Before last year, I had no more than a professional interest in the products of Wilson Audio Specialties. But before last year I hadn't experienced Wilson's Sophia Series 2 loudspeaker ($16,700/pair)which, like the wines I tend to order when my wife and I go out to dinner, is the second-cheapest item on their menu. Within weeks of the Sophias' arrival, respect had turned to rapture, like to love, and an entirely new appreciation for Wilson Audio was mine (footnote 1).
Two years ago, I was drawn to the Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2then as now, the company's entry-level floorstanderby its good reputation among lovers of low-power tube amplifiers. "Forget the specs," they said. "Sophia is the one to hear." In fact, with its 89dB sensitivity (slightly lower than most of Wilson's other domestic loudspeakers) and mildly challenging impedance curve (less daunting than those of its stablemates, but not by a lot), the Sophia seemed, on paper, no better than average for use with flea-watt amps. But when I tried a pair at home with my 25W Shindo Corton-Charlemagne mono amps, I was impressed: The Sophia Series 2 was, as I suggested in my "Listening" column in the February 2010 issue, the product that will forever mark Wilson Audio's progress toward not merely excellent sound but beautiful sound.
Because I have a review pair at home, I was eager to hear how the new Wilson Sasha loudspeakers ($26,995/pair) would sound under show conditions, in the largest Coup de Foudre room. Driven by a Brinkmann Oasis turntable ($13,700), Brinkmann 10.5 tonearm ($6300), Brinkmann EMT cartridge ($4300), VTL TL5.5 preamp ($8000 with phono), Berkeley Alpha D/A converter (45700), Pathos Adrenaline amplifiers (price unknown!), and all Transparent Audio cabling, the Sashas were just as colorful, dramatic, and involving today as they've been for the past several weeks in my own listening room. Of course today's performance owed a great deal to the quality of the recordings made by master recordist Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio (left), whose sessions with Cuban-born pianist Jorge Luis Prats were nothing short of sensational. On the right, making sure I didn't miss the VTL preamp, is VTL's Luke Manley.
The show started before the show started: Julia and I were having morning tea in our room on the 7th floor when we heard a familiar and compelling voice: not Amanda McBroom or Jacintha but Lhasa de Sela a real recording artist! The music turned out to be coming from one of two exhibit rooms sponsored by New Jersey retailer Woodbridge Audio, whose proprietor also had the audacity to play such non-audiophile fare as the Andrews Sisters and Michael Hedges. Think of it! The system in Woodbridge's tonier room had an estimated total value of $125k and included a VPI TNT HRX record player with Koetsu Urushi Black cartridge, Mark Levinson electronics (including the majestic No.53 amplifiers), and a pair of Revel Ultima Salon2 loudspeakers, with MIT cabling, Richard Gray power accessories, and ASC Tube Traps.
My stepfather wore only second-hand clothes as a child and never understood why anyone would deliberately wash the color out of his new dungarees. By the same token, the senior members of our hobby, many of whom recall with fondness the transistor's advent, don't understand why anyone would now wish to throw away their newfound power. Some people deserve to be blessed for their point of view, even as the world moves away from it.
Ariel Bitran is better than I when it comes to photographing shiny, black loudspeakers in rooms with less than generous lighting. Consequently, although I enjoyed the music I heard at the second of two GTT Audio rooms from YG Acoustic Kipod II loudspeakers ($38,800/pair), I succeeded in photographing only the Veloce Saetta monoblock amplifiers ($18,000/pair) that were used to drive them. No loss there: The always interesting Veloce electronicswhich, for this demonstration, included their LS-1 line-level preamplifier ($18,000)represent some very cool technology. Both the tubed (6H30) preamp and the hybrid (tubed input, solid-state output, 400Wpc) amps are battery powered, offering 40-hour listening sessions on a single charge and an estimated battery life of 10 years. A digital file of Hugh Masekela, played from a Luxman DA06 D/A converter ($6000), sounded both open and colorful, and a recording of the Saint-Saens Danse Macabre (orchestra and conductor unknown) had me thinking more about music than gear by the time I had to leave the room.
In one of two rooms sponsored by New Jersey dealer GTT Audio, YG Acoustics' entry-level loudspeaker, the slim-and-sturdy Carmel ($18,000/pair), was demonstrated with a 125Wpc Model 530 integrated amplifier ($49,000) and Model 540 CD/SACD player ($32,500) from the Swiss firm Soulution Audio, with cabling by New Jersey's own Kubala-Sosna. Here we see YG's Kerry St. James playing Deejay for a room that, throughout Saturday afternoon, appeared never to have an empty seat.
Designer, manufacturer, and vintage audio maven Michael Tang brought so many cool things to SSI, I scarcely knew where to begin. The most compelling of all may have been his new Michael Tang Audio APS tonearm ($900), seen here with a vintage Thorens TD 124 turntable and Decca pickup head from his collection, along with his own custom-manufactured hardwood tonearm board. (Yes, I bought one of the latter while I was there.) The reach of the MTA arm may be limited, however: Its distinctive pickup connector is compatible only with obsolete Decca heads. Still...!
At the Audio Arts suite I was enchanted by the sound of my favorite 1960s-era folk trio (although I confess that that wasn't the Corries, whose debut album is seen here in the hands of Audio Arts proprietor Gideon Schwartz). "Tiny Sparrow" and other selections from the cannily titled Peter, Paul & Mary album Moving sounded colorful and clear on a system comprising the Holborne Analog 2 turntable ($5275), Holborne Analog 2 tonearm ($3475), Holborne MC1 cartridge ($1975), David Berning ZOTL preamp with phono stage ($12,300), David Berning ZH230 mono amplifiers ($18,400/pair), and the very interesting Zellaton Concert loudspeakers ($59,750/pair), the drive-units of whicheven the tweeterare all descended from the Pawel laminated metal-foil cone woofer.
In 1962, when tennis rackets were made of wood, newspeople were known for challenging the government, and the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks was in its second year (the show closed in 2002), Nippon Columbia's Denki Onkyo (or Den-On) division introduced to the professional audio world a brand-new moving-coil phono cartridge. Developed in cooperation with the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, the DL-103 was one of the first attempts at making a truly wide-bandwidth stereo cartridge that nonetheless could withstand the rigors of back-cueing. The DL-103 was a nearly instant success with broadcasters, and its popularity spilled over into the world of domestic audio.