Picking the best audio component of the year is kind of like pondering your ultimate list of girls to ask to the high school prom. There are many very attractive choices, but probably a much smaller number actually in your league. That doesn’t stop you from dreaming, though. And the girl who maybe initially wasn’t near the top, after you gave her a chance and got to know her better, became the perfect choice. Possibly that even led to a longer-term relationship.
The Part-Time Audiophile crew danced with a lot of products in 2017, some at the major shows and others in our home listening rooms. Descriptions of some of these products set us a-tingling before we even met them in person, while others grew on us over time. Many were out of our league; we just accepted that they moved in circles far above our individual financial means. But that didn’t keep us from telling you, our dear readers, what it was like to stand in their presence.
OK, enough of the cute analogies. On to business. Although we just alluded to the dizzying cost of some equipment – and indeed many of those made our list – 2017 to us seemed to be the year where there was renewed growth in the affordable end of the market. And, from what we heard, the sound companies are getting from their more humble components was better than ever.
As a result, among our picks, you’ll find state-of-the-art products, as well as plenty of budget gear, and everything in between. The level of competition among manufacturers is considerable right now, with a lot of good sound on offer. This caused a wide variety of opinions amongst our writers. Participating this year were PTA founder and publisher Scot Hull, creative director and editor Rafe Arnott, contributing editor John Stancavage (i.e. me — the guy who herded these cats and assembled this article) and editor Panagiotis Karavitis, along with writers Lee Scoggins, John Richardson, Richard Mak, Eric Franklin Shook, Mohammed Samji and Paul Ashby.
As you read our staff’s selections, remember that just because a reviewer likes something doesn’t mean it’s right for you or your particular system. You need to apply your own ears here, but hopefully we’ve given you a place to start. Also, there was so much great gear this year that plenty of worthy contenders had to be left out. You might want to peruse our archives for more in-depth information on all the products we listened to in 2017.
Part-Time Audiophile’s scribes dived into this assignment with gusto. There was a lot of gear that caught their fancy this year. To make this War and Peace-size roundup easier for you to digest and refer back to later, we’ve broken the list down into all the major categories, and saved the Product of the Year for last. We’ve also generally arranged them from highest to lowest cost.
Please note that all prices are in U.S. dollars. Oh, yes, before we forget, thanks for reading this year. And, with that, here we go…
Best of the Year
Wilson Audio Alexx ($109,000 a pair)
Arnott: I’m a tube-amp, and two-way-speaker kind of guy, who seeks to keep things simple. I like speaker cabinets that work with resonance, and aren’t about rejecting it, but the Alexx – despite its multi-driver, four-way design and phenolic-composite construction – captivated and thrilled me with its sonic attributes and ability to convince the mind and the ear that the recorded event was taking place within room boundaries. Needs serious power and room to breathe.
MartinLogan Neolith ($80,000 a pair)
Stancavage: Generally with panels, bigger is better. With its new flagship, MartinLogan didn’t shrink from the challenge. The 6-foot-tall, 385-pound Neoliths are a whopping 35 percent larger than MartinLogan’s Statement E2s and boasts one of the largest electrostatic radiating surfaces MartinLogan has ever made (22-inches wide and 48-inches high). It also packs a front-firing, 12-inch woofer that operates from 60 Hz to an adjustable 250-400 Hz, as well as a rear-firing, 15-inch driver that goes from 60 Hz down to 23 Hz. The result: midrange magic with uncommonly strong bass performance.
Rockport Technologies Lyra ($149.500 a pair)
Karavitis: I already was a fan of Andy Payor. The Lyra is, in my humble opinion, his best effort to date. If the drivers were already among the best, the cast-aluminum cabinet sets new standards in speaker design.
Daedalus Audio Apollo 11 ($22,800 a pair)
Shook: Call them most-improved, nevertheless it’s the best pair of medium-size, full-range towers I’ve heard from Daedalus. The bass is fast and the dual midranges are to die for.
Spatial Audio X1 ($14,000 with a painted finish or $17,500 in wood veneer) Stancavage: Clayton Shaw’s new transducer extends the capabilities of an open-baffle. He uses a “time-coherent, unity-wave” dipole compression driver to produce the audio spectrum from 300 Hz up. An 18-inch dipole woofer (with a 40-pound motor assembly) handles frequencies down to 18 Hz.
The goal is for the point-source main driver to allow the overall transducer to “speak with one voice,” while the woofer adds oomph below. Mission accomplished.
DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Super Nine (estimated $10,000 a pair)
Arnott: John DeVore has another emotion-stirring and hair-raising speaker design that captures the essence of music.
Zu Audio Druid Mk VI ($10,000 a pair)
Ashby: A 50-inch-tall floorstander that features a 10-inch full-range nanotech driver, augmented by a Radian-based driven tweeter.
Focal Kanta No. 2 ($9,165 a pair)
Karavitis: The Kanta is not a cheap speaker, but considering its build quality, attention to detail and overall sound, the MSRP seems almost a bargain.
Volti Audio Rival (prices start at $8,000 a pair)
Hull: Volti loudspeakers feature heirloom-quality cabinetry wrapping a package that arrests the attention and sets the heart pumping. Dynamic, richly textured, and highly engaging, the Rivals are the least-expensive offering available from Volti Audio. As such, they represent a bargain in this audiophile’s experience. And did I mention that they sound fantastic?
Charney Audio Companion Mk2 ($5,850-$9,550 a pair, depending on finish/driver options)
Richardson: The pair I auditioned was configured with a single pair of Voxativ AF 2.6 drivers. The cabinets themselves were horn-loaded using a smooth-horn configuration to eliminate diffraction and reflection. The sound of these transducers, powered by Charney’s own hand-built amplifiers, struck me as just right, as in how real music ought to sound. A company to watch.
JWM Acoustics Alyson AML II ($8,500 a pair)
Shook: They were part of my Best in Show report from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Only lacking in the deepest bass, they perform flawlessly everywhere above.
Salk Sound Song3-A ($3,895 a pair in standard veneers)
Richardson: I’ve always been a fan of Jim Salk’s handmade speakers, which to my ears just tend to sound “right.” By that, I mean natural and forgiving in a decidedly non-hifi spectacular sort of way. Coupling the size, frequency range, quality of drivers and cabinet finish to the sound I heard from these impressive floor standers, I’d say Salk has a definite winner on his hands.
Totem Acoustic Signature One ($2,360 a pair)
Arnott: If you’re in the market for some stand-mounted bookshelves, and aren’t “minted” as they say in the UK, then the Signature Ones by Canadian manufacturer Totem would be a highly advisable demo. These little wonders are built like tanks, and deliver smooth, controlled, incredibly powerful dynamics. Resolution, and bass are room-pressurizing, and they dazzled at deep 3D-imaging from recording to recording.
KEF LS50 Wireless ($2,199 a pair)
Hull: This speaker system – and with DACs, amps and WiFi built into the speakers, it is very much a system – redefines and leapfrogs what “lifestyle audio” currently is and takes us directly to a future of what could be. And that future sounds fantastic.
Aurum Cantus Melody M-103SE PU ($1,800 a pair)
Stancavage: The beautiful wood-veneered floorstanders use a 7-inch carbon-fiber woofer/midrange and an exotic aluminum-ribbon tweeter to operate between 35Hz-40kHz. High-end sonics for the budget-minded.
Zu Audio Omen Dirty Weekend II ($999 a pair)
Hull: Perhaps one of the biggest bangs-for-the-buck available. No, $999 isn’t cheap, but the experience you get will completely knock you on your ass. HUGE.
Richardson: These speakers pretty much do/have it all, and for peanuts.
Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Progression monoblocks ($39,000 a pair)
Stancavage: The Progression takes Dan D’Agostino’s previous work with Krell and puts it on steroids. Trademark bass slam combines with a new level of resolution. The steampunk design and glowing green meters also get the point across. This is serious amplification.
Pass Labs X600.8 monoblocks ($26,000 a pair)
Stancavage: The prolific Nelson Pass has a new heavyweight monoblock amp that offers many of the benefits of pure Class A, with improved efficiency from actually being Class A/B. The first 50 of the amp’s massive 600 watts/channel of power are delivered in Class A, creating tremendous detail, soundstage depth, image solidity and instrument layering, with authoritative bass. (Full PTA review to come in early 2018.)
Pass Labs XA-60.8 monoblocks ($13,500 a pair)
Richardson: When I had these in for review, I felt like there was nothing they couldn’t do, and do superbly. Conservatively rated at 60 watts per channel, full Class A, they drove any speakers I hooked them up to with grace, power and full control from bottom to top. The best all-around amplifiers I’ve ever heard in my system, bar none.
Vinnie Rossi LIO Super Integrated amp ($11,880 as shown at the Los Angeles Audio Show)
Stancavage: A modular integrated that is unlike anything else, the unit features an ultra-capacitor power supply. The LA version had a customized amp module with active-domain crossover and equalization (both analog) and output 25 watts on each of four channels to match perfectly the Spatial X1s it was driving. That solid-state output was paired with Rossi’s directly heated triode Class A, OTL and zero-feedback preamp module.
Auralic Super Integrated preamplifier/amplifier/DAC/streamer/MM phono ($3,799)
Arnott: I’ve been living with this mighty mite for a few months now, and continue to be wowed. This is one of the best bargains in high-end audio. It takes a long time to break in – so be patient – but once you get it past 300-350 hours it goes from damn-good to great. Comes with enough digital, and analog inputs to satisfy everyone but the most hardcore power user, and boasts 32/384 PCM and DSD file-handling chops.
Wyred 4 Sound NextGEN (anticipated $3,625)
Stancavage: E.J. Sarmento showed his new Class D statement amplifier at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The 250-watt-per-channel unit (bridgeable to 750 watts) sounded dynamic, yet smooth on Acoustic Zen’s $43,000-a-pair Maestro flagship speakers. Sarmento, a perfectionist, still pulled it back for more tweaking. Expect production sometime in 2018.
Shook: Probably the best Class D amplifier I’ve heard this year, or ever.
Linear Tube Audio ZOTL 10 (Mk. II) Stereo Amplifier ($3,200)
Richardson: I currently have this one in for review, and it’s a wonderful all-around tube amplifier. Putting out only 10 watts/channel, speaker matching might be an issue for some, but get that part right, and this amp may just make you re-evaluate how you listen. At first the amp seemed exceptionally clean and detailed, but a bit on the harmonically dull side. With extended listening, however, I’ve found the ZOTL 10 (Mk. II) to be one of the most satisfying long-term amps I’ve heard. It slowly draws you in and then hooks you with its un-fatiguing neutrality.
Elekit TU-8600 300B kit amplifier ($1,185 USD)
Mak: The Elekit bucks the high-end industry where prices are outpacing the rise of the Dow Jones Industrial Index. The TU-8600 comes with high-quality, Japanese-made components including an R-Core transformer. A caveat: 300B tubes are not included, and you also have to assemble the amplifier. If you are technically challenged like me, the North American distributor of Elekit, VKMusic.ca, will gladly you sell you an assembled unit for a couple of hundred bucks more.
Music Hall A30.3 integrated amp ($999)
Stancavage: Offers 85 watts a channel, MM phono stage, three digital inputs (USB, toslink, coax), a 24bit/192kHz Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC and Bluetooth connectivity. Power and poise.
Pro-Ject MaiA Integrated Amp ($600)
Hull: Too much value packed into this $600 component – DAC, phono and amp/pre – all for $600. Entry-level just leveled up.
Vista Audio Spark Amplifier ($350)
Richardson: This little gem is a small-footprint, 30-watts-per-channel class AB solid-state amplifier that sounds way more expensive than its asking price. It’s designed in the USA, but made in Serbia. The little Spark boasts all the warmth and dimension of a refined and much more expensive tube amp.
Nagra HD ($59,500)
Stancavage: A tubed, dual-mono preamp, with a separate super-cap power supply. Not an update, but a brand-new product with proprietary technology. Perhaps coolest of all, it contains a modulometer, a custom-made measuring device that is said to be more accurate than a VU meter.
Karavitis: A statement product by the Swiss company that embodies the essence of 40 years in tube design.
Merrill Audio Cara ($3,500)
Stancavage: The Cara is a marvel. Looking at its high parts quality, innovative design and separate power supply, you’d guess a retail price of 10 grand or better. You’d guess wrong. Somehow, Merrill Wettasinghe created a preamp that offers ultra-low levels of distortion and colorations for a relatively affordable price. This unit won’t be embarrassed in high-dollar systems, or it could be the center point of a more affordable rig. Possibly the last preamp you’ll ever need.
CH Precision P1 phono preamplifier ($95,000)
Mak: This four-chassis unit is the best phono stage I’ve ever heard. Two boxes are dedicated mono power supplies, and the other two are separate dual-mono phono-amplification stages. From tonal balance to dynamic contrast to frequency extension to sound staging, the P1 delivers off-the-charts sonic performance.
Audio Research Reference Phono 3 ($14,000)
Mak: The Ref Phono 3 only costs $1,000 more than the Ref Phono SE 2, but the 3 delivers quite a jump in performance level. It is a remarkably neutral-sounding phono stage with excellent frequency extension and dynamic contrast.
Zesto Audio Andros Tessera phono stage ($12,000)
Stancavage: This tubed unit can accommodate up to four tonearms, but does a great job even with merely one. George Counnas is a master at blending classic-era tube concepts with modern technology.
Ashby: I like dials. And switches. On the front panel.
Zesto Andros Allasso step-up transformer ($2,995)
Stancavage: The Allasso offers 40 adjustments in mono and another 40 for a stereo MC cartridge. It has gain settings of 17dB, 21dB, 23dB and 26dB. This unit, when used with the Zesto Andros Tessera and a top-notch turntable, gave vinyl an almost digital-like clarity with the emotional connection of good analog.
Technics SL-1200G turntable ($4,000)
Hull: A legend revisited, this turntable looks as good as it sounds. Expensive only in comparison to the DNA of the DJ-tools of yesterday that it carries, the SL-1200G is a clear upgrade for would-be audiophiles taking that big second step into a better, more richly coloured sonic world.
VPI Voyager phono stage ($2,500)
Shook: $6K worth of sound for only $2.5K — need I say more?
Auditorium 23 EMT step-up transformer ($2,200)
Arnott: If you have a Denon 103, an Ortofon SPU cartridge or an EMT TSD/JSD model, you need to hear Keith Aschenbrenner’s step-up transformer designs that are specifically (and gorgeously) voiced for those cartridges. I’ve got an EMT JSD VM on a Thales TTT-Slim II and dropping it into the mix was like dropping a bomb: just an explosion of improved dynamics, bass, timbre, tone and clarity.
Acoustical Systems Fideles cartridge ($1,099)
Mak: Dietrich Brakemeier of Acoustical Systems, maker of the SMARTractor and P.A.S. cartridge alignment tractor, has come up with an entry-level, high-output, moving-iron cartridge which puts out 5.5 mV, making it easy to drive nearly all MM phono stages. (Review forthcoming)
VPI Cliffwood turntable ($895)
Mak: What more can you ask for? The Cliffwood comes with a 9-inch gimballed pivoted tonearm and a solid aluminum platter. It even includes a Grado Green cartridge. A perfect entry-level turntable with not-so-entry-level performance.
Shook: Initially I was excited about the cost, then I heard it. There’s so much more to like about the Cliffwood than its price.
Hana SL cartridge ($749)
Shook: A true bruiser when it comes to competing on the same table with much pricier fare and winning out.
LampizatOr Pacific DAC ($26,000-$34,400
Arnott: I only auditioned the Pacific for a short time, but what I heard was deeply impressive, and built upon my already highly favorable opinion of their Golden Gate DAC which changed the way I interpreted digital audio.
Karavitis: A best of show in Warsaw, sweet sounding all out assault on digital conversion.
Tidal Camira Digital Music Converter ($28,500)
Karavitis: This DAC manages a sense of ease that’s rare in digital reproduction. An analog lover’s object of desire.
Aurender N10 ($8,000)
Stancavage: Dual-linear power and extra shielding keep out noise, while 4TB of internal hard disk drives and one 240GB solid-state drive cache are on hand for playback. Also supports on-the-fly DSD to PCM conversion by FPGA.
PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($5,999) with Red Cloud software update ($29)
Scoggins: Building on an already great-sounding Huron edition of the DS DAC, Ted Smith and Paul McGowan recently unleashed a spectacular update that moves the Direct Stream DAC into reference territory. The improved clarity is astonishing. A rare and genuine evergreen product. Into streaming? The network bridge option works smoothly for MQA and Roon. Need a quality transport? The matching Memory Player plays CDs and SACDs as well as I have heard.
Naim Uniti Core server ($2,600)
Stancavage: Bearing Naim’s “reference” badge, the Uniti Core is a server that also can rip a CD in under 5 minutes. Users can fit a hard-disk or solid-state drive with a capacity of 8 TB — enough to store 100,000 tracks. A simple interface, too.
M2Tech Young DSD Mark III DAC/preamp ($1,700)
Karavitis: The Mark III is among the top contenders in digital audio with a new app and improved clarity. Excellent value for money and MQA capable for those who care.
BorderPatrol DAC SE ($1,350)
Hull: This single component defies many conventions and audiophile assumptions. It’s not FPGA-based, it’s not a streamer-enabled endpoint, it does not support high-resolution audio files. Like, at all. There’s no filtering, no over-sampling and no up-sampling. All of that means, to the computer-savvy audiophile, that this DAC really shouldn’t promise much. And yet it does. It offers one of the most open-sounding, transparent and full-range presentations I’ve ever heard.
Richardson: A month or two after hearing Scot’s unit, I purchased my own.
Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra-HD Audiophile Blu-ray Disc Player ($1,299)
Hull: Oppo’s latest state-of-the-art for silver discs still impresses and still earns pride-of-place for those of us wedded to our collections – but still looking to the future of high-quality sound.
Sonore ultraRendu ($875)
Hull: A significant upgrade to the microRendu, yet still managing the same form-factor and modest price. Add subscriptions to TIDAL and ROON, and you can take even the most dated digital system fully into the SOTA.
Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC ($849)
Ashby: Uses a proprietary closed-form DSP-based digital filter coupled to four precision Analog Devices AD5781BRUZ digital-to-analog converters for 19 effective bits of resolution.
Stancavage: At every major audio show, it seems at least a few exhibitors demo Nordost’s “supreme reference,” Odin 2. Between interconnects, speaker cable and power cords, the tab for that wire alone can top $300,000. That obviously will appeal only to the one percenters in the hobby, but Nordost also conducts convincing demos showing that even its lower-cost cables can have significant sonic benefits, particularly increased speed, clarity and dynamics, with a lower noise floor. It’s just a matter of degrees and budget.
Stancavage: Paul Speltz has made his reputation selling almost unbelievably inexpensive (for the high end) cables. Despite that price focus, it’s not unusual for show exhibitors to hook up much pricier gear with his wire. This year, Speltz introduced Level 3.1 Reference Series copper speaker wires ($340 for a 10-foot pair), and then busted out into the premium market with the Level 5 Signature silver-gold speaker cable ($3,500 for a 10-foot pair). Early auditions of both have been promising.
Skogrand Vivaldi series
Shook: Never before has so much craftsmanship trickled down into what is a great new product at real-world prices. Interconnects are $750 per 2-meter pair and speaker cables are $850 for a 3-meter pair.
Scoggins: Chris Sommovigo must be picking up the artisan vibe out there in Japan, as his latest cable is even better than the good work I have come to expect. Whether used in my main system or the upstairs headphone rig in the office, these cables kick ass at a bargain price. Clear and open, but with some nice weight in the low end. Starting at $500 for a meter pair, these are the real deal. Domo arigato, Sommovigo-san.
ModWright TRYST headphone amplifier ($3,000)
Shook: A tube-based headphone amp that just sounds right, even with budget cans.
ZMF Eikon and Auteur headphones (Eikon: $1,299 in cherry, $1,399 in padauk; Auteur $1,599 in teak)
Stancavage: Young entrepreneurial couple Zach and Bevin Mehrbach scored a hit five years ago with their first headphone, the ZMF X Vibro. The sound they got was warm, detailed and dynamic. Their new Eikon takes those attributes and adds wide, deep sound-staging that is the opposite of the typical “all in your head” presentation. The slotted, semi-closed-back cans are ultra-comfortable as well.
Shook: The Auteur is the most open-sounding headphone of their line. It’s nearly 80 percent open back, so it sounds different than their other designs. Something special.
HiFiMan Susvara ($5,995)
Karavitis: Very expensive? Yes. Excellent sounding? Oh yes.. review to follow soon
iFi Micro iDSD Black Label DAC/headphone amp ($549)
Karavitis: Betters the already-good, first-generation Micro iDSD in pretty much all aspects, and especially in fine detail retrieval and bass reproduction.
Rupert Neve Designs RNHP Precision Headphone Amplifier ($500)
Scoggins: This amp is effortless at passing along whatever signal I feed it and then amplifying that signal to drive the most difficult of headphones. Sublime clarity from top to bottom and dead quiet between notes.
Audeze iSine 10 headphones ($399)
Scoggins: Seriously good across the bass to midrange to treble, the iSines – an open design – perform at the level of many $1K IEMs. Lovely musicality and loads of detail. The real kicker may be the Lightning cable in-line DAC option which sounds really good for a small in-line device.
Cardas A8 30th Anniversary Edition ear speakers ($349)
Scoggins: I was a huge fan of the original A8s, but they had some quirks. The Cardas team has worked these out with cable connection improvements at the “Y” and eliminated the Y-detachment. A tremendous bargain.
Empire Ears Zeus Adel-XR ($2,729)
Scoggins: Simply magical in terms of how much music they reveal. These are my current reference IEMs and they really do everything right. The midrange is an especially transparent standout. From small ensemble jazz to large orchestral works to classic rock to electronica, the Zeus have never let me down. The quality of manufacture in Norcross, Georgia, is exquisite. Probably the best portable audio product I have heard. (Review forthcoming.)
Most Intriguing Products
These are components that introduced particularly innovative technology or made a significant step forward on an existing platform.
Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 50 loudspeakers ($39,200 a pair)
Stancavage: These floorstanders combine lifestyle design, Star Trek-worthy tech (motorized, elevating tweeter modules) and high-end voicing. Each speaker contains seven internal amplifiers totalling 2,100 watts, DSP processing parametric equalization and active room correction.
Legacy Audio Stereo Unfold Technology software (upcharge TBA)
Stancavage: An unique product, SUT is a software upgrade for Legacy’s Wavelet preamp/processor ($5,000). The Wavelet already had room correction, but Legacy describes SUT as “speaker correction.” The software seeks to control early reflections to reduce smearing, improve timing and allow the recording venue’s natural reverberations to come through. An RMAF demo was stunning.
United Home Audio Ultima2 OPS-DC tape deck ($28,000 for playback-only, recording heads add $1,000 to $4,000)
Stancavage: UHA owner Greg Beron refurbishes and upgrades Tascam BR-20s. He replaces many of the parts, restores the exterior and adds upgrades like the Ultima2’s OPS-DC, a hefty outboard power supply that allows the machine to operate on DC current with no AC anywhere inside. The sound, especially with a safety copy or other low-gen tape, is breathtaking. But to get those near-masters, you have to know a guy who knows a guy. Still, a growing number of sellers such as Acoustic Sounds, The Tape Project and even artists including jazz singer Lyn Stanley have begun issuing albums on tape.
Most Coveted Products
Each of our writers harbors dreams about certain components. Some of those dreams may be fulfilled, while others will remain pipe dreams until those lottery tickets pay off. Here’s what’s currently keeping our staff up nights.
Pass Labs XS series amplifiers (XS150: $65,000 a pair)
Hull: What happens when you reach a little too far and suddenly find that you cannot live with anything less? That’s what these amps are. Run away while you can.
VPI Titan turntable ($40,000)
Hull: Drool-worthy uber-table from an American legend. Too much fun – and it looks as good as it sounds. Sign me up!
Joseph Audio Pearl 3 loudspeakers ($31,500 a pair)
Hull: I have wanted these speakers since Generation 1, but have never had a place to put them. Utterly natural and completely full-range, these speakers still represent a high-water mark in what’s possible in home reproduction. Perhaps the best-sounding hi-fi loudspeakers you can buy.
Sanders Sound Systems 10e electrostatic speaker system/electronics ($22,500 with preamp/processor and two amps)
Stancavage: It’s a bold and possibly unwise decision to suggest something is the best in the world, so let’s just say that the rig Sanders sells has few peers in pure resolution and musicality. For less than the cost of some individual high-end components, you get a pair of gorgeous hybrid electrostatic speakers (10-inch woofer, ‘stat panel), two 1,000-watt Magtech stereo amplifiers and a top-notch preamp/processor, which also offers digital room correction and DSD equalization. Forget everything you think you know about panels. The Sanders ‘stats play loud, produce impressive bass and, of course, have that glorious midrange. This system will spoil you for anything else.
Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE Signature loudspeakers ($21,000)
Arnott: I have the standard AN-E/SPe HE models as my personal transducers, but after hearing the Signature version (outboard hard-wired crossovers) this spring in Austria (and lusting heavily over the improved coherence, bass control, and dynamics), I figured why not go one more and throw in the Alnico driver magnets to boot.
Bricasti Design M12 dual mono source controller ($15,995)
Hull: Combine an epic-quality DAC with an excellent analog volume control and a Roon-ready Ethernet network interface, and then add a special-purpose DSD-only digital path, and you have the M12 from Bricasti Design. And kaboom. Me want.
Salk Sound speakers (any model)
Richardson: Every audio show I attend, I spend way more time than I should in the Salk room drooling over the warm, rich, yet detailed sound of whatever speakers Jim is demoing.
PTA Product of the Year
Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 speakers ($57,900 a pair)
It’s not very often that a Series 2 wins our top honours – usually it’s a fresh, ground-up assault on the SOTA. But this year’s Product of the Year actually is a little of both. The Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 is more than a tweak job, it emerged after a complete re-examination of every aspect of the original design. And it wowed many of our staff members.
The Alexia 2 was the clear winner among the staff, but other components receiving votes included the Rockport Cygnus speakers, PS Audio DirectStream DAC with RedCloud upgrade, BorderPatrol DAC SE, Audio Research Reference Phono 3, Pass Labs X60.8 monoblock amplifiers and Wilson Audio Alexx speakers.
Stancavage: According to Wilson sales manager Bill Peugh, the enhancements to the original Alexia were “mainly a bunch of little things … that added up to a big improvement.” The changes to the sleek floorstander, which falls in the middle of Wilson’s roster, include a slightly larger, more inert enclosure and the same silk tweeter used in the $685,000 WAMM Master Chronosonic. The company also improved time alignment of all four drivers (the high-frequency unit, as well as two woofers and a midrange). Accurate, effortless and captivating.
Scoggins: A gorgeous, open midrange and rock-solid bass emerge from this speaker along with the trademark Wilson imaging magic. Built to sublime precision in Wilson’s equally remarkable and sprawling Provo, Utah, factory, this is a lifetime investment of the highest quality.
Samji: For the past five years, I have been blessed to have a pair of Alexia loudspeakers in my family room. I was caught off guard when I first discovered the pictures of the Alexia Series 2 on Wilson’s Facebook page in May 2017. How could Wilson improve on a speaker that already was so close to perfect in my mind?
Daryl Wilson had big dreams for the Alexia. Early on, he made a long list of the things he wanted to improve on. Just coming off the successful development of the Alexx, he was on a roll. For Series 2, Daryl and his team at Wilson focused on improving 29 aspects of the speaker. Full details of that work is documented here.
The differences are not subtle, especially in the midrange and dynamics. When my good friend Gary was over, we described the low-frequency potency as almost violent, but in a good way. The Alexia is no longer a big Sasha with DNA from the Alexandria XLF. The Alexia Series 2 is now a little brother to Alexx and is almost the same age. Maybe a little smaller, possibly a little more efficient and the kid you need to watch out for, since he is going to run you over … and you’re going to love it. (Samji bought a pair; review forthcoming).
Readers’ top gear
We did something a little different this year while we were working on our list. We asked Part-Time Audiophile readers to name their favorite components of 2017, with a carrot dangled in the form of a random drawing for an AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC/headphone amp. The lucky person will be contacted soon.
We had quite a few responses, and a close race developed between the $2,199-a-pair KEF LS50 speakers and the DragonFly Red itself, with the $199 AudioQuest product emerging as the winner. Also getting significant votes was the $1,320 Oppo UDP-205 Blue-ray player. The fact that all of these are budget high-end components was not lost on us. The PTA staff best-of list you just perused is heavy with affordable gear, and you can expect more attention on this niche in 2018.
That’s it for This Year
You’ve read our picks, which we defended as best we could. Now, what about some more of your thoughts? Leave us a comment on the Part-Time Audiophile website.
Meanwhile, look for even greater coverage of everything hi-fi (and a few things not) in 2018 as the PTA team hauls equipment through the door to test and descends on the major shows. Also, watch the website for the second edition of our free downloadable print magazine, The Occasional, which is scheduled to appear in the first quarter. It promises to be a fun year.
— John Stancavage, Contributing Editor