Esoteric C-02Recommended Reference ComponentEsoteric, the high-end division of TEAC, is best known for its digital products: transports, DACs, clocks, and disc players. But Esoteric’s product line is broader and more accomplished -- they also make outstanding amplifiers and preamplifiers (and, at one time, made speakers), including the top-of-the-line Master Sound Works C-02 preamplifier, which Howard Kneller reviewed for SoundStage! Ultra in February and described as “transcendent.” The C-02 retails for $24,750 USD without phono stage, $26,500 with (Howard reviewed the former).

Most preamps are fairly light, but the C-02, which measures 17.4”W x 6.3”H x 17.8”D and features stunning aluminum casework, weighs 71 pounds. Howard described its size and weight as “power-amp-like” and the quality of its casework as “museum-worthy.”

Read more: Recommended Reference Component: Esoteric Master Sound Works C-02 Preamplifier

Joseph Audio PulsarsRecommended Reference ComponentUsually, the speakers we name as Recommended Reference Components are large three- or more-way floorstanding models capable of reproducing bass that reaches or approaches 20Hz. Such low-end depth is necessary to reproduce the full range of audible frequencies (aka the audioband), which extend from 20Hz to 20kHz. But sometimes we review small speakers that, despite not being able to reproduce the bottom octave -- or even the bottom two octaves -- still deserve recommendation for their exemplary performance above that range. Such a loudspeaker is the Joseph Audio Pulsar, a two-way, stand-mounted design that sells for $7700 USD per pair.

When Graham Abbott reviewed the Pulsar in January, he dealt with the issue of bass right away. He heard the usual limitations of small speakers, but also some surprising strengths: “Tosca’s Delhi9 (CD, G Stone K-7) has some very deep bass and bass tones that the Pulsars admirably reproduced, trading off the very lowest frequencies for a rhythmic, resonant underpinning that refused to weigh the music down. The Pulsars couldn’t replace the bass reach and solidity of a high-end floorstander, but they might fool you into thinking you’re close.

Read more: Recommended Reference Component: Joseph Audio Pulsar Loudspeakers

Magico S5Recommended Reference ComponentThe most important thing about any product we list as a Recommended Reference Component is its sound. But in the case of the Magico S5 loudspeaker ($29,400-$32,500 USD per pair, depending on finish), reviewed last month by Doug Schneider, we’d be remiss if we didn’t also say something about its construction, which sets a new standard for speakers around this price.

Doug said this about the S5’s construction and its 195-pound weight: “Much of the S5’s weight is attributable to its all-aluminum enclosure, which measures 48”H x 15”W x 14”D. Its sides and back form a single, continuously curved surface, and inside, it’s extensively braced with more aluminum. This elaborate structure is exceptionally well made, but words can’t do justice to the way it’s constructed, particularly the way the rear and side panels are attached to the skeletal internal frame. But pictures can -- I recommend looking at the photos of the S5’s interior and exterior to get an idea of what’s involved.

“Probably most relevant for this review is the cabinet’s density. With all its concentrated weight, the S5 sits rock-solid on the floor when the supplied spikes are screwed into its base, which is the entire purpose of this exercise in military-grade speaker design -- because Magico’s designers want the drivers, not the enclosure, to make the sound, the enclosure must be stable and nonresonant. It seems to work -- the S5 is as sturdy a speaker as I’ve seen.”

Read more: Recommended Reference Component: Magico S5 Loudspeakers

Bryston B135 SST2Recommended Reference ComponentBryston’s reputation in the hi-fi industry is legendary. Their electronics, which are used in both the professional and consumer markets, are relatively affordable and are known for excellent build quality, exceptional reliability, and warranties second to none: 20 years for any “analog” component (i.e., power amplifiers, preamplifiers, and integrated amplifiers). Bryston also receives near-universal praise for their components’ outstanding sound quality -- sound so good that they’re often held up as benchmarks against which other like- and higher-priced components are judged. An ideal example is the 4B SST2 power amplifier, which outputs up to 300Wpc into 8 ohms, sounds spectacular, and costs $4995 USD. It received a Reviewers’ Choice award when it was reviewed in July 2009, a Product of the Year award at the end of that year, and recognition as a Recommended Reference Component in January 2011 -- and it’s still current today.

Read more: Recommended Reference Component: Bryston B135 SST2 Integrated Amplifier

Simaudio Moon Evolution 740PRecommended Reference ComponentIn a typical hi-fi system, a standalone preamplifier is primarily relied on for source switching and volume control, as well as to provide an appropriate impedance match with and enough gain to drive a power amplifier. That seems simple enough. Where most preamplifiers fall short is in their ability to perform those functions with transparency to the signal source. Most preamps can be identified by the colorations they impose on the sound as they perform these tasks; by definition, reference-caliber preamps can do it all while adding no sonic signature of their own.

Read more: Recommended Reference Component: Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P Preamplifier