It may have been a rocky year for politics in the UK but that hasn’t stopped hi-fi manufacturers from creating some spectacular pieces of kit to help us hear more of our music and thus gain even greater enjoyment from the most transcendent of artforms. Vinyl continues to grow in popularity with ever more albums being released and increasingly impressive turntables and electronics being produced to play them. Streaming is likewise continuing its steady rise to the top of the digital audio tree and delivering so a whole lot more of the ‘perfect sound forever’ that CD promised back when it was launched. The following components were chosen by the Ear’s music loving contributors and represent the best that we have heard over the year. They are listed in alphabetical order for your perusing pleasure and the original review can be accessed by clicking on the model name.
Auralic Aries G1
If you are looking to get great results with streamed music then a dedicated streamer is essential. Auralic’s Aries is just such a device, it doesn’t have a DAC onboard but can be used with any brand of converter on the market. What it does so well is to ‘pull’ the data from a hard drive or server and deliver it in a highly coherent and complete form. The G1 is the more affordable of two Aries models but has the same feature set as its pricier G2 brother, including the excellent Lightning DS control app which is Apple like in appearance and provides access to the key streaming platforms alongside your own library. More importantly it makes music from almost any source sound pretty damn stonking.
Bowers & Wilkins 607
The smallest serious speaker in Bowers extensive catalogue benefits from trickle down tech including the Continuum cone developed for the biggest models they make. It’s a 30cm tall box that’s neatly finished in black or white whose sound quality belies both price and size. Essentially distortion is kept very low and that means holographic imaging and a coherent combination of musical details that makes listening almost addictive. It manages to be both highly revealing yet also musically cohesive which makes for tremendous a high energy sound that’s packed with emotional impact. Amplification and source quality are important but get these right and this is a budget speaker that will keep you up way past midnight.
Rahiel ‘Naz’ Nasir
Computer Audio Design started out making a no compromise DAC but followed that with a black box with two sockets called a GC-1 or ground control 1, this does something that sounds like hoodoo but works consistently and well. Connect it to the earth/ground point on your power distributor and the noise floor in the system goes down. Connect it to any component except a power amp and the same thing happens. Lower noise means more low level signal which equals higher fidelity. The GC-1 takes this to the next level with six inlets that you can connect to every part of the system as well as the power and thus significantly drops the noise across the board. The result is not subtle, it’s like cleaning dust on a shiny object, suddenly the music shines with a clarity that the system had not even hinted at. For anyone with a serious system (except a Naim) this is essential.
Chord Hugo TT 2
Chord Electronics’ next-generation table-top DAC/headphone amplifier has undergone extensive upgrades to bring it within touching distance of the company’s flagship DAVE at a fraction of the price. Hugo TT 2 uses a new Artex 7 FGPA chip with a ten element digital filter that provides 98,000 taps, five times the processing power of the original Hugo TT, and supports maximum input sampling rates of PCM 768kHz and DSD 512. More than just a headphone amplifier, the multifunctional TT 2 can also be used as a dedicated DAC into an external preamplifier or as a combined DAC/preamp into an external power amplifier or active speakers. Single-ended and balanced outputs are provided that are capable of delivering 7wpc and 18wpc, respectively, enough power to drive efficient speakers let alone the stubbornest of headphones! TT 2’s neutral tuning is an excellent fit for a large number of earspeakers and its effortless ability to resolve detail without exaggeration is extremely impressive. Breathtaking speed and clarity is balanced by variegated timbres to provide a lucid listening experience. Partnered with the Hugo M Scaler, Hugo TT 2’s immersive “wow” factor is elevated to a level that is genuinely comparable to any top-tier system I’ve auditioned.
Chord Hugo M Scaler
Rob Watts’ groundbreaking million-tap WTA upsampling filter is now available to a wider audience as a standalone box that matches the exquisitely-designed Hugo TT 2. Chord Electronics’ Hugo M Scaler uses a custom-programmed XC7A200T FGPA chip to reconstruct sampled digital data with a level of accuracy that Watts claims eliminates the timing errors responsible for digital audio’s perceived inferiority to analogue. M Scaler upscales standard and high-res PCM as well as DSD 256 to a maximum of 705.6kHz or 768kHz. Whilst compatible with non-Chord DACs, M Scaler is optimised for Chord DACs and delivers maximum performance on those with dual-BNC inputs that accept its maximum 16fs upsampling rate. Hugo M Scaler works wonders – especially on 44.1kHz material – and liberates digital audio from many of its perceived flaws. Music becomes purer, richer, more lifelike and inherits an effortlessly natural flow and dynamic response. Instruments are rendered with superior clarity, focus and timbre, creating a more precise, textural and dimensional soundscape that is eerily realistic and truly immersive. With Hugo M Scaler, you’ll find yourself connecting to music on a deeper level than you thought possible from digital playback. An essential purchase for Qutest, Hugo TT 2 and DAVE owners.
Constellation Audio Integrated 1.0
Constellation Audio products not only look fabulous their sound is even more attractive. The Californian brand combines the experience of some of the highest regarded engineers in the business and builds products that are free from compromise. This makes them expensive but the Integrated 1.0 made the entry point that much more attainable whilst maintaining incredible transparency, dynamics and control. These qualities allow it to deliver music in solid 3D stereo with silent backgrounds and compelling musical drive. Nothing seems to fluster this amp, you can hear exactly what each musician is contributing no matter how intense the performance. If you want to get that ‘being there’ feeling from your favourite albums look no further.
Diapason Adamantes V
Once in a while we discover a product created with passion and commitment, such was the case with the hand-crafted Adamantes V. This bookshelf model is exquisite in terms of both sound quality and build, producing an immediacy of sound that captivates the listener. Soundstaging is wide and three-dimensional, belying the cabinet’s compact size. The full-bodied bass is accurate, without boom; treble sweet and detailed. On large-scale orchestral works the music is set free, with more intimate choral material the midrange was revealed as sweet and extremely detailed, transporting this reviewer to the venue and revealing inner depths of the performance. Here we have a drop-dead gorgeous loudspeaker with tremendous poise and high levels of accuracy, where the music flows effortlessly and naturally.
Gold Note PH10/PSU10
For me, 2019 has been the year of Italian audio products. I have had a number of different brands and types of equipment through my listening room, and the experience has been for the most part an unexpected delight. Of all of the pieces I have heard, the ones that have had the most impact on my listening experience have been the Gold Note PH10 phono stage and its matching PSU, which is an optional but highly recommended upgrade. The configurability of the device, through what Gold Note call their ‘Single Knob’ control system, gives the user access to three different EQ curves (RIAA, Decca London and Columbia) which can then be tweaked to the user’s preference. I have used the device with several different cartridges, both MC and MM designs, and the PH10 delivers excellent sonics with every one of them. It looks good and sounds exceptional.
Strictly speaking the H190 is an integrated amplifier, yet that is something of an understatement. In practise it’s almost all you need, add a pair of quality loudspeakers and an Apple device and it provides endless entertainment. It offers onboard streaming from Tidel, Spotify, Airplay and has a highly-competent DAC coupled with 150W of Class AB amplification. This Hegel has an immediate sense of neutrality and a remarkable depth to the soundstage. Across an enormous repertoire from solo piano, flute concertos, cello, small-scale Baroque, vocals and choral to heavier material across rock and pop, it re-created performances with aplomb. Combining superb tonality and an abundance of energy, the solidly-built H190 sets a new standard in its class. Hegel has a habit of doing this, and has pulled it off again.
The source in a network streaming system is the hard drive/server that the music is stored on, no product makes this clearer than the Innuos Statement. This takes the art of network server technology to a new high thanks to the separation of power supply and signal processing duties in two chassis and high accuracy clocking for the digital outputs. The latter being highly beneficial with music streaming services. The main issue with all digital systems is high frequency noise, reduce that and you increase resolution. What makes the Statement so hard to beat is the ability to deliver a digital signal with incredibly low noise, we’ve not heard better, and that means phenomenal separation, dynamics, imaging and timing capabilities with a DAC or streamer that’s able to reveal as much.
£45 to £79 each
Thanks to acoustic isolation manufacturers like IsoAcoustics, home audiophiles are gaining increasing exposure to the sonic benefits of decoupling their hifi from the listening room. Building on the success of their GAIA loudspeaker isolators designed as screw-in replacements for existing spikes, the Canadian firm introduces the OREA series of isolating pucks which offer greater versatility and can be used under any audio component to isolate it from vibrations. OREA pucks are sold individually and are available in four weight specifications: Graphite (1.8kg), Bronze (3.6kg), Indigo (7.2kg) and Bordeaux (14.5kg), making it easy to obtain the quantity of isolators required for optimal decoupling and stability based on a component’s weight distribution. I was quite astonished by the instant improvement after installing OREA under my speakers. They now disappear from the soundstage almost entirely, image with even greater precision, and resolve micro-details that were unknowingly masked by the previously higher noise floor. If you haven’t already decoupled your loudspeakers, you owe it to yourself to unlock their full potential. Pound for pound, OREA is among the best value for money upgrades that can be made to any hifi system. Full review coming soon.
Naim NDX 2
Naim makes three dedicated network streamers and the NDX 2 is the middle model, and given that this company pioneered this approach to digital audio it’s not surprising that it’s really very good. With the ability to stream from most of the key music services as well as a local library it can be run with Roon or Naim’s own control app to highly engaging effect. It excels in the areas you expect of a Naim, specifically timing and musicality, but also delivers impressively deep levels of detail, so that you can hear right into each recording. We love its immediacy the most however, this is what makes music come to life in the home but it backs this up with excellent tonal rendering and large scale imaging where the recording warrants it. It can also be upgraded with a separate power supply but in truth sounds pretty damn good just the way it is.
Rega Planar 10
The Planar replaced the RP10 earlier this season and completely blew it out of the water. And the RP10 was undoubtedly the best sub £5,000 turntable and arm on the market. The P10 has a smaller, stronger skeletal chassis, new main bearing, ceramic brace and revised tonearm, in fact the power supply and motor are the only elements brought over. If you want to know precisely what is cut into a vinyl groove there are very few turntables that compete at any price, it truly is astonishing how much musical detail it can pull out of a vinyl record. In many ways it doesn’t sound like a turntable, there is no added warmth, no cosy coloration, just the music the way it was on the master tape – vinyl transfer allowing. Anyone looking to maximise what they can hear from a record collection should give it a spin.
Stack Audio Link
This network bridge is both smaller and better made than it looks. Machined from billet aluminium it’s a very solid and attractive piece of kit that does more than you might expect from something so discreet. Wired or wireless with a USB output the Link can be run with Roon or any UPnP control app but is based around Volumio software which can be run from any browser. I used Roon and got remarkable results especially in terms of transparency to detail and absence of low level noise. The Link can also be used to upgrade the sound of a PC using USB in and out, and this brings notable improvements in timing, openness and resolution. For the price the Stack Audio Link is a stonking streaming bridge with all the features you could want.
Tellurium Q Ultra Black II
For as long as I have been interested in hi-fi, nothing has divided opinion more than the thorny topic of cables. In my role as a reviewer I have had plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast interconnects, loudspeaker cables and mains cables. To be honest, sometimes I do struggle to hear meaningful differences between one brand and another or one model and another within a manufacturer’s offerings. However, I was genuinely taken aback when I first installed the Tellurium Q Ultra Black II speaker cables. I had been happily using this manufacturer’s less expensive cable, Black II, and had found it to be more than I had hoped for at its price point. The Ultra Black II simply did everything I liked about the Black II: pace, timing, even handed frequency response, but delivered an even richer musical experience, allowing extra micro- detail to be heard from whatever source I had selected. At £300 a metre this is not a casual purchase for most of us, but given just how much better my system sounded with it in place I actually feel that it is good value, since it may help to postpone or even cancel an expensive amplifier or loudspeaker upgrade. Find a retailer who will lend you a pair for home demonstration and make up your own mind.
Townshend Audio Allegri+
This diminutive passive preamplifier was upgraded a couple of years ago and now has a mute switch and minijack input but remains the most affordable high end preamp I have ever used. The use of autoformer transformers gives the Allegri+ an edge over most other passive devices in terms of clarity and bandwidth, the bass is as powerful as your amp and speakers can deliver, and the timing and detail transparency way ahead of anything near the price. And it’s sheer resolution puts it ahead of most active preamps. If it was in a bigger, fancier box and had remote control you would pay considerably more but anyone looking for high end on a budget should look no further.
Vertere Acoustics MG-1 MkII
This is an exceptional piece of audio engineering, brought to you by the talents of Touraj Moghaddan, who is rightly revered by many audiophiles for his already impressive back catalogue of vinyl record replay systems. The MG-1 MkII with its matching and very impressive SG1 tonearm proved to be a delightful companion during the weeks in which it held pride of place on my equipment rack. It is relatively easy to set up and once that is done it is a totally fuss free music maker. Yes there are many less expensive turntables available, including another Vertere Acoustics model, and those may be more than enough for many occasional vinyl listeners. However, if you are one of those with an extensive collection of records which are your preferred source for listening, the MG1 MkII should definitely be on your audition short list.