We at SoundStage! announce our Products of the Year every January 1. Over on sister site SoundStage! Hi-Fi you can read Doug Schneider’s “Opinion” article, which explains our selection process and gives a bit of insight into the products themselves. I guess you could say that Doug’s article is the “official” announcement. Here at SoundStage! Ultra, though, it seems more fitting to do something a bit more personal.
Pioneering Design Achievement: Benchmark Media Systems AHB2 stereo/mono amplifier
How could it not be? If you value the information revealed by measurements, you’ll appreciate the fact that the AHB2 ($2995) is one of the quietest amplifiers ever made, with a signal/noise ratio of 132dB. When Hans Wetzel reviewed it for SoundStage! Access, he simply loved the sound: “Time and again, without ever having intended to, I wound up hours deep in listening to the fringes of my music collection, thanks to the AHB2’s reference-level transparency and obscene athleticism. If ever there were a giant-killer of an amp, this is it.” As someone who reviews his fair share of extremely high-priced gear, I know that components like the AHB2 strike fear in the transformers of more expensive amps. The question is, how many audiophiles will dismiss the AHB2 because of its low price?
Innovation in Design: Aurender Flow headphone DAC-amplifier
To see the Flow ($1295) is to want one. The readout in the middle of the volume dial is what Devialet’s remote should have been but wasn’t. Alas, I’m not a headphone listener, so I can’t justify buying a Flow just to play with its volume wheel. But if I were a headphone user, I’d call the folks at Aurender posthaste. This is just the coolest headphone amp I’ve ever seen. Oh, and Brent Butterworth says it sounds great, too.
Aesthetics and Sound: Sonus Faber Chameleon B loudspeakers
So your daughter is really into music and she’s heading off to college. She’s going to live in an apartment, not a dorm room, and you want the perfect housewarming gift. Grab a DAC-integrated amp from NuPrime, along with a pair of these Chameleon B speakers ($899/pair) in her favorite color. A few weeks into the semester, when you get her call telling you much she loves her new speakers, you’ll know you’ve successfully passed down to her the audiophile gene. (Well, maybe.)
Hall of Fame: Magico Q7 Mk II loudspeakers
Whereas the manufacturing processes of most loudspeaker makers are similar to those of furniture makers, Magico’s are more closely related to the building of precision-engineered machines. When you see a Q7 Mk II ($229,000/pair) up close for the first time, you realize it’s something different. Then you hear it, and you know it’s something different. I’ve described its sound many times, yet there’s still something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever that something is, it separates the Q7 from everything else out there. There is no award more fitting.
Stereo Loudspeakers: Focal Sopra No2
Show of hands: Who thinks the Sopra No2 looks incredible in Focal’s Electric Orange? Now listen to them. Hear that beryllium tweeter? Nope -- all you hear is incredible detail in your music. Full, powerful bass? Check. Presence in the midrange to make the voices of singers come alive right there? Say no more. The Sopra No2 ($13,999/pair) is the full package: sound, visual design, and price. How often do you get close to a superspeaker for under 15 grand per pair? Now you can.
Stereo Amplifier: Soulution 711
Swiss products cost a lot. But man, can the Swiss do the audiophile thing right. The 711 costs a mind-boggling $65,000, but it’s also a veritable bottomless well of power that can bully any speaker system into submission. You have not heard what your speakers are capable of until you’ve heard them powered by a 711. It’s awesome.
Stereo Preamplifier: Ayre Acoustics KX-5 Twenty
If there’s an audiophile manufacturer that makes analog preamplifiers better than Ayre Acoustics does, I’m not aware of it. Following on the heels of the flagship KX-R Twenty ($27,500), the KX-5 Twenty ($8950) is the latest knockout preamp from the fertile mind of Charles Hansen. Reviewer Aron Garrecht stated, “The levels of build quality, and the close attention paid to selection and implementation of parts and materials, have resulted in what I consider to be the industry benchmark in solid-state preamplification for less than $10,000.” There you go.
Integrated Amplifier: Luxman L-550AX
The L-550AX ($4990) is the integrated amplifier that looks as if it could have been lifted straight from a 1970s stereo system. It could just as easily fit into what I envision a stereo might look like in 2035. Which makes it timeless. Mated to a properly sensitive loudspeaker, the L-550AX’s 20Wpc of class-A power will sound as glorious as only class-A seems able to sound. And along with that sound, the meters, the look and feel of the casework -- and the Luxman name -- make the L-550X just plain desirable.
Digital Source: Hegel Music Systems HD30 digital-to-analog converter
Hegel’s products are often described as workmanlike, or functional, or even sparse. What they really are is good. The HD30 is Hegel’s flagship DAC, and it competes with DACs costing multiples of its $4800 price. If you don’t need flashy but you do need the best sound your dollar can buy you, I’m not sure you can do better than the HD30. Wouldn’t you love to pit the HD30 against the latest $100,000 mega-DAC, just to hear what happens?
Headphones: HiFiMan HE1000
HiFiMan is one of the few companies that seemed to get out ahead of the current headphone craze with a full line of models, almost all of which were universally well received. The HE1000 headphones ($2999) were the flagship model in their line when Brent Butterworth reviewed them for SoundStage! Xperience, and I was somewhat surprised when I read his review -- I was almost sure that no headphones could justify a price of $2999. Then Brent -- a notoriously straight shooter in judging the worth of headphones -- raved about them. Bottom line: The HE1000s might just be the best headphones out there.
Floorstanding Loudspeakers: GoldenEar Technology Triton One
Do not put a pair of Triton Ones ($4999.98/pair) next to your $25,000/pair boutique-brand loudspeakers, then invite your buddies over to compare them by playing some well-recorded, bass-heavy tunes. Your speakers are likely to get a whoopin’. The Triton One’s three 5” x 9” woofers, driven by an internal 1600W amplifier -- yes, this speaker has a powered bass section -- provides true subwoofer-like bass power from a full-range speaker that boasts some seriously impressive engineering. The Triton One is the flagship of the line, and it puts out some serious sound for not-crazy money.
Bookshelf Loudspeakers: MartinLogan Motion 35XT
The Motion 35XT sounds bigger than it is: 13.5”H x 7.6”W x 11.8”D. You rarely hear satisfying bass from a bookshelf speaker, but the 35XT seems to be an exception. That it can do real bass is a huge plus, but to do so at the real-world price of $1199/pair is even better. The highs are provided by MartinLogan’s Folded Motion XT tweeter, and they match the impressiveness of the bass. For the money, this is a lot of speaker -- and, more important, a lot of sound.
Digital Source: NAD C 510 Direct Digital DAC-preamplifier
The C 510 ($1299) is a digital preamplifier for the many modern audiophiles who eschew analog sources. It won’t work with a turntable, but if you stream, have a computer, and maybe a disc transport, the C 510 could be the new centerpiece of your stereo. But as functional as it is, its main selling point is its sound. Reviewer Thom Moon: “The C 510’s reproduction of recorded sound was as nearly perfect as I’ve heard in 50 years of serious listening.” I can’t add much to that.
Portable Electronics: Oppo Digital HA-2 headphone DAC-amplifier
If there’s a company out there that, one after the other, more consistently delivers knockout products than Oppo Digital, I haven’t seen it. The HA-2 ($299) is to portable headphone amps what the Aurender Flow is to desktop headphone amps: the one to get. I can’t imagine any headphone-wearing iPhone user not wanting one.
Integrated Amplifier: NuPrime Audio IDA-8
The other day, Doug Schneider called me. The first words out of his mouth were, “I have a feeling that the people at NuPrime really know something.” It almost always plays out the same: We send a NuPrime product to a reviewer, and it ends up with a Reviewers’ Choice tag, maybe a Products of the Year award -- and always a rave review. The IDA-8 ($995) carries on NuPrime’s tradition of delivering more sound quality for less money than do almost any of their competitors. In this business, that’s a winning formula.
Earphones: PSB M4U 4
If you’ve been around the audiophile scene for any time at all, but don’t know who Paul Barton is and what he’s capable of in making speakers sound good, you need to get out more. If you do know that, but didn’t know that Barton also designs headphones and earphones that sound just as good as his speakers, you’re forgiven. The M4U 4 earphones are the ones to get at their price point: $299.
And there you have it
This tremendous grouping of products reminds me how much great gear we get to review across the SoundStage! family of websites in a given year. Let’s hope 2016 is just as good -- if not better.
. . . Jeff Fritz