Today is the day of the year that many of our readers—and our reviewers—anticipate the most: the day we announce our SoundStage! Network Products of the Year.
These award-winning products for 2021 have been selected from products that received our Reviewers’ Choice accolade when they were reviewed in this calendar year on one of our sites: SoundStage! Access, SoundStage! Hi-Fi, SoundStage! Simplifi, SoundStage! Solo, SoundStage! Ultra, or SoundStage! Xperience.
We have three award categories: Individual Awards, Outstanding Performance, and Exceptional Value. For the Individual Awards category, there are four subcategories for 2021: Hall of Fame, Pioneering Design Achievement, Innovation in Design, and Aesthetics and Sound.
The Hall of Fame award is awarded to a recently reviewed product that offers outstanding performance, and has either been on the market for a long time or is the latest version of a product series that has a long history of success. In the past, this award has always been given to a physical product—like the integrated amplifier that’s taking home a 2021 Hall of Fame award. But, this year, we have an additional Hall of Fame winner that isn’t a physical product; instead, it’s software that runs on a range of physical products. This is the first time we’ve given an award to a software product—see below to find out what it is.
The Pioneering Design Achievement award is presented to a product that has implemented technology that represents a true technical advancement. This year’s winner—a single product whose identity you’ll soon learn—made the best case to win because it pushed driver technology forward in such a way that made it possible to create a compact product that probably wasn’t achievable before this innovation took place.
The Innovation in Design award acknowledges a product that pushes the envelope in performance and/or features, while Aesthetics and Sound recognizes a product that combines exceptional styling with excellent sound quality. The Innovation in Design and Aesthetics and Sound categories have two winners each this year—so you’ll find one loudspeaker and one electronic component in each category.
The Outstanding Performance and Exceptional Value categories are divided by product type. Usually, there is only one award per product type, per category. So, for example, in each category you’ll find no more than one floorstanding passive speaker, one standmounted passive speaker, one preamplifier, one power amplifier, and so on. But this year we had to make an exception in the Exceptional Value category—two floorstanding speakers were completely deserving of the win, so we recognized them both.
However, it’s important to remember that not every product type is awarded in both categories, and sometimes there’s no winner in either category. For example, a turntable was recognized for Exceptional Value, but there wasn’t one awarded for Outstanding Performance. Conversely, a CD player was recognized in the Outstanding Performance category, but not for Exceptional Value. Unlike in previous years, no cable or power-related products were recognized in either category. The reason we do it this way is because we don’t just want to give out awards for the heck of it—we want our winners to be truly deserving of the honor of being voted the best of the year.
With that preliminary information out of the way, we now want to present you with our 2021 SoundStage! Network Products of the Year, listed by category. For each award winner, you’ll find a hyperlink that will take you to its review on one of our sites. You’ll also see who wrote the review, which site the review ran on, the price in US dollars (unless specified otherwise) at the time the review was published, and one or two sentences plucked from the review that we think best illustrate why that product was chosen for the award.
From our reviewers and staff, we want to send heartfelt congratulations to the people who worked to create these winning products—it’s their work that enriches our lives. For our readers, we want to stress that, as usual, we have put in a great deal of time and effort to choose which products to recognize this year. So, if you’re in the buying mood, you should check out our 2021 SoundStage! Network Products of the Year to see if they can help you create an amazing-sounding system.
Hall of Fame
Bryston B1353 integrated amplifier, by Philip Beaudette (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, June 2021): “While I would never dismiss the quality of those earlier Brystons, the B1353 is the best integrated amplifier yet from the venerable Canadian firm.”
BluOS multiroom music-playback software, by Gordon Brockhouse (SoundStage! Simplifi, December 2021): “During my three-plus years on Simplifi, I’ve reviewed 11 BluOS-enabled products, and with all of them, I’ve been impressed by the rich, robust BluOS platform.”
Pioneering Design Achievement
KEF KC62 subwoofer, by Gordon Brockhouse (SoundStage! Simplifi, December 2021): “What I do know is that the KC62 is an engineering and sonic tour de force.”
Innovation in Design
Aurelia XO Cerica XL loudspeakers, by Jason Thorpe (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, March 2021): “I really like the XO Cerica XL. I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.”
Price: $11,000 per pair
Lyngdorf Audio TDAI-1120 integrated amplifier-DAC, by Roger Kanno (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, August 2021): “With its flexible bass management, Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect room-correction DSP and smooth-sounding Equibit amplifier technology, and a dizzying array of other features, it’s my new favorite.”
Aesthetics and Sound
Estelon X Diamond Mk II loudspeakers, by Jeff Fritz (SoundStage! Ultra, April 2021): “The X Diamond Mk II has established a new ‘best’ for my current listening room, and thus gets my absolute highest recommendation. If you get the opportunity, see, hear, and touch a pair of them.”
Price: $78,000 per pair
Accuphase C-2850 preamplifier, by Doug Schneider (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, July 2021): “The Accuphase C-2850 was more fun than I ever thought a preamp could be to review. That’s because when you combine its excellent sound with its rich feature set and stunning appearance, you wind up with a product that’s beautiful to listen to, a pleasure to use, and a joy to look at.”
Price: $34,500 in the United States, $24,999 in Canada
Magico A5 loudspeakers, by Jeff Fritz (SoundStage! Ultra, June 2021): “I loved listening to all types of music through these speakers for hours on end, and at wildly varying volume levels. In all those hours, I heard no weaknesses in their sound.”
Price: $24,800 per pair
Meitner Audio MA3 DAC-preamplifier, by Aron Garrecht (SoundStage! Ultra, October 2021): “The culmination of network streaming, Roon integration, local music file storage, and unflappable ergonomics supplemented by numerous proprietary technologies borrowed from the MA3’s more exotic brethren result in a product that not only redefines the benchmark in this price category, but raises the bar significantly.”
Karan Acoustics Master Collection LINEb preamplifier, by Doug Schneider (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, April 2021): “The Master Collection LINEb is of reference caliber, and impressive enough to firmly plant the Republic of Serbia on the high-end hi-fi map. In fact, on the strengths of this model, if Karan Acoustics decided to rename the Master Collection the Masterpiece Collection, I’d understand why.”
MSB Technology S202 stereo amplifier, Jeff Fritz (SoundStage! Ultra, May 2021): “The MSB S202 is one of the finest electronic components I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. Given the right circumstances and the right partnering gear—i.e., an MSB DAC—the S202 can produce state-of-the-art sound.”
Classé Audio Delta Mono amplifiers, Aron Garrecht (SoundStage! Ultra, February 2021): “The Classé Delta Mono balanced the audible advantages of tubed and solid-state amplification better than has any other amp for south of $30,000 that I’ve reviewed.”
Price $21,998 per pair
Luxman D-03X CD player, Jeff Sirody (SoundStage! Ultra, September 2021): “It is solidly built and ergonomically efficient, but most of all, it exudes quality in terms of sound. For the coin, I consider it a screaming bargain.”
Meze Audio Elite headphones, by Brent Butterworth (SoundStage! Solo, September 2021): “The Elites are pricey, but they’re indisputably among the best headphones you can buy, and you’ll be able to get good results with them using any amplifier.”
64 Audio Duo earphones, by Brent Butterworth (SoundStage! Solo, October 2021): “The Duos are definitely as good a set of earphones as I’ve ever heard.”
Paradigm Founder Series 100F loudspeakers, by Doug Schneider (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, July 2021): “The Founder 100F is a bona-fide hit. . . . If the other Founder models offer similarly formidable combinations of sound, appearance, and price, I suspect that this series will become the sweet spot in Paradigm’s entire range of speakers.”
Price: $5199.98 per pair
Sonus Faber Lumina V loudspeakers, by Dennis Burger (SoundStage! Access, July 2021): “Based on sonic performance alone, though, the Lumina V earns its asking price any day of the week. When you throw in niceties like the leather cabinet covering, the attractive wood-finished or gloss-black baffle, the magnetically affixed grille, and the fact that the whole kit and caboodle is handmade in Italy, for goodness’ sake, the Lumina V seems like a ridiculously good value.”
Price: $2799 per pair
PSB Synchrony B600 loudspeakers, by Diego Estan (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, November 2021): “The B600 is one of the most complete-sounding small speakers I’ve ever heard.”
Price: $2499 per pair
Bluesound Node streaming DAC-preamplifier, by Gordon Brockhouse (SoundStage! Simplifi, October 2021): “As the foregoing makes clear, the new Bluesound Node delivers amazing sound quality for its modest asking price.”
NAD C 298 stereo/mono amplifier, Evan McCosham (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, March 2021): “The value propositions NAD has been fine-tuning for decades are continued in the C 298. If you’re in the market for a new power amp, and that part of your budget goes even as high as $5000, it will be worth your while to give the C 298—at only $1999—a good listen.”
Arcam SA30 integrated amplifier-DAC, Roger Kanno (SoundStage! Access, October 2021): “There isn’t another product I know of at this price point that does as much, or sounds as good while doing it.”
SVS Micro 3000 subwoofer, Gordon Brockhouse (SoundStage! Simplifi, May 2021): “The 3000 Micro performed well—remarkably well for its size—and looks great.”
KEF LS50 Wireless II active loudspeakers, Gordon Brockhouse (SoundStage! Simplifi, July 2021): “Not only is KEF’s LS50 Wireless II a standout performer in its own right, it’s also an incredible value. I think it’s the best deal in hi-fi right now.”
Price: $2499.99 per pair
VPI Cliffwood turntable with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, Thom Moon (SoundStage! Access, September 2021): “If you want performance that will win you over from the very first tune, and you have about a grand to spend, the VPI Cliffwood is the turntable for you.”
iFi Audio iPhono3 Black Label phono stage, Jason Thorpe (SoundStage! Hi-Fi, May 2021): “While it’s not the type of component that you can proudly show off and thus elevate your social standing among image-conscious audiophiles, it sure sounds swell, and it’s a devastating bargain. Unconditionally recommended.”
HiFiMan HE400se headphones, Brent Butterworth (SoundStage! Solo, May 2021): “I’d say these are one of your best possible buys in audiophile headphones, maybe the best.”
EarFun Free 2 true wireless earphones, Brent Butterworth (SoundStage! Solo, June 2021): “They certainly sound better than many more-expensive earphones I’ve tested, and other than the (for me) unintuitive operation of the controls, I found nothing to complain about. For $49.99, that’s a small miracle.”
. . . Doug Schneider