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DAR’s favourite bits of 2016

Numerous new pieces of audio hardware impressed me this year. Final Audio’s Sonorous III (US$399) is a closed back headphone that doesn’t sound like your average closed back headphone. I continue to enjoy its strong dynamic contrasts and clean, articulate midrange. For similar money, but with an entirely different take on aural satisfaction, Meze’s 99 Classics positively sizzle with (what many might refer to as) “musicality”. I’m not down with such weasel words but whatever colour added to the mix by the Meze cans, it doesn’t distract from a top-notch presentation. Both models are portable player-friendly to boot.

In the affordable loudspeaker space, there’s Andrew Jones’ work for ELAC and then there’s everybody else. The Debut B6 is a marvel of engineering for the money, even if its appearance leans towards the prosaic. The gotcha for many a buyer will be the relatively high cost of the amplifier required to do these standmounts justice; your average 60wpc Class A/B-er might not cut it.

@elacaudio Debut B6 #loudspeakers banging out wonky techno sounds.

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Affordable D/A converters with believable high-end aspirations came down to two models for me this year: the Chord Mojo and, pulling up a close second with more flesh and tonal weight, the multibit Schiit Bifrost.

Mirroring the tail end of 2015, 2016 was once again Chord Electronics’ year – hats off to John Franks for putting Rob Watts’ (FPGA) WTA filter into a unit that mere mortals could afford – US$599 – and beyond the reach of 99% of rivals in terms of sonic satisfaction and functional flexibility.

BUT! These products are largely aimed at the audiophile space. A space where the median age can sometimes tip 50 and the gender balanced is split 99:1 in favour of dudes.

Could it be that audiophiles are the same the world over? #berlin #hifiimhinterhof #twitter

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In listing DAR’s favourite bits of 2016 (in no particular order), I’ve gone for products that show greater potential for mass market crossover.

Note: that which follows stems not from fleeting listens at audio shows where unfamiliar hotel rooms make speaker judgement calls too unreliable for end-of-year Best Of lists and the non-existent black art of listening all the way back up the playback chain through unfamiliar ancillaries and cables – and (often) unfamiliar music – to proclaim a joyous source as something of a joke (unwittingly made at the readers’ expense).

To qualify for DAR’s favourite bits of 2016, an item must have journeyed to my listening room where familiar gear and familiar music lay the foundations of reliable assessment.

Here we go…

Pioneer PLX-1000

https://www.instagram.com/p/BEproKRkdsy/?taken-by=darkoaudio

Whilst I have some reservations about the sound quality of some entry-level turntables, those same reservations fail to dent my enthusiasm for buying, collecting and spinning vinyl. This Pioneer might be one of the best you can buy for the money – especially if ergonomic tactility is important to you. Mirroring the Technics SL-1200 in form and function, this PLX-1000 offers robust build quality, direct drive and push-button speed control. You can’t say ANY of that about entry-level offerings from class leaders Rega and Pro-Ject who, to their credit, fit a cartridge in the factory. With the Pioneer, you’ll need to BYO. This is a good thing – spend time aligning a decent Grado or Ortofon and you’ll sidestep the disappointment of the Rega Carbon that the British company specify on their RP1 or the Ortofon OM-5 (previously) fitted to the Australian version of the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon. DACs don’t all the sound the same – quality varies, often with price. It’s the same with turntable – you get what you pay for.

Can we please dispense with the “Nothing beats the sound of vinyl” nonsense? Which turntable are we talking about exactly? And with which cartridge? And which phono stage? If it’s this Pioneer and if transparency and separation are important to you, US$599 is probably better spent on the Chord Mojo. On the other hand, you can’t hold a FLAC file in your hands, there’s no cover art, no lyric sheet and the sensation of authenticity is entirely absent. Spend your money according to YOUR priorities, not someone else’s.

The compact disc

Disk Union. #homeatlast

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No, I’m not being trite. Every time someone gives up on lossless compression in favour of the convenience of lossy streaming audio – and who can blame them – the humble CD becomes more valuable. For starters, it’s a real format; something to own and collect. Not quite as fulfilling in this regard as vinyl but the average new release CD often sells for 60% of the price of its vinyl equivalent.

On the other hand, cast a beady eye over those who would kick MP3 (and its kind) as a means to sell you hi-res downloads. The CD is the oft-forgotten middle ground for those who don’t enjoy the ebb and flow of content provision (see: Neil Young, Prince and Radiohead) over at Tidal, Qobuz or Deezer. Rippable too. Here, mainstream relevance flows in the other direction: the humble CD is a mass market audio format that audiophiles can love.

ELAC Uni-Fi FS U5 Slim

At Munich High-End, ELAC introduced a pricier, slimmer, paint-finished variant of their Uni-Fi series. It is this version of the floorstanding FS U5, in white, that I bought upon landing in Berlin. I’m bowled over by how good they look. And how good they sound. Strong dynamics, especially in the low end subtract nothing from supreme clarity throughout the rest of the audio band. In terms of imaging, these Andrew Jones-designed loudspeakers offer a viable alternative to the equally attractive LS50 from KEF. At €1398/pair, the FS U5’s price is none too dissimilar either.

Spatial Audio Hologram M4

#morningsun 🌞

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End of year lists like this are a bit silly, aren’t they. No reviewer can possibly hear every loudspeaker coming to market each year. They’d be lucky to get their ears around as much as 10%. Assessing upstream electronics, especially DACs and streamers and the like, demands consistency elsewhere. That can mean a reviewer will stick with the same loudspeakers for many months.

I spent most of 2016 with the open-baffle Hologram M4 from Utah’s Spatial Audio (US$1695+). And what a speaker. We get a B I G sound minus the bass overload that might plague the aforementioned ELACs when placed in a smaller room. I’d liken the M4’s soundstaging to the Magnepan MMG but without the off-axis roll-off. The bonus of much higher efficiency (93db) opens to door to a greater range of amplifier choices. Best of all, these loudspeakers are an absolute pleasure to look at. The Hologram range’s IKEA-like styling means their aesthetic appeal has the potential to journey beyond the audiophile niche. High-end loudspeakers for forward thinking urbanites then? You bet.

Peachtree Audio nova150

Sleek. The @peachtreeaudio nova150. #highendaudio #amplifier #superintegrated #futurefi

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Peachtree know a thing or two about mass market relevance – they were one of the first to put a high end DAC into an integrated amplifier. That was 2009. Since then, we’ve seen a move to Class D amplification and several iterations of the Nova line. The 2015 models are possibly Peachtree’s best sounding pieces to date. This isn’t the only reason to buy one. Inside we find DAC, MM phono stage, deluxe iOS input and a dedicated headphone amplifier that’ll keep pace with high-end cans. That Peachtree also moved production back to North America this year and still kept the price at US$1500 is minor miracle. With the nova150, offer a one of the best looking integrated amplifiers on the market with next-to-no-compromise bang-for-buck that’ll have you questioning the need for separates.

AudioQuest DragonFly Black

Coming to DAR later today, review coverage of the all new @_audioquest_ #DragonFlyBlack USB DAC.

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Tipping the US$99 price point is only part of this DAC’s potential to cross over into the mainstream where, incidentally, DSD is a total non-event. The Black will decode PCM up to 96kHz and is compatible with both Mac OS and Windows. It’s bus powered, will fit in your pocket for full portability and – the kicker – also talks to iOS and (numerous) Android devices with the appropriate adapter. Mainstreamers don’t want to carry a second portable device on which they only play music. They want superior sound quality from their existing devices: a Mac, a PC, a smartphone or a tablet. The DragonFly Black gives them precisely that for a price that a) won’t leave mouths agape and b) will likely give audiophiles pause when considering a third party DAP.

Audeze Sine/iSine Cipher cable

@audeze_official iSine 20. One word: WOW.

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The feeling of transparency – of getting closer to the music – is only part of Audeze’s success in porting their planar-magnetic smarts to the portable audio space. The optional Cipher cable made available for the EL-8 over-ears (pictured), the Sine on-ears and iSine IEMs is what sets these particular Audeze headphones from the pack. With an Apple Lightning plug at one end, the Cipher cable extracts digital audio directly from any compatible iOS device. The listener then sidesteps the iPhone or iPad’s fairly basic D/A conversion and headphone amplification in favour of Audeze’s own, housed in Cipher’s mic/control dongle. DSP is used to tune the signal for optimal SQ. What we hear as a result is considerably more detailed and articulate than listening from the iPhone 6S Plus’ 3.5mm socket. Cipher-connected headphone allows us to stay with our smartphones’ superior UX. No DAP, no worries.

The Rupert Neve Headphone amplifier

An #rmaf2016 highlight: the RNHP from Rupert Neve designs. Details and video up on DAR.

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DAR covered numerous audio shows this year. Most took place in the USA but the biggest and best this year (like last) was Munich High-End. Tokyo’s Fujiya Avic pulls up a close second, especially for headphone listeners. Putting ‘best’ and headphone listening together, one of the most satisfying listening experiences this year came from the leftfield – a headphone amplifier from Rupert Neve.

The RNHP mainlines the pro-world’s no nonsense attitude to audio, where connection stability and bullet-proof build quality often ride ahead of out and out sound quality. With the RNHP’s circuit pulled straight from their 5060 mixing console we get our cake delivered and we get to eat it too. Summit-fi climbers might consider the US$499 price tag and utilitarian aesthetic as signs of compromise – more fool them. First heard by yours truly at RMAF/CanJam 2016 and then again at my new DARhaus digs in Berlin, the RNHP offers a sound that’s clean, dynamically robust and positively bursting with tonal colour. And that volume control feels immensely satisfying to turn. Oh, and 90, Rupert Neve himself is very much alive and kicking.

Sony MDR-1000X

Bluetooth audio isn’t just Bluetooth audio. Quality varies with the codec in play, carrying the audio from signal from transmitter (e.g. a smartphone) to receiver (e.g. headphones). Only one codec is mandatory: SBC. Unfortunately, SBC doesn’t really sound all that good. For listeners to realise the potential of the superior sounding (and widely touted) aptX codec, both receiver and transmitter must support it. Our new noise cancelling headphones’ packaging might scream “aptX Bluetooth” but inside the iPhone, aptX support is entirely absent. Ditto numerous Android smartphones. The upshot is that we end up listening to the tonally neutered SBC.

Enter the Sony MDR-1000X that offer aptX and – crucially – AAC, support for which Apple have dropped into their smartphones. The AAC codec pulls iPhone listeners off SBC’s bottom rung and into SQ territory on par with aptX. However, the real story with these Sony headphone is that the amplification is baked into the design and tuned via DSP for optimal sound quality. Think of the MDR-1000X as the actives of the loudspeaker world. Not only do we sidestep the trial-and-error amplifier “synergy” lottery but also the kludgy nonsense of strapping a DAC/amp to a smartphone, most of which sell for more than the Sony headphones’ US$399 asking price. Furthermore, Sony’s noise cancellation is some of the most effective available right now. Head-fi.org’s Jude Mansilla agrees – he pegs it as better than Bose. I reckon it’s better than Sennheiser’s. Tell your Dad before he drops cash on a pair of QC25 or Momentum Wireless. No product in 2016 brought this listener more joy than the Sony MDR-1000X. No product this year better struck the balance between audiophile considerations, real world application and price…

…well, apart from one.

DAR’s Product of the Year Award 2016 can be found here.

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and currently resides in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

24 Comments

  1. what good quality integrated amp would you suggest for the elac b6?… the peachtree nova 150 or other without blowing the bank?
    agree that it’s also a great time to rip your own music if you’re not wholly into streaming or flac..price of buying new cds is soooo affordable now…sure xrcds and sacds are of course more $$$ but not everyone needs those.

  2. About ELAC F5, Have you had the chance to compare KEF LS50 and ELAC UNI-FI F5?

    I think that KEF speakers reproduce very well female voices and high frequencies, but I managed to get good male voices just with a good sub…

    What are your impressions?

  3. I watched “This is Spinal Tap” and now I have 11 audio CD’s.

    Kidding aside, with streaming on the uptick and vinyl making a bonafide comeback, buying CD’s might be the anachronistic thing to do. Ironic, if you ask me.

    One more thing that gives me pause is spending large sums of money on HiFi. I feel like a social outlier spending so much on my HiFi – and I am sure I am not the first one to feel this way.

    It is important to get your HiFi system right the first time, if funds allow for it, but you feel weird being the only bloke in a 100 mile radius who gives a damn about phase and time accurate speakers

    (I didn’t write all that stuff to throw around fancy words 🙂

    • @ Anirudh I wish someone would give me a proper recipe for a kickass system. I’ve tired a number of well reviewed components and while I find my system to be ”alright” It’s nothing that would over impress the Jones’
      A pair of Sonos Play 5s sounded damn good the other day in a large electronics store. Had me re-evaluate my 30 year audiophile adventure.

      • If I quit hifi, I’d go for a pair of Sonos Play:5 – easy setup plus compatibility with every streaming service in the known universe baked into the app. Spotify Connect too!

        • What led me to this fork in the road is that I recently picked up a Chord Mojo and an SOtM sMS-200. Two hot items that I thought would elevate my listening experience to an enjoyment level approaching what I remember from some of the big class A/tube/vinyl rigs that I owned way back.
          Instead I ended up with an analytical front end that made many ”average” recordings thin and sterile sounding. I get more enjoyment out of my EE Minimax/SB Touch. While I can’t seem to depart myself of the Mojo (it’s just too cute) the sMS-200 was sold after a week. With some random MP3s the Sonos sounded rich and fulfilling with deep, tight bass and plenty of upper end sparkle. Was I hearing correctly or would I tire of this sound after a few hours in my living room?
          In addition to having room correction and streaming capabilities under the hood.
          Deterrents (for me) are mainly subjective ones – the lack of the traditional integrated amp ”hub” with HP output, that I’m so accustomed to, and the fact that it’s affordable and that it’s sold at Best Buy (I’ll immediately be stripped of my audiophile hipster license)
          It’s tough being a hipster.

  4. I understand Andrew Jones is a great speaker designer, but for those in the US, Vandersteen 1ci is a great speaker at a slightly higher price.

    They have lot of dealers in US because they have been around for a while. They don’t have representation in Germany though

  5. Hear, hear for dispensing with the “Nothing beats the sound of vinyl”. God love Fremer’s gruff-but-lovable demeanor but it would be nice to see less of a “we are winning” shell-shock mentality from years in the vinyl trenches and more of an agnostic philosophy. The same way “in order for Apple to win, it does not mean Microsoft has to lose”. Realistically acknowledging and discussing openly the advantages/disadvantages of each digital and vinyl (as is often seen in DAR) will only help the hobby in general and prevent disappointment from some of the unrealistic expectations floating about vinyl.

    Fact is, it takes several orders of magnitude bigger vinyl budget to get even near on par with some of the resolution and transparency of digital. For myself, it was disappointing being over $1000 deep with a Pro-Ject Xpression table, Pro-ject preamp, Pro-ject Speedbox, etc only to find out I would need to spend another $1-2K more to hurdle many of the sonic compromises of that rig.

  6. I also like CD’s. Streaming is a neat way to check out new and new to me music but given the horror stories around the dismal payments buying the physical object be it CD, downloads or vinyl may be the best way to support artists and fund the next release.

  7. Crispin, do you play both cd and vinyl? In my system the Thorens 125 mk II absolutely smashes my NOS Dac …at least when it comes to room filling you are there realism. What digital just can’t do is produce the sense of space and air that well recorded LPs have, especially vintage stuff like some of the old 6 eye Columbias from the 50s and 60s for example. You can feel it as soon as the stylus clicks into the lead in groove. Sure you trade some of the digital detail and precision but when I want to turn off my equipment reviewer brain and just get my groove on I’ll pick that ol black magic licorice every time.

    • I play records, digital files, and CDs run through coaxial input to Peachtree iNova on NOS setting. For digital, I play HDCD files (paucity of content) AND upsample me Redbook digital files to 48kHz via a Division 3 or higher DAC (per the Darko DAC index). This does help uncover and fill in with some of that sense of space, air and realism buried in some Redbook recordings (stopgap until I can afford a PS Audio DirectStream).

      Certainly, not the ease of DSD files (again paucity of content) and vinyl. However, at least for vinyl, if I may say in a friendly manner, licorice whilst ease admittedly gorgeous and compelling does not always equal ‘objective’ realism which I think is at the heart of DAR’s rightful calls for pragmatism in discussions where vinyl is heralded as superior.

      Ultimately, I am genuinely glad yer Thorens rig provides the sense of realism and get-ya-groove-on enjoyment we are all looking for. Cheers.

  8. The Dragonfly is a curious device, for me.

    After years of being aware of its existence, I finally purchased one this year due to compatibility with the iPhone (and positive reviews on this very site).

    It gave me a new appreciation for quality audio and led to the further purchase of an LCD-2 and God knows how much more audio gear in the next few months.

    But I quickly sold the dongle that enables me to use it with a phone. The quality of sound that a laptop emits through it is so much better than what I could get out of an iPhone.

    Conclusion being that the Dragonfly Red’s smartphone compatibility was the hook, but I quickly moved away and on to the main course.

  9. Can’t complain about most of your picks, but was surprised not to see the ifi SPDIF ipurifier listed, especially after your review earlier this year and your semi-frequent references to its use in upgrading affordable equipment. I use it on my Ruku ultra and love it.

    • Affordability isn’t the only way in which the audio manufacturers unlock the door to the mass market but I’d still class the iFi device as an audiophile-aimed product.

  10. Hi John,
    I really enjoy reading DAR. Keep up the great work. I saw your presentation at Len Wallis on Digital Audio and found it very interesting!
    I think that based on your views on getting audiophile equipment at a reasonable price to the masses, I would say that your pick of 2016 would have to be the Schiit Jotunheim with the phono input. In an audio world full of disposable products, the Jotunheim is a refreshing change. I would have to say that what I like about the Jotunheim is the flexibility depending on the customers needs. Phono input module or Dac input module. Fully balanced inputs and outputs. 5 watt headphone stage. Plug in a Schiit Bifrost Multibit or other streaming Dac. It is an upgradeable industry quality audiophile product at a very reasonable cost. Or my other suggestion would be a years Tidal subscription.
    All the best,
    Greg Sargent

    • Thanks for the kind words, Greg. Yes, indeed the Jotunheim is a fine piece of gear – but does a US$399 modular headphone amp lay a welcome carpet down to the mass market? I’m not so sure.

      • Too bad the Schiit Fulla 2 was released so late in 2016. I wager that mini beauty’s Swiss Army knife functionality will lay a welcome carpet to many in the mass market and certainly make the 2017 list.

Affordable audio – how low can you go?

DAR’s favourite bits of 2016 (6moons remix)