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. [separator type=”thick”]
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)
[separator type=”thick”] 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!