It has been one of our busiest and most successful years here at Headfonics.com. We launched a new website design, new gear, new writers and probably brought with us the same complaints, delights and feverish listening of music. 2015 has been one of the most dynamic years yet also for audiophile gear releases, most certainly in price where DAP’s broke the $3k barrier and more and more headphones pushed beyond the $2k barrier previously set by the LCD-3 a few years back.
At the same time though things got better at the cheap seats with planars at $399 and $299 and sounding great, DAP’s at $55 and upwards that didn’t suck. I complain regularly about price gouging in this business and I am not yet sanitized to the sensitivities of how much all of this costs having ploughed about $4k this year alone on one amp so I am delighted to see a few companies keeping it real for this with a smaller budget.
So, as always at this time of the year, we look back on what we think are the highlight products for 2015. We introduced a scoring system also this year to make it idiot proof but even then we had reflections on items we may not have reviewed or changed our opinon over time. With that in mind we have decided to go with three writers and our top gear of the year per writer.
Generally speaking we have kept to our scoring from the year in each category but with one caveat. There are times we love gear but never get to review it or something scored differently during the year but we ended up changing our minds and enjoyed it much more than we thought – for that we have decided to give you our “Writers Choice” award for 2015.
$3000 is not even close to the top end price right now in headphone world, this explosion in pricing worries me but with the HE1000 I think its pretty much justified and could be even more so in 2016 with the release of the EF1000 matching amp.
It is breathtakingly natural, oceans of sub bass, wonderful voicing and so comfortable to wear. It made me spend $4k on upgrading my amp and I didn’t mind one bit. Amp synergy is important with the HE1000, get it wrong and the 7k peak can kick in a bit too much but apart from that this my favorite headphone for 2015 without a shadow of a doubt. Endless listening pleasure.
It was out most highly rated CIEM for 2015 and for me the ying to the Vision Ears VE6XC yang of 2014. Superbly crafted with technology that for once actually really works and my tired old ears are very grateful for that. Less pressure means longer listening at volumes that will not damage your ears. More and more manufacturers of customs should be tackling this issue period.
Of course all that is nonsense if it sounded crap in the process and thankfully the A12 is the polar opposite of crap. It sounds beautiful. Last year I gave the top award to the Vision Ears VE6XC. If you want something for classics, acoustics, soundstage and speed that was it. If you want far more planted bass, a more relaxed but no less detailed signature with incredible texture then the A12 is better. If you listen to modern rock arena, a dance hall or a mosh pit where weight and crunch are more desirable then the A12 delivers with aplomb.
The last review of 2015 and the best DAP reviewed for 2015 by a clear margin for me. Yes it is mid-fi and AK has the edge in sound with the 240 and 380 but then you are paying thousands more and it just isn’t a surprise. The X7 is a surprise and it ticks all the boxes I could want for a modern DAP including a price which I believe represents excellent value in the market today.
The X7 is a truly exciting project and one that has the legs to run and run with its amp module system and apps based Android UI. It looks great also, sports a big fat ESS9018 DAC chip that produces a glorious natural and detailed sound with IEM’s and plenty of headphones. The firmwares are coming out a rapid rate also meaning any bugs are sure to be squashed in what is already a very stable system. This is a fun and engaging experience and it is my go to DAP right now over even the mighty AK series.
I have two DAC’s I use in the house for referencing and pure enjoyment of audio and the CDM is the latter of these two DAC’s. It looks beautiful, sounds incredibly organic and natural and can take on most modern codecs in its Wolfson DAC right up to DSD.
Yes, it gets a bit hot and no, I would not recommend you stack it for portable on the go, but as a transportable its just the right size for a discreet desktop. It has got plenty of power to power even the more demanding of planars. DAC out to ALO Audio’s Studio 6 is also the perfect compliment. ALO were aiming for the Studio 6 sound in a small well crafted box and I think they achieved that which is a huge compliment given how well the 6 performs.
We have been focusing a lot harder in 2015 on IEM’s than before and as such I felt this to be the most competitive category for top gear choices but in the end it came down to a shoot out between the budget master T20 from RHA and the exquisite Wizard Savant from Noble. The Savant edged it out for me as the best IEM universal for 2015.
Again, not the most expensive one out there, but the combination of delicate but smooth tuning with a more fun and natural sound with tremendous detail edged it for me. If you are looking for something more genre agnostic, then the Wizard Savant makes a very good claim indeed. It’s an earphone with very likeable timbre, great extension and just enough smoothness to prevent fatigue after long listening periods.
Built to power planars, built to take a knock or two, too big for the pocket and awkward with IEMs but sounds unbelievable. Yes that’s the HPA-01M from Bakoon, our pure portable amp choice for 2015. It was a close run category also with the revamped RX portable IEM from ALO Audio but in the end we went with Bakoon’s power house amp.
It is rare these days to get very excited on pure portable analog portable amps due to the increasingly sophisticated and great sounding convergence DAC/Amp’s coming out today at great prices but the Bakoon HPA-01M is one such amp that I think is a force to be reckoned with.
The matching with planars is sublime and addictive particularly with the neutral speed demon current drive output. Yes your source needs a good output if you wish this to remain a portable delight and chances are you will want a high end source at that to take full advantage of its capabilities but lower end DAP’s sound more than capable.
We have been testing this now for a few weeks in the office and we think that its pretty darn close to how we would want a closed planar headphone to sound at the very best level. If the HE1k does it open then the Ether C might just do it closed and best yet that 7k peak that worried me on the HE1K is non existent on the Ether C.
It is neutral with a hint of warmth, with excellent weight, a very coherent presentation and wonderful mids. To top it off the tone can be adjusted with pads to match genres and mixes and all that in a really attractive carry case. We will have the full review out in January 2016 but right now this is the closed planar to beat for me in the coming months.
Page 2: Mike’s Top Gear For 2015