DAR’s favourite bits of 2015 (Part 1)

  • DAR_bestof2015The longer I spend headed out to sea on a boat powered by audiophile thinking, the more I wish I could keep one foot on land where normal people go about their business, oblivious to webzines like DAR. I’ve written previously about the audiophile disconnect and the need for those already a long way from land to build a bridge back to the man in the street. It’s why in 2015 I championed the showing of properly affordable hardware at audio shows.

    And now, at the end of the year, I’m reflecting on a few of my favourite products and experiences from the preceding twelve months. DAR’s ‘Best of 2015’ coverage will arrive in instalments. Possibly two, most likely three.

    This first slice focusses on not only the more affordable end of the market (ergo bridge builders) but hardware that struck me as important in moving the audiophile game forward in more ways sound quality alone.

    In no particular order…

    Sonos Play:1 (US$199/each)

    Sonos recently introduced a radically overhauled Play:5 loudspeaker (US$499) – wireless streamer, DAC, amplifiers and drivers in a single box. I went for a listen three times at different local stores and on each occasion found it an impressive sounding beast; the new Play:5’s bass goes low but remains tuneful.

    The catch? You’ll need two for stereophony proper and that pushes the entry fee to within two cents of a grand, well north of the superior sounding KEF X300A (US$799) whose coaxial driver alignment is better on both imaging and midrange articulation. The KEF’s top end isn’t anyway near as insistent as that heard from a pair of Play:5.

    Sonos’ new trump card is Trueplay: a smart device app that measures the speaker’s output in the context of the listening room and tweaks its output accordingly (via DSP). I preferred the sound of Trueplay engaged during my three separate auditions of the Play:5. It dialled back the bass and in doing so gave vocals more breathing room. However, cymbals and hi-hats retained their strong presence. Trueplay doesn’t transform the Play:5 pair into something better sounding than the active KEFs (which three years since launch remain one of the most underrated pieces of entry level hifi).


    Even if some users don’t find the Trueplay-modified signal to their liking, it sends the message to (mainstream) users that a room’s acoustic make-up influences the sound of a speaker placed therein. That’s an important conversation to have and one that deserves greater priority than talk of hi-res formats.

    Trueplay can also be applied to the Sonos Play:1. Again, you’ll need two and they sound excellent for the money; not as bright as the new Play:5. Where else can you get active loudspeakers with in-built streaming, D/A conversion AND room correction for less than US$500? Answer: nowhere.

    Further information: Sonos

    Sony NW-ZX2 (US$1199)

    You can’t take it with you. Money, that is. When Sony launched their NW-ZX2 digital Walkman at CES in January the mainstream press scoffed at its US$1199 RRP. “No sound quality is worth that much,” they argued in harmony. Have these commentators ever met an audiophile I wonder? Five months later at the world’s biggest and best audiophile trade show, Astell&Kern launched the AK380. Price? US$3500. Even the most die-hard head-fi-er would have to agree with Gizmag’s assertion that such pricing is ‘eye-watering’.

    The good news for Sony was that Astell&Kern’s AK380 had made the ZX2 look positively affordable. I’ve no idea by how much the sound of the AK380 bests the ZX2. For the South Korean company’s sake it had want to by quite some margin. After all, the Sony DAP sells for almost a third of the price of the flagship A&K; offers Tidal, Spotify and Pandora integration courtesy of its Android O/S offering Google Play Store access; and houses a bigger battery (than the ZX1) to provides a whopping 30 hours battery life between charges. The majority of rival DAPs, even the AK380, only offer a third of that (at best).


    A more evenly-matched comparison pricewise arrives when Astell&Kern’s AK120 II is sat next to the Sony. Of the two I prefer the latter: the Sony goes further with detail excavation and doesn’t have the unmistakable thick mid-bass of the Astell&Kern.

    Versus the ZX1 (US$699), the ZX2 adds microSD card slot, the aforementioned extension to battery life and, as if in concert with the additional in-hand weight, sounds fuller, richer and considerably less needlepoint in transient handling…but only after one of the most agonising run-in periods I’ve witnessed from any audio product. The second generation unit is therefore better suited to a broader range of headphones and IEMs. My only criticism is that the Sony sounds more ‘hifi’ than a Pono Player: think B&W floorstander instead of single driver standmount. But the Pono Player, for all its talents in lending music a certain sense of beauty, only clocks up six hours’ run time before its battery gives up the ghost; that’s woefully inadequate for long haul flights out of Australia. It’s 10 hours from Sydney to Tokyo, 12 hours from Sydney to Los Angeles. Portable audio is only enjoyable for as long as the battery lasts. Once it dies, a better DAC, headphone stage, hi-res encoding and/or terrific mastering job matter not a jot. You can’t (always) take it with you. Music, that is. Unless you have a Sony NW-ZX2.

    Further information: Sony

    Chord Electronics Mojo DAC/headphone amplifier (£399)

    I kickstarted my coverage of Chord Electronics’ entry-level matchbox with DAR’s first foray into video, showing how an average joe might connect the Mojo to their smartphone and in doing so introduce considerably better sound quality into their daily routine. After all, that was the thrust of both the Mojo’s launch event at The Shard in London as well as the promo material that accompanied the news announcement. Then came emails from Chord Electronics CEO John Franks and Mojo designer Rob Watts: I’d got it all wrong and that Mojo was in fact a piece of high-end hardware that competes with the dCS’s of the DAC world. A case of over-protective parenting perhaps but a situation that underscores the Mojo’s identity crisis.


    I just don’t foresee many folk strapping the Mojo to their smartphones when the rubber bands required to keep it in place must traverse the top and bottom of the touchscreen. However, that doesn’t mean the Mojo is DOA on application. Quite the opposite. It begins to come its own in quasi-portable scenarios, turning an iPad (equipped with CCK and Tidal or Spotify) into a digital front end with serious high-end cred.

    How so? I couldn’t pick much of an audible difference between the Mojo and the box that kick-started it all: Chord Electronics’ thrice more costly Hugo. Like the Hugo, the Mojo eschews an off the shelf DAC chip in favour of an FPGA programmed by Rob Watts. The Mojo’s sound is big on detail and inner spaciousness; it offers an intergalactic space flight through your music collection. And also like the Hugo, where I see most users deploying the Mojo is not in headphone setups – although its 3.5mm output is seriously punchy – but in housebound two-channel systems. If there’s a sub-$1000 D/A converter that can get close to the deep sonic immersion offered by the Mojo, I’ve not heard it. This is THE goto device for any entry-leveller looking to take their listening experience to the next (err) level. The Mojo is probably best served with ancillaries that offer a little downstream tonal weight gain; a tube amplifier for example. “Bloody brilliant” as they say in the UK.

    Further information: Chord Electronics

    Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable (US$699)

    No other product in 2015 has given me so much hands on pleasure as this Pioneer DJ turntable. No, that’s not a nod to the Carry On films of yore (Brits will know what I’m talking ‘bout) but a reminder that a turntable must not only sound good but remain enjoyable in use. High mass and a sense of indestructibility puts a spike in the value for money quotient right from the unboxing. This unit tips the scales at 13kg.

    As those in the know will tell you, the PLX-1000 is another Hanpin-manufactured derivative of the Technics SL-1200 (discontinued in 2010). The Chinese company has since made SL-1200 clones for Audio Technica, SPEC Corp., Reloop and, the company that brought this Super OEM design to life, Stanton.

    Being a turntable from Pioneer’s DJ division its build quality is second to none and offers an embarrassment of conveniences that cast belt-driven, low mass rivals into the shade. The removable headshell means upgrades to it and/or the attached cartridge are a snap.

    Then there’s the direct drive topology, underpinned by a high-torque motor. Watch the strobe for a few seconds and you’ll the speed of the PLX-1000 is rock solid. You can’t say that about a Rega RP-3. Unlike the Rega, the PLX-1000’s platter starts and stops on a dime. That’s a long way from the 20 seconds required by the Pro-Ject Xtension 10 to get up to 33rpm. Even though the Pioneer doesn’t sound as eloquent or majestic as the Austrian, it’s better suited to people in a hurry to drop the needle. That said, the Pioneer offers a weighty, driving sound that’s considerably better than the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon.


    Since its launch, the PLX-1000 has disrupted the audiophile community. Audiophilliac Steve Guttenberg and Stereophile’s Herb Reichert, whose Brooklyn neighbourhood proximity means they often share thoughts and gear, have both given this ‘table a rave. On a more anecdotal level, I’ve seen some forum commentators wax lyrical about how they prefer the sound of the Pioneer to a far more costly audiophile-focussed VPI or Thorens. We shall see…

    I’ve since purchased a Rega RP6 and a Rega Exact cartridge so in time we’ll find out how just how the Pioneer + Dynavector 10×5 stacks up. If I can source an A/D converter from m2Tech or Ayre Acoustics, I’ll share audio samples as per Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet.

    In the meantime, if you find yourself hesitating on buying one of these, don’t.

    Further information: Pioneer DJ

    Google Chromecast Audio (US$35)

    What the Chromecast did for video, Google hope the Chromecast Audio will do for audio: make digital streaming easy and super-affordable. Connect the latter’s 3.5mm analogue output to the back of an amplifier or active loudspeakers and you’ve just added streaming compatibility to your system for a paltry US$35. Google’s smartphone app initiates the connection between streaming service and the Chromecast Audio device.

    Of course, no-one’s really expecting the Chromecast Audio’s internal DAC to pass audiophile muster. Still unavailable down under, I’ve yet to see even see one, let alone take a listen (hence the stock photo). That’ll change next month at CES but in the meantime know that the 3.5mm socket doubles as an optical output for direct connection to an external D/A converter. Clip a mini-Toslink adapter to one end of an existing optical cable and you’re off to the races with a better deal.


    I foresee the Chromecast Audio doing price-commensurate time with the forthcoming AudioQuest Beetle or a Schiit Modi Ubeer. Either pairing will threaten a Sonos Connect’s sound quality and convenience but without getting anyway near it on price. The Beetle adds Bluetooth streaming to the mix for when wifi access isn’t appropriate. The Schiit on the other hand offers an RCA-fuelled analogue output.

    Oh – and to those who think that the Chromecast Audio is a toy for kids who listen to lossy streams of mainstream rubbish, Google today announced full 24bit/96kHz and multi-room sync support that’ll land on each dongle as a software update.

    That price again: THIRTY. FIVE. DOLLARS.

    Further information: Google


    Part 2 runs here.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Thanks for this excellent summary of the thus year’s finest offerings, John.

      I’m a big Sony fan, but the price of Sony’s NW-ZX2 (and -ZX1) is particularly stunning when you consider they only produce a maximum output of 15mW per channel into 16 Ohms. As with all Sony DAPs, the long battery life comes with a woefully understated yet critical requirement that you confine their use to very efficient IEMs and headphones.

      For $299, you can get a Sony NWZ-A17, with 64GB internal memory, a microSD card reader, a spectacularly fruendly and bug-free UI, but only 10mW per channel maximum.

      Add a USB emulation cable to bypass Sony’s proprietary DAC and weak headphone out, plus a Chord Mojo or an Oppo HA-2, and you can do cirles around the Sony ZX2, with a better DAC and a lot more power, supporting a much broader choice of viable headphones.

      For a small and light kit, however, the “affordable” NWZ-A17 with efficient IEMs is hard to beat.

      • Yes – and I faced a similar conundrum when buying the ZX2 in Tokyo. It vs the A17. Did a back to back comparo and found the flagship model to sound *far* superior to junior. The battery life comes at the expense of power but Astell&Kern DAPs also demand low impedance ‘phones and IEMs, hence the recent collaboration with Beyerdynamic birthing a 32 Ohm version of the T1.

        As for the Mojo. Strapping it on to a smartphone renders the two-fer too large to pocket. Same with the HA-2 but to a lesser extent. What happens to the USB cable loop once its in one’s pocket? Does it not get crushed?

        Therefore, going DAP only is the only way to keep things truly portable (in every sense and) and so forces us to flip our buying order: DAC/amp (aka DAP) first, then transducers to match. Do that with the Sony and you can have tunes flowing right across the Pacific or Atlantic.

    2. Hi John! Thank you for all the informative news and reviews every week. When the ZX2 was first announced you seemed hesitant. By this time though I had already added an ALO Continental + Optical to my AK120 Titan. Lets see, that’s US $1500 + 600…. What piqued my interest in the ZX2 was its digital out over usb. Plus all the shielding and gold plating in the thing seemed like someone was working hard. I soldiered on. I checked Amazon and there was an open box ZX2 for $800.00, I immediately clicked buy. Other than a finger print it was new from the factory and has become one of my favorite pieces of hi-fi. The AK stack can drive any of my phones the ZX2 can’t of course, but has a better soundstage and presentation of detail.

      Have you tried it as a transport? It betters the optical out of my AK hands down. The factors here are the ZX2 is usb to Wyrd to Yggdrasil. The Yggy also has the Gen 3 usb. It is the best sound I can currently get, and I’ve tried all the ways I could configure with what I have. Is it noise free enough to compete sonically with an Aurender or Antipodes? I don’t have them so was hoping you might be curious also to give it a whirl. (yes I know I need to try Curious Cables, thank you for that!) As a side note, have you tried it into your CDM? I must confess the CDM is what got me thinking of the ZX2 usb out. BTW 200GB micro SD cards were $100 the other day so storage isn’t much of an issue.

      • Indeed – I was hesitant until I heard it. Quite a bit better than the ZX1.

        I don’t use DAPs as transports, only as DAPs. Their appeal lies in their combination of great SQ and pocketability. For listening at home with an Yggy, I’d park the DAP and slap an UpTone Regen or similar to a $100 PC instead. That’s where the main library would live. In other words, the Sony, Pono, A&K are only deployed outside of the house.

        Besides, the Sony DAPs need a Sony cable with proprietary connector.

        • Thank you for your advice. But my laptop via usb into Wyrd into Yggy is noticeably outperformed by being replaced by the ZX2! As I mentioned, its clearly the best in all the different ways I could make comparisons with the various equipment I have. I’m thinking the Regen would have to be in your face better than the Wyrd to nudge the computer into competition. Then, would it have the same improvement factor on the ZX2? It’s a great time for digital! Seems logical from what I’ve read that something like the Aurender or Antipodes are superior to the endless tinkering with a computer….since I have no experience with those products I thought I’d ask. Well I’m in America otherwise I’d lend you my Sony cable. Thank you again.

    3. John, I am considering the Mojo as DAC feeding my living room amp (Naim Nait XS, KEF LS-50s, Squeezebox Duet would feed Mojo) … but I have two reservations that I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on. Firstly, would the fact that you are plugging in at the DAC end with a 3.5 mm mini jack have any (appreciable) negative impact on the sound (assume the purchase of a reasonable quality cable). Secondly, would the battery in the Mojo suffer from being left plugged in and powered up continually?

      • Negative impact? Compared to what? 😉

        3.5mm is our only choice with the Mojo so I guess it’s like it or leave it. I don’t foresee it introducing issues over and above RCAs had they been installed but someone else more engineering-minded might care to chime in on that?

        All batteries wear out eventually but I suspect if you’re keeping it constantly charged the Mojo will be superseded, probably by Watts himself, long before it gives up. We’re talking years not weeks.

    4. Great eclectic list, Darko!
      And ‘onya’ for giving Sonos a shout; I’m sure you’ll attract a bit of ‘incoming’ for that alone from the audiophile camp!
      Yes, we Sonos users know our stuff isn’t the last word in audio accuracy etc, etc BUT the system deserves respect for helping create a new way of enjoying music and I love mine.
      Merry Crimbo, big man.

    5. John, thank you for sharing your favourite bits of 2015. I want to get the ZX2 to pair with my PM-3. But I also want to use it in my car as my main source, directly connected to my DSP via the 3.5 mm jack to RCA. I just wonder how well this will work.

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