HFN Awards – Nathan, Linus, Berkhan and Nano

In this article we’re giving an overview of the 2018 awards of the rest of the writing crew. You can find Lieven’s selection right here

 

Nathan’s Awards: Page 1

Linus’ Awards: Page 2

Berkhan’s Awards: Page 3

Nano’s Awards: Page 4

 

NATHAN

2018 was full of excitement. And Headfonia got a bunch of new talent, meaning that I didn’t cover as much as I did in previous years. But I got lucky. By and large, I didn’t have to cover crap. Cowon’s Plenue J wasn’t great. Pro-Ject’s Pre Box S2 was great, but then along came the Burson Play. The first was fraught with good but not great DAC performance, the latter with a great DAC but not with the best amp. Then along came the Burson Fun. Damn. Here are my rewards:

I didn’t get the chance to cover a lot of earphones, but the ones I did spanned the gamut from isolating to wireless, to wired earbuds. With the exception of Litexim’s Aerobuds, and FiiO’s FB1, each was worth their time. 

Simphonio Dragon 2+: 319$ USD

But among them, the one that stood out best was Simphonio’s Dragon 2+. Bright, detailed, and airy, with amazing stage, it knocked my socks off. It’s the sort of neutral-ish, fast, live sound that you get from a Grado, but stage-open like a Beyer DT880. Interestingly, it comes wired in 2,5mm balanced with an adapter for stereo 3,5mm. There’s nothing soundwise that holds it back, but its shell is cheap. Overall, I love this earphone and consider it one of the most interesting wired earphones to come out in years, and a reminder that non-sealed, wired earphones really can pack a performance and comfort punch. 

Dekoni Blue: 299$ USD

And this bad boy- there’s nothing holding it back. Dekoni’s pads feel great, totally encircle the ears, and conform perfectly to the jaw and skull. What a well designed set of pads. And, what a great headphone to put them on. Fostex and Dekoni were meant for each other. Despite needing higher than average voltage to get loud, it receives enough power, and with such amazing synergy with a favourite ATRAC-R MD deck, Sony’s JE780. What a combo. Naturally, Dekoni Blue sounds great with the Lynx HILO, and if you have the proper adapter, even with an Onkyo DP-S1. But I’ll be damned if I’ve heard it sound as good as with the JE780. 

If you have a favourite source/amp that has enough power, I highly recommend Dekoni Blue. Its transitional zone from lows to low mids is the smoothest most liquid I’ve heard.  And that signature basically translates all the way up. What a detailed, but smooth, and easy, fun listen. Honestly, it’s one of the best I’ve heard, at any price. 

Flare Audio Flares Gold1400$ USD

FiiO, and everyone, listen up: Flare Audio, the company famous for earplugs, know their stuff. Gosh, the Flares Pro stole the show last year. And Gold, while similar in house sound, but more mature and definitely up-scale, tricks that house sound into one of the best takes on an already great sound. Gold feels up scale. And attached to what already is one of if not the best Bluetooth earphone implementations out there, it’s killer. 

The Bluetooth DAC portion performs good, but, when outfitted to drive non-Flare earphones, hisses. But you’d not know that. Flares Pro and Gold are perfectly engineered for it, being somewhat sensitive, but completely ignorant of that hiss. And, if you don’t care to do the wireless thing, Flares Gold goes wired, just like that. And, being just as ignorant of hiss, Gold works a treat even for older, hissy, Minidisk hardware. 

Great design. Great engineering. 

 

FiiO uBTR: 30$ USD / FiiO BTR3: 79$ USD

Despite personal battles with both BTR3 units I tried, it’s a great Bluetooth DAC. It has a few design problems: installing audio output parallel to the mains/data (USB-C) port, making it hard to connect thick headphone plugs whilst charging or using it as a UBS DAC. The other is the problem I ran into: when holding carpentry tools and hammering and chiselling and, from time to time, bleeding, the BTR3’s signal would cut out, and more so than its brethren. 

But gosh darn does it sound good, get loud, and freaking make me wish its amp and DAC combination was installed in a compact player. FiiO, you can do this. That thing is amazing, and fully recommended for people who don’t use tools whilst listening. 

The uBTR sounds nowhere near as good but nails connectivity and general haptics and is my go-to for active work/play. Yes, I cheated here, and gave the nod to two products, but both are well worth-it. 

Burson Fun: starting at 299$ USD

Holy moly, Burson’s Fun is good. Low noise floor, super power, rolling op-amps, a great pre-amp, and it fits in a PC chassis and can be powered by your PC’s power supply. What a great design. What great sound. What a great price. Honestly, this amp’s existence puts on notice a hell of a lot of other amp designs out there both in the budget category (for only a little more you can get Fun) and those way further afield (despite laying out so much more than Fun what do you actually get?). 

If I could vote twice for Fun, I’d do it. It’s so good I wish Play had Fun inside. It’s so good, I wish it had existed back in 2004 when I purchased my first discrete headphone amp, and in 2009 when I laid out serious dosh, and in 2017 when I kept doing the same. Purchase Fun once and you’re set for life. Now, if only Burson would tool that dual-mono design into a balanced output. Because wow-wee, it would be worth it. 

NextDrive Spectra X: ~190$ USD

Move over Mojo. Move over Grace m9xx. Move over Audirect Whistle. The new kid in town is Spectra X. Plenty of power, amazing DAC, hiss-less output, and compatibility with iOS. What a great package. What a great sound. This batboy packed inside or with a Burson Play is probably all you’ll ever need, and even then some. Honestly, if you’re on the prowl for a USB DAC, don’t look anywhere else before checking out the X. It is amazing. In fact, it’s the best USB DAC I’ve tested, ever. 

End words

And that’s it, folks, a bevy of products that knocked my socks off this year. Fun in particular probably will remain a kicker forever. Hit me up next year and in ten years ago. I’m sure I’ll be singing its praises. I hope you had a great 2018. Happy Christmas!

On the next page you’ll find LINUS’s 2018 Awards!

HFN Awards – Nathan, Linus, Berkhan and Nano
4.8 (96%) 10 vote[s]

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

5 Comments

  • Reply December 28, 2018

    Lieven

    Awesomeness!

  • Reply December 31, 2018

    Jonatha

    Hi Lieven,

    Thanks for the great recommendations!

    I have a question about double amping. If you use the Burson Play with the Spectra NexDrive as suggested, wouldn’t you be double amping the signal? I asked Spectra if the DAC portion of the NextDrive could be used without the amp and they said no.

    Is double amping such a big deal with the NextDrive? So far I have been using the ALO Continental V5 amp with both the NextDrive and the Sony nw-zx300 (both double amping) and I haven’t noticed any deterioration to the sound.

    I have researched double amping and it seems that most of the negative comments I found about it were from many years ago. Maybe double amping is not a bid problem anymore.

    Thanks and happy holidays!

    • Reply January 2, 2019

      ohm image

      Double amping isn’t a problem if your amps are of high quality and their inputs good. Even if they are bad, often double amping may fix errors. For instance, an original apple iPod shuffle hissed a lot but sounded good otherwise. Attach an external amp to it and that hiss doesn’t get to the headphone signal of a good outboard amp. Double amping has always been a red herring for what essentially is poor understanding of how audio works.

      The NextDrive isn’t a traditional amp. It’s an SoC with a great output section. It has no noise and even if it did, double amping wouldn’t be a problem.

      • Reply January 2, 2019

        Jonathan

        Thanks! This makes sense as I have been using the Sony NW-ZX300 and the older NextDrive Spectra with the Continental V5 with great results! I was wondering if I would get much improvement with the NextDrive Spectra X but it seems that the difference between the two would be minimal.

        cheers!

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