Given how enthused my fellow Stereophile editors were over the sound of the Legacy Audio speakers at this year's Axpona Show, I was really looking forward to hearing them. I was also looking forward to hearing the pricey, eye-catching Win Analog SET electronics, which had not fared well at a recent demo for the Bay Area Audiophile Society (BAAS).
Bob Kehn of Oakland retailer Audio Image Ltd. had a lot to be happy about. Not only were the 10 chairs in his midsize room totally full, but at least 10 other people were also standing in the back and on the sides. Even more gratifying, 20% of those people were women. And this was on a Friday, when I thought the traffic would be light.
I wish I could say more about the prototype MartinLogan Ethos loudspeakers ($6499/pair). But in a 5.1 home theater set-up that made extended listening to the Genesis 7.1 loudspeaker next door an impossibility, some extremely compressed, overly loud rock DVD that wasn't functioning properly truncated the listening experience. Other speakers from MartinLogan and Velodyne, electronics from Sherwood, and cabling from Nordost and Tara Labs completed a system that held promise of good sound from better source material. The subs sure did an excellent job of slaying Oscar Peterson next door.
The sound was especially alluring in the Eficion/Stillpoint/Berning/Exemplar room. On display were Eficion F-250 loudspeakers ($8950/pair), Berning Quadrature Z 200W ZOTL monoblocks ($33,000/pair), Exemplar XP2 preamplifier ($12,999, and due for a new chassis of zero-absorption stablewood), Exemplar Expo multi-player ($2500), Stillpoints Isolation System rack ($4800), and prototype power cords, interconnects, and speaker wire. The beauty of Oscar Peterson's playing on First Impression Music's (FIM) We Get Reports, and the rawness of 96/24 Pink Floyd master tracks, left me both wanting to hear the Eficion F-250s at Casa Bellecci-Serinus, and lusting for a Stillpoints rack. The music was so compelling that I was left wondering what the larger, two-piece Eficion F-300 loudspeaker, which I've enthusiastically blogged on other occasions, would sound like when Stillpoints isolation is used under the speaker and between its two boxes.
Kara Chafee of deHavilland/KE Engineering was excited to show off her KE Engineering/deHavilland Model 222 Magnetic Tape Playback Preamplifier ($1995). It, the deHavilland Mercury III linestage preamp with remote ($4495), Sonist Concerto 3, 95dB-sensitive, floorstanding loudspeakers ($3495/pair, or $4195/pair in all wood), and top-of-the-line Wireworld Cable Technology Platinum Eclipse interconnects ($4300/1.5m/pair), Platinum Eclipse speaker cable ($13,3000 for a 2m bi-wired pair), and Silver Electra power cords ($700/2m) arrived intact at the Show. So did the Cary 306 SACD/CD player ($8000), Acoustic Revive power conditioners ($1500 and $2400), vintage 7½ips tape deck (priceless), and a small collection of eBay-sourced tapes. But the deHavilland KE50A monoblock power amplifiers ($9995/pair) that were also shipped were nowhere to be found.
When I entered the Audio Note UK room, someone was in the midst of auditioning a CD of exotic Chinese instruments. The strings sounded beautiful, the highs lovely. On solo piano, the system had a very quiet, enticingly crystalline purity. Soprano Elly Ameling's voice sounded equally beautiful, the voice clear and radiant, even though her piano accompaniment was strangely bloated and over-emphasized. That was no doubt due to room problems that other exhibitors tried to tame with ASC Tube Traps.
The imposing Lotus Group Granada UB II loudspeaker ($125,000/pair), complete with an active crossover and Feastrex Type II field-coil driver, was sounding the best I've ever heard it. The system as a whole was a bit dark for my taste, but a track from Esperanza Spalding's new disc, Chamber Music Society, was just beautiful. Everyone in the room loved it.
Tim G. Ryan of SimpliFi Audio was making sure no one entered his room without awareness that the Gradient Helsinki 1.5 loudspeaker ($6500/pair) is on the cover of this month's Stereophile. Sounding far better than it did at T.H.E. Show last January, this little baby was throwing a mesmerizingly large, spacious soundstage that I found quite exciting. Irresistible, in fact.
The sound was special in Michael Gliksman's High Value AV room. "Really smooth, midrange rich," I wrote in my notes as Rosa Passos and Ron Carter created bossa nova heaven on their great Chesky CD. The soundstaging was quite lovely, with great height. Yes, the sound was a bit dark (which many audiophiles prefer), but it was also extremely mellow and inviting.
Award-winning sound engineer Cookie Marenco had so much to offer audiophiles that it was hard to know where to start. Each day at 11 and 4, she is presenting live acoustic recording sessions with a host of different solo performers, duos and trio, complete with discussions on how to download files. Cookie promised that the recordings would be available for downloading from www.bluecoastrecords.com/freedownloads within 24 hours.
Things were all a bustle as the California Audio Show got underway at the Hilton in Emeryville, right below Berkeley and Oakland, and across the bay from San Francisco. Happily surprised by a number of last-minute exhibitors, promoters Ann and Constantine Soo had lost count at "something over 100 exhibitors/brands" and 34 exhibit rooms.
Every new venue presents new acoustic challenges for exhibitors. Deniz Daldal of Design Interaction in Emerald Hills (part of unincorporated San Mateo county, near Redwood City), wondered if the bass ringing in his room was due to the cement in the floor and back walls. "We need more stuff," he told me, but there was no more stuff at his disposal.
On ground level in the Design Interaction room, a pair of JBL DD-66000 Everest loudspeakers ($60,000/pair) were especially imposing in the bass department. Driven by the Mark Levinson No.326 preamp ($10,000), Levinson No.512 SACD player ($15,000), a discontinued Levinson No.433 ($11,000) on the bass, a Pass Labs XVR01 for the crossover, and a Pass Labs XA30.5 30Wpc class-A amplifier on the horns, all connected by MIT cabling, the system had great authority. The presentation had the characteristically dark Levinson sound, with some curious extra bass resonance on the voice of mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Branford Marsalis's music, on the other hand, sounded just fabulous.