The year 2020 was a terrible one for jazz fans, with listeners forced to settle for YouTube and Facebook streams instead of the live performances we all love. But this meant that many people redirected their travel and entertainment budgets toward buying new and better audio gear. With hi-fi shows shut down, though, manufacturers struggled to get out the news about their latest launches, and shipping delays meant that many products promised for late summer barely made it to the U.S. in time for Black Friday.
Fortunately, we’ve been keeping track of all the best new gear, and we’ve compiled a list of what we think are the most interesting, significant, and just downright desirable audio products from 2020.
Bose QC Earbuds
Pandemic historians predict we’ll see a rush of travel once COVID-19 is safely under control, and for jazz fans, the Bose QC Earbuds might be the best possible companion for their first excursion to an overseas festival. These true wireless earphones are Bose’s best-sounding to date, and their noise canceling is among the most powerful we’ve encountered. They’re a little bulky, but because the unusual tips don’t need to be shoved deep into the ear canal to get a good seal, they’re quite comfortable.
The Deva open-back audiophile headphones would merit recognition solely for their ultra-spacious, super-detailed sound, which is probably as good as you can get for $299. But even more distinctive is the included snap-on Bluemini Bluetooth adapter, which makes the Devas the first audiophile headphones you’d want to wear not only in the living room, but when you’re walking the dog. (Trust us, we did it. Many times.) Because the Bluemini includes all the best Bluetooth technologies, including aptX HD, Sony LDAC, and AAC, the Devas are probably the best-sounding Bluetooth headphones you can buy.
Douk Audio Tone amplifier
Many people have an old set of speakers they’d like to use, but they don’t want to spend a lot of money to update them for new technologies. The Douk Audio Tone amplifier actually puts out only a fraction of its advertised 50 watts per channel, but it’s still enough to power speakers for a den, dorm room, or garage. With Bluetooth, analog and USB digital inputs, a headphone jack, and a cool LED power meter, it’s a steal at $45.
JBL L82 Classic speaker
Retro-minded audiophiles (and there are a lot of them) lusted after JBL’s reissue of its classic L100 a couple of years back, but the old-school bulk of the speaker made it a tough sell. The new L82 Classic ($5,000 per pair) is more compact but almost as capable, with completely redesigned acoustics (plus a 1970s-style white-cone 8-inch woofer and titanium 1-inch tweeter) and JBL’s glorious Quadrex foam grill in black, white, or orange. Could any Mahavishnu Orchestra fan resist it?
Mackie CR5-XBT powered speakers
The CR5-XBT is this year’s best bet for low-budget desktop audio production or a very good-sounding Bluetooth stereo system. The 5¼-inch woofers easily pump out a double bass’ lowest notes and then some, and the clarity is outstanding for the $219 price. A front power switch/volume control and headphone jack make the CR5-XBT an ideal companion for a computer, whether you’re listening to Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings or making your own.
Morel Högtalare Bluetooth speaker
The Högtalare is old-school in its technology—just plain old Bluetooth, no WiFi or voice control—and in its focus on sound quality. With a 6-inch woofer and stereo tweeters, the $299 Högtalare is one of the best and most robust-sounding Bluetooth speakers on the market. Its square design gives it a cool, minimalist Scandinavian look, and in keeping with that theme, it fits perfectly into IKEA Kallax and Expedit shelf systems. You can pair two of them for stereo sound.
Parasound Halo P6 DAC-preamp
Parasound’s Halo P5 DAC-preamp was beloved because of its great sound and unmatched feature set, which included an MC/MM phono preamp, a built-in DAC, and that oh-so-rare feature in stereo gear: a subwoofer crossover. The new Halo P6 ($1,595) is almost the same, but adds a convenient numerical volume readout and upgrades the P5’s 24-bit/96-kilohertz DAC to 32/384 resolution; it can also play Direct Stream Digital audio files.
Vizio Elevate soundbar
Dolby’s Atmos immersive sound technology can make soundbars sound more like big home theater systems, and nowhere is this more evident than in the $999 Elevate soundbar. The Elevate has speakers at its ends that automatically rotate upward to bounce sound off the ceiling for Atmos and DTS:X material, and downward to create a broader soundstage for music and 5.1-channel movies. Its unusually beefy 8-inch subwoofer is equally adept at handling action-movie explosions and Thundercat’s deepest notes.