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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High End 2015

High End 2015: Living Voice and Kondo

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HE15_Logo_GB_01At High End this year, I got to meet one of my heroes, Kevin Scott of Living Voice. I skipped the show-opening press conference (which I was pretty sure would be in German), to beat the crowd.

Gary Dews, a colleague of Scott’s from the Audio Innovations days (pre-Audio Note UK), sold me a pair of his Avatar OBX-RW loudspeakers, the top of the Auditorium line. These speakers are not inexpensive and not terribly glamorous in appearance – for me, it was the sound they created that was not only special but almost unique. They are, in a word, stunning – and I absolutely love them.

The Vox Olympian (starting at £435k), on the other hand, is about as opposite as you can get from the Auditorium Avatar speakers. Where the Avatars are small, unprepossessing columns, the Olympians are … well … not small. Ha! That’s kind of like saying Saturn is “on the large side” for planets in the solar system. That’s a useful point of comparison, while I’m in the neighborhood, because while the Olympian is big for a lautsprecher, it is not large for a horn lautsprecher. It’s almost dainty compared to the biggest Cessaros, for example, or just about anything from Goto or Real Horns, or anything likely to be used by those maniacs from Silbatone. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The other – glaring – comparison to the Avatar? The finish. At the risk of being overly forthcoming, seeing that finish live and in-person is heady enough to require recuperation time. To say that it was ‘spectacular’ is a catastrophic understatement. This is the loudspeaker that would cause bespoke fetishists obsessed with restoring antique furniture, say, from the reign of Louis XIV, to commit suicide while shouting “It cannot get better than this!” I lost count of the various finishes (amboyna, macassar sunburst), inlays, figuring, lacquers, and other stuff that my rather pedestrian life has no words for. There’s gold. Lots of it. In tasteful little flourishes. The tweeter horn? That’s brass – finished with gold on the ring. That super-tweeter? Yes, that’s a gold ring right around the front. The knobs? Gold! Okay, no, they’re actually LG2 bronze, but yeah – it’s a little overwhelming.

About those knobs – with their 16Ω “range”, they can be capably used to dial the living … voice … in each of the drive units. But even with that level of customizability, there’s only so much a horn speaker the size of a refrigerator can do. The bass horn covers from 70-500Hz. The mid-range horn covers 500-5,000Hz. The tweeter spans 5k-15k. The super, a canted & slotted disc sitting atop the construction, carries on to 40kHz.

So, where’s the bass? The real bass? Well, that’s what the Vox Elysian (starting at £250k) is for. These external “bass cabinets” match the Olympians, shockingly gorgeous tit for stunningly rendered tat. Ahem. Whew. More macassar sunburst, gold boss, and a stunning outboard crossover – I’m going to run out of synonyms.

The rest of the system was from Kondo, and featured an Ongaku pre, with Kagura and Gakuoh amplifiers to power the various horns. A CEC transport fed a KSL-DAC from Kondo. All of the music came from CD.

Hidden behind a screen of plants was Scott’s power plant – a rack of car batteries stood by to provide clean, reliable and steady power. Some clearly has trust issues with conference centers and their power reliability.

I visited and re-visited the Living Voice room several times throughout the weekend. Why? Because it was better than just excellent.

Don’t get me wrong. The room was catastrophic – and this was one of the best spaces available at the High End … but that’s not saying anything at all. Even given the cards dealt into his hand, Scott played a keen hand of poker and absolutely crushed it. The sound I heard was effortless in a way that only crazy-high-sensitivity horns can pull off. The sound floated out of an eerie blackness, and floated across the room, settling like a skein of silk – and then spinning, soaring, pounding with the inevitability of a storm-tide pummeling – before retreating with a soft, lingering caress. Eerie. Shocking. Addicting.

I can see why this was the most sought-after demo at High End. With a price tag well north of $1m, the system was about as alien as Mars. On the other hand, this is pretty much the poster-child of why audio shows are absolutely fascinating for audio enthusiasts, regardless of their financial means. When was the last time you were offered a walk on another world, under an alien star, arm in arm with a beautiful creature whose hungry look might well mean a bit more than a happy romp in a thin, chilly air? Gives me shivers, just thinking about it.

This is a Captain Kirk level of awesome. A new level for me. And for this experience alone, I will treasure this trip to High End.

Living Voice, FTW.

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

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AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: BorderPatrol, Take Two

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Josh already spilled his enthusiasm all over the floor about the big room featuring Volti Audio‘s speakers. Nobody should be surprised by this. I suspect that the sound in that room represented the Platonic Ideal for a good portion of the attendees at AXPONA.

There was something interesting about Josh’s writeup. Josh is new to the audio game, and, like so many attendees, he lay all the credit for the achievement at the burly feet of the Volti speakers. I actually felt the need to call him phone and ask “are you mad?”

That’s not just a rookie mistake, though. That is the most popular mistake at these shows. You always hear guys talking about how good the new BlitzenHorn DeepSmash Superspeaker is, but you never hear anything about how the the Dual Mono Unlicensed Nuclear Accelerator affected the performance. And sources? Fuhgeddaboudit! If it’s not a Rube Goldberg Special spinning sparkly vinyl, nobody even notices the dang things.

Which brings us Gary Dews, BorderPatrol, and the absurdity inherent in forgetting to notice what he’s done.

I’d like to start by saying that Gary brings this trouble on himself. He’s a reserved, well mannered gent who’s unlikely to interrupt someone’s fun just to brag about how awesome his products are. At AXPONA, you could usually find him quietly piecing jigsaw puzzles together in the hallway instead of running a sales pitch in the show room. He doesn’t put himself forward all that much. You might never even notice he’s there unless you go looking for him.

His gear is generally the same way. It looks like a motley stashed haphazardly on a low slung rack and some spare amp stands. It’s quiet, it stays out of the way, and you never even notice it’s there — unless you think about it.

Take this show’s system. A few chassis of amp (the fully loaded,$27,750, S20 EXD+EXS Parallel SET in this case), a dac (BorderPatrol’s new DAC2, an old school NOS dac with a 6sn7 output stage, $9,750), and a preamp (the EXT1, $12,250 before a couple of grand worth of phono stage got added in).

In short, that low slung rack is carrying the bulk of the price in this room, and the gear on that rack is responsible for nearly everything you hear. And, not to put too fine a point on it, you hear everything. I think I at least stuck my head in the door here every time I went for a smoke if for no other reason than just to hear a system that made me happy.

Friday night, for instance, saw Greg Roberts cue up Transformer on the Well Tempered Amadeus GTA Mk2 and drop a Dynavector 20×2 into the groove of “Perfect Day.” Mick Ronson’s piano came out the other end with an almost uncomfortable intimacy, with an emotional cut that made me forget to note the audiophile attributes because I was too busy trying to keep myself from laughing out loud in my excitement. That’s what you expect from SET, though. What you don’t expect is just how defined, how perfectly resolved, John Halsey’s drums to be from a SET.

Digital had the same effect — repeatedly. And this is where it gets fun. I had stopped in — again — on Sunday afternoon, and got into a chat with another guy who’d listened to the system too much. “I don’t think the vinyl sounds better than the digital,” he said.

“Of course,” I thought. The Dynavector 20×2-H is one of my favorite cartridges, but it always sounds just a touch mechanical to me. Gary’s gear maintained that sound perfectly. You didn’t even have to look at the gear list to see what cart was playing. His digital, meanwhile, extracted as much organic joy from Redbook as you’re likely to find anywhere.

That’s what finally nailed the BorderPatrol approach for me. You may get what you pay for, but you sure don’t get less. I wasn’t surprised at all when I finally looked at the price sheet and discovered that the analog front end, in total, was cheaper than the digital front end.

Of course it was. I would have put that together myself if I’d ever actually thought about it.

I never did think about it, though, because — like I said — ignoring the gear isn’t just a rookie mistake. Gear with this kind superlative competence is almost wholly invisible, especially when speakers that good looking are in the way. Everything seems so effortless and matter-of-fact that it all seems like no big deal.

This may not have been the only system knocking on the $100,000 price point at the show, but it was just about the only system at that price that made everything look easy.

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Gary Dews, BorderPatrol Electronics

 

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NYIAS

Audio, an Auto Show, and The Cannonball Run

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According to Google Maps, the distance between Manhattan and Redondo Beach is about 2,800 miles. Following the respective speed limits and abstracting away from pesky things like stopping for fuel or the necessities of nature, Google is confident that such a drive can be completed in 41 hours, point to point.

Reality, of course, is a little different.

There will be traffic. If you don’t travel over a holiday or weekend, there will be at least one and possibly three “rush hours”. There will be weather. Variable road conditions, including construction, potholes, lane closures. You’re going to need fuel, so that means a stop, which means an average of zero-miles-per-hour during those 5+ minute stops, which means making up that time. You have to eat. You have to do whatever it is your body usually does with food, once it’s finished with it. And there’s that little issue of sleep. Continue reading

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CES 2015

CES 2015: DeVore Fidelity, a new Gibbon, and a ride with The Driver

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ces-logoIt was 9 p.m. Time to go and The Driver was ready.

A quick shuffling. Half of us were pointed one way, the others went to the other car.

DeVore had been rather deliberately vague. If Darko had any idea of what was about to unfold, he gave no sign. We found ourselves ushered outside into the temperate Vegas air. Back home, the family was “enjoying” single digit temps, but out here, it was 60. Almost balmy. I could get used to January’s like this.

Origami time. Watching first John Darko and then John DeVore fold up into a car — any car — would be hilarious. But into a Citroën SM? Well. I admit, I almost missed it. This thing was art. We pulled out from Circus Circus, merged, found an open lane. DeVore handed me something from the front seat. Night vision goggles. Wha -? 

And that’s when The Driver gunned it. 30 hours later, we were in Miami.

I’d heard about Alex Roy‘s cross-country cannonball in a modded BMW M5 years ago. On numerous occasions since, I’ve tried to imagine what it would take to make it from Manhattan to Long Beach in just over one day. In a car. In any car. My reaction, then and now, is the same: that’s f***ing insane. The average speed has to be well over 100 miles an hour …. Look, I’m intimately familiar with the M5, and I know that 100 is just about the sweet spot in that car’s highway cruising attitude … but you still have to stop … to buy gas, if nothing else! But that means that a lot of the drive time would be spent going way faster than 100 mph in order to make up for that … WAY faster. That’s 30 hours of nail-biting terror — flying — crammed into a tin can jammed full of only partially legal cop-detecting gear, just you and the certainty that, if caught, you were DEFINITELY going to jail.

These finer points, I remember ticking over and over with a couple of friends. Usually over beer … yeah, we visited this technological marvel a lot. 30 hours. Coast to coast. Un-f**-ing-be-LIEVE-a-bull. No way. NO-F***ING WAY! I remember all of us just shaking our heads at the massive, clanky brass ones Roy and team must have had to even attempt that run.

So, I might have been a little pie-eyed sitting next to him at dinner, that night. And yes, for the record, he clanked when he moved.

The trip to John DeVore’s “top-secret Vegas steak house” was book-ended by a ride in Roy’s completely cherry SM. Roy was offering some supplements, but it was John DeVore with the spooling commentary filled with odd little facts about the car. He was practically giddy sharing as we floated through the Vegas night on mint-condition 30-year-old car tech. I’m pretty sure I caught Darko’s eye several times that night, marveling. DeVore’s eyes would get round, and he’d talk faster and faster, the enthusiasm pouring off like steam. Great food, plentiful drink, wildly diverting conversation and not a word about hi-fi all night. My face still aches from the memory of the grin I had plastered across it that night.

Seems that Roy and DeVore have been friends for years, both having done time at Manhattan’s Stereo Exchange in early 90’s. At some point, DeVore went off to build loudspeakers, and Roy, well, he did something different. “Some folks, growing older, seem content with just cultivating a whole new smell,” says DeVore. “And then some just unfold into a whole new level of wonderful weirdness.”

Here’s Alex Roy explaining some of the mods to his car.

Back at the Venetian earlier that day, Roy and DeVore showed me around the suite. The room was typical DeVore Fidelity, in the best way: vinyl, Japanese tubes, and loudspeakers that vanish into the soundstage. During my tour, I was treated to the new Gibbon X ($15,500), DeVore’s latest loudspeaker and one of Part-Time Audiophile‘s Best of 2014. I loved this speaker back at RMAF, but John shrugged and grinned and said, “Yeah, well … about that ….”

The X was not that X. That is, this was a whole new thing.

Since RMAF, DeVore had made a … few changes. Like all new drivers. Yeah. Apparently, the final midrange driver was something he’d developed to work with a special new, fully suspended tweeter, but the samples coming from SEAS had never managed to get it quite right. So, the speaker at RMAF had pulled in the already-excellent tweeter from the flagship Silverback and he’d modded out a midrange driver to match it.

But then, SEAS nailed it … so DeVore dusted off the matching mid, and pulled in a pair of the significantly more expensive and upscale woofers he used in the Silverback, and bam, done. Say hello to the new Gibbon X.

“Hello there, you temptress.” Sorry, did I just say that out loud?

DeVore says that this new, and totally, completely and most definitely final version of this Gibbon has a higher output at lower distortion than the version shown at RMAF, with a bigger and bolder sound and more bass energy. I can’t comment on that — but I will say that this may have been the most impressive sounding room at the show. Yeah, I’ll stick to that.

Availability for the new Gibbon X will be in about two months (Q2). Some more specs: Frequency extension: 26Hz – 40kHz, with a flat 8Ω (min 7.5Ω) impedance at a 91.5dB sensitivity.

About the other bits in the room ….

A Brinkmann Bardo turntable ($9,490) was paired with an EMT 997 tonearm ($5,295), mounted with an EMT TSD15i stereo cartridge ($2,200). An Auditorium 23 Homage T2 MC SUT ($4,995) fed into a Leben HiFi RS30EQ MM Phono pre ($2,695).

The amp was one of my favorite bits of eye-candy, a Leben CS600 integrated ($6,495). This amp has gold-plated knobs (no, really, it does), wood side panels, a vintage chic that puts modern designs to absolute shame, and, almost uniquely, it features LEDs in three different colors. I love that.

Box Furniture, the company that also makes DeVore’s speaker cabinets, supplied the racks. All analog cables were from Auditorium 23.

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Alexander Roy goes in search of his inner happy place, finds a French car instead

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Citroën SM

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I swear, John Darko does — in point of fact — smile. No, really!

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CES 2015

CES 2015: HiFiMAN takes things to 1000 and blows my doors clean off

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ces-logoI might have been hallucinating. It’s possible. But I had to stop, bat country or no. There was just no way I was going to pass up on this chance.

If you thought I might have been a little batty before I went in, you should have seen me on the way out. The only way I’d have been more addled would have been during a traffic stop, caught with two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls, and the cop saying “Well, it’s not that you need all that for a trip, but I can understand that once you get locked into a serious drug-collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

Rattled. Rattled, I say.

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To be honest, I’d been given a tip by a fellow addict and the word was that HiFiMAN was the place to be. A new pair of headphones, you say? Big deal, you say? Well, I can understand the distancing. Weed will do that. But I was flying a different cocktail, and I was in. Oh yeah.

I also might have been screaming. Something like, “JACK ME IN!”

Peter Hoagland, that pusher, was all too happy to oblige.

The HE1000 is a planar magnetic headphone. A planar magnetic, you say? Big deal, you say? Well, yes, actually, it is, and please put the ether down, would you? That’s hard to get. Anyway, fine — yes, Audeze — and HiFiMan — has had quite a bit of success with this tech. What’s new here, with the HE1000, is a gossamer-thin membrane. A nanometer? Yeah. Something like that. I seem to recall a video of someone playing Galileo with sheets of this stuff and it simply saying “screw you” to gravity and hanging around in the air — pretty much just like the bats swirling around the room. How did they get in here?

The magnet structure is “non-symmetrical”, but I don’t have more details — of course, I might have misplaced those. The mental library is carrying quite the draft these days.

The pre-production design I saw here is not quite finalized, so don’t get all hatey or too excited — I don’t think we’re going to see much except some tweaks to the looks and/or finish. But for those keeping track, the head-strap is a perforated leather — wicked soft and pretty easy on the ‘do, and something you’d probably like to have under your fingers even more than on your hair. It’s all soft and touchy-feeley in the best way. The band is monolithic, unlike the Abyss, but its straight-across style is reminiscent of that über-can, though much smaller, thinner, lighter and altogether less Hells Angels. Clamping force is certainly robust (it’ll squeeze your lemons for sure), but I’m told that’ll be addressed in the final run. Maybe? I’m pretty sure. They’re also big. I mean, not like The Mountain That Rides or anything, but still, big. If you have an oversized watermelon-head like John Darko Yours Truly, you probably won’t notice. But if you’re all dainty, they may swallow you whole. Be warned.

The new headphones are going to be expensive, too. Did I mention that? Yeah. Like “cleanly between the flagship Audeze and the flagship Abyss”. Further questioning of Peter had him laughing in weird, jittery way before held up his hands and turned into a Gila monster.

The headphones, which are fully balanced, plugged directly into a brand new mountain (the Mountain That Sat?). The EF1000 is a dual-chassis headphone amplifier, and supports both single-ended headphones and balanced ones. Price on this bad boy is still TBD, but the highlighter dancing across the ceiling, uncaring of the deadly winged predators circling up there, might have scrawled something about “More information by CanJam in March”. Where was I? Ah yes, amping. The EF1000 is a shunt-regulated push-pull, fully en-tube-enated, and runs in Class A. Yes, it was warm, but it was Vegas. The amp was warm, too. Interestingly, the amp also sports speaker outputs if you care to indulge in that sort of thing — not that there’s anything wrong with that — and such explorers will be rewarded with 50wpc of pure tube Class A joy. I’m pretty sure there were no speakers in the room, however. Hmm.

Did I mention that this pairing sounded totally boss? As in, “maybe the best headphone experience I’ve ever had?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t mention that. But I should. These were crazy. Deep bass, top-to-bottom coherence, an effortless top end, wrapped up in a fully immersive and wildly out-of-the-head experience. The HE1000 is easily competitive with the very best headphones on the market today. I was pie-eyed. You’ll have to forgive the gibbering about “Best in Show”, but quite frankly, I was desperately trying to fight the urge to bolt from the room. Headphones clamped firmly on my head, of course.

The last thing to mention, something that totally escaped my eye and my greedy soul-sucking camera, was the HM901s, the updated high-res digital audio player from HiFiMAN. Cast in solid aluminum, with an enhanced UI and a stepped analog volume control, the dual-ES9018-enabled player can do about up to DSD resolution for 9 hours of playback. It also has an SD card slot for up to 256G of additional storage. Shiny.

I’m pretty sure I spent way too long in this room. That was bad. Bat country and all that.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Goodbye, Rocky Mountain High

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Or, an Introvert Goes to Denver

Logo - Blue VectorI’ve attended a few audio shows in the last 5 years. Okay, that’s not true. I’ve attended a lot of shows in the last 5 years. Every one of them is different in some fundamental way. Every one of them is also the same in other, also fundamental, ways.

The same, but different. I tend to think of them — all of the shows on what I call “the circuit” — as all one thing. A big, geographically challenged, party.

While I’ve managed to make this punctuated jubilee into work, the fact of the matter is that I really enjoy them. Part of it is the energy that they bring to the hobby. I’ve said it before, but it shouldn’t be a stretch to think of “audio shows”  as the fourth leg of the stool that audio’s high-end current rests on — with the other three being the rise of high-resolution audio, the resurgence of vinyl, and the explosion in headphone-based audio. Of those four, only the audio show actually brings like-minded players together, both with each other and with the artists that drive the industry forward — and no, I’m not talking about the “recording artists”. Music might be the black hole that our corner of the galaxy spins around, but I’m talking about the designers, the builders, the sellers, the pundits, and the critics and all of the rest of us. The soup that is the audio show is, to my mind, unique. It’s also hilariously fun.

But this year, I realized something about these audio shows. Or rather, I realized something about myself at these shows.

I am terrible at them.

No. Really. While some of you are snarking up your sleeves, I will offer that I’m completely serious. What I realized, about myself, bears directly on why audio shows are important. Why we need them. Why the industry relies on them, but also, could do so much more with them.

It’s not a big thing, really, but it was a bit of a surprise. To me, at least. Turns out, I’m an introvert.

I’d never really thought much about it, or assumed that it would mean anything for how I interact with the world — and just to be randomly specific, how I interact with the audio show world. Guess what? It does. Duh. Hugely. Double-duh. Honestly? I’m baffled I haven’t noticed it before.

Like how I tend not to introduce myself. At all. I kinda creep in. If someone looks like they’re looking at me, I’ll start taking pictures with my giant don’t-talk-to-me camera. Of course, this means I rarely ask questions. Or get names. Or shake hands. I’ll leave my card, sure — but on the way out the door, when the room staff can’t seem to find another sheet listing all the prices on the gear in the room. I practically throw the card at someone and almost dive out the door. This also means I tend not to meet many folks at a show. Or have plans for after-hours, which is a bummer. I’m skipping like a stone across the surface of the show. The bitch of it is that I’m completely unaware that I’m doing anything like this! I’m completely engaged with the task at hand. I’m focused. I’m stressed, but I’m also happy as a friggin’ clam, wrapped up in my head even as I bob and weave and marvel. But engage with people? Not so much. Unless … Unless I’m stopped and talked at. And not once. Repeatedly. Over the course of several shows. Until that person is no longer a blank face in my little mental rolodex. And then, maybe, I’ll linger. Maybe.

But here’s the thing — I like to linger. Hang out. Shoot the bull. I do! But my mind slips past that and automatically comes up with very clever, relevant and pressing reasons to keep moving. To get moving again, if I’ve come to a halt. In short, to bolt. Sitting still is really hard. And I can’t seem to help it. Being with and around people, people I don’t know, and in places I’m unfamiliar with, well … lets just say that it doesn’t exactly relax me.

It’s not that I’m shy. I’m really not. I’m loud. I’m crass. I’ll stand right up and talk to a crowd of one or 1,000 and I totally don’t care. I get buzzed from that. But after spending an hour or two presenting or working with a client (something I do rather regularly in my day job, for example), I just don’t chat when the time is up. The electricity stops flowing and I am out.

Turns out, I’m just terrible at small talk — I can’t seem to make myself do it — I automatically assume you don’t want to, either, so I’m off. It’s like I’m ADD (which I’m not … I don’t think so, anyway). But I am terrible at the little things that other people do in social situations — and now, I’m aware of it. I saw myself doing it. Over and over and over at this year’s RMAF. And I couldn’t seem to help that, either.

I’ve had some intuitions banging around, of course. I’m not an idiot. Saw a few Facebook memes on “How to talk to an introvert” and laughed at how bizarre “those people are.” Then, I stopped. Thought about it. I mean, that’s what introverts do. We examine, turn over, obsesses. Then, I did the uncharacteristic thing — I asked someone else about it.

My wife nearly snorted coffee out of her nose when I suggested that I thought I might be introverted. She pulled herself together, got all moon-eyed and said, totally deadpan, “You think?”

I had thought she was introverted (she is), but that was the extroverted one. Sharing this led to hysterical laughter, some sputtering, and her calling her sister and a couple of her friends just to laugh at how funny that was. I may not be an idiot, but I’m clearly not winning in the whole “Know Thyself” challenge.

So, I went into RMAF with a bit of an experiment in mind. I just kinda “did my thing” on Friday, but on Sunday, I woke up and stopped myself before I flung forth. I went over my “how to interact with humans” routine. God help me, I practiced small talk (I’m never doing that again). Gah. The whole thing made me itch. But, loins girded, I set forth to do battle with my inner reflexes.

Even now, a month later, there’s a voice in my head telling me how much more efficient I could have been. How many more rooms I could have covered. How I could have prepared more thoroughly. How, next time, I’ll be doing it differently.

I kinda want that voice to STFU. Because I had a ball on Sunday. I met people. I chatted them up. I shook hands. Kissed babies. Encouraged others. I was outgoing. Well. Sort of. On the 10-point scale of “massive introvert” to “massive extrovert”, I might have taken exactly one whole step to the right, but whatever. I felt like I was doing something more. Even if it hurt me. By the end of that day, I fell over and didn’t move until it was time to catch my plane the next morning. But still.

Look at me, Ma! I’m growing.

This isn’t to say “woe is me” … gimme a break. I’m not not wandering even within hailing distance of that. But I am aware of one of the ways I’m interacting with the world around me (or failing to do so). That is, I am now. Wasn’t before. It was all kinda subliminal and now I feel a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat.

Anyway, if I didn’t introduce myself, shake your hand, or seem to take sufficient time to get to know you, your history, or the ins and outs of your story, product, or innovation, please accept my apologies and rest assured that it wasn’t you. Okay, it might have been you, but chance are, it was because I’m not wired that way. Next time, tackle me. I mean, if you want. You don’t have to. But if you shout “INTROVERT” at me as I’m running toward the door, I will probably freeze or look blank, or perhaps even flinch, but that’s okay. I’ll talk, I promise.

Now, all of this is a long way to go to make a point about the audio show thing, generally, and it’s this: I think there are a lot of folks like me in this hobby. Introverts! Unite! Separately, in our own homes!

I think this reflex is exactly why going to an audio show is something you need to do. Even if you’re a holed-up-in-the-man-cave introvert. Even if you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t need to go to something like that to hear gear, or listen to music, or [fill in randomly generated complaint here] — I have all that right here, and without all the fuss and bother of [fill in randomly generated set of potential or imagined irritations here].”

I want you to consider — just consider — the fact that an indelible part of your personality is tricking you into not experiencing something bizarrely magical. That being at an audio show may well be the only time you, the audio enthusiast, are the average. Everyone around you at an audio show shares something with you. All of those strangers are your people.

And if you do — try to step outside of your comfort zone (all I’m asking is for a conscious attempt!) and talk with some of the folks you meet there. They’re fascinating. And there are a lot of them! Do this and you may have the realization that you’re not as weird as you think you are.

And that’s a strange and heady feeling. It helped me. I mean, you’re way weirder than I am.

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Look closely, lower right corner — that’s Steve Rochlin, on a mad photobombing run!

 

Most Interesting

Each audio show is an opportunity to see and hear something novel, and acknowledging that feels like I’m being a bit head-scratchingly obvious. So, here’s two that stood out for me.

Tidal HiFi

TidalStreaming media is not new and it’s not a fad. According to all manner of recent studies and prognostications, it’s going to eat downloads as a viable market in pretty much the same way that CDs nearly wiped vinyl off the shelves. I will admit that I am a big fan of Pandora and that I loved MOG to pieces. But even with the strengths of those services, neither really sounded terribly good.

As CNet’s Steve Guttenberg would be quick to point out, the format is almost irrelevant if the material is crap. But given that the material isn’t, format becomes incredibly important — and that’s where Tidal HiFi comes in.

Launched at RMAF this year, streaming media just went full-resolution.

Redbook, or CD-quality, streaming has been something of a Bigfoot — the assumption has been that MP3-quality audio was “enough”, and most online services have been built with that delivery in mind. Tidal takes that up a notch. A big notch. CD-quality can be a radically better experience.

It’s not the first to do it, of course. It probably won’t be the last. But for $20 a month, I get access to a huge catalog of music and I can get it streamed, on demand, right into my Hi-Fi rig. And it sounds good. That, my friends, is a first.

Ultimate Ears 3-D printing

The problem with custom in-ear monitors, over their more common universal versions, is that they’re difficult to make. Which means delays. Anything that speeds up that process, and also improves the fit, is an unqualified win.

Ultimate Ears is addressing that with 3-D printing.

Impressions can be taken and immediately scanned. The digital renderings sent on for construction. The 3-D printer does that flawlessly. And they’re out the door. They whole process is very new, so they’re inspecting the daylights out of it just to ensure that the process is as reliable as they think it is.

I received a pair of UE Reference Monitors in two weeks, and ⅓ of that was due to UPS. I’ve been told that, once the process gets the full green light, UE is aiming for a total turnaround time of less than 1 week.

3-D printing, FTW.

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Most Wanted

Of all the nifty things down in CanJam this year, it was the stack of high-res micro-SD cards holding the entire Blue Note library that had me wringing my hands, mumbling to myself, and actively scheming.

Apparently, this library comes loaded on the Astell&Kern AK240 Blue Note Edition.

I want it. I want it all. With a most powerful wanting kind of wantingness of Want.

[drool]

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Biggest improvement

Food trucks!

It may be silly, but the ability to eat and eat well without having to get a ride from a cabbie or an Uber driver is a huge improvement to the overall show-experience. I never want to leave a show — I barely have enough time as it is, and taking 2 hours to sneak in a reasonably enjoyable meal doesn’t seem wise or viable. Rolling in a set of non-staurants for an awesome grab-and-go experience was the single best improvement to RMAF this year.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Biggest Surprise

No pot!

Based on the media response to marijuana legalization in Colorado, I was expecting the Marriott to have converted into an Amsterdam “coffee-house”, with slumped forms of burnouts face down in mountains of weed, pretty much everywhere you looked.

I was disappointed.

In fact, I didn’t see a single bong. Or a even a lonely doobie — much less “mountains of weed”. I’m sure there were partakers, but wherever they were, they were discreet and out of sight.

All in all, the lack of obvious “drug culture” on display was something of a let down. Damn you, FOX News!

The liquor and cigars, however, were on full display.

Sometimes, you just have to make do.

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Best Sound

This was a tough year to pick winners at because a lot of players brought their “A-Game”, and that’s a win all around. That said, it’s worth taking a moment to single out those demos that I found particularly compelling.

Whether it was the gear or the incredible skill of the set up team, doesn’t really matter.

These rooms “did it” for me this year.

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Sandy Gross is a legend in high-end audio and for good reasons. But while you might catch a glimpse of Sandy at some of the regional shows, chances are low to actually catching him showing off gear. RMAF this year was different — and that was a very good thing.

The new Triton One from GoldenEar is a monster. It’s tall, it soundstages like a cranked up demon, and whenever needed, will reach down into the abyss for your bass response. For $5k/pair, this is the best value I know of when it comes to high-end loudspeakers. Absolutely astounding.

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Endeavor Audio, with YFS and Constellation Audio

Leif Swanson of Endeavor Audio is not a newcomer to audio’s high-end. He’s been building speakers for decades, having graduated some years ago from VSA. His E-3 loudspeakers that I heard early this year remain one of the front-runners for “Best of 2014”, but what he brought to RMAF this year was nothing short of a monster. Tall and slender, the new E-5 was a stunner.

The other half of the story came from Your Final System and Constellation Audio. Together, the triumvirate proved devastatingly effective here at RMAF.

Playing quality music on such a system is not only a joyous exploration of what the SOTA has to offer, but a clear statement of what the new players can bring.

Keep an eye out for these guys.

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Zesto Audio, with WyWires and TAD

George and Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio have ever right to be giddy. Their electronics have been universally praised in the press, and their show demos have been wickedly enjoyable. Their analog-only formula, with partners TAD and WyWires, seems to leverage the best of all of the designs and I am completely convinced — this is game-ending gear.

At RMAF, we got to see the new Andros 1.2 phono stage, which has seen significant internal tweakery and taken the products in whole new directions. The new formulation of the WyWires cabling has seen a similar evolution, and the newest “Diamond” formula is the best yet to come from them. Combined with the crushingly transparent TAD loudspeakers, everything in the recording was laid out for inspection. But instead of a dissection, I was treated to a sonic feast. This was the best I’ve heard this gear sound and it was one of the most thrilling at the show.

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Viva HiFi, with Daedalus, ModWright, Skogrand

What a difference a few weeks makes!

The last time I heard the Daedalus Audio Muse loudspeakers, I was very impressed. Hearing them here, at RMAF, it was as if an already great loudspeaker had been completely transformed. Yes, that’s hyperbole, but in this case, there really is no other way to capture the delta between the two presentations. I was not prepared!

Shown with ModWright electronics and cabling from Skogrand, this not-inexpensive system beat the snot out of systems ten times the price.

Synergy. It’s whats for dinner.

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DeVore Fidelity

If I had to vote, today, for the most impressive loudspeaker at RMAF, I’d probably have a kitten. I can’t do it. Several of them completely unzipped my head and stuffed awesome inside — the question would quickly devolve to “what can I afford” and “what can I pair them with” and “where would they go”.

But I’ll offer this — the new Gibbon X from DeVore Fidelity is, in my opinion, the best thing designer John DeVore has done to date.

To be fair, it’s been a long time coming. I first heard this speaker over a year ago at CES, and while the current speaker bears resemblance more in intent than in actual execution, the result is so good I don’t really care. If I was starting over, I’d buy them in a heartbeat. In fact, they’re good enough to make me reconsider my reconsideration.

Love. Love. Love.

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Legacy Audio

Walking in to see Legacy Audio’s Bill Dudleston this year, I knew he’d have something interesting to show. I mean, he’s been muttering under his breath for the last couple of months about his new speaker.

Face to face with the reality, however, was quite another thing than merely “surprised”.

This was one of the first rooms I walked into at RMAF, and the immediate impression — of huge sound — stayed with me the entire weekend, spoiling me completely for many of the rooms that followed.

It’s really hard to distill the new V into something concise, but this is another case of an expert designer at the very top of not only his game, but of the industry as a whole. This is game-changing sound. It was insane.

Me likey!

The challenge of an audio system — to successfully get the listener to suspend disbelief — is usually contingent on the illusion being suspended in front of them. To recreate, in real-time and local space, the performance. The V takes that idea, and turns it on its head — it took me to the performance. And to borrow a phrase — that, my friends, is audio winning. 

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High Water Sound

With all of these spectacular audio visions to immerse yourself in, it’s hard to choose a winner, so I won’t bother. But if I had to point at the system that caused me to completely loose my composure and undo an entire year’s worth of projected spending, it was the High Water Sound room.

Jeff Catalano’s room, once again, featured Hørning Hybrid loudspeakers, this time driven by 3 watt amps from TW Acustic. Tron and TW shared the rack, with fancy cables from Zen Sati, power conditioning from Silver Circle, isolation from SRA, and the whole thing cost more than a little.

But the sound … oh. Oh. Oh, my.

To me, this was what “it” was “all about”, and I lost myself for a very pleasant half-hour. I’ve been circling Jeff’s sonic aesthetic for years now, but I think I’m pretty much done at this point. Jeff is my hero.

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And that’s a wrap. More or less.

There’s a few more to come from the various and sundry, but I’m done with my coverage of the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

I want to thank Marjorie Baumert for her kindness, her assistance, and for just being awesome. RMAF is what it is because of her, and she’s an absolute treasure.

I want to thank Warren Chi of Audio360 for his help getting me ready for the show and for his assistance with all the graphic work to launch The Audio Traveler in time to carry all the RMAF coverage.

Thanks to Mal, Kirsten, Darryl and John for their help carrying the lantern and for contributing to the show coverage.

And so it goes.

Here it is, your Moment of Zen.

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Brian Hunter of Audio-Head.com

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A caterpillar that died on Brian’s face

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Mal Kenney

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Mal & Brian

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Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney

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Melinda Grace Smith and Larry Love

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Jason Victor Sirenus and Michael Lavorgna

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Lee Scoggins and Steve Guttenberg

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Scott and Harmony Hicks

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Pink Goo

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Zu Audio room, after hours: Brian Hunter, Scot Hull and John Darko

 

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: PS Audio, very natural

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Logo - Blue VectorPS Audio has been on something of a roll this year. Abandoning their traditional spot as a manufacturer of pretty solid HiFi gear, they made a credible assault on the Hubba Hubba end of the market with the Ted Smith powered DirectStream DAC ($5,995). At the same time, realizing that folks who aren’t closing in on retirement age aren’t exactly rolling in cash, they kickstarted the floor wax & dessert topping Sprout to bring the joys of wood panelling and silver faceplates to a new generation.

You’d think that would be enough for one year. Anybody reasonable would want to take the opportunity presented by the biggest hifi-nerd convention in the US to show off those things. You’d be wrong.

RMAF was all about the debut of their forthcoming PerfectWave Stereo Amplifier. Designed in conjunction with Bascom King, this is a hybrid amp with one 6H23 tube on the front end and a killdozer of a MOSFET amp on the output. Think 500 watts into 4 ohms. The PerfectWave amp is meant to be something of a statement amp, but it’s priced at $7,495, a good digit short of the rest of the “statement amp” market. And if that kind of thing wasn’t crazy enough, the PS Audio folks brought four towers of Reagan-era excess in the form of an IRS Beta system.

This is not a move that most folks would call “smart.” The IRS Beta is legendarily coveted by people who never lived with a pair. Setting them up properly takes patience, experience, and at least two dead chickens. In their time, and at their best, the Betas were nearly unmatched at reproducing the full frequency and dynamics of music in a decently sized room. At their worst, they were bloated, screeching, arhythmic boondoggles of hellish pain, with crap soundstaging, muddy, mistimed bass, and a tendency to go violently apeshit in the face of cat hair. Either way, you needed unobtainably good amps to drive them, or they were just a ten grand downpayment on an ugly divorce.

I’m not a fan. Hauling the Betas out from their crypt under Yucca Mountain seemed like the worst kind of hubris. I can’t think of many other speakers that would torture amps — and listeners — the way the Betas would. If Arnie Nudell and Bascom King hadn’t been there to ride herd on the operation, I might have skipped the room. Even so, I had more sympathy than hope for the pair of PerfectWave amps that were powering the four channels.

You know… It honestly wasn’t all that bad.

We played the usual, repetitive “Two Fifty to Vigo” from Shooglenifty, looking for a sense of the hall’s space, the texture of the percussion, rhythmic stability, and whether or not the fiddle screeched enough to drive us from the room. We were rewarded with only a slight muddiness, a nearly ideal sense of scale, and almost no screeching. Angus Grant’s fiddle showed a musicality that I would never have expected from the IRS Beta. The realistic tone and natural pacing made it clear that the system was operating at a level far beyond what anyone sane would have expected if they’d listened to a CD through these speakers in 1988.

It was a pretty good performance for any hotel room. It was a miraculous performance for IRS Betas in almost any room. Heck, I almost enjoyed it.

PS Audio is at the top of their game. They have my full attention.

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Designer and legend, Bascom King

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PS Audio’s Paul McGowan and designer Ted Smith

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(Uncle) Bill Leebens, Director of Marketing for PS Audio

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Wilson Audio’s Bewitching Sabrina

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By John Stancavage

Logo - Blue Vector“I’ve probably told you too much already,” said Wilson Audio Specialties marketing director John Giolas, 30 minutes after he let me sneak into the company’s room the evening prior to the start of the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

We were flanking two prototypes of a new Wilson speaker, the Sabrina. Other companies might produce a steady flow of new products, but Wilson is legendary for its painstaking development process.

And, make no mistake: The Sabrina is a new product. A smallish, three-way floorstander, the Sabrina does not replace the company’s current entry model, the Sophia 3. Instead, it marks a return to Wilson’s roots.

About 30 years ago, company founder David Wilson was looking for a way to more accurately monitor location recordings. Finding the available speakers wanting, he decided to build his own. His creation was the WATT (Wilson Audio Tiny Tot), a small two-way speaker with a woofer/midrange and tweeter.

The WATT, intended to be a one-off, soon began to attract interest from audiophiles for its clarity, imaging and low coloration. Wilson started making them in small quantities, and later added the Puppy, a bass unit that fit underneath the WATT and turned it into a floorstanding, full-range transducer. The rest, as they say, is history.

As the years went by, Wilson revised the WATT/Puppy many times, and added several much larger loudspeakers to his roster. A few years ago, the WATT/Puppy itself was replaced by the Sasha, which also is a somewhat larger speaker.

With the Sasha now in Series 2 form and costing close to $30,000, and improvements to the Sophia pushing that model above $20,000, Wilson saw a hole in its lineup — and an opportunity.

“We decided to take what we’ve learned and apply it to a new, smaller floorstander,” Giolas said. “It’s not a remake of the WATT/Puppy, but it’s inspired by it.”

Development work started quietly about three years ago. A team of about a half-dozen employees, supervised by David Wilson, used both sophisticated computer modeling and listening tests to create the Sabrina.

The group decided on a driver array consisting of an 8-inch woofer, a 5-inch midrange and a 1-inch tweeter. The woofer, in fact, still is being tweaked. That’s why the two Sabrina speakers at RMAF were on static display.

“We’ve narrowed it down to two different woofers,” Giolas said. At some point soon, David Wilson will have to choose, since the company has a rough shipping target for the Sabrina of the first quarter of next year.

All Giolas and sales director Peter McGrath would tell me about the woofer is that it will be some type of proprietary composite, and not aluminum. As with the other three drivers, it will be custom-made for Wilson.

The pulp/composite midrange will be smaller than Wilson’s typical 7-inch cone. The company likes to have its mids run all the way across their range, so a 7-inch model adds smoothness and can pressurize a room sufficiently. Going to a 5-inch driver required a rethinking of how the company sets up its tweeters and also was addressed, of course, in the crossover design.

And, getting to the tweeter, the high-frequency unit in the Sabrina will be a version of the silk-dome driver Wilson has been working into most of its line during the last few years, replacing its long-time standard, a modified inverted titanium dome.

I asked Giolas about the thinking behind the tweeter change, pointing out that a few years ago Wilson had taken out a full-page ad in several major stereo magazines addressing what then was a frenzy in the industry to create all sorts of exotic high-frequency drivers. Some manufacturers were using a diamond material, while others were finding benefits in beryllium.

Meanwhile, the Wilson ad said the company had tried those, thank you, but would not change for the sake of change. At the time, they still believed their titanium tweeter was the best sounding.

“A lot of it had to do with the way we run our midranges,” Giolas explained. “Because they are full-range, the tweeter needs to go lower to blend. Our metal dome did that the best at the time.”

Wilson subsequently found a silk-dome tweeter than could go low, but also offered an extra degree of refinement. Even though silk was a somewhat old-school technology, although in this case one boosted by modern improvements, it turned out to be the material that won the approval of David Wilson’s ears.

“We don’t go into development with any preconceived notions,” Giolas said. “We actually were pretty far down the road with a beryllium tweeter when we created this silk dome. But it sounded better.”

Just as the Sabrina will benefit from Wilson’s driver experimentation, it also will enjoy a rock-solid, acoustically dead enclosure, as a result of what the company has learned about crafting resin materials and testing bracing with a new vibrometer.

As with the Sophia, the Sabrina will have its drivers housed in a single cabinet, rather than use the two-unit design of the WATT/Puppy. The shape is similar to many Wilson designs, with the midrange and tweeter portion sloping backward for time alignment.
Giolas took a tape measure to the cabinets of the mock-up Sabrinas. They are 38 inches tall, 13 inches deep and 11.5 inches wide. Weight was unavailable, but from trying to move a speaker I would say “heavy” would be a good guess.

The speakers will have rear ports for the midrange and woofer, and, of course, heavy-duty binding posts. Wilson is not one to skimp on anything.

Sensitivity likely will be close to other Wilson speakers, which means the Sabrina will be fairly efficient.
The price has yet to be determined, but Giolas and McGrath indicated the Sabrina probably will sell for around $15,000 a pair, give or take a thousand or two.

For now, curious audiophiles will have to make do with a 60-second video Wilson put up on YouTube shortly before RMAF. The clip is a tease, with more shadows than a film noir thriller.

Having seen the prototypes in person, I can vouch that the fit-and-finish is typical Wilson — graceful curves, flawless automobile paint and a high degree of polish. If it sounds as good as the careful development process would lead you to believe, the Sabrina could be a bewitching loudspeaker.

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New York 2014

New York 2014: Woo Audio creates audio oasis, hints at portable

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Legacy_at_NY_Audio_Show_2014My buddy Michael Liang of Woo Audio ushered me right over to the lucite case. “See?” he said. “We’re going portable.”

In the case was a blank, a white plastic mock-up of what might someday be called the WA8. The prototype is, interestingly enough, fully functional and yes, there are three mini Russian tubes jammed in there. There’s also a DAC section, pulled directly from the WA7 Fireflies, and of course, there’s a battery for taking the whole thing on the road.

Michael wired me up with a pair of LCD-3 from Audeze and I’ll offer that the sound was pretty damn good. Prototype, eh? Hmm.

According to Jack Wu, the new portable is still 6-9 months out, but when it’s finally ready for release, it’ll be wrapped up in some sweet Woo Audio metal. As of now, the unit is single-ended only and will feature an analog volume pot. More as time progresses.

In other news, this was one jammed room. All of the individual listening stations were manned, some with a line. To be fair, the whole show felt a bit highly-trafficked, so this wasn’t unexpected, but it was concentrated. And there was quite a lot to sort through. ADL, driven by the WA7. Sennheiser driven by the WA6. Beyerdynamic driven by the WA5. And even the monstrous Abyss driven by the equally impressive WA-234 mono blocks. Talk about your personal audio Summit-Fi! Makes my palms sweaty just to look at it.

If you’re looking for great sound at any audio show, this room would be the one to seek out.

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New York 2014

New York 2014: King Sound goes portable

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Legacy_at_NY_Audio_Show_2014I’ve been a big fan of the King Sound electrostatic headphones since I first laid eyes on them back at AXPONA this year. The look of the entire lineup, from the $550 KS-H2 through the $800 KS-H3, are among the best-in-class and the feel of them on my noggin was every bit as fine as the look. Turning them on? Yeah, we were talking seriously high-quality sound in a comparatively affordable package that practically begs for Best Of The Year awards.

Which is why it was fun to run across them here at the New York Show, with something new to expand the line.

I got a chance to sit and spend some time with the new KS-H4 headphones. Unlike the prior two models, these ear cups are actually oval-shaped, not circular. The price sees a bit of a bump to $900, and features memory foam in the ear pads. Like the prior two models, the H4 is absolutely a delight on the head, and the sound quality is yet another step up the ladder in both clarity and tonal density. These guys are killer.

Also shown here was the new amplifier, the M-001. The coolest thing? It’s mobile. Yes, electrostats on the go! Battery driven and fully capable of driving every headphone in the range. As with all the King Sound amps, apparently, your Stax headphones are also pin-compatible. Price for the M-001 is going to hit at about $900.

Both the M-oo1 and the KS-H4 will see availability in about 3 months.

In the meantime, can I recommend the KS-H3 with the M-10 “transistor” headphone amplifier? The combination, which retails for $1,300, was astonishingly good. I actually prefer it to the more euphonic tube amplifier, the M-20, but I’m pretty sure that’s just me. That pairing, tubes and electrostats, retails for $2,300.

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New York 2014

New York 2014: Vinnie Rossi’s new LIO

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Legacy_at_NY_Audio_Show_2014The New York Audio Show say the launch of a new brand: Vinnie Rossi LIO.

You’ll remember Vinnie from Red Wine Audio, the company that sells affordable, battery-powered, electronics that won all of those awards over on 6moons and elsewhere. I’ve had a chance to play with some of his newest creations (reviewed here and here), and found them to be amazing.

So, what happened?

Well, nothing — and everything. But apparently, it started with an idea. Continue reading

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New York 2014

New York 2014: VPI Prime, Scout Jr and more

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Legacy_at_NY_Audio_Show_2014Ah, New York. I love New York! I do. I do not, however, love driving to New York. Or flying to New York. The train? I’m so-so about the train. But driving? Bah.

So, I drove to New York.

I had to work the day job today, which was a bummer, but since that’s the paying gig, that’s how that goes. That said, I still managed to escape early (yay, half day!), which meant piling into the cruiser just after noon and steering off into the general direction of New York, by way of Pennsyltucky. Whoops. Did I just type that? My mistake. I meant Pensylvania. Right.

Anyway, 7 hours later, I arrived in Brooklyn. Fried. Jangled. Half deaf. Somebody remind me why I do this, again?

Ah, right. The Weisfelds of VPI. They’ll do it, pretty much every time.

In case you were wondering, I’m a big fan of Harry and Mat. Big fan. So, when a little bird told me that there was something new hitting the New York show, something that may or may not be called “Prime”, I was ready to storm the Bastille. Or brave NYC traffic. Either way, my loins were girded.

So. You ready? Say hello to Prime!

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Prime is an all-new, Mat Weisfeld design. It’s an evolution of the Scout line, as opposed to the Classic, featuring all manner of tasty bits. The plinth is very similar to the rest of the Scouts, but will have a slightly different flair — think “HRX” and you’re getting there. HRX isolation feet with a double-sized Pabst motor, the platter from the Scout 2, and then there’s that tonearm. That’s a new 10″ 3-D printed job! Oh, yeah. And the cartridge? An Ortofon Cadenza Bronze. $3,500 includes the … everything. (Well, the cart is extra, but the “everything else” is in there).

I’ll let that sink in a moment. You’re welcome. General availability — before the end of the year.

Feeling frisky? Another $1000 (when purchased with the SDS, otherwise, it’s $1,200) adds the VPI SDS system — as Harry suggested, it’s a big deal. If you’re on the fence, get one, and you’re welcome.

But that’s not all.

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This is the new VPI integrated amplifier. Yes, I said “VPI amplifier”.

In cooperation with their friends and long-time audio-show compatriots VAS (who makes Cayin amps), Harry and team have commissioned an assembled-in-the-USA Scott clone, based on KT88 output tubes. $4,000 (or thereabouts) will land you one, and yes, it includes a phono preamp. General availability in about 90 days.

This room also featured the Merrill Audio Jens phono preamp and some really spectacular vintage Tannoys that Harry snagged off of eBay. I can hear Mal Kenney jumping up and down right now. And yes, this room sounded dynamic as an Energizer bunny on a trampoline.

But that’s not all.

In the very next room, VPI had another surprise — the new Scout Junior. At (under) $1,500 (ish), the new Junior looks to be replacing the outgoing Traveler. This is a sneak peek, and won’t be available until after New Years, but the new Junior will feature some serious upgrades, including the same Scout motor I was so enamored of in that TAS review. Quieter, better speed control, better materials — the new Junior is going to be the new entry point into the upscale line.

No, no need to panic — the Nomad, at $999 and including the phono pre and headphone amplifier, is still in the lineup. No worries there.

Shown here, with some crazy lighting (Pink Floyd really demands nothing less, after all) and a pair of my favorite Joseph Audio loudspeakers, the Perspective and a Cayin integrated.

Jeff Joseph, as long-time readers may be aware, is a room setup wizard, and his skills were on full display. Absolutely slammin’ sound in this room.

Hee hee! What a great way to kick things off!

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CAS 2014

CAS 2014: Those Nerds Took All my Money!

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Dyn_CAS-logo-2Folks who’ve hung around the industry for a while know Steve Holt. He spent years fronting for MIT Cable before striking out on his own with the joint ventures of Kool Kat Jazz Records (selling vinyl) and The Audio Nerd Dot Com (selling HiFi gear and accessories). Both operations showed up in one fairly disreputable looking RV, and unloaded enough goodies to fill up the entire center of the Headmasters ballroom.

Let’s not talk too much about the vinyl side. Steve is just a bad man. His associate Nick is an even worse man. They mugged me for a couple of hundred bucks, and all I got were a couple of free t-shirts. Okay, sure, I also got a stack of vinyl — yummy, yummy vinyl — but this made a serious dent in my booze budget for the weekend. I blame them, and I hope they feel bad. Continue reading

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CAS 2014

CAS 2014: Pass Labs is looking for a quip that involves a Balrog

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Dyn_CAS-logo-2Reviewers and editors seem to have some sort of horrible disease. We don’t like to talk about it, but you can see its primary symptom manifest whenever someone puts a headline on an article. It’s tragic, it’s painful, and we desperately need your help to find a cure.

You know I’m talking the really bad puns. They’re just so bad. Have you seen these things? I’m sure Nelson Pass has, because Pass Labs has probably had more punster headlines inflicted on it than any other audio company I can name. This is what happens to you when your name is a verb. People just can’t resist the temptation.

I mention this in the sincere hope that my dear editor won’t slap a “None Shall Pass” headline on this, or some “Pass the musical whatsis” gag. At some point in your adult life, you just have to just accept that the joke stopped being funny before you got to it.

Anyway…

[ed. note: killjoy] Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Odyssey Audio and GIK Acoustics destroy myths, conquer all

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Klaus Bunge is about as subtle as an avalanche. He wears his opinions on a sleeve large enough to wrap around a tree trunk, and his laugh, which he lets loose like a canon-shot, will shock and stun. If you’re a fan of the Dresden Files, add some silver and an eyepatch and this is Oðin. If none of that makes sense, substitute the word “imposing” and you’re at least on the right track. His no-nonsense attitude and zero-tolerance policy for audio BS have made him wildly popular and something of an audio folk hero; his scheduled hour-long talk on audio’s high-end lasted two, and not only was well-attended, but attendees were peppering him with questions up to and past the close. Perhaps we should just say “he’s not shy”.

Klaus has been making high-quality, low-cost audiophile gear for a gazillion years, where “gazillion” = “as long as I can remember”. The value equation balances very favorably for him, as his brand Odyssey Audio, is one of the very few Made-in-the-USA destinations that caters to the budget-conscious audiophile. No, his offerings aren’t cheap. $1,000 for a pair of speakers and another $1,000 for an integrated amplifier is a stretch for just about everybody. That’s a lot of dough. But for that second step, for those moving past the “Entry Level”, Odyssey carves out a special retreat in the midst of the Happy Isles. And once there, there’s precious little reason to leave. Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Bricasti Design brings catapults, hurls insults at poor quality audio

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Brian Zolner of Bricasti Design has a good reason to be smiling. His new under $30k/pair (est.) 200wpc M28 mono amplifiers are simply outstanding. His M1 DAC has been sitting on top of the A+ Recommended Components List at Stereophile since its launch. Oh, and as lauded as these accomplishments are, it’s his pro-audio stuff that’s really killing it — his M7 Reverb unit is wildly popular.

Blah blah blah. I want those amps. Whoops. Did I just say that out loud? Heh heh. Whoops.

But it’s true — the amps are really impressive. Part of my adoration comes from the fact that I know the speakers Brian is using as part of the voicing process. They’re TIDAL Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers, and I happen to have a pair and I’m routinely stunned by what they can do. When Brian shows, he tends to bring their baby-brother stablemate, the Piano Cera ($23,990/pair), and I’m pretty familiar with that speaker too — but driven by Brian’s amps, I’m not sure anyone has ever heard what a TIDAL loudspeaker can do. Bass? You want bass? Bah! You know nothing, Jon Snow. I’ve got yer bass right here, and I’ll raise you a magical midrange and a treble purity that will make you weep for the Fae whose voice are no longer fairest in the Nevernever.

In other words, Ba-da-BING. Hook me up! Continue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Live Sound Designs makes the old new again and the crowd goes wild

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Howard Swayne of Live Sound Design re-created a classic RCA bass horn, added a replica of an Altec 1505, threw in some Altec amps restored and modified by Tom Tutay of Transition Audio Designs, and wiped away some 70 years of audio advancement.

The Grand Theatre System ($79,900) is about 105dB sensitive, and driven by 165 watts from the 811 tubes in the Altec amps, produced some of the most effortless, graceful and altogether enthralling sound at the show this year. There’s pretty much nothing over 15kHz or so, and not a lot below 100Hz. Imaging wasn’t anywhere near as incisive as a modern loudspeaker. But you know what? I did not care. At all.

If there was any way I could fit a system like this in a house (unlikely) or afford it (less so), I would have carted it off right then and there. Here’s why. You’ll hear audio reporters talk about the immediacy and presence of a stereo image in phrases like “Dylan was right there in the room with me” and “I could reach out and touch his guitar.”

Weird as that might be, this experience was pretty much the opposite. He wasn’t with me; I was with him. I was at a Dylan show. The wall of sound was 40′ high and the soundstage was as wide as an end zone.

I was gobsmacked. Ho-lee-cowContinue reading

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Did BorderPatrol just smuggle a headphone amplifier into town?

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Capital Audiofest is currently underway, and I just snuck off for a quick update here. Yes, there’s going to be way more coming, but in the meantime, a teaser of a teaser.

Brian Hunter and I snuck into Gary Dews’ BorderPatrol setup yesterday morning, first thing. Gary’s a British ex-pat that’s been making crazy-good tube amplifiers for the last 20+ years. I first met Gary at the first CAF 5 years back, when he was showing his amps with Living Voice loudspeakers — that room nearly caused me to go postal, as I’d just spent something like $20k on gear that his gear clearly bettered and I was bitter. Ah well. Anyway, I’ve had some experience with his gear since, but today, he had something new. Something very new.

A BorderPatrol headphone amplifier. Continue reading

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