My Favorites of 2007 focus exclusively on equipment that possesses exceptional musicality in the Music Lovers style. Hifi equipment that possesses exceptional musicality is equipment that emphasizes the musical aspects of a recorded performance over the non-musical artifacts of the recording process. For example, the timbral signature of a band, the melodic flow of music over time in a song, and delivering the full emotional impact of music are considered to be more important than the exaggeration of the non-musical artifacts of the recording process such as soundstaging, transparency, imaging and extreme detail recovery that has found favor in equipment voiced for audiophiles.
My 2007 picks sound very good sonically but because they don't overly exaggerate the non-musical artifacts of the recording process, they are more tolerant of a wider range of recording quality and tend to provide a more natural, life-like and enjoyable musical experience for the listener. This is gear designed to allow for many hours of enjoyable and fatigue-free listening sessions, leaving the listener refreshed and edified at the end of the day. This is also gear that can get you off the dreaded audiophile merry-go-round for good so you can kick back and enjoy the tunes while you explore your music.
Now, without further ado, let me present my year's favorites:
Loudspeakers Category: The Harbeth Super HL5
The Harbeth Super HL5 is the 6 the generation of the original Harbeth HL monitor, giving it the deepest roots into Harbeth history of any model in the current Harbeth product line. 2007 was the 30th anniversary of the revered HL monitor and the Harbeth Super HL5 is my easy pick for best music lover loudspeaker of 2007. The Super HL5 is so good, it could end up being my loudspeaker pick for 2037 on Harbeth's 60th anniversary! To date, it is simply the most enjoyable loudspeaker I've encountered for the music lover. Its musicality is extraordinary, its sonics are excellent, it's an easy enough load to drive even with my $3,496 15wpc Leben CS300X Limited integrated amplifier to musically satisfying levels, and the price is modest in comparison to its competition (starting at $4299 in Cherry). I highly recommend Noel Nolan's Skylan speaker stands designed specifically for the Super HL5 ($360) to get their musical best from them.
Amplification Category: Mr. Taku Hyodo and the Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company of Japan
I was going to nominate the Leben CS600 32wpc integrated valve amplifier ($4995) for my Favorites of 2007 pick in the amplification category. After all, it's the most consistently musical amplification device that's come through my listening room this year. And its easy-going flexibility and musicality brought out the best from a broad range of speakers and sources. The Leben CS600 is pure magic when combined with the Harbeth Super HL5. In fact, the combination id so good that I had to recalibrate my whole way of thinking about what's important in HiFi gear performance, with the result being the new Music Lovers series I've focused on for 2007. So you'd think it would be an easy pick. But then our Editor encouraged us to broaden the scale of 'recommendables' to include the people behind the gear where applicable.
Which gets me to Mr. Taku Hyodo, the founder of Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company of Japan. Hyodo San certainly has the Midas touch when it comes to designing amplification electronics for the music lover and as such he deserves special recognition. Leben electronics are naturally musical, beautifully crafted, use readily available vacuum tubes, sound wonderful and are modestly priced considering their formidable level of performance.
I think part of Hyodo San's golden design touch is due to his background as a professional musician (an acoustic guitarist my favorite!). Hyodo San told me that "my experiences performing and listening to live music helped me a lot in designing my amplifiers. Listening to live acoustic instruments guides my amplifier designs as live music always helps people relax and enjoy the music."
Hyodo San also used to design electronics for the premium Luxman brand. Hyodo San's combination of musician's insight and electronics expertise has converged in his electronics designs with remarkably musical results. Originally Hyodo San just made a few amplifiers for himself and a few friends. "The most important thing is to achieve a total musical balance. I am aiming for a natural sound in my designs that allows the listener to relax and enjoy the music so I always try to consult with as many ordinary listeners as possible, friends and family. I design my products for real people, the unspecified music lovers. His friends loved the sound of his amplifiers and encouraged him to use his obvious talent to start his own audio company. Hyodo San responded to their encouragement by founding his 'private label' electronics company to reflect his philosophy that 'music is life'. In keeping with his philosophy, Hyodo San called his company Leben, a German word that literally means 'life or 'to live'. And believe me ,the Leben gear is alive with the sound of music!
Leben has a very lively following in Japan and enthusiastic owners have established a fan club called the Leben Audio Lovers' Club. Leben has been available exclusively in Japan until recently and because there are only a small number of Leben products hand-crafted each year, when they are all sold no more are to be had - kind of like special wine vintages.
You'll see more about Hyodo San's musical Leben creations in the pages of 6moons in the near future when I write about the CS660P power amplifier and the RS28CX full-function preamplifier [above]. And yes, Hyodo San and his Leben amplification electronics are my pick for the Favorites of 2007 discoveries in the amplification category!
Cable Category: Audio Tekne Interconnects and Speaker Cables
The Audio Tekne ARSP-500 4-meter speaker cables ($700/pr) and matching ARC-500 1-meter interconnects ($300/pr) are the best cables I've run across yet for the music lover, a bargain at their modest prices, and my pick for this list in the cables category.
Mr. Kiyoaki Imai of Tokyo/Japan is the creative force behind Audio Tekne and has been crafting audio products for 25 years. Imai San's Audio Tekne ARSP-500 speaker cables and ARC-500 interconnects utilize 500-strand pure copper Litz with minimal insulation, small inductance and identical plus and minus geometry - all of which are factors that he insists are necessary for the most natural sound. The speaker cables are rather unique in that they include a separate ground wire from the cable shield that is supposed to be grounded to the speaker frame and amplifier. Imai San says there is about 1 volt of potential difference between speaker frame and amplifier and that by grounding them together through the cable shield, the S/N ratio improves for quieter backgrounds. My speakers don't have a separate grounding point on the drivers so I used the chassis grounds on my Leben integrated amplifiers instead. The interconnects are made like the speaker cables ,except without the additional ground wire.
The Audio Tekne cables are beautifully fabricated both in appearance and quality of construction. The ultra-flexible conductors are covered with a striking and finely-woven metal sheath that is an almost iridescent green and red for the left and right channels respectively. The interconnects are finished with a nicely contrasting gold finish on their RCA connectors and feature a flexible wire wrap to protect the conductors as they enter the RCA connectors - a high quality, technically adept and attractive implementation.
The Audio Tekne cables provide a natural and musical presentation while maintaining formidable sonic prowess. In fact, they have taken my Leben-Harbeth rig to a new level of musicality that I just can't seem to get enough of. They are by far the best cables I've tried yet for music lovers and they are a bargain too from a cost-versus-performance perspective.
Analog Category: Paschetto Analog Engineering 2008 Turntable
The Paschetto AE-2008 turntable is a lovingly restored and hand-crafted music lovers' hot-rod from the Golden Era of audio that captures the soul of the music at the very fair price of $2495. I love its Arts & Crafts-style plinth and had lots of readers e-mail about "What's that gorgeous turntable in your photos?" It wouldn't surprise me at all to find out that Frank Lloyd Wright had an Empire 208 in his home. Who knows, maybe an Empire 208 is what helps the Dalai Lama stay so transcendently cool?
The Paschetto is forgiving of snaps, crackles and pops on LPs which won't upset its musical apple cart. Musically expressive, the AE-2008 brings recorded music to life in a way that tricks your perceptions into feeling you are listening to real flesh 'n' blood people having fun making music. I recommend that you set your AE-2008 up in the same way my review unit was - with an SME 309 tone arm and Denon 103R cartridge. It's a honey of a combination with lots of synergy going for it.
The Paschetto Analog Engineering 2008 turntable is living proof that there are still a few pieces of hifi gear there waiting to be discovered that get the music right and are suitable for the music lovers among us who want satisfaction for the long haul so that we can focus on the music and not our next gear purchase. The Paschetto AE-2008 falls into that rare but fine category of audio jewels like Harbeth loudspeakers, Leben amplification and Audio Tekne cables that seem to be able to unfailingly and easily get the best from recorded music. Well done, Mike!