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What Santa didn’t bring this year!

What Santa didn’t bring this year!

A list of Christmas presents dreamed up by reviewers could be seen as an exercise in self‑indulgence. We get to play with all the toys, all the time anyway. So, in audiophile terms, every day is Christmas Day for an audio reviewer, at least in theory.

In fact, while this is the case, some of those toys stick in the mind more than others. A reviewer covers a lot of products in the average year, and there are some that stand out as being above and beyond the norm. Perhaps surprisingly for a high-end magazine, these are not necessarily the most expensive products tested (often they are some of the cheapest).

Maybe it’s not so indulgent after all. Maybe it’s an insight into the things that stand out in audio. Not simply the day-to-day stuff we test, but the things that we really remember, and that is probably the things that really matter. Over the coming weeks, we’ll ask the same thing of many of our team, and we’d love to hear the same from you, too!

Some of us have also looked forward as well as back, to things they hope to review, or expect to review in the coming months. The promise of good things in audio is a sure sign of an audio enthusiast, even if a professional eye tempers that. Deep down, many of us are still very nerdy when it comes to good audio.

An interesting aside is if you look at this synoptically, analysing what products appear time and time again from different reviewers, there are commonalities. We had a lot of people choose the Rega RP10, the AudioQuest Jitterbug, and the Naim Statement in amongst their list of goodies, and many citing Townshend Seismic Platforms and Chord Mojos as their close run thing choices. We also had a lot of repeated brand names, such as PMC and Naim, constantly reappearing, although maybe not the same products.

One possibly disturbing trend for the collectors of physical discs is that so few of us even considered including a record or CD in their lists, even as a wild-card. This somewhat confirms the suggestion that many of us are, in fact, obtaining our music through streaming and downloaded sources, rather than trawling the record stores for new discs. Is this a worrying trend, or merely an indicator of the conservative world of high‑end audio finally shaking off the 20th Century?

For writers who spend most of their time working on reviews, it’s sometimes good to let your hair down a little. If you have any hair left. We have a lot of audio equipment to write about every month, a lot of it good, but the exceptional ones are relatively rare. These are the things that spark our excitement, that make us remember when and why we first got into this whole audio thing, and they are the products that we either end up owning or wishing we could own in an ideal world. It’s like writing our own fantasy Christmas lists.

At the very top end, there is almost infinite choice. This is, after all, a high-end magazine, shamelessly unafraid of big tickets. The most expensive audio system I’ve ever checked out was the ‘spendy’ side of a million. For me, though, the one high-end device that pressed all my keys recently was the Audio Research Reference 75SE power amp. It’s not just that it is better than the original Ref 75 (although it clearly ticks that box) or that it makes other valve power amps cower in a corner (it’s good, but it’s not that good), it’s that it hung together so well and demonstrates so ably that there is still development to be had from tube amps. It also highlights what a good place audio is in from a sonic standing. This is a company that could so easily drift along on an ocean of past masterpieces and goodwill (ARC has some of the most fiercely loyal owners in audio), but continues to push forwards. It’s not alone, and many other brands have made great-sounding audio recently but the ARC Reference 75SE was surprising in its effortless approachability.

 

Perhaps it’s digital that has seen the biggest changes taking place, and no list of goodies is complete without mention of that wunderkind wonderconverter, the Nagra HD DAC. We are in a golden age of high performance digital audio today with players, DACs, and streamers that can do things we would have thought impossible from digital a few years back. Set in this context, the Nagra HD DAC is like pressing music’s ‘majestic’ button, capturing the sense of circumstance of a musical performance brilliantly. I am struck at how good the dCS Rossini is as the complete digital packaged deal, however…

In the more affordable world, we just got rocked by the new Chord Mojo. Chord Electronics changed the game of portable audio with its Hugo DAC/headphone amp, but it also pushes the limits of what is ‘portable’ today. Recent improvements to battery technology the FPGA chips used to house Chord’s digital conversion code meant that much of the paperback book sized Hugo could be fitted into the cigarette packet sized Mojo. That’s not all that went on a crash diet – the price of the Mojo is a sylphlike £399.

Mojo is every bit the portable DAC/headphone amp, eschewing domestic connections for micro-USB and 3.5mm minijack headphone sockets, and a ten hour battery life makes it great for music on the move. We’ll be publishing a full review of the Mojo  soon as Chord finally built enough to spare one for our resident Hugo user.

A recent and greatly appreciated surprise recently has been the launch of the Russell K brand. Soon to be a three-strong range of two standmounts and an upcoming floorstander, thus far each one has been a gem in its own right. However, it’s possibly the cheapest model we’ve tested – the Red 50 – that has been the nicest so far. A small, front-ported two-way standmount design without any internal damping or wadding, the Red 50 draws upon classic Brit-Fi designs of the late 1980s like Linn Kans and Royd Edens, but also brings that sound up to date, meaning they remain faithful to the recording and can put a smile on your face. This is a rare thing, and an even rarer treat for the music lover.

High-end audio is not known for its ‘stocking fillers’, in part because if you can spend £10,000 on an interconnect cable, you can sometimes wind up with some really expensive stockings. But AudioQuest reset all our levels with the excellent and low-cost Dragonfly DAC, and has done it again with the new Jitterbug, which sells for the princely sum of £39. This is a data and power line USB filter, designed to help clean up noisy USB buses inside computers. Put one on an unused USB socket on the computer you are using as source, and the music played sounds a tiny bit more coherent, integrated, and focused. Then add another, possibly in-line between computer and DAC, and the same thing happens and things get a notch better again. Then you take them out and realise just how big those little changes are to a piece of music.

I currently only have two Jitterbugs, but I’ve seen people using five or more of the things filtering spare USB sockets on NAS drives and routers and everything else computer audio. The great thing about the Jitterbug is it’s cheap enough to give it a try without losing out significantly if you hear no difference. However, if you do hear a difference, the Jitterbug is also cheap enough to end up owning lots of them dotted around your system. So be warned – they are addictive!

 

Like many members of the press, I put in a lot of hours in the air. As well as CES and Munich, there are a host of international shows, events, factory visits, and more that mean a good set of lightweight noise-cancelling headphones are a must. And this year AKG joined the travel fray with its new N60 folding on-ear headphones. AKG has come up with something really clever here, because these new USB-charging headphones eat sounds better than ANY noise cancellers I’ve (not) heard before. They even manage to reduce background chatter, and make the sound of an aircraft cabin or a train almost disappear. If you are a frequent flyer, and don’t just take short 30 minute hops when you do fly, you owe it to yourself to try a pair of AKG N60s.

There’s always one that got away; a product you’d love to test, but either it never landed on your doorstep or simply never gets reviewed by anyone. For me, that’s the Harbeth range, with either the P3ESR or the C7ES-3 standmount loudspeaker filling in an almost perfect personal sweet-spot of optimum size for my room, plus they balance between BBC-style tonal accuracy and the inevitable ‘pipe and slippers’ criticisms that are sometimes levelled at these designs. They are both also relatively affordable. I’d love to put these superstars up against equivalent models from Spendor and PMC to see how they fare, and they are the kind of loudspeakers that simply excuse you from worrying about what’s next – they are ‘stick a fork in me, I’m done’ speakers. Sadly, we’ve asked and asked for a pair of Harbeths and – because the company is always back-ordered – we’ve always received a polite, yet firm ‘no’. Maybe one day!

Finally, there is a world beyond audio, and for me I’m really taken by the little Fuji X-T10 mirrorless camera. I use its bigger, older brother – the Fuji X-T1 – both in the studio and to cover shows now. It’s combination of excellent image quality, intuitive handling, small size, low weight, and a cracking set of lens options make it a fine all-rounder alternative to bigger DSLR designs from photography’s Big Two (Canon and Nikon). But the tiny X-T10 shrinks the form factor even more while retaining all the things Fuji seems so good at doing. OK, so it sucks at making videos, but it’s an extremely tempting travel camera all the same.

We live in some very exciting times for consumer electronics. Audio and hi-fi might be the most mature branch of ‘CE’, especially compared to self-parking cars and drones, but it has stopped being a sleepy backwater and there’s renewed interest in more than just vinyl these days. I suspect the next big thing in audio is integrating portable Digital Audio Players that already bring hi-res to the headphone community. Astell & Kern is already making in-roads into this sector of the market, and I suspect there will be some two-way traffic here, as home players learn how to make music on the move and vice versa. One thing’s for certain: a list like this would be very different a year from today!

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