Hardware Reviews

Best hi-fi of 2023

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

The Ear picks the best hi-fi of 2023

2023 has been a tough year for the hi-fi industry but that has done nothing to stem the flow of first class products coming to market. In fact there are even more extraordinary audio components to choose from than there were last year, with advances made in virtually every area. The best hi-fi of 2023 is a collection of the products that the Ear’s reviewers consider to be the very finest that they have enjoyed over the year. We tend not to review products that don’t sound good so these are literally the best of the best that we have tested in that time. These remarkable components are listed in alphabetical and you can click on the model names for a full review of each.

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

3 Square Audio Ayal
standmount loudspeakers
£1,900

I really was wowed by these little gems them. My first hearing at a show caught me by surprise because these loudspeakers should not do that they do. When I had them on loan for review, they still did what they shouldn’t do. They perform, and really rather well. You really could be forgiven for expecting to see a much larger speaker. Their range of dynamic contrasts (and ability to present it well) is superb. It’s very much a seamless bottom-to-top frequency response in room, and the voicing is ‘just right’. The acid test is whether, having written the review, the speakers still sound the same sometime later and in a different context. I came across them much later this year, at a different show, and yes, I still stand by my initial findings, and in actuality, feel I might even have sold them a bit short. They really are rather good. CB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Auralic Aries G2.2
network streamer
£5,299

Auralic revise their range of streamers and DACs on a regular basis and each step has proved to be significant, but the change brought about the G2.2 upgrade proved to be rather larger than usual. The Aries G2.2 streamer may look similar to its predecessor but performance is next level stuff, fit a hard drive inside and you have a streamer and library that competes with the best separate. The G2.2 puts Aries in contention with streamers at considerably higher prices, the bar has most certainly been raised. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

 

Børresen X3
floorstanding loudspeakers
£11,000

The Børresen X3 has the build and finish that Danish speaker guru Michael Børresen usually saves from products costing significantly more, yet by paring back the tech just a bit and building the X3 in decent numbers he has been able to create a loss leader of a high end loudspeaker. The spread tow carbon fibre drive units, double copper caps in the motor system and ribbon tweeter in a substantial yet beautifully styled cabinet combine to deliver some of the most refined and dynamic sounds available at the price. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Bowers & Wilkins 801 Signature
floorstanding loudspeakers
£45,000

The latest flagship in Bowers & Wilkins fleet is a highly refined and lavishly finished design that leaves literally no detail unattended in the quest for maximum transparency with minimum colouration. With twin 10 inch bass drivers, a surround-less midrange in a machined aluminium case and a diamond dome tweeter the 801 was already a star player in the high end. The changes introduced for the Signature version appear small but when added together result in an even more revealing and thrilling loudspeaker, one that delivers passion along with power and glory. This means that as well as driving the room with uncannily articulate bass the 801 Signature pulls you into the music and delivers a degree of involvement that few can match at the price.

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

CAD Ground Control GC 1.1
ground control box
£1,995

If ever there was a product I did not know I needed in my system until I tried it, then this is it. The GC 1.1 is perfectly formed to fit next to the average-sized component on the average rack yet allows your system to deliver a performance that is far from average. Whether I hooked it up to my Melco server or the mains block feeding my system, the GC 1.1’s noise-reducing abilities helped to deliver a more detailed and dynamic sound in a more holographic soundstage. It is one of those devices you remove from your system at your peril. The beauty of CAD’s Ground Control range is that their effect is incremental, and further GC 1.1s, or even the big brother GC 3.1, can be added as budget allows. CAD is quite possibly the most significant brand in high-end audio that remains under the radar. CB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Dali Epikore 11
floorstanding loudspeakers
£40,000

The Epikore is a substantial loudspeaker that relies on a lot more than size to deliver some of the most effortless high resolution sounds we heard this year. Dali has harnessed a range of technologies developed for the Kore flagship to create a loudspeaker that reflects what’s on a recording with accuracy and precision yet avoids adding colourations of its own to a degree rarely heard even at this elevated level. If you have some space to give them the Epikores reward with highly engaging music making that will keep you up all night long. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Hegel H600
streaming amplifier
£10,500

This was one of the easiest Best of the Year decisions I have ever had to make. In its new reference integrated, Norway’s Hegel has a powerhouse of an amplifier alongside one of the finest DACs I have heard. Ease-of-use is paramount to this manufacturer along with creating effortless delivery of delicious detail, thunderous bass and a smooth, fluid treble with outstanding levels of clarity and detail from the new model. Looks are typically minimal but the design is exemplary, even when presented with ‘difficult’ loudspeaker loads of very low impedance. Nothing seems to faze the H600. TB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Holoaudio Bliss
headphone amplifier/preamplifier
€3.390 (£2,940)

Not only does Jeff Zhu’s much-anticipated flagship Class-A headphone amplifier with stereo preamp functionality achieve state-of-the-art technical performance from a discrete topology, it seemingly does so without making even the slightest of compromises on musicality. Bliss’s fully-balanced, dual-mono design and precision stepped relay attenuator with auto-adjusting gain combines life-like timbre and holographic imaging with captivating detail and dynamics to deliver an effortlessly natural and spacious listening experience with headphones and loudspeakers alike. I haven’t heard better at its price. RB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Kii Three BXT
active digital loudspeakers
£31,467

Kii Audio put DACs, DSP and Class D amplifiers into some of the most advanced loudspeakers on the market and the result is quite astonishing. The price might look high but when you consider that all you need to get genuinely high end sound is a digital or analogue source they start to look like fabulous value. With adjustable EQ to suit room and taste the Kii Three BXT system is incredibly flexible and delivers phenomenally high resolution, being active it can also produce high volume without effort and has bass that will get the furniture jumping. They are not just a technical tour de force either, the music they deliver is totally captivating. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Kleio K135
integrated amplifier
£4,750

It is a brave man who launches a brand new amplifier company and then pitches its first integrated model into the hotly contested area around the £5k mark. Garry Wise is just a such a hardy soul and his first foray into the sector with the K135 is an unqualified success. It is dynamic and as muscular or subtle as any music you play through its analogue inputs requires. I really enjoyed its tonal neutrality but with the crucial bass underpinnings being handled with great finesse, combining power and musicality to deliver a truly excellent listening experience. Seek it out for audition before you flex your credit card on any of the better known alternatives. CK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Melco N5
music server
£7,499

If you want to hear streamed music at its very best you need a super quiet library to store your files, the Melco N5 is one of the quietest and thus best sounding we have heard. A one box design with 5TB of solid state memory onboard it can be connected directly to a DAC via USB or to a streamer over ethernet. Based on the range topping N1 with a slightly less elaborate case the N5 is a tremendously sophisticated and articulate music streamer that competes with the very best when it comes to unveiling the finest details and delivering the most dynamic impacts. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Moon North 791/761
preamplifier/power amplifier
£16,000/£14,000

Although the full review is still in progress as I type, this combo has made too much of an impression to be ignored. Moon products have always had a reputation for requiring painfully long warm-up and running in times, something that they have addressed with the clever MDCA Comparative Tech. Sonically, the North Collection retains the big, dynamic, yet unfatiguing sound so beloved of Moon’s fanbase yet gains a new sense of immediacy and pace. Music is delivered with a sense of verve and life and times superbly. The 791’s OLED screen is a welcome update over the previous LEDs and displays album artwork, but the biggest ergonomic gain is the new BRM-1 remote, which duplicates the rotary volume control found on the preamp. Moon power amplifiers are famous for their ability to drive real-world loudspeakers, and the 761 is no exception. The way it grabbed hold of my speakers and controlled the lowest frequencies floored me, yet the sound was coherent from subterranean rumbles right up to the highest-pitch cowbell. All of this, combined with the battleship build quality and flexible inputs, puts this combo at the top of my lottery win list. CB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Music First Audio Reference V2.1
passive preamplifier
£7,920

I started this review by commenting that each time MFA’s designer makes a new product he ventures into areas where I think no improvement could be made. The saddest test of this, for me, was having to return it. My usual preamp is no slouch, it’s musical, transparent, and capable of conveying the emotional content of the music being played really well. It has the ability to drag you along with the music. But, and it’s a huge BUT, the MFA V2.1 goes even further. So much so that my preamp, and MFA’s earlier preamps are rather left at the starting gate.

It’s not that you can’t hear it – it’s an amazingly quiet beast – but that all the details you thought were coming through now have micro-details accompanying them. It makes listening to music an even more real experience. I know the lifting a veil analogy has been used ad nauseam, but the MFA allows a clarity of presentation which really shocked me. How does Music First do it? But that doesn’t really matter, as long as they keep on doing it music replay in the home could hardly be better served that by the Reference V2.1. CB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Neat Mystique Classic
floorstanding loudspeaker
from £2,475

I normally avoid floorstanding loudspeakers in favour of the benefits of standmounts but in the new Neat Mystique Classic we get the best of both worlds in a value-for-money package. The cabinet is compact and the design competently engineered to produce an entertaining sound in a most absorbing and enjoyable manner. There is no sordid attempt to over-excite and distract from what the recording engineer intended. Instead, we are immersed in a natural and wholly-believable sound which brings the performance home, literally. TB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Network Acoustics Tempus
network switch
£3,995

The humble network switch has an important role in any streaming system, if well designed it can keep the electrical noise that plagues the format at bay and allow a streamer to produce results that will surprise many. The Network Acoustics Tempus is just such a switch, one which does for timing what we thought was only possible with vinyl, it does this by delivering the cleanest of packet data which in turn results in a pristine signal that sounds both more natural and realistic than is usually possible. Tempus proves that the back of a streaming system is as critical as the streamer and DAC. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Node Hylixa Signature
standmount loudspeaker
£30,000

Going back over my work for The Ear this year, this pair of extraordinary loudspeakers stood out as a true highlight – not just for this year but ever since I first got hooked on audio many decades ago. One leading London dealer told me that they were “rejected on their looks alone”, which I understand but with which I have to disagree. Yes they are visually striking but that would count for nothing if they did not sound sublime, which they most certainly do. If you have the considerable asking price available, and a room worthy of their presence, you should set aside preconceptions and arrange to hear them. You will not be disappointed. CK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Origin Live Agile
tonearm
£10,200

Subtle and knowing evolution of Mark Baker’s original hybrid bearing design results in a family of tone arms from the highly affordable to the costly. The Agile is second from top, just over £10,000, and in the context of what the competition offers could almost be called a bargain despite the five-figure price-tag. Both in terms of build quality and sonically it is beyond reproach; refined, revealing and irrepressibly musical all at the same time. Even hardened vinyl lovers are shocked by just how much more satisfying familiar recordings are when the Agile is used. If the world were fair, everyone would get to own and enjoy a tone arm of such quality at least once in their life. KF

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

PMC prodigy5
floorstanding loudspeakers
£1,995

For the prodigy series PMC combined their studio drive units with no frills cabinets they created the most thrilling and competitively priced transmission line loudspeakers on the market. They may look understated but the sound they conjure up is anything but, in fact it’s downright thrilling. The prodigy5 is small enough to fit into any room but makes a sound that will fill surprisingly big spaces. Timing is superb and bass as tight as you like, put on a groove and you won’t be able to sit still. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Quiescent T100MPA
monoblock power amplifiers
£40,000/pair

A shoo-in for product of the year, the T00MPA monoblocks qualify both because they set such an incredibly high benchmark for sonic quality and because they do so using technology that is truly disruptive.
Quiescent, a British company, has evolved passive EMI and microphony mitigation originally developed for defence applications and applied it to audio. The company offers a number of devices that absorb EMI and microphony at key points in an audio system. The T100MPAs, and their sister stereo amplifier the T100SPA, use the same patented technology inside. We hear familiar recordings shorn of all but the last smidgin of sonic pollution and now revealed in all their pristine dynamic and tonal glory. The experience cannot be un-heard. From that point on, all other amplification just sounds plain wrong; we cannot stop our attention zooming in on intermodulation and hash that we now know to be artefacts caused by EMI and microphony. Watch the industry play catch-up. KF

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

 

Rega Naia
turntable & arm
£9,999

Rega established the principles that it felt were fundamental to turntable design in the Naiad concept model 10 years ago, this year they delivered Naia, the production version of that design and a leader in its class. If there is a more neutral, revealing and musically inspiring turntable at or near its price we would be surprised, Naia makes the competition sound coloured and slow by extracting more perfectly timed detail out of the groove than any of them. If you need proof that vinyl is the ultimate music format available today look no further than the Rega Naia. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Revival Atalante 3
standmount loudspeaker
£2,195

Somewhat reminiscent of that famous TV advert where the man is so impressed with his razor that he buys the company, I could not let the review pair of Atalante 3s go and now own them as my daily reference. This two-way stand-mount from the relatively new Revival Audio of France are well-engineered, beautifully constructed and offer a value-for-money option for high-quality listening. With good looks and a great sound, the 3s re-create what the recording engineer intended and possess what’s becoming an all-too-rare quality in loudspeakers: accurate reproduction. TB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Sonus faber Amati G5
floorstanding loudspeakers
£30,000

We said that the Sonus faber Amati G5 sounds better than it looks because, as most would agree, it looks fantastic. What’s less obvious to the naked eye is just how sumptuous and beautiful this speaker sounds on the end of a good system. Sonus faber threw a lot of tech at this beefy floorstander and result is pinpoint imaging, delicious midrange and juicy bass the like of which is rarely heard. With a good recording this speaker breaks through the barrier between listener and performance, putting both in the same place, it’s a time machine. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Soulnote A-2
integrated amplifier
£6,300

This is on the face of it is a straightforward analogue amplifier without digital inputs, streaming capability or even the feintest notion of wireless operation, and this is probably part of its secret. It concentrates on one job and does it with so much panache and charm that it’s very hard to put down. It is very rare to find an amp that has phenomenally good timing AND a refined, relaxed presentation that gives tonal richness along with the immediacy of the music. I tried the A-2 with a variety of loudspeakers and found that it worked better with some than others as you might expect, but on every occasion the impulse was to sit and listen for longer. Add to this its first class build and finish plus some advanced techniques for combatting vibration and you have a very tempting amplifier at a very reasonable price. JK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Supatrac Blackbird
tonearm
from £2,300

This arm transformed my vinyl listening, and to a degree I still haven’t recovered from hearing my collection in such a musical, coherent and focussed way. There’s an undeniable something about the Blackbird which really hangs on to you when you’re listening. I keep wondering whether it’s the fact that the unipivot is horizontal, so the stylus drag is pulling the pivot in rather than along it as in virtually every other arm.

The other thing which warrants mention is that it is probably the most stable unipivot arm I’ve yet encountered (and there have been more than a few). Nothing seems to upset it, and despite trying some very warped and off-centre pressings it still delivers the goods. Sonically it’s engaging, revealing, musical, coherent and a very open conduit between stylus/groove and the subsequent electronics, and it’s possibly the quietest arm I’ve yet to hear. CB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Tellurium Q Statement II
interconnect cable
from £4,840

Although by no means a newcomer, Tellurium Q’s chief engineer Geoff Merrigan continues to work his magic trick of improving upon that which had previously seemed beyond criticism. The top of the range Statement series of cables has garnered a fistful awards both here in the UK and around the audio world. I was able to compare those original Statement interconnects in both RCA and XLR configurations with the next-generation mkII versions, and was taken aback at the overall improvement in sound quality that I witnessed. More of everything came through the loudspeakers: airier treble, punchier bass of course but above all more of what we are all pursuing in this hobby, pure musical pleasure. CK

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Townshend DCT Isolda
speaker cable
from £765/2m pair

These cables get under your skin the longer you have them in your system. Whilst I was initially impressed with this fine cable, it was only when I removed it and replaced it with my previous reference loom that I fully appreciated the magic they bring to the music. Perhaps I used the wrong term here; it is more about what it does not add. The way these cables allow the lowest frequencies to flow to and control your speakers is something to behold. Having lived with the DCT Isolda cables, I find most alternatives sound overly spotlit and fatiguing by comparison. They are designed to be virtually immune to RFI, so they can be placed closer to your mains cables than would typically be possible with other cables. You owe it to yourself to try either these or the company’s F1 Fractal cables, but be warned: you may not want to return to go back. CB

The Ear Best hi-fi of 2023 https://the-ear.net

Vertere MG1 MkII, Imperium, Mystic & Phono1 MkII
record player
£24,945

2023 saw the third visit of the excellent Vertere MG1 to my system, but this time with significant upgrade in the shape of the Imperium motor drive unit and the Phono1 MkII phono stage set up to get the best out of Vertere’s own Mystic moving coil cartridge. The only word to describe to the sound from this record player is epic. In this instance it makes perfect sense to entrust the whole business of extracting the maximum amount of musical information from one’s precious vinyl to Vertere founder Touraj Moggadham’s extraordinary skill as an audio system designer. This is a phenomenal vinyl replay system. CK

Author:

Chris Baillie, Richard Barclay, Chris Beeching, Trevor Butler, Kevin Fiske, Chris Kelly, Jason Kennedy

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