Nano – Senior Writer
So here we are, December 2020, the last month of one of the most bizarre years we had in the last decade. A year when we were asked to stay home, chill, and listen to music… to save lives: pretty cool don’t you think?
Sure, there is a global pandemic running crazy out of our home, but despite that, I have to confess that 2020 has been one of the best years I had, in a long time. Remote work? Check. Family time? Check. Build my own home-theater/audiophile room that I’ve been dreaming of years ago? Check!
But, you’re not here for that are you? No, you want to know what my favorite gears this year are. La crème de la crème, the one that gave me the thrill. So enough small talks, let’s get to it.
1. Best DAP
So, you want to go TOTL but can’t afford the – amazing – SP2000. What do you do? Sure selling your last kidney would be a nice option, but for some unknown reason, your spouse tells you that you might need it. So, what do you do? You go Chi-Fi of course.
Okay, FiiO can’t be considered Chi-Fi anymore – have you seen their amazing new headquarter (!) – but in the high-end game, $1399 looks like pocket money now. And, that’s what you’ll have to spend to get the FiiO M15, the brand’s flagship, made to overthrown A&K, Cayin, or Cowon.
For this kind of money you get:
- superb craftsmanship, with a CNC milled, flawless case;
- high-end specs, dual AK4499EQ + fully balanced circuit
- total control over your source with full streaming support and a fast Samsung chip
- excellent price/performances ratio (yes, yes)
Some will argue that the FiiO M11 Pro offers a very close level of performances, and that’s true. But, that’s like comparing a Porsche 911 4S and the 911 Turbo, both are awesome cars, yet, only one will push you past your limit. Same for the FiiO M15.
When was the last time I recommended an iBasso player in my year award? I can’t recall. But man, the brand really outdid itself with the DX160.
This colorful, glossy, player check all the right marks and was one of the biggest surprises for me. Flush design, borderless screen, fast responsiveness, and, most of all, excellent sound quality in this price range.
The dual Cirrus-Logic gives a compelling sound, flat, but never dull. Dynamic is superb and the 4.4mm output gives more room to your headphone, for better clarity and musicality. What’s even cooler is how versatile the DX160 feels compared to its direct competitors, thanks to the Android OS and real Hi-Res streaming support.
Okay, the hissy-issue isn’t completely gone, and it won’t tackle the FiiO M11 Pro or Shanling M6 Pro, but for the money, you get one of the best sources available at the moment. Just find a good IEM/Headphone to pair.
2. Best DAC/AMP
NuPrime Hi-mDAC / EarMen Eagle
Think size matter? Think again.
This year, I was pleased to try two key-sized USB DAC, and both completely blown me away by how good they sound, compared to their size. What’s even better is how affordable those are, while being able to output real audiophile quirks!
Those two lucky winners: The EarMen Eagle and NuPrime’s Hi-mDAC.
- up to 32bits – 384kHz PCM support
- low-energy drain to fit a smartphone on the go
- enough power to drive even mild power-craving headphones
- a rugged, classy case that’ll withstand everyday carrying
- excellent performances all and all
What set them apart:
- Sabre ESS9281 DAC for the Eagle and Cirrus-Logic CS43131 for the Hi-mDAC,
- USB-C for the NuPrime, USB-A for the EarMen (both comes with an adapter A <-> C)
- the volume rocker on the Hi-mDAC / rounder design for the Eagle
Either way, both devices are exceptionally competent in their field, redefining what you should expect of a USB-Key sized DAC. Treat yourself, get a DAC, no more excuses.
Think my previous choice isn’t big enough for you? Okay, maybe should you check xDuoo’s TA-30 then.
A bolder choice that offers much more drive power, a top of the line Sabre ES9038Q2M DAC, and TUUUUUUUBES. Yes, like the TA-10 and TA-20, the TA-30 blends the accuracy of a modern DAC, with the smoothness of vacuum tube amplification.
And if the previous one only sports tube amplification, this one adds Tube rectification (5Z3P) allowing you to marvel at the wonder of high-end ch-fi. Maybe should we get a new name for that, don’t you think?
In a nutshell, you get:
- an utterly powerful amp with enough juice to push any can on the market
- a lot of inputs (analog and digital) to connect all your stuff, even your smartphone
- a device that looks and feels premium, but doesn’t take too much space on your desk
3. Best Universal IEM
To be completely honest, the Shanling ME700 isn’t an IEM that will work for everyone. Being incredibly sensitive to the source, you’ll have to carefully choose what to pair with them, or you’ll end up listening to total cr*p.
Yet, if you have a good DAP (like the M15 I mentioned before) or Shanling’s M6 Pro, you’ll be blessed with true TOTL experience. Wide soundstage, rich mids, accurate highs that magnifies every track, you’ll get all of that for a low price, relatively speaking.
The cherry on top? The bundle is absolutely gorgeous, with loads of tips, a balanced cable right of the batch, and adapters to go 4.4mm AND 3.5mm. Ah, and yeah, the IEM is simply outstanding, with gold plating and a unique faceplate for each model.
If you want an alternative, check the FiiO FA9, more versatile but also more consensual.
I have to confess, my personal choice this year really flew under the radar. And yet, the AudioSense DT200 has a lot to say, for those who can hear.
With just two drivers, in a dual-way setup, the IEM was able to compete with much more expensive gear. Deep bass, clean mids, and sharp highs, the DT200 got it all and, even to this day, I carry a set in my bag as a backup in case I forget my CIEM.
Moreover, the tiny acrylic shell is supremely comfortable and felt like a close match to my usual CIEM. Add a nice faceplate, MMCX socket, an exquisite braided copper cable, flawless craftsmanship and you have one of the nicest sub-$200 IEM.
Do me a favor, try one. I promise you won’t regret it!
And that’s all for me! Again, thank you all for your time and I hope to see you again next year, in better circumstances. Meanwhile, stay safe and enjoy the music, that’s something that’ll forever last.
And that is a wrap for 2020 awards! Congratulations to all of our winners! We appreciate all of the brands that have worked with us this year, and we hope that we will see even more competition in 2020, providing lots of choices in the market for audiophiles.
If you have questions or suggestions about how we’re doing things, head over to the comments section and we’ll do our best to make Headfonia.com even better in 2020!
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!