AVHi-Fi
March 2, 2014

Best of 2013

Article by WL Low
It’s time we rate hi-fi and AV equipment of deserving honour. Lam Seng Fatt did his selection last month, while I was still busy rounding up my final reviews. I don’t claim to represent all of AV2Day staff writers’ opinion, but I think it’s as comprehensive as it can get. I shall start with equipment by category and a brief explanation why the item in question was selected (there are always reasons).

 

Best Digital Source

 

TAD D-600 SACD/CD Player: Ya, ya, this player took top honours last year too, but get it, one of our staff writers saved his hard-earned cash and recently made the TAD his daily reference! It’s a CD player that we’re very familiar with and can attest that it is still the component to beat when it comes to state of the art with its only weakness being a lack of DSD processing algorithm. Read all about it in our past reviews of it on www.hifi-unlimited.blogspot.com

 

Mark Levinson 512 CD Player: I loved this CD player the moment I heard it in a preview. Too bad I couldn’t lay my hands on it for a full review. All of ML’s refined sonic signature is there to hear. Airiness, exquisite highs, un-varnished mid range and supple bass quality. It is for those who like their music smooth and steady.

 

Soul Note SC710-B CD Player: I loved the TAD D-600, but could never afford one, but listening to the affordable Soul Note kept reminding me of how close it was to the TAD. Sure, it wasn’t as transparent or highly resolving, it wasn’t as eerily quiet in the back ground, it didn’t feel like a battle ship either. However, one listen and you could hear how it cuts through the hi-fi barriers, and deliver the essence of music whole’ it’s the very same thing delivered by the TAD, only with much less hi-fi technical tour de force. It’s a poor man’s TAD D-600! I would have bought the review sample if I hadn’t just paid in full for the next CD player below.

 

Audiolab 8200 CD Player: This has gotta be one of THE most versatile budget CD player of all time. It’s got every digital input and output available on the back panel. One can use it as a transport or as a DAC or even both, as a system’s digital hub! The sound is typically ‘mid centric’ British, sacrificing some bandwidth at both extremes and ultimate dynamics, in an otherwise very polished sound quality presentation. I was so impressed with it I bought the review sample, only to lose it to a buddy in a game of Black Jack during the recent Chinese New Year! Well, I am back to using my Bryston BDP/BDA-1 as digital source.

 

BMC Pure DAC: This is a highly resolving DAC and it’s a question of whether your partnering transport is up to task. It has the resolution, wide band width and high dynamic contrast quality of much higher-end design coupled with a low noise floor. Some would say it lacks the charm and colour of other brands out there, but I think the BMC is just being honest. German designed, China made, it’s the best of both worlds!

 

Best Amplifier

 

Mark Levinson 52 Pre Amp: This sonic tour de force represents latest ML thinking in a 2-piece SOTA pre amp. I loved its balanced tonality and softly unhurried music presentation. Some say it’s more yin than yang, but I am a connoisseur of high-end exquisite refinement, and the ML52 has it in spades.

 

TAD C-2000 Pre Amp & M-2500 Power Amp: This is TAD’s affordable pre/power amplifier line up; its sound is anything but ordinary. Chameleon like in sound quality, the TAD combo basically brings out the essence of the recording being played, with a full complement of hi-fi attributes in company. For once, one doesn’t have to choose between hi-fi performance attributes or mucicality. One can have it all! I must however emphasise that TAD’s affordable line is still way…… out of reach for most of us commoners.

 

BMC M2 Power Amp: This 200W mono block power amp is a technical perfection quest come true, with all the bells and whistles of the most high end of amplifier designs. Like all BMC designs, some may call it sonically bland, but I like it just the way it is. High resolution, wide band width, low noise floor, excellent dynamic contrast and best of all ample power to drive most loudspeakers clean and free of distortion, at any volume.

 

Pass Lab XA160.5 Power Amp: Here is a pair of Class A monoblock behemoths, with robust sound presentation. This amp has it all, silky smooth, airy highs, robust and thick mid (kopi kau-kau) range, and bass that kicks ass! The XA160.5 drove the Wilson Maxx3 speakers (not kind on amps, these Wilsons) with absolute ease and remained fully in control all the way, but you’ll never hear those iron hands, just the velvet gloves! While never formally reviewed, one of our staff writers made it his daily reference not too long ago (That lucky fella!).

 

Best Loudspeakers

 

ATC SCM50 SLT: These big, bad boys are extremely room friendly and easy to position for optimum results. I loved the darkish highs and sweet, sweet mids (making female vocals like Stacey Kent’s to die for when listening) and its hard hitting bass is another plus point for those who like kick-ass rock anthem metal music. The vocals are thick with smooth refined highs which make most jazz music intoxicating too. Its down side is that the bass can sometimes be ‘one notey’ (port tuning frequency) and doesn’t go as low down as I would like it to go. I think this is a music lover’s speaker, but its big ‘brutish’ box makes WAF a major obstacle. I had this speaker in my room for so….. long that I nearly purchased it as my long term reference (domestic harmony be dammed!), until……

 

PMC IB2i: Showed up! It’s a smaller speaker for sure, but the PMC is like a petite, polite lady turned sex dominatrix in the bedroom romp. It’s got superb resolution properties, shinier highs, but vocals are less sweet, only because it’s more neutral. It’s the bass that caught my balls inbetween the throne and the sofa. Powered by my Plinius SA250 MKIV power amp, the IB2i rumbled the whole room, with deep, deep, and tight bass quality. Slam bang dynamics to the extreme is a killer too. Let’s put it this way, I am a thrill seeker when it comes to music, and the PMC is my poison.

 

TAD Compact Reference 1: Tan TE is in seventh heaven now, when it comes to music. The TAD CR-1 is all that a man could wish for in hi-fi. It’s small (not that small) speaker, with big, big sound, nearly full band width playback, kick-ass pretty and best of all, exquisite. It’s truly revealing of front end components and recording sources, yet forgiving enough to make all those flaws enjoyable too. In a medium size high end set up, there not many choices, but the TAD CR-1 is certainly an excellent one.

 

Wison Audio Maxx 3: We never officially reviewed this speaker, but it had crept up upon us, unsuspectingly. I was never quite a fan of these babies, until we married them to a pair of Pass Lab XA160.5 mono block! The sound was totally delightful, with full impact and a weighty presentation. The Wilson represented a new direction for voicing – gone were the sterile highs and neutral mids. In came total smooth, airiness with slightly natural yet sweet mids. Only the bass maintained the Wilson essence of bang bang Gorilla quality excitement. Good speakers like this only deserve good amps (hint, hint to the Maxx 3 owner!).

 

Silverline Minuet Supreme Plus: Here are a pair of dimunitive affordable speakers designed by Hong Konger audiophile Alan Yun, but American made. When partnered with a 35W or so valve amp, in a small room, female vocals never sounded so…. very seductive. Tonal colours are flushed out like a peacock in heat. Simple music sounded gorgeous and easy on the ears. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

 

Bryston Mini T: Of the whole range in the Bryston T speakers, I loved the top to bottom coherence of the Mini T the most. It sounds natural, yet always transparent and never dynamically constrained. It’s pretty big for a Mini and a book shelf, but it throws a big sound with sweet mid range. Budget power speakers that reminds me a lot of the ol’ Infinity 3-way big boxes from the 1980s. Saturday Night Fever anyone?

 

Magico S-1: The baby of the Magico range was never formally reviewed by us, but what we heard at the KLIAV show and Audio Image showroom demo was enough to convince us that this baby floorstander means business. It had a very special midrange quality unique only to Magico, which must be heard to be believed. Not entirely realistic, but very lovable nevertheless. It’s a fight with my other favourite baby floorstander, the YG Carmel, which was one of last year’s best too.

 

Up next will be Best Cables, Display, Blu-ray players and AV Receivers for 2013.

 

It’s a funny thing that we never got any turntables or phono stages to play with last year, which make up the analogue source, not withstanding the growing vinyl format sales. So we will not have an analogue run down this time.

 

Stay tuned for Best Of 2013 Part 2.

 

Article by WL Low