The Best Products of 2021

It’s almost the end of the year. Because this year has been exceptional in terms of Mac hardware and software, and of audio and video related equipment, I have decided to close off 2021 with a list of the Best of the Best in five categories.

The links point to the vendor sites, not the reviews. If you want to read the reviews, it’s easy to find them by starting a Search on this site. Search is available on every page.

To be clear: I am not paid to publish these, nor do I get perks for doing so from listed vendors/developers. So, without further ado and in no particular order…

Audio

  • Sommer Cable SC-Carbokab 225 and EMC-Quad-EGB1 XLR microphone cables — A microphone cable is a microphone cable is a microphone cable… Well, yes, it is, if you expect a 1000 EUR cable to sound “better” than a 100 EUR cable, but there IS a clearly discernible difference between cables in the way they handle interference and even in the way they transmit what ultimately becomes the sound you are recording. Sommer Cable’s EMC-Quad-EGB1reference cable sounded better even than my long-time favourite Mogami Gold Studio. The sound came out clearer, with no distortion and better rendition of transients and imaging. Another outstanding Sommer Cable product is the SC-Carbokab 225 which features a conductor smoothing of compressed carbon that is directly applied to the concentrically stranded wires. It clearly showed off its superior protection against EMI, while being true to the recorded sound as much as a Mogami Gold Studio or a Vovox Sonorus Direct. It’s a thick cable that makes it somewhat less easy to handle at 6m, but it stays flexible enough to place it where you need it and guarantees consistent, excellent transmission with a linear sound image over longer distances.
  • IK Multimedia UNO Synth Pro — It’s astonishing what IK Multimedia managed to do with this paraphonic synthesiser that is only a bit bigger than Apple’s compact portable keyboard. The filters, oscillators and all the sound generating electronics on board are highly capable and that instantly translates in endless sounds you can generate from the deepest rumble to the highest-pitched screams. The UNO Synth Pro’s software editor, however, is what makes the synth one of the most powerful electronic instruments money can buy. Given its small footprint and its modest price, UNO Synth Pro plays way above its league.
  • NUGEN Audio Paragon reverb plugin — Paragon is superior to other reverb plugins because it’s less complicated to fine tune to the exact results you want than others and the results are incredibly close to the real thing. Paragon was available for anything from stereo to surround, but there’s now a version for stereo only too.
  • sE Electronics DM2 T.N.T. inline preamp — DM2 T.N.T. earns its place because of the very low noise even at a boost setting of 30dB, combined with its selectable impedance of up to 10M Ω. In addition, this preamp is very much inline as it has a cylindrical form factor that blends in with a microphone’s XLR connector nicely. It not only adds nothing to your mic’s noise floor, it’s also virtually unbreakable.
  • iZotope RX 9 Advanced audio editor — The latest version focuses on features like dialogue isolation and ADR. The new Dialogue Isolate makes it easier than ever to extract clean dialogue from its environment without any artefacts whatsoever, while the new Complex mode in Ambience Match seamlessly connects dialogue and ADR cuts with real background movement and textures. RX9 does all this with multichannel support up to Dolby Atmos 7.1.2. There’s also a new Dynamic Mode in De-hum that makes removing hum and interference in one pass a no-brainer. And the new expandable History Undo feature supporting 30 steps and its flexible Restore feature to roll back an audio selection saves tons of time. The icing on the cake is the new Spectral Editor built on the ARA plug-in extension.
  • DPA Microphones 4015A — This cardioid microphone has 100% linear off-axis characteristics, a wide pickup area, beautifully natural reproduction, and directional ambience pickup. The microphone performs exceptionally well when capturing vocals. It’s even better for that purpose than DPA’s d:dicate 4017 and d:dicate 4018 shotguns. Any leakage that occurs from off-axis sound sources is a faithful reproduction of these sounds, just softly attenuated. That makes it a great mic for capturing, for example, interviews, due to the precise localisation.
  • SynchroArts VocAlign Ultra plugin — Simply said, VocAlign Ultra is a plugin that can automatically match the timing and pitch of one audio signal to the timing and pitch of another. This, among other use case scenarios, allows you to sync the audio of a video camera with that of a sound recorder, which is necessary when neither have a built-in timecode generator. User-friendly way are the features that delve deeper than just synchronising the starting point. These include controls to adjust the amount and modes of timing and pitch matching, tools for addressing small issues like Protected Ranges and Sync Points, a pitch transpose control, and a formant control for adjusting the pitch range of resonances.

Video

  • ScreenFlow 10 screen capture app — ScreenFlow 10 was a significant upgrade with many improvements. For example, it can now capture audio from Mac applications separately and act as an output device for any DAW. There’s an all-new titler engine included with over two dozen lower thirds and titles with motion graphics. The automatic Background Removal filter is powered by advanced machine learning algorithms and optimised for Apple’s M1 Neural Engine, but it isn’t yet perfect. And ScreenFlow finally supports visual mouse cursor motion and clicking clues.
  • Switch 5 Pro QC app — Switch 5 is now compatible with M1 Macs (Rosetta), has improved performance and Reduced Frame Decoding, ProRes RAW playback, IMF/DCP Package playback and more. It’s a must-have for video editors who want or need to check whether a video will play correctly and as intended in a slew of output formats. Most impressive of this upgrade is that the playback engine has been vastly optimised to work buttery smooth on even low-end Intel-based iMacs.
  • Aputure Amaran 100x — The Amaran 100x is a LED fixture that is powerful enough to be used in average-sized rooms with a ceiling no higher than 3m. As its sibling, the 100d, it has a nicely strong output with the Hyper Reflector installed. If you have two of those, you have yourself a nice setup for semi-professional videography, film making and photography that doesn’t break the bank. Both the 100d and 100x come with a Bowens mount and Aputure has a nice set of accessories specially tuned for these fixtures.
  • Aputure Fresnel 2X — The Bowens Mount Aputure Fresnel 2x intensifies the light to a high standard. From a distance of 1.5m, my light meter measured an increase in light output from 8000lx at the Fresnel’s largest angle of 60 degrees to 14000lx at its smallest angle of 12 degrees. The outer parts are made of strong plastics, while the internal components are metal. The whole feels solid and durable. The rotating barrel is easy and efficient to use, and is so smooth that I think the lens will last for a long time. The focus throw is accurate, and I found even the narrowest angle to have a enjoyable feathering effect.
  • GoPro HERO 9 — The GoPro HERO 9 has a bigger battery and the inevitable somewhat bigger body than its predecessor, a front-facing LCD screen, and a removable lens cover. Its capabilities far outperform its small size — as well as the competition: 20MP photos, video maxing out at 5K30 with the 23.6MP sensor enabling frame grabs of 14.7MP. HyperSmooth 3.0 can be enabled for all settings to have gimbal performance, and TimeWarp 3.0 has an enhanced speed ramp to slow action to real speed with audio or half speed while recording.

Photography

  • Photo Mechanic 6 Plus — Thanks to a highly performing database, the Plus version of Photo Mechanic makes browsing my test-9000-photos very smooth. Browsing, however, is only one way to navigate your database. It’s filtering and searching that will get the most out of your collection. Searches can be simple or complex but are always fast and allow you to find images across devices, mounted or not. Of course, when you search for identical images regularly, Photo Mechanic Plus allows you to save such searches for later reuse. Filters are more or less the same as predefined and optimised searches that let you browse your files by date, camera, lens, rating, colour class, and more.
  • DxO PureRAW — DxO’s AI-based PureRAW removes noise, chromatic aberrations, unwanted vignetting, distortion, and insufficient sharpness with an unprecedented level of quality. The app can turn any RAW image into a truly perfect linear DNG that can be further processed in any linear DNG-aware image editor. And yes, even images that I consider to be as good as they get, were better after processing them with PureRAW.

Mac hardware

  • Cubbit private cloud system — A cloud service that is extremely secure and that you actually co-own equals no more worrying about data ownership or subscription fees. The Cubbit distributed, encrypted cloud system makes that happen. As the end of the year approaches, we have seen Cubbit being updated several times to become a robust and fast cloud system that is expandable with plug-in storage. It now also supports up to four accounts for the price of one Cubbit Cell — which is the part you actually buy and install. The Cell is a hexagonal plastic device that you hook up to your Internet router and your gateway to the Cubbit swarm. The latter is the virtual data centre made up of thousands of Cubbit Cells.
  • OWC Helios 3S with the U.2 Shuttle and U.2 ShuttleOne — The Helios 3S is an expansion box for PCIe cards. OWC had the truly brilliant idea to design a shuttle system that turns the Helios 3S into a U.2-based storage system for NVMe SSDs. After some minor fiddling with a screwdriver, you end up with a black box that has a truly whisper-quiet cooling fan and a tray that accepts the U.2 Shuttle and U.2 ShuttleOne. The former houses four SSDs you can put in RAID with OWC’s SoftRAID, while the latter houses only one SSD. The result is a storage system that quickly switches between different U.2 Shuttles, all of which perform at the highest possible speeds. The Helios 3S is a video editor’s dream for its high throughput speed, but photographers, developers, anyone who appreciates the ability to quickly swap SSD storage, the highest Thunderbolt performance and inaudible cooling will love this unassuming box on their desktop. Extra marks OWC deserves for fitting out their latest products with very silently running cooling fans.
  • OWC Envoy Pro FX — OWC has always had a reputation for making inexpensive but high-quality storage products. Design, however, wasn’t always a point where they scored high. Well, with the past year’s introductions of mobile external SSDs in solid aluminium blocks the size of a man’s hand, they have nailed the design as well. The Envoy Pro FX (and the SX, and the Elektron) is as robust as it gets and looks fantastic.
  • CalDigit Element Hub — The Element Hub does not have the dazzling number of ports as CalDigit’s TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 dock offering, but it compensates on the performance side. It offers four times the performance of traditional USB-C hubs and enables Thunderbolt 4 on Macs with Big Sur or Monterey installed. The Hub itself has been designed to be practical in use. The power cable sits in the right spot, the hub can be turned on its head as both sides look the same, you can reposition the rubberised feet. Well-thought-out and fitted out with the 4 USB-A ports and 3 Thunderbolt 4 ports on the other side.
  • CalDigit Tuff Nano Plus — The Nano Plus is incredibly small and lightweight, yet IP67 waterproof and made of ruggedised aluminium. It’s the fastest Nano available with speeds that reach up to 1088MB/s, yet the small form factor and the silicon rubber bumpers make it look cute. The Tuff Nano Plus is about 20% bigger than the Tuff Nano which is due to the higher performing NVMe SSD inside. The connection to your computer or tablet is the same: USB-C type USB 3.2 Gen 2. This guarantees throughput speeds of up to 10Gbit/s which is plenty for the SSD’s maximum performance. The test unit’s maximum throughput was 918MB/s — both read and write speeds. The unit doesn’t seem to throttle back when put under pressure.
  • OnlyKey — The OnlyKey is a security key based on an open-source design, so it can be reviewed by the security community and checked for backdoors. It has several levels of functionality that all concentrate on secure login and data protection. It offers various levels of security that are lacking in competing products. It’s also more secure in general terms. As you enter the PIN on OnlyKey’s keypad, the risk the PIN gets compromised is lower than when you would enter it on a computer. It’s the best security key money can buy.

Mac software

  • Audirvāna Studio music player — Unlikely as it may seem if you’ve used Audirvana Plus before, the developers have succeeded in making music with Audirvāna Studio sound even better. Many of my albums sound, by lack of a better word, purer and with a better stereo image than I managed to get out of Audirvana Plus. That’s no small feat as I have always found Audirvana superb when it came to sonic quality and I have tried and tested almost every audiophile player app available for macOS. That was the intro of my review, and I have nothing more to add, except perhaps that the interface looks gorgeous.
  • Foxtrot Professional Search — Often, the information you’re looking for is hidden or buried deep in a file. Foxtrot Professional Search is a true discovery tool, not just another way to search through your Spotlight indexed files. The app does use Spotlight to build its indexes but does not stop there. In addition, its efficient interface offers access to numerous parameters, options and filters. As a result, with Foxtrot Professional Search you will find information that you would miss out on when you’re simply relying on Spotlight.
  • Carbon Copy Cloner 6 — The most reliable and readily available backup is the one you’ll be able to extract files from without having to jump through loops and holes. Carbon Copy Cloner has been my daily backup partner for ages, but version 6 just made backing up a lot more palatable and secure. The speed of the copying engine has been vastly improved, so that backups take a fraction of what they used to take. Checking, double-checking and then checking again — integrity checks, data rot checks, you name it — to see if the copy is identical to the original has been improved and sped up as well. The result is a backup tool that you forget it’s there until you forget to hook up the backup drive, at which point Carbon Copy Cloner will gently poke you to remind you backing up is a necessity.
  • TextSniper — Ever tried to copy the update details of an app you purchased from the Apple App Store, only to find out you can’t copy it or drag it to the Desktop? Noticed that macOS Monterey’s Live Text doesn’t help you any bit in that situation and in many others, I might add? Well, there’s an almost invisible app that lives in the menu bar. It quietly converts text into editable text from whatever source, be it the App Store, a web page, or an image open in whatever editor you happen to be using, and more. TextSniper even reads QR and other barcodes!
  • Ulysses — Sometimes I leave Ulysses, my preferred text/markdown editor and write in iA Writer, Bear, or Scrivener. And, although it sometimes takes a couple of months, I always come back to using Ulysses. It’s just more efficient, for example, to publish your stuff to WP.com or one of the other online platforms it fully supports with updating capabilities and much, much more. And although it’s a subscription-based app, you won’t be disappointed about the update schedule. Almost every quarter you’re welcoming several improvements or new features that make your life so much easier.
  • Scapple — I’m not a mindmapper, never have been. Some people have a brain that wraps around those things, I don’t. I do, however, like to quickly jot down ideas that I have without forcing them into a list or any other structure. That’s what Scapple allows you to do. It is not perfect and there are a few features that I would love to see added, but in general terms, Scapple is great to use as a sort of digital version of a cork board. Just dump ideas on its surface, and leave them as they are or start connecting them, changing colours, shapes, etc.