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Ayre KX-R TwentyReviewers' ChoiceColor me skeptical. This review is a month late because I was having a hard time accepting the announcement of Ayre Acoustics’ new KX-R Twenty preamp -- and, subsequently, requesting to review it. The original KX-R had been my reference for some two-and-a-half years -- longer than I can remember any component staying in my system since I began this reviewing thing back in 1998. Sure, other preamps came in for review. But then they left. I can’t say I was ever tempted to replace the KX-R, not even with substantially more expensive components that I was able to compare it with, side by side. The KX-R was the quietest, smoothest, most resolving, most enjoyable preamp I’d had in my system. Heck, it might be the single best stereo component I’ve ever owned.

Invicta MirusReviewers' ChoiceCanada’s Resonessence Labs made a name for itself with its first product, the Invicta DAC ($4995 USD; $3995 at time of review), which our own S. Andrea Sundaram positively reviewed in July 2012 for SoundStage! Hi-Fi. Since then the company has primarily been occupied with releasing a host of new, less expensive products -- their Concero line -- priced below $1000 each. And just this past year, Resonessence reached an even more attractive price point with the Herus USB DAC-headphone amplifier, for $350. Reaching a wider audience is clearly one of the company’s goals, and I think it’s a strong move -- many audiophiles are realizing that great sound needn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Vivid Audio Giya G4Reviewers' ChoiceA listener’s room should always be a strong consideration when selecting a reference loudspeaker. Size, as I’ve been told in a variety of contexts, matters. I’ve always been inclined -- and I suspect I’m not alone in this -- to buy the biggest speakers with the biggest bass drivers I could lay my hands on. That’s not always advisable, however. Sticking a pair of such obelisks in a small listening room just won’t work. You probably won’t get enough stereo separation from massive cabinets, speaker height could be a problem, and the bass will assuredly overload even the most damped and treated space. Normally, as you move down a given line of speaker models, the cabinets get smaller and less complex, the driver arrangements simpler, the drivers perhaps less capable. The smallest is usually a three-way, maybe even a two-way. Each of these compromises leads to concessions in terms of dynamic range, ultimate output ability, and, likely, powers of resolution. For me, the smallest speaker was never an option. Then again, I don’t like getting the smallest of anything. Maybe it’s because I’m American.

Aurender X100LReviewers' ChoiceWhen I heard that Aurender was releasing two new music servers at lower prices than their original S10 ($6990 USD), I was encouraged. I found the S10 -- the company’s first commercial product, released in 2011 -- to be a remarkably good server. It was so good that I included it in my The World’s Best Audio System 2012 -- a no-holds-barred spectacle designed to explore just how good reproduced sound could be. The S10 was one of two source components, the other being an Esoteric P-02 disc transport ($23,500). In 2013, Aurender upped the ante with their flagship W20 ($16,800), their best effort at creating the perfect music server, but at a price that only the most well-off audiophiles could even consider. I welcomed the announcement of less-expensive Aurenders.

Then my excitement turned to concern. What would the company have to do to make a product at half the price of the S10? Would it have a cheaper case? Cheaper connectors? Less advanced software? What would be compromised, and would those compromises ultimately lead to a disappointing product? There was only one way to find out.

Sonus Faber Olympia ISo Doug Schneider, Jeff Fritz, and I are walking into Sonus Faber’s suite at the Venetian Hotel, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. There to present the Italian brand with a Product of the Year award for their excellent Venere 3.0 loudspeaker, which Jeff reviewed last year, we run into 33-year-old Livio Cucuzza, chief designer for the Fine Sounds Group, which owns Sonus Faber. Cucuzza introduces himself, and despite being preceded by quite a reputation, given his work on Sonus Faber’s Venere models, their stunning Aida speaker, and sister brand Wadia’s Intuition 01 integrated amplifier-DAC, I can’t help staring at his shirt. In this sea of ill-fitting suits, bad plaid, and dad-khakis, Cucuzza is rocking tight jeans and a plain white T-shirt with a bat on it. Except that the bat’s head has been replaced by a cat’s head. It’s a bat-cat. Naturally.

When we mention that we’re there to present the award, Cucuzza lights up, and hustles out of the room to fetch the rest of the Sonus Faber crew. A few minutes later he strolls back in, followed by four colleagues. These dudes look like they’ve just sauntered off a Versace catwalk. Two wear impeccably tailored suits: one sports a skinny tie and a fierce tan, while the second is a Jeremy Renner look-alike with a spread-collared Oxford and a pocket square. The other two, between them, wear stylish designer glasses, a supremely well-fitting tweed jacket, and award-winning smiles. Doug and I just stare at these guys, then at each other, then back again. We feel like total slobs.

Clarity Cable OrganicI’ve known Chris and Melissa Owen, of Clarity Cable, for seven or eight years. Like many industry professionals, I was first attracted to them by the CDs they give away each year in Las Vegas, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. They do this not for money or favors, or to get good reviews or favorable comments in show reports, but because they love music -- it’s their way of sharing something special with other audiophiles. I enjoy talking music and cables with the Owens, and if I miss a CES, next time they always have extras of the discs they gave away the previous year.

Early Friday evening at last winter’s AXPONA show, in Chicago, I found myself rushing to get a friend home before sunset on that Sabbath. As we hurried through the crowded halls, trying to remember how to get to the parking lot, Chris Owen appeared. Oh, no, I thought. He’s going to want to talk, and we’ve got to get out of here. Sure enough, Owen invited me to visit the Clarity Cable room -- he had some “candy” I might want to hear. I apologized, and told him I’d be back the next day. I can’t forget the look of disappointment on his face.

EgglestonWorks Nine SignaturesLast year, at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, I was secretly on the hunt for a new pair of reference loudspeakers. With my eyes focused on new products and my ears seeking nirvana, I was quickly reminded how much one’s personal taste is a part of choosing one’s speakers. Think of the variables: the character of the speaker’s sound, its cost, its appearance, how well a pair of them will blend with one’s ancillary equipment, how well they measure -- the list goes on. One speaker that stood out for me at CES 2013 I found in the EgglestonWorks room: their new Nine Signature ($18,900 USD per pair), a revision of their model Nine. At first I was impressed by how they looked. Then I took notice of the suite of new drivers housed in what I would later learn was a highly revised cabinet, and I was hooked. Unfortunately, I was also pressed for time, and so was unable to linger and spend a good while listening to them. I was glad when, some weeks later, Jim Thompson, founder and lead designer at EgglestonWorks, approached me to review the Nine Signature.

Light Harmonic LightSpeed USBThe name Light Harmonic may not at first sound familiar. But most audiophiles are at least aware of their Da Vinci 384kHz DAC ($20,000 USD), which was a legend in its time, and the even more over-the-top Da Vinci Dual DAC ($31,000). As of this writing, those two ultra-high-end DACs and the subject of this review -- the LightSpeed USB cable -- are Light Harmonic’s only retail products. Given so few models and such high prices, you can bet that Light Harmonic is laser-focused on performance, both objective and subjective. At $1399 for the 1.6m length, the LightSpeed is a seriously expensive USB cable -- there’d better be a darn good reason to spend so much money on it.

Light Harmonic decided to separate the wires carrying power from the wires carrying the digital audio signal. The LightSpeed has a single connector on each end, but between the connectors run two bright-red cables, kept some 2.5” apart by a series of clear acrylic spacers. That’s not the LightSpeed’s only unique feature. Light Harmonic claims to have devised a cable geometry capable of transmitting data 20 times faster than USB 2.0’s highest speed, and twice as fast as USB 3.0’s highest. They say that this speed results in a “bit-perfect” cable.

Berning ZH-230Reviewers' ChoiceMany manufacturers claim that their products are “innovative,” but few merit that description more than the amplifiers designed by David Berning. His recent power amps have used a circuit he describes as a “unique Impedance Converter that replaces the traditional audio power output transformer and greatly extends and improves amplifier performance. We call our technology ‘ZOTL’ for Zero-Hysteresis Output Transformerless. Operating at a fixed high frequency without traditional audio output transformers, the ZOTL Impedance Converter eliminates the frequency-dependent performance limitations inherent in all transformer-coupled tube amps.

Esoteric C-02Reviewers' ChoiceWhen audiophiles gather, they inevitably salivate over Esoteric’s cutting-edge digital components -- its transports, digital-to-analog converters, and word clocks. Analog? Not so much. Mention Esoteric’s preamplifiers and power amplifiers and you’ll likely hear this common generalization: Despite their technical competence, the sounds of Japanese analog products lack body, passion, and soul.

That generalization is not true of Esoteric’s analog gear, which is fast and detailed, yet also rich, full-bodied, and romantic. I’d go a step further -- I believe that one of the key ingredients in the secret sauce Esoteric uses to make their digital gear is the outstanding design of their analog circuitry.