Though the January 2010 issue of Stereophile will be hitting newsstands before the holidays, this is nominally the last issue of 2009. But already in October, on my return flight from Denver to New York following this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, it struck me that 2009 had not been a good year for the world of high-end audio. Yes, the worldwide recession has bit deep into the economic health of audio manufacturers and retailers, but in the past 12 months too many of those who have helped make our hobby great, and have helped promote our shared passion for listening to music with as high a quality as possible, have breathed their last.
The massive, expensive systems at FSI—VTL/Wilson, Avantgarde, Lamm/Verity, Gamut, Vienna Acoustics, Tenor/Avalon, KEF Muon/Musical Fidelity—sounded as impressive as expected in their different ways. But the very last room I visited at FSI, one of the small ones on the 12th floor belonging to Montreal dealer Coup de Foudre, delighted me. In some ways—particularly the overall balance and the sheer accessibility of the music—this was the best I heard at the Show despite the system's affordable price. ProAc's Response D Two stand-mounted speakers were driven by a Leben 28Wpc CS600 tubed integrated amplifier (not a brand I am familiar with), with the source either a Clearaudio turntable or a CD player whose name I can't decipher from my notepad's spider scratchings. Just as I was about to leave, John Marks walked in and played for me a CD-R of tenor Brian Cheney singing the aria "Che gelida manina," from Puccini's La Bohème. This had been recorded at the microphone comparison sessions that I had reported on a year or so ago. Despite the system's modest pretensions, I was transported back to New York's SearSound Studio in the best way. A delightful end to my visit to the Montreal Show and proof that you don't necessarily need to spend big bucks to get big sound.
Well, not really. But the Thiel CS3.7 speakers set-up in the Denver Audio Designs room could be driven either by an all-Bryston system—the new BCD-1 CD player ($2395), BP26 preamp, and a pair 7B-SST monoblocks—or an all-Simaudio Moon system: SuperNova CD player P7 preamp, and W7 power amp. I listened to "Comfortably Numb" from Pink Floyd's The Wall with both set-ups and the differences were both audible and surprising. The Moon system favored David Gilmour's paradigmatic guitar solo; the Bryston the contribution of David Mason's drums and Roger Waters' bass. I could have lived with either.
Their chassis designed by Robbii Wesson, responsible for some beautiful cover illustrations for The Absolute Sound in the 1980s, the Aragon amplifiers were as beautiful to look at as they were to listen to. In Artisan Electronics Group's room at Axpona, the fairly new owner of Aragon, Indy Audio Labs, who bought the brand from Klipsch in 2009, were showing off the Aragon 8008, a software-upgradable, 200Wpc amplifier ($4399) with its ethernet-based control and status monitoring. Speakers were the glass-enclosure French Waterfall Victoria Evos ($7000/pair); source was an Oppo Blu-ray player used as a DAC with an Aragon preamp. Jamie Cullum's "High & Dry" sounded dynamic with neutral tonal colors.
Taking pride of place in distributor Sumiko's suite on the Venetian's 35th floor were the new Vienna Acoustics Kiss loudspeaker ($15,000/pair). Part of the company's Klimt series, the Kiss is ostensibly a stand-mounted design, but the side-pillared, faintly convex stand is part of the design concept. One drive-unitthe flat, radially ribbed unit first seen in the Vienna Musik, covers the entire range of the human voice, 120Hz2.6kHz, and is married to a tweeter in its center and a port-loaded woofer. The latter features the ribbed, transparent polymer cone material used in Vienna's line, but has a multiple-radius cone profile to maximize stiffness and minimize mass.
Erick Lichte was very impressed with the Marten Django XL loudspeaker when he reviewed it last September. The three-way Django costs $15,000/pair, but CES saw the debut of the two-way Django L, at a more affordable $9000/pair. A 1" Accuton tweeter is married to two 8" woofers and the sound on Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" was much better-integrated than I would have expected.
I have been reading a lot of late. Whether it is due to the reduced appeal of recorded music owing to the ever-decreasing shelves of LPs in our local specialty record store (the owner explains that he still wants to sell LPs; it's the record companies that make it increasingly harder for him to do so with punitive returns policies and deaf ears to back orders), or the fact that it's Spring, I don't know. But the fact remains that I have recently found myself devouring a shelf-full of titles sometimes only vaguely related—horrors!—to high fidelity. Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words, for example, first published in 1938 and a finer examination of what came to be called semantics you wouldn't want to find, should be essential reading for anyone involved in writing articles that are still intended to communicate some meaning.
It may seem odd to end Stereophile's coverage of the 2008 FSI with a report on the opening-day keynote speech. However, Noel Lee, founder and CEO of Monster Cable, had said much that I wanted to mull over. Noel may be a ruthless businessman, but he is one of the smartest, most insightful business people I have known—I first formally interviewed him 20 years ago for Stereophile, but I have known him almost since the beginning of Monster Cable—and FSI getting him to give the Show's keynote speech was a large feather in Show President Michel Plante's hat.
It's the grain elevators that break the monotony of driving across the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle. As you pass one, another one appears on the horizon. Thus you know you're making progress, despite the fact that the landscape remains unchanged.