It’s that time again. Our annual awards – bigger and better than ever – have come to be an important part of the Hi-Fi+ calendar. Every year, we listen to hundreds of fine products in a range of categories, from the smallest earphone or cartridge up to the largest, multi-box floorstanding loudspeaker, from the affordable to the astronomical. And every year, a handful of those products stand out as exceptional examples of their breed.
The audio market is exceptionally mature (alongside the camera and the automobile, recording and replaying sound was one of the first truly modern consumer technologies first developed in the 19th Century, and playing records even predates mass electrification of homes), but is not stagnant. Change is constant, and our Awards have to reflect that change. Every year, we evaluate each individual award category for its relevance, adding or removing categories as a result. This results in a lot of award categories, but that is the result of an increasingly diverse and fluid audio market. This diversity is very much at odds with some of the more stagnant tomes in audio development, where we could have called upon the same basic categories year in, year out. Speaking personally, I’m happier to live in a more dynamic market with annual change, because it speaks of major improvements in audio performance.
Those major improvements are across the board. In fact, although there are significant changes to audio equipment at all price points, the most exciting changes seem to be happening at the more value-driven end of the audio world. We have seen inexpensive audio electronics, loudspeakers, cables, and in the full spread of personal audio products that provide a degree of performance that would have been impossible to achieve at almost any level a few years ago. Naturally, when you move from audio’s ‘good’ to ‘great’ what you get in the process is more; more bandwidth, more bass, more volume headroom, more dynamic range, and so on. This has always been the case, but – by accepting some compromise in those areas (often forced upon us by the size and shape of the room itself), you can get truly exceptional performance from high-quality, affordable audio. And in the case of personal audio, you can get astonishingly good, truly high-end performance from a system that is both affordable and doesn’t weigh as much as a car engine.
Careful system matching and providing a good foundation for a fine audio system still holds, of course, and putting together a system made up of random Award-winning products is no guarantee of fantastic performance. But in today’s audio world even the most affordable award-winning product is capable of so much that it’s worth making the effort in extracting the most out of any system in today’s golden age of audio.
A part of this golden age is the diversity of ways in which you can access that good sound today. LP is still very much in fashion, and the pressing plants can’t make records quick enough to satisfy demand. The decline in CD sales has slowed and there are still tens of millions of CDs sold every year. Music streaming goes from strength to strength, both in terms of availability and resolution, and is presently outstripping music downloads, which appear to be in fairly steep decline. The one seeming exception to that decline in owning rather than leasing online music is in the high-resolution field – people are still willing to buy a high-quality online version of an album, so long as it sounds good and ‘comes with all the trimmings’ (the 21st century equivalent of high-quality cover art and liner notes). The change is significant; the tail end of the last decade was defined by a ‘good enough’ culture that traded quality for availability. Now that storage and bandwidth are effectively non-issues, the need to make that trade has evaporated and people are waking up to the notion of quality and quantity. And that extends way beyond the audiophile field.
Our round-up is primarily regarding products we have seen during 2017, but that is a semi-permeable barrier. We review somewhere between 120 and 140 products per year in all categories, and sometimes we have products lined up for review that don’t make it into that year but are deserving of an award all the same. These are included in the awards, before their respective reviews, with the promise that the review will follow in an upcoming issue.
There is also the interesting question of 2016 reviews in 2017. Just because a product receives an award this year does not invalidate the product that received an award last year. We live in a world where the relatively languid pace of development in audio electronics (where a product could stay in production for years or even decades) are being forgotten as we all march to the beat of the smartphone, but it is worth reiterating that good audio is designed for the long game, and a product made today will likely be every bit as relevant years from now. Of course, this holds at the high-end, but increasingly the best of breed at any level will outperform many products across the board for years to come.
Where that might not hold is in the realm of digital audio. Just as a few years ago, the DSD numbers game came to dominate the nature of DAC performance (irrespective of how many DSD files the listener actually owned), the must-have three-letter-acronym of the moment is shaping up to be MQA. I suspect this year will be the crucial year; by the time it comes to next year’s awards, MQA support will either be ‘useful’ or its absence will be ‘a deal-breaker’ – and that largely comes down to DAC buyers around the world.
So, here it is. We think these are some of the best products to date, in a world already brimming over with outstanding products in all aspects of audio performance. Enjoy, and keep listening!