Best Gear of April 2022

As April winds to a close, we review our Top Picks for the month, which include a budget soundbar system from a well-known American speaker brand, top performing integrated amplifiers in two price categories, and the latest THX-certified subwoofer from an accessory-turned-audio-brand that’s growing by leaps and bounds.

Rotel A14MKII Integrated Amplifier: $1,600

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
As April winds to a close, we review our Top Picks for the month, which include a budget soundbar system from a well-known American speaker brand, top performing integrated amplifiers in two price categories, and the latest THX-certified subwoofer from an accessory-turned-audio-brand that’s growing by leaps and bounds.

Rotel A14MKII Integrated Amplifier: $1,600

Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
If you follow Rotel, then you may recall the A14 integrated amplifier introduced several years ago. Instead of bringing in a ground-up replacement for that aging model, the company decided to build on the existing platform, much in the same way it upgraded the RA-1572 to the RA-1572MKII last year. Upgrades for the new A14MKII include a redesigned digital-to-analog conversion stage featuring a Texas Instruments 32-bit/384kHz DAC, improvements to the toroidal transformer power supply and amplifier gain stages, and support for the MQA format.

Otherwise, it’s a basic (some might say old-school) integrated amp with a class-A/B amp section rated to deliver 2 x 80 watts into 8 ohms and no built-in wired or wireless streaming, apart from aptX-enabled Bluetooth; it is, however, Roon Tested and comes with a 60-day free trial for those who want to take Roon music management and library software for a test drive. Build quality remains excellent but, again, the A14MKII follows a simple path, eschewing any kind of EQ or room-correction processing and a now-common HDMI eARC connection. Instead, you get dual optical and coaxial digital inputs, four stereo analog RCA inputs, a moving-magnet phono input, and two USB ports (type-B around back and type-A on the front panel).

Plain and simple, the A14MKII is best suited for listeners who mainly depend on traditional sources like CD and vinyl and don't necessarily want a hi-fi rig that’s connected to the internet and controlled by an app. And as such, it performs marvelously whether you’re listening to a CD or LP or streaming tracks though the Roon ecosystem as reviewer Al Griffin did. Revisiting a long-neglected CD collection, he enjoyed sound that was “balanced and engaging, with a refined top end that made for very easy listening.”

Switching to vinyl, Griffin noted the smooth, quiet character of the phono stage before shifting over to streaming where he reveled in the expansive stereo mix that defines “Rivers of Mercy” (24-bit/44.1 FLAC, Qobuz) on the new, long-awaited Tears for Fears album: “Subtle flourishes of guitar and drums emerged vividly from the mix, which, despite its density and complexity, never sounded the slightest bit murky or congested.” Indeed, the Rotel A14MKII feels a lot like a throwback to the good old days but it’s sure to impress you with its clean, engaging sound.

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Surprisingly powerful amp
Clean, detailed sound
Great build quality for price
Minus
Limited feature set compared to competition
Streaming options limited to Bluetooth wireless and direct computer-to-USB input

Full Review Here (posted 4/6/22)


Polk Audio Signa S4 Soundbar: $399


Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
Immersive Dolby Atmos sound for 400 hundred bucks is a tall order, yet that’s what Polk is aiming for with its Signa S4 soundbar system, one of the least expensive Atmos-enabled bars money can buy. It’s a pretty basic 3.1.2 setup comprising a compact wireless subwoofer and slender, 41-inch soundbar featuring three left/center/right driver complements and two up-firing height speakers. The system supports Bluetooth streaming and provides an eARC-compliant HDMI connection along with a USB port and optical digital and 3.5mm analog stereo inputs — the connections you need to greatly improve the sound of any TV. You also get a few useful “voice adjust” settings to prevent dialogue from getting lost in the mix, whether you’re watching a movie or listening to music.

While it may be unrealistic to expect a system of this caliber to immerse listeners in a full-on 3D bubble — you’ll typically need more speakers and a bigger budget to achieve that — the S4 excels at transforming ordinary TV and movie viewing into an engaging experience reviewer Rob Sabin described as “highly listenable” with warm, palatable sound and punchy, defined bass. “The best experience came from tracks that made good use of the height channels, such as “We Don't Talk About Bruno” from Disney's animated feature Encanto. The vocal counterpoints that emerged from different parts of the soundstage were distinctly separate in the S4's rendering.” Though not perfect, the Signa S4 is capable of surprisingly spacious sound — better than what you might expect from a soundbar in this price category.

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Atmos height effects from a high value soundbar
Easy to set up and use
Small, well-integrated subwoofer
Good sonics for TV and movie watching
Minus
No expandability for surrounds
No network connection for music
No level adjustment for height channels
Better for movies than music

Full Review Here (posted 4/13/22)

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