DAR’s holiday gift guide 2016

  • Audiophiles – be honest: few of us would entrust hardware purchases to significant others without make/model specificity or a good deal of hand-holding. What would you therefore buy for yourself this holiday season? Here, a handful of suggestions:

    KEF MUO (US$349)

    One of the few Bluetooth loudspeakers that looks and feels as though it’s made for adults (and with a price to match), the MUO is weighty in hand and sounds pretty darn good considering the form factor. Some clever internal sensor and DSP trickery (see here) means the KEF mini will sound its best whether sat horizontally or stood vertically. For the audiophile who spends more time than s/he’d like in hotel rooms or at the office. RRP is US$349 but head to right now for US$50 off. Those with deeper wallets can buy two to create a stereo pair, however…

    Sonos Play:1 (US$169)

    If you don’t need your speaker to travel with you, Sonos’ entry level model is a more cost effective solution at home or at office. No Bluetooth here – streaming comes via the LAN. The upshot is that Sonos have pre-baked almost every music streaming service under the into their range of control apps: iOS, Android plus Windows and Mac OS. However, proper audiophilia (in this commentator’s book) starts not with this codec or that amplifier but with full stereo separation: left and right channels sat in either corner of one’s desk or at either end of a credenza/sideboard. A pair of Play:1 can be had for less than US$400. Take their sound quality further still by using Sonos’ Trueplay app to DSP-tailor the Play:1 system’s output according to the listening environment.

    Audioengine A5+ (US$399/pair)

    Despite 2015’s introduction of the HD6, a pair of active loudspeakers that come loaded with D/A converter and aptX Bluetooth reception, my favourite Audioengine active speaker remains the A5+. There’s no streamer and no DAC – you’ll need to BYO – but a pair of these bad boys will deliver a fuller, richer sound with superior tonality and dynamics than the aforementioned KEF and Sonos put together. The A5+ are available in black and white finishes but my vote goes to the bamboo.

    ELAC Debut B5 (US$229/pair)

    On the passive speaker front, impossible to ignore are Andrew Jones’ first range of passive loudspeakers for ELAC, ergo Debut. Jones has previously designed high-end loudspeakers for TAD and KEF. The ‘5’ here refers to the Kevlar mid/bass driver’s diameter. Don’t let these speakers’ vinyl wrap finish fool you – the Debut B5 are a seriously good loudspeaker for their asking price. Of course, you’ll learn of ELAC’s entry-level derived bang for buck supremacy the hard way when you get them home and commence the hunt for stands that will do them justice. With one eye on the wallet, check out Atacama’s Nexus range. At time of writing, the larger Debut B6 are selling on for the very same price as the B5: US$229.

    On a tighter budget? Consider the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR, also designed by Andrew Jones.

    Lepy LP-2020A Tripath (US$29)

    Gone passive? You’ll need an amplifier. And if you’ve blown your budget on loudspeakers and stands, (perhaps) the cheapest, least terrible way to get up and running with music is this Tripath design from Lepy. It looks as Chinese-made as the brand name (formerly Lepai) and bargain basement pricing suggests: bright blue LEDs adorn a brushed aluminium faceplate. ‘Round back, banana plugs need not apply – the clip connectors are for bare speaker wire only. Soundwise, the little Lepy is a long way from a disaster. It’s slightly thin on acoustic mass and doesn’t come close to the much bigger, more natural sounding integrateds from the likes of Rotel or Cambridge Audio but it is perfectly listenable whilst you save for something better. Talking of which…

    Onkyo A-9010 (US$299)

    My local big box retailer – Germany’s Saturn – can’t seem to keep this model in stock. Demand apparently is off the dial. It’s easy to see why: a What Hifi Product Of The Year 2016, this entry-level integrated from the Japanese giant pushes 40wpc into 8 Ohms whilst also offering internal circuitry for digital and vinyl front ends: a hi-res capable Wolfson DAC and an MM phono stage, all for a buck less than three hundred US dollars or ten Euros short of a full two hundred. Defeatable tone controls sit up front for when you don’t want to disturb the downstairs neighbours – dial down that bass. The 6.4mm headphone socket is for when you want to give them a break completely.

    AudioQuest DragonFly Black (US$99)

    If your amplifier or active monitors don’t come with a DAC, you’ll need to supply your own. Dongle DACs are ten a penny these days but the AudioQuest models, the Black being the most affordable, stand head and shoulders above the competition: compatibility with computers AND smartphones, once you’re done at the office, you can connect the Black to your iPhone with an Apple Lightning to USB adaptor or (supported) Android device via OTG cable. Firmware upgradability means you won’t have to buy a new DAC should AudioQuest choose to support a fresh file formats or if Gordon Rankin’s Streamlength™ code – the software engine room of the DragonFly Black – enjoys some tweaks.

    Schiit Fulla 2 (US$99)

    The Fulla was once a dongle DAC. But no more. For 2016, Schiit have reimagined it as a desktop DAC. And headphone amplifier. And physical volume control. This is what you should buy when portability isn’t a top priority. When instead you want a USB powered solution that’ll run rings around the SQ of your laptop’s 3.5mm socket. Never have we been offered so much for so little. More info can be had right here.

    Audio Technica ATH-M50x (US$149)

    An absolutely top notch pair of closed back headphones (for the money) that sound great even when partnered with the more modest DAC and amplification circuitry found in the average smartphone. Despite the preponderance of plastic throughout, these Audio Technica ‘phones tip the scales at almost one quarter of a kilo. One word: robust. They also offer better than average isolation from external noise. Bloated bass is mercifully absent leaving behind a sense of neutrality that many listeners find appealing, especially when fed by better amplification like the AudioQuest DragonFlys or, up on the desktop, the Schiit Fulla 2. The included detachable cables – a choice of coiled or straight – help sweeten the deal.

    Ultimate Ears UE 4 Pro (US$399)

    All other things being equal, custom fit earphones will sound better than any universal fit equivalent. With the earphone 3D-printed as a bespoke fit for your ears (and your ears only), noise isolation is improved considerably. This allows us to hear more of our music without having to jack the volume. Ultimate Ears have lowered the point of entry into the custom world with this dual balanced armature driver model and the turnaround time, from digital earscan to IEM delivery, is some of the fastest in the business.

    Noble Audio X (Massdrop – US$250)

    Alas, things rarely remain equal. One of the most prestigious names in the IEM business, Noble Audio, earlier this month announced their most affordable universal IEM to date: the X – a twin BA model loosely based on the (now discontinued) Savant. Price to you: US$250. But there’s a catch: these IEMs are available via Massdrop and Massdrop only. The first batch are set to ship in March 2017 and if you weren’t aboard that first ‘drop, you’ll need to sit tight for the next one. That puts a bit of dampener on seasonal satisfaction but good things come to those who wait (and all that).

    xDuoo X3 (~US$90)

    For portable DAP action at the affordable end of the market, my hat tip goes to the xDuoo X3 from China. A first brush with this player at e-earphone’s Potafes in December 2015 had me excited by its small form factor and twin microSD card slots but ultimately disappointed by its lack of gapless support. Rockbox to the rescue! To these ears, DAP manufacturers have their messaging all wrong. They talk of their players’ hi-res file compatibility before mentioning the audible improvement for every type of digital file, even criminally overlooked Redbook (CD quality). When loaded with FLAC files, the xDuoo X3 not only sounds quite a bit better than an iPhone 6S Plus, it outperforms the Astell&Kern AK Junior.

    Pioneer PLX-500 (US$350)

    Buying a turntable for a loved one this holiday season is the equivalent of attaching a drainage pipe to the bank of the recipient’s bank account – make sure s/he has the funds to TOTAL cost of ownership. The ‘table might only run you a few hundred dollars but records – records that are newly released and/or popular (and not used copies of Nana Mouskouri or Neil Diamond Best ofs) – they sell for quite a bit, actually: between US$20 – 30 a pop. Think about it this way: the Pioneer PLX-500 is decent enough sounding turntable that sells for the same price as a dozen (count ‘em) new vinyl records.

    That said, I dig this Pioneer because, compared to similarly priced models from Pro-Ject and Rega – they who subscribe to belt driven, low mass designs at this price point – it’s built like a Russian tank whilst delivering direct drive’s generally superior speed stability. The PLX-500 also feels more like US$350 worth of turntable than a Debut Carbon or a P1. And it’s available in white (as well as black). Most importantly of all, Pioneer don’t ask that you lift the platter and move the belt each time you want to switch from 33rpm to 45rpm and back again. You just push a button and spin again.

    Did I mention that the Pioneer also features a defeatable MM phono stage so that it’s ready to connect to any integrated amplifier, even the Lepy.

    Ortofon Nightclub MKII (~US$165)

    The stock cartridge supplied with most entry-level turntables – e.g. Ortofon OM5, Rega Carbon – they ain’t all that. If anything, they do a gross disservice to the ‘table to which they are installed. If we want to say something positive about the factory-fitted cartridge that ships with the Pioneer PLX-500, we’d say that it plays records. The Ortofon Nightclub MKII is a major step up. And because it’s a DJ-style ‘Concorde’-nose cartridge, the whole shebang clips directly onto the arm just as a headhsell would. No need to fuss over alignment, overhang or azimuth – it’s all taken care of. Only tracking force and VTA require attention during installation. This might be a DJ cartridge but that’s no reason to turn one’s nose up at this price point: greater insight, more rhythmic poise, superior dynamic swing and an extra dollop of gain from its 8mV output. In a word: energetic.

    IKEA Aptitlig Hackblock (US$20)

    Often more controversial than cables are isolation platforms and pucks. Devices like these, that keep unwanted vibrations away from our electronics (or turntables), rarely sell for peanuts. What’s a frugal-phile to do? Hit up IKEA for an APTITLIG chopping board – see here for why – and, if you’re feeling extra fancy, drop some Sorbothane hemispheres underneath.

    For further gift ideas, check out DAR’s list of stone cold audio bargains from earlier this year.

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile. John used to live in Sydney. Now he lives in Berlin.

    Follow John on YouTube or Twitter


    1. Generally a cheapskate I opt for the IKEA cutting board!!! The Lepai amp – there is a better version A+ is not half bad either but ultimately lacks in execution – sharp edges around, volume and tone controls grinding on casework, dreaded blue light, push speaker terminals all in all shoddy built. Yet this amp can really deliver on sonics if not asked to work too hard. Partnered with reasonably sensitive speakers this is a good desktop amplification! Get the updated A+ version from Parts Express – while it lasts. The Tripath chips are running out.

    2. I auditioned both the ATH-M50x and the ATH-M40x, and actually preferred the M40x — the bass is a bit tighter, and it has an overall more balanced sound. As a bonus, I saved some money as the M40x are cheaper.

    3. thanks for this, John….most of my music now ripped to my laptop for smallish kitchen/desktop usage (and have some 24/192 flac files, too)….might check out the audioengine a5+….can p/u a used pair in excellent condition for US$210….but given their age, i presume they can’t play 24/192….but they still are getting good reviews

      • Hey – as per the post, no DAC in the A5+ so they’ll play whatever your upstream DAC will.

        • thanks john..picked up that used pair…enjoying my micro idsd with them.
          for a subwoofer to go well with it, any quality ones (still good bang for the buck)
          that you could kindly recommend, please?

          • Subs aren’t usually my field of expertise but Alan Langford of DEQX swears by the JL Audio e-Sub.

            • many thanks, as always, John.
              i only had cans/iems for so long…sold all my gear a while ago….but my friend is right (he once had a us$70k system) nothing can replace music in the room coming from speakers for air, placement and visceral impact…the audioengines are a nice fine step towards rebuilding my ht or 2.1 again (will keep these little darlings for my desktop)
              merry christmas, john.

          • Hsu research makes some good subwoofers in USA and sells them internet direct. Their ULS15 Mk2 is around $779-$929 depending on finish. They seem incapable of making mistakes. If the JL audio e series is too expensive, do check them out.

          • Correction: HSU makes subs in China and sells them within USA only. 30 day return policy but you pay return shipping

            • No probs…I picked up the Pioneer SW-8MK2 by andrew Jones …For a small space, moderate volumes…Has great reviews

    4. I am just putting together my first ever HiFi, new to this. Got the ELAC B5’s 2 weeks ago for $199 off AMAZON , so the deals are there time to time. The B4’s look OK for $149.
      Also got a Maverick Audio D1 DAC for $170 off the Mav-Audio site with a $40 discount they have at the moment.
      Of course add on shipping to Australia and things get a bit dearer

    5. Instead of the Lepy/Lepai look for the SMSL SA-36A amplifier. Better looking, regular binding posts in back, light is much more subtle, and they sound much more proper and satisfying than $40/£35 has a right to be.

    6. I tried giving the gift of the audiophile experience by lending a DAC/amp out to a friend for a month or letting coworkers sit under my headphones for half a day. But I realized that’s also a bit cruel. You hear something good and then it ruins your enjoyment of everything else for a while.

    7. Any idea of the efficiency or sensitivity of the Noble Audio X? All I know is it’s 30 Ohms.. I wonder if a DF Red would have enough juice using an iPhone as a source.. Thanks.

    8. I’m in for 3 butcher blocks….I’d forgotten about that article – thanks! Look forward to doing some testing with them. You never know until you try it. Everything matters, I think, and experiments are fun anyway. If I don’t like ’em, they’ll end up in the kitchen.

      Happy Holidays

    9. Since you recommend an Ortofon cartridge…

      Do you recommend vinyl to someone who is just starting to build a first stereo system? I already bought a NAS and a 3 TB HDD but I don’t have enough music right now to fill the HDD.

      All this praise heaped on analog is confusing to me, I had made up my mind to go digital, due to the expense of building a vinyl collection from scratch

      • Think about it: 10 x brand new release records – the kind that many people wanna buy – will run you US$200-300. And that’s just ten records! That’s the same price as a year’s worth of Tidal Hifi and eats a fair chunk out of the initial budget for a TT rig. After all, no point buying a ‘table if you’ve nothing to spin on it. 😉

    10. here is to still hoping you’ll do some double blind testing of tidal hi fi against spotify premium

      • You can hope but you’re barking up the wrong tree – DBT ain’t ever gonna happen on DAR.

    11. Regarding mobile dac Dongles:
      Great list, thank you!

      Regarding DAC dongles a la Audioquest Dragonfly:
      I discovered the products of Hifime recently. They sell two dongles with ESS DAC chips via Amazon or directly for a while now. While I can’t compare against the Dragonfly models, especially the ESS sabre 9018 model from Hifime sounds quite good to me and sells for approx. 70€. They also offer several different usb connectors for mobile or PC.

    12. A few month after Chrismas for sure , but your recommendation of the xduoo X3 caught my attention.
      I have been eyeing the ZX2, but that is simply to big and android for my usage, not to mention the price. The xduoo X3 is a much cheaper alternative to use on the go, although I am sure it gives up some soundqaulity to the bigger ZX2. What do you feel is the biggest difference between these 2 apart from the obvious (streaming)?
      Do you use rockbox with the xduoo X3 and would you still recommend it?

    In-flight entertainment, to Saturn and beyond…

    More than just a disc spinner: OPPO Digital’s UDP-203