It's that time of the year again, when we survey all the products we've reviewed in the past 12 months and pick the ones that stand out as the best of the best. We don't divide our best-of list into categories, but we have selected products from all the major AV categories, covering a variety of price points. So, no matter your budget, this is the place to begin your search for your next great AV purchase.
Amazon Fire TV Streaming Media Player, $99
The Fire TV proves itself a worthy competitor to the Roku and Apple TV streaming media players. It's especially well suited for Amazon Prime subscribers, but it also includes popular apps like Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, PLEX, Watch ESPN, and more. The voice search tool works great and makes it easy for anyone in your family to find something to watch.
Cambridge DacMagic XS Portable USB DAC, $189
The popular and affordable DacMagic XS is a minuscule asynchronous USB 2.0 DAC that supports files up to 24/192 (but no DSD). It's also a headphone amplifier capable of 150 mW of power into a minimum impedance of 12 ohms, and Brian Kahn found that it could drive even some demanding headphones without issue. It's a great choice for someone who wants to enjoy higher-quality music on the go.
Visual Apex ProjectoScreen120HD Portable/Outdoor Screen, $219
If you're looking for a big, portable screen to create your own outdoor drive-in theater or enjoy a spontaneous movie night in the den, Visual Apex's ProjectoScreen120HD is very easy to set up and break down, and it has surprisingly good build quality for this type of application. Get a 120-inch screen for just $219, or jump up to 144 inches for $299.
Aperion Audio AllAire Bluetooth Bookshelf Speaker, $399/pair
Whether you're shopping for an excellent powered desktop solution or an upgrade for your TV speakers, Aperion's powered AllAire speakers deserve a listen. Driven by a built-in 50-watt amp, the AllAire system also has integrated Bluetooth for music streaming, two audio inputs, and a subwoofer output to flesh out the bass--perhaps with Aperion's own Bravus II 8D wireless subwoofer.
Sony SS-CS3 Floorstanding Speaker, $478/pair
The SS-CS3 employs the super-tweeter technology used in Sony's much more expensive speakers, along with a one-inch tweeter and dual 5.25-inch woofers. At just $478 per pair, the SS-CS3 tower speakers certainly score high in the value department, but they also offer surprisingly good performance in that price class.
Crestron MLX-3 Remote Control, $499
When you think of Crestron control options, large-screen color touch panels probably come to mind, but Jerry Del Colliano loved Crestron's MLX-3 traditional handheld remote for its intuitive button layout, its customizable screen, and especially its reliability. He called it "the finest handheld remote made today." Granted, you need a "Crestron brain and programming" to make an MLX-3 perform its tricks thus the total system cost is more in the $2,000 range but that's fair for the start of an enterprise class home automation system.
Episode 500 Series Thin Design Three-Channel Passive Soundbar, $499-$599 depending on model
We were very impressed with the performance of this passive L/C/R soundbar, thanks to its raised-tweeter design that significantly improves horizontal dispersion. The 500 Series Thin soundbar measures just 1.83 inches deep and includes some nice design/setup features aimed at the custom installation market through which this product is sold.
Outlaw Audio Ultra X-12 Subwoofer, $639
Outlaw has released its first new subwoofer in over a decade, and the Ultra-X12 proves to be worth the wait. This ported subwoofer sports a down-firing 12-inch driver and a 350-watt Class HD amplifier, with better internal bracing to improve mid-bass response. Best of all, the Ultra-X12's asking price is just $639. (Our full review of the X-12 will post next Monday.)
Onkyo TX-NR636 AV Receiver, $699
This $699 7.2-channel receiver is loaded with all of today's hottest network/streaming and connection options, but it's also anticipating future AV trends with its inclusion of HDCP 2.2 copy protection for 4K sources and support for Dolby Atmos (via a recent firmware update). Dennis Burger was impressed by its performance, saying it "punches above its weight in terms of clear, dynamic, spacious sound."
Rotel RDD-1580 DAC, $799
This traditional in-rack digital-to-analog converter from Rotel is a true digital hub, with two USB, two coaxial, and two optical digital audio inputs, as well as RCA and XLR outputs. The DAC uses a pair of Wolfson WM8749 DAC chips and supports resolutions up to 24/192 (but not DSD). Overall, Steven Stone was very impressed with all aspects of the RDD-1580's performance, especially given its $799 price tag.
SVS PB-2000 Subwoofer, $799.99
Don't let the size of the PB-2000 fool you. Although this ported subwoofer--which measures 20.5 by 17.3 by 22 and weighs 65.6 pounds, sporting a 12-inch driver and 500-watt amplifier--is capable of the necessary brute force with movie soundtracks, Dennis Burger also found that it could be surprisingly nuanced and detailed.
Paradigm Millenia CT 2 Powered Speaker System, $899
Paradigm's updated Millenia CT 2 system combines the plug-and-play convenience of a soundbar/subwoofer combination with the performance we've come to expect from Paradigm's small powered speakers. Add in Bluetooth with aptX and lower the price compared with its predecessor, and you've got a recipe for success.
Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors, $999
Ultimate Ears' top-of-the-line custom in-ear monitors were designed in conjunction with engineers from Capital Records to produce highly accurate, studio-quality sound. These do require a custom fitting, but the payoff is worth the extra effort for those who demand audiophile-quality performance from their headphones.
Sony HAP-S1 Hi-Res Music Player, $1,000
Sony is leading the hi-res audio charge right now, and the HAP-S1 makes it very easy for you to store and play back virtually any file type you might own, including DSD, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and MP3. The HAP-S1's plug-and-play design includes a 500GB hard drive, a 40-watt-per-channel Class AB amp, and multiple analog/digital inputs to accommodate other sources.
Oppo PM-1 Over-the-Ear Headphones, $1,099
Oppo Digital's headphone debut is a strong one. These over-the-ear headphones feature planar magnetic drivers in an open-back design. They don't provide much in the way of sound isolation, but Steven Stone found them to be easy to drive and very comfortable to wear for extended listening sessions. He ranks the PM-1 as one of the best all-around, general-purpose headphones currently available.
Orb Audio People's Choice Sub/Sat Speaker System, $1,198
To celebrate its tenth anniversary this year, Orb Audio introduced updated versions of its popular spherical speakers, which employ a newly designed aluminum full-range driver. The People's Choice system consists of three Mod2Xs up front, two Mod1Xs in back, and the new subONE subwoofer. With the new versions, Orb Audio has "taken a great-sounding speaker and made it sound even better."
Vizio M602i-B3 LED/LCD HDTV, $1,249.99
Vizio's mid-level M Series of 1080p TVs uses full-array LED backlighting with local dimming, a design that is often relegated to the highest priced LED/LCDs in a company's lineup. The resulting picture quality is excellent for both daytime sports/HDTV and a night of movie-watching. Add in a good smart TV platform, built-in WiFi, and other perks for a strong overall package that's easy to recommend.
MartinLogan Motion SLM-XL Floorstanding Speaker, $1,399/pair
The SLM-XL puts everything people like about MartinLogan's Motion Series - which combines the folded-motion tweeter with traditional cone midrange drivers and woofers - into a stylishly slender cabinet that measures just 1.45 inches deep. Reviewer Myron Ho called them the best-sounding on-wall speakers he has heard at or anywhere near their price.
Click over to Page Two to see the rest of this year's Best-of winners...