Recommended Components 2021 Edition Complete Audio Systems

Complete Audio Systems

A

Devialet Gold Phantom: $2990 each ★
In a setting as idyllic as it was ideal, at least in a commercial sense—the samples were auditioned in an apartment on the rue des Ursulines in Paris, the city of their manufacture—Devialet's top-of-the-line Phantom powered speaker whetted JCA's appetite, and on returning home to his superior-sounding NYC apartment he requested review loaners. There, auditioned with Devialet's Tree stands ($375 each), Dialog dedicated router ($329), and Remote remote volume control ($149), a stereo pair of Gold Phantoms "'disappeared' nicely, as befits a phantom." (The Phantoms are sold singly and, per Devialet, are commonly used as mono playback systems.) JCA praised the system's "stark, disciplined" bass, which he described as surprisingly "deep, without bloat," though he wouldn't have minded more generous low-frequency response. He also praised its abundant soundstage depth, though he felt that the speakers' class-D amps didn't "resolve the unique timbres of instruments as well as other systems I've heard." Phonophiles will find the Devialet system fails on another front: it has no analog inputs. But for others, according to JCA, the Gold Phantom system is "a serious value" and "could be just the thing." (Vol.40 No.11 WWW)

B

Bluesound Node 2i: $549 ★
The Bluesound line of whole-house sound products, from the Lenbrook Group, owners of NAD and PSB, have been updated with the 'i' designation, indicating a collection of upgrades. The Bluesound Node 2i ($549) is a streaming DAC equipped with Bluetooth and Airplay two ways: It can send or receive both. (Vol.37 No.7 WWW)

Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation: $1690 with standard grille fabric
This slim, all-in-one, Roon Ready networked music system has a tweeter, a midrange unit, and an oval-shaped woofer for each channel, all powered by direct-digital, class-D amplification. The integral DSP offers three room compensation settings. There is also an alarm and a sleep timer. The major digital streaming services, including Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz, are handled natively, and the Mu-so also offers AirPlay 2 (iTunes and Apple Music) and Chromecast. There are analog, S/PDIF, USB, Bluetooth, HDMI ARC, and wired and WiFi network inputs, though other than the USB port, the physical inputs are inconveniently placed on the bottom of the chassis. The Mu-so can be controlled by a remote control, by its own touch controls, and by the Naim app for Apple iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android devices. JMu was well-impressed by this app. She was also impressed by the sound, writing "a few sonic characteristics stood out: crisp clarity with more detail and dynamic output than I expected. Subjective impressions of bass extension seemed to exceed what's possible from small drivers within a smallish box." How did JMu conclude her review? "The musical Mu-so 2nd Generation offers serious sound and engineering from a respected maker, but it's also built for fun. I wanted to keep on listening, and that speaks volumes." Additional grille color options add $90 to price. (Vol.43 No.10 WWW)

Sony SA-Z1 desktop system: $7999
This unique, active desktop system is intended to be listened to in the nearfield, with the close-spaced boundaries reinforcing the lower midrange and bass. Back-to-back 4" anodized-aluminum woofers minimize enclosure vibrations, and the primary tweeter is flanked by two smaller tweeters, one above and one below. The three tweeters use soft domes that have been sputtered with titanium and are mounted on a gantry in front of the front-firing woofer. All five drive-units are powered by PWM amplifier modules featuring gallium nitride transistors. The SA-Z1 makes abundant use of DSP to optimize its sound quality. The system has balanced and single-ended analog inputs and USB and Toslink digital inputs. According to Sony, the latter are preferred. Several DSP functions can be applied with the digital inputs, including adjusting the crossover between the front and rear woofers, changing the time alignment of the flanking tweeters, and upsampling to PCM or DSD. Setup is crucial, advised JVS, but once he was satisfied with the placement and had replaced his large computer monitor between the speakers with his smaller-screened laptop, he noted (using the USB input) that despite the small woofers' inability to reach as low as a mighty organ can go, "bass was otherwise tight and convincing, the midrange was warm, and highs were as rousing as one might wish for. Images weren't gigantic, but the way the soundstage expanded beyond and through the speakers was awe-inspiring." He concluded that "the SA-Z1 is capable of opening up entire new realms of personal listening." (Vol.44 No.3 WWW)

C

Andover Model-One: $1999
This single-box stereo system marries a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit SB belt-drive turntable fitted with an 8.6" carbon-fiber tonearm and an Ortofon 2M Silver moving-magnet cartridge to 200W of class-D amplification, four small woofers, and two AMT tweeters in a rigidly constructed enclosure. The Model-One also offers DSP-implemented effects modes, optical and coaxial S/PDIF, Bluetooth aptX, and mini-USB digital inputs, and an analog input (this converted to digital), as well as headphone, line-level, and subwoofer outputs. DSP is also used to minimize acoustic feedback from the woofers to the turntable. JMu found at normal volumes that there was a "good impression" of bass. She added that "in general, the system served the midrange well, with textural detail and, especially on recordings without modern mixing tricks and complications, sufficient image-placement cues to draw you in." The Model-One "could be a starter system for an apartment or a second system for an office or bedroom," concluded JMu. Matching subwoofer costs $799; modular stand, $299. (Vol.43 No.9 WWW)

Apple HomePod smart speaker: $299
Apple, a company unfazed by the five-dealer requirement for getting a review in Stereophile, refers to their new HomePod as "a breakthrough speaker that adapts to its location and delivers high-fidelity audio wherever it's playing." Reviewer JCA refers to it as "a sophisticated, high-tech, 5.5lb sound computer with many transducers and lots of unorthodox engineering." This "smart" speaker, so called for its integration with the Apple Music streaming service and Siri, Apple's notorious virtual assistant/speech-recognition interface, contains a single 4" woofer and seven horn-loaded tweeter/midrange thingies, each with its own amplifier—yet those aren't the only transducers. Also inside this 6.8"-tall cylinder are seven microphones that serve to both receive the user's voice commands and sense the HomePod's surroundings, as part of a complex equalization and dispersion-control system. Use of the HomePod requires WiFi Internet access and either an Apple iPhone 5s or later, or one of various recent models of iPad or iPod Touch, all running iOS 11.2.5 or later; full functionality also requires an Apple Music subscription. Although sold singly, the HomePod is not, strictly speaking, a monophonic device; as JCA noted, "With stereo recordings, it uses both channels of the signal, comparing phase relationships to differential direct sound from ambience" to, ultimately, add spaciousness to the sound. And spaciousness is what JCA heard from a favored mono Billie Holiday track—that and a "richer and more resonant" sound from Lester Young's sax than JCA expected: "I even wondered if I was listening to a different tenor player." Yet Jim felt that Apple "has made some tasteful and judicious choices" in voicing the HomePod, declaring it "an easy recommendation for anyone looking for an affordable wireless speaker." One issue later, JCA reported on firmware and operating-system updates that allow two HomePods to be used as a true stereo pair. With two HomePods in his living room, each perched atop its own 22"-tall speaker stand, JCA enjoyed deeper-than-expected bass (if still lighter than that from his main system) and "excellent stereo sound with remarkable imaging." He proclaimed the combo of two HomePods with an iPhone or iPad "the best-sounding wireless system I've heard at or near the price." (Vol.41 Nos. 8 & 9 WWW)

Music Surround Components

A+

Okto dac8 PRO: €989 $$$
An 8-channel DAC with USB input and output, 8 channels of AES/EBU input, 8 channels of balanced (XLR) analog output, a headphone output, and a choice of seven reconstruction filters, the made-in-Prague dac8 Pro so impressed KR that he bought the review sample. JA's measurements indicated that, with just over 20 bits of effective resolution and vanishingly low linearity error and distortion, no compromises had been made to pack eight D/A channels into the Pro's slim chassis. (Vol.43 No.12, Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

A

exaSound Sigma Streamer: $750
To those who already own an exaSound DAC, the ExaSound Sigma Streamer offers an affordable and tidy alternative to the company's PlayPoint digital-source components. The simple Sigma, which streams via wired or wireless LAN, is a Roon-ready endpoint, can function as an HQPlayer network audio adapter, and is compatible with UPnP, OpenHome, and AirPlay protocols. It supports PCM to 32/384, DSD to DSD256, and MQA (full unfold). KR found the Sigma to be "easy to use and completely functional as a network link" for his own exaSound e38 and e38 MkII DACs. (Vol.42 No.9 WWW)

Marantz AV8805 preamplifier/processor: $4499
The AV8805 is the fourth Marantz pre-pro used by Kal Rubinson, who assures us that "the most widely promoted features new in the AV8805 concern home theater . . . and video." What really interested KR were the carryovers from the AV8805's predecessor, the AV8802a, such as Marantz's Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module (HDAM) buffer output stages for each channel, and the AV8805's support of Audyssey's brand-new MultEQ Editor app. If you already own an AV8802a, should you replace it with an AV8805? Quoth KR, "Maybe, but only if you're using it for more than just multichannel music playback." Nonetheless, Kal regards the Marantz AV8805 as "the standard bearer in home theater and multichannel audio." (Vol.41 No.11 WWW)

Merging Technologies MERGING+ANUBIS Monitor Controller Premium: $2099
Another category-defying product from Swiss manufacturer Merging Technologies, the Merging+Anubis Premium combines a 32-bit 384kHz DAC with the processing power required to accept an eight-channel stream via Ethernet and concomitantly control up to eight studio monitors. It is, in other words, a pro-audio studio controller that does double duty as a domestic multichannel D/A processor. Add to that the Anubis's two headphone outputs and two analog inputs—the latter could accept, say, a stereo phono preamp, FM tuner, or other source—and you have an unusually flexible, high-quality Swiss-made product at a distinctly reasonable price. KR described his delight with the Anubis's sound, noting in particular its "sense of natural balance and smoothness," and praised this most recent Merging Technologies product as "a superb multichannel DAC that has redefined my entire system." (Vol.42 No.11)

miniDSP U-DIO8 Multichannel Interface: $325
"There has been a serious impediment to the spread of multichannel playback among audiophiles." Thus did Kal Rubinson describe, in his September 2018 "Music in the Round" column, the scarcity of commercial multichannel D/A processors—at the moment, there appear to be only three—and its stultifying effect on hobbyists interested in surround sound. A solution has appeared in the form of the U-DIO8 multichannel interface from miniDSP. This takes the USB output of any computer running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux, and converts it to AES/EBU or S/PDIF, thus allowing that computer, acting as a server/player, to drive three or four two-channel DACs, which appear to be as common as worms after a rainstorm. While noting that the U-DIO8's output is limited to 24/192, KR tested it with several different two-channel processors and observed that "the sonic signature of each model of DAC remained audible," and concluded that miniDSP's new interface is "as indispensable to multichannel audio as a cream filling is to an Oreo." In his November 2018 column, Kal wrote of using the U-DIO8 to wrangle a trio of Benchmark DAC3 HGCs, with interesting and, at times, musically stunning results. (Vol.41 Nos.9 & 11 WWW)

NAD M17 V2i preamp/processor (with Dirac): $6599 ★
In the January 2015 Stereophile, KR opined that NAD's Masters Series of products had taken a turn from the conservative to the adventurous—evidence of which he saw in the Masters M17 (then $5499), which contained individual, updatable modules for digital video, analog video, digital audio, and analog audio. KR criticized the poor positioning of the front-panel off/standby switch, yet declared, "the M17's remote control was an unalloyed delight: slim, and just hefty enough to feel good in the hand." According to him, "The M17's sound, too, was delightful." He noted dynamics that were "precise and satisfying," and bass that was "delivered with authority"—and KR observed that "playing hi-rez and/or multichannel files from my server, connected to the M17 via HDMI, was simply glorious, especially as these signals were passed through a Dirac Live speaker-and-roomcorrection filter set at 24/96." Precisely four years later, in the January 2019 issue, Kal wrote of his experience with the M17 V2, noting that "either [the off/standby switch has] been improved or I've become more adept," and reporting his delight with the new version's included Dirac Live room-correction software, which replaces the original's Audyssey XT32 software: "NAD's Masters Series M17 V2 is a superb-sounding pre-pro and DAC right out of the box, but Dirac Live elevates it to something special." Latest version adds Apple's AirPlay 2. (Vol.38 No.1, Vol.42 No.1 WWW)

Sound Performance Labs Volume 8: $699
Sound Performance Labs SMC 7.1: $1999

As Kal Rubinson noted in the January 2018 Stereophile, "It's no secret that there are very few analog control options . . . for multichannel." Into that void steps a German pro-audio company called Sound Performance Labs with their first domestic-audio products. The Volume 8 is a volume control in a box with an eight-channel balanced input and an eight-channel balanced output. The SMC 7.1 Surround Monitor Controller adds to the Volume 8 a second eight-channel balanced input, two pairs of XLR stereo inputs, one stereo XLR output, an XLR subwoofer output on which appears a full-range mono sum of the L/R stereo inputs, a headphone jack, two outputs for metering, an array of illuminated pushbuttons, and a GPS receiver. Both SPL products require the use of DB25 cables (not included). KR began with the Volume 8—"connecting it . . . was much easier than I'd expected"—but was at first disappointed by its "dim, claustrophobic sound." Yet in time, the sound improved to a point where "there was only a slight dimming above 10kHz." Now "the entire soundstage was more continuous than contiguous, and the sweet spot was much bigger." KR found the SMC 7.1's sound indistinguishable from the Volume 8's; although he appreciated the additional multichannel input of SPL's more expensive model and acknowledged that "the studio-style switching options are a bonus," he noted that he would rather have channel-level controls. Just kidding about the GPS receiver. (Vol.41 No.1 WWW)

Trinnov Altitude 32/-816: $28,450 w/ 3D decoding package as reviewed
In recent years, KR has written about the Trinnov MC Optimizer, a processor that impressed him with its ability "to move, at will, the sounds of instruments around the soundstage." Now the Optimizer exists as a suite of DSP software inside the company's Altitude 32 preamplifier, which Kal reviewed as the Altitude 32-816. (The model number denotes this version's eight-channel capability and 16 outputs.) While bemoaning the product's weight (32lb), complexity, and most of all, its price, KR noted that the Trinnov's capabilities are such that "its limitations are inconsequential" and that, as a preamp alone, the Altitude 32 offers transparency and tonal precision competitive with those of any preamp, A/V or not. (Vol.42 No.7 WWW)

B

Hegel C53 3-Channel: $6000 (three channels)
The Hegel C53 ($6000) is a three-channel power amplifier specified to deliver 150Wpc into 8 ohms—but thanks to its modular design, the amp is also available as the four-channel C54 or the five-channel C55, each additional 150W channel adding an additional $1000 to the price. Each channel offers the user the choice of single-ended (RCA) or balanced (XLR) inputs and gain that's switch-selectable between 23 and 29dB, as well as switch-selectable inversion of signal polarity. Driving KR's B&W 802 D3 speakers, the C53 sounded "precise but far from sterile," with good presence and tonal roundness on singing voices and "awesome" soundstage recreation. And on one particularly difficult, particularly loud passage, the Hegel surpassed KR's other amps, leading him to declare the C53 as "an outstanding amplifier that performs beyond its modest specs and not-so-modest price." (Vol.42 No.5 WWW)

KEF R8a Dolby Atmos surround loudspeaker: $1399.99/pair
KEF's R8a uses a Uni-Q coincident driver array—in this case, a 5.25" aluminum cone with a 1" aluminum dome at its center—in a roughly 10" by 7" sealed box with a sloping baffle. Provisions are made for wall-mounting; alternatively, the R8a can be perched atop another, larger loudspeaker and aimed at the ceiling, to make the most of the height information in immersive audio codecs such as dts-X, Auro-3D, and Dolby Atmos. KR borrowed three pairs (!) of R8a's, and after experimenting with placement, found success placing them upright on shelves, just at ear height and aimed slightly but not directly at the ceiling. Kal found that, with most classical recordings made in a single, coherent ambience, "the soundstage was pleasingly wider. With pop or rock recordings . . . this effect was substantial." (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

Parasound Halo A 52+: $2995
The Parasound Halo A 52+ five-channel power amp offers 180Wpc into 8 ohms or 255Wpc into 4 ohms. (When used as a two-channel amp, those power specs are respectively bumped up to 225 and 350Wpc.) This John Curl-designed amp operates in class-AB and offers both balanced and unbalanced inputs—although, as KR observed, it can't be used with both types of input cables connected simultaneously. That and the amp's 55lb weight were the only aspects of the Halo A 52+ that didn't fully delight KR, who noted sweet, pure tones from strings, freedom from blurring of individual voices or instruments in dense ensemble recordings, fine bottom-end extension, and "all [the] necessary juice no matter how loud I turned it up—and I turned it up loud." (Vol.41 No.5 WWW)

C

Essence Evolve II-4K HDMI v2.0 Multi-Channel DAC: $299
The Evolve II-4K is that rarity in high-end audio: a bargain-priced niche product. In this case, the niche is the one reserved for D/A processors capable of extracting and decoding the high-quality audio embedded in an HDMI video stream, while sending the video content direct to the user's display. KR put the little Evolve II-4K to work in a couple of settings and was "stunned that it sounded so good," adding that, although the Essence DAC didn't sound quite as good as his exaSound e38, "it was not shamed." (Vol.42 No.7 WWW)

Deletions

ATi AT543nc, Merging Technologies MERGING+NADAC Multichannel-8, Monoprice Monolith, Parasound Halo A 31, Theta Digital Dreadnaught D, not auditioned in a long time.

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

Yup.. So happy to see Sol finally get some recognition. SOL had a very rough launch but they owned up to it and made it right ! I would love to get one but am worried about how much tinkering is needed to make it right.. Still thinking about it.... It LOOKS amazing !!!

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

C_Hoefer's picture

I just navigated to this page intending to point out the error in location of the Bluesound Node 2i - glad to see you already caught it! It belongs in digital players.
--CH

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

Tweak48's picture

I'm confused by the Editor's Note: "There are no Class D integrated amplifiers listed". It looks like the Marantz 30, the NAD, and the Rogue Sphinx are using Class D output sections, among others. What am I missing here??

John Atkinson's picture
Tweak48 wrote:
I'm confused by the Editor's Note: "There are no Class D integrated amplifiers listed". It looks like the Marantz 30, the NAD, and the Rogue Sphinx are using Class D output sections, among others. What am I missing here??

Not amplifiers that have class-D output stage stages but amplifiers that are rated in Class D in this Recommended Components category.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Ron Lel's picture

Is there any reason no class D amplifiers are listed? Surely the Mola Molas should be mentioned.
Also I am surprised at the omission of the Audionet Humbolt.

John Atkinson's picture
Ron Lel wrote:
Is there any reason no class D amplifiers are listed?

There are several amplifiers with class-D output stages listed, but none in the Class D category/

Ron Lel wrote:
Surely the Mola Molas should be mentioned. Also I am surprised at the omission of the Audionet Humbolt.

As it says in the introduction, Recommended Components is reserved for products that have been reviewed in Stereophile. Neither the Mola Mola nor Audionet amplifiers have been reviewed yet.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

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