High End 2015

High End 2015: PS Audio, Magnepan, Roon

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HE15_Logo_GB_01While not exactly new, PS Audio was showing off their pride-and-joy, the new Bascom King collaboration, the BHK Signature 250 Stereo amplifier ($7,499 US).

The amp is a tube input (6922)/mosfet output “hybrid” design, good for 250 watts into 8Ω and doubling down into 4Ω. The cosmetic is “nouveaux PS Audio” in that it will match right nicely with your other “modern” PS Audio kit, like the Perfectwave P10 Power Plant ($4,999 US) and the Perfectwave Directstream DSD DAC ($5,999 US) (that I review here), both of which were on display here at High End.

In case you were wondering, the Stereo 250 and the BHK Signature Mono 300 share more than a family resemblance — Paul McGowan shared that they’re extremely alike under the cover, too — while the Stereo is, obviously, stereo, the Mono is paralleled all the way up the chain. Not bridged. Paralleled. What does that mean? Well, it means that you’re entitled to twice the current at half the output impedance and that means G-Force-induced grins and breath-snatched giggles. Translation: mo’ betta’ bass, slam, and transient/attack. The Mono, as part of this tweak, is also putting out 300 watts per channel into 8Ω (and still doubling down into 4Ω. The price for the Mono and the Stereo is the same — $7,499 — but, obviously, you’ll need two Mono 300’s to make your Mono set. Availability is expected in June.

The room here was fronted by a massive pair of room-friendly Magnepan 20.7 planar speakers, and quite frankly, the choice was absolutely brilliant. The rooms here at High End were, as a rule, absolutely horrible for acoustics. A dipole, by happy coincidence, would be least likely to excite a room node into choking the life out of your system’s sound. Here, this was absolutely necessary — and by Day 3, with the Maggies pulled way forward and with the tweeters pushed to the outside, the sound was coherent and focused, with a generous and visitor-friendly sweet spot. Even better, “someone associated with REL” was tapped to bring in a very welcome subwoofer to give some foundation to the bass-sucking room, bringing the sound forward dramatically.

I also got a chance to tinker with the Roon Labs‘ new music library interface, and found it to be just brilliant. The tool will help you index your library, grabbing all the metadata you didn’t bother to create when you ripped all those CDs, and present it to you in an intuitive and easy-to-use format. Better still, it has native and transparent integration with Tidal HiFi, so now you can peruse and pursue to your imagination’s content. Better still, it has a native playback mode that lets you Pandora-ize your experience, creating a playback playlist that explores similarities not only in your library — but in Tidal’s. I’m going to need to see more of this, to be sure, but computer-based playback just got a lot more interesting. Expect to see and hear a lot more out of Roon Labs in the near future.

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Aurender is the Proud Sponsor for High End Munich 2015

 

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Athens 2014

Athens 2014: The Cabasse Ocean

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hes-2014Between 2005 and 2006 Cabasse released a couple of AES papers describing multiple co-axial driver speaker systems. The first real world application of those studies was the “Sphere” and the slightly smaller version “L’Ocean” followed right up. Now, when I say “real world” I mean that you can buy them, at least in theory. That is if you have $100.000 for the “smaller” one. What you get is a four driver active system with all four units arranged in co-axial mode. Each driver is served by a dedicated amplifier with 1000 Watts for the 15 inch woofer, 500 Watts for the mid-woofer, another 500 for the mid and a mere 250 Watts for the tweeter. That’s 4500 Watts for the two speakers combined.

Along with the speakers, Cabasse provides a pre-amplifier which connects with the power amps and besides the input selection provides room correction for perfect frequency response. All you need is a source and during the show PS Audio provided them; a Perfect Wave Memory player and Direct Stream DAC, along with the P10 Power Plant for clean AC.

Aesthetically, the top Cabasse speakers are unique. I will not go into details trying to describe something so “out of the box”; please check the photos as they speak for themselves.

In such a huge hall it is difficult to judge a system but one thing was more than obvious, the disappearing act performed by the Oceans. Shelby Lynne literally vanished and left only her majestic voice with acoustic guitar accompaniment to keep us company.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Goodnight and Good Luck

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Kirsten’s Final Thoughts and Gold Stars

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For the past few years, I’ve attended two big audio shows: T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach, and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Whichever one I’m attending at the time tends to be the one I think of as “the best”: sitting by the pool in L.A., I will expansively declare that T.H.E. Show is the “most fun ever.” Over dinner in Denver, I will equally expansively say, “Man, I LOVE this show. This is the BEST.”

There’s something pretty special about RMAF, though, a certain sense of a family reunion. You walk in and realize that not only do you know a lot of these people, but that most of the hotel staff remains the same, and you practically start humming the Cheers theme. Part of the reason I’m as deep into this hobby as I am can be attributed to (blamed on?) a most welcoming conversation I got dragged into at the bar during the first RMAF I attended a couple of years ago.

You end up in these conversations with people who you keep seeing year after year, at the bar and in the elevator and at dinner, and the question everyone always asks is “What’ve you heard that’s good? What’s the best thing that you’ve heard? What are you excited about?”

These questions tend to make me stumble a little, because even after three days I know I’ve only heard a fraction of what’s there, so it feels strange to say what’s “best.” I can, however, usually speak pretty well to what I’ve personally heard so far that’s exciting, and in reality, that’s all that anyone’s interested in, anyway. They want to know what they should be checking out, or they want to tease you that you’re full of shit, or say, “Oh, I KNEW you would love that room as soon as I heard it.” They want, in short, to have a conversation. I can do THAT. Most of the time.

So, keep in mind, dear reader, that this is what I’m doing with you. I can’t say what was best, but we can stop in the elevator and I can tell you what’s floating my boat. Here’s some things that I found exciting, and that I’m still thinking about a month out.:

Most Surprising Room: AllSonics

This was one of the rooms that I kept talking about all weekend, just because it surprised the heck out of me. I’d never heard of the company before, so I had no idea what to expect when I visited the room. What I found were the Allure loudspeakers ($4,950), which uses Great Plains Audio Altec 416s for the low-end, with two Great Plains Audio compression drivers in a dipole configuration for the upper range. These were paired with the Momentum subwoofers, also fitted with 416s ($3,500). The Momentums melted into invisibility, and the whole system was fabulously detailed and musical. You can read Mal’s whole write-up here — we were definitely of an accord on this one. I don’t know who these guys are, really, but I hope to hear from them again.

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Favorite Speakers Under $5,000: PranaFidelity

This category actually had some pretty good competition this year, with excellent performances from the aforementioned AllSonics and from Chapman’s T-5s. But the speakers that my thoughts keep returning to with admiration are PranaFidelity’s Fifty90 ($3,950). While I’m sure these speakers were helped along by Steve Norber’s excellent electronics, I was enormously impressed with their dynamics, punch, and natural sound.

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Best Real World Sensibility: PS Audio Sprout

It’s hard to express what I mean by “real world sensibility” without feeling like I might inadvertently insult someone, but essentially what I mean by this is, “What would I have a decent chance of selling a non-audiophile, music-loving friend on?” And the winner here is PS Audio’s Sprout, hands down. It’s good-looking, it’s under $1,000, and it’s versatile. It solves a problem a lot of people have. It’s a fabulous little gadget. The only thing that would make it an easier sell is if I could plug my Apple TV into it and have sound for my movies, too.

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Favorite Reference System: Endeavor Audio

This should maybe be the award for “most chutzpa.” Endeavor Audio launched their $7,000 E-3 last year, and it’s fabulous. Now, just over a year after I first heard the E-3’s, Leif Swanson & Co. have launched the E-5’s: six and a half feet and $30,000 worth of awesome. The combination of these speakers with Constellation amplification started off my weekend right with The Clash’s “Sound of Sinners” and propelled me through the weekend.

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#1 Lottery Wish List System: Audio Note UK

This is the closest you’ll see me give to a Best in Show. If I had to pick an entire system (not just one or two components) I heard over the weekend to take home, what would it be? The AudioNote UK system this weekend absolutely fit the bill — with the addition of Charles King’s modded Stellavox reel-to-reel (with built-in KingSound tape preamp), natch. This system had me hearing Dire Straits and Leonard Cohen like I’ve never heard them before. It was the kind of sound that makes you think, “You know, if I ever decide to just settle down with one system forever and ever until death do us part…” Yeah. This system was the marrying kind. Hats off to David Cope, Charles King, and AudioNote UK. That was something special.

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All right, folks. Those are my favorites, the stuff that got me excited, the stuff that put me in my happy place. Gold stars all around!

Now it’s your turn. What did you like?

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: PS Audio Sprout, “Growing” Interest

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Logo - Blue VectorI’m always on the look out for great gear that will intrigue friends who otherwise throw up their hands and shriek “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” when presented with putting together a sound system. If it looks sexy, so much the better; in a world of iThingies, it doesn’t do to stick out like a black plastic sore thumb. Folks want something easy to use that fits with their aesthetic and their budget, and they’re hungry for bigger, better sound than what they’re getting from their laptop speakers.

PS Audio‘s Sprout Lounge at RMAF demonstrated that they’re well aware of these desires. The small room adjacent to PS Audio’s larger system was done up in superb first-nice-apartment style: a white IKEA couch, cool Mid-Century-esque lowboy and end tables, and Marilyn Monroe on the wall. Sprout ($799), with its brushed silver sides and walnut top panel, fit right in. The set-up was flanked by Golden Ear Aon 3 loudspeakers (about $1,000/pair), and a white Pro-Ject turntable and vintage reel-to-reel deck completed the picture.

Sprout offers a load of functionality in its cute little package. The unit is an integrated amp with 50 watts per channel, an analog preamp, 192/24 asynchronous DAC, MM phono stage, low impedance headphone amp, and AptX Bluetooth receiver. What this translates to for my frightened non-audiophile friends is “No, really, just plug in your speakers, plug in your turntable, and go.” Easy-peasy.

We’ve established that the looks and function are very much there. The next question, of course, is whether the sound is satisfactory. While I wasn’t able to listen long enough to answer questions about long-term listening fatigue, my experience with an LP of Beck’s Morning Phase was rewarding. “Morning” was very sweet, smooth, and listenable, without the etched sound I tend to associate with class D amplification. Oftentimes, longer listening can reveal more subtle issues, but my initial reaction was that Sprout offers excellent sound, versatility, and looks for a very reasonable price tag. I could easily see this as an entry-level integrated for a college student’s first Real Stereo, or as the backbone of an office system where space is at a premium — or, for that matter, for my sane friends who don’t believe that amps should double as space heaters.

Sprout ships in late November, just in time for the winter holidays.

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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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CAF 2014

CanMania 2014: Moon Audio lays out a feast

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CanManiaCapital Audiofest 2014 saw a very interesting evolution this year with the introduction of CanMania, a dedicated headphone/personal-audio show-within-a-show, organized by Audio360‘s Warren Chi and PTA Alum Frank Iacone. This is something of a trend, now, and the one I hope to see a lot more of at upcoming audio shows.

CanMania was, to my mind, a huge success. Almost two dozen “display and demo stations” were available to browse, engage with, and be challenged by.

My first stop was the sprawling table set up by Drew Baird and the Moon Audio crew. Continue reading

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