The 2022 Best Value of the Year Award from Part-Time Audiophile slowly evolved into a different sort of honor this year, thanks to many impassioned late-night discussions in the PTA War Room. Our biggest discovery during this lengthy process was this: value does not mean the same thing as budget.
For instance, two of the five nominees for the 2022 Best Value Award are tubed integrated amplifiers. One of them costs $1,199 USD and the other is $4,450. I can make an argument for either one, frankly, because the more costly amp makes a bigger play for high-end audio sound. Giant killers, as it turns out, can still be 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, and brandishing a Hattori Hanzo sword.
This year, we see a wider range of high-end audio products at all sorts of price points competing for the 2022 Best Value Award. Some are inexpensive, some are giant killers, and some let you play with the big kids for far less money than you thought possible.
The nominees for PTA’s 2022 Best Value of the Year are as follows:
Here’s a great example of this new thinking. The Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 tubed preamplifier costs $7,500. A $7,500 tubed preamplifier wouldn’t usually be considered for a top spot in the 2022 Best Value category, except for one thing–it sounds like a five-figure preamp.
The Backert Labs preamplifier was the big star at the last HubCom conference, where PTA writers gathered to listen to the gear they’d been reviewing. Graig Neville brought the Rhumba to the party–he was so impressed with it during his review that he bought it. (That’s usually the highest compliment a reviewer can pay.)
At HubCom, the Backert Labs was A/B’d with another preamplifier that was closer to $40,000. And while David did not quite slay Goliath, most of the staff agreed that the Backert came really close, much closer than anyone imagined. I can’t think of a greater reason to be nominated for 2022 Best Value of the Year.
Here’s a rare component that competes handily for both the 2022 Best Value Award and the 2022 Product of the Year, in my opinion. Lab12 from Greece is such a special company to me–my first Editor’s Choice Award during my tenure at PTA was for the Lab12 Melto2 phono stage, which costs the same $4,450 as the Integre4 integrated.
I’ll tell you right now, the Lab12 Integre4 was the closest I’ve come to buying a new amplifier in years. I’m not in the market for a new amp. I have amplification that I love, but it’s about five times the cost. If I didn’t already own that stuff, I would have purchased the Integre4 in a heartbeat.
Most of the time, my review system hovers around the six-figure mark when it comes to price. That’s not bragging; it’s just the job. But if I started out from scratch as an audiophile, I’d get the Lab12 Integre4. And the Lab12 Melto2 phono stage. And the $3,250 Lab12 DAC1, which I currently have in for review. I’d come up with an interesting vintage analog rig, and some Qln speakers (which have an amazing synergy with Lab12) and I would bask in the warmth and the detail and the textures and the richness and the musicality for the rest of my days, all for around the price of my current reference amplification alone. Kinda makes you think.
The LSA VT-70 integrated tube amplifier represents the more “old-school” approach to the 2022 Best Value Award. At the $1,199 introductory price, the VT-70 is a no-brainer. It has the same build quality, features and sound as some of those tube integrated amps out there that cost $3K or more. Living Sounds Audio does source these from the Far East, but at the same time they’ve built a network of vendors who must supply products that meet LSA standards. That alone gives LSA a distinct edge when it comes to delivering bang for the buck in the global marketplace.
The LSA VT-70 is a contender for the 2022 Best Value Award because you can have an outstanding $5,000 system with this $1,199 product that does so much of the heavy lifting. That opens up the possibilities–better speakers, better sources, better LP collection.
I’ve noticed that many of the other audiophile publications are awarding the Living Sounds Audio VT-70 integrated amplifier as their 2022 Best Value winner. I’ve seen one pick the VT-70 as Product of the Year. None of these publications are wrong. The VT-70 is a gift.
I’ve been reviewing CD players over the last couple of years with one objective in mind–what am I gonna do when my 12-year-old CD player, which I love, finally bites the dust? At first I considered getting another top-drawer CD player (McIntosh, Audio Research), or getting a music server and ripping all my CDs (Innuos), or even going with separate transports and DACs for the best possible redbook CD sound (CEC).
When the minimalist Sparkler Audio Ballade arrived with its tiny box chassis and exposed drive hub so that your CDs just sort of spin in open air, I thought about how cool it looked, and how little space it took up. Then I started playing CDs and I was immediately under its spell. Sparkler Audio is one of those digital companies that chooses parts–DAC chips, filters, transports–based purely upon sound and not specs.
It’s an approach that works, an approach that instantly qualifies this $1,995 CD player as a contender for the 2022 Best Value Award. When that CD player of mine finally coughs up its last bit, I will get one of these and I will keep listening to my CD collection, unimpeded by the steady march of progress.
As an audiophile, you probably have tons of non-audiophile friends asking you for advice. Unfortunately, they need advice on things like a great turntable for $150, or a pair of huge tower speakers that go down to 20 Hz for under, I dunno, maybe less than $300 per pair. Maybe they want a complete entertainment system and they’re still thinking of the days when you could go to Federated and get a whole Fisher rack system for $999.99.
That’s why the Technics Premium Class C600 system is such a godsend for audiophiles trying to navigate those impossible questions from the Muggles. You can now recommend a Technics SA-C600 compact CD network receiver for $999.99, and you’ll have a digital integrated amplifier with a built-in CD player, DAC, network streamer, phono stage, room equalization and more. It sounds really nice, so nice you’ll instantly consider it as a second system for yourself.
Then you can spend another $999.99 on the Technics SB-C600 bookshelf monitors, which are very satisfying monitors that provide surprisingly deep bass. (Cables are included!) There you go, a natural 2022 Best Value contender, an entire system for $2,000. All you need is a turntable, which Technics can provide for as little as…$999.99.
2022 Best Value of the Year Is…
It has plenty of power–65wpc–for most loudspeakers. It uses KT-150 output tubes, which sound glorious in my opinion. It’s compact and relatively light (not class D light, but pretty manageable for a tube amplifier), and it’s made by wonderful people and imported by a different set of wonderful people at Fidelis Distribution.
I’ll let you in on a secret about the Lab12 Integre4. The biggest reason I didn’t buy it is because I’m still scheduled to review the big flagship separates from Lab12 (which still seem to be reasonably priced). But I just can’t think of a more productive way to spend $4,450 on high-end audio. In a very strong field, it’s the 2022 Best Value of the Year.
Congratulations to all the nominees, and to Stratos Vichos of Lab12 for designing and building the exquisite Lab12 Integre4 integrated amplifier.