Recommended Components 2021 Edition

Every product listed here has been formally reviewed in Stereophile. Everything on the list, regardless of rating, is genuinely recommendable.

Within each category, products are listed by class; within each class, they're in alphabetical order, followed by their price, a short synopsis, and a note indicating the issues in which the review and any subsequent follow-up reports appeared. "Vol.44 No.2" indicates our February 2021 issue, for example.

Stereophile's Recommended Components list is concerned mainly with products available in the US through the usual hi-fi retail outlets, although products sold online also qualify. Companies that sell only through dealers must have well-established dealer networks. Companies that sell only online must demonstrate the capacity for satisfactory customer support, preferably domestic. A no-risk at-home audition is preferred.

We recommend you read our Recommended Components synopses to decide which products you're interested in, then read each product's review carefully before you seriously contemplate a purchase. Many salient characteristics, peculiarities, and caveats appear in the review that cannot be included in the circa 200-word synopsis. Almost all reviews of current products are available online at stereophile.com; look for WWW in parentheses at the end of the synopsis, after the issue number. Back issues of the magazine can be ordered from the website. The editors regret that we cannot supply copies of individual reviews.

The nuts and bolts
The listing is compiled after consultation with Stereophile's reviewing staff and editors—including, notably, Technical Editor John Atkinson. Our ratings take into account not only what we heard during the review period but also continued experience with the product (if any) after the formal review has been published. Defects discovered after auditioning may cause a product to be downgraded or removed.

Class ratings are based entirely on performance—but that includes performance on the test bench. Products are downrated to the extent that their deficiencies interfere with the full realization of the program material and the pleasure of the listener, except that obvious limitations, such as limited bass extension in a minimonitor, are assumed. We do not expect every component to aspire to attain the best measurements possible; that would incentivize conformity, boredom, and metric-gaming. Measurements indicating poor engineering or revealing potentially audible defects may cause us to lower our rating. The reviewer's sonic experience, though, is the most important factor.

Class ratings are based on performance, but different reviewers value different aspects of performance, so it's best not to expect thematic and methodological consistency. You'll find high-tech amplifiers with vanishingly low noise and distortion listed alongside old-school tube amps; what they share is the ability to provoke musical bliss in their respective reviewers. Recommendations, then, are most useful to those who share, or at least are aware of, the reviewer's tastes.

The best use of this list, and the original reviews, is to help you decide what to audition. Never turn down an opportunity to audition a component, especially in your own system.

The prices indicated were current when the listing was compiled (January 2021). We cannot guarantee that they will be the same when you read this.

There is a near-universal consensus that at some point in the upward climb of product prices, severely diminishing returns (performance vs price) set in. However, there is no agreement as to the price level at which that happens. Where we have found a product to perform much better than might be expected at its price, we have drawn attention to it with a $$$ next to its listing. Otherwise, Class ratings do not take price into account as a matter of policy, but of course, some reviewers may implicitly factor value into their decisions.

Products discontinued by their manufacturer are of course removed from the list; so are those that have been revised in ways that could affect performance. Such revisions often lead us to pursue a follow-up review.

When a product is removed from the list, we endeavor to report why it was removed.

Deletion of a product from this list does not mean we woke up one morning and decided it was terrible. In general, products remain listed for just three years. There are two good reasons for this. First, there's not enough space in the magazine for several years' worth of products of merit. Second, it's impossible to compare a component to others when your memory of it is dim—and in some areas of hi-fi, things change quickly. We indicate with a star ★ products we have kept on this list for more than three years. Usually that happens because the product is part of a reviewer's "kit," so the reviewer uses it regularly. Because of this recent experience, the product can remain listed.

Sometimes, space permitting, the editor may grant a reprieve, allowing a product to remain on the list beyond its normal span. This only happens when, for one reason or another, there's a little extra space in the magazine to fill. For example, in this feature, I've kept several excellent, unique products in Loudspeaker Systems, Class A, Full-Range that otherwise would have "timed out." I used the same editor's prerogative to retain some inexpensive turntables and phono cartridges.

Starred products are not immortal. A product that earns a star and is retained may still be deleted in a future issue. In fact, it almost certainly will be, and probably soon. Come October, when it's time for the next Recommended Components issue, there could be too much pressure on that part of the list—too many excellent new products—to allow these old ones, however excellent, to be retained.

The presence of a product on this list should provide reassurance to potential buyers, but removal of a product from the list does not mean that the product sounds worse today than it did when it was listed. Please don't be upset if a product you purchased on our recommendation falls, leaflike, from the Recommended Components tree. If you are upset, please don't call to tell us about it or send us an email.

Specific reviewers identified by their initials are John Atkinson, Jim Austin (JCA), Brian Damkroger, Robert Deutsch, Art Dudley, Michael Fremer, Tom Gibbs, Larry Greenhill, Alex Halberstadt, Jon Iverson, Fred Kaplan, Michael Lavorgna, Eric Lichte, John Marks, Sasha Matson, Ken Micallef, Julie Mullins (JMu), Thomas J. Norton, Wes Phillips, Herb Reichert, Bob Reina (BJR), Kalman Rubinson, Jonathan Scull, Rob Schryer, and Jason Victor Serinus.—Jim Austin

COMMENTS
grymiephone's picture

The Linton Heritage is not an audiophile speaker, and I will stop there, it's hard to find music it plays well

Glotz's picture

And it sounded fantastic with 'entry'-level Hegel components.

Everyone is different, and especially when one levels generalist comments.

grymiephone's picture

I had a response with more details but it was deleted.

Glotz's picture

Sorry man. I think the site had some issues a week back as well. Anything that was edited sometimes got deleted.

grymiephone's picture

Oh, well. for what's it's worth:
I tested the Linton with 5 other speakers. When I ordered it, the sales person said: be warned, it's NOT an audiophile speaker. And it didn't compare well. I wanted to love them but my 23 year old Celestions had more image and punch than the Lintons. I am sure they can sound good in a different system

MatthewT's picture

I agree with the "not an audiophile speaker" remark. I wish we could know what Art Dudley thought of them. I love them, FWIW.

Glotz's picture

I appreciate both of your insights here.

It helps me come closer to the truth. Or that's not right- The perceptions of each person lend us insights into how each person feels in their system.

I know a lot of times it's hard to speak to one's system for fear of others being critical.

Nonetheless, it does tell me what possible variances there are. I thought the double Linton's were impressive, if expensive. The dealer had them in a pseudo-d'appolito configuration, with the top speakers upside down and on top of the bottom pair.

liguorid42's picture

I agree everyone's opinion of what he or she likes is valid, and an opinion that you shouldn't like something because it's not an audiophile product is invalid. That being said, if you're a wine connoisseur you wouldn't necessarily make a buying decision on a pricey Cabernet based on the opinion of someone whose beverage of choice is Mountain Dew. And "not an audiophile speaker" can just mean your favorite reviewer has not made the sign of the cross before it, and is pretty useless without some description of what you perceive its sonic flaws to be.

Glotz's picture

I think all stereo products can have a home, but you are right it's all about context.

I was impressed with the Denton's midrange, but perhaps that's not fair given I was listening to the collective output of 2 pairs of speakers working in tandem.

mememe2's picture

PLease put this in the "useless phrases" section of your mag. Can we have good pace but lack timing -no. can we have good rhythm but lack pace - no. Can we have good timing but lack rhythm - no. This description seems to be aimed at audio prats (in the original meaning of the word).

Charles E Flynn's picture

"captures the emotion"

liguorid42's picture

Back when founding father Gordon Holt started Stereophile he tried to develop a lexicon to describe how things actually sounded--things like "liquid", "transparent", "grainy", "warm"--as opposed to how things emotionally affected him personally. Theoretically you could go to a hi fi emporium, listen to KLH Nines driven by Audio Research electronics and hear for yourself what he meant. Though he did open the door with his "goosebump test". These days terms such as you describe have made subjective audio reviewing so subjective as not to be very useful to anyone else.

Charles E Flynn's picture

Thanks for your reply.

I have always wondered how one could determine that a playback chain captured the emotion of the performers when the only evidence we have about their emotions is what is provided by the playback chain.

The reproduced sound may convey or provoke emotion, but whether what it conveys is what the performer felt is something we can never determine on the basis of only the reproduced sound.

liguorid42's picture

..in the Firesign Theater album said, "That's metapheesically absurd, mun, how can I know what you hear?"

Heck, you can't know if what you're feeling is the same as what the performer is feeling even at a live performance. Not even close would be my guess. What I'm feeling when I play the piano in private is very different from when I get conned into playing for someone. What the composer felt when setting the notes to the page, different still. I doubt a loudspeaker, let alone a piece of loudspeaker cable, has anything to do with any of this.

George Tn's picture

the Schiit Sol made it on to the list in such a high spot for its price. I've been rooting for that product and it's finally being seen for how great it is.

PTG's picture
georgehifi's picture

Same for the Aegir, a A20w Class-A stereo in Class-A Stereophile. I can only think of one similar that could/would do that, and that's the mighty 20w Mark Levison ML2 monoblocks.
https://i.pinimg.com/736x/d6/6a/cc/d66acc2c1d4fa7ea17f5a9bb9345e912.jpg

Cheers George

Glotz's picture

Yes, these components are great to see classified, but it's one person's ranking for a component. The classes also cut a large swath in performance of any one category- and within each class.

That being said, I do think the Sol is pretty-well-reviewed for the money and if my rig broke suddenly... I'd get this one to tie me over.

PTG's picture

Did I miss it or was Bluesound family of products (Node2i, Vault2i ??) totally dropped off the RC2021 list ? If yes, I wonder why...

Jim Austin's picture

On previous lists, when several Bluesound products were listed together, we put them under "Complete Audio Systems." We dropped most of them simply because they haven't been auditioned in years--indeed, no Stereophile reviewer ever tried a gen-2 version of any of the products except the Node2i, which I bought a few months back and use daily. Dropping products that haven't been auditioned in a long time is longstanding RecComp policy.

With only the Node2i on the list, it no longer makes sense to list it under Complete Audio Systems; it should be moved to Digital Processors. But I overlooked that fact when preparing the 2021 edition.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

prerich45's picture

I'd like to see some of the other offerings tested by Stereophile. The Gustard dacs have measured well by another site. I've actually purchased one to see how it fairs to my ears - as I've already seen its numbers. SMSL,Gustard, and Topping are making some possible world beaters, it would be interesting to see this publication put them on the bench.

Fstein's picture

Lirpasound announces $79 amplifier, states previous price of $159,000 a joke no reasonable person would believe

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