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CAS 2014: I left my heart in San Francisco

Dyn_CAS-logo-2Running around the Westin San Francisco hotel for three days with a press badge on, feeling like John Atkinson (or even, shrudder, Scot Hull), certainly had its moments. Even though I’ve been attending high-end exhibitions for a couple of decades, the California Audio Show is only the second one I’ve covered for Part-Time Audiophile (see my AXPONA 2014 story). I found having credentials actually can get obscure pop and rock demo music played in the more uptight rooms, and can encourage long, passionate chats with the interesting people who design and build gear these days. For most, it’s a labor of love, and it shows. The downside is that as much as we writers love to write, part of the challenge of this particular gig (the site is called Part-Time Audiophile after all) is squeezing in time to compose the insane amount of detailed copy the editor demands -- and to do it in a way that hopefully is accurate, makes you feel like you were there, entertains you and encourages you to seek out some of this stuff for a listen of your own. That’s why I’m typing this wrap-up three weeks after the end of the show (what was the name of this ‘zine again?). At any rate, I did want to offer a few parting thoughts as I conclude my slice of PTA’s CAS 2014 coverage.

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First, for all the hand-wringing over the current state of the high-end, I think CAS showed there’s still a good mix of established names (Wilson Audio, Martin Logan, Acoustic Zen, SoundLab, Audio Research, even Sony and JBL) having success, while new entrepreneurs aren’t shying away from the industry.

I met a nice man named Jim Suhre, for example. A trained acoustics expert and senior principal engineer at Raytheon, Suhre started working on a loudspeaker two years ago. His LRE Audio brought its first production model to CAS — a floorstander called the Clara ($6,000 a pair) that featured a wooden base filled with two subwoofers and an open-top glass tower holding the midrange and tweeter. The speakers seemed to be battling room problems when I visited, but they certainly looked elegant.

“When do they go into production?” I asked Suhre.

“When somebody buys a pair,” he answered. He had his first order by the end of the day.

Another kind gentleman was David Linn, whose Linn Audio Loudspeakers has been around a few more years than LRE, but still flies under the radar somewhat. Linn, whose company’s name often gets confused with the venerable Scottish turntable maker, is a former JBL sales rep who got the notion he might be able to build the world’s best speaker.

His Lyceum ($19,500 a pair) is step beyond classic JBL designs, and features an innovative compression driver that handles both the midrange and highs. The polymer horn material even was selected carefully, with its soft-inside and hard-outside construction minimizing honk and other typical colorations. They produced some of the best sound at the show.

I also heard some excellent music from global power Sony, at the other end of the manufacturing spectrum. Its SS-AR1 speakers ($27,000 a pair), driven by the TA-A1ES amplifier ($2,000) and HAP Z1-S file server ($2,000), produced smooth, well-balanced sound, proving what the big boys can accomplish when they put their mind to it.

In between, there were plenty of small and mid-size companies offering a variety of designs, all looking to win over audiophiles with either good value for the money or an all-out bid for the state of the art.

Pursuing the former was Wyred4Sound’s $1,699 compact system, which bundled the company’s own integrated amp/DAC with Martin Logan bookshelf speakers. Also making good sound in the less-is-more category was Napa Acoustic, which was showing a groovy minisystem featuring its NA-208A integrated tube/solid state hybrid amp ($399), driving its NA-208S speakers ($199). With those monitors flanking a comfy chair in the nearfield, the way you might set them up on a desk, Queen’s “Killer Queen” rocked with surprising authority. And, no, those prices are not misprints.

As far as top-notch transducers, it didn’t get much better than rooms featuring the Wilson Audio Sasha 2 ($29,500 a pair), Von Gaylord VG-8 ($4,995) and Linn Lyceum.

I didn’t see quite as many women and kids at CAS as in Chicago or at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, but the young people I did talk to were especially interested in headphones, of which there was a nice variety on hand. It’s taken years to get the millennials and gen-Xers to realize there’s a world out there beyond iPods, cell phones and earbuds, but I think for many a set of really good cans is going serve as a strong pull into this hobby.

I did spot a couple of trends at the show.

First, it seems preamps are getting less love these days. Quite a few rooms were either using a passive preamp or no preamp at all, relying on the digital volume control on their source to control the amps. I’ve tried this at home on my system and never had the best results, but Stereophile’s grumpy old man, Sam Tellig, loves this strategy. From what I heard at CAS, especially on the Linn speakers, this could be a viable option if you pick the right components.

Second, more manufacturers seem to be getting a clue about the importance of good cable throughout the system, including power cords. In some cases I saw rigs where the cable cost more than the speakers. This stands in contrast to past shows, where I once found a speaker maker demoing with a homemade set of cable made from a hardware-store extension cord.

Finally, it seems some source components each year bubble up to become the go-to choice for showing speakers at their best. In past years, Mark Levinson and Krell products have held such honors. More recently, CAS 2014 included, Pass Labs amps and preamps were the choice of quite a few exhibitors. No matter where I went, the rooms featuring Pass components all sounded good, with the electronics adding little of their own sonic signature.

As a member of the press, having to take notes and photos and do careful listening in each room, I wished I had more time during each day. In particular, two rooms I wanted to linger in, but couldn’t, were those by Genesis Advanced Technologies and Sound Lab.

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There was not a working CD player in the Genesis room when I visited, but the sound of vinyl through the company’s 2.2 Junior loudspeakers ($85,000) was alluring. The speakers were driven by GRA 1440 monoblocks ($22,000 a pair), the SMc-1 preamp ($15,000) and various Genesis cables. Other Genesis speakers were on static display. I’m surprised I wasn’t drawn back, as this room also had the best cookies and snacks.

In addition, every time I popped my head in the SoundLab room, the 9-foot-tall Majestic 945PX electrostatic speakers ($40,570 per pair) either were turned up too loud or were demoing some interminable classical piece. I like the occasional orchestral track, but here’s a tip for show-goers: Yes, I know you paid for your ticket, but please refrain from sitting there with your eyes closed through the entire 25-minute first movement of your favorite symphony. You know who you are. The rest of us would appreciate it.

Lastly, some thank-you’s are in order. Extra special thanks goes to Gary Alpern, director of True Audiophile. At midnight prior to the opening of the show, I was wandering the hotel’s third floor with my camera — but no name tag yet — looking for someone setting up so I could get a photo to go with my advance for PTA. I saw Alpern, a friendly looking guy with curly hair, disappear into a room. So, like a stalker, I followed and knocked on the door. Inside he was putting the final tweaks on a system featuring the new Audion 300B Special Edition amp and Spatial Hologram M1 speakers.

Instead of calling security, he let me come in and patiently spent 45 minutes giving me the details on his gear and posing for photographs. I think I did my best to appear professional, given that it was the middle of the night. As I started to shoot photos, however, I tripped over a chair, fell and rolled perilously close to Alpern’s prized tube amp.

“You’re bleeding,” Alpern said, as I sat on the floor, seeing stars and a few tweeting birds circling my head. Indeed, my left knee was scraped up pretty bad.

“So, tell me, why the 300B?” I responded, reaching for my notebook while still sprawled on the carpet, trying to act like nothing was wrong.

After that, I quit feeling anxious about my job at CAS 2014. Instead, I just settled in, grabbed my Feelies CD, and had fun. And isn’t that what this hobby is supposed to be all about?

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About John Stancavage (155 Articles)
Writer and reviewer for Part-Time Audiophile