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Reviewers' ChoiceThe most anticipated SoundStage! Ultra review of 2022 did not get off to the smoothest of starts. Full disclosure: the missteps had absolutely nothing to do with Gryphon Audio Designs or SoundStage!

Nonetheless . . .

Engineer and high-fidelity enthusiast Jacques Mahul founded Focal-JMlab in 1979. He began making speaker drivers at a family-owned engineering company in Saint-Etienne, France. Not long after, Mahul built his first speaker, the DB13, a standmounted design released in 1982 under the JMlab brand name. The DB13 was one of the first speakers to utilize a double voice-coil speaker driver, which enabled it to play as loudly as many floorstanding models of the time.

Audiovector, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been producing high-end loudspeakers for over four decades. And, as you can imagine, a company that has been producing speakers since 1979 must have an impressive product selection. I chose one of their newest models to review, the R 6 Avantgarde.

Deep in the Gloucestershire countryside, nestled in a pretty country lane between wild hedgerows, lies the headquarters of perhaps the world’s most respected manufacturer of professional loudspeakers. Since 1974, ATC—the Acoustic Transducer Company—has designed, engineered, and built professional monitor systems for a client list that seemingly includes most of the leading recording or mastering studios on Earth. ATC speakers hang in the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Festival Hall, and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. ATC speakers were used by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab while he was cutting many of his vinyl masterpieces. The company’s client list reads like an A–Z of the world’s most beloved artists, including Enya, Kate Bush, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, and Pink Floyd. In short, if you want to hear Pink Floyd the way that David Gilmour does, you’d better use ATC speakers.

“This Denafrips DAC is very good. And really well built. Like, really well built.” It was Tuesday, and SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider was telling me about the company’s flagship Terminator-Plus DAC over the phone while, as so often happens, I was trying to attend to my corporate day job. “Uh-huh,” I murmured, kinda, sorta listening. I knew Denafrips as the manufacturer of some relatively affordable digital gear that had made a splash amongst YouTube reviewers in recent times, and being a reviewer myself here at SoundStage! Ultra, I was completely unprepared for what Doug said next. “What if you reviewed their Venus II for SoundStage! Ultra?” My attention was immediately wrenched from my work email, and I bemusedly blurted, “Uh, what? Why?” I knew the Terminator-Plus—which like all Denafrips products is sold in Singapore dollars (SGD)—retailed for less than $6500 in the United States based on then-current conversion rates, and that the Venus II retailed for less than $3000. No matter how good the Venus II was, in my head, its pricing automatically ruled it out as an Ultra product. But Doug, my stubborn, combustible friend from the Great White North, encouraged me to be open-minded. I’m glad I was, because the times, they are a-changin’.

Alta Audio is based in Huntington, New York, and manufactures a growing line of loudspeakers, all of them designed by company president Michael Levy. For my review, I chose a smallish floorstander, the Alec, for several initial reasons. First, the Alec is a two-way design that weighs under 100 pounds. My current reference loudspeaker, the Sonus Faber Maxima Amator, is similar in size and form factor; like the Alec, it’s also a slim two-driver, two-way floorstander with an ambitious design brief. Having several months of listening to the SF under my belt, I knew I wanted to sample another speaker model that would compete directly with the svelte Italian. The Alta Audio Alec fit the bill perfectly.

So, you’ve assembled this great high-end system—components, speakers, cabling, isolation devices, various tweaks, and so on—and you’re experiencing what you believe is the highest fidelity your system is capable of. But have you considered power conditioning? The subject is not nearly as controversial as it once was. Most major audio magazines, this publication included, have extolled the virtues of cleaning up the power that runs from the wall to your stereo.

Totem Acoustic is a company whose products I’ve long admired from a distance, but never had the opportunity to review. When I first became acquainted with the brand 15 years ago, its design aesthetic of simple, clean lines and veneered wood finishes appealed to me. Several of their current models—like their Arro and Forest floorstanding models, as well as their Sky and Signature One bookshelf speakers—continue this tradition.

One of the great things about hi-fi is that there’s something for everybody. Like in any other industry, the big players care less about pleasing the eccentric fringes, and more about capturing as large a slice of the “average” audiophile base as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s good business. But it doesn’t exactly encourage risk-taking, or flourishes of design and engineering ingenuity, because the goal is less about enticing the most audiophiles, and more about discouraging the least. The older I get, the more mundane that notion seems to me. Life is short. And while affordable hi-fi should be all about performance per dollar, the more boutique nature of the high end demands that a loudspeaker be both performant and provocative.

About a dozen years ago, some three years into the hobby, I’d stay up late at night listening to my audio system, finding increased pleasure in the richness and clarity of the sound I was getting and discovering that chimes and bells sparkled all the more somehow on Santana’s Abraxas, that Duane Allman’s guitar solo on “Stormy Monday” had added dashes of crunch and longer tails of sustain, and that pianist Alfred Brendel’s arpeggios rang more sensuously and his trills were exquisite to a degree that made them seem like the paintings of dancing deer in a cave at Lascaux. “It’s the electricity in your line feed,” a close friend said. “It’s cleaner late at night when there isn’t all that crud from appliances and air conditioners backing up into the grid.” Simply put, late night power was like a thinking man’s martini—pure gin unadulterated by vermouth—all kick and no pollutant flavorings. My friend suggested that I get something called a line conditioner. “It’ll clean up your power before it hits your system, and then you might get that late-night performance all the time.”