October’s finally here, and to help kick it off we’ve got a special treat for you, our lovely readers – the latest in our What Hi-Fi? Pick of the Month columns.
In it, we detail the latest products to earn perfect 5/5 scores after passing through our test rooms and secure our reviewers' personal seal of approval over the past 30 days.
And with our first batch of What Hi-Fi? Awards winners set to be unveiled on 11 October, it was a particularly busy month in our test rooms.
During our testing frenzy, an impressive eight products performed well enough to earn our earn a recommended badge. Highlights include everything from new LCD TVs from Sony to uber-expensive amps and monitor speakers from the likes of Moon and JBL.
Without further ado, here are the What Hi-Fi? reviews team’s top recommendations from September 2023.
Sony X85L (KD-55X85L)
The X85L is the latest mid-range LCD from Sony. And while the £999, 55-inch model we tested (also available in 65 inches), may not have any of the exciting, next-generation QD-OLED panel tech seen on the Japanese giant’s flagship A95L, during testing it still impressed.
This is because, while the limitations of LCD are still apparent, with blacks failing to match the inky depths we got on the OLED sets we ran it against, we found the X85L retains the same key strength that has made many of Sony’s 2023 TVs such easy recommendations – their stellar motion handling.
The set lives up to Sony’s heritage as the best in the business for motion processing over the past five years. Regardless of whether it was sports fixtures, cinematic masterpieces such as BladeRunner 2044 or regular TV on Netflix, the set delivered a wonderfully judder-free viewing experience and was able to retain detail lost on many of the similarly priced TVs we test with scenes featuring fast-paced movement.
This made it an easy recommendation, and led our reviewers to conclude:
“The 55-inch X85L’s pictures are gorgeously refined, helping them achieve a beautifully natural finish packed with the sort of subtleties and niceties, especially when it comes to colour and contrast, that professional content creators work so hard to build into their ultra-refined and cinematic masters.
“This should make the Sony X85L hugely appealing to any AV fans on a budget who appreciate the finer things in picture quality life.”
Read our Sony X85L (KD-55X85L) review
The 641 is the entry-level integrated amp in the new high-end North Collection from Canadian audio firm Moon, sitting below the mid-tier 700 and top-tier 800 series of products. With prices starting at £11,000 / $11,000 / AU$19,000, it’s very much targeting the upper echelons of the audio market.
During testing, we were immediately amazed at its utilitarian design and focus, with Moon choosing to not include any of the bells and whistles we see on many modern amps in this category. The Moon 641 is a purely line-level device. There are no digital inputs, phono stage or headphone output. If you want streaming/wireless connectivity you’ll also have to invest in the accompanying Moon 681 network player.
Thankfully when we plugged it into our test reference system – which paired it with a Naim ND555/555 PS DR music streamer and various speakers including the ATC SCM50, Wilson Benesch’s A.C.T. 3Zero floorstanders and PMC’s new Prodigy 5 – it delivered excellent results.
Playing everything from Massive Attack’s Heligoland to Of Monsters And Men’s My Head Is An Animal, the Moon 641 offered excellent detail and a brilliantly cohesive musical performance. This led our testers to conclude:
“The Moon 641 amplifier’s feature count might be sparse but the combination of excellent build and hugely capable sound quality puts it among the best we’ve reviewed at this level. Highly recommended.”
Read our Moon 641 review
Ruark Audio R2 Mk4
Looking for a premium radio system that looks and sounds stunning? Then based on testing you’ll 100 per cent want to check out the Ruark Audio R2 Mk4.
While at first glance the R2 Mk4 may look like a rival to Roberts, Revo and Tivoli Audio’s modern radios, it’s actually a much more interesting beast. In fact, featuring support for wireless Bluetooth streaming as well as a wealth of physical USB and 3.5mm connections, our reviewers immediately switched gears to viewing it as a modern music system when they unboxed it in our test rooms.
While we initially were a little sad to see it missing hi-res audio, Tidal Connect and AirPlay 2 support, once we started putting it through its paces with Spotify Connect, Amazon Music and Deezer, the results were excellent for a system this price.
Massive Attack’s Paradise Circus held a wonderful rhythmic precision missing on many competing speaker systems this price level. It also delivered a wonderful level of subtly on complex tracks from the likes of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. This led our testers to conclude:
“If you’re after a high-quality music system that looks great, is lovely to use and sounds wonderful, the Ruark R2 Mk4 should be at the top of your wishlist. It’s the kind of product that could – and should – be considered alongside any budget hi-fi separates as a more lifestyle (but still very hi-fi-sounding) alternative.”
Read our Ruark Audio R2 Mk4 review
JBL Charge 5 Wi-Fi
The JBL Charge 5 Wi-Fi is the latest in a long list of Bluetooth speakers to pass through our test rooms recently, with other highlights including the UE Epicboom and Sonos Move 2, which both scored four stars.
It’s one of a number of Bluetooth speakers currently being sold by JBL, with other highlights including the Flip and Xtreme ranges.
What makes the Charge 5 Wi-Fi different from its siblings? The answer is actually in the name. Specifically, like the Sonos Move 2, the new Charge 5 has wi-fi as well as Bluetooth connectivity, giving users a wider array of streaming options.
The addition opens the door to key things like the ability to control AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect and Chromecast.
It also retains the non-wi-fi model’s rugged design, with it easily surviving our drop test and attempts to drown it. Musically, it also delivered a solid performance, by portable speaker standards, with every track we threw at it retaining a confident, well-organised sound.
This led our testers to conclude:
“The JBL Charge 5 Wi-Fi builds on the excellence of the base model with the smooth, effective integration of its updated wireless connectivity options combined with that signature JBL sound.”
Read our JBL Charge 5 Wi-Fi review
PMC Prodigy 1
PMC’s new entry-level standmounts, the Prodigy 1, were a particular highlight for our testers last month. Retailing for £1250 in the UK they face stiff competition from the likes of KEF LS50 Meta and slightly cheaper Bowers & Wilkins’ 606 S3.
Though they’re the cheaper option in PMC’s lineup they retain a lot of the hardware you’ll find in the company’s more expensive speakers. The 27mm soft dome tweeter and 13cm mid/bass driver have been borrowed from speakers further up PMC’s portfolio and the soft-dome tweeter is the same one we first saw and loved while testing the five-star PMC Result6 studio monitor.
Putting them through their paces in our listening room, “precision” is the best description of the Prodigy 1’s performance. Whether it was Anohni And The Johnsons’ It’s My Fault, Floating Points’ Grammar or Orville Peck’s Dead Of Night, the Prodigy 1 delivered impressive clarity and resolution and bass with plenty of punch.
This led our reviewers to conclude:
“Such versatility and relatively unfussy positioning help make this yet another pair of PMC speakers we can confidently, wholeheartedly recommend, but it’s the speakers' hugely enjoyable performance that first and foremost seals their five-star fate.”
Read our PMC Prodigy 1 review
JBL 4329P Studio Monitor
JBL 4329P Studio Monitor is one of the more interesting products to pass through our test rooms recently.
It's the latest all-in-one speaker system to pass through our test rooms, one which aims to offer users top-end powered speaker performance with built-in streaming capabilities. This means that, despite looking visually a lot like the five-star, high-end JBL 4349 speakers, these units are a very different beast, featuring baked-in support for wi-fi streaming and key services like Apple AirPlay 2, Google Chromecast, DLNA and Bluetooth (aptX Adaptive, 5.3).
From a hardware standpoint, they’re fairly impressive, featuring as they do JBL’s iconic 25mm horn-loaded driver, which is driven by 50 watts of amplification and paired with a 20cm purple pulp paper cone mid/bass (driven by a 250W amplifier).
Powering the system up we were impressed with the results. Pink Floyd’s Time was delivered with a pleasingly atmospheric soundscape where every complex interconnected part held a distinct place. Toto’s Rosanna sounded similarly great, with the 4329P delivering the textured, multi-instrument arrangement with wonderful clarity and detail.
This led our reviewers to conclude:
“That the JBL are so versatile, not only in terms of connectivity and placement, while managing to sound so mature, is testament to JBL’s persistent efforts in speaker design and electronics, and a milestone in all-in-one speaker systems of this kind and at this price.”
Read our JBL 4329P Studio Monitor review
TCL C845K (65C845K)
The TCL C845K (65C845K) is the second great-value TV to appear in this month’s column, and a direct rival to the Sony X85L we detailed above.
The TV is available on Amazon now for around the same price as the Sony X85L. The big differentiator is the TCL’s use of a Mini LED, QLED panel. This is a clever technology that aims to let sets deliver more brightness and light control than traditional LCDs by reducing the size of the LEDs used and placing them in greater numbers.
Though our testers were a little taken aback by quite how chunky the C845K is by today’s standards, powering up the set we were immediately blown away by one key detail – the TV’s max brightness.
The set offered staggering max brightness levels during all our checks, which let it deliver incredible peaks, particularly when playing HDR content, that made most competing sets this price look dull by comparison.
The only minor caveat is that we found that it doesn’t handle blacks as well as some moderately more expensive Mini LED sets from Samsung – our testers found there was a slightly cloudy look to high contrast scenes with a strong mix of light and dark.
But at this price that’s hardly a deal breaker and the TCL C845K is still an easy recommendation, with our reviewers concluding:
“The 65C845K sees TCL finally bringing to Europe the combination of aggressive pricing and unexpectedly excellent performance that has made the brand so successful in the US. In fact, the 65C845K is so good for its money that it pretty much redefines the whole TV market in a single blaze of ultra-bright glory.”
Read our TCL C845K (65C845K) review
The WH-CH720N are the latest affordable headphones from Sony to pass through our listening rooms, following on from the five-star Sony WF-C700N earbuds we reviewed in April.
Having thoroughly tested them, we’re happy to confirm the WH-CH720N continues Sony’s hot streak in the world of wireless audio. During our checks, the over-ear wireless headphones offered surprisingly accomplished audio quality, lengthy battery life and usable active noise cancellation – a feature that is usually all but useless on headphone pairs this price.
In fact, our only minor quibble was that they could offer slightly over-enthusiastic bass on certain tracks.
The strong showing for such an affordable set of wireless headphones led our reviews to conclude:
“The WH-CH720N have delivered exactly what Sony intended. For a very reasonable price, they’re a dependably made, enthusiastic-sounding pair of headphones that, while occasionally straying into the realm of excessive bass, deliver good ANC and a strong feature set to the mid-to-low price bracket of the wireless headphone market.”
Read our Sony WH-CH720N review
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