It was the best of times. It was the not-best-of-times. But whatever it was, and wherever it lies on the Arc of Interesting, 2014 saw some pretty amazing stuff and some truly inspiring stories, and was also draped with melancholy and sadness.
This year saw the passing of one of the greats, Harry Pearson. I really wish I had known him. To all reports, he was “a character”, where that phrase is meant to evoke some mythic larger-than-life personality, some force that crashed against the rocks of the industry, sweeping away the old and shattering itself in the process.
I fear that many have taken his passing as a harbinger of many bad things to come. For whatever it might be worth, I’ve chosen not to. Things have surely changed, without doubt, and they will continue to do so. That’s what things do, after all. They change. Some fast. But some not so much. And the quest for awesome sound quality, at least, seems to be continuing unabated. I think HP would appreciate that.
About a year ago, I borrowed a soapbox and held forth about the Coming Doom of audio’s high-end and how it related to the Headphone Apocalypse. I mocked. I poked. I cajoled. But I also painted things in a rather stark, but not negative light. I’m happy to say that here we are, plus one year, and as I suspected, no one has imploded and no industries have fallen. That’s a fine thing, I’d say. In fact, one could argue, that it’s been a banner friggin’ year for audio’s high-end. Vinyl sales are up, Taylor Swift is no longer stream-able, and no one listening to Tidal HiFi cares about either fact. These are good things! On a personal note, I’ve seen and heard some of the most amazing bits of audio art yet, and I know that next year there will be a boatload more. Huzzah!
Here at Part-Time Audiophile, we’ve had a ball. We saw the launch of The Audio Traveler, our partner-site dedicated to all things audio show. We saw a whole new look and feel for this site, too. Readership was way up and our international numbers are going bananas. It’s been fun.
It’s not been all fun and games. I mean, there has been work. Over 400 articles hit the sites this year since our Best of 2013 Round Up. Several hundred thousand words spent on audio in 2014! In other news, The Absolute Sound and I parted ways this summer. Stereophile still has yet to offer me a spot on staff. And yes, that damn Lotto Fairy is cheerfully avoiding my phone calls. Ah, well.
So, here to close out 2014 are our Choice Cuts from 2014. Note that the * indicates an “Honorable Mention” as no review was planned. I mean, not that we’re opposed to a review. Hint hint. It’s just that we were just so impressed that we couldn’t not say something!
On with the show ….
I figured this would be an interesting place to start — headphones are hot right now. For better or worse. Some put the headphone market at a cool $2B, compared to a paltry $200M for the “rest” of audio’s high-end. That’s … something. To that end, let’s take a quick tour of what caught our ears this past year.
With the Abyss, you either love it or hate it. There really isn’t much in between. For those that hate it, much of the bile seems to attach to or derive from the incredible price-tag: $5,500. Happily, there’s a new “Lite” offering that takes a bit of the sting out of that bottom line readjustment, but the fact of the matter is, no headphone can do what this headphone can. None. If you want astonishing bass, there really is no other entry on your list. Review here.
Audeze LCD-3 w/ Fazor
The newest from Audeze is actually more of a revision than a new product, at least at first glance. But the increase in impedance to 100Ω and the slight retuning of the house-sound has me gobsmacked. These are the best all-around headphones on the market today. Period. Review forthcoming.
These may well be the prettiest headphones ever made. The fact that they sound absolutely incredible is almost icing on the cake — really, they look that good. Insanely comfortable, these are heirloom pieces. Sound quality is just engrossing. These are on my shortlist for must-have acquisitions for 2015. Review here.
MrSpeakers Alpha Dog Prime
These headphones are, quite simply, amazing. There’s an out-of-your-head sound stage with a listen-to-it-all-day addictiveness. Clearly, this is designer Dan Clark’s best work to date. A no-brainer recommendation and a must-listen recommendation at your next opportunity.
“Dan Clark’s talent for hacking Fostex headphones has resulted in the most revealing midrange in its class. Don’t listen to them unless you have the money to buy a pair,” Mal says. Review forthcoming.
Noble Audio Kaiser K-10
The Noble Audio product line is a stiff finger in the eye of those that say you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The new Wizard designs essentially take that cake and smash your face into the fact that your highest-end audio products can look absolutely stunning. Better still? They can sound as good as they look. I think the Kaiser K-10 is the best IEM on the market today, and has a near-universally appeal in both its voicing and its construction — it earns my unhesitating, full-throated endorsement. Review here.
It’s really hard to evaluate an amp without the associated system, but in these cases, we found true gems.
Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold
Alex Cavalli has been cranking out some truly astonishing headphone amplifiers, covering pretty much all of the bases with aplomb. Electrostatic or dynamic, tube or solid-state, Cavalli not only has solutions, but has one of the very best solutions in each category. I took a tour with the Liquid Gold and couldn’t part with it. Review here.
LH Labs Geek Out
A result of a trend-setting crowd-funding campaign — called out as our Best of 2013 — the Geek Out is not your run-of-the-mill USB dongle-DAC/headphone amplifier. A “trickle-down” marvel, derived from the design of the Light Harmonic Da Vinci DAC (reviewed at The Absolute Sound and included in their annual Guide to Digital Source Components), the Geek Out marks a huge lateral shift for the new company — and one that was brilliantly and disruptively executed. Review here.
Pass Laboratories 100.8
The Pass Laboratories 100.8 mono block amplifiers mark the advent of what may be the finest-sounding amps the company has produced to date, and a solution that is fully competitive with the very best on the market today.
Mal puts these amps on par with the gear from Technical Brain — “these are best-in-class components.” He says, “Solid state like this would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. The Pass XA100.8 is a new benchmark for versatility and performance. Everyone should have a chance to hear a pair. It’s almost enough to make me swear off tubes.” Review here.
Viva Audio Egoista
This amp was the single most impressive thing I saw and heard at Newport this year. Panagiotis calls this amp the non plus ultra of headphone amplification. Given it’s size and power, I’m inclined to agree. An incredible piece, this is art in steel and glass. Review here.
*D’Agostino Momentum Preamplifier
“The Krell founder is known for his mega-amps that produce maximum bass slam, but with the Momentum preamp he showed he also could establish new standards for transparency, refinement, imaging and detail,” says John. The fact that they look like a Steampunk version of a Swiss watch does not hurt. Just gorgeous.
*Bricasti Design M28 monoblock amplifiers
Bricasti Design has been stealing the show with their top-shelf DAC for several years, but it’s the innovative amplifiers that everyone really ought to be talking about. Built for next-fi tastes, the M28 includes attenuation in its mono block architecture — they’re built for next-gen DAC-direct system construction. Based on my listening, designer Brian Zolner has managed to incorporate the best of the old with the best of the new — this incredible amp has my mouth-watering.
“A new type of product that may represent a significant niche in the future of the high-end. Bundles a 400-watt-per-channel stereo amplifier, preamplifer, D/A converter, phono stage and other functions into a sleek, contemporary unit,” says John. We’re impressed. People have been calling Devialet “the future of the high-end” for a couple of years now, and we get it.
*VTL Siegfried Series II
John asks: “How do you improve on arguably one of the best amplifiers of all time? Leave it to Luke Manley and Bea Lam to find a way.” The Sigfried are absolute monsters.
In many ways, this is the hardest of all the components to love. Why? Because there are so many versions and variations — perhaps as many as there are moods for each of the myriad of designers. Are any right? Does that even make sense to say? But deep questions aside, these are the ones that turned the cranks of Team PTA this year.
Burwell & Sons Homage
Endeavor hit the scene last year, but while the brand is new, the crew is most assuredly not. Designer Leif Swanson has been with VSA for years and is only now leaping out on his own with Endeavor.
When I first heard the E3 this year, I was blown away. I don’t say that lightly, either — the flippin’ system was loud enough to fracture drywall. But the sound I heard was extended, dynamic, and detailed — even when stuffed into a tiny shoebox of a hotel room.
Mal says: “Endeavor Audio’s underpriced debut product can be a scalpel when you need it to be, but it’s always willing to be an accomplice. It’s also being discontinued. Snap one up before they’re gone, or wait for our upcoming review of the replacement model.” Review of that new model is forthcoming.
Madison Fielding Flagstone
I can’t help but grin and chuckle every time I think about the Flagstone speakers from Madison Fielding. A true 3-way design that you can leave out on your deck all year-long? An architectural speaker that produces real bass? A living-space friendly package that rivals many “audiophile” loudspeakers? Yes, yes and yes. Review forthcoming.
Peachtree Audio DeepBlue2
Even if you’re on the record with your undying hate of Bluetooth speakers, this is the one you’re going to love. I’m not kidding.
I truly don’t understand why the DeepBlue2 sounds so good — and frankly, I’m not sure I care. Take my word for it — it just does. It’s big, it’s black, and it has bass that will shake your man-boobs. Get one. Teaser here, review forthcoming.
*DeVore Fidelity Gibbon X
I’ve been a fan of John DeVore for as long as I’ve been writing, with my favorite being the 3XL — that was (and is) an astonishingly great stand-mount. When the Orangutan came out, I schemed and plotted until I was able to get my own. But with the new Gibbon, John has completely outdone himself — this is the best he’s yet released, and by a fair margin. A truly incredible loudspeaker.
“Staggering sound stage and imaging (not the ultimate in bass), a visual statement, avant-garde materials and drivers,” says Panagiotis. It’s also one of the most astonishing-looking speakers currently being made. Statement piece, all around.
*Existence Speakers Erotic
“Marko Reinikainen’s full-range driverExistence speakers. The Erotic model I heard at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was dynamic and truthful, in that, unlike most Lowther-ish speakers I’ve heard, it didn’t require nearly as much ‘sonic imagination’ to fill in the frequency extremes. To top it off, the speaker was relatively reasonably priced at $6.8K. The obvious caveat is that I heard the Erotic in audio show mode, meaning that I wasn’t familiar with any of the (modest) ancillary equipment and its impact—or lack thereof — on what I heard. That said, it seems to me that Marko’s come up with a practical and promising design for those looking for single driver magic without a lot of the typical sonic sacrifices,” says Darryl.
*GoldenEar Triton One
Sandy Gross is my hero, and has been a legend in audio’s high-end pretty much my whole life. GoldenEar, his latest venture, brings all of the lessons learned in a lifetime’s pursuit of sound stage superiority and wraps them up in stunningly affordable packages. With the flagship of the Triton line, you get absolutely incredible bass response, with great tonality, clarity, and oodles of detail. This loudspeaker is an insane value. You really should not be able to buy this kind of speaker for this price!
*Hørning Hybrid Eufrodite Mark IV Ellipse
This speaker has been haunting my dreams for the better part of a decade, but with the latest cabinet rework, this microwatt friendly speaker has gone from “Great” to “Legendary”. Lowther mids, with a real tweeter and real bass, the Eufrodite fronted several spellbinding systems this year. I was undone. My pair arrives soon.
What you can get today is so much better than what you could have purchased 10 or 20 years ago that the difference is almost magic. And before you get all “so what”, just remember than vinyl playback hasn’t seen a revolutionary surge in decades — digital is seeing them almost quarterly. New clocking, better output stages, support for new and interesting file formats — something. It’s always something! And that’s exciting.
The AK240 is the finest digital audio player on the market. Hell, it may be the finest DAP ever made. I have absolutely no issues with the unit whatever, aside from a generalized sorrow that the sky-high price tag will preclude many from the sheer sonic joy that this unit has to offer. If you can, get your ears on one pronto. My personal reference. Review here.
Great-sounding computer audio, despite all the hand flapping to the contrary, is not easy or straightforward. Which is why so many companies are out there are attempting to reinvent this wheel — and why there are so many $10k+ music servers in the audiophile market. But this recent offer from Aurender, their X100L, is not only slick-looking, it’s almost easy to use and actually sounds better in the bargain. I call that a win. Review here.
There are a lot of super-budget audio players on the market today and almost all of them actually sound like it. Pono is a clear step up from that lot, and the Calyx M is another clear step up from that. The form factor is a bit more pocket-friendly, but still not tiny. What you get, however, is a full-face interactive screen with a reasonably intuitive OS interface. While it is as big as 3 iPhones stacked, the sound quality is remarkable for its quality and its wide-ranging compatibility. While the Pono may be somewhat limited in its universal compatibility, the Calyx is not only friendly to most headphones in terms of sheer grunty power, the sound signature is where the grins come in. It’s actually voiced warm. Which means your IEMs are suddenly much more interesting, and ditto anything from AKG or Sennheiser. The M makes way more headphones into a fully pleasing system than any other player I can think of. Review forthcoming.
Chord Electronics Hugo
I didn’t want to love this little DAC/headphone amplifier. But it’s inky-black backgrounds, universal format support, and compact package are hard to match. This is State-Of-The-Art in desktop audio. Review forthcoming, but DAR has a nice bit online now.
PS Audio DirectStream DAC
My first “real” DAC was from PS Audio, and I played the tar out of that thing. Five years later, PS Audio’s latest makes that DAC look like a dinosaur. FPGA conversion means a huge shift from traditional chip-based DACs, and the new DirectStream can be pretty much re-tuned and upgraded ad nauseam simply by firmware updates. The fact that it plays every file known and plays them all really well is nothing short of a miracle. A very solid piece and one of the best I’ve heard in this price class. Review forthcoming.
Completely disruptive, this crowd-funding darling cemented crowd-funding as a viable route to market. Long delayed, ridiculed for its size, shape, color, and grandiose claims, the Pono promised to bring “master quality” audio to the masses. Putting aside the question of whether or not any of this is actually new, Neil Young’s Pono music player actually is the best-sounding portable player anywhere near its price point. Who cares if it looks like a box of candy? This player totally brings it — and for whatever it’s worth, that shape is pretty handy for your desktop listening. Here’s to hoping the rest of the Pono ecosystem lives up to the Ayre-sourced player’s performance. Review here.
Sonic Studio Amarra
There’s a lot of fuss and bother that’s been made over the sonic contributions of software-only audio players. I’m not going to rehash that here (or anywhere, actually). What I will offer is that Amarra, the early leader in this space, has come roaring back with a svelte and easy-to-use package that will flat-out embarrass many of their competitors. Where things get fascinating is in what else you can layer on top of the already-great sonic attributes on offer — in room correction. Available as part of their flagship Symphony offering or simply as a value-added package on top of the base platform called “iRC(b)”, the impact is impossible to ignore. By applying digital room correction curves, measured with a separate aftermarket system like the superlative offering from XTZ, before any conversion to analog, the Amarra package avoids a silly and possibly destructive second analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog set of conversions. The upshot, at least for my digital playback chain, is simply masterful — this is the best that my 2-channel system has ever sounded! Review forthcoming.
I’ve never been a fan of streaming audio. MOG had a great library, sure, but aside from being able to listen to stuff I simply was unable to buy anywhere else, Internet-streaming was never part of any of the best sounding “source solutions” I’ve ever put together. Spotify was not better. I’d actually given up on the idea, and have spent the last few years busily squirreling stuff away on my NAS. With Tidal HiFi, I actually have an option. One that not only “doesn’t suck”, but sounds good enough to make me doubt my sanity. It’s not iTunes, but playback is pretty much indistinguishable from the CD rips in my archive. And that, friends, is audio winning. Tidal, where have you been all my life? Winner winner, chicken dinner.
The Year of DSD? I remember having some conversations with some colleagues on Audio360 around DSD and how it was a flash in the pan, how it was irrelevant, how it (as a format) was just plain stupid — and I remember laughing. Even if all that’s true, this was the year that DSD wagged the dog. Every DAC released this year either supported DSD or had a story ready as to why they did not (looking at you, Berkeley Audio!). That’s a far cry from irrelevant. My two major DAC acquisitions this year, the PS Audio DirectStream DAC and the Chord Hugo, were both play-anything boxes and astonishingly great DSD decoders. Too early to tell if DSD is a fad, but I’ve got my suspicions that it’s here for the long haul.
In an almost absurdly anachronistic exercise, vinyl is making a comeback. Against all odds. Definitely not what I expected, but I am thrilled it’s happening nonetheless. There’s something delightfully tactile about a vinyl system, something that just whispers “slow down”, and quite frankly, I need that. I think, maybe, many of us do.
I love this turntable, perhaps way more than it deserves. The fact is, it’s a very nice turntable and a very nice headphone amplifier and the fact that it’s both of these things is sheer friggin’ genius. Sadly, the Nomad has already been discontinued, but here’s to hoping that VPI (and maybe other vendors) decide that an analog all-in-one system is worth investing in. Still think this is one of the best ideas I’ve seen in audio’s high-end in years.
*Accoustic Signature WOW XL
“Schiit’s Mani and Lounge Audio’s LCR MKIII phono preamps have brought a big slice of high-end performance down to real world pricing,” says Mal. “If you’re just getting started in vinyl, either one of these will start you out right.”
Speaking of good ideas, the use of naturally-occurring renewable materials is something you don’t really hear a lot about in this market niche. That’s too bad, really. The Madake, the new flagship cartridge from maker Miyajima, uses bamboo for a cantilever, very much following how Soundsmith pioneered this approach using cactus needles. Me, I think this is delightful and absolutely mad. But you cannot argue with the result — this is by far the best that Miyajima has made to date, and I was already a fan.
*VPI Direct Drive
“Outfitted with the JMW 3-D printed, 12-inch transcription tonearm, VPI proves that direct drive, done right, can offer a variety of advantages over belt designs,” says John.
As for me, I have the a serious man-crush on Harry Weisfeld and it’s because of this turntable. The Direct Drive has been on my Most-Desperately-Wanted-List since it was announced! This is beg, borrow and steal-to-own gear —
Product of the Year
The POTY awards are always something of a riddle, shrouded in a mystery, hidden inside an enigma, but it’s probably not too weird to imagine that it’s something we really like. Really, really like.
This year’s pick was in the face of some truly epic competition. The wild success of crowd funding products, with Pono and the LH Labs offerings, have changed the landscape and go-to-market strategies available to boutique vendors and will have dramatic consequences for years to come.
The superlative Viva Audio Egoista is a stunning case study in seizing opportunities in market adjacencies that I mentioned in that think piece on headphones last year.
But the solution that earned the most smiles this year was something different. Not exactly new, per se. Not a market changer, nor anything revolutionary. If anything, the product marks a solid evolution over a long and storied career of excellent products. But even so, this year’s winner was just astonishingly good.
Part-Time Audiophile would like to congratulate Pass Laboratories on their XA100.8 mono block amplifiers and recognize them as our pick for The Best of 2014.