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Impressions: Robinson's Brutus and Special Awards for 2017, Part the Third

12-22-2017 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 95

Impressions Robinson Brutus Awards 2017 Part Third

Music/Labels, and Other Special Awards

This year's list of Brutus Awards for labels/sites/enterprises is going to look a lot like past years.


Easy. "The best indicator of future performance is usually past performance," as a friend of mine once said. And these recipients all have histories of getting it done.

On to it, then.

Acoustic Sounds/Analogue Productions/QRP/SuperHirez.com

Gee, what a non-surprise. I have to lead off with Chad Kassem and his team from Acoustic Sounds. Not only has Analogue Productions and QRP been producing a solid stream of grand-slam LPs, but Analogue Productions has been doing the same with reference-grade SACDs throughout the year. And if you don't want physical media, then SuperHirez.com has the great downloads in both DSD and PCM formats.

And now:  The Ultra Tape series, which has now set the global benchmark for the highest level of reel-to-reel tapes for audiophiles and music lovers.

Chad's company is, in my estimation, the leading provider and producer of audiophile-grade recordings in all key formats. This 2017 Brutus Award is richly deserved!


Jared Sacks at RMAF 2014:  A portrait

Another I-didn't-have-to-think-about-it winner:  the good folks at NativeDSD.com! Anyone who's followed their development in 2017 knows that they've been producing state-of-the-art DSD downloads, in pure native DSD, or in transfers from analog master tapes. There are no compromises here; no conversions from lower-rate PCM sources are allowed.

The results are superlative. Dozens of labels now occupy their site, with more being added all the time. This means that NativeDSD.com really acts as an online shopping portal for DSD lovers worldwide, and not just an outlet for a single label.

I have downloaded dozens of titles this year, and have not found a single one that wasn't excellent. The variety of classical and jazz music is growing all the time.

No doubt about it:  NativeDSD.com is a major player in the world of DSD, and deserves another Brutus Award in 2017!

High Definition Tape Transfers

Bob Witrak's HDTT site remains one of my favorites for lesser-known recordings by great artists (Reiner, Ellington, Starker, Pepper, Walter, Evans, Munch, Leinsdorf, etc.)…classical and jazz…ones that were not distributed via the usual channels back in the day, or who were on smaller labels like Albany Records or International Phonogram.

Bob's transfers from analog tape are magical, showing a remarkable feel for getting the most out of his sources, with the results taken, whenever possible, to Quad DSD (DSD256) with no further engineering. (Of course, with older tapes, this is not always possible.) He has other DSD resolutions, plus recordings available in various flavors of PCM. Window shopping is encouraged!

I should also mention that Bob has also branched out into limited editions of reel-to-reel tape, duped at 1:1 from the master there right there at HDTT! Back in August, I reviewed the first tape in this series, Howard Hanson:  An American Romantic. You'll find my praise for Robert's fine work with this tape at that link. Those of you who are looking for reference-grade RTR tapes really must add this one to your collection! I think it to be indispensable. 

If you have not yet availed yourself of the HDTT site, you should do so ASAP. You'll find some fantastic and unusual audio treasures here.

Blue Coast Records

Carol and Dave Clark with Cookie Marenco (right) at RMAF 2015

Cookie Marenco and her gang at Blue Coast Records have been doing the real thing for years now. Cookie has a long history in audio production, stretching back to her days in the ‘80s with Windham Hill, a label that I still miss. I know her pretty well, and can say that her audio values align nicely with those who love the possibilities of the audio arts. As a producer her work is superb, in either Quad DSD or analog tape.

Check out her BCR Web site, where you can find a long list of her work, going back for years. She has a top-notch crew together, and the fruit of their work is not to be missed.

It's time to tip my hat to her and to the whole crew at Blue Coast Records once again in 2017 with this Brutus Award.



Morten Lindberg and 2L continue their string of Brutus Awards with this year's recognition of their efforts.

What to make of Morten and company? Every year they churn out a number of extraordinary recordings from their home in Norway, and every one of 2L's SACD/Blu Ray discs is a very welcome arrival here at PF River City. Eschewing the predictable, Morten's repertoire of recordings explores the wilds of Nordic music and composers, as well as some of the better-known composers, and takes us all beyond the usual and customary in our listening. His production values are stellar, and he brings a true mastery to production and the recording arts that is very evident to me. Recorded in DXD (352.8kHz PCM), and then taken to various other formats, such as DSD in various rates (my preference) or lower-rate PCM, Morten's work is notable for its crystalline clarity and astonishing musical richness.

2L notes…quite wryly…that Morten has the record for "most Grammy nominations without winning." Right now, he says that he's up to 32…but who's counting?! Me, I say that this tells us that something's wrong with Grammy voters.

Like Jared Sacks of Channel Classics (see below), Morten all-in at the level of soul and passion. For his work as a producer and recording engineer, he and 2L deserve this year's Brutus Award, with great appreciation!

Channel Classics

And speaking of great producers and recording engineers, once again I must raise my glass to praise Jared Sacks of Channel Classics for another brilliant year of great recordings. The continued Fischer/Budapest Mahler cycle alone would be sufficient for one of my Brutus Awards…which is why Jared is receiving this award.

His consummate skill as a producer of everything from solo artists to large symphonies, as well as his considerable art as an audio engineer, make this an easy call. Better yet…and this I praise most highly…his large catalog of recordings has been done for very many years in DSD. He has now graduated to recording albums in Quad DSD, my current reference standard. This means that Jared understands the significance of DSD and the quality that it offer us. Bravo!

If you haven't yet essayed his Channel Classics recordings, either at his home page, or at NativeDSD.com, then you're missing out on some of the finest contemporary classical music recordings available.

A 2017 Brutus Award for this man, indeed!

Reference Recordings/Soundmirror

Reference Recordings has been a primo name among audiophile labels for many years now. I have received several sample SACDs from Jan Mancuso this year, and was particularly struck by the Thierry Fischer/Utah Symphony/Mormon Tabernacle Choir Mahler 8. Recorded and mastered by the brilliant production and engineering team at Soundmirror, this SACD shines wonderfully.

My praise must be echoed for the very fine recording of Shostakovich and Barber, also released on SACD. Once more the Soundmirror team has done a superior job of balancing the orchestra and the hall, with a rich and detailed presentation of the music. The Barber was particularly appealing to me.

I note that Soundmirror has been in operation for some 40 years now, and have received over 90 Grammy nominations and wins. Given what I'm hearing in the 2017 releases from RR, I can well believe it.

And so…a Brutus Award for Reference Recordings and Soundmirror!

Opus3 Records and DSDfile.com

Finally, I want to recognize the ongoing exceptional recordings by Jan-Eric Persson and company over at Opus3 Records and DSDfile.com. For many years now, Jan-Eric has been producing fine recordings of great directness and art, with a powerful emotional connection to the music and the place that is a tonic for the soul.

Jan-Eric Persson of Opus3 Records, RMAF 2013:  A portrait

I have his work on LP, SACD, reel-to-reel tape, and DSD downloads (including some Quad DSD transfers that I did from tape), and have been listening to it for decades now. There's a whole subsection of my LPs that is Opus3 Records…always a delight!

His latest sampler is yet another gathering of the best that Opus3 Records has to offer…this time all in jazz. Jan-Eric's recordings always sound fantastic, but now that he's moved to higher resolutions of DSD (Double DSD), plus his limited edition Analogue Master series of reel-to-reel tapes, we have the best of all worlds. If you do not have Jan-Eric's masterful work in your library of recordings, then you, my friend, are bereft. Poor soul! Get thee out and remedy this gap in your collection!

And so, once again I tip my hat to Jan-Eric Persson and company, Opus3 Records and DSDfile.com, and give them a 2017 Brutus Award…with affection and enthusiasm.


Bob Attiyeh and Yarlung Records

Speaking of repeat winners, I should not like to close without mentioning one of the really great producers in fine audio, Bob Attiyeh, and his label Yarlung Records. I first met Bob via phone years ago, when he was giving consideration to DSD as a recording and distribution format, a way to take his brilliant analog tapes to the much larger world of online download sales, without compromising their quality. It took several years, but he finally became convinced that he should take the plunge...and the rest, as they say, is audio history.

Whether operating in the realms of classical music or jazz, Bob's production values are always top-notch. I think that they reflect his humane nature and passionate commitment to the possibilities of music and the audio arts. He doesn't work in a studio, preferring the superior acoustics and feel of concert halls and performing venues. He is constantly searching for new artists, and has a real heart for younger and lesser-known...but worthy...performers. Recording to analog tape at 15 IPS quarter-inch half-track via Arian Jansen's very fine SonoruS tape decks and electronics, Bob's results really speak for themselves. There are reasons why he has become a Grammy-winning producer. If you'd like to know why, just go listen!

His transfers to Quad DSD, hosted by NativeDSD.com, are stellar, and have received my praise from the beginning, but he also provides recordings in LP, CD, and (huzzah!) reel-to-reel tape! Just check out the Yarlung Records site for the details.

So...another Brutus Award to Bob and Yarlung Records here in 2017! And, as always, given with the highest regard....

Ray Kimber and IsoMike

I have known Ray Kimber for many years now. What a humane, enthusiastic, passionate person he is! 

Yes, he's the founder and president of Kimber Kables, but he also has his own recording company, IsoMike. It's dedicated to the exploration of great music and fine performers using an experimental microphone array that he calls "IsoMike." His "isolated mic" microphone array seeks to provide a more natural presentation in both stereo and surround (four-channel) modes.

I have a whole section of our SACD reference library (over 6,500 discs) that consists of Ray's IsoMike recordings. Not only are they fine performances, but they have a glorious, open, transparent and spacious feel to them. Certainly Ray has gone a long way to overcome J. Gordon Holt's classic audiophile rule of "great recording/lousy performance, or lousy recording/great performance." The IsoMike series of recordings are great in both realms!

SACDs are limited to Single DSD, of course. Over the past several years, Ray has invested in updated equipment from Merging Technologies:  The Horus and Hapi A/D converters. These have allowed him to step up the resolution of his recordings to Quad DSD. The results are extraordinary. What was very fine before, has been revealed as absolutely stellar at DSD256.

And now, a much larger world of music lovers and audiophiles are going to be able to hear the results of Ray's ground-breaking work with IsoMike. Ray and NativeDSD.com have come to an agreement for NativeDSD.com to carry IsoMike. His first recording is what you see above:  Robert Silverman's superb performance of Chopin. It is now available in Single, Double, and Quad DSD, in both stereo and four-channel multichannel at NativeDSD.com. It's an absolutely brilliant performance by Silverman; as a lover of Chopin, I was quite taken by Silverman's understanding and performance of the master. Lovely! (As an aside, I met Robert Silverman at the 2017 LAOC Audio Society Gala in early December. What a fine person Robert is! We were all blessed by Robert's performance of Chopin at that event, courtesy of Ray Kimber and Steinway. If you missed it...you really missed it! My photo essay on that event follows very soon now.)

Furthermore, Ray has taken the step of issuing this Quad DSD master recording as an LP. Mastered by Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions and pressed by Quality Record Pressings to 180 gram vinyl, the results are near-perfection. My pressing is almost totally silent, with the resolution of the Quad DSD master providing a killer source for the cutting. Don't miss this one in either Quad DSD or LP, really!

It is time that I recognized Ray's many years of excellence in the recording arts with this 2017 Brutus Award.

Done, with great satisfaction!

PF Circuitus Maximus Award

This final section with these last awards will be short and to the point.

My Circuitus Maximus Award is given to companies whose family of products exhibit great audio system synergy. This is that quality of working and playing well together…not just being labeled a "system"…but actually functioning as a unity, as a whole, sharing common design values and performing as one. I added this award to my list back in 2009, when I realized that I needed to go beyond recognizing the merit of single components, and needed to recognize combinations of designs that went together like fine Port and great cigars.

As I said back when I launched this award back in December of 2009 (Issue 46):

"I have a new award that I am going to launch for 2009. This will be the PFO Circuitus Maximus Award. It will only be given when I've encountered multi-component systems that exhibit the very highest level of reference-grade synergy. Since that happens only once in a while, some years may see no Circuitus Maximus awarded at all."

I'm glad to say that this year there are two Circuitus Maximus Awards.

One goes to PASS Labs, for the remarkable synergy of the Xs family of designs, already individually praised as stand-alone designs. Now they are recognized as a highly synergistic system.

The second award goes to Synergistic (aha!) Research, for its latest (2017) line of system enhancements. And that's a long list; see my Brutus Awards Part the First for the details.

In both cases, everything that I'm looking for is embodied in these products…congratulations to the PASS Labs and Synergistic Research teams for these accomplishments!

PF Gizmo Award

Harvey "Gizmo" Rosenberg, Audio Shaman of the Triode Tribe galaxy-wide, in full regalia

As I explained recently to its most recent recipient, Ted Denney III of Synergistic Research, this is the most complex award to explain, and to give.

As I wrote when I first created it back in 2003 (Issue 10):

"The second new annual award: the Gizmo!

One of the last known photos of Gizmo, courtesy of Dr. Longbeard

Long-time readers of PF and PFO know that Harvey Rosenberg (AKA "Gizmo") was a close friend of mine, and a valued member of the PF writing community for a number of years. His untimely death a couple of years ago was a real blow to fine audio, the loss of a uniquely creative writer. In Harvey's memory, we have created an annual award that (like Harvey!) will be unique: a one-only-per-year recognition of a person/design that is surfing the edge of audiomania, going all-out to push the frontiers of fine audio. There will be no multiples of this prize… no hard-and-fast categories… and if nobody floats our boat in a given year, it won't be awarded."

More than this, my Pacific NW audio friend, now long departed, Terry Cain of Cain and Cain, explained the Gizmo Award at its launch.

For Terry's very moving essay, please go HERE

This will explain the award and, I hope, give you a sense of why I chose Ted Denney III of Synergistic Research as its recipient this year.

No further explanation is needed.

PF Lifetime Achievement Award

And, at the very end of things for 2017, I have a goodly crop of my PF Lifetime Achievement Awards. This category recognizes those creative folks who have made significant and sustained contributions to the audio arts over many years.

This year's cohort is the largest in quite a while. I am pleased to give this award to the following persons and companies, in no particular order:

A. J. van den Hul 

A. J. has been around for tons of years now, and van den Hul is a highly respected company. A. J.'s mastery in phono cartridge, cable, and electronics design is well known, and my experience with his designs in 2016 and 2017 reminded me of the greatness of his work, now recognized as it should be.

Nelson Pass

Need I say much about Nelson? A master of high-end audio electronics for many years now, with various companies, but now most highly epitomized in his own brand:  PASS Labs. In 2017 I have gotten to immerse myself in the Xs line of reference electronics from PASS, and know that I must give Nelson my highest praise for his brilliance in audio design.

Wayne Colburn

Likewise, while tipping my hat to Nelson Pass, I must do the same to his longtime valued partner at PASS Labs, Wayne Colburn. Wayne is a key designer at PASS, and produces a great deal of what is stamped with their name. He is therefore worthy of a PF Lifetime Achievement Award in his own right.

So done!

John Grado

Just recently, I got a chance to meet John Grado at the LAOC Audio Society Gala earlier this month. He's a fine fellow, and very gifted in the realm of audiophile phono cartridge and headphone design. He was there to receive the LAOC Audio Society's Founders Award for 2017. During his presentation, he mentioned the fact that he had started in fine audio 52 years ago, when he started working in his uncle Joe Grado's factory in NYC.

Thought I, "Aha!"

Given my experience with Grado headphones in the past, and with the over-performing Grado Statement v2 cartridge this year, not to mention the numerous reviews on Grado that we've published over the years, I thought that the moment had come for a timely recognition of John's work at Grado Labs.

And so I did it.

Lloyd Walker

I'll end with one of my very close audiobuds, and a highly gifted designer, Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio. Anyone who's been reading my essays over the years is well aware of the fact that I have an extremely high regard for Lloyd's work, supported by his associate, Fred Law. I've given them numerous Brutus Awards over the years, plus my Gizmo Award, and even a special "Gimzo for Life!" when I couldn't keep giving him a Gizmo every year!

A number of Lloyd's components are here permanently, and my Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Level V Turntable will never leave here as long as I draw breath.

But I realized just recently that Lloyd had never received one of my PF Lifetime Achievement Awards. After all these years of diligence and superior audio products, going back into the ‘90s, his time had come.

So done, here in 2017, for a person who is highly worthy of such praise. Well done, Lloyd!