Deciding the Product of the Year Award for 2021
Last year was the first year we awarded a PTA Product of the Year. Last year’s winner–the Vimberg Amea loudspeakers from Germany—was chosen by me, Marc Phillips, Editor in Chief and it pretty much went down like this:
ME: If I had to pick the Product of the Year right here and now, all by myself, I’d choose the Vimberg Ameas.
PTA Staff: Well, alrighty then! Can’t argue there. Amea it is!
I’m not trying to take anything from the Vimbergs, since they continue to be my absolute first pick in the world of two-way stand-mounted monitors. I still consider them as the most fully-realized small speaker I’ve heard. But I expected more of a fight in the PTA War Room. I wanted everyone on the staff to get behind their favorites for Product of the Year. I wanted yelling and screaming and crying and accusations of electoral fraud. Instead, I got full and docile compliance.
This year, I got all the wondrous yelling and screaming and crying I yearned for. As you read this, it’s still going on. In the end, the editors quietly adjourned to the PTA Editors’ Lounge, where we drank single-malt scotch and each smoked a Montecristo No. 2 and eventually we came up with our Product of the Year—now with more Democracy™.
Product of the Year winner for 2021:
Sonus faber Maxima Amator
Yes, we wound up awarding another two-way loudspeaker, that I reviewed, for Product of the Year. Two years in a row. How exciting. A couple of people asked me if I really wanted to give my first two POTY awards to two-way loudspeakers, and I saw their point. But the heart wants what it wants.
First of all, the Sonus faber Maxima Amator is not a stand-mount two-way. It is a floor-standing two-way. So there! Satisfied?
More specifically, the Sonus faber Maxima Amator is a floor-standing two-way made from a solid wood enclosure, and the first time this legendary Italian company has been able to pull of this sort of design thanks to new CNC technologies. But that’s not the reason why we voted the Maxima Amator as the Product of the Year for 2021.
No, it’s because the Maxima Amator appeals to the listener on so many levels—it’s simply gorgeous with its slim proportions, its unique Italian marble base, that stunning wood, the leather on the baffles, the little window in the back that shows you all the glorious crossover parts inside. It also sounds exquisite, with deep and full bass, silky and sweet highs and all of that Italian passion filling up that mid-band.
I truly realized how much love I had for this design when I stated in the review that these weren’t the best speakers I’ve ever heard—they were more than that, they were the best speakers for me, giving me all the things I truly want from my music.
Congratulations, Sonus faber, on winning PTA‘s Product of the Year for 2021!
Product of the Year Nominees
As they say during the Academy Awards, just to be nominated for Product 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 Product of the Year are:
McGary Audio SA-1E Tube – (Nominee)
I started hearing mumblings from North Carolina, mere weeks after the Audio by Van Alstine battle took place in the PTA War Room, something about the incredible, beautiful sound of an unexpected amplifier. Let’s face it, Mike McGary is one of our favorite people in high-end audio and we know his amplifier designs—just three brought to production so far—and each one has impressed us deeply.
I want to review a McGary Audio amplifier. I’ve heard them numerous times at shows, warm and tubey but somehow concise and precise. It’s a musical sound, and there’s no other way to describe it—other than to let Dave McNair, Senior Contributor tell you all about his love affair with that third and newest amplifier, the SA-1E. He’d been on a run of exquisite amplification during the course of 2021, and his expectations were high.
But then came the apoplectic comments in the PTA War Room, of how amazing the McGary Audio SA-1E was, just so beautiful, and then we heard muffled sighs. Why? I’ll let him tell you:
“The McGary consistently pulled me into the music with its seductive midrange and treble texture that seemed to illuminate and define instruments and voices in a way that was beyond just frequency response hocus pocus. There was a dynamic aliveness, especially with small dynamic contrasts, that I found very appealing. And that imaging. OMG.” –Dave McNair
Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 – (Nominee)
You probably just read about the McGary Audio SA-1E amplifier that Dave McNair reviewed. The story is almost exactly the same for the Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 monoblocks. Dave was flummoxed and bushwhacked with the sound of these tiny little monoblocks from the mind of Frank Van Alstine. Even our own Eric Franklin Shook—and a newly anointed member of the AVA cult—knew that Dave would have a tremendous reaction to these little blocks which cost just $1,699 each at the time of release.
That’s when we geared up for battle. As I mentioned during the 2021 Best Value Awards, it’s frowned upon when you get in the habit of lauding giant killers. You tell everyone about a high-end audio product that costs one-tenth of the BIG gear and sounds just as good, and you’re going to get slaughtered out in the wild.
I had to intervene. I recently reviewed the Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR preamplifier, the flagship tube preamp that costs a whopping $2,099. Yes, it’s stellar for the money. Yes, I asked Dave to send me the DVA M225 amps so I can hear them with the CFR, and the upcoming DVA Digital Preamplifier. And that’s how Audio by Van Alstine gets you. You want to listen to one product, and it seems like it’s too good to be true so you want to test something else from the AVA stable just to be sure.
That’s where we are, right now, in 2021–the PTA team is all lining up to see if AVA is the real deal from end-to-end, especially in the context of the current high-end audio industry. I’m not about to say that AVA is as good as stuff with ten times the cost. In fact, AVA does sound different than some of the ultra-hi-fi I’ve heard. But that different is stunning as well.
Allnic Audio T-2000 30th Anniversary – (Nominee)
You probably know I love two-way bookshelf monitors. You probably also know I love integrated amplifiers. So if the Vimberg Ameas, were the most impressive two-way I’ve heard, the Allnic Audio T-2000 30th Anniversary might be the most impressive integrated amplifier I’ve heard.
I wouldn’t change a thing about the new T-2000 to make it more desirable to me. First, you can switch from 60wpc triode to 120wpc pentode on the fly, which means the Allnic works well with so many different types of speakers. Between the two settings, I was able to discover each speaker’s true character.
Second, the Allnic Audio T-2000 30th Anniversary integrated amplifier has a sound that is so perfectly balanced between what you get from tubes and what you get from transistors. It sounds very linear for a tube amplifier, but you can also sense that lush backdrop, that elusive presence, that you always with the right output valves.
Finally, just look at it. It has a commanding presence. It will always be the centerpiece of any room it’s in, and when you move in for a closer look you’re rewarded on a whole new level.
Qln Prestige One – (Nominee)
The Qln Prestige One monitors have the distinction of being my favorite two-way bookshelf loudspeakers of 2021. I wouldn’t hesitate to place them among my Top Five favorite bookshelves of all time. While the Qlns sound just as warm and balanced and full and inviting as the other top-ranked monitors, there’s just one difference–the Prestige Ones go for about half the price.
Let me explain this in way that doesn’t focus so much on the cost. At this point, after more than three years at the helm of PTA, I have maybe five, or even ten, small two-way monitors that I could live with for the rest of my life. In order to qualify for this list, the monitor must be able to recreate much of the bass you’d find in a larger room with a larger speaker, but in a smaller room. In other words, you must never think this thought: “I love ’em, but I wish they had a bit more on the bottom.”
The Qln Prestige Ones, in my listening room, were balanced almost perfectly at the bottom. Just right. No, no. Don’t change a thing. Right there. Now back away.
So the bass is good for a small speaker, eh? Well, the Qlns are able to disappear in a room like nothing else I’ve heard. You’ll never hear a deeper soundstage. Most of all, you’ll get the right amount of warmth. You’ll get the right amount of everything. What a great little speaker. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d be discussing this for Product of the Year.
Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition – (Nominee)
I keep mentioning that the Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a MoFi Edition monitors changed my perceptions about high-end audio. Here are some specific examples:
- They’re only $1,995 per pair, and I could totally live with these for the rest of my days.
- Look at how tiny they are!
- Maybe I could get Acora Acoustics to make a custom stand for the LS3/5a. $2K monitors the size of shoeboxes on $5K stands? Don’t make me do it!
- If I ever have to live in a studio apartment again, these are my new bros!
- The LS3/5a was first released in 1975, and the price/performance ratio is still off the charts.
- I really wish I could get the grilles off without losing a fingernail.
- Okay, okay, okay. Falcon Acoustics LS3/5a Gold Badge Edition ($2.995/pair) and the custom Acora granite stands. That’s my final answer. Maybe.
None of this sounds crazy to me. After spending some quality seat time with these little MoFi speakers-that-can, you might feel the same. The LS3/5a is a very relevant design in 2021 and a natural nominee for Product of the Year.
ZYX Ultimate Airy X – (Nominee)
I listened to many excellent cartridges in 2021: the relaxed and generous Sumiko Celebration 40, the mysterious and dear Koetsu Urushi Black, the quick and lithe Allnic Audio Amber MC and the all-around sublime Hana Umami Red. I let each one try its hand at seducing me, but I had already made a buying decision near the beginning of 2021—the ZYX Ultimate Airy X from Japan.
That was one of many subtexts to my analog gear survey that lasted most of the year, and each time I mounted another cartridge on the end of the Technics I was worried that I’d find something that I liked much better than the ZYX for around the same money. I did find something that I ultimately preferred—the $6,500 Koetsu with the $5,000 Koetsu Step-Up Transformer. I bet you see the problem already.
Yes, the ZYX is only $3200. When I returned from my analog adventures I came back to the ZYX and it was every bit as musical and balanced as I remembered. If the Koetsu was my uptown girl, then the ZYX Ultimate Airy X is the one waiting for me at home, where the music is.
Product of the Year, Congratulations!
Once again, congratulations to the Sonus faber Maxima Amators for winning the PTA‘s Product of the Year Award for 2021, and also to the Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 monoblock power amplifiers for winning our Best Value of the Year award for 2021.
We’ll see you back in May for our Summer Buyers Guide for 2022.