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RMAF 2015: High Water Sound and Stax

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by Darryl Lindberg

I confess that every year I look forward to relaxing and just enjoying music with Jeff Catalano and, usually, Thomas Woschnik (TW Acustic) in the High Water Sound room. That’s because every year Jeff assembles and sets up a system whose sole purpose is to reproduce music, rather than highlight particular components. Jeff understands that by focusing on the quality of the output the contribution of the components will be self-evident.

And, once again, the High Water Sound room proved to be an outstanding example of what can be achieved at an audio show with a lot of attention to detail. Year after year, HWS’s setups achieve excellent sound in rooms no different than those that other exhibitors bellyache about. Jeff’s room was a haven for those of us who are enamored of the black vinyl pizzas and everyone who wanted to experience what the term “realism” actually means when it’s applied to audio. Even though I know that High Water Sound’s motto is “2 Channel with Attitude”, what I’ve always loved about Jeff is the lack of attitude when it comes to discussing audio and, especially, music. He’s a guy who’d never turn down a listener’s request to play an LP because of the genre of music, label, or provenance. That’s because Jeff actually realizes that we all have systems to play the stuff we like. And even though Jeff has very wide-ranging taste in music — as well as a vast record collection — he’s always interested in finding new music.

This year the system consisted of the TW-Acustic Black Knight turntable ($40K) and two TW-Acoustic 10.5 tonearms ($5.5K each), both with Miyajima cartridges (Mandrake-$6K, Zero Mono-$2K). The vinyl signal (no digital in Jeff’s room!) feeding a TW-Acoustic RPS 100 phono stage ($17K), that was in turn connected to a Tron Syren II GT line-level preamplifier ($55K). The final link in the amplification chain was a pair of TW-Acustic’s TW 300B SE monoblocks ($18K/pair) rather than the faithful Tron Telstar stereo amp (somewhere north of $60K, I believe) that was used in many previous RMAFs. The speakers were a new model in the Cessaro Horn Acoustics lineup, the Wagner ($65K). I believe the cabling was used for all the connections, but I forgot to check.

Sound-wise, it was classic High Water Sound: direct, effortless, and musical. The technical details like low-power amps driving horn-loaded speakers, while an interesting side-bar, were pretty much irrelevant. The system reproduced the dynamic, large-scale music of Bantock’s Overture to a Greek Tragedy (Lyrita SRCS.123) with remarkable realism, while the male voices of the Deller Consort singing Purcell’s charming and at times bawdy six-part tavern songs on the stunningly recorded French Harmonia Mundi disc (HM 242) were, appropriately, stunningly reproduced. What more can I say?

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Stax and My Headphone Satori

Until this past RMAF, I just didn’t get the requisite musical thrill out of headphones. The cans were enjoyable, yes, but in my brief listening forays I’ve never felt the urge to doff a pair for quality listening time. I was a confirmed, open-air, two-channel guy. Of course, my attitude was based on only a haphazard and, honestly, desultory exploration headphonia.  All I can say is that, once again, one of my uncritical biases was thrown for a loop.

Now I get it! I see the light! Or at least I got it and was blinded by the sonic light when I put on a pair of Stax 009 open air headphones ($4.5K)—excuse me, earspeakers in Stax-speak—and the Stax SRM-007tII driver/amplifier ($2.2K): wowzer. I tried a number of the other Stax headphones that were lined up and found the purity and clarity entrancing, but the 009s were a different story.

I slipped the 009s on to my head and started listening to the completely unfamiliar program material and, before I knew it, I just lost track of my place in the space-time continuum. In short, I was entranced. At one point, a track of African music began that featured one of the singers speaking. The sound was so realistic and so “out-of-the-box” that I turned around not once but twice and was startled and confused to find that I’d been convincingly duped by what’s essentially pieces of very thin vibrating plastic next to my ears.

If this is the headphone/earspeaker experience, then sign me up!

 

RMAF 2015 coverage brought to you by Noble Audio! Click for more ….

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