2021 may not have been the year that many of us had hoped for, there was only one hi-fi show in the UK and not many more elsewhere, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers both large and small who have produced some absolutely outstanding audio components in that time. Our best of the year round up collects the best of these as chosen by the Ear’s team of reviewers, each one has been tried and tested and found to be excellent in both the short and long terms. We tend not to review products that don’t sound good so these are literally the best of the best that we have heard over the last 12 months. Click on the model names for a full review of each.
Acoustic Energy AE500
As a reviewer there are certain products which immediately stand out as being rather special. Acoustic Energy’s two-way, stand-mount AE500 was one such loudspeaker. So much so that I delayed the review to keep them at home for as long as possible. I still regret letting them go and wish I had simply purchased the review pair. There’s probably no greater endorsement that that.
Well-made, competently engineered and a delight to listen to across genres, the AE500s produced a sound of grand proportions from their compact enclosures. At the asking price they continue to represent excellent value for money and are simply not going to disappoint. A worthy contender for Best of 2021.
Ansuz Powerswitch X-TC
The notion that a network or data switch can make a real difference in a streaming system was radical a year or two back but anyone that’s heard what a good one can do in terms of removing hardness and background hash will be fully aware of their potential. Danish company Ansuz grasped that switches can be designed to block high frequency noise earlier than most and makes a range of four models of which the Powerswitch X-TC is the entry model. It allows streamed music to sound more open, relaxed and detailed, taking away any sense of the digital and revealing the beauty of the music in no uncertain terms. A good switch can transform a streaming system and this is certainly a good switch.
Astell&Kern A&norma SR25
Distinctively tactile and ergonomic design makes the Astell&Kern portable audio player as satisfying to operate as it is to listen to. The large screen, long battery life, broad sample rate support and low noise floor of the A&norma SR25 represents even better value for money than the outgoing SR15. While its single-ended headphone output is affably warm and intimate, the more powerful balanced output steals the show and delivers a clarity and openness that not only leaves smartphones in the dust but also holds its own against comparatively-priced desktop solutions.
Auralic Aries G2.1
Auralic’s best streamer is a dedicated network bridge without an onboard DAC, it is designed to pull data from a hard or solid state drive and present it to the converter in as clean and coherent a fashion as possible. This it does to a very high standard thanks to top notch build quality, copper internal shielding and Auralic’s Lightning DS server software. Combine the Aries G2.1 with a good quality music library and DAC and you will get a good idea of what digital is capable of, which is very high resolution combined with excellent timing and class leading imaging.
For the second year running I am nominating a Copland integrated amplifier as one of my products of the year. This time it is the CSA150 which makes the cut. With a 6922 vacuum tube in the double triode preamplifer section, and MOSFET transistors in the output stage, the CSA150 delivers 150 watts into an 8 Ohm loudspeaker load and 230 watts into 4 Ohms. The sound is terrific; powerful and driving when required but equally happy presenting delicate and subtle sounds too. The CSA150 is an amplifier that will give many years of musical delight.
Diapason Karis III
Diapason speakers are lovingly made in Italy and a joy to behold; the compact, two-way Karis in improved mark III form lived up to every expectation. Above all is this speaker’s ability to transport the listener to the recording, creating the performance across a 3D soundstage far beyond anything expected from an enclosure of this size. The sound simply flows cohesively and produces immensely enjoyable and highly believable presentation. Close the eyes and believe. It’s a masterpiece of a loudspeaker. Such quality and high-levels of enjoyment means the Karis remains a firm favourite, easily justifying its Best of 2021 status.
Klipsch Forte IV
With my initial preconceptions turned truly on their head, the Forte IV is perhaps the most complete speaker you could wish for at this level. With very articulate, deep and dextrous bass (thanks to both the 12-inch woofer and its partnering rear-facing 15-inch passive radiator), and coupled seamlessly with not one but two horn-loaded drivers (mid- and treble), this is a combination which, just like the bumble bee, shouldn’t fly. But fly it does. Unfazed by programme material or genre, this mid-sized floorstander is able to offer the transparency usually reserved for electrostatics, coupled with a bottom end to rival some stand-alone subs, its high efficiency making dynamic contrasts an utter joy. Definitely on my want list.
The Melco N10 is a music server and streamer that betters most separate examples of the breed. In the past it has always been possible to upgrade a server/streamer with a separate streamer, not so here. The N10 with a good DAC takes away any sense of the digital in your music files and presents them with a natural effortlessness that eludes most digital sources. By separating the power supply from the audio circuitry and hard drive Melco have made the N10 the quietest music library in their range, and this can be heard in the clarity of instruments and voices as well as the precision of timing and imaging with which they are delivered. The N10 proved to be a keeper.
This unprepossessing Swiss converter is a bit of a wolf in sheep’s attire, it looks pretty simple but the electronics contained within its artfully constructed chassis produce results that are rare at almost any price. I likened it to DNM amplifiers because it has an immediacy and transparency that makes for tremendous musical engagement when you get the source sorted. It’s take no prisoners attitude opens up recordings and invites you in to their worlds, if those worlds are intense and lively that’s what you hear but equally a polished recording will produce a sophisticated sound. Low level resolution is superb and this produces intoxicating results that make it very hard to press stop and turn in. One for the music junkies who don’t have to get up too early.
Moor Amps Angel 6
Small companies sometimes come up with remarkable audio components and that is clearly the case with Moor Amps. The Angel 6 power amplifier is a bulky brute that’s wider than most equipment racks but that’s because it’s a no compromise 150 Watt design that really delivers the goods. It achieves the remarkable feat of combining power with finesse, speed with gravitas and musicality with control, it is also extremely revealing. The Angel 6 is capable of driving difficult loudspeakers whilst producing fluent and effortless music in such a way that you just want to keep listening.
PMC fact fenestria
PMC have been refining the art of the transmission line loudspeaker for 30 years now and with the fact fenestria they have achieved something that few loudspeaker makers have matched. Which is that they don’t sound like loudspeakers and really do disappear to let the music inhabit the room with all the life and presence of the real thing. It’s like having your hearing upgraded, there is so much going on in familiar recordings, and what’s more those recordings sound better than they ever did. Those recordings sound completely different to one another as well and that’s a good sign. A remarkable tour de force, if you have the space and the money it would be foolish not to try them.
Rogers LS5/9 Classic SE
How fitting that Rogers should resurrect this BBC-designed studio monitor given that they were the original manufacturer and official supplier. Created as a compact alternative to the LS5/8, this smaller variant was my main monitor in countless control rooms during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Available in SE form now, with more rigid front baffle and improved crossover inductors, the LS5/9 retained all its magic for me, bringing a smile to my face. The shoebox LS3/5A was such a compromised design that it failed to make Grade One monitor status. Its larger brother provides so much more in terms of frequency range and analytical ability. This is a genuine piece of audio history that stands up against today’s fierce competition.
Sparkos Labs Aries
Better known for designing high quality components for other manufacturers and DIY upgraders, Sparkos Labs’ unexpected entry to the headphone market with such an accomplished amplifier is a remarkable feat. Equipped with Sparkos’ finest discrete Class-A op-amps and an ultra-low noise reed relay switched 64-step attenuator, Aries delivers what is arguably the perfect blend of transparency and musicality and is able to reveal the smallest details with exceptional tonal integrity. I’ve yet to hear a headphone amp at this price that dissolves the acoustic barriers between performer and listener any better.
Tisbury Audio Domino
The Tisbury Audio Domino phono stage flies in the face of convention, offering really top-notch performance in such a modest understated simple package. Its flexibility and adaptability coupled with its ability to be hidden away coupled with an uncanny ability to really make vinyl replay a ‘music-making’ experience is perhaps unparalleled at this price point. With its exceptionally low noise floor, range of settings to cope with all but ultra-low-output MCs it will pass muster with partnering equipment from far loftier price points.
Vertere Acoustics Sabre
Moving magnet cartridges used to be considered less worthy of an audiophile’s respect than the moving coil designs, but this burnt orange beauty by Touraj Moghaddam’s Vertere is going to seriously challenge that attitude. It has a full-bodied sound, even-handedly portraying the full frequency range. It is very musical and engaging, encouraging extended listening sessions. It is supplied with thumbscrews to fit it to the arm’s headshell – no fiddly Allen keys here. As with most MM designs, the stylus can be replaced, which will make this a boon for professional users and enthusiastic amateurs alike.
Vivid Audio Kaya S12
Vivid’s smallest loudspeaker is also one of the most involving and revealing loudspeakers on the planet. By building the cabinet out of moulded polyurethane designer Laurence Dickie has been able to channel the rear output from the driver in such a way that it doesn’t bounce back and this provides a degree of clarity that is inspiring. Perceived distortion is significantly lower than with many speakers and that makes for uncanny realism and maximum thrill power with the music that you love. They image beautifully by disappearing behind the music and the timing is to die for, even the bass is remarkable and this is not a big loudspeaker.
Zavfino 1877Phono Fusion MkII & Nova-OCC
This Canadian company may not be a familiar name, but it deserves to be. I tested XLR and RCA interconnects and a pair of loudspeaker cables, and in all three cases was more than impressed with their build quality and, perhaps more importantly, their sonic qualities. They would rate serious consideration at twice their price, but at the current UK retail prices I believe that they represent one of the best bargains currently on offer to the discerning audiophile and thoroughly deserve their place on this list.