Toward the end of every year, the Hi-Fi+ team gets together and discusses the finest products we have seen over a range of categories in the last 12 months. This short-list gets whittled down until the best product in every category is chosen. What follows over the next two weeks are the result of that selection process; the best of the best.
In part, the process is made both easier and a lot harder because we have a pre-selection process before the review even gets into print. If we don’t think a product is worth reviewing, we don’t review it, so it is automatically ineligible for inclusion into our awards. However, that also means our products are already ‘winners’ by the time they make it into Hi-Fi+, so selecting the best of that group really is a matter of finding the crème de la crème.
Sometimes, that isn’t so problematic because the nature of the review process limits the number of products in a given category to relatively small handful; we don’t test tonearms in every issue, but amplifiers and loudspeakers are a Hi-Fi+regular. This means that we tend to have more of a pool of loudspeakers to choose from than we do tonearms each year. On the other hand, trying to pick the best integrated amplifier from dozens of really outstanding amplifiers does make for some ‘interesting’ and heated discussions.
That all being said, we do include a small number of products that are in the process of review, even if they haven’t made it into print as yet. In the main, we try to avoid this practice as much as possible, but in rare circumstances (either where the products tested during the year were not as ‘complete’ as the winner or that a new product comes along that simply invalidates the other runners and riders in that category) such ‘gongs’ become an inevitability.
Unique to this year, we are including products from our sister title, the Ultimate Headphone Guide, which has now been incorporated into Hi-Fi+. As many have already seen those reviews from the magazine in its own right, we have chosen not to reprint them in Hi-Fi+.
Finally, an important addition to the Hi-Fi+roster of Awards; the Product of the Year. This is a component (or components) that so blew us away this year, we had to confer it with an award in its own right. We routinely assess hundreds of audio products every year, and many of them are extremely impressive, but there is usually just one that is truly memorable. We’re new to this best of the best of the best lark, however, and we don’t know whether this will be the finest product we have heard each year, or whether it’s going to be an occasional award. Tune in next year for the 2019 Awards to find out!
Note: published in Hi-Fi+ Issue 166 (December 2018)
Cost-No-Object Loudspeaker of the Year: Raidho Acoustics TD-4.8
An interesting aside: this year’s shortlist of cost-no-object loudspeakers ultimately came down to two models; the Raidho TD-4.8 and the Raidho XT-5 (tested in issue 165). The company is clearly doing something very right!
A big part of that ‘something’ is assembling the right team for the job. And in Raidho’s case, a lot of that comes down to the recent hiring of Benno Baun Meldgaard as chief designer for the company. The exceptional musicality he brought to GamuT’s products clearly was no accident, and his impact on the sound of the already-excellent Raidho range is adding further depth to the design. In fact, we think Raidho is the front runner in a true European high-end audio renaissance, with products that challenge even the greatest the American high-end has to offer.
The tall, slim, and extremely elegant three-way, nine-driver floorstanders require an exceptionally large room and outstanding partnering equipment, and are capable of delivering the sort of full-range performance that justifies their place at the top table of hi-fi.
In our test, we thought that the Raidho TD-4.8 “makes music supremely intelligible, in a way few other loudspeakers can. Vocal articulation is a given, but so is the articulation of the voices of all instruments. There’s no sense of ‘is that a bass clarinet?’ to music; one quick blast of the Raidho TD‑4.8 and you’ll know precisely what type of instrument is being played, almost to the point of knowing what kind of reed the musician prefers.” That might seem like hyperbole, until you sit and listen to the TD-4.8 played well, and realise that detailed insight into the music is compelling and powerful. So powerful, in fact, you’ll struggle to tear yourself away: “turning the track off was an act of musical barbarism. Pick an album, play track one, intending to listen to only that track. Five tracks later you are still mesmerised and reaching for the ‘Stop’ button is like disrespecting the music itself.” Wow, just wow!
High-End Loudspeaker of the Year: Vivid Audio Kaya 45
Vivid Audio’s loudspeakers typically present a ‘distinctive’ look that is never going to be universally popular. Some love the unique curves, tubes, and angles as they give a loudspeaker a uniquely ‘organic’ feel. Others would like something a little less ‘alien’ and a bit more ‘domestically friendly’. Vivid was reluctant to sacrifice quality in the search for more uniform aesthetics, but found the best possible compromise in the new Kaya range. These combine more room-friendly looks with the kind of performance with which the Vivid name has long been associated.
The Kaya range is the product of a collaboration between legendary audio designer Laurence ‘Dic’ Dickie and noted industrial designers Matt Longbottom and Christoph Hermann. The resultant Kaya model (the numerical suffix denotes cabinet volume, the Kaya 45 being a 45 litre enclosure) viewed from above has a triangular section with a small spine. The edges and base are gently curved so that from the front the Kaya 45 is essentially rectangular; it’s only the side view that reveals any curves. Coupled with this are Vivid’s own aluminium drive units, with catenary rather than hemispherical domes for the midrange and tweeter and dustcap-free cones for the reaction-cancelling bass drivers, with improved magnets for the Kayas.
In our test, the reviewer praised the Kaya 45 for its refinement, musicality, fluidity, detail, and surprisingly deep bass for a loudspeaker of its stature. “Tone and timbre are also extremely well rendered, which is a factor of the detail definition, of course.” he wrote. He concluded, “With Kaya, Vivid have made a speaker that gets you very close to the music in a cabinet that while hardly a veneered box is rather more discreet than their usual fare. Kaya means ‘home’ in Zulu, the language of the people who build Vivid loudspeakers, I would happily give it some space in mine.”
Stand-mount Loudspeaker of the Year: Kii Audio Three
We took a long time to get round to hearing the Kii Three, even though we’d seen and heard it at shows. Which shows that good things come to those who wait. And the Kii Three is very definitely a good thing.
Although we’ve classed the Kii Three as a ‘Stand-mount loudspeaker’ in fact it’s a multitude of things in one. It’s an active loudspeaker with built in active subwoofer. Especially when used with the Kii Controller, it’s a digital audio hub. It’s a sophisticated piece of audio electronics as much as it is a clever loudspeaker. But, despite the sophistication, it is not simply clever for its own sake; this is a genuine attempt at making a full high-end system built into loudspeakers… and we think it works very well indeed.
Our reviewer thought that, “The Kii Three is clean, detailed and even in the bass to an extent that is rare at almost any price, so it shows you both the nature of the original signal and the partnering electronics with considerable clarity.” He also felt that the subtle use of DSP is revelatory; “The original performance is the same, but it’s just that you can hear more of it, and with a bit of familiarisation it becomes even more engaging and transporting.” He concluded that, “Once you get a handle on what this speaker can do it’s almost impossible to stop playing your old favourites.”
High Value Loudspeaker of the Year: Totem Acoustic Sky Tower
Totem’s Sky Tower is one of those perfect loudspeakers. It’s perfectly proportioned for a floorstanding loudspeaker, it is a two-way design (which often makes a better loudspeaker than something more elaborate) all using the company’s own design right down to the feet. You can’t get much better than that!
In fact, the relatively standard look of the cabinet hides quite a story. The interior of the deceptively sturdy lock-mitred construction is damped with borosilicate, a process that usually appears in more expensive speakers. This uses a glass-based paste ‘painted’ onto the interior of the cabinet. Then the whole enclosure is finished in a real-wood veneer, suitably thick enough to add stiffness to the already stiff loudspeaker cabinet. In other words, when you are listening to the Totem loudspeaker, you are listening to the drive units and not much more, and those drivers are a 3.3cm laser etched textile soft dome tweeters and a 146mm woofer with copper capped voice coil. This is impressive stuff for so affordable a design.
In our review, we felt the Totem Sky Tower was even better than the sum of its parts. “The Sky Towers effortlessly weaved a truly enormous soundstage that seemed to be unfairly contained only by the walls of the room,” said our reviewer. “The rippling soundstage was delightfully untethered to the physical location of the floorstanding towers and was anything but diluted or mushy around the edges.”
He concluded that “The Sky Towers offer a rounded and complete delivery with enough finesse and detail to allow you to joyfully rediscover your music collection all over again. With certainty, it is hard to imagine how anyone would think they are not getting more for their entry fee than they had expected.”
Totem have done it again with the Sky Tower floorstander!
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