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…
RBH CTx Series Sub/Sat Speaker System, $1,576
RBH has redesigned its popular CT Series sub/sat line, and Dennis Burger found a lot to like about the new MM4x satellites, C-4x center, and S-8 subwoofer. Mate them with the right amplifier, and enjoy a “deft mix of ferocity and musicality, with a truly beautiful soundstage and nigh-seamless blend between subwoofer and satellites.”
Wyred4Sound mAMP Mono-Block Amplifier, $1,798/pair
If you’re looking for a lot of amp power in a little footprint, consider the mAMP. This mono-block amplifier, based on the B&O digital ICE amp module, weighs just eight pounds and measures eight inches square by 3.5 inches high, but it’s rated at 255 watts into eight ohms and 430 watts into four ohms. Steven Stone describes it as “superbly neutral.”
Peachtree Audio nova220SE Integrated Amplifier, $1,999
Peachtree Audio has packed a lot of goodness into one small, stylish, and well-built box. The nova220SE includes a 24-bit/192-kHz upsampling DAC, two discrete Class A preamp stages, multiple digital audio inputs, dual-mono Class D amplifiers rated at 220 watts into eight ohms and 350 watts into four ohms, a triode tube buffer, and an excellent headphone amp.
Bowers & Wilkins CM6 S2 Bookshelf Speaker, $2,000/pair
The upgraded version of B&W’s CM6 bookshelf speaker includes several technologies that have trickled down from much more expensive B&W designs (including the Decoupled Double Dome tweeter and tweeter-on-top configuration), and those traits are clearly evident in its performance. For those who prefer tower speakers, the CM10 shares those same traits and also earned our praise earlier this year.
RSL CG4 5.1 Home Theater Speaker System, $2,075
Rogersound Labs has been selling this 5.1-channel speaker system for a few years now, but we recently had a chance to put the system through its paces and felt it deserved recognition. The combination of the CG4 satellite, CG24 center, and Speedwoofer 10 sub is a super-practical, affordable compact system with solid engineering, a neutral tonal balance, and great dynamics for its size. It’s small enough that you can use it as a bedroom system, but it really does deliver world-class home theater sound. Our full review is coming soon.
Epson Home Cinema 5030UBe LCD Projector, $2,899
Another versatile performer from Epson, the THX-certified Home Cinema 5030UBe combines excellent light output with a good black level to create a projector that is equally well suited to HDTV, sports, and movies in a variety of lighting conditions. Features include 3D capability, integrated Wireless HD, and helpful setup tools like generous lens shifting and 2.1x zoom.
Screen Innovations Zero Edge Pure White 1.3 Screen, Price Depends on Screen Size
This screen combines Screen Innovations’ Zero Edge fixed frame with its Pure White 1.3-gain material, for use in a more traditional light-controlled theater environment. The screen material’s selling point is its ultra-fine granularity, ideal for higher-resolution sources. The Zero Edge minimal-bezel frame has a flat-panel-like aesthetic; add in the optional LED ambient lighting kit to make a real statement.
ATI 6002 Stereo Amplifier, $3,995
Dollar-per-watt, you might not be able to find a better amplifier than the ATI 6002 stereo amp. It may be bare bones in its aesthetic design, but this fully balanced 300-watt Class AB amp is, according to Jerry Del Colliano, one of the most powerful, resolute, quiet, and musical amps that you can lay your ears on. You’ll have to spend a lot more to find better. (This review has not yet posted, but it will go live soon.)
Bryston Middle T Floorstanding Speaker, $4,500/pair
As a company known for high-end audio electronics, Bryston took a risk this year by moving into the crowded speaker market. That risk has certainly paid off with the Middle T, which received a five-star performance rating from Brent Butterworth. Its appearance is as straightforward as they come, but its performance will definitely seduce you.
GoldenEar Triton One Floorstanding Speaker, $4,998/pair
We reviewed both the Triton Seven and the flagship Triton One this year. While the Triton Seven is an outstanding speaker in its own right, if you have the means, Dennis Burger recommends that you step up to the fantastic Triton One, calling it as close to perfect as any speaker he has heard in a long time. What more can we say?
JVC DLA-X500R D-ILA Projector, $4,999.95
The DLA-X500R serves up those rich, inky blacks we’ve come to love from JVC while upping the light output to give this D-ILA projector a bit more versatility. The e-shift 4K upsampling doesn’t help much, but it doesn’t hurt either. All in all, the DLA-X500R is an outstanding movie projector with a nice complement of features for the price.
PS Audio DirectStream DAC and Network Audio Player, $5,995 plus $795 for the Network Bridge
With the DirectStream, PS Audio has completely re-envisioned the DAC concept with the goal of simplifying the signal path. This DAC uses no off-the-shelf DAC chip and converts all incoming signals to DSD before going analog. The result is one of the finest-sounding DACs reviewer Brian Kahn has ever heard.
Aerial 6T Floorstanding Speaker, $6,795/pair
This year, Aerial Acoustics introduced a follow-up to the acclaimed 7T floorstanding speaker. The smaller 6T is both an exceptionally beautiful-looking speaker and an exceptionally good performer. Terry London describes it as a true music lover’s speaker–transparent and neutral, with excellent soundstaging abilities and a lifelike presence.
Samsung KN55S9C OLED HDTV, $9,999.99
For the videophile who is willing to spend more to get more, Samsung’s 55-inch KN55S9C OLED TV served up the best picture quality of any TV that Adrienne Maxwell reviewed in 2014. This 1080p TV highlights the strengths of OLED, combining plasma-like blacks with LCD-like brightness for amazing contrast. We don’t love the curved design, but the image is so pretty, we’re willing to overlook it.
Pass Labs XA60.8 Mono-Block Amplifier, $12,800/pair
It has been seven years since Pass Labs upgraded its amplifier lineup, and the new XA.8 Series doesn’t disappoint. The XA60.8 mono block is rated at 60 watts of pure Class A power, only moving into Class AB above 122 watts peak. After carefully comparing the XA60.8 with the previous XA60.5, Terry London called it the finest solid-state amp he has ever heard in his system.
• Check out our Best of 2013 selections at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Explore more in our Bookshelf Speaker and Floorstanding Speaker sections.
• Read more video reviews in our HDTV, Video Projector, and Projector Screen categories.