Welcome to our latest annual Editor's Choice Awards for the best Hi-Fi products.
The Editor’s Choice Awards celebrate the best products of the year. They are the items we think stand head and shoulders above the rest. The criteria for being eligible are simple. It must be a product that has been reviewed by AVForums in the last 12 months and it must currently be available as part of the official product range from a manufacturer and not discontinued before the end of 2021.
It's been another varied year for two channel audio and some truly outstanding products have passed through for review, resulting in a varied and impressive selection of winners. Something that this year has served to reinforce is that, raw specification alone is not the be all and end all of what makes an Editor’s Choice winner. There’s less of a correlation to ‘biggest number= best’ in the world of two channel and some winners reflect that. Without futher ado then, here are the champions.
Best Affordable Speaker - Wharfedale Diamond 12.2
There have been more Diamond Series than there have Fast and Furious films. It’s an affordable institution of Hi-Fi and a new range is always big news. In a year where some superb affordable speakers broke cover, it was the 12.2 that impressed the most.
In a year where some superb affordable speakers broke cover, it was the 12.2 that impressed the most
The Diamond 12.2 is absurdly talented. This is the most fun and focussed Diamond yet; a speaker that needs little help to engage you in what it's doing. It achieves this without compromising on the fundamental user friendliness of the Diamond models of old. When you also consider that is it a well made, handsome and practical design that is likely to shine in a wide selection of settings, the only logical conclusion is that the Diamond 12.2 is the best affordable speaker of 2021.
Best Mid-Range Speaker - Sonus faber Lumina II
The Lumina II followed hot on the heels of the Lumina I (which narrowly missed out on an award itself). It’s a bigger, more capable speaker that helps to fill the Lumina range out into a usefully comprehensive one. It’s also the high point of the range; the point where everything that Sonus faber does so well comes together most effectively.
The Lumina II does everything its little brother does but that bit better
The Lumina II looks fabulous and it’s very well made. It’s simple to partner up and drive and usefully unfussy about placement. There’s no magic at work here; the combination of relatively low mass driver with a hefty but silent bass port creates a speaker that hits hard and delivers impressive fluency while it does so. Magic or not though, it means that the Lumina II will acquit itself well across a variety of material. The Lumina II does everything its little brother does but that bit better and for that reason, it takes the award.
Best Aspirational Speaker - Kudos Cardea C10
Compared to last year’s award winning Titan with its isobaric drivers, striking cabinet and general sense of wizardry, the Cardea C10 feels conventional. With this (and a fair bit else in the C10 in fairness), the devil is in the detail. Everything about the C10 reflects extraordinary care and attention and the implementation of extremely high quality components.
Everything about the C10 reflects extraordinary care and attention and the implementation of extremely high quality components
The result is a speaker that tends to ‘just work’ when connected to all but the most leftfield of amplification. If you’re reading this and you know in your heart of hearts that unless you have a fully transparent studio refugee in the system, you won’t be content, this might not be what you want to hear but I promise you that you’ll spend more time listening to music rather than finding the faults with it. This is Kudos’ smallest, simplest and most affordable speaker but it still makes good on everything that the company feels matters and the result is a joy that saunters away with its award.
Best High End Speaker - Bowers & Wilkins 805 D4
The omens for the 805 D4 were always good. It’s the product of thirty years of evolution, incorporating technology, materials and engineering processes not easily replicated by other companies, even at this fairly lofty price point. Good omens are one thing, genuine greatness is quite another though. As it transpires though, we needn’t have worried.
What you have here is a clever speaker using its cleverness to be brilliant rather than point out how clever it is
The 805 D4 is as technically accomplished as we'd hope an 800 Series speaker to be but it's also a genuinely joyous thing to listen to at the same time. It balances accuracy and realism with levels of engagement its predecessors never matched and offers class leading build and finish into the bargain. The unquestionable technical brilliance of what Bowers & Wilkins is able to do now locks step with user friendliness, easy compatibility and sheer unbridled entertainment in a way that some previous generations have promised and not quite delivered on. What you have here is a clever speaker using its cleverness to be brilliant rather than point out how clever it is and it’s a worthy award winner.
Best Turntable - Audio Technica LP5X
The original LP5 was the right product at the right time. It was a departure from most of the affordable turntables it competed against because it combined direct drive with the design sensitivities of single speed playback rather than being pitched as able to do a spot of DJ work. With the LP5X, on the surface, very little has changed - if you’ve made something that everyone likes, why risk changing it? The answer is, they didn’t. Audio Technica took their champ and gave it a thorough workover instead.
This is a fine turntable that balances character and capability to excellent effect
The result is a clever and considered development of a very good budget turntable that’s served to make it better still. It’s a breeze to set up and use, it has a selection of features that are well considered and useful and it has the potential to work with your developing system too. Yes, the competition is stronger and more numerous but this is a fine turntable that balances character and capability to excellent effect and entertains while it does so and because of all this it takes the award.
Best Affordable All-In-One Hi-Fi System - Elipson Music Centre Connect HD
The Music Centre Connect is a clever revamp of a longstanding champ. It has in fact been nearly a decade since this distinctive looking device first hit the UK market. Instead of junking a piece of industrial design that they were clearly very happy with, Elipson opted instead to tweak the feature set of the Music Centre to keep it competitive and relevant.
The Music Centre Connect HD takes a long running but very capable platform and brings it up to date at a very reasonable price
For nine hundred quid, the Elipson presents a usefully comprehensive specification that balances up to the minute needs with a degree of legacy support than many rather more expensive rivals eschew. The Music Centre Connect HD takes a long running but very capable platform and brings it up to date at a very reasonable price. This is the current pick of sub £1k streaming systems and a worthy award winner.
Best Aspirational All-In-One Hi-Fi System - T+A Caruso R
The Caruso R is interesting for two reasons. First of all, it leaves the extremely competitive c£2k segment to others to fight over and instead moves up a rung to contest the £3,000 price point, something that Naim and NAD have done a fine job of largely carving up themselves. Secondly, the Caruso R has an unusual origin point, one that we have already tested. Effectively, it is the interface and functionality of the Caruso all in one system; in this case a true standalone device with its own speakers on board.
The Caruso R is something where the moment you give it a chance, it starts to make more and more sense
The Caruso R is a fine example of the ‘spec vs performance’ argument I made at the beginning although it might be the first time that it has occurred with an all-in-one. This is a product that appeals far more when you start using it than the on paper specifications might suggest. No, it can’t handle 384kHz PCM or DSD but, are these really the bulk of your listening material? The Caruso R is something where the moment you give it a chance, it starts to make more and more sense and it’s the best all in one we’ve seen in 2021.
Best Affordable Stereo Amplifier - Musical Fidelity M2si
Even before we embarked on this latest evolutionary phase of two channel audio development, it would be fair to say that the M2si would have been considered impressively unadorned. The absence of digital inputs in something is mildly unusual these days but it’s the absence of phono stage and headphone socket that really marks the M2si out as being a bit on the minimalist side. This is an amplifier; it amplifies things and that’s it.
What this is, is an amp that does less to give more
It’s a bold move but it works like a charm. What this is, is an amp that does less to give more. This is a tremendously capable piece of kit that’s a pleasure to live with and demonstrates how a bit of extra heft goes a long way. The M2si is stripped back but it still delivers the essence of Musical Fidelity and it’s a comfortable winner.
Best Aspirational Stereo Amplifier - Copland CSA70
Although we haven’t tested as many amplifiers 2021 as we did in 2020, The CSA70 still now the type standard for this sort of device and, based on a calm appraisal of the specification, nothing about it stands out as terribly unusual. It has a decent spec, it’s handsome and well made (with great knobs) but there’s not much in the way of on paper fireworks.
The CSA70 is a monumentally good amplifier
Let’s cut to the chase though. There are any number of great amplifiers we’ve looked at in the price segment where the CSA70 pitches in and some of them do more extensive and remarkable things in specification terms than this subtle, almost unassuming Dane. None of them balance functionality, build and performance in the manner that this one does though. The CSA70 is a monumentally good amplifier and takes this category with ease.
Best High-End Stereo Amplifier - Rotel Michi X3
The Michi X3 is £4,300 which takes it above where Rotel has traditionally plied its trade. Furthermore, it is the smallest (a relative term) member of the Michi range. This isn’t dipping a toe into more expensive waters, it’s a full on assault on the territory where some very capable designs operate. Rotel very clearly means business with this one. It is an ambitious premise but the Michi delivers effortlessly.
Rotel very clearly means business with this one
This is an amp that has been designed from the outset to be something that shows what Rotel is capable of when it feels like it. Every aspect of the design and specification is a carefully considered triangulation of what else is available and to produce an amplifier that stands comparison to any of them. Viewed as an almost complete system in a box, the comprehensive specification and consistently entertaining performance is one of the most compelling combinations available anywhere near the price point.
Best Affordable Headphone - Philips Fidelio L3
The omens were always good. The L3 is a wireless derivative of the X3 which snagged an award last year in its own right. Where the X3 is a full size home headphone with 50mm drivers, the L3 is more in keeping with the ‘Nomad’ category of headphone that is portable but sufficiently large to work as a static headphone when called upon to do so. Combined with Philips’ knowhow in wireless, it goes on to impress.
The L3 is a superlative wireless headphone
The L3 is a superlative wireless headphone. It is a small but significant step change in that it feels like the first design of its kind to achieve the best sonic results with the noise cancelling engaged but it’s just as happy to be wired to a source and used conventionally. Throw in the superb battery life, solid build, comfortable and attractive design and you have an Editor’s Choice winner.
Best Aspirational Headphone - Sennheiser IE 900
The Sennheiser IE 900 is an ambitious statement of intent. This is the first time a Sennheiser earphone has broken the four figure barrier and it means that the IE 900 is the most expensive earphone that the company has ever made. Coming on the heels of the announcement that Sennheiser had sold its consumer division, there was a slightly dramatic edge to its review. It turns out we needn’t have worried.
Not only is the IE 900 the best earphone Sennheiser has made, it might well be the single best thing of the company's I’ve ever tested
Packed with new technology that must have some interesting trickle down potential and with the announcement that Sennheiser will continue to work with the new owners to develop product, the IE 900 comes across not as a last hurrah but instead as a statement of intent for the future. Not only is the IE 900 the best earphone Sennheiser has made, it might well be the single best thing of the company's I’ve ever tested and a superlative personal listening experience.
Best High-End Headphone - Focal Clear MG
The Focal Clear MG is an open back, over ear headphone that replaces the Focal Clear as the more affordable dedicated home headphone to sit under the flagship Utopia. The MG is the company's considered take on how to make the Clear a better headphone. The price of this new model is the same as the outgoing one and many aspects of the basic design are carried over as we shall cover in depth. Many aspects are all new though, not simply for this segment but for Focal as a company.
... they’ve also tweaked it into one of the most effortlessly beautiful bits of audio equipment I can remember testing
The results are outstanding. In the Clear MG, Focal has taken a headphone that was already very, very good and ironed out everything that passed for a criticism. Then, because why not?, they’ve also tweaked it into one of the most effortlessly beautiful bits of audio equipment I can remember testing. The Clear MG surpasses the Sennheiser HD800S and indeed anything else I can think of under £1,500 and keeps most things under £2,000 entirely honest. It is a truly stupendous combination of performance and design that fully warrants its award.
Best Affordable Hi-Fi Product - iFi Zen Phono
Some of you might be surprised this has award has gone to a phono stage. Others of you will be questioning how a product that was the only one its kind reviewed in the eligible period (indeed that we’ve ever tested) can win an award in the notional absence of rivals.
It is one of the most outstanding pieces of affordable engineering in any category
Let me be succinct. If the Zen Phono had been sent here costing £300, I’d still have a job to criticise it. The idea when it was reviewed was that it would usher in some other phono stage reviews but there’s no point because nothing I’ve listened to anywhere near the price gets anywhere near it. It is one of the most outstanding pieces of affordable engineering in any category I have ever tested. At the asking price, it is an utter bargain and a justifiable award winner.
Best Aspirational Hi-Fi Product - Arcam ST60
Your perception of the Arcam ST60 will (aside from obvious things like whether you actually need a streamer) is whether you feel that its specification is a little lacking in terms of DSD support or more exotic sample rates. It is not a matter of contention that you can buy something that - on paper at least - does more than the Arcam for the same price or indeed less.
Make no mistake, the ST60 sounds brilliant
Editor’s Choice is not decided on specification alone though; sound is the thing that matters. And make no mistake, the ST60 sounds brilliant. This is an Arcam product through and through but it is one that will partner with a vast selection of amplifiers and make for an exceptional system when you do. The ST60 is not a radical product but it is an exceptional one and wins its award for this reason.
Best High-End Hi-Fi Product - dCS Bartok
It is important to remember when perusing the £14,499 asking price of the Bartok that this is the most affordable point at which you can enjoy a dCS. This is full fat, unadulterated high end; a world we rarely visit. To make any sense at all, the Bartok has to be transcendently good but even allowing for this, I was still staggered at how capable it is.
... the Bartok does more to justify its existence than I had honestly believed it could
We’ve seen that good digital - even very good digital - is more affordable than ever before but the Bartok does more to justify its existence than I had honestly believed it could. It has sprung surprises from the moment I started listening and redefined some elements of what I felt to be possible. For headphone use in particular, this is Everest, the ultimate closed listening experience I know of which serves to cement its award.
Best Affordable Wireless Speaker - Q Acoustics M20
The Q Acoustics M20 is a pair of powered speakers. The premise is simple enough but the space it drops into is not as £400 is a price point where all sorts of different configurations are available - everything from (just about) a full separates system to sleek all in one speakers is ready to duke it out for your hard earned. The M20 takes one look at the competition.. and lays waste to the lot of 'em.
The M20 takes one look at the competition.. and lays waste to the lot of 'em
The M20 is a sensational performer for the money. It combines a decent feature set with solid build and the sort of performance that is pure, unadulterated Q Acoustics. It's an absolute star. At £400, the M20 is a genuinely brilliant product; an effortless combination of refinement, scale and full on musical joy that is everything I expect a Q Acoustics product to be, only with this one, you don’t need to enlist the help of any other manufacturer to enjoy it. This was an easy decision to make and one that came within an ace of product of the year too.
Best Aspirational Wireless Speaker - Braun LE 01
For large swathes of the 20th century, Braun could lay claim to being one of the most effortlessly stylish brands in any category and one that many current style icons owe a great deal to their work. Now, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the company, the audio division is back and with a bang.
If you are looking for a smart speaker with a superb quality room filling sound, a design that creates a stunning centre piece, this is where you need to go
If you are looking for a smart speaker with a superb quality room filling sound, a design that creates a stunning centre piece, the LE 01 is where you need to go. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but for that you are getting a hefty beast of a unit with a stunning and well-crafted design that you will want to have on display, together with the delivery of simply outstanding audio across the board.
Best High-End Wireless Speaker - KEF LS50 Wireless II
When KEF released the original LS50, it did so as a passive design (and very good it was too). The company then proceeded to surprise quite a few people (myself included) with an active version. The passive LS50 Meta is a fine speaker but one that narrowly loses out to Sonus faber in its category. The Wireless version does not miss the target though.
This is the device that the LS50 was born to be
Good as the LS50 Meta is, it is hard to shake the feeling that this is the device that the LS50 was born to be. All the engineering cleverness that has gone into their design has been corralled into something fundamentally usable day to day and that obviates some of the demands that the passive version makes on commensurately priced equipment. It’s a brilliant bit of kit and a worthy award winner.
Best Newcomer In Hi-Fi - HiFi Rose
2021 marked the arrival of HiFi Rose into the UK and quite an arrival it was too. The parent company of HiFi Rose cut its teeth producing hardware for shops - tills and other commerce items specifically. For those of you who read our reviews with a burning interest in how stable something is, you might want to pay attention to this as software instability in commercial systems generally means you go bust.
What’s most important about HiFi Rose though is that none of the cleverness of the design as a whole affects the audiophile credentials of the product
This won’t be what you notice first about the RS201E though. The industrial design of it and the rest of the range is innovative and superbly implemented. What’s most important about HiFi Rose though is that none of the cleverness of the design as a whole affects the audiophile credentials of the product. The implementation of the software is superb, the stability and general reliability is peerless and the build quality is also excellent. We cannot wait to see what they send us next.
Best Hi-Fi Manufacturer 2021 - iFi Audio
As the recipient of a single award in this year’s list - much the same as everyone else, you might reasonably ask what it is that marks iFi out as being worthy of this award. As it turns out there are two distinct reasons why we’ve given them the nod.
The first is that the consistency with which they’ve delivered excellent product is worthy of note. Everything I’ve tested from iFi going back over two years has boasted an impressive specification and performance that has unfailingly surpassed expectations. We’ve covered the Phono in this article already but the revised DAC and Blu are barely less all conquering and the Stream has the potential to change how we build our Hi-Fi systems.
Everything I’ve tested from iFi going back over two years has boasted an impressive specification and performance that has unfailingly surpassed expectations
Then, no less importantly, this is taking place at a price people can take advantage of. As a company, iFi is producing brilliance at real world price points and ensuring that systems do more and sound better without breaking the bank. This is an achievement as noteworthy as the engineering itself and is what tips the balance to this well earned award.
Hi-Fi Product Of The Year - Copland CSA70
In microcosm, the CSA70 is everything a great piece of audio equipment should be. It is well made, inspiring confidence that your investment will last the test of time. It’s handsome and easy to use because this is 2021 and high end audio equipment should not look like it has been repurposed from things you found in your shed (and the industry is actually beginning to realise this). The specification is flexible and comprehensive too; the CSA70 is unlikely to be flummoxed by any piece of kit you already own.
In microcosm, the CSA70 is everything a great piece of audio equipment should be
And then, by a huge margin, the most important thing of all, it sounds brilliant. This is the sort of performance that keeps you listening, enjoying music night after night, month after month, year after year. It’s unforced, effortless musicality that isn’t thrown by any genre or format. The Copland is the the type standard, the blueprint, the 'OG' of what great Hi-Fi is, and for that reason, the CSA70 is the 2021 Product of the Year.