2023 Product of the Year

2023 product of the year

I’ve made a few changes for the 2023 Product of the Year Awards. Usually I limit the nominees to products our team at PTA has reviewed over the year. That implies we have significant seat time with these stellar high-end audio products and can judge them accordingly. (There was also a rule, something about having at least two reviewers hear and vouch for each product, but we can’t always make that happen without spending a fortune on freight and airline tickets.)

But 2023 was different–we heard a few “big and ultra-expensive” speaker systems that pushed the envelope and made us hear things we’ve never heard before.

Words and Photos by Marc Phillips

Here’s the problem that emerged while picking the 2023 Product of the Year. These super-duper speakers aren’t usually available to reviewers. One manufacturer, who makes a half-million dollar pair of speakers, told me he can’t afford to build a pair just for reviews–he can’t even afford to make a pair for himself. The only practical answer is a roadshow version, usually purchased by a dealer, where the ultra hi-fi product in question can be the star of its own event for the public. That’s usually the pair you see making the rounds at all the high-end audio shows. That seems unfair in a way, mostly to reviewers, but ultimately it’s a good business practice.

So why should I ignore a product that changes the high-end audio skyline just because I didn’t spend months with it at my home, playing “Chocolate Chip Trip” on a continuous loop? For that reason we’ve included a handful of state-of-the-art loudspeakers for 2023 Product of the Year on one condition–these aren’t products we heard once and thought they were awesome. Instead, we waited to hear these products several times, in several different venues, with all types of systems, before we recommended them.

Without further ado, here are the nominees for 2023 Product of the Year, in alphabetical order.

aavik u-280

Aavik U-280 integrated amplifier/DAC ($18,000)

From the summer of 2022 until early this year, my review schedule was dominated by Audio Group Denmark. First, I heard the mind-boggling Børresen M1 two-way monitors, which retail for $100,000/pr. Then I traveled to Denmark to visit the factory because I was so intrigued by whatever black magic made this amazing high-end audio product possible. I wound up reviewing about thirty different products from Audio Group Denmark’s brands–Børresen speakers, Aavik electronics and Ansuz cables and accessories–totaling up to more than $130,000.

I flirted with the idea of nominating that entire system, just as I did the same for Audio Note UK in the 2023 Best Value Awards, but then I asked myself a question, one that came up more than once during the long review period: if I could choose just one product from Audio Group Denmark, what would it be? I finally realized it was the Aavik U-280 integrated amplifier/DAC. It formed the heart of a system that impressed me to no end. “I could start with one of those,” I thought, “and then I would continue the journey and upgrade products over the rest of my life.” A year later, I still think that makes great sense.

2023 product of the year

Acora Acoustics VRC-1 loudspeakers ($218,000/pr USD)

As I’ve mentioned, the Acora Acoustics VRC-1 loudspeakers are the current “Chocolate Chip Trip” champions. I’m considering a retirement for this percussion-laden demo track because most “big” speakers do a great job with it, and I’d have to stick all these big speakers in a big room and do A/B comparisons until my ears are bleeding to know the truth. But when it came to sheer, unbridled bass slam, the VRC-1s delivered in a way I’ll never forget.

We’re very happy that Val Cora knocked it out of the park with this design. These speakers seem to do everything well–they are fantastic at imaging, they are extremely dynamic, and they offer that proverbial open window into the original recording venue like few other big speakers do. We’ve been impressed with this Canadian speaker manufacturer since we first heard them at a high-end audio show a few years ago, and we’re so pleased that everyone else is starting to understand that Acora Acoustics makes exceptional loudspeakers, and that you should listen for yourself.

allnic h-6500

Allnic Audio H-6500 phono stage ($9,900 USD)

I’ve spent most of 2023 using this incredible phono stage as a reference. I don’t know if it’s the “best phono preamplifier in the world,” since there are some wild, out-of-control phono preamplifiers out there that edge ever closer to the six-figure mark, sometimes even spilling over. I don’t even know if the Allnic Audio H-6500 is the best phono stage for under $10K–despite our gratuitous use of “best” in our Buyers Guide it’s just not a real word in high-end audio. (It is according to Google search engines, however.)

Is the Allnic my favorite phono preamplifier that I’ve ever used? That I can say without a wink. With the H-6500 as part of my analog rig, I know that I’m going to have the gorgeous tube sound that I feel is imperative for satisfying vinyl playback, and that everything else in the chain is going to perform the way I want it to–in many cases my expectations are exceeded, thanks to the Allnic.

Last year I felt almost the same way about the H-6500’s more affordable sibling, the H-5500 (which lacks the external power supply and a few tubes). That costs just $6,000 and was the equal of many five-figure phono stages I let hang around at the time. Now, I’m hearing rumblings in the distance that I might get to spend some seat time with the flagship H-10,000 OTL model. I’m not worried that the H-10,000 will lessen my opinion of the H-6500, because the H-6500 didn’t lessen my opinion of the H-5500. I’d be honored to have any of the three in my system. For now, this very minute, I have the H-6500 and I’m grateful for every minute I have with it.


ArgentPur AGPur13 speaker cables ($4,500/pr) and Athene 18AWG interconnects ($2,500/pr)

We’ve never nominated a cable for Product of the Year before. It wasn’t on purpose. It’s just that reviewing the ArgentPur cables in my system was an informative and illuminating experience.

A cable? Illuminating? C’mon. But here’s what Ernest Meunier‘s cables taught me–when it comes to silver wires, I’ve been wrong. Like many audiophiles, I generally prefer copper wiring to silver. I’ve had silver cables in the past, and they were often too analytical and thin with too much detail. Copper always provided that warmth, that humanity I like. The problem isn’t silver cable, however–it’s silver-plated cable. Pure silver, which costs about ten times as much as silver-plated copper, is actually a far better conductor even though it’s very expensive to implement.

The ArgentPur conductors are made from pure silver wire. The result of these high standards is a cable that sounds like nothing. A wise person once told me that “cables don’t solve problems–they are the problems.” The ArgentPur cables are a convincing argument of that, that a cable that creates as few problems as possible is desirable–which sounds like damning with faint praise. It isn’t. That’s why I nominated them for 2023 Product of the Year.

2023 product

borresen m6 loudspeakers

Børresen M3 and M6 loudspeakers ($280,000/pr and $550,000/pr USD)

As I just mentioned above, early last year I heard the Børresen M1 two-way “bookshelf” monitors, which cost an unheard-of $100,000 per pair, and they sounded like a pair of big Wilsons or Magicos when I closed my eyes. I had problems making sense of what had happened, which led me to the factory in Denmark where I learned why Audio Group Denmark seems to be achieving the impossible.

Since then, Audio Group Denmark and Michael Børresen keep going bigger and bigger with the M series. First, we heard the big M3 floorstanders at AXPONA and I awarded them Best Sound of the Show. In Munich, I saw a pair of the even bigger M6s, but in a static display. At PAF 2023, however, I finally heard the M6. I joked at the time, “What’s next? M9? M12? M54?” I expected a chuckle from the folks at Audio Group Denmark, but they just collectively shrugged and replied, “Sure, why not?”

With the M series, Børresen seems to have created a formula for a transducer that is exceptionally clean and transparent, with impressive dynamics and frequency responses. These are speakers that take my breath away every time I hear them. While these ground-breaking designs certainly qualify as another big speaker we’ve heard that will never be reviewed in our homes, Greg Weaver just scored a pair of M3s for review and I can’t wait to see what he thinks. Maybe I’ll finally have the nerve to ask for the M1s.

2023 product of the year

Innuos Pulsar network streamer ($7,999 USD)

I had a lot of digital gear pass through my front door in the last couple of years, and I had to educate myself during the process. A couple of years ago, I was concerned about my “five-minute rule,” where music needs to be playing no more than five minutes after I make all then connections. In other words, I don’t like it when digital gear doesn’t work the first time out. It happens a lot. Sometimes it’s me, and sometimes there’s a vital piece of info that’s not in the Quick Start-Up guide.

I’m more comfortable with this gear now, and lately there have been fewer five-minute rule violations. But when I first connected the Innuos Pulsar network streamer into my system, my entire reference system seemed to jump up and stand at attention. I still had the Innuos app on my iPhone from when I reviewed the Zen Mini server a few years ago, and suddenly it was updated to the newer Innuos Sense app and yes, music started flowing into the room.

A few weeks later I headed to Faro, Portugal to visit the Innuos factory. When I witnessed the seriousness of this manufacturing enterprise, its commitment to doing whatever it takes to achieve the best performance, its dedication to working with owners for the best possible digital audio experience, I went home and listened to the Innuos Pulsar and appreciated it even more. Yes, I’ve been reluctant to fully embrace digital technologies, a strategy that’s getting more difficult to defend as the days pass. The Pulsar is utterly huggable, however, and it’s been a friendly guide through dark waters, and I’m glad we met in 2023.

lab12 dac1

Lab 12 DAC1 Reference ($3,290 USD)

I was questioned on the Lab12 DAC1 Reference’s inclusion on the 2023 Product of the Year list. “Both Best Value and Product of the Year?” Yes, absolutely. At least one product makes both of our lists every year, like the Audio by Van Alstine DVA 225 monoblocks that enchanted most of the PTA team a couple of years ago. A product that makes both lists is affordable, but it differs from other Best Value contenders because it doesn’t require a modifier like “sound really good for the money.” It sounds good, period.

The Lab12 DAC1 Reference digital to analog converter provides the same embraceable, seductive warmth as the company’s Integre4 integrated amplifier, which won the Best Value Award last year. It seems strange to me that both products achieve the same sonic goals, something you wouldn’t expect from a tube amp and a DAC, but add the DAC1 Reference to most systems and you’ll think you swapped out your amp, too. That’s saying a lot for a digital product, but the Lab12 might be my pick for the “most analog sounding DAC,” a claim that many DAC manufacturers aim to achieve these days.

Sure, the Lab12 achieves it at a remarkably low price, but don’t hold that against it. It’s just a stunning digital product–even for this old school analog lover. I still think about it daily.

luxman lmc-5

Luxman LMC-5 cartridge ($2,695 USD)

The Luxman LMC-5, the company’s first cartridge in 40 years, almost earned a mention in the Best Value category–I didn’t want the audio skeptics rolling their eyes at the idea of a $2,695 phono cartridge bargain. But here’s the truth about the LMC-5: Luxman could have charged twice that, perhaps even more, and I don’t think anyone would have objected.

The Luxman LMC-5 combines the best of the past and present in cartridge design. The unique shape of the Luxman’s aluminum body adds strength, controls resonances and even aids in proper cueing. The sound of the LMC-5, however, is evocative of the finest Japanese cartridge designs–especially Koetsu. But the LMC-5 is decidedly less colored–it’s more “easy” than subjectively warm. It has that Japanese analog mystique, though, and it instantly captured my heart.

The Luxman LMC-5 phono cartridge is a 2023 Product of the Year nominee because it’s one of the most exciting new cartridge introductions in the last couple of years, not because it’s “great for the money.” While the prices of ultra-fi cartridges have breached the five-figure threshold some years ago–I just read about a $50,000 cartridge–I’m noticing a trend of manufacturers coming back to earth and creating fantastic cartridges in the $2-4K range, cartridges that often get installed into very expensive analog rigs. The Luxman LMC-5 is one of those.

dr. vinyl

mcgary audio and nola

Nola Baby Grand Reference Gold 3 ($150,000/pr USD) and Metro Grand Reference Gold 3 ($60,000/pr USD)

I didn’t formally review these two loudspeaker models from Carl and Marilyn Marchisotto, but I spent a lot of time listening to them–a total of four days, from morning until night, thanks to Dr. Vinyl and his family outside of Baltimore. I loved both of these speakers, and the system that was connected to them. Neither of these large, open-baffle multi-driver towers drew attention to themselves in the way most “big” speakers do. They were just supremely musical and played all types of genres with ease.

Looking back on those trips to the East Coast in April, and then October, something stood out. For just a little more than a third of the price, the Metros sounded almost identical to the Baby Grands. It’s wrong to dwell on this too much since six months had passed between hearing these two wonderful loudspeakers, but it was the same room, and the entire system was mostly intact.

I’m also sure that strict A/B comparisons would reveal differences, especially in the way each speaker energizes a big room. What this tells me is that Carl Marchisotto, over the past few decades, has accomplished a signature sound that flows from every speaker he makes. It’s a coherent, lovely sound, and both of these models deserve to be nominated for 2023 Product of the Year.

2023 product of the year

Sonner Audio Allegro Unum ($12,000 pr USD)

I’ve awarded three Products of the Year now for PTA, and all three were premium two-way loudspeakers: the Vimberg Ameas, the Sonus faber Maxima Amators and the Qln Signatures. I broke that streak this year, as you’ll see shortly, but I still brings me great pleasure to pick Gunny Surya’s flagship two-way monitor, the Allegro Unum, as a nominee for 2023 Product of the Year. In a way, I’m picking it as two-way monitor of the year. Maybe I’ll start giving out an award for that. The Phillips Prize.

Winners of this new proposed award must meet several criteria. The speaker must be a two-way monitor. It has to sound like a big speaker, but it still has to demonstrate why two-ways are so special especially in terms of coherence and focus. Finally, it has to be musical–so musical, in fact, that I forget about the speaker and I just focus on the music. This year, the Sonner Audio Allegro Unum wins that award among a very crowded and gifted field.

2023 product of the year

TIDAL for Bugatti Royale system ($450,000 USD)

Here’s the most obvious example of a stunning high-end audio product that will probably never land in my listening room unless I buy one. The TIDAL for Bugatti Royale system includes two of the most beautiful loudspeakers you’ve ever seen, a one-box controller that’s also incredibly easy to set up and use, and the necessary cables. I spent over a year planning to cover the Royale system–its debut at High End 2022 in Munich was canceled due to a covid outbreak at the factory two weeks before the show. So I didn’t get a chance to see or hear TIDAL for Bugatti until High End 2023.

It was worth the wait.

I started off listening to the TIDAL Audio Contriva G3 and Piano G3 speakers, which are both “mere” five-figure speakers, and to tell the truth they would have won Best Sound at Munich without the Royale system lurking in the next room. I wasn’t sure how I could get any better. But it did. Veils dropped, the room expanded in all directions, and I spent a good chunk of time with perhaps the impressive system I’ve heard in nearly fifty years of being an audiophile. The Royale system, for lack of a better word, is the most complete audio system I’ve heard. It’s hard not to nominate this amazing hi-fi system as 2023 Product of the Year.

tidal for bugatti royale

2024 Product of the Year–TIDAL for Bugatti Royale System

Here’s a story I’ve only told a few people. After my private audition with the TIDAL for Bugatti Royale system at Munich earlier this year, I called up Scot Hull and told him, “If I don’t pick these for 2023 Product of the Year, it’ll be BS.”

No single audio system has taken me further into the music than the Royale. $450,000 is2023 product crazy money, but you have to remember than in most product categories there are single components that surpass this price. The TIDAL for Bugatti Royale system is far more than a gorgeous, sexy pair of active loudspeakers. It’s the Royale controller, which does everything else, along with the cables. (There are surprisingly few of them.) The controller focuses on simplicity and ease-of-use–it’s made to produce music without fuss. You don’t need a big expensive rack, either. Three pieces of gear, and cables. That’s it. You should have plenty of room.

It’s hard to imagine that you need anything else, unless you want to add analog sources, which you can. But as you spend more and more time with the TIDAL for Bugatti Royale system, you start to recognize it as a masterpiece of engineering and design, with an incredible amount of thought put into every single part. It’s as close to perfection as I’ve heard, and that’s why it’s 2023 Product of the Year. Congratulations!