Best of 2015 and Product of the Year
2015 is over, much to my shock and chagrin. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how it happened. No. Seriously. I kinda feel like I’m Rick Grimes; I just woke up, everyone is gone, and WTF is the deal with all the freakin’ zombies?!?
Oh. Right! [Smacking head].
It must be holiday time!
Looking back at the millions of articles and billions of photos, all of which have been seen a couple gazillion times [warning: these numbers may be inaccurate], I do have to wonder if we’re all more than a little nuts (seriously — zombies?!?). I’m told that at this point of the year, we’re supposed to sit back, enjoy family, and perhaps a tasty adult beverage, but I’m still vibrating and it’s not just the phone in my pocket. I mean, that’s part of it, but not all of it.
We’ve had an amazing run over here at Part-Time Audiophile and quite frankly, I’m continuously baffled by that. Clearly, you, our readership, have some serious issues with maturity, taste, and time-management. God bless you.
On our side of the fence, we’re still changing. Mal and Kirsten are off exploring first-time parenthood; we wish them nothing but the best in their new adventure in short-sheeted sleep and randomly stained clothing, and offer only a simple admonition: you can never have too many baby wipes. In their absence, we’ve welcomed Rafe to the team and John Grandberg back from his detour. John R, John S, and Darryl plowed through a ton of gear this year, while Ken and Paul pillaged their music libraries for out entertainment; also this year, we added three occasional columns, around wine, cigars and photography. Because awesome, that’s why. Last but not least, Dr K took our brand of audio irreverence on tour across an international stage. Speaking of that latter: this year I had the privilege of attending High End in Munich with Dr K — and it completely changed my take on audio shows. An eye opening experience, to say the least, and I have resolved to dress better because of it. At least any time there’s any chance of being seen near Dr K (or John Darko, but for entirely different reasons … ahem).
Over the course of the year, most of us managed to avoid the zombies, and for this, we’re all grateful. Also during that time, the team somehow managed to also gain access to some truly epic gear.
This is our attempt to give respect where due.
Best New Product of 2015
The first category is all about the new. What caught the eye, fired the imagination, or otherwise rendered us slack-jawed and drooling while facing a wall for some indeterminate amount of time while our brain attempted a reboot. You know, the stuff that caused us to duck and cover, while screaming “holy sh**balls, what the f*** was that?!?”
Rafe: I’m going with the Devialet Phantom, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its price point, its flexibility and its sheer musicality, which if you know me and digital, usually don’t go hand-in-hand. I first heard the Phantom at the Vancouver Audio show this May and came away suitably impressed. Affordable is a term that is relative in the realms of hi-fi reality, and at roughly $7,500 CAN with tax for two Phantom Silvers + Dialog, (or $3,295 CAN for one Silver), I can’t think of a product I heard that offers so much bang-for-the-buck. The Phantom is basically, an entire system minus source.
Scot: What Rafe said. Plus, it implodes. Yes! It makes sound and puts on a show. Also, it may well be the most aggressively marketed audio-product launch this side of something from Bose. And yes, that’s a good thing. Honestly, we need a few more of these programs — rising tides and all that hoo-ha. Anyway, kudos to Devialet, and here’s to hoping we can get a change to explore these little rockets sometime in 2016.
Scot: This is the current benchmark for portable audio fidelity. A robust platform, with an easy-to-use interface and sound quality that is the best I’ve heard anywhere near the neighborhood of “portable”. This little sucker is so good, worry about an outboard amp or DAC is absurd. Not inexpensive by any means, but good enough that it might eliminate outright an entire “brick” (banded stack) of personal audio gear, which means that the asking price might not be all that out of line.
John G: Unique, quirky, bold… you won’t find anything else out there with the functionality of Audender’s Flow. Oh, and it sounds great too. Review here.
Dr K: Stunning aesthetics, it can actually accommodate a 1Tb SSD and sounds great even with headphones as quirky as the Sennheiser HD800. Munich report here.
Chord Electronics Mojo
Dr K: Still working on my full review of this little wonder, let me just anticipate that this is beyond good for the money. If the Hugo left many perplexed by the size – design – price, the portable Mojo DAC/headphone amplifier is a true bargain. Drives comfortably just about every headphone and sounds second to none despite the compact form-factor.
Döhmann Helix 1 turntable
Rafe: At $40,000 USD the Helix 1 is not exactly affordable for many of us, but to me it is such an amazing amalgamation of technologies in the service of analog playback perfection that I cannot help but give it Best Overall kudos. The SPEC GMP-8000 ‘table was absolutely outstanding, and immensely musical, but it’s a known entity to me in the sense of what I’m sure I could get out of it … the Döhmann, on the other hand, is a veritable Pandora’s Box of possibilities to me in the sense of its isolation/damping technology, and I’d love the chance to really experiment with its capabilities.
Scot: At its original “introductory” price of $2500, the Comet was a class-killer, and at it’s “regular” price of $3400 (with external linear power supply), it’s still one of the best DACs on the market. Reviewed here, I think the Comet may be the smoother, velvetier cousin to the AURALiC VEGA, one of my personal DAC references. The short story: the Comet is an incredible machine.
Fern&Roby Integrated Amplifier
Scot: I saw this amp as part of a larger display at CAF this year, and I was struck by the sweet-looking workmanship. Forged iron chassis? Oh my! The guts from the amp come from Bettinger Audio Designs — someone quite known to us here at PTA. Color me really curious.
Paul: I downloaded the trial for Roon — I like it, and can definitely see why many love it.
Scot: Great software! Makes all my tunes easy to find and looks going doing it.
TAD Compact Evolution 1 speaker
Dr K: Absolutely amazing sound from a moderate size speaker. Best bottom octave for the size, bar none. Finish is gorgeous to say the least.
Scot: I heard this at High-End this year, and was completely blown away — it was the Best-in-Show at that incredible carnival. Stunning sound. Full range and compact — I think this speaker may be better than it’s much larger (and much more expensive) cousins. Perhaps the pinnacle of Andrew Jones’ work for TAD.
Woo Audio WA5LE v2
Scot: Woo Audio’s revision of their classic 300b-based headphone amplifier is a stunner. It’s also big, so plan on space, but given that, the sound this sucker can weave is nothing but magic. Review here.
Zesto Audio Leto + Andros 1.2
Paul: Zesto Audio has been main preamp rig since February. They sounded wonderful out of the box, but lately I’ve taken to rolling in Mullards and Genalex Gold Lions because I just can’t be bothered to leave well enough alone.
Best Affordable Product
The idea of ‘affordable’ is always a slippery slope, and quite frankly, I don’t have a good rule of thumb here. I’m somewhat tempted to abdicate entirely, deferring to the SCOTUS while waving my hands at “I know it when I see it”. But that’s hardly fair. So lemme attempt a swag.
By affordable, I do not mean cheap, where ‘cheap’ = some arbitrarily low price point. I also mean something different from “high value”, which I typically mean some interesting intersection between high performance and low price — ‘low price’ in this context is question-begging. So, for the sake of pragmatics, lemme just set an arbitrary cap at “less than a month’s rent”, or under $1,500 US. Again, $1,500 is not cheap, it is not “throwaway money”, and no one here at PTA intends to imply that it is. That’s why this is somewhat arbitrary.
What we’re trying to get at here is that prices in high-end audio, like just about everything in any industry segment increasingly dominated by low-volume niche manufacturers, tend toward the exorbitant. With those prices, quality tends to track. When that trend gets bucked, interesting things happen. And that’s why this category is important. To remind us that we don’t have to spend our kids’ inheritance to take our sonic landscapes to 11.
Scot: To date, the recommendation for the value-seeker exploring the utmost that high-end has to offer has almost always been to grab a quality pair of headphones, if what you’re looking for is kick-ass sound for reasonable dollars, as “regular” two-channel audio seems to have bypassed this market segment completely. If space allows, I highly recommend going for the F5 over the B5 or even the B6, as the sound is just that much more coherent and fluid. As I mentioned in the review, any of these absurdly affordable loudspeakers may well redefine what’s possible for those of us on a budget. My new default recommendation for folks exploring: save up and start here. And accept my apologies in advance for what’s about to happen to your wallet for the rest of your life.
Scot: Long a provider of purely “affordable” audio gear, Audioengine has leapt into the high-end ring with the full-featured HD6. Think: bigger, better, stronger — a clear improvement over the A5+ speakers I’ve been in love with for years. This is what “lifestyle audio” wants to be when it decides grows up and actually sound good. Heard at RMAF this year.
AURALiC Aries Mini
Scot: I first heard the Mini back in Munich this year, but I got to see it paired up with some awesome gear at RMAF. Add some powered speakers, and you’re pretty much done. Now sold with a year’s subscription to TIDAL, the world’s greatest streaming service.
BMC Audio PureUSB1
John G: The PureUSB1 is an active device for cleaning up USB signals. In my experience, it works even better than the popular (and also excellent) Uptone Regen. Review forthcoming.
Massdrop AKG K-7XX and Fostex TH-X00 Headphones
Paul: For $200, the best headphone value of the past few years, by far.
Scot: For $400, the Fostex TH-X00 takes the “Massdrop Effect” to the next level — these guys at Massdrop are working freakin’ magic in the value segment. I am eating up these special edition products with a big, fat spoon!
So what are your favorite toys? I have lots. Lots and lots …. Unfortunately, my interests far outstrip my budget. Um. By a lot. [Sigh]. Have I mentioned how awesome a rich person I’d be? I’d be an awesome rich person. Totally awesome. Yep.
Well, barring a well-deserved visit from the Lotto Fairy, a great many things will remain beyond my reach. C’est la vie.
So, what does “Most Coveted” mean, here? Pretty much just as it sounds. Not necessarily “new”, but nonetheless, this is the list of the stuff we drool over. Occasionally on.
This is a small puddle of this year’s drool.
Analog Tape: Stellavox and UHA
Paul: I have next to nothing to play on a UHA deck, have no idea where I’d put it, and the price of quality blank 1/4” reel tape is scary by itself. But I still want one. Bad.
Scot: I got a few weeks to play with the entry-level UHA Phase tape deck and a handful of tapes, courtesy of tape evangelist Greg Beron. To be fair (to Greg), I’ve been arguing against the (apparent) absurdity of going back to tape for years. And for years, Greg has been wearing me down with demo after demo of his now-famous after-hours tape sessions at an audio show near you.
He was right; I was wrong.
With the right tapes, this is the best-sounding source available in high-end audio today. I may actually go get another job just to be able to save up for one of his magnificent machines.
Rafe: The most coveted standout was the modified Stellavox reel-to-reel that Charles King keeps on his person and produces from his trench coat when he wants to blow people’s minds. At roughly $3,000 USD this is the biggest bargain in hi-fi for me, and the fact that tapes can run upwards of $200 USD is of no serious concern. Considering how much I have invested in vinyl, blowing another few grand on a dozen or more tapes to start is nothing (again, IMHO) for the studio-quality reproduction this unit is capable of delivering. This is the best front-end I’ve heard in hi-fi, period. And if on the off-chance you’re reading this … Please, please, please, Charles, loan me the deck and half-a-dozen tapes for a couple of months for a review.
Audion Super Sterling 120
Scot: A single-ended pentode? Yes! Mal loved this amp. Knowing Mal, this is about as high a compliment as you can get. Compact, powerful, sexy — what’s not to like?
Bricasti Design M28
Scot: Bricasti, long known for their digital excellence, has branched out and crafted a monoblock monster that pairs absurdly well with statement-level speakers. Some of the best amplifiers you can buy at any price. Review here.
CH Precision P1 phono stage
Dr K: A dream phono stage! Fully balanced design with three inputs, two of which work in current mode thus perfect for low impedance moving coil cartridges. Check the notes from High-End this year!
DeVore Fidelity Gibbon X
Scot: I can see dumping all of the loudspeakers I’ve collected over the years in favor of this speaker from DeVore. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and while this new Gibbon X was a long time coming, it was worth the wait, says I. While not exactly new (it was officially launched at RMAF last year), I have it here because I spent so much time
planning it’s liberation listening to it this year. Here’s to hoping 2016 sees the opportunity for an extended review.
Scot: I first saw these at High End and first heard them at RMAF. That latter earned them a Best-In-Show. These are amazing speakers! The possibility of an extended eval with this speaker gives me cold sweats — I’m really not sure if this should be a Best New or Most Coveted … could go either way, but either way, I really want a pair of these guys to
fondle play with review. Puh-leeeze.
Janszen zA2.1A-HP loudspeakers
John G: JansZen’s hybrid electrostatic zA2.1 has been around for a bit, but this active version with improved drivers is new for this year. Of all the gear I’ve had in for review in 2015, this was by far the most painful to send back.
ModWright Instruments PH150
Scot: Dan Wright has been getting better and better over the years, and this phono stage may well be the best damn thing he’s ever touched. Outstanding musicality. Incredible flexibility. Lust-inducing looks. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Review here.
Dr K: A tube phono stage capable of handling low output MCs when paired with a 109db sensitive horn speaker and still no sign of hiss or buzz even with the pot passed 12o’clock, this speaks volumes about Dan Wright’s design.
Pure Audio Reference and Control
Scot: I almost bought these. No, really. I have the voided check to prove it. The only thing that stopped me was losing a job, otherwise, these little bastards would be here with me. You like warm sound? Whatever, almost everyone does. But would you like to have that with 3-D levels of detail retrieval too? Ha. Good luck! Or … Pure Audio. Minimal, exotic, extraordinary. Review here.
Tune Audio Anima
Scot: After Munich, I had all manner of horn-speaker dreams, and at the top of that particular heap was a pair of Animas from Tune Audio. The Anima is a 3-way speaker and all 3 ways are horns. Big. Imposing. With an aesthetic that is perhaps a bit of an acquired taste, these room-killers clearly and effortlessly demonstrated why horns are still the most exciting way to listen to music. Best of all, they may well be the least-expensive full-range horn speaker on the market.
Dr K: On top of both mine and Scot’s wish list with a sound as addictive as it gets. Sooner or later these will be mine for my tubes and horns system!
Viva Audio Egoista 2A3
Scot: If you’re going to be spending $10k on your personal audio experience, I’d grab some HiFiMAN HE-1000 headphones and this amp from Viva Audio. Add a DAC (the Auralic VEGA, say), and you’ve just outclassed pretty much every high-end two-channel system ever constructed. A tour-de-force product and one I cannot gush about too much. Seen at High-End. Review forthcoming.
Dr K: When reviewed the big Egoista (15Watt 845 version) my thinking was “nothing will ever beat this”. Guess what? The 2A3 I heard in Munich though outputs a fraction of the power but sounds even more impressive, with striking lush mids and excellent extension.
Product of the Year
HiFiMAN HE-1000 headphones
John G.: Quite simply the new benchmark in headphone performance.
Scot: I have to concur with John — he spent a lot of time with this headphone, and while it certainly isn’t cheap ($3,000), it did several things that have not been able to be matched.
One, it’s built beautifully — the steel, wood and leather are pulled together in a way that looks and feels bespoke.
Second, they’re probably the most comfortable of all the flagship headphones — and by a country mile. They’re light, they’re easy on my head … in short, they feel as good as they look.
And then for the hat-trick — the sound was as good as any other headphone I’ve ever heard … and then some.
“Quite simply, the HE-1000 is the new benchmark in headphone performance.”
Wait, that sounds vaguely familiar….