GOTY 2021 MusicTech

Gear Of The Year 2021: The best new plug-ins, hardware synths, monitors and gadgets for daily listening

Our team got together to crown the top tech releases of the year in 16 categories.

2021 was a strong year all across for tech releases in the industry, and as both lovers and creators of sound, we were given many new and exciting ways to both create and listen.

Music fans and artists have, of course been eager about the return of live music. Fortunately, it seems that concerts, festivals and clubs have been making a bit of a  comeback in some parts of the world. For many of us, however, this year simply meant more time to spend working in our studios – which isn ’t a total loss, all things considered.

The MusicTech team got together to crown the best product releases of the year, from trailblazing new innovations to reimagined classics, along with some underdogs you just might have missed. This year’s Gear Of The Year awards celebrates the pinnacle in music technology in 16 categories – strap yourselves in.

Best True Wireless Headphones

Bose’s QuietComfort 45

Winner: Bose’s QuietComfort 45

There were a number of premium entrants to the wireless headphone arena this year, but a $500 purchase isn’t warranted right now – especially when the Bose QuietComfort 45 does such a fine job at providing a well-rounded listening experience whether for a few hours or on a long-haul flight.

The star of the show here has to be Bose’s active noise-cancelling technology, which executes noise with impunity if you want it to. Combined with their ultra-comfortable ear cushions, these are headphones which you won’t tire of wearing during longer sessions; and on that note, there’s also a 24-hour battery life and charging with USB-C.

Also nominated:

Check out the full list here.

Best Bluetooth Speaker

Sonos Roam

Winner: Sonos Roam

Smart features, a compact design and an affordable price help to propel the Sonos Roam above the pack in the very crowded Bluetooth speaker market. You wouldn’t typically expect a sub $200 speaker to offer self-tuning, but this is where we are now.

The Roam comes with Auto Trueplay, Sonos’ proprietary technology that uses the Roam’s internal microphones to measure acoustic reflections, obstructions and its position in a room to tune itself and make it sound its best. A pair of class-H amplifiers inside makes sure you get a decent amount of punch out of it as well.

Nominees:

Check out the full list here.

Best Earbuds

Sony WF 1000XM4

Winner: Sony WF-1000XM4

Sony’s WF-1000XM4 earbuds are the brand’s best yet and a cut above the competition by a big margin. Not only do they sound and feel exceptional, but they’re also brimming with features that are actually very usable.

To the average listener, these are going to sound like the best earphones you’ll have ever come across: well balanced, detailed, with a huge soundstage and with plenty of enthusiasm across the board.

That gets further enhanced with the Analyze Ear Shape function that lets you set up Sony’s proprietary 360 Reality Audio for apps such as Tidal and Deezer, lending to a far superior listening experience.

Read our full review here.

Nominees:

Check out the full list here.

Best Soundbar

Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar

Winner: Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar

Sennheiser’s Ambeo goes big at home, and if you’ve wondered how capable a single soundbar can be at delivering a surround sound experience, here’s the benchmark.

13 speakers help it to support a wide frequency range of 30 Hz to 20 kHz (-3 dB) which will give you a good enough bass performance without the need for a separate sub – though there’s the option to add one if you want to.

If you have the cash to splash on a heavy-duty unit but not the space for a big setup with lots of speakers dotted around your living room, then it really is hard to fault the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar.

Read our full review here.

Nominees:

Check out the full list here.

Best Music Streaming Service

Apple Music

Winner: Apple Music

The streaming game was full of twists and turns this year, with players each racing to be the first to offer subscribers lossless and spatial audio. Apple Music has had a big year, rolling out both of those features at no additional cost, but it also provided a quality experience on top of that with quality audio programming via platforms such as Apple Music 1 and the Christmas themed From Apple Music With Love.

Nominees:

  • Bandcamp
  • SoundCloud
  • Spotify
  • Tidal
  • Amazon Music HD

Check out the full list here.

Best Virtual Instrument

Spitfire Audio Abbey Road One: Sparkling Woodwinds & Legendary Low Strings

Winner: Spitfire Audio Abbey Road One: Sparkling Woodwinds & Legendary Low Strings

Spitfire’s partnership with Abbey Road studios helped to put beautifully captured orchestral instruments into the digital toolkits of composers, and with these two latest libraries, it proved just how potent the iconic acoustics of iconic Studio One could be.

Sparkling Woodwinds and Legendary Low Strings don’t offer as much versatility as 2020’s Orchestral Foundations mega library, but they don’t need to. Instead, they attend to scoring techniques that evoke specific moods and textures.

With quality samples and little to fuss over, composers could make fast, broad strokes to get fast results that work – and sometimes, that’s really all you need to make a scene come to life.

Read our full review here.

Nominees:

Check out the full list here.

Best Soft Synth

Arturia Pigments 3

Winner: Arturia Pigments 3

Arturia’s Pigments 3 doesn’t try to emulate any one particular synth from the history books, nor does it try to look like one. Instead, its goal is to leverage modern systems and offer producers more in a single synth plug-in – “every shade of synthesis” in fact.

It’s a sound designer’s paradise, with four fully realised engines – analogue, wavetable, sample and harmonic – available to dream up any sound you can imagine. And you get to merge any two of these together to come up with surprising new tones entirely.

All this power would be a little unwieldy if it wasn’t for Pigments 3’s masterful user experience, which keeps you aware of what’s going on with animated windows. There are integrated tutorials and a built-in hint system to hold your hand through the process when you need it.

Read our full review here.

Nominees:

Check out the full list here.

Best Software Effect

Brainworx bx_console AMEK 9099

Winner: Brainworx bx_console AMEK 9099

Modern computing has made it very possible (and affordable) to put a legendary mixing console in the same machine you use to play ranked matches in Counter Strike – here’s a sentence sure to baffle just about anyone in the 90s.

Brainworx’s component-level emulation of the highly-acclaimed Amek 9098i isn’t officially licensed, endorsed, nor connected in any other way to the original console, but it’s the spitting digital image of one. And to top it off, new ‘modernised’ features make it across each channel strip of the reproduction, from its VCA compressor, four-band EQ and beyond.

Read our full review here.

Nominees:

Check out the full list here.

Best Freeware

Spitfire Audio LABS

Winner: Spitfire Audio LABS

We commend Spitfire’s mission to put creative instruments in the hands of music-makers at no cost, but it’s the sheer quality of the LABS series in itself that helps it earn the win.

This year’s drops is representative of the series’ eclectic tastes: LA Atmos warped the found-sounds of Los Angeles to offer melodic and percussive textures; Ondes Musicales and Folk Harp put rare instruments in the plug-in folders of the masses, while Bass Guitar and Percussion made classic sounds widely available. It’s certainly gotten us excited about what’s to come in 2022.

Read our full review here.

Also nominated:

  • BandLab
  • Cakewalk by BandLab
  • Tracktion Waveform Free
  • Surge 1.9.0
  • VirtualDJ
  • Audacity
  • Vital

Check out the full list here.

Best Mobile DAW

BandLab 10

Winner: BandLab 10

BandLab has always excelled in knowing where to keep things simple and where to be complex. It’s an advantage which comes with a focus on mobile from the get-go – it feels like a more complete experience than a ‘trimmed down’ version of a desktop DAW.

Version 10 of the social music-making platform embodies this principle with its key feature additions: A powerful new sampler which lets you import your own files, streamlined mastering algorithms with multiple presets, and the option to share tracks directly to TikTok.

Nominees:

  • Roland Zentracker
  • Andrew Huang Flip
  • Cubasis
  • FL Studio Mobile
  • Soundtrap

Check out the full list here.

Best DAW

Ableton Live 11

Winner: Ableton Live 11

Having earned the hearts of electronic musicians with its clip-based approach to music production, Ableton Live 11 set out to cement its status as a powerhouse for recording, and does so with flying colours.

Improved comping tools for both audio and MIDI now let you record, edit and commit takes in multiple lanes of audio, all while keeping Live’s audio warp modes wholly accessible. And lest you think Ableton forgot about its more experimental roots, Live introduces a plethora of new MIDI and audio devices, along with a probability editor for MIDI, and MPE support – it’s truly a joy to work and create in.

Read our full review here.

Nominees:

Check out the full list here.

Best Sampler or Sequencer

Roland SP404 MK II

Winner: Roland SP-404 MKII

Roland’s SP-404 MKII gave long-time users a whole lot more to love with all-new effects, a DJ mode and an OLED screen to offer deep access to all its powerful new features.

Real-time sample chopping in particular, is a game changer for the MKII, allowing you to make precise edits with a resizable waveform. This opens up the potential for even more dynamic, hands-on performances, whether you’re triggering drum pads or performing longer sounds.

Meanwhile, an onboard battery and better connectivity options make the MK II even more versatile than ever before. The sampling king’s influence looks poised to widen in the years to come.

Read our full review here.

Also nominated:

Check out the full list here.

Best Monitor/Headphones

Austrian Audio Hi-X15 and Hi-X25BT

Winner: Austrian Audio Hi-X15 and Hi-X25BT

For what they cost, Austrian Audio’s Hi-X15 wired and Hi-X25BT bluetooth headphones really shouldn’t be performing as well as they do – but it’s a surprise we fully welcome.

We found these professional over-ears to offer crisp treble detail with an impressive frequency response of 12Hz to 24kHz – and they’re also really comfortable to boot, thanks to a fitting of soft slow-retention memory foam earpads.

All-in-all, it marks an impressive second year for the new brand, formed out of former AKG staff; We’re already looking forward to what it brings in its third.

Read our full review here.

Also nominated:

Check out the full list here.

Best Microphone

Warm Audio WA87 R2

Winner: Warm Audio WA-87 R2

The folks at Warm Audio know a thing or two about recreating vintage studio equipment, and this year, it’s set out to top its own reproduction of a true studio legend: the Neumann U87.

The WA-87 R2 is the second version of the large-diaphragm condenser, and it takes a bold step by redesigning its classic profile. Ultimately, this choice works to the mic’s advantage, as it helps it achieve an even more convincing U87 sonic signature than before.

But we all know what the WA-87 R2’s greatest selling point is: a £570 price tag against the £2,099 one of Neumann’s U87 Ai. This makes it just excellent for budding producers and musicians who want to add the sound of a legendary mic to their repertoire for a much lower cost.

Read our full review here.

Also nominated:

Check out the full list here.

Best Hardware Synth

Sequential Prophet-10 Rev4

Winner: Sequential Prophet-10 Rev4

Given the stature of Sequential’s Prophet-5 and -10 synths, coming back with a fourth revision was a task which its creators didn’t take lightly. It’s all the more impressive then, that the Prophet-10 stays well-deserving of its status as a legendary synth over 50 years on from its introduction.

The key was in keeping things classic where it should and introducing new tricks that make sense in 2021. Two standout features we loved were a toggle switch to move the Prophet-10 between filter behaviours of older versions, a well as the Vintage dial, which meanders between the super-stable tuning of the Rev4’s oscillators to the unpredictable pitch-tracking of Revs 3, 2 and 1.

Read our full review here.

Also nominated:

Check out the full list here.

Best Audio Interface

Audient EVO 8

Winner: Audient EVO 8

EVO 8 succeeds in its quest to make recording effortless by smoothing out the interface experience.

Features such as SmartGain and a built-in loopback are a win-win for both experienced users and novices as they replace brainless tasks with automatic processes. It also bears in mind that not all users are musicians; podcasters and streamers alike will find the EVO 8 easy to navigate.

Aside from that, the four-in, four-out interface has all the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect: quiet preamps; monitor and headphone outputs, and a JFET instrument input for guitarists. Again, it’s all in how it’s been presented, and these changes make the most sense when you consider how many ‘flat-rectangle-with-knobs’ are already out there on the market.

Read our full review here.

Also nominated:

Check out the full list here.

Best Soft Synth

Best Soft Synth

Nominees:

Best Earbuds

Best Earbuds

Nominees: