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Robb Report Audio Awards 2023: The Best Headphones, Earbuds, and More

May 30, 2023May 30, 2023

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Being asked to name which consumer product is "Best of" is a daunting responsibility, as decisions must balance subjective values such as quality and aesthetics against absolutes like price and performance specs. In the same fashion that a Bugatti Chiron and Rolls-Royce Phantom may bow to a Porsche 911 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class when practical considerations are taken into account, Wilson Audio's $850,000 Master Chronosonic loudspeaker might give way to one of their more earthbound models, or another brand altogether. And so, while keeping price tags well under six figures, we editors have consolidated a shortlist of favorites within a number of audio product categories. These are personal favorites and in no way exclude the many other worthy products that populate the consumer electronics marketplace. But we promise each of our picks is truly great, often uncommon, and guaranteed not to embarrass themselves—or their owners—in the context of cost-no-object systems. And after all, we like the challenge of finding products that deliver genuine value in addition to stellar performance.

It's easy to be skeptical of some of the claims that audiophiles make. With budget and mid-priced headphones sounding as good as they do these days, is premium audio really worth that much? Spend five minutes listening to Focal's Clear MG and you’ll see the light. The French brand's over-ears sound so pristine that you’ll understand what all the fuss is about within a song or two. Sure, they cost significantly more than some of the other cans on this list, but you won't care one bit once you start noticing new details in a record you’ve already devoured dozens of times. There aren't many headphones that will give you the sense that you’re listening to an artist perform live just every time you press play—but the Clear MG will. They also look pretty striking and feel remarkably sturdy, something that will have you feeling even better about your purchase in no time.—Bryan Hood

Buy Now: $1499 $1,199.20

The Sony name may not get the heart racing like some of the other brands on this list, but the Japanese electronics giant sure knows how to make a pair of top-notch headphones and has been doing so for decades now. Of those, our pick is the top-of-the-line over-ear model, the WH1000XM5. They’re lightweight, comfortable, and much sleeker than most over-ear headphones. They also offer active noise cancellation that it is a very clear step up from their predecessor, the also-excellent WH-1000XM4. Their best feature, though, is their audio quality. From the moment you turn them on, these cans sound superb, whether your listening to classical, pop, or house. If their sound profile is a little bass heavy for you, don't fret, because Sony's easy-to-use Headphone app has an equalizer that’ll allow you to tweak settings to your heart's content. They also offer excellent call quality and voice-activated awareness mode—which pauses music and turns on the exterior microphones when someone is speaking to you—making them well suited to both work and play.—BH

Buy Now: $398

Japanese audio company Stax was founded in 1936 and developed the word's first electrostatic headphone in 1959. Since that time, their earspeakers, as they call them, have defined the state of the headphone arts, and never more so than with the SR-X9000. Today, there are more high-end ’phones than ever, but these electrostatics remain the audiophile's reference for accuracy, transparency, immediacy, and goosebumps—the last included at no extra charge. Stax headphones have five-conductor plugs and require special amplifiers to energize their electrostatic transducers, such as the $6,825 SRM T-8000 BK. These Stax are a viable alternative to six-figure loudspeakers for those whose inquiry into music is a personal journey.—Robert Ross

Buy Now: $6,200

The audio quality of Bluetooth headphones has come a long way over the last half-decade, but if you really care about the sound coming out of your cans you’ll want a wired pair. One of our favorites is the just-released HD 660S2 from Sennhesier; it's the latest iteration of a beloved pair of over-ear headphones that the trusted German audio company has been producing for nearly 30 years now. Because they’re over-ears, you can really only use them home—or in a quiet space where you have some privacy—so they’re not as convenient as a lot of the other headphones on this list, but that won't matter once you press play. These headphones are part of the brand's audiophile line, and with good reason—their new 300-ohm transducers and perfect left-right balance allow them to produce a true-to-life sound with real depth. If you’re the sort of person who loves listening to new details in your favorite music, this is the pair for you.—BH

Buy Now: $600

Bang & Olufsen has been making gorgeous audio equipment for nearly a century now, so it comes as little surprise that its headphones look as good as they do. There wouldn't seem to be much you can do with a pair of over-ear cans, but the Beoplay HX really stand out. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the Danish company has taken their basic elements—the earcups and headband—and injected them with some much-needed style. They are also made with premium materials, including lightweight aluminum and soft lambskin, ensuring they feel as good as they look. They’re also among the most comfortable pair of headphones we’ve worn thanks to their liberally cushioned earpads and ergonomic headband. Bang & Olufsen knows that looks aren't everything, of course, which is why the brand has equipped them with top-notch drivers, excellent noise-cancellation tech, and a battery that can go up to 35 hours between charges. Their call quality is also much better than you have any right to expect from a pair of over-ears.—BH

Buy Now: $499

The Sennheiser Momentum 4 are one of the most solid pair of wireless headphones we’ve tried. They’re lightweight and comfortable, look stylish, and have top-notch ANC when you find yourself needing some quiet. They also offer excellent audio performance—just as you’d expect from a pair of Sennheisers, wireless or otherwise. But what really impressed us is their battery life—a feature that makes them particularly well-suited to travel. The brand says the pair can run for 60 hours between charges, even when you’re using ANC. And when they are out of juice you can fully charge them in just two hours. Brands exaggerate all the time, but those claims, as outlandish as they may sound, matched up with our experience with the pair. You have enough things to worry about when you’re on the road; charging your headphones shouldn't be one of them.—BH

Buy Now: $350 $270

Buying headphones for gaming is little different than buying them for basically any other activity. They need to sound good, of course—the last thing you want is to miss someone sneaking up behind you during a tense death match—but they also need to be lightweight and comfortable enough to accommodate marathon gaming sessions, too. That's what we like so much about Razer's BlackShark V2 Pro headphones: You’ll basically forget you’re wearing them. They also have a quality plug-in mic, so you can communicate with all the members of your team—or talk a little trash—without any noticeable lag. Just as important as all this, though, might be how normal they look. A lot of gamer-focused gear can look garish, but not the BlackShark V2 Pros. In fact, with the exception of their serpentine logo and mic, they look just like any other pair of premium headphones. In fact, you won't mind being spotted in them during your morning commute.—BH

Buy Now: $180

Sometimes you just need to block out your surroundings. Whether you’re trying to focus on a particular task or just need some peace and quiet, it's always a good idea to have a dependable pair of noise-cancelling headphones nearby. And for our money, the best pair you can buy right now is the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. The company's top-of-the-line wireless headphones block out unwanted sounds better than any other pair we’ve tried. Part of this is their over-ear, closed-back design, which passively stops unwanted sound from creeping in, but also the company's active noise-cancelling technology, which uses an array of microphones to monitor your surroundings and produce an opposite signal to cancel out the din. Bose's app lets you control just how much noise to let in, too—which is crucial if you don't want to shut the world out completely. We also like Conversation Mode, which will adjust or pause whatever you are listening to when someone is speaking to you.—BH

Buy Now: $379

Wireless earbuds have come a long way in recent years, but even the best pairs still struggle to match the audio quality of their over-ear counterparts. At least, that's the way that we felt until we spent some time with the Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2. There are some good sounding wireless in-ear headphones out there—the Sony WF-1000XM4 immediately leap to mind—but the second generation of the British company's flagship earbuds are on another plane. None of their peers produce a sound profile with so much life and clarity to it, whether you’re listening to your favorite Beethoven symphony or some new hyperpop album you read about in Rolling Stone. Of course, most of us use our earbuds for more than just listening to music these days, and the Pi7 S2s also offer excellent active noise cancelation, clear call quality, and solid battery performance. There's only one thing we don't love about the pair, and that is their slightly too-large charging case. Other than that, the Pi7 S2s offer basically everything you could want from a pair of earbuds.—BH

Buy Now: $399

Are you convinced there is no way that in-ear headphones can sound as good as over-ears? Spend some time with the Sennheiser IE 600—which are part of the German brand's audiophile line—and we’d be willing to wager your mind will be changed by the end of the experience. A lot of this has to do with the two factors that separate them from the other in-ear headphones on this list. First, they’re wired, which means you don't have to worry about the signal cutting out. And, second, they are designed to function like balanced, noise-isolating studio monitors. These factors, along with their 3-D-printed amorphous metal housing, allow them to produce rich and detailed sound you just don't expect from earbuds. (It helps that they come with adjustable ear hooks and a variety of tip adaptors, too.) With the IE 600 you can listen to your music the way it was meant to be heard, even when you’re far from home and the rest of your audio setup.—BH

Buy Now: $700

The AirPods Pro may get all the attention as far as Apple-made headphones go, but the less famous Beats Fit Pro are actually our pick from the brand. Everything the AirPods Pro can do, the Fit Pro can too—and frequently better. The main reason why is right there in the earbuds's name—they just fit better than any other in-ear headphones we’ve tried. The integrated ear wing helps ensure that these ‘buds stay put no matter what you’re doing. That includes engaging in vigorous activities, too—like a long run. That's why we can't think of a better pair of headphones to wear while working out at the gym. If that wasn't enough, they also come in a variety of colors, something we wish wasn't so rare. The recently released second-gen AirPods Pro may be a marked improvement over their predecessors, but the Fit Pro's spot in our headphone rotation remains secure.—BH

Buy Now: $200 $160

There are many things that Bose headphones do well, but what they do best, at least to our ears, is block out sound. The QuietComfort Earbuds II, just like Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, allow you to focus on the song or podcast you’re listening to no matter how loud your surroundings may be. The in-ear offering may not block out as much noise as its over-ear sibling, but you can still soak up all the auditory detail of your favorite sonata or every word of a bombshell interview you’ve been wanting to listen to even while onboard one of New York's infamously noisy subways. Of course, the earbuds don't just block out sound—they also deliver excellent audio quality. If for some reason the pair's audio performances isn't to your liking, the equalizer on Bose's app will allow you to adjust things just right. Multiple ear tip and wing options also provide one of the better fits you’ll find from a pair of earbuds as well.—BH

Buy Now: $299

At first listen, it can be easy to wonder why Apple's AirPods Pro are as ubiquitous as they are. The second iteration of the ultra-popular earbuds sounds good but not great. The same goes for their noise-cancelling technology and fit. What they do have going for them, though, is an ease of use that no other headphone, either over- or in-ear, can claim—especially if you’re already part of the Apple ecosystem (and a lot of us are). Simply pop them in and you’re connected to your primary device. They don't have multi-point, but even switching between devices is a breeze (just open up the Bluetooth menu and click on them). Traveling is stressful enough, so why not pack a pair of earbuds that you’ll be able to connect to any of the devices you’re bringing with you with as little fuss as possible? Their call quality can't be beaten either, which should prove quite useful if there's someone you need to stay in touch with, too.—BH

Buy Now: $250 $200

Their extremely small size means there's no room for unnecessary stylistic flourishes. That didn't stop Bang & Olufsen—creators of some of the best-looking and -sounding audio equipment of the last century—from making a pair you’ll want to show off, though. The brand's latest earbuds, the Beoplay EX, are incredibly chic, even if you’re the sort of person who thinks the stems on the Apple AirPods Pro look silly. The secret is that the Danish brand hasn't tried to do too much, instead attempting to make the ‘buds and their steam look as sleek as possible. High-grade materials, such as real glass and metal, give them a jewelry-like look. It helps that they’re also shockingly comfortable. Audio quality and active noise cancelling are both impressive, too. Their built-in microphones can be a little sensitive—especially on windy days—but a "Reduce Wind Noise" option helps ensure that call quality doesn't suffer.—BH

Buy Now: $399

The Soundcore Sleep A10 may look like standard earplugs, but they’re actually fully functional earbuds. They’re slimmer and lighter than any other in-ear headphones we’ve tried out, making them comfortable even for side-sleepers (something that anyone who's fallen asleep while wearing a pair of AirPods Pro can tell you is not always the case). The Sleep A10 feature wings so that they stay put, as well as Twin Seal ear tips that passively block noises that could wake you up—even if you sleep next to someone with a tendency to snore. They don't have active noise cancelling, but the Soundcore app comes packed with a number of ambient sounds to help drown out nighttime disturbances. Our favorite feature, though, is that—unlike many of their peers—you can use these sleep earbuds to listen to your own music or podcasts via Bluetooth if that's what you need to lull yourself to sleep. You can also use the app to track your sleep patterns.—BH

Buy Now: $180

If filling a space smaller than the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, few loudspeakers check all the high-performance boxes as does the Wilson Audio Alexia V. Plumbing the depths to 19 Hz, these obviate the need for subwoofers and render music accurately, delivering capacious scale and corporeal force when called for by the recorded performance. They are equally adept at reproducing the delicate nuances of small-scale work, presenting micro-detail in full bloom even at low volumes. Built like a tank and as beautifully crafted as a Bentley, these loudspeakers can be the nucleus of the finest two-channel audio system. Be prepared to dedicate a similarly healthy budget to quality, high-power amplification and sources.—RR

Learn More: From $67,000 Pair

When choosing from the thousands of bookshelf and stand-mount loudspeakers on the market, a sure bet is to go for one of the few UK manufacturers who champion "British Sound." That sound's universal attributes are tonal accuracy, especially in music's critical, life-giving midrange, a result of the sophisticated design of drivers, crossovers, and well-made wooden cabinets. Able to meet the demands of British Broadcasting Corporation's recording engineers and built to the highest standards, the Graham Audio BBC LS5/9 allows for hours of fatigue-free listening. Suited to smaller spaces and near-field listening, they are also capable of filling larger spaces at realistic volumes.—RR

Learn More: From $7,733 Pair

Many otherwise excellent loudspeakers are challenged by aesthetics that prevent them from even setting foot in a thoughtfully designed domestic environment. For folks who keep the design police on speed dial, one brand known for exceptional looks equal to its sublime sound is Sonus faber, whose loudspeakers are engineered and built in the same region of Italy as were instruments by Stradivarius and Guarneri. Flawlessly executed in wood, metal, and leather, the Amati employs custom drivers and crossovers, housed in exquisite cabinets made by master craftsmen who combine artisanal traditions with state-of-the-art materials and techniques. These are audiophile heirlooms of the highest order.—RR

Learn More: $36,000 Pair

Made in Hope, Arkansas, since 1947, Klipsch's Heritage line of loudspeakers use horn-loaded compression drivers for mids and highs to deliver limitless dynamics and bring life-like immediacy to recordings, especially jazz, rock, and large-scale productions. So efficient are these behemoths that they can flourish on a few mere watts; add more amplifier heft and get even bigger sound. But make no mistake, these speakers are not shrinking violets. Unlike the massive Klipschhorn and gargantuan Jubilee with their horn-loaded bass, the Cornwall IV is a smaller design that uses a ported 15-inch woofer. Speakers like these bring something special to music. It's called fun.—RR

Learn More: $6,600 Pair

For those seeking exceptional sound and the most minimal footprint, everything including the streamer is built into the KEF LS60, a floor-standing loudspeaker with about the narrowest form factor imaginable. Digital and analog sources can be plugged into the back panel of the master speaker, allowing this full-featured system to serve up superior sound, thanks largely to the Uni-Q front driver that delivers an incredibly coherent "point-source," yet evenly dispersed throughout the room. Bass response is formidable, as is the combined 1,400 watts of Class D amplification housed in both cabinets, which are available in an appealing titanium gray, mineral white, or royal blue, with color-matched drivers. Who else does that?—RR

Learn More: $7,000 Pair

Whether drinking Dom on the deck of your superyacht or smoking a stogie on the porch of Kaczynski's cabin, a little background music adds festivity to every occasion. Focal's marine loudspeaker line brings super sound to outdoor venues with a lineup of speakers that deliver true high-fidelity performance while withstanding the wettest weather. The French audio brand's Grande Utopia is one of the finest loudspeakers in the world, and that knowhow informs its Littora 1000 and 200 series for use outdoors, on land, and at sea. The 200 series even offers a subwoofer whose enclosure is buried in the ground.—RR

Learn More: From $800

Legendary American acoustic innovator Klipsch, known for its "K-Horn" loaded monitors, elevated its Reference Premiere line last year with its greatest set of enhancements yet. The Reference Premiere II (RP-502S II) upgrades via improvements on its dual 5-1/4-inch Cerametallic cone woofers, sturdier cabinets, and bigger (70 percent larger voice coils) and better proprietary Tractrix horns engineered to improve high-frequency response on the dual one-inch titanium diaphragm tweeters. Each pair of woofer and tweeter are arranged at a precise 90-degree angle to cast a super-wide 180-degree wash of crisp, powerful sound. Plus, the Reference Premiere II's (shown here with the grilles off) look the part with two furniture-grade vinyl wood grain options (ebony or walnut), signature Klipsch copper rings on each driver and cast-aluminum feet.—Nicolas Stecher

Buy Now: $899

Life is too short to bring bad design into one's home. Thankfully, there is an antidote, and it sounds fantastic. Bang & Olufsen's Beosound Level offers an immense portable soundscape and versatility to match. Only slightly larger than a legal pad and about two inches in depth, the Bluetooth-enabled Wi-Fi speaker streams music with rich, room-filling sound. Battery operated, the Level stands up, lays flat, or hangs on a wall. It can be carried from room to room, and, because it's dust and splash resistant, even takes its talents outdoors. Whether it's the primary system for a smaller space or a musical sidekick for leisure listening, this is a sonic and aesthetic overachiever in the world of wireless speakers.—RR

Buy Now: $1,899

With Bang & Olufsen's singular Beosound 2 smart speaker, the devil is in the details. Or more precisely, in the droid-like shell of its solid aluminum design. The nearly 17-inch tall cone houses four speakers to deliver crisp, mid-heavy sound: one tweeter, two midrange, and one large (5.25-inch) woofer. The tweeter crowns the Beosound 2 firing downward, allowing the brushed metal body to amplify the highs. It's also where B&O integrate the volume dial and capacitive buttons, which light up when you approach. Meanwhile, the surprisingly ample woofer sits at the base, offering surprising punch for a standalone wireless speaker. In between reside the twin two-inch mids, placed back-to-back behind the grills, altogether delivering legit 360-degree sound. The Beosound 2 connects via Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Auxiliary, or Bluetooth and can link to other B&O speakers to comprise a true wireless, multi-room home audio system.—NS

Buy Now: $3199

Not many one-brand turntable, arm, and cartridge combinations exist, but for anyone looking for the same nameplate on each, the Luxman PD-151 Mark II equipped with the Luxman LMC-5 low-output moving coil cartridge hits the sweet spot. The Japanese brand's "entry-level" deck—still a formidable investment—features a substantial chassis whose belt-driven, high-mass platter spins all three recorded speeds. The pre-mounted, static-balanced LTA-309 tonearm with detachable head shell is the ideal companion to Luxman's new LMC-5 cartridge, the company's first in 40 years. It's a true overachiever in the world of low-output moving coils and the equal of cartridges twice the price.—RR

Learn More (PD-151 Mark II Turntable): $6,490

Learn More (LMC-5 Cartridge): $2,695

Park any new supercar next to its 50-year-old ancestor and chances are the old-timer will command more attention than its contemporary counterpart. In the audio world, products like the Thorens TD 124 DD are similarly timeless, while delivering performance that will embarrass most brand-new turntables. Looking almost identical to TD 124 made from 1957 to 1967, the DD differs in using a direct-drive motor rather than idler-drive design. Its tonearm appears identical, too, though is much improved, as is the available Ortofon SPU moving coil cartridge that brings so much life—with force and impact—to LP playback.—RR

Learn More: $11,500

It's easy to turn one's audio-snob nose up at one-box music systems, but there is a time and place for the very few systems that merit consideration. The best-of-breed Andover-One delivers all the trimmings, like a 12-inch platter to spin LPs, while built-in streaming brings the audio ether into one's home. Amazingly, the ensemble packs 150 WPC of amplification and speakers into a compact enclosure that can sit discreetly atop a console while filling the room with quite respectable sound. Those who wish for more can add a dual-10-inch subwoofer and stands that elevate the system—and the sound—while making room for LP storage into the bargain.—RR

Buy Now: $1,999

Anybody old enough to remember when the Stones’ Exile on Main Street was new may remember that the original Technics SL-1200 came out a few months later. Both album and turntable were all the rage, and the Technics was the first quality direct-drive turntable that a penurious college student could afford. It went on to become a favorite of DJs, and now, the SL-1200GR brings an iconic look to a vastly improved design. Its rock-solid speed accuracy, robust chassis, and sophisticated S-shaped magnesium tonearm make the 21st-century SL a no-brainer for LP lovers on a budget.—RR

Buy Now: $1,800

Based in Hanover, Germany, Sennheiser has gained world renown by crafting high-fidelity professional mics and headphones for almost 80 years. What its team has produced with the Ambeo Max is one of the best standalone bars you can find that won't need any complementary friends like subwoofers or surround sound speakers to feel fulfilled. Using its 13 speakers (arranged in 5.1.4 format) and a plug-in mic, the Ambeo Max maps out your living room to optimize sound delivery. The results especially excel for cinephiles, as its Ambeo 3-D audio creates gorgeous waves to soundtrack your movie experience. Featuring plenty of inputs and support for nearly every audio format, the Ambeo Max makes for a superb one-and-done plug-and-play solution.—NS

Buy Now: $2,500 $1,700

Like the Sennheiser Ambeo Max, the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 aims to be a one-and-done, standalone soundbar solution. Meaning Bowers & Wilkins has designed it so you don't need any external gear to achieve robust cinematic sound. The venerable English audio maestros improved on their already excellent Formation Bar by adding two subwoofers into the unit, as well as twin upward-angled drivers. This makes the Panorama 3 Bowers & Wilkins’ first Dolby Atmos-enabled-soundbar. Its internal amp can send 40 watts to each tweeter, mid, sub and Atmos driver, for a total of 400 watts distributed among the thirteen drivers (arranged in a 3.1.2 setup). With Alexa, ample connectivity (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay 2, and Spotify Connect), and an intuitive Bowers & Wilkins Music app to adjust settings, the Panorama 3 manifests a powerful, easy-to-use soundbar with versatile wireless streaming capabilities.—NS

Buy Now: $999 $799

The HT-A7000 delivers what you’d expect from Sony's flagship soundbar. It's loaded with the electronic giant's manifold propriety audio technologies such as Vertical Surround Engine for immersive height, S-Force PRO Front Surround for crafting more impactful soundscapes, and even a dialog boost setting for the many out there needing some extra help discerning onscreen conversations. Physically the HT-A7000's extremely wide (over 50 inches) architecture houses 11 drivers to deliver an organically vast sound dispersion. Nine of these drivers face forward (dual beam tweeters, five midrange, and dual subwoofers), while twin upward-firing units up top fulfill the HT-A7000's Dolby Atmos- and DTS:X-enabled abilities. Despite its length, the soundbar features a low-profile silhouette that won't obstruct your display, even if placed in front of it on the same surface.—NS

Buy Now: $1,400 $1,200

Devialet, known for its futuristic designs, has entered the portable speaker world with the most economic speaker ever from the French audio specialist. And while the Mania looks terrific, especially its twin woofers pulsing to bass-heavy jams, it will sound even better with four additional full-range aluminum drivers tucked under the elegant cloth exterior. The Mania can be used either as a portable Bluetooth speaker (plus Spotify Connect and AirPlay 2) or smart speaker (via Wi-Fi, but only with Alexa) that you can place anywhere in the room, even center stage. And its unique Active Stereo Calibration allows the Mania to play stereo sound in every direction.—NS

Buy Now: $790

Extolling the sonic virtues of the 300B vacuum tube to someone unfamiliar with this amplification device is like explaining how a truffle is unlike any common mushroom. Just as that precious fungus is a gustatory revelation, an amplifier using the 300B offers a rich, multi-layered audio experience with sound as seductive as it is addictive. Western Electric invented the 300B in 1938, and the company, resurrected in 1996, soon began to remanufacture the legendary tube. The Western Electric 91E integrated amplifier is a SET (single-ended triode) design that delivers double the power of traditional 300B amps, and makes any but the most power-hungry loudspeakers sing to the heavens. The component's exquisitely machined chassis reminds us that audio gear can be jewelry, too.—RR

Buy Now: $15,000

As full-featured as an integrated gets, the NAD Masters Series M33 remains the poster child of versatility, combining an exceptional 2-channel amp and preamp, MM/MC phono stage, built-in DAC, and streaming into a single, elegant chassis. NAD's acclaimed Purifi Eigentakt Hybrid Digital amplifier technology delivers a minimum of 200 WPC and brings extreme refinement to the equation. Importantly, user-friendly BluOS software lets users do their streaming thing with reckless audiophile abandon. So too can audiophiles with vinyl urges, as the flexible phono stage accommodates a wide range of cartridges. DIRAC live-room correction optimizes the room/speaker interface, and an elegant remote manages the business from across the room.—RR

Learn More: $5,999

A little over a foot square and only four inches tall, T+A's 200 Series components are like jewel boxes with music inside. As if milled from a solid ingot of non-magnetic aluminum, each piece is the building block of a complete system, which can be comprised of the A 200 Stereo ($5,450) or M 200 Mono Power Amplifiers, the DAC 200 full-function D/A Converter-Preamplifier ($7,125), and the MP 200 Multi Source Player ($5,900), which combines full streaming capability, a CD drive, and even FM radio. While a system comprised of more ambitious T+A components will dive into deep-six-figure territory, these marvels bring that essence home in an elegant package as visually tasteful as its sound is transformative.—RR

Learn More: From $18,475

Attributes of a great home-theater system include an ability to deliver extreme SPL, earth-shaking bass, and enveloping sound, all of which is dependent on powerful and reliable amplification. While stacks of amplifiers are an ultimate solution, a more practical approach pairs an A/V processor with a single-chassis amp to build a flexible, user-friendly system. The MX 123 is a full-featured processor that satisfies every audio and video requirement for movies and music. The McIntosh MC257 is a 7-channel, solid-state behemoth of an amp that makes 250 watts into left, right, and center channels, or 200 watts into each of its seven channels.—RR

Learn More (MX123): $9,000

Learn More (MC257): $11,000

Going down the vacuum-tube rabbit hole is a one-way trip for some audiophiles, lured by the mellifluous sound that those little glowing bottles of magic bring to the sonic equation. One can spend a small fortune on an all-tube rig, and Atma-Sphere will certainly oblige. But the St. Paul, Minn.-based company also offers a gateway to tube intoxication with their M-60 monoblock amplifier and MP-3 preamplifier, complete with full-featured phono stage. Designer Ralph Karsten's OTL (Output TransformerLess) amp designs and fully balanced topology have stood the test of time since 1976. If musical truth is one's mantra, Atma-Sphere deserves high praise and a careful listen.—RR

Learn More (M-60): $7,960 Pair

Learn More (MP-3): $6,500 With MC Phono Stage

Music lovers with extensive libraries of CDs and multiple high-end systems should ditch the computer and discover the Aurender Content Server (ACS10), a central hub that combines CD ripping, Network Attached Storage (8TB, or optionally 14TB RAID mirroring), advanced library management, and metadata editing with filtered, isolated USB audio output. A reference quality CD ripping engine and TEAC CD-ROM drive makes high-res copies in FLAC, WAV, or AIFF codecs. Metadata is automatically retrieved and fully editable. Because it connects over the network, the ACS10 can housed in a remote location. After-sales support from Aurender is excellent, important to users of any software-dependent system.—RR

Learn More: $6,500

As the foundation of a digital audio-based system, PS Audio's DirectStream DAC MK2 is versatile one-box solution that improves on its predecessor's successful eight-year run. CDs, streaming audio, high-resolution PCM or DSD based media are upsampled to 20 times DSD rate and output as a pure analog signal, while a built-in zero-loss digital volume and balance control allows it to be used as a preamplifier, directly feeding a power amp. Unlike conventional DACs that rely upon off-the-shelf DAC chips, the MK2 uses a pair of FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Array) to process the digital signal more accurately. It is also user upgradable as software advancements become available.—RR

Buy Now: $7,999

Cable discussions are the pit of vipers into which every audiophile fears falling. Some consider cables to be snake oil, while true believers hear substantive differences between species. But there is zero doubt that an open-minded listener can achieve marked improvements when cables are regarded as essential components and not mere afterthoughts. There are hundreds of manufacturers, each with its acolytes and a stake in the market. Interconnects, speaker, and AC cables—even wall receptacles—all have a role to play. Audioquest offers one of the broadest portfolios of cable and power conditioning products, from imminently affordable to eye-wateringly expensive. Synergy is key: build a "loom" from a single manufacturer, whichever brand you choose.—RR

Learn More