Gear Of The Year 2018
There’s been a host of game-changing hardware released over the past year, so get ready to spend any leftover Christmas money as we announce our 2018 turntable, amp, speaker and headphone winners!
This year has seen the turntable industry go from strength to strength, continuing its steady release pace and becoming more diverse in design. The notion of bundling technologies inside and adjacent to the chassis has grown, with more lifestyle offerings being launched this year. Our award winners have all been either released or reviewed this year – with one sneaking in at the very end of last year (it missed the deadline for the 2017 awards).
We’ve also divided our winners and highly commended selections into price points, so whatever your budget there’s a choice for you. Make way for the rustling sound of opening envelopes and stand back for the awards…
Two of the very best at two very different price points…
LEEMA QUASAR – Winner
The all-in-one amp offers three co-axial inputs and three optical inputs, plus Leema’s M1 asynchronous USB interface. Bluetooth is also included. The unit, housed in an aluminium chassis, supports streaming directly from compatible mobile devices. It’s drenched in sonic ability and offers great value.
BEL CANTO ACI 600 INTEGRATED – Winner
So impressed were we by the ACI 600 when first we heard it in operation that we felt compelled to introduce a Gear Of The Year category solely for its rarefied sonic quality. Boasting the company’s new Asynchronous Multi-Input Processor and a 32-bit ARM core processor, its an easy-to-set-up, all-in-one answer to your hi-fi needs in a single box. Whether you’re playing records or plugging in headphones, everything is delivered with jaw-dropping clarity and audiophile refinement.
This category is reserved for a design type as opposed to a price bracket. As such, the price point does wander a bit, but in 2018 the all-in-one design has become increasingly popular…
THORENS TD 240-2 – Winner
This was a tough call – in fact, we swayed between this and the Pro-Ject Juke Box S2 half-a-dozen times. The Pro-Ject may have the higher feature count, but this turntable offers an intriguing level of ease of use and sound quality. It was the ease of use and the automatic operation that tipped the balance here – partly because automatic turntables under £1,000 that sound this good are few and far between. Secondly, the build quality of this turntable is high for an automatic, as it sports a solid-wood plinth. This is most of the reason for the turntable’s incredible bass performance, incidentally. During operation, in fact, it resembles a direct-drive design, such is the lower-frequency response. The sonics may be a little ‘solid state’ for some, but there is plenty to like from this venerable brand name.
PRO-JECT JUKE BOX S2 – Highly Commended
£599 (£999 for a full system)
The more expensive version of the popular Juke Box E very nearly took the top prize. For the extra cash, you get improved turntable features, Bluetooth, an amplifier built in and a host of featured sockets to connect other gear. The S2 arrives finished in walnut or eucalyptus veneer. A ‘System’ add-on also includes speakers and accessories.
ROKSAN XERXES 20 PLUS – Highly Commended
£4,650 (inc. arm and cartridge)
Caspian VSC 25 Vinyl System Controls £3,500
This beautiful turntable includes a Nima arm and Corus2 cartridge with the Caspian VSC 2 Vinyl System Control. The latter features a built-in phono amplifier plus speed control and extra power supplies. It performs brilliantly, sounds supremely detailed and dynamic, and still worries the hell out of other designs.
BUDGET TURNTABLES (£300-£700)
Entry-level designs that still pack a formidable sonic punch…
PRO-JECT DEBUT III S AUDIOPHILE – Winner
Abelt-driven, two-speed turntable sporting a synchronous motor that drives a steel platter topped by a felt mat with a stainless steel axle in a brass bearing housing. Colour choice is black or white, but what catches the eye is the S-shaped arm. This 8.6″, one-piece tonearm arrives with an aluminium construction and featuring the newly developed Ortofon Pick it 25 A cartridge. The low-noise output helps to push the stereo image backwards, giving the music a real sense of depth. Providing a strong, yet relaxed suite of self-assured bass frequencies combined with low noise-induced midrange detail that enhances clarity and the intelligibility of even complex arrangements, the Pro-Ject Debut III S Audiophile is an accomplished analogue performer that belies the humble price tag.
NAD C558 – Highly Commended
NAD hasn’t previously been known for its turntables, but that may all be about to change. This is an interesting design that is belt-driven and features a glass platter, resting on an MDF plinth, which is supported by rubber feet. To the right is a 22cm tonearm. Hanging off the tonearm is an Ortofon OM10 cartridge – an excellent choice at this price point. Impressive stuff from NAD, with plentiful bass dynamics and expansive midrange detail.
THORENS TD 295 MK 4 – Highly Commended
The TD 295 stretches the budget tag, but it does a good job of hitting the sweet spot between audiophile and lifestyle turntables. The former is boosted by the modified Pro-Ject tonearm and the Audio-Technica cartridge. Semi-automatic operation, attractive aesthetics, good component choice and a weighty sonic foundation from Thorens’ heavyweight plinth.
MID-RANGE TURNTABLES (£700-£3,500)
Top choices at mid-level prices as turntable design gets serious…
FUNK FIRM LITTLE SUPER DECK – Winner
A design full of innovation and advanced features, we were bowled over by The Little Super Deck – the brainchild of Arthur Khoubesserian, the man behind the famous Pink Triangle brand. For example, the belt fits around the sub-platter and the adjacent pulley – nothing odd there – but that belt also runs around two additional, unpowered as it were, free-spinning pulleys to prevent the belt pulling the platter towards it by tiny amounts which, as the platter rotates, cause a micro-wobble. A brilliant implementation, soundwise it removes any sense of colour and allows the music to reach your ears in an even-handed and considered manner. The price of this turntable includes the excellent F5 tonearm, helping to deliver sound that’s reliably detailed and unobtrusive. At this price, it’s hard to look beyond the Little Super Deck.
AVID DIVA II SP – Highly Commended
The Diva II SP from Conrad Mas’ forward-looking Avid Hifi delivers high-quality sonic detail and is bursting at the seams with aesthetic style. A metal platter is featured rather than the MDF of the standard Diva II, plus a high-quality Tungsten carbide/sapphire bearing assembly taken from more expensive models. A new frequency-adjustable power supply is also included, which the company sees as more stable than a DC option. Sound quality is absolutely first rate, and the Diva II SP can easily support a £2,500 tonearm and £2,000 cartridge.
CLEARAUDIO PERFORMANCE DC – Highly Commended
£3,240 (Performance DC Turntable, Clarify Tonearm & Virtuoso Cartridge)
Another strong, clean and simple design that delivers the goods from the celebrated German hi-fi company. The brushed aluminium and high-density fibreboard plinth features secure push-button controls for three (yes, 78rpm is supported here) speeds, plus an Off button. The plinth is supported on three noise-isolating feet, and the turntable provides an open and breezy midrange performance with a full and organically impressive lower end.
HIGH-END TURNTABLES (£3,500+)
The sky is the proverbial limit with money no object. Here are three of the very, very best…
VPI PRIME SIGNATURE – Winner
The VPI Prime Signature is such a confident, proficient turntable, it fairly struts around your listening room. This is a turntable that handles the full suite of frequencies with a stylish sweep and complete self-assurance. Looking at the sturdy base, which resembles a workbench rather than a turntable chassis, you’ll notice the aluminium plate running through the centre of two layers of vinyl-wrapped MDF. There is the weight, right there. The plate helps damping, as you might expect, as do the feet with their shiny chrome covers on top of the chassis. The 3D-printed JMW-10-3DR arm’s unipivot includes high-quality Nordost Reference wiring, too. Solid as a rock, oozing detail that’s blended successfully with clarity, this is a high-quality deck that just sounds ‘right’.
GOLD NOTE MEDITERRANEO – Highly Commended
(Mediterraneo Walnut with B-7 Ceramic tonearm)
Designed and built in Italy, this classy looking two-speed, belt-driven turntable includes an aged Walnut lower plinth that epitomises the care and attention paid to this deck’s construction. The 9″ B-7 Ceramic tonearm features a moulded headshell including a built-in finger lift. Providing crisp detail with attention-demanding focus that isn’t compressed, the Mediterraneo offers a mature and controlled sonic approach that inspires confidence. And it looks stunning.
MCINTOSH MT5 – Highly Commended
Oozing strength and mass and glowing green, the McIntosh MT5 has an inner-anodised aluminium sub-platter that holds the belt, along with the three-speed (including 78rpm) Swiss-made DC motor’s pulley. The outer platter, made from silicone acrylic, sits on top. The MT5 is not only easy to set up and easy to use, but it entertains with a sense of supreme confidence, delivering precision and focus in the midrange and drive and control in the lower frequencies. A supreme turntable that breeds trust and assurance.
MEZE 99 CLASSICS – Winner
At least one member of the Long Live Vinyl team invested in a set of these Romanian-built headphones in 2018. Boasting a set of 40mm Mylar drivers, the 99 Classics are over-the-ear and closed-back in design. Bass might be the star of the show here, but there’s enough midrange clarity, tonal accuracy and soundstage organisation to impress any hi-fi fan out there.
The competition was incredibly tight in this category, but these two wowed our judges
Q ACOUSTICS 3020I SPEAKERS – Winner
Beautifully made and finished, inside the cabinets you’ll find P2P bracing, supporting parts of the cabinet itself; there’s also a 22mm decoupled ‘High Frequency Driver’ with a wide surround. A mid/bass unit is underneath, spanning 125mm. The 3020Is offer superb midrange insight and tonal realism, giving these speakers an expensive feel.
KEF R SERIES – Winner
KEF’s revamped R series comprises four stereo models, three floorstanders and a standmount design, along with two models to aid home-theatre use. KEF engineers are said to have made no fewer than 1,043 individual changes to the previous R Series. We spent some time with the floorstanding R11s at this year’s Festival Of Sound and were blown away. With improved cabinet bracing and a completely redesigned magnet system for the bass driver, the new R Series offers exceptional performance for the price.