I am not an envious man, by nature. I’m pretty sanguine about my ability to play in audio’s high-end and what funds I’ve been able to wield to the betterment of my audio system. No, I’m not wealthy, but I’m not exactly poor, either. If I had more cash on hand, I’m fairly certain I’d spend it — just because there’s so many cool toys out there that I want to play with!
Which brings me to Doug White of The Voice That Is.
His company brings in some of the choicest, most elegant, most refined, most lust-worthy gear that I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. I say “misfortune” because, spending time with Doug, my naturally sunny disposition has taken on a bit of a tarnish. Maybe a dent, or two. Why, you ask? Well, it’s that damn worm. It turns, you see.
This isn’t normal audiophile gear, with horns and small-output tubes and spinning vinyl. It’s somewhat more than that. It’s not just pretty. It’s not just good-sounding. It’s more than that, too.
This is the kind of gear that Mitt Romney would have. In all seventeen of his houses. This is “I’m done” gear. No more fussing. No more arguing. No more questioning. Done. This is smug, smack the Internet trolls in the face and chortle all the way, done. Finished. Yeah.
Compounding my misery, I’ve actually found Doug to be quite affable, charming even, as well as up front and remarkably forthcoming with his experiences, his opinions, and adding insult to injury, his professional ethics are beyond reproach. Remember all that talk about dealers and value? Yeah, that’s Doug. You have to find someone who knows more than you. Who’s heard more than you. That has taken the time that you clearly haven’t to figure out what goes with what. Scratch that — what goes best with what. It works.
So, why am I miserable? I want. Not like normal, which is a familiar state of mind and easy to cope with. No, this is more of a pining than a longing, and coupled to a recognition that I just can’t hang in this league. Not yet. Maybe not ever. This makes me me sad. Because I’d really like to be able to hang in this, particular, corner of the league.
So, I blame Doug. I encourage you to do the same.
So. Here we are at Capital Audiofest and Doug has brought his personal pair of TIDAL Audio Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers. For $64,190 you too can have a pair ($58,190 in piano black), but you will never, ever, have a pair like these. These … [sigh] … these are unique.
They’re also almost unutterably beautiful.
Doug told me the story about that finish. It’s an African “pyramid mahogany”, which is actually a standard option, but Doug wanted it “extra striking”. When TIDAL’s designer Jörn Janczak agreed, he had no idea that the “extra striking” would take him another six months of hand-rubbed finish work to complete — but once, apparently, was enough. So, these two speakers are unique, which is actually kind of fitting, given that they were the first off the line — the serial numbers, on silver engraved plaques below, are 001 and 002. If you’ll notice, they predate the change TIDAL has since made to their unique and signature all-black Accuton drivers as a way to distinguish themselves from the other companies that leverage the ceramics.
I recently had a chance to hang out with Doug at his place outside of Philadelphia, and was lucky enough to spend some time listening to several of the speakers in the TIDAL Audio lineup — if by ‘lucky’, you mean “permanently damaged”. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing these speakers, you really need to set up that experience. First, as a line, they may be the most revealing speakers I’ve heard. Second, as a line, they’re also the most nuanced and musical performers at anywhere near their price. Strike that, anywhere near any price point. My one complaint — my only complaint — is the price. And it’s not that I don’t believe they’re worth the price they carry. I just wish they were cheaper so I could have a pair.
Come on, Megamillions!
Okay, some notes from that session. One, the “standard” models include a graphite-ceramic tweeter. This is a revealing and natural sounding unit and one I was quite enamored of — right up until I heard the Diacera tweeter. This “diamond” unit is, without question, superior. At Doug’s place, I was able to swap between two speakers, one a Diacera and the other not, and I can honestly and straightforwardly say, without hyperbole, that the experience will ruin you. Don’t do this to yourself. Be content.
It’s probably best to think of the $42,990 Contriva and the $58,190 Contriva Diacera as two utterly different and completely separate speakers, even if they share a similar name and are pretty much physically identical — all the upgrades are on the inside. Yes, these two certainly will share a “house sound” as all TIDAL speakers sound more alike than not, but the diamond-enabled speakers are … most definitely … something else.
If you do “go there”, just remember that I told you not to do it — but feel free to remember that you won’t drive that sports car you were considering nearly as much as you will drive these speakers. Maybe that will help.
Doug brought a familiar line-up of gear to pass the signal along. From the front is the $6,990 Aurender S10 from WideaLab. Another shockingly expensive component, for what it is — which is, essentially, a music server. By comparison, pricing for a Mac Mini starts at $600. Obviously, something extra is going on here, and unraveling this skein is relatively straightforward. If you know anything about digital audio, you’re probably overly familiar with the term “jitter”, which probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. In a nutshell, the problem being addressed is one of timing — and timing issues can be introduced anywhere in the signal path, leading to errors fed to the actual chips doing the conversion. Depending on the kind of timing error and how pervasive those errors are, you’ll degrade the signal. In some cases, considerably. Now jitter isn’t the only issue in digital playback, but it is one that Aurender takes quite seriously, and they’ve taken steps to ensure that the source — the server, in this case — will at least not be the one dropping the ball. Embedding some top-shelf digital clocks into the chassis, the Aurender is claimed to be one of the most stable and accurate digital sources on the market today. Having not had one to compare directly with my trusty MacBook Pro, I can’t offer much in the way of insight as to how much impact this makes, but the S10 has gained some significant support from the Computer Audiophile himself, Chris Connaker, who considers the unit the finest “transport” that he’s heard — and he now owns a unit for his personal reference system. High praise.
The Aurender fed a shiny silver dCS Debussy, a DSD-capable DAC with a host of interfaces that is also widely regarded as one of the finest DACs available — at any price — and one can be yours for $11,499.
In case anyone pulled a wild-hair from their you-know-wheres, Doug had very conveniently arranged to have another pair of devices from dCS to handle the CDs you might have purchased from any of the fine vendors in the lobby area. In a slimming black, I found a $18,999 Puccini SACD/CD player and matching $5,495 Puccini U-Clock. Doug tells me that the U-Clock also works a treat for the Debussy, leveling up it’s performance considerably, and it can also be used as a USB-based solution to feed the digital inputs of the Puccini SACD/CD player. I don’t think Doug was feeding the signal from the Aurender through the Puccini at this show, however.
For the rest of the signal path, it was all TIDAL Audio components. In an elegant mirrored-silver/piano black tuxedo, a $28,990 Preos preamplifier handled the hand-off. The Preos includes a world-class phono stage as part of the package, and a brand new $32,990 Preos D is now available, an upgrade that now includes a phono preamp and an on-board DAC. I don’t have any details around the DAC yet, but I hope to get all that soon. You know, when I get one to play with. When I hit the Power Ball. Any day now.
A matching solid-state amplifier sat directly below, the new $32,990 Impulse amplifier from TIDAL. It looks as elegant and refined as it sounds. I’m getting depressed just thinking about it. [sigh]. Here’s some more details:
- dual mono reference power amplifier, fully autarcic working mono amplification stages
- regulated active power supply with 2 x 800VA non-noise toriod transformers, completetly magnetical shielded and mechanical decoupled, ripple-free voltage and current stabilization
- 350.000 µF stabilisation capacity, ultra fast response with high-grade-long-life-capacitors, massive copper-gold centerplate for an unique all centred capacity control
elimination of deleterious resonances by all massive aluminum parts and braces inside, excellent torsional and longitudinal rigidity
- no direct protection circuit in signal path, no direct relay in exit path, no coupling-capacitors in the exit stages for most uncompromised sound quality
- intelligent protection system with: DC-offset-control, power supply control, temperature control, overload control, oscillation protection
An active crossover module, the LPX, can be added to the amplifier for an additional $2,300, in order to optimize a bi-amping scenario with the olympian-level TIDAL Sunray and their new Agoria loudspeakers. Power into the 4-ohm minimum Contriva Diacera is rated at 360wpc.
A mix of Flow and Flow Master Reference cabling from Argento Audio was used. The Flow cables start at $4,600 for a 1m RCA interconnect and $11,900 for a 2.5m pair of speaker cables. Flow Master Reference cables are $9,800 for a 1m RCA interconnect and $27,000 for a 2.5m pair of speaker cables.
Eye-watering, I know. I have nothing for you. Move along.
The cables in these lines have several curious differences from competitors. First, there’s no solder used. All contacts are made entirely of five-9’s silver. The connectors themselves are unique and custom. They’re also cryo treated, carry a unique damping mechanism, and everything has been hand-made. The fit and finish are pretty remarkable, and the Flow Master Reference has an interesting design where individual legs are isolated from each other, with separation maintained throughout the cable length by little metal “ladder” steps. Are they effective, or add any audible improvement? I have no idea — but they’re distinctive, attractive, and bespoke. That’s worth something.
I’m not sure it’s worth going into the details around what I felt and heard here in the room at Capital Audiofest, but I will anyway.
I brought my memory stick and Doug let me plug it into the back of the Aurender. The Aurender automagically ripped the files and all the metadata, so all I had to do was look up the songs I wanted to play via the Aurender’s custom (and rather slick) iPad app. I selected my tunes, starting with Chris Jones’ “No Sanctuary Here”, just to see what’s what with the bass. This song, as I’ve noted repeatedly, really does do unfriendly things to the nether region response and has a delightful way of lighting up a room. After summoning some appropriately ominous thunder, I switched to “Roadhouses and Automobiles” off that same Chris Jones album Roadhouses and Automobiles, and heard “the crickets” as clear as I’ve ever heard them, embedded indelibly into the sound stage. This effect, undoubtedly a trick of the mastering engineer, is a neat trick — but given that it’s 10dB (or more) “down” into the mix, hearing them is usually tough. Not here. Clear as a … cricket. This isn’t to say that the sound was “revealing” — as that might miss the point. It’s just that music was “all there” and nothing was removed, hidden, downplayed or smoothed over. If it’s “in there” this system brought it “out here”.
The sound in this room, to me, was clearly the best at the show. It wasn’t even close. Other rooms had different approaches, and featured different balances of the things I cherish. But for overall elegance, grace, charm and a natural effortlessness that is, literally, shocking when you first enter the room, this was it. Skadoosh.
I could get used to this. Oh, yes, indeedy, I could.
Looking at that picture of Doug, smiling as he leans on his one-of-a-kind speakers, makes me a little ill. Okay, no, not really, but if I had gear like this at my place of business, I’d have that look of satisfaction, too. Of course, on me, it’d look more like this: