StereoNET 2020 Product of the Year Awards
Champagne corks at the ready, folks! Please be upstanding for the StereoNET 2020 Awards, where we bring you the most outstanding products we’ve reviewed over the past year. The rules are simple – the gongs go to the best value Applause Award winners of the last twelve months, across each category. So dust down your dinner jackets, and take your places at StereoNET’s enchanting end-of-year extravaganza…
One of the turn-offs of streaming for silver disc loving stick-in-the-muds is its general glitchy behaviour and lack of user-friendliness. The Altair G1 is the latest in a long line of Auralic streamers, and as sophisticated and stable as you can get for $3,795 RRP. It’s a one stop-shop for playing hi-res music from your favourite content provider or NAS drive, is beautifully built and has an excellent app. What’s not to like?
No one seems to be buying CD players these days, which is why Technics decided to hedge its bets and produce a do-it-all design that spins both CDs and SACDs, and streams hi-res music with or without MQA, as well as offering Bluetooth and Airplay. It may be a jack-of-all-trades, but is not a master of none – thanks to clever audiophile tweakery and battleship build, it sounds seriously good for its £2,350 (AUD ~$4,170) price.
This new streaming DAC/preamp sounds closer to this legendary company’s flagship Vivaldi than it has a right to, considering its $18,995 RRP price tag. For a fraction of the latter’s cost you get a superbly open and three-dimensional sound, with huge levels of detail and great musicality – it’s a high end bargain. Head-fi fans should opt for the headphone amp version, which adds a $4,000 price premium. Sensibly priced super-fi.
Heinz Lichtenegger launched the original Pro-Ject 1 in 1991, and hasn’t looked back since. Costing £200, it was a cheap and cheerful vinyl disc spinner that did the job with a smile on its face. The new $1,190 (no cartridge) X1 recreates this feel-good factor, albeit with a step-change in quality compared to the golden oldie. It has far superior speed stability, quieter running and in some markets, an Ortofon-made Pick-IT S2 MM cartridge pre-fitted.
MM PHONO CARTRIDGE
Vinylistas committed to moving magnet cartridges know that truly capable high end designs are few and far between – and here’s the exception that proves the rule. The £759 (AUD ~$1,347) MP500 is effectively an MM design built to top-notch MC standards, with a super-fine polished line contact stylus, boron cantilever and tough metal body. The result is a highly insightful yet finessed performance, with loads of power and passion.
MC PHONO CARTRIDGE
One of the market leaders in affordable audiophile moving coil cartridges, comes this pretty little thing. The $1,699 low output version, with its 0.3 x 0.7 micron elliptical stylus sitting at the pointy end of the specially coated aluminium pipe cantilever, has a frameless body for better sound – it’s one less thing to resonate. The result is a spirited and engaging performer that’s full of fun. Nothing quite compares at the price.
Once the go-to brand for no-frills budget audiophile amplification, Creek has gone up in the world with this, its most expensive ever integrated. And with it, there’s been a step change in functionality, upgradability and – most important of all – sonics. The $7,995 Voyage i20 retains the brand’s trademark musicality, but adds high end levels of insight and detail, plus loads of power. A highly polished, super flexible package.
This year saw the relaunch of Rotel’s ‘affordable high end’ Michi line, comprising the S5 stereo power amp, M8 monoblock) and P5 Michi Control Amplifier ($5,999). It’s a beautifully built and meticulously engineered product that has huge functionality and also sounds really, really good for the money. All this makes it a worthy winner of this year’s preamp gong.
Want serious amounts of power plus a sweet, smooth, silky sound? Then that will be the C 298. It thumps out 185W RMS per channel per side – or 620W in monobridged mode, enough to blow your front door off its hinges – yet costs just $3,299. Partner with NAD's $2,599 C 658 streaming DAC/preamp that plays practically every format invented – and probably some that haven’t – and it’s a true dynamic duo.
This Class G bruiser offers 100W RMS watts per channel, 7 channels driven – enough for most people’s movie rooms – plus a welter of other facilities, battleship build and superb connectivity. Streaming via smart devices through Apple Airplay 2 and Google Chromecast is standard, but its real party trick is Dirac Live 3.0 room calibration. Super flexible, neatly styled and great sounding, it’s a bargain at $11,999.
Packed with state-of-the-art new technology, Sony’s latest true 4K projector features the company’s new X1 Projector Processor and proprietary Dynamic Tone Mapping, the latter seeking to emulate the high dynamic range images found in Sony’s BVM-X300 Mastering Monitor. The result is a consummately classy picture that’s as good as you can get at its $11,999 price. Long lamp life and robust design seal the deal.
This ‘Swiss Army knife’ of video processor produces studio-grade, reference-quality images from disc players and streaming devices in the home. The $11,999 outboard box becomes the ‘engine room’ of your projector, handling scaling, image sharpening, colour space conversion, HDR Dynamic Tone Mapping and LUT calibration. However large your screen, breathtaking image quality is the result.
The world’s most serious soundbar to date does a respectable job of producing Dolby Atmos/DTS:X surround sound – without the use of separate surround speakers. That’s something we’ve not come across before, and even does a good job playing music thanks to 13 expertly matched driver units. Chromecast and DLNA streaming plus excellent connectivity and seriously sturdy build, complete this $3,999.95 package.
Arguably the most technically advanced affordable loudspeaker, this is all the more impressive because it sounds so good. It’s possibly the only standmounter in the world to blend a ribbon tweeter with isobaric bass loading. The 50mm true ribbon tweeter works with two 134mm treated paper cone mid/bass drivers in a small box to give a seriously grown-up sound. The result is amazing sound for just $3,300 per pair.
Costing $6,995, this largish floorstander sits in no man’s land between budget and mid-price – and gives the best of both worlds. It sports the company’s beloved carbon fibre drivers – including the dome tweeter – and these give a smooth, tidy but wonderfully insightful sound. The AE520 brings a big cabinet to the party, allowing it to deliver thunderous, subterranean bass.
Meticulous materials use is key to the appeal of this superlative new standmounter; a pure beryllium tweeter diaphragm allied to a magnesium midband driver and a sandwich of aramid fibre fabric for the bass cone. Factor in its immaculately finished, resonance-free cabinet and you have a stunning smallish speaker capable of delivering a big sound with uncanny transparency, dazzling speed and superb bandwidth.
Step aside Apple and Sennheiser, Audio-technica is back its new $349 flagship! Two 5.8mm Diamond-like Carbon dynamic drivers supply a sound that’s pure as the driven snow, via AAC, SBC and aptX codecs – including Qualcomm’s new TrueWireless Stereo Plus. The company’s proven QuietPoint technology gives great noise reduction, giving these earphones a winning combination of performance at the price.
With fine build, superlative comfort and excellent accessories, this exotic new $1,595 pair of hi-fi headphones gets off to a strong start, but it’s the planar magnetic drivers that really do the business – plus that undeniably sweet styling. Available in a choice of open or closed back, it’s one of the best headphone designs around right now that doesn’t require a second mortgage. The delicate yet detailed sound is exquisite.
Terry Bateman – Rega’s resident electronics whizz – is making life very hard for rival budget hi-fi brands right now. The new Aria 3 phono stage shows why; it’s a discrete transistor design with no op-amps in in the signal path, and has a really engaging nature for its $1,999 price. MM and MC connectivity are offered, and the result is a flexible and fine sounding product that’s nigh on impossible to beat at the price.
The name is an acronym for Super Low Interference Cable – and it pretty much describes the sound too. Said to be optimised to work across an ultra-wide frequency range of up to 300MHz, the part of the frequency spectrum that humans can hear is wonderfully open and transparent. It has a dark, silky tonality that’s totally devoid of the chrome plated upper mid of some rivals, too. Fabulous value as tested at £550.
$37 per metre is a lot of money to spend on loudspeaker cable for most people, but then this latest version of TelluriumQ’s Blue gives plenty back. It has a very well balanced sound, with no undue nasties up top or down below – plus a wonderfully satisfying midband that delivers lots of detail and a lovely rhythmic swing to the music you choose to play. In our view, you have to pay lots more to do just a little bit better.
This affordable Australian-designed power cord sports 7 cores of 99.9999% pure OFC electrolytic copper, around which is a braided screen of tinned copper that protects from noise. The result is a great sound that’s a dramatic upgrade from standard bundled types. Open, detailed and tonally smooth, it gives a taste of high end designs for not much money – and its rugged construction bodes well for the future, too.
Meet this Italian company’s flagship system support, here in 4-tier form. A mixture of stainless steel frame parts and black painted MDF shelves, it’s exquisitely built and finished. It sounds like it looks – immaculate, neat and perfectly symmetrical, with no clutter or embellishment. Although very expensive at $3,899, it should bring about a step change in your system sound, as well as showing it off visually, too.
If ever there was a break in hi-fi’s space-time continuum, this is it. Magnepan’s Little Ribbon Speaker auditions more like $14,999 than $1,499. Such is its gloriously delicate, open and three dimensional sound that you’re left wondering how it’s possible. The answer is a number of ribbons glued to a Mylar panel, for each of the treble and bass units. This quasi ribbon design is surely the best value speaker on sale today.
PRODUCT OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)
There’s a distinctive “shape of things to come” vibe about Hegel Music Systems’ $3,995 H120, and it’s all the more impressive considering it’s from a relatively small Norwegian company and not some Japanese electronics giant. It’s a compact, less-is-more styled integrated amplifier with digital connectivity and high quality streaming. Simple and nice to use, it packs loads of power and is enjoyably musical too.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
Posted in: Applause Awards Hi-Fi Headphones Home Theatre Visual StereoNET
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