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The Ear’s Best

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In 1959, Sonny Rollins famously stopped recording and took to the Williamsburg Bridge for some lengthy practice sessions. Fifty years later, the audio industry has done much the same thing-it has taken a sabbatical from the headlong rush into new technologies and simply focused on getting better. While the industry produced nothing revolutionary in 2009, it nonetheless delivered some brilliant executions of familiar themes.

This collection of JazzTimes‘ Gear of the Year features my picks of the most exciting products in each category. Of course, there are many other new products from 2009 that also merit your attention, but these 11 are the ones that left the biggest impression on me.

iHome iP1 iPod Speaker System

Most iPod speaker systems look and sound as frazzled as a tenor saxophone that’s been dropped down

a flight of stairs. The $299 iHome iP1 is a revelation both sonically and visually. All of the parts attach to the smoked plastic front baffle in a way that makes them look like they’re floating. The iP1’s base conceals four digital amplifiers, one each for its two 4-inch fiberglass-cone woofers and two 1-inch silk-dome tweeters-the same bi-amplified configuration you’ll find in a set of powered studio monitors. Bongiovi Acoustics’ Digital Power Station technology pumps up the sound on dull recordings, and a remote controls the iP1 and a docked iPod.

Sennheiser HD800 Headphones

Headphone purists struggled with the HD800 the same way beboppers struggled with Ornette Coleman-many figured there was something good going on there, but they just couldn’t get their heads around it. What makes the $1,399 HD800 so different from other headphones is that its speaker diaphragms are mounted slightly forward of and away from the ear. This positioning attempts to produce a more natural presentation than the “music in your head” effect you get with conventional headphones. It really works: The HD800 sounds more like a real pair of speakers than any other headphones I’ve heard. The fundamental sound quality is also superb, thanks to the 56mm diaphragms, which Sennheiser says are the largest used in any headphone today. The HD800 is not very sensitive, though, so plan on using it with a decent headphone amplifier.

Oppo Digital BDP-83 Blu-ray Disc Player

Audiophiles usually look down on video disc players, but they’re all agog over the BDP-83. Like Eric Dolphy, the BDP-83 plays lots of things extremely well. It’s one of the few machines that play both SACD and DVD-Audio, and it also plays Blu-ray Discs, DVDs and CDs. Its video quality when playing Blu-ray Discs and DVDs is extraordinary, matching that of $2,000 players. Its sound quality has won over even hardcore audiophiles, making it the perfect platform for the growing number of jazz Blu-ray Discs. And unlike many Blu-ray players, the BDP-83 doesn’t make you wait 45 seconds for a disc to eject; every operation is fast and smooth. It can’t stream content from online sources such as Netflix and Pandora, but otherwise the BDP-83 has everything the jazz fan could want in a Blu-ray Disc player.

SVSound PB-12 Plus Subwoofer

Ron Carter fans may get excited at the prospect of a powerful new subwoofer, but if you only listen to upright bass through the PB-12 Plus, you won’t be tapping half its incredible capability. The $1,139 PB-12 Plus does absolutely everything anyone would want a subwoofer to do. Its 12.4-inch woofer and 525-watt amplifier deliver extraordinary punch; it reproduces even the explosive slaps of Darryl Jones with ease. Yet the PB-12 Plus’ muscle doesn’t overpower; it can also convey the subtlest touch of Carter’s fingers to his strings. At 25 inches deep and 127 pounds, the PB-12 Plus is undeniably bulky, but it’s also undeniably great. And it comes in at about half the price of most subs that can compete with it.

Onkyo HT-RC160 A/V Receiver

The HT-RC160 incorporates Dolby’s Pro Logic IIz technology, which lets home-theater fans add two extra speakers above their front left and right speakers to create a greater sense of space. Even though Pro Logic IIz didn’t exactly set the world on fire, the $549 HT-RC160 has it if you want it, and it’s got a great sound and a solid feature package, too. DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD let you enjoy lossless 7.1-channel surround sound from Blu-ray Discs. Audyssey’s 2EQ technology automatically equalizes the sound to suit your room. A special port on the back accommodates optional iPod and iPhone docks or an HD Radio receiver.

Dali Fazon 5.1 Speaker System

Home-theater speaker packages often compromise sound quality for looks and price. The Dali Fazon system isn’t cheap at $2,500, but neither is it expensive-and neither is it compromised. Each member of the quintet of 10-inch-high satellite speakers is built from rigid cast aluminum finished in high-gloss black or white lacquer. A sturdy gimbaled bracket lets you point the speakers anywhere you like, and they can be wall-mounted or placed on the included table stands. The accompanying Lektor subwoofer packs a 10-inch woofer driven by a 180-watt amplifier. The system looks fantastic and sounds remarkably clear and powerful, especially with vocals: It’ll work great whether you’re digging Jane Monheit or G.I. Jane.

TEAC AG-H600NT Reference Series Receiver

To those uninitiated in the ways of high-end audio, the massive bulk and exotic designs of many audiophile components can seem intimidating. TEAC’s tiny Reference Series components provoke the opposite reaction-they’re as instantly accessible as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” The most exciting of the line is the $1,499 AG-H600NT receiver, one of the first high-end components to include Internet radio capability. Besides the 12,000-plus stations available through the Internet, you can also get AM and FM, plus iPod music through an optional dock. The AG-H600NT might look underpowered, but its 75-watt-per-channel digital amplifiers and robust internal power supply assure you’ll enjoy a realistic thwak every time Philly Joe Jones strikes his snare.

Electrocompaniet Nordic Tone Model 1 Speaker

The new speaker of 2009 I remember most fondly is the Electrocompaniet Nordic Tone Model 1, a $29,500-per-pair tower that anchored what I thought was the best-sounding room at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The Nordic Tone Model 1 resulted from a project involving several Norwegian engineers and industrial designers; the electronics manufacturer Electrocompaniet has introduced it as its first speaker. The Model 1 sounds comfortably neutral, with no readily discernible sonic colorations or distortions in the bass, midrange or treble. It combines a technical excellence that will extract every last detail from modern recordings with a sweet, forgiving nature that won’t highlight the flaws in your old Charlie Parker records-a perfect marriage of science and soul.

Sonos Bundle 250 Multiroom Music System

The last couple of years have seen the emergence of lots of devices that let you stream music wirelessly from a computer to any room in your home. But in my opinion, they’re all trying to catch up with the guys who got it right five years ago: Sonos. Sonos bases its systems around ZonePlayers that incorporate a wireless receiver and a stereo amp. The ZonePlayers can access any music stored on your computers, as well as Internet radio services and streaming services such as Pandora and Last.FM. Sonos’ new Controller 200 touchscreen only makes the system better. A full list of all your music comes up on the touchscreen. Just tap the artist, album or genre you want to hear and the music emerges from your speakers. The controller even shows cover art, and you can also use any iPhone or iPod Touch as a controller. The $999 Bundle 250 includes one Controller 200 and two ZonePlayers. More controllers and ZonePlayers can be added to expand the system. There’s no more convenient way to get Lady Day into your kitchen.

Zvox Z-Base 550 Soundbar System

Most of the jazz fans I know spend a lot of time listening to music and little time watching TV and movies. And most suffer with the crummy sound of their TV’s built-in speakers because for them, hooking up a full home theater sound system doesn’t pay. The $399 Z-Base 550 is the perfect solution. It installs in about two minutes: Just place it under your TV and connect two cables. If your TV has a variable-level audio output (i.e., one that’s controlled by the TV’s remote), the Z-Base will work like it’s part of the TV set. Not only could your grandmother work this, your grandmother’s grandmother could work this. And the performance is almost embarrassingly good. Vocal clarity is superb, the surround-sound effect is convincing, and the bass is satisfying thanks to a 5-1/2-inch woofer. One L.A.-area sax player of my acquaintance actually prefers the sound of his Z-Base to that of his two excellent stereo systems.

PS Audio PerfectWave CD Transport

Now that I think of it, there was a revolution in audio in 2009, although it was a small and quiet one. More and more CD players are starting to feed the digital audio data from CDs into a memory buffer. They then re-emit the digital bits with perfect timing, free of the fidelity-destroying jitter caused by the mechanical imperfections of the CD drive. My favorite of these new players is PS Audio’s $3,000 PerfectWave CD transport. The PerfectWave transport seems to extract the tiniest details from every CD; I’ve heard it demonstrated with and without the buffering, and the difference was easy to hear. It also has an Internet connection, which it can use to identify your CDs and display on its front panel the names of the artist, the album and the track. It also displays cover art in full color, so even if you’ve lost the jewel case to Jimmy and Wes: The Dynamic Duo, you’ll still get a chuckle over that shot of them eating the same sandwich. The transport emits digital signals only, so it has to be used in conjunction with a digital-to-analog converter such as PS Audio’s $3,000 PerfectWave DAC. Just you watch-in 2010, we’ll see a whole bunch of high-end CD players that mimic the PerfectWave’s great technology and user-friendly features.

Originally Published