by Darryl Lindberg
VAC, Apex Audio: Focal Grande Uptopia EM
The two large rooms featuring the Focal Grande Utopia EMs—VAC and Axis—produced fine sounds, as you’d expect, given prices asked for this stuff. The Grandes are really big speakers and they excel at doing the really big: orchestral works were reproduced with appropriate scale and weight. But I have to say both systems reproduced smaller scale works with a nuance and delicacy that belied the system’s “jumbo-ness.”
The VAC and Apex rooms were adjacent and apparently identical size-wise, as was the speaker set-up along the long wall, which made for a rare opportunity to conveniently compare about two tons of ultra high-end equipment. Electronics were VAC in the VAC room (duh), while the Axxis room used Soulution 700 series. I listened to some of my LPs in both rooms and found that I preferred the VAC driven Grandes. Don’t get me wrong, the Soulution driven speakers in the Axxis room were also stunning, but if I had the choice (if only!), the VAC stuff is the way I’d go. It probably says more about my personal preferences (I’m pretty much a tube guy) than it does about the absolute quality of the sound. By the way, I found that the sound in both of the Grande setups was more coherent and enjoyable when I was seated in the second row center versus what might be considered the “preferred” first row center seat.
Musical Surroundings: Focal Stella Utopia EM, Aesthetix, Clearaudio, etc.
This year’s the first time I wasn’t entirely enchanted by a system using the Focal Stella Utopia EMs. In the past I’d heard them in larger Blanca Peak room, which was home to the Grandes at this year’s show. The sound was certainly good, but not as good as I’ve heard before. I really don’t think it had anything to do with the associated gear—Aesthetix preamp/amps, Clearaudio turntable, etc. Perhaps I didn’t turn up when the system was finally tweaked, but I just had the impression the Crestone Peak room was too small for these speakers, even though I don’t believe it was significantly smaller (if at all) than the Grande Utopia rooms.
One fascinating analog item was the DS Audio DS-W1 Optical phono cartridge (circa $8-10K, yet to be determined). Unlike your typical cartridge that uses a magnetic field to detect stylus motion, the DS-W1 uses optical means to detect what the stylus is doing. The cartridge is powered by the included “black box,” which also incorporates phono equalization, so all you have to do is connect it to a line level input in your preamp. I can’t tell you that I immediately experienced an audio satori, since there’s no way of really identifying the cartridge’s absolute contribution to the set up, but it didn’t call attention to itself and that’s a good start!