Product Of The Year Awards 2021: Best Headphones, Headphone Amps, & Portable Audio

Hey folks! Well…we’ve made it through another year! It’s been a tough one with Covid-19 ravaging the planet once again, but that hasn’t stopped us from checking out some of the best affordable high-end audio.

As the year wraps up, this is the time when we look back at the best stuff we’ve come across in 2021, awarding them based on several criteria, including value for money, design/build, innovation, and of course superior sound quality!

This post will serve to award the best headphones, headphone amps, and portable audio we’ve used this year (not necessarily released this year), including Meze Audio’s first portable planar magnetic headphone, the $2000 Liric. It’s one of the most beautiful and technically proficient portable headphones we have ever heard.

We also awarded THX’s first consumer electronic product, the THX Onyx Portable DAC/Headphone Amplifier, which has amazing power and depth for a $200 DAC/amp combo!

Along with those, we also present an award to the new EAH-AZ60 True Wireless Earbud from Technics, and it’s a good one with nice sound and superb noise-canceling, something we found out on a recent flight.

Besides that, we also have picks for the Best Budget Headphones, and Best Wired Earphones, so don’t be shy, step right up and check out our award-winning products for 2021!

Best Headphones-Meze Liric ($2000)

We got these headphones late in the year, but once we heard them, we had to make them our Best Headphones award winner. With the $2000 Liric, Meze Audio promises a Planar-Magnetic headphone that combines high build quality, top-notch comfort, along with an open, natural sound, and we think they nailed it.

Not only that, it’s a closed-back over-ear planar designed expressly for portable use, which is extremely rare. Probably because closed-back planars that sound good are hard to pull off.

Well, not only did Meze Audio pull it off, they have done it with the luxurious touches they have become known for, using a magnesium frame coupled with black leather and copper accents. It’s a marvel to behold, and even more astonishing once you have it in hand. Ergonomics are just about perfect. Even the case is breathtaking.

While the Liric is definitely stunning, the real magic happens once you put them on. For almost a month now, we have done extensive listening and we have marveled at their exquisite tonal balance, depth, and resolution. It’s very hard to make a closed-back planar that sounds like an open-back model without being overly harsh, but that’s exactly what Meze has done here.

The only issue we had with them was the lack of a balanced cable in the box, and some slight peakiness in the upper mids, but neither is a dealbreaker. Some have complained about the lack of user-replaceable pads (actually a replacement kit is said to be on the way) on a pair of 2k headphones, but we feel that splurging on a luxury good like this is like buying a luxury car where you know you will have to pay a little more to maintain it down the line.

For those who are looking for one of the most finely crafted and technically proficient portable headphones on the market, you need to check out the Meze Audio Liric. (full review coming soon)

Honorable Mention: Hifiman Arya Stealth Magnet Version ($1599)

If it wasn’t for the Meze Liric coming out of nowhere this year, the latest version of the Hifiman Arya would’ve been our pick for Best Headphones 2021. The new Arya now uses Hifiman’s well-respected Stealth Magnet Array to improve the accuracy of what was already a pretty accurate headphone.

Its bias towards accuracy, depth, and neutrality means it’s not a party animal, but if you want a pair of headphones under $2000 that’s amazingly transparent and natural, you need to check this one out! BTW, if you get these, also budget for a good and powerful headphone amp, you will need it. (full review coming soon)

Best Wired Earphones/IEM-Audeze Euclid Closed-Back Planar IEM ($1299)

With the Audeze Euclid Closed-Back Planar IEM, Audeze has done an amazing job of importing the “live” energetic performance, soundstage, and resolving capabilities of their full-size over-ear LCD headphones into a pair of IEMs. I would even say they are more resolving than some of their full-sized offerings.

The way they have miniaturized their patented drivers/Fazor waveguides and fit them in Euclid’s sleek housings is nothing short of amazing. If you love the sound of high-end planar magnetic headphones and want to bring them wherever you go, you need to check these out. The Euclid is a great all-rounder that will make you want to listen to your whole album collection over again.

When you have a pair of earphones that sell for $1299, there’s going to be some nitpicking about the performance of said earphones, and rightfully so. When you talk about the tuning of the Euclid, while it’s not perfect, it’s pretty damn close, outside of a little bit of edginess in the upper mids. Some people (like myself), are sensitive to too much of this, so it’s worth mentioning, even though I don’t think it’s a big issue here.

When we travel we always have the Euclid and its sturdy Pelican case tucked inside our bag, they’re that good. (read the full review here)

Best Budget Headphones-HIFIMAN SUNDARA Planar Magnetic Hi-Fi Headphone (2020 Version) ($349.00)

Originally released at $499, this headphone was a steal at that price, but at its current price of $350, this is definitely the best value headphone under $500. The Hifiman SUNDARA has detail, soundstage, and separation that actually competes with headphones above $500, and the tuning is damn near perfect.

It’s basically neutral through the midbass with a gentle lift in the bottom end to keep things interesting. This headphone matched with the $99 Helm Audio BOLT Dac, $189 iFi Hip Dac 2, or $129 iFi Zen DAC V2 will make an amazing starter headphone rig.

The included cable is a little stiff and curly. But that’s not really something to think about when you consider the sound quality. Especially when replacement cables are so easy to get! The SUNDARA is for anybody wanting the best-sounding headphone under $500. Period.

Best Wireless Headphones-Technics EAH-AZ60 True Wireless Earbuds ($229)

We just reviewed the Technics AZ60 True Wireless Earbuds, and we were super impressed with their fit, comfort, and sound. Between 7 and 5 hours of battery life (ANC/No ANC) will last you on cross-country flights. They also have some of the best Active Noise Cancelling on the market, along with excellent call clarity.

The AZ60 has some of the best sound quality on the market, with a laid-back yet detailed signature that is engaging and easy to listen to for long periods.

The only thing I took issue with was a little bit of bloat in the bottom end, but it’s only noticeable on tracks with really heavy bass. Otherwise, it adds a nice weight to the presentation. BTW, these Earbuds have a nice companion app (Android & iOS) that lets you customize the stock sound with EQ amongst other things.

These earbuds are an excellent pick for frequent flying audiophiles, as they are lightweight, pretty comfortable, and have no problem drowning out the plane’s engine noise. (read the full review here)

Best Desktop Headphone Amp- S.M.S.L HO200 Hi-Res Balanced Headphone Amplifier ($399)

The value-priced S.M.S.L HO200 Hi-Res Balanced Headphone Amplifier was one of the budget gems we came across during our many, many product evaluations this year. Even though we have much more expensive gear on hand, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from this sleek, power-packed amp.

This amp has quite a few bells and whistles for its modest cost, including three big watts of power at 32 ohms (6w at 16 ohms), four XLR balanced connections (in/out), a 4.4mm balanced output, a 1/4” single-ended headphone output and a three-step Gain switch for matching up many different headphones and IEMs.

During my listening tests, I actually found the HO200 to be more detailed and revealing than the fan-favorite (and more expensive) Topping A90 amp, but it also had a little bit of peakiness/forwardness in the treble/high mids that may be too much of a good thing with edgy headphones. The A90 was sweeter in the highs and had more weight on the bottom end.

That said, if you want an affordable and clean-sounding balanced amp that plays neutral (with a little bit of added sparkle up top), then you should check out the HO200. (read the full review here) If you’re looking for a matching DAC/Amp stack, you should check out the excellent $489 SMSL DO200 MQA Amp (read the full review here).

Best Portable Audio Component- THX Onyx Portable DAC Headphone Amplifier ($199)

The portable DAC/Amp market is a crowded one. I’ve reviewed a bunch of them, and I always have a couple on deck waiting for evaluation. To make noise in this product category, you have to come up with something special.

Enter THX and their new THX Onyx Portable DAC Headphone Amplifier, a $199 DAC/Amp that happens to be their first foray into Consumer Hardware. THX really came out swinging with the Onyx, a sleek device with massive power and tremendously clean sound due to their impressive THX AAA amplifier technology.

Add to that a flagship ESS DAC chip (ES9281PRO) with MQA decoding (rendering), and you do, in fact, have something special here. The Onyx’s sound is stunningly transparent, with a depth and separation rarely encountered at this price point.

If you’re looking for a mobile DAC/amp that provides near-reference sound at a very attractive price, you need to check it out. (read the full review here)

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