Organizing audio gear into the most basic categories—like nutrition, where whisky and steak comprise the two essential food groups—counting the fingers on both hands would assemble a system or three that covers all the bases and fills most every musical need. With that, for 2019 we’ve selected 10 pieces of great gear that represent best-in-class engineering, performance and value within their respective categories. Each is a keeper—great today and good for the long haul. But unlike scotch and cuts of beef, where personal preference often elicits vociferous debate, we’d say it’s hard for any music lover to argue the merits of any of the following selections.
TechDAS Air Force III Premium Turntable
With the resurgence of vinyl comes a plethora of turntables from manufacturers new and old. TechDAS is both; its inventor designed Japan’s legendary Micro Seiki ’tables and has returned for an encore with TechDAS, of which the new Airforce III Premium is in the middle of the range. Like the bigger Air Force ’tables, it holds the LP to the platter with vacuum suction, and its small size belies its 120-pound weight and rock-solid reproduction of the music in vinyl’s delicate microgrooves. Paired with the U.S. distributor’s own Graham tonearm (from $7,500), all that’s needed is a stellar phono cartridge and digital dreams may become distant memories.
Stax SR-009S Headphones
With more than one million headphones sold per day throughout 2018, it’s a shame that a mere few thousand listeners will ever enjoy the sonic experience of a pair of Stax SR-009S. Probably the best headphones on the planet, these Japanese electrostatics may offer the most revealing and accurate sound of any transducer, including price-no-object, six-figure loudspeakers. They’re that good. All of a recording’s inner detail, subtle nuances and spatial cues come alive over the big Stax, which are equally revealing of upstream source components like cartridges, tonearms, and digital processors. Power them with Stax’s flagship SRM T-8000 amp ($5,800), or HeadAmp’s Blue Hawaii ($6,000), to make these Stax ’phones sing.
Magnepan MG30.7 No-Limit Loudspeakers
Their sound is huge and so are the four door-sized panels (two per side) that recreate a musical event like few other loudspeakers can. Rendering detail with micro-precision, the Magnepan MG30.7s are lightning-fast, totally transparent and without any box-like coloration, due to the nature of their ribbon/quasi-ribbon membranes, which unlike conventional dynamic cones, are nearly weightless. Yet their bass punches with overwhelming weight and slam. More remarkable is that they compete favorably—and outperform in many ways—speakers at 10 times their price. It would be unwise to spend more without hearing these first.
Gryphon Diablo 300 Integrated Amplifier
With today’s best integrated amps delivering performance on par with good separates, Danish manufacturer Gryphon raises the stakes with the Diablo 300. Its predecessor was so good that it enjoyed a 10-year run, and their top-line integrated betters it in every way. This high-current, Class A/B design has massive power supplies, and delivers 300 wpc into 8 ohms, nearly doubling down to 2. Optional modules for DAC ($6,000) and an exceptional MM/MC phono stage ($2,250) make it a one-box solution for powering the most serious loudspeakers. Exquisite industrial design features black anodized aluminum and an acrylic touch panel, with a sophisticated volume attenuator that reminds users what quality feels—and sounds—like.
Graham Audio Chartwell LS3/5A Mini-Monitor Loudspeakers
Few loudspeakers have the history and following of the LS3/5A, a mini-monitor developed by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1975 and made under license over the years by 12 British manufacturers, the latest model being Graham Audio’s Chartwell LS3/5A. The tiny shoebox-sized speakers are remarkable for their sonic accuracy and ability to pinpoint images in space. There’s something to be valued about an audio classic that has stood the test of time and remains a standard by which others of its ilk are judged. Paired with a beefy little integrated amp and used for near-field listening in a small room, the musical experience is hard to beat.
Aurender A30 Caching Music Server
While high-end music servers are plentiful, the Aurender A30 is a sonic overachiever with uncommon functionality and superior build quality. A true one-box solution, it performs as a caching music server and streamer, and importantly, has a D-to-A converter and full-function MQA decoder technology built in. The A30 will also rip your CDs, store up to 10TB of files internally and showcase metadata on a full-width LCD display. It even has a dedicated headphone jack for dynamic ’phones; essentially it’s a preamp/front end for an all-digital system.
Audio Research Foundation Series Separates
From the company’s beginning in 1970, Audio Research has championed vacuum tubes for their ability to bring reproduced music closer to the ideal. While components in their Reference Series represent a no-holds-barred assault on sound, their Foundation Series components bring the glowing goodness of tubes closer within reach. The LS28 Line Stage ($8,500) is a Class-A design with ample switching flexibility. Pair it with the PH9 Phono Stage ($8,500) to bring a turntable on board. With the DAC9 Tube D-to-A convertor ($8,500), just add a streamer or one of ARC’s own CD players and listeners have a complete tube front end. The VT80 SE Stereo Amplifier ($9,500) makes 75 wpc with a quartet of ARC’s preferred KT150 tubes, for a system that will hold its own for decades.
ATC SCM50ASLT Powered Loudspeakers
Unlike pro users and recording studios, audiophiles have been slow to adopt active loudspeakers, despite the simplicity, shorter signal paths and amplifier optimization they bring to the table. ATC is popular with music industry pros, and their floor-standing 120-lb SCM50ASLT is a no-compromise, three-way, full-range tower in the middle of their lineup. Each individual driver—woofer, soft-dome midrange and tweeter—has its own MOS-FET amplifier delivering 200, 100 and 50 watts, respectively. Power up the speaker, connect a source component, and think of all the electronics and cables you’ve cut out of the audio chain, without sacrificing any of the sound.
Astell & Kern SP2000 Portable Audio Player
This smartphone-sized jewel is the brand’s flagship portable player for users of top-flight in-ear headphones from Etymotic and the like. The SP2000 features two Asahi Kasei DACs in dual-mono configuration, and supports 32-bit/786kHz and native DSD512 files for highest fidelity playback, and even supports MQA files. It delivers ample power through either balanced or unbalanced outputs, while 512GB of internal memory rivals that of an elephant. Continuous playback time of up to eight hours makes it ideal for music on the go, housed in an elegant machined copper or stainless steel case.
KEF LS50W Wireless Loudspeakers
Weighing about 22 lbs apiece and roughly the size of a shoe box, Kef’s LS50 Wireless Music System takes the virtues of their acclaimed LS50 mini-monitor and adds wireless convenience in a stand-alone design that brings music to rooms where inconspicuous audio gear is the order of the day. Impressive, near full-range sound comes from Kef’s unique Uni-Q driver, a concentric design with an aluminum dome tweeter bulls-eyed in a mid-bass cone. Power comes from internal amps; 200 wpc for the mid-woofer, and 30 wpc for the tweeter. Importantly, a built-in streaming preamp and Roon-ready DAC make this an all-in-one system. Add a Kef subwoofer and it’s hard to believe that all that sound is possible from such a fly-weight, nearly-invisible system.