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Golden Ear Awards 2016: Julie Mullins

KEF Muo Wireless Speaker System
$350 each
This wonderfully portable little wireless loudspeaker delivers sonic goods well beyond expectations, especially given its petite dimensions. Intended for those who want quality listening on the go, it’s a tiny two-way that pumps out big, full, and expansive sound with respectable resolution—and even reproduces some sense of soundstaging on many recordings. Like KEF’s iconic Muon flagship floorstander—but at the opposite end of the size and price spectrum—the Muo was designed by Ross Lovegrove, and its exterior is of the same solid aluminum as the Muon to minimize resonances. The Muo also offers plenty of versatility: You can stream via Bluetooth 4.0 aptX from your computer or mobile device, or listen via an auxiliary input. You can pair two Muos for stereo use, or position them vertically for “party mode” (mono) listening. Weighing in at about two pounds and available in six different finishes, the Muo may look cute and colorful on the outside, but it’s serious on the inside: It boasts a miniature version of KEF’s “point-source” driver array: two identical 50mm/2-inch full-range Uni-Q drivers, each with a decoupled central tweeter dome and midrange, in addition to one auxiliary long-throw radiator for better bass extension. In the Muo, only one Uni-Q driver handles the full frequency range while the other plays only low and midrange frequencies; this configuration enables a “gentle” crossover for wider overlap and sonic dispersion. Indeed the Muo not only sounds like a larger speaker than it is, but its sound can fill a small-to-midsized room quite capably. How they packed this remarkably clean- and clear-sounding configuration into this sleek 3.1″ x 8.3″ x 2.3″ form is a wonder—and a testament to clever engineering.

NuPrime IDA-8 Integrated Amplifier
Sonically and functionally, there’s plenty to love about the IDA-8. Essentially, it’s a sleek-looking, small-footprint hybrid Class A/Class D integrated amplifier/DAC that combines Class A warmth and resolution with Class D speed, power, and efficiency and delivers both with remarkably low noise, thanks in part to ultra-low-noise JFETs in its input stage. Its DAC supports USB 384kHz/32-bit and DSD256, and is also capable of decoding DoP (DSD over PCM) via coaxial and optical inputs. The well-conceived IDA-8 delivers substance with plenty of gusto—and does so from an astonishingly quiet background. It was my go-to amp across a range of musical genres. I became hooked not only by its ear-pleasing, easygoing sound, but also by its ease of use. Since NuPrime’s founding, Jason Lim has continually sought to improve sonics through innovative technologies—in addition to offering high performance and value with respect to pricing. This amp exemplifies that approach. A great-sounding stone-cold bargain.

Monitor Audio Platinum Series PL500 II Loudspeaker
It’s been said that big loudspeakers can mean big problems. What’s more, it’s not hard to spend big bucks on big speakers, especially on say, three-way towers with seven drivers. Happily, neither statement rings true here in UK-based Monitor Audio’s state-of-the-art flagship model. Tall, dark, and handsome, these big boys impressed me from the first time I heard them—at this year’s CES. Whether they were driven by Moon by Simaudio electronics (at CES) or by the tube wonders of an Air Tight ATM-1S stereo amplifier, the PL500 IIs really didn’t sound like any other Monitor Audio speaker I’d heard. In fact, in some ways—in their warm, rich musicality, overall driving energy, and D’Appolito configuration, for instance—they reminded me of Raidhos (minus nearly another zero on the price). I’ve only just begun experimenting with myriad amplification for them, but so far the PL500 IIs have proven infinitely enjoyable in their layers of depth and detail, bass articulation, and overall coherence—no matter what genre of music I’ve played. Not only are the PL500 IIs high-energy, high-resolution transducers that boast beautiful sound, they also offer superb quality and value far exceeding their price.

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