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High End 2015: Living Voice and Kondo

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HE15_Logo_GB_01At High End this year, I got to meet one of my heroes, Kevin Scott of Living Voice. I skipped the show-opening press conference (which I was pretty sure would be in German), to beat the crowd.

Gary Dews, a colleague of Scott’s from the Audio Innovations days (pre-Audio Note UK), sold me a pair of his Avatar OBX-RW loudspeakers, the top of the Auditorium line. These speakers are not inexpensive and not terribly glamorous in appearance – for me, it was the sound they created that was not only special but almost unique. They are, in a word, stunning – and I absolutely love them.

The Vox Olympian (starting at £435k), on the other hand, is about as opposite as you can get from the Auditorium Avatar speakers. Where the Avatars are small, unprepossessing columns, the Olympians are … well … not small. Ha! That’s kind of like saying Saturn is “on the large side” for planets in the solar system. That’s a useful point of comparison, while I’m in the neighborhood, because while the Olympian is big for a lautsprecher, it is not large for a horn lautsprecher. It’s almost dainty compared to the biggest Cessaros, for example, or just about anything from Goto or Real Horns, or anything likely to be used by those maniacs from Silbatone. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The other – glaring – comparison to the Avatar? The finish. At the risk of being overly forthcoming, seeing that finish live and in-person is heady enough to require recuperation time. To say that it was ‘spectacular’ is a catastrophic understatement. This is the loudspeaker that would cause bespoke fetishists obsessed with restoring antique furniture, say, from the reign of Louis XIV, to commit suicide while shouting “It cannot get better than this!” I lost count of the various finishes (amboyna, macassar sunburst), inlays, figuring, lacquers, and other stuff that my rather pedestrian life has no words for. There’s gold. Lots of it. In tasteful little flourishes. The tweeter horn? That’s brass – finished with gold on the ring. That super-tweeter? Yes, that’s a gold ring right around the front. The knobs? Gold! Okay, no, they’re actually LG2 bronze, but yeah – it’s a little overwhelming.

About those knobs – with their 16Ω “range”, they can be capably used to dial the living … voice … in each of the drive units. But even with that level of customizability, there’s only so much a horn speaker the size of a refrigerator can do. The bass horn covers from 70-500Hz. The mid-range horn covers 500-5,000Hz. The tweeter spans 5k-15k. The super, a canted & slotted disc sitting atop the construction, carries on to 40kHz.

So, where’s the bass? The real bass? Well, that’s what the Vox Elysian (starting at £250k) is for. These external “bass cabinets” match the Olympians, shockingly gorgeous tit for stunningly rendered tat. Ahem. Whew. More macassar sunburst, gold boss, and a stunning outboard crossover – I’m going to run out of synonyms.

The rest of the system was from Kondo, and featured an Ongaku pre, with Kagura and Gakuoh amplifiers to power the various horns. A CEC transport fed a KSL-DAC from Kondo. All of the music came from CD.

Hidden behind a screen of plants was Scott’s power plant – a rack of car batteries stood by to provide clean, reliable and steady power. Some clearly has trust issues with conference centers and their power reliability.

I visited and re-visited the Living Voice room several times throughout the weekend. Why? Because it was better than just excellent.

Don’t get me wrong. The room was catastrophic – and this was one of the best spaces available at the High End … but that’s not saying anything at all. Even given the cards dealt into his hand, Scott played a keen hand of poker and absolutely crushed it. The sound I heard was effortless in a way that only crazy-high-sensitivity horns can pull off. The sound floated out of an eerie blackness, and floated across the room, settling like a skein of silk – and then spinning, soaring, pounding with the inevitability of a storm-tide pummeling – before retreating with a soft, lingering caress. Eerie. Shocking. Addicting.

I can see why this was the most sought-after demo at High End. With a price tag well north of $1m, the system was about as alien as Mars. On the other hand, this is pretty much the poster-child of why audio shows are absolutely fascinating for audio enthusiasts, regardless of their financial means. When was the last time you were offered a walk on another world, under an alien star, arm in arm with a beautiful creature whose hungry look might well mean a bit more than a happy romp in a thin, chilly air? Gives me shivers, just thinking about it.

This is a Captain Kirk level of awesome. A new level for me. And for this experience alone, I will treasure this trip to High End.

Living Voice, FTW.

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About Scot Hull (979 Articles)

Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

1 Comment on High End 2015: Living Voice and Kondo

  1. James Romeyn Audio Specialties // May 18, 2015 at 2:22 PM //

    OK, finally a system that costs several times more than my house that seems to at least partially justify its existence. Frankly, every other system I’ve seen priced like this screams, “Mine IS bigger than yours” more than anything about music or loveliness. But this thing seems to nail it. Oh yeah, I get it, and I have not even heard it.

    Thanks to Scot and his quality text and camera work in reporting this system.

    Re. Audio Innovations: I owned their masterpiece, the “Series 500 Integrated” with stellar MM phono, rated 25Wpc; high-biased dual EL34 output, dreamy sound quality, now a cult classic worth 2-3x my selling price nine years ago. To say I regret selling it before my last move is an understatement.

    The Series 500’s Achilles heel is too little clearance for service. It could reach its very high performance potential stripped to power amp function only, adding power supply caps to minimize noise. The resulting improved performance costs flexibility and resale/collection value.

    It took nine years to find an affordable power amp with better overall performance, the $3500 Electra Fidelity EL34 Stereo (single output, 12AT7 input, three tubes total) http://www.audioasylumtrader.com/ca/listing/Amplifier-Tube/Electra-Fidelity/12AT7-EL34-tube-amp/126737

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