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CAF 2011: Tidal Audio, dCS and Argento

My biggest problem at CAF 2011 this year had nothing to do with audio quality, room acoustics, power delivery or crowds. It was products piano black finishes. They are absurdly difficult to photograph! Guess what? Tidal loves that piano black finish. So, while the The Voice That Is put on a spectacular show, I was practically banging my head on the wall trying to figure out a way to show what it was I was hearing.

Success came on my second trip through — I finally figured out how to use my flash effectively. Hey, it only took me 6 years or so — or rather, it only took a new set of challenges to force me to up my game. Which I did. John Atkinson clearly needs a better camera. Anyway ….

The room was not just special, it was damn near perfect. The decor, setup and gear were spectacular. The sound quality? Absurdly good. Doug White, president of The Voice That Is, totally hit it out of the park with this setup. I, for one at least, was not only made completely comfortable, I found it nearly impossible to leave. I settled into that sweet spot and the next thing I knew, I was 20 minutes late in leaving for dinner (sorry sweetie).

On my first trip through, Doug had a pair of the “monitor” (in that they come with a stand) speakers on display, the $19k Amea. Sitting just behind them were the $38k Piano Diacera. All Tidal speakers feature custom-made-for-Tidal Accuton drivers that were neither cold nor harsh (a criticism I’ve heard about ceramic drivers generally but still have yet to actually hear in person) but very linear and totally neutral. While both speakers had a very full sound, the most arresting thing was how they nailed up a sound stage that had pin-point imaging and crystal-clear sonics.

Ever heard how reviewers will trot out the cliche about how a given component provides “an open window on the music?” Well, the sound in the Tidal room is going to make me dig up another one: “What happened to the window?”

The Diaceras sport a diamond tweeter, while the Ameas “only” had a ceramic one, but even with that difference, I was quite struck by the house sound shared by the two speakers. Sure, the Diacera showed off more air, more precision, more shimmer, but the Amea only suffered by comparison when Doug swapped out the Ameas for the Diaceras mid-way through my session. The Ameas were every bit of fantastic, it was just that the Pianos were more so, which is only fair given the big jump in price.

On my second trip through the Tidal room, the Ameas had been given a breather and the Pianos now occupied the prime position. I suppose I might confess that I prefer the diamond driver, but only if I was under extreme duress, as the sound quality was every bit as seductive as it was on my first trip through. I should also say here that I think the clean, tight bass was not as fulsome as I’ve heard nor was the mid range as lush, but the overall sound may well have been the most uncolored I’ve come across.

Digital duties were expertly handled by dCS electronics. In the photo below, you’ll see a Debussy, which was very deftly handling the computer-driven USB audio on my first visit. On my second, this was done by the U-Clock, which in turn fed the Debussy. Apparently, the bottom device, nearly hidden in the dCS stack, was a Puccini that was ready to be deployed for those attendees with their CD collection handy.

A couple of other notes. A full set of lovely Argento Audio cables were used to wire the room.  A notable exception to that was the pair of rather special digital cables used to connect the dCS gear, the $1750 TRØN, a member of the hand-made (and semi-mythical) Tombo line of Stereolab cables. Power delivery came courtesy of an Acoustic Revive RTP-4 Ultimate Outlet.

Doug also had a $28k Tidal Preos preamplifier fronting the system. The look and feel of this unit, and the matching $36k Impact stereo amp, were truly bespoke. Every exposed surface gleamed piano-black or liquid silver. This is some seriously upscale gear and quite easily ran away with the CAF 2011 Beauty Contest crown. It also made my camera scream with frustration, but after 2,387 photos, I got a few that almost turned out.

Doug is pushing tunes from his MacBook Pro via the iPad he’s holding. Slick.

Fatima was less than thrilled to be photographed this late on Sunday. And by publishing this, I’m sure I’ll now never be forgiven. Ah, well, the things we do for our Art.

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