A little over a year ago, after writing our Christmas list to Santa and popping it in the post box, I started on my wishlist of audio and AV products I wanted to appear in 2023. And guess what? Many of my wishes came true. Of the 15 products on the list, eight did indeed launch last year – and three of them even went on to become What Hi-Fi? Award 2023 winners!
Of course, that means I didn't get all I desired, including cheaper Apple over-ear headphones and, almost incredulously, Spotify HiFi. But that's OK – I wouldn't want to be too spoilt now, and it simply means my anticipation of these arriving this year is even higher...
Sony WF-1000XM5 wireless earbuds
It was always going to be pretty likely that we saw a new pair of Sony flagship wireless earbuds last year. The WF-1000 line has historically followed a biannual launch schedule – the last-gen XM4 were revealed in June 2021, while the XM3 before them were announced in August 2019. So a mid-2023 release date for the XM5 would have been right on cue. Indeed they showed up bang on time, in July.
Not only punctual but impressive, the XM5 have managed to fill the big boots of their multi-award-winning predecessors, picking up a What Hi-Fi? Award already in their six months of life as the 'best wireless earbuds over £200', showing their superiority over AirPods Pro 2 and new Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds.
We were pretty confident the XM5 would set a new benchmark for sound quality in the category – it's what the model has done from day dot – but we also wondered whether Sony would add features such as aptX HD Bluetooth and spatial audio support this time round, as well as slim down the design and supply more ear tip sizes, to advance its all-round offering. Sony did slim down the design and offer a fourth size of eartip, and the XM5 do support Sony's 360 Reality Audio with head-tracking, though aptxHD remains off the menu.
Read our Sony WF-1000XM5 review
Budget Sony AV amplifier
The Sony STR-DN1080 was a somewhat rare example of a successful product that strangely became obsolete before a successor came to take its place.
Five years was a long time for an AV receiver to sit on a shop shelf – most models are replaced on an annual basis, arriving each year like clockwork – so it wasn't surprising that Sony's multi-Award-winning entry-level home cinema amplifier was no more. But what was surprising was that the DN1080 left without spawning an heir. Thankfully, 2023 saw to that, with the arrival of the Sony TA-AN1000. And it was worth the wait. Another newcomer that immediately picked up a What Hi-Fi? Award, the budget receiver managed to reignite "the same excitement that we felt with its last model, here with additional dynamics, scale and accuracy". A triumph.
Read our Sony TA-AN1000 review
Apple HomePod 2
As with the Sony WF-1000XM5, we all but knew the HomePod 2 was coming. Years of rumours had been circulated and the 2023 launch of the much-anticipated smart speaker sequel seemed as likely as the launch of the iPhone 15 in September, not least as reliable Apple analysts Ming-Chi Kuo and Mark Gurman agreed that it would.
As it turned out, we didn't have to wait long at all, with the HomePod 2 arriving in February to be a sibling to the HomePod Mini and bring the HomePod family back to two strong. Eight months later, it would pick up a What Hi-Fi? Award for being the best-value premium wireless speaker on the market.
Face ID recognition and 3D hand gestures were rumoured features, but Apple actually decided to stick to its formula and opt for evolution over revolution. To that end, the HomePod 2 is familiar albeit much improved with better sonics, spatial audio support and some valuable user experience advancements.
Read our Apple HomePod 2 review
Sonos surround speaker for Dolby Atmos
We were actually expecting a fairly big shake-up in the smart speaker market, considering we were not just expecting a new HomePod but also a Dolby Atmos speaker from Sonos. We got it... kind of.
We had imagined a Dolby Atmos surround sound module specifically for its Beam and Arc soundbars. Owners of either (likely the Arc) could already wirelessly connect a pair of Sonos One SL to be used as dedicated surround speakers/rear channels to enhance the surround sound experience, but we hankered after an alternative Sonos speaker that had an upward-firing driver and could therefore better convey the height information in a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.
What we got was that, and a much more versatile, ambitious speaker: the Sonos Era 300.
The Sonos Era 300 is perhaps the boldest wireless speaker we've come across and the company's new flagship. It can be used as Dolby Atmos surround speakers, delivering multi-channel rears for the first time, or indeed as a standalone speaker from which to play good ol' stereo music, or Dolby Atmos/spatial audio music from Amazon Music Unlimited and Apple Music.
"An enticing experience that’s worth embarking on," we called it.
Read our Sonos Era 300 review
Gaming-friendly QD-OLED TV
QD-OLED TVs came out of the gate to the best start possible. The 2022 Samsung S95B and Sony A95K both received five stars for their vibrant, dynamic and authentic pictures, putting them amongst the best premium TVs we had reviewed that year. But there was room for improvement – where features are concerned at least – because if you wanted a QD-OLED TV that has every gaming spec, including Dolby Vision gaming up to 4K/120fps, you were out of luck.
That is something we hoped 2023 models could resolve, and indeed we reviewed two in particular that put big bold ticks in the boxes of gaming specs. This year's Samsung S95C supports every gaming feature of note bar Dolby Vision gaming, including 4K/120Hz (144Hz for PC), VRR and ALLM, across all four of its 40Gbps HDMI 2.1 inputs. The Sony A95L, meanwhile, has only just two HDMI 2.1 sockets but is planning to be the first Dolby Vision gaming TV when that feature comes via an update soon.
Onwards and upwards for QD-OLEDs then...
Read our Samsung S95C review
Read our Sony A95L review
Big birthday launches from Naim, Linn & Rega
Three of the biggest household names in hi-fi celebrated their 50th birthdays last year – indeed, 1973 was, retrospectively, a significant year for the industry. So we could only cross our collective limbs for commemorative product launches from the British trio that were worthy of such an impressive milestone.
After all, all three have no shortage of past and present successes in their catalogues, so limited-edition anniversary creations could have been on the cards. We were pinning our hopes on modern-day reimaginings of classics or even something entirely new altogether.
And we got a bit of both. Naim launched its limited-edition Nait 50 amplifier, a homage to the iconic Naim Nait from 1983, as well as a new 200 Classic series to which the impressive NAP 250 power amplifier (another homage to a decades-old model) and NSC 222 streaming preamp belong.
And Linn collaborated with none other than Jonny Ive for a new 50th-anniversary edition of its famous Sondek LP12 record player, fittingly called the LP12-50. It also launched its "finest loudspeaker", supposedly “streets ahead” of its previous benchmark.
In the years since the rather large PS5 launched, fans have been crying out for the anticipated slimmer variant to appear. Dubbed the 'PS5 Slim' in keeping with Sony's typical moniker for its slenderised, lighter-weight console, the new machine was expected to arrive in time for Christmas, in line with the console's typical hardware refresh timeline of three years.
The PS5 Slim was announced at the start of October, just shy of the PS5's third birthday, and is both slimmer and smaller – 30 per cent smaller and 24 per cent or 18 per cent lighter, depending if you opt for the version that includes the disc drive.
Soon the Slim will be the default PS5 console on sale, as Sony has confirmed that once all stock of the original PS5 has sold, only the Slim will be available. It's the future!
New Rega Planar 3 turntable
We can’t think of another product in the past 50 years that has dominated its market sector with the authority of Rega’s Planar 3 turntables. The latest iteration thoroughly dominated since its 2016 release, winning a What Hi-Fi? Award every year. That was, until 2022! Finally, after an unbelievably good run, the Planar 3 was overthrown in its price category – by the Pro-Ject Debut Pro.
It is a title the British company will no doubt be keen to take back with a refreshed Planar 3, which is arguably due anyway. But we kind of got a new RP3 last year, in the form of the 50th Anniversary Edition, which was packaged with elements that are taken from more premium models in Rega's stable, and are "designed to maximise the performance" of the standard Planar 3.
It was only on sale last year, but we wonder whether Rega will make a production version (minus the commemorative badge!) for ongoing sale. Our Australian sister title Sound+Image said of it in its Rega Planar 3 50th Anniversary Edition review: "Useful upgrades for not much more, simply wonderful vinyl replay in every regard – full frequency response, detailed resolution and soundstaging, kicking kick drums, delicacy when required."
And what didn't...
One-box KEF system with Uni-Core
How can you deliver good amounts of bass from a small box? That’s the question KEF answered when it created its Uni-Core driver arrangement, which enabled it to design the successful LS60 Wireless speaker system and KC62 subwoofer – two products whose bass output far belies their diminutive physical form.
Uni-Core won our 2022 Innovation Award because of those achievements, and there are no doubt big plans to implement the design into future KEF kit. We imagine one of those could well be a one-box wireless system in the same vein as the Naim Mu-so 2, Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin and Sonus Faber Omnia – and we certainly wouldn't want to put the brand off such an idea.
Out of everything on our wishlist for 2022, let alone 2023, Spotify HiFi was probably the most likely to materialise this year. After all, the green streaming giant had publicly set a 2021 release date for its lossless streaming tier, so when it still hadn't appeared last December we were almost certain its delay by weeks or months would see it instead arrive sometime in 2022. Well, as 2023 drew to a close, even that was looking unlikely.
In January last year, Spotify responded to the endless queries on its Spotify Community Forum with this statement: "We know that HiFi quality audio is important to you. We feel the same, and we’re excited to deliver a Spotify HiFi experience to Premium users in the future. But we don’t have timing details to share yet. We will of course update you when we can." Since then, nada.
At this point, already into 2024, we can only hope that Spotify can find a way to bring lossless quality to the masses – whether that is indeed part of a reported Spotify Platinum package or not – as reports suggest the rollout is being held up by licensing issues. We have been waiting years for better-sounding Spotify, so what's another few weeks, months or years, eh? *Sigh*
Updated NAD D 3020 amplifier
Considering not only the consistent success of the NAD 3020 model over its generations since 1978 but also the dearth of excellent budget stereo amplifiers being released today, the market is in a good position to welcome a third generation of the digital-friendly D 3020.
The D 3020 V2 arrived in 2020 to great acclaim as the sequel to the Award-winning D 3020, the first NAD 3020 version to include both physical digital connections and wireless Bluetooth support. But it is the Marantz PM6007 that sets the benchmark today and in its two years has so far been untroubled by contenders. If anyone could cause a stir here, it is NAD with a D 3020 V3 – one with improved sonics and, fingers crossed, aptX HD/Adaptive Bluetooth and a USB input.
More Apple over-ear headphones
When Apple's first pair of over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max, were finally announced in December 2020 after years of speculation, they were met with a sea of Shocked Emojis. Or rather, their price tag of £549 / $549 / AU$899 was. That parameter pushing has led other such similarly priced pairs, such as the Focal Bathys, to surface since, and AirPods Max deals aren't exactly rare around Christmas and Black Friday, but the fact remains that they aren't accessible to the masses in the same way that the AirPods and Sony over-ears are.
We actually think their asking price is pretty justified, considering their excellent sound quality and features – being an Apple product, they work a treat for Apple users. But that AirPods Max success understandably has us and the tech world begging for more (and preferably, more affordable) Apple over-ear headphones. Our AirPods Max 2 preview rounds up the latest rumours of a forthcoming pair, though in short we would cross our fingers for improved battery life, a 3.5mm audio port and way to listen losslessly... and, of course, a better carry case.
Next-gen Naim Nait pair
Naim's Nait 5si amplifier and Nait CD5si CD player were reliable What Hi-Fi? Award winners before they were ousted by newer competition some years back. So it's about time the battle around their mid-range price point was reinstated by some all-new SI Series successors, especially as the pricier options in the Nait range were advanced in mid-2019, with both the Nait XS 3 and Supernait 3 receiving best-in-class What Hi-Fi? Awards that year. (The Nair XS 3 hasn't lost its crown yet either.)
A new Nait CD spinner would hopefully feature some digital inputs, while the next-generation amplifier would undoubtedly have an upgrade path for Naim's power supply, and perhaps even a built-in phono stage. The company was understandably pretty busy launching other big projects last year, but here's hoping they're on its 2024 roadmap!
Affordable MicroLED TV
The heir apparent to OLED and QLED (and yes, QD-OLED), MicroLED appears to have a bright future in home cinema. It's like OLED with its self-emissive properties, but instead of using organic light-emitting diodes, they use tiny, non-organic LEDs – three per pixel, which can be turned off individually and display a completely different colour to the next.
The promise is of perfect contrast, colour control and high peak brightness. The problem? It is bloody expensive. Samsung's renowned first efforts were exclusively huge and modular ('The Wall' as it is called goes up to a 583-inch 8K variant), but in the past couple of years, it has announced considerably more practically sized versions (89 inches is the smallest)... that still cost a bomb. Tens of thousands at least. There have also been delays in their production, apparently due to both technical and supply chain issues, so their emergence as a real-life proposition for people's living rooms is still some way off.
We certainly hope MicroLED technology becomes a 'thing' sooner rather than later, though; from what we've seen, it looks exceptional.
Wharfedale Diamond 13 speakers
Wharfedale's celebrated entry-level Diamond speaker range tends to get an update every three years, so considering the latest Diamond 12 series blessed us with their presence in 2020, well... you can work out the rest. Consider them late after no appearance last year, then!
The Diamond 12.3 floorstanders and overall Diamond 12 speaker package remain What Hi-Fi? Award winners, recently having picked up their third successive Best Buys at their respective price points, though there are ambitions that could be reached (and crowns that could be succeeded) by a new Diamond range in the standmount market, which is currently led by the Elac Debut B5.2.
Whether or not the next generation of Diamond speakers (likely named Diamond 13.1, 13.2 and so on) will also be designed by Karl Heinz-Fink – the winner of our special Contribution Award 2022 – remains to be seen, but expectations for Diamond models are always high and that is a testament to both their inescapable legacy and quality consistency.
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