2023 Best Value Awards

PTA’s 2023 Best Value Awards are marked by an underlying theme, that old audio reviewer canard of saying “I liked it so much, I bought it!” Many of the 2023 Best Value nominees below are now residing in the reference systems of our reviewers on a permanent basis. That includes me. I had to purchase the Naim NAIT 50 integrated amplifier for several reasons including my long history with NAITs, the limited run of 1,973 units, my need for a dedicated headphone amplifier that I could also use as back-up amplification and, most importantly, the sound.

Words and Photos by Marc Phillips

Graig Neville also purchased the Parasound JC 3 jr phono preamplifier, which he found was a perfect match for his Rega P3. Here’s a twist: Graig enjoyed the Triangle 40th Anniversary Antal loudspeakers for much that he wound up purchasing the flagship Triangle Magellan Quatuor for his new reference. Two other products mentioned on this list may also stay in the reviewer’s system–I don’t want to jinx the deal, so I’ll keep quiet for now.

That’s sort of the difference between the 2023 Best Value nominees and the 2023 Product of the Year nominees–we humble audio reviewers can usually afford the former group, while the latter group is the stuff of dreams. (Or at least it will be this year.) While Part-Time Audiophile focuses on higher-end gear, we have an abiding love for the great values–which is something we share with our readers since some of them get quite restless when we talk too much about half-million dollar speakers and cables that cost more than a new car. We get it.

So here’s our list of nominees for the 2023 Best Value Award, with the winner listed below.

acoustic energy

Acoustic Energy AE509 loudspeakers ($3,700/pr USD)

Reviewer Matthew Partrick reviewed these British speakers for us, and he kept them around for way too long because he couldn’t bear to part with them. It’s strange to think that Acoustic Energy has introduced such a high-value product as the AE509, especially since this is the same company that shocked the industry a few decades ago by releasing a $1,500 pair of mini-monitors known as the AE1. Back then, you could get a new pair of LS3/5as for half that.

Coincidentally, Matthew wrote: “When you’re shaming other British companies at half the price point, AE must be doing something right.” As you may know, I love Brit-Fi, with an emphasis on BBC designs such as the LS3/5a and the LS5/9 and the BC-1. But the prices have risen considerably over the years. I bought my first British speakers, Spendor S-20s, for a grand back in 1991. That same speaker has evolved through the years, of course, but the contemporary version now cost five times that. Before I start having flashbacks to my father telling me about going to the movies and buying lunch for a total of 25 cents, I do think British speakers are worth the current prices. But when I bought those first Spendors, they were the finest speakers I heard for the price.

It’s a pleasant surprise, however, that Acoustic Energy seems to remember that British speakers were once outstanding transducers and outstanding values. That’s why the Acoustic Energy AE509s are nominated for the 2023 Best Value Award.


Audio-gd Master 10 Mk. II integrated amplifier ($3,999 USD)

The Audio-gd Master 10 integrated amplifier arrived on my doorstep–or, should I say, doorsteps–at a very busy time. I had just relocated from Portland to the coast, and it took a long time to reassemble a system and fine tune everything so I could get back to the business of reviewing audio gear. My first three or four reviews were stand-mounted monitors from likes of Gershman, Piega, Falcon Acoustics–great stuff, each and every pair. My first response was “Hey, the new room sounds great! That’s a relief!” It took a few weeks to realize that this smooth and mostly optimal transition had a second, much quieter sponsor–the Audio-gd Master 10 integrated amplifier.

It’s easy to discuss the Audio-gd Master 10 by being blunt and streamlined about what it is and isn’t. It’s a big beefy 250wpc (into 8 ohms) that costs $4,000, but it’s not class D. The proprietary ACSS circuit behaves as class A, and there’s a special ACSS input (and cables) to hear the technology–and the signal–in a more straightforward way.  It comes from China, but Audio-gd has been manufacturing quality audio gear for over twenty years. The fit and finish on everything is heavy, industrial, superb. I know I keep mentioning this, but it weighs almost 100 pounds. And for a few glorious weeks in the summer of 2023, the Audio-gd did a fantastic job of making me happy with review system after review system.

What are its shortcomings? I’m not sure if this 2023 Best Value nominee has any–especially at this price. It sounded like great amplification, period. This is another crazy good piece of audio gear from Underwood Hi-Fi for a crazy low price.

2023 best value

audio note uk an-j/d hemp

Audio Note UK Cobra integrated amp/DAC with AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers and CDT One/II digital transport (ca. $15,000 total USD)

PTA‘s Best Value Award is usually about single products, not complete systems like this one. For the record, I’d pick either the Cobra integrated amplifier/DAC, the AN-J speakers or the CDT digital transport for inclusion in one nominee list, or even both. But I spent a significant portion of the spring with these three components, and the associated Audio Note UK cabling, and I came to the simple conclusion that this is a killer system, complete, for a total of around $15K.

Taken separately, these Audio Note UK components don’t scream “BIG VALUE.” Together, they stand out. You probably know, as an audiophile, that all the little things add up very quickly in a system, and the idea of a great complete $10,000 system is probably made up of components that are more modest than you expected. With Audio Note UK, the reverse happened.

I’m not excluding the Audio Note UK TT-Two Deluxe turntable with arm, cartridge and phono stage from this equation. It’s just that this complete analog rig adds another $10K to the total price, and we start to gravitate back to high-end audio norms when we’re talking about $25K systems. But if I didn’t love spinning LPs, I could spend $15K and have everything else I need to hunker down in the lake house for a long, long time. As I mentioned in the review, I could also skip the CD transport and just use the DAC for streaming Qobuz, and I’m down to just $10K for the entire system. But man, I love that transport. It makes me want to keep my CD collection intact.

So let’s call this trio the 2023 Best Value System.

Børresen X3 loudspeakers
Børresen X3 loudspeakers ($12,000/pr USD)

Audio Group Denmark’s decision to let the technology from their flagship products trickle down into their new entry-level products is, in my opinion, real genius. Or maybe it’s altruism. This company has been pushing the performance envelope with products such as the Børresen M series speakers and the Aavik 880 series electronics, and now they’ve doubled back in the last couple of years and created a new brand called Axxess just to handle high-value products such as the Forte line of all-in-one integrated/DAC/streamers, which start at just $5,500.

If the $100,000/pr Børresen M1 two-way monitors sound like any other six-figure monoliths out there, then the $12,000/pr Børresen X3 three-way towers sound like…well…maybe a six-figure monolith, too. Maybe that’s hyperbole on my part, but even reviewer Greg Weaver said that the Børresen X3s could have cost twice as much and he wouldn’t have blinked an eye.

I’ve heard the X3s, usually with one of the Axxess Fortes, and I’m just scratching my head because I’m not sure what I’m missing from the larger, more ambitious Audio Group Denmark systems I’ve heard–including the one I reviewed last year. That’s funny, because evaluating the entire Audio Group Denmark product line involves decisive A/B comparisons that always reveal big sonic differences. On the other hand, you could buy the Børresen X3 loudspeakers, the Axxess Forte 3, and the least expensive cables from Ansuz and wind up with the kind of system where you simply don’t care what other products sound like. You’ll be like Rama in the final shot of The Raid 2: “I’m done.”

2023 best value

Emerald Physics 600.2SE ($1,999 USD)

When class D amplifiers first started invading high-end audio a couple of decades ago, the biggest selling point was some silly variation of “It has 900 watts per channel, it costs $450, and it weighs 3.7 pounds.” What wasn’t mentioned was sound quality, which was often characterized as flat and dry and lacking in realism. The earlier class D amps didn’t thrill audiophiles for a long time, but once we discovered that class D modules, just like DAC chips, are just the starting point for a particular design, we start saying things like, “It sounds really great for class D!” Finally, we’re at the point where class D has a comfy seat at the high-end audio table.

John Richardson reviewed the Emerald Physics 600.2SE for PTA, and even this veteran audio reviewer couldn’t help but being sideswiped by a 600wpc ten pound amplifier that costs a couple of grand and–here’s the novel part–it sounds great!

We’ve reviewed many products from Underwood Hi-Fi, especially in the last year. We’re talking LSA speakers and amplifiers, that amazing Audio-gd integrated amplifier listed just above, and this Emerald Physics gem. Underwood Hi-Fi has found a comfortable and well-deserved niche in our industry, scouring the world for manufacturers who can deliver superb value. I keep waiting for a rude awakening, that one day I’ll get a product from them that isn’t remarkable for what it is, but it simply hasn’t happened yet. There’s no denying that this has been a noteworthy year for Underwood Hi-Fi, and the Emerald Physics has earned its nomination for 2023 Best Value.

falcon acoustics m10

Falcon Acoustics M10 loudspeakers ($2,150/pr USD)

What? Two British loudspeakers on the 2023 Best Value list? Impossible!

Falcon Acoustics nabbed some PTA awards a couple of years ago with their MoFi Edition LS3/5a, now sold as the Silver Label LS3/5a. When I reviewed them, it bludgeoned some of my pre-conceptions about this classic BBC monitor–the tonality was more natural than I remembered, probably because my amplification had gotten much better. Plus, I was astonished at the low low price–just $1,995/pr back then–and realized I could easily spend the rest of my days with this as a reference instead of something big and expensive. Save my money for some more LPs, as they say.

The LS3/5as have some limitations–they won’t play loud and they only go down to 70 Hz. But the lovers of these speakers know that very few speakers possess this same wonderful tonality, and that you can overcome the loud/deep problem by listening to them in the near-field. These new Falcon Acoustics M10 loudspeakers, in a way, are modern solutions to the LS3/5as–you get that same tonality without having to scoot your seat toward the drivers.

The M10 shares the same MSRP with the Silver Label LS3/5as, and I find that interesting. There are some people who will prefer the Silver Badge because, like me, they’re mesmerized by the beautiful and natural sound. In a controlled A/B comparison, I predict I’d lean a little toward the LS3/5a. But I think most audiophiles might choose the M10 just because it asks much less of its owner. You don’t need to be a BBC speaker nut like me to “get” what the LS3/5a does so well. You can let the music flow, and you’ll be happy that you got such a great deal.

2023 best value

Lab12 DAC 1 Reference DAC ($3,290 USD)

2023 was such a busy year for us, so it surprised me that I reviewed the Lab12 DAC1 toward the beginning of the year. It seemed so long ago, so perhaps it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In a nutshell, I found that the Lab12 DAC1 was a digital-to-analog converter that met all three of my biggest digital priorities–ease of use, price and sound quality. This year I heard many DACs that I enjoyed and would consider buying, but secretly I compared everything else to the Lab12. If a DAC sounded better to my ears than the Lab12, it usually cost two to three times as much. Or maybe it was fussier to initialize. There was always something the Lab12 did that the others didn’t.

Yes, it’s true that I still don’t “own” a DAC. I’ve been reviewing them consistently over the last couple of years to discover what I like, and when I don’t have a DAC on hand, my reviewing schedule goes awry. 2023’s Best Value and Product of the Year awards are filled with nominees that were actually purchased by the reviewer, which is always a good sign. But if you demanded that I pull the trigger and buy a DAC, right now, I would undoubtedly go with the Lab12 DAC-1 Reference without hesitation.

music hall stealth
Music Hall Stealth turntable ($1,695 USD)

Shall we call this the 2023 Editor’s Surprise Award? Because I had no idea the Music Hall Stealth turntable was going to be this good. I like Roy Hall and think he’s one of the greatest characters in high-end audio history, but I spent a good chunk of my audiophile apprenticeship being what some have called “a Rega fan-boy,” which was probably true. Unfortunately, that meant I really didn’t know Music Hall or Pro-Ject turntables very well, and I probably relied upon unworthy opinions on both brands.

I first heard the Music Hall Stealth turntable, a direct-drive turntable that comes with an arm and an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge for just $1,695, at one of the high-end shows, and I just sort of stared at it while the music played. I got up for a closer look. I listened. After a few dorky audiophile moments I said to Roy Hall, “This is really good.” He shipped one to me, and I set it up. Quickly. Maybe more quickly than any other ‘table I’ve set up–and I started off with BSR record changers.

“This is really good,” I said for the second time. And I’ve been saying that nearly every day for the last several weeks.

naim nait 50
Naim NAIT 50 ($3,599 USD)

You know the story already. One of my favorite amps I’ve owned was the Naim NAIT 2, which I bought in 1992. (MSRP $995, dealer demo special $695.) Should’ve never sold it. Tried to buy another, used prices were crazy. Naim announced a limited run of the Naim NAIT 50, which looks a lot like the very first Naim NAIT. They made 1,973 of them to commemorate the year Naim Audio was born. I had to have it.

Now that you’re all caught up, let’s talk about this special little integrated. I’ve been using it as a headphone amp, like I’ve said, and it’s superb–it’s closer to sounding neutral than any other headphone amp I’ve had in over the last couple of years. I also placed it in a very simple and affordable system–all I needed was the NAIT 50, the Music Hall Stealth direct-drive turntable with Ortofon 2M Blue, the Falcon Acoustics M10s and I was seriously thrilled with the sound of this system–which is well under $10,000.

Just recently, I’ve heard people saying crazy things about the Naim NAIT 50, people whose ears I trust. They’re saying that the NAIT 50 is the best-sounding Naim amp ever. You know, that’s what they said about the Naim NAIT 2. That’s why I bought it and held onto it for so long. I feel the same way about the Naim NAIT 50. It’s no longer $695 or even $995–it’s $3,599. But it has an excellent MM phono stage, a killer headphone amp, and a beautiful sound that makes me smile. It definitely belongs on the 2023 Best Value list.

Parasound JC 3 Jr.

Parasound JC 3 jr. phono preamplifier ($1,595 USD)

The Parasound JC 3 jr qualifies as one of those products that were so good the reviewer bought it. In this case it was Graig Neville, looking for a good phono stage for his new Rega Planar 3. The JC 3 jr so impressed Graig that he declared, “Game Over,” bought it and then informed me he didn’t need to review any more phono preamplifiers for a while. I think that in the world of high-end audio, this is is a declaration of love.

I know that Parasound makes great phono preamplifiers. When you have John Curl as a designer, that sorta happens. I reviewed the Parasound JC 3 phono preamplifier a couple of years ago, I was really impressed–especially at its $3,000 price. I had a number of phono preamps sitting around at the time, most more expensive than the JC 3, and a few months later I started thinking about it once again. I started thinking that I should have spent more time with it. I may not have uncovered its full potential.

When I first read Graig’s review of the JC 3 jr., he sounded just as impressed as I was with its bigger brother. Graig bought his, but now he wants to hear the JC 3. I reviewed the JC 3, but now I want to hear the JC 3 jr., and that’s why the Parasound is a nominee for 2023 Best Value.

Triangle 40th Anniversary Antal

Triangle Antal 40th Anniversary ($4,995/pr USD)

It’s clear that Triangle is reborn as a major high-end audio manufacturer. First, Graig Neville fell so hard for this middle-of-the-line Antal that he went back to Triangle and informed them of his ongoing search for new speakers. He told them his budget, and he wound up with the flagship Magellan Quatuors. I can hear the rumblings all the way from Chicago–he’s deliriously happy with his decision.

Then I’ve just received a pair of Triangle Magellan Duettos, which is this French company’s flagship two-way monitor, and so far it’s giving me beautiful, beautiful sound. Like Acoustic Energy, Triangle is designing some fantastic speakers for reasonable prices. The Antals are $5K/pair, the Quatuors are $20K/pair and the Duettos are $7K/pair. This is expensive for the masses, but in the world of high-end audio you usually have to spend a lot more money to get this kind of performance. That makes the Antals, in particular, a real contender for 2023 Best Value.

2023 best value

2023 Best Value Winner–Music Hall Stealth Turntable

“Don’t give the 2023 Best Value Award to Music Hall,” our mighty publisher said to me.

“Why not?”

“Because we’ll never hear the end of it!”2023 best value

“From whom?” I asked.

“From Roy Hall!”

To hell with that guy. At AXPONA 2023, he told the audience at one of the seminars that he didn’t care about reviews, either good or bad. “To hell with them,” he said. Music Hall has endured because of word-of-mouth, not because some guy like me has decided to bestow the 2023 Best Value Award on the Music Hall Stealth turntable. Which I have.

When I first heard the Music Hall Stealth at that very same AXPONA, I thought it sounded terrific. I agreed to a review, but I wasn’t sure how it would go. Maybe I’m a little snobby about turntables, and when I review one that is affordable I’m constantly reminded of what isn’t there. I have trouble in judging it for what it is.

The Music Hall Stealth, however, charmed me from Day One. It might be the easiest turntable I’ve set up, as I mentioned above. It comes with an Ortofon 2M Blue MM cartridge, which is my favorite inexpensive MM cartridge by far. The arm has a detachable headshell, so I can raid the headshell collection I assembled back when I was running the Technics SL-1200G. I mounted a couple of ZYX cartridges on a DS Audio headshell, and the Stealth said, “Wow! This is fun! What else you got?” Well, I’ve tried expensive tonearm cables, mats, isolation devices, and the Stealth never once said, “Whew, can you guys wait up a second?” Note that I haven’t published the review yet, because I’m still trying out so many things.

To hell with me, I guess. Roy Hall will have to suffer the indignity of me calling his turntable the 2023 Best Value Award winner. Condolences Congratulations!


1 Comment

  1. Roy just sold Music Hall to MoFi.

    But I think you will still need to hear from him.

    We had a Music Hall table in our 2023 Gear We Love Awards… https://futureaudiophile.com/futureaudiophile-com-2023-gear-of-the-year-awards/ too thus great minds must think alike.

    Some of the other brands that you gave awards too, I have NEVER EVER heard of or ever seen at a show but I now want to look into them. Perhaps AXPONA can get me some demos from some new brands?

    Hope to see you there!


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