The bar had closed on Thursday night for reasons that still remain somewhat obscure, so when Mal and I ran into Marc Phillips of Colleen Cardas Imports and Brad Serhan of Axis, it took about three seconds to convince them to join us, though I’m pretty sure the bag of cigars and bottle of bourbon I was swinging around had somewhat more to do with that decision than anything else. Temptations, temptations.
It was raining. So, we promptly dragged a table and a couple of chairs from the hallway next to the hair salon (yes, the Marriott has a hair salon!) out into the damp and chilly Denver night. I mean, what else were we to do? Rain, shmain. Kirsten, the smart one, escaped to a not-terribly-sane bed time. Poor Colleen talked to voice mail. The four of us Guilty Remnants, meanwhile, spent the next several hours trading stories about the more dented and tarnished corners of audio’s high-end, doing considerable damage to ourselves in the process.
Marc, if you’ve never met him, is a fine and affable fellow. What I find interesting (for rather many reasons), is that he’s also a long time audio journalist, both prior to and around his work with Colleen. He’s written for TONE Audio (though we won’t hold that against him) and a few other outlets; Marc’s personal soapbox, The Vinyl Anachronist, has been entertaining and informing me (and you, too, probably) for at least the past five years. Since making the jump to “the dark side”, Marc has been mostly writing about music — check it out, he’s got good taste in tunes. It was with all this in mind when I took the opportunity to see if he’d offer up a piece for us on his audio show experience — he agreed, so expect that shortly.
The day after that ill-conceived jaunt was almost wasted effort — thankfully, the show didn’t start until noon on Friday, so I did manage some time to recover enough to stumble into Marc’s demo room. Not much of a stumble, really, as the two rooms Colleen the Giving and Generous was helping to run were directly next door to my sleeping room. In a staggering act of kindness that will never be forgotten, Colleen the Magical and Marvelous brewed real coffee for me and served it in a cup the size of a bucket. All hail Colleen the Wise and Wonderful, first of her name!
As for Marc, well, I’m pretty sure she made Marc sleep in the hallway.
The first bit of gear I noticed in the room looked remarkably like what I found at the New York show in Shayne Tenace’s demo room — lots of Opera Audio loudspeakers! — And that was a very good thing to have my eyes fall upon.
For those of you who happen to be fans of Sonus Faber, you’d be forgiven for your confusion on walking up on a pair of the new Grand Callas 2014 ($11,995/pair). The gorgeous wood veneers, with the angled-plane cap and leather-wrapped fascia — it pretty much screams “Italian” and for me at least, in the speaker world, that pretty much means SF. Yes, I’m a bit provincial. Consider my horizons broadened.
Given their size and bulk, this level of fit-and-finish on these floor-standing loudspeakers is flat-out impressive — my initial thought was “this must cost over $20k, easy”. I love it when I’m wrong. 89dB, 4Ω and a frequency extension of 32Hz-25kHz, fill in the picture a bit. It’s a bass-reflex design, but the “wrinkle” here is the pair of rear-firing tweeters. Expect to want this gent to sit off that front wall a bit to take advantage of this feature.
The sound is classic “big-speaker” — there’s this “thing” that big speakers can do that “little” speakers just don’t. That is, they sound big. I really don’t know what’s going on — it seems more than mere bass competency and something about deep reserves of natural presence. I’m sure someone can capture this better than I as I can’t really explain it, I just note it, and “it” was there in spades. There was also detail and delicacy, which was surprising, and the mid-range textures were fully round, fully immersive.
If I hadn’t already been familiar with the Pure Audio electronics, I might have wondered if there were tubes stuffed into those sand-blasted exoskeletal creatures filling out the audio rack. Marc tells me that the Pure Audio team, Gary Morrison and Ross Stevens, graduated from Plinius back in 2005, a brand I’m rather familiar with. Listening, it makes sense — there’s a lot of “fullness” to this sound that just doesn’t seem to happen with a lot of “modern” solid state gear. Again, that’s a good thing.
Their current lineup consists of three products.
- The Reference Class A mono block amplifiers ($15,500/pair) are good for 65 watts into 8Ω. Interestingly, the standby circuit only draws 5 watts — once the preamplifier is brought out of standby, the Class A circuit engages. Thoughtful, that.
- The Control Preamplifier ($9,500) features a giant rotary dial … and that’s about it. Turned all the way to zero, the pre goes into standby. There’s a remote, too, but input selection is “automated” — that is, the preamp auto-selects the input with actual input. The volume control is a 32-step attenuator with non-magnetic Vishay-Dale resistors.
- The Vinyl Phono Preamplifier ($4,500) is a half-width box. Gain is preset to 62dB (but more or less can be special-ordered), and the typical loading is available.
All three share an aesthetic that is most definitely outside the expected (to say the least), and pretty much at right-angles to the lush Italian they were paired with. The top plate is mostly just skeletal, with the electronics inside shielded by a mesh screen. In addition to allowing for better air flow and heat dissipation (these are Class A designs, so that’s more than a little important), the casework is designed to be non-resonant. Whether you love it or loathe it, “Me Too” this is most definitely not. I’ll have more to say about the electronics at some point in the future — they’re “on the bench” now and a review will be forthcoming!
In the meantime, up on the top of the rack was a Unison Research Giro turntable ($3,995). This sweet-looking wood-and-acrylic belt-drive spinner was a neat bridge between the wood-and-leather aesthetic of the loudspeakers and the all-metal construction of the electronics. Almost … too neat. It’s almost like they planned it that way. Hmm …. The Giro comes with a matching tonearm and UN1-MM cartridge, making it a complete vinyl playback package. Here, Marc had mounted a Transfiguration Axia cartridge ($2,500), with a .38mV output. Just because.
Furutech Speakerflux loudspeaker cables and Lineflux interconnects were used with Alpha PS-950-18 power cords and a f-TP615 power line conditioner.
The sound in this room was several leaps beyond “smoking jacket”, but I say that because it was completely non fatiguing. This is the kind of gear (and sound) that not only lends itself to “critical listening”, but more importantly, to “regular listening”. Again, speaking in specifics, this is the kind of sound I can have going all day. I probably would, if I owned it.
But it’s also a “share your record collection” sound, not “see what a wing nut I am” sound. Would that make it a bit counter-culture in today’s speed-freak audiophile culture? I imagine that Bentley Guy with gear like this, the middle-finger salute raised to all and sundry — this is FU sound. The owner, I imagine, just isn’t sitting around with a slide rule or furiously pounding “the Internet” with how wrong everyone is. This guy is sipping Scotch. Thumbing through records. Lots and lots of records.
If you get the chance, I highly encourage you to let Marc share his collection — do that and I guarantee you an experience worth remembering. I caught Marc several times throughout the show, and I swear he spent more time taking about his records than the gear. Which was pretty much perfect.
Some game-ending gear here. Easy contender for Best in Show.