As we come to the end of 2017, Becky and I want to thank all of our readers, all the manufacturers, importers and retailers who have helped The Audio Beatnik grow so fast in our first eight months. I also want to thank Constantine Soo of Dagogo for encouraging me to start reviewing and for his support over the twelve years I wrote for Dagogo.
So now, it’s time to hand out awards for the best products of 2017. We will not try to give out awards in every category, since we have only been around for eight months, and I am only recognizing gear that I personally reviewed this past year.
Best Analog Device – AMG 12J2 Turbo Tonearm
I have reviewed or personally used some pretty impressive tonearms, including the Clearaudio Universal Radial Tonearm, DaVinciAudio Grand Reference Grandezza, Graham Phantom, Ikeda Sound Labs IT-407CR12, RS Labs RS-A1, Thales Easy, TriangleArt Oris, Tri-Planar, and the VPI JMW 12.7 Tapered Twelve-Inch Tonearm. All of these are wonderful arms but for me, the best tonearm I have used in my system was the AMG 12J2.
What I had expected from the Turbo was a more impressive looking that was easier to set up with a sound that would match my 12J2. It turned out I was in for a big surprise sonically. From the first LP I played, I knew there was something special about how my system sounded with the Turbo tonearm. The first two things that jumped out at me were how much more stable the imaging was and how much better the bass was controlled. In fact, all frequencies were controlled better. Add to this great sound the fact that the Turbo is the easiest tonearm to setup I have ever used by a long shot and you have an easy winner!
Best Digital Device – Digital Amplifier Company’s DAC-DAC High-Spec Version
This DAC from Tommy at Digital Amplifier Company was the first DAC that I found to really be much better than the OPPO 105D in my home system since the Audio Note DAC 5 Special. I do like all the features of the OPPO 105D, so here’s my suggestion. Use the OPPO 105D for your transport and the DAC DAC for your DAC. Heck, since OPPO just released the 4K player called the OPPO 205, I bet you can pick up a used 105D and have an incredible digital source for $2,000 or less.
Best Transistor Amp – Pass Labs XA25
In my review of the XA25, I said,”The XA25 doesn’t sound ‘tubey’. It just has the big, full-colored tone and immediacy of a really good SET amp. The amp was exceptional at letting me hear the layering of the music. It also did a great job of letting me hear the space and air around performers.
It was hard for me to say if I preferred it over my XA30.8 that I have lived with for the past three years; they are both great amps. The XA25 is exactly what Nelson Pass said in his quote, “The new XA25 is intended to appeal to those wanting the performance without the frills in a chassis that will fit on a shelf and can be lifted without the assistance of ruffians.” Not only that, it cost almost two grand less than the XA30.8. The XA25 is simply an amazing amp!
Best Tube Amp – Qualiton A20i
Mark Sosa of Well Pleased AV imports Audio Hungary’s Qualiton brand. Audio Hungary says the Qualiton brand’s goal is more than just to produce the simplest possible circuit design. They believe that a circuit should be made to have wide bandwidth, linearity, low distortion and a healthy power output. They want the Qualiton amps to be “no-compromise” products that are not priced that way.
Everything about this amp from the build quality to the sound told me they had succeeded. From the very first a few things jumped out at me. The first thing I noticed was how right and musical this amp sounds. The next thing was something that everybody who heard it commented on, how recorded plucked strings sound so real that they take on a lifelike quality. This amp simply sounded like real music with big tone and great dynamics.
Best Specialize Amplifier Product – Linear Tube Audio MZ2-S
I had to create a category for this extraordinary one-watt amplifier. It was designed by the legendary David Berning and hand-built by LTA’s small team just outside of Washington, DC. This little one-watt, pure class A, transformer-less, tube amp is simply a wonder. The late, and in opinion and that of many others, the great Harvey “Dr. Gizmo” Rosenberg reviewed the original Berning microZOLT amp and used an old expression to sum up the amp when he reminded us,”It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog!” He went on as only Dr. Gizmo would put it to say, “Now stop, and print out these pages and take them into the potty, sit down and study. Study hard, because what I am describing is one of those rare and sublime works of audio arts that has the possibility of transcending the transcendent.”
If you are lucky like me to have 103dB efficient speakers you can stop looking for the amp to own for the rest of your life. If not, it is a great desktop amp, a great headphone amp, and an incredible preamp.
Best Small High-End Speaker – Audience ClairAudient 1+1 V2+ Generation 2
In every version, the ClairAudient 1+1 has been an extraordinary speaker, but in this latest version, it becomes a speaker to be considered as your main speaker if you value midrange above all other. John McDonald of Audience has spent years trying to perfect a really small, crossoverless speaker. I think in this latest version he has succeeded beyond my imagination.
In 1957 Peter Walker of QUAD introduced what we now call the QUAD 57 Electrostatic Loudspeaker. Back then, they called it “Walker’s Little Wonder.” To this day it is considered to be one of the top ten speakers of all time.
The Audience ClairAudient 1+1 in any of its variations is very similar to the sound of the QUAD 57s. In its latest incarnation, it is even closer to that 57s sound that many love so much. It truly sounds like someone has thrown open a window from your listening room to the recorded performance. Its bottom-end is now about the same as the Quad but tighter. The top-end is much more extended than the 57 and it produces a soundstage that Quad lovers have never dreamed of. It is simply a remarkable little speaker!
Bargain Product of the Year – Vanatoo Transparent Zero
In my review of these speakers, I called them a breakthrough in small powered speakers. Having lived with a pair in our bedroom system for the last five months I have to say they are a breakthrough in a small complete audio system.
All you need is a source to stream to them or connect to them and you have magical music in your room. The passive radiator and the custom aluminum four-inch driver combine to produce very satisfying bass. If you have less than $1,000 for a system, I can’t imagine much better than these and a decent source. Thanks to the people at Vanatoo for such a great system for such a little bit of money.
Product of the Year – DS Audio DS-Master1 Optical Cartridge and Phono Amplifier/Equalizer
This is a product that is a fulfillment of a personal journey. About five years ago, I heard the Soundsmith Strain Gauge in my system, and I knew I would never go back to vibrating coils, low output signals and the noise and hum that you have to deal with from even the best moving coils, their preamps, and SUTs. Still, there were some things I missed from the best moving coils. Then I heard the DS Audio DS-W1 and I was one step closer in my journey to find the ultimate vinyl source, but while I was willing to live with some of its limitation in audio affects, I knew many would want these. With the DS- Master1 DS Audio upped the bar on what vinyl can sound like. I simply could not believe the magnitude of improvement in musicality I was hearing from my system with the Master1 Optical Cartridge and Phono Preamp/Equalizer.
With the DS Maste1 cartridge, they positioned the newly designed micro-optic sensor unit closer to the stylus than with the W-1. This resulting in a shorter optical signal path. It also uses a new wire-suspended cantilever. These changes create significant improvements in channel separation.
DS Audio also changed the shape of the stylus and the material used for the cantilever. The DS Master1 uses a micro-ridge stylus that has a minimum curvature radius and is mounted on a sapphire cantilever. The body of the cartridge is made of what they call “Ultra” duralumin to ensure the highest possible rigidity. I should mention that they changed from a Shibata stylus and Boron cantilever of the DS-W1 to a micro-ridge stylus mounted on a sapphire cantilever.
The biggest visual change from the DS W-1 to the DS Master1 Preamp/Equalizer is that the phono preamp/amplifier is about four times the size of the DS-W1 and weighs in at a hefty 53 pounds. The weight comes from the twelve 120K of electrolytic capacitors and three transformers used in the DS Master1 phono stage and a pure copper bus-bar provides the connection for the bank of capacitors.
It uses fully discrete dual-mono circuitry with three dedicated power supplies. Each channel has a dedicated power supply to deliver more than ample power, and the third power supply is dedicated to the cartridge LED drive system for the DS Master1 phono cartridge. The DS Master1 features both single-ended RCA inputs and balanced XLR inputs. There are three sets of single-ended RCA and three sets of balanced XLR outputs as well as three separate low-frequency cut-off points:
- Output 1 is “DS Standard” single cut-off with 6db/octave at 30Hz.
- Output 2 is “RIAA Standard” double cut-off with 6db/octave 50.5Hz and 6db/octave at 30Hz.
- Output 3 is “RIAA Sub-sonic” triple cut-off with 6db/octave 50.5Hz, 6db/octave at 30Hz, and 12db/octave at 25Hz. Each low-frequency contour is accessed by its own dedicated single-ended RCA or balanced XLR output for a total of six sets of dual-mono outputs.
In my review of the DS Audio Optical Cartridge, I concluded with this thought,”I’m a big college basketball and professional baseball fan. Nothing ruins a game more than when the umpires or referees become noticeable. If they do their job right, you seldom even notice that they are there.” The same is true of a great audio system. It’s about experiencing the sounds and feelings of the music in a way that lets you overcome the electronic listening experience. The DS Master1 brought my system a magnitude closer to that goal than ever before. Nuf’ said!
Congratulations to all of these winners who will be receiving their awards shortly after the holidays. And, watch for pictures on our Facebook page in January!