At Reference Home Theater we don’t do year end awards. We’d rather focus on the things we loved over the past year without being forced into categories. This year we saw TVs that were great, but no projectors that made us say wow. We also used gear that we didn’t review but still was something we would recommend. So the products that stood out to us this year.
Chris Heinonen, Editor and Writer
LG OLED TV
The best TV I used this year was the LG 55EC9100. It’s only 1080p, it lacks HDR, and it’s even curved which is something I can’t stand. Once you watch a few movies with the perfect blacks of OLED then you won’t care about the rest of it. The infinite contrast ratios make images jump off the screen, and the ultra-thin design makes it look amazing on and off. For sports and video game fans OLED even offers the best motion you can find today. Perhaps I’d like the UltraHD, HDR, Flat LG 55EF9500 more, but I didn’t get a chance to use that. Of everything I saw this year, the LG OLED is the display I’d keep.
KEF Uni-Q Speakers
This year I listened to over 20 pairs of bookshelf speakers. For that testing I brought in the KEF LS50 as a reference piece. By comparing the $1,500 LS50 to $300-400 speakers I wanted to see what spending more got you. And it was a good excuse to finally spend some listening time with that highly acclaimed speaker. KEF also sent along the Q100 as it was closer to the price range of the other models I was testing.
Listening to the KEFs, both the Q100 and LS50, over a period of months they blew me away. The Uni-Q driver, which places the tweeter inside of the midrange so all sounds originate from the same point, is what set them apart for me. That old audiophile cliche of “a fog was lifted” was so true here. The increase in detail from that time coherence made them sound much better than anything else I heard. The Q100 and LS50 impressed me so much I bought a full setup of the R-Series with four R300’s and an R600C center.
TCL Roku TV
I didn’t write a full review of the TCL TVs this year, but there is a good chance I’ll buy one. The image isn’t as good as the LG OLED, or any LCD I reviewed this year, but it stands apart thanks to the Roku OS. It doesn’t make the best primary TV if you only care about picture quality, but for a secondary TV it is fantastic. It offers all the streaming features of a Roku along with a simple remote control and it integrates your external devices and the TV tuner as Roku Apps. The picture is good enough to make me happy while I watch it, and the huge streaming selection and ease-of-use makes my family members happy. The fact that it is very affordable at $200 for a 32” and $300 for a 40” makes it even better.
Harmony Elite Remote
A great system isn’t as useful if you can’t control it. Harmony remotes have always been good, but newer models with an IR Hub have made another leap forward. The IR Hub and IR blasters, along with IP and Bluetooth control, let it drive your system and even connected devices with ease. Even components inside a cabinet, or even a different room, can be controlled by these remotes. The Elite lets you control all of this with a rechargeable remote that has a useful LCD touch screen. It still has the essential buttons for control and only uses the LCD for favorites and selecting activities. Being backlit you can use it in the dark and the sculpted design fits perfectly in your hand.
For $200 less the Harmony Companion loses the LCD screen, the backlit keys, and has fewer activities you can configure. For a simpler system with just 2-3 devices like a Blu-ray player, Media Streamer and a Cable Box, it’ll work great. Both also let you control your devices with an iOS or Android app as well. Whichever you choose, it’ll make using your AV system much easier than it probably is today.
Mark Vignola, Writer
My pick this year is easy. The Roku 3.
I’ve always relied on Blu-ray players and other media streaming devices to get things like Netflix on my TV. This year, I broke down, listened to the advice from many of my colleagues, and bought a Roku 3.
Why do I love the Roku so much? It streams we everything we need: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go & Amazon Prime, along with an astonishingly capable implementation from Time Warner Cable that easily replaced a set-top box for us. And it does all of this in the slickest and most robust streaming platform I’ve ever used. The Roku 3 is lightning fast, easy to use, and eminently reliable. It just works, every time I need it to – I can’t say that for anything else I’ve ever used for streaming. I’m a convert. I now have a Roku on every TV in our house, and plan to have several under the tree as gifts this holiday season.
Stephen Hornbrook, Writer
Easily our pick for anyone looking to spend at least 200$ on headphones. You should just pony up for the incredible Oppo PM-3 headphones as even at $399, they are a bargain in the hi-fi world. Sweet smooth sound with a wonderful soundstage and ample detail. They sound great just with an iPhone, or pair them with the Oppo HA-2 for an even better package.
Simple to use, affordable, and high performing make the HA-2 an easy recommendation. Whether you are looking for more portable amplification power to go with power hungry headphones or just want a better desktop solution, the Oppo HA-2 is a terrific choice. A great DAC inside with hi-res audio support via USB make the Oppo HA-2 our choice for portable headphone amp and/or USB DAC. Even better it also will charge your phone if needed so you can leave that battery pack at home.