[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
December 1998

Non-Reviewer's Choice

December is when audio writers bestow gifts of praise upon deserving hi-fi components. Whether the procedure designates "Components of the Year," or "Top Picks of 199X," the singling out of certain equipment is a newsworthy exercise. It also gives hi-fi reviewers a feeling of kingship, of noblesse oblige, of papal generosity. As a non-reviewer, I am excluded from the pleasures of audio praise-giving. At least, no one ever sends me a ballot.

This will hardly deter me from picking a personal list of worthy products for 1998. However, in the interest of fair play, I will forego mentioning equipment which yours truly imports and sells. For instance, I will not say how much I enjoyed the Audio Research VT200. This monster of a stereo tube amplifier is the second-most powerful-sounding amp I have had at Casa Saxon. One Saturday afternoon a group of symphony lovers regaled me with large orchestral pieces at 105dB peaks for four hours. My ears were numb for days, but the VT200 sounded as if it were loafing the whole time. This beast is one heck of a cone-pusher. List price, $8995. Buy it here.

Nor will I mention the Genesis APM-1 loudspeaker, which sports an active crossover and a self-powered subwoofer. I think this design points the way for loudspeakers of the future. The most difficult part of the frequency spectrum to get "right" are the two and a half octaves from 20 cycles to 120 cycles. Either the loudspeaker can’t produce this range accurately, or the listener’s room turns it into a nightmare of peaks and valleys. The flexibility provided by the APM-1’s bass and crossover adjustments enables speaker to fit into almost any room or setting. I also appreciate the non-intrusive way the electronic crossover connects via speaker cables from the main system amplifier. Because the amplifier doesn’t "see" the crossover in the signal path, the upper frequencies emerge from the speaker’s drivers unscathed by extra circuitry. Add the excellent build quality, huge soundstage(!) and tremendous dynamics, and I think the Genesis APM-1 is bargain-priced at $9500. We have it in stock.

Finally, I will keep to myself the remarkable new Mark Levinson No.360S 24-bit/96kHz digital processor, which redefines the sound of 16-bit compact discs. The wealth of harmonic definition, inner detail and natural-sounding bass even now awaiting excavation from the aluminum pits is astounding. With the aid of a low-jitter transport like the Theta Jade (available at $2495), or the ML No.37 ($4000 -- sold out), the No.360S makes one’s CD collection sound as if it has been re-mastered by Keith Johnson on all-tube electronics and pressed to JVC XRCD standards. The Mark Levinson No.360S doesn’t just move the goal posts of digital playback. It rips them out of the ground and moves them to a new stadium across town. US list price is $6995. Se habla español.

On the contrary, rather than indulge in obvious conflict-of-interest nominations, I have instead chosen the high road. Non-Reviewer Choice consists of products in which I do not have a financial stake. Some of the items are commercially available, but the high road does not extend to my disclosing where. The Paradise Awards list for 1998 includes:

Shun Mook Mpingo Discs – A three-piece set of these ebony wonders sells for $150 and two sets are needed for loudspeakers. However, because of the way they layer and separate the sound of instruments when aligned atop the Genesis APM-1 or the Merlin VSM-SE loudspeakers, the Mpingos are now an indispensable part of my stereo system.

Paradise Pen and Pencil Holder – This a decorative box manufactured in Paradise of Cocobolo, a rare native hardwood. It is sold at souvenir shops for executive gift-giving. Friend Henry gave me a couple of these boxes, not to keep pens in like a sane person would do, but rather to audition as resonance devices on top of components. After "listening" to these boxes, I have to concede that with certain gear, e.g. Audio Research LS25 preamplifier ($4995) and Muse DAC2 ($1700), the Pen and Pencil Holders make a difference -- not as pronounced as the changes wrought by Mpingo discs, but no one ever gives Mpingo discs at the office. If your company is about to order Christmas gifts, try to convince them to buy you a Cocobolo box for your writing needs. Then take it home and play with it.

Decware Diffusers – Last year, a manufacturer of room diffusers sold DIY blue-prints by mail-order via the Internet. The cost to order diffusers from the factory was about $350 each; the blue-prints sold for $65. A local entrepreneur ordered prints and engaged friend Carlos to produce them in his furniture factory. Since Carlos is a fellow audiophile and a great customer, I saw merit in buying diffusers locally. I now have five bookshelf-sized diffusers and two corner bass traps in my room. The seven pieces cost $1000 less than importing them would have. I hope the diffuser designer made a lot of money selling the instructions, although I think it was a mistake to do so. I have not seen them advertised for sale on the Internet lately. Despite the efficacy of the SWALS, DWALS and CWALS, as they are termed, the Argent Room Lens ($1150 for set of three) are still a part of the listening setup. I realize that having the Room Lens in the same room with diffusers is a no-no, but I can’t part with either treatment. The Room Lens please the eye, as well as the ear -- my sonic sentinels.

Italian Tube Thingies – The notorious Steve Rochlin sent me a packet of Lilliputian prophylactic ends to slip around small signal tubes. As a matter of faith, they work. Although friends have suggested I roll the Thingies onto the tubes of my Bel Canto SEP1 preamplifier ($3500 and ready for auditioning), listen, take them off, listen, roll-them on, listen, etc., I am not about to do this. It reminds me of an adolescent rite of passage in the back of Chevrolet.

Crystal Clear Adhesive Tape – This is the challenging-to-find-the-end-of tape I use to bind up boxes of broken equipment to ship back to manufacturers for repair. Besides being UPS-approved (it resists pressure-drops), the tape doesn’t cover up "Ship To" addresses the way opaque tapes do, a problem for the absent-minded. Word to the wise: Remember to store all your component boxes and packing materials in a secure, dry place. Companies get very indignant when one returns for service a component not contained in its original box. They have even been known to re-ship a component sans repair out of high dudgeon. Remember, the statute of limitations on packing materials is the same as for murder. There isn’t any.

Rain-X – Did you ever wonder how to take the green paint off your compact discs? Try Rain-X, the liquid that makes the rain slide off your windshield. In addition to lifting CD treatment paints, Rain-X does an outstanding job of cleaning polycarbonate. To my ears, applying a few drops of Rain-X to the music side of a compact disc, then buffing it away with a soft cloth also produces subtle sonic benefits. A clean, shiny CD sounds better than one with a matte surface caused by fingerprints, scratches, etc. If you try Rain-X as a disc cleaner and the results sound good, please keep it a secret lest the manufacturer gets wind of its audio applicability and quadruples the price.

Pro-Foam – I haven’t actually used RPG’s room treatment sponges, but no matter. Doug Schneider, whose ears we trust, raved about them via e-mail and in a spirit of sharing, I thought I’d go ahead and announce the discovery myself. Remember, you first learned of Pro-Foam from the Non-Audio Reviewer in Paradise. Doug’s review will provide follow-up details. If you listen amidst bare walls, go ahead and treat yourself to a gift of foam. You’ll thank me for the tip.

Jazziz – Listing software is cheating, but 95% of all audiophiles need more music. Here’s a great way to get it for little more than the cost of a CD jewel box. By subscribing to Jazziz, you receive with each issue a sampler disc of new jazz releases. Big deal, you say? Well, Jazziz also includes perforated insert cards with text and artwork of the kind that comes with a store-bought CD. Tear out the cards, empty out a jewel box containing a disc purchased in error, insert the cards and voila!, you have a presentable example of great music for $5.41. Now, you can listen while you read the magazine for free.

Pookie the Dalmatian – This is the stuffed toy Maria gave me for my 53rd birthday. It sets upon the top shelf of the built-in bookcase lining the rear wall of the listening room. Pookie absorbs bad vibes. Unfortunately, his puffy carcass was unable to absorb the bad vibes between Maria and me, but I am hopeful that the future will see a return of romance. "After all," said Scarlet," tomorrow is another day."

From this list I would normally choose a Product of the Year. Unfortunately, everything I encountered in 1998 was of exceptional merit. Also, in keeping with the social trend of the times, I feel it would be politically incorrect to single out one product and thereby denigrate all the others. Therefore, I hereby name the following as Joint Products of the Year:

  • Shun Mook Mpingo Discs
  • Paradise Pen and Pencil Holders
  • Decware Diffusers
  • Italian Tube Thingies
  • Crystal Clear Adhesive Tape
  • Rain-X
  • Pro-Foam
  • Jazziz
  • Pookie the Dalmatian

If your favorite product is not on the list, please ask the manufacturer to write and we can talk about it. There’s no time like the present to begin the campaign for Product of the Year 1999.

Allow me to conclude Non-Reviewer’s Choice on a note of self-promotion. By taking the high road, I hope I haven’t disappointed the companies I represent or the ghoulish types who expected me to wade suicidal into the fray, arms flailing. On the other hand, gentle reader, if you see anything on the list you would like to buy, please e-mail me at your convenience. Have your credit card handy. We ship worldwide.

...James Saxon


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