In what has now become a traditional close to the Headfonics year we bring you what we consider to be the top gear we reviewed in 2016.
Having read last year’s intro I might sound like a broken record but we have in fact increased our readership by 30% so on behalf of the team at Headfonics, we want to thank you for visiting us, commentating, answering questions, and throwing shoes at us.
It’s all for the sake of this wonderful hobby of
spending money enjoying audio gear.
When looking back on 2016 we pretty much saw a continuing trend from 2015 blossom and grow with a huge focus on mobile gear including IEMs and customs. We saw the rise of the planar IEM for instance with Obravo, then Audeze, and now Unique Melody bringing out some very interesting gear.
Customs gear now kicking off with 18, yes 18 drivers in flagships – will we get 20+ in 2017? We also saw new technology such as tubeless resonance chambers from Campfire Audio, and new hearing protection devices such as ISOLATE from Flare and ADEL.
We have also had TrueFlow planar technology from MrSpeakers as well as the integration of existing tech into new ideas such as HDMI in mid-fi DACs from Essence.
2016 also seems to be the year when revisions were quite popular with new editions of Hifiman’s HE1000, and Edition X v2 as well as a re-tuning of Audeze’s LCD and EL8 line up not to mention Unique Melody’s v2 of their most popular customs. Sometimes the best doesn’t need to be all-new, it just needs to be tweaked.
Ironically, 2016 heralded the first year we did not refresh the design or publishing methodology of Headfonics. I think we hit our groove and the positive feedback from our readers has been something that we humbly appreciate. It also makes choosing the top gear of the year dead simple going by the scores.
However, as in 2015, we know our writers have their personal favs so once again we have given them free rein to let us know what floats their boat for 2016, regardless of the score, in our “Writer Choice” award for 2016.
Hifiman HE1000 V2
We voted for the HE1000 V1 as our best headphones for 2015 and for our Best Open Headphone category for 2016, the new V2 grabs the top spot. This is a fresh, vibrant retake on the original wonderful sound. The V2 has all the best attributes of the original V1 but it is now more attention-grabbing, less laid back, and less peaky in the treble.
Fang and the team have tweaked based on feedback from existing customers with new pads, new cup designs, an upgraded cable, and a far more comfortable fit. If you are in the market for energetic sound quality with bags of detail, clean and clear mids, and a bottomless bass response there is no finer open headphones that we reviewed in 2016 than the HE1000 V2.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/12/the-he1000-v2-by-hifiman/
MrSpeakers Ether C Flow
We actually reviewed the Ether C at the start of the year and I fell in love with it. I was convinced it would walk this category at the time. Of course, Dan was working his magic on an upgrade, and out comes the Ether C Flow before the year ends.
Wow, all the caveats on the Ether C I mentioned earlier in the year have been blown away by the Ether C Flow. Gone are the lean low-end and peaky highs and in comes a smoother treble response and plenty of power in the bass response with excellent detail to boot.
It is still a neutral-sounding headphone but this time it has enhanced musicality, great PRaT, and a weighted authority that I love for metal and rock. These are the most spacious and detailed closed-planar headphones I have heard in a long time and I have heard plenty.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/12/the-ether-c-flow-by-mrspeakers/
oBravo has weaved some serious magic to produce a stunning universal IEM without equal in 2016 and to think the 2C is not even the flagship in this range, that honor belongs to the “1”.
Combining speaker technology, AMT, with a neodymium dynamic driver into an essentially an open IEM design oBravo have created a sumptuous, clear and incredibly detailed universal IEM that makes other universals seem almost one-dimensional.
Yes, it costs a ton, I get that and it will continue to be a talking point. However, I simply can’t put my finger on anything that sounds as good or better so perhaps, in this case, it could well be justified. Just demo it in a quiet room for a while and see if you agree that’s all I ask.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/11/the-eamt-2c-by-obravo-audio/
Empire Ears Zeus
Considering its price, Zeus will naturally be received with skepticism concerning its driver count. The million-dollar question on a lot of people’s minds is can you really hear Zeus’ price return in its sound?
For Zeus costs roughly $500 more than your average TOTL CIEM, which a lot of people might already find exorbitant. Zeus has its own signature, and this will ultimately determine someone’s preference. You can never say one signature is better than the other – that also holds for a completely neutral one.
But what Zeus does have, is a natural authority over others – regardless of signature. Its high resolution and resolving nature, total sense of control and linearity in the upper frequencies, subtle presentation of detail, and 3D imaging reveal a masterful piece of engineering.
Its signature is partially secondary; it could have been either U-shaped or mid-forward. But when you hear Zeus, you hear something special – the sheer enjoyment of hearing technical excellence, beyond its signature.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/03/the-zeus-by-empire-ears/
2016 seemed like it pressed the reset button in the portable audiophile world, as an absurd amount of great on-the-go setups were released from various companies around the world.
And then Audeze stepped into the grid with their SINE, which is a wonderfully small, sleek, and sexy Planar that raised the bar for what constitutes great portable sound.
History will show that the Sine was the first, the original, and the grandfather of the imminent portable Planar driver wave of headphones that is sure to come in the near future.
If you enjoy tasteful elegance, with a serious heft to the entire spectrum, then the SINE is for you! Look no further, this is the best portable headphone available here and at the end of 2016.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/04/the-sine-by-audeze/
Feliks Audio Espressivo-E
This amp really sounds wonderfully musical and lacks nowhere, yet it is priced well under what the actual sound quality matches up with.
Head Fi’ers agree, Feliks Audio does amazing work and they are highly praised out yonder on other forums as well. I’ve got to say, this one is a real golden ticket for me as a musicality chaser, someone who doesn’t want a pure or accurate tone.
I don’t think the extreme clinical tone chasers should invest in this, but if you are in the middle and might enjoy a bit of both with the potential to EQ to achieve a boosted appeal to your desired presentation, or want a forward and linear sound with plentiful everything…this amp comes highly recommended.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/03/the-expressivo-by-feliks-audio/
The Chord Mojo is probably one of the best portable DAC/Amps that I have tested in a very long time indeed.
I hate getting on the hype train, I really do, but I think that I just bought a ticket for the Mojo express because, tonally, it is leaps and bounds ahead of competing units purposed for the same target market.
It is highly listenable, impressively musical, yet detailed, and clear right throughout the spectrum. There is hardly a weak spot in sound reproduction for something of this price point.
The fact that it is a highly programmable design with a super high sampling rate already built into it makes it a portable DAC/Amp that should still stay relevant for a long time indeed.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/04/the-mojo-by-chord-electronics/
This was a close run thing with the Questyle QP1R which had the same score but we felt the more modern design and features on the i5 plus the more competitive price point gave the i5 an edge. It is simply more involving and more in tune with modern on-the-go audiophile demands.
I can honestly say for $499 this is probably the best all-round DAP in the market today. It is also a thoroughly modern DAP with a rock solid touch-sensitive Android platform and a very likable UI in partnership with HiBy Music.
Connectivity is everywhere from WiFI to BT, from DropBox to LAN, and from Spotify to Google Play. There is plenty of room for expansion locally also with up to 200Gb MicroSD, OTG for even more, and 32GB onboard.
This is an ambitious project and Cayin has pulled it off in my opinion. It could so easily have fallen into a cul de sac of bugs and afterthoughts (think DX100) but just about every angle is covered. It feels mature and even though technically the N6 is still the flagship it will be the i5 that gets the popular vote and the attention.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/10/the-i5-dap-by-cayin/
Flare Audio ISOLATE
Price: £24.99 & £49.99
Who saw this success coming? Flare Audio cannot fail, as their CEO (Davies Roberts) refuses to allow even a “very good” product to be allowed to pass through production. Nope. He’ll only take “the best thing there is” and has proven twice in a row that he means business.
The ISOLATE isn’t even an audio product per se, it is classified as an accessory and a noise isolator. Despite that, it made waves in the audio community and landed itself the top spot for the most prolifically purchased accessory of 2016…by far.
Somehow, Mr. Roberts was able to mesh a metal chassis and foam earplug isolator that ended up almost breaking physics itself. This product blocks dangerous dB levels around you and also lets you hear the environment without it feeling overly muted.
Such a feat has never been achieved in an isolator before that I am even aware of. This is the first noise-canceling plug that I’ve ever used that allowed me to stand right next to a 7 ft tall speaker at a concert and be unbothered by it, but then walk away to a more distant area and be able to hear people speaking around me.
We don’t know how Davies achieved it, but he did it and we thank him dearly for it.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/07/the-isolate-noise-blockers-by-flare-audio/
There is no doubt that this Elear is the top dog at the $999 and under level. She is luxurious to boot, looks great, feels great, sounds great, is efficient and does not require much amping to get great sound out of, has incredible responsiveness to equalization, and can really pack a punch in terms of dynamics and physical impact.
I am let down by the lack of staging width and height, but it is very hard for my ears to care too much when such an awesome depth of field and realism factor is present. The Elear is my Writer’s Choice pick for one of the best full-size headphones to come along in a very long time.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/09/the-elear-by-focal/
Cypher Labs Sustain84
When I started thinking about the most satisfying product for 2016 irrespective of score I honestly started plucking out IEMs, then headphones then trying to figure out which one was the more emotive choice.
I harked back to a few reviews thinking about what I had said and something came up each and every time and that was how great everything sounded when paired with Cypher Labs Sustain84 tube amp.
It’s not always the case that something is released that you really truly appreciate the value it has right away and so it is the case with the Sustain84.
In my review, I spoke fondly of its clean smooth sound, great speed, and ultra-low noise floor but roll on 10 months and I am dumbfounded how everything, from sensitive IEMs to great planar cans just sounds so good on this $1000 tube amp.
It’s unassuming looks really disguise a wonderfully tuned amplifier and I can happily plug anything into it and feel confident that it will sound great. In fact, I do just that for a great many reviews when studying another audio product’s potential and I need a good amp to see how really good it sounds or scales.
I don’t feel Cypher Labs get enough credit for how good their amp gear is so this is a big two-thumbs up for all the hard work Dave Maudlin and his team has put into rolling out star-performing amps such as the Sustain84.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/01/the-sustain84-by-cypher-labs/
RME ADI-2 Pro
The product that I believe has brought most to the table, really pulled me into what it does, why, and how. The one of which I believe offers value that I couldn’t find anywhere else: Congratulations RME, the ADI-2 Pro is my winner in 2016!
During the testing period, all my hifi equipment suddenly felt so dated. But it’s not the new technology alone that won me over. It’s the way the device allows you to study and experience the future.
It’s the way you can match every headphone the way you want. You can either enhance an analytical character or go for a darker analog feel. On top of that, you can store equalizer presets and straighten almost any headphone.
This little beast will bring new life to your old headphones, I promise. Just try it! If you want to build a house, the most important prerequisite is to have a good foundation. The same goes for headphones, they need a good source.
If you want to invest in this hobby, I think the ADI-2 Pro is a really great starting point… and probably also the final investment, just before the super high-end break point.
Full Review: https://headfonics.com/2016/12/the-adi-2-pro-by-rme/