This year was a good year for audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts alike -especially if you were on a budget, which, let’s face it, who isn’t these days? We thought we’d mix things up a bit with this year’s Best Of Awards by not breaking the various products we found to be exemplary down by category; instead we thought we’d just give ’em to you straight up. After all a great product is a great product, regardless of its target market or category. So, without further adieu, here are the products we thought were the very best the audiophile and home theater manufacturers had to offer in 2012. Enjoy.
• Explore reviews of Flat HDTVs to see if you agree with this year’s pick.
• Learn more in our AV Receiver and AV Preamp review section.
• Find more reviews in our Floorstanding Speaker and Bookshelf Speaker review sections.
• Check out our Soundbar Review section.
• See last year’s Best Of winners.
JRiver Media Center Software/Application – $50
Microsoft’s Media Center PC may not be an entirely fresh concept, especially given the proliferation of iTunes, but it’s far from dead. Thanks to a dedicated online community Media Center PC is alive and well, and among the best iterations available to consumers is JRiver. This $50 program does a lot more than just “skin” your music and movie collection; it packs features that both audiophiles and home theater enthusiasts crave, such as audio/video upscaling, parametric EQ and so much more. Plus, it is virtually future proof in terms of AV formats and unlike its Apple counterpart it is truly HD compatible. For those looking to get off the source component rollercoaster or have their very own K-Scape like system on a budget, look no further than JRiver.
Western Digital WD TV Live Streaming Media Player – $100
If you’d like to add streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and Pandora to your existing HT system, there’s no shortage of inexpensive standalone players from which to choose. In our opinion, Western Digital’s WD TV Live currently offers the best features for the money, combining an excellent assortment of Web-based services with the ability to stream a wide range of media files from your home computer or DLNA server. The box is compatible with TVs old and new, and it even offers a cool SlingPlayer app to stream live TV.
Bowers & Wilkins P3 Headphones – $199
Bowers & Wilkins first treated us to their flagship P5 headphones, then came the C5 in-ears and now we have the new P3, which may just be their best yet. More affordable than the P5s and just as aurally pleasing, the P3s manage to be both utilitarian and stylish thanks to their collapsible design and high-end looking materials. For the audiophile or headphone enthusiast on the go few do it better right now than Bowers & Wilkins.
Paradigm Shift A2 Bookshelf Loudspeaker – $559/pair
Paradigm’s new Shift series of components are exactly that; a paradigm shift, in that they’re aimed at a new breed of enthusiast, one who values performance, portability and simplicity. On all three levels the A2 bookshelf speakers succeed. These powered monitors sound as good connected to a laptop or portable music device as they do directly to a preamp in an intimate two channel setup. But the fun doesn’t have to stop there. Thanks to their rather ingenious input and connection options you can even use them in a home theater setup, thus negating the need for bulky, or expensive amplifiers -an AV preamp is all that is required. You can even daisy chain multiple A2s together to cut down on cable clutter. Add in a variety of custom paint schemes and you’ve got the makings for one of this year’s most surprising and well-rounded loudspeakers we tested.
Dune HD Max Blu-ray Player/Media Streamer – $599
The Dune HD Max is truly one of this year’s biggest surprises for it proved to be among the more truly universal, universal players available today. Unlike other universal players, the Dune HD Max is both a disc spinner as well as a network attached media streamer. Before you get upset, because your Oppo or other disc spinner can also connect to your network or Internet, consider this; you can customize the Dune’s interface using third party software and/or downloads allowing you to use it as a front end to a whole home K-Scape like system. Pair it with a two channel amp or powered speakers and the Dune HD Max is all you need in order to enjoy a 2.1 home theater setup thanks to its digital volume control. It supports all the major (and not so major) formats including ISO (something Oppo did away with this year) and when used as a transport its AV performance is on par with the best.
Sanus Component Series Racks – Starting at $599
Sanus’ newly revamped Component Series AV equipment racks may look like just another industrial, Middle Atlantic knock off, but I assure you there is more to the story. With the addition of Sanus’ new EcoSystem, a collection of rack accessories aimed at keeping your cables organized and your system cool, the Component Series ventures into territory few others can match -especially for the price. These racks come in a variety of sizes and are nicely appointed with hardware and shelving right out of the box; expect to pay à la carte with competitors.
Episode ES-SUB-12-300-MB Powered Subwoofer -$649
While Episode Speakers may not be as well known as Paradigm or Bowers & Wilkins that shouldn’t stop any of you from seeking them out. We spent a lot of time with a number of their products this year and while many of them were fantastic one that stood out was their large, 12-inch, powered subwoofer – the ES-SUB-12-300-MB. This affordable giant killer more than held its own against Managing Editor, Andrew Robinson’s reference subwoofers -last year’s Best Of recipient JL Audio Fathom f110 at $2,100.
Wharfedale Jade 1 Bookshelf Loudspeakers – $1,199/pair
These fine monitor speakers from England’s oldest loudspeaker company, Wharfedale, came out of nowhere this year and surprised many in the press including our own Managing Editor. The Jade 1 represents the entry point to the Jade lineup of products, though despite their modest price tag they are true, high-end contenders. Their beautiful construction and smooth, uncolored sound are bound to make the Jade 1 an instant classic all over the world.
Napa Acoustic MT-34 Integrated Amplifier -$1,199
While the MT-34 from little known upstart, Napa Acoustic, may not be a bespoke piece of audiophile jewelry in the way say Audio Research or McIntosh is, it more than makes up for it in performance -not to mention ease of use. For those who love tubes (who doesn’t) but don’t want to endure all the fuss associated with them the Napa Acoustic MT-34 integrated amplifier is a fine, affordable solution. It’s build quality is surprisingly robust and its sound, well, will surprise you. We mated it with the Wharfedale Jade 1 bookshelf speakers and found it to be arguably all the high-end sound any budding audiophile would need. At least to get started.
Cambridge Audio AZUR 751BD Player – $1,249
We didn’t review a lot of universal players this year because it’s hard to compete with the winner of this year’s Best Of honors, the Cambridge Audio AZUR 751BD player. While it may share some DNA with last year’s winner, the Oppo BDP-95, the AZUR 751BD is unique in its own right, possessing a more audiophile sound than its Oppo counterpart; a sound that Managing Editor, Andrew Robinson preferred. With its copious features, excellent audio and video performance and quality construction inside and out, it’s clear why the AZUR 751BD player from Cambridge Audio made this year’s Best Of Awards list.
MartinLogan Motion Vision Soundbar -$1,495
2012 was the year of the soundbar and here at Home Theater Review we reviewed a number of them, but the one that most struck a chord with us was the MartinLogan Motion Vision. This stylish, powered, all-in-one virtual surround solution managed to sound more like a discrete loudspeaker setup than any soundbar we’ve heard to date. Throw in its ability to incorporate a subwoofer (or two) and you’ve got an affordable, well rounded home theater solution for those tight on money or space.
See what other products earned a Best Of Award on Page 2.
Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 Digital to Analog Converter – $1,499
The Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 proved to be not only an exemplary digital to analog converter but a high-end, albeit digital, audiophile preamp too. Managing Editor Andrew Robinson was so taken back by the DAC-2’s performance that he felt it more ideal than traditional preamps and one better suited to today’s digital culture. The DAC-2’s ease of use, neutral sound and high value made it a no brainer for us, which is why it has made our best of list.
NAD T 757 AV Receiver – $1,599
While the NAD T 757 may not do everything many modern receivers do, it more than makes up for it with soul. In the NAD tradition, the T 757 AV receiver proved to be among the better sounding AV receivers we’ve ever tested for both music and movies. Plus, the T 757’s lack of ‘bloatware’, ease of setup and use make it ideal for those who just want to get on with the show. For those looking to simplify their two channel and home theater systems without having to sacrifice sound quality the NAD T 757 is waiting.
Panasonic TC-P55ST50 Plasma HDTV – $1,699
Panasonic is known for making some of the industry’s best HDTV displays and when it comes to their plasma based offerings few, if any, do it better. With the release of the TC-P55ST50 55-inch plasma HDTV, that storied Panasonic quality just became more affordable. Video Editor Adrienne Maxwell loved the ST50’s updated styling and picture quality, especially for the price–stating, “…Panasonic has set the bar high in 2012 with the TC-P55ST50.”
Tekton Design Pendragon Loudspeaker -$2,499/pair
Tekton Design, a little known, Internet direct brand out of Utah, rocked the audiophile and home theater world this year with the introduction of their new, flagship loudspeaker -the Pendragon. These large floorstanding speakers are hand-made in America, use professionally sourced drivers and can be finished to the same exacting standards as another, well-known, high-end Utah brand. What makes the Pendragons even better is their sound, which our Managing Editor compared against venerable heavyweights such as Wilson Audio’s MAXX 3 and Wisdom Audio’s LS4 on-walls. For true, full-range, high end sound there may not be a better value in all of hi-fi right now than the Pendragon.
Sony VPL-HW30AES SXRD Front Projector – $3,999
For those who are assembling a front-projection system on a smaller budget, the VPL-HW30AES earns our vote as the best all-around projector we’ve reviewed in the sub-$5,000 space. It has a lot of setup flexibility for the money, and it strikes a great balance between black level and light output to deftly reproduce 2D and 3D content. The HW30AES package includes the 3D transmitter and two pairs of active glasses; other features include 1.6x zoom, horizontal/vertical lens shifting, and 240Hz technology.
Sunbrite Model 4610HD Outdoor HDTV – $4,295
While some of us here are still not entirely sold on the idea of outdoor viewing, no one in our offices could argue with the results achieved when testing the Sunbrite Model 4610HD. The Sunbrite Model 4610HD was so tough and impervious to the elements that we had to go to extremes in order to try and break it -extremes that included lighting it on fire, feeding it to a bear and even shooting it with a variety of high powered riffles. Believe it or not the display withstood all that punishment and then some; coming up short only when struck with multiple rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Don’t shoot it with an AR-15 and the Sunbrite Model 4610HD should last a lifetime.
Classé CP-800 Stereo Preamp -$5,000
This monster two channel preamp from Classé boasts a feature set more akin to an AV receiver and yet it’s a strictly two-channel product. The CP-800’s almost infinite configurability matched by its neutral and wholly enjoyable sound quality make it not only one of the best preamps Classé has ever produced but among the best preamps we’ve ever heard. At $5,000 retail the CP-800 isn’t cheap but as Andrew found out, you’d spend as much (or more) trying to match its performance and connection options à la carte, which is why we think it’s a terrific value in the high-end marketplace.
Pass Labs XA30.5 Class A Stereo Amplifier – $5,500
While it may not be the most “green” amplifier we’ve ever tested, the Pass Labs XA30.5 is one of the best sounding. Why? The XA30.5 is 100-percent pure Class A goodness for that rich, organic tube-like sound with none of the drawbacks or maintenance. Plus, with 30-Watts of power on tap the XA30.5 can power most modern loudspeakers to satisfying levels with the utmost precision and quality. That and it’s from Pass Labs, so you know it’s built to last right here in the good ‘ol US of A.
Legacy Audio Signature SE – $6,995/pair
Legacy Audio is a brand that has been around for a number of years and despite not producing a new loudspeaker every time the wind blows, when they do come to market with a new model it’s generally a hit. Reviewer Brian Kahn found out first hand just how good the all-new Legacy Audio Signature SEs were when he put them through their paces in his reference system, comparing them (and favorably) to loudspeakers four to five times the Legacy’s asking price.
Focal Diablo Utopia Bookshelf Loudspeakers – $14,995/pair
While nearly fifteen grand for bookshelf speakers may seem like a lot of money (okay it is) the Focal Diablo Utopias are among the only, if not the only bookshelf speakers we’ve encountered that manage to run with their floorstanding counterparts. As publisher Jerry Del Colliano found out, owning a pair of Diablo Utopia bookshelf speakers was a lot like having mini Grand Utopia BEs but for a 1/20th of the cost. While we hesitate to use the word “bargain” when describing a $15,000 pair of speakers the Diablo Utopias may just be a bargain.
SIM2 M.150 LED DLP Front Projector -$27,995
In a year when 4K debuted at the consumer level you’d have to imagine that one of our best projectors of the year would be the Sony VPL-VW1000ES and not the HD M.150 LED DLP from SIM2 -but that’s what has happened. While 4K may technically be the “better” technology, the SIM2 M.150 produced the better image, proving (again) that HD isn’t ready to go quietly into that good night. While the M.150 is expensive, its superb optics, LED-based light engine and ability to be calibrated to perfection make it one of the finest projectors Managing Editor Andrew Robinson has ever laid eyes on.
Explore reviews of Flat HDTVs to see if you agree with this year’s pick.
Learn more in our AV Receiver and AV Preamp review section.
Find more reviews in our Floorstanding Speaker and Bookshelf Speaker review sections.
Check out our Soundbar Review section.
See last year’s Best Of winners.