January 1 is when the SoundStage! Network officially reveals its Products of the Year for the preceding 12 months. The best place to get a by-the-numbers rundown of that list is to read Doug Schneider’s annual “Opinion” article on SoundStage! Hi-Fi. He does his usual nice job of telling you why each component was chosen and what’s special about it. Here, in the you-never-know-what-you-might-read world of SoundStage! Ultra, I give you an alternate take -- mine -- on each product. Here goes:
Pioneering Design Achievement
Anthem Statement M1 mono amplifier: In the Statement M1 ($7000/pair), Anthem has designed a remarkable amplifier -- it’s eminently powerful and, by audiophile standards, surprisingly affordable. When Stereophile reviewed this model in December 2012, Kal Rubinson stated, “But in its present state I cannot recommend the M1. It imposed a tonal signature on the sound that was simply not neutral.” I hate to say it, but Kal was flat-out wrong on this one -- I heard no tonal signature here in the Music Vault, with some very neutral Dynaudio C2 loudspeakers and an Ayre Acoustics KX-R preamp. The Anthem is killer good -- basically, a straight wire with gobs of gain. That level of neutrality, coupled with the M1’s ridiculous power output (1000W into 8 ohms, twice that into 4 ohms), seals the deal.
Aesthetics and Sound
Sonus Faber Venere 3.0 loudspeaker: Very few thought they could build it in China and make it good while keeping it a real Sonus Faber. They did and it is. I’m writing about the Venere speaker line from the Italian brand Sonus Faber, of course. I own a pair of Venere 3.0s, and think as highly of them today as I did when I reviewed them in April 2013. If the Venere line is any indication, the new Sonus Faber, now owned by the Fine Sounds Group, is vastly superior to the old company. The Venere 3.0 ($3500-$4000/pair, depending on finish) is a lot of Sonus for the money -- something increasingly welcome in the world of ever-increasing prices for high-end gear.
Exceptional Value: Stereo Loudspeakers
KEF LS50 loudspeaker: Is there higher-level engineering in the $1500/pair KEF LS50 than in most of the six-figure abominations that will surely litter the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show? In my opinion, yes. Of course, that says as much about the state of high-end audio as it does about the expertise of KEF’s engineering department. Regardless, this remarkable little loudspeaker will be a classic. Scratch that -- it already is a classic.
Exceptional Value: Desktop Loudspeakers
PSB Alpha PS1 powered loudspeaker: When Paul Barton puts his mind to a product genre, you can bet the farm that the result will be better than average -- and in most cases, it’s near the top of the class. The PSB Alpha PS1 is no exception. Man, I want two of these little powered guys, but I’m going to pair them with PSB’s new SubSeries 100 compact subwoofer. The Alpha PS1 is a great bargain at $299/pair -- and an even greater deal when coupled with the SubSeries 100 in PSB’s Alpha 1-100 system, for a package price of only $499.
Exceptional Value: Digital Source Components
Oppo Digital BDP-105 Blu-ray player: In the audiophile ecosystem, no company has dominated a product genre as has Oppo Digital with its high-end, universal DVD and BD players. When you need a disc spinner, this is just what you go get, no questions asked. The formula works for the company: release a new player, get a boatload of awards, sell ’em to everyone. The BDP-105 ($1199) is a must-have.
Exceptional Value: Integrated Amplifiers
NAD C 390DD Direct Digital integrated amplifier: This is the integrated amplifier for the brave audiophile who isn’t scared to go all-in for digital. Yes, it converts your analog source signals to digital soon after they enter the chassis -- but isn’t what’s most important what comes out the other end? Sure, and it sounds sublime. Take the leap, if you dare -- you might just love the C 390DD ($2599).
Exceptional Value: iDevices and Related
Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder Bluetooth loudspeaker: As I type this, my wife is listening to a Sound Cylinder with her new Christmas present: a Samsung tablet. I can easily hear from across the kitchen that the sound is warmer, richer, and just plain better than her old iPod docking station. That’s what an audiophile company brings to the table: better sound. The DefTech costs more than your average dock, but it is more. And my wife loves it, which makes the Sound Cylinder, in my book, easily worth the price: $199.
Exceptional Value: Home-Theater Components
Axiom Audio ADA-1000 multichannel amplifier: As other Internet-direct sellers of audio gear have come and gone over the years, the quality of Axiom Audio’s components has remained extraordinarily consistent. Although their amplifiers are not the highest-profile you might buy, they’re some of the best for the price. The ADA-1000 costs $1340 for five channels, and delivers to each of them a stout 125W into 8 ohms. It sounds great, too. ’Nuff said.
Exceptional Value: Subwoofers
JL Audio E-Sub e112 subwoofer: Whenever I read do-it-yourselfers’ proclamations that they can build subwoofers of their own design that better, at lower cost, the models from JL Audio, I laugh. Those folks fail to recognize the value of such things as warranties and good resale values. But even setting aside these practical considerations, the E-Sub e112 ($1900-$2100, depending on finish) sounds superb, easily besting in overall sound quality what I’ve heard from 90% of the subwoofers out there. Despite its entry-level placement in JLA’s line of home models, this is one serious sub.
Outstanding Performance: Power Amplifiers
Gryphon Audio Designs Mephisto stereo power amplifier: More and more, I seem to be criticizing the ultra-high end -- I simply do not see the performance, build quality, and product support that should come with those extreme prices. However, I have no criticism of Gryphon Audio Designs’ Mephisto amplifier. I almost wish they hadn’t sent it -- I haven’t been satisfied with any amplifier I’ve had in since. Yes, $57,000 is serious money for anything except a house, but in this case it might be justified. Highly recommended for the well-heeled audiophile.
Outstanding Performance: Preamplifiers
Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P preamplifier: I think Simaudio’s preamplifiers are better than their power amplifiers. I thought the Moon Evolution P-8 was a better audio product than the still-impressive W-8 from years back, and I know that Doug Schneider’s enthusiasm for the 740P is a high-water mark among the preamps he’s reviewed. Call the preamp Simaudio’s specialty, or simply a playing to their strengths -- either way, the Moon Evolution 740P is a reference-class product for under ten bills ($9500). Nice job, Simaudio.
Outstanding Performance: Stereo Loudspeakers
Magico S5 loudspeaker: Only a handful of speakers at any price are better than the Magico S5. Magico makes most of those other speakers, and their model names begin with Q. Some companies spend more on marketing than they do on actual speaker R&D, and their cool marketing efforts might make you feel all warm and fuzzy and part of a special club. But dive in deeper here -- give the S5 a close listen, then look at our NRC measurements (including the lowest distortion we’ve ever measured in a loudspeaker) to confirm its excellence, and face the truth: Magico is pushing the bar higher at virtually all five-figure price points, including now at $29,500-$32,500/pair.
Outstanding Performance: Integrated Amplifiers
Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier: Bryston is the brand that just quietly goes about producing great products at prices that would seem too low for the performance offered. At $4695, the B135 SST2 isn’t dirt cheap, but then again, it’s no toy. This is real hardware, with a 20-year warranty and clean-as-a-whistle Bryston amplification built in. You could buy one of these, still be satisfied with it a decade later, and still have plenty of life left in the product for another ten years. How many components of any type can you say that about?
Outstanding Performance: Digital Sources
EMM Labs DAC2X digital-to-analog converter: No off-the-shelf DAC chips in this baby – Ed Meitner makes his own. He deserves props for being a legend in digital audio, and he hasn’t rested on his laurels with his latest flagship model. The DAC2X ($15,500) is expensive, but then again, it could be the state of the art. I’m sure that those making DACs that cost even more don’t want you thinking that, even though in most cases they’re using the same Sabre DACs everyone else does.
Now it’s time to go to CES 2014 and discover next year’s contenders. I’m hoping to find some products worthy not only of our 2014 POTY awards, but of inclusion in my column, “The World’s Best Audio System.” I see a few potential contenders on the horizon. Be sure to check SoundStage! Global, starting January 7, to see what I find.
. . . Jeff Fritz