Numerous new pieces of audio hardware impressed me this year. Final Audio’s Sonorous III (US$399) is a closed back headphone that doesn’t sound like your average closed back headphone. I continue to enjoy its strong dynamic contrasts and clean, articulate midrange. For similar money, but with an entirely different take on aural satisfaction, Meze’s 99 Classics positively sizzle with (what many might refer to as) “musicality”. I’m not down with such weasel words but whatever colour added to the mix by the Meze cans, it doesn’t distract from a top-notch presentation. Both models are portable player-friendly to boot.
In the affordable loudspeaker space, there’s Andrew Jones’ work for ELAC and then there’s everybody else. The Debut B6 is a marvel of engineering for the money, even if its appearance leans towards the prosaic. The gotcha for many a buyer will be the relatively high cost of the amplifier required to do these standmounts justice; your average 60wpc Class A/B-er might not cut it.
Affordable D/A converters with believable high-end aspirations came down to two models for me this year: the Chord Mojo and, pulling up a close second with more flesh and tonal weight, the multibit Schiit Bifrost.
Mirroring the tail end of 2015, 2016 was once again Chord Electronics’ year – hats off to John Franks for putting Rob Watts’ (FPGA) WTA filter into a unit that mere mortals could afford – US$599 – and beyond the reach of 99% of rivals in terms of sonic satisfaction and functional flexibility.
BUT! These products are largely aimed at the audiophile space. A space where the median age can sometimes tip 50 and the gender balanced is split 99:1 in favour of dudes.
In listing DAR’s favourite bits of 2016 (in no particular order), I’ve gone for products that show greater potential for mass market crossover.
Note: that which follows stems not from fleeting listens at audio shows where unfamiliar hotel rooms make speaker judgement calls too unreliable for end-of-year Best Of lists and the non-existent black art of listening all the way back up the playback chain through unfamiliar ancillaries and cables – and (often) unfamiliar music – to proclaim a joyous source as something of a joke (unwittingly made at the readers’ expense).
To qualify for DAR’s favourite bits of 2016, an item must have journeyed to my listening room where familiar gear and familiar music lay the foundations of reliable assessment.
Here we go…
Whilst I have some reservations about the sound quality of some entry-level turntables, those same reservations fail to dent my enthusiasm for buying, collecting and spinning vinyl. This Pioneer might be one of the best you can buy for the money – especially if ergonomic tactility is important to you. Mirroring the Technics SL-1200 in form and function, this PLX-1000 offers robust build quality, direct drive and push-button speed control. You can’t say ANY of that about entry-level offerings from class leaders Rega and Pro-Ject who, to their credit, fit a cartridge in the factory. With the Pioneer, you’ll need to BYO. This is a good thing – spend time aligning a decent Grado or Ortofon and you’ll sidestep the disappointment of the Rega Carbon that the British company specify on their RP1 or the Ortofon OM-5 (previously) fitted to the Australian version of the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon. DACs don’t all the sound the same – quality varies, often with price. It’s the same with turntable – you get what you pay for.
Can we please dispense with the “Nothing beats the sound of vinyl” nonsense? Which turntable are we talking about exactly? And with which cartridge? And which phono stage? If it’s this Pioneer and if transparency and separation are important to you, US$599 is probably better spent on the Chord Mojo. On the other hand, you can’t hold a FLAC file in your hands, there’s no cover art, no lyric sheet and the sensation of authenticity is entirely absent. Spend your money according to YOUR priorities, not someone else’s.
The compact disc
No, I’m not being trite. Every time someone gives up on lossless compression in favour of the convenience of lossy streaming audio – and who can blame them – the humble CD becomes more valuable. For starters, it’s a real format; something to own and collect. Not quite as fulfilling in this regard as vinyl but the average new release CD often sells for 60% of the price of its vinyl equivalent.
On the other hand, cast a beady eye over those who would kick MP3 (and its kind) as a means to sell you hi-res downloads. The CD is the oft-forgotten middle ground for those who don’t enjoy the ebb and flow of content provision (see: Neil Young, Prince and Radiohead) over at Tidal, Qobuz or Deezer. Rippable too. Here, mainstream relevance flows in the other direction: the humble CD is a mass market audio format that audiophiles can love.
ELAC Uni-Fi FS U5 Slim
At Munich High-End, ELAC introduced a pricier, slimmer, paint-finished variant of their Uni-Fi series. It is this version of the floorstanding FS U5, in white, that I bought upon landing in Berlin. I’m bowled over by how good they look. And how good they sound. Strong dynamics, especially in the low end subtract nothing from supreme clarity throughout the rest of the audio band. In terms of imaging, these Andrew Jones-designed loudspeakers offer a viable alternative to the equally attractive LS50 from KEF. At €1398/pair, the FS U5’s price is none too dissimilar either.
Spatial Audio Hologram M4
End of year lists like this are a bit silly, aren’t they. No reviewer can possibly hear every loudspeaker coming to market each year. They’d be lucky to get their ears around as much as 10%. Assessing upstream electronics, especially DACs and streamers and the like, demands consistency elsewhere. That can mean a reviewer will stick with the same loudspeakers for many months.
I spent most of 2016 with the open-baffle Hologram M4 from Utah’s Spatial Audio (US$1695+). And what a speaker. We get a B I G sound minus the bass overload that might plague the aforementioned ELACs when placed in a smaller room. I’d liken the M4’s soundstaging to the Magnepan MMG but without the off-axis roll-off. The bonus of much higher efficiency (93db) opens to door to a greater range of amplifier choices. Best of all, these loudspeakers are an absolute pleasure to look at. The Hologram range’s IKEA-like styling means their aesthetic appeal has the potential to journey beyond the audiophile niche. High-end loudspeakers for forward thinking urbanites then? You bet.
Peachtree Audio nova150
Peachtree know a thing or two about mass market relevance – they were one of the first to put a high end DAC into an integrated amplifier. That was 2009. Since then, we’ve seen a move to Class D amplification and several iterations of the Nova line. The 2015 models are possibly Peachtree’s best sounding pieces to date. This isn’t the only reason to buy one. Inside we find DAC, MM phono stage, deluxe iOS input and a dedicated headphone amplifier that’ll keep pace with high-end cans. That Peachtree also moved production back to North America this year and still kept the price at US$1500 is minor miracle. With the nova150, offer a one of the best looking integrated amplifiers on the market with next-to-no-compromise bang-for-buck that’ll have you questioning the need for separates.
AudioQuest DragonFly Black
Tipping the US$99 price point is only part of this DAC’s potential to cross over into the mainstream where, incidentally, DSD is a total non-event. The Black will decode PCM up to 96kHz and is compatible with both Mac OS and Windows. It’s bus powered, will fit in your pocket for full portability and – the kicker – also talks to iOS and (numerous) Android devices with the appropriate adapter. Mainstreamers don’t want to carry a second portable device on which they only play music. They want superior sound quality from their existing devices: a Mac, a PC, a smartphone or a tablet. The DragonFly Black gives them precisely that for a price that a) won’t leave mouths agape and b) will likely give audiophiles pause when considering a third party DAP.
Audeze Sine/iSine Cipher cable
The feeling of transparency – of getting closer to the music – is only part of Audeze’s success in porting their planar-magnetic smarts to the portable audio space. The optional Cipher cable made available for the EL-8 over-ears (pictured), the Sine on-ears and iSine IEMs is what sets these particular Audeze headphones from the pack. With an Apple Lightning plug at one end, the Cipher cable extracts digital audio directly from any compatible iOS device. The listener then sidesteps the iPhone or iPad’s fairly basic D/A conversion and headphone amplification in favour of Audeze’s own, housed in Cipher’s mic/control dongle. DSP is used to tune the signal for optimal SQ. What we hear as a result is considerably more detailed and articulate than listening from the iPhone 6S Plus’ 3.5mm socket. Cipher-connected headphone allows us to stay with our smartphones’ superior UX. No DAP, no worries.
The Rupert Neve Headphone amplifier
DAR covered numerous audio shows this year. Most took place in the USA but the biggest and best this year (like last) was Munich High-End. Tokyo’s Fujiya Avic pulls up a close second, especially for headphone listeners. Putting ‘best’ and headphone listening together, one of the most satisfying listening experiences this year came from the leftfield – a headphone amplifier from Rupert Neve.
The RNHP mainlines the pro-world’s no nonsense attitude to audio, where connection stability and bullet-proof build quality often ride ahead of out and out sound quality. With the RNHP’s circuit pulled straight from their 5060 mixing console we get our cake delivered and we get to eat it too. Summit-fi climbers might consider the US$499 price tag and utilitarian aesthetic as signs of compromise – more fool them. First heard by yours truly at RMAF/CanJam 2016 and then again at my new DARhaus digs in Berlin, the RNHP offers a sound that’s clean, dynamically robust and positively bursting with tonal colour. And that volume control feels immensely satisfying to turn. Oh, and 90, Rupert Neve himself is very much alive and kicking.
Bluetooth audio isn’t just Bluetooth audio. Quality varies with the codec in play, carrying the audio from signal from transmitter (e.g. a smartphone) to receiver (e.g. headphones). Only one codec is mandatory: SBC. Unfortunately, SBC doesn’t really sound all that good. For listeners to realise the potential of the superior sounding (and widely touted) aptX codec, both receiver and transmitter must support it. Our new noise cancelling headphones’ packaging might scream “aptX Bluetooth” but inside the iPhone, aptX support is entirely absent. Ditto numerous Android smartphones. The upshot is that we end up listening to the tonally neutered SBC.
Enter the Sony MDR-1000X that offer aptX and – crucially – AAC, support for which Apple have dropped into their smartphones. The AAC codec pulls iPhone listeners off SBC’s bottom rung and into SQ territory on par with aptX. However, the real story with these Sony headphone is that the amplification is baked into the design and tuned via DSP for optimal sound quality. Think of the MDR-1000X as the actives of the loudspeaker world. Not only do we sidestep the trial-and-error amplifier “synergy” lottery but also the kludgy nonsense of strapping a DAC/amp to a smartphone, most of which sell for more than the Sony headphones’ US$399 asking price. Furthermore, Sony’s noise cancellation is some of the most effective available right now. Head-fi.org’s Jude Mansilla agrees – he pegs it as better than Bose. I reckon it’s better than Sennheiser’s. Tell your Dad before he drops cash on a pair of QC25 or Momentum Wireless. No product in 2016 brought this listener more joy than the Sony MDR-1000X. No product this year better struck the balance between audiophile considerations, real world application and price…
…well, apart from one.
DAR’s Product of the Year Award 2016 can be found here.