Standouts of 2018

Hindsight. It makes us all wiser. Or so we hope. Definitely older. No time spent, no hindsight. At the end of a year, looking back one takes stock. From everything we reviewed here in 2018, what stood out as the King of (making) Hay for hifi's version of Rafael Nadal on a budget court? Which was the key inventor to push a given sector's state of the art? Were cost no object, did anything actually open up a new path previously not accessible? Who was the best dressed and smartest one? Here are our five mentions for these four categories… our take on a royal flush with a very loyal blush.

Budget king of 2018? Such a title immediately questions what its author's errand notions on 'budget' might be. In this case it's an honest €690. Should that fall within your budget for a superlative non-balanced headphone amplifier which runs on the very same high-performance lateral Exicon Mosfets as lauded speaker amplifiers from Bakoon, Goldmund, LinnenberG and Nagra, get in line for Kinki Studio's THR-1. Like the other four reviews we did on this brand, it's superior value because this kit is designed/built in China, then sold quasi direct through Alvin Chee of global distributorship Vinshine Audio from the Lion City of the East, Singapore. It's the only way anything of such quality could be ours for the coin asked.

Having on hand comparators like Questyle's monaural CMA-800R, Bakoon's AMP-12R and COS Engineering's H1, the Kinki belongs into this very company. And that really makes it Rafael Nadal's poor cousin. With its linear power supply centered on an Amplimo transformer and 28wpc/8Ω class A output stage of two complimentary pairs of transistors, it'd drive speakers had it binding posts and concomitant voltage gain. In fact, scaling up its power supply then dissipation surface would net us 80 to 100 watts. Instead it's been optimized for headphone drive where anything including HifiMan's Susvara goes. Sonic highlights are warm but dry textures with very powerful low bass, saturated matte not glossy colours and zero 'etch' in the treble to avoid deep-frying your hotter Pop productions. It is so good that statement cans like Meze's Empyrean, Final's Sonorous X/D8000 and HifiMan's best planars are perfectly served whilst going a ways toward offsetting their spasm-inducing wallet action. The only concession to budget king status are the convenience not true balanced XLR inputs and the matching 4-pin XLR output. If you get one, treat it like the proper class A circuit it is which simply means, give it some time to get on song. With its overbuilt casing, the outsides don't even get warm to the touch but sonically, things do after about thirty minutes.

Inventors of 2018. This position was shared this year by our first-ever twin Lunar Eclipse sightings in one year, Cube Audio's Nenuphar and Ilumnia's Magister. The first is a Polish widebander in a quarter-wave box . This makes a unique 10" paper-cone driver with triple whizzer, phenolic spider, under-hung voice coil and 81-slug Neodymium motor play to colossal 30Hz-18kHz bandwidth at 93dB sensitivity. Because there are zero crossover parts but a driver with excellent self damping and good efficiency, Nenuphar is ideally adapted to high-output impedance SET type amplifiers of just 1.5wpc power. But because its sensitivity isn't extreme to not sacrifice bass reach, it responds equally well to specialty transistor amps like FirstWatt's SIT models or Bakoon's AMP-12R. Nenuphar is a genuine breakout achievement in a niche sector which has seen key players like Rethm, Voxativ and Zu abandon the 'purist' approach of the single driver to augment it with active bass. The Polish sensation stubbornly persists on the solitary path to not need it. Owning a Zu Submission subwoofer, I'm never compelled to turn it on.

The Ilumnia Magister from the Belgian Nuyt brothers rethinks the core makeup of the dynamic driver by abolishing both of its ubiquitous spider and surround for a unique free-floating diaphragm. In turn, they remove three common forms of distortion. That led senior contributors Marja & Henk to find that the Magister's sonics combined the soundstaging freedom of omnis with the uncompressed dynamic reflexes of horns—they also own 19Ω 109dB sensitive Avantgarde Acoustics Duo Omego to back that up—with the low-level detail retrieval of large thin-film panels. To those firm in their belief that there's nothing new under the speaker sun, the Magister and its follow-up Vocalis monitor beg to differ – loudly.

Price-no-object surprise. At €30'000 my probably most expensive assignment of the year, it actually did recalibrate personal cynicism about what's possible in the preamplifier realm. This opens up a new way for creating a top system which runs 180° out of phase with thinking that quality 64-bit dithered digital volume controls have eliminated the entire rationale of the preamp breed. Causeur in question was Allnic Audio's L-10000 which direct-couples balanced-drive 300B to your amplifier without capacitors, transformers or noise. By not driving reactive low-impedance speakers but the stable high input impedance of an amplifier, the direct-heated triodes breathe easy. By not working through a bandwidth-limiting phase-shifting transformer or time-smearing capacitor, they express the inherent triode aroma in full. Balanced drive and unique triode/pentode inputs offset typical 2nd-order THD effects.

The upshot is that in conjunction with superior transistor amps like LinnenberG's Liszt with which to drive big traditional multi-way speakers, the L-10000 can inject uncontaminated perfectly stable direct-heated triode aroma without sacrificing low-impedance drive or bass control on rhythmically dense infrasonically charged modern music. One gets all of the gain without any of the pain to go places where small 12AU7/6922-type preamp tubes can't; and where DHT amplifiers won't go unless they're matched to the rare truly copasetic loudspeaker, then still fed with a select rather than omnivorous music diet. This approach of DHT in the linestage, transistors on the speakers makes for a very convincing best-of-both-worlds scenario.

The only alternative to the L-10000 I was aware of at the close of 2018 was Vinnie Rossi's L2 which further 'purifies' this very rare concept by doing away with Allnic's input and driver tubes for just one big direct-coupled direct-heated triode per channel. But with its review not planned to commence until late January, early February of 2019, for this year, the Allnic stood alone to represent this idealized hybrid workaround for those of deep pockets who want DHT sound but can't accept its limitations when strapped directly to loudspeakers.

Sharpest dresser and of the sharpest wit? Without question, that heady distinction went to Meze's Empyrean, a flagship planarmagnetic which combines hifi jewelry status with patent-pending tech advances to deliver on all counts: superlative build, classy cosmetics, very comfortable wear, easy drive and top sonics directly on par with Final's Sonorous X and HifiMan's Susvara but for less coin. If this were a James Bond movie, it'd be titled From Romania with Love. Since it's just hifi, Empyrean must suffice – God's own dwelling place if you go medieval on Latin.

 And there you have it: five reviews which you might like to revisit over the holidays to possibly pursue in the real not virtual world in the New Year.