Welcome to Enjoy the Music.com's fifteenth annual Blue Note high-end audio equipment awards! Our Best Of 2015 Blue Note Award 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 within our Review Magazine and über-priced gear within Superior Audio.
In 2014 our staff found a mere 13 products plus a special $5000 system to earn this award; with 2015 bestowing only 11 high-end audio components to receive an Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note Award. Let it be said here and now we make no apologies that during 2015 our staff found only 11 products to receive our special Best Of 2015 Blue Note Award. With a blinding array of products reviewed from late 2014 through September 2015, this does not mean that 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 2015 Blue Note Equipment Award. And the winners are:
Soundsmith Mezzo And
Nautilus Phono Cartridges
I've heard some truly impressive sounding phono cartridges during the past year. If I hadn't heard the Soundsmith cartridges, I would have nominated the Kiseki Blue NS and Purple Heart phono cartridges as they are both amazing sounding products (the Purple Heart is now my reference). But the Soundsmith cartridges blew me away in a way that hasn't happened in quite a while with a phono cartridge. When any piece of high-end gear can sound as convincing as to sound like the "real thing", then I will have no problem at all recommending this component to discerning audiophiles. The Mezzo and the Nautilus can perform this sonic magic of sounding lifelike and with the exact intentions of the musician, whether it’s played in the concert hall, in the studio, or on electronic hardware and software. Both these cartridges made each record sound like the best sounding record I've ever heard. That is, until I played the next record. The Mezzo and Nautilus are two medium-output cartridges that are actually best suited for fixed gain phono preamps such as those made by Audio Research and Conrad-Johnson. I'm lucky in that I use a Pass Labs phono preamp, so one will also need a very flexible phono preamp to handle these medium output models. If not, Soundsmith manufactures the low-output Sussurro which is the sonic equal of the Mezzo, and the Paua, which is a low-output version of the Nautilus. The time I spent with these Soundsmith cartridges was a special time. I felt as if they somehow “knew” what etched into the grooves of the record and seemed as if they had some sort of aural clairvoyance. I heard details in my favorite records I've never heard before, and if I had heard these details in the past it was as if I was now hearing them reproduced with a higher level of musical authenticity. At $4800 one should consider the Mezzo medium output moving-iron cartridge a bargain, and its younger sibling the $3800 Nautilus a steal. – Tom Lyle
Merrill Audio Jens Phonostage
Merrill Audio's Jens phonostage preamplifier moving coil (MC) cartridge amplifier is truly a unique high-end audio product. As the results of seven years in constant grassroots development, it evolved and was refined. Critiqued at every step during development, the long seven year wait has been rewarded with a truly world-class MC phonostage. It became the most revealing, hyper-detailed phonostage amplifier I have experienced.
It is like listening to the vinyl's mother stamper rather than a copy eight generations later. It transmits clues of stage dimensionality voice and instrumental harmonic overtones and even the nature of the space the recording was made within. Most writers might say a performance with detailing like this is layered over a "black background". But actually what they are referring to is the component amplifiers noise floor. This is a type of purity in that the device whatever it may, be lets the audio signal flow unchanged and unaffected by the power that amplifies the recorded information. The vanishing low levels of the Merrill Audio Jens phonostage noise floor showcases why it took so many years, and so many ears, to perfect this moving coil phono amplifier. – Ron Nagle
Aries Cerat Incito
Designed and manufactured in Cyprus, its chassis is made of solid stainless-steel with sides made with aluminum. This preamplifier has an opaque black glass front panel with no controls. Reddish-yellow numitron tubes with a seven-segment filament to form the characters that shine through the glass front panel. Impressive looking, yes, but it sounds even better with a weighty, transparent sound that blows away every preamplifier I’ve ever heard below $20,000! It excels at revealing inner details and microdynamic shading, and when playing orchestral recordings each instrument is accurately placed throughout a panoramic soundstage, but can also bludgeon a listener when playing a heavy metal record without turning the individual instruments and voices on the recording into a sonic sludge. It can reproduce a classic Blue Note small jazz ensemble record as if one is a fly on the wall of the studio, but it never, ever, sounds over-analytical. I suppose I could say the Incito sounds like music. But even that metaphor doesn’t fully describe the Incito; Aries Cerat's achievement in preamplifier design is awe-inspiring. Surprisingly, from what I gather on their website the Incito is their smallest preamplifier. I can only imagine the sound of their preamps higher up in their line, or the Incito paired with other Aries Cerat components. – Tom Lyle
Hegel H160 Solid-State
Stereo Integrated Amplifier With DAC
The Hegel 160 is rated at 0.005% Distortion at 50-watts, though the amplifier is capable of 250-watts into 4 Ohms. The main reason the 160 sounds so smooth and soft is the lack of higher order harmonic distortion. This also may be due to the careful hand matching of FET transistors and a general lack of distortion. Incorporating Hegel's SoundEngine local error cancelling system to prevent distortion in the circuit stages, the Norwegian-made Hegel 160 model provides a gentle European sound with a large dynamic range and lower distortion. Loaded with almost every kind of connection possible, the Hegel 160 stereo amplifier is very well suited for a modern, streaming of music and movies. It felt relaxed, natural and always enjoyable. The key is adding the proper neutral balance to the notes to give them more definition, shape, texture and tone. Good amplifiers do this. The Hegel does it. – A. Colin Flood
I reviewed this Polish-made tube DAC in two installments: first playing CDs fed by a transport via S/PDIF cable, and then with computer audio using the excellent DanaCable USB and JRiver software. In both applications it has proven to be by far the most musically satisfying digital source I have ever used. Designer Lukasz Fikus eschews off-the-shelf chips in favor of carefully conceived handmade-to-order DACs. I specified PCM and DSD decoding, and chose the rare 6900 output tubes – but each customer can specify exactly what capabilities are wanted. This DAC's 32-bit/384kHz architecture can handle any high-resolution music file available. The five-year warranty is fully transferable, and can be renewed after any factory upgrade. A diehard analog lover, I have at last found the digital source that not only plays CDs more beautifully than I had ever heard before, but also does full justice to computer audio. Flawless tonality, harmonic richness, extraordinary octave-to-octave balance, a huge soundscape, and almost spookily precise image location – nothing in my years of listening to great audio systems prepared me for the experience of hearing the LampizatOr Level 4 Generation 5 DAC. – Wayne Donnelly
Benchmark Media AHB2 Stereo
Measuring just 11.04" wide by 3.88" tall and 9.34" deep and weighing in at only 12.5 pounds, this amp is slightly less than one quarter of one cubic foot! Yet the Benchmark Media AHB2, while assuredly a non-traditional design, is a true linear (not a Class-D) amplifier, built on technology developed and patented by THX Limited. Bass offers exceptional detail, speed, and depth, with jaw dropping, chest-thumping impact, while still rendering accurate and refined pitch definition. Midrange is simply captivating, rich in both musical resolve and harmonic texture, with a well-balanced mixture of tonal truth and emotional expression. Treble is extended, airy, and resolute, and rendered with a sense of ease and relaxed enchantment virtually unheard of in this price point. Instruments and vocalists occupy an uncannily realistic sense of size and locale, and are presented in an incredibly lifelike soundstage. Cabling choices (only XLR or Pro SpeakOn signal inputs and a very limited area of engagement for spade-terminated speaker cables) are challenging, but if you are up to that, this is a product whose performance actually exceeds the hype surrounding its innovative technology. – Greg Weaver
YG Acoustics Carmel 2 Speaker
Most people will take one look at a $24,300 two- way speaker and say "forget it". If you did you'd be in good company. One well known reviewer did exactly that, in print, without even listening to it at length. Too bad. He's missed what for most room sizes may be the most accurate and realistic sounding speaker ever made. Sure there will be some who need higher decibel levels and greater extension in the deep bass (look to the YG Sonja or Hailey for that), but I'm not one of them. I can still play full scale orchestral music or heavy rock at levels that would drive my wife to drink.
Next to the Carmel 2 almost every high speaker sounds either slow or colored. When you look into the extraordinary technology involved, you'll understand why YG Acoustics is asking this price. Technophiles can indulge their interests in BilletCore Drivers, ForgeCore Tweeters, FocussedElimination, Dual Coherent crossovers, ToroAir inductors and so on, but I'd rather direct you to your local dealer where you can judge for yourself. Bring some good recordings and an open mind. The Carmel 2 replaces the original $18,000 Carmel speaker, which won a Blue Note back in 2012. Every element has been refined and the sound is that much better. Bigger and bolder in a sleeker packages. – Phil Gold
Noble Kaiser 10 CIEMs
It took Noble four months to produce this very special pair of Kaiser 10 made with 23k Italian rose gold. This one-off design (at the time) was my very own personal request and is called Tiger Stripe. Wow do they look lovely! As for how they sound, simply put the Noble K10 are the very best CIEM my ears have ever heard. Each early morning during computer programming they get a nice workout and, frankly, can't see myself living without them. Top to bottom coherency, gorgeous high frequency extension combined with the tightest and deepest bass of any CIEM I've heard to date. The critical midrange is simply stunning! While some CIEMs seem to lack transparency, the K10 have it in spades! Virtually everyone who has a set of Noble K10 gushes gloriously about them. If you're still wondering just how great the K10 CIEMs are – keep in mind (very humbly said) it seems anything is available to Yours Truly – let it be said here and now that I laid out some very serious cash money and bought my wife a set of Noble K10 CIEMs. Need I say more? So buy a set for yourself and for your significant other. If you order now, they should arrive just in time for the winter holiday gift-giving season. – Steven R. Rochlin
Double Helix Symbiote SP 8 IEM Cable
Double Helix Symbiote SP 8 IEM cable are made with eight wires of pure silver Litz wire with rose gold splitter option ($85), rose gold IEM barrels ($110 for two), and rose gold 3.5mm plug cover ($70). This is the very best model Double Helix Cables makes and they sound smooth and produce exceptionally extended highs. Excellent midrange and bass are also your rewards as compared to stock IEM / CIEM cables. On average, my ears enjoy about 10 hours of music daily and if I amortize this out between the UE 18 Pro and Noble K10, oh, and the JH Audio JH13 Pro that are here, this investment into my happiness is well worth the entry fee. Like my mom and dad say, "You never regret getting the very best." – Steven R. Rochlin
Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
As perhaps the hottest portable media player device announced during CES 2015, the Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman uses the standard Android OS and thus provides many more options than virtually any high-end DAP within the marketplace. You also get 4x longer battery life between charges too! Add to that, the Sony NW-ZX2 can play TIDAL, Deezer, and any other Android app you desire. Sure it plays videos, too, yet we're audiophiles. This solidly-built unit also has Wi-Fi to stream from my home NAS or cloud servers. Of course all of this is moot if it didn't sound great, right? The Sony NW-ZX2 is the very best DAP when it comes to microdynamics and has an ease about it that enables you to enjoy hour after hour (after hour after hour after hour... did i mention the long battery life?) of musical ecstasy. It is also the best sounding portable media player within my car, as it magically transports myself and passengers to rock and dance clubs as we attempt to see if 195mph truly is the top speed of the Beast. While the headphone amplifier power output is a bit limiting and low compared to other DAPs within the market, those with IEMs should have no problem. With a seductive sound that entrances you as it unravels everything from MP3 to FLAC and DSD files, the pleasing signature will keep your music flowin' and the vibe groovin'. – Steven R. Rochlin
Seeking to achieve the ultimate in sound quality, Questyle's QP1R has a very familiar and easy to use GUI. At this price level the resolution is mind-boggling mesmerizing! If you're into dance, pop, or a dubstep DJ seeking the best portable audio device to play music that gets the crowd dancing, the Questyle QP1R is the best unit I've heard to fulfill this goal. Classical, jazz, rock, and easy listening are also excellently reproduced and have been enjoying many hours of all those genres. I'm in love with the sound of the Questyle QP1R with my fave Noble K10 CIEMs and Double Helix Symbiote SP 8 silver cable combo. There is a massive amount of headphone amplifier output to drive virtually every power-hungry set of cans including the Audeze LCD-3. There are three amplifier settings to ensure you get the best with highly sensitive IEMs and OPPO's PM-3 headphones too. Questyle's QP1R is a killer unit with mind-blowing sound wrapped in high style chic magnificence.