Our Top Gear 2020 Awards is the ‘best of the best’ reviewed for the calendar year on Headfonics. This is a tradition that we have been proudly running since 2012–2019 and as with every year, we have had some cracking gear land in the office for review.
As with the conclusion of every successful year on Headfonics, we would like to thank all the readers who have visited our site, read what we had to say, and enjoyed our reviews. Your views and opinions matter to us and I do hope that you enjoyed what we had to offer for 2020.
Without you, the reader, we would cease to matter so thank you once again from Mike, James, Louis, Jarvin, and I.
2020 Awards Process
As ever we base our Top Gear awards on our scoring system throughout the year so the gear with the highest overall score wins. From Jan 1st, those Editorial scores will be deleted and the scores from readers’ votes will take over in our Gear Ranking section on the home page from January 1st, 2021.
Where there is a tie for the top score, then all gear with that score are deemed winners, so some categories will have more than one winner.
As in previous years, we know our writers have their personal favorites so once again we have given them free rein to let us know what products float their boat for 2020, regardless of the score, in our “Editor’s ” and Writer’s Choice” 2020 awards.
Note, this is a 2-page review with headgear, cables, and wireless on page 1. Desktop amps, DACs, and integrated amp/DAC’s plus our own personal picks for the Top Gear 2020 Awards on Page 2.
We have two Top Gear 2020 winners this year for the Best Headphone with both achieving the same highest score. One is a familiar name, Abyss Headphones, and the second, T+A, is a fresh new brand for Headfonics.
This is a crafty special little headphone. It is so small and beautifully made you can hang it around your neck to take it with you on your travels and no one would realize just how brilliant a performer it is.
I guarantee you if you bring this with a decent transportable source to a meet you will surprise the heck out of anyone there who has not heard something like the Diana V2 before. It is a huge sound from a not so huge headphone and one that will absolutely murder less portable headphones out there unless its name is Diana Phi.
The lower price will also tempt those thinking about the competition, the Empyreans, and RAD-0 or the Final D8000’s of this world which have a similar price. It belongs there but it also brings its unique qualities to the table. Qualities such as a blazing level of articulation, outstanding staging complexity, and very smooth yet clear tuning. This is a very addictive performer.
The T+A Solitaire P headphones draw on years of industry experience to provide a product infused with an exceptional build, acoustic design, and commitment to leading standards.
Primed with extraordinary cohesion, spatial localization of sound, and control, the Solitaire P provides its own niche to a growing high-end world of audiophilia.
The Solitaire P is an impressive first release from the well-versed German brand and we certainly look forward to seeing more use of their outstanding qualities in future products.
Top Gear 2020 Awards – Best Custom IEM
The MEST is world-class and I do wonder if they underpriced the darn thing given the Mason V3+ is almost twice the price.
Sssh, best not mention that too loudly but this could well be the high-end bargain of the year for custom monitors. If there is ever such a thing as High-end ‘bang-for-buck’ then the MEST takes the award with a very resolving yet vivid and exciting tuning.
Overall, I think Unique Melody proved that they are prepared to take a risk with new ideas, and with the MEST that bold thinking has worked out incredibly well.
(Note the review score was combined MEST and Mest Jnr and not the MEST score alone)
Top Gear 2020 Awards – Best Universal IEM
The Odin is a technical beast bar none with masterful levels of control from the dual subwoofer configuration right up to that nuanced treble tuning. Nothing is overdone, even those forward upper mids are beautifully tempered by a coherent treble tuning.
Sure, it is gripping, it is vivid and not something I could call terribly relaxed in its delivery. Yet, it avoids the pitfalls of ‘exciting tuning’ by laying off high-contrast parlor tricks that can often steer your ear down the fatiguing direction for all the wrong reasons.
What else could I wish for? The best universal monitor I have reviewed in 2020 overall.
Top Gear 2020 Awards – Best DAP
Another tie for the Top Gear 2020 Awards with the Best DAP going to two companies with a rich heritage in DAP software and hardware development, HiBY and iBasso.
The R8 is possibly the most complete DAP on the market at the time of writing. That will mean different things to different people, it just depends on what you want your DAP to do.
For me, it is about covering all the bases to a very high standard based on what we want from our media player. The R8 is the fastest no doubt, the cleverest in terms of DSP application and the most up to date in terms of software. It has the best CPU out there right now to handle just about anything you can chuck at it.
The sound is mature, natural, and smooth sounding. This is a really easy timbral match with a wide range of monitors. It also has class-leading power also for headphones in turbo mode. The only real weakness is the noise floor for super sensitive IEMs. You might want to ‘ifi iEMatch the R8 if you insist on using hiss sensitive IEMs.
And the packaging, oh my. It may be more on the superficial side to some but it is damn sexy, thoroughly useful, and well thought out. This is one very future-proofed and capable flagship player.
No question the DX220 MAX is the most accomplished media player iBasso has ever made and puts the already impressive DX220 (AMP1 MKII) firmly in the shade in terms of sound quality.
The dual independent power supply and completely reworked analog amplification stage is immaculate and exemplifies the iBasso house sound with just a smidgen more warmth to deliver a beautifully natural but still reference type sound.
It has enough output adjustments and a low noise floor to work equally well with IEMs and headphones as well as that excellent PMEQ system that first showed up on the DX220.
Only 999 units of this are available apparently so it is a limited edition in a way and that is a shame because its positioning and performance demand a lot more exposure than 1 shy of 1000 people. If ever we get trade shows back again I highly recommend you give the DX220 MAX a demo because it is quite the experience.
Top Gear 2020 Awards – Best Cable
A deserved Top Gear Awards 2020 winner, Code 51 is an exciting, explosive, and frankly outstanding cable. And, I cannot afford it, not even in my wildest dreams. That does not stop me from doffing my cap to the ingenuity Effect Audio has in delivering something that tops the ‘untoppable’, Leonidas II Octa.
Code 51 is a blast of energy from top to bottom and will make practically any worthwhile monitor sound likewise. Particularly dynamic drive hybrids that need a mix of power and separation. Or a balanced armature mix where a subwoofer tuning is more dominant like the JH Audio Layla.
Dropping from 8 to 4-wire should have no concerns for anyone here who can afford this beast. It is comfortable, quiet, and handles really nicely. I am going to superglue this onto the Layla or tia Trio I think. Pretty sure this cable is not coming off in the near future except for cleaning connectors. Where to go from here?
Top Gear 2020 Awards – Best Wireless Headphones
The Hifiman Ananda BT is that good you often find yourself forgetting that it is a wireless headphone which I guess that can only be defined as a top gear victory for Hifiman.
This is the best BT headphone by a long shot and puts my previous favorite, the beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless firmly in the shade. It would also put a few wired options at this price point to shame also. Do not get me started on how much it destroys the best consumer BT headphones out there from Sony and Bose, and yes you also Apple AirPods Max.
However, the Ananda BT is really not suited to the lifestyle crowd. It has no flashy multi-point functionality, no touch controls, the app is weak and unstable and its open back design makes it a commuting nightmare. This is one for the pure couch audiophiles, the grumpy gamers who want something with a bit more sound quality and have yet to find it.
This is also not Ananda’s’ analog lite’ sibling. Sure, on a technical level I still think the original is the more resolving but in terms of timbre and musicality, the Ananda BT is the better option.
This has a modern tuning, a balanced more powerful sound, and one that I personally enjoy a bit more than the original for the type of music I listen to. Clever Hifiman!
Top Gear 2020 Awards – Best True Wireless System
I guess you could call the WF-1000XM3 my gateway gear to TWS and the culprit behind us starting TWS reviews on Headfonics. For me, it is still the standard even months after it was released and also the one TWS that comes the closest to me saying, “yeah, an audiophile should get those”.
That is not to say it is the best of the best, (with honors) in every box to be ticked. The battery in the cradle is average, stability can get tricky with multiple devices around it, and the range is just meh. It is not the smallest of driver form factors and neither does it have an IPX rating.
And yet, it is the best sounding, the most compelling for clarity, and with a level of ANC that is evenly attenuated and customizable enough to appeal to most people’s needs. This is a keeper, well until the XM4 which, given Sony’s penchant for short product life cycles, could well be soon.
Top Gear 2020 Awards – Best Wireless Streamer
On pure sound quality, they are absolutely world-class with one of the best performances for medium efficiency monitors and modern planar I have heard to date.
They are an absolute joy to listen to, especially if you want plenty of PRaT and a natural-sounding vocal delivery. Very few streamers come close to what this device can deliver in terms of harmonic excellence.
The Black version has the edge in dynamic range and separation but for less than half the price the more relaxed sounding Red version is very satisfying also. I can see what at $999 the Red would fly off the shelves because the gap is not huge.
The R2R2000 is a joyful sounding portable streaming experience and one I could quite happily slip in my pocket as a “secret weapon”. Old school it may be, right down to that vintage DAC chipset, however, the tuning proves that sometimes the newest is not always the best.
Click on page 2 below for our amplifier and DAC Top Gear 2020 Awards as well as our Reviewer’s own personal picks for the year.