A Visit to The Voice That Is

I don’t get up to Philadelphia as often as I ought to, or as often as my team would like, but hey, they really need to take that up with the travel budget people. I don’t make the rules! But occasionally, I do make the ends connect, and this time, I actually remembered to call Doug White at The Voice That Is. I’ve been meaning to get up and see his showroom for almost a year now, and, well, guess what? I managed it. Yeah, I’m lame.

The Voice That Is is a home-based dealership and Doug carries some terrifically choice brands. Tidal Audio. Vitus Audio. dCS. WideaLab. Argento Cable. It’s like he hand-picked these components because they work well together. Oh wait! That’s exactly what he did. And if you’re first thought is to say “wow”, well, right on. That’s pretty much how I felt, too. Not a one of those brands is a gimme — every one of them practically shouts “bespoke”. Nice lineup!

I met Doug for a tasty pasta lunch at Trattoria Giuseppe, and after that, we were off for a quick visit to his recently remodeled showroom floor. Yeah. Quick. Four hours later, I managed to break the spell. But the aftereffects, well, they linger to this day. Painful, lonely memories, echoing around the long halls of disappointment and loss. Ah, me.

I really need a visit from the Lotto Fairy. Any time now would be fine. Just sayin’.

Let’s start at the deep end of the lake. Oh yes, lets. So, in a seemingly random aside àpropos of nothing except setting up a one-liner — when I was a kid, I loved to go fishing. I was terrible at it, but every once in a while, I’d catch a real big fish. It would totally make my week. Well, in this case, I hooked something huge: the Tidal Sunray. This fish is a monster.

And it really is huge. Every bit of 7′ tall. Probably weighs more than I do. Did I mention that it’s HUGE? And at $150,000 a pair, the Sunray happily lives in that part of sunny Olympus reserved for those of divine descent. You’re going to need more than just an invitation to get in here. But don’t worry. Yours isn’t coming. Ha! Ahem.

All I’m saying is that this is some exclusive stuff here. Most definitely not entry-level. I like to think of it as … “aspirational”. That is, whenever Rick Santorum gives up his presidential aspirations, he and all his Super PAC cash can go hang with Mitt Romney and both of them can consider getting the very last system they’re ever going to want. Because this is it.

Yes. Tidal Audio inspires that kind of certainty. It’s that kind of great.

Check out the finish on the Sunray. It’s insane. That’s me, above. The Ghost in the Machine.

Tidal uses special ceramic drivers they source from Accuton. These black versions are only available to Tidal — everyone else gets the white drivers.

I like the look. Very elegant. And the sound? What is the sound of one hand clapping? Yeah, I dunno either. So try this — extremely linear, with neither warmth nor leanness. Just pure, raw, speed. Not much to go on, is it? Hence, the koan. I struggled with this for a while, but all I heard was whatever we put into them. Got warm, lush, music? The Sunray will give you warm and lush. Got bright, harsh music? The Sunray will give that to you, too. Got the most amazingly well-recorded, super-dynamic, large-scale, power-hungry tour-de-force on disc? Well, guess what. The Sunray is going to light it up like you’ve never heard it before.

There’s a lot going on here. Me? I’m (now) a huge fan of Accuton drivers, but here, they’re only part of the story. Give some respect where it’s due — the diamond Diacera tweeters are simply out of this world. No etch, no grain, no whatever-might-be-code-for-bad. Its all good.

Doug was using the WideaLabs Aurender as a music server/source — this is Mr ComputerAudiophile.com Chris Connaker’s reference, too — and it was very easy to rip my 16GB memory stick stuffed full of AIFF files for playback. Doug queued up my copy of Chris Jones’ “Roadhouses and Automobiles” off the Stockfisch album of the same name … and there were the crickets. Yes, these speakers passed the Cricket Test. Boy, howdy, yes. More — they beat out my reference, a pair of AKG-K701 headphones, while I was sitting 9′ away. Yeah. New Reference!

Vocals on the Sunray are pretty much perfect and as good as I’ve ever heard on a loudspeaker. Fully immersive 3-D sound stage? Check. Pinpoint imaging? Pardon me while I choke out a laugh — yes, yes, yes. These are freaky-good speakers.

The cables Doug pairs with Tidal are from Argento. I honestly don’t know much about the brand, but I suspect that Doug is going to educate me on the line, so hopefully I’ll know more soon. Suffice it to say that they’re also bespoke. Hand-made, custom connectors. Pure silver. Very posh. And while expensive, we’re still not talking Nordost Odin. More like Valhalla pricing.

I think the Sunray ranks with the very best transducers ever made. No shit.

Did you know that Doug designs audio stands? Me neither. They’re terrifically elegant looking and there are quite a few options available. Very Arts & Crafts.

More top-shelf cabling from Argento.

WideaLabs’ Aurender is a $6990 (available in black or silver) music “source”. It’s a server, yes, but it’s more than that. I haven’t had any time to play with one, before this, so let me refer you over to Chris’ review at Computer Audiophile. That faceplate is actually a large LCD panel — above is the “blue dials” option; below is the “yellow dials” option. The “main screen” shows track title and artist currently playing and a nifty little image of the cover art, but I think I prefer the dials. How very Luxman!

This thing has a big hard drive, and its own playback software that you can run off an iPad. It looks quite intuitive and seems nicely laid out. Sound quality is as good as I’ve heard from a computer source. Without issue. and as far as I can tell, this is where the bar sits currently in the computer playback market.

Adjacent to the Aurender is the Debussy, a $12k stand-alone DAC from dCS. This one has the 24/192 playback from an asynchronous USB, connecting back to the Aurender. $12k is a ton of dough for a component, yes, but it’s also the entry-level product in the dCS lineup.

I need one of these for the main rig. Don’t you think?

The new Preos D preamp from Tidal Audio is $28,990. Scheduled for launch in May at Munich, this pricey guy now includes a DAC and a phono stage, for the same price as the “regular” Preos pictured above, which is being discontinued.

The photos here do not do justice to the fit and finish on this product. They just don’t convey all the touches and flourishes. Like that the knob –it’s solid silver. Okay, it’s not, but it sure looks and feels like it. All the buttons and knobs on this thing look like they come from a jeweler. No kidding. Yes, $29k is a lot of money. In most cases, this kind of pricing makes me scratch my head and wonder what the hell could possibly justify those prices. Here, my thought is, instead, “Oh. Right. I see.” And when you do, you will.

Also in the rig was a new amp from Tidal Audio, the Impulse Reference Stereo. 19owpc and $32,290 for silken-delicacy wrapped around a gold brick. Monster amp. And all built to that same ludicrously high level of detail and finish that you’d expect and didn’t know you really cared about. This is like passing over a Rolex in favor of a Patek-Philippe. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, no worries, just move along.

An extra $3,000 gets you the LPX module, the outboard cross-over module for the Tidal “Reference” class products, like the Sunray. Flawless bi-amping, anyone?

Toward the end of my time, Doug swapped in the little $18,990 Amea, the only stand-mount speaker in the Tidal lineup.

This “little guy” is also, quite frankly, one of the best speakers I’ve had the pleasure of spending more than an hour with. The level of detail it pulls out of recordings is on par with the very best at any price point, and the only one I can think of, off-hand, that can do better is sitting right next to it.

The “house sound”, or rather, the distinct lack thereof, is fully on display with the imp in the line. Full of punch and power, I had to verify that they were in fact playing and not the big Sunrays, even though I had just watched Doug swap the cables. Ahem. Huge sound stage. Faultless imaging. Total transparency. I’m getting a little dizzy.

This pair of Amea’s is using the white drivers, so you can tell at a glance that Doug’s been showing them off for some time. The new ones ship with the black drivers (there is also an option of “grey graphite”, but I’ve never seen those).

For $33,690, the Amea gets the gift of the Diacera tweeter and its enhanced crossover. I haven’t heard this speaker, but after the Sunray, I was seized by a compulsion to ask about getting that tweeter in a smaller package. My wallet nearly beat me to death. Then, Doug told me that it’s similar to pulling out the center cabinet of the 3-cabinet Sunray and sticking that on a stand.

Wrap. It. Up.

I think a lot of us make a fundamental mistake when looking at speakers. We assume that bigger and deeper is better. Okay, well, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s best for me and my room. Back to synergy, again, no? Yes! It’s true, though. Some — okay, most — rooms simply cannot handle the Sunray. Did I mention that it’s huge? It’s also demanding. Those side-firing woofers will need to be positioned just-so to lock to the room. But a little 2-way like the Amea? No worries. You got a room? I’ve got the most insane speaker for you.

We didn’t actually get to play Doug’s $64,190 first-in-the-world Contriva Diacera SE (in “polished veneer”) and taking it out putting it front and center would have required moving the Sunrays, which I just wasn’t interested in doing. So, no pics. But! I did get to put my naked hand on it. I even left a fingerprint. Heh. Is it wrong when it feels so right? Ahhh. Check out that product ID/serial number plate, above. It’s solid silver — and this time, I’m serious.

No one is ever going to accuse Tidal Audio of making audio products for the masses. Their line, their entire line, is all about luxury. Top shelf luxury, at that. The level of fitment, the finish, the quality … it all oozes out of these products in a gentle cloud of ease and refinement. You’ll “ooh” and “ahh” when you get too close to their raw magnetic appeal. It’s inevitable.

I wish I could afford this kind of gear.

It’s nice to know that the manufacturers that offer products in this class aren’t just insane or trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Tidal, at least, obviously cares — about everything. Every little bit or bob was thought about, and quality was always selected for. It’s reassuring. It’s comforting, even if it’s out of reach of most of us.

But when that Lotto Fairy comes calling, I know who’s getting the first call.

Thanks again to Doug White and The Voice That Is. Most impressive.