Our 2023 Top Gear Awards featured image

Our 2023 Top Gear Awards

TOP GEAR BEST DESKTOP-SOLID-STATE AMPLIFIER 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Best Desktop Solid-State Amplifier

HIFIMAN Prelude Review featured image

The HIFIMAN Prelude is a truly excellent solid-state analog amplifier and a fantastic match for the likes demanding headphones that people often pair with far more expensive equivalents.

It's got power, bags of it, and all mated to a very smooth and agreeable sound signature.

9.1
Reader's Score
Pros
Natural sound signature
Excellent power handling.
Modern low-profile design.
Cons
Quite heavy for the size.

The HIFIMAN Prelude is a truly excellent solid-state analog amplifier and a fantastic match for the likes of the Susvara and the Diana TC, two headphones that people often pair with far more expensive equivalents.

It’s got power, bags of it, and all mated to a very smooth and agreeable sound signature that, importantly, has a high enough degree of transparency to ensure DACs do matter in this setup. Go R-2R, go for something known for staging prowess for a genuinely immersive and grandiose presentation which is where we think the Prelude shines.

This is a very smart addition to the HIFIMAN amplifier lineup and speaks volumes about the excellent engineering credibility of Goldenwave at the same time.

HIFIMAN Website | HIFIMAN Amazon USA

TOP GEAR BEST DESKTOP TUBE AMPLIFIER 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Best Desktop Tube Amplifier

Feliks Audio EUFORIA evo Review featured image
The Feliks Audio EUFORIA evo is an elegant OTL amplifier tailor-made to give you a smooth embracing tone and one that works wonderfully well with high impedance dynamic driver headphones such as the ZMF Headphones Atrium and the Focal Utopia 2022. I could listen to these enjoyable combos for hours without fatigue. 
9.1
Reader's Score
Pros
Smooth euphonic tone and spacious delivery
Super low tube microphonics
Compact design
Cons
Lacks power for demanding headphones
Generates plenty of heat

The 2023 Feliks Audio EUFORIA evo is an almost perfect riposte to the heady energy of the company’s flagship Envy amplifier.

This is an elegant OTL amplifier tailor-made to give you a smooth embracing tone and one that works wonderfully well with headphones such as the ZMF Headphones Atrium and the Focal Utopia 2022. We could listen to these enjoyable combos for hours without fatigue.

Technically, it’s competitive also with impressive spaciousness and an ability to convey a source’s subtle tweaks into the general coloration and performance.

Efficient planars will work well but sound superb with a quality pre-amp in the system chain otherwise distortion can creep in on higher volumes. If you have more demanding planar headphones we suggest looking at the likes of the Envy which has superior power and tweakability for those types of matchups.

Otherwise, this is a delicious-sounding and very impressive tube amplifier for high-impedance dynamic driver headphone owners.

The Auris Audio HA-2SE+ is the perfect balance between the original’s charming tonal quality and the HA-2SF’s more aggressive but also more neutral tuning. It is beautifully refined and energetic with a smattering of welcome tube sweetness making it a very engaging SET headphone amplifier.

It pairs perfectly with just about any modern or classic voltage-demanding dynamic driver headphone but rarities like the 200Ω LCD-4 also perform surprisingly well. The classic multi-value impedance selector switch also gives you plenty of additional ‘flavoring’ to tweak the final output if you so wish.

This is a seductive-sounding upgrade on the original HA-2SE’s tuning and to be honest, it’s perfect timing with the recent renaissance of the high-impedance dynamic driver headphone exemplified by the likes of ZMF headphones and Focal in 2023.

Feliks Audio Website | Auris Audio Website

TOP GEAR BEST DESKTOP DAC 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Best Desktop DAC

Gustard A26 DAC Review featured image
The Gustard A26 has excellent nuance and control over the entire frequency range. However, this is a tiny portion of what makes it a compelling DAC. With a cleaner interface and a slight price advantage, the delta-sigma twin of the R26 is in it to conquer the segment.
9.1
Reader's Score
Pros
Easy tonal balance with excellent technicalities
Streamer ready
Less cluttered UI compared to the R26
Cons
No Bluetooth or WIFI
Heavy and bulky chassis

The nuance and control of the Gustard A26 throughout is but a tiny portion of what makes it a compelling DAC. With a cleaner interface and a slight price advantage, the delta-sigma twin of the R26 is in it to conquer this segment.

Choosing between this and the R26 can be a daunting assignment if you have no clear preference for DAC architecture. We were not able to compare the two directly but it is clear that this version is capable of going head-to-head with some higher-priced gear.

Gustard Audio Website | Shenzhen Audio Website

TOP GEAR BEST WIRELESS STREAMER 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Best Wireless Streamer

FiiO R9 Review featured image
The FiiO R9 is an incredibly versatile and practical all-in-one streamer, DAC, and headphone amplifier that offers possibly the most comprehensive set of I/O options, well customized to seamlessly integrate into desktop or speaker setup.
9.1
Reader's Score
Pros
High output power
Versatile I/O
Attractive desktop design
Cons
Sounds dry with average recordings
Limited tilting angle

The FiiO R9 is an incredibly versatile and practical all-in-one streamer, DAC, and headphone amplifier that offers possibly the most comprehensive set of I/O options, well customized to seamlessly integrate into desktop or speaker setup.

The design exudes a premium look, setting it apart from the competition while the portrait Android layout is much more practical to run different apps. The output power is very impressive given its size, and the output quality is decent.

If you have limited desk space and need a powerful device that can fulfill your streaming needs while connecting to your speakers, PC, and headphones, there are very few similar devices that can outperform the R9.

FiiO Website | FiiO Amazon USA

TOP GEAR EDITORS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Editor’s Choice

Meze Empyrean II Review featured image
The Meze Audio Empyrean II takes a huge chunk of what made the original Empyrean headphones so good such as looks and comfort and integrates a new sound signature that should appeal to a much wider audience than before.
8.8
Reader's Score
Pros
Enhanced clarity over the original
Incredibly comfortable headphone
Intricate and beautiful design
Cons
Will not win over fans of the original Empyrean sound

The Meze Audio Empyrean II takes a huge chunk of what made the original Empyrean so good such as looks and comfort and integrates a new sound signature that should appeal to a much wider audience than before.

That means improved tonal accuracy, a more spacious and revealing soundstage, and excellent extension into the highs. The new pads bring a mix of balance and power or focused clarity and space depending on your preferences.

Like the original Empyrean, you do not need a demanding amp. They still run like a boss from a very wide selection of portable and desktop gear. Some will push the highs a bit more and others will deliver a deliciously laid back richer tone.

Matching will still play an important role here but it will not take a huge amplifier to drive these excellent-sounding headphones.

Meze Audio Website | Musicteck USA

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: Louis

HIFIMAN Svanar Wireless Review featured image
The HIFIMAN Svanar Wireless is an extremely high-performing True Wireless System, perhaps the best I have reviewed to date. It is a combination of excellent sound quality, construction quality, and ANC effectiveness that does it for me.
8.6
Reader's Score
Pros
Excellent sound quality
Highly effective ANC
Quality construction
Cons
The cradle could be smaller
No accompanying digital app included

The HIFIMAN Svanar Wireless is an extremely high-performing True Wireless System, perhaps one of the best I have reviewed in 2023. It is a combination of excellent sound quality, construction quality, and ANC effectiveness that does it for us.

If your budget allows it and you’re looking for a TWS that compromises nothing then seriously consider the HIFIMAN Svanar Wireless. They serve up great sound along with a very effective ANC. The pole has been moved forward and the rest will have to play catch up.

HIFIMAN Website | HIFIMAN Amazon USA

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: James

Shanling M9 Plus Review featured image
The Shanling M9 Plus is a beast of a DAP which delivers similar if not better technical performance to some of the competition costing significantly more, all within an impressively portable package.
9.2
Reader's Score
Pros
Strong dynamics
Long battery life
Euphonic 3.5mm output
Cons
Older Android OS
Loud button clicks

The Shanling M9 Plus is a beast of a DAP that delivers similar if not better technical performance to some of the competition costing significantly more, all within an impressively portable package.

Strictly speaking, we would still like to see Android 12, (it’s 2023 after all), or more premium housing materials, but considering the rather conservative charging price for the M9 Plus it would still make it on top of the recommendation list.

While there has been skepticism around splitting decoding chipsets for higher performance, the Shanling M9 Plus utilizes a convincing design with the AK4499EX and proprietary I/V amplification that balances portability, output power, tonality, and musicality.

Both balanced and Single-ended IEMs users have been catered for and this is a huge plus for those who have a larger collection of gear.

Shanling Amazon USA | Musicteck USA

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: Aldous

iFi Audio NEO Stream Review
What the iFi Audio NEO Stream provides as a package can be a mouthful to enumerate but at the end of the day, the company has proved that its streaming capability is top-notch. What is more, since it also has an elegant style and a rich tonality, it becomes a device that, if within budget, would uplift any listening setup.
8.3
Reader's Score
Pros
All-rounder and easily paired with bright gear
Stable streaming access on both WIFI and Ethernet
Extensive list of accessories and extras
Cons
No Bluetooth
App UI looks dated

What the iFi Audio NEO Stream provides as a package can be a mouthful to enumerate but at the end of the day, the company has proved that its streaming capability is top-notch.

What is more, since it also has an elegant style and a rich tonality, it becomes a device that if within budget would uplift any listening setup.

However, with all the extras included, it is the OptiBox that needs to prove its worth in being bundled exclusively with every purchase. The difference between using the fiber connection versus straight ethernet is barely perceptible in my testing so I just kept the box plugged in anyway.

Some may find that the DAC is slightly inferior to the maximum capabilities of the dedicated streamer. But unless you have access to higher-end converters, the overall performance of the NEO Stream suits it just fine.

iFi Audio Website | iFi Audio Amazon USA

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: Cheryl

Softears Studio 4 Review feature image
The Softears Studio 4 is a well-balanced and detailed IEM, with excellent tonal balance and clarity across the frequency spectrum. The bass is tight and controlled, the midrange is natural and smooth, and the treble is detailed and well-extended.
8.6
Reader's Score
Pros
Good balanced tuning
Well-textured and articulate mids
Comfortable shell design
Cons
Lacking in bass

Overall, the Softears Studio 4 is a well-balanced and detailed IEM, with excellent tonal balance and clarity across the frequency spectrum. The bass is tight and controlled, the midrange is natural and smooth, and the treble is detailed and well-extended.

This makes it a great choice for audiophiles and music enthusiasts who value accuracy, balance, and detail in their music.

Softears Website | Shenzhen Audio

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: Joshua

Kinera Imperial LOKI Review featured image

The Kinera Imperial LOKI is a sonically exquisite masterpiece and one that produces a euphoric and captivating listening experience.

The company's first shot at a multi-kilo-buck flagship level IEM delivers a lush and hyper-detailed mid-range and excellent bone conduction implementation.

8.9
Reader's Score
Pros
Holographic Soundstage & very detailed Imaging.
Excellent Bone Conduction Implementation.
Numerous Universal IEM Customization Options.
Cons
Average secondary cable for a flagship IEM.
Treble might be bright for some.

The Kinera Imperial LOKI is a sonically exquisite masterpiece and one that produces a euphoric and captivating listening experience.

Kinera’s first shot at a multi-kilo-buck flagship level IEM in 2023 delivers a lush and hyper-detailed mid-range and excellent bone conduction implementation.

This is one of those monitors that makes you dig out your old nostalgic tracks just to see what they sound like at this level of quality.

There is a lot to love about the tuning and design options so, despite this being technically a flagship ‘freshman’ offering, it feels completely at home sitting beside a lot of the high-end monitor competition out there in 2023.

Kinera Audio Website | Audio Essence Europe

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: Lynn

Spirit Torino IEM Twin Pulse Beryllium featured image
I was very surprised by the Spirit Torino IEM Twin Pulse Beryllium. And in a very good way. Its smooth character not only won me over but also, the level of detail that came with it.
8.2
Reader's Score
Pros
Exquisite Aesthetics
Smooth signature with engaging character
Filter Choices
Cons
Memory hooks quite stiff
Isolation is tip-dependent

I was surprised by the IEM Twin Pulse Beryllium and in a very good way. Its smooth character won me over for its well, smoothness; but also, the level of detail that also came about.

You can make a reasonable assumption that detail, clarity, and good imaging do not always go along with a character of smoothness in the signature. This defies that logic presenting the listener with a rich, somewhat warm signature as well as some excellent definition to go along with it.

My only quibble is the bendable wire inside the ear hook area. I would have preferred a pre-bent, soft segment, which to me would be more workable. A minor flaw in an otherwise excellent package.

Changing the filter and tips can make for a nice flexible system to better tailor the sound of this IEM to your preference. Overall, this makes for a very versatile package.

Spirit Torino Website | Audio Essence Europe

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: Rabi

LETSHUOER Cadenza 12 Review
I think the LETSHUOER Cadenza 12 is one of those IEMs that everyone will really like upon first listening impressions. It has no party tricks because it doesn’t need one. It’s exceptionally well-rounded, answering a price gap in the $2,000 range that has been lacking quality top-of-the-line releases.
8.6
Reader's Score
Pros
Great dynamics and note weight
Excellent shell and build quality
Feature rich packaging and unboxing experience
Cons
Slightly uncomfortable emphasis in lower treble
Mirror finish catches fingerprints easily

This is one of those IEMs that everyone will really like upon first listening impressions. It has no party tricks because it doesn’t need one. It’s exceptionally well-rounded, answering a gap in the price range that has been lacking quality top-of-the-line releases.

Even though some users may find issues in its lower treble emphasis, it’s something that can be easily resolved through the source, tip rolling, and light EQ if one is a member of the EQ gang.

All said if this is a testament to where the rest of the LETSHUOER lineup is going for the future, safe to say I am very excited for what’s to come beyond 2023.

LETSHUOER Website | LETSHUOER Amazon USA

TOP GEAR WRITERS CHOICE 2023

Top Gear 2023 Awards – Writer’s Choice: Michael

Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless Review
The Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless is a very good wireless ANC headphone. It is supremely comfortable, has great-looking materials, and has a premium, well-thought-out design. It sounds great in wireless mode, and the ANC is fantastic, easily on par with the titan Sony WH-1000XM5.
8.2
Reader's Score
Pros
Excellent depth & bass
Class leading ANC
great voice call quality
Cons
Wired mode needs a lot of power to drive
Touch controls a bit laggy

The Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless is a very good wireless ANC headphone. It is supremely comfortable, has great-looking materials, and has a premium, well-thought-out design.

It sounds great in wireless mode, and the ANC is fantastic, easily on par with the Titan that is the Sony WH-1000XM5.

However, the wired mode takes some of that bass depth away and it cannot be returned with any amount of EQ toggling. Despite that, wired mode adds a clearer texture from top to bottom, a more refined and mature sound. It may be needy in power output too.

Outside of that, the immensely thoughtful touch features are just a bonus and icing on the cake, effectively making these headphones one of the best wireless propositions on the market for 2023.

Sennheiser Website

Goodbye, 2023!

An innovative year for portable and desktop audio for headphone and IEM lovers. Some big brands, some big launches, and many interesting blends of old and new tech. 

Despite all the challenges thrown at the world, our favorite audio companies are alive and well and coming up with some very engaging gear for an attentive audience. It is heartening for 2023.

Look out, as always for our scoring page for any changes, and check our Gear Ranking section on the home page for those all-important annual updates in January 2024. For now, we hope you have an enjoyable ending to the year for everyone, wherever you are and with whatever you have!

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