As another year winds to a close, it’s time for us to reflect on all of the products we’ve reviewed in 2015 and select the ones that we feel are the best of the best–those that deserve a nod for pure performance, excellent value, or both. We don’t select a single winner from each AV category; instead, we offer a variety of picks at a variety of price points to help our readers assemble a great system on any budget. We could call this the year of the tower speaker, as our list is chock-full of great-sounding towers that run across the price spectrum. This year’s list is organized by price, from lowest to highest. Enjoy.
Brainwavz S5 In-ear Monitors, $99.50
Brainwavz’s S5 in-ear monitors have a pleasingly neutral sound that you don’t often find in such low-priced earphones. Steven Stone appreciated their balanced frequency response and good imaging, as well as the inclusion of six different tips to ensure that anyone can get a good fit.
Roku 4 Ultra HD Streaming Media Player, $129
Roku has another hit on its hands with the recently released 4K-friendly Roku 4. Adrienne Maxwell applauds this streaming media player for retaining all of the features that people love about the Roku platform while adding 4K support, better system compatibility, an improved mobile app, and some new convenience features–all for only a modest $30 price increase.
Episode Signature 1300T In-ceiling Speaker, $199.95 each
The 1300T is part of Episode’s Signature line of high-performance, thin-bezel in-ceiling speakers and uses a six-inch polypropylene woofer and a 0.75-inch adjustable silk dome tweeter. Sean Killebrew says that, with this series, Episode hits “the trifecta…in terms of sound and build quality, as well as price-to-performance ratio.”
Polk Audio T50 Tower Speakers, $259.90/pair
Stay tuned next week for our full review of Polk Audio’s T50 tower speakers, although their inclusion on this best-of list gives you some advanced notice of how they perform. Let’s just say that Brent Butterworth has a lot of kind words for these high-value speakers.
Cambridge TV2 Speaker Base, $299
Cambridge’s inexpensive TV2 speaker base is ” a simple, great-sounding, and affordably priced solution” for some one who wants to improve their TV sound, says Sean Killebrew. A speaker base is designed to sit underneath your TV, and this model uses Cambridge’s Balanced Mode Radiator drivers and a 6.5-inch woofer for better bass performance than your typical budget soundbar.
Riva Turbo X Bluetooth Tabletop Speaker, $349
The Turbo X tabletop Bluetooth speaker is Riva Audio’s first product…and a fine debut at that. The speaker features three full-range drivers and four bass drivers, as well as a 45-watt amplifier and some excellent features and design touches. Brian Kahn was very impressed with its performance and expects good things from this new company.
Bowers & Wilkins P7 Over-the-Ear Headphones, $399.99
Jerry Del Colliano found the Bowers & Wikins P7 headphones to be an outstanding mix of comfort, build quality, and performance, with a “very neutral but laidback sound.” There are plenty of elegant touches, like the sheepskin leather headband and earpads, the magnetically attached earpads and detachable cable, and the collapsible leather carrying case.
Orb Audio Complete Mini Sound System, $649
Orb Audio’s Complete Mini 2.1-channel system combines the popular Mod1X spherical satellite speakers, the subONE 8-inch powered sub, and the company’s new, petite Mini-T v3 20-watt-per-channel integrated amplifier. The Complete Mini “packs a lot of performance in a system that is diminutive in both size and price,” says Brian Kahn.
Definitive W9 Play-Fi Wireless Speakers, $699
Definitive has thrown its support behind the DTS Play-Fi multi-room wireless audio platform, and the W9 is the premium tabletop speaker in the company’s Play-Fi group. It uses two forward-firing, one-inch aluminum dome tweeters and 5.25-inch woofers, along with two side-firing two-inch full-range drivers. Greg Handy found its performance to be “far more impressive than I thought possible from a one-box speaker design of that size.”
Klipsch R-115SW Subwoofer, $899
Klipsch’s 15-inch, 800-watt R-115SW subwoofer makes our list not only because it’s a great performer with music and movies, but also because it’s great to see a mainstream speaker company design a subwoofer that’s competitive in both performance and price with products from the likes of SVS and HSU.
SVS Prime Tower Speakers, $999/pair
With the Prime Series, SVS delivers a lot of what we love about the flagship Ultra Series for about half the price. The Prime Tower is a 3.5-way speaker that combines a natural sound, impressive dynamics, and excellent bass performance. Brent Butterworth says it’s one of the best buys in town for mainstream music listening and home theater.
Sumiko S.9 Subwoofer, $999
Sumiko’s S.9 is, in many respects, an audiophile’s subwoofer. It has a 10-inch, down-firing driver, a 10-inch front-firing passive radiator, and a 350-watt RMS Class AB amp, and it’s distinguished by its Neutrik speakON speaker-level input that makes it very easy to blend the sub with your speakers. Brent Butterworth says it’s “one of the best buys a subwoofer-less audiophile could make.”
SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 Speaker System, $999.99
This value-oriented 5.1-channel system from SVS includes five Prime Satellite speakers ($135 each) and the SB-1000 12-inch, 300-watt subwoofer ($499.99). Myron Ho calls the Prime Satellite 5.1 system the “best satellite speaker surround sound system I know for under $1,000.” That pretty much says it all.
Bryston Mini A Bookshelf Speaker, $1,200/pair
Last year’s best-of list included the Bryston Middle T tower speaker, so we had high hopes for the Mini A bookshelf speaker. Happily, it didn’t disappoint. While Dennis Burger found its appearance to be a little pedestrian for the price, he still ranked the Mini A, paired with the AC1 Micro center channel ($490), amongst his favorite bookshelf speaker systems.
Focal Dimension Soundbar, $1,399 (or $1,599 with subwoofer)
Focal’s active Dimension soundbar is a 450-watt, 5.1-channel solution with dedicated center, left, right, and surround channels and the option to add a wireless subwoofer (the picture above shows the soundbar and sub paired together). Sean Killebrew loved the Dimension’s sonic performance, calling it “balanced and highly engaging, while also elegant when necessary.”
Epson Home Cinema 3500 LCD Projector, $1,499.99
A 3LCD 1080p projector with integrated speakers, MHL support, and 3D capability, the Home Cinema 3500 has excellent light output for use in a brighter, more casual viewing environment. But, unlike many budget home entertainment projectors, this one also has respectable black-level performance for home theater, as well as helpful setup tools like lens shift and 1.6x zoom.
GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array XL Soundbar, $1,599.99
The original SuperCinema 3D Array passive L/C/R soundbar earned a spot on our Best of 2013 list. GoldenEar has now introduced two new models with upgraded crossover technology, including the larger 3D Array XL that Brian Kahn recently reviewed. He called it “the best-sounding soundbar I have heard.”
Vizio 65-Inch M65-C1 UHD TV, $1,699.99
Adrienne Maxwell describes the M65-C1 UHD TV as an excellent “right now” TV. It gives you full-array LED backlighting with local dimming–and thus, excellent black levels and image contrast–and good accuracy at a much lower price than the competition. You don’t get the HDR and wide color gamut options found in some premium sets for future Ultra HD content, but for today’s sources the M65-C1 is a excellent choice.
GoldenEar Triton Five Tower Speakers, $1,999.98/pair
GoldenEar has done it again, adding yet another impressive model to its Triton lineup. The Triton Five tower speaker uses a High-Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter, dual six-inch midrange/woofers, and four eight-inch passive radiators. It’s “an excellent speaker that’s well worth its price…and that really does work well for any conceivable application you might have for a tower speaker,” says Brent Butterworth.
Click over to Page Two to see the rest of our 2015 best-of list.
Klipsch RP-280FA Atmos-Enabled Tower Speakers, $2,400/pair
The RP-280FA is the top-of-the-line tower speaker in Klipsch’s Reference Premiere line, and it’s noteworthy for its Atmos-enabled up-firing drivers. As Brent Butterworth would discover, though, the Atmos capability is just the icing on the cake for these all-around great-sounding speakers.
Parasound Halo Integrated Amplifier, $2,495
Parasound’s Halo Integrated Amplifier is the most full-featured integrated amp we reviewed this year. This 160-wpc amp includes a DAC with DSD support via USB , a headphone amp, a phono input, home theater bypass, and dual subwoofer outputs. As for performance, Dennis Burger says, “Pretty much anything you pump through the Halo Integrated’s speaker outputs sounds downright sumptuous.”
Emotiva XMC-1 7.2-Channel AV Preamp, $2,499
Emotiva products seem to inspire passionate responses, and Dennis Burger had a passionately positive response to the company’s XMC-1 and its Dirac Live room correction, awarding the AV preamp five stars in both performance and value. It’s the right fit for the “hardcore AV enthusiast” who loves to tinker under the hood to bring out the absolute best in a product’s performance.
PSB Imagine X 5.1 Speaker System, $2,795
Bob Barrett reviewed an Imagine X system consisting X2T towers ($649 each), the XC center ($349), the XB bookshelf ($499/pair), and a SubSeries 200 subwoofer ($649). His verdict? These speakers “deliver more musical enjoyment and just plain perform better than they have any right to given their price point.”
Integra DTR-70.6 11.2-Channel AV Receiver, $2,799
The DTR-70.6 is an 11.2-channel, 135-wpc, THX Select 2-certified AV receiver that’s loaded with all the newest features–from Atmos/DTS:X to HDCP 2.2. to network audio streaming. Sean Killebrew calls this a “beast of a receiver” that is “a paragon of audio engineering, both in terms of sound quality and feature set.”
Tekton Design Sigma OB Tower Speakers, $3,000/pair
The Sigma OB from Tekton Design is a hybrid open-baffle design that functions like a monopole in the low frequencies and a dipole in the midrange and high frequencies. The result, according to Terry London, is a speaker with soundstaging that “rivals the best large planar or electrostatic panel” but with better location accuracy and lower-end bass extension. (Stay tuned for Terry’s full review in a couple of weeks.)
NAD M27 Seven-Channel Amplifier, $3,999
Part of NAD’s flagship Master Series, the M27 offers 180 watts per channel of Hypex nCore Class D amplification. Bob Barrett applauds the M27 for offering “exceptional sound performance, high efficiency, compact size, and rich casework.” It’s a clear match for NAD’s M17 AV preamp that Bob also loved, but he believes it would make a great mate with any high-quality AV preamp.
Marantz AV8802 11.2-Channel AV Preamp, $3,999
Brian Kahn reviewed this fully featured AV preamp, which includes Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support, HDMI 2.0 with HDCP 2.2, built-in Wi-Fi with network audio streaming, Audyssey’s Platinum suite, and more. It also boasts improved performance compared with its predecessor, further narrowing the gap between it and the “audiophile brand” processors.
Paradigm Prestige 95F Tower Speakers, $4,998/pair
The Prestige 95F may look a bit different from previous Paradigm speakers, but Dennis Burger says that this “beautifully crafted and meticulously engineered” 2.5-way speaker, which sits atop the Prestige Series, continues the Paradigm tradition of offering outstanding performance.
First Watt SIT 2 Stereo Amplifier, $5,000
First Watt is the lab where Nelson Pass of Pass Labs creates his designs. The limited-edition, hand-built SIT 2 stereo amp uses a Static Induction Transistor, a solid-state gain device that behaves like a Triode tube. Terry London calls this a “unique and special amplifier” that “renders music with beautiful purity…and creates a large, open, and realistic soundstage.”
Classé Sigma AMP5 Five-Channel Amplifier, $5,000
The new Sigma Series is Classé’s value-oriented line of amps and preamps. The five-channel AMP5 offers 200 watts per channel of Class D amplification. Jerry Del Colliano says the AMP5 “can resolve the smallest audio cues yet, in an instant, roar into the most dynamic action your Blu-ray player and AV preamp can feed it.”
Monitor Audio Gold 300 Tower Speakers, $5,495/pair
Bob Barrett awarded the Gold 300–along with its fellow Gold Series center, surrounds, and subwoofer–five stars across the board, calling it the “best-sounding surround system at its price point that I’ve ever heard, period.” The flagship Gold 300 is a gorgeous three-way tower speaker that makes use of Monitor’s acclaimed C-CAM material for all three drivers.
Thiel TT1 Tower Speakers, $5,798/pair
The TT1 is a beautiful speaker that’s more versatile and a better value than previous THIEL floorstanders. Brent Butterworth describes its performance as being “great with all types of music…with no troublesome quirks”–perfect for the “neutrality-seeking audiophile.”
Lawrence Audio Violin SE Speaker, $8,500/pair
Like the other models in Lawrence’s “stringed section,” the sublimely crafted Violin SE speaker mimics the shape of the stringed instrument after which it is named. Terry London found that the Violin SE’s performance was remarkably similar to the larger and more expensive Cello that he uses in his reference system.
Perla Signature 50 Integrated Amplifier, $9,000
This integrated amplifier is hand-built with top-quality parts and features an innovative design. The Perla 50 carries a premium price tag, but Terry London says that it has “one of the finest syntheses I have experienced” in its ability to combine the transparency, speed, dynamics and control of great solid-state gear with the air, three-dimensionality, and rich, dense tonality that tubes can produce.
Pass Labs X-250.8 Stereo Amplifier, $10,000
The X-250.8 is a two-channel Class AB amplifier rated at 250 watts into eight ohms and 500 watts into four ohms. Terry London praises the X-250.8 for offering the warmth and airy sweetness of a Class A amplifier, yet with enough power to easily drive any speaker to any volume level, with great overall dynamics and total control over the deepest bass frequencies.
Sony VPL-VW350ES 4K SXRD Projector, $9,999
Ten grand certainly ain’t cheap, but Sony’s VPL-VW350ES is the lowest-priced true 4K projector on the market. Adrienne Maxwell says it combines “a very good black level with good light output, great detail, accurate color, and a clean, smooth image.” If you want big-screen 4K right now, this is your most affordable option.
• Home Theater Review’s Best of 2014 Awards at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• CEDIA 2015 Show Report and Photo Slideshow at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• CES Delivers Higher-Quality Audio at Lower Prices at HomeTheaterReview.com.