2014 was a great year for personal audio. Hundreds of new and exciting products were released as we continue to witness the rising popularity of high performance headphone listening. Here at Headphone Guru, many products not only impressed, but inspired us on our search towards better sound. As the year comes to a close, we have asked our reviewers to share their picks and let us know who among a field of excellent players earns their Writers’ Award for 2014:
The Viva Egoista single ended triode 845-reference amplifier was an easy recommendation for product of the year. In all my years in personal audio this is the first product worthy of end-game status in my system and is now my new reference. The dynamic drive and midrange is the best I have experienced in amplification. The explosive bass and high-end extension makes classical music a revelation. The Viva’s open headroom makes full-scale orchestras come to life. The Egoista will drive any dynamic or planar headphone designed today. It just plays music and never makes me feel as if anything is missing.
My honorable mention for this year is the new AKGK812, designed by Philipp Schuster in Austria. This new dynamic full size headphone delivers exceptional soundstage with excellent bass and a refined treble. The 53MM Tesla drivers delivers exceptional sound staging with detail retrieval that competes with some of the best headphones in production. The K812 is a comfortable headphone that can be worn for long listening session. Look for a full review coming soon.
Astell&Kern AK120 II
This little player has the balls to do it all, and has been attached at my hip from the day it came in for review. Though it doesn’t have the gronk to drive my Audeze’s, it is more than enough to drive my UE Reference Monitors and it offers more than enough musical resolution to keep me happy when I’m in portable mode. I’ve also found that using the line-out function with the volume cranked to 75, the AK120 II makes for a high end listening experience when feeding ordinary 2-channel stereo systems! Though the player is expensive by the standards of its lower-priced competition, it delivers the kind of jewel-like build, extraordinary performance, and legit digital source for all situations that it’s acquits itself very handsomely. If you don’t need native DSD decoding (as it decodes DSD over PCM), then the AK120 II is a grand choice. Well, almost two grand. 😉
My runner up is the Master & Dynamic MH40. It’s a $400 circumaural headphone that’s built like a tank, comfortable, sexy and stylish, and sounds way better than any of its stable-mates at the Apple store. It’s a little bit polite in the high frequency area, but they’re not missing at all. Meanwhile, the luscious midrange and deep-n-tight bass make for very delicious listening. Not a “reference” headphone, but a delightful indulgence that gives you just the right amount of junk in the trunk to make things seductively interesting. It’s not cheap, but it’s inexpensive enough to be a very nice gift for someone special – wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more …
Audeze LCD-2 w/ Fazor
This year I’m giving the Audeze LCD-2 w/ Fazor its well-deserved Product of the Year Award. I can’t stress it enough: The LCD-2 (or 3) does not actually sound like “headphones” to me at all. When I’m rockin’ a pair of Audezes, it sounds like a terrific two-channel system. You can check out my full Product of the Year report HERE. Bottom line: The LCD-2 w/ Fazor is wickedly fast, transparent, musically rich, and seductive. If I start an album while listening to the LCD-2s, I never walk away before the album is finished. Maybe that’s the best compliment I can give any headphone.
Noble Audio Kaiser 10
I’ve encountered quite a few noteworthy products for 2014, and several of them stand out as deserving some type of award. If forced to choose just one, it’s the Noble Audio Kaiser 10 that gets my vote. You can read my thoughts HERE and get a second opinion from our own Chris Sommovigo HERE. Bottom line – of my 20+ sets of custom monitors, the Kaiser 10 stands alone at the very top of the heap.
One of my favorite headphone amplifiers of all time is the Headamp GSX MK2. It is still my reference solid-state amplifier and can drive almost any headphone to its full potential. The sound is almost perfect: neutral and grain-free with a tiny hint of warmth and enough speed and dynamics to avoid any congestion. The Schiit Ragnarok which was just recently released, is very, very good and is near identical in sound to the GSX; in fact, I myself was unable to tell them apart in a side-by-side blind test comparison! Careful listening told me that the Ragnarok had a more punchy and authoritative bass and the GSX had a more refined high end, but the differences were so small it might have just been my mind playing tricks on me. The Ragnarok costs only $1700, which is over $1000 less than the GSX and performs much better than any other solid-state I’ve heard at this price; and it can drive speakers too! For me, this is a no brainer. Schiit Audio has finally created a high-end statement amp that like many of their other products, is practical, affordable, and offers tremendous value for the money. The Schiit Ragnarok receives my highest recommendation for Product of the Year.
When I first reviewed Astell&Kern’s AK240 – back in February of 2014 – I made a series of superlative statements regarding how big of a personal audio milestone I considered it to be.
“the AK240 is superb on every level… a complete and competent signal chain unto itself… nothing less than a seminal point in personal high-fidelity. In the years to come, when people look back – searching for that pivotal moment in time where features, fidelity and usability finally came together in a single user experience – they won’t be talking about an iPod, or a Walkman, or even a Pono player. It’s the AK240 that will be remembered most. Yes, it’s that fucking good.”
Ten months hence, my opinions have not changed. In fact, it seems that a reasonable number of high end personal audio devotees agree with me. Portable summit-fi enthusiasts pair it with the Chord Hugo as an essential part of their ultimate portable rigs. Modification houses like Vinnie Rossi’s Red Wine Audio have created a special version, like the RWAK240, to pursue even greater performance levels. Established manufacturers like CEntrance have created add-on products (Glove Audio A1) in an attempt to bring legacy Astell&Kern models up to the performance levels of the AK240. Even Astell&Kern saw fit to create two derivative models that share in some of the AK240’s legacy and feature set, with their AK100II and AK120II. It seems that the AK240 is the DAP bar that everyone is trying to match or raise.
And now, with speculation of TIDAL’s streaming service coming to the AK240, there’s even more to be excited about. But, what is perhaps most telling, is Astell&Kern’s hushed roadmap. Whether you love it or hate it, Astell&Kern does have a reputation for releasing new versions of its DAPs at an alarmingly quick rate… their product cycles are brutally short. So what does it tell us that, in the year since it was first teased, they have made no effort to best the AK240? For a company that turns over product as rapidly as they do, that lack of a new model speaks volumes.
HONORABLE MENTION: Woo Audio WA7tp
If you are a proud owner of either the WA7 or WA7d by Woo Audio… and I know that many of you out there are… then there exists a special add-on product for you called the WA7tp. It’s a matching, tube-based power supply designed to replace the solid state power brick that originally shipped with your WA7 or WA7d. And in my opinion, it is absolutely indispensable to getting the most out of that DAC/amp combo.
As a WA7 Fireflies owner, the WA7tp affords me: (a) a more holographic mid-range with significantly better instrument separation; (b) improved transparency and clarity (less congestion and distortion) across the entire frequency range – but particularly in the upper mids; and (c) a noticeably more expansive soundstage. But, none of those reasons earn it an honorable mention in this round-up.
The fact is, I love the WA7tp for what it is: a major performance upgrade, to an existing product, that extends the life of that product’s ownership cycle, at a very reasonable price. Considering that Woo Audio could have easily created an entirely new DAC/amp with which to extract gobs of money from us – especially those of us thirsting to climb the upgrade ladder – the WA7tp is a very modest measure indeed. It’s not an outright grab for our wallets, and I, for one, appreciate that level of respect and consideration.
Check out the next page for more Product Of The Year awards…
Mad Lust Envy:
Philips Fidelio X2
My product of the year is none other than the Philips Fidelio X2. The X2 is one of the best examples of an’all-rounder’ headphone I have ever experienced. Like most all-rounders, it isn’t the best at any one thing, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a headphone in the price range that does all manner of things this well. Comfort is top notch, amping requirements are minimal, bass is tighter and better controlled than it’s predecessor while still retaining a surprising amount of fullness, mids are neutrally toned and balanced, treble is crisp and detailed, and soundstage is open and crisp. The sum of all it’s strengths makes it a must buy for anyone looking for that one headphone to use for all purposes.
Astell & Kern AK100II
My selection for my “Product of 2014” is actually quite surprising to me. As I mentioned during my review of the Astell & Kern AK100II, I was a DAP noob and while I’ve heard several through the years, none really jumped out at me. That was until I got to review the AK100II. This little wonder has me smiling still after having it for a few months. I no longer have to give up sound quality for portability like I did with my iDevices. With the AK100II and my Shure SE535s I can literally have it all. Throw in the wonderfully solid construction, amazingly simple and effective graphical user interface, the ability to play virtually every codec I own, and the ability to store up to 192Gb of music, it’s a real winner in my books. I was so impressed with the AK100II that I couldn’t bring myself to sending it back to Astell & Kern, so I bought it outright. It is that darn good and gets my vote for Product of the Year!
PS Audio DirectStream DAC
The chance meeting of PS Audio founder Paul McGowan and eccentric software engineer Ted Smith will, in all likelihood, be remembered by both men as a highlight in their already formidable careers. McGowan recalls being introduced to Ted by a mutual friend, and getting to hear Smith’s experimental prototype DSD DAC. It didn’t take Paul long to realize he was hearing something pretty special, and a working relationship ensued between he and Ted, the result of which is the brilliant DirectStream. This $6,000 DAC is revealing without being ruthless, detailed without being clinical, precise without being lifeless. And, better yet, delivers sound on par with the best sources in the world for a fraction of the price of more esoteric offerings. It is a DAC that has already chalked up numerous awards in its first year, and will only get better over time. Yes, you read that right – It will get better. That’s because the DirectStream employs a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) rather than a conventional DAC chip. This FPGA allows for ongoing reprogramming and improvement to the device. One such firmware update, version 1.2.1, was so profound that many audio reviewers added a postscript to their already-published reviews. Some retracted already-positive accounts and wrote even more glowing praise for the DirectStream. This DAC is a game changer and one that I am glad to call my new reference.
LH Labs Geek Out 1000 DAC/Amp
Between what I have reviewed (including those yet to be published) as well as all the gear I heard at Axpona and RMAF, I have never experienced a year with so many new and exciting pieces of kit. For something to make my “Best of” list it needs to be a price/performance value leader. It must become a go to piece for me. That is what the LH Labs Geek Out 1000 has become. I never travel without it. From driving my HD800 or HD650 to making my JH16’s sing this little superstar is 2” of pure 9018 Sabre USB awesomeness. It can handle virtually any resolution of file from baseline .mp3 to 24/384 PCM or DSD128 and throw 1 full watt of class A at them. The category it represents is getting more crowded everyday. New players will need to step up big to take on the Geek Out 1000. Product of the Year for me!
Chord Hugo DAC/Amp
For me the most exciting product of 2014 was without a doubt the chord Electronics Hugo. The Hugo’s sound as a headphone amplifier is incredible, the first two weeks with this device enthralled me so much that I didn’t even turn on my Woo Audio WA2. It’s extremely detailed and palpable sound is deserving of the highest respect. The DAC section of the Hugo is easily the best I have ever heard and for me overshadows every source that came before it. The Hugo made me rethink the possibilities of what a high end source can offer and strengthened my belief in digital Audio.
Out of all the gear I was lucky enough to own/review, hands down, the Enigma was the shining light of the pack. Awhile back I was lucky enough to have the Enigma for a month for reviewing purposes. The Enigma is a labor of love by Luis Flores, the creator of the Enigma as well as the Paradox and limited edition Project X. Flores also hand makes each and every headphone. The Enigma form factor, with its oversized hand crafted wood cups and surgical steel headband, easily looks the part of an audio geeks dream come true. For me, the Enigma is a top tier serious headphone that is tuned in such a way to never sound boring. It’s really a fun listen with its slightly elevated, quick, and detailed bass. The star of the show for me was the Enigma midrange. For those looking for a hand crafted top tier sound, the Enigma is a must buy.
Honourable mention goes out to Calyx Audio for their CalyxM DAP. If you’re tired of always walking around with a two or three-piece mobile rig in your pocket, then the CalyxM might be worth your attention. A must buy for those who are always on the go and don’t want to forgo great sound without breaking the wallet.
Check out the next page for more Product Of The Year awards…
iFi iDSD Micro
My choice for Product of the Year is the iFi iDSD Micro. At $499 I expected a nice little compact DAC with decent sound and to be honest some fairly basic features. What I got was entirely different. I heard detail and musicality far beyond its price. I found a feature set that was surprisingly comprehensive with a terrific headphone amp. But the sound is just sublime and it keeps this puppy in constant use whenever I work from the home office. Well done iFi. Well done indeed.
HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition
Thinking back over this year, and thinking what product I heard that was simply the best sounding is difficult. I have listened to many great products and to pick out one that stands above the rest requires the reader to understand the criteria that I used to decide what I thought was the best sounding product I have heard in 2014. My interest has always been in high definition audio. Since I record, produce and mix my own music, what is the most important to me is the accuracy, detail and spatial capability of the audio gear I use. Based on my criteria, listening to the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Special Edition electrostatic headphone amplifier at the RMAF this year was my choice of best sounding product I have heard in 2014. I must also mention that the Stax SR-009 and the Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DAC contributed greatly in helping me listen to this great sounding amplifier.
Woo Audio WA7
The WA7 is a versatile combination hybrid amp and DAC made by one of the most reputable audio companies out there. Sitting atop the aluminum base is a beautiful piece of glass, with the tubes glowing vibrantally. The amp here is able to handle almost every headphone and IEM you can throw at it. The WA7 has a 3.5mm input that is specifically designed for lower impedance gear, and also has a standard ¼ for higher impedance. Also, for harder to drive headphones, there is a HI-Z setting. The sound here never disappoints, with its signature always teetering towards the warm side. A perfect all-in-one desktop solution.Honorable mention is the Paradox by Reference Sounds. The Paradox is a T50RP mod that rivals the Mr Speakers creations. The design does not contend with the Mad Dogs or Alpha Dogs, but the sound and comfort is what wins me over; it is like wrapping yourself in a cloud. The Paradox is a relatively easy to drive, natural sounding headphone. At the price of $495, it’s a bargain for the sound attained.
Tidal: High Fidelity Music Streaming Service
This has been such a surreal year filled with some of the best personal and portable audio gear I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting my hot little hands on. So, that leaves me thinking of this all important question of what one product stands out the most, to me, that I would recommend. Well, my product isn’t so much a product… it’s a service. A service I have personally used everyday since it came out, sometimes for hours on end. It has become a permant fixture in my ever changing personal audio rig: TIDAL.
The service offers CD-quality lossless music streaming, as well as downloadable content for use offline. TIDAL is available on your phone, tablet, computer and certain network streamers. If you are using your web browser for TIDAL, google chrome is currently the only browser that supports the TIDAL HIFI playback (FLAC 1411 files). It is absolutely worth getting google chrome as your browser, if you haven’t already. I used to use Pandora One and Spotify for the majority of my streaming. I would never deliberately choose to listen to my music on lower res services over the high-res downloads that I have saved on my computer, but I would end up just listening to the low quality version that started playing out of shear convenience. I liked the variety of new songs mixed with songs that I already knew. Now, I get the best of both worlds. For me, Tidal has gotten me to get my butt off the couch and my brain off of Netflix autopilot, test out my new portable gear, allowed me to enjoy the playlists of my friends, explore new music, and broaden my listening pleasure. All without losing that sound quality that drives me to become part of my music. It will never replace that sound of my vinyl, or the experience I get from dropping the needle and hearing the record noise, but the fact that I get to take Tidal anywhere me and my phone or laptop want to go, is definitely something I welcome into my music world with open arms. I’m looking forward to riding the waves with TIDAL, as they expand their library and become compatible with even more devices.
FiiO X1 DAP ($99)
And that’s a wrap on 2014. Seems like Digital Audio Players — especially those from Astell & Kern — were all the rage this year. Can’t wait to see what next year brings!