If there’s one thing you probably don’t want to be reminded of during the holiday season, it’s the world’s current economic state. In case you missed it, things aren’t exactly rosy regarding the global financial situation, and while it’s certainly a pressing issue, we appreciate it doesn’t help to be reminded every five minutes of the current doom and gloom, especially on a hi-fi website. The phrase “cost of living crisis” has become to 2023 ears what “credit crunch” was to those living in 2008 – enough to drive you insane.
This year might have been tough on the wallet, but it’s been remarkably decent for cheap, cheerful and often small-form audio products that offer plenty of performance without the mega outlay. There have always been recommendable products at the entry-level market, and performance jumps year on year aren't exactly unexpected, but 2023 has seen some particularly significant leaps across various budget product categories – that's good news as we head into a new year.
Much of this has happened in areas that you’d associate with the possibility of more affordable, small-form audio. Forgive us for banging on about Sony, but the brand’s range of headphones, be they premium or bargain, has offered supreme value for money across the board. The WH-CH520 over-ears were tested at just £35(!), but we can’t think of a pair of cans twice their price that outperform them. It’s a similar story with the noise-cancelling WH-CH720N, not to mention the Award-winning, and oft-discounted, WF-C700N wireless earbuds.
In the world of wired cans, meanwhile, the Røde NTH-100 (one of our Products of the Year) are eloquent, revealing and stunningly affordable at around £150. And that's before discounts knock the price down...
Other brands have followed this example in other fields. You might not expect much from iFi’s rather dinky Go Link DAC considering it’s the size of a pencil sharpener and probably weighs even less. Yet the Go Link is a remarkable pocket-sized performer, boosting your music on the go with a “surprisingly open, spacious sound” across a range of file formats.
While our review star ratings are obviously dependant on the product under the microscope's price (otherwise nothing under the multi-thousand-pound mark would ever come away with more than a few stars!), these products are offering more performance than we have gotten, or been able to previously expect, from such forms and/or prices previously. Let’s not forget that it would be easy for manufacturers who are in good form, like Sony and iFi, to rest on their laurels, but nothing could be further from the truth – they still strive to make better.
If wearable audio was an area where we’d at least hoped, if not fully expected, to find some recession-busting steals, domestic hi-fi perhaps wasn’t. We’ve witnessed some frankly wondrous attempts to boost the home setup with more affordable performers this year, with some units frankly blowing us away with their unprecedented sound-per-pound credentials at their modest end of the market, especially in the field of network streamers.
The WiiM Pro Plus came from nowhere to nab a 2023 What Hi-Fi? Award for its expressive sound for a frankly tiny fee, while the (also) Award-winning Cambridge Audio MXN10 outperformed its closest rivals – the Audiolab 6000N Play and Bluesound Node – all while undercutting the latter by roughly £100. What we hope now is that products such as turntables, amplifiers and preamps follow suit, as these are categories in which fewer truly affordable products seem to have been released this year.
Speakers haven't been immune, though. We fell in love with the PMC Prodigy 5 floorstanders and Prodigy 1 standmounts because they prioritised sound and performance over aesthetics and unnecessary extravagances. Providing two perfect case studies regarding the dangers of perceived value, they made similarly priced rivals look average by comparison, and while they aren't as cheap as you'll find, PMC's attempt to squeeze every last drop of value from its new duo is truly admirable. Long may that attitude continue.
Even the domestic smart-sphere has seen some great performance from the lower-priced models. Amazon’s five-star Echo Dot (5th Gen) was tested at just £55 and can often be picked up for just under £30. Considering what you get for the money, including the best iteration of Alexa yet, a lovely build and excellent streaming support, the Dot's price tag seems almost incomprehensibly good. Add in the fact that its remarkable sonic chops mean that you could feasibly use it as your go-to mini home speaker, and the picture only gets better. Credit to Amazon, the Dot is capable of making the HomePod Mini sweat, especially considering the fact that Apple’s rival can end up costing you around three times as much.
Let’s also point out the fact that these sorts of gambits are by no means guaranteed to pay dividends. Attempts to target “value for money”, especially at the market’s cheaper end, are by no means guaranteed to see us gushing at such noble endeavours, especially if the final result ends up feeling compromised or unconvincing. The gamble can potentially backfire, especially if rivals can offer better performance for less money and the concept of “value for money” becomes a unique selling point on which you can no longer rely.
The point is that many of the products above aren’t “cheaply” made or hastily conceived. Rather, they make certain aesthetic or even sonic sacrifices in the pursuit of producing a product that is as good as it can be for the price given, even if that price usually hovers around the slimmer end of the price wedge. The PMC Prodigy 1 and Prodigy 5 speakers, for instance, eschew any extraneous aesthetic flourishes to focus all their efforts on optimised sonic delivery. It’s the same for the Sony WH-CH520 and the WH-CH720N headphones, in that they trade off luxury looks and a little refinement in favour of pursuing a forceful and exciting sonic presentation. Obviously, the internal engineering choices made are a little more complex and involved, but it's clear even to an observer what these brands and manufacturers are attempting to achieve.
However they do it, I hope the trend continues for 2024, and while some better choices for mid-range headphones wouldn't go amiss, it's great to see this area of the market being given the attention it deserves and needs at the moment. Times may be tough, but that doesn't mean that we should be deprived of some five-star audio during the festive period and beyond. What I'm hoping for in 2024, of course, is that such a trend continues into the areas in which it's needed most.
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