Great sound quality isn't as simple as blasting sound waves directly into your ears, and 2020's best audio products take innovative approaches to delivery. From Sonos's standard-setting surround-sound soundbar to new noise-canceling tech from Bose, Sony and even Samsung, there are more ways than ever to treat your ears to everything you want to reach them.
Design: 5.0-channel soundbar w/ Dolby Atmos surround sound
Drivers: 8 woofers, 3 tweeters
Compatibility: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, AirPlay 2
Sonos released its previous flagship soundbar, the Playbar, back in 2012 and kept it around as a cornerstone of its speaker lineup for the following eight years. Sure, it released the Beam, a smaller "smart" soundbar, in 2018. But by 2020, the Playbar was long overdue to be replaced by a transformative successor. And that is exactly what we have in the Sonos Arc.
The Arc has a completely different vibe than the Playbar, which will now start its stroll towards end-of-life. The Arc looks like the future. It has an all-new industrial design complete with a 270-degree grill and 76,000 holes punctured throughout. It also adopts many of the best features of the Beam, including built-in microphones for voice commands (compatible with either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant), support for AirPlay 2 and a single HDMI connection for easy installation.
Most importantly, the Arc is the first Sonos soundbar to support Dolby Atmos, the latest in at-home surround-sound technology and arguably a must-have for all soundbars and home theater systems in 2020. With virtual height channels to make movies and shows sound more immersive, the Arc will let you hear planes flying over your head or birds chirping to your left and right — all while watching TV and sitting on your couch. It’s an excellent, standard-setting upgrade for your home theater.
Battery Life: Up to 30 hours
Companion App: Sony Headphone Connect
Frequency Response: 4 Hz-40,000 Hz
For years, Sony and Bose have been taking turns wearing the crown as king of noise-canceling headphones, and last year the victory was Bose’s with the Headphones 700. But there’s no rest at the top. The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, emerging after months and months of rumors, have lived up to their hype, taking their rightful place as the best noise-canceling headphones out there — for now.
Sony didn't exactly reinvent the wheel with the WH-1000XM4s. In fact, they look virtually identical to their 2018 predecessor. But that doesn’t mean they haven't improved. Slightly larger earpads and a tweaked headband with a slimmer head cushion are subtle alterations that make the WH-1000XM4s exceedingly comfortable. But where the WH-1000XM4s really excel is in their improved noise-canceling ability, sound quality and features list, making them a joy to wear and absolutely best-in-class.
With improved internals, the WH-1000XM4s are just stellar at canceling out human voices, like from your noisy coworker (or these days, more likely your partner or roommate). And like their predecessors, they are still simply the best at canceling out lower frequencies, like from a car, train or plane, if you happen to be traveling. Thanks to added smarts, the Sony WH-1000XM4s are also now intelligent enough to listen to your surroundings, and they'll automatically tweak the noise-canceling settings so that the music sounds best.
Sony's bread and butter with its headphones has always been the features list, and the WH-1000XM4s don’t skimp. They have a new Speak-to-Chat feature that automatically pauses the music when you start talking. There's a new proximity that will play/pause the music when you take headphones on and off. And, maybe most importantly, they can pair via Bluetooth to two devices at once. It all adds up to a pair of headphones that are truly top-of-the-line.
JBL L82 Classic
Design: 2-way loudspeaker
Tweeter: 1-inch titanium dome tweeter
Woofer: 8-inch white cone woofer
The JBL L100 Century loudspeakers are among the best-selling and most iconic loudspeakers of all time. First introduced in 1970, they were effectively a consumer version of JBL's legendary 4310 studio monitors used in many well-known recording studios at the time. Fast forward to 2018 and JBL released the L100 Classic, pumping new life and 40 years of speaker innovation into a legendary design that audiophiles adored. With this year’s L82 Classic, however, JBL has found a way to share the love with a wider variety of fans.
The JBL L82 Classic is effectively a smaller, more affordable version of the L100 Classic, available at roughly half the price: $2,500 a pair. Despite the discount, they’re still hefty beasts that pack a serious punch. Each speaker weighs almost 14 pounds and is 18 inches tall — much bigger than traditional bookshelf speakers. As far as sound quality, the JBL L82 Classic delivers the accurate, dynamic and powerful sound you'd expect from a legendary speaker. Each speaker has the same tweeter found in the L100 Classic and a smaller 8-inch woofer; the L100 Classic has a 12-inch woofer and a dedicated midrange driver.
But it’s the looks that seal the deal. The L82 Classic is a dead ringer for the L-100 Classic with the same vintage design, wooden cabinets and what are arguably the most conspicuous speaker grills ever made, available in blue, black or orange.
The JBL L82 Classic won't be for everybody. They require a big room and a powerful amplifier. But if those aren't deal breakers and you're looking for loudspeakers with unmatched retro flair, the JBL L82 Classic is about as cool as it gets.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live
Battery life: 6 hours with noise-cancelling (21 total hours with case)
Companion app: Samsung’s Galaxy Wearable (on Android) or Galaxy Buds (on iOS)
Water Resistance: IPX2
There is absolutely no shortage of wireless earbuds these days, with virtually every audio company throwing its hat into the ring. Samsung introduced three pairs this year. The Galaxy Buds and the Galaxy Buds+ are improved versions of their previous standard fare. Then there's the Galaxy Buds Live, which are a total breath of fresh air.
In the evermore crowded field, the Galaxy Buds Live are utterly unique. They have no stem like Apple's AirPods and no noise-isolating tips like so many other competitors. Their strange and unusual kidney-bean shape is almost comical at first glance, but the Galaxy Buds Live are no slouch.
Even with their open design, the Galaxy Buds Live boast active noise-cancellation — something none of Samsung's other wireless earbuds have — which is really effective at canceling low-end frequencies. Plus, they feature great battery life and good sound quality.
Samsung is no stranger to innovative designs, but most of them, like its folding smartphones, are wildly expensive. The Galaxy Buds Live buck this trend. Coming in at well under $200, significantly cheaper than competitors like the AirPods Pro and the Sony WF-1000XM3, they’re a great buy as well as a refreshing design.
NAD Masters M33
Power: 200W into 8/4 Ohms
DAC: 32-BIT/384kHz ESS Sabre
Connectivity: BluOS, AirPlay 2, Bluetooth aptX HD (wireless); XLR Balanced, MM/MC Phono, HDMI eARC
Integrated amplifiers, which combine a power amplifier, a phono preamp and a number of wired and wireless connections, are the future of hi-fi.The NAD Masters M33 is the best of the best. A gorgeous yet minimalist amplifier with a wonderfully tactile volume knob, and a 7-inch touchscreen for displaying album art, it can push 200 watts per channel, enough to power serious loudspeakers. And it supports a number of popular and high-end wireless streaming methods, including AirPlay 2, Bluetooth aptX HD and BluOS. The Masters M33 is not just one of the most advanced streaming amps you can buy, it’s proof that the integrated amplifier is appealing for even the most demanding audiophiles.
Pro-Ject Carbon Evo
Phono Cartridge: Sumiko Rainier
Weight: Approx. 12 pounds
The Austrian hi-fi company Pro-Ject makes some of the highest-performing turntables that don’t cost an actual fortune, and the $399 Debut Carbon DC has been a stalwart of its lineup. The new Pro-Ject Carbon Evo improves on near perfection. Yes, it costs $100 more, but that gets you a higher-end Sumiko Rainier phono cartridge, an improved motor-suspension system and wider feet, to reduce vibration and distortion. Aspiring audiophiles, this is the turntable you want.
Klipsch The Fives
Drivers: 5-inch woofer, two 1-inch tweeter per speaker
Frequency Response: 50Hz - 25kHz
Connectivity: Bluetooth, HDMI-ARC, optical digital, 3.5mm analog mini, the kitchen sink
Klipsch's newest creation holds the distinction of being the first powered bookshelf speakers to have an HDMI-ARC connection. And that little port gives them a whole lot of power. Cutting out the cost of the receiver and with dedicated right and left speakers, the Fives can deliver a better stereo experience and wider soundstage than any singular soundbar could dream of — unless you could still make it sing after you’ve snapped it in half.
Astell & Kern A&futura SE200
Hi-Res Formats: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256, MQA
Battery Life: Up to 14 hours
The world's first portable music player to have multiple built-in DACs, the A&futura SE200 has three in total, including the DAC from Astell & Kern’s flagship SP2000, which goes for nearly twice the price. The SE2000’s unique capabilities give obsessive audiophiles the ability to adjust the sound signature on the fly, cramming sonic versatility into an unprecedentedly portable package. Yes, it’s for the nerds, and it’s reveling in it.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
Sweat Resistance: IPX4
Battery: Up to 6 hours per earbud
Charging: USB-C, Qi-wireless charging case
Bose certainly took its sweet time. The company that first brought noise-canceling headphones into the mainstream was one of the last to release wireless earbuds with that same technology, but when it did, it brought the big guns. The QuietComfort Earbuds combine the top-tier noise-canceling powers of the company's flagship Headphones 700 — including 11 different levels of noise control — with a wire-free earbud form. The only reason you might not consider a pair is if you already sprung for AirPods Pro.
Ultimate Ears Hyperboom
Drivers: Dual 1-inch tweeters, dual 4.5-inch woofers, and dual 3.5-by-7.5-inch passive bass radiators
Water Resistance: Splash and spill proof
Battery Life: Up to 24 hours
The Hyperboom isn't what we've come to expect out of Ultimate Ears. Yes, it's a portable speaker. And yes, it sounds excellent. It’s also absolutely gargantuan. At 13 pounds, it's the company's biggest but also most powerful portable speaker, outclassing competitors like Sonos Move in ruggedness and volume. The Hyperboom is a Bluetooth speaker with a very good idea of what it is: the ultimate party machine.