In one of Musical Surroundings' many rooms in the Denver Tech Center Marriott, the Clearaudio Anniversary AMG CMB turntable ($10,000), with its 80mm platter and Ceramic Magnetic Bearing of the Master Reference; Benz-Micro LP S-Class Cartridge ($5000), the company's new flagship; and Helius Omega Silver Ruby 10" tonearm ($4750) were paired with the Aesthetix Rhea Signature phono stage ($7,000) and Aesthetic Atlas stereo power amp ($8,000); Focal Diablo Utopia speakers and stands ($14,000/pair); Tara Labs ISM The One speaker cable ($3850/pair for 8') and The One ISM onboard 1m interconnects ($2495/pair; and Running Springs Audio Jaco ($2500) and Audio Duke ($1900) Powerline Conditioners.
Veteran speaker engineer Albert Von Schweikert wasn't in the room at the time, but his astounding VR-9SE ($90,000/pair) was making the quite a sound in his absence. The smaller sibling of the flagship VR-11SE, this 350 lb, two-module mini-behemoth was paired with VAC's brand-new Phi-200 100Wpc amplifier, Signature linestage ($14,000), and recently-released Phi Alpha D/A Converter ($7500). An older Oracle transport and what appeared to be Cardas Golden Cross cabling completed the system. Any notion that tube equipment lacks control in the bass was blown to pieces by this system's tremendous authority in the bass region and beautiful presentation on high. Fabulous sound.
The room was standing-room only, with three rows of chairs, both side walls, and the back walls filled with folks eager to hear one of the dream systems assembled by Denver retailer Audio Unlimited. Where shall we begin: the dCS Scarlatti Stack which consists of the CD/SACD transport, DAC, master clock, and upsampler/digital-to-digital converter (by my math $81,000 total, and by anyone's math a fair hunk of change); the BAT REX linestage ($20,000), BAT VK-P10SE phono stage with new Super Pak Premiere ($16,000), BAT VK-600M SE monoblocks ($26,000); Running Springs Audio Dmitri Conditioner Premiere ($4,000); Hansen's new Audio Emperor loudspeakers ($60,000/pair); or the little bundle of TARA Omega Gold and 0.8 cables that together cost at $36,000 but probably far more? The take-no-prisoners sound was stunning. So stunning that some of the people were pinned to the back wall. Wow!
And here is Walter Swanbon of Fidelis AV, importer for Harbeth and Gradient loudspeakers. Here you can get a better sense of the size of the M40.1 loudspeakers. To Walter's left is the newest member of the Gradient family, the Laura ($3995/pair). Intended for use in conjunction with the Helsinki or as a stereo pair, the Laura employs a coaxial drive unit and is designed to be positioned in close proximity to the front wall of your listening room. It's pretty, too.
Hosted by Luxman, Synergistic Research, and Vivid Audio, the event was billed as "a private reception of fine music, conversation, and superb wine." Gus Gus played in the background, the room was filled with smiles, and, indeed, the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. While it was great to become reacquainted with some familiar faces, I also enjoyed the opportunity to make new connections.
Here's a more modest system than some of the others featured so far that really nailed the raucous highs on a curious wind version of Revueltas' wild, ritualistic Sensemaya. Veteran high-end designer Frank Van Alstine was justly proud of his Ultra 550 hybrid power amp with its 300Wpc ($2395), Transcendence Eight vacuum-tube preamp ($1299 with optional remote and phono stage), and Insight Solid State DAC ($999). Paired with the Jim Salk Sound Veracity HT3 3-way loudspeakers with their 10" woofer ($4895), this system was making sounds worth checking out.
I know. It sounds a bit like a Beatles flashback. (Note the psychedelic colors on Ron Hedrick's face, for reasons that only the Marriott lobby's lighting designer can explain). But this seems to be a very 2008 product. Marigo's Ron Hedrick spent 2 years building 120 prototypes before releasing his VX Mystery Feet for amplifiers, DACs, and other components ($699/set of three), and TR Mystery Feet for digital transports and CD players ($659/set of three). Each support foot consists of 32 parts, with 10 constrained layers of composite material that are first heated, then pressed at 1000psi. Hand-assembled, the feet include little brass inserts on the component end to distribute energy. You balance your components on the protruding little brass thingees on one end and pray there's no earthquake.
So new that they don't yet have a price or production facility, the Red Rock Synergy speakers did wonders with Ron Carter's double bass. On the superb Chesky CD, Entre Amigos, every single note of Carter's bass was perfectly controlled, perfectly pitched, and absolutely lifelike, with not an iota of boom. The great bossa nova singer Rosa Passos was similarly treated with the utmost respect and love. The speaker features a 15" dynamic woofer, crossed over at 600Hz; a Tractrix horn-loaded magnetic-planar midrange that crosses over at 8kHz; and a ribbon tweeter of unspecified origin. Designed by Gordon Maughan, the Synergy speakers made a fitting complement to the Red Rock Audio Renaissance SE 50W triode amplifiers ($29,500/pair), Wadia 781i CD/SACD player with digital input ($14,950), and Red Rock Audio cabling. Oh how I wish Carter's bass sounded anywhere near this good on my own speakers. Here's hoping Al Stiefel and Gordon Maughan find someone to build these babies soon.
If there's anything I expect from Dynaudio, it's superb bass. Dynaudio's 30th-anniversary Sapphire ($16,500/pair) certainly produced copious amounts of bass. But the speaker gave me far more than sheer volume. In combination with the Wadia 781i transport/DAC ($15,000), Pass Labs XA100.5A monoblocks ($16,000/pair), Grand Priz Monaco Amplifier Stand, and XLO Signature 3 SE-1 power cords ($1100/8'), S3-2.2 balanced interconnect ($900/m), and S3-4.2 digital cable ($455/m), the system delivered some of the most well-proportioned, beautifully delineated bass I've ever heard. The opening of Mahler's Symphony 2 is rich with the sound of cellos, violas, and basses, and this system nailed each and every line with rare beauty. On the other end of the spectrum, soprano Elly Ameling's voice radiated angelic sweetness. Pictured with the equipment they represent are Dynaudio's Michael Manousselis (l) and Wadia's Martin E. Cooper (r).
I had the great pleasure of meeting Ann Poor. That's Ann there, two-fisting it, standing beside On A Higher Note's bow-tied Philip O'Hanlon. Audiophiles may be more familiar with Ann's husband, Balanced Audio Technology's Geoff Poor. Oh, yeahI got to speak with Geoff, too, but Ann was way more interesting.
See this little guy? It's the Gradient Helsinki ($8000/pair). I'm a big fan of this weird-ass speaker. Rather than placing its drive-units within a cabinet, the drive-units are laid bare, free for the world to see, mounted onto the speaker's narrow body. Why? Free love. Free love! Cabinet resonances are eliminated. The Helsinki's dipole-radiation woofer projects sound from side to side, canceling out top-to-bottom sound waves and minimizing deleterious room reflections.
I literally breathed a sigh of relief when I entered this room. Not that anything was wrong with the exceptional sound of the vast majority of rooms I visited. But of all the systems I auditioned, this one felt most like a safe haven. It was like coming home.
How I wish I could have seen Stephen Mejias' reaction to the Montegiro Lusso Komplet turntable ($33,000), distributed in the US by Koetsu USA. This thing looks like a cross between a tray of black and white ice cream parfaits and something from a Fellini movie. But it sure sounded good. Equipped with two arms, from SME and DaVinci, and two Koetsu cartridges, the Coral Stone Platinum ($15,000) and Onyx Platinum ($8000), the KMLK (for short) was making magic through Chario Serendipity Sovereign loudspeakers ($17,000/pair).