The Audiophiliac's best-sounding gear of 2012 (pictures)
2012 was a very good year for high-end audio, and the Audiophiliac got an earful!
HifiMan HE-6 headphones
This $1,200 headphone produces a shockingly vivid sound -- other headphones sound downright cloudy by comparison. Yes, the HE-6s are expensive and are extremely fussy about headphone amplifiers, but you can't get your Ferrari tuned at the corner gas station. I've heard most of the world's very best headphones -- Sennheiser's HD 800s and their legendary Orpheus, the Audeze LCD 2s ($995) and LCD-3s ($1,945), the Stax SR-007s ($2,600), SR-009s ($5,200) -- and Hifiman's flagship HE-6 headphones are up there with the very best. They're also significantly less expensive than most of those other contenders.
KEF's LS50 monitor commemorates the brand's 50th anniversary and has received rave reviews in the audiophile press the world over. The driver is a combination woofer/tweeter, and it was derived from a very similar driver in KEF's $30,000 Blade speaker. The LS50 sells for a much more modest $1,500 per pair, but the sound is the most refined and pure I've heard from any 12-inch-tall speaker that's anywhere near this price.
Moving upmarket from the KEF LS50, Magico's Q1 is an all-out assault on the state of the art, without cost constraints. The $25,000 (per pair) speaker is pretty small; it's just 14.2 by 9 by 14.2 inches. Rap your knuckles against the side of the cabinet and you'll know this is no ordinary speaker. Rather than using typical medium-density fiberboard construction, the Q1 is made from thick aluminum plates, fitted to an interior metal chassis. Each speaker weighs 60 pounds, and its matching floor stand weighs 60 more. The sound is simply astonishing.
Townshend turntables have always been very expensive, and the $3,200 Rock 7 certainly qualifies as costly, but it's the least expensive turntable ever offered by the company. (The tonearm and cartridge are not included in the price.) I went to the Wes Bender Studio NYC to play a few LPs on the Rock 7, and came away shaken and stirred by the experience.
I started listening to Ortofon's $2,380 Cadenza Black moving coil cartridge a month ago, and I can't get over its ability to retrieve the maximum amount of detail from my records' grooves. At the same time record surface noise, pops, and clicks are much less intrusive -- vinyl has never sounded better at home. Ortofon offers a broad range of phono cartridges, with prices starting at $59 for the OM5e.
Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor in-ear headphones
With the UE Personal Reference Monitors (PRM), you get to play headphone designer and dial in exactly the sound you want. Each pair is totally unique: they're built with the individually designed equalization curves that you select, and custom-molded to your ears. My PRMs sound absolutely amazing, but I'm a little biased -- I designed them to please my ears! Every PRM buyer will do the same, and if you totally screw up and hate the result, Ultimate Ears will give you another try. Each PRM is handmade at UE's facilities in California.
Speaker cables can be a touchy area, so I won't even try to convince anyone about the difference a great set of speaker cables can make in a high-end audio system. That said, AudioQuest's Gibraltar cables really clicked with my Magnepan 3.7 speakers. Improvements in transparency and bass definition were extraordinary.