This story is part of the GP100, Gear Patrol's annual index of the 100 best products of the year. To see the full list of products or read this story in print, check out Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Eight, available now at the Gear Patrol Store.
Apple showed off its HomePod for the first time back in June 2017 — yes, it feels like forever ago — but it's included here because most people didn't get one until early 2018. Audio went way beyond buzzy smart speakers, though. This year brought about a new standard of active noise-canceling headphones (thanks, Sony). Fender finally made a dedicated line of all-original effects pedals. And Sonos introduced its first intelligent soundbar. Overall, it's been a year chock-full of exciting audiophile launches, updates and more.
Anker Soundcore Space NC
Bose is an undisputed industry leader, but it isn't the only company making high-quality noise-canceling headphones — in fact, newcomers are selling them for far less than $350 a pair. Enter the Soundcore Space NC: they're Anker's first noise-canceling headphones and they cost just under $100. While they may not sound as crisp as Bose's or Sony's higher-end offerings, their combination of quality sound and noise-canceling ability is highly impressive, especially for the price. — Tucker Bowe
- Drivers: 40mm dynamic
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
- Battery: 20 hours (wireless NC mode), 50 hours (wired NC mode)
Pro-Ject Juke Box E
Building a home hi-fi system is an intimidating task, but Pro-Ject's Juke Box E takes a lot of the headache out of the equation by providing a quality setup in one sleek package. That's right — you don't need a receiver or a preamp or anything like that. All you need to do is plug in a set of speakers and put on your favorite record. — Andrew Connor
- Power Output: 2 x 50 watts
- Cartridge: Ortofon OM 5E
- Input: Bluetooth, 1 line
Fender Effects Pedals
After seven decades of producing world-class instruments and amplifiers, Fender finally made its first dedicated line of all-original effects pedals. The brand's VP of Product Development, Stan Cotey, designed the majority of the pedals from the ground up, relying on his 25 years of experience in professional audio to create a strong selection of player-focused pedals.
"We want the manufacturing to be really good, we want the price point for the consumer to be really good and we want these to be successful," said Cotey.
The result, released in late February, was a group of six pedals: reverb, delay, overdrive, distortion, compression and buffer. The pedals are housed in anodized-aluminum casings with robust pots that are fitted with bushing and nuts for durability.
Of the six pedals, Cotey said he is most proud of the Pugilist Distortion: "It’s really inexpensive for what it is. Two fully independent distortion circuits plus the blend circuit, the bass boost circuit and all this stuff we were able to stack in the series — and it’s ninety-nine dollars," he said. "You can get it set where it’s cleaner and brighter on one side and darker and heavier on the other side. Then, you can play really dense chords and hear all the individual notes, and you can play downstrokes and hear the pick and the stringy-ness but still have the thickness and the sense of power from the distortion."
The only pedal in the line not designed by Cotey is the Santa Ana Overdrive, which features FET technology for tube-like performance. "It was designed by my friend Alex Aguilar," Cotey said. "Alex is known in the bass world — he’s done a lot of bass amps, but he’s a really good guitar player and he’s done a bunch of high-gain amp design. So, he approached it kind of like he would design an amp. Dynamically, it feels and behaves a lot like that. It cleans up really nicely and you can hear the texture of the string."
At Summer NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Nashville, Fender announced an additional three pedals to round out its lineup: the Engager Boost (featuring a FET input buffer and a 20-decibel boost), the Pelt Fuzz (offering silicon-based fuzz sounds) and the Full Moon Distortion (including both symmetrical and asymmetrical clipping modes).
These nine pedals, Fender's first earnest foray into effects, have features that will appeal to both amateurs and professionals. Offering quality and functions more often associated with boutique effects for under $200 a pedal, this line is a solid value for anyone looking to build out their pedal board. — John Zientek
- Build: Anodized-aluminum casings
- Features: LED-backlit knobs, magnetically latched battery door
- Power: 9V battery or power supply
You might be inclined to chalk its success up to hype or marketing, but Apple's first smart speaker blows away the competition. Its smart assistant, Siri, has a music intellect that others lack — you can ask it to play songs by referencing lyrics, the year an album was released or a band's guitarist. Yes, you need an iPhone and an Apple Music subscription to get the most from HomePod, but its functionality and performance set a new bar in the smart-speaker department. — TB
- Drivers: 7 individually amplified horn tweeters, 1 high-excursion top-firing woofer
- Frequency Range: 40Hz - 20kHz
- Streaming: Apple Music, iTunes
Boenicke Audio W8
Turns out that when it comes to speakers, bigger isn't necessarily better. This fact became starkly clear a few months back when Gear Patrol's editor in chief told me that he needed an hour of my time. "I want you to hear something that's going to blow your mind," he said.
The two of us walked several blocks east from Gear Patrol's New York offices to Park Avenue Audio, a rather large high-end speaker showroom on the corner of 30th Street and Park Avenue. There, a luxury sales consultant named Andrew walked us downstairs into a listening room to demo these gorgeous wooden speakers from Boenicke Audio.
Chances are you've never heard of Boenicke Audio — I sure hadn't. It doesn't make many speakers, and the few it does produce are really expensive. And because it's based in Switzerland, not a lot of its speakers make it overseas to the States. But the audio company is a good one to get to know because it crafts some of the most beautifully designed, best-sounding speakers available. Period.
One of the things that make Boenicke Audio speakers special is that they're made out of solid wood. Most big-box speaker manufacturers opt, for various reasons, for metal or wood composites instead. But solid wood features innate acoustic properties that make it a particularly good material for loudspeaker construction. It's dense, stiff and naturally non-resonant, so speakers made from it produce very little distortion, and wooden enclosures naturally amplify and enrich the sound. There's a reason why most of the best instruments — grand pianos, guitars and even a centuries-old Stradivarius violin — are made of wood. It's not just dumb luck.
But Boenicke speakers aren't great only because they're made out of solid wood. They're great because Sven Boenicke, the founder of Boenicke Audio, is a craftsman and an artist. As an audio-engineer-turned-speaker-manufacturer, Boenicke spares no expense in making sure these speakers sound perfect. If you were to slice one open vertically, you'd see the meticulous detail of the enclosures, and how uniquely beautiful the internal signal path is. And before releasing them out into the wild, Sven personally tests and listens to each speaker to ensure the proper calibration and performance.
And he manages to do that without making massive speakers. Even though the W8s are tiny compared to other floor-standing models, they sound significantly bigger and better than they actually are. The result is that any first-time listener will have the same reaction I did: there's no way a speaker that small can sound like that.
Sitting in that small room in the basement of Park Avenue Audio, listening to the W8 speakers, it was almost an out-of-body experience. Like being in the front row of a concert and then having Glenn Frey pull me on stage with The Eagles in the middle of a show. The midrange and treble on these speakers are absolutely huge, and it feels like you're not simply listening in the room, but immersed in the action. The speakers and their sound simply affect you — they feel more real and more impactful (not necessarily louder). All of this sounds like hyperbole, but it's actually true.
With the proper amplification and the right tracks, a pair of Boenicke speakers will outperform almost anything that you've ever heard costing up to six figures. Don't believe me? That's fine. Go online and search "Sven Boenicke" and you'll see nothing but universal praise. And if you're at all interested and think you're ready to listen to a pair, just make sure you talk to Andrew at Park Avenue Audio in New York; it's the only place where you can listen to and buy a pair of Boenicke speakers in the United States right now.
Tell them Gear Patrol sent you. — TB
- Type: 3-way, 4-driver solid wood floor-standing
- Drivers: Dome tweeter, aluminum cone, paper cone mid/bass, long throw bass
- Frequency Range: 25Hz - 25kHz
In addition to just looking nice beneath your big TV, the Beam works like a typical Sonos unit — as an interconnectable piece of audio gear that's compatible with any other Sonos speaker in your home. The audiophile-grade smart speaker is the one we’d recommend to most people, and the promise of more cross-compatibility in the future makes the Beam a downright wise investment. — Andy Frakes
- Compatibility: Amazon Alexa, Siri, AirPlay 2, Google Assistant
- Drivers: 4 full-range woofers, 1 tweeter, 3 passive radiators
- Channels: 3.0
Cambridge Audio Edge A
If you were to build out the perfect hi-fi system for your dream house, this amplifier would probably be at its heart. It's Cambridge Audio's most powerful and detailed integrated amplifier ever and blends beautiful design with distortion-free sound. What's more, though the Edge A is wonderfully lavish, it's also simple to use: pair any Bluetooth-enabled device to your Edge A, and as long it's connected to a loudspeaker, you can stream really high-res audio (24-bit/48kHz). — TB
- Continuous Power Output: 100-watt RMS into 8 ohms, 200-watt RMS into 4 ohms
- Frequency Response: <3Hz - >80kHz +/-1dB
- Outputs: Speakers, preamplifier, headphones
Sennheiser HD 820
Before getting too deep in the weeds, let's start with the price: the Sennheiser HD 820s cost $2,400, meaning these aren't your run-of-the-mill headphones that plug straight into your laptop or smartphone. No, these are much higher-end than that, and they demand a proper headphone amp or DAC (a digital-to-analog converter) to drive them. Ideally, you also have a dedicated room and a comfy lounge chair (but you can make do without).
Even among high-end headphones, the HD 820s are unique and ambitious. They're high-end and closed-backed, two traits that tend to be mutually exclusive. Studio headphones normally have an open-back design that allows them to achieve a wider and more accurate soundstage — simply put, open-back headphones deliver a sound closer to what the artist originally envisioned. The problem is that audio bleeds through them, meaning they're a no-go in noisy environments. And if that wasn't enough, they're loud — like, to others. Do you really want to be that person blasting music through his or her headphones?
With the HD 820s, however, Sennheiser was able to beat the problems plaguing open-back headphones thanks to some clever engineering. They have similar drivers to those featured in their predecessor, Sennheiser's open-backed HD 800S, but they're also designed with curved Gorilla Glass-covered transducers, resulting in minimal resonance, and, ultimately, an ultra-accurate listening experience.
If you're an audiophile, Sennheiser's innovation will feel like a game changer. You'll be able to listen to studio-quality audio even if you don't have a dedicated room for listening. Heck, you'll even be able to take the HD 820s mobile without bothering those around you (assuming you have a high-quality portable hi-fi player). And when you consider that the HD 820s are lightweight and use plush microfiber earcups, you'll never want to take them off. — TB
- Type: Closed-back, dynamic headphones
- Frequency range: 12 - 43,800 Hz (-3 dB), 6 - 48,000 Hz (-10 dB)
- Impedance: 300 ohms
Audioengine A5+ Wireless Speaker
Audioengine's A5+ Powered Speakers were already some of the best bookshelf speakers on the market, providing audiophile sound in an attractive package and price. This year, the brand added a new model to their lineup that features high-res wireless streaming. One needs little more than a Bluetooth-equipped smartphone or computer to begin playing music, as there's no need to physically connect to a receiver. This makes the A5+ Wireless an incredibly versatile addition to your home audio setup. — AC
- Type: 2.0 powered (active) speakers
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0; supports aptX, SBC and AAC
- Output: 150-watt peak power total
The Best Audio Product of 2018: Sony WH-1000XM3
If you think noise cancellation and sound quality are the two most important things when it comes to headphones, then the Sony 1000X-M3s are the best ones you can buy. It's that simple. Throw in a companion app that lets you completely customize the sound signature and the ability to charge them with the same USB-C cable that you use with your MacBook Pro, and you've got a pair of wireless noise-canceling headphones that handle as well as they sound.