Gather around, audiosports fans! It's that time of year again…Positive Feedback's Brutus Awards season.
At the end of each year, my unindicted co-conspirator Dave Clark and I give our Positive Feedback awards. These are our annual "best stuff we heard this year" plaudits. No padding, crap, junk food, or meaningless drivel here: Just the righteous word!
As I said all the way back in Issue 10, December of 2003, when I announced the birth of the Brutus Award:
"We at Positive Feedback are going to have two main categories of annual awards. The first will be our Brutus Award. This will be recognition given to "the best and the brightest" products that we have experienced in various categories in a given year. In hardware, these will range from "best bang for the buck" to "the best period, and hang the expense!" designs. In recordings, we'll be paying tribute to the best that we've found in various formats. In addition, we'll have a "Lifetime Achievement Award" that will recognize individuals whose contributions to fine audio in various respects has been both superior and sustained.
All products that are so recognized by PF will be work that has been reviewed by us personally; no design will be recognized that we do not have experience with in our listening rooms. This means that you, our readers, may disagree with our selections, wondering why this or that component, recording or individual was not mentioned. Quite apart from differences in taste/opinion, the answer is simple: we won't be mentioning any design that we haven't spent time with in our own listening rooms. If a product does not win a Brutus Award in a given category, this does not signify lack of merit—we just may not have gotten to work with it. You're certainly welcome to write to us and bring worthy components to our attention."
That's what's behind Dave Clark's and my Brutus Awards over the past thirteen years now. The products that we recommend in these awards…together with our Writers' Choice Awards, published separately…represent our take on "the best we've heard in our own listening rooms this year." I have separate show recognitions, my Audio Oasis! awards, that deal with what I hear while on the road.
Enough framework. On to my Brutus Awards for 2015…
KRONOS Limited Edition Turntable
From Canada comes this exceptional turntable system by Louis Desjardin. Based upon a counter-rotational design…brilliant that…the KRONOS Limited Edition is one of the three finest turntables that I've had in my listening room, ever…definitely a world-class reference turntable. Outfitted with the Black Beauty tonearm and the Air Tight PC-1 Supreme MC (see below), the KRONOS achieves a level of transparency, organic wholeness, tonal integration at all frequency ranges, great linearity, and superior stability that make it a very obvious Brutus Award winner.
The KRONOS LE with Black Beauty Tonearm and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme MC at AXPONA 2015. (Photograph and effects by David W. Robinson)
Take my word for it: KRONOS is KILLER!
Andre Thériault Black Beauty Tonearm
(Photograph by David W. Robinson)
The Black Beauty Tonearm is produced by Andre Thériault. Louis Desjardin has taken a special shine to it, which is understandable, since the synergy between the two really borders on true symbiosis. Every time that I've heard the KRONOS, at shows or here at PF Central, I've heard it with the Black Beauty. The results are stellar, both here and there!
In fact, if you're looking to purchase the KRONOS LE turntable, I'd say that you'll be pretty much obligated to pony up for a Black Beauty as well. And vice versa. Currently, KRONOS purchases the entire output of Andre Thériault; there really isn't any way to pick up a Black Beauty without the KRONOS.
Louis Desjardins say that the Black Beauty is where magic is: Why mess with success, excess, or process? Get the best, if you're heading towards the KRONOS LE….
Air Tight PC-1 Supreme MC Cartridge
(Image courtesy of Air Tight)
Nothing too surprising here. I've heard the very well-established PC-1 Supreme at a handful of shows over the past several years. It's always been a suave, silky, and elegant performer in every setting/system that I've heard it in. Smooth, extended, and always musical, this 0.4mV boron cantilever cartridge combines a number of audio virtues in a gorgeous package.
When the PC-1 Supreme arrived with the KRONOS LE/Black Beauty system in June, it was my chance to hear this well-regarded MC in my own listening room. It was immediately apparent that my characterization of its sound above was accurate…and then some! Resting in its KRONOS LE/Black Beauty setting in our reference listening room, the results were absolutely top-notch, especially in its ability to bring out the organic richness of great recordings in any genre that I tried…and I have a lot of genres, believe me.
Clearly a Brutus Award winner, in tandem with the Black Beauty Tonearm and the KRONOS LE turntable. Done!
Astell & Kern AK-380 Portable DSD/PCM Player
A 380 in the hand is worth two in the bush…
This year Astell & Kern was kind enough to send a review sample of their new AK380, the successor to my beloved AK240, which was also my previous reference standard. Everything the AK240 did brilliantly, the AK380 does more brilliantly. Both units are handsome in their Italian leather cases, both have balanced (2.5mm) and unbalanced (3.5mm) outputs, wireless capability, the same volume control and beautifully crafted volume controls, but the AK380 goes further. The 380 now does Quad DSD in true Native mode(!!) with its version 1.17 firmware…no conversion or downsampling…as well as PCM out to DXD levels (384 kHz/32-bit) without compromise. It sports a new chipset with greater resolution, a VCXO Femto clock with 200 femtoseconds of precision, Parametric Equalization, and an output with noticeably more dynamic range. What's not to love?!
The sound, the ultimate indication of quality in the audio arts, is absolutely killer! The AK380 is perfectly capable of acting as a fully co-equal source in many audiophile systems, and yet can easily travel with you in your car (where it can hook up with Bluetooth equipped vehicles or via analog output), while on the train, or while flying. I have used it frequently on the road, and have a sweet setup with the ALO Audio Continental mini-tubed headphone amp (see below) when I want to pump it up. I've also hooked it up with powered headphones like the Blue Microphone MoFi's, which do a nice job of pumping it up when I don't have my Continental with me.
Up to Quad DSD on the road. Ain't life grand?!
No, an MSRP of $3,499.00 is not cheap. Then again, with the AK380, you get state-of-the-art audio performance that fits in the palm of your hand, with pro-level specifications, and no compromise.
There's no doubt about it in my mind at all: The A&K AK380 portable player is simply the best that I've ever heard. A Brutus Award winner, in spades!
Merging Technologies NADAC MC-8 DSD DAC
(Image courtesy of Merging Technologies)
My comments on the stellar NADAC MC-8 DSD DAC were in my review in Issue 81 (HERE). I don't have anything to add to that…except this richly merited Brutus Award! The Merging Technologies NADAC MC-8 is in the first-rank of DACs that I have ever heard at any level, for both DSD and PCM, and is a reference standard here at PF Central.
Unquestionably world-class performance in every parameter.
LampizatOr Golden Gate DSD DAC
(Photograph by David W. Robinson)
Another great DSD DAC is the LampizatOr Golden Gate. The GG is a very different approach than the NADAC, and features the use of analog filters, a combination of DHTs (in my case, Czech EML 45 Mesh), audiophile-grade components at every turn, and a handsome copper chassis. A true balanced configuration is also available.
(Image courtesy of LampizatOr)
There's no doubt that the sex appeal factor for the Tubes Crowd is extremely high with the GG. Given the sound that I'm hearing in our reference room, there is every reason for enthusiasm! Extremely impressive, and obviously quite worthy of one of my Brutus Awards.
Playback Designs IPS-3 with integrated DSD DAC
(Photograph by David W. Robinson)
Playback Designs is no stranger to the pages of Positive Feedback. In fact, it has been collecting awards and plaudits since early 2008, and deservedly so. Andreas Koch's FPGA approach has been the gold standard for DSD and PCM for years. The PD product line reflects this excellence, and that includes their IPS-3 Integrated Amp with DSD DAC. Now upgraded to include up to Quad DSD, the IPS-3 provides a solid 130 watts per channel, both balanced and unbalanced input, with USB 2.0 for high-resolution audio.
The results here at PF Central confirm what I had heard at shows: Excellent audio performance, rock-solid stability and performance, and the top-notch Playback Designs DSD DAC doing Quad DSD with glorious results; ditto for DXD and up to 192/24 PCM.
If you want it all in one very attractive design, you'll find it in the Playback Designs IPS-3. Another Brutus Award for Playback Designs!
Mytek Manhattan DSD DAC
(Image courtesy of Mytek Digital)
The long-awaited Manhattan DSD DAC finally arrived here at PF Central this year. Once again, I was impressed by the unique approaches that Michal Jurewicz and company took in their quest for reference-quality sound, especially on the DSD side of things. The styling is quite unique, with an eye-catching sculpted shape. A commendable multiplicity of I/O's are on hand, plus a pair of 6.35mm headphone jacks right up front. Good news for personal fi/headphone fans: The Manhattan has a high slew-rate headphone amp with dual mono construction and a power output of 1600mA…nice!
Internally, there is steel construction, femto-level clocking technology, and separate power supplies for analog and digital. This is wrapped in an aluminum external chassis. Mytek excels in its options for the Manhattan, which include an MM/MC user-installable phono section, and
Sonically, the Manhattan shows the signature dynamics and punch that I have come to expect from their designs. Very fine transparency; very clean and clear reproduction, especially of DSD. The Manhattan handles Quad DSD with ease, and impresses with the muscularity of its presentation.
Definitely a Brutus Award winner for 2015!
Headphones and Headphone Amps
ALO Audio Continental Headphone Amp and DAC
The ALO Audio Continental mini-tubed headphone DAC and Amp…here with the Astell & Kern AK240 dealing out some sterling Double DSD. (Photograph by David W. Robinson)
One of the best little headphone amps with DACs on the market comes from right here in Portland, Oregon. And it has tubes! Mini-tubes, to be precise. ALO Audio produced the dual-mono Continental as the latest in their line of headphone amps. Featuring 6111 tubes mounted on very cool easy-swap mini-PCBs (great for tube rolling), a Wolfson DAC (high-resolution PCM plus Single DSD only), a fat Panasonic battery pack with decent travel life, and a smashing-great looking aluminum chassis with a tough Gorilla Glass window.
This last allows your seat mates on a flight to sneak shocked looks at them glowing things! in the gizzards of the Continental. Believe me, this can lead to all sorts of interesting conversations with your jetto ghetto neighbors. Makes the time fly, so to speak.
The Continental has both unbalanced and balanced output for phones, plus an unbalanced line out for maximum flexibility. A power on/volume pot works flawlessly, with both low and high output provided.
I'd be lost on my long-distance flights without my ALO Audio Continental. It really helps me to get the most out of my headphones and in-ear monitors while traveling and dealing with the beastly noise floor of your typical jet. I've used it with everything from an iPhone 6+ to my Astell & Kern AK240 and AK380. The mix of great solid state plus tube loveliness is not to be missed! An exceptional headphone amp…solid as a rock…and a winner of a Brutus Award for 2015!
Cembalo Audio Labs Spring I Headphone Amp
The Cembalo Spring I headphone amp with the Double Helix Cables Complement3 balanced; the Spring I is resting on Walker Audio isolation devices. Meanwhile, the Synergistic Research HOT crouches nearby....
A surprise to me this year was the Cembalo Audio Laboratories Spring I headphone amplifier. I had not heard of this Canadian company before they contacted me to see if I would be interested in evaluating their new headphone amp.
I don't do too many reviews on spec, but decided that I would give Cembalo Audio a try. The results were really quite fine; see HERE for my impressions.
After reflection, and on balance, I decided that the Spring I was worthy of a Brutus Award for 2015.
Bottlehead Tode Guitar Amp
The Bottlehead Tode Guitar Amp…retro-industrial cool! (Image courtesy of Bottlehead)
And now for something completely different! Dan Schmalle's Bottlehead company came out with their Tode tubed guitar amp in 2014, and I couldn't resist giving this one a run around the block with my trusty-rusty Fender Stratocaster HM (SC plus Humbucking) guitar. I used it with both the TARA Labs Professional Concert Tour Guitar Cable (unshielded) and the JENA Labs Twin Shielded Guitar Cable. I should note that the Tode is sensitive to EMI/RF, which in my area (at the brow of a hill @ 750 feet elevation and a lot of direct line of site to electromagnetic sources) is a concern. The TARA Labs cable was incredibly transparent, clean, and revealing, but it was, for that reason and in this setting vulnerable to noise. I was able to knock this back by playing with grounding and settings on my Strat. When things were particularly noisy, I shifted to the JENA Labs Twin shielded, which was able to eliminate most of the problem. Your mileage may vary.
The Tode's a sweet amp…can go from clean to crunchy very nicely, and without a lot of complication. Great tone in a reasonably compact package, braddah! It's like a practice amp that kicks some serious behonkus. A pleasure to use…color me a big fan of Dan the Man's Tode. If you love great guitar amps, and dig an audiophile approach to tubed amps, you'll want to join me!
(My Brutus Awards to be continued...stay tuned for part two!)