We're living in a golden age of audio where old-school analog formats like vinyl (and even CDs) continue to trend upwards in popularity — in fact, the demand for vinyl skyrocketed during the pandemic — while the quality of new-age wireless streaming is getting better, more accessible and cheaper. What's more, many audio companies entered new product categories, like Sonos with its first portable Bluetooth speaker and a host of others in the now-popular realm of wireless earbuds. From futuristic, game-changing speaker designs to cutting-edge wireless streamers, these are the best products of 2021.
Syng Cell Alpha
Drivers: 5 (three midrange-tweeters and two force-canceling woofers)
Connectivity: Apple AirPlay 2; Spotify Connect; and two USB-C audio ports (for analog connections)
Weight: 12.8 pounds
Syng (pronounced "sing") is a new California-based audio company founded by Chris Stringer, who had previously worked as Apple's design team for over twenty years on everything from the first iPhone to the HomePod, and Damon Way, one of the cofounders of DC Shoes. The company's nascent product is a first-of-its-kind multi-room wireless speaker called the Cell Alpha. And yes, it looks like the Death Star.
The Cell Alpha generally works the same as other wireless speakers. It plugs into the wall, has a companion app and supports AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect. It's different, however, because of its design and its sound. It's a 360-degree speaker with three beam-forming drivers placed evenly around its equator, which are responsible for the midrange and highs. The there are two force-canceling woofers on the top and bottom of the speaker for the distortion-free bass (which is pretty darn impressive even at low volumes).
The speaker plays "triphonic" sound, an immersive spatial sound technology invented by Syng to describe the effect caused by Cell Alpha's three midrange-tweeter drivers. With the help of advanced digital signal processing (DSP) and support for immersive audio codecs, the Cell Alpha is able to deliver room-filling sound while also giving the illusion that certain sounds (instruments or vocals) are coming from specific areas of the room.
For the best representation of this triphonic sound, Syng suggests getting three Cell Alpha speakers in a room. (Yes, it's an expensive proposition.) Together they're able to create an immersive experience complete with virtual height channels that's similar to a 7.1 surround sound system. Not only that, but you can use the app to manipulate the sound so that specific sounds come from different areas within that bubble. It's truly the next evolution of multi-room audio.
Bluesound Node (2021)
DAC (built-in): Texas Instruments PCM 5242
High-Resolution Streaming: Up to 24-bit/192kHz and MQA tracks
Smart Connectivity: Works with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri
The newest Node is a third-generation multi-room wireless streamer that's designed for budding audiophiles. Like its predecessor, the Node 2i, the new model connects to your hi-fi system — via an amplifier and passive loudspeakers or directly to a powered speaker system — and adds a multitude of analog and wireless connections. That said, Bluesound made the new Node vastly better. It gave it a faster processor and a much-improved DAC so you can stream much higher-resolution audio (up to 24-bit/192kHz). It has an HDMI eARC input to hook to your TV and home theater system. And, coolest of all, it's new proximity sensor makes it light up every time your hand gets near — so you feel like a wizard.
Drivers: 5 (two 5.25-inch woofers; one 1-inch tweeter; one 4-inch midrange)
Power: 350 watts
Wireless Streaming: Chromecast; AirPlay 2; Bluetooth
The JBL L75ms is an all-in-one speaker system that's modeled after the company's iconic L100 loudspeakers from the 70s — same wooden veneer and striking Quadrex foam grille — and it's a stunner. It gives off vintage vibes and plays hi-fi sound, plus it has all the modern conveniences (like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming) that you'd want in a modern speaker. You can even use it as a soundbar (via HDMI ARC) or connect it to a turntable thanks to its built-in phono preamp. It's the total package.
Nothing Ear (1)
Battery: 5 hours per earbud, 34 hours total w/ case
Features: Wireless charging; active noise-cancellation
The Ear (1) are wireless earbuds that look like nothing else out there. The result of a collaboration between Nothing, a new audio company started by one of the co-founders of OnePlus, and Teenage Engineering, an audio company best known for its funky designs and hip synthesizers, they have a unique transparent design — so you can see the circuitry, magnets and other inner-workings of each earbud. They also have premium features like wireless charging and active noise-cancellation. The kicker? You can snag a pair for less than $100.
Pro-Ject Debut Pro
Drive Type: Belt-drive
Cartridge: Pro-Ject Pick It Pro
Weight: 13.22 pounds
You likely know about Pro-Ject. The Austrian audio company is one of the premium players in affordable hi-fi, and they make all kinds of components, from amps to speakers, but it's best known for its turntables. Its newest turntable, the Debut Pro, is the highest-end model in the company's best-selling line of Debut turntables. It's stunning to look at, obviously, but it also has some key upgrades — redesigned tonearm, Sumiko Rainier cartridge, heavy aluminum platter — to further eliminate resonance and ensure it sounds spectacular. You're not going to find a better turntable for less than a grand.
Apple Music (Lossless + Spatial Audio)
Default Audio Quality: 256 kbp/s
Max Audio Quality: Up to 24-bit/192 kHz
Immersive Technologies: Support for Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio
Apple Music isn't new. In fact, along with Spotify, it's the most popular music streaming service on the planet, with millions and millions of subscribers. But Apple flipped the music streaming industry on its head this year by giving Apple Music two really important things so that it feels, well, "new."
First, it brought lossless streaming tracks — which are roughly four times the audio quality of the average MP3 file — to Apple Music at no extra cost to subscribers. This meant that, overnight, not only did Apple Music become the most popular lossless streaming service, it also became the most affordable lossless service, as it cut the monthly cost of some legacy services (like Tidal) by half.
Secondly, it introduced tracks that support Dolby Atmos and Apple's new immersive technology, spatial audio. The combination of the two trick your ears into thinking that sound is coming from all around you — left, right and above — like you're at a concert. Furthermore, if you're listening on Apple's AirPods Pro, AirPods Max or AirPods (Gen 3), the audio will adjust as you turn your head thanks to spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, for a further feeling of immersion.
And again, all these new features come at no extra cost. So if you're an Apple Music subscriber (or you want to be), you kind of hit the jackpot.
Immersive Technologies: Support for 360 spatial sound mapping; Dolby Atmos; DTS:X
Streaming: Bluetooth, Chromecast built-in,;Spotify Connect; Apple AirPlay 2
Smart Home Compatibility: Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa
If you're buying a home theater system, you've basically got two options. You can buy a soundbar, which is the easy option as it's essentially a plug-and-play system (and thanks to a new breed of smart soundbars, like the Sonos Arc, you can turn it into a surround sound system with the addition of wireless satellite speakers and a wireless subwoofer). Or you can go the traditional route of buying an AV receiver and a speaker system, which is more work (and usually more dough) but allows you to create a larger and more immersive system. Then there's the Sony HT-A9.
But there's a new kind of surround sound system that's as easy to set up as a soundbar, yet delivers the true immersive experience of a larger surround sound system. It consists of four wireless speakers that you place around your room (and work as your front-right, front-left, rear-right and rear-left channels) and a control box that plugs directly into your TV. The four wireless speakers are all identical, consisting of a tweeter-and-woofer combo, rear bass port and an up-firing driver, the latter of which is needed to create virtual height channels for a true Dolby Atmos experience.
In addition to being easy, the Sony HT-A9 is also smart: After placing the wireless speakers around the room, they'll then auto-calibrate themselves so that the system sounds best. It also uses 360 spatial sound mapping technology to create a virtual center channel (because there's no soundbar or traditional center channel speaker) so you don't need to worry about not hearing dialogue. And if you want more bass, you can also add an optional subwoofer down the road.
Streaming: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
Smart Assistant: Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant
Battery: Up to 10 hours
The Roam is the first ultra-portable speaker by Sonos — and it's super versatile. It can connect to Wi-Fi so that it works just like any other Sonos multi-room speaker, and you can even summon music with your voice (via Alexa or Google Assistant) just like Sonos One. It can also connect to Bluetooth, meaning you can take the Roam outside your home — like to the beach or to the park — and use it like any other portable Bluetooth speaker.
Let's be clear: the Roam isn't the first portable speaker that can connect to both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But it is the first one made by Sonos, one of the most popular speaker companies in the world. It's also priced competitively with other portable speakers that can't connect to Wi-Fi and don't have the same modern features (like wireless charging).
Essentially, if you already have Sonos speakers in your home (millions of people do) and you're looking for a portable speaker to take to the golf course or even just follow you around the home from room to room, there's only one great option: Roam.
Battery: Up to 8 hours per earbud (with ANC on)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2
Max Audio Quality: Up to 990 kbp/s (with LDAC)
When Sony released the WF-1000XM3 in 2019, they were far-and-away the best wireless earbuds in terms of sound quality and active noise-cancellation. But in the past two-plus years the competition has gotten fierce (most noticeably because of Apple's AirPods Pro) and it was Sony's job to do the catching up. And it very much did with the Sony WF-1000XM4.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 aren't just a newer and better version of their predecessors — they're completely redesigned. Sony made them smaller — the earbuds by 10% and the charging case by 40% — and gave each earbud a totally different, more bulbous shape. They gave them a new processor, a new microphone system and new 6mm drivers, the combination of which has drastically improved the active noise-cancellation and transparency capabilities, as well as the audio and call quality. And Sony brought over features such as wireless charging and advanced touch controls so they feel like the future. As for price? Yea, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are expensive. But they're regularly discounted so you can often pick up a pair for way less than Bose's or Apple's alternatives.
Driver: Planar magnetic (90mm)
Frequency Response: 5-50k Hz
Impedance: 14 Ohms
The Californian audio company Audeze is well known in the hi-fi community for its planar magnetic headphones, which use planar magnetic drivers (as opposed to dynamic drivers, which are found in most mainstream headphones) to achieve high-fidelity audio with very low distortion. This year saw the release of a new flagship pair of cans, the LCD-5 — and they're just incredible.
The company's previous flagship product, the LCD-4, were no slouches (as they were praised by numerous hi-fi blogs and publications as some of the best-sounding headphones you could buy), but they were several years old and the new LCD-5 are miles better in just about every way. The most important thing is that Audeze gave them newly redesigned drivers that, in addition to delivering unparalleled accuracy and sound quality, are also surprisingly easy to drive (although you're still going to want a nice amp to pair with these bad boys).
The new cans also feature sloped leather earpads that actually improved the midrange. The headband is now made of carbon fiber, which makes them significantly lighter and more comfortable to wear. And there's even a new "high-purity" copper cable to ensure you're getting the cleanest possible signal.