Swiss Army Knife of disc players, not only playing every available disc out there, but also being able to act as an internet connection for music, movies, etc, plus as a preamp/processor through its USB, HDMI and S/PDIF inputs. Incidentally, not only does it put out superb video, but its digital audio pass-through and analog conversions are as good as units twice their price! There are many reasons why you see an Oppo unit being used as a source component at many high fidelity audio events; as it delivers very high sound quality for the money with the added benefit of very impressive video performance too. Dr. Bill Gaw
Chord QuteHD DAC
I'm delighted when I find a component that is truly musical and accurate and a pleasure to use. But when a component rings all those bells but is also beautifully designed and modestly priced, well, audio heaven! The Chord QuteHD is such an animal, distilling much of the quality of its much more expensive big brother the QBD76 HDSD DAC. You lose the balanced inputs and the circuitry is not quite as advanced (10 DSP cores instead of 18) but it still performs at the very highest level, and it will accommodate resolutions up to 384kHz/32-bit. It also provides DSD streaming over USB. Chord rolls their own converters and filters unlike most manufacturers. The QuteHD's aluminum chassis weighs around a pound and it can be yours for $1995. If you're thinking of buying something more expensive, try this first. Phil Gold
Astell&Kern AK120 Personal Media Player
Astell&Kern's AK120 is right now perhaps the best portable high resolution high fidelity music player in the marketplace. While it may not be considered cheap at $1299, though if you want the very best with this array of features this cost is to be expected. For today, there are very few choices for a PMP (portable media player) that handles both 192/24 and DSD, thus the AK120 is King of them all. Being a second gen unit means Astell&Kern have grown, and learned, though real-world experience. Early adopters and those who enjoy living on the 'bleeding edge' will of course buy one. Music lovers seeking the very best right now will jump aboard too. This is not just a player for those on the go, as it can also be employed with your computer as an external, high quality USB DAC. One thing not to be minimized is how important the high quality analog amplification stage is within the AK120 and how crucial it is for usable output in a variety of situations. The color touchscreen and wisdom of including hardware buttons make daily use a snap. Since the Astell&Kern's AK120 has on-board user-adjustable EQ, Bluetooth, support for the usual MP3 plus AIFF, ALAC, APE, FLAC, MPR, OGG, WAV and 64x DSD music files how can you go wrong? Included is 64GB of internal memory, and you can add two 64GB microSD cards (for a total of 192GB). Word on the street is the AK120 has been field-tested and handles 128MB SD cards, to achieve 320GB of microSD when 128GB microSD cards are available in the marketplace. To coin a phrase, for today "I'll give you my AK120 when you pry it from my cold, dead hands". Editor and Creative Director Steven R. Rochlin.
Preamplification / Amplification
Bestowing a Blue Note Award to the LKV Research 2-SB phono preamp is a no brainer. I reviewed some nice gear in 2013, but the LKV phono preamp stood out for a number of reasons, although its value for the money is certainly one of them. Since it's currently only available factory direct from LKV Research, one is going to save a ton of money bypassing the usual chain of distributors and dealers who would normally ask for their cut. Yet, even without considering these savings the 2-SB proves itself to be a superb phono preamplifier. As with any phono preamplifier on the market, this one is not going to please every audiophile on the planet -- phono preamps are notoriously system dependent. But there is one sonic feature that all sound systems will be able to exploit: its blacker than black silent background. This not only "added to the perceived dynamism of the musical material that passed through its circuits", but with such a silent background, when listening to records through the 2-SB "my brain finds it reassuring that I'm hearing as close a copy to of the master tape as I'm likely to hear in my lifetime". Other positive sonic traits of the 2-SB are many, but foremost is "preserving the emotional message of the music and the recording engineer's intentions". But again, the LKV phono preamp isn't going to please every audiophile out there. No one is going to be fooled into thinking that this phono preamp is driven by tubes, and although some might find its lack of sonic personality a benefit, some might find its lack of "jump factor" (or perhaps the fact that its loading switches are internal) a detriment. Me? At this asking price, I found the 2-SB to be one of the most honest sounding and transparent phono preamps I've ever had the pleasure of using in my system. Tom Lyle
Coincident Turbo 845SE Integrated Tube Amplifier
The Turbo 845 SE is an end game amplifier for those with limited space, limited budget or an inclination to concentrate more on the music than the machinery. For anyone truly seeking to enjoy their music and take the focus off the equipment, this is the path. Is it perfect? Not for every situation. The relatively low 28 wpc power rating suggests that you will have to pair it with a moderately efficient loudspeaker in spite of the fact that those are Class A "tube watts". But with the massive power supply storing 510 joules it is capable of putting out 100 wpc on musical peaks opening the window of opportunity to pair this 100 pound beast with some unlikely candidates. With its low output impedance and enormous power supply it is claimed to be able to handle speakers with impedance as low as 3 Ohms, which opens the window even further. High efficiency speakers would virtually eliminate amplifier clipping. For an integrated amplifier it is very transparent with very high resolution but never analytical lacking only the last bit of harmonic resolution and air that comes with the very finest separate tube components. Nonetheless, the Turbo 845 SE makes it easy to transcend recorded music and reach that level where you ignore the equipment altogether and commune with the music. As prices continue to escalate into the esoteric sphere of the 1%, Coincident is to be commended for offering first class components with outstanding build quality at relatively affordable prices. The Turbo 845 SE is another prime example. Rick Becker
Wells Audio Innamorata Stereo Power Amplifier
At first glance the Innamorata looks like a typical medium-powered (120 wpc) amplifier. But that is deceiving. Sonically, the Innamorata plays in the very big leagues. It is simply the absolutely quietest power amplifier this writer has ever heard, and its tonal purity, dynamics and spatial resolution can be compared only to amplifiers costing multiples of its relatively modest $6000 price. It is the only amplifier currently incorporating the Bybee Music Rails, and also features Jack Bybee's most powerful AC Purifiers in the power supply. It features proprietary wiring and transformers unlike those used in any other amplifier. Regardless of its modest power rating, a single Innamorata drives my reference Analysis Amphitryon (86dB/W/m sensitive) planar/ribbon loudspeakers to satisfying loudness in my large listening room. Wayne Donnelly
Pass Labs SIT-2 Amplifier
First of a new generation of solid-state audio amplifiers, Nelson Pass' new $5000 First Watt SIT-2 stereo amplifier uses Static Induction Transistors (SIT) in a single-stage, single-ended Class A circuit without feedback or degeneration. Designed to sound like sweet triode tubes, SITs have soft overload clipping. The 10-watt maximum SIT-2 does not sound like solid-state and the first watt of a solid-state amplifier never sounded so good! The SIT-2 is an amazing performer for above average efficiency loudspeakers. On my big ole horns and other custom-designed full-range speakers with traditional radiator cones, the SIT-2 always seemed much more powerful than mere 10-watts. It is a remarkable achievement for amplifiers, designers and the industry! A Colin Flood
Fi X4 Stereo Amplifier
Nothing I have ever heard on big ole horn loudspeakers compares to the sweet charms of Don Garber's antediluvian 1.5-watt stereo Fi X4 amplifier with Tung Sol 46 tubes. For loudspeakers with far above average efficiency, north of 95dB/W/m, this unique amplifier makes music in a way rarely heard even on far more expensive systems. The X4 is a single-ended, direct-coupled design with two 46s, two 6SF5 tubes and a 5Y3 rectifier, in an unusual, gray steel, sideways X-shape. For only $1095! "For the golden elixir of musical nuances, for the roaring majesty of mountainous crescendos, for the exotic delicacy of female vocals, nothing comes as close to the joy and feeling of reality as the magical coupling of low-powered Single Ended Triode (SET) amplifiers and ultra-high efficiency horn loudspeakers."
People with lots of money and top shelf electronics will probably snub their noses at this modest speaker. Those who are emerging from the weight of college loans will see it as a beacon of hope. The Union is a chameleon that will rock you with down and dirty electronics at the start of your musical mystery tour and lead you step by step as you upgrade your other gear and advance in your appreciation of music. With the addition of quality subwoofers and finer electronics they become a true full range speaker capable of challenging the most revered names in the industry in many parameters. Even without subs, with their 99dB/W/m efficiency they are a magnet for low powered tube amps that will set you up for a musical experience that will touch you at both a cognitive and emotional level. With their outstanding transparency and uncompressed dynamics the Union took me closer to the live event than any speaker this affordable has a right to do. Every audiophile should have the experience of hearing their music without compression for at least one period in their lifetime. For me, the Union is like a return to the Voice of the Theater but at a much higher level one that recalibrates my concept of fun and rejuvenates the joy of music. I wrote the review thinking it was a $3000 speaker, when in fact its domestic price was only $2400. It is now being offered at a close-out price, having been superseded by the Soul model at $1999. Consider this award as a benchmark for this young company as they continue to grow and strive for excellence. Rick Becker
It would be all too easy to dismiss the iTube as a gimmick; seriously, do not be tempted to do this. The iTube is a very well-conceived piece of kit. I must confess that when I was told what the iTUBE does I was a little skeptical about it; had it been April 1st would have been thinking I smell a rat. There is no rat; instead its quality for being used at many high fidelity audio events is something every music buff should consider buying. The iTube has a warm heart; the heart is a miniature NOS tube, a GE 5670. The 3D Holographic Sound works really well, the improvement in Desktop mode was dramatic. I found switching in Digital Antidote Plus was useful in providing a well-judged compromise between fixing the problem and not wrecking the "presence band" frequencies. This is a great facility to have on hand, I found I used it more than I expected to. Clive Meakins
Pure Power + Regenerators
These AC-DC-AC electricity cleaners are by far the best units I've come across in 30 years searching for something to clean up the noise coming through the electric lines. Although they did have production problems in the past related to a previous employee trying to rob the company's Chinese supplier and customer base leading to supply difficulties, they are now producing updated product in their own Canadian plant which do an even better job at getting rid of AC line noise. Dr. Bill Gaw