Headphone.Guru’s 2017 Products of the Year and Writers’ Choice Awards
2017 was an exceptional year for new product designs. The innovative creations by masterful designers keep reaching new heights in personal audio. The year was filled with so many magnificent products and companies that were so inviting, that this year that it was difficult to pick the best in design and sound. We salute all the manufacturers who submitted their products for review this year and we are excited about the products that are coming for next year. Personal Audio continues to make new statements in audio and the talented personal audio designers continue to create new benchmarks in sound and engineering, Congratulations to everyone dedicated to creating musical products that redefine recorded music. Happy Holidays to everyone from the team at Headphone.Guru.
2017 Editor’s Choice Product of the Year: HiFiMan Shangri-La Electrostatic Headphone System
The sounds coming from this system was beyond anything I had ever experienced in personal audio. Hifiman has brought a real world product that makes recorded music come to life and creates a magnificent listening experience. The sound is spectacular and always had me shaking my head to see what is still possible in electronic product design. The goal of delivering a live performance is now within reach with the Shangri-La.
The dynamics and speed of this system is unlike anything else I have auditioned. The cost of this product reflects the years of research and development that went into designing one of the best personal audio systems in the world. If your looking for ultimate dynamics with musicality and a product that is truly one of a kind this is the system that makes dreams come true. Live performers in your listening room comes at a steep price but for the fortunate who could afford to buy this system, it will provide years of ultimate enjoyment. Sadly, I had to return the system, but gratefully, I had it in my system for a month and experienced the performance of a lifetime and highly recommend it for anyone who is looking for ultimate listening experience . The ultimate statement piece and deserving of product of the year.
Since purchasing my Chord Hugo2 late this past summer, I’ve had to deal with a few personal in grained beliefs that a desktop digital-to-analog converter had to be both big and heavy. Well, after listening to the Chord Hugo2 for the past several months, that premonition has been completely dispelled. Simply put the Chord Hugo2 does it all! From offering a truly world class desktop solution as both a source and amplifier for your headphones (though the amplifier takes the power directly from the DAC portion and does not add any un-needed colouration from a separate headphone amplifier) to a wonderful portable option to use with your mobile phone or digital audio player (DAP). This little wonder can power pretty much any pair of headphones I can throw at it, and still maintain a dead silent noise floor that I could easily use it with any pair of in-ear monitors. Don’t let its small size fool you, this is a serious player that out-performed competitors costing quite a bit more money and coming in much larger sizes. The only DAC that I’ve heard that consistently outshines the Hugo2 is the significantly more expensive Chord DAVE – the Hugo2 is that darn good!
2017 Open & Closed Back Headphone of the Year: MrSpeakers AEON Flow Closed & AEON Flow Open Planar Magnetic Headphones
Early this year, I was floored by the release of the MrSpeakers AEON Flow Closed Headphone. Here was a headphone that all but rivaled my reference headphone for a thousand dollars less, in fact you would be hard pressed to find a closed back headphone that significantly outperforms the AEON Flow Closed in speed, linearity (of both phase and bandwidth) and soundstage for any price. Come fall, MrSpeakers introduced the AEON Flow Open, repeating this minor miracle with an open backed headphone. Given these epic accomplishments, we saw no other choice that to award MrSpeakers a well deserved Open and Closed Back Headphone of the Year.
What can I say, this product literally blew me away when I reviewed it here: http://headphone.guru/the-audeze-lcdi4-in-ear-headphones-simply-the-best/. And as I mentioned, these in-ear monitors were a revelation to me as you could finally have a full sized open backed headphone sound in a small package that you can take with you on the go. Being open backed, noise isolation isn’t really their strong suit, but openness, transparency, clarity and immense sound staging are a few terms that pop into mind. When paired with the Chord Hugo 2, this combination rivals many full sized top of the line setups I’ve heard and owned through the years. Never to let the grass grow under their feet, the engineers at Audeze have really outdone themselves with the LCDi4 in-ear headphones and I strongly recommend you check them out!
Occasionally a product comes along that’s captures the imagination of a listener and is so involving it just disappears leaving the listener nothing else but the music.. The HA300 integrated amplifier, from the mind of Dan Wright, is a fine tuned musical instrument that totally consumed me with its exceptional musicality and has me totally involved with the music.
The product, designed as a 8-watt amplifier with a separate power supply, drove the 88 dB Fritz Carbon 7 SE to musical bliss. The speakers sounded dynamic and musical with exceptional bass and treble extension. The midrange was delivered with transparency and made the music sound soulful and alive.
Headphones no matter how difficult to drive came to life. The 300B triode tube by Electro Harmonix had that magical sound and offered tonality of instruments and made vocalist come to life. The soundstage imaging on both speakers and headphones was deep and layered with rare transparency that many other products fail to achieve.
The $7900 work of art is a beautiful design that gives the listener the ultimate in both speaker and headphone amplification and is an end game solution for the most discriminating listener. If you have top shelf speakers and headphones the HA300 could be that last upgrade you need to reach the ultimate in musical bliss. (Full review coming)
2017 Digital Audio Player of the Year: Questyle Audio QP2R Digital Audio Player
The Questyle Audio QP2R had big shoes to fill. Following up on a previous Product of the year winner, the QP1R, the latest portable in the Questyle lineup reimagined every aspect of the device and came out the other side with a second Product of the Year award! The QP2R accepts MicroSD cards up to 400gb, comes with 64Gb of on board memory and has a completely redesigned linux OS for speed. Sound is full and the new quad based Class-A amps in balanced mode offer plenty of power for all headphones. Naturally sound quality is sublime. Be prepared to listen longer than you expected when listening through this class leading Digital Audio Player!
2017 Budget Product of the Year: Cardas A8 Earspeaker
The A8 never embarrassed itself in comparison to ear-speakers costing hundreds and in some instances 8 or 9X more money. The outstanding clarity and transparency the transducer offers is a testament to George Cardas and his team. The A8 offers the music lover a sense of realism rarely found in products priced this reasonably. The sound is neutral, with outstanding clarity, and makes the listener forget they are listening to a $349.00 ear-speaker. The A8 is one of the finest sound products, regardless of price, and always delivers musicality with exceptional dynamics. Outstanding product that delivers exceptional sound for an affordable price.
2017 Accessory of the Year: Core Power Technologies Equi=Core 300
The Core Power Technologies Equi=Core 300 helped make the sound of my headphone listening more rewarding. Headphone system users will definitely see the differences quickly. Auditioning a unit allows an easy demonstration by listening to three songs with and then without the unit in the system. The sound of the system with the 300 is much quieter and easily noticed and rewards the listener with a more musical experience. Once removed I immediately noticed more noise and it sounded as if something was missing without the Equi=Core in the system. Noise floor was higher without the unit and music notes were not as clear and it lost some musicality. Differences were easily noticed and the system with the Equi=Core 300 was noticeably better, with more clarity and a black background. Inner detail and sound of musical instruments were more vivid. What was amazing was that the low level hum disappeared using my VPI Scout turntable and evaporated while using the Equi=Core 300. The noise levels are virtually all gone and all that is left is amazing black background,
Frank Iacone: OPPO UDP-205 4K Ultra HD Audiophile Blu-ray Disc Player
The UDP-205 is vastly improved over its predecessor the UDP-105 and the ESS 9038 DACs are far more musical. The delivery of instruments with tonal accuracy was spectacular. The new DACs offered musicality with dynamics and had everything you could want in your music system. The UDP-205 can decode any disc and also stream from a wide variety of sources. The fact it can do all this and do it as good as it does in this price category is a magnificent achievement for OPPO.
Listening with headphones with the built in amplifier never disappointed me and it competed with standalone amplifiers costing many hundreds more. The OPPO UDP-205 is a special product that will satisfy the most critical audiophiles and can be the cornerstone of your system. The fact that you can buy this reference player for $1299 makes this one the greatest values in high end audio. The UDP-205 is an amazing player that never disappoints.
Boy am I glad I covered TAVES Consumer Electronics Show this past October (http://headphone.guru/taves-consumer-electronics-show-2017/). Not only was I able to hear some truly outstanding personal audio and 2 channel setups, I was finally able to hear the newly updated Abyss AB-1266 Phi headphones. The Phi update to the drivers was implemented part way through this year. The original AB-1266 was released approximately 4 years ago and this recent update to the drivers has really taken these headphones to a whole new level sonically-speaking. Construction wise, nothing has really changed to the frame or ear-pads, but rather the designers at Abyss (JPS Labs) spent their time improving the drivers in order to further improve upon an already impressive headphone. While I certainly enjoyed the original Abyss headphones with their thunderous bass, speaker-like sound staging and wonderfully rich sound, I found the mids and treble presentation a bit behind it’s best features. At TAVES, I heard a headphone that was able to keep all of the impressive sonic feats of the original and up the ante in the midrange and treble. Throw in improved transparency and detail retrieval I was floored with with I heard! A few days after the show, I was busy scouting a pair to purchase and review. Thanks to the good folks at Woo Audio and their excellent customer service and quick shipping I’ve been enjoying these top flight headphones for a few weeks. The Abyss AB-1266 headphones created a single magnet planar (patent-pending) with a specific magnetic field pattern, and within the new Phi drivers, they dramatically increased field line contrast allowing for greater accuracy in relation to the driven trace pattern (voice coil). As well, the new Phi drivers reduced micro-phase distortions on the planer surface to insanely low levels. Acoustics are fine tuned without the need for absorption or treatments.
I will definitely be writing up a full review of them in the next few months. But in the meantime, along with the Chord Hugo 2 and the Audeze LCDi4 in-ear headphones, the new Abyss Phi were all products that really moved the bar higher for new products this past year. You really need to check these headphones out…their new standard in terms of transparency, sound staging, tonality and overall dynamics really have them among the very best headphones I’ve ever heard!
Price: $4495 Lite / $5495 Deluxe / $7495 Complete (depending on accessories package) [Special Note: the Complete version includes the JPS Labs Superconductor HP cable set in place of the normal stock cable]
I love a great High Value product. The AudioQuest NightOwls at $699.00 will give you exceptional sound and terrific value. They are one of the few truly audiophile quality closed headphones you could buy. It is hard to balance closed headphones and over driven bass. No issue here as the aperiodic venting does its job. In the end you may decide the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbons are as far up the mountain you need to go with a closed headphone. I know I am keeping my pair and declaring them my Writer’s award choice for 2017.
Ates Berberoglu: DiDiT High-End DAC212SE Digital to Analog Converter
DiDiT High-End (Different in Design, Different in Technology) is a Dutch audio gear manufacturer located in Nederhorst Den Berg. The DiDiT Team has launched the DAC212SE a while ago as an upgraded version of the DAC212 with RCA output.
Without a shadow of doubt, there are other DACs in the market that perform better than the DAC212SE. However, it maintains an impressive resolution performance, which is beyond its price range and able to be seriously competitive with some more expensive DACs.
The DAC212SE is a compact and luxurious digital to analogue converter that hosts all popular input types in the audiophile world. Considering its look, size, and sound quality, it is clear that the DiDiT team seems to know what they do and how to tune sound. The DAC212SE is not a unit designed by chance.
This is a remarkably good sounding DAC! Definitely deserves to be a Writer’s Choice!
I’d like to dedicate my choice for this year’s Writer’s Choice Awards to Puro Labs and their IEM-200 and OEH-200 they sent me. Most of my peers have dedicated theirs to the best sounding products they liked or spotlight picks of diamonds in the rough. I’d like mine to go towards Puro, a company that raises awareness towards a problem we face in society today, noise-induced hearing loss, and that has also provided actionable steps and financial contributions towards it. They provide personal audio solutions that help users listen to music with great fidelity at lower volumes. Most of their devices are also attenuated to help reduce pure ‘volume’ output as well.
The OEH-200 they sent was just $39 and it sounded great. It had a deep timbre and an abundance of low-end bass to accommodate it to the point where I used it as my portable daily for a few weeks; it just worked with everything. The IEM-200 provided similar performance by being incredibly smooth with a thick bass all without any noticeable fatigue during hour long listening sessions.
I’m proud of the philosophy that Puro Sounds Labs brings to the industry on providing socially responsible products that benefit both the community and their company in a symbiotic relationship.
Gary Alan Barker: Questyle Audio CMA400i Current Mode True DSD DAC/Preamp/Headphone Amplifier
This was another banner year for Personal Audio products, making this an extremely difficult choice for me, as there were a great many products I have listened to and review that certainly deserved special recognition. The choice became even more difficult, when two ground breaking products were introduced by the same company, one of which is now part of my reference set up. Fortunately, that one garnered the DAP of the Year award, freeing me to select the Questyle Audio CMA400i. What makes the CMA400i so special, other than its fantastic sound, is that it was the first desktop DAC/amp to be designed with IEMs in mind, offering a 2.5mm balanced output and gain control switches, while the hearty output of the current mode amplifier was able to easily drive most over the ear headphones including hard to drive planar magnetics (I was able to run my MrSpeakers ETHER C Flows in low gain), giving it an extremely low noise floor and ridiculous dynamic range.
Frank started his journey in high-end audio in 1978 and was quickly hooked. Frank’s passion for music and great sound reproduction is stronger than ever. His main focus is with high-end headphones and portable related gear. He is a regular Head-Fi.org contributor and is a co-founder of Headphone.Guru.