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The 18th Annual Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021 ... and other stuff!

12-10-2021 | By Jeff Day |

Greetings friends, I hope you are doing well.

In case you haven't read it yet, the 18th Annual Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021 have now been published HERE

I always enjoy reading through the annual Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards to hear about what awards 'the writers' gave out for the year, and any trends those awards might reveal.

One thing I should mention is that the state of the audio industry is at a high point right now. With many more people working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, sales have skyrocketed, and many manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with increased demand. Order books are full. Even audio writers are having a more difficult time obtaining samples for review. 

In past years you and I have heard pundits ask the question, "Is high-performance audio dead?"

I can assure you it is not, and in 2021 it is more vibrant than ever before all around Planet Earth, and we are in the midst of a new Golden Age of audio products and audio performance.

The good news is that there are great audio products for every budget - if you can find them in stock.

As in many sectors, manufacturer stocks are running low, and orders are running high, so you might have to be patient to get that next component you are lusting after, but it will be worth it, hang in there! 

Cable Products

Specialty audio cables were the big winners from a total number of awards standpoint, with a total of seven

Speaker Cables: Three sets of speaker cables received awards, with a price range from $2800 to $20,200 USD.

Interconnects: One pair of interconnects received awards, with a price of $919 USD.

Power Cables: Two power cables received awards, with a price range of $6600 to $22,000 USD.

Ethernet Cables: Ethernet cables for music streaming have become a thing with the rise in importance of streaming platforms, and will no doubt gain in importance as streaming proliferates to a greater extent. There was one award for an ethernet cable with a price of  $1599.95 USD. 

One thing that was obvious to me was that audio enthusiasts are willing to spend a lot of money on wire products, and wire products from a price perspective are selling for prices that we once would have only considered for components.

Can wire products enhance the performance of an audio system? Yes they can, and sometimes significantly.

Are they worth it? Sometimes they are, but price isn't the best indicator for wire products performance in an audio system. 

Experience at both ends of the pricing spectrum tells me that there are great wire products that cost a lot, and great wire products that are truly inexpensive. Personally, I use both, depending on what works best for a given application.

Perhaps more than any other audio products category, wire products are where you should exercise a keen ear to listening to what they provide in terms of sound quality and musicality, while you hold tightly onto your wallet and ask yourself, "Are they really worth it?"

Isolation Products

Isolation products received three awards this year, one for an isolation transformer, another for isolation feet, and a third for an isolation platform. 

Pricing ranges from $229 USD for an isolation platform, to $250 USD for isolation feet, and  $6999 USD for an isolation transformer.

Isolation products continue to make their presence known in audio, and they can be quite helpful in getting the best out of your system. 

Digital Playback Products

We entered into the digital era of the recording arts in 1975, which at the time many audio enthusiasts considered an abomination based on sound quality considerations when compared to R2R tapes or LPs.

However, playback equipment for digital media has improved dramatically since 1975, and now we find that digital can sound very good indeed, providing a high-level of listening satisfaction to even the pickiest audio enthusiasts.

Like it or not (I like it!), digital is becoming an increasingly important medium for audio enthusiasts, and will likely continue to gain in importance over time as the digital recording arts continue to evolve, and high-performance digital playback equipment evolves with it.

There were three digital-to-analog converters (DAC) that received awards in 2021, one being an upgrade to an existing DAC, ranging in price from $1500 for the upgrade, and from $699 to $2599 USD for DACs.

Solid-State Power Amplifiers

Solid-state power amplifiers garnered three awards this year, ranging in price from $4000 USD to $10,000 USD.

Solid-state amplifiers can provide stunning sound quality these days, and there is a huge amount of innovation to get that performance, from lower-powered single-ended output devices that evoke images of single-ended-triode vacuum tube amplifiers (First Watt), to classic high-powered solid-stage amplifiers with many output devices (Pass Labs), to innovative Class D amplifiers (AGD). 

I am fascinated by the advances in performance that are occurring in solid-state amplification these days, and no longer are solid-state amplifiers just big brutes that lack finesse, these days they have it all, superb musicality and sound quality, and a price range that can be inclusive of almost any budget consideration.

This is a Golden Age for for high-performance solid-state amplifiers!

Phono Stages

If you are going to listen to vinyl records, you're going to need a phono stage for RIAA equalization.

There are four awards for phono stages this year, and two of those from different writers for the same phono stage!

There were two awards this year for the solid-state $4300 USD Pass Labs XP-17 phono stage, one by me, and one by Larry Cox. As with solid-stage amplification, high-performance solid-state phono stages like the XP-17 are turning heads, and for good reason, as they combine the ability to optimize performance for whatever phono cartridge you might have, are completely reliable, and are relatively affordable for being such exotic high-performance devices.

Let us not forget that vacuum tube phono stages can be really awesome as well, and Robert Levi tells us about two exotic vacuum tube phono stages from Zesto Audio that lit his analog fire for 2021. Check 'em out!

Vacuum Tubes

Vacuum tubes are suffering from reduced availability due to the high amount of sales in 2021, as well as supply chain issues that are plaguing the world on numerous fronts.

If you see vacuum tubes for sale that you might need in the near future don't dally, buy them right now, because if you wait they may well sell out and your beloved vacuum tube component may go dark for a while until supplies are more readily available.

There were two awards this year for vacuum tubes, both by me, and both for classic tube categories from an earlier age, a 45 triode and 274B rectifier, both of which Sophia Electric has endowed with stunning performance. 

For those interested in single-ended-triode amplifiers, I have heard via the grapevine that there are some 'super' 2A3 tubes coming in the Summer of 2022, and in the not too distant future I'll be telling you about low-voltage 300B vacuum tubes that can be used in place of 2A3 vacuum tubes. 

Integrated Amplifiers

Long-time readers know I love integrated amplifiers. Integrated amplifiers these days offer a number of advantages for audio enthusiasts, starting with performance that rivals or exceeds separate pre-amplification and amplification components, no performance mismatches between power amplifiers and preamplifiers or phono stages (for those that include phono stages), generally lower cost than separate components, and the convenience of lower box counts that declutters the living environment (mostly).

There were two awards for integrated amplifiers this year, one by me for the stunning 2-watt Triode Lab 45 EVO SET integrated amplifier, and one by Michael Zisserson for the hybrid tube and solid-state Circle Labs A200 integrated amplifier that puts a whopping 100 watts into 8 Ohm loads.

You might decide, just like Michael or me, that integrated amplifiers are something special!

Single-Ended Amplifiers

There were two single-ended amplifiers nominated for awards this year, both by me, and they couldn't be more different from each other.

I might add that early in my audio life I've enjoyed singled-ended-triode amplifiers based on 45, 2A3, 300B, and 845 vacuum tubes, and they've all been superb.

However, time has not stood still in the single-ended world, and there are notable designs utilizing both vacuum tubes and solid-state devices (gasp!).

The first is the 2-watt Triode Lab 45 EVO single-ended-triode integrated amplifier. With my Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers, the 45 EVO drives them like 'big-boy' higher-powered amplifiers with ten times the power output, and with only 2-watts of output power. I'm amazed. Not only that, the 45 EVO has the finest combination of sound quality and musicality that I've ever heard from any amplifier on my Westminsters to date. For its exalted level of performance, the 45 EVO is remarkably affordable at $7500 USD.

The second single-ended marvel is the First Watt F8 power amplifier from Nelson Pass that puts out a beefy 25 watts into 8 Ohms. Like all of Nelson's First Watt designs, when the music starts playing, the heavens open! Nelson's First Watt designs are notable for their superb sound quality, ultra-reliablity, and excellent value. The First Watt F8 can be yours for an affordable $4000 USD. 

Vinyl Playback

There were four awards in the vinyl playback category this year. While the gap between digital and analog playback is narrowing considerably, for now analog still rules in terms of ultimate performance.

There were two phono cartridge awards this year, with a price range from $750 for Dynavector 10X5 MKII that Steve Lefkowicz wrote about, to the $5029 USD Audio Note (UK) Io I MC phono cartridge that I wrote about.

There was one award for a moving-coil step-up transformer that I wrote about, the $7543 Audio Note (UK) silver AN-S4 step-up transformer.

In the category of record cleaning products there was one award by Robert Levi, the $970 USD Kirmuss KA-RC-1 Ultrasonic Vinyl Restoration System. I must confess I am quite intrigued by this record cleaning system that Robert praised so highly, as it sounds like a quantum leap forward in record cleaning technology. I may have to look into this one myself!


There were three awards given to loudspeakers this year, with a price range from $1598 USD Goldenear BRX monitors that Steve Lefkowicz wrote about, to the $2200 Tekton Design Perfect SET 15 that Steve Lefkowicz also wrote about, to the $3695 ($1045 for stands) Xavian Ambra Esclusiva that Malcolm Gomes wrote about.


I'm not a headphone guy, but I know a lot of you are. There was one award given out for headphones this year by Robert Levi, the audacious $4500 USD Audeze CRBN electrostatic headphones. If you are into headphone be sure to check them out!

This years awards didn't signify any new trends per se, for me, but did reveal that we are indeed in good hands when it comes to high-performance audio components these days, and certainly we are in a Golden Age period for quality hifi kit.

Here's my new award category for this year:

The Heavy Hitters

One thing became obvious to me reading through the 18th Annual Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021, as two heavy hitters took home a lion's share of awards this year - eight awards between them.

Nelson Pass won four awards for 2021 for his First Watt F8, and Pass Labs XP-17 and X250.8 designs, that's more awards than anyone else, except for ... 

Peter Qvortrup, who also won four awards for his Audio Note (UK) Io I MC phono cartridge, the AN-S4 step-up transformer, the AN-V silver interconnects, and AN-SPe Silver loudspeaker cables. 

Kudos to Nelson Pass and Peter Qvortrup for taking home the most awards this year! 

Here's a recap of my contribution to 2021's awards:

Jeff Day

Every year when I receive the message from Editors Dave and David that it is once again time for Positive Feedback writers to turn in our three Writers' Choice Awards for the year, I reflect back on my year in audio, the products I've written about for Positive Feedback, and my long-term impressions about them.

The Writers' Choice Awards always creates a personal drama for me, as I down-select to three from a group of high-performance artisanal audio products that I have written about over the course of a year, with each potentially deserving the recognition of a Writers' Choice Award.

However, only three can make the final cut, so now for the drum roll announcing my three Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021!

Sorry, I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't narrow it down to three. So, after I wrote the above sentence, I sent a message to Editors Dave and David, begging them to allow me to expand my awards to five this year to recognize these five significant contributions to the audio arts.

Thankfully, Editors Dave and David extended grace to me for five awards. So now for another drum roll, and my five 2021 Positive Feedback Writers' Choice Awards for 2021 are:

February 2021: The Pass Labs XP-17 Phono Preamplifier: Wayne's World! $4300

The XP-17 is a superb phono stage by any measure, and has taken its place as my reference solid-state phono preamp.

Being able to optimize the Pass Labs XP-17 for different phonograph cartridge loading and gain needs turns out to be a big deal, and was quite the revelation for yours truly.

For audio writers, and those who like to keep a stable of various phonograph cartridges to listen to, the Pass Labs XP-17 phono equalizer is a particularly valuable and powerful device, which can deliver the best possible performance from any phono cartridge you may choose to listen with at any given time.

The Pass Labs XP-17 phono preamplifier possesses exemplary sound quality and musicality, has an excellent build quality, was non-fussy in interfacing with the various audio system equipment combinations I tried, and its very useful adjustability features allowed me to get excellent performance out of the moving-coil, moving-iron, and moving-magnet phonograph cartridges I explored for this article.

If you are in the market for a phono equalizer, I recommend you give the Pass Labs XP-17 phono equalizer a listen, and I think you'll come away impressed with its versatility and performance, just as I was.

Read more HERE.

May 2021: The Art of Vacuum Tubes: Sophia Electric 45 Mesh Plate Triodes and Aqua 274B Rectifier!

Sophia Electric mesh plate 45 vacuum tube.

The Sophia Electric 45 mesh plate triodes clarity, resolving power, and naturalness were unmatched in my experience, and their ability to seem much more powerful than their 2-watt rating would suggest really impressed me. In the Triode Lab 45 EVO integrated SET amplifier they drove my Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers to live-like levels, a feat that ten times more powerful amplifiers have failed at.

I've already given a well-deserved Writers' Choice Award to Sophia Electric for their Aqua 274B rectifiers in 2017 HERE. Nothing has changed since then, and the Aqua 274B rectifiers are still my all-time favorite rectifiers for their superbly balanced combination of clarity, resolving power, and naturalness that they share with the Sophia Electric 45 mesh plates. I should add that the Aqua 274B rectifiers from that 2017 review are still going strong four years later, and are still sounding as fantastic as they did when I first received them.

Sophia Electric Aqua 274B rectifier.

The combination of the Sophia Electric 45 mesh plate triodes ($425 per matched pair) and Aqua 274B rectifiers ($180 each) in the Triode Lab 45 EVO SET integrated amplifier provided the highest-performance combination of musicality and sound quality from my Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers that I've ever heard in my home.

Read more HERE.

June 2021: The Triode Lab 45 EVO Single-Ended-Triode Integrated Amplifier: The Evolution of the First Watt! $7500

The Triode Lab 45 EVO integrated SET amplifier.

The 45 EVO from Frank at Triode Labs is my favorite amplifier for my Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers, and has become my reference SET amplifier for them.

The 45 EVO is so good it's scary! Beautiful tonality, remarkable resolution, bass to die for, astonishing dynamics, superb musicality, unparalleled sound quality, and it drives my Westminsters with ease, which a lot of amps that are ten times more powerful can't do as easily. I love the 45 EVO.
The build quality, fit and finish, and components quality of the Triode Lab 45 EVO integrated amplifier are all first rate, and it has been totally reliable in use. I love the appearance of the 45 EVO, and seeing all those beautiful vacuum tubes glowing during a listening session is a visual treat, and gives me that warm glow of happiness.

I feel happy when listening to all kinds of music with the Triode Lab 45 EVO in my system. Happy. Very highly recommended to all those seeking musical happiness!

Read more HERE.

July 2021: The Audio Note (UK) Io I MC Phono Cartridge, AN-S4 Step-Up Transformer, AN-V Silver Interconnects, and AN-SPe Silver Loudspeaker Cables: An "Out of this World" Listening Experience!

Audio Note (UK) Io I moving coil phonograph cartridge.

The Audio Note (UK) Io I MC phono cartridge ($5029), the AN-S4 step-up transformer ($7543), and the AN-V silver interconnects ($919 for 1-meter pair) were Peter Qvortrup's recommended introduction to me of an entry level moving-coil based Audio Note (UK) high- performance analog source.

Audio Note (UK) AN-S4 step-up transformer (SUT).

I found the combination of the Audio Note (UK) Io I MC phono cartridge, the AN-S4 step-up transformer, and the AN-V silver interconnects to be truly extraordinary and without peer in my home listening sessions. Whether in terms of sound quality or musicality, nothing I've listened to in my home has come close to this combination as an analog source.

Audio Note (UK) AN-V silver interconnects.

The Audio Note (UK) analog front end pretty much blew my mind with how superbly it played music, and how extraordinary its sound quality was. This combination of Io I MC phono cartridge, AN-S4 SUT, and silver cables have become my reference for vinyl playback on my trusty CTC Garrard 301 turntable.

I suspect, that upon purchasing this combination, that your journey of trying to find an analog front end that does everything well will come to an end, and you will be content with it forevermore. I encourage you to get out and listen to this combination of equipment at your local Audio Note (UK) dealer so you can hear these for yourself, as they are truly something special.

I very, very, highly recommend the Audio Note (UK) Io I MC phono cartridge, the AN-S4 step- up transformer, and the AN-V silver interconnects to you as a high-fidelity analog front end.

Audio Note (UK) AN-SPe silver loudspeaker cables.

The Audio Note (UK) AN-SPe silver loudspeaker cables are an easy recommendation as well, particularly for Audio Note (UK) aficionados the superb performance of the AN-SPe's deserve your consideration as well!

Read more HERE.

August 2021: The New First Watt F8 Stereo Amplifier from Nelson Pass: Time Travel In a Black Box! $4000

The new First Watt F8 stereo amplifier. $4000 USD.

The elegance and simplicity of Nelson Pass' circuit design for the First Watt F8 yields big dividends when listening to music. There's just less components inside the F8's circuits to get in the way of the music, and you can hear that elegance and simplicity in the F8's pure and thrilling presentation of musical performances.

On my sensitive collection of loudspeakers—my Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers, as well as my various vintage Altec loudspeakers—the F8 was absolutely dead quiet in operation, which is an important consideration for the sensitive loudspeakers the F8 is likely to be used with.

The F8 lends a sense of almost eerie authenticity to recordings from any of the recording eras that made me feel like I was hearing the musical performances in the way they were intended to be heard. There's an uncanny feeling that the "spirits" of music's past were brought back to life, and were there with me in the listening room. The F8 is exciting and addictive in its musical resurrection powers.

The build quality of the First Watt F8 was superb. Like all of Nelson's First Watt amplifier designs, the F8 is likely to be utterly reliable, and will probably be on Planet Earth and making music long after all of us reading this are gone.

The First Watt F8 is very high-value in nature. At $4000 USD, the First Watt F8 is remarkably affordable for its lofty level of performance.

I have had a blast listening to music with the First Watt F8, and it is one of the easiest amplifier recommendations I can imagine. The First Watt F8 is one of the great amplifiers. Yes, very highly recommended!

Keep in mind that Nelson's First Watt masterpieces are usually only available in limited quantities, and once they are sold out you are out of luck. So if you have an inkling that the F8 is for you, don't dally, or you may be sorry.

Read more HERE.

Well that's it for my Writers' Choice Awards for 2021. I have to say this was a spectacular year for writing about high-performance audio components. Each of these components have become my references for their respective audio categories, and will be my benchmarks of comparison for the audio components I will be writing about in 2022.

As always, thanks for stopping by Jeff's Place and Positive Feedback, and may the tone be with you! 

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