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DAR’s favourite bits of 2017

  • This (and not that). Filtering (and not just summarising). Explaining why. Just as the Sieve of Eratosthenes removes all divisible numbers to leave only prime, choosing the best audio products of 2017 is a process of elimination – one that leads us to the prime cuts of the year (just as it did last year).

    Remember though: awards are more than a bit silly. Best amplifier below ten grand? Assuming best even exists, no reviewer on the planet has the time to hear/audition more than a handful in any given price range. Category-based nominations are, at best, wishful thinking.

    As with year’s past, I’ve focussed on products that offer extreme value for money with the best of the bunch also offering some degree of category disruption.

    Make no mistake, what follows are what I consider to be the finest products of 2017. The subjectivity should be read as implicit.

    For those who choose to skim read, a magnifying glass has been applied to artificially upsize any nitpicked reasons as to why the following didn’t take out the Product of the Year Award.

    KEF LS50 Wireless

    Digging into DAR’s visitor stats tells us that readers had a real thirst for the KEF LS50 Wireless review in 2017. It attracted as many clicks as second (MQA) and third place (AudioQuest DragonFly red) combined. I’ve no doubt that this digitally active loudspeaker’s sane pricing coupled with a system-in-a-box approach are central to its immense popularity.

    Throughout 2017 KEF improved the LS50 Wireless with a string of software updates that injected support for Tidal, Spotify Connect and Roon. Gaunlet throw down: try adding your own performance parity amplifier, DAC and Bluetooth/Spotify/Tidal/Roon-capable streamer to a pair of passive LS50 and see how close you get to the LS50W’s asking of US$2200. A round of applause for anyone who does so below five grand.

    Alas, despite its popularity with readers (and other publications), the KEF LS50 Wireless isn’t in the running for Best of 2017. Why not? It took out this site’s Best of 2016 award. KEF’s active monitor was released late last year. We need something from this year.

    OPPO Digital UDP-205

    Check out the feature set on this DAC: asynchronous USB (PCM up to 768kHz and DSD 512), TOSLINK, coaxial and HDMI (hello Apple TV) digital inputs; Roon Ready and UPnP network streaming; USB drive streaming; local MQA file playback support; balanced XLR and RCA outputs; a powerful headphone amplifier; inside, a pair of ESS Labs’ flagship 9038PRO DAC chips and a large toroidal. Price: US$1299. Seriously impressive, huh? And yet this DAC also plays optical discs of all stripe: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, regular Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD and audio CD. It would easier to list what the UDP-205 from OPPO Digital cannot do. A feature set from the Gods. A contender for product of the year for sure. However…

    On the UDP-205’s sound quality and all-round usability, I’ve not a clue. Claiming “best DAC I ever heard” on the back of a show audition is as hollow as it is impossible. In extreme cases, it’d be an attempt to curry favour with the manufacturer. We don’t play that way on DAR. To make confident calls about the OPPO Digital UDP-205’s audible performance and unearthing any functional gotchas means getting a unit home. That didn’t happen in the year of the UDP-205’s release. That doesn’t mean its SQ doesn’t rival its flexibility, just that I don’t yet know.

    Mytek Brooklyn DAC+

    Mytek Digital channel OPPO Digital’s generosity to offer similarly plentiful hook-up options from their Brooklyn+ DAC (US$2195) – USB, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, line level, MM and MC Phono; balanced XLR and single-ended outputs – as well as a host of other useful features like MQA support (for those who do), a choice between digital and analogue volume attenuation and a kick-ass (optionally balanced outputting) headphone amplifier. Yes, I have one and as a pre-amplifier playing directly into a pair of Genelec 8341 The Ones, it sounds glorious clean and detailed – more so than the original Brooklyn which I also have here. Expect a more detailed comparison in Q1 2018.

    However, despite its niceties – dancing LED meters and hijacking of the skinny silver Apple wand for remote control – the Brooklyn+ isn’t so much a new product as an iterative development of an older one – its updates are all internal. The Plus doesn’t qualify for Product of the Year 2017 no matter how much I’d like it to. The product selection filter can be a cruel mistress.

    Sony WH-1000XM2

    The successor to the Bluetooth (and optionally wired) active noise cancelling MDR-1000X headphone is already with us. Launched at IFA 2017 in Berlin, the WH-1000XM2 promise to make this commentator’s favourite Bluetooth headphone of 2016 even better. Those are some big shoes to fill – this was the first headphone to find me staring into the earcup in disbelief that Bluetooth could sound so darn good and that SQ levels didn’t take a fatal hit should ANC be disabled. The MDR-1000X were (are!) of the few products I wouldn’t think twice about replacing should they be lost or stolen. And if the unfortunate were to happen, Sony now offer this improved version.

    The naming scheme might be different but thankfully Sony didn’t mess with the MDR original’s sonic signature (strong dynamic kick, deftly handled top end), their Bose-beating active noise cancellation or the capacitive touch controls: double tap the left ear cup to play/pause music and answer/end calls, swipe up and down to change volume, left and right to change tracks. More handy still, cover the left earcup to hear more of what’s going on around you – useful for in-flight interruptions.

    The WH version is cosmetically and functionally improved with the added bonus of a longer battery life (now 30 hours from a full charge). The build quality is, according to Sony, sturdier and a textured finish has been applied to the earcups for more tactile gesture control. Sony’s new partnering Connect app allows us to tweak EQ and whilst making use of the smartphones’s motion detectors to adjust the amount/type of ANC according to one’s speed – more ANC on a train, less when walking. When on a plane, the new model will auto detect changes to atmospheric pressure (yes, really) to apply ANC more aggressively. And if you’re not a fan of technology making decisions on your behalf, all of these features are defeatable.

    Where Sony really step ahead of the Bose QC35 MKII is on Bluetooth codec support. The latter offer only SBC and AAC which means only a single optional codec separates the listeners from the inferior-sounding SBC. Fine if you’re using an iPhone or have AAC in your Android, less so if not.  Sony on the other hand give us SBC, AAC, aptX and their own high-bandwidth LDAC. The WH-1000XM2 will sound better with more devices than the Bose. Oh – and the squidgy earpads means the Sony will be more comfortable and for longer than the similarly impressive B&W PX. Like their American and British rivals, these Sony headphones are a complete sound system for the head, best viewed as the head-fi equivalent of active loudspeakers.

    Products as well resolved as this – both inside and out – come along so rarely that you’re probably scratching your head as to why they don’t snatch the number one spot outright. Sony have chosen to stagger their release. The WH-1000XM2 are already on sale in the USA (at US$299 from Amazon) and Australia but they aren’t officially available in Europe until 1st January 2018.

    Sonarworks True-Fi

    Devialet use it to optimise the performance of a loudspeaker. DEQX do similarly also use it to match downstream loudspeakers’ output to the room. Kii, Genelec and KEF harness its power from inside their loudspeaker. B&W and Bose use it to cancel the environmental noise that troubles headphone listeners. Sony take it a step further and use it to optimise the headphone’s output according the on-head fit and earcup seal. Audeze have dropped it into their Cipher Lightning cables and the back end of Roon. I’m talking of course about DSP – digital signal processing.

    With echoes of Devialet’s SAM loudspeaker correction where end users vote for the correction of their favourite/preferred model, Latvia’s Sonarworks harness the power of DSP to optimise the sound of headphones but unlike their European neighbours to the west, the Latvians measure not one but a handful of pairs to dial down the effect of production inconsistencies. Once aggregated, an in-house designed target curve is applied.

    The result is Sonarworks’ True-Fi: software that sees any music playback app running on MacOS or Windows – from Audirvana+ to Roon to Spotify to Tidal – divert its output to a ‘virtual sound card’ for DSP correction before being handed off to the D/A converter, the amplifier, your headphones and your ears. The magnitude of the audible improvements vary from headphone to headphone but in my experience, first at CanJam Berlin and then at home with the time-limited demo, the differences are always positive. If you think Sennheiser’s HD800S or AKG’s K-701 sound terrific now, just wait till you hear them with True-Fi. You’ll be amazed. And if not, you’ve lost nothing but a little time by trying. In weighing up what True-Fi brings to the party against its €79 asking price, I reckon this software app is a bargain. Think Dirac for headphones but cheaper.

    The downside that keeps it away from Product of the Year? True-Fi only supports a limited number of headphones. Sennheiser, AKG and Beyerdynamic listeners are well looked after but for other top-flight headphone brands – MrSpeakers, HiFiMan, Focal – True-Fi support is a little more patchy. However, with their framework in place, Sonarworks’ support breadth and depth will only improve as we move through 2018. Ones to watch!

    Chord Electronics Poly

    A plug-in module for this British manufacturer’s entry-level D/A converter doesn’t sound like it could change the world. Yet the Mojo (US$599) is no ordinary DAC. Rob Watts’ WTA filter coded into an FPGA offers detail and inner-spaciouness that no other DAC under a grand can touch. Connected directly to the Mojo’s USB input the Poly module turns the resulting two-fer into a streaming DAC that offers Bluetooth, Apple Airplay, UPnP, Roon Readiness and microSD card file serving. A high end streamer + DAC pairing that will see most (but maybe not all) AURALiC Aries Mini users go goggle-eyed at the performance delta.

    And with both Mojo and Poly packing rechargeable batteries the thousand dollar Mojo-Poly combination doesn’t have to remained tethered to a home audio system. It can be dropped into a pocket to go out and about with your favourite pair of headphones to ace any Astell&Kern DAP on sound quality. The upshot is a high-end portable headphone powerhouse that doesn’t ask us to use an Android interface easily shamed by a Samsung Galaxy S3. If this doesn’t put the majority of sub-US$2K DAPs on notice, I don’t know what will. For them, bragging rights and the ghost of MQA might be all that remain.

    One Brit mag complained of the Poly’s lack of on screen display. But that’s entirely the point: it doesn’t need one. Control on the go (and at home) comes from a paired smartphone to give us lossless playback from files served by Poly’s microSD card slot or Spotify or Tidal or Soundcloud or Qobuz or Pandora. Anything that runs on the paired smartphone can be played back through the Mojo-Poly.

    And the Poly would have taken the Product of the Year gong were it 100% complete. Alas Chord’s GoFigure app is stuck in App store approval hell and Chord asked that I wait for its arrival before penning any further thoughts on the Mojo-Poly. That review will therefore now appear in the New Year and the search for DAR’s Product of the Year 2017 continues…

    Innuos ZENith MKII SE

    You like coffee. Your day to day supply comes from a range of sources. Some beans taste better than others but the differences between them aren’t huge so you’re happy to keep mixing it up, this week with brand A, the next with brand B. After all, these daily drinks are reasonably affordable.

    Then, one day, someone puts a new coffee under your nose. It’s made from better beans, less common available. Their roasting is more delicately executed. You drink it. On the tongue hitherto unheard flavours burst into life. This is like no coffee you’ve ever tasted before. You are amazed. And you grind and you drink until this super-coffee is no more. The catch? A second bag will cost you ten times what you’re used to paying. What to do: take the plunge and associated credit card hit of the superior bean/roast or stick to the quotidien blends in the hope that memory of that life-changing coffee drinking experience will fade over time?

    This is what it’s like to have reviewed – and then returned to the manufacturer – the ZENith MKII SE music server (€5699, 2TB) from Portugal’s Innuos. I find myself haunted by my memory of its sound. It was like no other digital source I’d heard to date: richer and smoother than more affordable rivals like the Sonore ultraRendu (US$875) which, in a post-ZENith MKII SE world, is contrasted as sharper on the tip of the tongue (translation: more treble glare) – a quality I’d not heard before spending time with the Innuos. Doubly interesting was how the USB-lassoed flagship server bested the sound of Ethernet direct inputs on both the KEF LS50 Wireless and the Devialet Expert 120. If ever there was a lesson in getting what you pay for with digital sources this was it.

    The Innuos box came closest of all the above to taking out DAR’s Product of the Year 2017. That it didn’t comes down to two reasons. Firstly, the ZENith MKII SE is limited to a 100 pieces. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Secondly, and more seriously, highlighting the daftness of picking best where any one reviewer is only able to take a snapshot of all that is offered, I know not if there is better streaming sound out there (for similar money). What’s not in doubt is the existence of a more user-friendly control interface. The in-house coded InnuOS operating system that underpins all Innuos servers is a joy to use; it takes the geeky pain out disc ripping, library management, sorting file tagging issues and turning on/off Roon serving. If you’re a cashed up new member of the computer audio fraternity, the Innuos should be top of your audition list. For everyone else, as clear and present a demonstration that USB transports don’t sound the same and that maybe – just maybe – we should be allocating more funds to what feeds the DAC. If I were starting again with €10K, I’d drop six on this and the remaining four on the DAC.

    So – what is DAR’s Product of the Year 2017? That’s up next…

    Written by John

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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