After having a wonderful meal with all the partners in the room (I was privileged to sit between Kevin Hays of VAC and Leif Swanson, of VSA), the group (which ended up becoming some fifteen or so before the evening was over) headed back to the Potomac room for some private listening time.
Early after my arrival Saturday, I had noted some issues with LP playback that I hadn't heard with the Open Reel or Digital sources. There was a muddled, thick, slurred quality to upper bass, lower mid bass. In fact, I had a brief discussion with another journalist-colleague about it. But, as I had assured him, I was sure it would be identified and addressed in short order. As it turned out, shortly after we started my LP session, someone identified excessive movement at the base of tonearm on the Transrotor. Once detected and properly tightened, with the arm redressed, we were on to some real magic.
I had brought a lot of my favorite records, and I got to play them all. We started with Rickie Lee Jones' 10" EP, Girl at Her Volcano. The dynamics from "Under the Boardwalk" were near bone crushing, and the vocals on "Walk Away Rene" surreal they were so lifelike!
Next up, the 45 RPM 12" single, "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," a collaboration between David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder. DAMN! Yet again, dynamic contrasts were spectacular, and Bowie's voice had never sounded so visceral and palpable.
Next up was my Mobile Fidelity MFSL pressing of the Solti Beethoven Ninth. While I have at least three releases of this 1972 performance, this is by far the quietest, affording the most subtly to microdynamics, and the most dimensional view into the performance. I requested side four, the fourth movement, the "Ode to Joy." When the first vocalist came in, some six-ish minutes into the movement, his entrance was so real, so lifelike, so dynamic, plus ever so visceral, that I'm almost embarrassed to tell you that a strong profanity just fell out of my mouth! And, that would not be the last time that evening.
By the time the movement concluded, everyone was on their feet applauding. The chorale and all the soloists had been so palpable, and while this phrase gets overused, they really were seemingly standing in the room with us as living breathing artists. Instrumental bloom and body were off the hook, and so undeniably real. You could hear the contribution of the wooden bodies of stringed instruments to the overall sonic landscape. You could "see" the rosined cat gut exciting strings into action. Drum pitch was clearly defined, resolving skin tone and mallet or hammer strikes as clearly as if you were standing beside a real instrument. This was the most clearly and vividly I have ever "seen" this performance with my ears.
When it finished, the reading had been so emotionally powerful that I announced that I needed a cigarette. Everyone in the room agreed, and in fact I overheard an equally awestricken Kevin Hayes ask of Damon Von Schweikert and Leif Swanson, "Did you know they could do that?"
We played the cut "Blue Collar" from my original 1973 Mercury pressing of Bachman Turner Overdrive. Such a bluesy influenced rock tune, with remarkable midbass punch, vibrant resolution of cymbals, and a guitar sound that was meaty, big, and full of color and texture.
We kept going... We played the Classic Records reissue of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington's, Recording Together for the First Time, a 45 RPM RCA pressing of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata," the Mobile Fidelity UltraDisc 1 Step pressings of Santana's Abraxas and Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, the Brookvale release of Blues Traveler's Eponymous freshman record, the Mobile Fidelity 2 x 45 RPM release of Brothers in Arms. By the time we got to my UHQR pressing of Supertramp's Crime of the Century, though I had intended to only play a handful of tracks, the consensus of the group was to just start with cut one, side one, and let the whole thing play, right through the last track on side two.
When we were interrupted by the hotel manager knocking on the door to literally kick us out, I noticed that it was 1:30 AM! I had been programming the music in the room for some five hours. And while some of these records were admittedly special editions, on especially good vinyl, etc., they were all "real" music, not "audiophile" selections. As we were leaving for the night, Joe Laverncik commented that musically, I had been "hitting it out of the park." Leif Swanson later posted on social media, "It was so awesome taking that musical journey Greg. Thank you for sharing that with us. That was the best time I have ever had at a show and the records you brought were simply fantastic!" My point? That what we experienced, this transfixing, magical experience, was done without a single audiophile approved demo track. It was all accomplished with real, every day music!
While this iteration of the system offered slightly lessened inner detail and low midbass transient attack than it had expressed at AXPONA (a result of variances in sources and room volume), it offered significant advances in tone color and fidelity, harmonic texture, lifelike bloom and body, and in overall spatial presentation. Bass pitch definition was unsurpassed in my experience, with unyielding yet unreservedly articulated weight and attack of even the most torturous drum or bass tracks. As much subtlety and fine shading as it could expose in the microdynamic realm, we were literally knocked out by its recreation of macro dynamic events, where it served up the best I've ever heard in both weight and impact, as well as with representative scale.
It should be apparent that using two pair of the remarkable VAC 450iQs per channel in a vertical bi-amplification configuration, while inarguably excessive, was directly responsible for much of the overall improvement in system performance. Transients were so spectacularly fast, distinctly defined, and cleanly delineated, that we were informed as much by the silence between musical impulses as the effortless drive and pace of the musical gestalt. This system spawned a sonic representation so immediate and palpable, so vivid and articulate in detail, so resolute and transparent, so utterly correct in voice, and so overwhelmingly organic in nature, that you simply must hear it to understand. Mere words are, well, inadequate at best.
This systems ability to render stark transparency to the recordings, to reveal any nuance in detail or scale, replete with musical relevance, marks an entirely new threshold of accomplishment, well beyond merely disarming. Its ability to resolve the subtle differences between recordings, their distinct nuances, to reveal staging cues and differences, microphone placement and type, was simply greater than any previous system in my experience. Finally, its ability to almost utterly dematerialize, to vanish from your awareness, to disappear in service to its purpose, and transparently render a persuasively musical event, is totally unsurpassed in my experience! It is the most intimately communicative, authentically musically expressive system I've ever had the pleasure of sitting down in front of in my three decades as a professional reviewer. This system does not merely raise the bar, it IS the bar today.
Some final notes on the ULTRA 11 specifically, which has now, on three occasions over two continents, clearly proven itself to be the most accurate, transparent, and dynamically expressive loudspeaker I'm aware of. I want to point out that for a loudspeaker communicating with the blended voices of 28 drivers, its coherence is something uncommon and represents an extraordinary achievement.
In terms of making music, having that inexplicable ability to foster the complete suspension of disbelief, of permitting the listener to completely forget that they are listening to a recreation, a total deception, a reconstructed sonic event, this system would appear to have no equal. It left us all unaware that the time and space of the events unfolding before us were merely auditory illusions generated by a complex reconstruction engine, a conglomeration of electro-mechanical devices. It more effortlessly and emotionally engages listeners with the message of the music under its consideration than any other system in memory.
To the hard work of all the partners who participated in realizing this remarkable and unparalleled system in the Potomac Room for the D.C. audience, my most sincere and heartfelt thanks. I could not wish for, or hope to find, more gracious and accommodating hosts. I'm in your debt.
In a final note, right after breakfast Sunday morning, as I was preparing to head to Reagan International for my trip home, I had the good fortune of being asked to do an interview with MusicDirect Brand Ambassador, and long-time colleague and friend, Besflores (Bes) Nievera. Take a look... I thought it went well!
I gotta tell you, I'm really looking forward to CAF 2018. Hopefully, I'll see you there. Until then, please continue to Enjoy the Music!