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To become personal favorites in any year-end feature relies at least to my mind on using such components daily. That narrows things down considerably. For this reason I'd have to nominate a complete mini system this year. A reader e-mail then merely confirmed it. "Regarding your Burson HA160D review, if what you say is true—and I have no reason to believe otherwise—this is a great day for middle-class audiophiles. A solid DAC, credible preamp functionality and top class headphone amp at a very reasonable price has everything you need to be the brains of an evolving system (and still upgrade your legacy components such as CD players).

"Every audiophile dad is going to want to send his son or daughter to college with one of those, to start with the iPod (with Onkyo or Griffin digital transport) and cans he probably already has and then gradually grow up to the monoblocks and speakers, hi-rez files and whatever else may happen in the coming years with source components, without tripping up on wires and a dozen little boxes. That you perceive this to be a reference-level component on several levels too is just sweet. Thank you Santa Klaus!" - Olivier Farmer.

Precisely. Start with an iPod. In my case that's a maxed-out 160GB Classic filled up with CD-burned AIFF files and ALAC additions from the iTunes store. Add the €200 Onkyo NS-D1 digital-direct dock in silver or black. You could substitute a Wadia but the Onkyo is cheaper and more full-featured. Connect a $123 Black Cat Cable Veloce RCA-to-RCA digital link. Add the overachieving $1.100 Burson Audio HA160D 3-in-1 headphone amp slash preamp slash DAC. Top it all off with the world's greatest full-size headphone, the $945 Audez'e LCD-2 planar-magnetic. Now or later you might garnish with Ken Ball's $485 ALO Audio LUX-FEP chain-mail leash. This would replace the stock Audez'e harness. Lockable mini XLRs make cable swapping a cinch.

Shake 'n' stir. Enjoy. And be forever screwed to settle for less. This is an ultimate yet compact and tidy headfi system. It's just two boxes plus iPod and cans. But it outperforms $50.000+ systems of the kind that include a first-rate tube preamp and speakers flat to 25Hz. I'm not kidding. I'm not hyperbolisticating. This is a serious big-boy rig. Refer to the embedded review links for details on each contributor. It's all there. And that's what I listen to every day. Complete damage to the wallet—iPod and shipping fees not included—is around $2.200. Reviewers like Myles Astor meanwhile would have you spend thrice that on MIT's Oracle MA-X phono cable alone (actually that's $7999 for one meter). Cough.

So that's my top pick for 2010. But it doesn't stop there. As Olivier Farmer rightly took away from my Burson review, this system can become the perfect nucleus around which to—eventually or right away—build a full-grown and full-blown speaker system. The iPod/Onkyo digital transport will easily transition. If you eventually need/want more memory and features, the Burson's 24/96 async USB input paves the way for a Mac Mini with iPad remote, an iMac or a Windows-based hard-disk music server. Meanwhile the Burson's 10V pre-outs controlled from a custom stepped pot with precision resistors get married to a stereo amplifier and pair of speakers. Voilà. Done. Off the hamster mill. Fini.

Right. Choices of amps and speakers are endless of course. Cheating on my mandate to the crew to keep to just one component this year —I replaced 'component' with 'system' to invoke executive privileges—I'll simply mention one amp and speaker in passing (insert your own based on budget and personal needs). I reviewed both this year. I bought the amp and would have bought the speaker but moving house put a stop on the hifi budget. On budget, if the pricing with these mentions escalates—it does—it only reflects my desire to keep you on the performance level we've already established with the headfi core components. That's the beauty of headphone systems. It's also the unavoidable butt pain with speaker systems. Equivalent performance must scale up sound pressure levels to properly energize big free room air rather than small trapped ear-canal air. This jacks up amplifier power demands, voltage gain, current drive and speaker output. That involves more drivers with crossovers. It means more components, more cables, more complexity all around. To do it properly requires disproportionately more funds. Meanwhile room acoustics throw a monkey wrench into the deal. This nearly predictably subtracts significant performance percentage points from your good-faith investment. But it's the nature of the speaker beast everyone must face and embrace.


To go there consider the ModWright KWA100-SE with its 100/180wpc DC-coupled two-stage circuit and Mosfet outputs; and for speakers the return of a legend even better than the original, Anthony Gallo's Ref 3.5. This would turn my favorite headfi rig into a full dream-boat speaker system. It offers inputs for three more (analog) sources and only lacks remote control. Adding cabling, we now clock in at ca. $15.000 total (amp and speakers add up to $10K exactly). That's far from chump change.
  You could buy a new car instead. Or a seriously luxurious used one. Even so, the two components which escalate us from $2.200 to x 6 plus are clear value and not trophy propositions. Once again it underscores why I'm so excited about my headfi system. For very fair coin it builds an excellent core around headphones starting with the iPod and headphones you already (should!) have. Simply add the Burson. That's $1.100. Later upgrade to the Onkyo dock and process the iPod files digitally inside the Burson's far superior DAC with discrete I/V conversion.

That's $300 for the dock and digital cable. Even later, add the Audez'e for another grand. This completes the first (or final) stage. Later you might splurge on the massive but flexible upgrade cable (I'd not mention it if it weren't worth the money but it's certainly not essential). At this point you'll have a very good digital transport, DAC, preamp and headphone amp with a truly superlative earspeaker.

What's more (and here it gets deliciously devilish) the Burson + Audez'e combo establishes a truly full-range highly dynamic ultra low-distortion acoustic reference. That will inform your subsequent shopping for a speaker amp and loudspeakers in capital letters. I freely admit that it'll leave you somewhat—or actually royally—screwed. Haha. That's because to remotely approach never mind match or exceed this reference on linearity, bass extension, overall resolution, microdynamics and tone textures will be very difficult with loudspeakers. It won't really be affordable and should mostly become an exercise in frustration. You could well decide to stick to my core headfi system, consider the hifi case closed and laugh all the way to the bank. In that case you should know that you're enjoying better sound any time of the day or night than the vast majority of audiophiles and reviewers ever will who struggle with room acoustics and serious speaker nonlinearities. Plus, they must conform to social mandates which have them only listen at specific volumes and times which are okay with neighbors and co-dwellers. Meanwhile you indulge the urge without those limitations. Sweet indeed.

Lest you think the above as good or better than $50,000 systems correlation was flippant, I let reader Joe Eagleeye have the last word on the matter. "I've got the Audez'e LCD-2s—recabled with Stefan Art Audio's balanced Endorphin wire—with an Eddie Current Balancing Act headphone amp. The sound is spectacular. My source is the Metric Halo LIO-8 pro DAC which is quite the rage on That replaced a Weiss Minerva and a tweaked Technics SL1200 turntable. I lost my listening room which prompted the move to headphones. I haven't regretted it for a moment. I used to have Avantgarde Duo Omegas and Shindo electronics in a 1,500sf open loft."
My second pick this year is the outcome of a custom commission from Trafomatic Audio's Sasa Cokic. Called Kaivalya, it's a pair of IT-coupled class A push/pull pentode EL84 monos. The project involved me providing basic power specs, sonic expectations and roughly sketched visuals while Sasa handled circuit and transformer design, final tube selection and cosmetics. This e-mail collaboration came off well beyond expectations and is fully chronicled in the review. I'm so pleased with the outcome that for next year Sasa will design a matching preamp. It's likely to be called Kamala—Sanskrit for lotus to symbolize purity and complement the Kaivalya also in name—and as per the designer's current notions will probably be based on a class A push/pull circuit around PX4 triodes with his own input and output transformers. As with the Kaivalya project, this could change multiple times during the R&D process. I'll once again chronicle that in detail when the time comes.

For now and this year, the Kaivalya is my favorite tube amp. It shares much with the FirstWatt F5/J2 transistor aesthetic but then adds a small amount of particular valve virtues on tone textures and soundstage dimensionality. At €5.500/pr + shipping direct from Serbia and offering 25 watts per side, the Kaivalya monos are my current idea of what a fairly priced top-class modern valve amp should be. For context, my expectations were educated by exposure to and ownership of various 45, 2A3, 300B, 6C333C and KT88/6550 machines over the years. As I've said, those expectations have been fully matched by the final Trafomatic Audio design. That it looks gorgeous to boot is a lovely bonus.

Admittedly my reviewing gig implies that I don't get to enjoy my Kaivalyas every day as I do my bedside headphone system. Depending on what's in for review in the main room, I could be listening to transistors instead. Or micro-power direct-heated triodes. Or battery-power class D. Or 130-watt valve monos. Even so, thinking over what I've encountered in 2010 and focusing very specifically on personal favorites with all the subjectivity this entails... my custom white monos simply had to be included. They are sure also to feature in many future reviews. Over & out now.