Stereophile's Products of 2015 Digital Component of the Year

Digital Component of the Year

Pono PonoPlayer ($399; reviewed by John Atkinson & Michael Lavorgna, April, June & September 2015, Vol.38 Nos. 4, 6 & 9 Review)

For an audio reviewer to rail against the MP3 format is one thing; for Neil Young to do so is quite another. And as this well-loved musician proved in 1985, when his support was instrumental in launching the Farm Aid benefits, and again in 1986, when he and his then wife, Pegi Young, founded the Bridge School, a motivated Neil Young is a force to be reckoned with. Young's quest led him to Ayre Acoustics, the company that designed this year's digital winner, the PonoPlayer: a portable, high-resolution, Kickstarter-funded music-file player famously shaped like a Toblerone bar. The PonoPlayer handles PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz as well as DSD files, and is equally at home with headphones—special cables allow the PonoPlayer to drive suitable headphones in balanced mode—or as a line-level source in a high-resolution home system. As JA observed in his review, the PonoPlayer is "a well-engineered, high-performance, portable player . . . at a fair, affordable price."

Notes on the Votes: Three of this year's top vote-getters are portables, the others being the Astell&Kern AK240 and Sony NW-ZX2. Even more interesting—but not, in my view, surprising—was the PonoPlayer's considerable margin of victory: This was the least close race in our 2015 Products of the Year voting.

Finalists (in alphabetical order

Antipodes DX music server ($6500–$7500; reviewed by John Atkinson, October 2015, Vol.38 No.10 Review)
Astell&Kern AK240 portable player ($2500; reviewed by Michael Lavorgna & John Atkinson, November 2014 & February 2015, Vol.37 No.11 & Vol.38 No.2 Review)
Auralic Aries network bridge ($1599; reviewed by Michael Lavorgna, January 2015, Vol.38 No.1 Review)
Bricasti Design M1 digital processor ($8595; reviewed by John Marks, December 2014, Vol.37 No.12 Review)
DEQX PreMate DAC-preamplifier-equalizer ($5995; reviewed by Kalman Rubinson, December 2014, Vol.37 No.12 Review)
PS Audio PerfectWave CD/DVD transport ($3999; reviewed by Robert Deutsch, February 2015, Vol.38 No.2 Review)
Simaudio Moon MiND network player ($990; reviewed by Michael Lavorgna, January 2015, Vol.38 No.1 Review)
Sony NW-ZX2 Hi-Rez Walkman ($1199.99; reviewed by Michael Lavorgna, May 2015, Vol.38 No.5 Review)

crenca's picture

He says:

"...What does ring true is the dichotomy that can be found at the other end of the price spectrum: the insuppressible proliferation of audio gear that keeps sounding better at prices more of us can afford. It's those products that are our hobby's best chance of growing in popularity..."

So I thought I would build a system using this years Products of 2015, using the least expensive in every applicable category:

GoldenEar Triton One ($4999.98/pair)
Bel Canto Design Black amplification system ($50,000/system)
Swedish Analog Technologies tonearm ($28,000)
AudioQuest JitterBug ($49)
{The Digital Component of the Year was a portable player so I did not add that in, or replicate speakers, etc.}

That rings up to $83,048.98, and it's not a compleat system.

Just a few days ago, MotorTrend named their "best" of the year (in car, truck, and SUV). The most expensive was the SUV, a Volvo XC90 that rang in at $67,605. That's for a complete system (not missing anything you would need, like wheels/tires or an engine) and it is $15,443.98 less.

What was Robert saying again? Somehow I can't HEAR it through all these very large and thick price tags...

dalethorn's picture

I'd start with the $5k speakers and work from there toward a (at most) $25k system. A $28k tonearm and $5k speakers aren't likely to end up in the same system unless the buyer is extremely eccentric.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Bunk. $30,000 mono blocks. Has as much veracity as Hillary.

ChrisS's picture

Full quote..."And precisely half of our top-place winners are priced within reach of the average consumer..."

As hilarious as Trump.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Like the Pono, ubiquitously promoted by Stereophile and as useful and true as Trump's haircut and Hillary's rump.

ChrisS's picture

Stereophile lists many choices.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

in this Obama economy, you can afford any of them.... And as if any of this matters, with relentless digital degradation of sound, worse every year. Even crappy CDs are becoming obsolete, being replaced by what ... Pono, HD downloads, ancient vinyl? Yes, I simply MUST replace my tubed Audio Research monoblocks with $30,000 Bricasti monoblocks. My life won't be complete until I do.

ChrisS's picture

You're not even looking. ...

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Looking at what? A $28,000 tonearm? ...

The elephant in the room is that there are no signal sources worthy of this cost and attention anymore, and haven't been since the early 1990s, when digital took over (unless you insist on listening to antique or irrelevant new vinyl). This is a mid-fi world, if that.

ChrisS's picture

No one is responsible for your inability to pay for things you can't afford.

If you don't like any of the music media or any of the many ways to reproduce music in your home environment, then you are stuck going to live events.


John Atkinson's picture
Cool it on the personal comments, Osgood and Chris. I have have had to delete several flames this afternoon.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Read my posts, Atkinson. I didn't attack anyone, but reserve the right to respond when I'm attacked.

ChrisS's picture

If Osgood (and others) isn't being forced to purchase a $28,000 tonearm, then what's the problem?

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

The problem is that there's nothing worth spending $28k for a tonearm on.

My SME V/Kiseki Purple Heart Sapphire sit collecting dust.

Instead, am at the moment listening to Schubert, Fantasia in C, streaming on this computer from WHRB, Harvard radio. No, compared to my flex vinyl RCA recording of this work by Heifitz & Brooks Smith, not an "audiophile" recording by any means, this streaming sounds like AM radio playing under 100 feet of sea water ... but it's still Schubert, and NOT Adele.

John Atkinson's picture
Osgood Crinkly III wrote:
Read my posts, Atkinson. I didn't attack anyone, but reserve the right to respond when I'm attacked.

It doesn't really matter why you think you are entitled to flame others. I am warning you that if you continue to do so after being warned not to, I shall have to block your ability to post to this site.

Please note that I deleted flames from Chris as well as you. You are not being singled out.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

Funny thing is, even though I'm sure that a certain person here is entirely doing his own personal thing, if he were acting on an agenda to drive readers away, his success would be very good.

donnrut's picture

Just a whatfor: to a 6 yr old comment. Vinyl is not mid fi.

Stephen Mejias's picture

I've really enjoyed Robert Schryer's work in Stereophile and I'm looking forward to more of it.


So I thought I would build a system using this years Products of 2015, using the least expensive in every applicable category

That's an interesting exercise, but I think it would be even more interesting and informative to use the least expensive of all products within each category -- as opposed to the least expensive winner. Then, you'd get the following:

Magnepan .7 loudspeakers driven by a PS Audio Sprout, with a digital front-end comprising Pono player or Simaudio MiND, with an AudioQuest JitterBug and Roon music player app.

Hmm. Pretty fun. :)

Stephen Mejias

crenca's picture

Actually, with just a bit more watts (say another $1000 or so in amplification) I bet it would sound pretty good!

However, I was attempting (poorly no doubt) to indicate the strange (well, I find it to be strange and it is a common criticism of the "audiophile" press) disconnect between what and how they review equipment and cost. The simple fact is the auto press does it much better. There is this almost naivety (or is it arrogance?) about cost - a sort of "well, if you have to ask the price you can't afford it" kind of attitude at times. Perhaps they are simply bewildered by very large cost differentials between equipment that does the same thing and too often has very similar performance. I know I am. For a market that has been around for a while (almost as long as the automobile) it certainly lacks a certain maturity and cost rationalization. I think this is what is behind much of the criticism and assertions of "high fidelity is a myth", particularly by the 45 and under crowd who grew up with computers and commoditized technology such as myself.

Thing is, in many ways I am representative of your target market. I am a hi fidelity believer (I have heard it ;), I have a relatively large amount of disposable income, etc. For example, I could go online right now and order one your $600 Nighthawks without a second thought. Shoot, I could order 10 more for my friends and family and the only consequence would be a shout from the wife when she is paying the CC bill "honey, stop buying so many guns!!".

But I wonder, what does the Nighthawk really do that is worth the cost difference (which is just a bit more than x2) between it and say, my NAD HP50's? Now, when I compare automobiles (or computer equipment, or even appliances) the answer to that question is much more apparent despite all the real "subjectivity" around that sort of technology - and the various press that reports on these technologies are much better at explaining the performance/cost relationship.

Obviously, I don't buy the strong "subjective" explanation - that hi-fi equipment is like art or wine, and it is a completely irrational market. I think more could be done to try to relate cost and performance...

Stephen Mejias's picture

But I wonder, what does the Nighthawk really do that is worth the cost difference (which is just a bit more than x2) between it and say, my NAD HP50's?

That's an interesting question.

I'm only a little reluctant to turn this into a conversation about NightHawk. Reluctant because I work for the company that makes it. Only a little reluctant because I actually love talking about NightHawk.

But I'll say this: I've often thought, and have sometimes said, that audiophiles care too much about sound. Sound quality is one very important aspect of any audio product, and arguably the most important aspect, especially for those audio products that aspire to the "high end."

However, you still have to WANT to listen to the thing. And our desire to listen to a thing is defined by more than just sound.

It's not what NightHawk (or any audio product) DOES that makes it special. After all, they all do, or at least intend to do, the same thing.

What makes it special is what it IS.

Stephen Mejias

crenca's picture

I too did not want to make it a Nighthawk vs. this or that thing. While I get your point (I believe), I think you can push it too far - and a valid criticism of the "audiophile" world is that it does, leading into a radical subjectivism where electronics and gadgets are placed on the same plain as fine art. What a thing IS is organically related to what a thing DOES. How do the two interrelate, and how in the end is it linked to desire and beauty on the one hand and VALUE (in dollars and cents) on the other.

Even in the luxury end of the car world, there is a much better sense of the relationship to value to both performance and subjective emotive desire. I believe the auto press is better at linking the two, certainly in the sense when they explain the cost differential and what it gets you. Only when you get to the rarified "collectible" end of the spectrum where a 60's shelby vs. a 60's Ferrari does it get silly and there seems to be no relationship at all as to what a thing IS and DOES to it's cost.

Perhaps that is exactly where the audiophile world places itself??

crenca's picture

No doubt I will end up with a Nighthawk soon. I suspect it is THE logical upgrade SQ wise from my HP50's, based on reviewer's I trust such as Dale who posts here occasionally. Obviously, I appreciate equipment that punches above its weight. This is also to say that I suspect its performance vs. cost (i.e value) makes sense. However, after my recent amp experience I am more reluctant to simply purchase something based on reviews alone...

dalethorn's picture

Well, ignoring of course that I was mentioned, it's certainly credible that the HP50 would give much musical pleasure, particularly if the user were willing to experiment with different electronics or settings instead of just one "do or die" DAC/amp, etc. I can't say I understand exactly what Stephen meant by "what it is", but here's the thought I would offer: You'd need to try it, at length, to discover its own sonic merits. It seems to me that so many audiophiles (bless their little hearts) grow into the hi-fi theory of fidelity or accuracy, and forget that everything sounds a little different anyway - not to make an excuse for a less-than-stellar product, but to point out that some of these transducers that get it just a little more right than others, may provide a lot more enjoyment than the others. Most average people would find the AQ NightHawk expensive. But look at the new Sennheiser Orpheus and just take a deep breath...

Stephen Mejias's picture

What a thing IS is organically related to what a thing DOES.

I agree. I guess I should say that my favorite pieces of hi-fi -- those that I find most inspiring and compelling -- are the ones that I find particularly artistic in nature. When we talk about "advancing the state of the art," I take the "art" part seriously.

I don't know enough about the world of luxury automobiles to comment on your other points, but, while I do think there's a lot of room for improvement in the world of hi-fi journalism, I also think that Stereophile works hard to provide clear and meaningful assessments on the relative value of the products they review.

And I'm happy to hear that you're considering NightHawk. If you'd like to hear more about the headphones, their design goals, development process, and/or their designer, please feel free to contact me at smejias [@]

Stephen Mejias

Brett McAteer's picture

I would posit that a thing is only what it does in that it is nothing lest it elicit a response. (And now there will be a bunch of one-tree-clapping koans tossed around.)

John Atkinson's picture
crenca wrote:
I thought I would build a system using this years Products of 2015, using the least expensive in every applicable category...That rings up to $83,048.98, and it's not a compleat system.

With all due respect, you're data dredging, ie, picking and choosing your examples to fit your predetermined thesis. If you wanted the cheapest system that can be assembled from the complete list of finalists, you could combine the Pono player with the Emotiva powered speakers for $698 plus $30 for an AudioQuest cable.

Or if you want a more versatile system, you could combine the Simaudio MiND ($990) with the PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier ($499) and the Magnepan .7 speakers ($1400/pair) for a system price of $2889 (not including cables).

Or for a premium LP-based system: Pioneer PLX-100 turntable ($699) fitted with a Soundsmith Carmen cartridge ($800), the Leema phono stage ($749), the Line Magnetic LM518A integrated amplifier ($4450), and a pair of Revel M106 speakers ($2000/pair), giving a system price of $8698 (not including cables or speaker stands).

Even that system costs way below what our last reader survey revealed as the average amount of money an audiophile had invested in his system, which was $15,000.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

crenca's picture

True, the comparison is imperfect and I am using it to make a point. That said I hope I am being constructive in my criticism as that is my aim.

I find that $15,000 instructive. I would have guessed a bit lower (around $10,000) though I think both figures reveal that your typical/average review sample is usually priced for a system in a higher price bracket (not always of course).

This list of recommend systems is actually something I would think would be helpful - instead of reviewing only individual components (granted with a mix of the reviewers reference and/or current components) do some reviews of whole systems (minimally maybe source-amplification-speakers, perhaps cables). I only got into the "hif-fi" world a few months ago through the "personal audio" route. Now I am ready to outfit my home office, and at first I was just going to order some KEF LS50's and maybe a NAD (based on my positive experience with their headphones) or a Rogue Audio amp and have it delivered to my door (I live in rural SW so getting to a real hi-fi store is a rarity). Then, I happen to audition a NAD amp through some speakers and wow, not what I was expecting. The Rotel (through some B&W's) did a much better job. So I learned the importance of system matching and hearing things first.

Back to the point, I am not seeing anything that helps me rationalize the cost differentials typically seen, between say a well liked $500 DAC and a well liked $5,000 DAC (to say noting of the much more expensive ones). I get a sense of the differences, but they in the end seem much smaller than than the cost differential. I am not saying it is the fault of the "audiophile" press (the market is what it is) but I wonder if more work (i.e. ink spilled) could not be done in this area...

dalethorn's picture

Reviewing whole systems is an interesting thought, but in some ways it's like reviewing record albums where the individual tracks don't form a theme, such as Dark Side of the Moon. Apple's iTunes has made a fortune selling individual 256k tracks, which for much of what they sell is appropriate. I can't imagine reviews of whole systems being a good way to go, and I think I'd rather trust a Stereophile reviewer to use appropriate ancillary components in their reviews, so that the reviews don't take on the aura of systems selected by big-box retailers like Crutchfield etc. If someone wants to create a topic here or elsewhere to explore system reviews, I'd like to do some research along that line just to explore the possibilities, and maybe contribute to the topic.

crenca's picture

I can see how reviewing whole systems would have both pros and cons. Just off a top_of_my_head_first_pass_list:


- whole systems is what people actually end up with by necessity, so it's obviously "relevant"
- it would pull the reviewer into a "natural" price/cost level and consciousness, because one would more naturally test components with other components in the same price range
- lower cost or "entry level" (such as speakers) components will no longer be reviewed with "reference" amps that cost 5x as much (or more) as tends to happen in these reviews - what does the component actually sound like "in the real world" where actual owners hook them up to typically matched components


- logistically more difficult for reviewers and suppliers
- manufactures will probably resist as they like having their products matched to other products that bring the very best out of them.
- Audiophiles are used to constantly moving things in and out and have a prejudice to looking at each component individually even when (somewhat paradoxically) they preach to you the importance of system matching

dalethorn's picture

I think you're missing some points here, or looking the wrong direction at times. In your 'pros', the system chosen by a reviewer "as a system" isn't relevant, but the ancillary components used in the review are relevant. As to the 5x priced ancillary components, it may be OK or not. If the reviewer has a valid reason to use a 5x cost ancillary component, and also tests with a 1x ancillary component or explains why he didn't, then that may be OK, but I would expect bad choices here and there - not a problem unless it becomes a (bad) habit.

On the cons, manufacturers would resist ancillary components that don't complement their product well. Bringing out the best isn't as relevant as bringing out the sales. What audiophiles want is to see a variety of ancillary components that bracket what they have and what they intend to purchase. Anything else is a potential source of frustration.

pbarach's picture

I don't understand the logical here. The least expensive amplification component (among the finalists) is the PS Audio Sprout ($499). The least expensive loudspeaker finalist was the Magnepan .7 at $1400. etc. Add up the least expensive finalist in each category, and the total is nowhere near $84K, even if you include the only turntable among the finalists at $14K. I'm sure that there are also some other worthy choices to consider among the finalists in previous years.

Anwar's picture

The vinyl cleaner appears at the top of Editors' Choices. I purchased it about 2 years ago. The product is good only when it is working. Right after the 2-year warranty period, the water pump failed. It needs to be sent back to Germany for repair (water pump replacement). It costs about 29% (return shipping included) of brand new price. And I am not the only one having problems with this product.

drblank's picture

I hate it when a product has a high failure rate and they seem to need repair after only a couple of years right after the warranty period is over.

I'm surprised someone hasn't ripped one open to find a mfg and part number for a replacement water pump that you don't have to go through Audiodesksysteme because all they are going to do is markup the price of a water pump enormously. How much could one cost for these things? $200 or less?

Can you easily crack the unit open to see if you can take out the water pump and replace it? It's not like this thing is that complicated of a device. Since you aren't running the thing 24/7, I would think that a water pump for this unit would last a good 20 years, unless they just use a really low grade water pump. You'd think for $4000 that the thing should have a water pump with a lifetime warranty from the mfg.

I hope you can get it fixed for a lot less than sending it back to the factory and paying a huge sum for just getting a simple water pump replaced. Wouldn't one for an aquarium work? Those aren't that expensive for the smaller units.

Anwar's picture

I am in Malaysia and my unit S/N 1488 is not from the first batch which was problematic. I did not get the estimate before it was shipped to Germany with 3 other units. The repair cost was 350 Euro, courier charges USD200+. After it came back, one of the blower fans stopped working. This time around I am making arrangement with the local importer to get it fixed here.

In reviews/recommendations, the reliability and total cost of ownership should be considered as well.

volvic's picture

I remember when they reviewed it, in particular after seeing it work in person I was really concerned about all those moving parts and its reliability. The comments here on this post confirmed my fears. Yet not one reviewer mentioned any concerns about the unit's potential for breakage and have heard others on other sites complaining about its tendency to break down. Kaplan who reviewed it said he had to tap it once or twice to get it to work which raised alarm bells for me. I think units reviewed with more moving parts should be revisited one or two years later by reviewers to see how they functioning.

515 AM's picture

There is no doubt they are a Class A Full Range speaker but how would one explain that to the manufacturers of the far more expensive speakers? They replaced the Revel Salon 2s in my system and are better in every meaningful way.

ejlif's picture

I have the Salon 2s and demo'd the Tritons. Wow I am in shock you think they are better than the Salon 2s. I didn't think this at all. I wanted the Tritons to be better but no way in hell do they sound nearly as good as the Salon 2s to my ears.