Blue Skies Audio
Mal has been telling me about Sound Lab speakers ever since I first sniffed and turned up my nose at the idea of a planar speaker matching my taste for bombastic dynamics. I was dubious, but Mr. Kenney wins this round. The combination of the Sound Lab A-1PX speakers ($28,270) and MSB Technology M203 monoblocks ($27,500) meant a room that handled full-on orchestral music (at near concert volume) better than anything I heard at the show. The source was MSB’s Platinum DAC IV ($8,995), also a good match. The effect of the whole was just effortless dynamics and musicality. This was a hard room to leave: every time I turned my back and headed for the door, a huge gorgeous wave of strings would chase after me, grab me by the shoulders, and attempt to drag me back through the door. My only regret was that I only heard classical music on this system; I would love to hear it again with rock and jazz. And, you know, everything else.
Pioneer vs. TAD
Holy cats, the Pioneer bookshelf speakers are good little speakers for the price, no lie. I had the fascinating experience of going from the Pioneer room to the TAD room and hearing the same test track on the TAD Reference. It was obviously no contest as to which was better, but the Pioneer really did a good job hanging onto the meat of the track.
The “family resemblance” between the speakers is evident — both very much have a similar tonal signature and voicing, in spite of their differing size and price. The main difference between the two? The sense of air and space surrounding the vocals, and the extra layers of texture. The Pioneers sound congested at times, whereas the TAD is absolutely effortless. At the same time, I was left with the feeling that Pioneer’s sins were more of omission than commission; I certainly wouldn’t trade in my current set-up for these, but I wouldn’t complain at all if they were my office system.
If I needed any further confirmation that Martin Logan has improved since my early 90’s vintage Quests rolled off the line, the Mantis speakers ($10,000) on display here took care of that. These were backed by a full line of Herron Audio equipment: VTSP3A preamp ($6,500), VTPH2 phone preamp ($3,650), and M1 150 watt amp ($6,550). VPI‘s Aries 3 turntable with a 10.5″ tonearm and Dynavector XX cartridge took care of the music, and Synergistic Research provided the power conditioning with their Powercell 6 SE ($2,700).
Ella Fitzgerald sounded absolutely gorgeous on this system: warm and rich, but naturally so, not in an overly syrupy way. The bass integration on the Mantis is just fantastic, and the whole system overall felt very tight and well-matched. This was another show favorite for me, and I wish I’d had a chance to return and listen to some other tracks… or maybe just more Ella.
Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound creates rooms that are always something of an oasis for me — stepping into one of his rooms at a show often feels more like stepping into someone’s living room than anything else. To me, it always feels like there should be a grill on the balcony and a cooler of beer.
This weekend, his room was set up in the usual style: Cessaro Horn Acoustics Chopin speakers ($40,000) had pride of place, standing in front of a rack displaying a TW-Acustic GTS turntable ($12,000) with 10.5″ tonearm ($5,500) and a full compliment of Tron-Electric gear: Discovery GT SE 300B Amp ($60,000), Seven GT Linestage ($18,000), and the Seven GT Phono stage ($18,000). A Pure Sound CD player ($1,800) provided for digital, but it’s always obvious that analog is king in Jeff’s rooms: the stacks and crates of records along one wall make that abundantly clear. Things sounded great again this weekend (even if Jeff didn’t bring any Leon Russel).
ENIGMAcoustics‘ Sopranino self-biasing electrostatic super tweeter ($3,690/pair) has garnered a lot of interest, as well as picking up a 2013 CES Design and Engineering Showcase Honors award. My ears tell me the interest is well deserved — these little tweeters are indeed really nifty! The rest of the system consisted of a pair of Magico V3 loudspeakers, Pass Labs XP10 preamp ($5,250) and the Pass XA100.5 mono blocks ($16,500/pair). The source was digital — an Apple Mac Mini hooked up to Light Harmonics‘ lovely DaVinci DAC ($20,000). No slouch of a system, right there, and James Taylor sounded great when I walked in. Then the magic happened: they turned on the super tweeters. It honestly sounded like everything came into focus — not only did the treble sound more real and immediate, but the mid-range and bass also tightened up beautifully. It was definitely one of my “WHOA” moments of the show.
The Concert Fidelity room was a bit easy to miss, being a large conference room around the corner from the elevators in the Hilton. I visited more than once, however, and every time there were at least a few folks enjoying some tunes, so it seems safe to say people were finding it.
Concert Fidelity’s ZL-200 solid stage mono blocks ($45,000/pair) and CF-080LSX2 tube hybrid line stage preamp ($24,000) were doing a nice job of driving TAD Evolution One speakers. CF’s brand new DAC-040 battery drive tube hybrid DAC ($12,000) took care of the digital. A Denon DP3000 (refurbished and modded by Concert Fidelity) and their SPA-4C solid state phono stage ($14,000) were on hand for analog, although every time I passed through digital was playing.
I spent a few minutes listening to Charles Mingus late in the afternoon one day during the weekend, and observed a very young man, attending with his father, who seemed to be enjoying the music as much as I was: he informed me that his stuffed elephant was conducting the show. The gear gave selections from “Ah Um!” appropriate jump, and sounded particularly good in the sweet spot. Mad props to the elephant!
Chapman and Wells Audio
Chapman T-8 MK II Loudspeakers ($9,995) and Wells Audio Inamorata Stereo Amplifier ($6,000) — this is the room that told me to sit down and shut up. When I first walked in, they were playing some kind of a cappella version of “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel, which was nifty enough. But this was followed by Ben Folds’ version of “Golden Slumbers,” which was just fantastic. This room had me frantically making “WAIT JUST A MINUTE I HAVE TO LISTEN” hand motions at Mal.
Chapman Loudspeakers with Cary amplification and MIT Cables
I had already had a come-to-Jesus moment with the Chapman/Wells room at the Atrium, so it probably isn’t too surprising that I was sonically dragged into their Hilton room as well. I walked up to the door and realized they were blasting Florence & the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over,” the kind of song that’ll have you driving at about 90 in a 35 if you’re not careful (You don’t know it? Go look it up on YouTube. I’ll wait.). “Oh, YEAH,” I said, grinning. “This is a terrible recording,” said the exhibitor. “I was about to put on something else.” “No! This is fine! I love this song!” I yelped. Accordingly, the volume went up.
It’s true, it’s not a terribly good recording — it suffers from many of the ills of modern popular recordings — but I didn’t care one whit. The Chapman T-8 MK II’s had plenty of oomf to carry that song past 11.
Cake Audio, a dealer from San Clemente, was present to show off a selection of high-end gear fronted by Rockport Technologies‘ Atria speakers ($21,500). Balanced Audio Technology supplied amplification with the VK655 SE amp ($14,000) and the REX preamp ($20,000). A Brinkmann Bardo turntable ($7,990) and 9.6 tonearm ($4,000) with Pi cartridge ($2,700) and a Balanced Audio Technology VK-P10SE phono preamp ($6,995) took care of the analog side, while the Esoteric K01 ($19,500) took care of the digital, combing CD, SACD, and DAC into one tidy package. Power cables and power treatment came from Nordost.
The Rockports were very smooth, with tight, real-sounding bass — nothing too thumpy or overblown, just realistic and very, very present. The BAT amps definitely give the sense of having all the power you really need on tap. The overall impression was of effortless hifi sound.
Unfortunately, we were unable to get a good photo of this room, but pictures of the gear from actual professionals are available at Cake.
It took a few tries to get into the Exemplar Audio room; it seemed like every time we walked by, it was incredibly crowded. When we finally got in to take some pictures, hear some music, and spend a few minutes talking to John Tucker, it was easy to see why.
Tucker’s fine digital set-up used an Oppo 95 for a transport for CD playback. The Oppo fed the brand new (to be released in 4 -6 weeks) eXception DAC ($3,995) via SPDIF. The eXception DAC then fed into Exemplar’s just released eXception SE Line stage ($4,250). A pair of Plinius SA 103 amplifiers ($10,150 each) bridged mono drove a pair of Eficion F300 speakers ($16,900/pair).
Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town” (from Harrow & the Harvest) sparkled on this system: it was incredibly detailed, but not artificially so, picking out Gillian Welch’s and David Rawling’s individual voices during the harmonies in a lovely, realistic way. I left the room thinking very highly of the eXception DAC in particular, and I hope to hear more from Exemplar in the future!
— Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney