I’ve got a little list… there is such a thing as too much choice and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the alternatives. So we did the Kondo thing and asked ‘what sparks joy?’ Components with an identifiable and unique character that can deliver benefits in almost any system are what we all want, so here are our 10 best for 2019.
NuprimeX MCX-2 Stereo Power amplifier NZ$2350
One of the most recent additions to our range, this amplifier breaks all the rules and is that much the better for it.
Absurdly powerful with a 550 watts per channel rating, yet slim and cool running, the MCX-2 breaks from convention in having a definite sonic signature that I’ve just spent 2 months analysing and writing about here.
As you’ll read, Nuprime have effectively set up their own competing brand. The MCX amplifiers go places the Reference series don’t, and visa versa, because whatever we may think, there is no such thing as the perfect amplifier. But rest assured, Nuprime are working on it and by taking a quite different approach they’ve come up with something rather special.
Monitor Audio Studio loudspeaker $2500 the pair
After more than a year with the Studios it’s possible to be even more in awe of their capabilities than than when we first reviewed them for you.
They are so full of character and verve, presenting music with laser like accuracy. The enhanced detail, precision and scale of sound staging and all round excitement can be narcotic in quality. They bring out the best in the components that feed into them – the Studio will also make it blindingly obvious when you upgrade any other part of the system and so it’s very easy to want to partner them with some seriously esoteric electronics.
The purity of design and uncompromised nature of the Studio mean we keep coming back to these speakers, trying different combinations and finding more to like.
Nuprime Evolution DAC and preamplifier $6000.
A DAC – Digital to Analogue Converter is a truly specialist component and its design and manufacture is far beyond the realms of almost all other audio components. Speakers, cables, turntables and even amplifiers are all quite simple by comparison and can in fact be built by any moderately skilled enthusiast albeit with varying levels of success. But a DAC is a whole different ball-game – an amalgam of high end computing power and, in the case of the Nuprime Evolution DAC, state of the art preamplifier design.
Because of the internal complexity of the process, the difference between producing an adequate working DAC and a truly high performance model can be difficult to explain. Only a handful of audio companies can draw upon enough expertise and experience to do this at the highest level, but when it happens the results can be spectacular. Nuprime have joined this elite group with the Evolution DAC. It is a revelation, showing just how much more progress can be made in the conversion of a stream of data into music.
I struggled at first to put what I heard into words, the performance of the Evolution being well outside of anything I’d previously heard. But now with time and being able to make more direct comparisons, it’s become obvious that this is one of the few components I’ve heard that betters everything else in every single area of performance. The build quality and operation is similarly as close to perfect as anything I’ve experienced.
Not surprisingly the Evolution DAC and preamplifier is at a level where you do expect this for the price. Yet if we look at the direct competitors (which I’m more than happy to discuss with you), it is still exceptional value and even more so when partnered with a similarly capable power amplifier – which if you read on, doesn’t have to be insanely costly. More here.
Nativ Vita touchscreen streamer and server system $2850.
This is the digital product that finally made a believer out of me. The Vita ties up every aspect of digital design – performance, capacity, connectivity and ease of use into an aesthetically beautiful and well built package. All our digital music now resides on the Vita and it’s opening up new worlds of music to us via streaming.
We’re no longer tied to the computer or phone and the large touchscreen display gives us a visual attachment to the music playing that surpasses the idea of having to handle a record cover. The option of using Vita as a Roon front end takes this even further as it not only tells you more about what you’re listening to but is a step ahead in organizing your music collection and dealing with the inevitable ‘what will I listen to next?’ question.The last 8 months with Nativ have been great but it’s only the start – there’s new software in the pipeline which is going to enhance every area of performance for both existing and future users.
The Nativ Vita will be an asset in any home – with multiple outputs, both physical and wireless and easy connection via both analogue and digital it will become the beating heart of any system.
KLEI gPower 3 AC cable $750 – (1m NZ/Au plugs)
Nothing gets audio cynics going like the idea of an AC power cable improving the sound of a system. So there is only ever going to be one way to convince people and that’s to simply get them to listen. All of Keith Eichmann’s designs – analogue and digital interconnects, speaker cables and plugs work – often with jaw dropping results, but it’s the mains cables that have the broadest applications. If anything has a standard IEC socket, Keith’s power cables will make it sound better.
There are 3 KLEI power cable options – the entry level gPower2 which made a believer out of me, the Purity Level AC which is one of those – don’t try it if you can’t afford it-items, and right in the goldilocks zone you have the gPower3 AC. The ‘3’ delivers the best of all worlds – a real taste of the high end, yet doesn’t cost much more than the base model. Plug it into almost any system (usually the amplifier), and you’ll gain an increase in clarity coupled with a reduction in background noise and hash that will have you scratching your head in a how-is-this-even-possible kind of way.
Nagaoka MP150 cartridge $525.
While its little brother, the entry level MP-110 is our best seller, the MP-150 encapsulates everything great about analogue in a considerably more refined and appealing package. The sound is super smooth yet detailed, the bass deep and rich and surface noise is reduced to vanishingly low levels.
Set up is so easy with the squared off body being simple to align, and the cartridge & weight, compliance mean the MP-150 is optimal for most tonearms. It tracks like a dream, and with a bit of care in alignment and adjustment, can project a broad and deep soundstage. The healthy output ensures it will work perfectly with all phono stages and any potential for hum is minimised. That the Well Tempered TLC cartridge is in fact based on this model tells you just how highly regarded the Nagaoka is not just by music listeners but the actual designers of high end turntables and cartridges. It’s a recommendation that’s hard to beat.
D-Stream Wamp 200 SB amplifier $795.
French design combines with Nuprime level sound quality and 21st century wireless smarts to deliver you the perfect entry level amplifier. But it’s far more than an option for first time buyers – With so many exisiting system owners looking to connect more modern sources, the D-Stream is an alarmingly good replacement for many well regarded amplifiers breathing new life into a wide range of speakers.
Consonance Wax Engine turntable $1695
The minimalism and single minded execution of the Wax Engine design holds immense appeal – the plinth is stripped back to a ultra-rigid and heavily damped skeleton of box section alloy, and a very special tonearm with a hybrid bearing design. The WAX Engine has just been updated to include also the Well Tempered Lab “Zero Clearance” design platter bearing, a new clear acrylic platter and of course the trademark WTL ‘belt’ so it’s even better now than when we first reviewed it.
I get to set up a lot of turntables for people and with over 30 years in the game have a really good feel for what all the different brands can do – Linn, Rega, Project and plenty more. But every time I set up a Wax Engine I’m instantly reminded of how good they are – there’s a definition and pace that none of the aforementioned models come close to.
Vifa Reykjavik speaker system $429.
You have carefully assembled your own music system over the years but what component can you trust to deliver the same enjoyment to someone else?
Music adds so much to our lives and how better to pass this on to children and grandchildren with the gift of an affordable and portable system that has the qualities you value.
While the larger Vifa speaker systems meet component options head on, it’s their entry level model – the Reykjavik – that instantly convinces anyone who hears it for the first time. Paired with any smartphone you have a completely modern compact system that’s perfect for any flat or office. Both beautiful and robust, the Reykjavik recharges via USB and comes in two finishes – learn more here.
Monitor Audio Gold 5G 300 loudspeakers $10,000 the pair
You are absolutely worth it! From our smallest to our very best – If you want a pair of speakers that will last you a lifetime, look no further.
Luxurious in every sense the new Golds are, in my personal estimation, the best speaker Monitor Audio have ever built. They take everything we love about the Studios, refine and expand upon it.
The fifth generation (hence 5G) of MA’s premium range feature all new drivers, cabinet design and finishes. The 300s are the biggest and best of the new series.
‘Every so often we get hit with something that’s so obviously better in every way, it makes me just shake my head in wonder. There’s no better feeling than to forget about the system and just revel in hearing the music that you really enjoy, sounding like you’ve never heard it before.’
Read the full review here.
As you might imagine there are a good number of other components that could have made our list. The NuPrime range has grown exponentially, Keith Eichmann just can’t help himself and keeps on improving his hand made KLEI cable selection. Both Sonus faber and Monitor Audio compete to fill almost every available niche in the world of speakers. Let’s not even start on the analogue awesomeness of Well Tempered and Dynavector.
These are all components that fill more specific niches, often pushing performance to even higher levels albeit in proportion to price. Everyone has a unique system and so while the 10 best list is going to have something for almost everyone, and indeed you could combine almost all of them together for a seriously good sounding system, feel free to come to us for both more detail and further recommendations.
John & Carolijn & Pyewacket at Totally Wired.