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Impressions: Robinson’s Brutus Awards for 2015, Part 2

11-30-2015 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 82

[Here's the second part of my Brutus Awards for 2015. Part three will appear within the next day or so.]

Cables

TARA Labs Zero Evolution interconnects and Omega Evolution speaker cables and AC power cables

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The TARA Labs Omega Evolution speaker cable, in tandem with the Audionet MAX monoblock amplifier. (Photograph by David W. Robinson)

I've known of TARA Labs ever since Matthew Bond first relocated to southern Oregon and established his company there in the early ‘90s. It had been many years since I had gotten a chance to hear the design work there, however…too many years, it seems, given this result. Not that PF hasn't covered TARA Labs, or that I haven't heard them at audio shows…just that I hadn't had a chance to hear what they were doing.

That changed early this year when TARA Labs gave me the opportunity to hear their latest

We can debate "the best" cables endlessly…and do. As in most things audiophilia, it's rare that you can do any better than simply identifying a class, category, or zone that is occupied by a handful of alternatives. After that, personal preference/price/intangibles take over, and a person makes a selection and espouses a cause. In most product categories I have perhaps 3-6 designs that have my "top o' the heap" designation, and I leave it to the reader to sort out which is the most appealing to him or her.

Emptor decernit.

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The Zero Evolution XLR system with its EVO ground block accessory. (Image courtesy of TARA Labs)

Having said all of that, the TARA Labs Zero Evolution and Omega Evolution have clearly established themselves in my "top o' the heap" category, and with ease. My listening with a large variety of sources (from three different reference grade turntables and DSD all the way out to Quad) indicates that these cables have a crystalline transparency, a speed, a purity, and a dynamic immediacy that you have to hear to believe. These are all audio virtues that are quite important to me, and result in everything from a holographic presentation of the music to a "you-are-there" sense of presence.

This is beyond "spooky good"…the TARA Labs Zero Evolution and Omega Evolution series of cables are in the front edge of the first rank, whether you're looking for unbalanced, balanced, or power cabling. Absolutely killer reference-class performance, and in my experience, ne plus ultra.

A big winner of Brutus Awards for both lines!

TARA Labs Professional Concert Tour Guitar Cable

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The TARA Labs Professional Concert Tour Guitar Cable (image courtesy of TARA Labs)

I've already mentioned the TARA Labs guitar cable in my Brutus Award on the great little Bottlehead Tode guitar amp in part one of my Brutus Awards, but I want to flesh out the virtues of the TL Pro Concert Tour cable. In many ways, it mirrors the strengths of the TARA Labs cables praised above are mirrored in this guitar cable:  It's very transparent, bloody quick, and intensely revealing of everything that your pickups toss its way for transmission to your amp. It's also made tough, to handle the demands of a life performing on the road. And this puppy delivers!

Two things:  First, the TL Pro Concert Tour is a bit stiff. Guitarists who are used to limp-rag cables will likely have to get used to the feel and drag of the cable on their guitars. The other thing you'll have to watch is that this cable is also very revealing of EMI/RF, so if your guitar/amp are vulnerable, you'll want to be able to use the usual techniques to knock that down (e.g., grounding methods, guitars with quiet pickups/switching, or settings on your amp). Once you have it correctly paired up, however, you are going to electrify your audiences with crystal lightning! I'm sold!

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A mini-rave here, and a definite winner of a Brutus Award from yours truly!

Skogrand Cables Beethoven interconnects, speaker cables, and AC power cables

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This has really been a year for cables. I don't remember the last time that I was so impressed by so many different reference-grade entries, and had to tip my hat to so many of them.

Another cable company on my short list of "top o' the heap" is Skogrand Cables. Last year, Knut Skogrand impressed me mightily with his Ignis line. This year, he sent along his new reference Beethoven line of cables:  The interconnects, speaker cables, and AC power cables.

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The Skogrand Beethoven reference cables installed on another Brutus Award winner in 2015, the Playback Designs IPS-3. (Photographs by David W. Robinson)

Last year's Ignis cables were exceptional, but the Beethoven cable family set a new high watermark for Skogrand. Highly detailed, stratospheric in presentation and spatiality, and wonderfully dynamic, the Beethoven line peeled back a layer or two from the Ignis, showing that there was a greater resolution and resultant transparency to be gained. Ever and always, cable improvements seem to bring us closer and closer to the ideal:  The original signal itself, as encoded in our recordings. And that's as it should be.

Hats off to Knut Skogrand! Skogrand Cable is definitely a member of my short-list "top o' the heap!" cable companies. And that's an exalted group, amigos.

A definite Brutus Award winner for 2015!

Kubala-Sosna Realization USB cable

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The Kubala-Sosna Realization reference USB cable, in place in my reference stereo listening room, doing splendid work with our LampizatOr Golden Gate DSD DAC. (Photograph by David W. Robinson)

Speaking of cutting-edge and state-of-the-art, Kubala-Sosna's new reference-grade USB cable, the Realization, is there…really there. The Realization excels in all aspects of audio reproduction…transparency, tonal and harmonic juiciness, organic wholosity, quickness, dynamics, holodeck-level soundstaging, and spot-on imaging…with no weaknesses that I've been able to hear in the months that I've had it in continuous use here. Not only that, it's also trim and nicely flexible, which makes it a pleasure to handle and convenient to route. No garden hose this time around!

Somehow, bits ain't bits…or, at least, what we think we know about digital signal transmission is not doing the job. When it comes to digital audio, and especially DSD, over USB (or over Ethernet, for that matter), cables do make a difference. A very clear, and very large difference. Those of you who wrestle with the idea that cables make a significant difference in fine audio…especially with digital signals…should try a simple test. Take a cheap, generic USB cable, and a reference-grade cable like the Realization. Listen with the generic USB cable in your playback system…then substitute the Realization. Don't change anything else.

See what you think.

(If you can't hear a difference, then it's time to schedule that hearing test that you've been putting off…you're in a world of hurt, amigo!)

Meanwhile, the rest of us can appreciate the fact that a cable like the Realization can revolutionize your USB-based DAC experience. It certainly did here.

Let me be blunt:  The Kubala-Sosna Realization Reference USB Cable is absolutely the best USB cable that I've heard to date. You can quote me on that…and you can take it to the bank.

A Brutus Award in 2015 for Kubala-Sosna!

Synergistic Research Active Ethernet SE cable

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SR's Active Ethernet SE cable in action with our Dell 2808 Managed Switch in our new network topology at PF Central. (Photograph by Robinson)

Synergistic Research bushwhacked me this year with a combination of six components, one of which was an extraordinary cable:  the SR Active Ethernet SE cable. This is a specially constructed Ethernet cable for audio functions, with tuning filter and active shielding. I covered my reactions to this cable in my review elsewhere this issue HERE. Go there for the details of this exceptional cable, another one of the "if you can't tell the difference between this cable and generic CAT6 Ethernet, you need an ear transplant" kind of things. (See my comments on the Kubala-Sosna Realization above...same order of magnitude improvement.)

This was the Ethernet cable of my GOB SMACKED moment in my listening room here in 2015.

A Brutus Award winner, for sure!

Accessories

Synergistic Research Atmosphere with ATM, Black Box, Grounding Box, HFT's, and MiG 2.0 Footers

The rest of my GOB-SMACKING moment with Synergistic Research was with the other five Brutus Award winners in this sterling project…

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The Synergistic Research Grounding Block (image courtesy of Synergistic Research)

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The Synergistic Research Mechanical Interface Grounding (MiG) 2.0 feet with UEF technology (image courtesy of Synergistic Research)

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The iPad app interface for the Synergistic Research Atmosphere with ATM (photograph by David W. Robinson)

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The Synergistic Research Atmosphere with ATM on top (photograph by David W. Robinson)

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The Synergistic Research Black Box (image courtesy of Synergistic Research)

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The Synergistic Research array of Core Digital Active cables (image courtesy of Synergistic Research)

Yes, this is quite a stack of Brutus Awards. In fact, the six that I gave to SR this year ties with Walker Audio for the most Brutus Awards won in a single year.

For the details of my GOB BLASTING experiences with SR, see my full review elsewhere in this issue, HERE.

Brutus Awards well deserved, and enthusiastically given!

Audio Desk Systeme Vinyl Cleaner ($3995)

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The Audio Desk Systeme Vinyl Cleaner (photograph by David W. Robinson)

As a vinyl lover for over 45 years now, I've spend years with LP cleaning machines. Ever since discovering the world of high-end audio, I've tried all sorts of approaches. Disregarding my early experiments with spray-and-brush approaches, all of which were more or less execrable, I started with a Nitty Gritty Vacuum Cleaning machine. I had this for a handful of years early on, and it gave me something a step or two up from gooey spray-and-brush solutions.

The time came in the mid-90s to upgrade, and through the kind graces of the Weisfelds at VPI, I made a major upgrade to the VPI 17F, which was a heavier-duty machine, and was definitely a better clean. I still have it…it still runs like a champ some twenty years later.

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I experimented with a number of cleaning solutions, each more or less effective. I finally upgraded to the Walker Audio Prelude Record Cleaning system, a multi-solution brush-with-VPI-17F approach that was time-intensive, but yielded fabulous results. If you had the time and the elbow grease, Lloyd Walker's approach was certainly effective. Walker Audio won a Brutus Award for the Prelude system, but I knew that not everyone would be willing to exert the time and effort that it entailed.

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Then a few years ago, at the behest of a friend in the audio biz, I brought in the Audio Desk Systeme (ADS) Vinyl Cleaner. Built in Germany, the ADS had developed a reputation as a superior record cleaning system. It combines elements of several different approaches:  A special cleaning solution; the use of an ultrasonic vibration method to shake loose dirt and contaminants in solution on both sides simultaneously; vertical rotation to allow the second point; rotating cleaning brushes to physically scrub the surface of the LP; a squeegee to clear the solution from the LP and keep the fluid from contaminating your labels; and a vacuum to suction off the residual liquid. All of this is controlled by a program that makes it very simple to simply press a button and let the ADS unit do the rest. (Note that the ADS cleaner is limited to 12" LPs.)

I think of the ADS Vinyl Cleaner as a "belt-plus-suspenders" approach to LP maintenance. Since it uses a number of different techniques, there are those audiophiles who will be reassured by the array of approaches. Don't underestimate this effect; it is impressive to watch the ADS in action!

I'll detail my findings shortly in a mini-review. Cutting to the chase, I've had the ADS Vinyl Cleaner here on two different occasions over the past three years. Over that time, I've put countless hours of LP cleaning time on the unit.

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Chad Kassem's brilliant new 45 RPM Peter Gunn after its initial cleaning with the ADS Vinyl Cleaner. Very nice! (Photograph by David W. Robinson)

The results have been quite pleasing, a fine compromise between ease of use, a compact footprint (important to those with smaller spaces) and quality of the cleaning. Reliability has been flawless, and the results always sound very fine.

Remember, too, that this is an all-in-one solution; no additional options are required. I'll reiterate the fact that some audiophiles just aren't comfortable with a record cleaner that doesn't use that belt-plus-suspenders that I've already mentioned. This may well be you. Certainly the ADS Vinyl Cleaner is about as reassuring as it gets, in that regard. It's become well-established and well-respected in its niche; you can buy with confidence. And having put tons of LPs through two different ADS Vinyl Cleaner units over the past three years, I can recommend it highly and without hesitation.

Yes, it's time:  A 2015 Brutus Award for the ADS Vinyl Cleaner!

KLAudio Ultrasonic Record Cleaner KD-CLN-LP200 ($3999.99)

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The KLAudio KD-CLN-LP200 Ultrasonic Record Cleaner in operation:  Sleek, high-tech, and very elegant. (Photograph by David W. Robinson)

Of course, there are alternatives in the world of vinyl cleaning.

In 2015 I got a chance to spend many months with a new ultrasonic record cleaning system that had been so highly regarded by my PF colleague, Senior Assistant Editor Myles Astor. Myles has raved over the KLAudio LP cleaner on a couple of different occasions:  First, the base unit; and then the base unit plus its noise-reducing enclosure. (For the first, see Issue 69 HERE; for the second, see Issue 77 HERE.) It was Myles' published enthusiasm, plus the strongly favorable recommendations of good friends in the industry that piqued my interest in the KLAudio unit. We listen to a lot of LPs here, and I have thousands in my collection. Pristine LPs are really important to me.

I was able to arrange an evaluation, and the KD-CLN-LP200 arrived very shortly thereafter.

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(Image courtesy of KLAudio)

There is an obvious philosophical difference in the approach to record cleaning in this design. The KLAudio LP cleaner sticks to pure ultrasonics and distilled water to do the task. Unlike other cleaning systems that I have used, there are no brushes, no special cleaning solutions, no multiple approaches involved. Instead, KLAudio relies upon a set of multiple ultrasonic transducers with 200 watts of power to provide a strong yet harmless cleaning field for LPs. In fact, the ultrasonic cleaning process is so effective that no cleaning solution is necessary. Distilled water with its relative purity suffices to act as a medium for the ultrasonic waves themselves, and also as a transport for the removal of contaminants.

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(Image courtesy of KLAudio)

Loading the KLAudio is simplicity itself. Once its setup and powered on, then you simply insert your LP vertically into the vertical slot in the chassis. Upon touchdown, the wash process automatically begins…you don't even have to press a button.

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(Image courtesy of KLAudio)

After cleaning, which can be quickly set in a range from 1-5 minutes (or 0 if you like to dry without washing), then a potent vacuum takes over. No squeegee or rollers are used; the LP simply rotates with the vacuum action until done. The drying cycle can be set from 1-5 minutes for drying (or 0 if you want to wash without drying). All of this is done with two patently obvious knobs to set the cleaning and drying interval. (Note that I am using Myles' recommendation of 5 minutes for cleaning and 2 minutes for drying at the current time. It's working great for me. Your mileage may vary, and you may want to experiment.) At the end of the cycle the vacuum shuts off and the KD-CLN-LP200 beeps at you, to let you know that your LP is ready. No muss, no fuss. This is about as simple as it gets, audiofans.

Construction of the unit is exceptionally solid; it takes some muscle to move it. Do not drop it on your foot! The reservoir is welded stainless steel, and the chassis is as solid as a rock. Certainly I've never seen a record cleaner that was built with this much space-age intent combined with such elegant lines. It's a thing of beauty.

Better yet, the KLAudio unit comes with some exceptionally handy options for the KD-CLN-LP200 that extend its utility very significantly, and make the KLAudio Ultrasonic Vinyl Record Cleaner system unique in my experience. These include the following:

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The KLAudio Silencer Enclosure for the KD-CLN-LP200 (image courtesy of KLAudio)

  1. The KLAudio Silencer Enclosure for the KD-CLN-LP200, which significantly reduces the noise produced by the cleaning cycle if this is an issue for you in your setting.

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The KLAudio optional adapter for 7" records (image courtesy of KLAudio)

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The optional 10" record adapter (image courtesy of KLAudio)

  1. The KLAudio 7" and 10" adapters which allow the unit to clean these smaller form factors safely in the 12" slot of the cleaner.

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The KLAudio Automatic Disc Loader for the KD-CLN-LP200 (Image courtesy of KLAudio)

  1. Most impressively…rather mind-blowing, actually…KLAudio also has an Automatic Disc Loader for the KD-CLN-LP200 that will handle up to five (!!!) LPs at a time, without user intervention. The "clean" or "dirty" status of an LP is indicated with colored LEDs, to prevent confusion during batch cleaning. Better yet, you can actually take cleaned LPs out in mid-cycle and replace them with LPs needing cleaning without interrupting the cleaning process; this ingenious device will track which are clean and which are dirty, and will automatically seek out the LPs needing cleaning without assistance. This means that audiophiles and record collectors can clean large batches of records without having to constantly interrupt listening or other tasks to tend their cleaning machines. This is a massive innovation all by itself, one that I wish I had possessed years ago.

Having used the KLAudio LP cleaner since last spring, I'd have to say that I'm knocked out by what they've accomplished here. I'll go further:  Damnation! What's not to adore in the KLAudio Ultrasonic Vinyl Cleaner system?!

It's certainly high-tech, easy to use, no hassle, and has options that I haven't seen all together in one place in this way. The results with my LPs have been spectacular, without exception…ultra-clean right down to the groovy-groove.

The one thing that you'll have to remember, though, is that the KLAudio system, with all the trimmings, will set you back a goodly handful of dollars. If you're on a tight budget, you'll have to look elsewhere.

But if you have a record collection that's large/valuable enough to protect, and if you can swing the funding, I'd recommend that you give the KLAudio KD-CLN-LP200 a bloody hard look. The full system may well be the Holy Grail of record cleaners.

[ADDENDUM:  I had accidentally left out the Oppo HA-2...this omission is herein corrected!]

Oppo Digital HA-2 portable DSD DAC and Headphone Amp

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(Image courtesy of Oppo Digital)

I can’t let 2015 go by without extolling the virtues of this exceptional mighty mite! Once again Oppo has shown itself the master of the handiest and dandiest audio devices, with truly fine quality at a smashing price. The HA-2 is a portable DSD DAC and headphone amp capable of accepting up to Quad DSD, DXD, or up to 192/24 PCM files via its mini-USB port and an external player (e.g., Media Center 21 on a notebook), as well as Android devices. It supports Apple iTunes files via its Lightning connection.

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(Image courtesy of Oppo Digital)

 

The battery is powerful, and quick-charging, and can even help to power other devices. The volume control comes with two output ranges, and is quite definite and smooth in operation. Up to 300mW is available for lower impedance ‘phones. The sound quality is quite fine, especially in DSD mode. The ESS Sabre chipset does especially well at the higher DSD rates. Bass boost available for in-ear monitors or headphones that need a bit of help at the lower end.

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(Image courtesy of Oppo Digital)

If you listen to a lot of iTunes files, then you’ll find that you get noticeably better sound by routing your iPhone or iPad to the HA-2 via Lightning…the audio chipset in those devices just isn’t in the same league as the Oppo HA-2. Why suffer needlessly?

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Not only does the HA-2 sound great, but it looks really good, as well. Its handsome stitched leather cover is attractive and feels right in the hand. The main chassis is aluminum, and so the heft and balance is there, as well. And all of this for $299.00 retail?

Need I say more? Why are you still sitting there...?!

A definite PF Brutus Award winner for this year!

[Stay tuned for Part 3 of my Brutus Awards...the conclusion!]

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