The Latest Features
- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 January 2016 01 January 2016
The winners of our annual Products of the Year awards are selected -- by Jeff Fritz, Hans Wetzel, and me -- from among those components that have received Reviewers’ Choice awards in reviews that appeared in that calendar year on any of our websites that publish reviews: SoundStage! Hi-Fi, SoundStage! Ultra, SoundStage! Access, and SoundStage! Xperience. For 2015, we usually unanimously agreed on the winner; in the few cases we didn’t, the majority ruled. There wasn’t an instance in which each of us had a different product in mind.
One Products of the Year award is given in each of these categories: Pioneering Design Achievement, Innovation in Design, Aesthetics and Sound, and Hall of Fame. Within the two other categories, Outstanding Performance and Exceptional Value, an award is given for each component type.
Here are the winners for 2015. I’ve added to each my own commentary, quotes from the original reviews (where apt), and, in a few occasions, a bit about how the choice was made. All prices are in USD.
Pioneering Design Achievement: Benchmark Media Systems AHB2 stereo/mono amplifier
Last year, in his November editorial, Hans wrote about our lack of consensus in naming the winner for this award. Devialet’s 400 DAC-monoblocks, which Jeff reviewed for SoundStage! Ultra, won an Outstanding Performance award, but Hans thought that award should have gone to the Devialet 120, which he’d reviewed for SoundStage! Access. At that time, the 400 sold for $17,995/pair, the 120 only $6495. Hans thought that the 120 represented a greater achievement because it offered state-of-the-art sound for a reasonable price, while Jeff thought that the 400 monos should win because they’re a bit better, technically and sonically.
This year, Hans wasn’t taking “no” from Jeff or from me. He insisted that the Benchmark AHB2’s incredible sound quality makes it a no-brainer for the 2015 Pioneering Design Achievement award. Hans reviewed the AHB2 for SoundStage! Access in June, and had read every other product review we published in 2015, and felt that nothing else came close. What’s more, for its retail price of $2995, the AHB2 qualifies as a steal -- just as the Devialet 120 had. Luckily for Hans, Jeff and I agreed.
Innovation in Design: Aurender Flow headphone DAC-amplifier
Although a compelling marketing campaign can have you thinking that what’s being touted is “new,” any given year sees very few hi-fi products that actually are substantively new in their operation, technology, sound quality, or features -- almost everything is a variation on a well-worn theme. This makes it a bit trickier to pick a winner for our Innovation in Design award -- there’s less to choose from. But the opening paragraph of Brent Butterworth’s SoundStage! Xperience review of the Aurender Flow made this year’s selection a good bit easier: “In a recent column, I complained about the rapid growth in the number of lookalike headphone amps that are little more than a DAC-amp chip stuffed into an extruded-aluminum box. The Aurender Flow ($1295 USD) is the exact opposite: a product that represents a major rethinking of what people -- specifically, audiophiles -- need in a headphone amp.”
Obviously, there was something new here -- and I’m not surprised that it was Aurender that created it. Several years ago, the company was the first to produce really well-thought-out, highly intuitive music servers with truly innovative features. Aurender made other server makers look like amateurs. I think it’s in their corporate DNA to create products that are fresh and new.
Aesthetics and Sound: Sonus Faber Chameleon B loudspeakers
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones -- pop-rock duos who made their linked names legends by creating brilliant music. If there’s a hi-fi equivalent, it’s Paolo Tezzon and Livio Cucuzza, of Sonus Faber. Tezzon does the acoustical design, Cucuzza the industrial design; together, they’ve created numerous hit models of loudspeaker that look as splendid as they sound, including some that, I believe, will be considered classics far down the road. First there was the Aida floorstander, then the entire Olympica series, followed by the Venere models, the Lilium floorstander -- and, earlier this year, their most affordable speakers ever, the Chameleon line. The stand-mounted Chameleon B retails for just $899/pair -- a low price made all the more surprising when you learn that, unlike so many companies’ sub-$1000 stand-mounts, the Chameleons are made not in the Far East but in Sonus Faber’s home turf of northern Italy.
Jeff Stockton reviewed the Chameleon B for SoundStage! Access and absolutely loved its looks and sound: “It’s as if the materials of which it’s made, natural and human-made, and its almost Grecian design proportions, have been combined to produce a speaker that delivers the best of what listeners want: top-end clarity, midrange truth, and bass extension, all in the proper balance, and with an aesthetic attractiveness as pleasing to the eye as to the ear.”
Just as I was not surprised that Aurender won our Innovation in Design award, I wasn’t surprised to see Sonus Faber take the prize for Aesthetics and Sound -- for the third year in a row. In previous years, their winning models were the Venere 3.0 and the Olympica III. Tezzon and Cucuzza are doing something right -- again and again.
Hall of Fame: Magico Q7 Mk II loudspeakers
The only people who can afford to buy a pair of Magico Q7 Mk II loudspeakers are the one-percenters -- the rich and the superrich who’ve hoarded most of the world’s money, the ones that US politicians such as Bernie Sanders keep talking about. The Q7 Mk IIs cost $229,000/pair and weigh more than 700 pounds each -- who would be willing to go through the hassle of installing them other those who can also pay to have that done for them? Yet regardless of how limited this speaker’s buyer base is, Magico’s original Q7 design made a strong statement of cost-no-object loudspeaker design in 2011, when it debuted -- when it cost only $185,000/pair. So does the Mk II version, which Jeff Fritz reviewed for SoundStage! Ultra in September.
New features for the Mk II are a completely redesigned tweeter whose beryllium dome has a diamond-like coating of carbon, a midrange driver whose cone is partly made of cutting-edge graphene, and a brand-new crossover to accommodate the new drivers. What sort of statement does such a loudspeaker make? That this is what’s possible when you pull out all the stops.
Stereo Loudspeakers: Focal Sopra No2
I reviewed Focal’s Sopra No2 for SoundStage! Hi-Fi in October. With a sound as bold and exciting as its looks, the Sopra No2 ($13,999/pair) was not only my favorite speaker of 2015, but my favorite audio product of any type. In fact, if we had an overall Product of the Year award, I’d have lobbied hard to ensure that the Sopra No2 won it for 2015 (though Hans and his Benchmark amp might have fought me on that).
What got me so jazzed about the Sopra No2 was its knockout sound quality. To my ears, it was intensely exciting, and held its own against speakers of pretty much any price. This speaker could be it for many audiophiles, even those with lots of cash burning holes in their pockets and willing to spend more. So while the Sopra No2 could have won for Exceptional Value -- that is, a high ratio of sound quality to price -- the Outstanding Performance award, for which price is not a concern, is where this amazing French speaker belongs. As I wrote at the very end of my review, “The Sopra No2 more than lives up to its name: It not only goes over and above; it goes above and beyond.” I meant it then, and I mean it now.
Stereo Amplifier: Soulution 711
Specified to output 150Wpc into 8 ohms and costing $65,000, Soulution’s 711 stereo amplifier costs $433.33 per watt -- much more than Luxman’s L-550AX ($5000 for 20Wpc, or $250/W; see below), and more than any other amplifier we reviewed this year or in recent memory. Even Jeff Fritz, who reviewed the 711 for SoundStage! Ultra in August, had trouble digesting its price: “That’s far beyond what any normal person could ever afford.”
But, like the Magico Q7 Mk II, that high price doesn’t take away from what this Swiss-made marvel achieves -- Jeff felt its sound to be “nigh-on perfect,” and leveled at it not a single criticism. For now, the Soulution 711 appears to be as good as a solid-state power amp gets.
Stereo Preamplifier: Ayre Acoustics KX-5 Twenty
As I reread Aron Garrecht’s review of the KX-5 Twenty, published last November on SoundStage! Ultra, this sentence stood out: “The KX-5 Twenty is not only the best preamplifier I have reviewed, it may be the best component of any type that I’ve reviewed.” And when I pointed it out to Jeff and Hans, they agreed.
Aron was touched by the KX-5 Twenty in ways similar to how I was touched by Focal’s Sopra No2. Also like the Focal, the KX-5 Twenty’s price ($8950) is reasonable by today’s standards for high-end hi-fi, when five-digit prices for electronics are common. Consider the KX-5 Twenty another high-value performer that could have been included in the Exceptional Value category, but really deserves its Outstanding Performance award. Aron found that it wasn’t only great for the money -- it was flat-out great, period.
Integrated Amplifier: Luxman L-550AX
When I told Hans that he should consider reviewing the Luxman L-550AX, which retails for $5000 but puts out only 20Wpc -- for so few watts, a very high price ($250) for each watt -- he asked, “Is that even close to enough power?” I told him to just listen to it and then decide.
In his review, published on SoundStage! Hi-Fi in May, Hans said that he’d learned that 20Wpc was enough power -- provided that the speakers used are efficient enough and the room they’re used in isn’t too big. But with those conditions met, “The modestly powered Luxman L-550AX is the best integrated amp available for $5000 or less.” In his “Conclusion,” he said it again: “The Luxman L-550AX is the best-sounding integrated amplifier for under $5000.”
Hans didn’t have to repeat that praise another time for us to realize that the L-550AX deserved this trophy for Outstanding Performance.
Digital Source: Hegel Music Systems HD30 digital-to-analog converter
Hegel Music Systems’ HD30 digital-to-analog converter is something of a landmark product for this Norwegian firm. Before this, Hegel products typically performed in ways that belied their modest prices, but none that we’d reviewed, whether DACs or amplifiers, had challenged the state of the art. As a result, in the reviews of Hegel products by me and other SoundStage! writers, the phrase “good for the money” was the qualifier often appended to recommendations of their gear.
The HD30 changed that game. It retails for $4800, nearly twice the price of Hegel’s previous flagship DAC, the HD25 ($2500) -- but, as I explained in my review of the HD30 on SoundStage! Hi-Fi last month, the HD30 pushes the brand’s reputation forward by offering sound quality on a par with that of the very best DACs available today, regardless of cost. Extreme resolution, crystalline clarity, and stupendous soundstaging are only some of the things the HD30 does so right -- things I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand.
Exceptional Value is the typical award for Hegel -- but the HD30 deserves to be honored for its Outstanding Performance.
Headphones: HiFiMan HE1000
Brent Butterworth is more likely to criticize than to rave -- even when he really likes a model of headphones or earphones, his recommendation can sound muted. So on those rare occasions when he turns in a rave review, you can bet there’s something special about the product that deserves notice.
Brent’s only unqualified rave -- his word -- of 2015 was published in October: his review for SoundStage! Xperience of HiFiMan’s HE1000 headphones. From that review’s “Conclusion” section:
I’m always skeptical when I read rave reviews of some new product. It’s so easy to be impressed with something new, sometimes just because it sounds different from what you had before. Sometimes, when I listen to a product that’s gotten a rave review, I wonder: What’s so special about this thing? That’s why, when I write a very positive review, I try to be careful; I worry that I’m reacting to little more than the product’s newness, or the hype in the press release.
In the case of the HiFiMan HE1000 headphones, I’m not worried. These headphones really are so good that I’m confident in raving about them, and confident that you’ll largely agree -- maybe even totally agree.
The HE1000s cost a hefty $2995, but a rave from Brent indicates that they’re worth every penny, as well as a Products of the Year award -- with which all three of us wholeheartedly agree.
Floorstanding Loudspeakers: GoldenEar Technology Triton One
Available in only one color, black, and priced at $4999.98/pair, GoldenEar’s Triton One provides tremendous value in a tower speaker. When I reviewed the Triton One last April for SoundStage! Hi-Fi, it was my first GoldenEar floorstander.
The Triton One’s strengths include a precisely balanced sound across the audioband, extremely refined highs, excellent clarity across the midrange, and the deepest, fullest bass you can find at almost any price. The One is also no slouch when it comes to soundstaging and imaging -- with a pair of them properly set up, you can expect to project a stage that impresses as much for its width as for its depth. If the Triton One were twice its price, there might be a little to criticize, particularly with regard to how it’s dressed -- a grillecloth covers more than 90% of the cabinet -- but at its price, there’s not much to nitpick, as I wrote in my review: “The Triton One is a unique and formidable design that I think would be difficult, if not impossible, to improve on for the price.”
Bookshelf Loudspeakers: MartinLogan Motion 35XT
Sonus Faber’s Chameleon B isn’t the only stand-mounted speaker that Jeff Stockton really liked this year. Right up there with it was MartinLogan’s Motion 35XT ($1199/pair), which Jeff also reviewed, for SoundStage! Access last February, and said “represents supreme value for the money.”
The Motion 35XT is a two-way design in a gorgeously finished cabinet that marries a dynamic driver to an air-motion transformer tweeter (MartinLogan calls it a Folded Motion Tweeter), a combination that Jeff said “produced a solemnity that favored airy highs and reassuring lows.” More telling was how he felt when he pitted the Motion 35XTs against his reference speakers:
There are a lot of worthy loudspeakers out there -- so many that, every time I’ve had a new set of minimonitors in for review, I’ve enjoyed them. At a minimum, I’ve admired their engineering or their ratio of sound quality to price -- and while they’ve been with me, I’ve concentrated on their positive qualities in an attempt to convince myself that they could be the new loudspeakers for me.
However, I’d never quite been able to replace the speakers of my heart, my B&W 302s -- or my Axiom M22s, which offer a change of pace from the B&Ws, and justify their longevity in my system with other, more sentimental reasons. Not until MartinLogan’s Motion 35XTs took up residence in my system.
If you’re in the market for a topflight two-way at an affordable price, put the Motion 35XT on the same list as the Chameleon B.
Digital Source: NAD C 510 Direct Digital DAC-preamplifier
As with Aron Garrecht’s review of Ayre Acoustics’ KX-5 Twenty, one sentence leapt out at us from Thom Moon’s review, on SoundStage! Access, of NAD’s C 510: “The C 510’s reproduction of recorded sound was as nearly perfect as I’ve heard in 50 years of serious listening.”
That’s for a product that retails for only $1299! What’s more, if your system has only digital source components, the only thing you need to add to the C 510 is a power amplifier, speakers, and cables -- the C 510 is a DAC, a volume control, and a source switcher, all in one box. No wonder Thom concluded his review with: “It’s an exceptional achievement, especially considering its reasonable price.”
I have to give NAD credit. My first experience of the brand was in the early 1980s, when I bought a 3140 integrated amplifier, which had won praise for innovation, performance, and value. Ever since, time and again, I’ve watched NAD come out with innovative, top-performing, high-value products that keep them on the cutting edge -- and the C 510 is one of the best examples yet. Keep goin’, NAD!
Portable Electronics: Oppo Digital HA-2 headphone DAC-amplifier
When I first saw Oppo’s HA-2 at a show, it looked to me as if it should retail for about $600; instead, I learned that its list price is $299. I implored Hans to review it for SoundStage! Xperience. He did, and I’m glad.
The HA-2 is a DAC and headphone amplifier concealed in a beautiful metal case wrapped in real leather, with a footprint about the same as Hans’s iPhone 6. The HA-2 has enough power to drive most headphones, and a low enough output impedance not to affect the ’phones’ frequency response. The DAC section, which has at its heart an ESS Sabre ES9018K2M chip, supports PCM signals of up to 32-bit/384kHz resolution, and DSD64/128/256.
As for how Hans felt about the HA-2 overall, consider this, from his review: “Some products I review excite me more than others, but I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so completely enamored of a device as I am of Oppo’s gorgeous little HA-2. It’s incredibly well designed, with the build quality and feel of a modern iPhone, and the style and flair of something that will look at home in any setting.”
While the HA-2 might not be as innovative as the Aurender Flow -- it doesn’t redefine how a headphone amp functions -- it’s a fraction of the price, with a bevy of positive qualities that make it nothing short of being one of the best values in headphone amps today.
Integrated Amplifier: NuPrime Audio IDA-8
NuPrime Audio’s IDA-8 integrated amplifier was the dark horse in this year’s race. NuPrime is one of the newer companies in high-end hi-fi, and their name and products are not yet well known. But the company’s founders also founded NuForce (now owned by Optoma), so NuPrime is hardly new to the game. Roger Kanno’s review of the IDA-8, published on SoundStage! Xperience in November, indicates that this diminutive integrated amplifier stands up against models from veteran brands, and wholly deserves a 2015 Products of the Year Exceptional Value award.
Of the IDA-8’s many strengths, what most impressed Roger were: its ability to drive a wide variety of speakers while maintaining precise control of bass frequencies; its clean, clear, yet full midrange; its built-in DAC, which supports hi-rez PCM up to 24-bit/384kHz, as well as DSD64/128/256; and its price of just $995, which led him to conclude that “It’s one of the best deals available in audio today.”
And on that, Hans, Jeff, and I needed no more convincing.
Earphones: PSB M4U 4
As I said above, Brent Butterworth doesn’t rave. If you read his review of PSB’s M4U 4 earphones ($299), published on SoundStage! Xperience in August, you’ll find he didn’t go over the top with his praise, and had some criticisms: “I would have preferred a few dB more output in the midbass and upper bass.”
But in that review you’ll also find that Brent admired the M4U 4s’ precision in the bass, their lack of coloration in the midrange and highs, and their excellent detail overall -- admired them so much that, at the end of the review, he called the M4U 4s his “go-to earphones.” In other words, the PSBs are Brent’s new reference. Since then, he’s used them as benchmarks against which he tests other in-ear models.
When Paul Barton was developing the M4U 4s, he told me that he wanted PSB’s very first earphone model to offer sound quality a cut above what others offer at the same price. He chose a two-driver design, and worked diligently to make its frequency response neutral throughout the audioband, which is what he believes most listeners prefer. Based on Brent’s assessment, there’s no question that Barton has succeeded in creating something special.
Now that we’ve wrapped 2015’s Products of the Year, it’s off to Las Vegas, Nevada, for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, and a look at many of the products we’ll no doubt be reviewing in 2016 -- and, a year from now, possibly considering as candidates for the 2016 Products of the Year awards.
. . . Doug Schneider