Published On: May 30, 2023

Hot Audio Gear for Everyone

Published On: May 30, 2023
We May Earn From Purchases Via Links

Hot Audio Gear for Everyone

Experts offer insights on top products.

Hot Audio Gear for Everyone

The world of high-performance audio offers something for just about everyone—regardless of their budget or level of experience. That message was vividly reinforced by our visit to AXPONA in Schaumburg, Illinois.

For this special roundup article, HomeTheaterReview spoke with numerous experts to get their thoughts on exceptional gear—and to gain insight on industry trends. Come along for the ride as we gain wisdom from some of the best and brightest in the business.

Getting into Streaming

David Solomon is the vice president of business of development for the streaming service Qobuz, and he has an additional, more colorful title: chief hi-res music evangelist. The service, which continues to expand, offers more than 100 million tracks. During a Master Class presentation, Solomon guided attendees through some of Qobuz’s key features, and he offered several gear recommendations.

“I absolutely love the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt,” Solomon said. “It’s a good, inexpensive DAC that will make your iPhone sound like a million bucks.”

More advanced than the Black and Red DragonFly models, the Cobalt is a USB DAC and headphone amplifier with a 2.1-volt output to drive almost any headphone, and its ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip, featuring a minimum-phase slow roll-off filter, delivers remarkable sonics. The Cobalt is compatible with Apple and Android devices, it can render MQA files, and it fits in the palm of your hand.

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The DragonFly Cobalt is a USB DAC and headphone amp that can connect to a phone.

“What I think is going to change the landscape of streaming audio is the Wiim Pro,” Solomon noted, referring to the small streamer that supports up to 24-bit/192kHz audio output. “It’s only $150. That makes it about $400 cheaper than the cheapest streamer out there—prior to this—that can stream high-resolution audio. For $150, you will not beat that deal.”

The Wiim Pro can be a multiroom solution because it works with AirPlay 2 speakers, Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. Its affordability will prompt some fans to buy multiple units to create a more flexible multiroom system.

Solomon offered this advice for fans who want to dip their toes into the world of streaming before pursuing a sonic upgrade: “Start out with the $150 Wiim Pro. Play with it, so you know what you’re dealing with. And then go out and buy a $500 DAC, like a [Cambridge Audio] DacMagic 200M. That’s a great little DAC for not a whole lot of money. When you plug that in, it will be a superior DAC, and you’ll go, ‘Oh, wow! Why wasn’t I using this all along?’ But it’s good to start [at one level], and then have a nice, big improvement.”

Because it has digital optical, digital coaxial and USB inputs, you can connect the DacMagic 200M to a CD player, game console, laptop or other digital audio source. Under the hood, it has dual ESS ES9028Q2M DAC chips to process digital audio files up to 24-bit/768kHz or DSD512.

When it comes to more advanced streaming components, Solomon has joined the chorus of experts singing the praises of HiFi Rose, the South Korea-based brand known for its innovative touch screens.

“The HiFi Rose stuff has the best UI [user interface],” Solomon raved. “It’s miles beyond anybody else’s. Nobody’s UI touches their UI. It’s just fun to use, and it sounds really good. I’ve got one of those downstairs in one of my main systems [in my house].”

The low-distortion, high-resolution HiFi Rose RS250A network streamer delivers 32-bit/768KHz PCM and Native DSD512 (22.5792Mhz) performance.

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The HiFi Rose RS250A network streamer has an innovative touch screen.

No Hassle Transfer

During an interview with HomeTheaterReview, Solomon offered a tremendous tip for music fans who are hesitant to switch streaming services because they fear that the process will be labor-intensive. “There is a program called Soundiiz, and it’s free to use,” he said. “If you’re one of those people who wants to try high-resolution audio, you can go to Soundiiz and put in all of your music services, and then put in the new music service, like Qobuz. Hit a button, and it transfers all of your playlists and all of your favorites to Qobuz. So, you don’t have to go through any hassle. Who wants to rebuild hundreds of playlists?”

Immersive Experiences

One of our most thrilling moments at AXPONA was watching (and hearing) a heart-pounding chase scene from the 2017 film Baby Driver, demonstrated in a room that SVS called the “Immersive 5.2.2 Dolby Atmos Home Theater Demo.”

The SVS setup sounded fantastic—and each of its pieces has a relatively accessible price. The system consisted of two Prime Pinnacle tower speakers; the Ultra Center (a three-way, center-channel speaker); two Prime Bookshelf speakers (in the rear of the room); two SB-3000 subwoofers; and two Prime Elevation speakers (which were featured in the 2022 article “Best Dolby Atmos Speakers”), delivering the height effects.

The AVR in this SVS system was a Denon AVR-X6700H AV receiver, which contributed to an overall winning formula, in terms of the price-to-performance profile throughout that room.

“It’s very much in the SVS mission to create convincing, immersive experiences for normal people,” said Gary Yacoubian, SVS president, CEO and managing partner. “The most hopeful thing for the audio world is if you can create a way for a normal person—who lives paycheck to paycheck—to experience the joys of immersive sound. That’s our mission. We’re bringing people into a really fun hobby.”

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SVS Prime Pinnacle tower speakers with the Ultra Center speaker.

Stunning Towers

One loudspeaker company that reportedly dazzled attendees at both AXPONA and High End Munich (in Germany) was Perlisten. At AXPONA, Perlisten CEO Dan Roemer explained the features of the company’s acclaimed flagship tower speaker, the S7t (shown in the main photo at the top of this article).

“In the center, you see three drivers superimposed on a waveguide,” Roemer said. “We call that the DPC-Array. That’s our patent-pending directivity pattern control. That’s what handles the horizontal and vertical dispersion. Pairs of woofers flank it vertically. Those give you more control vertically as you go lower in frequency. What an S7t does that’s unlike any other speaker in the world is that it has a nice, wide, horizontal controlled dispersion pattern. So, it reacts well in the room. That gives you imaging width and a sense of field. But in the vertical domain, it’s limited to—let’s say plus or minus 25 degrees—which is enough for comfortable seating positions, but also significantly reduces floor and ceiling reflections.”

In Munich, Perlisten unveiled a variant model called the S7t Limited Edition. Only 50 pairs will be made. The DPC-Array will maintain the existing drive units and pattern control, but all three transducers in this model are coupled to a waveguide that doubles as a large, aluminum heatsink. This new design improves the thermal management. Additionally, the woofers, crossover and input posts have been redesigned, and the base consists of a customized isolation system created in collaboration with the company IsoAcoustics.

Enduring Appeal

There were numerous noteworthy turntables at the show, including the elegant Luxman PD-191A (highlighted in a recent article). The AXPONA Record Fair was crowded for much of the show, as vinyl fans eagerly scooped up audiophile pressings.

“As you look around this show, the juggernaut that you see is vinyl playback,” said Shane Buettner, owner and founder of Intervention Records, and co-founder of MIBS Distro, the North American distributor for handcrafted Lyra phono cartridges. “Vinyl never left, and it keeps getting stronger. There’s nothing that gives you that window into the performance—where you feel like you’re in a time machine and you’ve gone back into the recording studio with the artists—as consistently as vinyl does. Through technology and material advances, it keeps getting better and better. We keep finding new information [in recordings]. We didn’t have high-definition TVs in a meaningful way until the 2000s, but we had high-definition audio back in the 1950s.”

Heavenly Headphones

Loudspeakers and turntables were, as expected, some of the most buzzworthy “stars” in the show, but headphones also had a major presence.

We were particularly impressed by the spacious sonics of the new Yamaha YH-5000SE wired, open-back headphones featuring proprietary Orthodynamic drivers. The new design eliminates the fixed central structure of conventional headphone drivers, instead ensuring shape retention via concentric circle corrugation and pattern reinforcement. Plus, there are no magnetic substances in that portion of the design. This 11.3-ounce model has a magnesium body and is made in Japan.

We enjoyed a brief demo of these heavenly headphones, in tandem with the forthcoming Yamaha HA-L7A USB DAC headphone amplifier (which was showcased at High End Munich).

“They’re incredibly comfortable and lightweight,” said Michael Hine, senior manager, product strategy at Yamaha, describing the YH-5000SE. “They’re meant for listening to music for a really long time and give you unbelievable sound quality.”

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Michael Hine of Yamaha at AXPONA, with the YH-5000SE headphones and HA-L7A headphone amp.

Proper Connections

The massive show also shone a spotlight on important gear that often doesn’t generate the media attention it deserves, such as cables and power conditioners.

AudioQuest has won accolades for its aforementioned DragonFly Cobalt, but the company originated as a manufacturer of cables. Today it makes a variety of products, including digital cables, analog interconnects, speaker cables, AC power cables and AC power conditioners.

William E. Low, founder and CEO of AudioQuest, got philosophical when explaining the role that cable plays in an entertainment system.

“People use the analogy that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, which is an absolute truth for a chain, and an absolute lie when applied to hi-fi,” Low said. “Hi-fi is an accumulation of things that go wrong. No piece of audio gear or video gear ever puts out a signal as good as the input. So, it’s a matter of damage control. … Every part of a [hi-fi] system is important. Cable offers leverage, but it’s not more important than any other part of a system. The test of how much attention and therefore how much money to pay for cables—or any other part of a system—is this: What would make the most difference? Cable is just one of all the pieces. But, per dollar, can you change your DAC or change your speakers and make anywhere near the difference you might make with cable? Probably not. So, it’s strictly financial ROI that makes cable something that needs attention.”

Clean Power

Besflores Nievera Jr., brand ambassador at Music Direct, presented an informative seminar titled “Where To Begin? Starting in Audio Without Breaking the Bank or Losing Your Mind.” Among his many educational tips was a segment on the importance of power conditioning.

“The electrical grids in this country are ages and ages old,” Nievera said. “As a result, when power goes into your house, even though you’re listening to great audio, you might not enjoy it fully [due to] the noise floor. If you are running a piece of equipment through a ComEd plug in the wall in your home, chances are, when there are quiet passages [in a music track], it goes deep into the noise floor. A line conditioner’s job is to take that grunge from the electrical grid, and using wonderful designs that are tried and true, [lower the noise floor]. So, all the music you listen to, and all the movies and videos you watch, will have a higher sense of clarity. There are a number of manufacturers who have created these line conditioners with varying degrees of operation, from a simple four-outlet design, up to 20 outlets for your system. Every one of them, for each price point, provides a measurable amount of improvement.”

Companies that offer power conditioning products were well represented at the show. In addition to Cardas Audio, they included the Chord Company, Shunyata Research and Transparent Cable.

Show Trips

The most whimsical thing we saw at the show was a retro-themed room presented by Cardas Audio, complete with posters of KISS and Jimi Hendrix, as well as a TV playing an episode of the sitcom Happy Days. Kudos to Cardas for giving us a chuckle—and for manifesting the idea that home electronics should—above all else—bring you joy.

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Touch of whimsy: 'Happy Days' in an AXPONA room presented by Cardas Audio.

With AXPONA and High End Munich now in the rearview mirror, fans can look ahead to the Pacific Audio Fest in Seattle (June 23–25), the Paris Audio Video Show in France (Oct. 21–22) and the Capital Audiofest in Washington, D.C. (Nov. 10–12).

Pricing, Availability & Additional Products

The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt (approximately $259) and the Wiim Pro (approx. $149) are available at Amazon. (Note: Prices and availability were determined at press time.)

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M DAC, headphone amplifier and preamplifier ($549) is available at Audio Advice. The Denon AVR-X6700H 11.2-channel 8K AV receiver ($2,999) is available at Best Buy.

The SVS Prime Pinnacle tower speaker ($999.99 each, approx. $2,000 per pair) is available at Crutchfield, as are the SVS Ultra Center center-channel speaker ($799.99) and the SVS SB-3000 powered subwoofer ($1,199.99).

The SVS Prime Bookshelf speakers ($699.98 per pair) and the SVS Prime Elevation height effects speakers ($599.98 per pair) are available at Crutchfield.

The S7t tower speaker and the special S7t Limited Edition are available at authorized Perlisten retailers.

The Yamaha YH-5000SE headphones ($4,999.95) are available at Crutchfield.

The HiFi Rose RS250A network streamer ($2,695) and AudioQuest power-conditioning products—such as the NRG-Z3 low-distortion, 3-pole, 2-meter power cable ($349.95)—are available at Music Direct.

Music tip: Intervention Records offers a remastered box set of three Peter Frampton studio albums recorded in the early 1970s, available on vinyl ($159.99) or hybrid CD/SACD ($90).

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