This has been another cracking year for new products. The wider world may be thrilled by yet another wireless system but for those of us that appreciate the finer things, life continues to get better. Vinyl is in resurgence, more players are getting involved with high res streaming and Rega is still making the world’s greatest turntable. But we reviewed that last year, the following are our favourites from this year. Enjoy and have a great Christmas and new year.
The Jitterbug is a small data and power noise filter that remove most of the unwanted rubbish existing on USB circuits when plugged into a USB socket. It works for USB hard disks, USB connections from your computer to a DAC, on routers, NAS devices, streaming devices etcetera. I have heard the results of the JitterBug between a computer dedicated to music and a USB input DAC. I have also tried the JitterBug in an unused USB input on a Bluesound Node 2 and in between the dedicated USB connection of a NAD M52 Digital Vault to a M50 network player. In all cases the JitterBug removes the last trace of what is considered “digital sound”. Maybe a Universal Serial Bus should never have been used for transporting digitally stored music, being universal it’s not optimized for audio, the JitterBug seems to solve most problems by removing unwanted artefacts existing in the USB circuits. A must have for anyone using devices with USB connections, whether used or unused. The low price adds to the success AudioQuest has with the JitterBug. My cheapest and most effective tweak for 2015 (mine too – Ed).
Rene van Es
What’s not to like about a pocket size DAC that has the highest specs in the game, three inputs and costs £399. The fact that it sounds great is the main reason for its inclusion here, Mojo is one of the fastest sounding converters in the business, put it with a great USB source and you have a highly entertaining piece of kit. It can be used with headphones or in a system and its battery is specced to give ten hours of musical entertainment from each four hour charge. I used the Mojo with the Melco digital transport below and had a lot of fun in the process. It won’t upset serious mains powered DACs but the more affordable ones will need to up their game to stay in contention.
Harbeth Monitor 40.2
The number one rule for loudspeaker manufacturers is to be neutral. Harbeth is a long time manufacturer of loudspeakers that try to keep the sound as pure as possible. Great success was achieved this year with the Super HL5 Plus, but the latest and biggest monitor from the brand surpasses all other products that company owner Alan Shaw has made. The 40.2 could be considered the domestic version of the 40.1 that is often found in studios. The main reason for adding the Harbeth 40.2 to my list of best components of 2015 is the pureness of the sound and the natural way the music blends with any other sound in the listening room. Where a lot of loudspeakers are easily recognised as audio products, the 40.2 transduces voices and instruments as part of the environment. A little unavoidable bass coloration adds in a positive way to the character of the instruments, the midrange is as pure as can be for voices while the highest notes are always clear and never harsh in a wide stereo image. This big monitor may look old fashioned, even outdated in an era where small active and DSP driven speakers keep appearing on the market, but once you experience the 40.2 you may be addicted for ever. To preserve the unique character of any Harbeth I strongly recommend putting them on German TonTräger stands, since they have minimal effect on the sound, almost like a Harbeths floating on the air.
Rene van Es
The Melco N-1A is a NAS and switch combined with 4TB of space and a direct connection for the streamer via Ethernet or for a DAC from its USB output. Most of its functionality could be emulated if you got linear power supplies for the computer peripheral alternatives but the fact that the N-1A has been designed from the ground up to be a quiet source of digital audio data makes it better sounding than all but the best sorted of networks, and even those don’t have a USB feed. I have been using the Melco since it turned up in the spring and can report that it is reliable, easily controlled with third party software (when used with a USB DAC) and supremely quiet. I have used it with a number of streamers and DACs and always get superb. This product deserves an award for making computer audio that much better sounding in an affordable and well executed package.
Metrum Acoustics Pavane DAC
With the Pavane DAC Metrum Acoustics surpassed all its previous products. By shifting the lower 12 bits of a 24 bit signal into a separate converter and threating them as upper 12 it has a unique architecture. The signal is matched with the 12 bits that were not shifted in the analogue stage, resulting in an astonishing -140dB S/N ratio. The Pavane is capable of passing on even the tiniest details from a CD or streamed file, delivering them in a very precisely layered sound stage, and Metrum’s R2R ladder converters do not need up sampling or oversampling to be among the best in the world. I have been using the Pavane since it appeared on the market and it never fails to deliver a dynamic and musically convincing sound that will satisfy the most demanding music lover by virtue of the tremendous insight it provides about the way each recording was made. It preserves the timbre of the instruments and voices and at the same time never sounds technical. The Pavane is a great product and in relation to other high end DACs on the market, something of a bargain.
Rene van Es
My product of 2015 is an easy one, it is MrSpeakers Ether open-back V-planar magnetic headphones. In addition to being the most sonically resolving, layered and spacious headphone I have auditioned at this price point through everything from portable music devices to high end hi-fi systems, Ether is by far the most comfortable headphone I have had the pleasure of wearing. Thanks to its soft and cool leather ear-pads, headband and flexible memory metal cradle, Ether is the only earspeaker I can wear for hours without experiencing even the slightest discomfort. It is also the only one that quenches my desire to revert to my loudspeakers, and I cannot give a higher compliment than that.
Music First Baby Ref V2
Music First has been making a strong case for passive TVCs (transformer volume controls) for many years now but when Jonathan Billington made some changes to his top model the Baby Reference earlier in the year this compact controller leaped into the stratosphere. You will be hard pressed to find a more revealing and transparent preamplifier, regardless of cost, what’s more because of its passive nature it is incredibly relaxed at the same time. The music just flows through it. Build and finish are first class but the shine is nothing compared to the grins on the faces of those that have heard one.
Music First Reference Phono Stage
My recommendation for the Product of the Year must go, though, to Music First Audio’s Reference Phono Stage, recently reviewed. For once I really did have my breath taken away. Before anyone jumps on the proverbial bandwagon about ‘well, it should at that price’, or ‘so he’s got a hi-end system, so there’s no surprise there’, and other critical comments, I will say here and now that it was a very close-run thing, with the iPhono also in the frame, and looking at a digital source, the DiDiT DAC was also ‘up there’. Not that the iPhono isn’t a fantastic piece of kit, and for the money an astonishing bargain, or that the DAC doesn’t cut the mustard, because in their different ways they both do.
However, if one is paying ‘the ultimate price’, it’s rare, in my view, that you get the ultimate performance. With the Music First you got just that. In many ways that’s a taller order than making a great budget product because the more you have to spend on R&D etc, the harder it becomes to make the product that much better. That’s what clinched it for me. In my view the Reference Phono Stage really is that good.
Naim NAP 250 DR
The mighty Statement pre/power changed everything, it proved that transparency, bandwidth and detail resolution could be achieved within the PRT dominated world of Naim. Previous Naim amps have been extremely enjoyable, engaging devices but after what they learnt with Statement Naim’s engineers have been able to add qualities to their amps that were previously the domain of the high end. The NAP 250 DR proves this with ease, it is thrillingly fast and dynamic, revealing and downright hard to put down. It’s a cake and eat it product that shows the world you can have high fidelity and musical joy in one box.