Products of the year 2018

Hardware Review

Products of the year 2018
Thursday, December 13, 2018
assorted types
various authors

This has been a great year for new hi-fi, so good that our list has once again expanded so we can include all the best pieces of kit. We have had to make some tough decisions, all of the products chosen by the ear’s reviewers have made a very strong, positive impression both at the time of review and in the intervening months. That’s what separates out the great from the merely very good, the ability to leave a hole in our systems that has never quite been filled. Here in alpha order are the ear’s very best hi-fi components of 2018.

 

audio solutions figaro S.jpg

Audio Solutions Figaro S
£3,830
Selecting the best from a year of auditioning is often hard, but this year I had rather an easy decision to make as the Audio Solutions Figaro S floor-standers are clearly worthy of the title.
A product which sounded excellent under show conditions in Eindhoven (the  Figaro M - medium), the smaller Figaro S three-way was sublime in my own listening room. It is also a high value-for-money product as well, which makes the icing even tastier. Latterly I was fortunate enough to hear the mighty Figaro L (large) at the Warsaw show. Mind-blowing!
This young Lithuanian brand has created a range of well-conceived loudspeakers with neutrality and involvement in equal measure. Here was a review sample which, some weeks after being returned, I am beginning to miss. That is probably the highest accolade a reviewer can bestow.
A combination of doped-paper drive units with a horn-loaded soft-dome tweeter with Audio Solutions' proprietary wave-guide created such melodic and pleasing sounds. Too many speaker designs these days have a forward, 'in yer face' sound with imaging which places the artist in the listener's lap. Thankfully, with the Figaro S we have a much more realistic and believable soundstage.
Trevor Butler

Audio-Technica-ADX8.jpg

Audio-Technica ATH-ADX5000
£1,990 
Combining Japanese craftsmanship and state-of-the art audio engineering, Audio- Technica’s flagship open-back headphone, the ATH-ADX5000 is its most ambitious model to date. Its integrated driver assembly uses a lightweight, tungsten-coated diaphragm and Permadur magnet to improve transient response and power sensitivity, and Core Mount Technology to improve airflow, increase transparency and reduce distortion across all frequencies. The ADX5000 is extraordinarily revealing and open – especially through the upper mid and high frequencies – and delivers a breathtakingly crisp and clean presentation. It has a responsive low end that has satisfying extension and just the right amount of slam, a balance that is not easy to achieve. If you’re in the market for an open-back headphone that provides reference levels of detail and dynamics with minimal smear and overhang, you should definitely check out the ADX5000.
Richard Barclay

Audio-Technica AT-HA5050.jpg

Audio-Technica AT-HA5050H 
£4,500 
Audio-Technica’s statement headphone amplifier, the AT-HA5050H, is a remarkable feat of engineering. Its nostalgic, retro styling conceals precision-built, hybrid topology with an E88CC vacuum tube powered preamp and solid-state Class A power amp. An excellent DAC supporting up to 384kHz PCM and DSD 128 is also thrown in for good measure. The HA5050H’s ability to drive two pairs of headphones at the same time is handy but the most interesting thing about this amp is the provision of four different output impedances, which allow you to vary the damping factor to achieve a preferred frequency and transient response with a particular headphone. The 5050H soon demonstrates just how useful this is and exposes the inflexibility of a single, fixed output impedance that often results in sub-optimal sound. The 5050H’s blend of tubes and transistors complement each other beautifully. The power amp delivers a highly resolving and neutral presentation with excellent control and extension at both ends, while the tubes provide a touch of sweetness, the combination of which makes for a fatigue-free listening experience that engrosses with natural detail, fluidity and depth. This is the ultimate indulgence for personal listening. Full review coming soon. 
Richard Barclay

Auralic-ARIES-G2.jpg

Auralic Aries G2
£3,899
Auralic’s best streamer is also one of the best on the market, its single piece machined chassis, obsessive attention to noise elimination and even handed nature mark it out as a winner. You need a great source to hear the Aries G2 at its best but given this it will blow you away with just how good digital audio can sound. It proves that streaming is superior to attaching a data source to a. DAC in no uncertain terms and anyone looking to get the best out of digital audio should make a point of hearing the Aries G2.
We used it with a number of DACs as well as the Kii Three speakers and consistently got superbly timed, very high resolution results that opened up the music and drew us in. It has a sweet control app or can be run with Roon but either way it will deliver the sort of sound quality that few alternatives can match. 
Jason Kennedy

Harbeth40-P3-anni.jpg

Harbeth P3ESR 40thAnniversary Edition
£2,415
A loudspeaker design that is now many decades old brought bang up to date by Alan Shaw, the owner and speaker designer at Harbeth Audio. Using his own Radial material for the main drive unit, Harbeth have taken this already excellent small loudspeaker and tweaked it to celebrate the brand’s 40th anniversary. From the tiny enclosures issues forth a sound that totally belies their physical stature. As an upgrade from the standard model, there are WBT binding posts, improved internal wiring and better capacitors in the crossover plus a gorgeous olive wood veneer. Paired with a reasonably muscular amplifier ( they are only rated at 83Db efficiency) they will fill a small to medium sized room with glorious sound, and will give many years of musical pleasure. The standard version of this BBC-derived loudspeaker is already excellent but with this limited edition they have taken another step forward. Outstanding.
Chris Kelly

ifi-Pro-iDSD.jpg

Ifi Pro iDSD
£2,499
This may not be the biggest DAC on the block but it has more features than virtually all the competition and can cope with any format or sample frequency that you could throw at it, and then double it. It has a serious headphone amplifier, filter settings too numerous to mention but importantly including non oversampled, and fixed or variable output via RCA or XLR. You can hook it up to a CD player, PC, network server and more, then choose between three tube and transistor output stages.
All of which is marvellous but it’s not what makes the Pro iDSD an award winning product, that comes down to its superb sense of timing (especially with the tube output), ability to cope with all types of music and utterly beguiling sound quality. You can pay a lot more and not come close to the musical charm of the Pro iDSD, it’s a winner through and through. 
Jason Kennedy

Innuos Zenith SE.jpg

Innuos Zenith SE
£4,999
Now this is a difficult one, can you give an award to a limited edition product that is no longer available. Normally we wouldn’t do that but the Zenith SE is so significant that it has to be included in our best of 2018 line-up. There is a replacement coming very soon, the Innuos Statement was launched in May at the Munich High End and is due in the stores any moment. It’s more expensive but in demonstrations knocks the SE into a cocked hat. 
The Zenith SE is the best digital source we have heard. With USB or network connection to a DAC or streamer it wipes the floor with the competition. Knowing this makes us wonder why high end DAC makers persevere with laptops, when they hear what this server can do they will be kicking themselves into the new year. 
Jason Kennedy

kii-3-trio.jpg

Kii Audio Three
£11,000
Most loduspeakers are an evolution of those that have come before, a refinement of existing technologies. The fully active Kii Three turns that notion on its head by using DSP (digital signal processing) in such a radical way that the resolution it delivers is frankly outrageous. By cancelling rearward bass output the Kii Three reduces the impact of the biggest problem faced by loudspeakers, the room. 
This is the most revealing loudspeaker I have heard for a long time and yet it’s not the size of a house and nor does it cost a fortune by high end standards. It just shows that a cleverly designed active loudspeaker has a significant advantage over the majority of the competition. 
Jason Kennedy

Naim Uniti_Nova.jpg

Naim Uniti Nova
£4,199
Naim’s top one box streamer, DAC and amplifier is a remarkably entertaining piece of kit, possibly the most enjoyable single chassis music source in the known omniverse. As ever with Naim it prioritises musical engagement and rhythmic drive over etched imaging and maximum dynamic impact but it’s also rather refined. The Uniti Nova is for making music matter more than anything else, it pulls you in and uplifts your soul but it also shows you the nuances.
Uniti Nova also has a very nice DAC as I found when hooking up alternative sources to the onboard streamer. It is more sophisticated and revealing than the more affordable Uniti models because Naim have been able to spend more on the bits that count. Add to this brand’s enviable track record for back up and service and the rather nice control app for both platforms and you have a cake and eat it product that guarantees musical thrillpower. 
Jason Kennedy

PMC_Cor.jpg

PMC Cor
£4,995
René van Es chose this as one of his products of the year last year but I have not heard a better integrated amplifier in the 12 months since. I’ve been using one at home for a while and discovered that it is an absolute beauty. The styling is distinctive, the tone controls unusual and occasionally useful and the build quality inspiring, but what really hooked me in is the transparency. There are very few amplifiers that are as revealing and quiet as the Cor, it makes pretty much everything that’s near its price range sound a little crude and shut in, and that includes pre/power combos as well as other integrateds.
There are more pacey amplifiers on the market and certainly more grunty, powerful sounding ones but few that resolve fine detail as well. This means that the Cor works equally well at low levels as it does when throwing down the jam, possibly better. We love the way that it lets you hear just what’s going on with the source, if you change something the results will be tangible immediately which means it’s easy to make meaningful upgrades. But what gets you every time is how beautiful music sounds when its amplified with this much ease, it’s like Class A with power in the bass and extension in the treble. Not bad for a fully featured single box design. 
Jason Kennedy

Rega-Planar-8.jpg

Rega Planar 8
£1,699
Rega have been making fine turntables for nearly five decades now and for some that might be a reason to relax but that is not the Rega way, they just keep on making their products better. This time they have made a giant leap for realistically priced turntables with the Planar 8, undoubtedly the best sub £2,000 design on the planet and probably beyond. The combination of an ultra light, ultra stiff skeletal plinth with a flywheel effect glass platter, ingenious thinking in the all important areas of resonance control and lateral thinking in the dust management dept have resulted in an incredibly revealing turntable and arm. Read the full review for details or simply go and listen, you won’t find a more transparent alternative at the price.
Jason Kennedy

 

 

 

Specifications: 

See original reviews