2016 might have been a bad year for rock stars but it was a good one for audio equipment. We saw and heard a plethora of fabulous new components that made our systems sing and renewed our love of music. Rather than trying to find something worthy in a variety of categories we picked the pieces that made the biggest impressions, the ones that made it hard to turn off the system at night.They all require a sympathetic system to give of their best, it was always thus, but under those circumstances they are among the very best in class.
Elac Debut B6
The Elac Debut B6 was one of the biggest surprises of the year. After opening the carton I found some ordinary looking loudspeakers in a grey finish, they won’t wind any beauty contests. But after I hooked them up in my system something remarkable happened, Pandora’s box opened up and musical detail filled the room. The Debut B6 proved to be a hell of a performer for the price with all kinds of music from female vocals to Bach. Their sense of immediacy makes them suitable for contemporary mainstream music and they sound amazing with a costly source and amplifier, but they don’t need an expensive front-end to perform well. The physical size of the B6 limits the low end, but the bass you get is tight, fast and articulate. Designed by Andrew Jones (KEF, TAD)for Elac, using dedicated drivers, crossovers and cabinets the Debut makes it very easy to enjoy music indeed. Full review
René van Es
Metrum Acoustics Menuet
Every year I hear a lot of new products. But at the end of the year, when the editor asks me for my product of the year, only a few names come to mind. This year, there is one that sticks out and it is first and foremost a brand name; Metrum Acoustics. To my ears, in digital audio, their latest non-oversampling DACs sound the most musical and natural. It would be easy, and more than justified, to name their latest flagship DAC/Preamplifier Adagio, the best of 2016. But instead I want to nominate the Menuet. I know the sound of the Adagio, and the earlier Pavane, very well and the sound quality of the Menuet, that I reviewed for The Ear earlier this year, comes very close. The fact that the Menuet retails for a much more affordable price than the other two brings it within reach of a lot more music lovers. To me, this combination of quality and price makes the Menuet the true product of the year. Full review
Jan de Jeu
Naim Muso Qb
We don’t look a great deal of one box solutions but when Naim makes one we make an exception. The second Muso is a delightful little Qb of tricks, its compact form delivers entertaining music and speech that is considerably more engaging than usual. With wireless access to music on the network and internet radio there is always something to enjoy, whether it’s Gilles Peterson on 6Music, the latest album on the NAS or a podcast by Adam Buxton. The Muso Qb projects well and sounds clean so long as you don’t push it too hard. You can change volume and select from the preset radio stations from the unit but most other functions are accessed via the Naim app, a controller that has proved consistently reliable in my home. Full review
NEAT Iota Alpha
With a twist on the old proverb about children, NEAT's incredible Iota Alpha loudspeaker is something to be heard and not seen. A diminutive floorstander, just 45cm tall, it is a design easily overlooked. But, proving that size no longer matters, designer Bob Sturgeoner has managed to squeeze so much from these tiny, British-made cabinets. There's the massive three-dimensional soundstage, well beyond what a speaker of this size should be able to produce, the pinpoint imaging and they’re just perfect either side of a large-screen TV because they are out of one's peripheral vision. The stand-mount Iota always had something missing to my mind. The Alpha gives it to you - that bottom-end from the concealed downward-firing woofer. And, at under £1,400 they're something of an audiophile bargain. Full review
Setting up a turntable can be at times frustrating, perplexing and time-consuming. However, it has to be said that once you get everything correctly set up the rewards in terms of revealing all the music hidden in the depths off those grooves can be substantial. There are many bits of kit available to assist you in ‘doing the job’, but few actually tackle virtually every set-up parameter. However, one caveat needs to be brought into play before I go any further: there’s ‘more than one’ right way to set up an arm and cartridge combination, and that depends on whose ‘take’ on where the null points should be across the tracking arc (for a pivoted rather than tangential) arm.
Project’s Align-It allows you to monitor very carefully the set-up of your arm and cartridge, how to determine exactly the cartridge’s position (if your headshell has slots, or where to slide the baseplate on the arm). You can easily see whether the stylus is vertical in every plane and as a result you can also see the effects of too high or low tracking weight. Although in some senses it’s not a cheap piece of kit for something ‘so simple’, the precision with which it must be manufactured undoubtedly costs a lot, and the ‘fit and finish’ means that the results will be consistent and predictable with repeated use on many different turntables over time. Highly Recommended.
Q Acoustics Concept 40
The beautiful Concept 40’s cabinet is made of two layers of MDF separated by a material called Gelcore. Gelcore damps resonance and helps to lower distortion coming from both enclosure and drivers. The Concept 40 and its smaller brother Concept 20 are suitable for a lot of music genres from pop to classical. The Concept 40 with its dual bass drivers is more suited to orchestral works and heavy pop, whereas the 20 is faster and suits smaller ensembles. The bigger brother is more impressive with piano thanks to a larger cone area and greater internal volume. The 40 is also the best balanced of the two in the mid and bass and has sweet higher notes. The lower end goes deep enough for most rooms and placement is not a problem although the bass reflex port is on the back. The finish is either black or white combined with aluminium, and stability is improved by a glass brace protruding from the back. The Concept 40 will never disappoint, is easy to drive with a range of amplifiers, and it is great value. Full review.
René van Es
Rega Planar 3
Rega don’t try to reinvent the wheel with new turntables they evolve their designs, in this case the evolution has been going on for nigh on 40 years. The latest Planar 3 has a similar appearance to its forebears but employs better parts and materials almost across the board. The plinth is now high gloss and quite literally as stiff as a board thanks to an inherently rigid design that uses no more mass than is necessary. The arm is locked to the turntable bearing with braces on either side of the plinth and the arm itself has been totally revised to RB330 status. This means higher tolerance bearings and an armtube with a very even character, it retains spring downforce and magnetic bias and has better quality cable. All this adds up to an extraordinarily revealing and refined turntable, one that takes competitors to the cleaners with its timing, dynamics and resolution. If you want to know how a piece of music is being played, this will tell you, unlike most it puts the emphasis on the music not the sound. The new Planar 3 brings sophistication to an already fine design, and that makes it very hard to beat. Full review
Rockna Wavedream NET and DAC
Rockna is a small but advanced company from Romania whose founder is well versed in digital audio technology. The Wavedream NET is a server and CD player that runs the popular Roon playback software, what differentiates it is the presence of a proprietary I2S output for the dedicated Wavedream DAC. This connection gives it a massive advantage over most of the alternatives and allows the pairing to deliver strikingly high levels of resolution. The Wavedream DAC is an R2R type which puts in the same league as MSB and a few others, it claims “probably the lowest jitter [on the market] where it matters” at the point of D/A conversion. The resulting sound is astonishingly real thanks to quicksilver speed and incredible low level resolution. Rockna may not be an established name but the Wavedream products should put it firmly on the high resolution map. Full review
Sennheiser’s HD800 dynamic, open-back, circumaural headphone was a genuine game-changer that offered studio levels of detail and loudspeaker-esque soundstaging from a technology and at a price that was previously never thought attainable. Its marmite flavour however remained stubbornly divisive and ultimately resulted in this year’s release of the HD800S. A carefully tweaked revision that successfully addresses its predecessor's perceived flaws, the 800S improves compliance and appeal without sacrificing the original model’s remarkable resolve and spacious presentation. The HD800’S lower-treble spike at 6kHz has been ameliorated and the arguably lean bottom end has been given a gentle lift, resulting in a subtly smoother and warmer tonal balance that better lends itself to a broader range of musical genres. There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ headphone, but to my ears the HD800S comes closer to whatever ‘perfection’ may be than any other headphone I’ve auditioned in this price bracket, which makes it somewhat of a bargain. Full review
Except for the most traditional amplifier designers almost all brands offer Class D amps today. They are efficient, do not need a lot of heat sinking and are not that sensitive to loudspeaker loads. The hardest part of designing a decent Class D amp is to make sure the sound is fluid and easy on the ear. Most sound too technical for my ears, with overwhelming detail and clarity, even tight bass, but they lack emotion. Not the SPEC RSA-M3Ex amp I had the at home for some time, playing through my big PMC fact.12 loudspeakers, it sung as well as my trusty Pass Labs Class A amplifiers. The stereo image was among the best I have heard in my room, spread out from wall to wall, deep and high. The amplifier combines speed with loud explosions of sound when asked for, but stays delicate as well on small jazz combos or female vocals. It is hard to believe this is a true Class D amplifier since so much emotion reaches the listener. This might be because the design goal of the SPEC brand is to create an amp that matches the performance of a 300B triode amplifier, but without the restrictions of the tube power capabilities, the high cost and limited lifetime. This Japanese product has a soul, a musical soul, making it the one and only Class D amp I had at home thus far that I would really like to own myself. Full review
René van Es
Townshend Audio Seismic Podium
The latest evolution of Townshend’s isolation platform design totally revolutionises loudspeaker support thinking. It proves in no uncertain times that maximum isolation produces maximum sound quality in any loudspeaker, on any floor type and makes the spike seem as relevant as Betamax. Read the full review for a complete idea of the benefits that this technology delivers but better still put your speakers on a pair of Podiums and hear for yourself. They make the speaker cabinet disappear from the image and in its place is three dimensional, dynamic, wide bandwidth musical sound that times better, is more relaxed and elevates the performance of any loudspeaker. The advantage of the Podium over previous designs is that it can take any loudspeaker and be adjusted to make up for variations in weight displacement – speakers often weigh more at the front than the back for instance. The Seismic Podium is the biggest upgrade that owners of serious systems can make without replacing components. Full review
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