AudioStream Editor’s Choice Components from $500 to $2,500

For those with more jingle than jangle in their pockets, this Editor's Choice list focuses on those components which I felt made a real impact on my listening experiences this year, but were priced in the $500 to $2,500 USD bracket.

As I've said before, not everyone will agree with the picks and many will bemoan something not included on this list, but since this is subjective in its very nature, I can only write about what I've heard, not what you've heard. Regardless, variety is the spice of life and I hope you find either joy, interest or enlightenment in these, my humble choices.

Chord Qutest – $1,895 USD

Chord Qutest

Small footprint, big sonic impact, that sums up the Chord Quetst DAC for me. It’s a simple affair, with 32-bit/768kHz USB-B, 24-bit/192kHz Optical and 32-bit/384kHz (or 32-bit-768kHz combined) BNC inputs, native support for DSD 512 and a pair of RCA outputs making it one of the highest-resolution DACs I’m familiar with at any price point. Set-up takes minutes and the Qutest features the amazing Rob Watts’ proprietary FPGA converter with a 49,152 Tap-length and variable (3V, 2V or1V) Class-A output. It’s built like a tank and weighs far more than you’d think, making it sit pretty no matter how big your cables get – an issue I’ve had with some other smaller DACs over the years where they ‘tip’ with larger digital or RCA cables attached. The sound is muscular, ballsy, tonally rich (depending on which filter you like – there’s four to choose from), with a huge open top and bottom end and a juicy midrange that always gets my feet tapping and my head bobbing. Easily one of the most fun DACs I’ve heard. It’s a boogie machine and sure to put a smile on the face of all who hear it.

AudioQuest Hurricane High-Current AC Cable – $1,870 USD (2 metre)

AudioQuest Hurricane Cable

Featuring solid, perfect-surface copper conductors able to carry uncompressed high-current juice imbued with zero impedance and a proprietary 72VDC Dialectic Bias System with directionally-controlled wiring and capable of dropping the noise floor of every amplifier I’ve connected them to (straight from the wall), the AudioQuest Hurricane High Current AC/Mains cables from their Storm series is all about going black as black can get. Not cheap and not the answer to every system’s needs due to their price, but if you’ve got some serious coin invested into your system and are getting to that last five-to-10 per cent of sonic perfection to your ears then looking at serious cabling like the AQ Hurricane is a no-brainer for getting the last ounce of fidelity from your amps and sources.

KEF LSX Wireless System – $1,100 USD

KEF LSX

KEF is one of those core high-fidelity companies that has been around for decades and always been in heavy-rotation among conversations for many audiophiles because of their advanced designs and sonic excellence. Started in 1961 by electrical engineer Raymond Cooke, KEF (named courtesy of Kent Engineering & Foundry) continues to keep tongues wagging with not only their flagship loudspeaker designs like the MUON and Blade series but with their entry-level technology marvels like the new LSX Wireless Speaker System. With a 4.5-inch mid-bass magnesium/alloy cone Uni-Q drive array boasting a .75-inch aluminum-dome tweeter that delivers a stated frequency response of 54Hz~28kHz (depending on your speaker settings), the LSX is firmly setting a new bar for what I’ve come to expect sonically from a mini-monitor, never mind a pair that only needs a source to run. Mix in four Class-D amplifiers – each individually optimized to each drive unit, including dedicated DACs and at $1,100 USD the LSX is knocking hard on product of the year territory.

Rega DAC-R – $1,195 USD

Rega DAC-R

I’ve owned the Rega Brio integrated amp, heard it with their Apollo CD player and then auditioned their original DAC, which impressed the hell out of me. Hearing the DAC-R added in to a few different systems in the last year, I’ve been more than consistently impressed with its warm open presentation coupled with deep, controlled bass and a myriad of filter options to go with the pair of Wolfson WM8742 DACs, isolated asynchronous XMOS USB 2.0 connection, two isolated Coaxial and two Toslink inputs. It’s PCM-file centric – up to 24-bit/192kHz – so no DSD (I know, a non-starter for some), keeps the computer (micro-controller) power supply separate from both the digital and analog stages and when used with a CD transport or being fed Tidal Hi-fi (16-bit/44kHz) this little DAC just sounds so natural and effortless with the just right amount of real bounce that you’ll wonder how Redbook ever sounded so good, for so little.

Roon Nucleus – $1,500 USD

Roon Nucleus

A holistic hardware design with the goal of perfecting the software experience for users? Sign me up. In this particular case for Roon, the experiential music-playback software that looks at your music library and using metadata collects photos, artist biographies, album and song reviews, lyrics – even concert dates – online or from your local drives and then connects the dots between any artists, composers, performers, conductors, and producers who worked together to give users a “searchable, surfable magazine about your music.” The Nucleus was built by Roon in conjunction with Intel around their “highest-performance NUC platform” solely to provide the best way to use Roon, they also decided to design a bespoke OS optimized on a Linux-based operating system for the fastest most responsive performance for networking, storage and database access. With an SSD, no fans, or moving parts of any kind, the Nucleus is as silent as a crypt for discerning audiophiles to swoon over as they listen for… nothing. I’ve only seen/heard this little beauty in action at shows and a private event, but having experience with other streamer/servers I was incredibly impressed at the speed of running the unit off an iPad and at this price point it smacks of an “end-game” solution. Can’t wait to take delivery of one for a full review in the New Year.

PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC – $1,699 USD

PS Audio Gain Cell DAC

You can read about my personal experience with this unit in my previously published review HERE, but suffice to say for anyone looking at getting into a (svelte) low-box count sound system that has the ability to do it all, then adding the PS Audio Gain Cell DAC to a power amplifier will get you a level of sound quality and digital/analog preamplifier flexibility heretofore unknown at this price point. The pre-amp section utilizes a mix of cutting-edge technology with 1960’s analog circuit topology once adopted by recording studios, the GCD keeps the signal path brutally honest and uses the the amplifier stage to vary loudness instead of additional circuitry which facilitates input switching in the analog domain and allows for more than 80dB of attenuation. Throw in an 32-bit ESS SABRE Hyperstream DAC which is fed via FPGA without sample rate conversion, Asynchronous XMOS tech-based USB, optical I2S and Coaxial input for up to 24/384 PCM and DSD 128, a choice of digital filters, XLR, RCA and headphone outputs and this is a small sonic masterpiece not to be overlooked in your pursuit of the highest fidelity.

Shindo Labs Mr. T Power Conditioner – $2,200 USD

Shindo Mr. T Power Conditioner

Clean power, much like clean hands, can stave off audible symptoms of a system infected with AC grunge, noise and contamination. There are as many high-fidelity manufacturers who approach the issue of isolating delicate hi-fi components from dirty power due to a congested urban power grid entering the audiophile’s home as there are components whose sole goal is this pursuit. Of those companies who address cleaning up incoming AC, one of most provocative in my experience is the little known Japanese bespoke component manufacturer Shindo Labs with their Mr.T Power Conditioner. Every component I’ve run downstream from this simple little gem-green box equipped with six outlets on it’s rear panel and power switch on its front has benefitted sonically. How? Improved dynamics and momentum to notes, drastically lowered noise floor, (which in turn opens up a recording to far more scrutiny thanks to less hash and haze obscuring subtle sonic cues) better separation of instruments and vocals in the mix and improved tenor, timbre and unerring pitch. The Mr.T’s oversize internal transformer makes sure whatever it is feeding is imbued with what I can only describe as the ability to truly breathe freely and perform to its highest abilities.

TelluriumQ Silver USB Cable – $600 USD

TelluriumQ Silver USB

Digital cables are tricky lot – like many cables for that matter, sonic beauty lies in the ear of the beholder – as I've heard some that open up the sound and others that seem to add prominence to midrange or treble, even bottom-end bloat, or worse, everything becomes hyper-sharp and pointy. As in all things hi-fi system related, trial-and-error comes into play because what might work great in one person's system, may not in another's. I've had a number of digital cables over the years and they all did something that I either liked or didn't, so when I was sent a set of several types (speaker, digital, RCA, XLR, AC, USB, etc.) of Tellurium Q cables, I started adding them into the review system one at a time, starting with the power cable and slowly worked my way up to the digital/analog connections last. At each step, the music seemed to open up and sound more human, have more drive, clarity and natural presence. But the coup de gras was when the digital cables, the Silver USB in particular, got introduced to my DACs and music server. It was like the final piece of a sonic puzzle falling into place. I know cables can be a divisive topic at the best of times, with the bits-are-bits faction usually the most vocal, but all I can say is that the proof is in the listening and the TelluriumQ Silver USB is not divisive when it comes to the music, it brings it all together.

COMMENTS
volvic's picture

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this Rafe. Do you think I should dump my Moon 300DAC for that little Chord or is it a sidways move?

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