Like many Stereophile readers, I read with great interest, and a certain amount of incredulity, Jason Victor Serinus's rather gushing CES report on the Sennheiser HD800 headphones. Now, I have a lot of respect for JVS's opinionswe share an appreciation of opera and other vocal music, and we're both great fans of Fritz Wunderlichbut, reading his report, part of me was intrigued and another part was thinking "Come on, Jason, these are just headphones, what's the big deal?"
It did not require great perspicacity to predict that SSI2009 would not be as well attended as last year's show. Things are tough all over. In any case, as I write this, on Saturday evening on a train en route to Torontoyes, I manage to catch the train this time!the show still has another day to go, and, as Michel Plante, with Sarah Tremblay the SSI's organizers, admitted, what often makes or breaks a show like this is the Sunday attendance.
I first heard the prototypes of the almost-all-glass Arabesque from Dutch wire manufacturer Crystal Cable at the 2009 CES, where they produced sound in the Audio Basics room that belied my negative expectations. Demmed at SSI with Simaudio 5.3 series CD player and amplification, the Arabesques, now in full production, again produced a promising sound. With my my recording of "The Mooche," from Editor's Choice, the Arabesques put me squarely in the church acoustic of Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studio in Kansas, where the recording was made.
René Laflamme's recordings on the Fidelio label have always been favorites of mine, though his choice of repertoirelike the new "It's a Small World" projectsometimes cause my eyebrows to raise. SSI was my first chance to hear high-resolution versions of some Fidelio recordings, played back from René's laptop feeding data via asynchronous USB to the dCS Scarlatti upsampler set to do nothing other than translate the USB datastream to AES/EBU at 96kHz to drive the dCS Elgar Plus D/A. As this has a volume control it was connected direcrtly to a pair of Nagra VPA tube monoblocks which in turn drove the Verity Sarastro 2 speakers that Fred Kaplan reviewed for Stereophile in April. Cabling was all-Shunyata. René uses all-tube microphones and records directly to a Pyramix digital audio workstation. The sound of a transcription for brass and organ of "Mars" from Holst's The Planets was to die for on this system, one of my "best of shows."
i saw a familiar face when I went into the Veloce room, as Mark Conti, who designed the unusual Impact speakers from a few years back, is now involved in this line of battery-powered amplification. My eyes were attracted by the Veloce Platino LFT-1 linestage in the photo ($12,500), which will run for 70 hours before needing recharging, but driving the Marten speakers in the room via Purist cables was a pair of battery-power monoblocks ($12,000/pair). Battery power? Yes, the input stage, based on a 6922 tube, is transformer-coupled to a high-efficiency class-D output stage based on the Hypex module designed by famed Dutch engineer Bruno Putzys. A charge will last 4080 hours depending on the speaker's load impedance, Mark told me.
Component supports take a variety of forms: squishy, rubbery things; hard, pointed things; ball bearings (loose or constrained); air or liquid bladders, etc. The Spike component supports, imported by Divergent Technologies, were a new one for me: they use magnetic levitation. Now, I'm familiar with platforms using this principle, but these are individual component feet, each with opposed magnetic components. A box of these "Spikes" contains four such feet, and the price for the total is CN$200. I was surprised that magnets could be made strong enough in this small size to be able to support equipment of substantial weighthich they apparently can.
Wilson Audio Specialties' Peter McGrath (second from left) is embraced by the crew of Coup de Foudre (lr): Jennifer ("Just Jennifer. No surname. You may have heard of me."), Graeme Humfrey, and Erik Fortier.
Asked to name the top three drawbacks of electrostatic loudspeakers, the knowledgeable audiophile will listnot necessarily in this orderrestricted listening area, inability to play loud, and limited bass extension. Although the last criticism can still be applied to the new MartinLogan CLX (its claimed bass 3dB point is 56Hz), the speaker's design has gone a major way toward addressing the other two criticisms.
Lafleur's X-1 bookshelf ($14,000/pair) was one of the hits of last year's Montreal Show despite the poor acoustics of the room they were being shown in, so I was looking forward to taking a further listen this year in a better room. Driven by an all-Simaudio Evolution series rigAndromeda CD player and i-7 integrated amplifierthe X1s did indeed produce a superby detailed, natural-sounding midrange and treble, but the low frequencies seemed a little shelved down in absolute terms, I thought.
...was how SSI organizer Michel Plante had billed our "Ask the Editors" session, and (from left to right), Stephen Mejias, Robert Deutsch, and Art Dudley joined me in an animated discussion. Topics covered included the vinyl revivial, whether there is still a role for paper magazines in an Internet world, how does someone become a reviewer, and will Blu-ray be a viable medium for high-quality music.
Stephen Mejias reported a couple of days ago on the excellent sound being made in the room featuring DeVore Fidelity's Gibbon Nine speakers, driven by a Leben integrated amplifier. I was equally impressed when I auditioned a Curtis Mayfield live album in this all-analog room, played on the Clearaudio Champion Wood turntable fitted with a Clearaudio Unify arm with a carbon-fiber armtube and an EMT JSD5 MC phono vcartidge.
Okay, so the system in the big room from Montreal dealer Coup de Foudre was very expensive, and the room's acoustics I knew from the 2008 Show were excellent, but the sound was both my best at show and the best I heard in that room. Not only did Peter McGrath's high-resolution recordings, played back from his Sound Devices recorder feeding the very promising Playback Designs' D/A processor, reproduce with extraordinary dynamics and a superbly transparent window into the soundstage, my own recordings sounded the best I have experienced, with the audiophile attributes supporting/reinforcing rather than getting in the way of the music. And that was from CD!