Deciding the Best Value of the Year Award for 2021
As we finish out our year-end award season, I noticed that many of the same products that were considered for Product of the Year for 2021 also appear on this page, the Best Value of the Year Award for 2021. That’s very interesting, since that suggests the controversial idea that “giant killers” do exist in high-end audio.
I’m not the biggest proponent of “giant killers” or, for that matter, the law of diminishing returns. Both terms, in my opinion, are overused. I think once you spend a lot of time with ultra high-end, you realize that those high prices–the controversial part, no doubt–are generally justified. The problem is, this is the year that the staff from Part-Time Audiophile discovered Audio by Van Alstine, thanks of course to the intrepid Eric Franklin Shook, who first discovered AVA last year when he reviewed the stupendously good and incredibly affordable SET-120 Control Amplifier. It’s the same one that won this award last year.
Best Value of the Year Winner for 2021:
Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225
Several of us at PTA have now heard the Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 monoblock amplifiers–first Dave McNair, who reviewed it, and Eric, who first insisted that Dave take a listen. Now I have them. I just needed to take a listen because I wanted to verify its ample qualifications for the Best Value Award, and secondly because I reviewed the AVA FET Valve CRT amplifier–and I had already decided to nominate that for Best Value of the Year.
If you’ve been reading PTA over the last year, you’ve probably been noticing that we’re dumbfounded by the DVA M225 monoblocks, which retail for just $1,699 each. We are so impressed with the sound of the AVAs that we’ve just, right this very second, finally run out of words to describe their astonishing value. Congratulations, Audio by Van Alstine!
If you’re getting tired of us talking about Audio by Van Alstine, it’s not gonna stop any time soon. We just published my review of the FET Valve CFR preamplifier. After I finished the review, AVA sent me the new DVA digital preamplifier along with the $329 DVA R2X, which is a single-ended to differential converter–which means RCA to XLR. And Dave McNair sent me the AVA DVA M225 monoblocks that have–SPOILER ALERT–won the Best Value Award for 2021. Right now. This very second.
Graig Neville and Scot Hull, out in the Chicago area, are in line next to hear all this AVA gear. But don’t worry–there are more products that we nominated for 2021 Best Value that aren’t AVA. It just seems like it’s all AVA. It’s merely time to pay more attention to Frank Van Alstine and what he’s been doing out there in Minnesota for the last few decades.
Best Value of the Year Nominees
As they say during the Academy Awards, just to be nominated for Best Value of the Year is one of our highest honors. To those brands who didn’t go home with the trophy this year, we felt it only right to mention your name and why you were in the running.
The nominees for the Best Value of the Year are:
Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition – (Nominee)
The Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition monitors were also part of the discussion for our Product of the Year 2021 as well as Best Value for 2021. That’s because the MoFi speakers appeal to me for two separate but surprisingly equal reasons. First is merely how glorious they sound, and how well this design, first available commercially in 1975, holds up. It holds up better than any other vintage speaker–along with the Quad ESL-57, of course.
The second and truest reason why the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFis are a Best Value nominee is simple. These are $1995/pair. If you’re an audiophile like me, one who has taken the journey over the course of an entire life, one who has had plenty of seat time with the likes of Von Schweikert and Wilson and Magico and Rockport and whatever else bumps up against the ceiling of possibilities, you might be a little frightened with the prospect that a tine shoebox-sized loudspeaker might be enough to satisfy you for the rest of your life.
I’m still pondering this question nearly every single day since I first plugged them into the system.
Merason Frerot DAC with POW1 – (Nominee)
The diminutive Merason Frerot DAC with POW1 from France is a Best Value Nominee for the simple fact that it satisfies my very personal need for a DAC in my reference system that sounds great and doesn’t cost a fortune.
You see, my issue with DACs has been the same issue I had with home theater setups all these years–I can’t afford what I would need to meet my sound quality standards. At the same time I’ve heard quite a few budget DACs–usually inboard modules in preamps or integrated amps–that sound pretty good, but I wouldn’t want it to be my primary tool for streaming Qobuz.
The Merason Frerot DAC, on its own, sounded at least as good as my reference CD player, the now-discontinued by still excellent Unison Research CDE. I was all set to declare the Frerot passed the test. Then I received the optional external power supply for the Frerot, the Merason Pow1, and suddenly I was hearing the kind of clear, warm and effortless sound I regularly hear from far more expensive DACs.
Will the Merason Frerot be the very first DAC I purchase for myself? Stay tuned.
Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR – (Nominee)
The FET Valve CFR preamplifier was my introduction to Audio by Van Alstine. From the minute I plugged it into the main system, I heard a more vivid and exciting sound, and I could almost see those proverbial audio veils being lifted just like any old audio geezer. No bones about it, AVA has a sound that’s extraordinary for the money, instantly qualifying it for a Best Value nomination. Best part is, the CFR is an all-tube preamplifier.
Does that mean the Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR sounds like a great solid-state preamplifier? I think not, for the sole reason that I kept thinking of the brightness of the sound and how it wasn’t bright, a pejorative in high-end audio, but bright as in sunny and open and full of fresh air. That contributed to a thrilling sense of dynamics, as if the CFR was going to burst free from its cabling and dance around the room like Fred Astaire.
Did I say the CFR is a good value? Well, a basic but great-sounding moving magnet phono stage costs just a few hundred extra, and the freebie headphone jack is connected to a Class-A headphone amp that’s so good, you might want to bring your best headphones out into the listening room for a spell.
Many people have approached me over the years and asked for my opinion on AVA, and I never had an answer. Unlike some audiophiles I know, I try not to have opinions on products I haven’t heard. But now that I’ve heard AVA, my opinion is “the hype is real!”
Focal Clear MG – (Nominee)
This one, for me at least, is a happy accident–I didn’t have a killer pair of cans to review the excellent Ferrum Audio HYPSOS and OOR, so Vana Ltd. had a pair of these sitting around that I could use. From the moment I first put them on, I knew these were something special. I listened to the slightly older version of the Focal Clear on the Moon Audio Dragon Inspire headphone amp a couple of years ago, and I really liked them. But I’m not sure if I experienced that same magical WOW as I did with these Focal Clear MG.
I was all set to review them in depth. Then I found out that our own Eric Franklin Shook had a pair in for review–officially. But he agreed with me. The open-backed Focal Clear MG headphones sound exquisite. They’re both warm and ultra-detailed, and supremely comfortable. There’s nothing I don’t love about these headphones, other than the fact that they need some juice, more than my AudioQuest Dragonfly collection can supply. Which means I need to find a headphone amplifier worthy of the MGs–and the Ferrum gear certainly put in a strong bid.
So why would a pair of $1,490 headphones be a Best Value contender? Because both Eric and I have heard everything out there, headphones that go for a lot more money, and we don’t want them. We want these.
Volti Audio RAZZ – (Nominee)
These big high-efficiency horn loudspeakers from the mind of Greg Roberts certainly play loud and big and deep. There are quite a few loudspeakers in this price range that do, quite honestly. But they usually don’t make a big push at the other side of the spectrum, providing a sonic transparency that audiophiles require. The entry-level Volti Audio RAZZ give you both sides at once, and for a great price.
That’s why the RAZZ is an easy Best Value nominee. Who else gives you this much loudspeaker for under $6K? Arguably no one. Do check out some of Volti Audio’s optional finishes, which are usually breathtaking and worth the extra money. So let me say, on the record, that no one else gives you this much speaker for $5,900.
Best Value of the Year, Congratulations!
That’s it for our Best Value of the Year 2021 ceremony. Congratulations to Audio by Van Alstine for winning it two years in a row. Hat trick next year?
Stay tuned for our announcement of the Product of the Year for 2021 in the coming days.