It’s been a bumper year for great new products at the Ear, there have been so many that our list has had to be expanded to cope. But fear not these are still the most essential new products to appear in 2017. The first one has not yet been reviewed on the Ear but René has experienced it and considers the AE1 Active to be worthy, so we had better get a pair in pronto. This is also the first year when the same brand has garnered two accolades, but it’s also the first time that PMC have released a remarkable amplifier as well as several exceptional loudspeakers, choosing just one of those was hard enough. So without further ado, here in alpha order are the best new components of the year.
Acoustic Energy AE1 Active
When the latest active version of the Acoustic Energy AE One arrived it made me wonder how many times can you keep a name and alter the product. This classic design still uses a 125mm metal cone and a 27mm aluminium dome tweeter, but has been made active with two built-in 50 Watt class AB amplifiers and an electronic 4th order crossover. On the back are a reflex slot and the heat sinks for the amps. Tone controls change the bass and treble output and a volume control is also included. This AE1 Active accepts analogue signals on RCA and XLR inputs.
They are so good that I thought that the asking price for a pair was for one unit only. Such remarkable results were possible with pop and jazz music, but for classical work I would look elsewhere. This speaker rocks and the impact of drums and other instruments is explosive thanks its dynamic capabilities. If you own a preamp or streamer with analogue output these loudspeakers will do a great job, they will also work nicely on the mixing desk of a home studio. Recommended and not only for performance, they are a steal.
René van Es
Audio Technica ART1000
The most radical redesign of the moving coil cartridge in decades resulted in the most thrilling and revealing sound from vinyl that I have encountered in a long time. By putting the coils above the stylus rather than at the other end of the cantilever Audio Technica have built an incredibly fast and resolute cartridge. High end MCS often end up being super refined, polished and tonally charming at the expense of transparency and immediacy, which means that they have coloration that benefits some recordings more than others. The ART1000 is tonally neutral, truly wideband and uncannily transparent, it doesn’t do this by tweaking the response in the upper midrange to give a strong sense of detail as can often be the case, but by employing technological advantage. At this stage the ART1000 deserves to be alarming the makers of big money cartridges, it’s clearly one of the best in the business. I only hope that the lack of a boutique brand doesn’t stop people from finding out just how incredibly good it is. It’s one of those products that leaves a hole in your listening experience when it goes, it’s a heartbreaker, but better to have lived and loved as they say.
Bergmann Audio Magne
Although I’ve lusted after a Bergmann Audio turntable for years, it was not until the summer of 2017 that one of these Danish turntables found its way to my listening room. And now, looking back over the past twelve months, it was the Bergmann Audio Magne turntable that was responsible for bringing me the most pleasurable music listening hours of the year. The looks, the build and finish, the excellent specifications and above all the way it made my favourite music sound put it on top of my list of best audio components of 2017.
Jan de Jeu
Focal’s launch of its flagship dynamic, open-back, circumaural earspeaker, Utopia, had consumers and critics alike fervently eager to hear if its billing as the “world’s best headphone” was justified. Even in a booming headphone market, £3.5k is a hefty price for a pair of cans; indeed there aren’t many that cost more. Developing bespoke beryllium driver technology for four years isn’t a cheap endeavour, and when you hold Utopia in your hand there’s no mistaking that you’re in possession of a premium product crafted to truly exquisite standards. I waited almost a year for my audition, but the wait was worth it. Utopia is the most tonally balanced, resolving and musically involving headphone I have listened to. A select few others may win out in specific areas, but none come as close to being the total package across all musical genres, which might be enough to convince you that it represents good value for money. If you want the best all-round performer and can afford it, Utopia ought to be at the top of your list.
Pretty much a one-box solution to providing great quality sound, the Hegel Röst is a good-looking and easy-to-use integrated amp with amazing on-board DAC. Combine the Röst with a pair of decent speakers and iPad or iPhone and you have immediate access to your music library. The result is a silky-smooth presentation revealing inner detail not often found at this price-point.
Offering all the inputs and outputs one needs in this digital era, the Röst is a simple solution to domestic listening and can be used as a pre-amp/DAC to feed more powerful amplifiers. Designed by the incredible Bent Holter and his team in Oslo, construction is in the Far East to reduce costs but success relies on critical component matching in Norway.
The result from the all-transistor circuitry is sublime and thanks, in no small part, to the designer’s desire for an incredibly high damping-factor: an attribute that went out of fashion with many brands, but one which ensures the electronics have a real ‘grip’ on the speakers and thus great control over the resulting sound.
Naim Uniti Atom
It was with great pleasure that I laid my hands on the Naim Uniti Atom, the one box solution that replaced the Naim UnitiQute. This streamer/DAC/amplifier has a 40 Watt amplifier, and a true Naim designed class AB at that. This amp has an analogue volume control to make sure that the original resolution of digital data is maintained. The powerful linear power supply is built around a heavy toroidal transformer.
The display on the front gives you all information you need and is partly copied on the luxury remote control, or you can use the excellent Naim App to control all functions. Last but not least you have the Naim Statement look-a-like volume control on top. The many inputs both digital and analogue, the many different files the Uniti Atom accepts, Chromecast, Bluetooth, Airplay, Internet radio, Tidal, Spotify etc make the Uniti Atom into a music tool for everyday use, but also a powerful music system for smaller rooms. I have used the Atom with many loudspeaker systems, including Revel, Spendor, Audiovector, B&W and it always proved to be more than up to the task. The sound quality is excellent for the asking price, the looks are stunning and using the App a piece of cake. This is my number one choice for 2017.
René van Es
The name Professional Monitor Company implies that PMC is a manufacturer of loudspeakers and their presence on the amplifier battle field seems a bit odd, but with the cor they have proven to be capable of building not only the finest studio gear, but also of enabling owners of domestic PMC speakers to enjoy a close approach to pro sound. The cor is a traditional amplifier built around a Darlington type of circuit with only a single pair of power transistors for each channel, these deliver a healthy 95 Watts into 8Ω or 140 Watts into 4Ω. Its design brings to mind the golden days of hi-fi, when Lecson, Meridian and Mission were at their peak.
Listening to PMC fact.12 loudspeakers driven by the cor extended their capabilities and made them sound even more like large studio monitors. With this speaker the cor has no character of its own, it is an extension of the loudspeaker, for the most pure sound PMC is capable of, a natural partnership in every way. It also proved able to offer speed, dynamics, neutrality, tenderness and brute force on demand with loudspeakers from other brands. The cor is a mighty fine amplifier that will make you smile as long as you play your music. It is one of the most transparent and characterless amplifiers that I have had the pleasure to use at home. Recommended for both heart and soul.
René van Es
The next best thing to PMC’s finest domestic loudspeaker, the fact.12, the Twenty5.26 is an elegant and subtle design with sound quality that calmly gets under your skin and makes you want to listen for longer. The largest model in its range it has superb detailing in stainless steel plinth bars, custom made binding posts and lovely single piece spikes. The sound is even more beguiling, it’s highly transparent in an effortless fashion, and able to reveal the smallest things in the music as easily as the fundamentals. However it’s very hard to describe because it has so little character, as a result it reflects the quality of each recording you play with considerable precision. In many ways this is a speaker for all seasons, I tried all manner of music from electronica to Vivaldi and enjoyed all of it, heard new detail in most of it and rediscovered just how good some of the performances are. Separation of the different instruments and voices in any piece of music is very strong, it has the ability to open up the soundstage so that each piece of music can strut its stuff. If you love your music you’ll find it hard to resist.
Q-Acoustics Concept 500
Sometimes a product comes along that moves the goal posts, the Q-Acoustics Concept 500 is such a loudspeaker. It delivers the quality of sound that you expect of models costing twice as much, and then some. By combining the design talents of Karl Heinz-Fink with far eastern manufacture Q-Acoustics have managed to deliver high end results for mid market prices. There are a lot of good ideas in the Concept 500 but none are revolutionary, instead they are very well thought out and executed and combine to produce a sum that exceeds its parts.
Once you start playing your music through the Concept 500 it’s very hard to stop, not only does it reveal so much of the shape, colour and nature of each recording but it does so with perfect timing, the bass line is always in sync with the rest of the rhythm notes so everything hangs together in highly convincing fashion. I don’t often get products that I desperately want to keep hold of but this is one of them, so can anyone who knows the secret of winning the lottery get in touch please, it’s an emergency!
Rega Planar 6
Rega’s most recent model change was from RP6 to Planar 6, a move which saw a fundamental change to the plinth from wood to a foam core with laminate skins. The P6 is thus closer in construction to an RP8 than a P3 and you can hear it in the very high resolution and vanishing levels of distortion that lie behind it’s inspiring music playing capability. It also has the power supply tech of an RP10, one of the finest turntables on the planet, so you can expect a lot. What you don’t expect is so much finesse from such an unassuming but quietly confident design, it looks cool in matte black with a smoked lid but sounds even cooler with your favourite music under the matching Ania moving coil cartridge.
The Rega Planar 6 is a heck of a turntable. Not just for the money but in the general scheme of things, only the obsessives (see hi-fi snobs like me!) really need anything better. Decent isolation and a good cartridge and phono stage help, but it was ever thus, and the P6/Ania package is very competitively priced. The RP6 was a more powerful and lively version of a P3, the P6 is a whole other beast, one with considerably greater subtlety and finesse. So don’t let it’s discreet styling fool you, this is killer turntable that gets to the heart of the music in an effortless and high resolution fashion the like of which is still very rare.
Townshend F1 Fractal
We are long term users of Townshend speaker cable at the Ear but that didn’t prepare us for the shock to the system that is F1 Fractal. By combining the low impedance of ribbon conductors with Fractal treatment and serious vibration damping it brings new meaning to the term high resolution. I am constantly being amazed at how much I can hear through it and have yet to fully calibrate the benefits this cable brings to the system; whenever a new product starts to sound like the very best of its kind I have to remember that its predecessors didn’t have the F1 advantage. It’s genuinely one of those ‘you don’t know how good your system is until you’ve heard it with this’ products.
It’s not just about fine detail, F1 Fractal also produces bass that is more concrete and real than anything else I’ve encountered. Bass that gives the image a solidity and presence that creates a ‘being there’ sense of palpable reality, it really is in the premier league. That has always been a strength of Townshend cables but here it’s joined by a level of resolution that’s hard to match. It’s not dead neutrality either, it’s vibrant musical cohesion that produces the most spot-on timing you can hope to find. F1 Fractal is expensive but more than worth it in a serious system.