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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 41
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Robinson's Highly Belated—but Highly Intriguing—Brutus Awards for 2008
by David W. Robinson

 

[All images and image processing by Robinson, unless otherwise noted.]

By way of apology…

Mea Culpa.

Yes, it's true. I am guilty of having more things to do over the past six months than I've had time to do them in. A shift of professional home base from Oregon to Virginia since last August has meant that PFO has taken a back seat, while I continue to deal with a number of other concerns. Maintaining residences in both places, 3000 miles apart, while juggling personal, professional and logistical responsibilities are enough to make you wish that life were simpler. Anyone who's gone through a major move like this knows what I'm talking about; the rest of you will just have to take my word for it.

My Apple iPhone 3G's view of Chesapeake Bay from my temporary bohemian digs..."pretty persuasion," but not a lot of elbow room here.

My living circumstances here in Virginia have meant a real change in how I deal with audio. My temporary quarters in a beachside condo are pleasant enough—the view of Chesapeake Bay is terrific—but cramped. The 950 square feet that I have in my transitional place isn't much room to get ambitious with audio and video playback, no matter what the view is.

That doesn't mean that I've given up things audio and video; quite the contrary. It does mean that I've had to change the scale of what I'm doing, to see how to get every bit of bang for the buck that I can get in my new digs. This isn't a bad thing at all; in fact, facing the challenge of making the most of non-dedicated space and less-than-I've-know in the way of audio/video playback is a very educational enterprise, I'm finding. I do have some great projects lined up in 2009 for audiophiles dealing with cramped quarters or limited audio/video space, never fear. It will be a new audio/video journey for me… and I'll be taking you along for the ride, to see what I find. If that helps you …well, that's the idea.

Dealing with all of this on the fly has meant a temporary lapse in my audio projects and reporting, which means that getting back into the groove will take some time. I won't be out of the temporary space and into my new boho condo, with its somewhat larger 1350 square feet, until sometime in March. By April/May, I should be able to roll out some new online ink about the new place and its audio prospects. Meanwhile, items like this will have to keep my place warm ...and you'll just have to put up with it as I get on with my life.

My Brutus Awards for 2008

For all the reasons cited above, this was a truncated year for consideration of my Brutus Awards. July of 2008 saw the closing of my window for consideration; keep that in mind as you look over my list of award winners.

By now, the criteria for this audio/video award is well know. As I stated all the way back in PFO Issue 10 (check out http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue10/brutusawards.htm):

We at Positive Feedback Online 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 PFO 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.

Dave Clark and I have been giving out these awards since 2003. Over the years, we've personally recommended a number of designs, and have had some great opportunities to give recognition to some truly worthy audio/video products. It's a lot of fun for us, and has proven helpful to a number of our readers. In that spirit, here are my picks for 2008:

mbl

Without doubt, I'd have to put the mbl system that I listened to in the spring and summer of 2008 at the top of my list for Brutus Awards in 2008, both for individual components and for the synergy of the ensemble. On the mbl Brutus Award list, one for each, plus a Brutus for the superlative synergy of the parts (total, four awards):

mbl 101E Radialstrahler omni-directional loudspeakers

mbl 6010D preamplifier with balanced input and phono amp option modules

mbl 9008A stereo/monoblock amplifiers

And this surprised me quite a lot, I have to confess. My previous experiences with mbl components at audio show from 2006 and back had been uniformly underwhelming. Of course, "show sound" can notoriously misleading, as I've said many times before. Terrible rooms and acoustics, neighbors next door and across the hall playing the "my sound and music is bigger than yours" game, crummy power, no warm-up time, lousy synergies produced by last-minute alliances of mutual desperation among exhibitors, visitors who won't shut up, won't leave, and won't take a hint …that sort of thing makes assessing what you're hearing very difficult. But allowing for all that, my visits to mbl rooms in the past had given me the impression of hard-edged, forward, and overly analytical audio presentation. I always kept walking.

Until RMAF 2007, that is. Right at the end of that show, I got a brief few minutes in an incredibly over-crowded mbl demo room, and was extremely impressed at the combination of transparency and musicality that I could make out. mbl USA was kind enough to cooperate with PFO in shipping a pair of 101E speakers, a pair of 9008A monoblocks, and a 6010D preamp.

The results in my listening room were nothing less than spectacular. The omni-directional presentation of the 101Es, in tandem with the mbl preamp and amps (nearly 1000 watts at 2 ohms, with double power cords), power cabling by Silent Source, interconnect and speaker cabling by JENA Labs, preamp power conditioning and amp stands by Walker Audio, provided an experience of effortless power, incredible transparency, immersive imaging, and real musical heart that was certainly in the top five all-time of "audio systems that I have known and loved."

On second thought, maybe in the top three.

Given the responses of the visitors I had to my listening room while it was here, I'd say that the mbl system was the single most popular system that I've reviewed. The "Wow!" factor is huge…the visual impact of the mbl 101Es is pretty hard to top…but the response of visitors was even stronger while listening. I had family members and other troopers-through who insisted that it was the best thing they'd heard in my room, ever. I'm not sure about that, but "top three" is likely. The most significant indicator: I listened to a lot of music while mbl was here, because I really wanted to. Not because I had to. Regardless of source …and I used a fair number of them, both analog and digital …the results were always extremely seductive.

And in fine audio, "seductive" beats whatever's in second place.

So, if you can handle the price point and are looking for extraordinary synergy with smashing transparency and musical values, you're going to have to give a very serious listen to mbl. When I shipped this system back, I have to say that I had the audio blues for weeks. And that's a really good sign.

Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD/CD Player (stereo only)

Long-time readers know that I've been deeply into SACD and DSD since they first arrived in 1998 and 1999. In fact, Positive Feedback was the first publication to my knowledge to announce our enthusiasm for the format all the way back in the ancient days of Vol. 7, No. 6. For a number of years, my enthusiasm for the exceptional work of Ed Meitner led to annual award for the EMM Labs line, as Ed and company continued to push the envelope of what was possible with SACD playback, to my delight.

This year, however, I received a review sample of the Playback Designs MPS-5 SACD/CD player, with its superb Teac Esoteric VOSP transport, which after a short warm-up rather quickly demonstrated superiority over my long-time prior reference, the EMM Labs CDSD SE Transport and DCC2 SE preamp/DAC. (For more detailed review notes, see my "First Impressions" article at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue39/playbackdesigns_mps5.htm.) The improvement was not an embarrassing audio stomping …I continue to have enormous respect for EMM Labs and Ed Meitner …but there was simply no gainsaying the fact that Playback Designs had clearly outdone the EMM Labs SE combo that had been my previous point of reference. Soundstage depth was improved, which result surprised me—but more importantly, the roundness or three-dimensionality of imaging was improved, as well. That all-important audio virtue, transparency, was raised to a new height. (Readers should note that these evaluative comments are based on an MPS-5 equipped with the JENA Labs Model ONE power cable and JENA Labs Symphony XLR interconnects. The Model ONE was plugged, in turn, to the exceptional Walker Audio Velocitor power enhancer, which is my reference for the category. For this evaluation, I was using the mbl 6010D preamp.)

The fact that my appraisal has made some people…including some audio friends…very unhappy is unfortunate, but is also neither here nor there. I call ‘em as I hear ‘em, and am willing to let the buffalo chips fall where they may.

Until someone gets off their backside and submits a superior product, the Playback Designs MPS-5 is the current ruler of the stereo SACD roost. We'll see if 2009 brings along new challengers….

Teac Esoteric DV-60 (video performance)

I've been raving over the Teac Esoteric DV-60 for over a year now. Both for its excellent audio performance in stereo mode (see my 2007 review in Issue 34 http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue34/dv60.htm), and for its splendid surround sound and video performance (my 2008 review in Issue 38 at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue38/esoteric_dv60.htm). The stereo performance garnered a Brutus Award last year; this year I'm awarding a Brutus for the video and surround sound performance, which are truly exceptional.

Frankly, I don't think that you can get anything like this kind of performance and engineering quality at anything like the price point. If you're looking for a universal player that not only does it all, but does it all with reference-grade performance, then you can stop looking. The DV-60 is top o' the heap in my book!

Continuum Criterion turntable

Continuum has been one of the "Audio Buzz Kings" since the Caliburn launched in 2004. I'd gotten a chance to hear the Caliburn at CES, had been impressed, but had no opportunity to follow up on the brand. Given the price and logistics, I figured that it wasn't likely I would ever hear a Continuum table in my listening room.

But you never know.

For the Caliburn has a kid brother, the Criterion. Less expensive, less complex, more samples available. After several months of talking about the idea, Signals Hifi honcho Chris Sommovigo and I agreed that I would give the Continuum Criterion turntable system with Copperhead arm and Air Tight PC-1 MC a go in 2008. The little brother of the startling Caliburn, the Criterion chopped the "no-holds-barred" approach of the Caliburn…and around 50% of the asking price. (Which is in the "if you gotta ask" category.)

I haven't published my detailed review notes yet, but I can say that after several months of listening, I found the Criterion, used with the Lamm LP-2 phono amp (see below) and the mbl 6010D preamp (see above), to be very worthy of a Brutus Award for 2008. The combination of the turntable and tonearm with the PC-1 was extremely seductive, balancing intense musical values with excellent transparency, and very fine detail. It bested everything that I've had in my room heretofore, with the sole exception of the Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond turntable system, which continue to reign supreme as my ultimate turntable reference.

Brutus Award material for Continuum, no doubt, and gladly given.

Lamm LP2 phono amp

Lamm LP2 phono amp (photograph courtesy of Lamm Industries, Inc.)

You know, the more I listen to Lamm gear, the more respect I have for the design work of Vladimir Lamm and company. I've given Brutus Awards in the past for their M1.2 Reference monoblocks and LL2 preamp; now I'm going to add to the string by giving a Brutus Award this year for the LP2 phono amp.

I got to use the LP2 with the Continuum Criterion turntable, with its middle-high output Air Tight PC1 MC cartridge. All that I can say is that the LP2, a pure Class A, non-inverting, tube design, was exceptionally quiet, clear, and provided just the right touch of musical soul to the LPs coming its way. I have to say that I like the LP2 a lot better than I liked a couple of other phono amps in the same price range over the years. (Equally pricey does not always mean equal quality, it seems.) Readers should note that the LP2 used the JENA Labs Model ONE to the Walker Audio Velocitor for power, JENA Labs Symphony unbalanced cables, and was standing on the top shelf of the superlative CMS PXK reference audio rack. Lesser components will definitely lower the performance; caveat lector.

The LP2 is built like a tank, has no bad habits, works all day long, and is glorious to listen to. Do not—repeat, do not—drop the LP2 on your foot. You'd probably have to amputate. If authority is measured by the pound …and power supplies have a tendency to tip the balance beam …as well as by the ear, then the LP2's nearly 42 pounds qualifies it as a hefty audio reference.

Kind of like everything else that I've heard from Lamm.

A Brutus Award in 2008 to Lamm Industries, for sure.

Furutech HDMI-xv1.3 cable

Furutech HDMI-xv1.3 high-bandwidth HDMI cables; image courtesy of Furutech.

I freely confess to being a long-time video junkie. Since VHS first arrived, I've invested in a long sequence of home theater format and gear: VHS, Laserdisc (still got most all of my LDs, too), DVD, DVHS, HD broadcast (Portland was one of the initial test sites for HD over the air), HD over cable (Comcast), and now Blu Ray. (I guessed right on that last one, and went with Blu Ray instead of HD-DVD, which I considered to be an inferior format.) I shifted to HDMI for video only when I purchased my Panasonic BD-10 Blu Ray player; it was video only since my Linn Kisto didn't support HDMI. Since then, I've added the exceptional Teac Esoteric DV-60 universal player (universal player but no Blu Ray), the Sony PS3 (Blu Ray and DVD) and the Oppo DV-983H (universal player but no Blu Ray) with their HDMI interfaces.

I like the HDMI interface for home theater quite a lot. It has buckets o' bandwidth, provides high resolution 1080p video, and integrates surround sound …all on a single, easy-connect cable. What's not to like? I have talked with some industry sources that have concerns about the quality of SACD surround sound transmitted via HDMI, that the single feed allows for the introduction of interference and errors that affect the quality of SACD surround sound. I can't respond to that concern. To date, I haven't had a surround processor that would allow me to assess the audibility of the problem, though I expect to correct that problem by March, 2009. Then I may be able to assess what can be heard.

Meanwhile, I do know that better HDMI cables make for a perceptibly better video display. Whether on my 24" Dell WFP2408 HD or my Panasonic TH-65PX600U 65" HD plasma, quality HDMI cables have rousted the competition. For 2008, Furutech's HDMI-xv1.3 showed itself to be the new "top o' the heap" for me in this category. Combining great detail and resolution, plus color fidelity (particularly in the tough noise zone of low reds), and a silky presentation of black and white video, the HDMI-xv1.3 impressed me with its all-around excellence. This has been especially true with Blu Ray, where the HDMI-xv1.3's presentation with superior sources is spookily three dimensional.

For example on the black and white side of the ledger, the Criterion Collection's Blu Ray of The Third Man is a real treat via Furutech's HDMI cable. Long tonal scales and razor-like resolution of edges are a visual treat for the discriminating videophile. I had a similar impression with 20th Century Fox's Blu Ray reissue of The Day the Earth Stood Still…a spot-on, film-like presentation of gray scale. And as to color rendition—well, let me count the ways. Every color Blu Ray that I've watched via the HDMI-xv1.3 (that would be a long list) was presented with saturation that I would consider to be top-notch: clean, silky, and precise.

This one is easy: A Brutus for Furutech's HDMI-xv1.3 in 2008.

Oppo DV-983H Universal Player and HM-31 HDMI Switch

Oppo DV-983H universal player; image courtesy of Oppo.

In the "most over-achieving bang for the buck" category, my selections for this year were obvious. Oppo has carved a niche for itself by providing well-designed components at entry-level price points, components with feature lists that are a veritable cornucopia of intelligent capabilities.

Witness the DV-983H, Oppo's latest universal player. It does just about every format except Blu Ray (including SACD surround), provides surround sound out to 7.1 via HDMI, has the Anchor Bay VRS chipset allowing for improved upscaling of DVDs to 1080p, 24-bit PCM D/As, a pile of I/O options, etc., etc. All for an MSRP of $399.00(!) …it's impossible to beat this sort of package. (Except, of course, when Oppo comes out with its BDP-83 universal player with Blu Ray, due out later in 2009.)

Rear panel of the DV-983H; lots of I/O options. Image courtesy of Oppo.

While I haven't had a chance to evaluate the level of its SACD surround playback yet, the quality of the video playback is very solid, certainly holding the ground in its price range without any embarrassment.

Definitely a 2008 Brutus Award here for Oppo.

Also to be mentioned: the Oppo HM-31 HDMI switch, which I reviewed back in PFO Issue 38 (see http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue38/esoteric_dv60.htm). This is simple …for $99.00, those of you video junkies with more HDMI sources than HDMI inputs on your TV can get three-into-one HDMI 1.3 support, and a handy remote control to boot. Works like a charm.

Another 2008 Brutus Award here for Oppo …keep the good ideas and great price points coming!

Critical Mass Systems PXK rack

Critical Mass Systems PXK Two Level Rack; image courtesy of Critical Mass Systems.

Joe Laverncik's Critical Mass Systems has been producing equipment racks and isolation systems that have been catching my ears for years. Ever since I first heard the CMS racks under a pair of the big reference Rite of Passage OTL monoblocks by Joule Electra at CES years ago, I've been strongly attracted by the qualities of CMS racks. Only Walker Audio's racks are at the same "top o' the heap" level in my estimation. Which you go with between those two will ultimately come down to synergy, as it should.

Joe's new PXK rack represents the latest in his design thought. Both Dr. Sardonicus (rave review in Issue 38 at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue38/criticalmass.htm) and I got to spend extended time with the PXK rack in 2008. I put the EMM Labs CDSD SE and DCC2 SE components there, plus the Lamm LP2. The results were smashing—even better than the CMS Grandmaster Black, which is no slouch itself. The CMS PXK delivered transparency in spades...improved resolution…and an inside-out integration of musical values that were noticeable with all components.

My only regret was that I didn't have two PXK racks!

There's no doubt about it in my mind: Joe Laverncik is one of the most gifted rack designers in the world.

You'll spend some real loot to purchase the CMS PXK, but you'll be able to tell the difference immediately. Both Dr. Sardonicus and I are of one mind on the CMS PXKs: they're something very special.

And definitely a Brutus Award winner for 2008.

Gizmo Award for 2008

Alas! I have no Gizmo Award winner for this year, since I didn't meet anyone who I thought deserved it. Designers who are true audiomaniacs of the Harvey Rosenberg ilk are few and far between, and 2008 came up empty.

Maybe next year, eh?

 

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