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I was having an e-mail conversation with a distributor friend of mine, Boris Granovsky, of Absolute Hi End, in Australia. We were discussing different audio brands and models, something we’ve done ever since we first met, a few years ago at Munich’s High End, at a dinner hosted by Crystal Cable (the maker of swanky cables based in Arnhem, the Netherlands), where we had an enlightening (to me) conversation about all things extreme audio. Boris is in the unique position of distributing not merely a few but many of today’s great audio brands. If you peruse his company’s website, you’ll see brands that typically are represented by competing distributors all under his one tent. He has more opportunities to compare top-shelf products than even most audio reviewers. This is why I enjoy hearing Boris’s opinions -- I feel think they’re exceptionally well informed.

One of the most popular opinion pieces I’ve written in the past few years, in terms of total number of reader views, was “Devialet, SAM, and the Changing of the High-End Guard.” In it, I described my experiences with the Devialet 120 integrated amplifier-DAC ($6495 USD) and, more specifically, Devialet’s Speaker Active Matching (SAM) function, which worked so well with Magico’s excellent S1 loudspeakers. I had high hopes for Devialet’s products -- still do, actually -- but now I’m beginning to wonder.

Barely a day goes by that SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider and I don’t have discussions about the daily workings of the business, and the long- and medium-range goals we have for the SoundStage! magazines. Doug is very much the visionary here, often seeing industry trends early and recognizing openings through which we can leverage our strengths. My role is different: I keep us on track. Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change and other notable books, once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Yes, we have expanded SoundStage! greatly over the past six years, but we’ve also remained true to our roots: solid reviews of high-end audio components, posted on the first and the fifteenth of every month. That last part is critical.

This past May, while in Munich, Germany, to attend High End 2015, I was a guest at a manufacturer-sponsored dinner where I was seated next to Stereophile writer Michael Fremer. We talked about a number of subjects, including, unsurprisingly, his love for analog sound. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, you know that Fremer is an LP-and-turntable guy. Throughout our very civil and enjoyable conversation, there were many points we agreed on, and a few we did not. However, one thing Fremer said stood out from the rest: He can’t enjoy digital recordings; it takes analog sound to relax him and get him into the music. That’s a paraphrase, but it captures his gist. I believe this to be his honest opinion, and have no reason to believe he’s shilling for the analog-equipment manufacturers. I trust him on this.

While in Munich attending High End 2015, I made a point of taking one afternoon off show reporting to do something we SoundStage! folks struggle to do at any show: listen. We specialize in running around show venues covering new products, but it would be a shame to have so many great speakers introduced in one place and not get to hear them, back to back to back. So on Saturday I set out to listen. By the end of that day, it was these seven speakers that I found most appealing.

It amuses me when, on audio forums, I read the words of rich, cantankerous old audiophiles defending, for all they’re worth, their five-figure audio systems against other forum members who’ve heard something much cheaper that sounds, to them, better. The latter is audio heresy. I mean, if someone has spent 50 grand on a DAC, or 100+ grand on some amps, isn’t it downright rude to suggest that something much less expensive might sound better? The nerve.

But what if it does?

One of SoundStage! Ultra’s readers, Brad Potthoff, had the best line on Devialet. He said, in a letter from August 2014, that the Devialet integrated-DACs are “utterly disruptive.” To the high-end marketplace, that is. He was responding to what I’d written about the Devialet 120 in “Devialet, SAM, and the Changing of the High-End Guard.” In that article I said: “My advice: Don’t go near one of these things without being prepared to buy it. It’ll ruin you for anything else.” Later I reviewed the Devialet 400, and further solidified my assessment: “If you’re like me, once you hear the Devialet 400, there will be no going back. I’m as surprised as you that I’m saying this, but the Devialet 400s produced the best sound I’ve ever heard.” As Brad said, utterly disruptive.

A high-end audio system with those seemingly magical properties that can transport you out of your listening room and into a musical performance can be elusive. Audiophiles are notorious for spending, in some cases, obscene amounts of money in the building of such systems. What is a mystery to me is why, for many, building a system is done so haphazardly. Often, money is burned as components are bought and sold and bought again -- good for Audiogon -- all in an attempt to find the synergy that yields complete contentment. Is there a clearer path? To me, yes. For what it’s worth, here is my advice for attaining the sound of your dreams.

Jeff FritzI really enjoyed the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. I saw a number of innovative products and heard some very fine stereo systems. As always, there was good and bad, and gradations within each. So, in no particular order, here are my favorite products and experiences from my most recent trip to Vegas. And just because it needs to be said, I’ll include one thing that, uh, failed to impress.

Unlike in years past, the worst meal I ate in Vegas was at Mr. Lucky’s, at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. First, the basic breakfast -- eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns -- was $16. In my book, that’s too much. The hash browns were so undercooked that Doug Schneider asked, “What is that?,” a look of disgust on his face. I won’t go back. On the other hand, I had two excellent breakfasts at Hash House a go go, the home of twisted farm food. The same basic meal cost $9.50, but the potatoes were cooked just right, and the rest of the eats were also a step up in quality. Also on the menu are fresh-squeezed orange juice and tangerine juice. Nothing like a hearty breakfast before traipsing through the Venetian.

But my breakfast selections are probably of little interest to you; here’s hoping my observations of hi-fi are more pertinent. I’ll start with Dan D’Agostino.

Jeff FritzEveryone is releasing their Products of the Year lists right about now, and we’re no different. Doug Schneider’s “Opinion” article, over on SoundStage! Hi-Fi, gave you the bare-bones facts about which product won which category. Here at SoundStage! Ultra, though, I’d like to get down to some unfiltered remarks about these components. So consider this article the insider’s edition of our Product of the Year awards list: what my thoughts were as we picked them.

Pioneering Design Achievement

Devialet 400 mono integrated amplifier-DACs ($17,495), SoundStage! Ultra

I don’t think we’ve seen a company like this before -- Devialet has shaken up high-end audio more than any other company in memory. The 400 system I reviewed combines the coolest lifestyle audio components with a price far below what you might expect to pay for the 400’s state-of-the-art sound, which made this award an easy choice. In fact, for Pioneering Design Achievement, Devialet was the only choice.