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Stereophile Show
Home Entertainment 2005
Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event

By Rick Becker
Page 1

 

  Shortly after my Montreal show report was posted, Steven R. Rochlin commented "You sure listed a lot of Best Rooms in your report." My response to Steven was "Not only had the bar of excellence been raised this year, but a lot of presenters had cleared that bar." While the state of the art is advancing, the horde of wannabees is catching up to it, and mid-fi is not far behind them. Ironically, it is the iPod that has captured the hearts of the masses as they spend for convenience over quality. With billions and billions of McDonalds' burgers consumed by humanity, we should not be surprised.

The scene in New York this year was much the same as Montreal, although only a few companies chose to participate in both shows. The best got better, and increased in number. The Close Behinds were really close behind, and there were noticeably fewer presenters this year than last. While I suspect there is a shake out going on in the industry, I also know that it is very expensive to show in New York, and not everyone wants to foot the bill to go to the prom. While I'm on the subject of attendance, there seemed to be fewer people attending the show in New York, just as there was in Montreal. Sure, there were lots of rooms that were jammed, but it was still relatively easy to get around. This situation made my work easier, since I was able to listen better and ask more questions in most of the rooms.

But don't delude yourself into thinking this report, or any other, is a substitute for actually being there. Instead, treat this as a springboard to investigate equipment on your own, whenever possible. Audio shows never take place on a level playing field, and the presenters frequently swap out amplifiers, sources and speakers over the course of the weekend. A room one-person visits on Saturday may present an entirely different experience for another person on Sunday. The piece of music playing at any given time can have a huge effect on the presentation of a system. As a writer, my request to play a familiar selection from my compilation CD is usually honored, and this helps level the playing field a bit. I'm always grateful when this happens. But don't take my words as Gospel. Cut me some slack, just as I cut some slack for the presenters. My opinions expressed here are really just snapshots, not long-term evaluations, but over the years, I seem to have been fairly consistent with the opinions of my peers. The equipment that delighted me in New York will probably not sound quite the same in your considerably different room with your considerably different system.

 

Saturday Morning

Arriving on Saturday morning, too late for the Enjoy The Music.com™ picnic at 8am, who should I first meet but my friend Loren Frumker, a serious audiophile with whom I had dinner last year at Birdland. Moments later, taking the table beside us were another friend, John Marks with Ken Kessler, both of Stereophile. One of the cuts from John's superb CD Music for a Glass Bead Game (JMR 15) is a favorite string instrument recording on my compilation CD that I've used here and in Montreal. Conspicuously missing was my good friend Art Shapiro who skipped the show this year after being stung for airfare when the San Francisco show was cancelled last fall. Art hates to fly.

 

Starting At The Top

It seemed like I just saw Bill Parish of GTT Audio & Video in Montreal. Here, Bill upped the ante with a Kuzma Stabi Ref. turntable with a Stogi Reference tonearm and Shelter 90x cartridge, a $12K analog front end to supplement the dCS digital front end. This was the third time I've heard the Kharma Midi Exquisites with the Ceramique subwoofer ($75K + $9.5K) and I've finally moved past the price to the point where I can really appreciate the superb sound and recognize the contribution of the diamond tweeter. The Lamm M1.2 Reference monoblocks, a hybrid design with a tube in the driver stage, minimized the issue of tube vs. solid state. I heard both LP and cuts from my compilation CD and the seamless presentation of the Midi and sub was impressive for its transparency, focus and absence of bass boost... though I suppose if you wanted to, you could. While this $170K rig surpasses my own relatively modest rig with the Kharma 2.2 loudspeaker, there is a strong family resemblance among Kharma products and people who were impressed with the sound in this room should investigate their more affordable models. I stopped at the GTT room first because it afforded me a way to recalibrate my ears and I knew it would be among the Very Best Rooms at the show. Here we go again, Steven!

I entered the Gershman Acoustics and Linar room with apprehension. I loved the new Gershman Black Swan loudspeaker when I heard it earlier in the month at Montreal, except for the harsh and bright tweeter. Problem solved. It seems that in the process of switching loudspeakers around, they inadvertently connected the tweeters out of phase. See what I mean about being in the right room and the right time? I played some familiar music to confirm my suspicion that this is an excellent loudspeaker (as it should be for $20K). The first photo shows the sculptural architecture of the loudspeaker and the second photo shows how the mid-tweeter "A" frame straddles the woofer module. I've been intrigued by Gershman loudspeakers since the early days of the GAP 520, and this Black Swan is visually and audibly their finest loudspeaker ever. Gershman and Linar have a long history together and the combination is very good, but I'd still love to hear this loudspeaker driven by tubes. Maybe someday. Gershman Acoustics Cameleon reviewed here.

Albert Von Schweikert came to town in a very big way this year. Following up last year's presentation of the VR-4jr, he teamed up with Kevin Hayes of Valve Amplification Company (VAC) again this year to present the VR-4Sr. The SR was finished in the same African Hazelnut as the VR-4jr I had the pleasure of reviewing last year. Compared to the jr., the sound of the SR went even deeper with more body and refinement, as one would expect for twice the price ($8K). And while I had great success bi-amplifying the jr. with the terrific five channel solid-state amplifier from Red Planet Labs, both the jr. and the SR were superb with the Phi Beta series integrated amplifier from VAC. I raved about the VAC in last year's report, and the music just got better with the substitution of the SR for the jr. Moreover, the larger size of the SR gave it a more authoritative look that validated the quality of the sound. It worked in the small hotel room at modest volume, but it was obvious that this is a world-class loudspeaker that is meant of much larger quarters. The jr is imported from China and has an excellent fit and finish, but the SR, which is made in California, exudes even more quality. Perhaps it is the difference in size. The back panels, for example, have the same configuration of cable connections, but on the larger SR, it doesn't look as crowded. The SR, by the way, was single wired with Verbatim Cable and a jumper was used to connect the mid-tweeter unit, rather than the bayonet-type connector, which I found to be the least effective way of connecting the upper and lower units. Albert claims the SR is the same league as loudspeakers such as the Wilson Watt/Puppy, at a third the price, and without a side-by-side comparison, I'd have to suspect he might be right. But then, I've never heard the Watt/Puppies with a VAC Phi Beta amplifier. Enjoy the Music.com™ has many reviews of the Von Schweikert loudspeakers including their DB-100 floorstanding, VRS/1 subwoofer, VR-2 Reference, and VR-4jr. VAC Avatar integrated amplifier review can be seen here.

 

While in this room, I had the pleasure of meeting Art Dudley of Stereophile, seen below on the right, with Kevin Hayes. Much to my surprise, he is much younger than I suspected from reading his column. Those who scoff at his articulate writing outside the traditional Stereophile box should consider a good twelve-step program, or gravitate to home theater. It looks like Art will be with us for a good long time to come.

Then, after thinking the VR-4SR must be the best loudspeaker ever to come from Von Schweikert Audio, I step into another room to find the VR-9 SE ($60K) driven by the darTZeel NHB-108 Model One solid state monoblocks from Switzerland ($18K). I had heard this amplifier here in NY a couple of years ago when it was hooked up with some absurdly long length of ordinary coaxial cable. I was impressed, then, not only with the sound, but with the build quality which reminded me of that other Swiss brand, Nagra. John Marks had told me to keep an eye out for it earlier, and now I could hear why. Combined with the VR-9 SE, this amplifier made the tube vs. solid state debate a non-issue, as very few other combinations I've heard have done — not that it sounds like a tube amplifier, but that the music is so sweet and pure the issue doesn't come to mind. The cosmetics seemed to have been cleaned up from what I remember from my first encounter, but it is not what you or I would call a "pretty" amplifier. It is business-like, and all about the sound. Jena Labs cabled the system and I also noted that much of the equipment in this room was placed on SRA (Silent Running Audio) platforms. More and more presenters each year are getting hip to the importance of vibration absorbing devices.

The VR-9 SE loudspeakers are largely about the music, also. The glossy silver finish is superb and gives the loudspeaker an air of quality, but visually, it is somewhat busy with multiple modules, a ribbon tweeter, midrange and three larger drivers below, not to forget the rear ambience driver. Beveled edges and lots of angles give it a complex look. Presumably, in this price range, the décor of the dedicated listening room will ameliorate the aesthetic of the loudspeaker. Or perhaps they just won't give a damn. When a loudspeaker sounds this superb and this complete, it's time to turn off the lights and enjoy the music. Both the Von Schweikert & VAC and Von Schweikert & darTZeel rooms were among the Very Best Rooms at the show, but the latter was even more so.

Of course, part of the applause in the latter room must go to Ray Kimber's digital master tapes being played on a Tascam deck through an emm labs DAC and preamp.

My next stop was at the Butler Audio room where I had my first exposure to these unique hybrid amplifiers that utilize principles of what was called "weak force physics". Butler manufactures versions of these amplifiers for car audio, home theater, and now, the well-heeled high-end audio enthusiast with their new Monad monoblocks at $18K for the pair. Sporting a single 300B vacuum tube in combination with a transformerless solid-state power stage, the Monads drove a pair of Escalante Design Pinyon monitors. The monitors were supplemented with a pair of their powered Uinta subwoofers raised up on wooden boxes to the same height as the monitors. With 2 million microfarads of filter capacitance, and their unique "Tube Driver Blue" patented circuitry, the Butler Monads rival the experimental monoblocks from David Berning that I heard at the Montreal show. Unlike the Berning amplifier, however, the Monad is a finished product with a chassis machined out of billet aluminum and no visible screws!  The preamplifier here was the Reflection Audio Design OM1 and they were using Stealth Audio Cables.

At the end of the show on Sunday I dropped back to this room and spent some quality time running through my compilation CD with a Butler 3150 three channel amplifier (150 wpc, $2495) powering the Pinyon monitors without the subs. This was a formidable combination with transparency, smoothness, focus and dynamics that one would expect from a loudspeaker in this price range ($6450/pr). I was particularly impressed with the tightness and depth of the bass and the fact that no artificial boost was given to this region. I have received review samples of the Escalantes and may even get a shot at one of the Butler home theater amplifiers which strike me as an excellent value, as well as a very handsome design with windows displaying the driver tubes illuminated by blue LEDs.

In the Gini Systems room I came across another ensemble that I visited in Montreal. However, my notes from that room were confusing and I omitted mention of them. Here in New York, I had my act somewhat more together. I enjoyed listening to the twin cabinet Orsa two-way monitor with a twin ribbon tweeter from JAS Audio ($2290) on beautiful matching wood pedestals. The Orsa was powered by a JAS Array 1.1 preamplifier ($2300) feeding the power stage of their Array 2.1 Integrated amplifier ($3K). The preamplifier utilizes a pair of 2A3 tubes and the power amplifier combines a pair of 300B tubes with a pair of 805 tubes to produce 45 wpc, single ended, Class A. Gini Systems is dedicated to marketing premium audio lines from Hong Kong and China. Another loudspeaker, the Orior monitor ($3750), with its twin ribbon tweeter and 7" ceramic cone midrange/bass piqued my interest even moreso than the Orsa, but I was not in the right room at the right time. On the shelf in the middle of the rack was the Jasmine piano shaped integrated amplifier that caught a lot of attention at the Montreal show. It was fired up, here, but not in service. The visual design of the Jasmine has grown on me since Montreal, and I expect it will have a huge acceptance factor among all music lovers. Visually, at least, it ranks up there with the Pathos Model One and the Manley Stingray as iconic integrated amplifier designs.

The beautifully coordinated Naim surround sound was essentially the same as presented at Montreal and should appeal to folks who appreciate quality with the convenience of one-stop shopping. While the integrated design elements to not jump out and grab your attention, the system keeps the focus on the music (or video) where it should be. I enjoyed a few moments of Neil Young, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, through the n-Sat surround sound loudspeakers. Reviews? We have many Naim reviews including their Nait 5 integrated amplifier, CDSII CD player, and Stageline phonostage and Flat-Cap 2 power supply.

The joint was really jumpin' in the Continuum room where their fabled turntable ($48K) with its Cobra tonearm ($12.5K) made from banana wood (?) was pumping out the R&B. This extraordinary design is both massive and retro/deco, exuding quality that matches its high price. A window in the front of the base allows you to gaze at the inner workings. Special isolation footers indicate the attention given to resonance control. In fact, the Castellon Isolation Stand ($20K) featured a top shelf that was magnetically levitated. It looked like a Continuum preamplifier with separate power supply, but I didn't press for details here. Lamm ML 1.1 monoblocks on Stillpoints Component Stands ($800 ea.) drove the Peak-Consult Empress loudspeakers ($25K) imported from Denmark by Chris Sommovigo of Stereovox. Taking a page from Sonus Faber, these loudspeakers had the most impressive fit and finish of any wood enclosure loudspeaker at the show, tastefully complemented by the leather baffle. The low sheen finish is much more impressive in person than the photograph indicates. Overall, the equipment in this room not only looked right together, but the sound was among the Very Best Rooms at the show. I only wish I could have reduced the level of humanity in this room for a better listen, selfish as I am. I would hear the Empress and its big brother later on in the show, but this was the presentation that really stood out in visual, mechanical and musical quality. Lamm reviews include Model LL2 preamplifier (Deluxe) and their LP2 Phono preamplifier.

A third Von Schweikert Audio room sounded decent with its Oracle CD transport and DAC feeding the DK VS-1 Reference MK II integrated amplifier. Analysis Plus cables fed the Von Schweikert VR-4jr loudspeakers, but they sound would have improved greatly if they had used an Analysis Plus jumper or a second pair of speaker cables to bi-wire the JRs instead of using the bayonet interconnect between the bass and upper modules. I made the suggestion to the host, who indicated that he would try and scare up more cables, so perhaps you heard this room differently than I did by the time Sunday rolled around. An EquaRack Model A supported the components.

 

Brinkmann electronics, including their turntable for the front end, combined with Marten Design Duke Ellington loudspeakers ($15K, $18.5K as shown in gloss black), which use a ceramic tweeter and midrange driver. The music here was very transparent, but my compilation CD was useless. Next year I'll have to bring a test LP. This was definitely a black tie affair, with the system totaling in the neighborhood of $85K. In use here was one of several Harmonic Resolution Systems racks I saw at the show. And the one piece of equipment that I could definitely relate to was the HRS Analog Disk record weight, which I reviewed favorably last year. At $120, it was the least expensive piece in the room. Also of interest here was an old remanufactured Thorens turntable by Norma Hilee Technology that came in at $8750 with a ZA Tritonus tonearm and Ortofon SPU cartridge.

 

 

Rogue Audio played their Cronus integrated amplifier ($1795) from their new affordable Titan Series that I reported on at Montreal. However, the rest of the system was weighted toward the expensive end of the hobby with an emm front end, Nordost cables and EgglestonWorks new Fontaine II loudspeakers ($5500). The result was quite good and it is refreshing to see a new cosmetic trend taking place at Rogue.

Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports put together a very fine sounding room choosing from his small but very high quality stable of manufacturers. I heard the Acapella Fidelio 2, their least expensive loudspeaker at $6800 with stands. The cylinder on top of the loudspeaker in the photo is there for resonance dampening.

 

 

This premium line now tops out at $325K. The Einstein electronics from Germany were simply gorgeous and included The Last Record Player (a CD player) at $7490, The Tube (preamplifier) at $13,850 and The Light In The Dark (stereo amplifier) at $9980. Serious attention was given to vibration control with a variety of Acapella bases and pucks, and a Symposium Acoustics aluminum rack ($6K). The AC power in the room was cleansed and conducted by Isoclean transformers and power cords. The two transformers in the photo are linked together with cables to multiply the benefit. Note, the highly polished solid copper chassis of the transformers are reflecting the texture of the carpet. I showed the polished gold connectors on their power cords in my Montreal report. The music was especially smooth and free of grain, but to be honest, I was so stunned by the beauty of the components here that I should have paid more attention to the music. All this rig needed was a nice analog front end… like an Avid Acutus turntable. I'll certainly be on the lookout for this room next year.

 

Click here for page 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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