Astell&Kern A&norma SR25
High-resolution portable music players, a genre dominated by South Korea’s Astell&Kern, have changed incrementally to the point where they are a different proposition from when I first became a fan. Ten years ago – even a year ago, when I last tried an A&K player – to get music worthy of the technology you had to download huge files from the likes of HDtracks. This was expensive and tricky. Now, however, streaming services (even BBC Sounds) offer vast catalogues of superb-quality music. That means you’re able to enjoy a natty player like this, A&K’s new SR25, which can access over 30 streaming services without you having to download files. It’s not top of A&K’s range, but hook it up to great headphones (my choice: Audio-Technica’s £2,000-ish ATH-ADX5000), connect to a streaming service – especially Tidal Masters – and you’ll be experiencing music as near as damn it to perfect. And the SR25 has another trick: you can now download from streaming services for offline listening. You’ll need to delve deep into A&K’s website. For some streams, you may need to buy third-party software. But it’s doable.
NAD M10 BluOS
Much as I love high-end, one-box stereo systems, I still regard traditional set-ups, with two proper speakers, as the hifi gold standard. The problem is that it’s preferable to mix and match brands to create a good separates hifi, which inevitably looks a bit dog’s dinner-ish.
This sublime unit from Canada is the most desirable compromise I’ve come across. The NAD M10 BluOS needs a pair of basic, passive speakers, for which I’d choose those by ATC of Stroud. But so long as you don’t use a CD player or deck any more, this one elegant and compact box is all you need for really serious hifi. NAD, which has a high-end pedigree going back to 1972, calls this system a streaming amplifier, and that’s exactly what it is. It will stream from any of the existing services, but is best adapted to Tidal, which, for its Masters level, has adopted the British MQA protocol – the finest in town, for my money.
The M1 produces two 100-watt channels, shows the album artwork big and beautiful – and you can even have old-school VU sound-level meters appear on the display if you choose. It also comes with an easy adjustment system that tunes the sound rather miraculously to match your room.
Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation
Naim’s music players have a dramatic, black-box, squared-off industrial look – its founder, the late Julian Vereker, was a music-mad ex-racing driver who was also a co-founder of the Brompton bicycle company. The original 2014 model of the Mu-so player was mounted on a block of clear Perspex lit up by white light, which brought to mind an architect’s model of a library or theatre on a fabulously well-endowed Californian university campus. Sensibly, Naim has kept exactly the same look and feel for the Mu-so 2nd Generation.
So much for looks. What about the sound? It really is a beast, with 450 watts of speaker power, capable of filling a big, big space with quality sound. It’s better suited to a living room and doubling as a TV soundbar than as something to nod off to in the bedroom. (If you really want the option of using it in the bedroom Naim has also released a smaller, cube-shaped version, the Mu-so Qb 2nd Generation, for £749 that will multiroom with the mother ship.)
The Mu-so communes with a plethora of streaming services and has a decent accompanying app. Nota bene: it won’t play CDs.
£1,299, from johnlewis.com
This is one of the most beautiful tech products I’ve seen. Built in bamboo and aluminium, with an LED display reminiscent of an airliner flight deck, the iFi Aurora looks sublime. If final proof were required that this is the prettiest hifi ever made, among the comments I’ve found online from serious hifi geeks are “looks bloody awful”, “looks crap” and “an eyesore”.
“To be insulted by you is to be garlanded with lilies,” Aristophanes wrote, and, seriously, any audio product whose aesthetics attract the derision of hifi wonks is likely to be something of real worth.
But the Aurora, by Japanese-inspired French designer Julien Haziza, has function too. Bamboo, which is more than just decorative, fulfils the audio designer’s dream of a medium that is light, exceptionally stiff and non-resonant, which means no trace of distracting vibrations and buzzes. And the Aurora’s perky upwards tilt sends its gorgeous, spookily spatial sound towards the middle reaches of a room’s height, where it belongs.
The machine’s electronics – eight speakers, including two massive bass radiators; a preamp with a Russian 6N3P valve to lend warmth to the sound; and a swarm of proprietary technologies – are made by a left-field German, Thorsten Loesch, who says he uses some techniques he learnt while working back in old East Germany. A typically bold admission suited to such an iconoclastic hifi.
£1,399, from ifi-audio.com
Seven years ago, Ruark, the estimable family audio company from Southend-on-Sea, brought out what was basically a small, retro, G-Plan-style sideboard that housed a fantastic stereo. The Ruark R7 – still a hot seller – was a £2,300 hifi radiogram for the 21st century, very British and extremely high quality. I loved it, and would have bought one but had nowhere to put it. (Technology that is actual furniture can be a problem.)
So I was delighted when Ruark launched its R5, a scaled-down R7 minus the legs. I knew exactly where I could put this model – on a chest of drawers at the end of my bed. The R7 is a metre long, which gives it lovely stereo separation, unique in a one-box system. The R5 is 52cm long, but – as I discovered when I set up the review sample – even with half the R7’s distance between speakers, it produces quite superb stereo. With its multiple connection options, it’s been such a source of pleasure that I’ve taken to listening to music late at night as a change from Netflix-a-thons. The R5 streams services like the blessed Tidal, and although it lacks a colour screen to show album art, as Tidal can, the good, if basic, Ruark Link app does that stuff fine on a phone or iPad. The R5’s sound is really glorious, from a powerful bass to the twinkliest of top notes.
£999, from ruarkaudio.com
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