Editors Choice Awards: Winners for 2021
Here are the winners of our Editors Choice Awards for 2021. This year we overhauled our award system to differentiate between recommendations from individual reviewers, known as the Reviewers Choice Award, to something we at Part-Time Audiophile recommend as a whole. At the end of the year the editors adjourn to a seaside getaway in Portugal where they argue, battle and fight for supremacy. Blood is often spilled, but it’s worth it all to provide you with this list.
Speech! Speech! Roars from the crowd! Let’s meet the winners of the Editors Choice Awards and dive into why they wow’d us so.
Editors Choice Awards 2021: Loudspeakers
Sonus faber Lumina II ($1,200 pr USD)
At first we thought these great-sounding and affordable monitors were $1,200 each, and we were ready to declare them as fantastic bargains that delivered a huge, warm sound with plenty of bass. When we found out they were $1,200 for the pair, we scrambled to make sense of it all. How Sonus faber can continue to deliver this level of performance in their entry-level Lumina line while still making them in Italy is one of the most exciting things to happen in high-end audio in a long time.
Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition ($1,995 pr USD)
MoFi distributes Falcon Acoustics in the US, and they decided to bring out this version of the legendary LS3/5a, in basic black and at a fantastic price, so audiophiles would be re-introduced to its sheer magic. Sure, they only go down to 70 Hz, but that becomes more and more irrelevant when you discover their purpose as near-field monitors. “There is no small monitor we would rather have right now manning an intimate audio system than these ‘uns right here,” we declared, making them an excellent candidate for the Editors Choice Awards.
Qln Prestige One ($6,800 pr USD)
This two-way stand-mounted bookshelf speaker from this extraordinary Swedish company competes with many of the finest monitors we’ve heard, and it comes at a price that makes us wonder why haven’t we purchased a pair for ourselves yet. Outstanding, balanced low frequencies in all but the largest rooms. “If you’ve heard the larger Prestige Threes playing at an audio show and you’ve fallen under their spell, you’ll be thrilled to know that much of that magic is present in the Prestige One.”
Marten Oscar Trio ($10,000 pr USD)
These Swedish towers from Marten sounded fast, detailed, accurate and resolving to our ears, combined with “a special soulful something heard in nearly every recording…a cozy feeling of rightness.” The ceramic drivers have incredible low levels of distortion, which indulged us with sublime overall sound during evaluation. A stand-out at the $10K level, which earns them one of our Editors Choice Awards.
Qln Prestige Five ($17,500 pr USD)
Qln’s Prestige Five, along with the smaller Prestige Three, were so compelling that our reviewer Dave McNair wound up buying both pairs for himself. It’s no surprise that the PTA team is completely enamored with this Swedish speaker manufacturer, and the Five is the most ambitious design we’ve heard from them–so much bass comes out of these still-petite enclosures that you’ll shake your head in disbelief. “Great imaging qualities and dynamic speed with an added something that gets us closer to the music,” we concluded.
Editors Choice Awards 2021: Preamplifiers
McIntosh Labs C49 ($4,999.95 USD with DA1 DAC)
Another product from McIntosh Labs with that unmistakable classic Mac countenance, the C49 is quite modern with its DA1 inboard DAC and an excellent MM/MC phono stage built right in. While the C49 is designed for use with numerous Mac power amplifiers, it can sound quite remarkable when combined with a nice tube amp from another brand. The more sophisticated DA2 DAC is an option for an extra $1000.
Editors Choice Awards 2021: Amplifiers
Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 Monoblocks ($1,699 ea USD)
We’ve had many spirited discussions in the PTA War Room about these small, unassuming monoblock power amplifiers from the mind of Frank Van Alstine. Some believe the DVA M225 are the ultimate giant killers while others sound skeptical–the former group, however, has actually spent time listening to these little masterpieces. “Hook a pair up to your system, and soon you’ll stop laughing,” we declared. We had no doubt these would earn one of the Editors Choice Awards.
McGary Audio SA-1E ($6,600 USD)
Mike McGary’s latest tube power amplifier runs in Ultralinear class A/B mode and “uses a capacitor multiplier circuit for input and driver stages to minimize noise and hum. It also runs differentially once the signal passes the input tubes.” But what makes this 30wpc amplifier sing is the “secret sauce” that launches this design into the pantheon of the greats. “A massively vivid portrayal of anything you feel like playing,” we concluded–this was our first unanimous decision for the Editors Choice Awards.
Allnic Audio A-2000 25th Anniversary ($9,900 USD)
The 25th Anniversary version of this Korean-made tube power amplifier features KT-150s instead of the usual KT-88s, and delivers 100 wpc in pentode and 50 wpc in triode. Fit and finish are impeccable, but the A-2000 impressed us with its “invisible tonality” and its ability to sound both incredibly linear and still deeply textured. “It’s quick, linear and punchy while gripping the speakers in a way that makes the official spec sheet look criminally modest,” we declared.
Ampsandsound Zion Monoblocks ($16,000 pr USD)
Fit and finish is extraordinary (and decidedly old-school) on these hand-built monoblock power amps, and they wowed us with an “unbelievably tactile and palpable sense of the auditory image.” Not for tube newbies–the Zions are short of features and conveniences and require length start-up and cool-down procedures–but the sound is worth it. “The densest, most pristine and most elaborately textured auditory image I’ve heard in my setup,” our reviewer Grover Neville proclaimed them the best amplifiers he’s heard this year.
True Life Audio SSA-300 Monoblocks ($75,000 pr USD)
“All materials are carefully chosen, all transformers and chokes are again in-house wound, all capacitors are selected for their sonic virtues and the whole sits inside a solid, well finished aluminum CNC’ed chassis” is how we described this ultra-high-end product. The price, we observed, “would be a major cause of embarrassment if it wasn’t for the sound.” What a pair of beasts these TLA amps are–and they’ll play louder and go deeper than just about any other high-end audio amplifier.
Editors Choice Awards 2021: Integrated Amplifiers
Naim Uniti Nova ($5,990 USD)
We were thoroughly impressed with this all-in-one player and were surprised by the number of features that we found useful. “Eschewing the sacred cow standard of separates, it instead aims to do everything: stream, convert, control volume and amplify.” The Nova is a complete and mature Swiss Army knife product, allowing us “to play whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, using whichever method was closest at hand.”
AVM Ovation A 6.2 Master Edition ($8,295 USD)
The Ovation appears to be yet another powerful, solid and feature-filled integrated for a reasonable amount of money. Spend some time with this German machine and you’ll start to appreciate its beautiful build, intuitive functions and an ability to supply detail that other integrateds in its class often leave behind. In addition, the AVM includes a dedicated pure Class A headphone amplifier that stands out amongst the competitors.
Allnic Audio T-2000 30th Anniversary ($13,900 USD)
The T-2000 wasn’t just one of the best integrated amplifiers we’ve heard, it made us realize that our ultimate dream systems, the ones we take with us when we ride off into the sunset, no longer require separates. 120 watts in pentode, 60 gorgeous watts in triode, the Allnic is still more linear and neutral than most tube amplifiers. “If some highly fictitious benefactor gave us roughly $14K to spend on high-end audio to continue our pursuit of musical nirvana, this is what we’d do. In a heartbeat.” The decision was quite easy to give the T-2000 one of our Editors Choice Awards.
Editors Choice Awards 2021: Digital Players
Merason Frerot with POW1 LPSU ($1,350 USD)
Small, simple and relatively inexpensive for the performance it offers, this DAC is perfect for audiophiles who don’t require a lot of bells and whistles but do want superb sound quality. We found the Swiss-built Merason Frerot to be perfect for streaming Qobuz, and for mating with an equally high-value streamer like the Innuos Zen Mini Mk. 3. Optional Pow1 LPSU ($900), improves sound quality across the board. This is an Editors Choice Awards winner, because one of the editors is giving the Frerot a permanent home.
Ferrum Audio OOR and HYPSOS ($3,190 USD for both)
The Ferrum Audio OOR headphone amplifier is a perfect cosmetic match with the HYPSOS power supply, which allows you to adjust the voltage output according to the device. You can use the OOR as a stand-alone headphone amplifier, or you can connect to the HYPSOS with Ferrum Audio’s proprietary FPL cable. “The OOR sounds fantastic on its own, presenting a sound that’s utterly focused on transparency, on clean, on deep deep deep into the recording, ” we concluded, noting that the HYPSOS improves performance across the board. The OOR and HYPSOS can be purchased for $1,995 and $1,195 respectively.
Gem Dandy PolyTable Signature ($3,000 USD)
When fitted with the Sorane TA-1L 12.7″ tonearm and the ZYX Ultimate Airy X, this George Merrill-designed turntable instantly became one of the best turntables we’ve heard under the $10K threshold. “George Merrill knows how to use simple, elegant engineering and knowledge of material sciences to get the little things done, the things that make sonic differences,” we concluded, and we still think about this wonderfully odd-looking American ‘table.
Distinctly American in design, the ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 “dispenses with everything but the essentials in a way that is elegantly functional.” We found that it combines the clarity of an excellent solid state design and a warm tube sound without the drawbacks, eventually appearing as if it’s completely invisible in the context of the system. The 9.0X upgrade, which costs an extra $995, adds a pair of Lundahl gapped output transformers that simplifies the signal path for more dynamics and deeper low frequencies.
Allnic Audio H-5500 ($4,500 USD)
One of the finest examples of a tube phono stage that can create analog magic, even in an all solid-state system, the Allnic Audio H5500 has an extraordinarily musical demeanor that’s about purity first and foremost. Beautifully made in Korea, the H-5500 is the replacement for the highly popular and well-respected H1202, but it still uses those wonderful Permalloy transformers. It’s also versatile, providing the user with two MM and two MC inputs. Lush, romantic and sexy.
Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II ($7,999 USD)
From the mind of Michael Bettinger comes this heavy and substantial phono preamplifier, which is a “highly refined version of the original Arion.” That means better parts, more effective grounding, PCB routing and, of course, spectacular sound. We felt the sound wasn’t different, there was just more of everything, including “outstanding dynamics and plenty of gain.”
Pass Labs XP-27 ($11,500 USD)
The two-chassis XP-27 includes an outboard power supply, and uses the input and gain circuitry of the flagship XS Phono. Everything new in the XP-27 is designed for lower distortion and noise suppression, resulting in one of the quietest phono stages we have heard. It’s a Pass Labs through and through–neutral sound, tons of usable features and settings and incredible reliability.
Editors Choice Awards 2021: Phono Cartridges
ZYX Ultimate Airy X ($3,295 USD)
Moving up from the wondrous Bloom 3 and Ultimate 100, which we love and admire enough to own, the new ZYX Ultimate Airy X features the new C-1000 carbon cantilever–made from 1000 pieces–which makes it more rigid and lighter than most materials and truly makes this cartridge sing. With both the Gem Dandy PolyTable Signature and the Technics SL-1200G, the Airy was “the one that makes us deliriously happy for a very reasonable price, the one that’s accompanying us to the next level of analog playback.” Another Editors Choice Awards winner that was actually purchased by one of the editors.
Charisma Audio Signature One ($3,800 USD)
Bernard Li of Toronto-based Charisma Audio has come up with a winner for his flagship Signature One moving coil cartridge. The Ebony bodied Signature One features a Ruby cantilever with a super fine line contact stylus that produces a richly detailed, dynamic, and vividly holographic soundscape. The medium-low .4 mV output means you won’t need crazy amounts of gain from your phono stage to make those shiny black discs come alive.
Allnic Audio Amber MC ($4,900 USD)
This Korean-made low-output MC immediately distinguished itself by its ability to provide a flabbergasting amount of inner detail without once sounding bright or harsh. Allnic moves the coils closer to the stylus, away from the pivot, which results in this greater detail, and the “cutter head” type of design employs a new rubber damper along with copper clad aluminum (CCA) coils.
Once again, congratulations to all of these PTA Editors Choice winners for 2021. And please stick around for Best Value and Product of the Year in the coming days.