DAC of the Year
Joint winner: Nagra HD DAC
There are a vast number of excellent DACs on sale at all prices, so it’s hard to justify a high price for a DAC unless that digital product is something truly special. The Nagra HD DAC – best used as a two-box design with the optional battery pack – is one DAC that more than justifies its place in the audiophile firmament. This hybrid converter isn’t just DSD capable, it upsamples regular CD audio to DSD performance. Of course, if you have Andreas Koch, one of DSD’s founding fathers, on the team that helps make this quite simply one of the best digital converters money can buy. The Nagra HD DAC – the first of the company’s new super high-end range – calls on the brand’s outstanding pro heritage in its use of individual transformers on each input, and relies on its own code instead of an off-the-shelf DAC chip. (Reviewed in Issue 122).
Joint winner: PS Audio DirectStream DAC
Many contemporary DACs are arguably PCM-centric, but the DirectStream DAC takes a different tack, converting all incoming digital audio data streams to DSD format, upsampling them, and proceeding from there. Whether you prefer listening to PCM or DSD format files (or both) there is no arguing with the sublime results the DirectStream DAC achieves. We were and are greatly impressed by the unit’s richly detailed and highly nuanced presentation—a presentation that somehow manages to capture much of the fluidity, ease, and sonic grace of today’s finest analogue audio components. In short, the DirectStream DAC offers the full spectrum of digital benefits, yet also sounds somewhat like a reel-to-reel analogue tape deck, sans tape hiss, of course. Better still, as the underlying ‘operating system’ software of the DirectStream DAC continues to be updated, this already excellent sounding DAC continues to get even better over time. (Reviewed in Issues 125 & 128).
Streamer of the Year: AURALiC ARIES wireless streaming bridge
The disarmingly simple looking AURALiC ARIES is in fact a hyper-versatile digital audio content delivery system. In simple terms, ARIES can locate, catalogue, and then transfer high-res digital audio content from just about anywhere (for example, from NAS drives, network-attached uPnP/DLNA-compatible computers, Internet Radio stations, subscription-based streaming services such as Qobuz or TIDAL, AirPlay or Songcast-compatible sources, or even from a local USB music library drive) to whatever DAC or digital playback device you might choose. Importantly, though, ARIES is not just a digital audio ‘router’-type device; rather, it is a sophisticated yet surprisingly intuitive digital audio playback control system that gives fingertip access to entire worlds of digital audio content, while letting users control the proceedings from their iPads. Better still, ARIES sounds so good that to surpass its performance one should expect to spend several times what the ARIES system costs, and possibly more. (Reviewed in Issue 130).
Network Player of the Year: Moon Evolution 780D
If any product encapsulates change in the digital audio world, it’s the Moon Evolution 780D. Moon’s previous digital top dog of the Evolution range was the 750D CD player, and while this disc-spinner also featured a range of digital inputs, that wasn’t enough for today’s power users. As a DAC in its own right, the £10,500 780D can support digital inputs up to 24-bit, 384kHz in PCM and up to DSD256, making 24/192 and DSD64 replay a breeze. More importantly for today’s market, the 780D uses Moon integrated Network Device (MiND) technology as a high performance network player, both on a local network or to pull in services like TIDAL. Even in a fast moving market, there are brands playing a longer game, and the 780D is designed to stay the course, not only because of its outstanding build quality, but because it sounds damn good too! (Reviewed in Issue 129).
Server of the Year: Melco N1Z
One of two ambitious USB/Ethernet file-based music libraries from Melco, the audiophile-owned brand behind Buffalo computer peripherals, the N1Z is best thought of as a dedicated audiophile replacement to the computer (or even the network infrastructure) in a computer audio system. If you tried and disliked PC-based audio, this might be your way into tomorrow’s audio world. Best used as the digital buffer between the outside world of Ethernet in a network streaming system, or as a meeting point for USB drives in a system, the N1Z also sports its own SSD drives for both operating system and a limited portfolio of your best loved music. Our advice, replace the Twonky server software with MinimServer, and use it in place of a network storage drive in a network audio setting, and be amazed at just how much more sound quality you can get from any system. (Reviewed in Issue 124).
Integrated Player/Amplifier of the Year: Naim Audio SuperUniti
One of the core products in the modern UK audio environment, the SuperUniti strips what it takes to make good audio, Naim style, down to its core. A combined powerful-sounding 80 watt per channel integrated amplifier, married to Naim’s highly-respected own network audio system that can be successfully app-driven, makes this £3,675 device a consistent seller in stores across the land. This comes down to the SuperUniti’s intensely musical presentation that retains the fun factor throughout, and makes it a perfect partner to many of the most popular loudspeakers today. The SuperUniti preserves that distinctive up-tempo Naim sound quality and is akin to the SuperNait integrated amplifier, but it also adds in the network performance of a player like the ND 5 XS from the brand, all in a one-box form factor that appeals to minimalists, downgraders, and – as our reviewer discovered – space-saving wives alike. (Reviewed in Issue 122).
Disc Player of the Year: dCS Rossini
In part as a result of changes in the SACD world, the dCS Rossini is the company’s first disc player to replay CD only. In fact, the Rossini is the first disc player from the brand that has an option to not feature a disc player at all! In essence the Rossini platform is a high-performance upsampling DSD DAC and streamer (featuring the company’s latest custom digital conversion and Ring DAC boards), which can optionally support an integrated CD mechanism. All of this can be fully controlled through the dCS app. The £18,000 Rossini player – especially with its matching £5,000 clock – is not compromised by its CD-only replay, however: it’s ability to upsample CD to DSD performance is remarkable, and the Rossini not only blows away its predecessors, it actually sounds a lot more like the company’s top Vivaldi stack than you might first expect. (Reviewed in Issue 129).