The Best of StereoNET UK Applause Awards 2019
A busy year for StereoNET UK has seen more than 40 components reviewed through 2019 but only a fraction was found worthy of our Applause Award.
StereoNET UK celebrated its first birthday in March 2019 and, more recently, welcomed the esteemed Hi-Fi journalist and editor David Price to the team. Regular readers will have undoubtedly spotted our redesign as well as an increased focus on unique content through Opinion and Inside Tracks pieces. Additionally, our video channel is also growing in numbers over at StereoNET TV.
Before continuing our review of 2019, we want to take this opportunity to thank all our supporting manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and of course, our ever-growing readership. This support has enabled us to review some incredible products, including a few exclusives. Even though we have been overwhelmed by all the speakers, amps, headphones, DACs, turntables, etc. we have had the opportunity to review, we do not merely hand out awards as a way of promotion.
StereoNET has only one award, which makes it incredibly special. There are no prizes here for runners up or items that sound 'OK' - that should be the least requirement of anything hitting your hi-fi shop shelves. To receive a StereoNET Applause Award, the component, no matter how much it costs, has to have that extra special something.
Here are those that made the grade in 2019 - congratulations!
(Prices shown were correct at time of review)
The Triangle Borea BR03 is a highly impressive little loudspeaker for the money. I was never expecting the last word in detail, definition and soundstaging – yet still, it managed to impress with its musicality. For those taking their first tentative steps into the oft-confusing world of hi-fi, it’s a pretty special sound. And if you’re only used to Bluetooth speakers, then this baby box will blow your mind. It is strongest with contemporary music, likely because this is what it has been voiced for – with its punchy bass, crisp midband and sparkly treble. Yet still it is lots of fun with classic rock and jazz – so I wasn’t exactly pining to plug more talented and spendy speakers back in. Overall then, here’s a serious small speaker in the sub-£500 market. It looks stylish, sounds great and has a certain charm that you never tire of.
Bowers & Wilkins
Standmount / Bookshelf Speakers
If you are looking for stand-mount or bookshelf speakers at this price point, you will no doubt have realised that you are not short of choice. You will have also noticed that there are some well-respected brands amongst that list too. You will kick yourself if you forget to add the 606 to your shopping list. These speakers are energetic performers that deliver dynamics better than their form may suggest. The same goes for the excellently-weighted bass. Their slightly eager high-end may warrant a test drive with your amplifier but, give them a chance, and you will soon be grinning from ear-to-ear.
AE500 Stand Mount
At this precise moment, the new Acoustic Energy AE500 is the best all-round standmount loudspeaker that I have heard at this price point. It does so much so well yet is largely free of vices, so it’s really hard to say anything against it. If you’re in the market for a great affordable small speaker, then it’s here right in front of you.
£999 (£1099.95 with optional stand)
You do get a lot of speaker for your £1099.95 (inc. stands). The majority of people who have seen the Lintons in our room have guesstimated a retail price of much more than £1100, especially after hearing them. Yes, they are a bold statement sat there in their bell-bottomed finary but don't mistake their retro-chic for not being au fait with the latest Grime, Folktronica or Glitch Hop. The Wharfedale Lintons are capable of producing trouser-flapping bass as well as being able to pick out the sweetest highs. Where we have heard more accurate and more detailed loudspeakers, the Lintons have a dash of fun and an easy-going appeal that makes them instantly loveable. As well as possessing an enjoyably expansive soundstage, the Lintons also have a well-presented depth, front-to-back. That, matched by the Linton's impressive sense of timing, sees them consistently punching above their pay-grade.
A thoroughly well-made 3-way speaker with heritage almost literally written all over them.
Bowers & Wilkins
Floor Standing Loudspeakers
£1,249 RRP (Pair)
Bowers & Wilkins’ 603 is absolutely the floorstander of choice for the money. I seriously doubt that you will find a floor-standing speaker with the same brand heritage, beautiful midrange tone, detail, soundstage and versatility, at this price point. The addition of a subwoofer just adds to the experience, but unless you are using the 603 floor-standing loudspeaker in a home cinema or you prefer a bit more bass, you’ll love them just as much without it.
2-Way Standmount Loudspeaker
Monitor Audio’s new Gold 100 standmounter is history repeating itself, déjà vu all over again. The company is simply continuing its successful formula of making superbly finished small speakers that are refined beyond their price point. As such, this new model is a complete success, as it equals or betters several rivals costing well over £2,000.
DAC/ Headphone Amp/ Pre-Amp
The market for premium-priced digital converters is small and even less for those without established names. That's why Mola Mola's Tambaqui had to be something seriously special to have a chance of success in this take-no-prisoners world – and so it proves. It is digital audio done right, with friendlier looks than some price rivals, excellent connectivity and top-tier sound quality through both line out and headphones. Chord Electronics' DAVE and the dCS Bartok beware, this is one of the best Roon endpoints going.
For its first toe-dip into the headphone market, DALI has produced an impressive pair of headphones. Perhaps not aimed so much at the high N-R-G workout types, the DALI iO-4 instead focus on DALI's hi-fi demographic. So, if you value a more honest reproduction of the music you love, then these headphones will suit. Fit and finish are great and we love the clean Danish styling. Bluetooth aptX HD does a great job keeping the quality up there, and we didn't suffer any drop-outs, even in the killing fields of Liverpool Street and Kings Cross stations during rush hour. The DALI iO-4 is currently our go-to full-size Bluetooth headphones.
Portable Headphone Amp
The xCAN is one of those products where I feel that I should find a weakness just to make the review more interesting. However, save its love for collecting fingerprints, I honestly cannot find a downside to buying one. The little portable amp is reasonably priced at just under £300, performs brilliantly and even throws in some slick Bluetooth skills for good measure.
Hybrid Array Headphones
I cannot fault their build quality nor the remarkable attention to detail that Meze has applied to these headphones. Furthermore, the Meze/Rinaro collaboration has been a masterstroke. Together they have produced one of the most amazing headphones both regarding sound quality and aesthetics. This is the kind of performance that usually comes from high-end headphones which require careful pairing with hardware and treated with kid gloves; not the Empyrean.
Planar 10 Turntable
£3,599 (£4,499 with Apheta 3 MC Cartridge)
Rather than indelibly stamping themselves on the music they play, Rega turntables have always been commendably smooth and self-effacing. The new Planar 10 carries on with this tradition but takes it to another level. The result is a superb sounding vinyl spinner, but one that doesn’t fit the traditional mould of cosy, warm sounding record players that some analogue addicts covet so much. Whether you enjoy this is solely down to you then, a matter of taste. For me, I think it isn’t for turntables to have character, that’s for their owners – so I love it.
Like its predecessor, the new Technics SL-1200G isn't absolutely flawless, but what it does well, it does exceptionally well. It's not quite as smooth, refined or detailed as some similarly priced turntable/arm packages, but in every other respect, it pushes ahead. Fantastically fun to listen to, extremely capable in most audiophile senses and built as well as some turntables at ten times its price, it's nigh on impossible to criticise. Buy it, love it – but do prepare yourself for the “DJ deck” jibes from your friends down the pub who haven't yet heard it…
MOON by Simaudio
It was not too long ago that I was impressed by another entry-level phono from a brand that generally demands big bucks for high-end kit. Yes, I was impressed, but it didn't engage me as much as the MOON 110LP v2 has. The VPI Prime that both pre-amps have partnered is excellent at not getting in the way, but I do feel that the mini MOON managed to make my vinyl collection even more involving. Bass was powerful, highs clear and mids projected without the feeling there was anything untoward being added or altered by the MOON 110LP v2. Then you add in the rock-solid build quality, quietly confident looks and sub £400 asking price - you'd be daft not to buy one.
MM/MC Phono Stage
Chord Electronics' Huei is a great new phono stage that's likely to cause as much discomfort to its price rivals as the company's iconic and affordable DACs have done over the past couple of years. On every metric I can think of, it seems too good for the money – it is built superbly, has a versatile feature set, a sophisticated and distinctive user interface and also sounds a blast. The only caveat is that it's not in the business of flattering poor recordings, pressings or systems – you'll have to look elsewhere for that. But if you like hearing your LP records as nature intended, then right now Bartlett's new baby is the best you can do on a reasonable budget.
Battery-Powered Phono Pre-Amplifier
The YBA Genesis PH1 phono pre-amplifier has given me cause to investigate battery-powered phonos a little bit more. I genuinely believe it is that battery operation that provides the Genesis PH1 with its special powers. There is a clarity, openness and focus from the PH1 that I thought was only possible from phono stages at the £3k+ mark. Given that the PH1 retails at £1,800, its pricing could essentially make it a bargain. For anyone considering taking the step into ‘high-end’ phono stages with a budget of £2-3,000, I would highly suggest that you do not overlook the Genesis PH1. It caters for both MM and MC, and that switch for high output MC makes it even more flexible than most. Additionally, the battery system removes any possible noise coming from your AC power supply.
Mu-so 2nd Generation
All-in-one Sound System
We have chucked every genre and file type we have at the Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation and have yet to find a reason why we wouldn't buy one. No matter whether handling music or audio through the HDMI ARC port from our telly, the Mu-so 2 provides a full, rich and detailed output at levels that can get the neighbours complaining. Additionally, we think that the large slab of industrial design is quite beautiful. There is also the option of different coloured grilles if you're into coordinating/contrasting your gear with your decor.
Universal Disc Player
Well built and over-engineered, yet with a strong focus on maintaining signal integrity and simplicity, the Pioneer UDP-LX800 is quite simply outstanding. To date, and without doubt, it's the most well-built universal disc player I have ever used. It may just be the most well-built piece of AV equipment I have ever used. Used solely as a transport, there is going to be little if any difference between the Oppo, or for that matter most high-end disc players. The UDP-LX800 may lack the HDR optimiser of Panasonic’s recent offerings but makes up for it with class-leading build quality, and analogue DAC’s.
If you don’t need an HDR optimiser function and are looking for a ‘no comprise solution’ for Blu-ray, 4K Blu-ray and SACD playback, you owe it to yourself to check out the UDP-LX800.
True 4K UHD Projector
You've got to hand it to BenQ. The W2700 is one gutsy endeavour. The feature list includes wide colour gamut capabilities, 4K Ultra HD resolution, HDR and a dynamic iris, all for the rather unprincely sum of £1,399. Sure, there's a bit of a juggling act taking place, as it can't quite pull off all these things at once. However, this is par for the course when it comes to HDR and projection, and I have several different calibrated viewing modes on my own projector for this very reason.
Sharp, colourful images are the forte of the W2700, and unless you want to spend more chasing better black levels, you're going to be hard-pressed to beat it for the money.
Eclipse C MKIII Interconnect Cable
Overall then, the highly capable SLiC Eclipse C MK III compares favourably with many interconnects at twice its price, or even more. If you’re after insight and involvement rather than something to cover the recording up with a fluffy warm blanket, you’ll find it hard not to be impressed.
StereoNET UK 2020
Now that we are in a brand new year, we're all excited to see what new equipment will be introduced. Furthermore, we are wondering what new standards of performance will be achieved and if any new brands are to be announced. Moreover, we are eager to find out what new ways to entice newcomers to hi-fi appear this year.
We wish all our readers a very happy new year and look forward to bringing you the most up-to-date news and reviews throughout 2020. Hopefully, we'll see many of you at one of the shows this year.
StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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Posted in: Hi-Fi Headphones Home Theatre Visual Lifestyle
Tags: applause award triangle bowers wilkins acoustic energy wharfedale monitor audio mola mola dali ifi audio meze rega technics moon simaudio chord electronics yba naim pioneer benq slic
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