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YG Acoustics Kipod II SignatureSelect ComponentIf you fancy the audiophile rags (and if you're reading this, you likely do), chances are you've heard of high-end speaker maker YG Acoustics. A while back, YGA caused a stir with an ad campaign that proclaimed its speakers "The best . . . on Earth. Period."

That's a brash statement from any manufacturer, let alone one that's extremely small (YGA currently employs only about ten people) and is barely ten years old. Not surprisingly, lots of people, including many reviewers, were taken aback. However, after listening to the company's wares, more than a few people have concluded that the statement isn't entirely hype.

Select ComponentVandersteen Audio TreoVandersteen Audio is one of the survivors: a now-classic audio brand whose first product was the Model 2 loudspeaker, in 1977. In all those years, many flavor-of-the-month loudspeaker brands have come and gone, and most that have gone have deserved that fate.

A company doesn’t stick around for 35 years by accident -- it lasts because it makes products that people want, and has stood behind its products all that time. For many years, with his Models 1, 2, and 3, founder-owner Richard Vandersteen focused on maximum performance for the dollar. Updates for these models were issued regularly over the years, and for a long time they were Vandersteen’s core business. All featured essentially the same look: top and bottom caps of wood, and four side panels covered with an acoustically transparent cloth sock. Vandersteen’s thinking was that good-looking wood cabinets are expensive and add nothing to a speaker’s performance. Avoiding expensive wood finishes let him engineer better sound into his speakers than other companies could put into speakers at similar prices with real-wood finishes.

Select ComponentMagico Q1When any audio component comes in for review, it’s usually several weeks before its true nature begins to fully reveal itself. Familiar recordings of different musical styles, placing different demands on a playback system, are selected to tease out the character and capabilities of the device under test. But every once in a while, the initial impact made by a component is so clear that it stands out in stark relief from the rest. In those rare circumstances, the hundreds of tracks played in the following weeks serve only to confirm that initial impression, rather than blaze a circuitous trail to its real character, hitherto unrevealed. 

HemingwayI enjoy doing cable reviews . . . but nothing seems to get audiophiles more stirred up than criticisms of their speakers or cables. Critiques of anything else seem permissible, but cables and speakers . . . say the wrong thing and you’ll get e-mails for weeks. I know this because I visit audio forums and message boards, and I read what the cliques have to say about what reviewers have written about their favorite cables. A lot of the time, what these folks seem to forget is that reviewers need to use a unique set of standards in choosing cables. 

Synergistic ResearchSelect ComponentIn April 2009, when I reviewed Synergistic Research’s Tesla Apex interconnects and speaker cables, I concluded that they were among the best cables I’d heard regardless of price -- and I had heard more than a few. However, as a result of nothing more than my own carelessness and the need to begin my next review, I failed to give the Teslas the Reviewers’ Choice award they deserved. I remedied that failing two months later in a follow-up review, and wondered what Synergistic could come up with next. 

I got my answer at the 2011 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, when the company’s chief designer, Ted Denney III, released their new Element models. At that show, Denney told me that the Element cables represent an "enormous" jump in performance over the Teslas, which are to be discontinued. Knowing firsthand just how good the Teslas are, I was skeptical of this claim. Clearly, a review was in order. 

Arabesque MiniThinking outside the box. Some designers do it, others don’t. Gabi and Edwin van der Kley, the husband-and-wife duo behind the Dutch sister companies Crystal Cable and Siltech, have coupled a solidly engineering-based design approach with a questioning spirit that leads them beyond the status quo. Whether it’s a novel amalgam of silver and gold conductors, or a cable-design philosophy based on the principle of thinner is better, the van der Kleys favor elegant solutions. Known principally for the cable offerings of their two companies, Edwin has also explored what’s possible in electronic design in a limited series of Siltech preamplifiers and amplifiers.

In 2008, with its glass-cabineted Arabesque, Crystal Cable introduced to the world Gabi’s ideal full-range loudspeaker: elegant in appearance, exceptional in sound. Besides its transparent enclosure, the most obvious characteristic of the floorstanding, mirror-imaged Arabesques is their unorthodox shape in cross-section, which gave them their name. (From Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition: "arabesque: an ornament or style that employs flower, foliage, or fruit and sometimes animal and figural outlines to produce an intricate pattern of interlaced lines.") The original Arabesque ($65,000 USD per pair) was reviewed in Ultra Audio in 2009, was designated a Select Component, and then received the SoundStage! Network’s top honor: Product of the Year. 

EgglestonWorks FontaineWay back when, I was a teenager looking to buy my first set of "serious" speakers with the hard-earned money I made on my paper route, and went looking for the biggest suckers I could find per dollar spent. Sound quality was a consideration, but I’m embarrassed to say that looks and woofer size were at least as important as the quality of sound the speakers could produce. I ended up with a pair of Pioneer HPM100s. I still have them today . . . though I can’t remember the last time a signal passed through them.

Since those blissfully ignorant wonder years, more time has passed than I like to admit. Fortunately, I’ve actually learned some things since then. Of the few I can remember, one is that it’s often not the size of the package that counts, and that’s certainly true of speakers. It took me a while to accept this, but accept it I have, to the point where my next pair of speakers may be minimonitors. Never woulda seen that coming not so long ago.

So when the relatively smallish Fontaine Signatures arrived from EgglestonWorks, along with their not-small price tag of $8500 USD per pair, I wasn’t nearly as concerned as I’d have been back in the day. That said, knowing what else is out there at that price had me thinking that they’d better pack a bunch of sound per square inch.

AudioQuest CarbonThis review is completely and utterly insane. If you read it, then describe it using such words as preposterous, impossible, improbable, hogswallop, or the ever-popular bullship, I won’t disagree. I did all the work here, and I still think it’s the goofiest thing I’ve ever experienced in audio since I got seriously involved in the field 40 years ago. It should be impossible. I was trained as and worked as an engineer -- mechanical, electrical (including power-supply compliance), software, and computer systems -- for more than 35 years, but this goes against everything I know or thought I knew about electricity, electronics, and physics. Had these results been written by anyone else, I’d have described them as complete fantasy. Perhaps most interesting of all, what I talk about in this review might be only the iceberg tip of something I don’t recall having once read about in the last four decades. 

Artos SunriseAs a reward for my efforts in 2011, editor Jeff Fritz made me an offer: Would I like to review my first loudspeaker for the SoundStage! Network, the Artos Audio Sunrise ($23,000 USD per pair)? Their construction is first-rate, and the speakers are not only beautiful to look at but sound good. I said yes, and Jeff put me in touch with Artos Audio’s US distributor, Alfred Kainz, who owns highend-electronics, Inc., in Apple Valley, California.

Esoteric I-03When it comes to amps, my beat here at the SoundStage! Network involves integrated amplifiers, which for the most part have been solid-state. The one exception has been the Esoteric A-100, which I reviewed in 2008. Reviewing that $19,000 USD amp based on the KT88 output tube was a singular experience -- it remains one of the finest amps I’ve ever heard. So I was intrigued when Jeff Fritz offered me the opportunity to experience what Esoteric could do in a lower-priced but higher-powered solid-state integrated amp, the I-03 ($13,000). I leapt at the chance.