Editor’s Choice $500 to $2,500 USD – AudioStream 2019

The $500 to $2,500 USD range offers some of the best bang-for-buck in the digital-audio realm. A few of this year’s picks are back after making the list in 2018, but they were benchmarks and we think they deserve to be included. There’s been real interest in creating audiophile-quality products in the growing market segment that is computer-based playback thanks to music streaming exploding into the consumer market from the likes of Amazon to Qobuz. While some services are more tailored to teens and 20-somethings rocking their laptops or mobile phones on limited-bandwidth, others have focused like laser beams on ultra HD (high resolution) albums properly sourced (from what I’d like to think are studio masters) for the discerning audiophile looking to gobble all their bandwidth. This translates to products designed for different parts of the siloed market to deliver the music in this rather broad range of price/performance: the meaty section of the hobby if you will.

$500 to $2,500 USD

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Streamer – $899 USD

Having only recently received the the CXN V2 for review (along with the CXA81 integrated amplifier), I was impressed enough with initial listening sessions that I knew I had to include it here. Add in the just-announced support for Qobuz that Cambridge has added to the CXN V2, (along with the Edge NQ and Azur 851N streamers), and this sub-$1k full-size chassis streamer can play with the all big boys. Using proprietary ‘ATF2’ technology, all incoming data is upsampled to 24-bit/384kHz before being passed along to the dual Wolfson WM8740 DACs. A Roon Endpoint, wireless streaming up to 24-bit/96kHz, Airplay, aptX Bluetooth, UPnP and the company’s own app – Cambridge Connect – mean options galore for playback. Look for a full review in the New Year.

KEF LSX Wireless Music System – $999 USD

KEF has a long engineering history for delivering benchmark speaker designs and the LSX wireless speaker system continues that tradition. At a current sale price of $999 USD, this sub-$1k true wireless 24-bit/96kHz bookshelf kit impressed me so much that I named it my Product of The Year for 2018. The fact that it’s back is further proof that it continues to deliver a level of sound quality in a feature-rich user set that has few peers at this price point. As I previously wrote of the LSX, “In the LSX, KEF has produced a timbral and tonally-rich sounding set of truly wireless loudspeakers (just needs AC power) that only require a source to stream tunes and are capable of creating an enormous, deep, 3D-soundscape with astounding resolution, airy treble, punchy mids and incredible, tight bass – especially from such a small package.” The LSX comes in five colour choices: white, red, green, blue and black and will support input resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz. Output is 24-bit/48kHz for wireless playback and 24-bit/96kHz for RJ45 tethered playback. The LSX connect via 2.4GHz/5GHz dual-band wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.2 with the aptX codec or Ethernet. Apple Airplay 2 is now standard. A TOSLINK Optical and a 3.5mm auxiliary input are also included. The LSX also has a 5V2A DC subwoofer output.

Final Touch Audio Callisto 1m USB Cable, Matis 1m Ethernet Cable – $865 USD/$805 USD

Cables are a tricky proposition to list under Editor’s Choice because sadly, some people still think high-quality cables are BS. Those who listen know cables can impact a system’s tonal and timbral character (among many other traits) for different, worse, or simply (as the best do) allow more of the unmolested music to come through. Cable purchases are part of a holistic sonic ecosystem and results could vary within the context of individual setups. That said, regardless of whether I’ve been running AudioQuest cabling, TelluriumQ cabling, PS Audio cabling or a mix of all three, the Final Touch Audio Callisto USB and Matis Ethernet cables have allowed my digital sources to open up and breathe in a way no other USB or Ethernet cables I’ve used (so far) have. From FTA, “Developing Callisto USB cable we have set to ourselves a target to explore and use different types of materials than the rest of the industry … We looked into the history [of] how Katana swords have been produced. Special attention was given to process of forging and hammering. We decided to use a copper wire which is not purified and possesses a significant amount of Gold and Silver particles inside the wire. Wire has been [hammered] in order to achieve desired gauge and technical specification.” On the Matis, “Despite the common thinking and belief that Ethernet cables do not and cannot make an audible difference transferring zeros and ones in audio applications we did our best to prove them wrong … We used the best conductors and connectors available on the market, paying the utmost attention in finding the right balance between diameters of conductor and dielectric material used, while deploying the proprietary geometry of the cable. All of this was carefully and meticulously blended together in order to achieve the lowest possible interference of the cable to the speed of transferred data and lowest possible signal reflections in the cable.”

Naim CD5 Si CD Player – $1,995 USD

What can I say? I’m not playing CDs as much as I like these days, but if I was spinning them more then this would be the player I’d use all the time for under $2k. I first heard it over 10 years ago in a previous iteration and was floored by how immediate and rhythmically addictive the music’s focus was through the player, the momentum it lent to well-known pieces had me listening to old standards all over again. Featuring classic Naim PRaT and a Burr Brown PCM1793 DAC chipset along with one of the most unique CD-drawer mechanisms on the market, the CD5 Si is a welcome respite from the attention-deficit-playlist-disorder that streaming can imbue in some users who are spending more time queueing up songs than listening to them. Nothing is easier than adding a CD player to your stack, sliding in a disc and letting the whole album play. Remember vinyl? This is the digital equivalent.

Innuos Zen Mini Mk III Network Streamer – $1,250 USD

For those not familiar with Innuos yet, this company is a relative newcomer that has burst onto the scene in recent times with a range of fantastic streamers that has redefined the price-to-feature set equation in streamers. Their least expensive streamer is a Roon-ready unit that also includes a CD ripper and a 1TB HDD (standard hard drive). The Zen Mini MK III has a built-in DAC that can be used in a pinch, as well as a mighty four USB outputs, Coax S/PDIF, Optical Toslink and RCA outputs. If you’ve been turned off by the high cost of quality streamers, the Zen Mini Mk III is one of the more attainably-priced solutions out there, and one of the few that will allow you to listen to downloads, CD rips and stream music from your NAS or the Cloud. However you listen to digital music, the Zen Mini Mk III will meet you there with exceptional flexibility.

Chord Qutest DAC – $1,895 USD

Chord’s Mojo and Hugo DAC/Headphone amps made quite a splash in the personal audio realm, and the Qutest represents their most affordable DAC above the Mojo portable, and the first real taste of what their higher-end offerings are sonically up to. Despite it’s diminutive size, the Qutest is eminently capable as both a desktop DAC and pulling duty as a two-channel audio DAC. There are four selectable filters, a feature descended from the Hugo and DAVE, which allows you to adjust the sound to taste – think of them as the spice rack you always wish you had. The effect is subtle but offers some nice flexibility. Really though, the Qutest excels as a general purpose, high-quality DAC that offers a great taste of what custom-designed FPGA-equipped converters can offer over Delta-Sigma implementations. Well worth a listen if you haven’t heard anything from Chord yet.

rugyboogie's picture

Have to agree on the FTA USB. Makes music like no other USB that I have tried. Flies under the radar.