The Top 5
So how do you pick 5 amazing sounding rooms from an entire hotel full of amazing sounding rooms? Simple: make up some highly subjective, borderline arbitrary criteria that the
"winners" had to meet. My criteria this year:
1. Make good use of the room
2. I had to spend enough time in the room to thoroughly enjoy it.
#1 is fair. I heard numerous complaints from exhibitors all weekend about how small the rooms were, that they were smaller than last year, smaller than expected, etc. It is true, the rooms at the Burlingame Crown Plaza are rather small compared to most other hotels I've been in, but the room dimensions have been available in the exhibitor section of the CAS website for months, so there really was no excuse for not planning appropriately. Furthermore, despite the size of the rooms (which, on floors 2-5, came in three sizes: 12'x13', 16'x11', and 12'x18'), they're really about the same size as average North American living rooms, which range from 12'x12' to 13'x18' (depending on region). Putting together a fantastic audio system in a small space is clearly possible, as it was demonstrated by nearly everyone in the Top 5.
#2 is completely unfair... nothing the exhibitors could do to influence this. There were definitely some amazing sounding rooms that didn't make my
"best of" list for this one alone. Sorry, guys...I'll try to hang out longer next year.
So here goes:
I know, I know. It's a total cliché (if not complete journalistic cowardice) to put the show's most popular $263,000 audio system in my Top 5 list. And what was all that I was just saying about designing a system to work well in a small room? MBL was showing in a conference room off the main lobby that was big enough to avoid any of the room issues most of the exhibitors were having.
Thing is, concerns about the size of average American living rooms are moot when the price of the system exceeds the price of an average American house. When MBL comes to these shows with a quarter-million dollar audio system, they know they have to absolutely bring it or they're doomed...that's some pressure.
But "bring it" they did. This was the E-Ticket ride of the show...every bit as thrilling (for me) as the Matterhorn at Disneyland. This system did everything well...delicate duet and trio recordings were rendered exquisitely and pulled me in for intimate listening. Larger, heavier recordings rocked and demonstrated an excellent sense of scale. The system definitely had a sweet spot, but off-axis it was still tonally accurate and even threw a reasonable stereo image.
Some blowaway moments from their demo set were "Sing, Sang,
Sung" by Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, "Diggin' on James Brown" by Tower of Power, something (didn't catch the name) by a Chinese percussion ensemble, and
"Woke Up this Morning" by Alabama 3 (y'know, the theme from "The Sopranos"...audiophile recordings not necessary for good results).
MBL 101 - Mk. II Speakers ($70,500 / pair)
MBL 9011 Monoblock Amplifiers ($100,000 / pair)
MBL 6010 D Preamplifier ($26,500)
MBL 1622 High Resolution Transport ($27,500)
MBL 1611 F D/A Converter ($28,700)
Music was stored on a Sonore Music Server, with MBL North America's President Jeremy Bryan playing DJ from his iPhone.
Fritz Loudspeakers, WyWires, Zesto Audio, ModWright Instruments
Four friends, each the owner of a small (one person, in most cases) audio company, all showing together to split the cost of the room. The result? One of the most nicely balanced rooms of the show.
It all stared with a Thorens TD 309 turntable going in to the Zesto Audio Andros PS1 Vacuum Tube Phonostage Preamp ($3900), one of the most full-featured phono preamps I've ever seen. Then on to the ModWright LS 100 tube preamplifier ($3495) and KWA 100SE power amplifier ($3995), and all held together with WyWires cables, custom designed with special attention low capacitance and high bandwidth (ranging in price from $849 to $1299). Finally, Fritz Loudspeakers Carbon 7s ($1750) brought Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Steely Dan out in to the room in a way that made listening irresistible. Somehow a pair of Carbon 7s followed me home from the show...watch for a full review soon.
Smooth highs, enchanting midrange, and bass that, while it didn't flap my pant legs, wasn't missing, either. All in all, a well sorted audio system that made listening a joy.
If you would have told me before the show that one of the best sounding rooms was going to be done by Sony, I'd have thought you were nuts (and no, I had not seen the cover of July's Stereophile before I arrived at the show). But their new SS-AR1 loudspeakers ($27,000
per pair) demonstrate what a company like Sony can do when they put their considerable engineering muscle behind a statement product. The statement they seem to be making is,
"We still care about music". All of the drivers are custom-modified by Scan-Speak. The front baffle is maple, made from hand-selected logs that are only harvested during the month of November (when the grain is tightest). The cabinets are built by people who normally build grand pianos. Did I mention that this was Sony?
They put together an unimpeachable system to demo the SS-AR1s: Clearaudio Concept Turntable, Parasound Halo phono preamp, EMM Labs digital front end, and all-Nelson Pass amplification. The bass had presence without being boomy, the highs were detailed without harshness. Everything seemed just right, but still had guts and impact.
I was too transfixed to write down all of the music we listened to, but I do remember hearing the Ray Brown track that I played in most of the rooms
("The Real Blues", from Summer Wind: Live at the Loa) and "When I Fall in Love" from the Analogue Productions 45rpm release of Nat King Cole's Love is the Thing. Wonderful stuff.
Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis | The Tape Project
Bob Hodas is an acoustician who designs listening rooms, mostly for studios (his client list reads like a who's who of the recording industry), but also for home theaters and audiophile's homes, so it was no surprise that his room sounded spectacular. What was surprising is that it didn't take a whole lot of gadgetry to get it that way...a pair of (what looked like) Ikea rugs hanging about 8 inches from each side wall, a
diffuser panel on the back wall, and some acoustic isolation paneling on the front wall to eliminate road noise from nearby Hwy. 101. The trick, of course, is not installing the stuff, but knowing what stuff needs to be installed, and that is exactly why Hodas is in such high demand.
Hodas is also a dealer, so he brought along a system made up from brands he represents, including a pair of stand-mounted Focal Diablo Utopias ($14,000 / pair), a pair of Focal Electra SW 1000 Be Subwoofers ($4495 each), VTL MB-450 Series III Signature Monoblock Amplifiers ($18,000 / pair), a VTL TL-6.5 Signature Preamplifier ($11,500), and a Zanden Model 2500S CD Player.
The big news here, though, was the tapes via The
Schmalle, Managing Director of The Tape Project, brought down a 1/2" Otari MTR-20 with Bottlehead Tube Repro (Schmalle is also President of
Bottlehead. I had heard of The Tape Project, some crazy guys who were releasing classic albums on reel-to-reel, duplicated directly from the original studio masters, but I hadn't experienced it myself. I was happy to find that the reports of this being the best sounding medium in the world are not overstated.
We were listening to some choice selections from The Tape Project's releases: Nat Cole singing
"Fly Me to the Moon", Oliver Nelson's "Message" from the obscure (but excellent) Afro American Sketches, Sonny Rollins doing
"St. Thomas", and others. The sound of these on 1/2" tape is magical: like listening to the ghosts of the past playing live in the Crown Plaza hotel. The sound is liquid smooth, with perfect
detail... you hear everything, but the sound isn't the slightest bit fatiguing or analytical. This blows away digital anything. This blows away vinyl.
Reel-to-reel isn't for everybody... the releases are $300 each (with a subscription), and the decks take some work to obtain (once you find one, on eBay, Craigslist or wherever, The Tape Project can help you modify it for
"better than factory" sound). But for those that have the means, nothing sounds like tape.
Best in Show
SimpliFi Audio and Gradient Labs
Tim Ryan of SimpliFi Audio was demonstrating the Gradient Revolution Active speakers ($11,995 / pair). The Revolutions have open-baffle, dipole bass and a coaxial mid/tweeter that is enclosed in a unique way, so it directs 98% of their sound towards the listener, minimizing room interactions. The "Active" part refers to the crossover, which provides a 6db/octave boost to the bass to counteract the natural rolloff you get from open-baffle drivers. Technically, this results in bass that's flat to 20Hz. Aesthetically, this resulted in my favorite sound that I heard all weekend.
The bass in this room was perfect... impactful, but not boomy, and fast. There is a section in
"The Real Blues" where Ray Brown plays a fast run down to the low E, slapping the strings all the way. This tight combination of high frequency and low frequency information is a mess unless the bass is lightning quick, and I didn't hear it played better on any system at the show.
You hear the exclamation, "the speakers disappeared" all the time, but when it really happens,
it is breathtaking... and my breath was taken by the Revolutions. They projected a sonic
hologram... when I closed my eyes I felt I was no longer in a hotel room at all. When it needed to, it placed a solo performer right there in the room with us. For larger-scale recordings, sound seemed to come from well beyond the physical walls.
The Revolutions were playing with a pair of SW-D dipole subwoofers ($6,995
per pair)... apparently these have no effect on bass extension or volume (you get still get flat to 20Hz without them), but they do reduce excursion. With 3x as many bass drivers playing (there were 12 total in this system), each only needs to work 1/3 as hard. I put my finger on one of the driver cones and indeed, it was barely breathing. Ryan insisted that the bass augmentation weren't really necessary in a room this size, but was just showing them off for CAS. After hours on Sunday I got a brief demo of the Helsinkis 1.5 ($6,495
per pair), the Revolution's stylish younger brother, and he was right... with only 2 bass drivers the Helsinki's filled the room just fine.
The Revolutions' coaxial mid/tweeters were being driven by a Resolution Audio Cantata 50 Amplifier ($4000), but all of the bass drivers were run by a $500 Fosgate amp, and there were no room treatments used. Source was a Rsolution Audio Cantata Music Center ($6000), a preamp / DAC / CD / network audio player that looks as good as it sounds.
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Audio Show 2011 page.