SECRETS is pleased to announce our Best Of Awards for 2022.
“Whew!” As we careen into December, the year is almost over and it’s been a non-stop crazy-train here at SECRETS. Once again our team has had an opportunity to review many more outstanding audio and video products over these past 12 months. The Editorial Team spent several weeks deliberating and considering which products, that came through our collective doors during this past year, can truly be considered “off-the-hook!” It is to these standout products that we give the SECRETS Best of Awards.
The awards and the categories are based on reviews that have been conducted on actual products that we have had in our homes and put our grubby little mitts on. While we can’t review every conceivable “great piece of gear” from year to year, we believe the products we have reviewed represent a good and relevant cross-section of what is interesting out there in the audio/video universe at this time. Our reviewers are pretty candid about their findings of products: if they really like something, that opinion is reflected in the product highlights and review conclusion. We will not make recommendations or award pronouncements out of thin air.
In 2016 we added our SECRETS “Thumbs-Up Award” in addition to the Best Of Award recipients. The “Thumbs-Up” award recognizes outstanding products in categories that may not have had more than one product in for review this year. Other times we have certain products that, while not Best Of winners, have qualities and features that are so compelling that they demand recognition. So, the SECRETS Thumbs-up Award winners are guaranteed to be unique and recommended as well!
From time to time our Editor-In-Chief, John E. Johnson Jr. will encounter a product that butters his bread, flips his lid, and creams his cocoa just enough, that he will bestow upon it, a coveted “Bad-Ass” award. Alas, JJ has seen fit to keep his powder dry this year and will not proclaim any Bad-Assery this go around.
As vinyl purchasing and playback continue to see growth this year, our vinyl review guru Jason Crawford has selected a couple of what he considers outstanding examples of the medium. The practice of enjoying music committed to the grooves of 12-inch petroleum-based platters seems to be alive and well and Jason has awarded “Best Vinyl Reissue” and “Best Vinyl New Release” awards accordingly.
Now, without further ado, we present the Secrets Best Of 2022 Awards!
Product of the Year
Product of the Year
Paradigm Founder 120H Floor Standing Loudspeaker
In my time with the Paradigm Founder 120H it never once failed on delivering an engaging and involving musical performance with a variety of different source material that I lobbed its way. And it consistently did so effortlessly as if it was a far larger set of loudspeakers. Very little comes to mind as comparable to these speakers until you start looking over the $10K fence.
Best of Awards
Best Bookshelf Loudspeaker
Sonus faber Lumina II Bookshelf Speakers
The Lumina II is a little speaker that could. The speakers may belong to Sonus faber’s entry-level Lumina collection, but there is no entry-level at all in their exhibited performance. Overall, these bookshelf speakers have a lot going for them, from their attractive design and material selection to their strong sonic performance.
Topping D90SE DAC
The Topping D90SE is a DAC for listeners who want nothing to get in between them and their music. It reveals all without adding anything that shouldn’t be there. It is very much the ultimate textbook DAC that almost anyone can afford. Highly Recommended.
Best Floor Standing Loudpeaker
PSB Synchrony T600 Floor Standing Speaker
PSB has literally put everything into these speakers. They’ve been designed from the ground up and no detail has been left unaddressed. From the precise drivers to the stone-like cabinet and its isolated aluminum front baffle and high-tech feet, everything here is devoted to delivering the best possible audio performance.
Best Headphone Amplifier
Wells Audio Dragon Headphone Amplifier
The Wells Audio Dragon is a solid, well-built, and well-engineered headphone amplifier. It has the bonus of tubes in the audio circuit, and more uniquely, a way to switch a particular type of tube in or out of the circuit. As I’ve said, the differences are subtle; most careful listeners will find one or the other to be closer to their preference.
Best ANC Wireless Bluetooth Headphones
Mark Levinson No. 5909 Wireless Noise Canceling Bluetooth Headphones
The Mark Levinson No.5909 ANC Wireless headphones sound and feel exceptional, in any manner that you decide to use them. These are the first noise-canceling headphones that I have been able to say that about.
Best Wired Headphones
HIFIMAN Arya Stealth Magnet Planar Headphone
With the right source and headphone amplifier, the HIFIMAN Aryas can deliver an engrossing musical performance with power, subtlety, and nuance. You will hear quite a lot of microdetail and spatial cues as you find yourself lost in an expansive soundstage of musical experience.
Best Integrated Amplifier
AVM Evolution A5.2 Integrated Amplifier
The A5.2 produced natural and detailed sound, and its ability to present the musical stage with a high degree of palpability was second to none. It is very adept in expressing the musical rhythm and pace that could indulge listeners vividly in the emotion of the music. If the AVM 5.2 is within your budget, I highly recommend giving it a listen, especially if you are looking for a high-end integrated amplifier that can potentially offer you music-listening bliss.
Best Tube Integrated Amplifier
Rogers® High Fidelity KWM-88 Integrated Tube Amplifier
The Rogers KWM-88 Integrated Amplifier is a powerful, bullet-proof tube amplifier that can drive almost any speaker with clean power and an inaudible noise floor. It’s an amp that will make you believe that a tube amp can be as powerful as a solid-state amp.
Best Streaming Integrated Amplifier
NAD M10 V2 BluOS Streaming Amplifier
There are many streaming devices out on the market right now, but the NAD M10 V2 is a super performer that includes state-of-the-art electronics, an awesome touchscreen display with the flexibility to stream or play digital and analog sources all in a solidly built, compact form. The NAD M10 V2 and a pair of good-quality speakers are all you’ll need for a killer stereo system.
Best Mid-Price Integrated Amplifier
Rotel RA-1572MKII Integrated Amplifier
Compared to other high-end components I’ve heard, the Rotel RA-1572MKII delivers a warmer sound. That’s not to say there is a lack of detail, far from it in fact. You can hear every nuance and the dynamic range is tremendous. I was encouraged to listen to soft passages as they were presented with a fragile transparency that I found addictive.
Best Portable Digital Audio Player
Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 Portable Digital Music Player
The Astell&Kern A&Ultima SP3000 is like having the portable audio equivalent of a high-performance luxury sport sedan in your jacket pocket. It’s heavier, has all the bells and whistles (more than you can count in many respects), is built to an impeccable luxurious standard, is intuitive to use, brimming with technology, and with a particular focus on edge-of-the-apex performance.
Best Stereo Preamplifier
Bryston BR-20 Stereo Preamplifier
Distortion and noise are remarkably low, a testimony to the high quality of parts that are available now, and to the engineering skill at Bryston necessary to implement them. The DAC has re-clocking, which is very important when streaming audio from USB digital outputs on computers, and it is capable of decoding the highest level of PCM and DSD sampling formats.
VIZIO M-Series Elevate 5.1.2 Sound Bar
The VIZIO M-SERIES Elevate 5.1.2 Soundbar delivers a truly immersive audio experience with slick styling and easy setup for less than the price of a decent pair of bookshelf speakers.
REL 212/SX Subwoofer
The REL 212/SX Subwoofers have increased the overall performance level of my system(s) more than any other piece of equipment or acoustical room treatment I have ever made. Highly recommended!
Best Home Theater Speaker System
Perlisten Audio R5m-based 5.2 Channel Home Theater System
Perlisten’s R5m-based surround sound system delivers an overachieving stereo or multichannel music and movie experience in a more real-world-sized package! If your budget allows, audition these post-haste!
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Ultradeck Plus M Turntable
I have concluded that the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Ultradeck Plus M Turntable provides reference-level quality at an affordable price. As I said in the main body of my review, this is the turntable I would use to archive records. That is because it does track the grooves as well as any table I have used and it also gives you all the music from the grooves with very little editorialization.
Best Wireless Speaker
Sonus faber OMNIA all-in-one speaker
What Sonus faber has created with the OMNIA is a feature-rich all-in-one component that is capable of sound reproduction traditionally limited to separate component systems. For the person interested in a simple to use piece of audio gear that produces great sound, and does it while taking up very little space, the OMNIA is the proverbial no-brainer. And for the audiophile who is looking for a secondary system for their living area, kitchen, office, or bedroom, the OMNIA would not leave them wanting for more.
Best Vinyl Reissue
Orgasm – Alan Shorter – Verve.
I’ll be blissfully listening to Orgasm ten years hence, and I won’t be stewing about how long it took me to receive it. I’m excited to have found this lost sound. VMP hit a homer when they uncovered Alan Shorter’s orgasmic masterpiece.
Best Vinyl New Release
Miss Kitty’s Lounge – Widespread Panic – Widespread Records
These versions of these tunes weren’t intended for release, but they don’t sound unfinished. They’re fully formed. They’re massive. They’re airy and sprawling. Kindercore Vinyl pressed them lovingly and with care. A couple of ticks here and there, but well within the bounds of what a vinyl fan will find acceptable. This isn’t an audiophile release. It’s Rock ’n Roll played by real musicians playing real instruments.
Thumbs Up Awards
SVS Ultra Bookshelf Speakers
The sound and build quality of the SVS Ultra Bookshelf Speakers make them an excellent value at $1,200/pair. They can be used as front main left/right speakers, side or rear surround, or wide (Dolby Atmos®). They could also be used as height speakers, but they are a bit heavy for ceiling mount. I would recommend a subwoofer to be used with them if you like to crank up the volume.
Floor Standing Loudpeakers
Dali Oberon 9 Floor Standing Loudspeaker
Walk into an audio store and tell the salesman you want a pair of speakers that can reproduce the fine detail of a female vocalist, the synthesized kick drum in a large arena, and subwoofer level bass to 20Hz. Then tell him (or her) you have $2,500 to spend, and you will likely be told, “This is impossible.” Visit an audio store that carries the DALI OBERON 9, and they will tell you, “Step over here, we have just what you need.”
Floor Standing Loudpeakers
REVEL PerformaBe F226Be Floor Standing Loudspeakers
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this pair of REVEL PerfomaBe F226Be floor-standing speakers. They had an uncanny musicality that was highlighted across a wide and deep soundstage unencumbered by any hint of audible distortion.
VIZIO D32f4-J 32-inch HDTV
The VIZIO D32f4-J is an extremely capable 32-inch display with 1080p resolution, super-accurate color, and Smartcast. For just $230, this HDTV is great for gaming or entertainment if you don’t have a lot of room.
VIZIO P65Q9 Ultra HD TV
The VIZIO P65Q9 delivers reference-level accuracy and a superb picture for just $1300. With the latest gaming features, it makes a great display for every kind of entertainment.
Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition Music Streaming System
This single unit can act as the centralized brain of a stereo system when used as a preamplifier, but it’s also a brain that can be attached to a network, which greatly expands the capability of a typical preamplifier. I enjoyed the quality and convenience of the Naim Uniti Atom HE so much I am considering selling off older components to fund the purchase of one.
Headphones and Earphones
Bowers & Wilkins PX8 Active Noise Cancelling Headphones
The Bowers & Wilkins PX8 Bluetooth Headphones are a delight. I have not been a Bluetooth fan in the past, but after hearing the excellent sound quality produced by the PX8’s, I am now a big supporter. They are not cheap, but high quality never is cheap. Your ears are worth it. Get one of the best. The PX8 qualifies.
Headphones and Earphones
Spirit Torino Mistral Bluetooth Headphone
If you are looking for a great and frankly appealing-sounding pair of headphones and want high-performance Bluetooth in the bargain but aren’t needing noise cancellation, the Spirit Torino Mistral Bluetooth Headphones are highly recommended.
Margules i-240 Stereo Tube Integrated Amplifier
There is a lot of value in the i-240 with its natural voicing, 3-dimensional soundstage, and 25 Class-A watts of pure tubed goodness. And since it all comes in a relatively small, one-box solution, it makes the Margules even more appealing to a wide range of listeners who don’t have the space or desire for an entire wall full of audio gear!
In-Wall / On-Wall Speakers
NextLevel Acoustics Reference Cinema In-Wall Speaker
If you want a discrete speaker system that sounds better than any commercial cinema, the Reference Cinema In-Walls can literally disappear behind an acoustically transparent screen or behind color-matched grills. They are a zero-footprint solution.
Orchard Audio Starkrimson Stereo Ultra Amplifier
The Orchard Audio Starkrimson enabled me to connect with music in a way I did not know my system was capable of. I cannot imagine there is a pair of speakers this amplifier could not sound good with, especially considering it can handle a 2-Ohm load. This amp is not exactly cheap, but I believe it provides a level of speed and transparency that would cost much more.
Rotel RC-1572MKII Stereo Preamplifier
The Rotel RC-1572MKII Preamplifier delivers plenty of clean power, rich dynamics, and attractive styling at a price lower than that of many high-end separates.
Surround Sound Processors
StormAudio ISP Core 16 Preamp-Processor
The ISP CORE 16’s exceptional sound quality on both stereo and multi-channel sources rivals anything currently on the market. While $12,999 is by no means cheap, the fact that the ISP Core 16 offers the same level of performance as StormAudio’s flagship ISP Elites makes it a bit of a bargain in the reference-level processor market.
Projector Under $3000
BenQ TH690ST Projector
That this projector costs only $999 is astounding. It delivers reference level color accuracy and gaming performance equivalent to a dedicated gaming monitor. It’s well suited for any kind of entertainment from gaming to movies and everything in between.
Valencia Home Theater Seating Oslo XL Recliner
The Valencia Home Theater Seating OSLO XL is a comfortable and desirable recliner that should find favor with any music or home theater enthusiast.
Sonus faber Gravis III Subwoofer
“At first glance, $2,750 for a subwoofer with a single 10” driver seems a bit steep, especially when that subwoofer doesn’t deliver ultra-deep subsonic frequencies or massive output levels in large rooms. However, considering the SONUS FABER GRAVIS III SUBWOOFER’s beautiful design and amazing ability to make your primary speakers sound so much better with music sources, it is worth every penny to the right buyer.
Sumiko Celebration 40 Phono Cartridge
The Sumiko Celebration 40 is a music lover’s cartridge. With careful setup and equipment pairing, it should reward you with a beautiful, rich, and engaging experience. And isn’t that what vinyl aficionados are ultimately after?
GEM Dandy Polytable Signature Turntable and Sorane TA-1L Tonearm
The GEM Dandy Polytable Signature is an excellent value for a turntable that is getting way, way up there in sound quality. The Sorane TA-1L is an excellent match to the deck, taking advantage of the ability to accommodate 12” tonearms, providing all the sound quality and features you need without being silly.
Periodic Audio In-Ear Monitors
Putting sound above price, Periodic helps you find the right IEM for your ear. I was impressed with the Periodic Audio Beryllium In-Ear Monitors and would say they are nearly flawless in their sound execution. They put out bass where others fall flat and don’t cost a small fortune.
The sound from the Soundbar+ and Flex 2i speakers was great, crisp, and clear all day. The surrounds really shined here, probably some of the best surround sound with a wireless system I have heard to date. I think with some tweaks here and there, Bluesound will be going toe to toe with the big guys.
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