Gear Of The Year 2021 – Our Personal Favourites

Christmas Tree

Gear of the Year: 2021 marks the blog’s third year and the second with 8 contributors. We collectively published almost 200 articles, mainly product reviews, but also technical information. Apart from receiving review units from manufacturers and sellers, we also purchased a lot…and we borrowed from audiophile friends and colleagues.

We are a heterogeneous bunch not pressed into templates by commercialism. Each of us enjoys maximum freedom. None of us gets paid. And it is this variety that makes this blog interesting. Two of us, Baskingshark and Kazi, have been drafted to also write for Headphonesty, which gives them more exposure and also access to very interesting gear.

This is work in progress. Please keep checking back…

We are currently experimenting with generic advertisements to recover our operating cost (Paypal does not work at all)…any money raised will go back into the blog. We remain non commercial.

Our main focus has traditionally been on earphones – we have reviewed almost 300 – but particularly DACs and amps also caught our attention this year.

As at the end of the previous years, we list our our personal favourites of 2021 – the portable audio we personally enjoyed most. There are no rules, we just tell you what we like. After all, the gear we use most is our best. And we attached some of this gear to our newly created Wall of Excellence, which averages all our opinions.

Enjoy this read and we wish you a happy and successful 2023!

Not created by a single analyst but by 8 of them…

We thank

Most of our reviews would have not been possible without our 2021 cooperating partners. We thank:

ADV, Allo, Apos Audio, Astell & Kern, AudioQuest, Azla, Blon, BQEYZ, Burson Audio, Campfire Audio, Cayin, CCA, Dekoni, Dunu, ddHiFi, EarMen, Easy Earphones, Fiil, Helm Audio, Hidizs, HifiGo, ifi Audio, IKKO Audio, KBEAR/TRI Audio, Keephifi, Khadas, Knowledge Zenith, Meze, Moondrop, Musicteck, NiceHCK, OneOdio, Penon Official Store, Pergear, Sennheiser, Shanling, Shenzhenaudio, Smabat, Snake Oil Sound, SpinFit, Tempotec, Tin Hifi, TRN Official Store, Unique Melody, Venture Electronics, Whizzer Official Store, Yaotiger Hifi Audio Store. Don’tkillusifweforgotyoujustsendusanotandwefixit. 

For the companies: you can check for your products/yourself in the search field on the right-hand side.

We also thank the private sources that supplied us with loaners.

And here we go…that’s what we enjoyed in 2021…

Alberto Pittaluga…Bologna, ITALY

I’ve come accross quite a few interesting pieces of gear in 2021, mixed / hidden amongst piles of shameful crap. Nothing new, is it ? 🙂 I’ll try to make a succint list of the most significant stuff I auditioned here. Most of these devices are also now part of my operative audio gear.


Dunu ZEN (discountinued, was $ 699,00) : beyond spectacular microdynamics, resolution, layering and technicalities in general. A masterpiece.

iBasso IT07 ($899) : the sole real “direct upgrade” to Ikko OH10 I encountered as of yet. Same presentation, twice the refinement, at more than four times the price.

Oriolus Isabellae ($ 599) : somewhat “more V-shaped” alternative to Zen, delivering very similar technical prowess.

Ikko OH1S ($143) : a potential new join into the our World of Excellence roster as a sub-200$ allrounder


Final Sonorous-II  (€ 300) : arguably by far the best neutral-tuned closebacks in their price category, staging and imaging easily compete with many lower tier openback alternatives.

Sennheiser HD600 (€ 310) : not a novelty for anybody but me, I’m sure. Quite simply: I got my first HD600 pair in 2021 and that’s why I’m listing it here. I presume no one needs a description. Do you?


Rose Mojito ($259) : superbly neutral-tuned high end earbuds with strong bilateral extention, beyond spectacular mids and vivid, refined highs in a fully holographic stage, with plenty of resolution and dynamics.

K’s Earphone Bell-LBS (€ 59,25) : mid centric buds delivering superbly organic vocals – both male and female – and very good trebles

K’s Earphone K300 (€ 28,59) : unreal sub-bass extension for an earbud, they deliver a very nice V shaped presentation while drawing an incredibly sizeable 3D stage. Presentation remembers a bit Ikko OH10, but in earbud form.


Ifi Micro iDSD Signature (€ 749) : top sub-$1K mobile dac-amp. Very high quality DAC reconstruction paired with superbly transparent amping stage with power to spare for the most demanding planars and power deflation options to optimise low impedance IEM biasing. Truly a full step ahead of the competitors’ pack.


Cowon Plenue 2 MK-I (€ 835) : hopped on this recently when I found a impossible to turndown openbox deal. Starting from my direct experience proving that there’s pretty much no game between proprietary-OS DAPs vs commercial-OS (read Android) DAPs, the former being in by far better position to achieve superior output sound quality, Plenue 2 represents a great companion to my QP1R offering a different / alternative optimal pairing opportunity for a few of my preferred IEM drivers.

DAC/AMP Dongles

This year’s experience proved to me that exclusively higher-tier (and price) dongles are able to deliver sound qualities worth the comparison with battery-equipped alternatives. Simply put: pretty much nothing until an Apogee Groove ($200) is really worth the price difference compared to the super-cheap Apple Dongle ($9), and even on the Groove some caveats apply (power needs, amp stage competibility).  That said, I really had pick one device “in the midfield” I’d pick the :

Questyle M12 ($139,99): while still not worth an inclusion on our Wall of Excellence, yet M12 runs circles around pretty much all similar or lower priced competitors I assessed in terms of extension, note weight, clarity and technicalities.

Biodegraded…Vancouver, CANADA

Doesn’t have anything to report this year.

Durwood…Chicago, USA

Shozy Form 1.4 has still been my go to earphone due to it’s warm inviting nature, great technical abilities and it feels great in my ears.

7Hz Timeless is another good buy late in the year for me, it’s a little more sub-bass plus analytical counterpart to the Shozy that has nudged the BQEYZ Spring 2 out of the way. A more detailed review is coming.

I rediscovered the Senfer UES for a quick throw around set, was hoping the Senfer DT9 was a slight improvement, but alas the Senfer UES sticks around instead. Sony MH755 is also perfect for quick on the go usage where I don’t need the universal fit in-ears.

Tempotec impressed me enough to consider the Sonata E35 for when good phone DAP’s are finally dead. Other than that, dongles are not my thing, and I have issues with some of Sony’s GUI decisions on the NW-A55 mainly related to playlist creation and long text support.

Lastly, the Questyle CMA Twelve would be an awesome DAC/amp combo to have, but my needs are more mobile. Perhaps when life slows down, but there are other bucket list items such as the Burson Playmate 2, RebelAmp, the Ruebert Neve RNHP, or RME ADI-2 that look interesting as well. Maybe someone will loan me one in 2022?

Jürgen Kraus…Calgary, CANADA

Earphones have traditionally been our main trade and there’s not many that stuck with me this year. First and foremost, I was impressed by the immersive and engaging sound of the single DD Dunu Zen that further excel in microdynamics. They are still very popular within our team.

Moondrop finally got it right with their tuning in the smooth and very pleasant sounding Moondrop KATO single dynamic driver. This model is generally well received. The JVC HA-FDX1 are still my standard iems for equipment testing, and an honourable mention goes to the Unique Melody 3DT for the clean implementation of 3 (!) dynamic drivers.

Another iem that fascinated me is the Japanese Final E5000. On the market since 2018, and very source demanding, this iem can produce a bass texture beyond belief. I have become a bit of a Final fanboy, as their products are unpretentious and natural sounding…and they fit my ears very well. I also purchased the Final E1000, E3000, and A3000…which get a lot of usage. No surprise that our Wall of Excellence is decorated like a Christmas tree by quite a few of these Japanese earphones and headphones.

Expanding my horizon into other devices, the Sony NW-A55 is a user-friendly digital audio player with great sonic characteristics and signature-altering 3rd party firmware options. But, most of all, it updates its music library within a minute or two. For the ultimate portable enjoyment, I discovered the Questyle QP1R dap...sounds simply amazing with the Final E5000. Found the dap on Canuck Audio Mart.

Dongles, battery-less headphone DAC/amps that turn any cheap phone into a decent music player, were big in 2021. Around since 2016, the market caught on to these devices. But out of the mass of dongles tested, the 2019 AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt was the most musical to my ears. I also like the AudioQuest DragonFly Red and the EarMen Eagle (replacing the EarMen Sparrow which I sent to Biodegraded). For earphone testing (and bigger cans), I still use the excellent Earstudio HUD100.

For my full-sized headphone needs with my notebook, I discovered the powerful Apogee Groove, a current-hungry dongle DAC/amp that has been around since 2015. I am even portable around the house. As to headphones themselves, I am still happy with the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 25, but also with the Koss Porta Pro.

For my desktop setup, I identified the EarMen Tradutto as being a fantastic DAC in combination with the Burson Funk amp. Currently testing the Tradutto with my big stereo system.

In summary, I learnt a lot in 2021…

My Take Home this Year

  • The latest is barely the greatest…many old brooms get better into the corners
  • Influencers are not always right (…to say it nicely)
  • Measurements are overrated
  • Timbre (degree of naturalness of sound) is underrated
  • Source is super important and also underrated
  • Group pressure through hype may become a sobering experience
  • That groomed YouTube stuff is boring

Kazi Mahbub Mutakabbir…Munich, GERMANY

This year was very educational for me when it came to audiophilia. I got the chance to try out truly summit-fi setups and realized how good a system can sound. This also resulted in a sense of yearning where you keep comparing the gears you own with the ones you cannot own, at least not yet. Nonetheless, without further ado.

Headphones: The one headphone that has stuck with me throughout the year is the Hifiman Susvara. They won’t flatter anyone with the build quality but when paired with the right amp they sound astonishing. One of the most natural sounding headphones out there with exceptional timbre. A must listen.

Honorable mention goes to the Final D8000. Supreme bass that’s pretty much unmatched. On the budget side, I really liked the Final Sonorous-III. They are underrated and under-appreciated.

IEMs: When it comes to in-ear monitors, I have a hard time picking any single one of them as all of them fall short in one area or another. Nonetheless, the one IEM I’ve used the most throughout the year is the Dunu Zen. There is something truly addicting about their sound that makes me come back to them time and again.

However, the Zen is not the best IEM that I have heard throughout the year. That would probably be the Sony IER-Z1R or the 64Audio U12t. In the relatively budget realm, the 7Hz Timeless took me by surprise with their planar speed and excellent bass slam.

Source: Instead of going with separate sections for amps, DACs and such, I will just consolidate them into one.

Best desktop amp I’ve tried: Accuphase E380. One of those rare speaker amps that sound great with headphones.

Best portable amp I’ve tried: Cayin C9. It is the only review loaner in the past year that I have wanted to buy with my own money. I probably will, soon, budget permitting.

Best DAP: Lotoo PAW 6000, even though it can’t power difficult loads.

Best dongle: L&P W2. The only dongle that I found to be good enough to replace some DAPs.

Best DAC: Holo May L2. The price is extremely high but so is the sound quality. Exceptionally natural and neutral tuning. Another must listen.

And that’s a wrap. Have a great Christmas, and see you on the other side!


Too many lists…I focus on eartips…

Best EARTIPS of 2021

Most versatile eartips: SpinFit CP-100+
Best budget eartips: Audiosense S400
Best eartips for bass: FAudio “Instrument” Premium Silicone Earphone Tips
Best eartips for vocal:
 Azla SednaEarFit Crystal (Standard)
Best eartips for treble: BGVP S01
Best eartips for soundstage: Whizzer Easytips SS20
Most comfortable eartips: EarrBond New Hybrid Design

Loomis Johnson…Chicago, USA

Gear of the Year (and other Favorite Things)

SMSL SU-9 DAC/Preamp—one of those pieces that makes you seriously question why anyone would spend more. A seriously good DAC which is even better as digital preamp.

Hidisz S3 Pro DAC/Dongle—lacks the juice to power challenging loads, but has an uncanny knack for enlivening and improving more efficient phones. Very refined, with impeccable bass control.

Cambridge Melomania TWS—ancient by TWS standards, and its rivals have more features and tech, but this may still be the best-sounding TWS you can buy.

Shozy Rouge IEM—like a really hot girl you get smitten by the beauty before you even delve into the substance. Properly driven, however, these sound just as good as they look, with estimable staging and clarity.

The Beatles, “Get Back” Documentary—as probably the only person on earth who hasn’t seen Lord of the Rings I was gobsmacked by how brilliant this film looked and sounded. The real surprise for me, however, was how natural  a musician John was—unburdened by technique, but soulful and  exploratory.  Poor George invokes your pity—a good writer forced to compete with two great ones– while Ringo wins the award for Best Attitude.

Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”—I always found the lyrics impenetrable and a bit sophomoric, but the Spanish-influenced lead guitar part is incredible, with scarcely a phrase repeated throughout the full 11 minutes. I’d always assumed it was Mike Bloomfield, but it’s actually the harmonica virtuoso Charlie McCoy, who also plays the trumpet part of “Rainy Day Women”.

Reds, Pinks and Purples, “Uncommon Weather” In hope of finding something genuinely fresh I dutifully listened to the most-touted 2021 releases before fixating on this one, which (predictably) sounds exactly like 80s Flying Nun and Sarah bands.

And This Was The Previous Year:

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  • Gear Of The Year 2021 - Our Personal Favourites 1

    Head-Fier since 2016. He has been known as “Otto Motor” to Head-Fiers, as “Dr. Schweinsgruber” to users and Youtubers, and as “Brause” to Super Best Audio Friends and the Headphone Community. - For the purpose of confusion, he decided to pose under his real name Jürgen Kraus (“JK”) from now on. - This is a hobby. In “real” life, Jürgen is a professional geologist operating his own petroleum-exploration consulting company Franconia Geoscience Ltd. (see ad in the footer) based in Calgary, Canada. He holds German and Canadian passports. Jürgen had a classical music education from childhood through high school in Germany and he has been following popular music developments since the late 1970s. His understanding of arts and crafts was influenced by Bauhaus pragmatism: “less is more” and “form follows function”.

Jürgen Kraus (Calgary, Canada)

Head-Fier since 2016. He has been known as “Otto Motor” to Head-Fiers, as “Dr. Schweinsgruber” to users and Youtubers, and as “Brause” to Super Best Audio Friends and the Headphone Community. - For the purpose of confusion, he decided to pose under his real name Jürgen Kraus (“JK”) from now on. - This is a hobby. In “real” life, Jürgen is a professional geologist operating his own petroleum-exploration consulting company Franconia Geoscience Ltd. (see ad in the footer) based in Calgary, Canada. He holds German and Canadian passports. Jürgen had a classical music education from childhood through high school in Germany and he has been following popular music developments since the late 1970s. His understanding of arts and crafts was influenced by Bauhaus pragmatism: “less is more” and “form follows function”.

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