2014 was a good year for new kit, both René and I struggled to narrow our selection down to three piece each and many fine products were discovered that didn’t make the cut. But the six products below were the cream of the crop, the components that made our music sound more compelling than all the rest. Some have been reviewed on The Ear while others are due for imminent coverage, they all however deserve your attention as the best of their generation.
I have long been a fan of ATC loudspeakers, both passive and active, they are more subservient to the whims of the music than most loudspeakers and can deliver genuinely wide dynamic range when adequately driven. When I reviewed the SCM19 standmounts earlier in the year I got to borrow a P1 power amplifier at the same time and got a fabulous result with the pairing, but then I carried on using the amp and found that it worked with a wide range of speakers. Not those designed for valve amplifiers I’ll admit but those that were designed with minimal coloration and maximal transparency. The more I used the P1 the more I was impressed that an amplifier at its price could do such a good job. It has real grip in the low end for a start, a rare commodity at almost any price, and yet it doesn’t have the graininess of most high power transistor amps. It’s not as smooth as a class A, nor as nimble as a single ended triode but it has less character than either and lets you hear the full power and glory of everything you throw at it. It is also very competitively priced indeed.
NAD Master Series M12 & M22
I would have named Bluesound among the best for 2014, but switched to NAD because this allows me to take in both brands . The new Master Series M12 and M22 pre- and power amplifier were introduced at CES but it took until November before the first examples hit the shops. Of these the M12 preamplifier is the most exceptional, it makes full use of NAD’s Modular Design Construction (MDC), and it has rear panel slots for input cards to configure the preamp to your needs. In the review sample an analogue module was fitted with line inputs and a configurable phono stage for MM or MC. The second module offers digital inputs and a third accepts USB sources. An HDMI card is available that provides three inputs for AV equipment with 4K HDMI pass through for the monitor. There is also a streaming module near to production that will be fully compatible with the range made by the sister brand Bluesound. This module will make streaming a piece of cake from a Bluesound Vault, any USB disk, NAS or the NAD Master Series M52 digital Vault. It works like a Bluesound Node albeit rather better. The excellent control app can be used to navigate your music collection, but it’s just as easy connect to Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, other online music sources and internet radio.
Inside the M12 an A/D converter samples the analogue inputs to PCM so that you can make full use of tone control and/or subwoofer outputs. The D/A conversion is based on the work in the M51 outboard DAC that NAD brought to the market a few years ago and which has won many prizes for outstanding value. Outputs on the M12 are balanced, unbalanced and digital. These extras combined with MDC makes the M12 one of the most flexible preamps on the market. But more important is that it sounds excellent, very neutral and extremely detailed. The new look adds to the must-have-factor too. A clear winner for those who want to combine all the benefits of modern streaming and digital sources, yet like to play records and have other analogue sources. The M12 works very nicely with the M22 power amp, but also with more conventional class A or AB designs in my experience.
René van Es
PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium HP
The PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium H(igh) P(ower) power amplifier can be used in stereo or as a mono block, and with a range of tubes starting with the EL34 and moving up to the KT-150. I preferred it with KT-120 tubes which gave 175 Watts for each channel in mono configuration. That’s more than enough power to drive a demanding pair of PMC fact.12 loudspeakers to realistic levels. These amps are as reliable as any decent transistor type, and should a tube fail it will warn you which one is defective. Replace it and you are back in business without any harm done to the speakers. The sound of the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium HP is not the warm sound often found with tube amps, neither is it the over detailed class D sound. It is fluid, natural, powerful, detailed and you can tune the sound using different tube brands and types. After extended use I was loathe to let them go back to the manufacturer, I rather enjoyed the limitless dynamics and power reserves they offered. Build quality has proven to be excellent with PrimaLuna, which means you will enjoy them for many years and still they won’t break the bank. Full review
René van Es
This has been a spectacular year for Rega, they have produced two outstanding turntables, RP8 and RP10, and a game changing CD player. Almost regardless of budget it’s hard to find a disc spinner that does what the Saturn-R does, which is make you want to listen to more and more music. As ever this comes down to timing, for some reason Rega products deliver more coherent results than most. When a band or orchestra is making music it’s the interplay of the musicians that makes the difference, that and their individual skill of course. The Saturn-R lets you hear both of these things in the context of a musically enthralling presentation that puts the message before the method of its creation. This is a truly transcendant CD player which at under £1,600 makes it a knock down bargain. Full review.
It seems indulgent to award two out of three Best of 2014 badges to one company, but Rega really excelled itself last year. The RP10 is worthy of being put up against the very best turntables on the planet in terms of timing, detail resolution, realism and most importantly the ability to engage the mind and emotions of the listener. It is uncannily short on character and extremely good at giving you the energy in the groove with nothing added, nothing taken away. The RP10 is a true servant to the music, whatever that music may be.
Those looking for bone crunching bass or wall bending imaging will find it on their audiopile pressings, those looking to appreciate the white heat of Stravinsky or the Mahavishnu Orchestra need the best pressings of those recordings that they can find. I have been listening to the RP10 with Rega’s Apheta cartridge for most of the year and it never ceases to enthral and delight me with the musical detail it digs out of my record collection. Just because it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg does not mean it is not a remarkable turntable, that is our bonus and every hi-fi snob’s loss. Full review.
Russell K. Red 100
When the editor asked me to name the three most outstanding products of 2014 many names sprung to mind, I have the feeling that audio products are getting better and better these days. It wasn’t an easy choice to make and I left out some names that ought to be among the chosen, like the PMC Twenty.26, Devialet Phantom and Bluesound. Still one new brand impressed me more and that is Russell K. and the Red 100 loudspeakers. The moment they were run-in and listening started they grabbed my attention with the enormous energy and enjoyment with which music is presented. The Red 100 never holds back or lacks detail even though the system is far from the most accurate on the market, which is due to the absence of damping inside and the use of good but not outstanding drivers. Even the crossover could be more refined, but the quality lies in the open sound, large soundstage and the thrilling presentation. The Red 100 is fast, very fast and delivers attack like a machine gun. Live performances give the impression that you’re listening to a decent PA system, voices are lifelike and full of dynamics. It might take some time to get used to these speakers, because they are so different, and don’t put them in a hard sounding system, they benefit from a softer sounding and friendlier amplifier and source. But if you can find the right balance and live with the colorations you have yourself one of the most enjoyable systems on the market. Full review.
René van Es