Best of 2016 and Product of the Year
So here we are again. Somehow, the year has turned, we’re all facing yet another New Year, and yet no one is running through the streets screaming about “the end of meaning”, “the inexorable march toward extinction”, or why Kanye West and Sarah Palin are still appearing in the news. There’s clearly an opportunity missed, there.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive. There were, to be frank, a lot of great new things on the market in 2016. Which is awesome. And if you ask me quietly, at the end of a long day while I’m attempting to unkink my neck, my hands and my soul with a tasty adult beverage in hand and a startlingly large dog snoring across my lap, I might offer that the horn o’ plenty that is this new Golden Age of Audio is almost enough to offset the shrinking, shuddering horror that 2016 has turned out to be. Almost. But in any event, it is at least something of a comfort.
Of the things I found most enjoyable in 2016, I will offer that “The Audio Show” still reigns supreme. I am baffled, grateful and humbled by the work of so many to put on these extravaganzas, and how they pull together so many for the simple pleasures found in sonic joy.
To turn to the actual products, conceived and executed by some of the finest minds and teams that I have ever met, gives me unseemly amounts of pleasurable shivers. There really just was so much to see, hear, fondle and taste in 2016 that doing justice to the mountain of awesome is going to be pretty much impossible. To those I’ve forgotten or inadvertently excluded, my humble apologies. But it’s time to introduce the winners.
Best New Product of 2016
Winner: Vinni Rossi LIO
Rafe: The LIO integrated amplifier with DSD/PCM DAC module, DHT-pre linestage, phono module (with remote-control loading option), and Sonore microRendu Power Output option is a game-changer. Talk about a one-stop-shop. Rossi’s patent-pending, ultracapacitor power supply which he touts as “PURE DC-4-EVR” offers total isolation from the AC power supply, and is at the core of his modular integrated amplifier design. The base price of $4,875 USD for the amplifier alone is a steal, but at $12,660 USD for all the options listed above – in one chassis – it is criminal for this level of sonic musicality.
Scot: There were so many great products this year! And while many of us might have voted one way or another, the sheer fact of the LIO was undeniable. It’s different. It’s great. And with the unlimited upgradability, the value being offered is thrown gauntlet in the ring of today’s high-end.
In no particular order ….
Scot: Spiderman strikes again! The unusual aesthetic of the new in-ear from headphone success-story Audeze is, perhaps, the first indication that the coming-soon iSine10 is different. 30mm open-back drivers in an in-ear? Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Definitely different and undeniably awesome-sounding.
Dr K: Gave the pre-production model a run and it blew my brains out. Is this the most natural sounding in ear headphone ever produced? Did Audeze just pull off another cracking new design? And more importantly, how can Scot not see the resemblance with Star Wars Tie Fighter?
Bricasti Design M12 Digital Converter/Preamplifier
Scot: It’s really hard to quantify “better”, even when you hear it. But I did hear it, there in Chicago, when Brian Zolner flipped between his best-to-date DAC, the M1 Limited Edition (aka, Goldfinger), over to the all-analog/pure-DSD path on his new DAC/preamp. This was a holy-crap moment that is really difficult to underestimate. Best demo ever? Maybe! I was convinced — and I’m betting you will be, too. Just out of this world!
Pass Labs HPA-1
Grandberg: I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting… but patiently, of course, for Pass Labs to enter the fray with a killer headphone amp. This year my dreams came true with the HPA-1 – and I’m totally smitten with it. Full review is in the works but for now I’ll just say this amp is up there with the absolute best available at any price. At $3,500, it ain’t cheap, but you can very easily spend oodles more and still end up with an inferior amp. Did I mention it makes an absurdly nice simplistic 2-source preamp? It’s a reviewer’s dream for A/B DAC listening. Yeah, I’ve got a lot to say about this thing, full scoop coming soon.
Rafe: this combination R2R ladder DAC, streamer, and headphone amp is a one-box solution from the mind of Vincent Brient in France. The totaldac look exudes bespoke elegance, is built like a tank, has 192KHz asynchronous Xmos USB, optical, RCA and AES-EBU digital inputs, and sounds even better than it looks – don’t think “analog-like” just think “analog.” You’d have to spend considerably more in the DAC category alone to get close to what Brient’s 100 nude Vishay matched-resistor R2R is capable of (look ma, no chips), never mind the addition of a streamer, and headphone amp that can handle 15~600 Ohm cans. $9,320 USD with DSD option, and USB/ethernet filters/cables.
Wilson Audio Specialties Yvette
Stancavage: New designs continue to gush from Wilson’s Utah factory, likely due to the energy of new CEO Daryl Wilson, son of founder Dave Wilson. With the Yvette, introduced this fall, Daryl created a three-way floorstander that evokes the classic Watt/Puppy, but does so in one box and at $25,500 a pair (which is on the “affordable” end of the Wilson line). Analyzing the Yvette in typical audiophile terms would have me describing tight, tuneful bass; excellent midrange presence; and a smooth, yet revealing treble. But the real feat of the Yvette is that it ties all those strengths together and just makes gorgeous sound.
Bowers & Wilkins 800D3 loudspeakers
Dr K: There is more technology in the new 800 from B&W than what you would find in half a dozen high end speaker brands combined and all this at a price of 30.K that seems as an audiophile bargain. Finish is beyond reproach but more importantly the engineering team managed to make a leap ahead in driver and cabinet design, again.
Scot: I have to agree with Dr K. These are the best B&W speakers I’ve ever heard, and may well be among the very best speakers I’ve ever heard. An easy, out-of-the-park home run from B&W.
Legacy Audio Calibre
Stancavage: The engineers at Legacy somehow took a stand-mounted box just 16.25x10x15.25 inches and packed it with an 8-inch woofer, two eight-inch passive radiators, a titanium-encrusted 7.5-inch mid-bass/midrange driver and a 4-inch EMT ribbon tweeter. The result is mini-monitor imaging with floorstander bass. At $5,500 a pair, you may question the need for anything bigger.
Mohammed: First experienced at Music Matters 11, during which Garth Powell from AudioQuest keep attendees on the edge of their seats as he discussed AC power. Many listening hours later (review forthcoming), my perspective on the importance of clean power has elevated. After inserting the Niagara 7000, I went weeks without wanting to change or tweak anything in my listening room, and instead enjoyed the results as I re-experienced my favorite LPs. The current hungry Audio Research Reference Phono 3 and Dan D’Agostino Momentum seemed to benefit the most in my system. This has earned its place in my listening room and will not be removed anytime soon.
Scot: The UHA Phase 1 is the first step on a dangerous road of addiction, self-absorption, and alienation. Your friends will wonder what happened, your colleagues will call you mad, the forums will ring with calumny. But you won’t know or care, because there always seems to be more delicious, delicious tape to spin. You can read the review, here.
Scot: It’s big. It’s bad. It’s the most expensive effort from the New Jersey turntable giants VPI. They call it Titan. De-coupled direct-drive? Say what? Yes, this is weird and new and awesome. If this is retirement, I think we all would like to join VPI founder Harry Weisfeld in his wonderland. This is all feeling very Tony Stark, I have to say, but with such impressive tour-de-force efforts coming out of “retirement”, I’m very much looking forward to more of the same kind of “relaxing” in 2017.
Best Affordable Product
Winner: Roon Labs
Scot: Guess what? Roon is every bit as cool as everyone says. No, really. I have music pretty much all over my universe and I cannot be bothered to update it all, collate it all, or manage it all.
Which is why Roon and I have decided to elope and have many neatly-ordered and brightly colored digital babies together.
All of my files are in one place. All of them accessible. All of them available.
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” He chortled in his joy.
Yes, there are other ways to do this. Yes, there are other products that collate, tag, organize, structure and generally make your digital audio life easier. But none are as easy, and as sexy, as Roon. I cannot imagine digital audio playback without it. Roon has revolutionized the way I do audio. And at $10/month, that’s a bargain.
Scot: I hadn’t actually finished reviewing this before a friend swiped it. But at $640 (specialty PSUs add more), this is the coolest little widget I’ve seen and heard in today’s computer audio high-end. Its a network streaming computer, the size of a stack of business cards. Best of all? It just works. Fantastic sound for the money.
ELAC Uni-Fi UF5
Scot: Yes, the floor standers. At $1,000/pair, you will not believe the sound quality you are getting. Correction, you may, I do not. This is insane. Yes, the bookshelf speakers are more room friendly, and yes, everyone loves them. Whatever. The floor-standing speakers blow them away, it’s night and day, they’re amazeballs, [insert audio cliche here]. Yeah. They’re all that and a bag of chips. Last year’s Best Affordable Product just got gobsmacked. Or rather, I did. Don’t care. WANT SPEAKERS.
Dr K: Andrew Jones is on a hot streak and keeps pulling aces from the deck. The Uni-Fi UF5 simply put, is a no brainer of a buy as it challenges the concept of value for money like few other products around.
Grandberg: Ever get jealous of those new DACs that promise built-in streaming? The PS Audio DirectStream and the Mytek Manhattan II to name just a few? Yet you’re totally satisfied with your current DAC and don’t want to mess with anything different? Simple, just add the little $450 SOtM sMS-200 streamer and you’re all set. It’s a dedicated audio-oriented design – no general-purpose computing here – which boasts a custom Linux build and special low-noise USB output. It offers several playback options with my favorite being the Roon endpoint mode. They even offer a bundle with 1 year of Roon for $510 – that’s half off the usual subscription price. The sMS-200 can be upgraded down the road with a linear power supply for you hardcore streamers, but even in stock mode it offers a deeply satisfying experience.
PS Audio Dectet, AC5 cable, and Power Port Classic
Rafe: PS Audio make some of the very best gear available at any price, and their Dectet Power Center ($499 USD) coupled with their AC5 mains cables ($350 USD for 1.5m) have absolutely transformed my listening experience with every component I’ve used them with. They don’t add, nor do they take away any sonic attributes, they merely allow more of what’s there already to come through. Noise floor drops, and the sound just opens up. When used in conjunction with their Power Port AC ($50 USD) receptacle everything becomes clearer, blacker, and more vital. Any one of these products will make a huge impact on the enjoyment you derive from your music playback.
Origin Live Turntable Belt (£33, approximately $41)
Darryl: Here’s a product I can personally vouch for that’s inexpensive and performs exactly as advertised. Yes, I know it’s not glamorous—it’s a turntable belt, for goodness sake—but you can take it from me it made a noticeable, positive improvement in my system. The Origin Live belt is available in sizes that fit many turntables, but it was no surprise that my Rockport II Sirius SE, now over twenty years old, is not one of them. And even a piece of equipment as fanatically constructed as the Rockport sometimes requires maintenance, as I discovered when its flat Kapton belt began to slip on the pulley. Rockport is no longer in the turntable business and, although the always helpful Andy Payor did his best to point me to potential suppliers, I had zero luck. Until, that is, I happened on the Origin Live website. It was no problem that the Rockport wasn’t on its turntable list: the Origin Live website provides easy-to-follow procedures for measuring and determining the size belt needed for your turntable. So good that I immediately ordered a spare.
Stancavage: These compact monoblock amplifiers weigh only 13 pounds each, but they output 1,000 watts of clean, authoritative power. A marvel at $1,499 each, especially for those with power-hungry speakers.
Triode Wire Labs cables
Scot: Cable doubters needn’t apply, but for the rest of you, I have a secret. I know this guy that makes super-high-end cables at a fraction of the price of what others might. And the best thing? They really are fantastic bang for the buck. Open, fluid, and organic — that is, they make my system sound broken in, as if all my electronics just went on an extended diet pulled together by Thug Kitchen, and now, they’re ready to just casually kick ass all over yesterday and tomorrow. Been a fan of Triode Pete’s power cables for years, but his “American” speaker cables and “Spirit” interconnects are just the berries. Best kept secret in that lineup is that forthcoming dual-headed USB cable, though. It’s killer.
NuPrime STA-9 amplifier
Grandberg: How does 120W x 2 worth of hybrid Class A + Class D amplification for $649 sound? How about running a pair of them in mono mode for a total of 290W per channel? You’d think there must surely be some compromise involved yet try as I might I just can’t find it.These little fellows offer richly textured sound with an excellent soundstage and deep low-end extension, all in a tiny package. The amps build on the classic NuForce Reference models of yesteryear, but take on a subtly relaxed flavor where those older models could be a bit high strung. This is a hugely crowd-pleasing product worthy of serious attention despite its affordable nature.
Ether Flow headphones by MrSpeakers
Rafe: While some may question $1,850 USD open-back planar magnetic headphones as a “budget” pick, when compared to what I’m usually gravitating towards, anything under $2K is budget. I’m a headphone noob in many respects, but I like to think I know great two-channel sound, and the Mr. Speakers Ether Flow continues to impress the hell out of me compared to several other heavy hitters in the over-ear headphone market. They strike the perfect balance between meaty, organic, believable sound, and comfort, which if you’ve ever had a pair of big reference cans on for a few hours, you know how they fit/feel can be a deal breaker.
Most Coveted Products
This is the part where the Part-Time Audiophile team got together and drooled on each other. It was pretty much as disgusting as it sounds. But here’s our (admittedly partial) list of the wild and wonderful stuff that we saw and heard and touched this year that we wish we could have to love and fondle for our very own.
It’s a long list. But don’t worry. It’s not like we licked all the doorknobs or anything. Well. Not all of them.
So, in no particular order — here are a few of them.
Harbeth 40.2 monitors
Stancavage: These large, stand-mounted British speakers ($14,795 a pair) look simple enough — three drivers, no fancy horn-loading or building-block cabinets. But the sound takes legendary BBC monitors to another level, goes one more step and then stands on top of the ladder. You read a lot of reviews talking about how a speaker “made music” or “touched my soul.” The 40.2 actually delivers on that kind of high-end hyperbole in a way I’ve never experienced.
Scot: I want these speakers. Period.
Metaxas Ikarus integrated amplifier
Dr K: This is what audiophile dreams are made of. A stunning work of art that captivates looks and ears at the same time. I would like to own one even without connecting it to a pair of speakers.
Resonessence Labs Invicta Mirus Pro
Grandberg: My favorite DAC of the past few years got a major overhaul in 2016. It now sports a pair of the new ES9028 Pro DAC chips each running in what I’ll call “octo-mono mode” for absurd levels of clarity and refinement. There’s also your choice of 6 digital filters, most of which are custom made by Resonessence Labs. And of course there’s the custom FPGA engine doing all sorts of digital gymnastics for our benefit. At $6,000 the Invicta Mirus Pro is pretty darn tame considering how wild this category can get. Yet I can unequivocally name it the best digital source I’ve heard at any price. They could throw this thing in an obnoxiously extravagant enclosure and sell it for $30K but I’m soooo glad they keep it relatively sane.
Tidal G2 Contriva
Rafe: I’m a fetishist when it comes to the high-end of audio playback devices. I love the very best sound that human beings are capable of offering through their technical, artistic, and manufacturing prowess. What I love, you may not, but that’s why these year-end lists are great, because we all get to gush about what we love best, and the piece of equipment I covet the most this year is the Tidal Contriva G2 loudspeaker. No matter what I heard them paired with at various shows this year, they just spoke to me. They made me emotional, they put off-balance, and kept me there with their innate musicality. Yes, they are expensive ($65,900 USD in wood finish), but oh God, they are worth every penny to me.
Nordost Odin 2 cable loom
Stancavage: This company’s wire always has offered remarkable speed and upper-frequency detail. Its latest flagship line excels all the way through the frequency range, with full, defined bass and an overall fluidity and ease. The price, though, may buckle the knees. I saw one show exhibit this year that used $350,000 worth of Odin 2 wire, which was more than the cost of all the other gear put together. But for those looking for the ultimate — and who won’t faint at the price — Odin 2 can make a system reach its potential like nothing else.
Mark Levinson No. 519
Stancavage: I still use my Levinson 30.5 DAC, so the perfect modern addition would be this new all-digital-source audio player with CD and streaming capability ($20,000). It even has a circuit that attempts to improve MP3s for those iTunes tracks you downloaded.
AMG Viella V-12 Turntable & 12JT Turbo Arm
Rafe: As much as digital has done in 2016 to win over my warm analog heart to its cold ones and zeroes, I’m still a vinyl guy at my core. Nothing can replace “the tea ceremony” as my good friend Don calls it, so it should be no surprise that I was weird and sweaty over a turntable this year. The AMG Viella V-12 turntable and standard tonearm ($16,500 USD) is a combination of real and imagined in a listening session that is best described as ‘drug-like.’ The ability of this duo (regardless of cartridge I’ve heard with them) to elicit out-of-body sonic experiences, and palpable emotional responses from me is something spooky.
Mohammed: A follow-up to the already fabulous AMG Viella V12 Turntable, the updated AMG 12JT Turbo tonearm ($8500) brings a much larger bearing and calibrated locking screws for precise setup. The included ingenious alignment jig gig that attached to the arm + more precise locking screws provided my most accurate setup to date. Definitely the best sound I have heard from a Lyra Atlas in my room. Dynamics, attack, decay were all significantly improved.
Best of 2016
The Best of the Year product is something that is, ideally, the best of it’s kind, the most revolutionary, the most impactful, the most disruptive thing. You know, the one that the market didn’t see coming.
This year’s winner was one of those products.
Yes, it has a familiarity to it. If you’re an audiophile of a certain age, chances are you’ve owned a turntable. But that’s not what makes this one interesting. This one, this particular one, is different. Part of that is provenance. Part of that is quality. Part of that is price. Part of that — and a big part at that — is the disruptive power that the company behind it represents.
The big challenge to audio’s high end today, at least as we see it here at Part-Time Audiophile, is relevance to the everyday consumer. Making audio interesting, sexy, appealing, attractive and fun again in what is increasingly looking to be a post-Apple artisanal “Cool World” is going to need some thing different. And this is.
Winner: Shinola Audio Runwell Turntable
Dr K: Never seen it, never heard it, but the Runwell will be a major success, thanks to the people behind it. VPI’s Weisfeld family and Shinola’s Alex Rosson are about to give a huge new boost to the analog world.
Scot: I have seen it and have heard it, and it’s a complete broadside into the prevailing digital audio market. The size and power of the company behind the Runwell means everything here, but that sells the product itself short — and that’s a mistake. As far as “entry level” turntables go, I challenge you to find a better-built one at this price.
A most impressive debut for a most impressive new high-end entrant, Shinola Audio.