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2019 standouts & Product of the Year

Across the globe, the monthly banquet of hifi reviews is enormous. So when another year's end approaches, it can, at least for one's own pages, become opportunity to reflect on special sightings across that year. Here are my eight personal highlights of the year. Five reset markers on resolution, two packed more in less, one did more with a lot less. In alphabetical order, here goes:

Børresen Acoustics 02. When Lars Kristensen and Michael Børresen tired of working under Dantax management which had acquired them after rescuing Raidho from receivership, they launched a new speaker company which now operates under the same umbrella and from the same factory as Aavik and Ansuz. My factory tour and a parallel one from Warsaw correspondent Dawid Gryzb paint that picture.

The 02 is a compact 2.5-way floorstander with CD-sized mid/woofers. Those are made not of polycarbonate but ultra-stiff non-woven carbon-fiber skins around a Nomex core. Super-neodymium motors with massive copper not iron rings create high flux at low inductance. 1/100th of a gram transformer-less ribbon tweeters also with super-neodymium motor and run in dipole mode open the sky lights. Series crossovers handle signal splitting. Novel ports with pressure-control discs plus the drivers' low inductance create unusually linear impedance. That avoids the typically steep saddle response of a ported alignment with its related amplifier control and room-boom issues. Add built-in resonance control and a rakish enclosure with an ultra-narrow concave spine.

The upshot of low-mass well-vented drivers with super-strong motors in a very inert cabinet is high acceleration power with minimal to zero energy storage. That sums to extreme speed and resolution, hence high dynamic contrast and superior soundstaging precision. It resets typical performance limitations for this type/size speaker. It also costs accordingly but then, living large never comes cheap.

Camerton Binom 1. When Oleh Lizohub left Voxativ as chief engineer, he stayed in Berlin and revived his earlier brand Camerton—cyrillic for tuning fork—which he'd operated in the Ukraine from 1999 to 2011. His first speaker under that reborn marque is the Binom 1. It measures just 20 x 38.5 x 30cm HxWxD, features a single small flat driver with balsa wood and aluminium/beryllium alloy diaphragm plus inverted surround yet books a bandwidth of 35Hz – 28'000kHz.

Unless heard, in person and comprehensively, such a constellation of attributes seems impossible. It simply signals fake news all around. Once heard, impossible turns to outrageous but still true. Suddenly the big quarter-wave or rear-horn enclosures of the 8-10" widerbander club find themselves a thing of the unnecessary past because this compact accomplishes the same with so much less. Using a complex rear-ported enclosure torqued under permanent tension then encased in true piano-gloss lacquer for a hard external skin, the involved tech and R&D again don't come cheap but the sonic results compete squarely against equal-to-higher priced but a lot bigger competitors from Cube and Voxativ. And that stands out from the pack.

Merrill Audio Element 114. Stand out this year also did Merrill Wettasinghe's no-feedback 200wpc stereo power amp. It combines rapidly switching gallium nitride aka GaN output transistors with a custom LLC-resonant switching power supply. Having previously marketed amplifiers based on tweaked Ncore and Hypex OEM boards, i.e. high-feedback modules with cheaper parts intended to also serve the mass market, with the Element range Merrill point the other way. These are cost-no-issue models focused on class D not for the usual reasons of high energy efficiency and maximum power-to-cost ratio but purely, for cutting-edge performance.

True to its brief, the 114 edged out resident Hypex and Ncore specimens from Auralic and Nord as well as Purifi's demonstrator sample. What's more, on resolution it even eclipsed our resident 1MHz DC-coupled ultra-bandwidth class AB LinnenberG Liszt monos with lateral Exicon Mosfets. In its nickel enclosure with copper-tone fascia and plates plus back-lit display, the Element 114 also looks and costs the part. More importantly, it relaunches the discussion about performance beyond any consideration for class of operation. This was the amp that got away this year because I couldn't afford to keep it. Death and taxes.

Raal Requisite SR1a. I'm fond of saying that for us consumers, the only way to know what's actually on any of our recordings are superior headphones. They eliminate the room's unpredictable EQ on the frequency response and nonlinear decay times, lower the standing noise floor, avoid multi-driver, crossover and loss-over-distance effects, thus present maximum detail at maximum linearity. With our resident headfi collection including flagships from Final and HifiMan as well as models by Audeze, Beyer, Meze and Sennheiser, the arrival of the world's first true-ribbon headphones from Raal Requisite displaced the lot. After subsequently reviewing Dan Clark Audio's Voce estats on an EL84 OTL Blue Hawaii SE from Headamp, the SR1a's top spot remained unchallenged. The twin reasons for this seem to be the floating design which eliminates the ear-muff syndrome of enclosure reflections and pressure build-up behind the membrane; and the operational principle of a transformer-less open-backed ribbon which puts nothing between membrane and ear not even magnets; and which stores no energy. The upshot of this radical design with external impedance converter box is the fastest most dynamic and linear transducer in our arsenal bar none. Whenever I want to hear all the detail separated down to the proverbial bone in dense mixes and know what the recorded tonal balance is really like, the SR1a is my microscope and truth teller. Extension to 30Hz completes that picture.

Rethm Aarka. Proprietary 5" widebander from Jacob George with 1.3m transmission line folded seven times. Dual 6" active sealed woofers driven by internal class A/B not D amp. A user-selectable 10-watt class A amp with 6922 driver for the widebander converts semi-active drive (high-level input, active bass only) if you prefer your own amp for the majority bandwidth to fully active (RCA input) if you don't. Adjustable low pass and bass gain plus custom stands complete this $4'750/pr picture.. With an F3 of ~35Hz depending on room and adjustment, Aarka is full-range for most intents and purposes. Like the Camerton above and the sound|kaos below, this smallest Rethm re-imagines the widebander genre by doing away with typical quarter-wave cabinets to shrink the box whilst increasing bandwidth. That tracks modern preferences for a small visual foot print. Full or partial activation plays to the same modernity with multi-tasking or doing more with less. The final flourish of dotting this 'i' of the iPhone era is the small exposed triode in the line's mouth. That and very architectural cosmetics make India's Aarka unique to truly stand out in that most overcrowded of speaker sectors called the 2-way monitor genre.

Vinnie Rossi Signature line stage. Mega bandwidth to 900kHz. No noise. No output transformers, no coupling capacitors, no driver tubes. Ready for 2.5V, 4V and 5V direct-heated triode specimens with the flick of a switch. Available with 6.3mm/XLR4 headphone outputs, DAC and phono stage. The Vinnie Rossi L2 preamplifier is a unique beast. It liberates its power triodes from the usual bandwidth limits and phase shifts suffered by all competing DHT preamps from Allnic to Manley Labs. There's nothing thick, fuzzy or coloured about this grounded-grid circuit. There's no ransom on detail resolution which is easily confirmed with the tube bypass feature. But there are clear benefits beyond small signal triodes like 6SN7, 12AU7, 6H30 or 6922. Our resident Nagra Classic preamp which had beaten many comers prior to its acquisition confirmed that. Add remote control and true balanced i/o for equivalent sources and/or amplifiers. It all sums up to a one-of-a-kind preamplifier that allows one to hear the undiluted aroma of for example a premium Western Electric VT52 or Takatsuki 300B whilst driving the reactive load of one's loudspeakers with a premium transistor amp of equivalent resolution and bandwidth. And that makes for a best of both worlds – direct-heated triodes for voltage gain, transistors for current gain.

Still transcending these six shiny moons would have been a solitary product of the year. But as it turned out, there were two vying for that honor. Since I couldn't pick one without disrespecting the other's equally outstanding achievement, they share the spot. As it turns out, they also go together like peanut butter and jelly, fish and potatoes, eggs and mayonnaise or, for some local Irish color, busking musicians with Galway's Shoppe Street. Here our my last two entries:

Bakoon AMP-13R. This €6'000 miniature won two awards, one from us, one from regularly syndicating HifiKnights in Poland. At 25/50wpc into 8/4Ω, it's no power broker. But if it's the most sophisticated solid-state sound you're after, for speakers and headphones alike including inefficiency bastards like HifiMan's Susvara, Bakoon's smallest and first amp with their novel Jet Satri circuit is the best I've heard all year; and the best amp we own. In signature Bakoon style, replacing the fixed output resistor on their patented gain stage with a relay-switched resistor ladder adjusts volume by remote. Two voltage and two current inputs make the AMP-13R into an integrated but by lacking a conventional preamp stage or lossy potentiometer, it's actually a multi-input amplifier with true variable gain. High voltage gain means no issues with even 82dB speakers in our rooms. As the most compact amp whilst combining multiple functions—speaker drive, remote input switching and volume, headfi—the Bakoon stuck to a far lower budget than challengers up to €36'000 which still couldn't dethrone it. That makes this stylish collaborative effort between engineers in California, South Korea and Japan our domestic Numero Uno, thus a natural for this special year's end mention.

sound|kaos Vox 3f. At €5'900/pr with stands, the story of Martin Gateley's smallest, the 4-driver Vox 3—the name indicates a proper three-way—wasn't complete yet when 2019 rang out. That's because its 3a version was still around the bend. 'f' is for ferrite motor, 'a' for AlNiCo. Those distinctions point at a 4" stock TangBand widebander for the former, a custom Enviée in a bronze basket for the latter. Either way, an upfiring Raal ribbon in a custom bronze plate and horizontally opposed Armin Galm custom 5" carbon woofers, all-wood construction in Walnut or Cherry, a matching stand and bronze-mesh woofer grills round out the Vox 3. Already with ferrite fuel, this Swiss mini driven by our AMP-13R impressed way beyond its dimensions and even pipped the Camerton on the final lap. By eliminating a typical filter in the presence region and putting midrange and lower treble on the same cone, immediacy and HF dynamics increase. Twin woofers loaded by port raise bass output and overall sensitivity, then force cancel mechanical vibrations. The upfiring ribbon counters a widebander's propensity to beam at the top, a wood enclosure sounds and looks better than MDF and direct sales from Switzerland deliver happier pricing. For décor-conscious flat dwellers keen on superlative sound that takes flight on little power, the smallest of all sound|kaos models factors biggest.

And there you have it, my mental stroll down 2019's Memory Lane to highlight my personal picks of a very good year when cost is from not so very much to no issue at all. For 2019 on a £675 – €3'000 budget instead, there's this. If one looks in the right places, hifi needn't be old wine in shiny new bottles. A benefit of the iGeneration's insistence on superior industrial design is that much hifi has awoken to the same demands just to remain relevant. Good looks, lounge-friendly dimensions and ambitious sonics no longer are mutually exclusive – if one shuts out lame excuses which haven't caught on yet that massive altars to hifi and two sonic refrigerators in the living room no longer impress a hipper audience. After all, looks and functionality are part and parcel of any performance equation; or must become so when that's what the big industries of IT, cellular and automotive present by competing example. It's why all these picks save one meet that cosmetic mark. The one exception is so sonically superior and radical in its makeup that attempts at prettification would likely hamstring performance. Here I'm of course talking of the steam-punk Raal ribbon earspeakers.

In any event, 2019 made for quite the bumper crop of desirable hifi sightings. Thanks to all the manufacturers who participated in our reviews; and special congratulations to the companies on this page. Cheers.