Looking back over the year
that's gone doesn't have to be a reflection on which gear we liked the most. It can also be about what we learnt from our listening experiences. Joining the dots on reviews and show reports can often give rise to themes. Here are a handful that really struck yours truly in 2016: The rise of the super machines. In the 1970s and 1980s it was common for an integrated amplifier to feature a phono stage, a nice-to-have bonus that slowly faded from view during the 1990s as vinyl fell out of favour. Toward the end of the 2000s, we began to see manufacturers specify D/A conversion with USB and S/PDIF inputs as part of their integrated amplifier's feature set. It's precisely this inclusive attitude that saw me buy my first Peachtree Nova in 2009. Nowadays, vinyl is back with a vengeance and digital audio, especially streaming, has gone from strength to strength. The modern integrated requires both phono stage and DAC. To their latest range of Nova integrateds, Peachtree have also added an iOS-conversing USB port, a dedicated headphone amplifier circuit with 6.3mm output and, in 2017, we will see the addition of an onboard digital streamer.

At Munich, Daniel Char finally announced the availability of Micromega's sleek M-One that includes a Class A/B amplifier, Bluetooth receiver, digital streamer, DAC, MM/MC phono staging and room correction! Crikey. The $3'500 Moon Neo Ace also invites us to just add speakers and stir with its Bluetooth receiver, on-board digital streamer, DAC, MM phono stage and headphone output. Moving our bank accounts into more dangerous territory are Bel Canto Design. Their Black Series ACI600 integrated ($25'000) has nCore modules pushing 300wpc into 8Ω, ahead of which come a DAC, Roon Ready streamer, MM/MC phono stage and 'bass management system'. This device keep its headphone socketry out back. A kitchen sink mentality applied to single box systems saw the super integrated (my term) really grip the road in 2016. Let's not forget the units that blazed this very trail: the Vinnie Rossi Lio with its modular construction and off-grid power supply; and the Devialet Expert range with its SAM loudspeaker correction. Super integrateds not only keep the box count low but call for only one deluxe power cable and allow us to potentially forego the expensive and sometimes intrusive hifi storage rack.

Roon Readiness. In 2016, Roon continued to redefine and improve the UX standard for music software and yes, at $499 for a lifetime license or $119/year, we certainly pay for the privilege. One could just as easily drop the $79 asked by Audirvana+ which also integrates Tidal and offers iDevice remote control, hook the host Mac up to a DAC via USB and call it a day. It doesn't look as nice but neither is it as expensive. Both apps sound better than iTunes. However, it's through network extensibility that Roon are having a more profound effect on the digital audio marketplace. Server (Roon Core) and player (Roon Ready/Bridge) can be physically separated. Here we run Roon Core on, say, an Intel NUC and have it send audio to a range of devices throughout the home.

Among digital audiophiles, popular Roon Ready devices are Sonore's microRendu, SOtM's sMS-200, Bryston's BDPi and AURALiC's Aries. All four are singled out here because of their ability, to varying degrees, to offer performance within a whisker of music servers that place server and player components in the same chassis. For example, the microRendu ($640) falls a few degree short of the second-gen Antipodes DX ($6'500+) on sound quality especially when fuelled by a low noise PSU but, the New Zealand-made box comes in at ten times the price. Roon can also stream audio to the Apple TV (via AirPlay), the Airport Express (via AirPlay) and Logitech Squeezeboxen. In their stock form, none of these devices will truly satisfy an audiophile's thirst for proper tonal avidity and microdynamic flicker. Ditto the Raspberry Pi-based options from HiFiBerry and IQaudIO. However, add a S/PDIF reclocker like those offered by Wyred4Sound or iFi Audio and we're back in the running with the high/er-end streamers. When the total cost of a stout Roon endpoint fails to tip the $300 mark, the marginal returns wrought by high-end all-in-one servers start to look witheringly thin. A handful of DAC manufacturers hip to Roon's rise have started baking Endpoints into their converters. See PS Audio's DirectStream Junior or most of DEQX's range. Now the cost of Roon Readiness in the mind of the consumer approaches zero. High-end servers can't compete with free. Game on.

The entry-level DAC game got stronger. It used to be that spending a few hundred quid was necessary for a half-decent DAC. The value quotient of D/A converters at the entry level took a significant step forward in 2016, with several terrific models appearing beneath the all-important $100 threshold. Schiit Audio's Fulla 2—a desktop DAC and a headphone amplifier—offers a huge bang for ninety-nine dollars. Elsewhere in their range, the delta-sigma-chipped Modi Uber 2 sells for $149 but a multibit solution is yours for US$100 more, hitherto unheard of at this price point.

For greater mobility, the AudioQuest DragonFly Black ($99) and Red ($199) are DAC/headphone amplifiers which require zero wall power and work with almost every device you can think of: Mac, PC, iPhone/iPad and the majority of Android smartphones and tablets. Because the USB code comes from Gordon Rankin and the low-noise power supplies from Microchip, these AudioQuest dongle DACs sit one clear step ahead of the competition. But it goes further still. For those who deal mainly in Redbook files and streaming services on their daily commute, the DragonFly poses a genuine threat to third-party digital audio players like those offered by iBasso, FiiO, Sony and Astell&Kern. The mass market doesn't want to outboard music playback to a secondary brick. It wants a high quality add-on for smartphones. The DragonFly Black and Red are two such devices in the here now.

Lightning strikes twice.
A more elegant digital audio future for iOS devices doesn't lie with USB adoption via an intermediate dongle. It lies with a direct connection to the Lightning port itself. The Audeze Sine closed-back on-ear headphone gave this audiophile one of the most outstanding portable listening experiences of 2016; but only once Audeze's Cipher Lightning cable entered the mix. To the casual observer, its in-line microphone takes care of play/pause and volume up/down but it also stores and applies custom EQ set by the accompanying iPhone app before converting the extracted digital signal to analogue and furnishing Audeze's planar-magnetic implementation with go juice. This all-in-one solution is offered as an option for Audeze's iSine, the world's first planar-magnetic IEM. The Cipher cable packs seriously impressive technology into its collar-level widget and wipes away the ugliness of strapping a DAC/amplifier to the back of a smartphone. All but hardcore iSiners and hi-rezzers will likely forego the cash and pocket space demanded by such kludgy solutions in favour of Audeze's far simpler Lightning-terminated cable. More importantly, the Apple MFI program that begat Audeze's Ciper cable opens the door to manufacturers wanting to develop DAC/amplifiers that suck in ones and zeroes from the Lightning port directly, i.e. minus any adaptor, and output an analogue signal via a 3.5mm headphone socket. Once again, with smartphone apps packing gapless playback and the best UX in town, the market for DAPs has come—and will continue to come—under increasing pressure.

Music remains cheaper than ever. Tolerating Spotify's intra-stream adverts is the lowest point of entry to the world of streaming. In other words, access to a multi-million song library is effectively free. $9.99/month makes those adverts vanish. $19.99/month turns lossy into lossless over at Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer. To those who complain of this expense, I simply cannot relate. Twenty bucks a month to bring the CD store home is crazy cheap; a modern-day miracle. Pair Tidal Hifi, Qobuz or Deezer Elite with one of the aforementioned entry-level DACs and you have a taste of high-end audio for a few hundred bucks a year. How many new-release vinyl records or downloads can you buy with that? Not many.

Entry-level vinyl playback is overrated.
"There's nothing quite like the sound of digital." "You can't beat the sound of a FLAC file." "This DAC delivers a certain indefinable magic." This is simply the language of vinyl diehards applied to digital audio. Recast in the context of streaming and computers, it sounds a little ridiculous, doesn't it? The preponderance of such universal proclamations is unsurprising when we consider the dominant demographic of the audiophile world. We're a bunch of cashed-up middle aged white dudes who, crucially, grew up with vinyl. The power of nostalgia, of a record's tangibility and its collectability, render the format tough to resist. It's why I have a 700+ collection sitting in storage in Melbourne and why I already have 50+ slabs of wax shelved in my new Berlin digs. But—and this is a bubble butt—when it comes to sound quality and sound quality alone, I'm losing my faith with entry-level turntables. Furthermore, I'm now less certain than ever that the upward trend in record sales (now in its 6th year) is primarily driven by first-hand experience of vinyl's allegedly superior sound quality. Just like the world of digital audio, everything sits on a sliding scale. Few would proclaim a Schiit Fulla 2 as epic sounding as a dCS Debussy. And yet we continue to hear of the big black disc's audible upper hand at almost every turn, the implication being that even the most humble turntable would run rings around a high-end DAC and streamer. As 2016 kicked into gear, I asked myself: does an entry-level vinyl rig really best a similarly-priced digital front end as the rhetoric would suggest?

Why did I ask myself that? I worry that consumers are being misled; that the experiences of those who own turntable setups costing tens of thousands of dollars have morphed into thinking that has trickled down unverified into the mainstream press coverage of less expensive gear. The result is received wisdom—"vinyl is rich and warm and offers a more satisfying listening experience"—which gets transposed onto every turntable irrespective of its retail price. Here we note a contradiction. The audiophile world, vinyl lovers included, constantly remind us that the mass market, especially young people, care not a jot about sound quality. After all, mainstreamers listen to Spotify and Apple Music's lossy services. Worse, they do so with pissant Bluetooth mono boxes with nary a thought for what they might be missing out on. And yet sales data tell us that it is (a portion of) these same young people who are driving vinyl sales to new heights. Which is it? Do millennials care about sound quality or do they not? Let's ask a follow-up question: what does the average mass-market turntable look like? Amazon.com's biggest selling audio product for 2015 was the Jensen JTA-230 3-Speed Stereo Turntable with Built-in Speakers. Price? A shade less than fifty bucks. It's doubtful that many vinyl diehards would look you in the eye and claim with conviction that this $50 turntable sounds satisfactory and even comes close to what we hear from an entry-level DAC selling for a similar price. Not only do cheap poor sounding turntables exist but they sell in huge numbers. I'd suggest that these cheap spinners are the MP3 of the vinyl world.The Jensen all-in-one's popularity jives with data collected by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and provided to Stereophile magazine. The average Stateside spend on a turntable is $74.53.

It's not too much of a leap to suggest that dropping twice the Jensen's asking price on a Schiit Fulla 2 or AudioQuest DragonFly Black would equip the listener with far superior sound quality. Of course, a DAC paired with lossless streaming subscription won't satisfy those looking to hold or collect stuff. Third-party data analysis is only part of the story. Rather than test the Jensen —the audiophile equivalent of sticking one's head down the toilet to confirm that it stinks—I instead took time out with a handful of more luxury options by way of turntables the average mainstreamer sees as big ticket items and as a real taste of the audiophile world. A Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, a Rega RP1 and a Pioneer PLX-500 complete with factory-fitted cartridges were hooked up to price-commensurate phono stages. Cutting to the chase, judged on sound quality alone, each turntable lacked treble extension, layer separation and dynamics. These shortcomings were especially noticeable when contrasted with similarly-priced DACs like the Schiit Bifrost Multibit and/or Chord Mojo, each delivering their own distinct take on Tidal Hifi spilling from a Macbook Air via USB.

If words to the same effect didn't fly for some readers, neither did the corresponding needle drops shared on my own site. According to detractors, the fault lay with the setup, the A/D converter or the record itself - anything but the turntable's own inferiority. Once, maybe. But thrice? Doubtful. With my investigation taking in three different 'tables paired with different phono stages and A/D converters, the chances of user error or factory fault diminish rapidly. If that's not enough to give us pause on getting into vinyl at the shallow end, consider the entry-leveller with $1'500 to drop on a first system. At $20-30 apiece, even a tiny collection of twenty records would eat an enormous chunk out of the budget. Would our cash-strapped fellow not be better advised to stick to digital until his boat comes in? I've heard some tremendous vinyl systems this year but every last one of them would inflict at least $'3000 of wallet damage on the would-be owner. The Rega RP8 sounded superb. So too did an original Technics SL-1200 MKII fitted with Origin Live board and Rega tonearm. Ditto a VPI Classic. In for a penny, in for a pound: judged purely on sound quality alone, vinyl playback below a certain (multi-thousand?) dollar threshold doesn't align, to these ears at least, with the universal praise heaped upon it. "Nothing beats the sound of vinyl"? Nope, not when it's spun on a turntable priced at a single-digit multiple of a new release record. My own more pragmatic conclusion—that "you can't beat the sound of vinyl but only if you spend at least $3'000"—simply doesn't ring as nicely.
To read more of John's stuff, visit his website DigitalAudioReview.