SoundStage! 2014 Products of the Year: An Unfiltered Explanation

Everyone is releasing their Products of the Year lists right about now, and we’re no different. Doug Schneider’s “Opinion” article, over onSoundStage! Hi-Fi, gave you the bare-bones facts about which product won which category. Here atSoundStage! Ultra, though, I’d like to get down to some unfiltered remarks about these components. So consider this article the insider’s edition of our Product of the Year awards list: what my thoughts were as we picked them.

Pioneering Design Achievement

Devialet 400 mono integrated amplifier-DACs ($17,495),SoundStage! Ultra

I don’t think we’ve seen a company like this before -- Devialet has shaken up high-end audio more than any other company in memory. The 400 system I reviewed combines the coolest lifestyle audio components with a price far below what you might expect to pay for the 400’s state-of-the-art sound, which made this award an easy choice. In fact, for Pioneering Design Achievement, Devialet was the only choice.

Aesthetics and Sound

Sonus Faber Olympica III loudspeakers ($13,000/pair),SoundStage! Hi-Fi

Sonus Faber seems to always win this award. And why not? They make speakers that look better than 99% of everything else out there. With their recently improved sound -- yes, since the Fine Sounds Group took over, the speakers sound better -- there just isn’t much to criticize and a whole lot to admire. The Olympica III begs to be in your living room.

Innovation in Design

Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L SuperTower loudspeakers($4999.90/pair), SoundStage! Access

Those who believe that the Mythos ST-L SuperTower is just another lifestyle audio product either haven’t listened to it, or haven’t read enough about it to know that a ton of research and development was poured into this speaker. At SoundStage!, we had some behind-the-scenes knowledge of the work that went into the Mythos ST-L, and I can tell you, it was extensive. The result -- a beautiful little column that sounds superb -- speaks for itself.

Outstanding Performance

Anthem Performance MRX 710 A/V receiver ($1999),SoundStage! Xperience

A decade ago, who would have thought that a Canadian company, not one of the vast Japanese conglomerates, would be producing the most highly regarded A/V receivers? Well, that’s precisely what’s happened. As our reviewers have continued to pit the Anthems against the rest, one thing has become clear: the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system beats them all, and puts the MRX line clearly at the head of the pack.

Ayre Acoustics AX-5 integrated amplifier ($9950), SoundStage! Hi-Fi

I always warn any of our reviewers that if they take on a review of an Ayre product, be prepared to want to buy the review sample. I’ll keep doing that. Uday Reddy was smitten -- and why not? Charles Hansen’s circuit designs get better and better. Man, what a midrange! With a review like Uday’s, how could we not give an award to Ayre?

KEF Reference 1 loudspeakers ($7499.99/pair), SoundStage! Hi-Fi

KEF will sell a boatload (a big boat) of their new Reference speakers. Consider these: they’re exquisitely built; the acoustic design is cutting edge; and KEF knows how to market a product. Sometimes, you can sense when a company is on a roll, and with the LS50 and now the Reference 1, KEF is so there. The Reference line will last a long while, and deservedly.

Luxman C-900u preamplifier ($19,900), SoundStage! Hi-Fi

How can you look at the photos of the C-900u preamp and notwant it? Luxman, in my book, has surpassed Accuphase in the Beautiful Japanese Component Sweepstakes. And according to Doug Schneider, the C-900u sounds as good as it looks.

MartinLogan BalancedForce 212 subwoofer ($3999),SoundStage! Hi-Fi

MartinLogan really hit on something with their line of force-canceling subwoofers, and in the last few years they’ve continually refined them. Now, any conversation about the best subwoofers extant has to include their BalancedForce designs. What’s really impressive is that subs aren’t even ML’s main line of business!

Oppo Digital PM-1 headphones ($1099), SoundStage! Xperience

I love the completeness of Oppo Digital’s product development. It seems that when Oppo releases a new Blu-ray player or headphone amp or headphone, they’ve covered every base you can think of. I have confidence that, if it ships with Oppo’s name on it, it’s going to be good in all areas, and I haven’t yet been disappointed. And if these cans passed muster with S. Andrea Sundaram -- the most careful, skilled headphone reviewer I’ve ever seen -- then you know they’re good.

Rega Research Limited RP8 turntable ($2995), SoundStage! Hi-Fi

What I love about the Rega RP8 is that it’s priced right and is the result of some esoteric engineering. Consider that the core of its plinth is made of closed-cell, nitrogen-injected, polyolefin foam. Yes, evidently that makes it sound better, but it also makes it cool. And isn’t that what’s making this vinyl renaissance tick?

Revel Performa3 F208 / C208 / M106 / B112 home-theater speaker system ($12,000), SoundStage! Access

If you believe that good speakers are the result of solid engineering, and if you also believe that good speakers don’t have to cost a fortune, then these Revels are for you. Of all the boxes you could come up with for a moderately priced home-theater system, they check off every one. We’re pretty sure you’ll love ’em.

Exceptional Value

Cambridge Audio Aero 2 loudspeakers ($549/pair),SoundStage! Hi-Fi

Can you get better sound for less money than the $549 a pair of Cambridge Aero 2s will cost you? I don’t know, but at that price, how can you go wrong? Doug Schneider was super-impressed by these, and that’s not something that’s easily done -- he gets a lot of good speakers in for review.

Focal Spirit Classic headphones ($399), SoundStage! Xperience

S. Andrea Sundaram said they’re really good, so we know they are -- trust me (or, rather, him). Or consider that Focal thoroughly knows speaker design, and has applied some of that expertise to headphones. So it’s no wonder.

Monitor Audio Silver 6 loudspeakers ($1500/pair),SoundStage! Access

Monitor Audio just keeps cranking out model after model of fine loudspeaker, and at more and more price points. These Silver 6es look fantastic, and sound it too. Don’t you love when a company’s top-line technology -- in this case, Monitor’s C-CAM driver cones -- trickles down to prices accessible to almost everyone?

NAD D 7050 integrated amplifier-DAC ($999), SoundStage! Access

NAD has always stood for high-value audio components. They still do, but now their products are also infused with high technology. Wi-Fi, Direct Digital, hi-rez capable -- and great sound. For a song. Better than it ever was.