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 review—and 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 important—their 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.

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COMMENTS
LS35A's picture

I'm hardly a 'we are the 99% kind of guy' but I have freaking HAD IT with this over priced joke hi fi gear. 

$98,000 dac and $28,000 speakers.   WTF?  This is not serious hi fi gear.   This is 'let's sell nonsense to rich people with more money than brains'. 

 

John Atkinson's picture

LS35A wrote:
I'm hardly a 'we are the 99% kind of guy' but I have freaking HAD IT with this over priced joke hi fi gear.

See my thoughts at www.stereophile.com/content/upward-price-spiral

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Audio Legend's picture

Audio Note is one of the worst offenders. They make a mockery of this hobby. They are a cult headed up by a loon stuck in the 1950s. I agree completely with JVS and his report on the sound. Audio Note sounds like ass.

$100,000 DAC? What a joke. If that thing costs them 20 grand to make I have a bridge to sell you that connects Brooklyn to Manhatten.

Pathetic.

Hats off to JVS for his honest assements of many of these rooms.

Bill B's picture

AudioNote speakers for $73,000 caught my eye. Rectangular box, 2 way speaker, cabinets are lightly braced with little internal damping according to the manufacturer. 31" high. Takes a lot of nerve to charge that. 

Audio Legend's picture

There is a sucker born every minute. There are plenty of know nothing rich Wall Street Douche Bags to unload this garbage on.

maelob's picture

Totally agree, it is just ridiculous. They would say the drivers are made of a rare earth mineral with cryogenic acoustic dampening technology developed  during the cold war. And engineering processes so complex that nobody could copy it. LOL But seriously all those thousands of dollars to hear a slight improvement in sound. I was just thinking that when I saw the report on a system over 300,000 wow. It is just crazy - But I guess as long as there are people willing to buy those systems, stuff like that is going to continue. I wish I could be friends of those that buy those systems LOL.  Funny, my 3k system is considered outrageously expensive by my family and friends.  

Et Quelle's picture

When you say anything is over $7,000 which is the number I feel anyone not wealthy should pay for audio. When they list $20,000 as the price I just think oh it is not for sale. Its made for CEOs only; nice marketing plan? But they can do what they want! So can consumers! Looks like most want bring the prices down. Some do and it becomes a 5 inch speaker on a small tower or something. Somehow many of these companies stick around though complain about sales?

I just bought a Clearaudio Nano $400 and next year a $875 MMF 5.1 which will be the most I have spent on any component. At the shows most the $6,000 speakers don't sound better than the Kef LS50. Choose for ourselves! Think budget, style and sound; I plan to get 1 thing a year. What do guys get for their birthday, a tie.

I love this stuff though, I am looking to get a 2nd job primarily for my audio addiction. I want a $7,000 system which sounds slightly crazy to myself but once you get a preamp like Mystere or Primaluna and decent pair of speakers; you are already. Congratulations to those who can buy a big hi-end system all at once!

brw's picture

It's my understanding that this DAC retails for $33,000. Not $98,000 as reported. While still beyond my reach, it's a relative bargain vs. the DCS stack, and sounded wonderful.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Either it's $98,000, or the pdf I was sent includes a typo. To quote: 

DAC5 Signature - $98,000 - Non-oversampling, unfiltered, 24/96 compatible DACusing the AD1865N chip. Audio Note designed and built input transformer, I/Vtransformer and Perma 50% nickel, double c-core, silver-wired output transformers. Thechoke-loaded power supply uses a 6X5, ECL82 and OB2 for rectification and voltage regulation. Black Gate caps and AN tantalum resistors are used throughout. Single ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs and outputs are provided. Brushed aluminum or Black acrylic faceplate.

I shall check with David Cope, and post a correction if necessary.

TriodeDave's picture

I'm afraid your 'understanding' is more of a misunderstanding. I'd be curious to know where it came from as it's extraordinarily far off.

The DAC 5 Signature's US MSRP is, indeed, $98k; Jason's report is correct. There is also a DAC 5 Special which is somewhat less exotic at $53k.

There are also 9 other DACs below it, starting at $1,800, and one above the 5 Sig which I don't think you want to hear about.

Bill B's picture

"and a full complement of Transparent Audio Reference MM series cables, power cords, and Conditioning Banks ($91,000 total)."

TriodeDave's picture

A downside to exhibiting for Audio Note, with its extremely broad and deep range of products, is that no matter what I choose to bring to any given show - and I do 8-10 North American shows per year - about 2/3 of the attendees will be unhappy.

One can assemble well-balanced, all-Audio Note systems starting at under $7,500 (in the U.S.), and then move upward, improving the system, at increased cost, gradually and consistently, right on up to just north of a cool million. I have demo-d a Level Zero system and those looking in that range are happy, but those shopping the Level Three range - say $40,000, are unhappy and those who had hoped to hear the Ongaku are seriously disappointed. Likewise, if I demo the middle of the range, the entry level and Legend-seekers are unhappy. Et cetera.

Over the last 12 years, I have demo-d the full depth of this incredible range. I do the best I can to cover the various levels over time and to cover a very wide range of music each and every day of each and every show, although I stubbornly refuse to play Klingon opera, and always will.

Audio Legend's picture

Yeh, pretty weak reply...listen I get it, I get it.

Audio Note, like many others, must subsidize the stuff for "normal" people by selling commically over priced junk to hedge fund managers in London and New York. Its the game that you guys have to play. Just don't be coy about it..let your freak flag fly.  As I said, a $98,000 DAC is an insult to the hobby on the face of things, but Audio Note customers should thank the moron who buys a unit because it enables you guys to sell those under 10 grand boxes.

I also find it hysterical that Peter Q hates digital and has gone on record with that yet produces the most expensive DAC I have yet seen.

Personally, I agree with Jason, Audio Note is not my thing, but more power to you.

Bill B's picture

Ok, understand that there's a wide range of products/prices by Audio Note.  And I appreciate that the work of exhibitors is signficant and I am glad that people do these shows.  I acknowledge that it's impossible to hit every price level in a show setup (probably a problem for other exhibitors too).  Our point is about the extravagant pricing.  I am skeptical that these incredibly high prices directly relate to something in their ingredients (materials, labor, knowledge, design).  I opine that a 2-way speaker the size of a grocery bag is not rationally priced at $73,000/pair. 

TriodeDave's picture

Jason,

i must say I was more than a bit surprised at a number of things about your visit and this write-up.

First, I was surprised that you neither asked me to play music of your own nor requested something you might have been familiar with.

Second, that when you found something odd in the accompanying piano's sound, you didn't mention it to me, but rather quoted an attendee's completely inexperienced, uninformed speculation. Had you mentioned it, I would have been happy to play any of a dozen piano recordings which would have cleared things up for you.

Third, that you left without a word after about five minutes. I know it was late on Sunday and perhaps you were in a rush, but, given the extreme contrast between your comments and those of pretty much everyone else in attendance, reviewers included, I can't help thinking it could have been handled better.

Stephen Scharf's picture

In Jason's defense, I was in the room at the same time with Jason and when he asked his question about corner placement, and I was also singularly unimpressed, especially considering the exorbitant cost of this system. $73,000 for two drivers in simply constructed box? You have got to me kidding me. 

With respect to Jason not asking for something to hear, IIRC, that question was asked at the time, and you replied you weren't taking requests.

 I've heard better systems that cost 1/10th this amount of money. In fact, my system at home sounds better. Utterly forgettable. Bleh. 

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