This year, for the first time ever, the PAR Excellence Awards was re-introduced as a reader-voted program, presented by the Editors and Contributors of Pro Audio Review (PAR) magazine. An online balloting system allowed voting privileges to Pro Audio Review print and digital subscribers from the mail date of PAR August 2012’s issue through November 16, 2012.
Nominations for the 2012 PAR Excellence Awards were developed through the brain trust of PAR Editors and Contributors. Nominations were based on the “I want to own this” principle; gear selected should have a proven field track record, performed well via PAR’s “real world” review process, or—in the case of recently released products—have shown particular promise through demonstrations, beta-testing and among early adopters.
*Without further ado, here are the winners.
Category 1: Studio Hardware
Edging out two top mic preamps as reviewed by PAR within the past year — Slate Pro Audio’s Fox and Sonic Farm Pro Audio’s Creamer+ — the 500 Series-compatible AEA RPQ500 “provides 80 dB of quiet JFET gain, ”AEA’s trademarked “NoLoad” input impedance above 10,000 ohms, and is lauded by its manufacturer as a must for high-resolution recording tasks.
PAR Senior Contributor Russ Long comments, “This 500 Series compatible mic pre is the perfect compliment to any ribbon mic, and its smooth natural shelving EQ sounds gorgeous.” An added bonus feature is the RPQ500‘s high frequency CurveShaper, which adds unique presence textures to the signal.
Channel Strip (including preamp, EQ and/or compressor/limiter):
Rupert Neve Designs Portico II Channel
Against stiff competition (A-Designs Ventura, Aphex Channel and Retro Instruments Powerstrip), Rupert Neve’s Portico II Channel clearly wooed PAR’s readership with its outstanding characteristics, some of which were revealed by PAR Contributor Rob Tavaglione in his review. “Portico II is a universally excellent channel that offers flexibility in each stage: the transformer-coupled mic preamp (and DI); clean HPF with no ‘sound;’ the powerful and classy EQ; the capable De-esser; the versatile compressor; and the Silk coloration option (with the all-crucial continuously variable feature),” reports Tavaglione. “So clean, so sexy and so musical, vocal sessions will benefit from the Portico II’s de-esser, beauty and musicality. In the context of world-class channel strips, the Portico II Channel is one of the very finest available.”
Grace Design m102/m502
Grace Design gear is widely known amongst professional audio engineers as premium, no compromise and American-built recording devices. Their m102/m502 Optical Compressors (with identical circuitry) deftly won more votes than the Dave Hill Designs Titan, Inward Connections OPT1A and XQP 545 Optical Disrupter compression tools—all world-class compressor/limiters.
The m102 is a half-rack 1U module, while the m502 is built for the burgeoning 500 Series-compatible market. According to the company, their optical compressor leaves comparatively little sonic signature on the signal while it compresses, even while “squashing.” Thus, we recommend the m102/m502 for end-users who compress the purest of intentions.
Empirical Labs DocDerr EL-Rx
More than just an EQ, Empirical Labs’ DocDerr EL-Rx 500 Series module is a digitally-controlled analog instrument (not for mics!) preamp, equalizer, compressor and saturation device. The DocDerr surpassed other top performing EQs for the win: Buzz Audio’s mastering purposed REQ-2.2ME and Maag’s EQ4, also 500 Series-compatible components.
In a full review for PAR, Senior Contributor Russ Long praised its EQ, based on Empirical Labs’ Lil FrEQ circuitry. “The Empirical Labs DocDerr EL-Rx offers performance beyond anything I’ve encountered in a 500-series module,” declares Long. “Using the DocDerr feels like having a Lil FrEQ and a Distressor at my fingertips with only slightly less control and a substantially smaller price tag.”
Converter, DAW I/O, Interfaces or Networking Device:
Universal Audio Apollo
Considering the year-long industry buzz swirling around Universal Audio’s Apollo, its win in this diverse category really wasn’t a surprise. And for that reason, we anxiously await a review unit of the product that beat such impressive products as Antelope Audio’s Eclipse 384, Focusrite’s RedNet Series and Merging Technologies’ Horus.
The win, we wager, can be largely credited to the duality of UA. Apollo is, by all accounts, elite analog hardware wrapped around UA’s beloved UAD Powered Plug-ins, plus other new, inspired app—UA Console and Console Recall plug-in, both of which are included. According to UA, a 18×24 FireWire/Thunderbolt-ready audio interface is designed to accommodate up to 24-bit/192 kHz resolutions while tracking via UAD plug-ins, in real time. Stay tuned to the pages of PAR for a full review of the Apollo in early 2013.
Built in Saint-Etienne, France, the premium, unique SM9 studio monitor is essentially two independent monitoring systems housed within the same cabinet: a three-way monitor equipped with a one-inch pure Beryllium, inverted dome tweeter, a 6-1/2 inch midrange driver, eight-inch bass driver and an eleven-inch passive radiator. All the cone drivers are made of Focal’s exclusive “W” sandwich technology. In “Focus” mode, the SM9 is a two-way monitor using its dome tweeter and six-and-a-half speaker as a midbass driver.
PAR’s Russ Long found each design goal of the SM9 wonderfully realized during his long-term review of this product, which won over competition such as ADAM Audio’s AX-Series, Dynaudio DBM50, Emotiva Pro Airmotiv Series, Guzauski-Swist GS-3a, and the sE/Munro Egg 150 monitoring system. “The imaging is spectacular—they provide a flat, smooth and natural sound regardless of volume level. I like that there is significantly more tonal shaping tools on the SM9 than on any other monitor I’ve encountered. This allows the SM9’s response to be sonically acclimated to work in spaces with a strong sonic thumbprint. The low-frequency reproduction in the monitors is punchy, tight and full. It’s nice to use a monitor that provides full-range reproduction without the need of a sub.”
AKG HSC/HSD Professional Headsets
Against stiff competition from beyerdynamic, Heil Pro and Shure models, AKG’s mic-equipped HSC/HSD headphones neatly won in the headphones category, surely assisted by the brand’s well deserved, longstanding reputation for making industry standard ‘cans’ for studio musicians and discriminating audio engineers alike.
The HSC/HSD headset line includes two condenser mic models, HSC 171 and HCS 271, and two dynamic mic models, HSD 171 and HSC 271, with detachable cables, optional available cables and connector types, and a flexible microphone arm with a 210-degree arc. When the mic is adjusted to a vertical position, it automatically mutes (nice!). HSC and HSD headphones are convertible for left or right address.
API 1608 with Automation
Nominated alongside analog, digital and hybrid competition from Harrison, Slate Pro Audio and Yamaha, premium console makers API pulled ahead for the win with their proprietary automation equipped 1608 analog console. Arguably super popular for its big analog sound and small footprint, engineer/mixers like Nashville-based Jeff Balding (John Mellencamp, Carrie Underwood, Megadeth) have purchased one for their pro-grade home studios, specifically choosing it over hybrid analog desks with integrated DAW controllers.
“I looked at all of those [competing products],” explained Balding to PAR in an exclusive interview. “But the API, even though it didn’t have all the fancy bells and whistles, it’s just solid. It’s a real console. My priority was ‘it’s got to sound good.’ Plus, this console has the vintage kind of vibe that I liked.”
Now available with an optional, completely self-contained automation system (no external computers) with fully automatable faders, mutes, and inserts, there’s even more to like about the 1608.
Acoustical Treatment/Acoustic Isolation Tools/Speaker Stands:
These acoustic isolation tools from Canadian acoustic treatment manufacturer Primacoustic (part of Peter Janis’ Radial Engineering camp) eclipsed stiff competition from such other respected manufacturers as Auralex, IsoAcoustics and Ultimate Support for this win.
Though the IsoTools line continues to expand, its current lineup sealed the deal amongst voters. As praised by PAR Contributor Rob Tavaglione, IsoTools’ VoxGuard enables successful “live, in the control room” lead vocals; the KickStand is perfect for “kick drum/bass/LF instrument” tracking; and the IsoTools series’ impetus, the now near-legendary Recoil Stabilizers, are nearly a “must have” for working engineers.
Radial Workhorse The Cube
The Workhorse Cube brings another PAR Excellence Award to Peter Janis’ Radial Engineering camp. Surpassing total votes for K&M’s premium Elegance microphone stand and a bevy of cutting-edge digital products from iConnectivity, IK Multimedia and RTW, the desktop-ready Workhorse Cube simply provides power and housing for a trio of 500 Series modules to the beefed-up standards of Radial’s Workhorse chassis line.
Built to the same criteria as the full-size Workhorse, which PAR’s Rob Tavaglione found “truly professional grade and worth the cost,” the Cube is only small in stature.
Category 2: Studio Software
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs):
Avid Pro Tools 10
As our industry’s most popular professional DAW, it’s hardly a surprise that PT10 won over competitors Cakewalk SONAR X1, Harrison MixBus 2.0, PreSonus Studio One 2 and Steinberg Nuendo 5.5.
As reported by PAR Senior Contributor Russ Long, “A single Pro Tools|HDX card provides up to 5x more power than a Pro Tools|HD Accel card. It supports 4x more tracks (up to 768 voices) double the ins and outs with up to 64 channels of I/O per card (up to 256 total) and 4x longer Automatic Delay Compensation … I anticipate HDX will continue to be the industry standard for the next decade.”
Eventide Black Hole Reverb
Eventide’s Black Hole Reverb plug-in gained the most votes in this competitive category amongst PAR readers. Surpassing Audio Ease Altiverb 7, Plugin Alliance Maag EQ4, Sound Toys Decapitator and Slate Digital Trigger—all superb channel plug-ins—Eventide’s Black Hole algorithm “is beyond reverb,” explains PAR Software Editor Rich Tozzoli. It features “sweet, longtrailing lush reverb type” of effects. “I thought to myself, ‘Imagine what Gilmour and Lifeson could do with this thing.’” In other words, it’s no cliche to say that this reverb plug-in is truly out of this world.
Plug-ins, Stereo Bus:
Universal Audio Fatso Jr./Sr.
Based on the modern classic Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso hardware unit, this plug-in beat such competition as Slate Digital’s VTM (Virtual Tape Machine), Waves’ Dorrough Metering plug-in, and even another UA offering, the ATR 102 Tape Simulation Software.
Obviously, tape emulation is cool but sheer “fatness” is even cooler! “This plug-in combines compression with the sound of tape, transformers and tubes,” explains PAR Software Editor Rich Tozzoli. “It’s quite versatile; it can shape your drum room sound in a few different ways. After, all, Fatso doesn’t stand for “Full Analog Tape Simulator and Optimizer” for nothing!”
iZotope Ozone 5
Comprehensive mastering suite Ozone 5 beat such impressive contenders as Brainworx’s BX Rockrack Guitar Amp Simulator, Focusrite’s affordable but great-sounding Midnight Suite, Lexicon’s classic-sound packed PCM Native Total Bundle, as well as NuGen Audio’s innovative Stereo Pack 2.
It’s among the industry’s most buzzed about software suites for good reason, attests PAR Senior Contributor Russ Long. “iZotope’s Ozone 5 is the only full-function mastering plug-in suite that I’ve encountered that includes everything needed to transform a final mix into a final master within a single plug-in,” offers Long. “And to top it off, it’s one of the best sounding plug-ins available today.”
Category 3: Microphones, Studio & Stage
Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC, non-handheld):
Telefunken Elektroakustik AR-51 Tube Microphone
The AR-51, a large diaphragm tube condenser microphone in the company’s affordably priced R-F-T line of tube mics, utilizes the same circuit design as the classic ELA M 251E, offers Telefunken Elektroakustik.
Gaining more votes than such worthy competitors as Lauten’s FC-387 Atlantis, Mojave Audio’s MA-301 FET, and sE Electronics’ affordable sE2200a II, the AR-51 proves the pro audio marketplace’s hunger for vintage-style large diaphragm tube condensers is not only alive and well, but growing. It’s a beautiful mic that, according to some sources, sounds virtually indistinguishable from a well maintained vintage 251.
Small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC, non-handheld):
sE Electronics RN17
In another highly competitive category, this premium microphone offering from sE Microphones eclipsed such impressive performers as DPA’s Reference Series, Mojave Audio’s MA101SP matched pair, and Audio-Technica’s affordable but solid-performing AT2022 X/Y stereo microphone.
According to PAR Contributor Rob Tavaglione, “The sE RN17 condenser pair were welcomed visitors to my studio, and they enhanced every recording where I used them. I personally love the sound of the RN17, and having a pair to use just multiplies the love. The varied responses of the RN17’s omni and directional capsules gave me the sonic options I needed, all conveyed with musicality, truthfulness and an accurate reproduction of dynamics.”
Dynamic Microphones (non-handheld, including ribbon mics):
Now reissued and gaining fans by the day, this dynamic microphone gained more votes than top performing Cascade Fat Head II Active/Passive ribbon microphone—proof positive that you just can’t beat a worthy classic.
The ATM25/LE (“LE” for “limited edition”) was produced to mark Audio-Technica’s 50th anniversary. It is housed in a silver colored metallic finish with blue accents and uniquely etched with a serial number to mark its collectable status. Regardless of how good it looks, don’t be afraid to stick it in a kick drum.
Handheld Wired Microphones:
Facing competition from such top performers as DPA’s d:facto Vocal, Heil Sound’s PR 35, and the affordable, but good-sounding “dark horse” contender MIPRO’s MM-89, Earthworks’ SR40V is a deserving PAR Excellence Award winner, offers PAR Contributor Rob Tavaglione.
“Overall, I discovered that the SR40V has the inherent quality and smooth top-end extension of a “studio” mic but one that is, by design, quite useful when placed a little closer to sources, taking advantage of some proximity effect just as is often done in live sound reinforcement … if you’re looking to inject some serious class into your front line, the SR40V is a great choice for capturing vocal detail and delivering it with grace.”
Wireless Microphone Systems:
Shure ULX-D Digital Wireless Microphone System
The pro-grade, field-proven ULX-D system surpassed such worthy competitors as AKG’s WMS470, Lectrosonics’ HH Digital Hybrid Wireless, Line 6’s XD-V70, Neumann’s KK 204/KK 205 capsules, and Sennheiser’s XS Series for the wireless mic systems win.
Recent ULX-D upgrades, such as a shorter range mode that allows greater channel density, not to mention a historically reliable performance surely helped Shure seal the victory.
Category 4:Live Sound Hardware
Small Live Controllers/Mixers/Worksurfaces:
PreSonus StudioLive 16.0.2
Up against Line 6‘s StageScape M20d, Mackie’s DL1608 and ProFX22 and Posse Audio’s Stage Monitor Mix System, PreSonus’ StudioLive won this category with an innovative approach to small-format mixing with equal benefits for recording and live-oriented users.
“The PreSonus’ low learning curve makes it a great tool for a venue that has many different individuals in the engineering hot seat, especially for those that may not be familiar with digital consoles,” offers PAR Contributor Liz May. “I recommend the 16.0.2 as an easy-to-use, affordably-priced and versatile board that is truly useful for both live and studio applications.”
Yamaha CL Series Mixers
In another category crowded with stellar competition (Allen & Heath’s iLive T112 and GLD desks, the Midas Pro 2, Roland’s M-480 and the Compact Remote Bay for Studer’s Vista series), the Yamaha CL series took the prize based on a marriage of price and performance. Offering intuitive operation, Yamaha’s track record of sound quality, scalability, numerous network options and, as icing on the cake, Portico 5033/5043 EQ and dynamics modeled on Rupert Neve’s Designs, the CL line edged out the worthy competition.
Meyer Sound 1100-LFC Low Frequency Loudspeaker
Officially dubbed a “low frequency control element” by the loudspeaker scientists at Meyer Sound, the 1100-LFC was praised by the legendary FOH engineer “Big Mick” Hughes as offering “massive extension of low frequencies.” Hughes adds: “It accurately reproduces the low frequencies of any given input. It sounds effortless, controlled, and overall really tight and punchy. This tightness allows for a fatter sounding and more cohesive mix.”
Triumphing against systems and components from EAW, Renkus-Heinz, VUE Audiotechnik and Yorkville, the 1100-LFC boasts exceptional headroom and flexibility in rigging and application.
Line Array Systems/Cabinets:
JBL Professional VTX Line Array Series
The new flagship in JBL’s touring line, the VTX series incorporates the sum total of JBL’s experience and expertise. The VTX incorporates the ground-breaking, prosoundnetwork.com Best Of Show winning, D2 dual voice coil compression driver with a refined band-summing waveguide and a dual coil LF driver.
The addition of new cardioid arrayable subwoofers combined to help JBL beat out stiff competition from Adamson, Bose and Martin Audio in our readership’s balloting.
Portable PA/Powered Speakers
Yamaha DXR Series
In a highly competitive category, up against competition such as Alto Professional’s TRUESONIC TS115A, Electro-Voice’s ZXA1, HK Audio’s Soundcaddy One, and Peavey’s Impulse 12D, the Yamaha DXR Series emerged with the most reader votes.
It’s “the best portable PA ‘tool’ I’ve used in some time, even in a market full of worthy loudspeaker options,” explained PAR Editor Strother Bullins in his full review of two DXR8 two-way powered loudspeakers and a DXS12 subwoofer. “The DXR Series’ numbingly simple-to-apply built-in DSP just makes the sound better with almost every application,” he continues. “And I alone can carry the DXS12 subwoofer for the average ‘trunk-to-stage’ load-in without breaking a pre-gig sweat. Sold!”
Crown I-Tech 4x3500HD
The latest application of Crown’s uber-efficient Drive Core amplifier technology in the I-Tech 4x3500HD features four assignable inputs from a flexible palate of options and four beefy 3500 W output channels than can be used independently or in bridged stereo or mono configurations. Onboard DSP includes the BSS Omnidrive HD engine with IIR and FIR filtering capabilities. Our readers chose the I-Tech 4x3500HD from a slate that also included the Lab.gruppen E series, Peavey’s IPR 1600 DSP and the Powersoft M Series DSP + ETH.
Sensaphonics Custom Fit Bundle for Shure se535/se425 Earphones
Bridging the gap between universal in-ear monitors and top-end custom earphones, Sensaphonics now offers custom molded sleeves for Shure universal fit earphones, including the tripledriver SE535 and dual driver SE425 models. The sleeves are also interchangeable across the Shure SE line, making for a simple upgrade path. Creating a new middle ground of affordability and performance helped Sensaphonics edge out Logitech’s Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitors for the prize.
Sound Reinforcement Processing/System Control/Networking:
QSC Q-Sys Core 250i/500i Integrated Cores
QSC achieved a combination of processing sophistication, affordability and a software-only upgrade path by employing a customized Linux host and Intel microprocessors to implement its Q-Sys Core technology for applications requiring smaller channel counts. The networked platform has a host of available control and interface peripherals.
System flexibility and a mature drag and drop system design GUI helped QSC edge out speaker management and system processing offerings from Alto Professional, Community, Lectrosonics and Lake.
DiGiCo UB MADI
The size of the diminutive UB MADI I/O belies its power. The UB MADI mates MADI on BNC with USB2 equipped computers for up to 48 channels of bidirectional 48 kHz, 24-bit audio. The FPGA (derived from DiGiCo’s SD7 console engine) and a dual-core CPU are the secrets behind the UB MADI’s impressive specs while also having ample processing power to handle future upgrades.
As DiGiCo Managing Director James Gordon reports, “The little box has certainly been winning friends,” as evidenced by it besting the capable DB1A DI from Proel and the flexible CBT-500 cable tester from Hosa, the other contenders in the category.
*Also published in the December 2012 print and digital issues of Pro Audio Review.