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

I've been a fan of MSB ever since the Link DAC was the budget unit to beat back in the late '90s. Kinda seemed like they went away for a while, but have been resurfacing.  "We had this really great technology," the kid working the room explained, "but it was all in these really boring boxes. Once we redesigned our enclosures, sales increased dramatically." Actually, he didn't use the word "dramatically", he told me a multiplier, but I don't remember what it was. 3x? 10x? Whatever it was, I forgot to write it down because I was so blown away. I mean, I knew audiophiles could be a fickle lot, but (let's use the 3x number) having sales *triple* just from the addition of fancy boxes?

That said, the kid was right on the first point that MSB's technology is stellar. If the music in the room was any indication: clean, precise, and packed with musical information. Talking later to MSB's National Sales Manager, Vince Galbo, I realized just how stellar.

The transport I had been listening to, the Data CD IV ($3995), "takes information off of CDs better than it's ever been done in history," according to Galbo. The Data CD IV reads CDs 48x faster than you listen to them, repeats the process as many times as necessary to get *all* the bits, then stores the result in flash memory for delivery to the DAC. MSB uses no off-the-shelf chips, everything is developed in-house, including an all-discreet DA conversion circuit in the Signature DAC IV ($19,500 as configured at the show, with optional iPod dock). It's signal is strong enough that a preamp is not required...the unit has a passive attenuator to adjust volume before sending the signal off to the amplifiers, in this case MSB's own Platinum Mono 202s ($17,500 a pair).

MSBs monoblocks look like large blue air filters, and not without good reason. They are 200 watts each, pure class A, with zero negative feedback and the shortest signal and power paths possible. Completing the system were a pair of Vivid V1.5 speakers.


Neko Audio / Chapman Loudspeakers
The system at the time I was in the room consisted of a Cary CD 306 serving as a transport into the Neko Audio D100 Mk2 Stereo DAC ($1495), a Cary SLP 05 tube preamp, a pair of Parasound JC1 monoblocks, and Chapman T7AE speakers ($10,995). Probably due to the speakers' proximity to the front wall, this room suffered from bass problems more than most. It was noticeable on well-balanced music, but annoying on bass-heavy recordings. This was a shame, because I absolutely loved everything else about the sound in this room.

When I first arrived in the room, Dagogo Senior Reviewer Doug Schroeder was playing "I Am A Town" by Mary Chapin Carpenter, which was positively seductive in its warmth and detail on this system. Later on, the system funked with Karl Denson's "Jam Sandwich", and rocked with AC/DC's Shoot to Thrill, demonstrating good rhythm and pace with any style of music.

The mids and highs were rendered with such weight and clarity, I kept thinking what a great showcase this was for the Neko DAC (and also how awesome the combination was of the Cary tube preamp with the solid state Parasound beasts). The D100 features a passive output stage: detail retrieval at its purest, and gives the impression that there is nothing in between the digital section and your ears. A remarkable achievement.


Von Gaylord Audio
If I were going to give an award to the exhibitor whose room I wish I had spent more time in, it would be Von Gaylord Audio. I couldn't believe it when I first walked in to their room and saw a $100,000 liquid cooled tube amp (The Uni Sea) at 200 watts, "the most powerful single ended audio amplifier in the world" according to the marketing materials). Then I looked to the side and see these roughly pyramid shaped speakers (the VG-One, with front baffles carved from a 0.75-inch slab of aluminum billet). Then I found out that they build all this stuff in Berkeley.


Berkeley? As in Berkeley, California? Where have these guys been my whole life?

Turns out, that's a question that Ray Leung, Von Gaylord's front man, is used to answering. Von Gaylord Audio used to be known as Legend Audio Design, and has been in business since 1992. The name change came in 2002, and they have been primarily focused on the export market. The company is actually based in Berkeley, but does their manufacturing in Vacaville (about an hour northeast of Berkeley, and if you been to both places, you'll probably agree that manufacturing in Vacaville makes more sense). 

Still, a United States based audio company that makes a complete line of high-end audio equipment – DACs, amplifiers, speakers, and cables – is a rarity. And it was all on display in the room next door.

The system they had running consisted of a Philips CD-80 as transport, their own Uni Digital DAC ($9,995), Uni Preamp ($15,000), Uni Earth Triode monoblocks ($12,000 for the set), and VG-One speakers ($7,500). They also offer the VG-One Plus ($13,800), which adds an additional subwoofer unit to each of the speakers. Leung wisely left the subs off their demo system, as the stand-mounted VG-Ones had easily enough low-end heft for the small room as their sound was well balanced from top to bottom without any room treatments. My notes from the session are sparse, mostly just non-specific superlatives. I do remember being *very* impressed. Think I'll leave it at that and try and get a pair in for review. 


Vaughn Loudspeakers
When I first walked in to this room, Jim Jordan, owner of Vaughn Loudspeakers (Vaughn is his middle name) was playing some pretty dreary, sleepytime material. Must have been the time of day. There was a palpable sense of presence to the music, though, which suggested that these speakers, the Triodes ($8995), really wanted to rock. I helped them out a bit. And they did.

The bass on the Triode was strong, but not necessarily loud...it gave a sense of scale to the music without throwing off the tonal balance. Highs were buttery smooth...easily the sweetest I heard all weekend. The accompanying electronics, all done by Wavelength Audio, I'm sure get some of credit for the silky treble. The midrange was a tad uneven, but Jordan explained that he had just changed some crossover capacitors the morning of the show (all of Vaughn's speakers are built by hand in San Jose, CA). Bonus points for living dangerously!

Jordan designs all of his speakers to be easy to drive. The Triodes have amplification built-in for the side-firing bass drivers, so the rest of the speaker runs at 99db sensitivity, and the impedance load never dips below 8 ohms. Sweet sounds indeed for the tubeophile crowd!


Eficion were playing their flagship F300 ($16,900) with a Plinius SA103 amplifier, BAT VK-3i preamp, and a Cary DAC being fed by an Oppo universal player. The tweeter in the F300 is an air motion transformer, a transducer mechanism known for being extremely fast. It gives the F300 a very precise sound, with a top-end presentation that is detailed without being harsh. Although the guy working the room, Pete J, apologized profusely for the bass, the room-induced bloat wasn't nearly as bad as some other rooms, it was clear that under different circumstances the F300s would be taut and responsive across their entire range. Impressive.


Angel City Audio
Hearing Wynton Marsalis and Dianne Reeves do Feeling of Jazz in the Angel City Audio room first thing Saturday morning was a great way to start the day. Angel City Audio is the North American distributor for Onix and Melody, and just last year introduced the first product of their own, the ACA Trinity ($1999 per pair), which was on display here. The system consisted of the Onix XCD-50 Reference CD Player ($3799), a Melody Pure Black 101 Tube Preamplifier ($4499), Melody M845 Tube Monoblock Power Amplifiers ($5899 per pair), and the Trinitys.

This system did a fantastic job connecting me to the music, vocal music in particular, and the soundstage extended well outside the speakers. The tonality of the midrange here was stunning, highs were extended and not overly sweet. The Trinity speakers might have been exactly the right size for the room had they been just a little farther from the front wall...their designer (and Angel City owner), Hugh Nguyen, said he would have liked an additional six inches, but doing so would have nearly blocked the door... such is shows. Still, the Trinitys put on a moving performance, and are an extremely good value.

I was impressed as well with the Melody amplification...it had a sound that was linear and accurate without being analytical, that could have easily been mistaken for (very expensive) solid-state.


Sonic Studio Amarra
Sonic Studio was born over 20 years ago, and developed the first desktop CD production system in 1989. According to company president Jon Reichbach, over half of all commercially produced CDs are mastered on a Sonic Studio system. They began work on their first consumer product in 2008: Amarra, which brings the Sonic Studio Engine (SSE) used in studios around the world to anyone with an Apple computer. Amarra is currently available in three different versions ranging in price from $99 to $695 (a free two-week trial is available for each at Sonic Studio's website. Each uses the same audio engine, but the more expensive versions have more features and support higher sample rates. Keep your eyes peeled for an ultra-lite version of Amarra, coming soon to the Apple App Store for only $29!

Sonic Studio's system at CAS featured the Amarra Model Four, a FireWire interface / multi-channel DAC / preamplifier / crossover / DSP processor ($3995), a Parasound A21 amplifier, Focal Electra 1028 Be floorstanders, and an Energy subwoofer. A David Chesky piece (that I mistakenly wrote down the title as Oboe Concerto) sounded very nice.


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