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!
In this post, we present our 2021 Product Of The Year Award winners for Digital To Analog Converters and Music Streamers. This year, we have two affordable yet brilliant products from iFi Audio, a company that has come to the forefront as the kings of affordable desktop audio.
In the interest of full disclosure, iFi Audio is a sponsor of Hifi Trends, but we guarantee these two products have been awarded solely based on their value, innovation, and sound quality. If you give them a try, we believe that you will agree they are special.
Along with the award winners, we also have two honorable mention products which probably would’ve won a POTY award if the actual honorees didn’t exist. So actually, you can consider them Products Of The Year as well. So without further ado, here are the winners:
Best Digital To Analog Converter-iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 Desktop Digital Analog Converter ($189)
While we loved the sound of the original Zen DAC, the sonic improvements in the $189 Zen DAC V2 are well worth the additional $30 bucks. iFi did a great job of adding a bit more sophistication to the sound while still keeping the price low. Also, if you’re an MQA fan, the full MQA decoder will give you the best sound the format has to offer. Add to that the excellent features and power brought over from the Zen DAC V1, and you once again have the desktop DAC/Amp to beat around $150.
Honorable Mention: Denafrips Ares 2 R2R DAC ($800)
The Denafrips ARES II R2R DAC may use older technology, but when done right, resistor ladder Digital To Analog Converters can provide a natural, engaging sound. Many feel it’s a sound that more recent chip-based Delta-Sigma DAC designs can’t match.
That’s exactly why the ARES II (1098 SGD, about 800 USD) has received so many accolades from the press and those who own one. It has a smooth airy sound, with a robust bottom end that brings life to music, especially with highly resolving systems that lean towards the cooler side. (read the full review here)
Best Music Streamer-iFi Audio ZEN Stream Network Audio Transport ($399)
If you go into any audio forum nowadays, you will encounter a fair amount of people looking for a stand-alone DAC as an upgrade to the built-in DAC inside of their affordable streamers. we’ve felt like was the wrong way to go for some time now, as you end up duplicating efforts (and wasting money).
That said, before the $399 iFi Zen Stream Network Audio Transport came along, you didn’t have a ton of good, economical “stream-only” options, other than to build a Raspberry PI streamer and then link it up to the DAC of your choice.
On the other hand, not everyone wants to Tinker with a Raspberry PI, so iFi has come up with a pre-configured unit that sounds excellent, and supports a ton of streaming services for only $399. Then you can pick the DAC that fits your preferences. As we found out during our testing, it also works well with integrated amps that have a good DAC built-in.
We think the ZEN Stream fulfills a sorely unmet need within the Hi-Fi market, and it’s highly recommended for those looking for a value-priced alternative to megabuck streamers. Not to mention it sounds damn good. This is the streamer to beat under $500! (read the full review here)
Honorable Mention: Bluesound Node Wireless Multi-Room Hi-Res Music Streamer ($599)
As we said initially, the $599 Bluesound NODE Wireless Music Streamer has been the best overall value in affordable streamers for some time now, and that doesn’t seem to have changed with the introduction of the 3rd gen model.
While it could use just a touch more transparency, there’s still no streamer in its price range that has its mix of quality sound and the remarkable range of functionality that it offers. This streamer does it all. Once you factor in the new upgrades, which make it faster, more detailed, and easier to use than the previous generation, it’s hard not to recommend it as a top option for streamers under $1000. (read the full review here)
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