It appears I couldn’t go for an entire show without hearing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo”one of the last rooms I went into on the Sunday afternoon, shared by Affordable Audio and speaker manufacturer King Sound featured the unmistakable sound of Victor Wooten’s deep-voiced bass guitar! “Electrostatics don’t have bass?” asked Kingsound’s Roger du Naier, “Listen to that!” And Roger was right, the Prince III electrostatic kicking major low-frequency bootie, and without too narrow a sweet spot, the other Achilles’ Heel of big panel speakers. Surely this wasn't all due to the presence of Synergistic's little ART bowls in the room?
From an engineering standpoint, Emerald Physic’s CS2.3 Mk.II loudspeaker ($5950/pair in gloss black with outboard DSP crossover), appears to do many things wrongthat large-diameter midrange unit, the coaxial tweeter with no apparent attempt at dealing with the symmetrical acoustic environment, the cavities between the 15" woofer cones and the front bafflebut I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. The speakers sounded better than I was expecting on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley,” producing a big, easy-on-the-ear balance.
Dusty Vawter’s CIAudio, which stands for Channel Islands Audio rather than a governmental overseas espionage agency, was making really nice sound on a recording by Ben Harper. Doing the honors in this reasonably priced system were CIAudio’s Transient Mk.II asynchronous USB DAC ($699), VDC5 Mk.II 5V upgraded power supply ($329), PLC1 MKk.II passive line controller ($899), and D200 Mk.II 200W monoblocks ($3500/pair). Von Schweikert VR-22 loudspeakers ($2895/pair) completed a chain that began with a MacBook Pro equipped with Pure Music software, and also included a PS Audio P10 power regenerator, Billy Bags equipment rack, and GIK room treatments.
KEF, the loudspeaker company that has made sure that every audiophile on Planet Earth knows about their Blade loudspeaker, held a premier of sorts: the first showing of the KEF R900 ($5000/pair). The results were mixed. I’m a little unclear about the amplificationI was told that it was a Chord CPM 3350 integratedbut whatever it was, paired with a Chord Chordette DAC, Parasound Halo CD-1, and Wireworld cabling, I was surprised to discover that the CD player produced much smoother sound than the PC running J River Media Player.
My ears first opened to the tantalizing sounds of JansZen Model ZA2.1 electrostatic hybrid loudspeakers ($7495/pair) with AirLayer outboard side-firing tweeter option ($495/pair) at AXPONA Chicago. In California, they were again paired with an exaSound DAC and, I think, Bryston linear amplifiers. With the source a PC equipped with J River Media Player feeding the DAC via a stock USB cable, the sound was quite nice on a track of somewhat formulaic jazz.
Although plagued by “Noisy Neighbor Syndrome,” Colleen Cardas Imports impressed me with the great sound they got from a 45rpm Acoustic Sounds test pressing of Stevie Ray Vaughan playing “Tin Pan Alley,” reproduced by the Opera Seconda loudspeakers ($3995/pair). Yes, that characteristic Hilton room mode was still in evidence, but these big two-and-a-half-ways produced an otherwise smooth, sonically compelling balance.
The Taiwanese company Lawrence Audio was founded in 1996 but was new to me. Their speakers are impeccably finished and are all named after string instruments: the large Cello (right) features twin ribbon tweeters and two 8" woofers and costs $18,000/pair; the smaller Violin ($7500/pair) a single ribbon tweeter; and the smallest Mandolin (just out of shot on the left) costs $5500/pair. Demmed with the new 125Wpc Model 125 stereo amplifier from Jeff Rowland Design Group, with the source a Bryston BDP-1 media player, the Cellos produced a clean, clear sound on a Japanese transcription for tenor saxophone of the first Bach Cello Suite, with none of the otherwise ubiquitous upper-bass boom I heard at the Hilton.
Monrovia, CA store Brooks Berdan Audio is now run by the late Brooks Berdan’s widow Sheila. Her room at the Hilton heavily featured products from importer Bluebird Music: Spendor A9 speakers ($7995/pair), Jadis JA80 tube amps, and Jadis JP80MC preamplifier, hooked-up with Cardas cables. Source was Amarra running on a MacBook Pro feeding data to a McIntosh D100 DAC. Stands and racks were Grand Prix Audio. A blues recording by Eric Bibb, “Saucer and Cup,” from the CD Good Stuff, with acoustic guitar and mandolin, was reproduced with appropriate immediacy.
Like so many rooms at the Hilton, Wyred 4 Sound was battling an unsympathetic acoustic, which made the otherwise excellent Paradigm Signature S8 v3 speakers ($7999/pair) sound bass-heavy. But driven by an almost all-Wyred 4 Sound systemMS-1 music server ($1999), DAC-2 DSDse ($2499), mAMP monoblocks ($1798/pair), with all Wyred 4 Sound cables, and PS Audio P5 AC conditioner ($3495)the sound of DSD files from Cookie Marenco Blue Coast Records sounded excellent. One thing I did notice that the sweet spot was very small, the sound being rather diffuse and lacking transparency until I moved into the front-row center seat.
“An honest sound; clarity without detail being thrust forward at the listener,” read my notes from this room at the Hilton, which featured the superb-sounding TAD Evolution One speakers ($29,800/pair) that Kal Rubinson reviews in the July 2013 issue of Stereophile. Both Eva Cassidy singing “Fields of Gold” and the Sir Charles MacKerras’s “Living Stereo” recording of Sibelius’s Finlandia (the latter one of the first classical recordings I owned more than 50 years ago) were well-served by this system, which included Zesto’s Andros PS1 tube phono stage ($4300) that Michael Fremer liked so much when he reviewed it in his March 2013 “Analog Corner” column, Zesto’s new Leto tubed line stage ($7500), and A VAC Phi 200 power amplifier ($9990), all hooked up with WyWires wires. Turntable was the Merrill-Williams ($7200) fitted with a Triplanar arm ($6000) and a Dynavector XX2 Mk.II cartridge ($1985).