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Favas? Think faves like favorites and favors, not flatulent beans! Checking on my 2022 awards page, I didn't think that culling from it for here would do most readers any favors. At €22.9K/pr with stands, the Raidho TD1.2 monitor is too exclusive for hoi-polloi relevance. If you're unsure of the word, it's Greek for 'the many' i.e. the people. At €4.5K, Cen.Grand's Silver Fox headfi amp without DAC similarly sets itself apart. The MonAcoustic SuperMon Mini really needs a sub. That makes it ideal for their users but incomplete for the 2.0 masses. Pink Faun's 2.16 Ultra demands at least €20K to get going. The DMAX Super Cubes are extremely special ops. Of the eight awards I handed out this year, most aimed very narrow. And aiming narrow is often synonymous with being especially good. Think brain surgeon not GP. It's extreme specialization; worthless for all general ailments but a lifesaver if the body's chairman malfunctions.
Doing favors. It used to mean picking up an extra bag of potatoes for a neighbor while at the green grocer's; or a similar mundane courtesy or concession. Why must even a whiff of corruption factor? A dirty mind sees dirt everywhere. For this Year's End page, I wanted a few recos whose relevance would surpass my formal award winners. That meant going off the pricey reservation. Perusing my year 2022 review list for lower landings, here are a few that fit my bill of doing real favors. Baksheesh. Incoming.
Audirvana Origin. I started PCfi with an iMac and the PureMusic software player very many moons ago. Today it's Audirvana Origin on a Win 64/10 PC and legacy Audirvana 3 on the big system's music iMac whose older OS can't host the most current version. Don't fix what ain't broke! Audirvana caches local files in RAM then spins down the iMac's FusionDrive since it's not used for anything else. That's step N°1 to eclipse a generic computer transport. Step N°2 is an external USB bridge. It inserts another buffer then reclocker before it spits out spit-shined digits as I²S, AES/EBU, BNC or coax to your DAC. On my desktop, that bridge is a €460 Singxer SU-2. Behind the iMac it's the super-cap powered €699 SU-6. I ordered in both from French e-tailer Audiophonics whose service was impeccable. Hence the combo is my hoi-polloiest reco of the year. Everbody and their granny stream these days. In the high-end space, sadly far too much is made of how 'audiophile' streamers crush standard computers. Bullshit.
To turn the latter into bona fide music servers requires just a few things. 1/ dedicate one to just music use. 2/ buy extra RAM. 3/ install player software like Audirvana, Euphony, HQPlayer, JRiver, PureMusic & Bros. Set to the strictest protocol to disable all computing tasks other than music related. 4/ output to an external USB bridge. It remains a simple, cost-effective and winning recipe. It's why I'm not with one of those headless über servers I reviewed. They still need a computer, screen and mouse for navigation and access when our WiFi allergy forbids tablet remotes. And sonic advantages are marginal at best. Plus there's this. If you run a slickster server with Euphony software via browser window to remain in fully hardwired mode, you must be on the Internet just to stream local files. Should your Internet go down or the software's server be inaccessible (you can't log in), you can't play the music you bought sitting right there on your own drive. That's mad!
What about cloudy files? In my life, Ethernet still needs more help than USB before it will equal USB which itself ought to at least equal a good CD transport like a Jay's Audio. We can't legitimately go aurally ape over streaming if we don't hold it to the highest standards of physical media. Even though my music iMac hardwires to our fiber-optic router via 20m of industrial CAT8a then sees the same signal path as local files, streaming Qobuz Sublime doesn't sound as good as the same files stored locally. In an attempt to level this canted field, I ordered a Lhy Audio $594 SW-8 network switch with 'super' clock, linear power supply and upscale voltage regulation. Already running it with an el-cheapo generic CAT5 cable more than halved the earlier discrepancy to be a winner. A CAT7 cable with Telegärtner plugs wiped out all remnants of discrepancy for true parity.
Shanling's M3 Ultra is a €469 DAP whose Android 10-based OS, fast SnapDragon processor and multi-layer screen flicks create instant smartphone-type familiarity for the user. A micro SD-card bay serves up to 2TB of storage. Whilst primarily aimed at headfi—hi-gain mode at 35 on the volume gets Meze's 109 Pro at cruising altitude—I propose using the M3 Ultra as a modern digital iPod dock. Perch it on a generic smartphone stand so it's up and angled just so. Connect its USB C output to a USB bridge's or DAC's USB A input. Set it up next to your listening chair via 2-3m USB cable. Voilà, a battery-powered digital transport without moving parts or full-blown Windows/Mac OS that needs to be bypassed for best sound. An intuitive touch screen, cover art, easy playlist creation, all common search parameters and file support make interfacing with our local tunes child's play whilst sheer proximity eliminates the need for a remote control or bigger screen. In this 21st-century iPod-as-transport scenario, bigger costlier DAP with more potent headfi outputs are of no interest. All we need is a fast responsive GUI and USB out. The rest is up to our DAC. With WiFi/Bluetooth onboard, cloud streaming too is on. My WiFi allergy simply turns those features off. Instead I exploit this handsome well-built deck as a hardwired SD-card transport in my upstairs speaker system. It's super cost and interface effective.
In my second podcast review with John Darko, we shared our two takes on Meze's 109 Pro and essentially pulled even. Four ears, one opinion. At €799 this open-backed full sizer is quite a serious purchase. Yet my estimation calls it in the running up to probably €2K. That makes it a serious value. It's handsome, very well built, easy to drive, comfy as sin and a fun and serious listen. That means rather higher resolution and linearity than the smaller 99 Classic which looks similar; but still a cleverly tuned voicing that serves the long term and chillier spikier fare. The 109 Pro is my favorite new headphone beneath Raal's ribbons and HifiMan's Susvara.
Topping the desk for any period of time is something many of us do daily. That deserves good sound. Sheer proximity and its limited SPL mean speakers that can be far smaller and cheaper than they must be in a standard room to compete. In short, they can cost far less. The smart money goes active and USB, be it into a budget Audio Engine or more upscale Focal. To bridge PC to active speaker via USB I combine iFi's Mercury3.0 cable—a £244 outlay via the UK's FutureShop—and their €149 iPurifier3. It's how I massage cloud files on the desktop where I canvas Qobuz, Spotify & YouTube for new music. I'm not much of a believer in digital cables too far past generics. Trust me, these Thorsten Loesch bobs of noise-filtering trickery make an easily audible difference. But there your desktop's musical bliss shouldn't end. There's a reason why soundbars soundstage worth shit. They're too short hence broadcast too narrow. A walk-in soundstage needs widely spaced boxes. So get your computer speakers off your desk onto stands. Space them as wide as your décor and sense allow. A fringe benefit is vibration isolation from your desktop. Mine is tempered glass with a leather mat. Going off desk with my DMAX Super Cubes made a real difference by also eliminating all physical pulses through the table into the heels of my hands. No more keyboard jitters. For stands, consider pro audio brands like Gravity; and e-tailers like gear4music. Voilà, my 2022 favas or hill of beans. Now you can eat my liver and wash it all down with a nice Chianti. Bon appetite. Or burp?
Definitely mucho gusto was my December encounter with the Qualio IQ. It began a good week after I'd penned the above. True, €5.5K/pr put them in a different league than my other entrants yet their ingredients and performance make them exceptional value all the same. Think Nenuphar-type vocal purity. Add superior treble from a dipole Mundorf AMT, then tauter burlier bass from a ported 9½" Satori woofer. The real star of course is the 6" Satori mid. It too runs as a dipole on the open plexi baffle to cover 600Hz to 8kHz with 6dB slopes beyond those stops. Absence of thru-cone reflections which return from inside a cab back out through the driver delayed in time make for impeccable temporal clarity plus stunning soundstaging. Dynamics and related scaling too are off the charts. Premium 20-watt Mundorf resistors of different values insert in special tweeter terminals to adjust the AMT's power to the user's taste. Add various standard and custom paints or veneers. All in, this speaker from the Cube Audio designers sells factory direct and is a real ear opener. It unapologetically belongs on this page of favorite 2022 discoveries. My extended review explains all and includes the brand's full genesis story which started off with a quite different speaker concept indeed.