Jason's Day 3 at THE Show

Resolving to get an early start, I skipped breakfast and hit the show floor at 10:30am on Sunday. Will Kline of Fine Sounds (left) and Sunil Merchant (right) of Covina, CA's Sunny's Components were justifiably proud of the simply beautiful midrange created by the marriage of Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeakers ($52,000/pair) and Audio Research components. This wasn't the most transparent of systems I auditioned, but it was unquestionably among the most musical. Hats off to Will for playing Francis Cabrel's "La Corrida," one of the many superb selections on Philip O'Hanlon's coveted Demo Disc XVII. You should have heard how beautifully this system conveyed the sound of a single triangle.

This was the world premiere of the Audio Research Reference 250 SE version 250Wpc monoblocks, which use KT-150 tubes ($34,000/pair). The preamplifier was Audio Research's Reference 10 ($30,000), phonostage Audio Research's Reference 10 phono ($30,000), digital source Audio Research's CD-9 ($13,000), and DAC the MSB Diamond DAC ($43,000). I don't recall if I heard analog, but turntable was the Spiral Groove SG-2 ($22,000 with Centroid tonearm) with Ortofon Cadenza Red cartridge ($1280). Cables were Transparent Opus GEN 5, power Transparent PIMM, and racks the HRS MXR and RXR series. Sound was up there with the best.

Having commented on the sound of Wilson Audio loudspeakers so many times that I'm afraid eyes may glaze over, I had resolved, as much as possible, to leave coverage of Wilson systems to my co-bloggers. But when a system with Wilson Audio Sasha Series 2 loudspeakers ($33,900/pair) also includes Dan D'Agostino Momentum monoblocks ($55,000), Dan D'Agostino Momentum preamp ($33,000), MSB Diamond DAC with External Power Pack ($43,000), Aurender N10 streamer ($8000) controlled with iPad Mini ($300), hardly inexpensive Transparent and AudioQuest cabling, and Harmonic Resolution Systems SXR Rack with M3X Shelves ($12,500), there is no way to pretend that it belongs in anything other than cost-no-object coverage.

The visceral impact of James Blake's "Limit to Your Love," which descends to 28Hz, was absolutely perfect on this system. That means the sound was as unforced, colorful, and true to life as can be. The balance between registers, and the transition from low to midrange to high, was as natural as it gets. Moving on to Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby," the system conveyed both the delicacy of the piano and the smoothness of Evans' artistry. There was no trace of the glare that mars the presentation of many other systems at shows. In its place was the perfect top for extended listening. Turning to a very different track, the conclusion of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite in 24/176.4, percussion was absolutely explosive, brass possessing take-no-prisoners brilliance, and control absolute. This was superb, truthful and honest sound.

There may have been splashier systems at THE Show, but this was one of the very few whose timbres were true rather than painted with pastel colors or acrylic mixed with sand. If the music was brutal, it sounded brutal; if it was sweet, it sounded sweet. Simply superb.

"How about a selection from Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil, a DSD256 recording that was transferred to SACD, and then ripped to file format?" was the query as I entered thia room. Fine choice. The Pietra Model 3a loudspeakers ($19,995/pair) conveyed an impressive sense of space, as well as a beautiful midrange and very realistic depiction of chorus in a large acoustic space.

Reinforcing these positive impressions were the extremely impressive bass and excellent control on "The Town Burns" from John Williams' soundtrack to Rosewood. Yet there lingered the sense that the granite enclosure Pietra loudspeakers, with their relatively low sensitivity of 83dB and minimal impedance of 3.4 ohms at 70Hz, needed a larger space in order to fully strut their stuff. Doing the rest of the honors in a system that called for further audition were the Bricasti M1 DAC ($8995), Bricasti M28 monoblocks ($30,000), Silver Circle Audio TCHAIK6 conditioner ($9500), Purist Audio cabling ($10,000), and six Stillpoints Ultra 5 supports ($699/each).

At last, after encountering it multiple times on passive display, I could finally hear the new Dan D'Agostino MLife streamer ($48,000). Or so I thought. Alas, the connection to Tidal wasn't working, the substitute selection of music on the server limited, and the person manning the room too distracted to do anything about changing the mediocre music or addressing the bright sound transmitted through Focal Utopia loudspeakers ($40,000/pair). Given the stellar sound of the other D'Agostino products I've heard, I'm afraid I have yet to hear what the MLife can do.

Albert Von Schweikert's handsome VR-55 Aktive loudspeaker ($60,000/pair), a three-way, mid-sized floorstander with built-in powered subwoofer, ceramic honeycomb woofers and midrange, Beryllium tweeter, and rear-firing ribbon tweeter was certainly in good company with Constellation Audio's Virgo II preamp ($32,000) and Centaur 500Wpc into 4 ohms stereo amp ($27,000). A YFS music server ($15,000), EMM Labs PCM/DSD DAC2X ($15,000), Master-Built Audio Signature power cords with built-in noise reduction by Delphi Aerospace ($6200/each), Master-Built Audio Ultra interconnects ($12,000/pair), and Master-Built Audio Signature bi-wire speaker cables ($7500/pair) completed the chain.

I confess that strings on Beethoven's String Quartet Op.74 sound a little wiry and lacked sweetness, but that may have been the fault of the recording. Faring better were the British Hillbillies doing the "Tennessee Waltz," and the drummer going to town on Steve Strauss's Youngstown.

How's this for wedging $343,000 worth of equipment into a small space? Yes, everything and its mother began to resonate as Beverly Sills sang the famed aria from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt at high volume, but her top notes sounded so amazingly gorgeous, pure and warm that the experience was heavenly. This due in no small part to the touch of tube sweetness imparted by KR Audio's VA910 monoblocks ($16,500/pair) and P-130 MC preamp with phono ($6400).

Before that, Madeleine Peyroux's "Dance Me to the End of Love" on LP sounded smooth and beautiful, with a lovely midrange. Even the horns on Buddy Bregman's 1959 LP, Swingin Standards, sounded warm and smooth. Which means you could listen to them for days.

Also doing the honors in this lovely system assembled by The Lotus Group: Marten Coltrane Tenor loudspeakers ($80,000/pair); Hanss T-60SE turntable ($10,500) w/ Durand's Kairos tonearm ($6450), phone cable ($1850), record qeight ($3500) and Ortofon Winfield cartridge ($4094); two Langerton MCB racks ($8910 each) plus three sets Langerton Block 5 component feet ($1125/3); fo.Q HEM component feet ($1125/4); dCS Scarlatti transport, DAC, and clock ($68,000); PranaWire cabling and Linebacker XE passive power filters ($lots), and other power products from Oyaide and Acoustic Revive.

In such a small space, with no other way to line up ears with the tweeters on his Oceanway Audio Montecito loudspeakers ($48,000/pair), Ernie Woody of Burbank, CA resorted to high black wooden stools (not shown). The aesthetic was striking, if not exactly commodious, but brightness and ringing on top distracted from an otherwise inviting presentation. Also in the system: ZenSati Seraphim Mini cables, Viola Crescendo preamplifier ($22,500), two bridged Viola Concerto power amplifiers ($22,500 each), and SOtM music server.

The "What a Difference a Change in Cabling and Supports Makes" award of the decade goes to ModWright Instruments, Dynamic Design cabling, and Stillpoints. Seriously. Thanks to $71,800 worth of top-quality Dynamic Design cabling and $40,000 in Stillpoints products, the ModWright electronics in the room displayed a color, transparency, and vibrancy that I had never before heard or expected from them.

First up, a track by Ray LaMontagne. Next, what I expected to be another tedious rendezvous with Chris Jones—please, will someone provide sanctuary from this "uhmm humm" track that people try to pass off as a showcase for low bass response?—turned out to be a revelation. I have never heard ModWright's midrange sound so good, nor the soundstage it projects so three-dimensional. Given the system's really nice, smooth and listenable sound, Chris Jones also sounded better than I've ever heard him.

For my final listen came my Channel Classics SACD of Revueltas' Sensemaya played on a ModWright-modified Oppo. Again, the presentation was ultimately smooth, with depth and colors I hadn't expected. True, the sound was a bit too euphonic, which diminished the intended brutality of the performance. But it was so, so beautiful.

The $208,650 system included, from ModWright, two KWA 150SE amps ($18,000), Elyse DAC ($6900), PH 150 ($7900), X LS 36.5 DM ($10,000), and Oppo 105D with mods ($3850). Analog included a Townshend table ($3500) with Shelter 901 cartridge ($2600) and Helius tonearm ($3100), marvelous TAD CRM-1 loudspeakers with stands ($41K), the aforementioned Dynamic Design cabling ($71,800 total), and Stillpoints rack and isolation devices ($40,000 total).

The LMC Home Entertainment room included handsome, room-dominating MartinLogan Neolith loudspeakers ($80,000/pair in seven colors). The rest of the gear included, from McIntosh, four MC1.2KW power amps ($12,000/each) that output 1200W into 2, 4, or 8 ohms; C1000C control and C1000T tube preamp ($11,000 each); MCT450 CD/SACD transport ($4000); D150 DSD DAC ($3000), and MCP1500 power center ($5000). In addition, the system used Linn's Klimax DS streaming source and Kimber Select cabling.

With the room's intended pair of red MartinLogans lamentably left on a dock in Chicago, the substitute pair in operation first arrived via airlift at 12:30pm on Friday. Nor did the McIntosh amps in the room receive the 20A current that they required. How Mike Ware kept his cool in the middle of all these obstacles is beyond me. Yet the drum kit recording he played was totally convincing with its impactful slam and truthful-sounding cymbals. Midrange was a further strength in a system that presented a less than magnificently conducted performance of the start of Mahler's Symphony 4 with great depth.

If any equipment's sound has changed from its initial introduction in prototype form, it is Vandersteen Model Seven Mk II loudspeakers ($62,000/pair) and, even more strikingly, Vandersteen M7-HPA monoblocks ($52,000/pair introductory price). The final iteration of the monoblocks includes the all-important integral advanced power-line conditioning and 3ft.double-wire solid silver loudspeaker cables that we did not hear the first time around.

The presentation remains extremely liquid and smooth, but there's infinitely more color than heard at CES when these amps and speakers blew John Atkinson away. The power conditioning certainly has more than a little to do with it. A rare test pressing of Dave Brubeck's "Take 5" sounded extremely smooth, even polite, and eminently listenable. Drums were handled with aplomb. When we turned to an LP of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, the same ultimate smoothness and sweetness was married to optimal bass control and wallop.

"We finally have the parts that we wanted to use," Vandersteen's Shane Buettner told me.

Also in the system, a midrange-rich Audio Research REF 10 preamp plus REF 10 phono preamp ($30,000/each); Basis Audio Inspiration turntable with SuperArm 9 tonearm, vacuum hold-down, and synchro-wave power supply ($74,000), along with a Lyra Atlas cartridge ($9500); the AudioQuest Niagara 7000 power-line conditioner ($7,000) that I previewed at CES; AudioQuest Wild and WEL signature power cables and interconnects; and equally important Harmonic Resolution Systems RXR Isolation stands. A most impressive showing.

It was now after 4 pm. With only an hour to go, I surveyed my comprehensive, well-organized show guide. As far as I could tell, all the cost-no-object (or, to some, the most objectionably costing) systems on the nine active floors at the show had been covered. While the nagging fear remained that at least one had been skipped, and that its sponsors were sure to haunt both me and John Atkinson night and day, it was time to lower the price point and check out a few rooms that, for one "one can only so much" reason or another, had not been visited by any of the other Stereophile bloggers.

First up was the Perla Audio room. Perla's PRS-2 loudspeakers ($5500/pair), Maestro preamplifier ($3500), Righello monoblocks ($9000 each), and Motif phono stage ($3500) were producing smooth and deep sound with an idler driver-based turntable ($6000) and Kesh cabling. The highs on Lyn Stanley's "Lullaby of Birdland" were a little edgy, but the warmth of her voice came through in spades.

How could I make it through the show without listening to the first public showing of TAD's CE1 Compact Evolution loudspeakers ($24,000) with TAD CE1 stands ($2400), let alone a full complement of Zesto Audio electronics? Sitting before them, it again became clear that Carolyn Counnas' design aesthetic for the Zestos has yielded among the most attractive components in the business. What handsome looking cabinets! Save for the Pathos components, only the forthcoming dCS Rossini looks as attractive and elegant. IMHO, of course.

While the room refused to allow the TADs to strut their stuff in the low end—designer Andrew Jones, who was leaving the room as I entered, said as much—the system added but a touch of wiriness to an otherwise exceptionally sweet presentation of violin. A track from a Ray Brown Trio LP also sounded lovely save for some booming and tinkliness to the piano's top end. Then I leaned forward, uttered a big "wow," and discovered myself moving just one row up. There, in the first row, music sounded markedly warmer and fuller. Illinois Jacquet sounded just great, swinging away like nobody's business.

If only I had spent the whole session in the first row. I often can't move from row-to-row in rooms without spending an inordinate amount of time waiting for the right person to move on, but this time, the space opened to advance to the head of the class. With that move, all reservations vanished, and only beautiful music remained.

Source: Zesto Audio Andros 1.2 tube phono stage ($4700), Merrill Williams Audio REAL 101.2 turntable ($7200) with Tri-Planar US tonearm ($6200), Dynavector XX2 MKII cartridge ($1985), MOTU UltraLite Mk.3 DAC ($600), and Toshiba computer with J River 19 ($50). Other electronics: Zesto Audio's Leto 1.5 tube preamp ($7500) and BIA Class A stereo amp ($12,500). A whole bunch of WyWires cabling, plus the WyWires/Daedalus Power Broker Silver Series AC Distributor ($2499), completed the chain. There were even headphones for the new headphone jack in the preamp.

While hunting for Rick Brown's Hi Fi One/Stillpoints room, hoping to take another listen to that mesmerizing system, I discovered that Brian Berdan's Audio Element beach party had moved into the 2nd floor hallway. Since no one seemed to know which floor Rick's room was on, and I couldn't remember the name of his company (which would have enabled me to locate it in the show guide), I instead joined some of my favorite people for a beer.

I hadn't even gotten halfway through the bottle (which, trust me, is a lot of beer for me to consume in a short period of time) when John Quick of dCS mentioned that Mike Manousselis' demo of the new Excite Dynaudio speakers was sounding really good.

"Gaah," I cried. "I must hear those speakers!" Chuck the beer, grab the guide, dash to the outside stairway or elevators, and up to the 11 floor I go. There, at show's close, I discover the ever-dedicated Mike still going strong.

While a case can be made that, at present, the best Bluetooth loudspeaker cannot match the sound of the same loudspeakers in wired form, Dynaudio's "no cables, no compromise" Focus 600 XD loudspeakers ($13,500/pair) in Bluetooth mode come so close to their sound in wired configuration that they represent a major technological advance.

Dynaudio's three-speaker Focus XD series, of which the largest Focus XD 600 has the only fully sealed cabinet, offers internal PWM pulse width modulation digital amplification with 150W per driver (600Wpc in the Focus XD 600), 24/192 resolution in wired form and 24/96 via the fully wireless Dynaudio Hub (currently $300) or forthcoming Dynaudio Connect Bluetooth wireless transmitter, speaker position resonance-compensating EQ and a linear phase active DSP crossover, and multiple connectivity options. As in the latest Wilson Audio models, tweeter domes are made of silk. Even in a three zone, multi-room configuration, the speakers can transmit 16/48 wirelessly.

Via an Aurender 100H ($2700) as one source, as well as a MacBook Air equipped with Amarra—I hope that's right . . . it was the last room on the last day of the show, after all—an early Bob Dylan recording sounded quite impressive. Next, a Red Book file of the post boom-boom opening fanfare of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, sounded extremely beautiful and maximally smooth in wireless form. Piano also sounded extremely delicate and lovely. What a dreamy ending . . .Almost.

In a direct wired/wireless comparison of Lorde's "Royals" from her album, Pure Heroine, bass was excellent, midrange very fine, and the wired transmission just slightly smoother than the wireless. The music wasn't as dreamy, but the impression was strong.

It was time to head back to my room, download and title photos, and order enough Chinese take out to feed a small army. The show may have been over, with Lyn Stanley poised to seduce an eager crowd of decompressing music lovers in the lobby, but this boy's three-ring blogging show was about to shift into high gear.