CAS 2013 Day 2's Close: Irresistible and Noteworthy
This front view of the Music Lovers Audio/Musical Surroundings room gives but a hint of the huge, expansive, amazingly coherent, air-filled, three-dimensional soundstage of this system. My hands-down "Best of Show," the room was dominated by dominated by Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeakers ($48,500$50,000/pair, depending upon finish)another pair of Alexias now resides at John Atkinson's home for reviewand Spectral Audio DMA-400RS monoblock amplifiers ($28,000/pair). Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio (left) and Hugh Fountain of Music Lovers Audio (right), as well as Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, deserve kudos for their set-up prowess.
Garth wasn't around to spin some of the vinyl he told me I especially would love, but having Peter play master files of some of his breathtaking live recordings was hardly second best. If you want to know whose recording acumen helped put the great Jordi Savall and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson on the map, check out Peter's early recordings of both artists on Harmonia Mundi. Peter was aided in his efforts by a dCS Scarlatti DAC ($24,999) and, I believe, a Scarlatti Master Clock ($10,000).
At one point, Keith O. Johnson of Spectral/Reference Recordings (center in photo) stopped by to take a listen and spontaneously share how thrilled he was by what he heard from the system, which also included Spectral's SDR-4000SL Reference CD processor ($19,000), DMC-30SS S2 preamplifier ($12,000), Ultralinear 3 interconnects and UL-60 Matrix speaker cable. Note Joe Wessling of Musical Surroundings smiling beneficently in the background. (On another occasion, Keith told me that he uses Wilson Audio Sashas to help voice Spectral electronics because the speakers have a remarkably flat response from top to bottom.)
I wasn't present when Neil Young's recording engineer came into the room, but I'm told that he waxed ecstatic over the sound of the vinyl pressing of his Live at Massey Hall. Too bad I didn't hear the Aesthetix Io Eclipse phono stage ($23,500); AMG's Viella 12 turntable with 12J2 tonearm ($17,000), V12 isolation base by HRS ($2650), and Reference tonearm cable ($1500); and Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($15,000), all arrayed on either an HRS SXR Signature audio rack with AMG isolation base (approx. $18,000) or Grand Prix Monaco audio racks ($8000 approx.)
I confess that I like a wetter and more illumined sound than the system provided, but the clarity, detail, and breathtaking depth and spaciousness it delivered left me, among many others, in awe. Listening to Peter's recording of young Benjamin Grosvener play Wilhelm Kempff's transcription of a Bach partita on Peter's recording, and my CD of a middle-aged Murray Perahia play Handel was a rare privilege. Also stunning was the fact that the Music Lovers folks not only managed to control bass in the room, but also to minimize or eliminate entirely reflections and glare from the windows behind the speakers and the ceiling. All I heard was music.
Next door, in Music Lovers Audio's fourth room, Beatrice Lam of VTL (left), dCS distributor John Quick of Tempo Audio Sales (center), and Vivid Audio distributor Philip O'Hanlon of On a Higher Note (right) were roping folks in with vinyl and digital reproduction at its finest. Although VTL had its MB-450 Series III Signature monoblocks ($18,000/pair) on hand, the big news was the world premiere of VTL's S-200 Stereo Signature amplifier ($10,000). Both joined forces with VTL's TL-7.5 Series III Reference linestage ($20,000) and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage ($8500), Vivid's Giya G-3 loudspeakers ($40,000/pair), dCS's Vivaldi Transport ($39,999) and Vivaldi DAC ($34,999), Brinkmann's Bardo turntable ($9490) and Pi cartridge ($2700), and a full complement of Transparent Audio Reference MM series cables, power cords, and Conditioning Banks ($91,000 total).
When I told Bea that the S-200 produced some of the most neutral and uncolored sound I've ever heard from a tube amp, she replied that while VTL had the circuit for the amp ready a long time ago, it took two years to voice it properly. Since Bea is the person most responsible for the sound of VTL electronics, all I can say is brava!
The system did a wonderful job of conveying the beauty of the Florestan Piano Trio's recording of Debussy's Piano Trio, but it did occasionally provoke what I was told were room-induced resonances when sopranos Beverly Sills and Elly Ameling hit certain notes. On LP, Ameling sounded magical singing Schubert; if she sounded less radiant on digital, I know from prior experience with the state-of-the-art dCS Vivaldi system that it probably had as much to do with a compromised remastering job as it did with a possible richness of the phono cartridge. I also wanted more low end from an unedited, un-released native DSD file of Channel Classics' forthcoming recording of Mahler's Symphony 5 that, for all I know, will end up yielding more bass after Jared Sacks edits it. But when all was said and done, the beauty of the system's sound was what remained.
Before the show began, David Cope of Audio Note UK wrote me via Facebook that he would have "the highest level system heard in one of our rooms in quite some time. This gear will be on loan from local dealer Nick Gowan at True Sound, so it will not be available to hear at any other North American show in the foreseeable future!"
Indeed, the combined cost of the Audio Note UK CDT Three top-loading CD transport ($12,000), 24/96 DAC5 Signature ($98,000), M9 phono preamp ($146,000), fully balanced ONGAKU Kensei amplifier ($127,000), and E/SEC Signature loudspeakers ($73,000/pair) was such that I could hardly find a seat in the room. Most interesting, however, was that once David finished his rap, the expected rush never materialized. On some Russian vocal music, a strange resonance in one area of the piano overwhelmed the mezzo-soprano's voice. Perhaps this was because, as one visitor noted, the speakers are meant to be placed in corners, which the room's geometry did not allow. Was this why an excerpt from Reference Recordings' Queen of Sheba sounded slow on bass slam, lacked life on top, produced a relatively small image, and, despite a great midrange and a surprisingly low reach, lacked the color saturation one expects from Keith O. Johnson's work?
Manufactured in Santa Cruz, CA, the new Piraeus Audio self-powered loudspeakers ($23,000/pair), which are available online, produce 750Wpc, and offer DSP processing and asynchronous upsampling to 96/24. Paired with what was described as a "standard Sony CD transport, Best Buy cabling, and generic power cords"the tone with which the designers shared this information suggested that they didn't consider any of that very importanttheir maximum volume had been pre-adjusted too low to do justice to an orchestral SACD I provided. On other music, where the volume level was fine, I encountered some bass booming in the untreated room that, I guess, the DSP processing engine couldn't address. Soundstaging and air were very nice indeed, but highs were a little stringy, and a violin was rendered sharp-edged.
Von Gaylord Audio has modified its loudspeakers to achieve deeper bass response since I praised their system's sound in Newport Beach. While I'm told these beautiful babies now reach down to 34Hz ±3dB, which, curiously, is also what I was told in Newport Beach, they were only halfway broken-in by the time I reached the room at the end of the second day. Perhaps as a result, paired with the Von Gaylord Starlet 4 50Wpc integrated amplifier ($3495), Legend II speaker cables ($1495/10ft pair), Lemaa interconnects ($395/1m pair), and Power 3 power cables ($495/6ft), the sound was less rich and delicious than I’m accustomed to hearing from the usually seductive Von Gaylord/Legend Audio chain.