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Impressions:  More of My 2022 Brutus Awards, Part the First

01-16-2023 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 125

The Absence of the Presence. Happy Valley, OR, 2022. Photograph and image processing by David W. Robinson.

About my Brutus Awards…

For years I have reiterated what our PF Brutus Awards represent. This is especially for the benefit of new readers who are unfamiliar with what we have in mind for this special recognition.

Another year…another iteration.

"For those new to Positive Feedback and the Brutus Awards that Dave and Carol Clark and I give out at the end of each year, here's the scoop. Quoting from myself, quoting myself in January of 2020 (Issue 107…my Awards were a few weeks late last year):

"The Brutus Awards are given at the end of each year, in recognition of the best high-end audio gear that Dave Clark and I as Editors of Positive Feedback have had in our own listening rooms for evaluation during that calendar year. These are entirely our own subjective choices, based on our own tastes in what's righteous…and what's not…."

Dave Clark, Carol Clark, and I "…instituted the Positive Feedback Brutus Awards way back in the mists of time…yonder in 2003. And every year, for the new readers who have joined us, I review the parameters of the Brutus Awards, so that everyone knows what they mean, and what guidelines direct Dave [and Carol] Clark's and my choices.

As I said in 2016: '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!

[And] as [we] said in Positive Feedback 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.'"

But life goes on, and I've come a long way since these foundations were laid. Last year I reflected on "them changes":

"As my Brutus Awards and their accompanying annual photo-essays have developed over the years, they have changed into reflections on the products, recordings, and people that I have come to respect during the course of a year…or over the years. I have become more introspective as time has gone by, and my comments this year will continue along this way.

Not narrowly technical, but also very personal."

Thus the foundations of the Brutus Awards.

COVID interrupted my annual search for candidate audio designs. I didn't attend any audio shows in 2020, mainly because there weren't any shows running that I was interested in. 2021 wasn't better; many cancellations due to ongoing COVID concerns meant that 2021 would be a near mirror image of 2020, to the dismay of all.

2022 saw improvements in COVID cases, and was the first year of some very light show going for me. I didn't go to AXPONA 2022, because, well, Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and declining masking. What I did attend was Lou Hinkley and Gary Gill's new Pacific Audio Fest, which was a really great time, and allowed me to arrange for some new products for future evaluations.

But here, at the end of this year (and throughout…see below), I can still give merited praise to what's been in my listening rooms and spaces throughout 2022. I can give alerts to our readers to worthwhile new designs and prospects in the audio arts, ones that they should be aware of.

This is what we're about with our Brutus Awards. Certainly, anything that I mention as a Brutus Award winner is well worth your remembrance and further exploration in the future. If you think of my Brutus Awards as advance scouting reports, and not as pompous pronouncements from on high (there's too much of that in high-end publishing, as it is), then you'll have the proper perspective for applying what you read here.

As always, note that often my comments in my Brutus Awards are my review of the review sample in question. Not everything requires an extensive write-up, and I don't do hype.

…and some changes in how I announce them, beginning in 2022

Having said all of this, you should be aware of the fact that I've been taking a different tack with my Brutus Awards, beginning here in 2022. No longer will I withhold Brutus Awards from early in the year, and publish them only at the end of the year.

For the past year, my Brutus Awards are given in real time, and have been throughout this year. There are still many outstanding products left to mention, however…so time to get on with an initial installment. (More to come after this, as I clear my desk.)

YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3i Loudspeakers

The YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3i Loudspeakers

Back in late April of 2021, I took delivery of a pair of loudspeakers from YG Acoustics that looked quite promising for my listening room. These were the Sonja 2.3i's, with their new and improved crossover as well as a new and seriously improved tweeter. YG sent Dick Diamond and Gary Mulder to do the setup in my reference listening room; believe me, given the size and weight of these speakers, this was no little thing.

Not that this was the first time that I'd worked with YGA, nor would it be the last time in 2021 that I would see the good folks there. For a summary of my history and experiences with YGA, check out my article about my trip there from October of 2021. You can read that HERE.

As you can see, I've spent a lot of time with YG's products in my listening room, and have always been impressed with the results. Furthermore, any audio show that I visit in which they are in attendance will see my face entering their door…usually more than once. As a result, YG Acoustics has harvested a number of my PF Brutus Awards and my PF Audio Oasis! Awards.

The initial setup of the YG Acoustics 2.3i Loudspeakers

Dick and Gary did the delivery setup using the following components:

  • aqua acoustics Formula xHD DAC
  • Wolf Audio Alpha 3SX Music Server using JRiver's Media Center
  • Dohmann Audio Helix Two
  • Merrill Audio Christine Preamplifier
  • Merrill Audio Element 118 Monoblocks
  • YG Acoustics Rack Series with four shelves
  • YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3i Loudspeakers in anodized black finish
  • GamuT Audio Loudspeaker Cables
  • Synergistic Research Atmosphere

Specifications (from the YG Acoustics Web site)

  • Deviation: ±1 dB in the audible band. ±5° relative phase throughout entire overlap. Exceptional pair-matching. Usable output extends from below 20 Hz to above 40 kHz
  • Drivers: BilletDome ultra-low-distortion tweeter with ForgeCore motor. BilletCore ultra-high-rigidity woofer and midrange. Woofers are dual 26cm (10.25") and the midranges are dual 15cm (6")
  • Filters: Sonja 2.3i is fully-passive. Proprietary DualCoherent 2 crossover at 65 Hz and 1.75 kHz. Designed using software developed in-house. ViseCoil bass inductors reduce residual loss and improve linearity for greater bass impact and an easier job for most amplifiers. ToroAir inductors eliminate cross-talk
  • Sensitivity: 88dB
  • Impedance: 4 Ohms nominal, 3 Ohms minimum
  • Dimensions: 70 x 17 x 28" (H x W x D), 179 x 43 x 72cm (H x W x D)
  • Weight: 452lbs per speaker, 205kg per speaker
  • Color Options: Sonja 2.3i is available in three finish types: anodization, ChromALure, and high gloss paint.

The YG Acoustics Rack Series, this one with three shelves; I used the four-shelf version for the listening here (image courtesy of YG Acoustics)

In addition to the loudspeakers, YG Acoustics had sent along their Rack Series 4-Shelf version. I've had some very fine racks here over the years, and the YG Rack certainly fit into the top-notch of the ones that I've used. The Wolf Audio Alpha 3SX Music Server with the aqua acoustics Formula xHD DAC, for example, showed to great advantage with the Rack Series 4-Shelf, showing a precision of imaging and a freedom from smearing that was quite notable. Ditto the Alpha 3SX with the Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC, another very special pairing.

I'll cut right to the chase here. The Sonja 2.3i's are two of the best Loudspeakers that I've ever had in my current listening room…and that experience goes back some 23 years now.

Despite their middling efficiency, these aluminum-based designs cover the full range of musical sound, from just below 20Hz to above 40kHz. The bass is superb: tight, controlled, and yet fulsome, moving one's internals as well as one's soul. The midrange was world-class, being neither warmish nor analytical, and truly uncolored in the critical range of the all-important mids. The upper frequencies were nicely extended regardless of music source, and lent a potent sense of atmospherics to DSD, SACD, and LP playback. This is a true all-around reference standard, as far as I'm concerned. Clearly the new internal crossover and redesigned tweeter have moved the performance of the Sonja 2.3i's into a stratospheric, world-class reference range.

With setup by Dick and Gary, imaging was pinpoint in nature, while the soundstage produced was beyond that, well into the category of soundspace. There was a three-dimensionality to the music, wrapping around me and above at the listening position. I would tend to expect this, given the quality of the supporting electronics (Merrill Audio, aqua acoustics, Wolf Audio, and Audionet).

Given this level of sonic achievement, there's no doubt about it. The YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3i is an obvious winner of one of my Brutus Awards for 2022! A world-class reference, for sure. And ditto their Rack Series 4-Shelf model…very useful, very transparent, and quite tasty.

T+A HA 200 Headphone Amp and DAC with Solitaire P Headphones

It's funny how some (a few?) audio components get under your skin and into your heart.

In my case, this is so with the superb T+A HA 200 Headphone Amp/DAC and their Solitaire P Headphones. The combination of a headphone amp that's chock full of features with a world-class reference-level planar-magnetostatic set of 'phones make for an intensely seductive listening experience.


In my experience, T+A always produces audio equipment of the highest order, with specs that impress. With the Solitaire P, the score sheet looks like this, taken from the T+A Web site:

  • Solitaire P Planar-magnetostatic headphones
  • Impedance: 80 Ohms
  • Frequency response: 5Hz - 54kHz
  • Distortion: < 0,015 % @ 100 dB
  • Type of construction open, over ear

Likewise, the HA 200 Headphone Amp/DAC has a first-rate set of specs and features:

HA 200 Headphone Amplifier DAC

  • D/A-Converter: PCM: Double-Differential-Quadruple Converter up to 32-Bit/768kHz. DSD: T+A True 1-Bit Converter, native Bitstream up to DSD 1024 (49.2 MHz)
  • Digital Inputs: USB Audio Input, AES-EBU, BNC, Coax, TOS-Link, HDMI (optional). USB Receiver conforming to UAC2 and UAC3 standards
  • Digital Section: Separate PCM and DSD signal paths and processing. Additional Non-Oversampling DAC mode (NOS-DAC)
  • Amplifier: Double Mono "State-of-the-Art” discrete HV Amp technology. Pure Class A power stage. 3 separately switchable outputs (Pentaconn, 4-pin balanced XLR, 6.3mm barrel socket). Adjustable output impedance. Frequency response + 0 / − 3 dB, 0.1Hz – 200kHz
  • Special Features: Complete galvanic separation between digital and analogue section

Over the past year plus, the T+A HA 200/Solitaire P has become a real go-to combination for headphone use. I've put countless hours on these designs, having run everything from DSD1024 to PCM 192kHz/24-bit PCM through them.

Talk about a Swiss Army Knife of Headphones! Three outputs, instantly switchable, accommodate most headphone connectors. The HA 200 not only does remarkably well with the Solitaire P's…you would expect that, of course…but it has also sounded grand with every other non-electrostatic headphone that I've pair with it. (Electrostats are a different beastie entirely, and require a very different headphone amp. Mine is the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii with NOS tubes. Lovely with the Dan Clark Audio VOCEs!) No exceptions. Dan Clark Audio, Focal, Sendy Audio, Grado…all sound smashing. It pairs easily with JRiver's Media Center (I'm using version 29, currently), and runs like a charm via USB to my Dell 7920 Tower Workstation. I haven't had any problems at all with the T+A kit. It has been trouble-free entirely reliable during its entire time here.

Not all designs can claim that.

The HA 200/Solitaire P combination particularly excels in several key areas: dynamics, tonal balance and rightness, neutrality, and precision imaging. The Solitaire P was clearly made for a platform like the HA 200, but that's no surprise. What is surprising is how complementary the HA 200 was with so many other headphones. Special standouts were the Dan Clark Audio Stealths and the Sendy Audio Peacocks, the latter of which sets the mark for a warm and always-musical presentation at a very reasonable price. (Read my review HERE for the details.)

The price for the HA 200 Amp/DAC is USD $9,650. The Solitaire P will set you back $6,900.

No, definitely not cheap, but also not the most expensive headphone system that I have seen. If you are looking for an exceptional and reference-level combination of designs that will give you a startling headphone experience, and can afford this price range, then look no further. T+A has the solution…one that is truly unique in my experience.

It also bears away another one of my 2022 Positive Feedback Brutus Awards, given with real enthusiasm. This is stellar stuff!

Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC

The Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC

Every now and then I get bushwhacked by a new product that I had never heard of before. It happened again this past year, and from a quarter that was terra incognita. Denafrips was a company that I had read about, but had never encountered here. Their Terminator Plus turned out to be one of the biggest surprises in DACs that I encountered in the past year or so.


Specifications can be found HERE. These are worth perusing, as they give a profile of a very interesting design. A R-2R DAC with its own method of handling DSD (all the way out to DSD1024), and PCM to 1,536kHz. Both of these are current state-of-the-art resolutions for each music format. The proprietary R-2R with full DSD support explores the possibilities of R-2R instead of more common Delta Sigma converters or the less common Field Programmable Gate Array converters.

The face of the Terminator Plus is not the usual sort of thing, with screens or informational displays. Instead, there are a series of LED indicators, showing current musical type and resolution.

Alpha 3SX image courtesy of Wolf Audio

I listened to the Terminator Plus in tandem with the very fine Wolf Audio Alpha 3SX Music Server, which runs JRiver's Media Center on an optimized-for-audio Windows 10 platform. Our Alpha 3SX was upgraded to an enhanced version with electronic and physical isolation, high-performance I/O, and additional RAM, as in:

  • i7-9700 CPU
  • 32GB 3000MHz RAM
  • 1TB System Drive
  • 2TB Audio Drive (4TB Audio Standard on Pure Digital Edition) – Expandable to 48TB
  • Power Portals for AC Filtration
  • Stillpoints Isolators under critical componentry
  • Constrained Layer Damping
  • EMF/RFI Rejection Materials
  • FluX Capacitor USB Clock Card

The external components included the Audionet Stern Preamp and Heisenberg Amps, Merrill Audio's Christine Preamp, the YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3i Loudspeakers, YG Acoustics Rack Series 4-Shelf, cables from Synergistic Research's SRX line, Kubala-Sosna, and GamuT. Power conditioning was courtesy of Synergistic Research's PowerCell SX. The entire system was connected to our Positive Feedback QNAP 1273U NAS in RAID5 configuration, which currently allows for 84TB of storage space. (Further expansion is possible.) This allowed me to hear the terabytes of DSD and PCM music files that we have here for reference listening and reviewing over a period of a number of months.

Skipping the tech, of interest mainly to tech heads, and the hype, of interest mainly to marketing minds, I can say that I was quite surprised and really taken by the quality of the Terminator Plus DAC. The external interface did require some getting used to...no screens or displays...but once I had the feel for the various combinations of the LED indicators, I found that I could ignore the change. And given the fact that I had a 22" screen plus keyboard for the Wolf Audio Alpha 3SX right at hand for serving the music, it really wasn't an issue.

The Alpha 3SX and Terminator Plus were a highly synergistic combination, and showed it for months as I listened to many hours of DSD (and less of PCM). The foundational silence for the music was really noticeable, as was the transparency and crystalline clarity of every recording that I passed through the combination. I noticed a distinct lack of any coloration, regardless of the recording, and yet doing so without yielding up musicality…quite an accomplishment. The dynamics were effortless, while the precision of the Terminator Plus's imaging was quite notable.

I searched for a weakness for months as I listened to the Terminator Plus, but confess that—apart from the aforementioned somewhat confusing front panel indicator system—I couldn't spot anything. Very, very impressive…my compliments to Alvin Lee and company for such a formidable design and such flawless execution of same. Highly commendable.

Overall, the Terminator Plus DAC provides massive performance for its price of approximately USD $6500. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the best DAC that I've heard in its price range…let's say USD $4000 to USD $7000. The Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC is a true giant killer, one that took me by surprise. The more I listened, the more I loved it.

And so, one of my 2022 Brutus Awards goes to the Denafrips Terminator Plus DAC, with real respect.

More Brutus Awards to come shortly...