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Stereophile Show -- Home Entertainment 2007 Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event
Stereophile Show - PRIMEDIA Home Entertainment 2007 Audiophile and Videophile Event
Report By Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail reporter.

An air of heightened expectation came over me when I read the names Scaena and Nova Physics at the door of 1614. Inside, two of the most talked about products of CES and this show waited. The Scaena is the successor to the famous Pipedreams loudspeakers that rank among my personal all-time favorites.  Nova Physics is the corporate name for the Memory Player that has generated such a buzz. My good friend Mark Porzilli, with whom I have much more in common than high end audio, has been the mastermind behind all of these, most especially the Memory Player. This raised my anxiety even further — would this be the first time we met in person? I was greeted at the door and escorted in as if the person knew me, but it was not Mark. I was introduced to several of the hosts in quick succession. Finally, the names started to sink in — Sunny Umrao, designer of the physical side of the Scaena; George Bischoff, the money man and presumably the director of the show. These were people with whom I've blindly chatted on the internet over the past several years. I felt like I was being placed under the microscope as I took the premium listening chair, and I had better like the system... or else.

The Scaena loudspeakers are among the most visually captivating loudspeakers I've ever seen — like having two Ferraris standing on end in your listening room. They grab your attention, looking like Fine Art, challenging the way you think about loudspeakers, but in no way offend your sensibility or bring your taste in home décor into question. If you came upon these in Thomas Jefferson's listening room in Monticello, you would instantly know they were there for a reason. Modularity is essential to the design. Each of the twelve midrange drivers in this line source is housed in its own ceramic compound shell and the height of the speaker varies with the number of drivers you need, or can afford. These cross over at 5500Hz to a vertical array of nine ribbon drivers parallel to the midrange drivers, just to the inside of the stacked red shells. But don't spend all your money on the line source that goes down only to 60Hz, since you will also need a subwoofer, or two. The two large horizontal soup-can shaped subwoofers powered by an industrial grade 700-watt monoblock filled in the bass quite nicely.  The diameter of the cans was the diameter of the driver — about 23 inches in my estimation. In keeping with the High Art theme, you might request the subwoofers be painted like Campbell's Tomato Soup cans. I'm dead serious. That's how Andy would have ordered his. Either that, or forgo the house brand for a more uniquely shaped subwoofer in gloss black. And get your decorator involved in the color selection, for sure. You don't want to have to throw out your $10K Roche Bobois sofa because it doesn't work with the loudspeakers.

The Memory Player is almost a misnomer, because in its utilitarian chassis it is quite forgettable.  But that's not at all what it is about. It is cutting edge state of the art technology that wastes precious little on cosmetics. It would look right at home bolted into a NASCAR racer, and probably function quite well in there, too, since it plays back music from its large computer flash memory, rather than off a CD or a hard drive music server. It took but a minute to load a couple of cuts from a CD into the Random Access Memory as the Memory Player read and re-read the CD until the signal was bit perfect. I didn't find the wait bothersome at all. In fact, I prefer a bit of time between albums, something that is inherent in the ritual of cleaning an LP and setting it upon a turntable. It gives the stage crew time to change the set behind the loudspeakers.

The cables were by Silversmith Audio, and so far out of my price league that I didn't pay attention to them, except to avoid stepping on them when I was taking photographs. As the name suggests, they are solid silver. Amplification was by Behold, a German ultra-high-end company (actually Ballman Electronics) that specializes in digital amplification. The blue circle seen in the photo here is their graphic signature, but the amplifier is also available in a version with a switch to turn off the circle of LEDs. For my taste, the blue circle was a bit overpowering. I could easily do with a much smaller one. The 350 wpc Behold amplifier with its separate controller was shown in at least three, possibly four rooms at the show, but I came across no literature or spokesperson for the company. Check the web for details if there is an outside chance you can afford it.

So here was a system of ultra-expensive components, none of which I had ever seen or heard before. Lots of other writers were praising the room, with at least one calling it the Best in Show. Was I impressed? Not so much by the music as by the intriguing technology of the Memory Player and the beauty of the Scaena loudspeakers. But don't take my lack of awe for the acoustics too seriously. I didn't particularly care for most of the rooms with the Behold amplifiers at the show. As technically perfect as these digital amps might be, more often I am attracted to the smooth, full-bodied sound from tube amplification.  I came away wondering how good the loudspeakers and Memory Player might sound in a larger, familiar room (like my own) with tubes — especially considering the 92dB/W/m efficiency of the Scaena.

The KEF and Chord room looked like they had shoehorned their Montreal presentation into a room about 1/10th the volume they had up north. As excellent as this one sounded in New York City, the music cried out for a larger room with loudspeakers this size and amplifiers this powerful. (See my Montreal Report for details). I took closer notice of the new Chord Red Reference CD Player that is packed with high tech features including a unique solenoid operated port hatch mounted at 45 degrees to allow either top or front loading. With a complete set of inputs and outputs, it has flexibility to be used as a transport, or DAC for other sources. At $28K, however, it is hard to fathom the unit needing an outboard DAC. A re-programmable EPROM memory chip allows a significant degree of future proofing. If you liked the sound in this room, all I can say is, you should have heard it at Montreal.

Also on display was the new entry level Chord CPA 2500 Pre-amplifier ($6500) with balanced outputs that sports the same stunning architectural styling cues as the more expensive Chord gear. To go with it was the new SPM 650 entry-level stereo power amplifier, also $6500.  Putting out 130 wpc into 8 ohms, it comes with both balanced and unbalanced inputs. The matched pair sports a bold, masculine look with refining touches of brightly polished metalwork. While it is meant to be seen and certainly reflects discriminating taste, these entry-level pieces will not over-power a room. They also suggest a matching CD player might be in the works. The pen in the photo gives you a reference for size as, yes, that is the remote control to the left.

Parachuting from the Stratosphere to a little above sea level, at least as far as price is concerned; the Omaha Audio room repeated their presentation from Montreal, also. This is a very fine sounding musical rig for not a lot of money. The 2-way vented Omaha loudspeaker ($2K w/stands and Seas drivers) obviously pays a lot more attention to visual presentation than the Omaha OD-300B tube amplifier ($1400), but this is an easy entry for someone crossing over from solid state. With a 300B tube and beefy transformers in the 37 pound, 10 wpc integrated amplifier, you will still need reasonably efficient loudspeakers that present a relatively easy load to the amplifier. The Omaha loudspeaker with 87dB/W/m efficiency did quite nicely in the small hotel room with music that was not dynamically demanding. If you need a little more power, their OD-EL34B amplifier with 35 wpc was sitting on the window ledge. The $1600 Omaha Tube CD Player with 24-bit/192kHz capability was definitely a co-conspirator. In a world of David and Goliath, this would be David. If you need to rock louder, check out Zu loudspeakers.

ZVOX, who broke onto the scene with an active stereo sound-in-a-box for underneath your CRT TV, came out with one of many similar surround-sound-in-a-box solutions designed to hang beneath your flat panel TV. The ZVOX 425 is due out this summer at a price of $600. With its two side-firing 4” powered subwoofers, it is claimed to get down to 35Hz. Five 3.25” full-range drivers in a combination of direct and “Phase Cue” modes create a virtual surround experience that sounded very good while listening in a non-critical mode, which is all that most TV programming requires. A credit card size remote controls the basic functions and a single wire connects it to your TV. It is certainly a time-biding solution for young families with toddlers all about, whether they are your own, or merely visiting.

Rogue Audio and EgglestonWorks loudspeakers combined forces in a room punctuated with Echo Busters for sound treatment. In addition to their Zeus tube power amplifier putting out 225 wpc in ultralinear mode and weighing in at 200 lbs, Rogue introduced their new Hera preamplifier, a two-box design for $7500.

Red Wine Audio was another repeat performance from Montreal and the sound was even sweeter this time around, due to familiarity. Palpable, relaxing and accessible come to mind. As good as the Omega loudspeakers are, having heard the very efficient Zu loudspeakers caused me to wonder how much more transparent and dynamic the music might be with a Red Wine/Zu combination. Sorry if I'm beginning to sound like a commercial, but some things are just so obvious they cannot be ignored.

The Soundsmith room was one of several where the presentation was dominated by a lengthy verbal treatise on their mission. The claim to fame here was their resurrection of the Strain Gauge technology for phono cartridge design and the accompanying phonostage necessitated by this forgotten technology. Listening to the music washed away the irritation of the long lecture. Playing through their Dragon Fly monitors with limited, but not inconsiderable low frequency extension, the excellence of this cartridge was readily apparent. While some might be irritated by the inclusion of blue LEDs in the cartridge and progressive blue LEDS indicating signals from the left and right channel on the face of the phono stage, I marveled at the beautiful wood façade of the phono stage and envisioned the usefulness of being able to see the relative position of the tonearm on the LP while listening in the dark. I returned to this room again on Sunday to reconfirm my initial impression, and it was even better with fewer bodies in the room to absorb the sound. The VPI HRX turntable no doubt made a considerable contribution to this very fine sounding rig. It remains to be tested whether the blue lights will attract moths and mosquitoes during the summer months — right where you can least afford to swat them!

Spotting a vintage Tandberg 3012A like I use in my video rig, I learned that Soundsmith also does repairs, restoration and hot-rodding of worthwhile vintage components — information that many of us should file away for future reference.

The Hi Fi One room was filled with goodies that had arrested my attention before the show even opened. The new Continuum Audio Labs Criterion turntable with the new Copperhead tonearm is $51.5K worth of trickle down technology from the $100K Caliburn model that rocked the analog universe a year ago. The feet of the turntable (but not the motor) rested on upward facing Stillpoints footers for additional vibration absorption. The Stillpoints equipment rack itself was a $9500 item with extra-thick top shelf designed to hold the weight of the heavy turntable. A set of six micro-stillpoints imbedded in the Plexiglas isolated the thick shelf from the crossbars of the rack. The electronics were totally unknown to me. The preamplifier was a remote controlled tube line stage from Concert Fidelity ($18K). The SPA-4 phono stage (expensive) and ZL-120 monoblocks ($23K) were both solid-state designs from Silicon Arts Design.  The Stillpoints were the only item I was familiar with, having reviewed them when they first came on the scene.  I've experienced the much less expensive cables from Stereovox, too, but not the exalted models used in this rig. The Peak Consult Princess two-way floorstanding loudspeakers ($10.5K) sounded similar to their more expensive models which I have heard briefly at shows with different systems. If anything, the Peaks are an excellent loudspeaker that is very revealing of the system driving it, and I expect the Princess is a bargain relative to its larger siblings — especially if used in a modest to moderately sized room. The world class fit and finish of these loudspeakers continues to elude the photographic capabilities of my rudimentary journalistic equipment.


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