Matty – Senior Writer
It feels like this year went forever, right? In the ‘before times’ I was used to flying all over Australia for work each week, but from March onwards I suddenly found myself very much grounded. And you know what? It was awesome. While I know 2020 hasn’t been great for many people around the globe, it meant that I had the chance to spend some quality time with my partner, our cats, and of course – listening to some great gear, and great music in my hifi room at home, for which I was extremely grateful. I had some genuinely excellent review gear make its way onto my review bench, and it’s an interesting and difficult challenge to look back and think about what deserves to be called the ‘best gear’ for 2020.
So, without further ado…
The ‘no compromise’ award: Focal Stellia.
The $3,000 closed-back flagship from French manufacturer Focal isn’t exactly a restrained pair of headphones. They’re full-on in terms of their ostentatious looks, dripping in ‘mocha’ and ‘cognac’-coloured leather and bling-y copper-coloured metal parts. They’re also full-on in terms of their sound profile, offering a hugely addictive dynamic experience that seemingly emphasises everything at once, while defying their closed-back topology.
In my review of the Stellia, I remarked that they reminded me of another ostentatious French flagship from another industry – the Bugatti Veyron. The Veyron, at one point, was the fastest and most expensive production car ever made, and it certainly looked like it too. You wouldn’t exactly take a Veyron out for your daily commute nor would you leave it parked on the street, it’s more the kind of vehicle you keep garaged as a ‘trophy’. You’re also more likely to find a Veyron driving in first gear on Rodeo Drive than hammering around the Nordschleife.
As I remarked in my review:
Dropping $3,000 on a pair of headphones is no small undertaking. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about priorities. What ‘sparks joy’ for you? If it happens to be music, and you plan to listen to a lot of it with something that’s exquisitely designed and manufactured, then what’s stopping you? I can promise you unreservedly that the Focal Stellia is a 10/10 listen – there’s nothing like it. If this gives you a little inspiration to work harder or deprioritize something else in your life that’s not making you happy, then I’m pleased to have been of service.
The ‘pound-for-pound’ award: Audio Technica ATH-WP900.
When the flame-maple-bodied ATH-WP900 arrived for review, I was expecting to have a reasonable pair of portable ‘fashion-cans’ on my hands. And boy, was I wrong. These light-weight, aesthetically-blessed closed-backs from Audio Technica rocked my world with not only their superb comfort and form factor, but also their decadently-tuned V-shaped sound signature.
In my review, I made the bold claim that the ATH-W900 is perhaps the ultimate pair of ‘desert island headphones’. Sonically, I thought that the ATH-WP900 is exciting and engaging enough to hook and reel-in casual listeners while providing a rewarding tone and technical abilities to tickle even the most rusted-on Audiophile’s fancy. The ATH-WP900’s smaller size and portable designation are far from a compromise – it’s a first-rate pair of closed-back hifi cans with far more use-cases than it’s bulkier and more expensive Audio Technica brethren.
But the ultimate compliment for the ATH-WP900 is the fact that I went and bought a pair for myself after sending the review pair back. I love them.
It’s a great time to be a personal audio hobbyist when near-perfect amplification technology is becoming available at entry-level prices. There have been some terrific releases this year in the field of headphone amplifiers, and it’s hard to split the pack. It was nearly a clean-sweep for one manufacturer, but in the end, I had to break it down like this:
The ‘best-in-show’ award: Topping A90.
This amp is one of the rare products that is nearly without fault. Topping thought it was good enough to call it an ‘Ultra High-Performance Headphone Amplifier’, and they’re absolutely telling the truth: the A90 is a master-class in power, transparency and control. Not only is it a colourless window into your music and your headphone’s voicing, but form-factor and feature-wise it’s pretty much all you could ever ask for out of a desktop headphone amp. To nitpick a little, it *could* use a slightly better volume knob, but for $499 it’s probably the only amp you’ll ever need if you value a fully-balanced topology with every conceivable type of output plus pre-amp functionality.
To quote my review:
The Topping A90 is an absolute no-brainer recommendation as a balance solid-state amplifier. At $499 its performance will embarrass far more expensive offerings, and if you’re looking for future-proof power, connectivity and usability then there isn’t another option under $500 that comes even close – especially if you need pre-amp facilities. Come to think of it, there probably aren’t many options under $1000 that can match the value and performance of the new Topping flagship amp.
The ‘value’ award: Topping L30.
At $130 USD, the diminutive L30 nearly unseats its big brother in the price: performance stakes. It’s substantially cheaper and delivers the same vividly-transparent sound quality as the A90, albeit with a reduction in footprint, features, inputs and outputs, but also – price. It’s an absolutely superb device for the price, and gets my unreserved recommendation for anyone looking for their first headphone amplifier. Hell, it’s probably good enough to be the only one you’ll ever need.
From my review:
The L30 is a stunning device for $139.99. In fact, it’s stunning full-stop. If you’re not fussed about going down the rabbit-hole of balanced cables and aren’t likely to add a pair of low-sensitive planars into your collection anytime soon, then the L30 is an absolutely bankable recommendation if all you are looking for is one audio input, and one headphone output (plus, being a pre-amp is nice and handy too).
The ‘sentimental’ award: Schiit Audio Asgard 3.
The Asgard 3 is one helluva-lotta metal, power, and fun for $199 USD. While it might not be the last word in objective measurements compared to the aforementioned Topping amps, the Class-A biased lump of Californian metal just sounds great. It’s a little richer and warmer-sounding than the other solid-state amps I listened to this year, and for some reason it’s the amp that stayed around longer on my desk than any other once it’s review time was up: to quote Han Solo, “She’s got it where it counts, kid.”
From my review:
The Asgard 3 gives-off all the vibes of an American muscle car: it’s big, brash and burly and you feel like you’re getting a lot of metal for your money. It has an easy-to-love utilitarian design, and like the muscle cars of today, the Asgard has actually gone and gotten itself better at handling and packs a bunch more features in than it used to.
The ‘surprise package’ award: FiiO EM5.
I was skeptical, to say the least when a pair of $299 USD earbuds landed on my desk, but I was only too happy to be proven wrong by the accurate, open and engaging nature of these little wonders from FiiO. I thought the time of the earbud-style IEM was long-gone, but the EM5 absolutely wowed me with its articulate and BIG sound that genuinely rivalled that of open-back headphones.
From my review:
It allows you to create a no-compromise, open sound reminiscent of a full-size set of open-back headphones wherever you are, without fuss. I did think initially that its use-cases would be limited, thereby making them somewhat of a niche proposition, but thinking of the EM5’s in IEM-terms isn’t the right way to view this talented little pair of earbuds.
The FiiO EM5 has a properly grown-up and impressive sound that will reward the listener with an open, spacious and surprisingly natural performance when fed with appropriately matched music.
The ‘treat yo’ self’ award: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2.
Bluetooth, schmuetooth…something like that, right? Well, consider me happily proven wrong. This superbly-packaged wire-free offering from Sennheiser ticked all the boxes when it came to putting it to the test. While its connectivity and convenience made it earn plenty of ear-time with this reviewer, it’s silky-smooth and engaging sound-signature made it a genuine everyday proposition. I continue to use the Momentum TW2 on a daily basis both around the house and on-the-go, and it’s only getting better with each subsequent firmware update.
From my review:
I expected them to be convenient and competent sounding, but I didn’t expect to be as surprised as I was with how addictive they are. They feel a bit like lying on a warm pillow of sound, and one that you can take, well, anywhere with you. The Momentum became an invaluable work productivity and entertainment companion, and soon enough a go-to music source in their own right.
The ‘best-in-show’ award: Craft FOUR by Craft Ears.
Admittedly, these were the first CIEM I’ve ever reviewed, but the Craft FOUR from Polish manufacturer Craft Ears really did feel like a part of me from the moment they arrived. Offering a pretty sharp value equation at 550 Euros, this four-BA design serves-up a sonic experience that’s both technically-brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable. They deftly tread the line between neutrality and musicality with aplomb. They’re terrific. Plus, they were able to put on the cool Star Wars designs that I wanted : )
From my review:
At the €550 price-point, the Craft FOUR represents tremendous value for a technically proficient and accomplished multi-BA CIEM, as well as offering a premium product and brand experience. It was a terrific first CIEM to review, and the Craft FOUR gets my nod as a rock-solid performer. Whether you’re an on-stage or in-studio professional, or an at-home music fan – these are well worth your considerations for a mid-range entry point into the exciting realm of CIEMs.
The ‘pocket rocket’ award: Astell&Kern SR25
It might look a little bit kooky with that slanted screen, but the SR25 from Astell&Kern is just a terrific portable source to live with. It also feels great in the hand, and that layout just works. With its onboard wifi and Android smarts that SR25 can explore streaming music, while you can also enjoy up to a terabyte of your own lossless library. The SR25 works a treat with both IEMs as well as full-sized headphones – even the hard-to-drive variety. If I were heading out the door for travel and I had limited room, this little device would definitely earn a place in my carry-on luggage.
From my review:
The SR25 is a stunningly-packaged little device, both in terms of its one-of-a-kind looks, and its over-achieving capabilities. There are certainly some cheaper options out there in DAP-land that will get you into audiophile-grade sound for less, but they’re not really as interesting as the SR25. I found that what the SR25 does so well is the fact that it delivers an incredible overall experience in terms of sound, sight, and feeling – it really does deliver emotional engagement in spades, and for that reason, it’s well worth it as a ticket into high-end, portable sound.
The ‘gourmet source’ award: Schiit Audio Bifrost 2.
It might be easy to fob-off digital audio as all being the same 1’s and 0’s, but the folks at Schiit Audio have definitely managed to add a nice little dash of flair into the way that the $699 USD Bifrost 2 decodes digital audio. Packing Schiit’s new ‘Unison’ USB input as well as their ‘Ture Multibit’ topology (a.k.a ‘R2R; or ‘resistor ladder’), the Bifrost managed to carve out a well-deserved place for itself in my listening chain thanks to its seductive, organic and eminently analogue character.
From my review:
The Bifrost emotionally creeps up on you and makes you fall in love with its rich, engaging and immersive quality. Is it three times better than the Modius? Of course not. But if you’re making a conscious decision to invest in your long-term digital listening experience then it will reward you in time in spades. You’re genuinely not going to want to replace the Bifrost in a hurry, and if you do feel the upgrade bug…well Schiit has you covered on that front.
And now on to the personal 2020 Awards of Nano on the next page! CLICK HERE