2020 has been an eventful year to say the least but also one in which many have turned to music as an escape from the madness of the world around them. Music is a meditation that allows you to escape from the problems of life, whose powers are not to be underestimated, and having a great sound system makes it that much easier to immerse yourself in its solace. It’s also been a year when even if hi-fi shows have been largely absent, manufacturers have created new and sometimes spectacularly good pieces of equipment, we have selected the ones that have proved to be the most rewarding off all. In strictly alphabetical order these are the Ear’s favourite audio components of 2020. Click on the model names for a full review.
Acoustic Energy AE509
It’s always hard to pick ‘the best’ but this floor-standing loudspeaker is worthy of the accolade on several fronts, not least its sonic performance but also on styling and value-for-money. This last criteria is always important to my mind. Here we had a departure from the AE designs of old with their metal drive units, making the AE509 a refined design capable of poise and finesse. This was a loudspeaker I was sorry to say goodbye to, and that’s probably a reviewer’s biggest compliment. Across a range of genres, the AE509 was at home and produced plenty of full-bodied, foot-tapping sounds with well-controlled bass in large dollops yet never overpowering.
A long-time fan of this manufacturer’s large (massive, even) active speakers, I was blown away by the sheer ability of the diminutive SCM7. A shoebox-sized design, it became truly addictive through its ability to handle an array of material with consummate ease. Their imaging was spot-on and the LF performance surprising given the cabinet volume. The overall balance is slightly warm, and all the more enjoyable for that. At the price point they have to be considered exceptional value-for-money and the ideal starting point for audiophiles on a tight budget or with a confined listening room. They also proved ideal either side of my desktop computer as Zoom conferencing replaced face-to-face meeting amid the global pandemic, they are as ideal on speech as they are across a range of musical styles.
Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt
The original Audioquest Dragonfly put the headphone DAC/amp chips built into laptops, tablets and smartphones firmly on notice. Each model since has widened the performance gap further and Dragonfly Cobalt, AQ’s smallest USB-powered headphone DAC/amp to date, is now nipping at the heels of a decent desktop system. Sporting the latest ES9038Q2M chip from ESS and a reworked minimum-phase filter, Cobalt is the clearest, most detailed and cohesive sounding Dragonfly yet for both standard and hi-res audio up to 24-bit/96kHz. If you frequently listen to music on a portable device, Cobalt is a no-brainer upgrade – it’s seriously good.
Auralic Vega G2.1
The difference between the G2.1 and its G2 predecessor may not be huge in electronics terms but the casework is totally different, instead of a machined aluminium case the G2.1 has a box within a box. The inner one is copper to shield the delicate internals, the outer aluminium and shod in sprung isolating feet. This is a DAC with built in streamer, the latter is a good introduction to music streaming, the DAC is a beautiful beast that shows what great digital can do, it can take a busy piece of music that’s hard to understand and appreciate and turn it into something totally natural and coherent. The longer we used the Vega the harder it became to switch off.
Cambridge Audio Edge A
From the very moment it touched down on my doorstep, something told me that the hefty Edge A integrated amp was going to be something very special indeed. And once I’d liberated this 24kg beast from its packaging, despite my eagerness to get it cooking, I just had to pause and admire the sheer beauty of its design. Just like a Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini or any other piece of high performance luxury hardware, the Edge A is built to please the ears as well as the eyes. Rock and pop? No problem – this amp delivers complex studio mixes and solid bass lines in breath-taking detail and without breaking into a sweat. Vocals? Whether they’re female or male, the Edge A presents singers with a scale and emotion that grips the listener. Neither is this amp all about bulk and brute force, feed it with simpler sonatas or well-recorded classical music, and the Cambridge rewards with tonally-rich, measured performances that leave you mesmerised.
Chord Electronics 2go & Hugo 2
£995 & £1,800
Chord Electronics’ 2go is a bolt-on box that turns the flagship Hugo 2 DAC/headphone amp into an app-controlled, portable WiFi- and ethernet-enabled streamer/server. Supporting sampling rates of 32-bit/768kHz and DSD256, 2go not only pulls audio from your NAS, Tidal, Qobuz and internet radio, it also has two microSD slots providing up to 4TB of local storage. Setting new benchmarks for transparency and precision, the speedy Hugo 2 readily lays bare any weaknesses in partnering equipment. This makes 2go’s ability to accurately preserve the integrity of the incoming audio streams and effectively disappear from the audio chain all the more impressive. There are smaller and more ergonomic DAPs on the market, but they won’t reveal as much detail in music as this formidable Chord pairing.
Copland CSA 100
Of all the integrated amplifiers that have passed through my system since I started reviewing for The Ear back in 2018, the Copland CSA100 is the one which has lingered longest in my memory after it left. It looked great on the rack and seems to be extremely well made. It is graced with plenty of power to work well with almost any loudspeaker and it was a fine match for my own Harbeth C7ES XD and a pair of ‘guest’ Dynaudio Super Forty Anniversary bookshelf monitors. The CSA100 has a single dual-triode valve in the preamplifier section and MosFETs in the power amplifier section. Together they produce a sound that can be sweet and gentle or reasonably raucous when the music demands it. Fitted with a very good sounding DAC, the CSA100 will sit easily at the heart of many a fine system.
Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2
The Aeon 2 closed-back, planar-magnetic headphone from Dan Clark Audio proves that the traditional compromises between fidelity and practicality are no longer set in stone. Featuring driver technology from the flagship Ether 2 open-back and an ingenious travel-friendly design, Aeon 2 delivers an immersive, full-range sound with incredible impact and definition and a spacious soundstage that will even surprise open-back devotees. There are headphones that outshine Aeon 2 in specific areas, but none that do as much justice to as many genres of music, and none that provide such exceptional comfort. I doubt there’s a better all-rounder for the money.
Subwoofers have had a bad rap over the years, that’s partly because it’s not so easy to make a good one and also because they need to be large to be able to do the job. The greatest benefit of a sub like this Eclipse is that it enhances the whole frequency range and not just the bass, opening up harmonics in the mid and treble that are not audible without it. But the bass is fabulous too, deep and clean with enough speed to match the speakers. The effect it has is to increase the fun factor by enhancing timing and relaxing the overall presentation. We want one.
Reclockers are not a new thing but previous examples have not revealed their full potential to the extent that the Phoenix USB does. Placed between a digital source and a USB DAC it significantly enhances timing and definition so that instruments become more solid and coherent and the soundstage deepens. It’s the equivalent of a streamer in terms of what is achieved sonically but does this by removing noise from the signal and increasing timing precision. In a revealing system it performs better than many streamers, delivering a highly articulate and lifelike sound if the recording allows it. Innuos have effectively replaced a fundamental part of the streaming chain and proved that it can be done better.
Lyngdorf TDAI 1120
I had this all-in-one device here twice this year, once for a standalone review and later for a three way showdown with two of its closest rivals in what has become a hotly contested segment of the market. It combines an amplifier and a streamer, as well as allowing for other external source components to be attached. Those seeking great sound from the minimum amount of hardware, this new generation of all-in-one devices have set a new standard. The Lyngdorf TDAI 1120, generated great sound, was easy to use and came with a very decent moving magnet phono stage. However, its ace-in-the-hole is Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect software. Very easy to use, this is the best way that I know to get the most from one’s loudspeakers in any room. The microphone, leads and stand are included in the box and once RoomPerfect has been run, it is totally fuss-free in use, but can be run again if there’s a change of loudspeakers, for example.
Network Acoustics ENO and Streaming Cable
Network Acoustics is a new venture, launched in the middle of this crazy year by Richard Trussell and Rob Osbourn. They have come up with a passive filtering system that magically takes away all, or at least most, of the digital noise that comes through the ethernet and into your streamer. Nothing is added to the sound but a lot of the nastiness is taken away. Used with my Lyngdorf TDAI 3400, it has elevated the sound of streaming both from a Naim Unitiserve and Qobuz to be as good as CD, it even gives my vinyl replay a good run for its money. You can buy the ENO on its own but I tested it with a very high end ethernet cable and then with Network Acoustics own streaming cable, and the latter sounded significantly better. The bundle saves money and you will be amazed at how much more your streamer has got to give. Recommending these products as one of my components of the year was the easiest decision for me.
By combining technologies developed for its high end models PMC has come up with a winner in the twenty5.26i floorstander. It has isolation built into the outrigger base that cleans up the midrange, fins in the end of the transmission line to ease airflow and a superb combination of drivers. All of which make this a vivid, realistic and highly enjoyable loudspeaker with excellent bass, smooth effortless treble and transparent midrange. It reveals just how good the source and amplifier are of course but the music always comes first.
Stack Audio Link II
We gave Stack Audio an award for the first Link network bridge last year but instead of resting on their laurels they have upgraded the software and the clock to create an even better streamer. Connect this to a USB DAC and a music server and/or streaming service and you have the basis for some very compelling digital audio. The balance is on the lean side but the timing, detail and bass are all in a much higher class than is normal at this price. As is the hewn from solid build, the Link II isn’t big but it’s beautifully formed and now has the option of a power supply upgrade. Put it this way, it’s still in the reference system.
Townshend Allegri Reference
We have been using a Townshend Allegri+ and its predecessor for a long time at the Ear but that remarkable passive preamplifier is not in the same league as the Allegri Reference, very few preamps are. By combining autotransformers with relays it manages to be the most effortless and revealing preamplifier you can imagine, with huge dynamic range and bass to die for. The relays allow for huge range of 129 half decibel volume steps and the spring isolation feet help the Allegri Reference deliver the finest detail in the fastest yet smoothest fashion. It might look odd on its big feet but this is one of the best preamps money can buy.
Xavian Corallo Esclusivo
Xavian is a brand I’d heard at shows but never in my own space, until the Corallo Esclusivo appeared. I was blown away by this bookshelf speaker’s abilities and sheer neutrality but not in a dull, bland way. Here is a transducer capable of creating plenty of foot-tapping quality through superb timing that’s never lacklustre despite that natural balance. The build quality is superb and they look good as well as sounding simply awesome across a wide range of material while possessing more than a hint of professional audio credentials. Best of all, manufacturing in Prague keeps the price down and makes the Corallo Esclusivo one of the audio bargains of the decade.