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My top component choice this year turns out to be, much to my chagrin, the most expensive. Grand Prix Audio's Brooklands wall-mounted shelf system was a revelation. Divorce-inducing expensive yes but considering the enormous effect on music playback, it just might be worth a little marital disharmony. Unless you've tried true SOTA resonance control already, you have no idea what your system is truly capable of.

In my review, "I noted enhanced refinement, inner detail and texture. Recorded performances became more believable and natural. It was easier to pick out ambient cues as were the richer tonal colors of instruments and voices. Placing my components on the Brooklands got me closer to the music than I thought possible". Brilliantly conceived and put together along with excellent instructions, the Brooklands was the most impressive product I reviewed this past year.

Jean-Marie Reynaud Twin Signature is now my standard recommendation for anyone looking for a system-friendly small speaker under $2,000/pr. The wonderfully balanced Twins had a way of presenting music that completely belied their asking price. Vibrant, exuberant and tonally correct, the Twins possessed a natural warmth that for me was a relief from the current hyper detail obsessed designs with their high-tech ceramic and metal alloy drivers. Definitely not for gear heads.

For those whose mantra instead reads "it's all about the music", you'll love these suave little Frenchmen. And they're only the entry level model of the line. Quelle surprise.

Manley Labs provided a triple dose of toob bliss with their Shrimp preamp and sexy little Mahi monoblocks. I enjoyed my review loaners so much, I bought 'em. Don't let their diminutive size fool you, the Mahis sound far larger than they look. With their adjustable feedback and ultra-linear/triode switching, they are a flexible delight that should match many speakers and tastes. A big part of the total magic was Manley's entry-level Shrimp preamp. Versatile and quiet, allied with a rich, full tonal balance, the Shrimp brought out the best in the monoblocks. It's an inexpensive yet superb sounding preamp that could be an ideal centerpiece to build an affordable system around. Matched with the eminently sweet-sounding Mahis, this smooth, rich and ballsy trio has consistently impressed me. I sampled a wide range of amplification this past year but I still found my way back to the Manleys. In terms of build quality, appearance and sonics, the Manley seafood platter has been a musically invigorating treat.

While not formally reviewed yet (review with Srajan forthcoming, including commentary by Michael Lavorgna and Paul - Ed.), Ed Schilling had sent me a pair of "hideously finished" (my wife's exact words) B-stock HornShoppe Fostex Fe126E equipped Horns to try out. Since he had an unsellable pair around, Ed decided to spread the gospel toward Canada rather than turning them into firewood. He quipped that they'd still make most other speakers sound like broken transistors. While I admire Ed for his enthusiasm, I don't think I'd go that far. However, for the almost giveaway price of $800/pr new and cosmetically perfect, there is no other speaker I can think of that offers this much for so little. Providing you can tolerate the bandwidth limitations and colorations (of which there are blessedly few with the Horn) of a small, single driver horn designs, these little hillbillies kick serious sonic butt. Find a copasetic amp, hook up the Horns, place 'em against the wall and be done with it. However, you might want to add a subwoofer to fill in the bottom end. But it had better be fast to keep up with the Horns. Currently I'm listening to Ed's creations with Vinnie Rossi's battery-fueled Signature 70 monos and a modified iPod. Talk about a match made in heaven - but more on that in a future review. Let's just say I've enjoyed my beat-up loaners so much, I think I might make Ed an honest man and buy myself a proper pair.

My introduction to disc treatment fluids and gizmos came courtesy of Clark Johnsen via an old Positive Feedback article. While everybody else in the audio press was busy criticizing 16/44 Redbook, Clark was openly postulating that the physical medium itself might be responsible for at least some of 16/44's claimed shortcomings. At the time, he was quite possibly the only reviewer who dared to even utter such heresy and I do remember thinking that he was off his rocker until I tried an earlier formulation of Audience's Auric Illuminator. Turns out Clark was onto something.

Since then I've tried to keep an open mind when it comes to disc tweaks. Therefore, I was naturally intrigued by Marja's and Henk's positive comments regarding the
Nanotec NESPA #1 optical disc finalizer and equally fascinated by Bob Neill's experience with Nanotec's Intron Protect 8500 fluid. With a little sleuthing and help from Steve Klein at Sounds of Silence in New Hampshire, I contacted the Canadian importer Nick Maniatis of Noteworthy Audio in nearby King City to try out a double shot of Nanotec. I brought over a handful of CDs to blast with the Nespa's high intensity light and returned home with a borrowed bottle of Nanotec's funky blue fluid. I had superior sounding CD-Rs of said discs at home for later comparison.

Whaddya know, the light-zapped discs handily beat my EAC copies hands down in terms of overall clarity and low-level detail. Further treatments with the Intron fluid was the icing on the cake. Compared to the Auric Illuminator and Walker Audio Ultra Vivid, the Nanotech fluid was the easiest to use and the most consistent in effect. Each disc sounded more transparent with less grain and digital edge.

The only trick with this stuff is to buff it off within 15 seconds or your disc will be coated with a calcified film that will be difficult if not impossible to remove. I discovered this the hard way. However, these discs still play and sound better than untreated so I guess it just looks worse than it really is. CDs, whether NESPA-ized or not, just sound consistently better with the Intron Protect 8500 than either Walker's Ultra Vivid or the Auric Illuminator. I bought my loaner bottle and the NESPA is on my shopping list. Add in an NOS DAC or CD player and you may wonder what all the fuss is over so-called high rez formats such as DVD-A, SACD, Blu-Ray et al.

Wilco - Kicking Television [Nonesuch 2 79903]
My wife and I saw Wilco this past summer at Massey Hall in Toronto and that show was one of the best concerts I have ever attended. If there is currently a better band in North America, I'm not aware of them. The live album Kicking Television will give you an excellent entry point to Wilco. Rather than simply regurgitating their repertoire on stage, Wilco reshapes and reinvents their work. Well recorded with just about all of Jeff Tweedy's best tunes plus a couple of Woody Guthrie numbers, Kicking Television is a great slice of American R'n'R from one of the most talented and inspired bands around. Makes me wonder why bands like Wilco don't get airplay on commercial radio. But then again, the big corporate bottom feeders that have gobbled up most radio stations in North America have pretty much sucked the life out of Rock'n'Roll and wouldn't know talent if they tripped over Elvis Presley. If you want to discover truly creative and inspired music, you'll need to dig deeper than your local radio station. Check out for more. There's usually plenty of free downloads available.

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 9 [BBC Legends 4179-2]
Of all the Mahler recordings that arrived this past year, none of them intrigued me like this live 1971 BBC recording of the 9th conducted by the late avantgarde composer Bruno Maderna. This is the sort of interpretation that will either enthrall or infuriate Mahlerites, especially those who listen with a score and stop watch in hand. Frankly, I couldn't care less if conductor A's "Adagio" is five minutes faster than conductor B. There's a lot more to great music making than individual movement timing. Holding my attention is one and this recording held it consistently throughout. Apart from some fascinating if controversial tempo choices, this is a huge warm-hearted performance that at turns is devastating, beautiful and shocking yet utterly compelling. Perhaps not a first choice but absolutely wonderful just the same. Most folks seem to trip over the latest issue from the Chailly, Boulez, Abbado and Zander camp but none of them draw out anywhere near the passion and power in the 9th as Maderna does. A full, warm and naturally balanced recording that belies its vintage.

Tom Waits - Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards [Anti 86677-2]
This one is hot of the press but it has already made my music list for the year. This triple disc set is Waits' Exile on Main Street. A sprawling meandering slice of music that at first blush seems forgettable and impenetrable but with repeated listen, worms its way into your soul and becomes indispensable. Initially intended as a compilation of out-takes, soundtrack tunes and unreleased material, Waits apparently re-recorded many of these tracks and assembled them together among three discs with differing themes. Brawlers, as you would expect, contains the more uptempo tunes, all dripping with sleazy Blues and loose-limbed rockabilly. The second disc Bawlers features ballads which range from the bizarre to the achingly beautiful. The weirdest of the bunch are on the third disc titled Bastards which includes a truly whacked cover of Disney's classic "Heigh-Ho" and a handful of spoken word stuff that will either have you giggling on the floor like a 6-year old or just plain puzzled. Creepy, bluesy, bittersweet, beautiful, quirky, irreverent, twisted yet brilliant, Waits is the bastard offspring of Harry Parch and Howlin' Wolf with a little genetic material thrown in from Charles Bukowski. Recording quality, as you can imagine, is all over the place but so what? No one buys a Waits album for the sound. As a co-worker and fellow Waits nut said to me recently, "There's two kinds of people: Waits fans and those who are just plain wrong."

Howe Gelb - 'Sno Angel Like You [Thrill 167]
Arizona based indie rock-alt country songsmith Howe Gelb traveled up to the Great White North to record a brilliant little album with a local Ottawa gospel group. 'Sno Angel like Me is a loose, ramshackle, fuzzy guitar-laced road trip with one of the more underappreciated songwriters to emerge from the American SouthWest. Like every Gelb recording, be it solo or with his on/off again Giant Sand group, it's got a down-home easy-going sloppy nature that is irresistible. Bittersweet yet uplifting, this is also a great sounding record that has a live-off-the-floor feel about it. A little off the beaten track perhaps but a fun ride. My feel good record of the year.

Claude Debussy - Various [Harmonia Mundi HMC 901893]
This charming disc of Debussy piano music is played with delicacy and a straightforwardness that may seem at first to be slightly cool. As with every Alain Planes recording I have heard, be it Debussy or Schubert, Planes seems more intent on letting the composer's work speak for itself rather than trying to force the music into a personal statement. It's all about preserving clarity of line, balance and contrast. Performed on a lovely, rich sounding 1902 Blüthner, this was my favorite piano recording of the year.

Hamburg 1734 - Harpsichord Works [Harmonia Mundi HMC 901898]
In this collection of harpsichord pieces, Andreas Staier plays a modern copy of a 1734 Heironÿmus Albrecht Hass instrument whose maker was inspired, if you can believe this, by the complex tonal range of the organ. I swear you've never heard a harpsichord like this. It's a veritable kaleidoscope of tonal color that will alter your mental state more than most psychotropic narcotics. Well, maybe I exaggerate a tad but you get the idea. If you buy one Baroque disc this year, make it this one.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Various [BIS CD-1387 & 1577]
Here's a rarity: demonstration audiophile-class sonics and first rate performances and interpretations. Why do so-called audiophile demonstration class recordings almost always suck? Well, here's a pair of discs that will satisfy both the audiophile and the mélomane. Don't you dare turn your nose down with the mention of the relatively unknown Malaysian Philharmonic and Kees Bakels. I'll take these discs over anything Simon Rattle or James Levine released this year. No contest. Both discs are pulsating and electrifying performances of rarely performed Rimsky-Korsakov lollipops in excellent three-dimensional sound.