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Impressions: Robinson's Brutus Awards for 2015, Part 3

12-04-2015 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 82

[Here's the final installment of my Brutus Awards for 2015. It covers software, music, and our special PF Lifetime Achievement Award (posthumous) for my dear friend, Bobby Palkovic.

This has been a ton of writing to complete the Brutus Awards this year; I hope that you find them to be helpful as you continue in your own audio journey.]

 

Software

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JRiver Media Center 21

Once again, JRiver's Media Center and JRemote package for Windows garners my Brutus Award for the best audio system that I've used in 2015. I've come to rely on the combination of Media Center and JRemote to handle my digital audio file playback over a handful of years now, and to do this wirelessly from my iPad, and haven't been disappointed.

This year I went to version 21 of Media Center, while at the same time upgrading our i7-based HP multimedia notebook to Windows 10. (What crazy courage!) MC 21, which is fully compatible with Windows 10, behaved magnificently, but the Windows 10 upgrade...well, there are some things that could have been better. After some banging on the Microsoft pipes, I was able to make the Windows 10 upgrade work well, and all has been fine ever since.

MC 21 handles up to Quad DSD, DXD, and up to 192/24 PCM without a problem, once it has been properly configured for your setup. All DSD handling is Native DSD…no PCM in the loop…again, if properly configured. Note that there is a version available for the Mac, and so Apple users are not shut out of the game.

Congratulations to Jim Hillegass, Matt Ashland, and company for a exceptionally fine product!

There's nothing to add:  Media Center 21 and JRemote are repeat winners of a Brutus Award this year.

 

Recordings/Record Companies/Download Sites

As usual with my Brutus Awards, there are also some record labels that I would like to recognize with my Brutus Awards for their significant accomplishments and releases in 2015. These are listed in alphabetical order.

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2L – No surprise here at all! Morten Lindberg and company have continued their tradition of producing brilliant and moving new recordings. I particularly appreciate the fact that Morten and company don't just produce the same war horse classical standards, and instead have explored remarkable new compositions, especially from their beloved Scandinavia. I have real regard for their DXD (352.8kHz PCM) recordings, which are usually also offered in SACD/DSD format (which I prefer to the Blu Ray versions), for their clarity, purity, and superior sound. This year has seen 2L move all the way to Quad DSD from their DXD masters. My listening indicates that 2L's Quad versions, produced via Merging Technologies ADDA's, are exceptional.

As I noted last year, Morten has a gift for selecting wonderful venues, and producing lovely, dynamic performances with extraordinary art. My praise for Morten Lindberg and these exemplary recordings! Encore, my friend!

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Acoustic Sounds/Analogue Productions/Quality Record Pressings – As I said last year, Chad Kassem and company continue to top my list of Brutus awards for their remarkable output of both original recordings and reissues, done under their Analogue Productions DBA. Their reissues are my personal reference the finest done, year in and year out. Quality Record Pressings (QRP) continues to blow my mind with 200 grams of sonic bliss in both 33.3 and 45 RPM flavors. I've been very taken with the excellence of their work on all three of our reference turntables here at the present time:  The KRONOS Pro LE with Black Beauty tonearm and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme MC; the Wave Kinetics NVS turntable with the Durand Telos Composite Tonearm and Ortofon Anna MC; and the Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond (Level V) with the Soundsmith Hyperion MI cartridge.

This year, I was especially hammered by three of their 200 grams titles in particular:  Duke Ellington's Masterpieces by Ellington (33 RPM mono…though it doesn't sound like mono!); Dean Martin's Dream with Dean (45 RPM stereo), and Nina Simone's Little Girl Blue (33 RPM stereo).

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(All images in this section courtesy of Acoustic Sounds)

These are all absolutely killer LPs! If you don't have them in your music collection, then you simply haven't heard what the current state-of-the-art in record production sounds like. And the SACDs are spectacular!

Fight ignorance:  Buy these albums!

I'm also a huge fan of Chad's ongoing RCA Living Stereo reissues, a long-standing project that is a huge service to audiophiles and music lovers everywhere. And now Analogue Productions has added some key titles from the Decca series as a project (SACD only), things just keep getting better and better. As I noted last year, and will echo again now, Chad and company make every effort to assure the very best sources for these albums, provenance being a huge behind-the-scenes war between the major labels and reissue projects. (Don't believe it, try starting a reissue company yourself.) Superb mastering, flat LPs and bloody low groove noise and freedom from tics-n-pops. As it should be!

Also of serious interest to LP lovers was the massive investment that Chad made in purchasing 13 (!!!) additional record pressing machines for Quality Record Pressings. This effectively doubles the production capacity of QRP, which has been buried increasingly in pressing projects, due to the huge increase in LP sales over the past few years. All of us who love LPs are dancing over this news!

The Analogue Productions SACDs continue to maintain the very highest standards for quality of the transfer and for related materials (art work, notes, and packaging). 2015 saw a continued floodtide of SACD titles (usually in parallel with LP reissues, as I've plaudited above), without a bogus disc at this end. I always purchase Analogue Productions SACDs with enthusiastic confidence; you can do so, as well.

A big-time Brutus Award for Chad and companies here!

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Audio Fidelity – Another smashing year for Audio Fidelity! Some of my favorite A&R comes from AF, and this year was no exception. The AF titles concentrate mainly on rock, pop, movie soundtracks, and titles that are pretty well known. I'm sitting here with a stack of Audio Fidelity SACDs from this year that's nearly three feet high…they keep me very happy!

Anyone who bitches that they "can't find real music on SACD" should check out the AF inventory. There's lots of "real music" here! As always, the discs show the legendary care of audio engineers and artisans like Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray, and Bob Ludwig. They'll re-groove your ears and recalibrate your sensibilities as to what the real thing sounds like.

Audio Fidelity deserves my recognition for their superior A&R and the work that they've done in 2015, providing us with many albums that haven't been on SACD before. And they're continuing to provide some multi-channel SACDs…don't miss any one of these.

Another Brutus Award given; keep up the great work, gents!

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Blue Coast Music – Meanwhile, back on the Lefty Coast, Cookie Marenco and crew have been carrying on with righteousness:  Educating the general public about DSD, providing free DSD samples, doing some transfers from analog to DSD, and are also producing many new titles in Single, Double, and Quad DSD. The BCR recordings and transfers from analogue tape, produced using the excellent Merging Technologies HAPI ADDA, really set a standard for the REAL THING. Her site, with their store, is a great mall shop for a number of different types and titles of music.

Cookie is a very gifted producer and recordist; once again in 2015, I strongly recommend her work in DSD or SACD.

Cookie Marenco and company are doing brilliant work:  A richly-deserved Brutus Award to them!

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Channel Classics – The great CC juggernaut rolls on! As I wrote last year, Jared Sacks of the Netherlands-based Channel Classics has been knocking me out with his brilliant classical recordings in DSD for years now. There are so many of them now that it's no longer possible to mention my favorites…where would I start?! His work to further DSD has made him perhaps the most active of the artists behind DSD as the ultimate download format, and even got him a surprise Knighthood by the King and Queen of The Netherlands just the other day! This was for his stellar services to further music and the recording arts among the Dutch. Hear, hear! Richly deserved! Wish I had been there.

Jared and company have continued to add a growing number of multi-channel DSD downloads to their site, allowing those of us who treasure m/c DSD playback to add to their collections. The results at this end continue to be top-notch in our surround-sound room. Using the USB DSD playback option on the Oppo Digital BDP-105 Darbee Edition has allowed me to turn that room into a lovely concert hall-like experience!

Another Brutus Award for Sir Jared Sacks and Channel Classics in 2015!

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High Definition Tape Transfers – Bob Witrak of HDTT just rolls on! HDTT is another standard-setter for exceptional analog-to-DSD transfers of some superb, lesser-known recordings…in many cases from well-known major artists…at very reasonable prices. There are Single, Double, and Quad DSD recordings available, and at reasonable prices. Nice job, Bob!

The HDTT site continues to allow us to browse and purchase classical and jazz albums easily. The interface is easily navigated, and the A&R for classical and jazz aficionados is attractive. My collection of true reference recordings for review work is greatly enhanced with my HDTT titles. Stellar!

If you haven't visited HDTT, then you are really missing out, amigos!

An obvious Brutus Award winner….

Mobile Fidelity – Here's another no-brainer. Mobile Fidelity is the old man of audiophile reissue companies, and one of the premier brands in high-end audio. MoFi has been reissuing great LPs, CDs, and SACDs for many moons now. After their brief collapse into bankruptcy back in 1999, the reorganized Mobile Fidelity emerged in 2001 under the ownership of Music Direct. Since that time, they have reissued a number of great titles in SACD and LP formats.

Their A&R has been impressive for a long time, and there has been no change in that in 2015, much to the dismay of my Business Manager. The list of great A&R goes on and on for both SACDs and LPs. No DSD downloads though…I consider that to be missed opportunity for MoFi, and have told them so. Every company has to choose its own ground, I reckon….

Another Brutus Award for the Chicago-Sebastopol Gang!

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NativeDSD.com

Jared Sacks and company have continued their brilliant enterprises in DSD downloads, not only on their Channel Classics site, but also at their independent site DSD download mall site called NativeDSD.com. As of press time, they are up to 38 different labels, quite an impressive achievement. With mall sites like NativeDSD.com, you get the convenience of going to a single URL to access a number of different labels and their DSD downloads. In this case, Jared Sacks and company have assembled a fine array of labels, all with albums that are either in DSD (at Single, Double, and Quad resolutions) or DXD, the ultra-high resolution PCM format.

NativeDSD offers both stereo and multi-channel (where available) versions of their DSD downloads, and in as many flavors of DSD as is possible. The interface to select the version or versions that you desire is quite intuitive, and makes shopping here quite pleasant. The transaction system works well, and the downloading is reliable.

I am extremely impressed by the sophistication of the NativeDSD.com mall site, and by the growing content of the music that is there. If you'd like to try before you buy, there are free sample tracks there regularly…you can try it out for yourself.

This site has it all, and will only get larger over time.

NativeDSD.com is an honored Brutus Award winner for 2015!

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Opus3 Records/DSDfile.com

Jan-Eric Persson of Opus3 Records is no slouch. He and DSDfile.com hopped onto the DSD download bandwagon back at Genesis 1:1. Before that, his SACDs and LPs were a delight…I have a ton of his work! As I noted last year, he even sells some open reel tapes of his open reel master tapes, his "Analogue Masters" series. (In fact, I have another one on its way to me now.) When DSD downloads came along, Jan-Eric tried it out and was knocked out by the quality that Double DSD produced. He and his associates therefore set up a download site, DSDfile.com, and began offering Single and Double DSD files.

The results have been knock-out! I have a number of the Double DSD albums from Jan-Eric, and I can tell you that they continue to be simply superb, and are reasonably priced. Jan-Eric just informed me that he did his first direct-to-Double-DSD recording in multi-channel! So far as we know, he's the first to have done so with the equipment that he's using:  The Tascam DSD recorder.

Opus3 Records continues to take their catalog to the next level; I strongly recommend that you try Jan-Eric's recordings in Double DSD. I don't think that there's any way that you could possibly regret it.

A 2015 PF Brutus Award winner, quite enthusiastically!

SHM-SACD (Universal Music Japan)

I have been following Universal Music Japan's DSD releases on SHM-SACD for more than just a few years now. I love great A&R…as we all should do, no?…and Universal Japan has been serving that up all along. We're getting to see the sort of titles that Universal might have released had Sony not mucked (a more polite word) up SACD when they did.

2015 saw a continuation of SHM-SACD releases, and an expansion of US distribution via Acoustic Sounds. Note that SHM-SACDs are truly purist discs, exceptional in their construction. SHM stands for "Super High Material," since the material used for the transmission layer on the disc is a more transmissive polycarbonate, and not the standard material used on SACDs. The disc has only the stereo version of the recording…no multi-channel…and also no CD layer, so it isn't a hybrid SACD.

Stereo only, DSD only, period.

The notes with the disc are very good, with the usual attention to quality and detail that we see so often with Japanese reissues. Last year I suggested the Universal Japan provide some sort of statement about how the transfer to DSD was done. I am pleased to say that someone seems to have been listening:  This year, the notes in the SHM-SACDs provided a statement that the DSD was produced from "flat transfer from the original (country of origin) master tape."

That's more like it!

As I said last year, these are very limited production runs…I would guess that we're seeing something like 2,500 SHM-SACDs per title. Many have already sold out, including the terrific 2014 album, Tears For Fears' Songs From the Big Chair. And now that Acoustic Sounds is selling these via their very fine site, you can expect the SHM-SACDs to go more quickly. This means that you have to jump on the SHM-SACDs that you like, as you may not be able to get it later.

Be aware:  The SHM-SACDs are not cheap. Acoustic Sounds lists them for USD $59.98 per SHM-SACD. Naturally, I do wish that the price was lower, but I have some sense of the economics of reissues that are done at this very high level of quality, and at lower production runs. It really puts pressure on the price, in order to amortize the costs. Given the fact that 45 RPM reissues often run up to $50 and more a pop for the really good stuff, I'm willing to ante up for the kind of A&R that Universal Japan is offering.

Apart from that, I have really enjoyed the sheer music variety, and the general quality of the transfers that I'm hearing.

Once again, Universal Japan's SHM-SACDs are definite PF Brutus Award winners in 2015.

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SuperHirez

It's for sure:  Chad Kassem's launch of SuperHirez.com was a huge breakthrough for high-resolution downloads, especially for DSD. (Now, even HDTracks has followed Chad's lead, starting their releases of DSD titles years after Chad launched his site. Better late than never, I reckon.) In 2015, SuperHirez made major strides in releasing more major titles from Sony Music, Blue Note, Universal Music Group, and an increasing number of the indies. I'd still like to see more A&R, of course, but the momentum is building, and heading in the right direction.

The prices are generally less than the equivalent SACDs, there is an excellent diversity of genres, and the quality of the A&R, as usual with Chad, continues to be absolutely first-rate. I've added dozens of titles to my collection of DSD downloads, and have used a number of these titles as Single, Double, and now (hallelujah!) Quad DSD reference recordings. This last development is a great accomplishment all by itself.

I'll say it again:  With SuperHirez.com, you can definitely count on solid provenance, high levels of care in transfers and production work, and constant updates to their site with major artists and labels.

This is a top DSD download site for the major A&R, and a painfully obvious repeat winner of one of my Brutus Awards in 2015!

Yarlung Records

The song continues! Bob Attiyeh and Yarlung Records have continued their Quad DSD series of transfers from Bob's masterpieces on analog tape (15 ips half-track quarter-inch tape). Working with Jared Sacks, Tom Caulfield, and the other folks at NativeDSD.com, Bob handles the raw transfers from his master tapes via the industry-leading Merging Technologies HAPI ADDA (which he now owns!) to Quad DSD. The inimitable Tom Caulfield, a Grammy winner himself, does the post-production work, and then sends the DSD files along to NativeDSD for publication. You can find Bob Attiyeh's recordings in Quad DSD for sale HERE.

In fact, Bob's work has been so stellar over the years, and his devotion to music and music education/opportunity for young musicians, that he will be honored by the Los Angeles and Orange County (LAOC) Audio Society in December. This is a real achievement…congratulations on your great work, Bob!

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And far be it from me to overlook the very fine LPs coming from Yarlung Records (though I did in an earlier revision of this article)! I've had several samples of the Yarlung Records LPs, and they are particularly tasty! Pressed in Germany in a meticulous fashion, quiet, flat, and glorious at 180 grams. You can purchase these with confidence...Bob's LPs are definitely reference quality. Spin dem platters!

Yarlung Records repeats as a Brutus Award winner for this year…as it should be!

 

PF Lifetime Achievement Award (Posthumous)

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Bobby Palkovic of Merlin Music (right), pictured here with his dear friend, Rick Brkich of Signature Sound, at RMAF 2012 (photograph and effects by David W. Robinson)

Bobby Palkovic was a dear friend of mine for many years…well back into the 1990s. I had reviewed his speakers, and always visited with him whenever I found him at a show. Sadly, this was less and less often over the years, with health issues plaguing him increasingly. But we had an affectionate relationship. Therefore, it was with shock and deep pain that I learned that Bobby had chosen to commit suicide late this past summer.

There's no point in speculating on the reasons for Bobby's decision. Instead, I choose to remember him as the warm and music-loving audiophile that he was. I also choose to honor his memory with a Positive Feedback Lifetime Achievement Award here at the end of 2015. He poured his creative life into Merlin Music, and his speaker systems. They were always musical, reflecting the spirit and values of their creator, and have brought a lot of pleasure and delight to Merlin Music owners everywhere.

I salute you, Bobby, my good friend!

Malcolm Gomes, who was the last reviewer from PF to work with Bobby, was thoughtful enough to suggest Bobby for this Lifetime Achievement award, and also provided a summary of the reasons for it. I quote him here:

"Positive Feedback is proud to bestow on Bobby Palkovic of Merlin Music Systems its Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his enduring contribution to the High-End Audio Industry.

Mr. Palkovic, affectionately called the "Wizard of Hemlock," is well known amongst audiophiles for the outstanding performance of his Merlin Music TSM (bookshelf) and VSM (floor-standing) speakers. He had an undeniable love and passion for all things audio. He was respected for the great honesty and integrity with which he conducted himself and his business.

Hundreds of Merlin Speaker owners continue to wax lyrical on many blogs, not just about the indubitable aural pleasure that Merlin Music speakers continue to give them, but also about the manner with which Mr. Palkovic took care of them after they became his customers. It is rare to find a Merlin Music Speaker Owner who does not regard Mr. Palkovic as a friend.

I have known Mr. Palkovic for decades, and feel privileged and honored that he considered me a close friend. I was deeply saddened to learn of his passing on August 20th, 2015. Our industry has lost a truly remarkable gentleman.

Although he is no longer with us in person, the legacy he left behind will ensure that his spirit will live on in the minds and hearts of countless audiophiles who feel blessed to have known him, and who are fortunate to own his remarkable sonic creations.    

Malcolm J. Gomes"

Well said, Malcolm.

Bobby, we really miss you….

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