When I went into VMAX Services' room, they were playing a recording of "Mona Lisa" that wasn't Nat King Cole's but had the same spirit. The speakers were small bookshelf units (stand mounted, of course) and they sounded exceptionally good. Who is the singer, I asked VMAX's Richard Kohlruss, and what are those speakers? He showed me the CD: Verve ERCD 6671, vocals by Densil Pinnock, guitar by Bill Coon.
A system with true high-end audio credentials that came in just under the $5000 limit was one based on the Dynaudio X14 ($1500/pair), with electronics by Atoll (ST 200 streamer, $2000, IN 100SE integrated amp, $1450). This was one of the side-of-the-room setups, so the potential sound quality was difficult to judge, but I've admired the sound of the X14 before, and from what I know of Atoll equipment, this should be a good combination.
Atoll paired up with ProAc, assembling a system that, knowing something about these brands, I would guess would be a fine-sounding one, but it was only on passive display. Not the most effective way to attract new consumers, I'd say. The star of this system was the ProAc Tablette Anniversary ($2295/pair), the latest version of a speaker that has had enormous following over the years, and was combined with the Atoll CD30 CD player ($899) and Atoll IN30 itegrated amp ($799).
Attention Screen is the band that includes Stereophile's own Bob Reina on piano, Chris Jones on bass, Don Fiorino on various string instruments, and Mark Flynn on drums. (Their recent CD, Live at Merkin Hall, recorded by John Atkinson, is available from Stereophile.) They gave a concert at FSI, and although the attendance could have been better—publicity for the music events at the show was rather sparse—it was clear that those in the audience were enraptured with Attention Screen's intense, almost entirely improvisational brand of jazz.
To those who were into audio in the late 1980s and early '90s, the name Audio Alchemy is a familiar one. I've owned DACs and jitter-reducing devices made by Audio Alchemy and Perpetual Technologies (the first successor to the original AA) and found them to provide excellent performance at modest prices. Indeed, at the time, many in the industry felt that the Audio Alchemy products were underpriced, leaving too little room for profit, and that this led to the company's demise. The new Audio Alchemyled by its original designer, Peter Madnick, and having on staff other employees from the old AAis what Madnick describes as a "grown-up" version of the original company, maintaining "the brand's original ethos of superior technology and value." And the prices, while quite reasonable for the performance they seem to offer, appear high enough to allow the new AA to survive.
How do you convince people that there's more to good sound than MP3s played on an iPod speaker dock? Events like the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and the Montreal Salon Son & Image allow attendees to experience high-performance audio in a no-sales-pressure setting, but they're mostly preaching to the converted. The people who attend these events are already interested in good sound. But what about the general public?
Toronto-area audio dealer Audio Excellence decided to tackle the problem last year by setting up a booth at the annual National Home Show in Toronto, reportedly with great success. I heard that they were planning to exhibit again this year, so I decided to check it out.
The Avantera ($24,000$26,000/pair, depending on finish) is the speaker from German manufacturer Audio Physic that replaces their Avanti and Caldera models. (Avant-i and Cald-era combined gives you Avantera.) It's Audio Physic's 25th Anniversary model, and features the aptly-named Hyper-Holographic midrange driver and tweeter. The sound of the system, at a price not for the faint-hearted (Acoustic Signature Storm turntable, $7500; Trigon Chonolog CD player, $8995; Trigon Dialog preamp ($8495); Trigon Monolog Power Amps ($9495 each); Creative Reference Plus audio rack ($10,500); Creative Audio Amplifier bases ($1000 each) was exquisiteclearly a candidate for best sound of the show.
Audio Physic's sub-$5000 system featured the Audio Physic Classic Compact $2000/pair), Ava Media server/ripper/storage ($1600, new at the show), and Ava Media Maestro-50 50Wpc digital amplifier ($525). All AVA Media products are made (not just designed) in the UKunusual at this price level.
For those who frequent the audio discussion groups on the Internet, the method by which Stereophile selects products for review seems to be a continuing source of fascination and conjecture. Supporters of fledgling manufacturers—whose products these Webcrawlers just happen to own—rail against the rule that products to be reviewed in the magazine must have at least five US dealers. Some suggest that Stereophile's selection of review products is all about catering to advertisers and friends in the industry, a process that seems intended to exclude their favorite products from consideration.
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.