Nagra PSA power amplifier

Known affectionately as “the Pyramid,” this Swiss amplifier is the epitome of precision and style and offers a sound that is as neutral as its country of origin. The PSA offered a substantial amount of poise, even with the loudest of musical passages, and did “an outstanding job or preserving the music between the notes.” We found that the performance more than justified the price.

Nagra PL-L preamplifier

Proof that great things can come in small packages, the PL-L delivers a big sound that defies expectations. The Nagra has three tubes (two 12AX7s and one 12AT7) and kept us “glued to the chair” with its speed, precision and excellent tonality. The compact PL-L offers a big percentage of the performance of much bigger and much more costly state-of-the-art preamplifiers, boasting legendary Nagra reliability and build quality as well.

Mystere ia21 integrated amplifier

Sleek, beautiful and indeed mysterious, this tubed integrated allows a choice between EL34 and KT88 output tubes at the flick of a switch. While we preferred the bigger, more immediate sound of the EL34s, this amp is a tube-roller’s dream. If you love the sound of SETs but need just a little more power and flexibility, the ia21 will surprise you with its ability to make voices and instruments hanging in front of you with eerie realism.

Musical Surroundings SuperNova phono preamplifier

Basically three Nova Phenomenon phono stages in one chassis, the SuperNova is the perfect preamp for analog lovers with multiple turntables and cartridges. Flexible and easy to use, the MS is also battery powered and has a volume control so that you can use it without a preamp. We enjoyed the excellent imaging and soundstaging as well as the “top-notch” industrial design.

Musical Surroundings Phenomena II phono preamplifier

Lacking only the battery-powered feature of its respected older brother, the Nova, this $600 phono preamp features the same circuitry and may be the perfect match for Technics SL1200s, Rega P3-24s and other sub-$1000 turntables. We found it to be at the “top of the heap in its class” and that it will help newcomers to vinyl discover just how much musical information is hiding in those grooves.

Music Hall MMF-9 turntable

If you’re looking for an improvement over the popular budget turntables available today, the MMF-9 is an easy way to get and up and running. Fitted with an arm and cartridge, the Music Hall can pulled from its box and set up in minutes. Its three-piece plinth, carbon fiber tonearm and user-friendly adjustments resulted in a very friendly and pleasing sound, and a little tweaking can take performance even further.

Monarchy Audio SM70 Pro power amplifier

This amplifier looks like a miniature version of the classic Mark Levinson ML-2, but it offers a big sound that qualifies it as “one of the great solid-state amplifier values of all time.” The SM70 can be used as both a stereo version or a monoblock (which we preferred), and in balanced or single-ended configurations. It’s also neutral enough to stay out of the way of the music.

ModWright Instruments SWP 9.0 SE phono stage

The 9.0 is one of those rare products that makes us just shut up and enjoy the music. This tubed unit is very quiet, and “plays well” with MC cartridges that have very low output. The ModWright avoids sounding tubey and warm, but still offers plenty of air that many solid-state phono preamps just miss. We felt the 9.0 SE offers “one of the best values in analog today.”

ModWright Instruments Sony 9100ES CD player

It may seem strange to see a couple of 5687 tubes sticking out of the top of this Sony digital player, but Dan Wright’s mods make¨Ü the 9100ES¨Ü a “world-class digital playback machine.” Using the tube circuit from the ModWright SWL 9.0SE preamp and a new copper umbilical for the new outboard tube supply, this player has midrange magic and is “groovy and well worth the money.”

ModWright Instruments SWL 9.0SE preamplifier

The 9.0SE is so much fun to listen to that we “put it up against the mega-expensive stuff and still came away impressed.” The tubed ModWright sounds warm and big yet still offers tons of detail and can easily reveal different levels of detail in most recordings. “Great sound, great build quality,” we surmised, noting that this preamp was a huge step up from the affordable stuff.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 3.5C phono cartridge

With its sexy carbon fiber body, the 3.5C oozes beauty and performance. Made for MoFi by the folks at Miyabi, this moving-coil had that “reach out and touch it” feel and offered a perfectly clear window into every recording. This cartridge maintained the balance between extension and texture “without sounding overdamped.”

Minus K BM-8 isolation platform

At $2795, the BM-8 may give you sticker shock, but we felt it was very impressive for wringing “the last bit of performance from your analog rig.” This passive device is easy to set up and use and delivered impressive results with six different turntables. In addition, there is some solid scientific research behind its design, appealing to those who do not take isolation lightly.

Metronome CD-3 Signature CD player

This French top-loading CD player actually convinced us to stop spending so much time listening to state-of-the-art analog and get back to the shiny silver discs. Beautifully built in an understated Gallic sort of way, this $10,800 machine completely defeats harsh digital artifacts and produces a sound that is “neutral, accurate and dynamic at all times.”

Meridian G08 CD player

Our vote for the “last CD player you need to buy-within reason,” the G08 offered a delicate yet engaging sound with “great weight and fullness to the bass.”¨Ü The G08 is one of the most compelling choices at its price point, and we feel that you’d have to spend a lot more money to better its combination of immediacy, balance and rhythm.

Meridian DSP7200 active loudspeakers and 808.2i CD player

This three-piece system is all you need to experience some of the most satisfying sound available today. The epitome of simplicity, all you need to do is plug a standard Ethernet cable between the two active speakers, run one more to the CD player, and plug everything in. While these pieces are not quite affordable when considered separately, it’s hard to come up with a $50K system that outperforms the sum of these parts.

Meridian F80 music system

Calling the F80 a $3000 table radio seems unfair, considering that it can form the foundation of an extremely sophisticated audio and video system. This amazing product features an 80wpc amp, an active 2.1 DSP loudspeaker system, an AM/FM tuner with DAB digital radio and a CD and DVD player. And yes, the official Ferrari colors on the rounded exterior surfaces are absolutely gorgeous.

Meridian 808 CD player

Meridian has been making high performance digital players for 20 years now, and the 808 is the culmination of that expertise. We agreed that the 808 was “beautiful, well-built and sounds wonderful,” and that it is an extremely musical player that “gets it right on all levels. ” We recommend that you don’t listen to one unless you can immediately write a check for it.

MartinLogan Vantage loudspeakers

Using MartinLogan’s fourth-generation curved electrostatic panels, these hybrid speakers offer that “transparent, walk-through feel” that can only ESLs can offer. Sure they offer detail, resolution, imaging and weight, but they can allow you to drift while listening to your favorite music as well. We found that they offered “nuance without being harsh.”

MartinLogan Grotto i subwoofer

Even at a modest $1095, the Grotto is one of the finest subwoofers we’ve ever heard, at least until we strapped a pair of the big ML Descents to the new CLXs. Very flexible, the Grotto allowed us to play with low pass settings, output levels and phase until we could integrate it with almost any pair of speakers. We concluded that “it may be all the subwoofer you ever need.”

MartinLogan Summit loudspeakers

The Summits are the first pair of panel speakers we’ve heard that really rock, prompting us to finally crank up Metallica to ear-splitting levels. These MartinLogans also expanded the sweet spot considerably over previous electrostatic designs, and offered an almost seamless blending between the woofers and panels. We picked the Summits as Product of the Year for 2008.

MartinLogan CLX loudspeakers with Descent i subwoofers

We take a novel approach to reviewing the new Martin-Logan flagship CLXes by including two Descents, and found that this four-piece system plays in the same ballpark as those six-figure monoliths for a mere fraction of the price. Although proper set-up is labor-intensive, these electrostatic panels constitute a “serious loudspeaker system indeed,” bringing listeners “so much closer to the music.” The final verdict: “Intoxicating.”

Manley Skipjack switching box

A decidedly high-quality alternative to cheap switching boxes that can be found at Radio Shack, the Skipjack allows audiophiles to switch from four inputs to one, or three inputs to two. We found the latter configuration the way to go, making the Manley the perfect solution for great-sounding vintage amplifiers that can only accommodate a couple of sources.

Manley Massive Passive equalizer

“Equalizer”may be a dirty word in the audiophile dictionary, but this extremely flexible EQ has found its way into many professional recording studios. Featuring two independent mono, four-band passive equalizers in one chassis, the Manley can be quite habit-forming and can turn most audio purists into knob-spinning, frequency-enhancing mastering engineers. We found it to be an “extraordinary device with endless uses.”

Manley 250 monoblock amplifiers

Featuring 10 EL34 output tubes per channel, the Manley 250 can operate in either single-ended or balanced mode with just a flick of a switch. All those valves take a while to warm up, but soon you’ll be listening to a sound that’s “sweet and full of inner detail.” The 250 is one tube amp that never runs out of gas, and amazed us since it offered a high amount of detail along with the limitless headroom.

Manger Zerobox 109 loudspeaker

At $7500 a pair, these small but beautiful German speakers may seem like a tough sell. We found that they are “worth every penny,” however, offering a sound that is unusually big while providing impressive speed and control throughout the lower frequencies. While they didn’t go too far below 35 Hz, they earned one of our highest recommendations when paired with the REL subwoofer.

McIntosh MA7000 integrated amplifier

If you’re tired a wimpy little integrated amps, the MA7000 is the answer. This massive 250wpc amp weighs nearly 100 pounds, has an amazing array of features and will power almost any speaker on the market with ease. Best of all, it has the trademark big blue meters that will send most of the McIntosh faithful into orbit. The MA7000 is “built like a tank, sounds great and is easy to live with.”

McIntosh C2300 preamplifier

This new preamp from the venerable American audio company has an amazing list of features including eight inputs, a number of data and control ports, separate MM and MC phono stages and the ability to change cartridge loading via remote control.¨Ü The six 12AX7s, bathed in a soft green light, are visibly through a glass plate in the top panel, making this McIntosh extraordinarily beautiful and flexible.

McIntosh C220 preamplifier

The perfect preamplifier for the audiophile who just wants to “hang out and not worry about gear, room setup and the like,” the C220 offers a multitude of features (including tone controls!) in one chassis. The sound was smooth and relaxing yet powerful, not unlike taking a restored vintage Corvette “for a nice leisurely drive in the country with the top down.”

Magnum Dynalab MD-609T XM tuner

Magnum Dynalab has made some of the best FM tuners in audio history, and now this highly-respected company turns its attention to satellite radio with stunning results. The MD-609T doesn’t quite provide CD-quality sound for $4000, but it comes awfully close, hammering a few final nails into the coffin of so-called terrestrial radio. If you want the best sound from XM, this is the way to go.

McCormack DNA-500 power amplifier

The McCormack is the rare 500wpc amplifier that you can “pick up without busting a gut,” and we felt it would satisfy all but the most demanding and obsessive of audiophiles. The distributed node technology is the reason for the svelte appearance of this amp, and the result is amazing control throughout the lower registers that makes it a bargain at its price point.

Lyra Skala phono cartridge

The $3200 Lyra Skala isn’t the most expensive cartridge out there, but it competes with the mightiest of contenders. This moving coil cartridge offers “astonishing transparency and palpability” while retaining just a “hint of warmth” that can be so appealing to audiophiles who are serious about their analog set-ups. We found it to be a more immediate and revealing alternative to some of the lusher and more romantic premium cartridges.

Lyra Olympos phono cartridge

It isn’t every day we get our hands on a $10,000 cartridge for review, but this Lyra surpassed all of our expectations. Available in very limited quantities, the Olympos sounds decidedly different from other premium Lyras such as the Skala and the Titan. A champion of depth and tonality, the Olympos made speakers “just melt away from the room, leaving only the music,” therefore ruining us for life.

Lyra Argo-i phono cartridge

While modestly priced, this Lyra kept up with some of the big boys by providing “nice bloom, great bass and amazing inner detail.” Small changes in setup yielded huge differences in performance, but when everything is dialed in the Argo-i was neutral in timbre and tracked exceptionally well. The Lyra is “a great place to enter the world of true high-end analog playback.”

Luxman L-590 A II integrated amplifier

We were happy to see Luxman back in high-end audio, but this new 30wpc Class-A integrated amplifier surprised us by doing “everything right.” The L-590 is extremely revealing of source components, which is partially due to the “FANATICAL attention to detail” in the overall design. The balanced outputs, headphone amp, MM/MC phono stage and even the tone controls make this amp a great value.

Loiminchay Chagall loudspeakers

These $48,500 speakers are “exquisite in form and function,” which isn’t surprising when you consider that they were designed by a noted artist and master craftsman. Exceptionally revealing, these unique and striking towers are a natural match for some of the finest tube amplification available and will provide an unwavering window into nearly every type of music.

Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE phono preamplifier

Basically a slightly revised version of the now-classic Black Cube phono stage with a beefy outboard power supply, the Lehmann wound up being “first among equals” in our extensive survey of affordable phono preamps. Possessing an overall sound quality closer to our favorite $3K phono stages, the SE sounded “smooth, seamless and tight,” becoming one of our preferred references at this price point.

KEF 203/2 loudspeakers

Offering both “stunning beauty and stunning sound,” these entry level floorstanders in KEF’s Reference Series offer an admirable level of fit and finish. The 203/2s impressed us with the way they responded to dense musical passages, and we found that the bass went much deeper than the published specs indicated. Resolution, dynamics, imaging and tonal accuracy were all top-notch.

Joule Electra LA-150 line stage

The LA-150 is quite neutral “while retaining the lifelike sound of tubes,” offering a sound that was authoritative and dynamic. This preamplifier was transparent enough to allow us to hear deep into the soundstage, and it won’t gloss over music that has been poorly recorded. It does add excitement and panache, however, and makes music “a truly pleasurable experience.”

JLTi phono preamp

This tiny Swiss phono stage comes with an optional and equally tiny outboard phono stage that should be considered mandatory to get truly impressive sound and value. We felt that the JLTi was the most neutral phono stage we have heard at this price point and were constantly amazed that such a big, authoritative sound could come from such a small package.

iTube Fatman

A tubed integrated amplifier with a built-in iPod dock might seem like an unusual combination, but we found this modestly priced component to “sound fantastic as well,” providing a bridge between valves and a younger generation of music lovers. Two line level inputs are also included, making the Fatman “a very stylish package with pleasing sound.”

Harbeth HL-P3ES-2 loudspeakers

Famously described as being around the size of a shoebox, these classic BBC mini-monitors were meant as a replacement for the LS3/5a yet provide a sound that is even more “large and natural.” Legendary in terms of their engineering and build quality, the Harbeths “reproduce with an incredible sense of reality.” Don’t be fooled by the small size!

Hagerman Technology Trumpet phono stage

This unusual-looking tubed phono stage uses four 12AX7s and four 12AU7s (complete with dampers)¨Ü and provides an open and very detailed sound that is very quiet as well. Easy to set up and use, the Trumpet was especially impressive with vocals due to its tonal accuracy. You’ll spend so much time with it that you may put your “CD player on eBay and forget about digital altogether.”

Grado Sonata Statement Mono phono cartridge

If you’ve been wondering about the virtues of mono recordings, this Grado will eliminate much of the noise and thinness that stereo cartridges can inject into the mix. Very musical and slightly warm, the Sonata Mono will make your favorites sound more organic and realistic. We found that the Grado was “one of the most fun $500 purchases you will ever make!”

Grado Statement phono cartridge

A rare moving-iron design, this $2500 Grado may look like the other wooden-bodied cartridges in this legendary American company’s product line. Offering a sound that is less lush and rounded than the lesser models, the Statement still provides a warm listening experience offers enough low-level detail to make you “forgo the moving coil experience altogether.”

Get Better Sound set-up guide

There have been a few useful guides for hi-fi hobbyists over the years, but few focus almost exclusively on resisting the impulse to buy new components by extracting the best performance from what you already have. Jim Smith, former US distributor of Avantgarde Acoustics, is considered one of the best set-up guys in audio, and he offers 202 tips on accomplishing this goal. Purchasing this book, we decided, may be the most effective $45 tweak in audio.

Gemme Audio Tanto loudspeakers

These Canadian floorstanding speakers are “very neutral and relaxing without being rolled off,” and are downright gorgeous as well. A two-way ported design, these speakers don’t offer the ultimate in bass performance but excel in the midrange, providing an open expansive sound that boasts a high degree of coherence, with woofer-tweeter integration “as good as it gets.”

GamuT Si100 integrated amplifier

This Danish integrated amp offers intuitive operation and is “definitely a work of talented industrial design.” This solid-state amp offer 130wpc, a single pair of MOSFETs¨Ü and plenty of weight and punch, especially at medium to high listening levels. We found the Si100 to work well even with the most current-hungry speakers and wound up offering our highest recommendation.

Furutech AG-12 phono cable

A quick upgrade for tonearms with standard RCA jacks or DIN plugs, this cable has been treated with Furutech’s Alpha Cryogenic and Demagnetizing processes and is a bargain at just $429. We found it to be one of the most cost-effective upgrades you can make to an high-quality analog rig. The AG-12 offered a greater sense of decay and air, allowing listeners to hear even deeper into recordings.

Furutech DeMag LP demagnetizer and DFV-1 LP flattener

The ultimate accessories for hardcore vinyl lovers, these two turntable-sized machines completely demagnetize and flatten your LPs, offering superior playback performance. While debates about demagnetizing have grown quite heated in the analog world, we found that the sonic differences were not subtle and that everyone who actually tried these machines were immediately won over.

Finite Elemente Pagode Signature equipment rack

After living with these stylish and functional racks for a few months, we “couldn’t imagine life without one.” Available in a number of shelf configurations, the Pagodas offered excellent resonance control and brought entire systems into focus like never before. We likened them to putting the perfect frame around a beautiful piece of art.