The Top of the Crop

And Some Personal Faves…

We’ve just posted our annual Top Picks of the Year list of the best products from among all those we tested in 2014, culled from all the Top Picks named throughout the year in consultation with our staff of reviewers. Even from among this list, though, there are a few that really stand out for me, not just because of their performance but because of what I think they represent in the evolution of our hobby and the AV marketplace. Here are some of my personal highlights:

Onkyo TX-NR838 A/V Receiver. Our Top Picks of the Year list contains just two receivers, leading off with this $1,200 middle-of-the-line, seven-channel Onkyo piece. That’s because all the other outstanding AVRs we reviewed this year in the $1,000-plus price bracket, including a couple of superb nine-channel Atmos models, were missing a critical feature: HDCP 2.2 copyright compliance. When you’re talking about spending $1,000 or more on a receiver, it really should be able to pass all the future 4K content an enthusiast buyer is going to want to put through it, so for the purpose of our final list, all those other units were null and void. (We let it go for the Pioneer budget model that was also honored; at $400 on Amazon for the $600 list VSX-1124, it’s not a huge investment and a stupidly good deal with or without HDCP 2.2.) Hats off to Onkyo for getting this feature across their full line before anyone else.

Denon HEOS Multiroom Audio System. When I got an early demo of this multiroom system, it struck me as the first that might give Sonos a run for its money: affordable, good sounding, attractively designed, and with a full lineup of solutions, including a player/amp module and player-only module for driving your own speakers or sound system. But what really got me was the well-thought-out and engaging control app, which in some ways really did improve upon the Sonos user experience. Turns out I wasn’t wrong: Denon’s rollout even prompted a patent lawsuit from Sonos—the highest form of flattery and the best publicity Denon could ask for, one might say.

SVS Prime Satellite 5.1 Speaker System. Along with a couple of other TPs of the Year, this review snuck in just under the wire for our 2014 calendar year reviewing period. Every couple of years, we get one of these little $1,000 or so sub/sat systems with remarkable sound and build quality; that this one features an SVS subwoofer (for which the company is best known) makes it even sweeter. Put it with the aforementioned Pioneer budget AVR and a Roku box or BD player, and you’ve got a $1,500 starter system that makes a serious impression.

LG 55EC9300 OLED HDTV. Our overall Top Pick of the Year, for reasons delineated in Top Picks of the Year. But what’s not said is that, in 2013, LG and Samsung introduced their first OLEDs, each taking a bet that their particular approach to OLED technology (WRGB and RGB, respectively) would perform best and overcome long-documented issues with poor manufacturing yield. A year later, Samsung still has one model, and LG has several, including an Ultra HD version and, most notably, this attainable $3,500, 55-inch 1080p with the best image quality we’ve seen on a TV. They took a bet that has, so far, paid off, and it’s one we’re grateful they threw the dice on.

Sony XBR-55X900B LED HDTV. Sony produced the best edge-lit LED set we tested last year in the X900B, which broke new ground for black-level for this class of product. But I was equally impressed with the effort made on its integrated sound system design, which was shockingly good for built-in TV speakers. When you add it’s accessory powered subwoofer, you get about as respectable a sound quality as you can expect from any TV short of a dedicated sound system. I wouldn’t want it as my only home theater, but if I needed an all-in-one solution, I could easily live this excellent TV/audio combo.

Vicoustic Room Treatments. We don’t often do hands-on tests of acoustic room treatments, but getting hands on with Vicoustic’s room analysis services and acoustic products really reminded me (and I hope our readers) that treating your room is a funademental obligation of any real audio/videophile, and that it need not cost a fortune.

Dolby Atmos Object-Based Surround Sound. This is an unusual award, in that it honors a licensed technology rather than a product. But the announcement and carefully orchestrated rollout of Dolby Atmos was hands-down the biggest home theater audio story of the year, and, thanks to the impressive demos that showed off what it’s capable of, the one that got me the most excited for the future of home theater. A real triumph…now let’s all hope it lives up to its promise.