InnerFidelity Editor's Choice 2018 – $500 to $2,500

2018 is rapidly coming to a close and with it, the window to highlight some of, what I feel, were the most impressive components and headphones that I experienced this year.

Not everyone will agree with the choices – some will love the picks, others will not – or they will talk about what they'd have included in the price range and that's OK.

To each their own. I hope you enjoy this list and it is able to help you in some way.

Chord Mojo/Poly – $539/$749 USD

Chord Mojo

Want a portable DAC and headphone amp? There’s plenty to choose from out there at multiple price points. But, if you want one that sounds great and can offer the option to stream wirelessly to your Bluetooth headphones or speakers, supports AirPlay and connects via wi-fi (DLNA) to a connected/wireless home system, then options get slimmer. Enter the Chord Mojo and Poly. Connected to an iPhone, the increase in sound quality has to be heard to be believed ditto for streaming to any output with transducers. With Coaxial, Optical and USB audio out the Mojo on it’s own can jack in into pretty much anything and adding in Poly’s wireless connectivity (mobile hotspots anyone?) makes this a combo to be reckoned with even at much higher price points. Take it with you anywhere, enjoy and don’t look back. A no-brainer for those looking not to break the bank.

Audeze LCD-2C – $799 USD

Audeze LCD-2C

A sound stage of epic proportions, incredible resolution and a slight warmth to the sonic signature that speaks to me with rich timbral and tonal colours and a bottom end that is as clean, deep and tight as they come, the Audeze LCD-2C open-back Planar-Magnetic headphones are supremely comfortable to boot for those long listening sessions where you just don’t want the music to stop. Roll in incredible industrial design, one of the most solid and comfortable headbands and ear cups in the industry and you’ve got an end-game over-ear headphone at a price point thats a no-brainer.

Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies – from $999 USD

Woo Audio WA7

I’ve only ever had the chance to spend time with the gorgeous-looking WA7s at trade shows, but every time I did and with whatever headphones were supplied with them (from easy to drive Audeze’s to higher-impedance Sennheiser’s), I always came away low-whistling and shaking my head at their dynamic performance capabilities at driving almost any load a set of cans present to them. They are without a doubt one of the most eye-catching designs on the market whether turned on or off. But, when their supplied 6C45 valves are glowing you instantly understand where their name came from. Operating in single-ended Class-A, with transformer-coupled output and equipped with an asynchronous USD-fed ESS Sabre DAC handling files up to 24/384, it’s also a breeze to set up and have running in no time. Add in the fun of tube-rolling to flavour and fine-tune the sound and you’ve got a headamp/DAC built with future-proof in mind.

MrSpeakers AEON Flow Open/Closed – $799 USD

MrSpeakers AEON

Either way you order it, the proprietary Planar-Magnetic AEON Flow in open or closed back form is a benchmark headphone at this price point. The beautiful industrial design and solid, no-nonsense construction feel like the business when in your hand or on your head and as soon as the music starts to ahem, flow through them you know you’ve got something not only incredibly comfortable on your skull, but a headphone capable of the most airy, open highs, meaty mids and a bottom end not to be trifled with. With the Open version you get tight, fast bass, excellent resolution with bloom and decay off brass, strings and piano notes which makes themselves known as much more than a rapper’s delight.The Closed version gives you a lot of the same, but with less warmth overall and a heftier nod to clarity and resolution as their ultimate destination. Either way, depending on your tastes, these are cans that will please for years to come.

QUAD ERA-1 – approx $700 USD

QUAD ERA-1

QUAD. Just the name instantly evokes memories for me of their classic (and one of my all-time favourites) ESL-57 electrostatic loudspeakers. The ERA-1 is the company’s first foray into headphone design and no, they are not an electrostatic design. They are Planar-Magnetic and fast became another classic favourite for me as well as soon as I got them on my head and was wrapped in their warm, open sound with what I’d describe as real “midrange magic.” That’s not to say they don’t perform exceedingly well up top or down below between the lower octaves, but it’s the way they suck you in with their excellent imaging, linear frequency response and dynamic, fast presentation. These cans just plain rock and for their price, put real pressure on the competition.

A&K SR15.

A&K SE100.

Astell & Kern SR15 and SE100 – $699/$1,699 USD

Astell & Kern SR15

Astell & Kern SE100

To play music off your iPhone or Android? That is the question and Astell & Kern are here to answer it it with a resounding “No!” As decent as my iPhone 7 sounds playing Tidal Hifi out of its Lightning Connecter to 3.5mm headphone adaptor into a pair of LCD-4z (15-Ohm impedance, incredibly easy-to-drive) headphones, there’s no comparison to hearing the Audeze’s through either the SR15 or SE100 portable players. Bass, midrange and treble suddenly have real flesh-and-blood believability in a way that no phone can match in my experience. The SR15 sports dual-DAC chips (Master HIFI level Cirrus Logic CS43198) and supports playback of up to 24/192 PCM and DSD64 natively, MQA support is also now available via firmware update. The SE100 is Full-Monty with eight-channel processing courtesy of its SABRE ES9038Pro DAC and Octa-Core CPU allowing for playback of up to 32/384 PCM files and Quad-DSD native support. Add built-in Wi-fi, DNLA and digital audio output via USB, aptX Bluetooth and additional Micro SD card internal storage (up to two terabytes) and the choice between phone and portable player doesn’t seem so confusing anymore.

Sennheiser HD820 – $2,399 USD

Sennheiser HD820

I love the Sennheiser HD800, many feel that it can tend to being too lean, but when paired with a juicier DAC, headamp or phono stage I have zero complaints, plus its one of the most comfortable designs for extended listening around IMO. Enter the new kid on the HD block: The HD820. While almost identical to the 800 in looks and in comfort, the new 820 leaves the former behind with a redesign to be a closed-back model. Build quality, like all Sennheiser products, has few peers and new synthetic leather ear pads make them even more comfy than previous iterations. With a 300-Ohm impedance, these are not mobile-phone friendly, but plugged into a Naim DAC-V1 or McIntosh C2600 and they simply sing. With excellent dynamic range and a sound signature that puts more meat on the bone than my old favourite 800s, these new Senns are all about a much larger sound stage, mid-range punch, drive, solid bass, a slightly-treble-tilted top end (never fatiguing) and gorgeous tone and timbre.

Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature – $899 USD

Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature

Bower & Wilkins seem to produce character-building products. I’ve owned a couple pairs of their loudspeakers over the years and always came away feeling that I learned something more about sound reproduction for having my time with them. Something better, a more cultured appreciation of aural intelligence if you will. Their headphones are no different and the P9 Signature is one of the most clear-sounding, superbly-detailed headphones I’ve tried that still are able to deliver the goods down low and not hurt my ears even though they are an on-ear design. Add in gorgeous, modern and stylish good looks (These are the ‘phones you’d see lying on a table in a Dwell Magazine photo shoot) and you’ve got a set of cans that doesn’t scream “headphone geek” and instead says “cool sophisticate.” With large 40mm drive units angled inwards for an optimal and more natural-sounding sonic delivery and more leather on them than even Ricardo Montalban could talk about it, the P9s make me feel like I’m adult-ing every time.

Audeze LCDi4 – $2,495 USD

Audeze LCDi4

I’m not a huge fan of IEMs, but Audeze has changed that to a large degree with the insane miniature Planar-Magnetic IEM design in the LCDi4. Priced more like a large over-ear model, these tiny Tie Fighter-shaped monitors had me mouth breathing after about 30-seconds with them listening to some Missy Elliot. I’ve never experienced this type of open, big sound stage, deep bass and ultra-airy treble coupled with a gutsy midrange bounce in an IEM previously. Obviously not for everyone because of their looks and price, they are nonetheless one of the most impressive headphone experiences I’ve come across and I applaud Audeze for taking what many thought couldn’t be made smaller and not only doing it, but doing it almost as good as some full-size Planars I’ve heard. If size is an issue for you and you need small or love the in-your-head of IEMs, then these are for you.

MrSpeakers ETHER 2 – $1,999 USD

MrSpeakers ETHER 2

The original ETHER put a smile on my face as soon as I heard Neil Young’s voice come through them minus any of the upper-register fatigue I’d come to associate with some of his mid-70s heavyweight recordings. No matter what I threw at them, they always seem to make everything sound better somehow, more texture, more dynamic, more human and organic without ever leaning hard on one part of the frequency spectrum. No heavy hand here, rather a dynamic and even-handed approach that is adept at showing the myriad differences from recording to recording without ever sacrificing warmth for resolution or emotional impact. The new ETHER 2 does all of that, but even better. Dan Clark can’t stop himself from constantly working to improve the experience of every MrSpeakers owner and with this latest iteration ETHER 2 he’s surpassed what I thought possible: making the ETHER open-back better.

COMMENTS
Simply Nobody's picture

Chord Hugo2, Audeze LCD-X, XC and LCD-3, the new iFi top of the line headphone amp or DAC, AQ headphones are all under $2,500 :-) ............

Simply Nobody's picture

Chord Hugo2 is $2,695 :-) ...........

Rafe Arnott's picture
There's still the $2,500+ Editor's Choice to come, and Products of the Year... so relax ;-)
ManiaC's picture

Is the best digital audio pice ever!

Rafe Arnott's picture
Price or piece maybe? I can edit it.
Simply Nobody's picture

'Pice' is a former monetary unit of India and Pakistan ........ Dictionary :-) ..........

According to Wikipedia ..... it is also called 'Paisa' :-) ...........

Pokemonn's picture

mice or... Pika or vice? lol

GimmeCans's picture

How about a comparison between the essentially identically priced Quad ERA-1 and Audeze LCD-2C? Seems like that would have the makings of a good 'shootout' type review. The Quad interests me because I note that it has velour contact surfaces rather than the leather or 'pleather' pads used in almost all on-ears (especially planars for some reason), which feel clammy to me after about one song.

funkydandy's picture

+1

How about a comparison between the essentially identically priced Quad ERA-1 and Audeze LCD-2C?

abvolt's picture

Excellent choices..

AGB's picture

Add in the Curious USB cable from Australia from the PC/Mac to the iFi, a 6" Moon USB wire between the iFiUBB3.0 which also acts as a power supply to the MOJO, and find that the iFi device makes a $3000 DAC from the $600 Mojo DAC. Lastly, use the Audirvana software with Audeze's own LCDi4 plugin headphone software, and you've reached another level.

Rafe, you're doing a good job.

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