I’ll try and make this less of a self indulgent exercise then such an article might already suggest, particularly at this time of year. Not what suits me best, or ‘suits me sir?’ No, no, no…. I’m deliberately putting these in order for ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, the average man. The man who has no experience of being an Audiophile but who can rightly claim an opinion as much as anyone, including Audiophiles. A compendium of features, against price and performance is how I’ve rated these.
Higher, higher….lower, lower? Where the products are more expensive or offer less yield, features or sonic returns, they tend to go down the list. Where they offer terrific yield, features or sonics at price, the cards turn up an ace and up they go. If they have less features and sound, and so on, ultimately bringing out the best consumer priced Audiophile HiFi products first.
I think people have understood I’m not into HiFi to get a few percent out and then hail from the rooftops that products are superb best performers, when they cost many thousands more, and as some do it. I think readers can see through that approach. Value has to be a big part of buying Audiophile HiFi even though it often is overlooked with pricey gear. Surely we still need to know what is value! Even me, as I read reviews too!
Please Note I’ve tried to include all the Euro/Dollar/Sterling prices where known.
1. NAD Masters M10 Streaming Integrated Amp, £2199 / $2499
NAD’s touch screen is intuitive
I’ve only had this product a short time and I’ve already made my mind up but I can’t give too much away as my film is yet to come out. I’ve seen some selling in the UK for £2000 too. So I’ll just say for all its features, sound, display, build quality and form factor, plus Dirac Live room correction technology, this is a ‘pocket rocket’ of an amp. The title of my upcoming film in fact….
Chord Electronics no doubt loved me when I called this RME a Qutest killer, which is so true on account of feature set, sonic quality, and connections and a manual you have to study like operating a fighter aircraft, but only if you want to! Or you can just get in this F16 of a DAC and ‘fly’ it like a Cessna with relative abandon to operation. But where it hangs its hat is on price, for all it does against the Qutest. We often see this where pro audio meets Audiophile HiFi because of the capitalization of these different markets. Also à la Monty Python, it foot squashes the Chord with its parametric equaliser to adjust room response, tone controls, lovely colour display and two sets of headphone outputs, including IEMs to boot. A balanced DAC as well.
This product will easily appeal sonically to just as many people as the Chord, with taste and preference in the mix. So for all the above, anyone who says this isn’t more than the equal of the Qutest is either being disingenuous, or is basing the decision on their own sonic tastes. Or that perennial problem in HiFi reviews, sitting on the fence and not calling a spade a spade, on the infrequent occasions (due to competitive nature of HiFi) reviewers come across same. No blurring of relative objective comparable performance here. This is a total cracker of a DAC and it deserves anyone’s attention at this price.
Watch my film here.
3. KEF LSX Streaming Mini Bookshelf / stand-mount Speakers, £1000 / $1100
I did have some connectivity issues with the LSX which I hope KEF have sorted. However, if you ever were to recommend a champion product for those who’ve stayed away from Audiophile HiFi like visiting a care home in 2020 (regrettably), then this futuristic looking speaker is the ticket.
Utilizing all the separation 2-channel audio brings, above and beyond Sonos Play speakers etc, but with further generation Uni-Q drivers : KEFs patented mid and bass driver coupled with the tweeter. It really works and the sound is all about trademark detail, which is balanced and not in your face, as well as more layering than moraines in a glacier. Add streaming on top and a great price which isn’t excessive, this is why these KEF’s are at number three. A product on the list of anyone considering consumer audio products at the price.
Watch my film here
4. KEF LS50 Meta Stand-mount Speakers, £1000 / €1200 / $1500
These KEFs give more than LSX sound-wise, but all things considered on features, sound and price, they go down one. I’ve had mine for a few weeks and to say that Audiophile HiFi can be enjoyed at modest prices is what these are all about.
Don’t be a snob about it, you know diminishing returns gets you with your super duper three way ten grand floor-standers. There is more to sound then outright bass and scale and even though these KEF’s are diminutive on price, relative bass response and sound-staging scale, they have nuanced detail in bucket loads, dynamics, demarcated fore and aft depth and incredible bass/treble balance. It makes them extremely musical and why they haven’t come off my stands for other pricier speakers, ever since I got them 3 weeks ago. They will partner with similarly expensive gear I review in 2021 and their performance at the price is the reason I purchased myself.
“Meta” isn’t a funny adolescent colloquialism as I said in my film – these are not ‘ream’ or ‘sick’. Meta is short for meta-materials. Easy in understanding, using the physical properties of materials to help in the design.
These KEF’s must be the speakers to beat at this price and the design team, which includes the immutably helpful and friendly Jack Oclee-Brown, frankly know their sh1t. All other brands must listen to these and work out what they do and why they are so good. As people are saying on YouTube, when can we can expect other KEF speakers to adopt the Meta treatment? Probably soon I’d bet.
My latest film on the Meta’s is here.
5. Sony WH-1000XM3 Noise Cancelling Headphones, £220 (current UK discount) / $330 (at launch)
OK the new XM4’s have come out but the changes are relatively small on all accounts. These headphones are far from the best detail wise at the price, but their ability to ‘just shut your environment the hell up’ is extremely musically cosseting. The control features with the Sony app is great and so is Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth codec. I’ve used mine a lot this year and if you are a regular traveller or commuter, buy these at a snip for what they do!
Check out the film here.
6. Bluesound Node 2i Streamer, £500 / $500
Out a while, but a newbie to me in 2020, this is the go to streamer at the price. It’s not hard to see why – the great BluOS app which is on a par with apps from Sonos or Yamaha. Add in MQA, an acceptable DAC and even features like live MQA streaming, as well as being a Roon ready endpoint, and again it’s not hard to see why this product is so popular. On reflection, it trumps streamers like the Allo DigiOne Signature or Sonos Port as it is so easy to use, has the features and sound quality too.
My creative film of the Node 2i is here.
7. Hegel H390 Integrated Amplifier, £4900 / $6000 / €5995
This is why I bought one myself ; an amplifier that eviscerates the competition from brands like Cyrus Audio (signature electronics) and Naim, at the price. Scandinavian Minimalist design for sure – it would fit in a Scandinavian log cabin with a grass roof or a Victorian house in England, but it’s all about the number one eardrum in this pursuit and this is why you buy the Hegel.
Terrific at driving speakers, no tonal padding in sound and low distortion. It only goes down the list as it costs £4900, so no sleight on its terrific capabilities. Hegel are currently working on Roon ready certification for all their integrated amps. As soon as that happens, any lack of inbuilt streaming app interface will be of no consequence to competition like the BluOS capable NAD Masters M33, for serious Audiophiles using Roon servers.
Extremely easy to use with great manuals and packaging and from a company that have easily been the easiest and most pleasurable HiFi firm to deal with. I reviewed three Hegel products this year – this amp, the H120 integrated and the Mohican CD player and they form a string of Hegel products in this line up, which is just how my ordering worked out. For no holds premium Audiophile priced HiFi, this would be at number one in this list;
Cut to my creative film I slaved over here.
8. Hegel Mohican CD Player, €4595 / $5000 / £3900
This CD player is expensive at £3900 but as its film namesake suggests, if you want one last premium CD player before all CD’s fall off the shelves in mainstream shops, possibly in the next few years, this Hegel might be it for you.
This CD player, covered in my film here, performs because of its DAC and implementation and one reason why CD players might have it over similarly priced streamers. Also why around 40 years after CD’s release, CD players like this still show that red book CD, is possibly all you need.
From memory I thought the Hegel Mohican sounded as good as the audio achievable from a similarly priced Chord Hugo TT2
9. Hegel H120 Integrated Amplifier, £2200 / $3000
The baby Hegel is one of the newer integrated amps this Norwegian HiFi firm, hailing from Oslo, have brought out. Again as covered in my film here. But the reputation they have is up there and I understand why. It is a very ‘Analogue’ sounding amp with its built in ‘SoundEngine2’ amp technology, just like the H390. This technology is Hegel’s hybrid class AB amplifier design.
The Hegel’s position at number 9 is in no way to suggest it is a poor product, let’s be clear. Such is the nature of best of lists there are lots of consumer audio in its way here. The NAD M10 makes a case for being more user friendly and with form factor too, so whilst personally I’d buy the Hegel H120 over the NAD M10 on consideration of sonics *alone* for a full rack system, I’m not so sure if I wanted a second smaller system or all the things making the NAD great likes it’s size, features and sound (Roon, BluOS too) all rolled into one.
10. PMC twenty5.23i Floor-standing Speakers, £3850 / $6250
A lot of money and the fact that you don’t have to necessarily spend this much to get great audio means these PMC’s are down at number 10, but it doesn’t mean the twenty5.23i are not a fantastic product if you are prepared to spend your money.
The new ‘i’ variant which stands for improved (not injection of 80’s cars) is more expensive than the previous model, which I differentiate in my film . However it bests the 25-23s all day long, in all out dispersion. Build quality is good, and that really low distorting character from the transmission line design, is also a big star on the PMC’s waiter rating badge.
PMC twenty5.23 (left) versus new twenty5.23i (right)
Turkey at Christmas
It’s still the case that steaming transports in relatively modest audio systems, up to £/$15k and as most people own, don’t need to be hugely expensive. Chuck in a DAC and make it a streaming player then a different story. But I don’t buy the notion that slight removal of treble edge, when everything else is so good in a cheaper transport, or other adopted cliched mantras, should account why most people need an expensive streaming transport. This is certainly my experiences to date and I found this with the Auralic Aries G1 and it did not add to an Innuos Zenith Roon Server that much too.
The NODE 2i is next to damn it the performance of the Auralic for a quarter of the price. Good sound, Roon readiness and a streamer that will work with expensive DAC’s. That’s why I don’t understand the Auralic Aries G1, although for the sake of balance I suspect I’d find myself saying the opposite with one of their streaming transport players with an inbuilt DAC. Watch what I have to say here.
What are your views?
Please tell me what you think, what products have stood out for you in 2020?