HFN Awards – Nathan, Linus, Berkhan and Nano

LINUS

 

What a year it has been. We have been so blessed with excellent gear these past twelve months. There were so many good products, it was really difficult to name my top selection for 2018. The following is my personal selection of the best products 2018.

Best Amplifier: Schiit Audio – Lyr 3

The Lyr 3 combines many traits I desire in a good amplifier. A remarkable signature, enough power to drive even the most demanding headphones, the flexibility of rolling tubes and outstanding build quality. The Lyr 3 is one of the nicest amplifier designs I have laid my ears on in a while. I am a sucker for good discreet audio circuits and the Lyr 3 certainly is an example of a perfectly done one. With Schiit‘s upgrade cards you‘re even able to put in a DAC or a phono stage.

Honorable mention: JDS Labs – The Element. For everyone with tight space, the Element will provide an excellent size to performance relation. It’s comfortable dimensions pack great audio quality and will please many starting and aged audiophiles alike.

Best DAC: Chord Electronics – Qutest

It‘s no secret I am a big Chord fan. Each product they design puts a wide grin on my face. When they announced the Qutest at this year‘s CES, I knew I had to get to know it. It‘s basically a stripped down desktop version of the Hugo2.

The Qutest spits one of the cleanest signals of any DAC I have heard to date. It made the life of my Hugo2 a good bit easier, as I can now use the Qutest as my main-system DAC and the Hugo2 as my office source, both roles have been previously handled by the Hugo2. I wish more DACs the size of Qutest would perform at this level.

Honorable mention: Mytek – Brooklyn DAC+. This is the most versatile DAC/Amp combo I have ever had the pleasure to use. It supports all possible file formats and comes with a future proof design.

Best Portable Source: Astell&Kern – A&norma SR15

Good battery life. Excellent user interface and to top it all off wonderful sound. Its form factor and weight makes it the perfect companion for on the go listening. On my daily commute to work it was a refreshing pleasure to let the SP1000 sit aside and let its little brother take over.

To me no other brand can compare to Astell&Kern when it comes to design, build quality and especially user friendlyness. Their UI simply is the best with sheer endless options to use the SR15 as. It‘s a DAP, a network renderer, a streamer and a DAC. With AK‘s latest software update you‘re now also able to run some Android applications (like Spotify) on the SR15.

Honorable mention: Cozoy – Takt Pro. Tiniest DAC I have used this year. It transforms your smartphone into a great sounding product and comes in especially handy for people using phones without a headphone jack.

Best Universal IEM: 64 Audio – Tia Fourté

I‘ve heard many new top performers in the universal range this year. Many models have left a serious impression on me, but when it comes to naming the best of them, none could compete with the unique Tia Fourté.

64 Audio has proven that unconventional designs and thinking out of the box can push the envelope for great sound. The Tia Fourté has an outstandingly clear sound with impressive details and creates a picture so realistic it‘s hard to believe it is coming from a pair of In Ear Monitors. The Fourté to me represents a real game changer in this industry. It uses dedicated sound chambers for each driver and gets rid of sound tubes, this way it creates a sound like no other. Every person that tried my Fourté was immediately hooked.

Honorable mention: Astell&Kern – Billie Jean. At roughly 349$ the Billie Jean performs way above its price and puts more expensive models in the corners. This is an example of what many should consider a bargain.

Best Custom IEM: 64 Audio – A12t

This definitely doesn‘t come as a surprise to my fellow Headfonia writers, as ever since I have received the A12t it has been the benchmark for my sound preference. I have done a total of seven CIEM reviews this year, but the one custom I‘m using most in my non-review time is the A12t.
It has impressive resolution and throws a punch that can become jaw shattering. It‘s a perfect match for any genre I throw at it and leaves no desire to be unfulfilled for me. The A12t just hit my personal sweet spot. A hard hitting bass, a smooth and organic midrange and the wonderful treble clarity of 64‘s proprietary tia high drivers. What more could you want?
For the price of 1999$ you get a high performing monitor that can switch sound signatures within seconds by changing the supplied apex modules. The technology put into them is mind bobbling. The hat-less tia drivers deliver a crystal clean sound that’s energetic and fatigue free at the same time. 64’s proprietary apex modules make sure that you won’t run into excessive pressure-exposure while you’re enjoying your tunes. All combined with what’s possibly the best fit and build in the industry is what makes this CIEM a real knock out.

Honorable mention: Empire Ears – Legend X. I am a techy at heart, and looking at what Empire Ears has put into creating their new line-up, and especially the Legend X, sure brings a big smile to my face. It’s the monitor that revealed my sleeping bass head. I love it when people don‘t stop at the existing boundaries and redefine what‘s possible.

Best Headphone: MrSpeakers – Ether 2

I finished my review of the Ether 2 by saying it‘s a wonderful headphone to come home to. One that makes me forget all the stress from work and the busy life in a big city. Words I will stand by. The Ether 2‘s comfort is unmatched, with its super low 290 Grams of weight and a comfy headband construction the Ether 2 stays on my ears for hours.

It has a wonderfully detailed and transparent sound, that makes listening to music one hell of fun. I can kick back and be wowed with the MrSpeakers. I‘m discovering some of my favorite tracks in a new way. At the price of 2000 USD it also comes in a good bit cheaper than most of today‘s flagship models.

Best Cable: Effect Audio – Leonidas II

Pure. This is what the Leonidas II by Effect Audio is. Its signature is uncannily clean and transparent. Leonidas II is the successor of EA’s first real hit and filling its shoes was no easy task, however the Leo II has set the bar even higher.

Leonidas II is one of the rare cables that matches well with every monitor. It doesn’t change the signature of your favorite IEM, but elevates it to new highs with head-scratching resolution and imaging capabilities. The background Leonidas II introduces to the bundled monitors is outstanding. The original Leonidas was one of my top loved cables, but the Leonidas II has made its position clear, right there at the very top.

Honorable mention: Double Helix Cables – Clone Fusion. The Clone Fusion is a very unique cable on its own, and brings in many characteristics of much higher priced cables. The coaxial design makes it very comfortable, despite its lower wire gauge size.

Best Newcomer: FAudio

This is a new category I’m introducing here, one that shines a light on a smaller and less known brand, which deserves more recognition. For the first time this award goes to Hong Kong based IEM manufacturer FAudio. I’ve had the pleasure to listen to their 7BA flagship model, the Symphony. It has a very finely tuned balance with a natural sound and impressive technical parameters. A full review is to be expected early in 2019, but one thing is sure: it sets the bar high for any monitor in the sub 2000$ range.

FAudio – a brand to keep watching!

That’s it for my selection. A list of great products and each and everyone of it has deserved to be named as the best of 2018. I can’t wait to find out what the next year will bring. I have already heard about a few good ones that are currently in the making, so keep your eyes and ears open for what’s to come. Very exciting months are ahead of us audio nerds.

What are your personal top products of the year?
Which new gear has surprised you the most in 2018 and what are you looking for in the next year?
Make sure to leave a comment and tell us.

Berkhan’s 2018 awards can be found on Page Three of this award article!

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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