Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Wrap

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by Rafe Arnott

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I have a confession to make.

I can’t dance or sing worth a damn (unless I’ve had several pints, then I’m John Travolta and Tori Amos rolled into one gyrating, bearded, hot mess).

So it goes with contributing to Part-Time Audiophile.

I also can’t write, but somehow exposure to high-end audio equipment and the great people who build, design and champion the gear have a similar effect to craft beer on me.

I manage to stagger and jazz-hand myself (PHRASING!) into producing something with the keyboard that is mildly entertaining to people.

The Vancouver Audio Show 2015 was my first time writing about the vinyls, digitals and the ‘philes.

So don’t judge me too harshly until after I’ve stumbled through T.H.E Show in Newport Beach this weekend with the talented Malachi Kenney and produced more reviews that Scot Hull seems willing to publish.

Devialet-1It’s my understanding that Vancouver hasn’t hosted an audio show in many years (10? 15? Ever?), and since it was my first time covering a hi-fi show, it’s difficult for me to compare to it other shows.

I can say that everyone I met who was involved in the room demos and representing there was gracious, kind and absolutely enthused about what they were showing and the show in general.

The vibe was upbeat, fun and loose for the most part with plenty of smiles to go around.

Some of the highlights of the show for me was meeting Audio Note UK gypsy David Cope for the first time (interview here) and reconnecting with Soundhounds‘ Don Thorne and Edward Ku of Element Acoustics.

McIntosh-1The rooms these gentlemen set up were by far the most enjoyable for me (also a big shout out to Yana’s Sergei Shinder) and it was their attitudes toward building cohesive, synergistic systems that focus on making an emotional connection with the listener a priority that struck a chord with me.

Pleasant surprises included the Devialet Phantom room and the black and green monster-McIntosh system streaming Tidal.

Only a few rooms I ventured into lacked great sound or disappointed, which is really saying something when you have dozens and dozens of rooms to choose from to spend your time in.

The show, more than anything, proved to me that that rare bird, the audiophile, is alive and doing very well in Vancouver.

I sincerely hope that the apparent success of this year’s show encourages vendors and retailers to present again in 2016. I can only imagine it getting bigger and better, and that’s a win/win situation for everyone involved and who loves music and outstanding kit to hear it on.

Look for me there next year if it goes down. I promise my writing will have improved.

I can’t promise the same for my dancing or singing.

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Pat’s Audio Art with Spendor, Jadis, Rega

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomSpendor is a speaker brand that has been hand-built by UK craftsmen in Hailsham, Sussex since the ’60s.

I imagine them as salt-of-the-Earth types that don’t fanny about and who curse often and say ‘nubbit’ and ‘summit.’

As a fan of Harbeth speakers, it’s pretty hard for me not to like the sound these British beauties pump out (they share many of the same original BBC-specified design implementations for the broadcaster’s studio monitoring and playback requirements), especially when the stocky SP2/3R2 monitors ($4,899 CAN) on Skylan stands ($500 CAN) are being fed big fat portions of vinyl courtesy of a Rega RP10/Apheta MC cartridge (Approx. $8,500 CAN) with a little continental flavoring courtesy of the French-built Jadis I-50, KT-150 tube-based integrated amplifier ($13,300 CAN) and Jadis JPMC MM/MC Tube Phono Preamplifier ($7,900 CAN).

Everything was solidly playing on gorgeous Quadraspire racks and running AudioQuest cabling throughout.

This is meat and potatoes with a fine French wine, and it’s damn tasty.

Lots of jump, slam, hustle and PRAT, but very smooth and non-fatiguing.

Pat’s Audio Art had set up this system and they did a fine job of pairing components to compliment one another that ultimately produced a very satisfying sound.

This is a set-up that because it was chosen with such care to go so well together that many reasonably-minded audiophiles could call their “end-game system.”

Properly positioned in a somewhat-damped room the Rega/Jadis/Spendor kit will provide decades of enjoyment without any urge to start swapping bits or bobs out.

As a Rega turntable owner, and having demoed the RP8, I can tell you the RP10/Apheta combo is an absolute thriller for those of us that enjoy a rollicking and tight bottom end with lots of dynamics and toe-tapping mids and highs.

The Jadis phono and integrated seemed to smooth things out a touch too sweetly for my tastes, but that is a very minor nitpick, and more a curse of being a reviewer than a music lover.

This is a set-it and forget-it system overall, just kick back with a drink after dinner and let it sing.

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Conversations with David Cope, Audio Note UK

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomIf you’ve been to an Audio Note UK show room at one of a hundred audio conventions or trade shows in the last decade or so (think Newport Beach coming up, or the just-finished Munich show, RMAF, or the recent Vancouver Audio Show) chances are David Cope was there too.

He’d be the laid back dude in the Audio Note room with the wavy hair, glasses and black humor in charge of the room and tunes usually.

He’s unassuming, gregarious and fits in with Audio Note’s vibe of gear to connect you with music as opposed to gear for gear’s sake.

When I caught up with him in Vancouver, Don Thorne of Soundhounds was accompanying him and the two managed keep shit loose and fun despite some ‘who’s dick is bigger’ vibes from some other presenters at the show.

But hey, I’m told this is common and I shouldn’t worry about it, and since I wear a size 12 shoe, I didn’t.

After hassling Cope briefly to chat about how he managed to fall into his present gig, he acquiesced and at the end of a long first show day I was able to sit down with him and Thorne over beers and some ‘nosh to discuss Audio Note, its head honcho Peter Qvortrup, hi-fi and Cope’s take on the long and winding road that brought him to a corner table at a hotel in Canada with a wretch like me.

The audio files that follow are edited a bit for brevity, but basically cover a rambling, casual conversation that ensued over the course of a couple hours.

I hope you enjoy them.

  • David Cope, His Story
  • On Becoming an audiophile
  • On Audio Note UK equipment
  • On founder Peter Qvortrup
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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Hi Fi Centre and McIntosh Labs

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomImagine my surprise running into Tom Cruise at the Vancouver Audio Show.

OK, well it wasn’t exactly Tom Cruise but Andrew Ward of McIntosh could pass for the Risky Business star and he was rocking the Wayfarers while serving up some fabulous white-guy moves no matter how many times his McIntosh co-worker Scott Newbrough begged him to stop.

He would not be stopped.

I don’t blame him, the room was absolutely rocking at stadium-volume levels (plus I was egging him on to Moon dance).

Ward and Newbrough served up the funnest room at Vancouver 2015 in the Hi Fi Centre‘s all-McIntosh set up. These two were riffing like a pair of AM radio, early-morning, mid-’80s disc jockeys and spinning an eclectic mix off a MacBook streaming Tidal and I’m here to tell you; it sounded pretty damn good.

Andrew said one of the goals of the room was to show how good a McIntosh system could sound with a stripped-down set-up (as much as McIntosh can be stripped down) using a laptop and a streaming source.

Utilizing the somewhat-iffy hotel wi-fi the two managed to succeed in making mp3 files sound way better than they had any right to.

The set-up I heard consisted of everything plugged into a PC-1500 power controller ($5,000) a pair of MC 301 mono blocks ($5,000 each), driving a pair of XR-100 speakers ($10,000), a C-2500 DAC/pre-amplifier ($7,000) and using all AudioQuest cabling.

The sound was a rollicking good time that I would describe as the ultimate college kegger: big, loud, expansive and detailed with a slightly euphonic tinge that served to reveal the tubed pre-amp and warmed everything up.

The XR-100s served up excellent soundstaging and never hinted at strain, especially in the highs, despite the really, really, really loud SPLs going down.

Distortion was non-existent despite the low-res source files being used. A testament to McIntosh’s Quad Balanced Autoformer design in the 300w amplifier.

And you can’t help but sit there in a bit of drugged state just taking in all that glowing green and black goodness that defines McIntosh to so many.

I can see why budding audiophiles turn to the black and green when they start to put together their first systems, it’s a true classic with great sonic attributes that ticks a lot of boxes for many people and seems to age well and has incredible resale value.

While it’s difficult for me to truly comment, ultimately, on the sound this system was capable of reproducing due to the mp3 files being used, I enjoyed myself immensely during my time in the room.

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Element Acoustics presents Acapella

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomSome hi-fi gear just looks the business.

You know what I mean?

The Focal Grande Utopia loudspeaker, the Da Vinci Gold AAS-Gabriel turntable, the Kondo Ongaku integrated amplifier and to me, the Acapella Violon MK VI speakers.

It is the Acapellas that were hogging the Tier 3 room that Element Acoustics had set up in Vancouver for the 2015 Hi fi show here.

I walked in with Element owner Edward Ku and I have to admit he was grinning ear-to-ear as much as I was.

If the massive three-way speakers and its arresting deep-red lacquered horn-loaded midrange driver don’t get you low whistling to yourself, then the ion charged-particle tweeters firing up surely will grab your attention.

Right. Effing. Now.

From the manufacturer:

“Our ion treble speakers actually are the fastest treble transmission system throughout the world. As it works without mobile mass its high-end frequency amplification cut-off only depends on the limitations set by the sellers. The ion tweeter speaker is designed for frequencies up to about 40 kHz. This extraordinary width of the frequency band makes it possible to play out every kind of music precisely.”

So, do you follow?

Neither do I exactly, other than that after conferring with Edward I gathered there is no “physical” tweeter diaphragm, rather, an arc of charged particles manipulates the air at those upper frequencies.

The really cool thing is turning on the speakers and hearing/watching the low rumble/rush of air when the tweeters actually light up.

I swear to God, they light; like a gas stove top turning on. They look like little Arc Reactors, a la, Iron Man. And oh man do those tweeters ever sound good. Crazy good. The highs from the Acapellas were visceral.

Now that’s not a word I’ve ever used to described treble or high frequencies. Lower-mids and bass? Yes, I’ve used the word ‘visceral’ for those. But not ever for highs.

The Ion tweeter produced incredibly life-like highs that had bite and texture and body and weight. It’s nuts. It sounds amazingly, spooky-real. Look-around-the-room real.

I’m not super familiar with horn speaker designs, other than people constantly talking about that “horn sound” and cupping their hands around their mouths and making honking noises like demented geese in an effort to convey what the hell it is they’re actually talking about. I just want say that I take anything anybody says to me with a grain of salt if I don’t have a personal point of reference or firsthand experience with what’s under discussion, so when the hand-cupping honkers talk horns I usually nod and keep my thoughts to myself until I’ve got something to actually say that is based near hands-on.

So it was that I listened with a completely open mind to the Acapellas and their beautiful big midrange horn. (Not really, I half-expected shouty. Complete opposite).

We spun Ella Fitzgerald Lady Time and her sweet, syrupy yet slightly raspy voice bit right into my ears.

There she was in the room with me.

I know, I know, people say that line all the freaking time describing speakers.

But I’m not kidding. It was downright eerie. Trust me.

These speakers are a three-way design and are fast and cohesive from top to bottom and I’m going to say very sensitive/transparent to whatever you put upstream from them because they just seemed to offer nowhere for any sound to hide.

Every nuance of performance from the LPs I listened to (Dead Can Dance, Into the Labryinth, Mobile Fidelity 2xLP in particular), was laid bare and was so tangible in the room you felt like you could reach out and pluck notes coming off the instruments out of the air.

With a Brinkman Bardo turntable and Fidelity Research tonearm fitted with a Dynavector XV-S1 taking care of the source, I have to give some (okay, at least half) of the credit to this amazingly silent and punchy analog rig.

I’ve heard the Bardo only once before but was impressed with its big, fat sound stage and dead quiet, black backgrounds, and only being familiar with the Dynavector DV 20x2L, I can say the XV-S1 added exponentially to everything great about the 20x2L. Clicks and pops were pushed to almost laughable anonymity in the background of every recording and dynamics, tone, timbre and sparkle along with a fat, meaty and bouncy bass makes this the Dynavector to save up for.

Amplification was deftly handled by an Air Tight ATM 1S. This 36w EL-34 power-tube based beauty had no problem pushing the big Acapellas to crazy volumes that no one sane should ever listen to music to. (I thank Edward’s staff for letting me keep sneaking the volume dial up until my hair was standing on end).

The ATM 1S (S for Special) produced a huge, effortless 3D sound stage with the amp providing a deep insight into the musicality of every song I played. This was apparent (in my mind, and way of processing music) because no two songs ever sounded the same.

This a somewhat colored amp with loads of texture and richness in tonal reproduction, but I love amps like that. It’s a little amp, but don’t let its diminutive size fool you because it’s a workhorse that dug out every piece of individuality and soul that there was to mine from each recorded performance.

Just incredible when you think about how ruthlessly revealing the Violon’s are: there’s no room for a harsh or bright, muddy or bass-shy performance from an amplifier. Everything is laid bare and if there’s a weakness in your reproduction chain the Violons will point to it, jump up and down and shout about it.

To sum up this room, and in particular the Acapellas, I’m going to take quote from one of my favorite films of all time; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off… “It is sooo choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

Gear

  • Speakers: Acapella Violon MK VI: $56,000 CAN
  • CD player: Meridian 808 V5: $27,000 CAN
  • Music Server: Meridian Control 15: $9,250 CAN
  • TT: Brinkman Bardo: $8,250 CAN
  • Tonearm: Fidelity Research FR-64S: Price unavailable
  • Cartridge: Dynavextor XV-1S: $5,950 CAN
  • Phono stage: Aesthetix Rhea Signature: $9,250 CAN
  • Amplifier: Air Tight ATM-1S: $9,250 CAN

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Devialet and Magico

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomDevialet is one of those brands that seem to either really turn people on or really turn people off.

I’ve yet to speak with someone who is familiar with the brand who wasn’t in one camp or the other.

Devialet (pronounced Dee-vee-a-lay) is not a manufacturer who seems to elicit any middle-of-the-road responses from people I either met at Vancouver 2015 or those in my own loose-knit circle of audiophile scamps that I imbibe with.

One friend described his time with a Devialet 200 (or 240 Premier, can’t remember exactly) in less than glowing terms (the word painful was used several times).

I can’t exactly say why this is, but I’ll use Nutella as a personal point of reference for comparison.

I love Nutella.

I can’t have it all the time mind you, but when I’m in the mood, I spread it all over some nice thick-cut, peasant-style bread that I’ve lightly toasted and smothered with butter.

It’s effing amazing. Brilliant, really.

My children on the other hand, loathe it.

They tried it a few times and found it overwhelms the taste buds and sweetens the experience so much that the mere mention of it as an option on toast produces an instant grimace and a look of dubiousness in regard to my sanity.

And it’s these types of responses that are similar to both my own and my children’s that I seem to get when I mention Devialet to those with firsthand experience.

I’ve demoed the Devialet 200 previously with a pair of Revel F208 loudspeakers using its built-in AIR streaming card and an iPad, so I’m somewhat familiar with what its capabilities are. I’ve yet to hear it paired with an analog front end though, which I would love to do as I’ve read about how infinitely tailored Devialet can program their phono stage.

From the Devialet website:

“Thanks to a built-in, trendsetting phono stage, the analog signal’s lossless digitalization allows you to configure and adapt the Devialet 200 precisely to your turntable’s cartridge and generate superlative sound quality. What’s more, the online sound configuration utility lets you choose the cartridge type (MM/MC) and set the sampling rate and the RIAA curve for customized adjustment of your phono pre-amplification. That’s the power of sound in your hands.

Phono stage parameters: Cartridge type – Channels – Max level – Loading – Startup RIAA curve – Balance – Sampling rate”

Pretty cool right? I mean who wouldn’t want to at least try this setup with their current analog rig and see if their was any magic?

Anyway, the peeps from the Sound Room were running the Magico S3 speakers with the Devialet 800 dual-mono system (approx. $31, 500 CAN). Talk about effortless reproduction. It doesn’t seem to matter what speaker you hook up to a Devialet either, they just rule it.

Their Speaker Active Matching technology (SAM) doesn’t seem to hurt either. From their website:

“For the first time, your speakers operate at peak performance levels while being perfectly protected. Your speakers are not exactly like any others. Devialet Expert sends a signal that is precisely adapted to their acoustical architecture. Displacement, driver excursion, acceleration, speed… with SAM® technology, the Devialet Expert system has perfect knowledge of how your speakers behave.”

So far, Devialet has coded their software for more than 200 speakers, so check and see if your current models are already on the list, and if not, you can lobby to have them added.

Much has been written on the Magico S3, and its larger sibling the S5, and to be honest I only listened to this set-up for about 15 minutes, but it was enough time to reacquaint my ears with the powerful, and effortless sound that I’ve come to associate with Devialet and get a grip on what the Magico’s were capable of.

The S3s are a unique presentation on their own, but paired with the 800 streaming from a MacBook they were offering up very deep, solid bass and a powerful, punchy, uncolored midrange. They easily pressurized the hotel room with excellent spatial cues (even off-axis, I was impressed), and a precise, if somewhat analytical top end to my ears. Romantic speakers these are not. But if detail, precision, punch and accuracy are your bag, then this is a system to be content with. Plenty of space between the notes too, but ultimately, while the sound was great and had me oohing at how perfect everything sounded, my desire for this sound was short-lived and came, and then went.

Much like my appetite for Nutella, I guess: I love it sometimes, but I couldn’t have it all the time.

Magico S3 specs:

  • (1) 1” MB30 Tweeter
  • (1) 6” M380 Midrange
  • (2) 8” Hybrid Nano-Tec woofers
  • Sensitivity: 88dB
  • Impedance: 4 Ohms
  • Frequency Response: 26Hz – 50kHz
  • Recommended Power: 50 – 500 watts
  • Dimensions: 48”H x 14”D x 12”W (122cm x 35cm x 30cm)
  • Weight: 150 lbs. ea (68 kg)
  • Ships in (2) two wood crates. Shipping weight: 210 lbs per crate.
  • $22,600.00 US per pair (M-Cast finish) or $25,600.00 US per pair (M-Coat finish)

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Back to Audio Note UK

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomThis was my first time wandering the halls of a hi-fi show, and sitting in several rooms listening to a large and varied spate of gear I kept finding myself settling into the sweet spot in the Audio Note UK room as a way to “refresh” my ears to the sound that, for me, was the baseline to measure all other rooms by at this show.

I know there’s been some criticism on online forums about the way Audio Note rooms at these types of shows are usually set up (based on what I’ve read, and from what David Cope shared with me), but to be honest I couldn’t have cared less.

Ikea Lack tables? Towels on the wall? Imperfect speaker positioning?

Anathema to some perhaps, but honestly, it’s a hotel room and I, personally, had no expectations of perfect set-ups. I assumed hotel furniture would be used to put gear on, I didn’t expect the rooms to be perfectly-tuned with acoustic panels or dialed-in with Hallograph Soundfield Optimizers. I expected as good a sound as the gear is capable of producing regardless of how crappy the room is.

If a system floors you in a crap room with no sound treatments and weird dimensions, wall angles or posts, then I’ve always been of a mind that it will kill it back at my place. But hey, that’s just me.

Pretty much every dealer’s sound rooms I’ve demoed gear in, I always thought the room, or amp/gear stands could use some help. Ditto for acoustic treatments, room dimensions, cabling, power filtering, etc.

One of the AN gear’s strengths to me, is the fact that despite the limitations of a room, the sound just moves me. No matter what was playing, the AN gear got to the core of the recording. Its ability as a time machine to transport the listener back to the recording studio is uncanny and can throw some people off at first.

Every time I came back to the Audio Note room, there were people sitting with their eyes closed and turning to David Cope or Don Thorne and gushing in breathy tones about the sound.

“Alive” was a word I heard more than once to describe the AN UK sound from attendees. None of these people appeared to be high on drugs either.

There’s something about ANs ability to just nail tone and timbre that makes it sound like real, live instruments being excited in the room with me. Especially with voices.

David put on the Louis Armstrong Saint James Infirmary LP and everyone in the room stopped what they doing and sat rapt, enthralled as Louis’ voice sprang out of the black void between the speakers well behind and above the 2D-plane of the AN-Es.

I involuntarily mouthed “Holy Sh*t and my eyebrows shot waaay up.

This is the sound that Terry Crabbe, founder of Sound Hounds, calls “way past the goosebumps.”

I know many say and write AN gear doesn’t measure well, but as somebody who never had much use for measurements when it came to high fidelity, I can tell you that hearing something sound right often has little to do with how it measures.

The AN-Es, like my Harbeth M30.1s, are incredibly transparent, and reflect any changes upstream from the source immediately.

One of the most telling things in a great amplifier for me is how different the sound is from track-to-track, regardless of source (in this case CDs and LPs), and the AN UK system consistently served up a sound that was true to every individual recording: no two sounding the same.

Texture in the sound is another big thing for me, and every instrument reproduced had a clear sonic signature: horns give great ‘blaat’ and bite, drums have varying ‘thwacks’ and punch, bite depending on the kit, and no two brushes on skin sounded the same. Cymbals shimmered and had a natural, bloomy decay and voices, like Armstrong’s mentioned earlier, emerged from the AN-Es with every gravelly nuance and breath intact.

Ditto for piano. I’ve had a piano in my home and when your children play it you often get very used to what it’s not supposed to sound like, and when they do nail it after practicing for many hours you notice the harmonic change immediately, so it was with the AN kit.

I noticed the piano not for the usual reason you do in hi-fi (“it doesn’t sound real”) but rather, because it did sound right, and real. It had real body and heft. You could hear the volume of the piano’s cabinet adding timbre to every note as the individual hammers came down on every key’s wire, and the subtle movement of the pedals deep beneath the surface of every note.

The added bonus is that this system also images incredibly well, and has startling in-room bass response that when combined with a beautiful midrange (that is the rival of my Harbeth’s) and a silky smooth top end will leave you clamoring for more.

You just want to keep playing song after song you’re familiar with because you keep hearing something new or that you’ve missed previously in other systems.

This is a system for true music lovers. Period.

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Mark Levinson and Martin Logan

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by Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomYou ever seen a big rock ‘n roll show from the front row? How about closer than that?

I have.

I’ve been a newspaper photographer (among other jobs at a big daily) for a number of years, and when you get assigned a stadium gig, you show up about 15 minutes before the first song, and then the biggest security guards you’ve ever seen in your life escort you into the roped-off area in front of the front row and you get to take pictures for the first three songs.

The hottest ladies you’ve ever seen are always in the front row, they’ve usually had a few drinks, and now you’re standing in front of them and they want to know, “who the f*ck are you?”

My answer is always the same “I’m Malachi Kenney…” But I digress.

My whole point for bringing up this somewhat inane tack is that when I found myself sitting in the ‘front row’ of the Astell & Kern, Mark Levinson and Martin Logan room that Sergei Shinder of Yana Imaginative Audio Video Solutions helped set up, I got the same rock ‘n roll stadium concert vibe in my gut.

It didn’t hurt that the enormous Levinson No. 53 Reference Power Amplifiers ($34,000 CAN each) and gigantic Martin Logan Neoliths ($100,000 CAN – which were finished in a deep Ferrari arrest-me-red that they call Rosso Fuoco) were lit up in a stage-like presentation that looked ready for Kanye West.

The mood was set. They could have played Van Morrison and I would have swooned and held up my lighter in tribute… Luckily Sergei came over before I set anything on fire and asked me if I was familiar with the gear in the set up.

He then walked me though the kit: Astell & Kern AK500N MQS network audio player ($15,000 CAN) with “one-click CD ripping and perfect noise isolation through battery-only operation. PCM to DSD conversion… DNLA-based networking and high-reliability SSD.”

Whoa. OK. Cool. Looks the biz too. Very slick, and oh, did I mention you can jack it into the Levinson No. 53s without a pre-amp?

But, Sergei wasn’t doing that today. Today he was running the AK500N through a Levinson No. 52 Reference Dual-Monoaural Preamplifier ($42,000).

He asked if I liked Rush And I mean, c’mon, who says no to Rush. I smiled and said “of course!”

He said a fellow had been in on Friday with a Rush CD and asked to play it, it sounded great so Sergei ripped it using the AK500N and wanted to know “did I want to hear it?”

I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the sound. These are really big speakers and I was sitting about seven feet away. That old Maxell ad popped into my brain, and I just went with it.

These are baller speakers and amps. The soundstage is huge and all-encompassing, and literally makes you feel like you’re sitting in the front row of a concert.

A big nod to Astell & Kern as well, their proprietary 1x ripping formula extracted the most detail and slam I’ve been able to discern from a crappy ’80s CD in my entire life.

A friend who also heard this system said the top-end was a bit much, but I felt it was just right, especially considering the source material. Plenty of dynamics, (a little light on texture) tonal accuracy and timbral realism. Leading edges of notes were lightning fast and the decay on Peart’s cymbals and high hat were completely and utterly realistic. Spatial imaging of every ‘whack’ on a drum’s skin was etched into the air between the speakers. And another thing, no two ‘whacks’ sounded alike. Always a good sign of a great amp.

Listening to this combo I felt like Geddy Lee was right in front of me, ditto for Neil Peart (slightly higher than Geddy) and Alex Lifeson… Peart was elevated just enough in the 3D imaging to believe his massive drum kit was all around him, Geddy just in front and slightly lower and Lifeson to my right.

I laughed several times at how enjoyable this system sounded and how it gave you absolutely no choice but to rock out with it. To me, this wasn’t hi fi per se, it was an experience like no other I’ve had from a two-way stereo. And at this price point, it should be. Performers were presented completely life-sized and exuded all the air, breath, punch and visceral individuality of a live band right in front of you.

I can’t say how this set-up fared with well-recorded jazz, or classical, or what an analog front end would sound like through it (would LOVE to hear that) because I only heard Rush on it, but what I heard left a strong impression.

This is a big, meaty, juicy sound that definitely won’t be for everyone, (I could see many saying “it’s too much…”) but for those pursuing that front-row seat to the concert they couldn’t ever get to, the Neolith and No. 53’s in conjunction with the A&K digital source will get you there.

With any luck, I’ll be right in front of you when you arrive.

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Devialet

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Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomHave you ever been really surprised by something that you expected to be disappointed by?

Think of the time your friend set you up on a blind date and said “trust me…” and the girl ended up being the love of your life (for at least six months).

The Devialet Phantom is that night out and could possibly lead to more than six months of breakfasts in bed and spooning on the sofa watching Archer.

At least, that’s what I think (right now, please understand I’m on a post-show day high).

I was standing out in the hall on the sixth floor of the Hilton Metrotown texting on my phone like a wallflower at a high school dance when I heard a “thump-thump-thump-TWANG” and a collective gasp.

I slowly turned and found myself looking at a door marked 623 and “Devialet Phantom” and I went “ahhhh” as I remembered all the coverage online over the last few months about the strange football-shaped Devialet self-powered speaker system/DAC/wireless streamer.

I pushed open the door and was greeted by a wall of sound that even Phil Specter would be impressed by.

I cannot emphasize enough how impactful and mind-blowing these units are.

I’ve heard the Devialet 200 paired with some Revel F208 speakers and was very impressed, but it did not prepare me for the sound that was going on in room 623.

I had to squeeze my butt cheeks a bit because these things were going down, way down, in the bass department (16 Hz published specs):

  • Sound Pressure Level 99 dBSPL at 1 meter (Phantom) 105 dBSPL at 1 meter (Phantom Silver)
  • Amplification power 750 Wpeak (Phantom) 3000 Wpeak (Phantom Silver)
  • Bandwidth 16Hz to 25kHz at +/- 2dB
  • Digital analog converter : TI PCM1798 24bits/192kHz
  • Processor : 800MHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processor, 512 MB DDR3 Memory
  • Aluminum dome drivers

Even though the units were mismatched (a Phantom and a Phantom Silver) it almost didn’t matter.

These Phantoms were placed haphazardly in a so-so hotel room and they were imaging like CRAZY, producing amazing tonal accuracy (to my ears; think live music) and had me tapping my toes and doing my best white-guy-head-bob ever.

The bass and slam, PRAT, and outright ballsy presentation gave every listener no quarter to hide and the visceral reaction that everyone had who entered the room was apparent.

These things really have to be heard to be believed and they will give every man, woman and child who considers themselves an audiophile pause to reflect and reconsider what makes a hi-fi-system a hi-fi-system. For $6,000 CAN you can have two of the 3,000 watt models and you need nothing other than a smart phone or tablet to make them work.

Think about that. $6,000 for a system that will knock your socks off day-in and day-out.

Despite the fact that I have an amazing girlfriend, I want to take these Phantoms home, spoon them and watch Archer together.

Sorry babe.

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Element Acoustics with Burmester, Transrotor, Koetsu

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By Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomIt’s a hot, sunny Saturday in Vancouver and every brew pub patio between my place and the SkyTrain station beckons to me like a mermaid to a sailor.

But I stay focused.

A beautiful woman raises her pint glass to me and smiles as I walk by…

I lower my head. I walk faster.

As I make my way back to the cool, dimly-lit rooms of the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown, I look a bit out-of-place with my oversized sunglasses and goofy smile, so I ditch them and my bag with David and Don in the Audio Note room, and after a couple quick laughs I head upstairs to listen to Element Acoustics Tier Two room.

Edward Ku has done another amazing job of choosing a very synergistic system to showcase his mid-priced balanced approach to high fidelity.

A gorgeous Transrotor Fat Bob Reference sporting a Transrotor/SME309 arm tipped with a Koetsu Onyx Platinum was piped through a Burmester Phono 100, a Burmester 111 Music Center preamplifier and a pair of Burmester 911 Mono power amplifiers.

So much polished metal.

The speakers were Burmester BA-71s and despite some technical difficulties, this system instantly impressed with its smooth, tonally accurate presentation and crystal-clear highs.

Midrange was crazy smooth and for some reason I was thrown back in time to Grade Four when I had a coveted pair of silver satin shorts for gym that neither I nor a handful of bold girls could help themselves from touching (bless you Heather Goode, wherever you are). It was THAT kind of smooth. Silky, creamy, palpable mids that just made you want to reach out and TOUCH it.

OK, I got that out of my system.

This was my first extended listening session with a Koetsu in the mix and it’s easy to understand why these Japanese cartridges beguile so many. There’s something to the sound that is difficult to put in words: it just sounds right.

(Great audiophile writing Rafe).

Edward had several Koetsu carts on display, and they look as great as they sound. You want to touch the stone, metal and wood bodies… just incredible craftsmanship apparent from any angle.

Edward very kindly offered a Koetsu for review, so look for my impressions in the coming weeks.

I’m off to his Tier Three room next. Acapella Violon Mk VI Speakers and Airtight amplification await.

Check back soon.

Prices

  • Burmester BA71 $55000 USD
  • Burmester 069 Reference $75000 USD
  • Burmester 111 $55000 USD (Used as preamp, but it’s a CD/DAC/music server/preamp)
  • Burmester phono 100 $20000 USD
  • Burmester 911 mono $35000 USD (each)
  • Burmester 948 conditioner $10000 USD
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Koetsu Onyx Platinum ($8,999 CAN)

 

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Koetsu Rosewood Signature ($4,999 CAN)

 

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Koetsu Goldline Black ($2,499 CAN)

 

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Koetsu Jade Platinum ($8,999 CAN)

 

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Element Acoustics with Lawrence Audio, Weiss, Accuphase, VPI

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By Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-Custom8:00 p.m. Friday

Edward Ku of Element Acoustics in Vancouver has an infectious smile and genuine love for high-end audio. His three room set-ups were well thought out and displayed a real knack for building synergistic systems from the ground up, with the idea being each successive room built on, and expanded on the previous (but lower priced) room’s strengths.

The first room I visited Friday night that Edward had put together was what I’d refer to as the gateway drug of the lower tier of the upper-end of H-Fi systems I’m familiar with.

Consisting of a VPI Prime/VPI 3D-printed arm and Lyra Etna MC cartridge and an Accuphase DP-410 CD player/Weiss Medea+ DAC front end, Edward ran these through an Accuphase AD-30 phono stage and E-600 integrated amplifier and out to a pair of Franco Serblin Accordo bookshelf speakers and beautiful Lawrence Audio AMT Violins.

The sound was well-balanced, very clear and open (Lyra!) and both sets of speakers did an impressive job of disappearing into the room, with the Violins and their larger cabinets edging out the Accordos for that all-important (to me) lower midrange body and heft.

Voices were nuanced and every inflection and breath was reproduced with realistic tonal accuracy and a wide, if somewhat two-dimensional sound stage (remember peeps, these are hotel rooms).

Both analog and digital sources had a sweet appeal that gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

This was a dynamic, and very linear sound that didn’t emphasize one specific frequency range – there was no sacrifice to be heard in the upper or lower registers, with smooth, completely grainless extension and plenty of air in the treble, bass that was solid and tight (not stygian mind you) but enough – to my ears, with a rather spread out sound that made it easy to follow individual instruments even for a plebeian such as I.

No congestion here.

Think of this system as a Norah Jones/Astrud Gilberto mashup for people with moderately deep pockets.

Up next: Edward’s Burmester/Transrotor/Koetsu room and my unabashed lust for handmade stoned-bodied cartridges.

Prices

  • Speakers:
    • Franco Serblin Accordo – $16,000 CAN
    • Lawrence Audio AMT Violin – $11,000 CAN
  • CD Player: Accuphase DP-410 – $6,999 CAN
  • DAC: Weiss Medea+ – $22,000
  • Music server: Weiss 301 – $12,995
  • Turntable: VPI Prime – $4,700 CAN
  • Cartridge: Lyra Etna – $8,600 CAN
  • Phono stage: Accuphase AD-30 – $2,000 CAN
  • Integrated amplifier: Accuphase E-600 – $12,999 CAN
  • Power Conditioner: Accupahse PS520 – $7,999 CAN
  • Cables: Siltech/ Crystal cable

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Naim/Vienna Acoustics

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By Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-Custom6:45 p.m.

If I’m not tapping my toes or bobbing my head with Johnny Cash cranked then I start to get a bit weirded out.

So it was when I sidled into the Naim/Vienna Acoustics room put up by Hi Fi Centre and tried unsuccessfully to wedge my 6′ 2″ frame into a decent listening position.

The system consisted of a NAP 250 feeding Naim’s newest NAC-N 272 Streaming Preamplifier being run off an iPad loaded with mostly 16/44 files. Speakers were the latest Vienna Acoustics Beethoven floor standers.

The system was easy to use and the setup looked the business; typical Naim greys and blacks and super slick. I confess that I’m unabashedly preferential to a big, meaty sound that doesn’t give you an option on emotional engagement, but this sound was very ‘hi-fi’ to my ears (think “clean, very neutral”, but IMHO, a bit too polite).

To me, it would be perfect if you want a system to play music on and not have to think about it: background for dinner, weekend parties or to impress your teen son that his iDevice can truly sound good.

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Vancouver 2015

Vancouver 2015: Audio Note UK

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By Rafe Arnott

Vancouver-Audio-Show-CustomBurnaby, British Columbia, Friday May 8, 5:30 p.m.

With no sign of beer imminent as my eyes darted about the large lobby gamely looking for a quick pint, and a terrible thirst building in my parched throat, I gamely staggered into the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown Friday afternoon weighed down with laptop and camera bags for the Vancouver Audio Show 2015.

I had arranged to make my first stop the Audio Note UK room set up by AN UK North American “show guy” David Cope and Soundhounds sales manager Don Thorne who made the best of a another standard hotel room without resorting to a nearby fire axe to knock a strangely placed post out-of-the-way.

Playing a mix of CDs and LPs, the sound was fat, organic, ballsy and absolutely room-filling. The AN-E/SPe HE speakers easily pressurizing the room and throwing a wide, deep soundstage.

David let me throw on Beck’s latest LP, Morning Phase, and we let the rolling symphonic sounds and bass lines crash through the front row of seats they had placed about 10 feet back. The system handling the big dynamic swings and subtle acoustic guitar riffs without breaking a sweat.

Power was flowing through an Audio Note Soro Phono SE that had an Audio Note AN S1 step-up transformer being fed by a Voyd TT, AN Arm Three V2 and a Denon DL-103.

Digital duties were handled by CD 4.1x which has a sound about as far away from digital as I’ve heard. Think an old Thorens TT with an MM cartridge and you’re getting close.

This is a room I’ll be coming back to more. I’ll be talking to David Cope at length later on Audio Note philosophy, so look for his interview.

More coverage to follow shortly.

Prices

  • CD 4.1x  $14,500 CAN
  • Voyd TT  $ unavailable 
  • Arm Three V2. $2,500 CAN
  • Denon DL-103 $300 CAN
  • AN-S1 step-up $1,150 CAN
  • Soro SE Phono $8,250 CAN
  • AN-E/Spe HE $11,500 CAN (in Slate finish)

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