Wow. Here’s a look inside the 200W BMC AMP M1 monoblock ($15,580/pair), with its massive 2-kilowatt toroidal transformer.
BMC stands for Balanced Music Concept. The company was founded by Bernd Hugo and Carlos Candeias, two audio designers based in Germany. BMC’s products are designed in Europe, but manufactured in China to keep prices down. While $15,580 is a lot of money for most anyone, BMC products contain a number of interesting design quirks, including modular construction for easy upgrades, Superlink signal transmission mode which “skips any coding process” and is said to create a wider soundstage with increased detail resolution, and Digital Intelligence Gain Management which eliminates the need for a preamplifier and allows a DAC to connect directly to an amplifier.
Whatever. Just look at the amp’s innards. The level of construction and detail look heroic! I wouldn’t want to make one of these things, but listening to it sure was fun.
Take a look at this beauty, the Hartsfield from Classic Audio Loudspeakers, a tribute to the original Hartsfield, introduced in 1954 by the James B. Lansing Sound Company. In John Wolff’s version, a 15” low-frequency driver couples to a long exponential horn; above 500Hz, a 2” midrange unit couples to a horn-lens assembly, designed to provide wide dispersion and uniform high-frequency sound distribution.
Something about this speaker gets people feeling all romantic. When I walked into the room, I sat down behind a couple whose hands were joined and whose arms swung in the space between their separate chairs, happily and slowly, in time to the music. After they departed, their places were taken by a second couple. This time, however, the woman simply moved her seat as close as possible to her companion’s, creating a virtual love seat, so that the two could hold each other while the music played.
What the hell? Was this a hi-fi show or some sort of love fest?
I couldn’t blame them, though. The system was playing some extremely gorgeous, palm-in-eye-socket piece of violin music, and it sounded sweet, inviting, and nearly rapturous, with delicate, extended highs and easy, voluptuous mids.
Designer John Wolff said something about field-coils and 106dB...
I ended Friday night with a trip to the Goldmine Live Music Area, where the 20-piece West Georgia Saxophone Ensemble played an exquisite, soul-stirring piece in tribute to Japan. The slow-moving, thoroughly enveloping music seemed to blossom magically and was so painfully beautiful, expressive, and mournful I wanted to cry.
Back in the day, you couldn't cruise the corridors at an audio Show without hearing Willie Nelson's arrangement of "Stardust" coming from every open door. So it was with a feeling of nostalgia that I walked into the Sanders room at Axpona and heard that familiar voice. Providing the tunes was an all-Sanders system featuring the Model 10c speakers ($13,000/pair including 500Wpc bass amplifier and crossover module), which combines an electrostatic panels for the midrange and highs with a transmission line-loaded 10" moving-coil woofer. Unusually, the active crossover operates in the digital domain, operating at 24/96 and splitting the signal at 172Hz with 48dB/octave slopes, which should ameliorate the problem blending the omnidirectional woofer with the dipolar panel. With a Sanders line stage, Sanders electrostatic amplifier ($4000), and Sanders cablesRoger Sanders feels strongly that a system should designed as a systemthe 10cs sounded unexpectedly dynamic.
MBL's Jeremy Bryan had an interesting problem when set up his system at Axpona, in that while the hotel room was large, it was also double-story, with a 16' ceiling and an acoustic nightmare of a mezzanine level at the rear. Jeremy, shown in the photo next to the unanticipated in-room stairway, solved it by packing the mezzanine floor with queen-size mattresses that had been emptied from other hotel rooms. The system was the same used at SSI in Montreal two weeks ago101E Mk.2 omnidirectional speakers driven by gigantic 9011 monoblock amplifiers, a 6010D preamp, a 1621A CD transport, and a 1611F D/A converterand I listened to the same hi-rez solo piano recording made by MBL's long-time chief engineer Jürgen Reis, "Walchensee, Mondnacht," performed by Martin Vatter, from the album Klangbilder. Once again, the piano sound was disturbingly lifelike, with full-range dynamics.
I have never been a fan of transmission-line speakers. My experience has been that too often resonant problems in the line color the speaker's upper bass. But I didn't hear any such problems with the Acoustic Zen Crescendo speakers ($16,000/pair), seen here with designer Robert Lee. The Crescendo combines two 5" midrange units with magnesium-impregnated paper cones placed either side of a horn-loaded tweeter with two 8" woofers that use ceramic-coated "non-pressed" paper cones, these loaded with a transmission line venting at the speaker's base. Driven by a Triode Corporation 20Wpc TRV-845SE integrated amplifier ($6000), which uses two 845 output tubes running in class-A, and a Triode TRV-CD4SE CD player, the sound in this room was uncolored and extended at both frequency extremes, revealed by a superb recording of a female singer accompanied by a double bass.
The Avatar Acoustics room featured the Rosso Fiorentini Siena speakers ($24,995/pair) that made their North American debut at last January's CES, seen here with Avatar's Darren Censullo. A four-way sealed-box design, the Siena features two 8" aluminum-cone woofers, a 6.5" paper-cone midrange unit, a 1" silk-dome tweeter, and a Murata ultrasonic generator and produced a big sweep of sound on what appeared to be the Show's ubiquitous dem track, Nils Lofgren's live acoustic number "Keith Don't Go," driven by an AMR AM-77.1 integrated amplifier. But converting Nils' bits from an AMR CD-77.1 CD player used as a transport was AMR's new DP-77 D/A converter ($4995). Uniquely, this offers a choice of two DAC chips, one a non-oversampling 16-bit type which is recommended for CD playback, the other a 32-bit type optimized for playback of high sample-rate data, which offers minimum-phase, apodizing, and "organic" reconstruction filters.
The DP-77 has an asynchronous USB input that can accept data with sample rates up to 192kHz and jitter is reduced by using a high-precision clock and rather than adjusting its frequency in continuous steps to match the average rate of the incoming data, which can allow jitter to bleed through to the DAC chip, the DP-77's clock switches between 28 million discrete frequencies.
I first heard the Voxativ Ampeggio speaker ($29,750/pair) at the 2011 Montreal Show, where I was gobsmacked by what I heard. In a beautiful, high-gloss enclosure from the Schimmell piano company was a single drive-unit with an old-fashioned "whizzer" cone that resembled but wasn't a Lowther unit, which is was loaded with a rear-loaded horn. Such designs offer enormously high sensitivitythe speakers at Axpona filled the room with sound using a Fi WE421A single-ended amplifier ($3275) that offered just 4Wpc for its single dual-triode output tubebut my experience with Lowthers is that they can sound equally enormously colored. But the Ampeggios, seen here with importer Gideon Schwartz, just produced the same uncolored, dynamic-sounding music in Atlanta as they had in Canada. I'll be driving up to Artie Dudley's in upstate New York in a few weeks to listen to and measure the Voxativs in his room. Intrigued by what I'll find.
The modest-looking system being demmed by Atlanta dealer Playhouse Audio was my final stop on the first day of the Show but turned out to be one of the highlights of that day. Nola's new three-way Contender speaker ($3400/pair) was being driven by an Audia Flight FL2 integrated amplifier, with the source a Mach 2-modified Mac mini feeding USB data to a Peachtree iNova that was being used as a DAC. Cabling was all Harmonic Technology: Pro-10 speaker cable and Magic 2 interconnects, as well as a Silver Oval interconnect from Analysis Plus and a Platinum USB cable from Wireworld. In one of those too-rare audiophile moments where one track organically led to another to another to another. I listened to Dave Grisman and Tony Rice ("Turn of the Century" from Tone Poems), Taj Mahal and V.M. Bhatt ("Come On Over My House"), Herbie Hancock and Luciana Souza ("Amelia" from River: the Joni Letters), but a discovery for me among the music played was a live version of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" by Swedish singer Lisa Ekdahl. Nice. Very nice.
Check out the sexy Oracle Paris ($3150), available in four high-gloss finishes. This one is in red, and ladies love red.
It uses a carbon fiber Paris tonearm ($950), which begins as a Pro-Ject 9cc, but gets dressed up with Oracle’s Micro Vibration Stabiliser System, developed for the more expensive Delphi Mk.VI, and which uses a silicone damping bath and precision plunger fitted to the tonearm tube. The Paris phono cartridge ($1150), a high-output moving-magnet design, is machined from a magnesium-aluminum alloy. Fully assembled and pre-calibrated for a nearly plug-and-play installation, the Paris package costs $5000. The ‘table uses a semi-floating suspension system with Sorbothane decoupling, has a two-piece acrylic/aluminum platter system, includes adjustable Delrin feet and a Delrin record clamp, and uses the same motor and drive electronics found in the Delphi Mk.VI.
“We have a hard time compromising,” confessed Oracle’s Jacques Riendeau. “With the Paris, we pushed the limits of performance while hitting a lower price point.”
The Oracle Paris turntable acted as the analog source in a system which also included Oracle Audio electronics (SI 1000 integrated amplifier, DAC 1000 preamplifier-D/A converter, Paris phono preamplifier), 4-way Induction Dynamics ID1.15 loudspeakers ($17,750/pair; sexy red finish adds $2500/pair), and Kimber Select cables (all-copper KS6063 speaker cable: $4400/8ft pair; copper-silver hybrid KS6065 speaker cable: $8000/8ft pair; copper-silver hybrid KS1026 interconnects: $1320/1m; Paladium power cords: around $1200).
Early on Friday morning, when I walked into the room, I heard more surface noise than I would like, but the music was nevertheless compelling, with images that just seemed to grow and grow and grow from a dark background. I heard a classical guitar rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” that managed to both rock and sway. While looking down to take notes, I could almost imagine live musicians in the room with me.
Hey, as I type this, it’s 2am, which means it’s officially Record Store Day. Woo! Earlier in the week, I was feeling a bit bummed about not being able to participate in the festivities. Since I’d be covering Axpona, I figured there’d be no way that I’d get out of the hotel and down to a record shop. Don’t ask me why, but after 33 years of life, I continue to rob myself of opportunities, enforcing upon myself limitations that need not exist. It’s as if I’m still punishing myself for having been born. What is up with that? I don’t know. Good thing I’m getting soft in my old age, succumbing to peer pressure with much more enthusiasm than when I was a kid. A friend here at the show convinced me that I’d be out of my mind to pass up an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the country’s greatest independent record stores. So, at around 5pm this evening, he and I snuck out of the show and made the quick trip to Criminal Records in the colorful, entertaining Little Five Points section of Atlanta.
While making my way to the Goldmine seminar room at Axpona, to catch Michael Fremer's turntable set-up talk, I came across pianist John Yurick playing some smooth jazz improvisations to a background of a Lamborghini and Aston Martin that happened to be parked in front of the Stereophile booth.
An enthusiastic crowd turned up on the first morning of the Show to catch Michael Fremer's workshop on how to optimally set-up a turntable. With the help of close-up video, Michael used a Spiral Groove turntable and arm, and Lyra cartridge to show how to optimize headshell offset, overhang, antiskating, VTA, azimuth, and other analog mysteries. The session is being repeated Saturday at 11:30am in the Goldmine seminar room.