Best Buy DACs and Streamers
Get those ones and zeroes singing
This year digital has done more for lessWith us giving more time to turntables, portable players and stereo speakers this year, the amount of digital products we reviewed dropped a little but we still saw some interesting and capable devices over the course of the year- and one that does a fair job of re-writing what is possible at the asking price.
Like TVs, it is easy to get caught up in specification blindness with DACs and streamers. People can become surprisingly worked up over the ability to play formats that barely exist in the real world and this is rather less important in reality than the ability to deliver a really excellent sound. Of course, some of the products on this list allow for you to have your cake and eat it too so without further ado, here's what blew our frocks up in 2015.
When the Cabasse arrived for review, we weren't completely sure what to expect. We'd heard some excellent speakers from the French company but there was rather less data on what would happen when they produced the electronics as well. What resulted is a sleek, curved all-in-one speaker that offers 24/96 UPnP streaming, internet radio and Spotify Connect, topped off with Apt-X Bluetooth with NFC. Unusually, the Cabasse can be used upright or laid flat depending on your preference and there is a well sorted iOS app for it.
Happily, Cabasse's foray into electronics has been a good one. This is a speaker that manages to sound big and powerful despite the fairly compact size. This is more than a sense of artificially extended bass though. Voices and tricky instruments like cellos and trumpets have a scale to them which smaller systems can often struggle with. There is also no shortage of real world headroom to the performance either and the Stream One should go plenty loud enough for most requirements. The Cabasse feels like a well thought out and clever product with some very nice touches and looks that shouldn’t scare the horses too much. If you need an all-in-one for audio at a competitive price, this is a very convincing solution to the problem.
Geneva has been subverting the conventions of what shape (and colour) our audio equipment should be for some time now but the AeroSphère takes this idea and runs with it. This vaguely mushroom shaped all-in-one speaker system offers 24/192 streaming, AirPlay, Apt-X bluetooth and Spotify Connect in a single hefty package with the further option of streaming and radio functionality via an add on box. Aesthetics are a personal thing for everyone but the AeroSphère is one of my favourite looking products of 2015. It is bold, elegant and beautifully made.
Geneva matches the bold looks with some excellent sounds as well. The more time you spend listening to the AeroSphère, the more it makes sense. Sit and physically listen to it and you are treated to a refined and airy presentation. Pop it on in the background and attend to a task like- writing a review of it for example- and the Geneva is a rather lovely thing. Your attention will be temporarily piqued by something it plays before you return to the task in hand. A room with an AeroSphère in it has a visual talking point and a source of rich, room filling sound you can listen to all day without the slightest sense of fatigue. If you are looking for a streaming system to delight the eyes and ears, this is a superb choice.
Sometimes products that turn up for review can be a genuine surprise. Mass Fidelity is a relatively young company originating from
Canada. Nothing about the company suggested that the Relay was going to be anything other than a relatively conventional addition to the growing category of Bluetooth DACs. What came out of the box therefore was more than a bit surprising. The Relay is a beautifully made and very elegant piece of kit that appears to be almost entirely bespoke. The Bluetooth implementation is very impressive indeed and the Relay remains the undisputed range champion of products tested with over ten metres achieved with a Motorola Moto X.
For anyone still sceptical about how effective Bluetooth can be for audio, a little time around the Relay and a decent Apt-X Bluetooth source therefore might be rather revelatory. Connection to all test devices was completely painless and unless you wonder out of the prodigious range absolutely stable. It only takes a few minutes to forget you are listening to Bluetooth at all and judge the Relay on its musical performance. And that performance is outstanding. This is a truly magnificent means of implementing bluetooth into an audio system and one that comes highly recommended.
This year we've looked at different ways of getting great sound on the move. To this end we have started to look at portable audio players and also begun to look at DACs that offer a performance boost to your mobile phone. Oppo might not have been the brand we expected to be a strong contender in this area, but the HA-2 changed our minds pretty sharpish. This sleek and rather stylish little product packs an ESS DAC with pretty much full format support, a dedicated headphone amp and a hefty battery that gives the HA-2 long life and the ability to act as a charger for your phone too.
As well as offering plenty of flexibility, the Oppo is a bit of a star sonically too. What it has in spades is serious grunt. There is an effortlessness driving full size headphones that gives the HA-2 the upper hand over phones, laptops and tablets. It'll go fearsomely loud too if you don't ascribe any particular value to your hearing. The HA-2 essentially removes any need to care about what a phone manufacturer has done with their headphone amp this time around and instead simply use it as an interface and transport. Unlike the dedicated audio players, the Oppo can provide the same boost to a computer and does so while looking and feeling fantastic, offering a truly killer specification and providing trickle charge functionality for your portable device and that's why we love it.
The Chord Hugo was one of our favourite products of 2014. Even at £1,400, this clever little box of tricks won us over with superb performance, impressive flexibility and superb build. The Mojo takes almost everything we love about the Hugo, and incredibly, makes some parts of it even better and then shaves £1,000 off the price. For £400, you have the option of buying one of the most sophisticated pieces of digital decoding available at any price. You still get USB, coaxial and optical inputs and two 3.5mm outputs.
This would all be entirely irrelevant if the Mojo didn't sound any good but be under no illusions, this is a truly outstanding product. As a means of hearing exactly what is on a recording, it has few equals and none that I've encountered below £1,000. What you are treated to is an unfailingly accurate and entirely honest reproduction of what is on the track. There is also nothing remotely digital about that sound. The reproduction of tiny details is absolutely startling but they never grab the attention unnecessarily but instead wind their way into the performance perfectly. With earphones in particular, this little DAC is as good as it gets at pretty much any price and represents a true audio bargain.
It is easy to overlook the progress that digital audio is making while 4K is the biggest story in town but for a very reasonable outlay, you can give your audio- at home or on the move- a significant shake-up this Christmas.
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