Recommended Reference Component: iFi Audio iPhono3 Black Label Phono Stage

Recommended Reference ComponentiFi Audio’s iPhono3 Black Label phono stage doesn’t look like an audiophile hi-fi component—it measures only 2.3ʺW × 1.1ʺH × 6.2ʺD, with a set of inputs on one end and a set of outputs on the other (all single-ended RCA), and weighs just over half a pound (265g, to be precise). At $999 (all prices in USD), it’s also relatively inexpensive. But despite its smallness and unusual shape, light weight, and reasonable price, the iPhono3’s feature set is exceedingly rich, and its sound quality compares favorably with phono stages priced much higher. In Jason Thorpe’s review of the iPhono3 Black Label on this site last month, he called it a “devastating bargain.”

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Recommended Reference Component: Karan Acoustics Master Collection LINEb Preamplifier

Recommended Reference ComponentKaran Acoustics’ Master Collection LINEb is priced at $28,000 (all prices in USD), but it isn’t the most expensive preamplifier the company makes—that distinction belongs to the $41,000 Master Collection LINEa. But according to Doug Schneider in his April 15 review of the LINEb, anyone who is able to afford the LINEb will have purchased “one of the very best preamplifiers now available at any price.”

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Recommended Reference Component: NAD C 298 Stereo/Mono Amplifier

Recommended Reference ComponentOnly a few years ago it was difficult, if not impossible, to find a stereo amplifier with extremely low distortion and low noise and with enough power to drive most loudspeakers and not have it cost several thousand dollars. With NAD’s recent introduction of the C 298 amplifier, which can be used as a stereo amp to deliver over 185Wpc or as a monoblock to output more than 620W (both into 8 ohms), the price for such an amp has dropped to just $1999 (all prices in USD). Evan McCosham reviewed the C 298 for this site last month.

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Recommended Reference Component: Audeze Euclid Earphones

Recommended Reference ComponentAudeze’s new Euclid earphones ($1299, in USD) have earpieces made from aluminum and carbon fiber, each containing a single, bespoke 18mm planar-magnetic driver. Because of the high price, unique driver, and high-quality materials, the Euclids might seem targeted mostly at serious enthusiasts simply looking for the best possible sound. But as Brent pointed out in his February 2021 review on SoundStage! Solo, with their reasonably high sensitivity and what he called the “the outward normality of the design,” these earphones are “also for well-heeled people who just want a good set of earphones they can plug into their Android phone, their tablet, or their computer.” Brent used his Samsung Galaxy S10 as well as an AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC-headphone amp for the review and found that the 105dB (1mW input) sensitivity of these headphones meant they could be driven to high sound-pressure levels (SPLs) with not that much power.

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Recommended Reference Component: Pro-Ject Audio Systems RPM 10 Carbon Turntable with 10cc Evolution Tonearm

Recommended Reference ComponentSoundStage! founder Doug Schneider and senior contributor Aron Garrecht both went turntable shopping in January. Independently and physically distanced, of course. They each wanted to find a top-tier turntable that would allow them to review the ever-increasing number of turntable-related products on the market, such as phono stages, whether standalone or built into a preamplifier or integrated amplifier, and other components and accessories. For advice, they consulted SoundStage! vinyl guru, Jason Thorpe, who told them both to buy a Pro-Ject Audio Systems RPM 10 Carbon turntable with 10cc Evolution tonearm, which he’d reviewed for SoundStage! Ultra on December 15, 2017. Jason had owned a Pro-Ject RPM 10 before reviewing the RPM 10 Carbon, its successor, and immediately sold it and replaced it with the newer model for the improvements in sound and build.

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Recommended Reference Component: Technics EAH-TZ700 Earphones

Recommended Reference ComponentIn Brent Butterworth’s review of the Technics EAH-TZ700 earphones, which appeared on SoundStage! Solo in October, he highlighted that they “employ an unusual design that almost no one uses, and that’s for very good reason. From an engineering standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. But from a marketing standpoint . . . not so much.” Brent went on to explain how “the design packs a single driver into a tiny enclosure made from highly non-resonant material,” which, he said, “adds no significant resonance of its own” and, due to its small size, negates the “need for a long or twisty soundtube between the driver and your eardrum.” The result, Brent summed up, has the listener “hearing the driver and almost nothing else.”

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Recommended Reference Component: KEF LS50 Meta Loudspeakers

Recommended Reference ComponentIn 2012, UK loudspeaker manufacturer KEF released the LS50 loudspeaker, which Doug Schneider reviewed for this site in April 2013. The LS50 received a Reviewers’ Choice award at the time of the review, was further recognized as a Recommended Reference Component in August 2013, and was one of 2013’s Products of the Year. In October 2020, KEF released the LS50’s successor, the LS50 Meta. Doug reviewed it last month, and it too received a Reviewers’ Choice award. The LS50 Meta is priced the same as the original LS50 was in 2012 ($1499.99 per pair, all prices USD), and, according to Doug’s review, deserves similar praise.

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Recommended Reference Component: Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd Generation) Headphones

Recommended Reference ComponentOn October 1, for SoundStage! Solo, Brent Butterworth reviewed Beyerdynamic’s T5 headphones. He wanted to review this model, a closed-back design now in its third generation, for several reasons, one of which was: “So much attention in the audiophile headphone biz is devoted to relatively young companies, such as Audeze, Dan Clark Audio, and HiFiMan, that we tend to overlook the three German brands -- AKG, Beyerdynamic, and Sennheiser -- that were making good headphones before the founders of the aforenamed upstarts were even born.” He admitted that he’d “still never spent enough quality time with some of the high-end models from that classic Teutonic trio.” Even Brent had some catching up to do.

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Recommended Reference Component: dCS Bartók Digital-to-Analog Converter

Recommended Reference ComponentIt was in 1987, in Cambridge, England, that Mike Story founded Data Conversions Systems (dCS) as an engineering consulting firm doing work on the Blue Vixen radar system for the Royal Navy. In 1989, dCS launched itself on the waves of audio with the 900 analog-to-digital converter (ADC), followed in 1993 by the 950 digital-to-analog converter, which dCS claims was the world’s first 24-bit DAC. In 1995 came the 902 ADC and 952 DAC, which dCS says were the world’s first digital converters to use 24 bits and a sampling frequency of 96kHz.

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Recommended Reference Component: Focal Shape 65 Analog Active Loudspeakers

Recommended Reference ComponentFocal’s Shape 65 loudspeaker sells for $1998/pair (all prices USD), but it’s unusual for an audiophile loudspeaker: It was designed for use as a monitor in professional recording studios. Nonetheless, when Gordon Brockhouse reviewed the Shape 65 for SoundStage! Simplifi on June 15, he wrote that it “looks as if it belongs in a stylish living space,” and that “that’s where its sound belongs.”

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