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With the Holidays approaching once again and thereby -- presumably -- a mad rush to spend money, it's time for the annual best-of lists to appear ahead of time to allow for budgetary allocations and first-hand auditions. After all, never buy anything on blind faith alone. You have to live with it, not the reviewer. You must like the features, looks and sonics. And it's your money you're committing.

For this year's picks, I decided to focus exclusively on components I bought for myself . At least you'll know that these recommendations came straight from the place where it hurts me the most - my own wallet. Without further ado, let's begin with my biggest and heaviest acquisition this year, the Zu Cable Definition Mk 1.5. My descent into Zu-ology began with a glimmer of an idea. I wanted to investigate affordable high-performance amps of the low power persuasion, both solid and hollow state. While my Avantgarde Acoustic Duos at 103dB and with self-amplified woofers are perfectly suited for this very endeavor, their $20K+ asking price contradicted that one tiny word "affordable" in my project brief.

If I wanted to judge and recommend affordable amps, I needed affordable speakers to go with 'em. None of the so-called single or wide-band driver speaker I'd already reviewed (usually Fostex or Lowther based) were completely free of flaws. So I did what any self-respecting audiophiles on the hunt would do - surf the cyber waves. When I came across the Zu Cable Druid Mk.4, one review on file had been penned by none other than our own John Potis, at the time still with SoundStage!. I exchanged a few e-mails with John to see how his memory of these speakers (then in Mk.2 iteration) held up against the steady influx of review gear he'd handled since. On paper, everything checked out. I'd set them up in my second system, then move 'em into the big rig whenever micro-power amps needed reviewing. That was the plan. A good one it seemed, too.

I ordered a pair of Mk.4 Druids and the rest is history. They went on to garner our second-ever-only Lunar Eclipse award. At $2,800/pr, they do everything that matters exceedingly well - and can be driven by 2wpc amps as well as 300-watt behemoths. This is when the plan went to hell. Rather than moving into the second system, the Druids remained in the big rig. While they lacked the infrasonic extension and weight of my Duos, they did most other things equally or close-to as well and certain ones arguable better. Plus, I relished not looking at really big horns for a change. Now the realsizing concept took form. If I as a dyed-in-the-wool extremist 'phile could enjoy a speaker at 1/10th the price of my references without sweating blood and tears -- and without calling the performance objectively equal but instead, mostly equivalent in enjoyment -- then it stood to reason that the same could hold true all across the board, in all categories of components.

Duh. Some of us are a bit slow, I admit. In our defense, it's simply par for the course. Professional liability, like getting shot at as a policeman. Reviewers tend to go more and more upscale the longer they work. They eventually own Wilson or Kharma speakers, Halcro or Lamm amps, NordOst Valhalla, Esoteric's finest digital, Walker Audio's Proscenium Gold turntable - the best of the best. And I had fallen into the same trap. How ultimately useful to our general readership this exclusivity of equipment ownership is -- outside of wet dream reports à la The World's Best Audio System -- becomes, naturally, a pretty relevant question to ask. So I finally asked it.

And nearly as soon as I did, the audiophile purple-ass monkey on my shoulder began to whisper. "The Duos did a lot more low bass than those Druids, Srajan. Sure you can live with that?" So I contacted Zu and asked for their 2 x 15" Method sub for review, with the expressed intent that if it did what I thought it should, I'd purchase it as well. Which is what it looked like for a few months. Until the opportunity arose to take the big boys called Definitions for a spin. This hobby is madness alright. Where the $5,300 combo of Druids and Method did bass as low and substantial as my Duos, it wasn't stereo bass. Above 1,000Hz, the Duos also resolved more detail than the Druids. On balance, I actually favored the Zu combo in many respects but if I insisted on having it all, I would need stereo infrasonics and more resolution on top. Enter the Definitions.

At $9,000/pr, they aren't cheap by any stretch of the imagination - but compared to the Duos, they're less than half. And for an extremist looking to realsize, that's a significant move in the right direction. You could well argue that it's still madness and I wouldn't fault you. But there's more to this decision - micro-power amps that'll shave off serious dough elsewhere. Before we go there, the Definitions are essentially 4 feet tall and one square-foot in footprint, i.e. sane and very compact for what they contain: four rear-firing 10-inch woofers driven below 40Hz from an internal plate amp; and two 10-inch full-rangers in the front outfitted with whizzer cones and massive phase plugs, both of those bracketing a horn-loaded phenolic tweeter that comes in at 6dB/12kHz. Hidden inside these specs hides the kicker: no crossover between 40 and 12,000Hz. Your amp is essentially hard-wired to 101dB drivers in a sealed enclosure.

That means a level of startle-factor dynamics, coherence and thereness that eludes most speakers who rely on power to wake up and insert massive crossovers.
Additionally, the Definitions -- like all Zu speakers -- do tone and texture, perhaps because they rely on good old-fashioned paper cones. Or perhaps it's because of other, more hi-tech reasons that would be relevant only to an engineering dweeb? Because they're high efficiency, they come to life very early on the volume control (great for late-night listening) but also play ungodly loud without compression for air guitar or mess-with-the-landlord sessions. In my book, the Zu Definition is a true statement speaker that advances the state of the art in wide-band micro-power friendly speakers with full bandwidth and zero compromises. For $1,500/pr extra, you can order any imaginable automotive lacquer for this model and for $500/pr, custom paints. A new professional version of the Definitions removes the internal plate amp for external bi-amping and relies on a Rane parametric EQ to contour the sub-40Hz band to a room. That's where I'm headed myself. Damn monkey on my back. Les Turoczi will formally review the professional version. Stephæn Harrell became a proud Zu Druid owner and Paul Candy will review the Tones. As it's worked out, 6moons has nearly single-handedly "discovered" the Zu brand of loudspeakers for the US market but that's bound to change as other magazines begin to go Zu. Colleague Gary Beard at Positive Feedback Online is evaluating the Tones right now.

With the speakers handled, how about amps to drive 'em with? This year, I've purchased transistor and tube amps to reinvest the money that had loosened up from the sale of my Audiopax Model 88s. Mind you, not only was there nothing wrong with the Brazilian monos, they still rank as my all-time favorite amplifiers. But something had to finance my realsizing exploits. Curiosity is a demanding mistress after all. On the valve front, Shigeki Yamamoto's $3,000 A-08S 2wpc stereo amplifier with current-production Emission Labs 45 triodes is the one (if you can make do with 2 watts of monster tone; complete and utter mechanical and electrical silence; ultra resolution and transistor-like transients.) Think NuForce-type Class D amp with 6SN7s stuck into the circuit and you've nailed the Yammy. Besides sounding like a million bucks, it's built better than any amp I've seen yet. It uses all custom parts handcrafted in Yamamoto's machine shop. It also looks amazing. It's my new micro-power tube reference.
On the transistor front, I opted for Peter Daniel's AudioSector Patek SE, 50 watts of $1,800 stereo (or 100 watts bridged) op-amp power in the Gaincard vein popularized by 47Labs. Built with a Boeing engineer's attention to details, these petite amps with outboard power supplies are high-gain, ultra-quiet, dynamic sand amps with plenty of image density. They don't sound like tubes but borrow certain qualities to set up camp on some kind of middle ground. Like the Yamamoto amp, the Patek is a fully hand-crafted jewel, executed to the nines which becomes obvious once you study the innards.

Realsizing wise, selling off one pair of statement amps allowed me to purchase three replacement amps (I bought two Patek SEs to have 100 watts on hand should I require them for review purposes). That's like stocking up your spice kitchen to expand your flavor palette. I applied the same logic to preamps - one glass, one passive.

Dan Wright's ModWright SWL 9.0SE is a remote-controlled hybrid valve preamp using the very linear, highly dynamic 5687s. 16dB of medium gain make for a noise-free environment even in high-efficiency systems and the voicing of the preamp, like the Yamamoto, is ultra-modern wide bandwidth neutral with a modest but vital touch of dimensional and textural valve magic. In my system, the ModWright does the mambo with the Patek SEs for a premium tube pre/transistor amp combo at home-grown cashish. For $2,200, the SWL 9.0SE is a no-brainer recommendation which reviewer Wayne Donnelly proclaimed within spitting distance of his mighty VTL 7.5 Reference - and purchased just as yours truly when the review loan came to an end. Since when do audio hacks agree on anything? Hmm. This must be a good 'un then? You bet.
Equally unambiguous praise has already been heaped on the British Music First Audio Passive Magnetic - by the UK press. Stevens & Billington's subsidiary brand presents their famous in-house designed and manufactured attenuation transformers to the world at large. With +6dB of possible step-up gain, this is a purely passive, no-AC device. With 6 inputs (4 RCA, 2 XLR) and switchable outputs (RCA, XLR), the fully balanced nature of the transformers means you can come in one way and out the other. A ground-lift switch and precision stepped attenuator (2dB steps) round out the features.

Unlike resistive attenuation solutions (pots and ladder types), transformer attenuation doesn't throw away unwanted signal voltage as heat but converts it to current. For the ultimate in no-noise transparency, this type of preamp could be #1 and also doesn't suffer the bandwidth/ impedance issues of traditional resistive passives. Naturally, the Passive
Magnetic won't add tone, timbre or texture to the proceeding, hence I run the ModWright into my Pateks. But with direct-heated triode amps who'd consider any preceding tone or space sculpting meddling? Whoa baby. This passive eliminates noise you might have blamed on the amp (not - it was the redundant gain in your preamp) and lets you hear your tube amp in all its undiluted glory. As a reviewer -- justification alert! -- this passive also makes the ultimate get-out-of-the-way solution to hear amps in full frontal nudity. They either can stomach that scrutiny or they cannot. A great honesty device then, this preamp.

Tying everything together are cables, naturally. On that front, the Zu Cable Varial interconnect ($495/pr) and matching Ibis speaker cable ($1,200/10'/pr) have become my new affordable references. Like the passive preamp, these are extremely neutral cables with an MIA noise floor that, quite literally, let's through more signal to actually seem louder than other cables. These are not tone control enhancement devices but ultra-resolution providers. If your system is up for this level of magnification power and you're not looking for nip'n'tug surgery (add a bit here, take away a bit here), I see no reason to spend a penny more on cables. As Stephæn noted in his Druid Mk.4 2nd-opinion review, even the cheaper Libtec speaker cable by Zu has the same effect. At low volumes, you hear more than with other wires. That's a very good thing and doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg.

So there you have it - my personal favorite finds of 2005 and hence, Year's End Best Of list. As usual, this is nothing more than one bloke's opinion. The tiny difference in this list is that I'm actually listening to all this stuff because I now own it.

Does this Music First/ModWright - Yamamoto/Audio Sector - Zu rig now sound as good as my prior Audiopax - Audiopax - Avantgarde system? Because the Audiopax pre and monos have found new owners and the Duos are patiently awaiting a bigger house in their airline crates to be set up again, I can't conduct an actual A/B. All I have to go by is my musical monkey bone. Do I listen as often as before? Do I enjoy it as much? On both counts, it's a solid unquestioned yes. This system does everything that's important to me: Dynamics. Transparency. Resolution. Tone. Space. Realsizing works and I highly recommend it.

As I learn more about hard-disk based servers or dedicated audio computers, I'll attempt a similar thing for my way-out-there front-end. That's not because I have any intentions of selling my Zanden separates. It's because I'd like to be able to recommend something for a lot less that I'd happily live with myself. That'll be a tale for next year. Speaking of which, 2005 isn't over yet by a long shot. Should something between now and then appear in Arroyo Seco that makes it look like complete congressional oversight if it weren't included on this list, it'll be added at five minutes to twelve. Long live real-time web reportage...