Turntable Lab's Favorite Gear of 2017
This is a breakdown of the favorite gear we enjoyed using in 2017. -PH
the perfectly engineered turntable
Clearaudio Concept Black Turntable (starts at $1800)
I'll admit that the newly-introduced black colorway sucked me in. So much so, I took one for my everyday player. I love using this turntable. It brings me back to owning my first Technics 1200: that rare feeling of owning something truly high-end... gazing at its beautiful design and being hypnotized by its silky performance.
" ... that rare feeling of owning something truly high-end... gazing at its beautiful design and hypnotized by its silky performance."
The Concept's tonearm is the focal point, a true engineering marvel. With a floating magnet design, the cartridge glides over the grooves while absorbing imperfections. Although the actual arm is stiff, because of the floating design, it gives the "feel-illusion" that it's fluid and flexible. I had an interesting talk with a hi-fi executive and he introduced me to the idea that a high-end turntable should not only read the grooves accurately but also LESSEN static + light pops. I get it. Lastly, I also have to point out the compact, refined form of the Concept. It truly feels like a solid, thoroughly thought-out piece of gimmick-free machinery: every component is super-custom and integrated (yup, that German design).
For some persepective, two A-list music industry people (the first's early records were put out on TVT, the other started one of the most influential labels of our time) have bought this piece from us, so you know there's something here.
integrated amp. updated.
NAD C338 ($649, $549 without Chromecast)
2017 appeared to be year where the 'traditional integrated amp / 2 channel system' started to make a comeback (said the music nerd). With tech + audio there has always been a race to slim down and simplify (see the single powered Bluetooth speaker + subwoofer-in-one). However, there's a certain luxury of having an integrated amplifier running quality speaker cables into a set of passives (see below).
" ... there's a certain luxury of having an integrated amplifier running quality speaker cables into a set of passives."
For me, the NAD C338 ($649, $549 without Chromecast) got it all right. You get an audiophile-grade amplifier but with the added convenience of Bluetooth and Chromecast. The Chromecast functionality was a unexpected surprise. I added the Google app on my phone, paired the amp, and automatically my desktop Spotify app and Chrome browser were both paired. Back to the actual amp, I really enjoyed the even sound of the C338 and its "Bass EQ" option that gives your sound some extra punch. The volume knob is engineered brilliantly; it's super accurate and takes several rotations to get it to loud (think high-end steering system). The intelligent sleep mode (it powers up when it detects a digital signal) and remote are also useful functions that add to the luxury feel. Extra points: NAD's minimal 80s stereo aesthetic.
affordable audiophile passives
Dali Zensor Series (starts at $395 per pair)
Personally, I'm not the guy who's gonna drop huge bucks on speakers, so the Dali Zensor series really appealed to me. The Zensor 1s ($395 for a pair) are an excellent set for most aspiring audiophiles. If you want loud bass, I'd go for the Zensor 3s ($595 for a pair), which we use at our store as the in-house system. The unique colorways (take off those grills!) also help the Dali's to stand out in a sea of semblance.
" ... an excellent set for most aspiring audiophiles."
Continuing the conversation about 2 channel systems, I alternate between a Sonos Play:5 and Zensor 1s in my office. I like the ease of use and brute strength of the Play:5, but the Dali's offer more clarity and balance. Sonos has an aggressive yet satisfying way of presenting its sound (like a good hefty burger), but a set of quality passives like these is more like a quality sushi dinner.
very portable sound
Speaking of all-in-one Bluetooth speakers, I really enjoyed B&O Play's Beolit 17. As expected from B&O the sound quality is premium compared to its consumer-electronics peers; but what I really like about the Beolit 17 is its form. Whereas most larger portable speakers are a hassle to move around, the Beolit 17 invites you to move it around with its leather handle, manageable size, and hefty build. At the same time, The Beolit 17 has a sense of permanence; it sits firmly with its large surface area and rounded corners. It feels like it should get scratched up a little, which I also liked. I found myself carrying it around my apartment, dropping it into different rooms (mostly the kitchen).
"The Beolit 17 invites you to move it around."
affordable dj mixers
Pioneer Pro Midrange DJ Mixers ($349-$699)
The great mixer wars are over. It got blockchain crazy for the last couple years. The DJ market seemed to introduce a new mixer every month, each adding more features and a couple hundred to the list price (the market normalized the $1000+ mixer). Having dominated the high-end 2 channel with the DJM-S9, Pioneer really strengthened their position in sub-$1000 range with the DJM-250 entry-level mixer ($349), DJ-S3 Serato mixer ($499), and the DJM-450 ($699). If you want to pad out samples, you can always add the DDJ-SP1 ($299), but there's no real need for a bedroom DJ to drop $2K on a mixer anymore. Bonus: check out the $599 Omnitronic rotary mixer.
"The great mixer wars are over."
modular listening cartridges
Ortofon 2M Cartridge Series (starts at $100)
There's no secret here. The Ortofon's 2M Series is probably the most popular line of audiophile listening cartridges on the market. However this year, Ortofon released special mounted editions for 2M Red and 2M Blue. Unlike other competitors, Ortofon has a true modular feel: the easy-to-replace stylus, true upgrade compatibility (you can upgrade the 2M Red body with the 2M Blue stylus), and the new pre-mounted options.
one-two value punch
ProJect's Debut Carbon Esprit SB is the perfect turntable at its price range. I used one as my secondary turntable this year and I was impressed with its one piece carbon-fiber tonearm design, ruggedness (great for people who aren't so careful with their gear), and the speed change / power button. Personally, I don't like messing with turntable belts when changing speeds (or exposed belts in general). Converse to convenience, I like that it doesn't come with a built-in phono preamp (although I recognize the ease of built-ins). Being a gear nerd, I feel like picking + upgrading your preamp is big part of the fun of building your own turntable system.
"ProJect's Debut Carbon Esprit SB is the perfect turntable at its price range."
For preamps, the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS has got to be my favorite. Or maybe I should say the Tube Box DS' price drop (from $699 to $399) was my favorite. It's rare (or never) you can get a quality *double* tube-drive preamp at this price. The on-the-fly adjustable impedance control for MC cartridges is also a rare feature. Pair this with an Esprit SB and you're set.
a new form for speaker stands
Line Phono Speaker Stand (starts at $149)
Yes, I had a hand in designing this thing, but I'm really proud that we were able to introduce a new form to the speaker stand market. I never could get myself to do the black metal pole design (there's nothing wrong with them), but I really wanted a design that would add an element of visual dynamism to the speaker. I also am proud of the modular elements of this design: the ability to use it with a wide range of speakers (from Sonos Play:5 to traditional bookshelf speakers) and the user deciding which features to use or not to use (flexible storage area + cable management, speaker anglers). Note: these stands are currently only available at linephono.com