CAF12: Command Performance A/V presents DeVore Fidelity, Leben HiFi, LM Audio, Berkeley Audio

Is it just me, or is there this tension between “great sounding gear” and “gear that’s just awesome”?

For example, I love what TIDAL Audio is doing. From the electronics to the speakers, this brand is stuffed with truly amazing-looking and amazing-sounding gear. I wish I could afford it — and if I could, I would. No doubt. No hesitation. Hey, what’s the Megamillions at today, anyway?

But somewhere else, on a different axis of awesome, lies all that low-power, high-sensitivity gear. For whatever reason — and honestly, I have yet to figure out what the deal is with my fascination here — this is the stuff that catches my eye, my ear, and my imagination. For me, this is old-school audiophile. And smack-dab in middle of this faraway fantasy land was the second room put together by Jeff Fox’s Command Performance A/V, and it was incredible.

John DeVore was on hand to show off his latest thinking in high sensitivity speakers — his luscious Orangutan line — the O/96. A 10″ main driver, a 1″ silk-dome tweeter, with an overall sensitivity of 96dB, 10hms (8ohms minimum!), and with a bass extension down to 25Hz, this DeVore Fidelity loudspeaker is my current favorite of John’s lineup, yet sadly and somehow, a pair has not magically crept into my listening room. I keep checking, but no. This injustice must be rectified, I say! Ahem. Quick note about that bass number — this is not anechoic. John designs his speakers for an average in-room performance, and based on the port tuning, the expectation is that the F3 number should be at or near 25Hz. Good enough, says I.

The basic design seems a take off on classic Snell, a design approach that Audio Note is having a lot of fun with today. The flat box, wide baffle cabinet has a decidedly “upscale retro” look and feel, the fit and finish here is completely beyond any of those prior efforts. I mean, seriously. This is nice.

The two-tone cabinet is striking — it’s really hard not to love that dramatic front baffle. John tells me that this is easy to customize — I’m thinking “spalted birdseye maple” or “flame maple” or maybe a “burled myrtlewood”. Hmm! Too many choices …. Anyway, I think the black back-cabinet actually “slims” the look even more. Nice package, and putting on my critical eye, I think my wife wouldn’t so much as hiccup if I attempted to slip them in somewhere other than my man-cave. Really, they’re quite pretty, and oddly enough, it even matches the decor in my living room! Hmm…

Wiring is a bit unusual — the binding posts are on the bottom of the elevated cabinet, not the rear. Note also that this is not an Audio Note design in that the boxes do not want corner treatment — Jeff and John both recommend pulling themout from the walls to give them plenty of space to breathe and stitch together the sound field, though John confesses with a laugh that these speakers are really easy to place in any room and get them to sound great, with this hotel room being an admirable case in point. Price for the O/96 is $12,000.

My understanding is that, at some future point, a larger, more upscale “0/98” may leave the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In the meantime, a little bird (okay, John DeVore is hardly “little”, but gimme a break, I’m working here) tells me that a smaller Orangutan will very likely be taking a bow at RMAF 2012! This new Orangutan will come in around $8k and feature the same tweeter. A different 10″ woofer, with a smaller magnet and therefore a lower sensitivity, and a slightly tweaked cabinet look/feel, will distinguish this new “O/93” model.

Amplification for the big speakers came from Line Magnetic Audio, courtesy of a honkin’ big $5,000 300b-based integrated, the 210IA. LM Audio is a Chinese brand, and the gear truly seems to be put together spectacularly well. Very robust aesthetic, with clean lines, finger-print free metallic surfaces, lots of bits and bobs, and then there’s that whole built-like-a-tank thing. The 210IA is a neat amp, with a huge, hidden/integral PSU, chunky dials, switches, a big vu meter, and some 2a3 tubes to boot. I think it weighs 5,000lbs.

On the top of the rack was a $6,000 VPI Classic 3 turntable, mounted with a $2,000 Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge. A Leben RS30EQ MM phono preamplifier sat between the ‘table to the amp. A $4,995 Auditorium 23 Homage T-2 step-up transformer bridged the moving-coil to moving-magnet junction.

Auditorium 23 interconnects and speaker cables made the connections. Power cables came from Wireworld.

Digital signals came from a $7,995 CommandPC Premier music server, here configured with an external triple linear PSU. Each element in the server — CPU, board, and USB card — is powered separately! This PSU is custom-made for the CommandPC line by the folks at Serious Stereo and shares some of their aesthetic. It’s a monster!

The connections flowed from a $600 Wireworld Platinum USB cable into a $1,900 Berkeley Audio USB converter into a $5,000 Berkeley Audio Series 2 DAC. These two pieces are references for me, having been introduced to Berkeley by Jeff some 3 years ago. My personal feeling is that this pair provides the best bang-for-the-buck digital performance available — and to clearly better them requires dramatic investments.

A second system, leveraging John’s new $5,000 Gibbon 88, swapped out the LM Audio amp for a $6,495 Leben CS-600 integrated. Did someone say “gold-plated knobs”? Oh, right, I must have been playing King Midas there for second, but yes, those knobs are all gold-plated. I’m sorry, did you say “gold-plated”? No, must have been me. Gold-plated. WTF?!? The freakin’ knobs are gold-plated!

I didn’t get to hear this system at all — 3 trips through, and my timing just wasn’t there. Looks like I’m going to have to schedule a trip down to Command Performance A/V sometime this Fall, once Jeff has the new store open.

On static display were the makings of a third system, this time fronted by the $3,700 Gibbon 3XL, perhaps driven by either a $1,650 LM Audio 211IA EL34 integrated or perhaps the $3,795 Leben CS-300XS integrated.

So, what did I hear here in this room? Awesome music. Greg Brown, on “Who Killed Cockrobin”, was as growly as a Grizzly. The texture here is what got me — holy cow. Brian Bromberg’s bass guitar … excursion … on “Slang” off Jaco, was (please pardon the cliche) riveting. Um, yeah. If you ever wanted to see if your gear can “keep up”, here you go. Flipping over to my go-to tracks from Chris Jones’ Roadhouses and Automobiles CD, I got crickets all over the place on the title track, and ominous thunder on “No Sanctuary Here”. Complaints? None. Not a one. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. I was one happy camper. Lucky for my wallet, I didn’t have my checkbook on me, or bad things would have happened.

Seriously, the O/96 is now on my personal shortlist for high-sensitivity designs. The price isn’t that out of line with, say, a top of the line Living Voice Avatar and the fit and finish may well be better — the bass reach certainly is deeper. I wish the Orangutan was able to hit 100+dB, just so I could play with some micro-watt amps, but that’s just me nitpicking. The tone, timbre, speed and sheer musicality of this speaker ought to be enough to make you stop and reconsider a megabucks speaker purchase. Add in a 10-20wpc amp, and you’re golden!

Anyway, this was a great room here at Capital Audiofest. Some of the finest, most luxurious sound on offer, with zero compromises on bass or treble extension — and scratched all those weird audiophile fetishes most soundly. Ahem.