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AXPONA 2017: Quintessence, Musical Surroundings rise to new heights

It’s become a tradition at AXPONA for Quintessence Audio and Musical Surroundings to reserve a sizable block of large rooms together on the 12th floor of the Westin O’Hare.

Walking through the displays, adorned with gear from some of the best-known names in the high-end business, it’s easy to let my imagination drift. In this waking dream, I’m a hedge fund manager who’s leased the entire top floor of a high-rise and outfitted three of the rooms with separate audio rigs — one for tubes, one for solid-state and another optimized for vinyl.

It only takes a glance down at my lowly audio writer badge to rudely slap me back to reality. But, for an hour in Chicago, I still can luxuriate in the sounds coming from the systems assembled by Morton Grove, Ill.-based Quintessence and Musical Surroundings of California.

This year, the partners were showing Sonus Faber speakers in two rooms, one pair powered by Audio Research electronics, the other by Pass Labs products. A third room had Dynaudio transducers, powered by a rack of SimAudio Moon gear.

Associated components all were first-rate. Which room was best? That would be a tough call, as they all sounded sublime.

There were a number of new products on exhibit. The first to catch my eye — and ears — was the Dynaudio speakers. They were the company’s Contour 60 model ($10,000 a pair), which Dynaudio vice president of operations Michael Manousselis described as a “ground-up redesign.”

“It’s got a new curved cabinet, an aluminum front baffle, long-excursion woofers and the same tweeter we use in our finest speakers,” he told me.

The Contour 60 has two 24cm magnesium silicate polymer woofers in a beefed-up basket, a 15cm midrange of the same material and the company’s 28mm Esotar 2 soft-dome tweeter.

Other enhancements include a second-order crossover, upgraded caps and better internal wiring.

I listened to several tracks from Dire Straits, Eric Bibb and Dave Brubeck. The electronics included SimAudio’s 850P preamp ($30,000), 860A power amp ($15,000) and 650D CD player/DAC ($9,000).

It was immediately apparent that the Contour 60s had Dynaudio’s trademark dynamics and upper-end detail. But, for a speaker at this price point, they also offered a particularly refined high-frequency presentation and deep, powerful bass.

For example, Dire Straits’ Neil Dorfsman-engineered LP Love Over Gold has a typical 1980’s snare-drum sound — sharp and prominent. But on the Contour 60s, Pick Withers’ kit (he quit after this album in frustration) was not as distracting as it can be on speakers with less finesse in the treble.

That’s not to say that the Contour 60s softened percussion. On Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five,” there’s a closing drum shot that reverberates through the studio. On the Contour 60s, that wallop nearly knocked me out of my chair, with the decay hanging in the air as the song ended.

To handle two such dissimilar recordings so musically is a tough trick. I predict Dynaudio is going to be moving a lot of Contour 60s.

Another impressive product was DS Audio’s new DS 002 phono cartridge. Musical Surroundings began importing the company’s first model, the DS W-1, a few years ago. It introduced the Japanese company’s innovative technology, in which the cartridge uses a beam of light to detect cantilever movement.

I raved about the W-1 and the later Master 1, which to me seemed to blend the clarity and low noise floor of digital playback with the warmth and emotional connection of analog. The only issue was the Master 1 cost $22,500, although that did include a phono preamp.

Enter the DS 002, which retails for $5,000. When you consider that also includes its own preamp (all DS Audio units must have a dedicated unit because of their output level), suddenly optical technology is available to a greater slice of audiophiles.

I listened to the DS 002 on an AMG V12 Turbo turntable with a 12 JT Turbo arm ($22,000) and twin arm board ($1,800) allowing a second 9W2 arm ($3,500). Electronics were from Audio Research: a Reference 6 preamp ($14,000) and Reference 250 SE tube amps ($34,000 a pair). Speakers were Sonus Faber Cremonese II ($45,000 a pair).

My request was the first track of Ella Fitzgerald’s Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie, the classic “A Night in Tunesia.” It started with a very natural-sounding piano. Then came Ella’s voice, and I had to look to make sure Sonus Faber hadn’t started employing an electrostatic midrange. Fitzgerald was in the room.

“The founder of DS Audio is only 30 years old,” said Allan Moulton, sales manager for Oakland-based Musical Surroundings. “It’s a generational change. He’s developing analog for the 21st century.”

Two of the differences between the Master 1 and the DS 002 is that the less-expensive cartridge has a simpler power supply and an aluminum body versus an advanced alloy.

I would say the Master 1 has slightly more body and a touch more warmth, but the 002 truly is one of those products that gets you 90 percent there. I want one.

AXPONA is moving to the Renaissance Schaumberg Hotel and Convention Center next year, so we’ll have to see what the top-floor situation is there. I predict Quintessence and Musical Surroundings will have more great toys positioned in penthouse style.

I can’t wait, if only to dream some more.

AXPONA coverage generously provided by NOBLE AUDIO.

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About John Stancavage (119 Articles)
Writer and reviewer for Part-Time Audiophile

1 Comment on AXPONA 2017: Quintessence, Musical Surroundings rise to new heights

  1. Quintessence just blows away the other Chicago audio dealers. Great guys, great gear.

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