2012 Top Picks of the Year Page 2

Audio Separates


McIntosh MX121 Surround Processer and MC8207 Amplifier
One of the highlights of our reviewing year was testing a full McIntosh system for our June “dream” issue based on the brand’s new “budget” surround components and speakers. By McIntosh standards, that means the full system cost $34,000, with the MX121 and MC8207 coming in at $6,000 each. The MX121 is a competent and well-featured pre/pro based largely on a Marantz chassis upgraded for the occasion, but the seven-channel MC8207 amp stole the show. This slightly stripped-down version of the highly regarded MC207 (it forgoes that amp’s fancy analog VU meters for LEDs in order to save cost) proved to reviewer Michael Fremer why McIntosh amplifiers have become legendary in the audio business. As for the retro, and now classic, McIntosh industrial design, you either love it or you don’t. But if you love it, the cost of entry just got cheaper with this stack.
MX121, $6,000; MC8207, $6,000, mcintoshlabs.com
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Parasound Halo P 7 Preamp and Halo A 51 & JC 1 Amplifiers
High-end audio manufacturers face real challenges chasing after the almost annual advances in surround processor features—by the time a product finally gets released with the latest version of HDMI or the most up-to-date surround modes, it’s not unusual to find that both have changed again. Parasound’s solution was to say to heck with it all and just release an affordable, great-sounding preamp with a seven-channel audio input that you can feed with the preouts of a relatively inexpensive AVR for the surround functions, or perhaps with the seven-channel analog output of a high-end disc player that does its own decoding on board. That’s what we chose to do—Kris Deering went straight in from the high-quality DACs in his Oppo BDP-95, with fabulous results. But, as with our McIntosh system review, the amps were the champs, and the JC 1 monoblock made such a huge difference in Kris’s system, it left his jaw on the floor and his wallet a few shekels lighter after he felt obligated to purchase his review samples.
P 7, $2,000; Halo A 51, $4,500; Halo JC 1, $4,500, parasound.com
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GoldenEar Technology Triton Three Speaker System
One of the audio high points of our year in 2011 was the introduction of GoldenEar Technology’s maiden product, the Triton Two tower speaker. 2012’s sequel was the smaller and more affordable Triton Three. Though it sacrifices the über-deep bass chops of its older sibling, this 44-inch-tall, powered tower brings respectable low-end performance along with most of the midrange and high-end glory that characterizes its award-winning big brother. This kind of transparency and imaging is just hard to come by at any cost, but with its attractive $999 price tag, the Triton Three easily stood out as one of our Top Picks of the Year among speakers.
$999 each, $2,999 system, goldenear.com
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Paradigm MilleniaOne Speaker System
Paradigm released this attractive, décor-friendly system in 2011, but it took us until 2012 to plug in a set and discover what a groundbreaking little speaker this is. The $1,399, thin-profile matching subwoofer is sold separately and actually costs more than the five satellites, which go for just $1,249 as a set. Their bottom end started rolling off around 120 hertz in our measurements—not unusual for a speaker of this size—so a good sub of some kind is mandatory. But what these tiny ovals did in terms of imaging and mid-to-high-end detail blew us away; reviewer Mark Fleischmann declared them a “new standard of performance for the compact satellite speaker category.” No surprise, then, that Apple heard them and asked Paradigm to develop a less costly 2.1-channel version of the system (the CT-2.1) it could sell as an adjunct to its Apple TV media streamer.
$1,249 (satellites only), $2,648 system, paradigm.com
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JL Audio Fathom f212 Subwoofer
JL Audio is best known among car audio enthusiasts, but its monstrous home audio subwoofers are among the most coveted in the home theater world and turn up frequently in high-end installs—sometimes in death-defying multiples. The Fathom f212 features dual 12-inch drivers, built-in microphone-based room correction, and a 3,000-watt amplifier that helps it deliver perfectly flat output down to 20 Hz before it even begins to roll off. At 32 inches tall, it looms almost as large as a small tower speaker and weighs in at 220 pounds. If it weren’t just a subwoofer, this would be a national treasure—or a secret weapon.
$6,200, jlaudio.com
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SVS SB13-Ultra Subwoofer
This wasn’t the biggest, baddest sub to shake our collective booties in 2012—that honor goes to the über-expensive, $6,200 JL Audio Fathom f212 mentioned above. But the latest 13-inch model from subwoofer specialist SV Sound combines reasonable size and seriously tight and deep sealed-box bass performance at a price an everyday enthusiast can aspire to. Just don’t try to lift its 92-pound heft by yourself.
$1,599, svsound.com



GoldenEar Technology SuperCinema 3D Array Soundbar
This is the first time we’re offering up soundbars among our Top Picks of the Year. There are two reasons. First, it’s an exploding category that stands to bring the home theater experience to many HDTV viewers who would not otherwise ever hear anything beyond their thin screen’s built-in, tiny, rear-firing speakers. The second reason is that there was a new crop this year that our staffers might actually consider owning and recommending. GoldenEar tapped into some recent Princeton University research on 3D audio to create the SuperCinema 3D Array, which uses crosstalk cancellation technology to project an exceptionally wide and deep soundstage. Coupled with the company’s superb-sounding folded-motion tweeter, it’s a staggering combo that performed equally well on movies and music. We reviewed this passive three-channel LCR soundbar with a pair of surround speakers and the mandatory sub to fill out a $2,000 five-channel system, but the SuperCinema 3D Array accounts for only half of that.
$1,000, goldenear.com
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Atlantic Technology PB-235 PowerBar Soundbar
Atlantic Technology’s first powered stereo soundbar integrates its patented H-PAS cabinet design, which extracts more bass from small drivers in a small box than the laws of physics would seem to allow. Turns out that’s a really good thing for a soundbar, which typically doesn’t go low enough in frequency response to be used without a subwoofer, or to mate well with one without having to spread out some sounds (like deep male voices) between the two speakers, often to negative effect. The PB-235 solves both problems, and though serious movie lovers may still want to add a subwoofer, in many applications the PowerBar alone will deliver real audiophile sound for movies and, especially, music—and at a very reasonable price for an all-in-one solution of this caliber.
$899, atlantictechnology.com
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Panasonic TC-P55ST50 3D Plasma HDTV
Last year, for 2011, we cited Panasonic’s flagship VT series plasma for its performance but instead gave a Top Pick of the Year to the ST series, which offered most of the VT’s picture quality at such a low price that it quickly became our staff’s sentimental favorite and probably our most recommended HDTV. This year, nothing’s changed, except the VT and ST have each gotten even better. So we’ve moved the ST here to the value category, and we’re honoring them both. The Panasonic ST series—available at 65-, 60-, 55-, and 50-inch sizes—retains its throne as the industry’s best value in a high-quality 2D/3D HDTV.
$1,700, panasonic.com
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Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 55 Speaker System
This cleverly designed box speaker is in the middle of three rolled out in 2012 by Definitive Technology, and one of two along with the larger SM65 that uses a passive radiator built into the top panel of the speaker to improve bass response. Show demos of the SM65 hooked to high-end electronics proved to our staff what an astounding audiophile speaker this is and how comfortably low it goes without a subwoofer. But the SM55, which we used as the main speaker in a 5.1-channel review system, more than held its own, easily hitting 45 Hz according to our own measurements. Simply put, the new StudioMonitor series, with their aluminum tweeters and mushroom-plugged woofers, are the best-sounding speakers to come out of Def Tech in a long while, and the SM55, with its almost remarkable $299 (each) price tag, is a true gift to the audiophile on a budget.
$299, $2,494 system, definitivetech.com
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Top Pick of the Year


Oppo Digital BDP-103 Universal Blu-ray 3D Player
In initially looking things over, there was no single item in the eligible crop of 2012 Top Picks that seemed to leave a deep, lasting impression or change everything in its wake. Then it hit us: Like the strong, silent type that doesn’t scream out for attention but just gets the job done in a way none of its competition really can, Oppo’s BDP-103 universal disc player is one product in this mix that we can recommend unabashedly to anyone even remotely serious about video and sound quality. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” holds very true in the A/V world, and this is the one purchase you can make to ensure your signals will be starting out right. Additionally, Oppo remains largely unheralded for its superior customer service and acute attention to keeping its firmware glitch-free when other manufacturers sometimes go weeks or even months before resolving the inevitable issues that crop up with new releases. There are disc players out there that do a respectable job for much less money, and in some cases, for much more. But in the ongoing battle to achieve the best image and sound quality (and with great respect to all the heroes who serve in our military), bringing in an Oppo is like bringing in the Navy SEALs or the Marines. There’s just no greater confidence you can have than when it’s deployed in your rack. We salute Oppo for all it has done and continues to do for the enthusiast community, and we proudly honor the BDP-103 as our 2012 Top Pick of the Year.
$499, oppodigital.com
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