SSI 2015, Saturday Afternoon

Montreal dealer Audioville drew crowds to the St. Pierre ballroom with an impressive system built around B&W 800-series loudspeakers, Conrad-Johnson electronics, and an AudioQuest Dragonfly-equipped Apple MacBook Pro, cloud-streaming CD-quality files from Tidal. Adding to the SRO factor were the workshops conducted by AudioQuest's Steve Silberman, under the title of Computer Audio Explained. (Actually, it was Audio Informatique Appliquée.)

Steve spoke eloquently and entertainingly about all things computer audio, listing his most fervent recommendations (I believe he had just mentioned Quad-core processors when I took this shot), describing the pros and cons of locally-connected and network-connected DACs and storage devices (choice quote: "A local USB hard drive will push all its noise onto the USB bus, and you'll be asking the USB bus to work much harder than it needs to"), and performing comparisons between various products. Incidentally, according to Tidal's Director of Sales and Marketing, David Solomon, the service will soon begin streaming files with Meridian's MQA technology; after that, 24/96 and, ultimately, 24/192 streaming will be available from Tidal by the end of the year.

Next door to the St. Pierre, Simaudio demonstrated their brand-new Moon 280D, a 32-bit/DSD256 D/A converter that's priced at $CAD2200 on its own, or $CAD2800 when expanded with the MIND: Simaudio's Moon Integrated Network Device, which enables wireless streaming. Amplification was provided by a Moon 340i integrated amplifier ($CAD4700), which drove a pair of DALI Rubicon 6 loudspeakers ($CAD7000), with cabling by BIS Audio. The sound was fine—smoothly detailed, with good color and texture—and the user interface provided by the MIND's iPad app was pleasant to use, and seemed well laid-out.

At the Woo Audio display in the Frontenac Room—which is actually a sort of a conference room, with lots of comfortable seats around a very long table—I was met with a mildly overwhelming number and variety of products. So when I was approached by a very nice Woo rep, I told him, not unkindly: "I can't really photograph everything in this room: Please tell me which of these products is the most exciting." He did so—and he was right: The soon-to-be-released Woo Audio WA-8 ($US1500, projected) is a battery-powered tube headphone amp, said tubes being Russian-military subminiatures. The WA-8 also includes a built-in USB DAC, and it offers the user the ability to switch between two-tube and three-tube operation. (The former conserves battery life—and, in any event, sonic distinctions abound.) The WA-8 was solid and hefty, and appeared very well-made—and it sounded amazing colorful when playing a file of the Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recording of Beethoven's Symphony 4.

Next to the Frontenac room is a slightly smaller demonstration area, formally referred to on the map as K5—but informally and quite accurately referred to as underneath the escalator. This space was occupied by an apparently new loudspeaker company called ClaeCast, representatives of which were not on hand when I stopped by—and so I was unable to learn much of anything about them. But their loudspeakers, which appeared to use a ribbon array for higher frequencies, sounded snappy and impactful and believable—all the way from the downstairs entrance to the escalator! Perhaps consequently, the display did not lack for visitors, some of whom appear to have torn their garments, so vigorous was their search.

"I finally broke into the prison/I found my place in the chain," Leonard Cohen sang of an "old revolution," yet his words suit the shift in modern listening habits, from the social to the personal—or at least they fit my attitude toward same. So be it: Headphones are the way of the world, and on Saturday afternoon I found myself in SSI's Personal Audio Zone, where headphone specialists showed their wares. I didn't bother revisiting those manufacturers whose headphones I'd already seen elsewhere in the show, but I did pay a visit to the booth sponsored by Audeze, which was as busy as Penn Station on a Friday evening. During a rare break in the lull, I photographed Audeze's energetic and extremely kind Tony Hamilton and Tasvee Uka, both of whom insisted on tidying-up the place before I clicked the shutter.

I learned a new word at SSI 2015: Arboform. That's the trade name for the German liquid-wood product from which are molded the earcups of the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones ($US599)—the first such products from the cable specialists, due out later this year. Designed by polymath Skylar Gray, the NightHawks are a semi-open design—the cups' outer grillework, which is 3D-printed, is said to mimic the underlying structure of a butterfly's wing, in order to diffuse sound as the latter diffuses light—and an elastomer suspension, not unlike that of a shock-mounted microphone, connects each earcup to the headband structure.

Whether owing to the latter, or because of the NightHawk's notably soft, anatomically correct, protein-leather earpads, the new AudioQuest headphones were easily the most comfortable ever worn by this personal-audio cynic. And their sound, when driven by the Woo Audio headphone amplifier seen above ($US999), was rich and refined and, above all, clear. Extra points for the product name, which does, subtly and subconsciously, connote the idea that headphone use is best reserved for when everyone else is asleep.

COMMENTS
Allen Fant's picture

C-J electronics are a sonic match for B&W loudspeakers.

GuillaumeLN's picture

AudioQuest's NightHawk were the most disappointing headphones I heard in years. The single one positive thing I could say after listening to them in various combinations of Woo audio & Audioquest product pairings was that they're pretty confortable. Big meh.

drblank's picture

I have my computer's USB port connected to my powerDAC and in doing so, it has been advised to NOT use an USB drive on the same bus as it can saturate the bus and cause verious annoying things. So, I have moved my external hard drives to Thunderbolt, plus Thunderbolt is faster when performing read/write tests as compared to USB 3.0. Oh well, so much for that argument of USB drives.

Now, with regards to Tidal announcing 24/96 and then 24/192 streaming, I wonder how much that will cost. Will everything be up sampled that was originally recorded in 16 Bit? There is a LOT of digital recordings that were done originally in 16 Bit and I'm sure that they need to focus on how to upsample it without having artifacts. I wonder if Meridian's technology is going to help in that area. I'm also wondering if their Tidal player is going to be able to allow us to hear MQA content on our existing equipment without having to re-purchase a new MQA DAC. The biggest two hurdles I see for Meridian in MQA is getting all Lossless content encoded with MQA, and then people being able to take advantage of listening to MQA without having to buy a MQA equipped DAC. Not to say I won't buy one in the future, I need a really good reason to replace my existing DAC which has a ESS9018 and it plays just about everything and it does a good job already. I don't think the masses are going to get MQA DACs, so Meridian has to figure out how to get 90% of the population with the ability to listen to MQA encoded tracks without paying any additional money on hardware. Are smartphone, tablets, desktops and laptops going to eventually get internal MQA DACs? I don't think that's going to happen any time soon. Is Meridian going to release and get wide distribution of a decoder s/w for iTunes and every major player out on the market without additional cost to the consumer? I highly doubt it, at least there's been no mention of that. So, if Meridian can't get MQA adoption to be ubiquitous, then MQA will probably fail on some level, unfortunately. I like Meridian and their quest for better QoS, but it has to be done where the masses will have wide adoption and I just don't know if Meridian is going to achieve this.

philipjohnwright's picture

Art

How did the setup sound given the disparity in the price of the DAC with the rest of the system? I suspect it was very good indeed; IMHO very good DAC's can be had at very low prices and hold their own well. My own M2Tech DAC, similar to the Audioquest, works really well with my Harbeth / Ayre setup.

Rgds, Phil

Art Dudley's picture

Hi Phil. Considered in the context of traditional high-end gear (as opposed to the admittedly off-to-one-side stuff that I prefer these days), that Audioquest/c-j/B&W system was among the most entertaining that I heard: I don't think the DragonFly DAC was embarrassed in the least by its pricer surroundings.

AVphile's picture

I must have missed the good demo. I was very disappointed in the Audioquest/c-j/B&W room on Sunday afternoon, and it wasn't the equipment! I've heard these speakers sing before. It was the staff's poor choice of streaming loud pop music (I think it was Rhianna when I walked in). I brought some CDs but they had no player. I asked them to put on something acoustic to better show off the speakers and they struggled to find some rubbish version of Miles Davis KoB on Tidal - obviously unprepared for any serious demo. One of the younger staff even came in when we finally got some jazz going and asked why it was so quiet. It was clear that near the end of the show they just wanted to have fun with the equipment on their terms.

One problem with Tidal that became apparent is you don't know which master was used which is why I will continue to spin discs, so I know I am getting the best pressing or remastered SACD version, etc.

As I left in disgust I heard Gregory Porter's voice coming from the Moon room and I thought "at last!" but within seconds of sitting down the program was changed back to some rubbish pop music.

Fortunately the Bryston room was not far away and James was still patiently playing his proper digital tunes.