Looking back over the first half of 2006 and the components that have come thru my digs for evaluation, I feel compelled to start a short list of initial overachievers that stand out from the pack for various reasons that are dear to my heart. In no particular sequence, here goes.

The Esoteric X-03 SACD/CD player performed stoutly on the level with the far dearer Zanden Audio separates and outdid them in dynamics. Considering box count reduction from 4 to 1, SACD playback and seriously reduced expense, the X-03 is a digital 2-channel source component that takes no prisoners. While you and I have to assume that Esoteric's more upscale models go even further, this is a clear case of not really wanting to know. If you value your sanity. The X-03 gives you vault-type construction and what without a doubt is the most over-engineered drawer-type transport mechanism currently available. Let's be clear - anything that can sonically hang with the precedent set by Yamada-San's special creations signals completion even when the squeaky wheel turns again tomorrow to put something else in the spot light there on the very top .

The Red Wine Audio Signature 30 performed on par with the power-wise far more limited but amazingly potent Yamamoto A-08S. It then shaves off nearly 50% on the sticker, requires neither valves nor preamps, runs on battery power for abject silence and is one of the best three solid-state amps I've heard, period (the other two being the Audio Sector Patek and First Watt F3). Bespoke 'philes won't believe it, snooty 'philes will overlook it and smart 'philes will laugh all the way to the bank. That's how these things tend to go.

The Crystal Cable Ultra cables, while unapologetically expensive, lower system noise floor to previously uncharted levels and thus are a relevant choice for über rigs expected to resolve everything. The fact that they're skinny, ultra tough, easy as a dream to route and visually very attractive are merely fringe benefits. If you're thinking about the best in the cable sector, this cable series would have to be part of your final short list no doubt.

The Supratek Cabernet Dual from Australian handcrafter Mick Maloney is, thus far, the makes-the-most-difference component I've crossed paths with this year. State-of-the-art tube preamps in the upper echelons are not my real forté to judge. It's simply a category I have not explored as much as others. Hence I've held off cementing my profound regard for this 'dual' preamp with an award. However, it clearly deserves one. As of today, it'd make Editor's Best of the Year 2006 by a rather long shot.

The Furutech Reference III cables are exceptionally well built and very resolved yet natural-sounding wires and come with a surprisingly affordable price tag considering they're this Japanese specialty firm's very best. A very solid, completely no-nonsense recommendation that readily springs to mind when sorting through the bumper crop of goodies I've taken a look at this year.

So much for the first half of 2006. Looking forward, there are two upcoming reviews I'm most excited about. This is based on initial materials, gut instinct and hey-a-guy-can-dream reflexes. One is the Raysonic CD128. This CD player offers a fully balanced 6922-based tube output stage (all four tubes are incidentally readily accessible without a screw driver), a top-loading transport and excellent cosmetics. And it goes for all of $1,699. If its sonics can keep up with the promise implied by designer good looks and trick features, it will prove to be a real find. Let's face it, multi-thou kit looks great on the glossy covers and turns heads. But in how many homes does it really end up? Mind you, it is great fun -- and a great privilege -- to explore the outer reaches where if you have to ask about the fee of entry, you're not invited. Playing in those leagues must remain counter-balanced by finds and recommendations that are relevant to a greater audience or else, reviewing becomes self-serving at best. And that would defeat the purpose of our publication.

In a similar vein then, I can't wait for the arrival of the Abbingdon Music Research CD-77. It boasts conceptual and actual ingredients that are a virtual mirror image of what's inside my Zanden Audio separates. Yet it bundles them all in a single chassis of superlative build quality and with a full deck of unexpected features. Priced at ca. $7,000, this is still upscale territory but once you inspect what you're actually getting, this might have the makings of delivering uncut Ferrari performance for an Acura check. In fact, learning about the five-years-in-the-making launch of the company could make the cynics among us rather giddy with relief. Here is an outfit with all the right ambitions as well as -- apparently -- the necessary funding and vital in-house design expertise to author true breakthru products at blatantly fair pricing. If getting my hands and ears on their products validates these first impressions, then AMR will become The Most Exciting New Company of 2006 in these pages without any argument.

Wrapping up this minor state-of-the-(non)-union address, thanks are once again due to all the manufacturers who choose to support our efforts by making review equipment available on an ongoing basis. None of them have to, you know. It involves expenses, much gnashing of teeth and the occasional upset stomach. Without their facing of real risks, fears and associated expenditures -- besides shipping, you can't resell a review loaner as A-stock -- you would have nothing to read about. If a review goes south, especially a newcomer stands a great deal to lose. Why embrace that risk just to amuse unknown readers?

This particular perspective of the review process often gets short shrift. Hence whether these manufacturers happen to be mentioned in today's brief or not, they all deserve a round of sound applause for feeding the endless pipeline which really produces the copy you love to read. No gear, no reviews. It's as simple as that. Let's hear it then....