2009 was a transformational year for our system.  This was the year I went fully digital (digital files, that is).  You may notice from the pictures below the modified Denon 5900 is no longer on the shelf; 2008 was the last year I played discs in my system.  Also absent was any form of power conditioning.  The components are a Red Wine 30.2 amplifier and a Red Wine Isabella tube preamp.with internal USB DAC, both battery-powered.  Except for integrating the amp and preamp, this is about the most simplistic setup possible…a set of speakers, speaker cables, one interconnect, a laptop, the 30.2 and the Isabella.  I built this system with no power conditioner and minus one interconnect and three power cables; that’s big savings when using reference-grade gear (25-40% of the system cost).

The system included the Gateway laptop sitting on the coffee table.  This machine was released in 2008 and was also transformational technology.  This was the advent of the Intel Centrino 2, containing a 45nm dual-core processor, DDR3 memory, an advanced NVIDIA graphics card, 802.11G WiFi and an HDMI output.  I’m still using this laptop in 2012, though I stopped using it for audio long ago.

I bought the Zu Druid speakers at the end of 2008, as the Mark IV model was being closed out.  The Druids are 101dB sensitive.  I really prefer speakers with at least 95dB sensitivity, so I don’t have to worry about whether my amp of choice can drive them.  While not perfect, these have remarkable qualities in the mid-range.  The Druids when paired with the thick sound of Red Wine gear and its smooth non-oversampling USB DAC (not shown in pic) gave an eerie and very cool feeling of the sound almost oozing out of the speakers at you.

I experimented with rolling several varieties of NOS tubes in the Isabella, including the expensive Siemens CCA 6922, and the Bugle Boy USN 7308, but eventually found that the stock JJ tube, which this unit was designed with, gave the best overall balance.  The NOS tubes had more detail, but this unit needs the fullness of the JJ.

I got great sound from the Red Wine and Druid system, and should have stayed with it much longer than I did.  However, a 6moons review of the First Watt F5 caught my fancy.  I came across the opportunity to buy a homemade clone of the F5 amp circuit and mastering this amp became my challenge for the next two years.