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Hi-Fi+ Awards – The Best of the Best

Hi-Fi+ Awards – The Best of the Best

2016 was something of a tumultuous year, both in and out of the audio world. Although audio is an extremely mature branch of consumer electronics, in recent years it has seen some significant changes, as we collectively embrace downloaded or streamed files, and re-adopt the vinyl LP. Neither of these drives toward better sound show any signs of slowing although we might have achieved ‘peak vinyl’ this year, as the pressing plants struggle to cope with demand. Regardless, the world of audio is changing and showing signs of being more animated than it has been in years. Moreover, with the rise of the headphone and personal audio world, coupled with the small, but growing ‘audiophile lounge’ movement in some of the trendy parts of the coolest cities, being into the sound music makes as well as music has become just that little bit more fashionable for the first time in decades.

That increased interest and energy in audio is beginning to be felt in the products themselves. This is an exciting time in the audio world. Concepts like TIDAL, for example, that were not even ‘achievable’ a few years ago (or were either clunky or simply not very good sounding) are now commonplace and running smoothly. Developments in audio design – especially in the fields of digital audio and loudspeaker performance – have created products that confidently outshine their predecessors.

We have also seen the realisation of the potential in Class D amplifier designs, creating high-power, more efficient amplifier designs that now sound excellent. These are simply examples; in fact, in almost every category in audio, we have seen significant improvements in engineering, technology, usability, and performance.

However, it’s not quite a ‘golden age’. The combination of a very small user base coupled with prices that frequently play to a very well-heeled audience has meant the best in traditional audio components are often in a very rarefied atmosphere. I still maintain that good audio can be had at all prices, but we have noticed from feedback from readers and responses to reviews posted up at www.hifiplus.com that the lower and mid-priced traditional audio products we cover rarely ‘click’ with our core readers. So, we continue to pursue a more high-end path.

The same is not true with the personal audio world, however, and in this sector we really are in something of a golden age. Products at all price categories are of interest, and excellent products in all walks of personal audio are there to meet that interest. That market is extending in all directions, embracing avenues of product design that might have been unthinkable a year or two ago: we are seeing loudspeaker designers taking headphones seriously at last; we are seeing headphone amp designers making products that feature electronics designs both state-of-the-art and out-of-the-ark in pursuit of great sound; in-ear monitor and earphone designers push the envelope of what can be done in that most intimate of audio environments; digital designs that push the boundaries of what can be done in the home or on the move, and we are seeing increased interest in using a standalone Digital Audio Player for playing a wide selection of music files at unheard of quality while on the move. And if prices in this sector are creeping up at the top end, they are also well maintained at the lower end of the market, so everyone gets to benefit.

It’s worth noting that in our selection process, we have drawn from products we have seen over the last year. That precludes those we looked at in 2015 or before. That does not invalidate those products; many products in audio have a decade long life cycle and just because we look at the newest, in many cases this doesn’t take the edge off the best products of a few years ago. We have tried to limit the number of product reviews we have in the pipeline, but when there is an outstanding product that we have evaluated during the year, but not had space to include it in the pages of Hi-Fi+ yet, we have given it an award, with the proviso that the review will follow very soon. Finally, a word of warning that applies to all awards in all audio magazines, ours included; products are given awards in isolation, and not in terms of consideration in context with their other award winning counterpart: the best DAC, best amplifier, and best loudspeaker this year might work well together, or the combination might suck! In all cases, selecting the best system out of the best products requires a good deal of auditioning.

Selecting the best products of 2016 was at times an easy task. There are a few products that are so good that you would have to actively struggle to find a reason not to give them an award. But it has also made the task difficult, because in some categories we have an embarrassment of riches, and could legitimately give awards to three, four, or even six products in a given category. However, we decided not to do that this year, and draw your attention to the best of the best.

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