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

When you start talking about gear that edges into five-figures, you’re talking less about actual high-fidelity objects and more about emotional stimulation – at least in my opinion.

This level of financial investment is just that; investment. I feel these types of purchase decisions are based more around need than want, because while we want a new DAC, streamer, amplifier or combo thereof, if one is spending serious money it’s more an internal need that drives what we end up buying.

That said, the gear in this year’s Over $2,500 USD Editor’s Choice list is reasonably balanced between the low five-figures and the mid-high four figures, and, in my estimation, all of the picks represent outstanding hi-fi value for the money. This is equipment that will help to bring countless hours of sonic satisfaction to your llife and I encourage you, wherever possible, to make appointments with local shops or distributors, schedule a trip to (or visit friends in) a city where you can, if local access is not possible, hear all or any of the gear on the list.

Devialet Expert 220/440 Pro – $9,990 USD/$18,900 USD

The Devialet Expert 220 Pro that recently arrived for review deeply impressed me with its level of playback resolution, frequency control at extremes, spatial imaging, musicality and wired/wireless connectivity – the company then sent another so I could run a pair of 220s in dual-mono mode. This then became the Expert 440 Pro and that added not inconsiderable heft to the sound. Packing 440 Watts/channel of unique Class-A/Class-D hybrid amplification, a UPnP network streamer, DAC, phono stage, line stage, and mutliple digital I/O – all of which are, realistically, almost infinitely customizable thanks to a proprietary Devialet online software configurator. These features alone are enough for several hundred words of description, but that only scratches the surface of the 100+ patents for software and hardware technology that Devialet has ingeniously and holistically constructed the Expert line around. A unique ADC protocol converts all incoming analog signals to 24-bit/192kHz before passing the binary data along to the operating system and DAC architecture, there’s also SAM (Speaker Active Matching) to get the most out of 900+ speaker models. With Roon Ready status, AirPlay compliance and the ability to wirelessly transmit bit-perfect data at high-resolution via Devialet AIR, the sheer number of possibilities to play, interact and listen to your music is impressive. To me, this is a high-fidelity machine seemingly designed by music lovers and engineers whose goals are all about breaking technology barriers, not trying to scale them. Full review in the New Year.

Naim XS3 Integrated Amplifier/ND5 XS 2 Network Streamer – $2,999 USD/$3,495 USD

I tend toward holistic system set-ups for a reason (hardware from the same manufacturer is designed and built to work and sound best together); they sound the most coherent in my experience. Not everyone has one, but many probably strive to build one. The thing is they take time, experience and understanding to construct (which manufacturer to choose? Analog or digital? Both?), and most individuals putting together one are doing it one component upgrade (perhaps two) at a time because they already bought the kit – an amp here, a DAC or phono stage there, AC cables a year ago, interconnects last month, etc. So, it’s not an easy or fast process because you’re hearing the changes over time as a work-in-progress, and you can end up making sideways moves with purchases. Also, if you’re doing it yourself you rely on a mix of Internet forums, local bricks-and-mortar sales advice based on years of service and with luck, a good friend. With that said, if you’re looking to build a long-term holistic, digital-audio based separates system consisting of an integrated amplifier and a UPnP music server from the ground up in the $6.5K range, then you’d do you very well to audition the Naim XS 3 integrated amplifier and ND5 XS 2 Network Music Player. The XS 3 features 70 Watts/channel, five analog inputs, a new moving-magnet phono stage, a Class-A headphone amp, and classic Naim PRaT. Add in the XS 2’s new UPnP 32-bit/384kHz Naim streaming platform (DSD128), dual-band Wi-Fi, Roon compatibility, AirPlay, aptX HD Bluetooth, digital and Ethernet I/O (asynchronous clock, SHARC 40-bit DSP, Burr-Brown PCM1791A DAC) and you have a foundational hi-fi system that can pretty much handle anything you want to connect. Most importantly, you can now grow your hi-fi secure in the knowledge you started with source components that were voiced to be together.

Aurender W20 Caching Music Server/Streamer – $17,600 USD

I opened my review of Aurender’s flagship W20 Music Server/Streamer with, “Hello darkness, my old friend. Sigh. It was inevitable, really. Using Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” as a metaphor for the Aurender W20 Music Server. As soon as I switched over to it from the Aurender N10 the difference was noticeable enough that the song leapt to the fore of mind and I blurted out. “Shit.” You see, it was the blackness, the even further reduction in background noise from the N10 – practically an elimination – and utter lack of tonal coloration from the unit that hit me so hard.” I stand by that summation because that’s what the unit is really bringing to the high-end of the hi-fi game. Nobody is spending almost $20k on a digital-music server unless they’ve got some serious hardware downstream. Hardware worthy of wresting every ounce of resolution from a binary file. I’m lucky because I have a totaldac d1-direct on loan as AudioStream’s reference DAC, (and a Naim ND555 w/555PS right now) so I can continue to attest to just what (or what not) the W20 is giving your music: a black hole of silence from which the notes of your choice spring forth. With 12 TB of isolated and damped HDD storage (2 x 6 TB), a 240 GB SSD drive cache for motionless/noiseless playback, Gigabit Ethernet input, cascade-battery power supply, internal UPS protection, OCXO clock, USB, Coaxial, BNC, Dual AES/EBU and optical outputs, internal machined aluminum compartmentalization of circuit paths and power supplies for RF/noise isolation… the list goes on. This is the Fort Knox of music servers.

AudioQuest Niagara 5000 Low-Z Power/Noise Dissipation System – $3,995 USD

Dealing with noisy, corrupted AC lines is a big step down the path to high-fidelity enlightenment. When you start to realize the difference that connecting your components to clean incoming power makes to their sonic performance, I’m sorry, but there’s just no going back. Your $5,000 DAC suddenly sounds like an $8,000 one… the difference really can be that dramatic. As someone who climbed the ladder to my current system specs over more than a decade, I can tell you it was a constant learning curve, but one of the biggest ‘Eureka!’ moments came when I bought my first passive AC/mains power conditioner, followed by a ‘Geezus…’ moment when I stepped up the line to an active regeneration solution. There’s a lot of different ways to combat incoming AC noise, and I’d tried several with mixed results varying from ‘choked,’ to ‘breathing easy,’ before hooking up an AudioQuest Niagara 5000. There’s a lot of technology going on under the svelte chrome-alloy and black casework courtesy of the engineering prowess of AudioQuest’s Garth Powell – too much to get into for this post, so read my first review instalment on the 5000 HERE. But, I will say that the approaches AQ is taking to managing AC power in the Niagara series has to be heard; music breathes in a way that few conditioners can claim at any price, and almost none can claim for bottom-end extension and clarity. The 5000 can handle four high-current devices (power amps, etc.) and eight non high-current ones (preamps, DACs, servers, etc.).

Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo – $3,999 USD, optional stands/$799 USD

When I first heard these not-so-diminutive true wireless active bookshelf loudspeakers at a dealer demo event I was floored. That much sound (24Hz~33kHz listed specs), from those driver/enclosures? The fact that the only thing connecting the stereo pair of monitors was a proprietary wireless network protocol conveying data up to 24-bit/96kHz made the B&W Duo even more compelling (Wi-Fi, AirPlay2, Spotify and aptX HD Bluetooth – Ethernet capable as well). I had to have a pair in my home to experience their sound for myself. Fast forward a couple months and a snow-white pair with matching silver stands showed up at my door. Set-up took all of two minutes with the dedicated B&W hardware app and another 60 seconds to add them to my Roon network (proper Zone icon and all!). Placed on a large antique side table firing into the living/dining area of our home without the stands produced such impressive spatial imaging, hyper-realistic tone, timbre and eye-opening amounts of clean bass that most people don’t believe there’s no hidden subwoofer (2x125W power amplifiers per driver/enclosure – 1-inch Carbon dome tweeter, 6.5-inch Continuum Cone midbass). I’m constantly shaking my head at the depth and breadth of soundstaging and how incredibly lifelike the playback is regardless of genre – acoustic singer/songwriters with accompanying guitar (think Nick Drake) might as well be sitting in front me. The Duo seems placement agnostic as well, as I’ve done my best to situate them in as uninviting of spots as possible without ever sonically-ruffling their tres chic interior-designer friendly enclosures. Deep, engrossing, emotionally-sentient sound, modern, clean-slate looks and technology chops for years of future-fi longevity. Look for full review in the New Year.

Linn Selekt DSM with Katalyst DAC and Integrated Amplifier – $8,625 USD

The Linn Selekt DSM with Katalyst DAC and Integrated Amplifier offered forth one of the first moments in my home where I started to really embrace the power of DSP involving speaker placement measurements within the context of room placement. Linn Managing Director Gilad Tiefenbrun described the Linn DSP process, known as Space Optimisation, thusly, “Space Optimisation uses sophisticated acoustic modelling to build up a complete picture of how your speakers, their placement, and the unique characteristics of your room interact to negatively affect the music. It precisely identifies frequencies that are artificially distorted by the environment, and reduces their energy, to reveal the music that would otherwise be hidden.” Listening to the Selekt DSM without it enabled and then turned on took an integrated amp/DAC from deeply impressive to world-class in a few heartbeats. I was sold on the technology and implementation – especially at this sub-$10k price point. It took my Harbeth M40.1 loudspeakers and seemed to knock down the wall beside and behind them – sound staging went from big to enormous, quite a trick to experience from your listening chair. Add in 10 analog and digital inputs including HDMI ARC, USB2, optical, Toslink, Ethernet, an MM/MC phono stage (24-bit/192kHz digitization), analog line stage, stereo or surround configurations, 100 Watts/channel into four Ohms via bespoke Linn Class-D amplifiers and multi-room capabilities with other Linn DSM players and you’ve got your whole house covered. Built like a work of alloy art with one of the most tactile physical interfaces I’ve experienced, the Selekt DSM is constructed for the high-fidelity long haul.

Everclear's picture

Mytek Brooklyn Bridge, DAC/Network player, $3,000 :-) ...........

Everclear's picture

Bryston BDA-3.14, DAC/Network player, $4,200 :-) ........

Everclear's picture

NAD M10, integrated-amp/DAC/Network player, $2,750 (reviewed by Stereophile) :-) .........

TJ's picture

Thanks Rafe for such a great write-up. Nice to see Linn move into the DRC space. Have you listened to the miniDSP SHD Studio? Really astonishing how superb the SQ is for under $1000, even before you activate Dirac Live. Worth a try.

Happy holidays!