Publisher's Choice: My Five Favorites of 2009
The end of the year is when we plan what will happen next
year at the SoundStage! Network, but its also when we reflect on which were the best
products of the year just ending. Then, in January, we hand out our Product of the Year
awards at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. You wont know
whos won until we announce the winners on January 1, but right now Id like to
single out the five products that most impressed me in 2009. Four are audio
components; one is a music release.
The first product is, to some, one of the most outlandish
Ive ever reviewed: the Zandèn Audio Systems 2500S CD player. It plays only
CDs, uses 20-year-old DAC chips, doesnt oversample or upsample, and costs $22,000.
Given the continuing decline of CD sales and its archaic technology, the 2500S might seem
an overpriced dinosaur. But live with it a while, as I did, and youll realize that
its a CD player like no other.
The 2500S has a distinctive sound: full but slightly soft
bass, and highs that are ultraclean but a touch subdued. But its silky-smooth
throughout the entire audioband, and its midrange has a startling purity and transparency
unlike that of any other player Ive heard. Voices sound drop-dead gorgeous, and
piano and guitar sound startlingly natural and really come alive. Its also one of
the easiest-on-the-ears CD players Ive ever heard. Ive listened to music on it
all day long, with never a hint of listener fatigue. And its just as easy on the
eyes -- the 2500Ss appearance is as unique as its sound; it is, without question,
the best-looking CD player Ive ever seen.
The 2500S is expensive but distinctive, and destined for
the wealthy buyer who wants something unique -- a real gem. I cant afford it, but I
love it anyway, and envy those who can.
At the other end of the spectrum is the NAD
C 565BEE CD player, which retails for $799 -- less than 4% of the cost of the
Zandèn 2500S. My review of the C 565BEE wont appear until December 15, but
here Ill let a little bit of the cat out of the bag.
The C 565BEE is nicely built, with a set of
exceptionally well-designed controls to make using it easier. For instance, while the
player stays powered as long as its plugged in, the Standby button on the front
turns it fully on for daily use. Nothing unique there -- lots of players do this. But if
Standby is turned off, theres a disc already in the drawer, and you want to get it
playing quickly, you dont have to push Standby, then Play -- the C 565BEE comes
to life as soon as you push Play. Or, it will turn itself on when you press the Open/Close
button. I wonder whats taken manufacturers so long to implement one-button play -- I
first thought of it in 1984, when I bought my first CD player: "Doesnt pushing
Play strongly imply that I also want the player to be turned on?" But better late
The NAD C 565BEE will also shut down automatically if
its left idling too long (about ten minutes). This saves power, and is convenient
if, as I do, you doze off while listening to music. And there are other nifty features:
three upsampling options (Off, 24-bit/96kHz, and 24/192), five digital filter options
(labeled Filter 1 through Filter 5), and the ability to play up to 320kbps MP3 and WMA
files stored on an external device such as a hard drive or a USB stick, and hooked up to
the NAD via the USB port on the front panel.
But as rich in features as the C 565BEE is, I was most
taken with its sound -- very full, richly textured in the mids, and able to unravel a lot
of detail. In fact, it sounds a lot like Simaudios Moon Evolution SuperNova ($6500),
which in many ways represents the state of the art. So if you want a new CD player and,
like most people, cant afford the SuperNova -- or, for that matter, the Zandèn
2500S (who can?) -- head straight for the C 565BEE. Right now, its one of the
best values in high-end audio.
Zandèn's 2500S (top) and NAD's C 565BEE
As with the C 565BEE, my review of the Revel Ultima
Salon2 loudspeaker will appear on December 15. Its price, $21,998/pair, is almost
precisely that of the Zandèn CD player -- and its worth every cent. This
4.5-tall, 160-pound behemoth is a four-way design that includes all the
speaker-building knowhow possessed by Harman Internationals Revel division -- and it
shows. The Ultima Salon2 reaches down to 20Hz, sails up to 45kHz, and sounds as neutral as
anything else out there at all frequencies in between. The Salon2 can also play
extraordinarily loud while remaining always in control. Hear a pair and youll find
very little to fault. And read my review on December 15 and youll know why I think
its not only the very best speaker Ive reviewed this year, but the very best
Ive ever reviewed. Nuff said for now.
Revel's towering Salon2
I didnt formally review the last audio product
Ill mention here, though I wrote about it in my October editorial, "A Bridge Between Two Worlds": the Anthem
Statement D2v preamplifier-processor ($7499). The D2v is the newest version of the
Statement D2 pre-pro, which received high critical acclaim. The D2v has more inputs and
outputs, along with better video processing. What makes it special is the high level at
which it reproduces music and movies -- something, Ive found, that not all
pre-pros can do. Usually its the sound that suffers, but not with the D2v -- which
helps make it one of the most appealing products on the market right now for anyone who
wants to set up a great audio/video system with the least amount of fuss.
Currently, a Statement D2v is the centerpiece of my A/V
system. I can listen to music -- as Im doing right now -- and not feel Im
being shortchanged in terms of sound quality. Then, a couple button-pushes later, I can be
enjoying a movie, assured that Im seeing the best image possible -- which is what
Im more than likely to do as soon as I finish writing this article (Heat has
just been released on Blu-ray). In short, the hallmarks of Anthems Statement D2v are
versatility and quality.
Anthem's Statement D2v
Now for that music release. I receive a lot of SACDs and
CDs in the mail, but I dont listen to many of them. Ive been known to pass
them along to other reviewers, or toss them on a pile on the floor and leave them there.
It was the enthusiastic comments of our own Roger Kanno about Norwegian label 2Ls Divertimenti,
a music-only Blu-ray release by the Trondheimsolistene, that caused me to retrieve some 2L
discs from the floor and listen to them. Roger said that Divertimenti was perhaps
the very-best-sounding disc hed ever heard, and that, to know what my system was
truly capable of, I just had to hear it.
indeed sounds very, very good, it was another 2L release, Stone Rose,
by composer-pianist Ola Gjeilo, that blew me away. Stone Rose was recorded
digitally in 24/96 PCM by 2Ls own Morton Lindberg, August 5-8, 2007, in Oslo, and
was released later that year. (Was it on my floor that long?) But dont let its age
stop you from hearing it. The disc 2L sent me is a hybrid with two- and 5.1-channel tracks
on the SACD layer, and two-channel "Red Book" tracks on the CD player. The album
is also available for download from 2Ls website in two-channel 24/96 FLAC format.
Because, at the moment, I have only CD players, Ive heard only the stereo CD layer
-- but thats enough for me to praise it.
2L describes the music as "reflective" and
"tuneful," saying that its themes focus on Gjeilos love for New York City,
where he now lives. That doesnt make it sound like much -- one of the reasons it
spent so long on my floor. I think its better described in terms similar to those
that Roger used to described Divertimenti: Stone Rose is a startlingly
good-sounding piano recording that, through a good pair of speakers such as Revel Ultima
Salon2s, sounds this close (fingers pinched together) to real -- so real
that, one day when I was playing it, my wife and son peeked through the doorway to see
what was going on in my room. A lot of stuff comes up the stairs into my listening room,
and I knew what she was thinking: that perhaps shed missed seeing an actual piano
being delivered. She hadnt -- but this recording is good enough to fool almost
anyone into thinking so.
But a good recording gets you only part of the way -- the
music must be worth listening to in the first place, and in this case, it is. In fact,
once Id loaded Stone Rose into the NAD C 565BEE, during my evaluation of
that player, it didnt come out for three days. I just played it over and over,
appreciating it more each time -- something that rarely happens with new music releases
today. Most of the tracks feature only Gjeilo on piano, though on some hes joined by
flugelhorn, violin, or cello. But even with full accompaniment, it sounds sparse and
intimate -- and never boring. Theres not a single throwaway among the 15 tracks,
though some stand out more than others; "The Line" and "Madison" are
my particular favorites. I plan to make them part of my CES 2010 demo CD and impress
others by playing them at the show. Ive also just received a sample of Ayre
Acoustics Q-B9 24/96 DAC; I plan to download 2Ls 24/96 FLAC file of Stone
Rose and see how it differs. Great job, 2L!
Zandèns 2500S, NADs C 565BEE,
Revels Ultima Salon2, and Anthems Statement D2V -- if, last January, someone
had asked me to predict what I thought would be my favorite audio products of 2009, I
wouldnt necessarily have named these four right off the bat, particularly the CD
players -- the format is dying, and, in time, such sources will indeed be extinct. Only
after Id used these components for a while did I realize that each was quite special
and needed to be singled out -- if not by our team, then at least by me.
And I never would have thought my favorite musical
discovery of 2009 would be Ola Gjeilos Stone Rose. Thankfully, Roger
convinced me to literally pick it up off the floor and listen to it. I encourage you, too,
to pick it up -- chances are you wont find it in a record store, but Amazon.com
carries it, and its available through 2Ls website, www.2l.no.
Now that weve finished reflecting on 2009 and are
planning 2010, Im already wondering what products I might pick a year from now. Time
will tell. Until then, look for the announcement -- on January 1, 2010 -- of the winners
of our SoundStage! Network Product of the Year awards.
. . . Doug Schneider