by Rafe Arnott
Another year has done it’s level best to trickle through our fingers, but before time runs out I wanted to share some of my favorite things from 2016. All these items possess an innate ability to make me smile, and oddly enough all connect-the-dots in my fragile eggshell mind in a way that makes them inexorably pleasing to me. Hopefully they bring a smile to your head as well.
The Shinola Audio Runwell Turntable is destined, like a bespoke timepiece, to become an all-time classic in the annals of turntable design. The color scheme (black is available as well, but I far prefer the clean white), the leather mat, the impeccable attention to detail, and let’s not forget the VPi pedigree… a built-in phono stage, and Ortofon Blue moving-magnet cartridge. Can I get one already. Please?
Approx. $2,500 USD
Voyager Golden Record Box Set
Who doesn’t remember this? Who didn’t build a Lego Voyager, (NASA was the stuff of dreams), and run around with it zooming past imagined planets, and asteroids? OK, maybe not a lot of you, but I sure as shit did, and I never forgot that golden LP that affixed to the fuselage of that deep-space probe, and all the music, greetings in multiple languages, poetry, and Earth sounds that it contained. Now, thanks to a Kickstarter project started by Ozma Records, you can have your very own remastered, three-LP deluxe boxed-set of the Voyager album. This is a super slick package that includes a gallery-quality hardcover book, lithographs, a digital download, and a record mat. Pretty much a record collector’s wet dream.
Rega Brio Integrated Amplifier
One of the very best entry-level integrated amplifiers I’ve ever heard (and a personal favorite of mine) is the Rega Brio. The Rega Brio-R was a darling of the hi-fi press when it was released as a major upgrade to the original, and rather long-in-the-tooth Brio in 2011. It racked up an impressive tally of awards within months. It was punchy, dynamic, ultra-smooth, and included a fantastic moving-magnet phono stage, all for $895 USD. Well, it’s been almost six years now, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise that Roy Gandy, and Co. at Rega decided it was time to improve on what is probably one of their all-time best selling amp designs. Personally, I love the new look, and it sounds like Gandy, and his engineers haven’t tried to fix what isn’t broken under the hood, rather only to refine, and improve upon an already proven winner.
Kanade Record Brush
In the world of audiophiles there are certain touchstones, certain items that are sacrosanct to many. Items of analog music reproduction that are hallowed, even revered if you will. And many of these sacred items are of Japanese origin: Koetsu cartridges, Shindo amplifiers, let us not forget the oft-worshiped “Japanese pressing” with it’s paper obi that vinyl collectors fawn over. And what do you think the true audiophile cleans his rare Japanese pressings with? The Kanade Record brush, that’s what. This handmade, brush is produced in very limited quantities, and is only available online. I’m told there is a wait list.
Audeze Deckard headphone amplifier
I wasn’t ‘into headphones” for a number of years. I was a two-channel traditional loudspeaker guy, hell I even eschewed digital of any kind, preferring only vinyl for playback in my home system. Well, not only has digital made inroads to my living room, so have headphones, and one of my favorite pairs of cans is the Audeze LCD-3 Fazor. I’ve been driving the 3s with the built-in headphone amp of a very high-end piece of review gear – but when I heard them through Audeze’s own Deckard amplifier, well that changed everything. Bass, imaging, midrange punch all improved, and the space around instruments, especially those who like to spend their time in the higher frequencies (violins, flutes, high-hat, and cymbals) all had more realistic timbral color.
Japanese Woodblock Prints
I love artwork of all kinds, and I particularly love colorful, historical pieces. So it’s no surprise I’d pick some of these original Meiji-era woodblock prints as a gift idea, because, well… they just speak to me. I’m down with eyeballing top-quality hifi hardware while listening to tunes, but trust me, having something truly magnificent to focus on while experiencing your music cannot be matched. As much of an industrial-design nut as I am, I’ll take brush strokes, carvings, prints, or photographs over an empty wall any day of the week while I’ve got a record spinning or as the DAC converts ones and zeroes to a sound wave.
Verve: The Sound of America
This hardcover coffee-table tome covers some of the most important musicians in the history of jazz. Album cover art is the peanut butter to my music-listening jam. I love to check out the all the creative imagery and read liner notes, so this book is as visually satisfying as it is mentally. Verve: The Sound of America features incredibly cool infographics, timelines, connections between the recording artists along with literally hundreds of seven-inch, ten-inch, and12 -inch album covers, publicity reports, news clippings, ledger books, telegrams, and contracts. Worth every penny.
Shindo Latour Field-coil Loudspeakers
OK, this is my “if I had a million dollars” pick, and I can solemnly assure you that this would be a holiday gift to me. Me, me, me, me… I’ve never heard these beautiful musical instruments, but I’ve been assured by a few people who have, (and whose ears I have implicit trust in), that these paired with appropriate electronics (Shindo), are the living end. The most. To die for. I’d be pretty much happy with these speakers (and some Shindo amps, a preamp, and a Shindo 301 Player), a Persian rug, and a chair for listening in my home. (Sofas are so blasé). Dining table? Bed? Kitchen? Nah, I’m good thanks.
Approx. $100,000 USD
Sonneteer Alabaster Integrated Amplifier
Another favorite go-to integrated amp for me is the little-known Sonneteer Alabaster. I had a Campion (now discontinued) after my Brio-R, and it embodied the best of British hair shirt amplifiers. The Alabaster is the powerful big-brother to the Campion, and superseded it in the Sonneteer lineup after several years. Sonneteer circuit designs embody outstanding tonal color, transparency to source, and undeniable musicality. These amps, while solid state, don’t run over hot (compared to say a Sugden, which I also adore), so you don’t need to be mindful of lots of ventilation, and with it’s built-in moving-magnet phono stage, and four line-level inputs all you need is a set of speakers, and a source to complete an analog love affair.
Approx. $1,700 USD