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California Audio Show 2011 (CAS) By dagogo
Report By Clarke Robinson
California Audio Show 2011 (CAS) By dagogo


  The 2nd Annual California Audio Show was in Burlingame, CA this year, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on July 15th through 17th. A regional, consumer show (along the same lines as RMAF)... the show was a success on all counts (with the possible exception of room acoustics...more on that below). The general vibe was friendly and enthusiastic. All of the exhibitors I spoke to reported a steady stream of visitors to their rooms, and many made sales at the show.

CAS 2011 was a particular thrill for me, partly because it was very close to my house (I live just 10 minutes away), but also because this was my first audio show. Well, sort of... I covered AES a few years ago, but this was my first strictly "audiophile" show. As such, I learned a few things:

1.) Audio shows are fun. I'd heard that crowds, bad room sound, lines at the elevator, etc. can dampen the spirits of even the most enthusiastic audiophile. While there was some of that, the enjoyable aspects trumped the downsides by a mile. For me, this was a weekend-long listening party with a couple million dollars’ worth of gear to choose from. If one happens near you, you should go.

2.) Playing AC/DC will clear the room. 100% of the time, in my experience.

3.) It is really all about the people. Sure, we all love music, and we all love gear. But without the "we" involved, everything else rings a bit hollow. All kinds of people come to these things: nice people, annoying people, people who talk during demos, people who give you a bottle of water, people who invite you out to dinner. It's all part of it. Bottom line, music sounds better when you have people to enjoy it with (that's true at home, too).

And so enough about me, on with the show...

Blue Coast Records
Blue Coast Records founder Cookie Marenco had a table set up in the prominent Plaza One Ballroom, just off the main lobby of the show. A recording engineer and producer for 20 over years, Marenco developed a proprietary recording technique called Extended Sound Environment (E.S.E.). Using a combination of microphone placement techniques, E.S.E. produces recordings with incredibly solid stereo imaging, and ever better dimensionality in surround.  In additional to being a congenial hostess, she also moderated a panel discussion about the future of DSD, presented a series of live concerts, recorded them direct-to-DSD and made them available for download from their website. Quite possibly the hardest working woman in show business.

 

High Value AV
I dropped in to the High Value AV room pretty early the first day of the show. At a time when some other exhibitors were still struggling with the acoustics in their rooms, theirs was pretty well dialed in, despite having had "major problems with the bass" according to owner Mike Gliksman (there were several ASC Tube Traps around the speakers). The bass was still a tad boomy, as it was in most of the rooms, and it didn't help that I chose Ray Brown and "Also Sprach Zarathustra" for demo material. Definitely got me grooving, tho... as I'm sure it did many others over the weekend (their room was packed every time I walked by).

High Value AV is an audio dealer in Santa Cruz, CA and the excellent-sounding system on display demonstrated Gliksman's unique approach:

ATC Anniversary SCM 50 Active Monitors
Music First Audio Reference Passive Preamplifier
Ultimate Sound Machines DAC (CEO and designer, the talented Alex Dondysh, was on hand as well)
MBL 1621A transport 
The Green Cable – High Value AV's own brand of handmade, cotton-wrapped Litz wire interconnects. The cables for this $85,000 system, Gliksman proudly reported, cost less than $2500.

The pitchfork-looking objects behind the speakers are Shakti Hallographs, which are designed to improve the stereo image. Gliksman demonstrated this with a quick A-B test, and what do you know...they worked! Having the Hallographs in place did indeed make the individual instruments in "Also Sprach Zarathustra" appear right where they belonged... strings to the left, horns to the right and a few rows back, etc., albeit with a slight loss of detail. I couldn't really decide which I liked better, proving yet again that audio is often about trade-offs.

 

Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems / Wilson Audio
Just in case there's anybody around (besides me) who didn't know the story of Dan D'Agostino before this weekend, it goes like this: D'Agostino – cofounder, CEO, and chief designer for Krell Industries – was ousted from his own company by a group of boneheaded private equity fund managers back in 2009. He is now back with a vengeance, with the first product from his new company Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems.

And what a product it is: the Momentum Monoblock is a 300-watt class AB amplifier that sells for $45,000 a pair.

Elegant is not a word I would typically use to describe a monoblock amplifier, but it fits here: the Momentum is small as monoblocks go, a little over a foot wide, and the system used to demonstrate it was the essence of simplicity: the Momentums were driving a pair of Wilson Sashas, with a front-end that consisted only of a DCS DAC/preamp and a Sooloos streamer that Peter McGrath (Wilson Audio's National Sales Manager) operated from an iPad. The Sashas were a little much for a room that size, as the bass did get a bit out of control at times. But the moment I found my way to the sweet spot, it didn't matter. Not only did McGrath have the best music collection in the entire hotel, the Wilson/D'Agostino combination is a captivating performer that speaks directly to your emotions, delivering 100% of the heart and soul of anything put through it.

Taking a hint that I was into avant-garde, McGrath spun up a deeply sublime number from drummer Peter Epstien, followed by the raucous "Bats in the Belfry" by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. After a brief pass through "No Plastic Cups, Please" by Lebanese oud master Rabih Abou-Khalil, Mcgrath changed gears entirely, and brought tears to my eyes with "Over the Hill" by Canadian singer-songwriters Katie and Anna McGarrigle.

I had never heard Wilson speakers before this weekend, and I now know what all the fuss is about... they are hardcore music machines. The Sashas are no picnic for an amplifier to drive...their steep impedance and phase curves present a brutal load. The Momentum amps were definitely working...by the end of the day on Sunday they were running pretty hot (not hot enough to pose any burn risk to children, pets, or low-hanging curtains, but hot enough that I didn't want to hold my hand on them for long). But that they can drive the Wilsons to sing so evocatively is a strong testament to the engineering muscle behind them.

 

Gini Systems
Some amazing sounding Miles Davis drew me into the Gini Systems room, importer and distributor for Audio Space. The beguiling music I heard was being entirely produced by an Audio Space system:

CDP-320 CD player - $890 
DAC-1US dual output DAC (tube/solid-state) - $2390 
91B Integrated Amplifier - $4990
LS-3/5A Speakers - $1790 

I have no experience with the original BBC-spec LS3/5A, or even with the classic British sound, but if it involves a seductive midrange, sweet highs, and good imaging, this was it. No bass to speak of, but what was there rolled off nicely. It made me feel like I was relaxing in a walnut-lined study, sporting a plush silk smoking jacket. This would be nice to come home to!

 

Audio by Van Alstine / Salk Singnature Sound
Frank Van Alstine and Jim Salk are two of a perfect pair. On the surface, their personalities seem at odds...Salk comes across reserved (I didn't even know he was in the room until I'd been there 20 minutes), Van Alstine is more on the cantankerous side. But (not so) deep down, they are both knowledgeable, passionate engineers who love to talk their craft. For this show, they pulled out all the stops.

Speakers were the 10-inch version of Salk's current flagship, the Soundscape 10s  (introductory pricing with no upgrades: $9999 / pair). Four years in development, Salk simply wanted the best speaker he could build for his own listening room, cost no object. Lots of little decisions along the way, some of the most significant are the use of RAAL ribbon tweeters, Accuton midrange drivers, bipolar bass drivers, 1.5" inch thick MDF walls for the woofer section (also available in bamboo as an upgrade) and a separate, polymer-molded midrange/tweeter cabinet.

Heavy artillery speakers deserve heavy artillery amplification, and that's what they had with Van Alstine's new FET Valve 600R Hybrid ($2949), with no less than 10 high-current power supplies. Each tube heater, each plate of each tube, each MOSFET driver, and each power MOSFET output circuit has it's own active regulated supply. 

Salk was sitting in the back, streaming music from a laptop to a Salk Streamer ($1295), an ultra-minimalist unit that is currently in beta testing, which passed the signal through a KingRex UC192 to Van Alstine's Vision Hybrid DAC ($1999, and with an over-the-top build similar to the amplifier).

The system was able to tackle everything from the 1812 Overture (with cannon!) to Sarah McLachlan with aplomb. The room brought a little syrup into the low-end, but bass was tighter than I heard in some other rooms. This struck me as a very deep system... the longer I listened, the better it sounded. It occurred to me that a system like this may not reach out and grab you like some others if they were shown together in a high-end audio dealer, but it would be a fabulous system to live with, and could satisfy for years.

 

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