Editor’s Choice $500 to $2,500 USD – InnerFidelity 2019

Climbing up the price ladder in personal audio doesn’t always guarantee you’ll be happier with the sonics – just like two-channel there can be sideways moves or tradeoffs – but, it usually means you’re getting better spec’d, better built and better sounding gear as a rule, as opposed to being the exception. Some lament the rising costs of headphones and amplifiers, DACs or cables, but as with all things in life, prices climb over time. So, here we have some of our standout choices for gear that impacted us in a truly positive way over the course of 2019 that slotted-in between $500 and $2,500 USD – definitely not budget, but not budget-breaking either. This is the second of three Editor’s Choice Awards, with the Over $2,500 USD category still to come.

$500 to $2,500 USD

Quad PA-One+ Headphone Amplifier/DAC/Preamplifier – $1,299 USD

The re-engineered circuit topology of the “+” designation to the PA-One headphone amp/DAC/pre means an improved signal/noise ratio and frequency response, a higher-quality DAC in the ESS Sabre 9018 K2M and a price drop from $1,799. So, better sound, specs and lower price than the original? What’s not to like? I spent several months with this little 6SL7/6SN7-tubed beauty and had a blast with it driving several sets of cans, in particular there was great synergy with Quad’s own ERA-1 planar-magnetic, over-ear headphones, but it offered rich tonal and timbral infusion with fantastic extension at the frequency extremes and an absolutely punchy, smooth and detailed midrange with outstanding sound stage capabilities regardless of what I had connected to it. Review forthcoming very soon.

Dan Clark Aeon 2 Closed – $899 USD

The newly rechristened Dan Clark Audio, previously Mr. Speakers, has wasted no time making waves. The new Aeon 2 has a laundry list of upgrades, most of them trickled down from the Ether 2 headphones, as well as a $100 price increase. Despite the higher price tag, the improvements are undeniable, and the Aeon 2 sound closer to a mini Ether 2 than the old Aeons. The tuning is spectacularly neutral and has a midrange depth and imaging capability that is rare in any headphone. If you liked the tuning of the LCD-1 but want something with a little more clarity, detail and dynamics, this is a great choice to get a real taste of those non-frequency response traits that high-end headphones do so well: transient clarity, dynamics and detail retrieval.

Audeze iSine 20 – $599 USD

I’ve written previously about how the Audeze iSine 20 planar-magnetic IEMs had become the modern version of the Sony foamies I ubiquitously wore 30 years ago: I take these future/retro-looking Tie-Fighter inspired engineering marvels with me wherever I go. Whether I’m listening to a DAP, through the Lightning connector of my iPhone or watching The Expanse jacked into my laptop via an AQ DragonFly, the iSine 20 offers a unique sonic insight in the iEM market to my ears. Presenting impressive bass depth, frequency linearity, incisive resolution without sacrificing warmth, transient speed and spaciousness to the sound stage and upper registers standard IEMs at this price point struggle to imitate, they are also comfortable enough for long-haul flights or marathon Netflix sessions with their placement hangers removed.

Cleer Audio NEXT – $599 USD

For those who loved the HD800 and the ‘dynamic’ headphones of years past but wished for greater resolution and more even treble, the NEXT is a headphone to check out. I did a full https://www.innerfidelity.com/content/cleer-audio-next-headphone-review review on them if you want my detailed thoughts, but suffice to say these are some of the smoothest and most detailed headphones under $1k USD I’ve heard this year. The bass may be a bit light for some, but the sheer transparency of the midrange and treble should win them many fans.

Meze Rai Penta – $1,099 USD

The Rai Penta is Meze’s first foray into high-end IEMs, and was quite a surprise to me when I first heard it. The tuning is quite unlike most other IEMs I’ve heard, and on first listen almost sounds boring. After living with them for a while however, these are another exceptionally well-tuned IEM, in the tradition of the Io or FH7. There is nothing that wows you when listening to these until you realize just how much detail you’re hearing and how well-balanced that detail is. This IEM will play just about anything without throwing detail in your face or being overly relaxed and distant. This is a goldilocks IEM, where all the frequencies are just right.

Simply Nobody's picture

iFi Audio Pro iDSD tube/SS, DAC/headphone amp, $2,500 (reviewed by Stereophile) :-) ........

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Audeze LCD i4 in-ear headphones, $2,500 (reviewed by Stereophile) :-) .........

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Focal Clear headphones, $1,500 (reviewed by Stereophile) :-) ........

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Focal Arche, DAC/headphone amp, $2,500 :-) ........