StereoNET Product of the Year Awards 2021
It's been a funny old year for most of us, but the hi-fi world hasn't stood still – and there's been a plethora of exciting new products to try and sometimes even buy. In StereoNET's 2021 Awards, we list all the hi-fi, AV and portable designs that we loved in the past twelve months, across an even wider range of categories than last year. So please be upstanding for some of the best things in life that money can buy…
After the sad passing of brand ambassador Ken Ishiwata in 2019, all eyes were on Marantz to see what the company would do next. Well, it has excelled itself with this lovely mid-price silver disc spinner that looks, feels and sounds considerably more expensive than it really is. Whether you're an SACD fan, want to stream music, play CDs or need a decent DAC, this is a classy performer. Sophisticated yet musical, it delvers more music than you've a right to expect at this price.
Looking pretty much identical to its highly popular 2i predecessor – and running the same BluOS software – this new Node N130 brings improved sound quality to the table. There's a new, larger touch panel on top – now made of glass and with proximity sensors – plus better connectivity and a new DAC chip and power supply. But for us, it's the improved sound that seals the deal. For making high quality streamed music more accessible and more enjoyable, this is a worthy recipient of StereoNET's coveted Affordable DAC/Streamer award.
It might look similar to the affordable Altair G1, but the high end G2.1 brings extra functionality, upgradeability and build quality – plus fantastic sound quality. Indeed, this beautifully finished, easy-to-use streaming DAC/preamp is right up there with the big boys in terms of what's possible from networked audio. Unlike some, it is very stable in use too, which is underpinned by the excellent app – all of which makes it a worthy winner of this year's premium DAC/streamer award.
This iconic turntable was first launched nearly fifty years ago and has gone from strength to strength since then. One of the things that makes it so special is its smooth, sophisticated sound that's nevertheless lots of fun to listen to. Another is its upgradeability; the deck has had a raft of tweaks and improvements over the years to keep it up to date. The Majik package is Linn's entry-level model and includes the latest bearing and sub-chassis designs at a surprisingly affordable price.
This British vinyl specialist has been making great pickup arms for the best part of thirty years now. It started by re-engineering Regas but soon began doing its own designs and hasn't looked back. Origin Live arms aren't perhaps the most visually fancy, but the sonic performance speaks for itself. This latest Silver Mk4 offers a great sound for the money, with a very clean, open, three-dimensional soundstage, plus great musical timing and fine dynamics. It's hard not to like for the money.
MM PHONO CARTRIDGE
This is surely the most expensive moving magnet cartridge you can buy right now and likely the finest. True, it faces very stiff competition from Nagaoka's lovely MP-500, but we reckon the 2M Black LVB 250 just about edges it. That's because of its superb high-resolution sound, one that ekes out every last detail from the record groove. Tonally neutral almost to a fault, this high-end MM is so good that you'll wonder what the point of moving coils is.
MC PHONO CARTRIDGE
This premium-priced moving coil has generated big waves among analogue addicts, and for once, the hype is fully deserved. It's an impressive flagship product for Japanese born-and-bred Hana, which has been making OEM cartridges for decades – but not under its own name. The Umami Red sounds open, clean, detailed, subtle and nuanced, yet has a highly propulsive character and is very dynamic too. A veritable record groove rejuvenator, it's a fitting recipient of this year's best cartridge gong.
AFFORDABLE INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
Not many hi-fi brands have endured for many decades, but Rotel has. The company has always offered high-value products that are relatively devoid of frills – with amplification being a particular speciality. Forty years ago, its classic RA-820BX integrated was a huge hit, and this is a sort of latter-day version of that – it packs sensible facilities and sweet sound into a compact package. The result is a great performing product at the price, with build quality and features to match.
HIGH-END INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
Normally with amplifiers, it's a choice of quality versus quantity. The finest valve amps can sound wonderful, but very few will properly drive normal speakers to high levels, whereas most solid-state designs can but don't make such a nice noise. This Copland gives much of the best of both worlds, with 150W per side of super clean Class AB power and a subtle yet musically engaging character. It's a great 'affordable high-end' powerhouse with suitably eccentric Scandinavian styling to match.
This is a very expensive stereo power amplifier, but your money buys you no less than 39kg of Norwegian heavy metal with a claimed 2x 250W RMS per channel of Class AB power into 8 ohms, 2x 380W into 4 ohms, 2x 625W into 2 ohms and 2x 1,100W into 1. It's not the world's most attractively styled hi-fi product, but you can't argue with its immense power and load driving ability, allied to a surprisingly fine sound that's as translucent as a Nordic freshwater spring.
PRE/POWER AMPLIFIER COMBINATION
As more amplifier manufacturers move to Class D, Classé is sticking to its Class A guns. Its swish new Delta Stereo power amp has a rated output of 250W per side into 8 ohms, with the first 12.5W being pure Class A. Most people's listening sessions will never venture beyond this, yet the amp has sufficient punch to drive very hard and loud if called upon so to do. The matching Delta Pre is no less impressive, and the result is a super sounding high-end pre/power.
This UK manufacturer was actually quite taken aback by the success of its first modern active bookshelf design, but it seems it was just what the market wanted. It is an old-school, minimalist product that's devoid of fancy features like streaming – but is a true, pure, active model with a performance to match. It sounds much bigger than it really is, with a punchy, musically articulate character that's a pleasure to listen to regardless of the type of music you play.
If it is possible to make a more pleasingly packaged 302x200x281mm bookshelf loudspeaker than this, then we're all ears. KEF's latest LS50 Meta builds on the original LS50's many admirable strengths, adding a little bit more quality pretty much across the board. The result is a musically lucid and articulate sounding standmounter that's a peach to look at and to live with. True, it needs a powerful amplifier to give of its best, but nothing is perfect – not even this!
This new mid-size, mid-price floorstander shows just what's possible in today's speaker world. It's a highly advanced 2.5-way design with no less than four drivers; a 25mm tweeter, a 152mm mid/bass driver and two 152mm woofers. All use high tech materials – including aluminium, magnesium and ceramic – for low distortion and high efficiency; Paradigm claims a healthy 90dB/1/w/m. The result is a neutral, precise and open sound with a very wide bandwidth – and which punches harder than its size would suggest.
B&W's 800 Series is the world's best selling high-end speaker line, and it's no accident. The range offers serious sound at reasonably accessible prices, at least as far as high-end buyers are concerned. The 804 D4 floorstander is surely the value pick of the new generation, serving up a very clean, open, dynamic and engaging sound – whilst being reasonably compact and fairly easy to drive – all in a sensibly sized package. 'High end without tears', is how we'd call it.
This company has been manufacturing classic KEF loudspeaker drive units of the highest quality for decades, so it's no surprise that it sells speaker kits using precisely these. The IMF 200 sees the resurrection of a classic British speaker brand for this new-but-retro transmission line design. It's a great sounding floorstander, with a clean but musical sound and deep, strong, taut bass. The DIY build is very easy – as you'd expect from Falcon – and the result is a speaker offering great sound for the money.
This company is going through something of a purple period right now, hitting the spot time and again – especially in the 'high-quality compact' segment of the audio market. The new KC62 shows why; it looks great, doesn't take up much space (at 246x256x248mm) and packs 1kW of power from twin 500W Class D power amps. Its strong, light magnesium cabinet is a work of art, and it's a highly effective bass maker, punching out up to 105dB of tremulous low frequencies despite those diminutive dimensions.
There are too many phono stages on the market, so it's hard to get enthusiastic about yet another new release. Yet Hegel's V10 raised our eyebrows because it offers a welter of high-end features at this mainstream market point. Its discrete transistor design – where most use op-amps – confers an effortlessly musical sound. It's a dual-mono design for excellent soundstaging and has a separate power supply for minimal electrical noise. Factor in flexible MM/MC cartridge matching, and this is hard not to like, given its price.
Although this famous high-end brand makes some cracking premium-priced cables, the real test is in the budget-to-mid price arena, where the competition is fierce. The Blue Heaven shows that Nordost is very much on pace, with technology derived from the company's more expensive Valhalla and Odin ranges. It's surprisingly inexpensive for a silver-plated OFC cable and has an FEP extruded dielectric. The sound is fast, detailed and vivid without being overly bright, making for a great performance at the price.
Here's a speaker cable that offers mature performance at a surprisingly modest price. It hails from a relatively new brand, one that has risen to popularity in just fifteen years or so. Ultra Blue II is a smooth, subtle and musical sounding speaker cable, with an impressive amount of detail considering its modest price – yet it never overwhelms or irritates. Indeed it's a highly refined design that gives many more expensive rivals a hard time. Excellent construction quality seals the deal.
Not cheap, but you get spectacular results from Sony's first entry-level Dynamic Tone Mapping projector. Super smart video processing and excellent optics make for a product with performance to spare. It serves up bright, punchy HDR images with exceptional gamma tracking and colour accuracy that have more in common with television than you'd have thought possible. Factor in its superb build and functionality, and it's hard not to love. Thinking about moving into entry-level true 4K projection? Then this is the one.
PROJECTOR – ULTRA SHORT THROW
There's much to like about ultra-short-throw projectors, but many are still not up to scratch in performance terms. You can't say this about Samsung's LSP9T, which can produce images bright enough to withstand living room levels of ambient light and can fill a 130-inch screen from a throw distance of just inches – yet is way cheaper than a 100-inch TV. A brilliant performer at the price, you'll love its crisp, vivid picture and excellent colour rendition.
Want picture-perfect, studio-grade images from that fancy projector you've just spent all your money on? This box of tricks delivers precisely that – there's no denying the stellar quality of Lumagen's Radiance Pro. Hugely flexible in its connectivity options, it's a veritable Swiss Army knife of video and performs a host of functions from real-time rescaling to dynamic tone mapping – all in spectacular quality. Properly configured, the results are stunning, with outstanding HDR images even from low-luminance projectors.
If you ever need an excuse to stay home, this is it. Samsung's new 8K QLED TV is a remarkable product offering the best of both worlds of LCD and OLED. Super bright yet with inky blacks and ultra-vibrant colours, the company's latest flagship smart TV uses proprietary Quantum Dot technology plus much more trick tech to deliver a sublime viewing experience. Factor in its beautiful, minimalist styling and excellent build quality, and it's the natural winner of this year's top TV award.
Soundbars have long since been regarded as gimmicks by home theatre purists, a compromise too far for an easy domestic life. Yet products such as this will make them think again. It's not cheap, but it delivers an elevated level of performance that could persuade some away from their multiple AV speaker boxes. Powerful and expansive yet nuanced and detailed, it also sports superb connectivity and ease of use. So it is fitting perhaps, that it comes from Klipsch, one of the original pioneers of cinema sound.
AFFORDABLE AV RECEIVER
This AV specialist's latest fourth-generation affordable AVR is a star worthy of an Oscar for Hollywood fans. Boasting eleven channels of clean power – 5x140W and 6x60W – it produces enough grunt to shake your room. Yet the accent is truly on quality rather than quantity, with Class AB power from the first five channels and a new 32-bit/768kHz-capable DAC. Great connectivity, excellent build and versatile decoding complete this very pretty picture. Offering superb value for money, it's a worthy award winner.
HIGH-END AV RECEIVER
At this price, you'd expect the Earth from an AV receiver – and with this behemoth, that's pretty much what you get. JBL's first-ever such product, it delivers up to sixteen channels of surround sound, with seven 100W channels of amplification as standard. The amps run in Class G for excellent Class A sound at lower levels with Class AB punch on dynamic transients. Along with its welter of other features is the excellent Dirac Live 3.0 digital room correction. The result is a little short of spectacular.
Trinnov Audio products are widely used in film, TV and post-production – and the Altitude 16 shows why. This home cinema audio processor is the height of movie sound sophistication – it decodes and up-mixes Dolby Atmos and DTS:X Pro on all sixteen channels, supports countless other formats and has class-leading connectivity. The company's 3D Sound Optimizer room EQ is superb, like its overall sound. Despite its first-class price ticket, we think it's worth every penny. A force to be reckoned with in AV.
Well known for its fine-sounding hi-fi amplifiers, this multichannel power amplifier brings NAD audio magic to the CI sphere. Despite its modest price tag, it offers 16 channels of 60W RMS per channel simultaneously – with the grunt that NAD is famous for. This is thanks to state-of-the-art Hypex UcD Class D amplifier modules, and the company's amp design expertise. IP-controlled, its configuration and calibration comes via a simple web-based user interface. A highly impressive package at the price.
AV SOURCE / ACCESSORY
Although the latest, sixth-generation Apple TV doesn't look that different from its predecessor, its new A12 processor and excellent remote control make it an even swisher bit of kit. Its tvOS interface still delivers the best all-around user experience in the streaming TV box market, and you're getting world-class ergonomics, graphical appeal, customisability, depth and all-round sophistication. All of which makes this our favourite AV accessory of 2021. Its sensible pricing is but the cherry on the top.
Any company that dares to charge what Sennheiser is asking for the IE900 is either mad or really believes in its product. Spend some time with this exquisite in-ear monitor design, and you'll find yourself moving swiftly towards the latter point of view. Whatever the asking price, you get an incredibly detailed, airy, lean and clinical music listening experience that's virtually unmatched in the world of IEMs. This exquisitely built pair of tiny wired headphones is a premium-priced masterpiece.
One model beneath the company's flagship Utopia, this beautiful open-back, over-ear headphone uses the St Étienne-based company's latest 40mm magnesium driver to deliver stellar sonics. Stronger and lighter than aluminium, this material is costly to work with but ideal for this application. The reduced moving mass makes for better sensitivity and lower distortion, and the result is great sound even with relatively modestly powered portables. Gorgeous build and a superb 'chestnut' metallic finish seal the deal.
COMPACT DAC/HEADPHONE AMP
This company has been rather active of late, and the recent NEO iDSD is one of its strongest models, a dinky DAC preamp with headphone amplifier functionality. It's packed with features, Bluetooth-enabled and has full MQA decoding, should you need it. Sonically it's better than it should be at the price, giving a highly enjoyable rendition of anything you care to play through it. As such, it's a deserving winner of this year's best compact DAC/headphone preamp award.
Although its manufacturer understandably makes a big deal about its headphone functionality – which is excellent, by the way – this is actually a superb sounding streaming DAC preamplifier. Hook up your favourite power amp, and you've got the beating heart of a really musically enjoyable system – with all the benefits that Naim's slick and stable streaming platform brings, plus oodles of functionality and fine connectivity. It's a sort of hi-fi Swiss Army knife – superbly made, compact, versatile and highly effective at its intended job.
If you're running a budget or even mid-priced system and want a decent equipment rack without breaking the bank, this offers super value for money. This simple, four-shelf Italian design is Solidsteel's entry-level product and very economically priced. The pillars are anodised aluminium and packed with an anti-resonant material, while the polymer laminate MDF shelves take 50kg per level. It's a big sonic improvement over basic supports, with a cleaner, punchier sound and less harshness and imprecision. A worthy 2021 award winner.
DIGITAL AUDIO PLAYER
A&K was early to the specialist Digital Audio Player market and never lost its edge. The KANN Alpha is a premium-priced design that sports a high-quality ESS Sabre DAC, powerful headphone amp, an excellent user interface and superlative build. The result is a chunky piece of portable perfection that's a little on the large side (at 68.3x117x25mm and 316g), but has an appropriately grown-up sound. Wide-format compatibility – including PCM, DSD and MQA support – plus aptX HD Bluetooth are the icing on the cake.
One of the strangest things we've seen in a long time, this mono power amp sports the looks of a tube amplifier design but is in fact, a solid-state Class D design. There's more, though, as it is of modular construction and the fitted 2x 85W (into 8 ohms) power module uses GaN MOSFETs inside a KT88-sized glass tube! It's on the second iteration of its so-called GaNTube. The sound is less mad than its appearance suggests, with a strong and punchy yet smooth, musical nature.
PRODUCT OF THE YEAR
It was a tough job to narrow our pick of all these great products down to just one, but after much deliberation, we think KEF's new LS50 is StereoNET's Product of the Year 2021. There's nothing not to like about this aesthetically beautiful, sonically lovely little standmount speaker – and it's all the better because it's far more affordable than many of its fellow award winners. Combining natural musicality with decent power and oodles of finesse, it's our star product of the year.
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Tags: marantz sound united bluesound convoy auralic hifi collective linn advance audio origin live ortofon interdyn hana cartridges audio magic rotel copland electrocompaniet audio dynamics acoustic energy mg hoskins kef paradigm audio active bowers wilkins falcon acoustics hegel nordost tellurium q sony samsung klipsch