Totem AcousticOf the 19 years the SoundStage! Network has been in business, this year has been our busiest and most diverse. Not only did we cover a record number of products in the review sections of our sites, we brought on new staff members, traveled the world to cover shows (CES, Son & Image, High End, CEDIA, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest) and tour company headquarters (Sonus Faber, Magico, Audio Research, Octave Audio, Cyrus Audio, Monitor Audio), and successfully launched a series of videos, SoundStage! InSight. A lot of work went into the days, weeks, and months leading up to today, so it’s fitting that this month I use this space to reflect on what I feel were the highlights of 2014 -- the few products and events that, for me, stood out from all the rest. Here they are:

Proudest Moment

It wasn’t the moment our first SoundStage! InSight video was finished that made me most proud, but the moment, after its launch, that I knew it was being well received -- readers not only immediately praised it, but asked us to produce many more. It was then that I knew we’d struck gold: we’d not only produced a polished product, we’d produced something that successfully connected with audiophiles worldwide -- which had been our main goal from the start.

We produced a new video every other month: about Muraudio, Axiom Audio, Totem Acoustic, and Vivid Audio. Each one proved popular with our readers. We’re now on target to maintain that schedule through 2015 and beyond.

Best Hi-Fi Show

I hadn’t ever entertained the idea of picking a “Best Hi-Fi Show of the Year,” but 2014 proved an exception. The High End show, held annually in Germany, has grown in quality and stature every year of the past decade -- ever since it moved from Frankfurt to Munich. The number of product introductions keeps rising, and the number of manufacturers who make the show their premium showplace for the year has steadily increased. What made 2014 so different and special is that I believe that High End has now surpassed the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held every January in Las Vegas, in terms of relevance and importance to high-end manufacturers, consumers, and the press. That makes High End now the world’s No.1 hi-fi show.

I didn’t exactly rush to that judgment. I confirmed my suspicions about High End’s current standing during and after this year’s show by asking this question of a dozen manufacturers from various parts of the world: If you had to pick one show to exhibit at, CES or High End, which would you choose? In almost every case, the answer was the same: High End.

High End 2014

What that means to SoundStage! and to our readers is that we’re streamlining our CES team. Our coverage of CES will remain thorough, but it’s unlikely to grow. And we’re increasing the size of our High End crew -- that coverage will substantially increase.

Three Favorite Products

One of my three favorite products of 2014 is not one I formally reviewed, nor has anyone else that I know of. It’s Sonus Faber’s Ex3ma loudspeaker, released in celebration of the company’s 30th anniversary -- only 30 pairs were made. Its design was inspired by Sonus Faber’s Extrema, which was created in 1991 and became one of the company’s best-known speakers. However, the Ex3ma is a redesign from the ground up, with modern thinking, technology, and parts, including a main enclosure formed by a carbon-fiber monocoque shell.

Sonus Faber Ex3ma

Although no firm price for the Ex3ma was established, and the speaker was never available from Sonus Faber’s dealers, the price was said to be €30,000/pair. The entire production run reportedly sold out not long after it was announced -- the Ex3ma has already become a collector’s item.

The beauty and technical proficiency of the Ex3ma impressed me greatly when I saw it -- if we had an award for Most Lustworthy Product, the Ex3ma would win it -- but just as impressive was what was done to commemorate the model and the brand. Sonus Faber invited dealers, distributors, and press to their headquarters, in Vicenza, Italy, for a lavish party last March, to launch the Ex3ma and to celebrate the anniversary. I was there -- the entire affair set the bar incredibly high for product introductions and corporate celebrations, and was proof that when it comes to the presentation of luxury goods, the Italians know how to do things right.

At the other end of the spectrum of price and presentation is Cambridge Audio’s Aero 2 loudspeaker. It came to life with no fanfare or introduction other than being exhibited at some hi-fi shows, which is how I discovered it. But the Aero 2’s significance is no less profound than that of the Ex3ma -- it offers crazy-good sound quality for a price that, in high-end audio terms, is next to nothing: $549 USD/pair. I reviewed it in April, and was bowled over by its sound.

Cambridge Audio Aero 2s

What makes the Aero 2 sound so good are sensible engineering, good build quality for the price, and reliance on a Balanced Mode Radiator (BMR) to reproduce all frequencies from about 250Hz up past 20kHz -- there is no crossover in any critical part of the audioband, such as the midrange, where voices live. The result is a very natural sound overall, topped with an incredible transparency that belies this British gem’s paltry price. This is the kind of speaker every serious audiophile who’s shopping for astronomically priced speakers should hear, to understand just how much quality can be had for under a grand.

Lastly, there’s Luxman’s C-900u preamplifier. At $19,900, it’s hardly inexpensive; rather, it’s the kind of component that ends up in a system with a pair of Sonus Faber Ex3ma speakers. The C-900u is included here because, in pretty much every way, it impressed me more than any other electronic component I heard this year.

Luxman C-900u

If I had to point to just one thing that thrilled me about the C-900u’s sound, it would be its uncanny way of unveiling recorded space -- recording after recording, reproduced soundstages had more width and depth than I’d ever heard from them before. But there was so much more to like about the Luxman’s sound: superb neutrality without sterility or coldness, unbelievably airy highs, powerful bass, a smooth and liquid midrange, unreal resolution. I heard no faults in the C-900u’s sound, and found none in its construction. The C-900u is not only well built for its price, it’s so well built that if it cost $39,800 instead of $19,900, I’d still applaud it -- I’ve seen preamps that cost way more than $19,900 finished not nearly as well, or styled as nicely.

The Luxman C-900u also has nifty features, such as tone controls and a loudness contour. All in all, it’s another topflight design from this 90-year-old Japanese firm, and stands a good chance of becoming yet another classic from them. And the C-900u’s companion power amp, the M-900u ($19,900), is just as special -- I’ve just finished writing my review of it, which you’ll be able to read in January.

The next two months . . .

This month we select the winners for our 2014 Product of the Year awards; the Cambridge Audio Aero 2 and Luxman C-900u are contenders in that race, as are many other products that have been reviewed on our websites. (Sonus Faber’s Ex3ma isn’t being considered because only products we’ve formally reviewed are eligible.) In all, we’ll present some 15 awards -- the winners will be announced in this space on January 1. A few days after that, our team will fly to Las Vegas to cover CES 2015. Although it’s no longer the world’s No.1 hi-fi show, CES is still very important, and you’ll find all our coverage of it, as it happens, on our SoundStage! Global site. And after CES, I’ll write “The Best of CES 2015,” which will appear in this space on February 1.

. . . Doug Schneider