Look at this. Just look at it. Honestly, that’s all I did.
Sorry about that.
The impressively eye-catching speakers in the room came from the Italian EMMESpeakers. Their large, white Gamma speakers ($30,000) flanked their more reasonably-sized, red Beta speakers ($12,000) for a room that was memorable despite the fact that it had gone quiet on my visit.
Waterfall Audio and Aragon amplification filled out the rack, with Snake River Audio cables
Teresonic showed their Ingenium speakers with their Reference 2a3 amplifier. Front end duties were handled convincingly by a Baetis Audio music server running into a Metrum Hex DAC.
Now let’s be honest with each other: Lowthers sound like garbage. They shout, they honk, and they break up about as nicely as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Everybody knows this, right? It’s easy to dismiss Lowthers for such reasons. The problem is that they also bring a kind of speed, texture, and dynamic oomph that’s lacking from far too many systems. Emmylou Harris sounded startlingly real.
Fibonacci Technologies were demonstrating their Mariposa ribbon speakers and Parts Express subwoofers in cabinets shoehorned in to the darkest, smallest room in the Atrium.
The room was popular enough that I never did get a chance to listen carefully to these things — or to ask for a price! — but care might not have been needed. Whether you were standing, sitting, or milling around aimlessly, the Mariposa managed to throw a stable soundstage throughout the room. Despite the somewhat pedestrian gear for an event like this (perennial real-world favorites, Oppo and NAD) and the video-centric setup, there were hints that these speakers might be capable of a surprising delicacy. This might be a very interesting option for the DIY crowd.
Musical Surroundings brought a full suite of Aesthetic gear, including the Janus Signature preamp ($10,000) and Atlas Signature poweramp ($10,000). The analog front end was a Clearaudio Goldfinger ($15,000) on an AMG Viella turntable ($17,000). All this was fed through a pair of Wilson Sashas ($28,000). The excellent soundstage was apparent the moment you walked into the room, as were the reasonably startling dynamics.
Kharma is back in the US. This is a good thing. Here they were showing off their Elegance DB9-S loudspeaker ($36k) with their Exquisite P1000 preamp ($40k) and MP1000 monoblocks ($44k each). Analog front end duties were handled by Zesto and, I think, a Spiral Groove turntable.
I’ll look forward to hearing these again.
Angel City Trinity Speakers ($2600) were driven by a pair of Melody PM845 monoblocks ($8500) and a Melody P2688 Preamp ($7000). An Onix XCD-50 ($3800) was spinning discs while I was there. Numerous signs declared that Spiritual Audio’s power conditioning was the most exciting thing about the room.
Whatever the power arrangements, this room offered an easy, relaxed sound. What it really offered, though, was cool lighting, glorious air conditioning, and friendly people. This was probably as close as any room at the show got to seeing a bunch of people hanging out for fun.
Melody’s ridiculously good-looking AN211 Integrated ($6300) was sadly only on static display.
Magnepan offered big news and a canned demo. The big news was their new Super MMG speaker. Sold direct for $1199, this is as big a panel as Magnepan can reasonably ship direct. The base kit comes with two familiar Maggie panels and one DWM-style bass panel. The system was demonstrated in a dual bass panel, four speaker configuration that can be had for $1750.
It’s difficult to make any judgements about the quality of a speaker given a canned demo of unfamiliar recordings, but this definitely sounded like a Maggie. Bass seemed relatively solid down into the low 40s, and the dynamic range seemed much closer to the larger Maggie panels than can be said of the smaller MMG.
I’m a little worried that the price, the convenience, and the looks may mean that this is going to cannibalize Magnepan’s 1.7 sales. It seems to be that good.
I have a slight preference for non-MSB amplification at shows. It just *never* sounds great until Sunday! On Sunday, though, MSB‘s S200 amp ($18,000) was sounding downright *cost-effective* while driving the YG Acoustics Anat 3 speakers. The MSB Analog DAC (starting at $7000, $10k as shown) being used as a source offered a convincingly musical presentation. This was a room that deserved far more time than I gave it.
Esoteric was displaying in their trademark style with a room crammed to the rafters with Esoteric gear, Cabasse speakers, and audiophiles. There was no way on Earth that I was going to be able to find out what the gear list was or which parts of it were playing on any given visit. The sound gave the impression of no-nonsense solidity, but that was beaten by the bulletproof looks of the Esoteric transports arranged on a side table.
Tiny. Powered. Built in DAC. Real jump. REAL jump. $500. Killer. The Vanatoo guys are basically selling crack cocaine here.
Empirical Audio / Vapor Audio
Steve Nugent’s Empirical Audio was in a sunnier, more comfortable room this year to show off his Off Ramp 5 USB converter ($3250 as shown), Overdrive DAC ($8500 with options) and Final Drive transformers ($3000). Steve’s digital is always a treat at these shows, and this year was a superb example of that.
Unlike last year’s too lean, solid-state system, this year saw Steve partner with the good folks from Vapor Audio, who brought their massive Nimbus speakers ($7900) along. Featuring RAAL ribbons on the highs and AE woofers on the bottom, they offered a generous helping of anything you could want.
The folks from Vapor also brought along some prototype 40 watt monoblocks from Arte Forma ($8000). These used a pentode to drive an 805 Triode in single ended mode for just about all the tonal color you could ask for in a hotel.
Friday’s sound through this Ayre and Sonus Faber system was almost clinically precise. By Sunday afternoon, the sound of kids playing, beer going down, and Daft Punk vinyl spinning through an Aesthetix front end removed the last vestiges of clinical anything.
This was a miracle! A dCS stack and gorgeous VTL running into utterly stunning Sonus Faber. And, hey, it sounded pretty good for the money. Sunday afternoon saw this room playing Josh Ritter’s Beast in His Tracks, an album that Kirsten has had on pretty well constant rotation for months.
While the sound was nearly unimpeachable in both of the Audio Element rooms (give or take the element of personal taste), the real surprise was that the music and the atmosphere were both comfortable and enjoyable. Despite the price tags on the gear (if you have to ask…), the famously snooty audiophile image was notably absent. This gear was set up to be enjoyed as though it were already yours. There’s something to be said for that.