The December/January 2020 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine included our top 100 tech picks for 2019. And to devise this list, each member of the team submitted their favourite gear of the year. Here are Frank Lenk's top product picks of 2019.
Roon Music Management Software
It's not exactly new, but Roon qualifies as a breakthrough product. In an increasingly fragmented audio ecosystem, Roon is designed to create a seamlessly integrated audio experience. The server software (Roon Core) runs on a Windows, Mac or Linux. A Roon control app is available for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, displaying artist and album listings in a rich Web-like format. Music can be delivered at max quality to most any mix of output gear, in multiple rooms. Many audiophile equipment makers support Roon, which can handle most every audio format (including things like DSD), from just about any source (including Tidal high-res), on just about any audio device. And it adds value in the form of constantly updated cross-references, biographies, concert listings, and other background information about your favorite musical acts. In short, Roon is a game-changer for any serious music fan. US$100/yr. or $500 one-time.
Roku revamped its lineup for 2019, and all models continue to run the proven Roku OS, with the same friendly interface giving fast access to content from pretty much every streaming service (including recent arrivals like Apple TV+ and Disney+). All Roku models support HD output, DTS, and Dolby Atmos passthrough. But the new higher-end Roku Premiere and existing Streaming Stick+ ($69.99) add 4K UHD up to 2160p at 60fps, with support for HDR10 and HLG. They also work with the Roku mobile app, which allows private listening and voice search. (The Streaming Stick+ also has voice activation through the remote.) Most recently, Roku added 14 free live linear specialty channels in Canada, covering everything from crime and legal stories to cooking shows, and reruns of old TV classics. If your TV just isn't smart enough, Roku is the obvious upgrade. $50
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
AudioQuest has built quite a reputation for its DragonFly line of compact DAC/amps. The DragonFly Cobalt is the company's new flagship, featuring an even smaller profile, a newer processor, and upgraded specs across the board. The higher-priced model isn't for everybody, but it fills a real need for mobile users who either want to be sure they're getting the absolute best digital-to-analog decoding at up to 24-bit/96KHz resolution, or who want to drive a higher-impedance set of audiophile headphones that need more power than most portable devices can provide. Like its predecessors, the DragonFly Cobalt is solid and beautifully designed. It should work with virtually any USB device. (It has USB Type A built in, and a Type C adapter is included.) $400
TP-Link Archer AX6000 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Router
As Internet speeds steadily increase, and Internet usage becomes more demanding, it's vital to have a top-notch router handling the home network. TP-Link has been building a reputation for no-nonsense, high-value routers, and this one extends that lineage right to the current leading edge. As the new workhorse, the Archer AX6t'000 has it all, from Wi-Fi 6 support, to 8x8 MU-MIMO for efficient sharing of wireless bandwidth. It's based on a new 1.8GHz quad-core CPU. Connectivity includes a 2.5Gbps WAN port, 8 gigabit Ethernet ports, and two USB ports, one Type A, and one Type C. This is networking the way it ought to be, in 2019. $400
Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 Tablet
Samsung remains the company to beat in tablets, and this one sets the pace. Incremental improvements include a faster processor and dual cameras with ultra-wide-angle capability. The AMOLED display now supports the HDR10+ standard for improved dynamic range. And the AKG audio supports Dolby Atmos. But the real emphasis has been on expanding productivity. The S Pen has been improved with wireless charging and remote-control capabilities. The optional Book Cover Keyboard has been enhanced, as has Samsung's DeX windowing environment. The one minor downside is the trendy omission of a headphone jack. Samsung's earlier tablets remain available as value-oriented alternatives for all around use. But for those seeking greater productivity or superior movie playback, the Galaxy Tab S6 will be the top choice. $900 for 128GB, $1,000 for256GB.
AMD Ryzen 3000 Series Processors
They're not the most glamorous products, but AMD's Ryzen 3000 series processors may well be the most significant. These are AMD's first CPUs to notably leapfrog Intel in price, performance, and power consumption, signalling a significant shift in the silicon market that underlies the entire PC market. The secret lies in AMD's successful transition to a smaller scale 7nm fabrication process, while Intel has barely begun shipping 10nm chips, and doesn't expect 7nm parts till 2021. Etching more circuitry onto less silicon has allowed AMD to build processors with more cores and lower power consumption. The Ryzen 5 3600X brings 6-core design firmly into the consumer realm, while the Ryzen 7 3700X ups the ante with 8 cores. If there was any doubt, it's now gone: AMD processors are state-of-the-art, deserving of equal consideration versus Intel by both OEM PC makers and serious PC users. About $250 to $500
Amazon FireTV Cube
The ultimate couch potato device, Amazon's Fire TV Cube allows you to control video content and AV hardware using Alexa voice commands. At its simplest level, the Fire TV Cube is a streaming player, with support for apps from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV+, and most any other streaming service. It can handle 4K playback with Dolby Vision or HDR10+, at up to 60fps. But what really sets it apart is full integration of Alexa, allowing voice control of entertainment devices, lights, or just about anything else. A fast 6-core processor ensures snappy response. Even with the TV off, the Fire TV Cube can respond to many commands, offering verbal weather updates or news reports. For privacy-conscious users, there's a button to disable the microphone, and a remote to allow more traditional control. $150
Is this the next evolution of gaming? Google is offering subscribers the ability to play top-name games with processing done in the cloud. Video is delivered in HD via the Internet, while inputs from Google's Stadia controller (or other device) are sent to Google's data centres. The Stadia Premiere Edition includes a Stadia Controller, Google Chromecast Ultra, and a three-month subscription. Google is promising streaming access to top games such as Borderlands 3, Destiny 2, and Red Dead Redemption 2. It's much too soon to judge the ultimate impact of Stadia on the gaming market. But in the short term, Stadia looks like a good way to try games that one might not be quite ready to purchase, or that might exceed one's available hardware capability. Either way, it's a bold venture and will bear watching over the coming months. $12/mo.
Crucial MX500 1TB SSD
It has finally happened: SSDs (solid state drives) have hit the magical 1TB capacity - at an affordable price. The best deal going is the Crucial MX500: it's not quite the fastest drive in its class but has a solid reputation and offers great value. At 1TB, SSDs are no longer just for booting your OS and launching a few of your most sluggish applications. Now there's enough capacity to think about using an SSD for storing all your biggest games, video projects that need fast disk access, or most any other big files that you need to load quickly. The big-name option in this realm is the Samsung 860 EVO, which is just a smidgen faster than the Crucial MX500, but also seems to sell for as much as $75 more. As prices fluctuate, both will be worth keeping an eye on. But right now, the Crucial MX500 is the most attractive choice for pepping up a sluggish PC. $145
Tritton Kunai Pro Gaming Headset
This unassuming headset took me by surprise. It looks and sounds like a low-cost gaming headset - until you load the included Dirac software. Then it comes alive. Dirac claims to profile audio hardware and apply DSP correction to produce a flat response curve. If it's a trick, it's a good one: the Kunai Pro definitely sounded like a much pricier headset with the Dirac processing enabled. Apart from that, the software provides virtual 3D support for positional awareness in games. This too seemed to work very well. The Tritton Kunai Pro isn't the fanciest gaming headset on the market, but it's light, comfortable and, with the software, remarkably nice-sounding. It's a great option for gamers on a budget. US$50
Insurgency: Sandstorm Video Game
Online multiplayer combat ‘shooters' are proliferating, based largely on the runaway popularity of last-man-standing ‘battle royale' games such as Epic's Fortnite. But Insurgency: Sandstorm bucks the trend, pitting teams of up to 16 players against each other, or eight human players against an army of clever AI-controlled ‘bots,' in tight, realistic urban-warfare scenarios. Programmed largely in Calgary, the game improves on the five-year-old hit Insurgency with upgraded graphics and even stronger computer opponents, who routinely sneak, flank, make creative use of weapons, and take full advantage of available cover. It is literally impossible to beat any of the game's numerous scenarios without tight teamwork and strict adherence to real-world military tactics. This game rates a 12 out of 10 - but novices should be prepared to take a beating until they sharpen their skills! $37
[EDIT: the price of the Roku Streaming Stick+ has been adjusted to show the new, lower price announced in November.]