I’m afraid the answer to the question is the latter. The set-up was beyond intriguing, but time was short, and there was too much talking going on in the Voxativ room to allow the music to come through. Perhaps someone else who visited the room can post their observations in the comments section below.
Ralph Hellmer’s Surreal Sound Audio, based in Chesterfield, VA, debuted their impressive-looking, 95dB-sensitive, customizable Fifth Row loudspeaker ($20,000$26,000/pair). Quote from the brochure: “Fifth Row was designed with the knowledge that the life of music is in the midrange.” With an Oppo player used as a transport, an ExaSound DSD-capable DAC, what appears to be an Atma-Sphere MP-1 preamp with outboard power supply ,and Atma-Sphere monoblocks, the sound of guitar sounded strangely tinkly to my ears. All in all, the sound was a little edgy and honky with an artificial spaciousness. Perhaps that’s what’s meant by “surreal sound.”
I welcomed the opportunity to hear MA Recordings' very first LP, La Segunda, through Steve Norber's ear-opening PranaFidelity Model Fifty90 loudspeaker ($3950/pair). Through the symmetrical array 2-way vented design, I heard good bass, captivating depth, and plentiful air. In short, Todd Garfinkle's LP, sourced from high-resolution digital masters, sounded great.
It was more than a bit chaotic in the Silverline room, and not just visuallyit seems every 30 seconds, one of the exhibitors tried to get my attentionbut I did manage to focus on the music for a little while. On a recording of bossa nova marvel Rosa Passos with bassist Ron Carter, the small Silverline Minuet Supreme Plus ($699$750/pair) did quite well with bassthe speaker extends down to 55Hzand did a lovely job with Passos’ voice. There was some spread on her voice, probably because the speakers were so far apart, that detracted from the beautiful depth of the presentation.
Roger Sanders brought more than a bit of the Colorado forest with him; he and exhibitor Stephen Mollner also delivered some of the most beautiful, airy, smooth, and totally musical sound I encountered at T.H.E. Show. Mollner was a bit apologetic that they were using the same Tascam SR1 flash recorder that I had frowned upon when I blogged their room at a previous show, but clearly they were doing something very, very right. Perhaps it was changes to two settings in the DCX2496 digital crossover, and/or boosting bass output by 1dB. There were only nine demo tracks to choose from, but the Hungarian Rhapsody sounded great. Thanks Roger and Stephen; I needed your breath of fresh air.
When I poked my head into the Ayon ballroom on Friday, the first day of T.H.E. Show, the sound was too bright for my taste. A day later, listening to the Tape Project’s Master Tape of Nojima Plays Liszt, I found the sound much too subdued and flat. Perhaps, as is often the case at shows, by the end of the show the system arrived at a place of balance.
When I heard the big Ventures at CES 2013, I was so impressed with their beauty of sound that I lingered far longer than my schedule allowed. John Atkinson was similarly impressed at the 2013 New York Show But here, paired with the same Phasure NOS1 DAC, XX HighEnd software, and similar if not identical electronics and cables, the bright sound led me to truncate my visit.
In all fairness, this was far from the only room at T.H.E. Show whose sound was bright.
By now, the excellence of the big TAD Reference One loudspeakers ($78,000/pair), designed by Andrew Jones, has become well-known to Stereophile readers. Less familiar, perhaps, may be TAD’s Reference electronics: the TAD D600 CD/SACD player and DAC with external power supply, the C600 preamplifier with external power supply that Michael Fremer reviews in the June 2013 issue ($42,000), and M600 monoblocks ($68,000/pair).
The warmth of the system’s midrange immediately won my heart.
No one needs me to detail the strengths of McIntosh equipment, not the least of which is its consistently smooth midrange. But in a system that included the McIntosh C2500 tube preamp ($6500), MEN220 Room Perfect room correction ($4500), MC452 power amp ($8500), MPC1500 power controller ($4500), MCD1100 CD Player ($10,000), and XR100 speakers ($10,000), the tightness and impact of the bass was nothing short of startling. Call it the “Whoa! Factor.” Equally noteworthy was the very warm, large, and all-enveloping presentation.