Welcome to Enjoy the Music.com's fourteenth annual Blue Note high fidelity audio equipment awards! Our Best Of 2014 Blue Note Awards celebrates the very best products we have reviewed during the previous year. Recipients have been carefully chosen after much debate and consideration. While there are many great pieces of high fidelity audio equipment now available within the marketplace, the below list is compiled from products we have reviewed within the past 12 months that have earned extra special attention. During the past year, Enjoy the Music.com has reviewed many products including those covered within our Viewpoint articles plus our 'sister publications' Superior Audio and DIY Magazine — both now part of our Review Magazine.
In 2014 our staff found a mere 13 products, plus a special $5000 system, to bestow an Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note Award. Let it be said here and now we make no apologies that during 2014 our staff found only 13 products — 12 in 2013 of you're keeping count — to receive an award. With a blinding array of products reviewed from late 2013 through September 2014, that does not mean everyone gets an award. This is not to say that other products do not merit your attention, it is simply that only the very best of the bunch should stand out and be recognized clearly and concisely. Take note that we do not carry over products from our previous year's award. Giving away so very few awards as we do is the anti-norm for a magazine hoping to get free commercial promotion, since such awards always find their way into being featured on Web sites, social media networks and of course within print advertisements.
Our longstanding staff here at Enjoy the Music.com, with hundreds of years in combined expertise, now presents to you our choices for Best Of 2014 Blue Note Equipment Award. And the winners are:
Source Components / DACs
For only $499 the ifi Audio Micro iDSD delivers and incredible value, can handle every conceivable digital music file type today and for the foreseeable future for many years to come. You also get a variety of settings for filtering, XBass, 3D Holography, variable amplification output setting, plenty of amplifier power and it can even charge your USB-powered device too! It can also serve as a headphone amplifier and as an external DAC for your high fidelity audio system. The bottom line here is that it will be very hard for any such unit in the years to come to sound better while also providing so many features at this price. Smart bang-for-the-buck audiophiles can stop wasting their hard earned cash with typical DAC-of-the-month products and instead get a device that can keep them happily enjoying the music today and for many years to come. — Steven R. Rochlin
Turntable With RIAA Phonostage And Headphone Amplifier
With vinyl LP sales achieving double-digit growth year-over-year, it should come as no surprise that one of the most acclaimed USA turntable manufacturers has produced another outstanding products! So what makes the VPI Nomad a unique turntable squarely aimed at the new generation of music lovers? The VPI Nomad is the industry's first all-in-one high performance entry-level turntable. Not only does the turntable include the tonearm and a good quality, and carefully chosen Ortofon 2M Red MM cartridge, it also has a headphone amplifier and phonostage too! The 10" tonearm was designed from the ground up to offer excellent playback ability for reasonable money. The VPI Nomad has standard RCA connections that provide the ability to connect to a standard amplifier, desktop/floorstanding speakers, plus directly to devices like the highly popular Sonos multi-room system. You can connect the VPI Nomad turntable to a wide variety of audio gear without needing any other piece of equipment as most other turntables require. For only $995, the Nomad is not only an MP3 killer, it will open up a new realm of music for you to discover, or perhaps rediscover what you've been missing with lossy compressed MP3. All those great songs you felt you knew become a new experience filled with sounds you may have not heard before. All that effort from the original musicians to recording and mastering engineers comes through. If you've been wondering what all the 'hype' about vinyl is from your friends, you'll quickly learn for yourself that the hype is for real! — Steven R. Rochlin
AK240 Portable Media Player / DAC
There is no doubt the modern portable media player (PMP) market is now past the initial ooh and ahh' phase. With the AK240's ability to handle 384kHz/24-bit FLAC and DSD 128 lossless music, it can easily play back virtually every digital music files type sold today. With a bright and responsive touch screen and packing 256GB internally, plus the ability to add a 128GB microSD and reading your NAS drive via Wi-Fi, it makes for nearly endless access to your fave music. It can also be used as an external DAC too! The built-in amplification has more than enough oomph to make the bass jump right out of my UE18 Pros and the lower performance JH Audio JH13 Pro. The Astell& Kern AK240 will also drive my factory custom made Audeze LCD-3 Steampunk edition planar magnetic headphones, yet output volume is a bit limited as they are incredibly hard to drive. Midrange and highs are very clean, smooth and extended, with wonderful transparency and PRaT factor. Astell&Kern's AK240 is undoubtedly the King of all PMP units today and packs true dual mono circuitry within a solid, well made aircraft-grade duralumin case. So many wonderful features packed into such a small package. — Steven R. Rochlin
AURALiC VEGA Digital
Processor / DAC
Stein Music Aventurin 6 Moving Coil
(MC) Phono Cartridge
MK VI, Oracle Turbo Power Supply,
And SME V tonearm
The analog source more than worthy of a 2014 Blue Note Award is the Oracle Delphi MK VI turntable which was reviewed along with Oracle's new Turbo MK II power supply, and mounted on the turntable's armboard the preeminent SME V tonearm. The sound quality of the Oracle Delphi turntable could no way be sonically mistaken for any version of this veteran component from years past. Yes, the Delphi has been around in some form or another for about thirty years, but the Oracle Delphi is "old" in name only. The designers at Oracle have been hard at work ensuring that its MK VI version is not only competitive with other modern turntables, but when compared to others anywhere near its price class it trounces not just many of them but most of them, especially when matched with its Turbo II power supply and fitted with a top-notch tonearm such as the optional SME V tonearm. In my review I wrote that that "the Oracle Delphi MK VI fitted with an SME V tonearm and equipped with its optional Turbo MK II is a fantastic piece of analog artistry, in both sound and looks", and that it is "is a first-class turntable, a first-class tonearm, and most likely one of the most advanced turntable power supplies available today". It sounds great, it also looks great, and "has modern museum aesthetics, is stupid-simple easy to use once it is set up, and made every single record I played on it sound like the most important record in my collection because every record I played on it sounded like music, plain and simple". — Tom Lyle
Gryphon Audio Designs Kalliope DAC
Gryphon Audio Designs was founded in 1985 and grew from a one-off spare time project developed for the designers' own home systems. Like many audiophile companies, Gryphon Audio started as a hobby that today has grown to become a formidable manufacturer of source components, preamplification, amplification, speakers, cables, and a variety of other associated bits. It is hard for me to imagine a more musically accurate DAC in the marketplace today. Gryphon Audio merges creative art and edge-of-the-art science to produce a product that exceeds expectation. At around $26,600, the Gryphon Audio Kalliope DAC is not an inexpensive investment. Yet when one considers that there are other lesser-equipped DACs selling for twice that price that are unable to play DSD 512 or 384kHz files, you can better understand how Gryphon Audio Designs focuses on delivering a true high-end audio product is capable of handling every high quality digital music file type with ease. Forget the usual "highly recommended" statement! Gryphon Audio Designs' Kalliope is exceedingly recommended for those who want the very best DAC with astonishing build quality and technology that can handle all digital music file types and those of the foreseeable future. — Steven R. Rochlin
I nominate the Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblock for an Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note Award for creating a Class D amplifier up to the very best in contemporary transistor designs at a fraction of the cost. It is versatility and reliability as well. The Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks are faithful to its designer's vision. More importantly, it is faithful to the original performance. What you hear is what you get; what you learn and feel is up to you. The VERITAS Monoblocks makes sure of that. You may well be drawn to the VERITAS Monoblocks for their raw power and transparency. But you will fall hard for them because of their subtlety, their way with music and connection they allow you to make with it: the insights there for you discover, just as the emotions are there for you to experience. And that, my friends, is as they say, the truth. — Jules Coleman
It was a speaker so new it didn't have a name. He asked me for some suggestions and I came up with a few very catchy ideas, but ultimately it became the Lore Reference due to its roots in earlier Lore models. How boring. It's a two-way floor stander in satin black. Also boring, unless you want to ante-up for custom paint or custom wood veneer. At $1000, it is too cheap and it won't look good with expensive components. But man, can these girls sing! Obviously I thought they were great in the context of my $5000 Entry Level project, but moving on I used them with $3000 and $6000 tube amplifiers with the rig running through my power conditioner once again. The Lore Reference improved with each upgrade that was made upstream—evolving from merely great to something very special, revealing tonal color and micro-dynamics on par with speakers you probably cannot afford. Bass heads will want to go deeper and tighter and for them, Tekton has a very efficient powered sub with an 18" driver that will satisfy their addiction. Newcomers should buy this speaker to get a taste of what the High End is all about, and then consider upgrading everything else in their system. Seasoned audiophiles who don't need the ego-reinforcement of more exotic or more established brands, or who merely want to improve their system while still living within their means, should also give this one serious attention. Listening in the dark, you may think you spent a year's salary. And if your life is populated with adorable rug rats you won't get upset if they plaster the cabinets with stickers of Spiderman or Hello Kitty. Eric Alexander is certainly one of the more passionate speaker designers in the industry, building for sound quality at very reasonable prices rather than targeting exotic technology and style. For that, as well as the Lore Reference, in particular, he deserves his second Blue Note Award. — Rick Becker
Kudos Audio Super 20 Loudspeaker
This year my top pick is a pair of very conventional looking speakers, the Kudos Audio Super 20. A two-way bass reflex speaker of moderate sensitivity, standing just over three foot tall and just 8" wide, $8495 might seem quite a high price. Don't go looking for space age materials or subtle curves. What you get here is just very fine engineering, a 7" Nextel coated paper driver, built to designer Derek Gilligan's specifications, and a top of the line 0.9" tweeter, also from SEAS, based on the Crescendo K2.
Forget about the components. What matters is the sound, and Gilligan clearly knows what he is doing. He achieves a wonderful balance between all the attributes a speaker may offer, so the Kudos Super 20 sounds natural across a huge range of music, and appears to be very easy to drive. The superb tweeter may be the single most significant contribution to the wonderful instrumental color these speakers convey, a far more important attribute than bass extension or maximum handling power in my book.
It's a crowded field out there but here's one to add to your short list. — Phil Gold
Sound Lab Majestic 845 Loudspeaker
There is no question but that the Sound Lab Majestic 845 speakers deserve an award. They deliver the very best in contemporary electrostatic loudspeakers. The Sound Lab Majestic 845 is one of the truly great speakers extant. While it is revealing of upstream components, it never fails to be musically persuasive. It is the kind of speaker that any reviewer would want to own because it is revealing without being microscopic. It never substitutes scientific inquiry for musical pleasure. It is a brilliant design. It works with high powered tube amps including OTLs. Get a pair of Sound Lab 845 to your home and you have the heart of a music system that should last you forever. I don't recall a more painful moment realizing that I had to give a pair of speakers back to the manufacturer. But one of the joys of reviewing is that there is always something new and promising to listen to. A reviewer's life is a charmed one. The Sound Lab 845 reminded me just how charmed that life can be. — Jules Coleman
This thoughtfully designed patch cord is an excellent five Blue Note value. I awarded Dana's Onyx cords four Enjoy the Music.com Blue Notes across the board! The Onyx IC also did extremely well against far more expensive and exotic competitors. As the Blue Note numbers in my "Silver Shoot-Out" article show, audible and measurable differences for patch cords are always slight. Yet this is "a deliciously competent performer at a very competitive price, with little or no serious short-comings, I am more than impressed with the products I have reviewed so far from Mr. Vu and his Gingko Audio." The Onyx ICs were impressive, enjoyable and listenable. "For Value category, I would still choose the DACT Dual for golden delicacy and detail, but if that price is not in your range, the DanaCable Onyx interconnecting RCA patch cord by Gingko Audio at half the price is an excellent five Blue Note value." — A. Colin Flood
Clarus Crimson Bi-Wire Loudspeaker Cable
As I promised in my review, I slap a "Best I've Ever Heard" award on the Clarus Crimson Bi-Wire loudspeaker cable. They are indeed "continuously cast superior cable in every sense." To get an idea of what makes these expensive cables so great, I explored the issues concerning Oxygen Free Copper (OFC) or Pure Copper Ohno Continuous Cast (PCOCC) cable technology in an article that same month. On a variety of amplifier and speakers in dozens of comparison sessions, I found these Crimson cables to be stand-out quality with "obvious smoother treble... no harshness, more tangible, adding to their realism. The Crimson cream easily rose to the top of the cable milk. It was far more listenable. Though subtle, still ones on a scale of ten, the improvements were felt across the board." I am certain that the Clarus Crimson loudspeaker cables will give you top-of-the-line quality. — A. Colin Flood
Blue Note Award Special
In cherry picking components for my Entry Level Project I came up with potential Blue Note winners in every category. The affordable rig almost eclipsed my reference system costing many times more and it damn well might have if I had plugged it into my power conditioner. This is not to suggest you can build a first class rig simply by buying award winning components from a variety of lists. There are always compatibility issues, particularly between amplifiers and speakers. The high efficiency of the Tekton Design Lore Reference speaker honored above was necessary for the Coincident Speaker Technology Dynamo 34SE ($1299) to showcase the outstanding transparency and dynamics of which it is capable. Israel Blume of Coincident is now celebrating his 20th year in business and he is no stranger to Blue Note Awards. This amplifier is a gift to those who wish to spend small, yet still appreciate the micro-dynamics and tonal color that tube gear can bring to the music. The ability to use virtually any headphone with it gives it an additional dimension.
At the front end of the Entry Level Project the Schiit Bifrost DAC was diversified with the addition of a USB 2.0 input and beefed up with the Uber Analog power supply, bringing the price of this USA-built DAC up to $519 and the S/N ratio up to >110dB. As brilliant as this DAC from the minds of Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat is on its own, the addition of a piece of ERS paper inside the chassis took its performance over the top. In the context of this rig with tube amplification, the Bifrost’s contribution to the music seemed far more impressive than what others have written who reviewed it with solid state gear.
Audio cables can be a scary subject for newcomers and a frustrating one for veterans. They have a subtle but significant effect on the music and they can cost a little, or cost a lot. Steven Huang of Audio Sensibility has been hand-making high quality cables with proven technology since 2008 and markets them factory direct via the internet, which makes them very affordable. The project included an entry level Impact SE interconnect ($129 CDN), a mid-level Testament power cord ($269 CDN), Statement Silver USB cable ($299 CDN) and Testament speaker cable ($389 CDN). His Statement Silver S/PDIF digital cable ($219 CDN) has been my reference for several years and my tuner has been vastly improved with the addition of a hard-wired Testament power cord. Audio Sensibility Grounding Devices are used on several of my components to good effect. They also now make custom cables for some higher end headphones. This Blue Note Award goes not to a single product, but to the entire line for offering newcomers and seasoned audiophiles the opportunity to live within their means while enjoying their music at a much higher level. That the Entry Level Project succeeded at such a high level with a pair of interconnects that cost only $129 CDN is simply astonishing! They don’t make every type of cable at every price point, but what they do make is really, really good. — Rick Becker