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Brother Ken is a professional writer for Downbeat and other magazines. His list thus reflects audiophile exploits well outside the confines of - Ed.

Esoteric X01 universal player
If ever there was a case for the long-term value of digital audio, this machine is it. The X01 is easily the best digital playback machine I have ever heard, bar none. In reviewing it for Downbeat magazine, I wrote "images are tremendously full-bodied and incredibly well resolved, with decay of notes going all the way back to the horizon." Sure, its $13,000 price tag is nearly the cost of the national debt but once you hear the X01, everything else seems secondary.

Denon DL103 cartridge
Okay, I am a latecomer to the joys of this classic cart but for $200 or so, this cartridge has the best "you are there sonics" I have ever heard out of my Kuzmi Stabi/Stogi rig. Fat, deep bass and a wonderfully enveloping midrange are accompanied by a perhaps too strident treble that mellows a bit after break-in.

McIntosh MVP861 universal player
For $4,100, you can enjoy near state-of-the-art digital performance. Many uni players in this range do many things right yet lack a cohesiveness that makes you wanna buy. And while the 861 is dark-sounding overall, it is also very musical, with convincing low end reproduction and soaring high frequencies that flow completely unmasked. It looks gorgeous and the remote's glove leather feel is to die for.

Onix/Melody SP3 integrated amp
Need a good tube integrated to recommend for friends, family or to drop into a second system? This is the hands-down winner, besting everything else I have heard for $699. It only takes two inputs but its classy styling, tube topography and 38wpc make this a no-brainer purchase.

DeVore Fidelity Super 8s
Having reviewed the DeVore 7.1s and listened for a lengthy period of time to the Gibbon 8s, the Super 8s are just more juice in the caboose from the Brooklyn labs of John DeVore. Like a smaller Silverback, the Super 8s offer amazing transparency, solid bass and an overall truthfulness to the recorded event that made this former drummer plop down his cold hard $$$.

Shunyata Hydra Model 6 & Python VX
As a former owner of both the original Hydra and the current model, I wasn't surprised that the much less expensive Model 6 [$1,100] would produce the sonic goods. What did floor me was the level of improvement and how close it came to Shunyata's mucho dinero flagship product. And the change was not subtle. With the Model 6 handling digital and turntable duties, images became vastly more focused, cleaner and slightly more three-dimensional. In an all tube rig like mine, the Model 6 was the perfect cleaner upper for all front-end workhorses and is now an indispensable part of my system.

The New Pornographers Twin Cinema [matador]
On their third album Twin Cinema, the New Pornographers summon everyone from the Monkees and Manfred Mann to 70s' Broadway musical, Godspell, Genesis, the Stranglers and even the B52s. Glowing vocal hooks'n'harmonies flow out of the band like water, filled out by burly guitar riffs, nervy rhythm changes and perky New Wave synth melodies. The New Pornographers' sound, and how they get there, is anything but typical.

Super Furry Animals Love Kraft [XL]
Though best known as the world's nuttiest pop supergroup, Wales' Super Furry Animals leave a trail of dance beats, sampling and Pro Tools oriented construction in their wake. And while their latest album is less focused/more diffuse than past masterpieces like Rings Around the World, the band's love of toying with sounds and musical perceptions abounds. As the heavily effected "Oi Frango", the High Llamas' inspired loops of "Atomik Lust" and the tweaked up instruments and sweeping delay sounds of "Lazer Beam" attests, Super Furry Animals are masters of whatever knobs they lay their fingers to.

Curumin [Anti]
Nothing could be better than the sound of crunchy analog synths, Brazilian percussion and gruff Portuguese vocals, which Sao Paulo phenom Curumin consistently delivers here. Curumin incorporates beauteous 70s' Rio funk (complete with street drumming and Clavinet) in "Samba Japa", creates a deranged folkadelic vibe with backwards loops on Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Seen Nothing" and magically morphs flutes, Juno 106 bass and insane operatic vocals in "Indio Danca na Roda". Like an Amazonian shaman wired for sound, Curumin makes amazing music from natural elements

Dafnis Prieto About the Monks [Zoho]
After arriving in New York, Cuban born drummer Dafnis Prieto's first gig was with avant composer Henry Threadgill but soon enough, the word got out and the calls came in. Innovative Latin bandleader Eddie Palmieri has called Dafnis "extraordinary" and "a rhythmic stimulus". This can be heard on Dafnis' debut recording About the Monks. Performing his own compositions, Dafnis' quintet plays some impossibly complex music that flows like water. One of his trademark compositional tricks is to join seemingly opposing rhythms together practically side by side, giving his music a rollercoaster feeling, a constant up-and-down trajectory that is exhilarating and not for the faint of heart. About The Monks encompasses French/Haitian percussion ("Tumba Francesca"), cascara and clave with a tumbao feel ("Ironico Arlequin'), modern dance ("Mechanical Movement") and multi-instrumental, carnival-like drumming ("Conga En Ti").

Boards of Canada Campfire Headphase [Warp]
Any artist who titles their first album Music Has The Right To Children is bound to produce music that could prove unsettling for your children. Conducting Internet-only interviews and often performing in total darkness at Scottish mythological and sacred sites, Boards of Canada make eerie music that lies somewhere between queasy listening, armchair IDM and full-on funny farm epics. But beneath the weirdness, BOC's Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin are two of the finest electronic-based musicians working in the world today. Their secretive nature only adds to the allure of their stunning tracks, which number a total of 15 on The Campfire Headphase. As with 2002's Geogaddi, The Campfire Headphase shows continued growth and progression, the duo finding new ways to make their ghostly music sound more elaborate, fleshy, experimental and romantic. From "Into The Rainbow Vein" and "Ataronchronon" to "Tears from the Compound Eye", the songs mine similar themes of melody (surreal), rhythm (slo-mo hip-hop) and harmony (doubly surreal), reflecting the greenish cover art depicting an ominous looking adult peering out over a smiling child. The liner note photos are equally odd: endless pics of smiling adults and teenagers cast in murky relief. In keeping with these themes of shadows, creepiness and surrealism, the songs seem drawn from found sound tapes of dying Hammond organs, overheard phone conversations, Mellotron, sonar blips, programmed synth melodies, MPC drum beats and static, all mixed to resemble a soundtrack for some alternate Night of the Living Dead. The Campfire Headphase is beautiful and haunting but damned all the same.