There are a couple of “makers” in the high-end that command respect. Or that I just have respect for. Not like Aretha, though I suppose that fits, but more like fist-to-chest with a murmured “Res-speck” said out loud in his general direction. Frank Van Alstine of Audio by Van Alstine is one of those guys. Frank’s “thing” is quality electronics with quality sound at prices that are regularly more affordable than you think they ought to be. They may not have the sheer bling-factor of some of those other brands, but the guts are all glory.
Here at CAF, Frank was showing off his new Transcendence 9 preamplifier ($1,399), an advanced cathode follower, pure tube design with an optional phono and remote, but a standard headphone amplifier. Connectivity options are very generous — six inputs, tape in/out, and two SE outputs, both of which are live. It was paired here with a 225wpc Synergy 450 stereo amplifier ($2,000).
Loudspeakers came from Salk Sound, of course. Honestly, I think the Salk Sound loudspeakers are quite nicely turned out. The driver complements are assiduously audiophile and the finish ranges from “average” to “holy cow”. Ribbons, ceramics, aluminum — all find their way into the lineup, which again, ranges from “affordable” to “expensive”, seemingly without any detours through the Looking Glass. On display here were a pair of Veracity towers, featuring ribbons, and a pair of Soundscape towers, featuring ceramic drivers. Both sounded quite good — you’re not going to believe the prices, so let me refer you to Salk’s site for details.
I found a really nifty gadget on display here, which Frank discussed with my in a tone that was kissing cousins to suspicious disdain: The ABX Box (~$1,000). This box is essentially a switch, but allows you to make super-fast changes to your system, like, say, in a demo at an audio show … or in an ABX test. The box has inputs for a source, two preamps, 2 amps, 3 pairs of speakers and two subs, and the entire thing (with all permutations, combinations and possible derivations) operable by remote — and yes, it includes the ability to control level-matching. Here’s where it gets interesting. You can use the unit in “Test Mode”. In this mode, the user no longer knows what combo is actually playing as he sits in his seat. That is, the unit doesn’t tell him and there are no lights to give anything away. So, were you a clever sort, you could set up to test preamps. Test One begins, you make your notes. Test Two begins, you make more notes. Test Three begins, you make your notes. You’re catching on by now, I’m sure, but the point is, you can do as many tests as you like (you program that). The components used in any given test are randomly selected for either component A, B or “no change”. Frank paused, and looked at me suggestively. “Very interesting,” is what I think I stammered. He stared at me for a hard minute before continuing. “I’ll bet you’re gonna be surprised at your results.”
Be that as it may, the unit should make quick work of ABX folks that want to hear the contribution of a component or cable or whatever. I asked Frank about the Heisenberg issue — that is, how invisible is the unit itself to the whole process (it has to be doing something, so chances are, it’s changing things), but he raised his hands as if to say “Settle down, Beavis — we’ve run these units through ABX tests with the ABX testers. We’re pretty confident no one is going to notice.” Gauntlet? Looks like you’ve been thrown.
Not sure Frank is going to send me one of these, but I think it’d be a lot of fun to play with.
Frank also mentioned that a phono preamplifier is on the way (call it a pre-announcement, but the target price should be near to $500). This is also featuring a bit of nifty tech — a “user adjustable RIAA slope”. Frank says that this will allow much better matching to specific cartridges. Sounds interesting, said I. He’s still working out whether it’ll be passive or active, tube or solid-state, but whatever the final form, it’ll be the option on the new Transcendence 9.
The second “AVA room” had loudspeakers from local company Philharmonic Audio. Dennis Murphy was on hand to lead the crowd through their aural calisthenics — and I found quite a few folks completely unprepared for the amount of work they were going to be doing. The Philharmonic loudspeakers, which share some design heritage with Salk Sound, are quite the performers. At their price ($3,500 which includes the sloped baffle and upgraded cabinet), the Philharmonic 3 is just fantastic. A RAAL 70-10D ribbon tweeter is paired with a BG Neo 8 planar midrange transducer. Bass comes from an 8″ Revelator woofer., and is said to extend “usefully” down to 20Hz.
For those with lighter wallets or less space, the “Slims” tower ($2,700/pair) and the Philharmonitor ($850/pair) are both viable options. But I have to tell you, if you can, get the Philharmonic 3. One of my favorites in that sub-$10k space, no question at all.