Top 5 - What has impressed me most in 2021?

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Also available on YouTube in Spanish: Acho Reviews YouTube 

As we get closer to the end of the year, I wanted to do a quick recap of the products that have impressed or surprised me the most so far in 2021. I know there is still over a month  left but with Black Friday this next week, followed by Cyber Monday, then the incoming holiday gift season, I think now is a good time to publish this. If anything that comes in from now until the end of the year replaces anything on this list, I will make sure to let you all know!

I must say that it has been difficult to limit this to just 5 products, as there have been quite a few products that have surprised me and impressed me over the past 11 months, some of them that should probably make this list, but after lots of deliberating and listening, I have decided that these are the ones that make my own list.

This is certainly not a list that will match the tastes of everyone, nor have I had chance to try every product out there, so there are many that will disagree with this list and I may also disagree if I had tried certain other products, but as of today, the 20th of November, these are the 5 products that have most impressed and/or surprised me in 2021. Click on any of the product names to see the full review of that item.


At the lowest price…

I am going to start off with something that is extremely cheap but is, in my opinion, far better than the price tag would indicate. As you may know if you follow my reviews, I like to look at a lot of products in the sub 50€ category, as I think there are some very good deals in this price bracket that offer good quality audio for those who don’t want to spend a fortune.

I have tried quite a few sub 50€ products this year but the ones that have surprised me the most are actually available for not much more than 10€ (as of today), these are none other than the Moondrop Quarks.

Ok, the Quarks aren’t perfect, but they are a very good set of IEMs that sound good, are small, lightweight and cheap. If somebody said “I want the good sound for as little as possible”, the Quarks would be my first suggestion. They are also a great backup option, perfect to be left in a bag, car, drawer, anywhere that you want to have a spare set of IEMs that don’t take up any real estate.

There are a few things like non-detachable cables that won’t make everybody happy but, at the end of the day, that means you don’t have to worry about them, just find the correct tips and you are good to go (and let's face it, a replacement pair is cheaper than a new cable!).


Daily IEMs…

Back in May I reviewed the Moondrop Aria, which I found to be a great alternative to the Moondrop Starfield (which was my daily IEM at the time) for a lower price. These would probably have been my choice for this list if I hadn't had the chance to try the T Force Yuan Li last month.

The Yuan Li are a set of IEMs that have just clicked with me. I enjoy their sound, I find them comfortable, they include plenty of accessories, all in all I just find them a very good buy for around 100€.

Again, this is not a perfect IEM, there are things that can be improved and I have heard other sub 100€ options that do certain things better, but as an overall package, I think the Yuan Li are great and have become my personal favourites under 100€. Since the arrival of the Yuan Li, the Aria have become my bluetooth option, they basically live connected to the Shanling MW200 and sound great.


Favourite IEMs…

Ok, this is another category where the item has been replaced and in this case, as little as a couple of weeks ago. Up until that point, I would have said that the Blessing 2 Dusk are my favourite IEMs that I have reviewed this year, and they are still my most used IEMs, however, getting to try the Symphonium Helios opened up a whole new category for me.

I have to be honest and say that I have not yet been able to bring myself to spend 1000€ on them but it is not because I don’t feel they are worth it, these are by far the best IEMs I have heard.

Again, there are a few little things that I find not perfect about the Helios but they really are small things that stop them being perfect for me personally, but there really aren’t any complaints that I can make about them, they are an amazing set of IEMs.

If I can bring myself to actually spend 1000€ on IEMs, then I would not hesitate to order the Helios.


Headphones…

I thought that this one would be easy, the Hifiman HE1000se. A set of headphones that I fell in love with and enjoy immensely each time I get to use them.

However, I recently got to try the new Hifiman Arya Stealth Magnet Edition, which really made some small tweaks to the original Arya (v2) and brought it much closer to my preferences. When I reviewed the Arya SM I already made it clear that I thought they were an amazing set of headphones but I would still have picked the HE1000se.

As I have had the chance to spend more time with them and compare them more to the HE1000se, I am no longer as convinced that I find the HE1000se superior. Yes, I prefer the aesthetics of the HE1000se, which I think are beautiful, and there are a few little things that still make me drift towards them, but these are more personal biases than actual sound qualities. 

On the other hand, the Arya are a much cheaper option and the more I listen to the new Arya’s, the more I enjoy them and I really think that I would struggle to choose one only based on sound. The battle would probably come down to price vs aesthetics and at the end of the day, I prefer to listen to headphones than look at them, so the 2000€ savings would play a major part in my decision.

In fact, for the budget of the HE1000se, I could get the Arya Stealth Magnet, the Helios and the “bonus” product (read to the end to know what this is), giving me quite easily an end game set up in all three categories for the same price.


Most impressed by…

This is the item that has most impressed me this year when factoring in cost to performance. There are a few that could have been contenders for this bracket, including those that I have mentioned already, but one just stands out above the others in my opinion and that is the Hifiman HE400se with Stealth Magnets.

These are a set of headphones that match my tastes and, in my opinion, sound great!

Yes, there are better headphones out there, I just mentioned two of them in the last category, but for just over 120€ (at this time), none of them come close to offering this performance to price ratio.

Again, there are a couple of things that do not thrill me about the HE400se SM, but none of them are related to sound and certainly not at this price bracket. They are a set of headphones that, if I wasn’t so deep into the headphone hobby, I would have no problems having as my main headphones for sitting back and enjoying music.

I could go on about these headphones but you can read the full review for that, let's just say that the HE400se SM are the best value for money that have come across my desk this year and probably since I started in the headphone hobby.


Bonus product… Source…

Ok, I know I said my top 5 products but there is one more item I would like to put on the list and that falls into the sources category.

I have reviewed a few sources this year, not as many as I would have liked to but they were all decent products. The Asgard 3 became my preferred amplifier for relaxed listening purposes, I enjoyed the iFi Audio HFM Signature amp and what it can do to certain headphones and IEM, but there is one product that I feel was above the rest… the iFi Audio Diablo.

The Diablo is an amazing piece of gear, with enough power to run just about anything, great sound, great looking (if you like red) and is just an overall great product which just so happens to be portable and battery powered.

My only issue with the Diablo is its price. Now, I am not saying that it is not worth it, it is a product that could probably replace most of my desktop stacks, so it could probably save me more than it costs, but it is still 1000€ for a portable DAC/Amp.

Saying that, there is no way I can’t place it on this list as it deserves it, in my opinion of course, and as I said in the headphones category, I could get the Arya SM + Helios + Diablo for the same price as just the HE1000se and have my end game for all situations. But maybe “end game” is just a myth anyway 😉


Conclusion…

I really enjoyed making this list because it got me to listen to things again (even if only briefly) and compare things directly. Due to the fact that I am usually trying something out to review, it is things like this that allow me to spend more time with stuff that I have enjoyed and don’t get to use as much as I would like to.

Of course, this list is just my personal opinion, I am not saying that the products I have mentioned are the best for you, they are just the items that have impressed me, in a good way, throughout this 2021.

There are a few more reviews left this year, so maybe something will come along and be far superior to anything on this list, which would be something that would make me happy, I always love reviewing things I like.

However, as of today, if I was looking to find good offers on items during these sales periods, I would certainly be looking for the products I mentioned on this list. I have already mentioned what I feel about them at their price as of today, any discount would increase my approval!