John Atkinson (right), Art Dudley (center), and I had a good time at Stereophile's "Ask the Editors" session on Saturday afternoon, and, judging by the response, so did the people who asked the questions. The questions ranged from the general/philosophical, like whether it makes sense to use the "absolute sound" of unamplified music as the only reference in evaluating audio components, and the specific/technical, like the advantages/disadvantages of USB connections for high-performance audio.
Live music has always been a big feature of the SSI, and a treat this year for me was the pair of concerts presented by Cardas Audio featuring virtuoso electric bassist Dean Peer and drummer Bret Mann. It was hard to believe at times that there were just two musicians, such was the wall of sound being produced with tracks from Dean and Bret's Airborne album (now available on LP as well as CD and a 24/96 USB key). After the show I felt I had to count Dean's fingers, I was so sure there were more than five on each hand!
A few years ago, back when Salon Son & Image was called Festival Son & Image, Frch manufacturer Cabasse demonstrated their flagship La Sphère speaker systemwhich is still in the line, and currently sells for $168,565/system. It was most impressive sonically, and look was certainly unique, but with a tax-in price that's close to $200k, this is not a speaker that sells in large numbers. But lovers of the Cabasse sound can rejoice: for less than the Quebec provincial sales tax and Canadian federal Goods and Services tax on La Sphère ($22,756), you can get the Cabasse Artis Riga ($11,805/pair) and Santorin subwoofer ($5065). And the sound of this demo system (with McIntosh electronics)while perhaps not at the level of La Sphèrewas very nice indeed: open, non-boxy, and with great imaging.
In a room sponsored by the California-based distribution company On a Higher Note, Vivid’s entry-level loudspeaker, the V1.5 ($7700/pair and photographed here by Robert Deutsch) sounded immediate, lushly textured, and vivid indeed: Voices, violins, drums, andespeciallysaxophones leaped from their respective mixes with presence, power, and beauty. Associated gear included the SQ-38u integrated amp ($6000) and D-05 CD player ($5000) from Luxman, full-monty Bardot III record player from Brinkmann (including enhanced Origin Live Encounter arm and Brinkmann Pi cartridge: $12,300 for the package), and a full array of premium cables from Kubala-Sosnawhose proprietor, Joe Kubala, also played some of his own superb recordings through the demonstration system.
The other system I auditioned in the Clarity room featured Nola Viper Reference speakers ($16,000/pair) driven by a Mimetism 7500 CD player and 7500 amplifier and with AC power conditioned, as it was for the YG/Jones system in the next story, by a Silver Circle Pure Power One isolation transformer (a Mikey Fremer fave).
This was the first SSI without Nizar Akhrass, who passed away just weeks after the 2010 show. His distribution company, Liberty Audio (May Audio in the US) was in full force nonetheless, now headed by Nizar’s daughter, Juliawho’s expecting her first child in Mayand son, Nabil. Liberty’s stalwart brands were all there, including Audes (whose Naum Dorkhman demonstrated a striking new full-range floorstander), Roksan, Target, GutWire, and Harmonix. Veteran audio salesman Michael Tang was on hand to represent the Japanese accessory specialists Orb Audio (they of the nifty DF-03 Disc Flattener, which promises to do what its name suggests). Among Mike’s newest products was the Orb Sakura Static Charge Neutralizer ($299), intended to neutralize unwanted charges more effectively than Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran put together.
Nordost's dem system comprised a Simaudio Moon 750D CD player, Simaudio Moon 700i integrated amplifier (favorably reviewed by Fred Kaplan in March), a Quantum system conditioner, Joseph Audio Pulsar stand-mounted speakers ($6999/pair), and, of course, Nordost cables.
I’m not familiar with Raysonic, but their system sounded excellent: a large-scale presentation with good color and texture, elements of which may have been owing to the impressive-looking Raysonic Reference 26 mono tube amplifiers ($16,500/pair in Canadian funds). Each 180Wpc amp contains 12 Russian-made 7591AEH output tetrodes, configured for true balanced operation. (We were told that the loudspeakers, which bore the name Revolver, aren’t commercially affiliated with Raysonic.)
This looks like Jonathan Halpern, owner of the New York distribution firm Tone Imports, but it’s really the devil. Every time JA and I attempted to leave the Coup de Foudre room in which products by DeVore, Leben, EMT, Box Furniture, and Brinkmann were being demonstrated, the devil coaxed us to stay, just by playing one! more! song! We finally broke temptation’s chains and left to the strains of James Brown’s “Sex Machine”: JA and I had to literally back our way out of the room. Carefully.
Hop hop hop! Who is Richard the bunny visiting today? It’s the Oracle Audio Technologies room, where veteran designer Jacques Riendeau introduced a relatively affordable new turntable called the Paris. Available in a variety of configurationsand colorsthe fully-loaded version of the Oracle Paris offers an acrylic-and-aluminum platter (plus Delrin record clamp), a sophisticated suspension system, a new Oracle-designed carbon-fiber tonearm, and an Oracle MC cartridgeall for $3150 without the cartridge or $5000 with. I was impressed with the Paris samples on display, and Jacques Riendeau has promised that a review sample will follow in short order.
Nordost can be usually relied on to provide effective demonstrations at shows, and SSI 2011 was no exception. The product demonstrated this time was the Sort Kone, which represents Nordost's latest thinking on component support. Nordost's Bjorn Bengtsson described the Sort Kone as a "directly coupled and mechanically tuned resonance control device, using a sophisticated new approach to the problem of supporting sensitive electronics." You can read all about the rationale for the design at www.nordost.com, but, whatever the theory, the bottom line is the sound.
To exhibit at CES, you'd better have deep pockets, and while, to a lesser extent, the same is true about exhibiting in the large rooms at SSI, the venue also permits small companies to set up displays in the nooks and crannies of the hotel corridor, with correspondingly lower price tags. Audio Sensibility offers a line of high-end audio and video cables that use Ohno Continuous Cast (OCC) copper and silver wire, Furutech connectors, cryogenic treatment of all wire and connectors, Mundorf silver-gold and supreme silver-gold solder, and their own custom-manufactured stainless-steel connector bodies.
I don't know who came up with the idea of having the female SSI staff wear blue wigsas they have been doing for the past two yearsbut I think the idea was a brilliant one. The blue wigs not only make the staff instantly identifiable, but they communicate a sense of fun, and that's just what the show is. It also helps that the staff are unfailingly pleasant and cheerful.
Totem was demonstrating its new Element series loudspeakers with the Classé CA-M600 600W monoblocks that I enthusiastically reviewed in the March issue of Stereophile. The three Element modelsthe Fire stand-mount at $5995/pair, the floorstanding Earth at $8995/pair, and Metal at $12,995/pairall use a new 7" woofer designed and manufactured in-house. But what's with the tie around the guy's head in the wall-sized photo?