Every hi-fi show seems to harbor a few restful rooms where the music is well selected and the playback quality is serenely good; at SSI, the exhibit space shared by Scandinavian manufacturers Hegel and Amphion served that purpose for me. (The white fabric walls probably added to the sense of calm.) The Amphion Argon7 L loudspeakers ($6k$7k/pair, depending on finish) sounded clear, smooth, and altogether lovely with Hegel amplification and digital source components.
The speaker of choice in the Audioville room was the brand new KEF Blade ($30,000/pair): a consumer-friendly version of something that started life as a KEF concept speaker. (In particular, in order to reduce costs, the latter's carbon-fiber enclosure has been replaced with one made of a composite resin.) Mid frequencies and treble are handled by the metal-diaphragm KEF UNI-Q array, while low frequencies are given over to two pairs of side-mounted 9" drivers, working in tandem so that bass energy is neither wasted nor allowed to travel through the enclosure structure to modulate the higher frequencies.
The VTL MB185 Series IIIs, which sounded great driving the Wilson Sophia Series 3 loudspeakers, offer a choice between XLR and RCA inputsand, according to designer Luke Manley, they can develop fully balanced performance with single-ended inputs. Their EL34-based output sections can also be switched between triode and tetrode operation.
What's 2" long, comes out in May, and responds to external stimulus by changing color? The AudioQuest Dragonfly ($250), a USB D/A converter designed for the company by Wavelength Audio's Gordon Rankin (and whose proprietary software allows it to function as a true asynchronous DAC). The Dragonfly, which is powered by the USB bus, performs at 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96kHz; the dragonfly icon on its plastic case (not shown here) indicates the sampling rate in use by glowing green, blue, amber, or white, respectively. Features include separate clock oscillators for 44.1/88.2 and 48/96; a 64-position analog volume control that overrides the digital volume control in iTunes/etc.; and proprietary USB input and 3.5mm output connectors.
The Montreal audio-video store Coup de Foudre has a reputation for assembling ambitious music systems in the Hilton's Longueuil salon during SSI. Although this year was no exception, the cost of that system had been scaled-back somewhat for 2012with interesting results.
The loudspeaker of choice was the Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia Series 3 ($18,550 per pair in Macadamia finishwhich bore a striking resemblance to the metallic brown paint on my long-gone 1985 Alfa-Romeo GTV6). Wilson Audio's Peter McGrath, also the recordist behind most of the music selections I enjoyed in that room, said there have been no running changes in the Sophia since the introduction of the Series 3.
Munich-based T+A, which is distributed in North America by Dynaudio, displayed a prototype of their forthcoming DAC 8 D/A converter, which is projected to sell for under $3000. Built around dual 32-bit Burr-Brown DAC chips, the DAC 8 offers a choice of true balanced or single-ended operation, with all proprietary digital filter designs and sampling rates up to 192kHz.
In the Audioville room, Chord Electronics of England demonstrated their Red Reference CD player ($26,000), now in Mk.III form. Refinements include a fully motorized transport door, plus a true asynchronous USB input. The player's D/A section, which offers up to 192kHz capability, eschews the use of DAC chips from other manufacturers, its pulse array being designed and constructed entirely by Chord. Styling is on a par with the underlying technologywhich is to say, a bit breathtaking.
Happily, the big Coup de Foudre also included an analog front: a combination turntable and tonearm package from German manufacturer AMG, bundled with a Benz LP phono cartridge ($21,500 for the package).
Computer audio is more than just a pleasant distraction. For the jaded reviewer, USB digital converters and the like are an escape from that humdrum, if only because they bring with them so many variables: myriad combinations of different platforms, storage devices, operating systems, device drivers, media players, codecs, word lengths, sampling rates, connection protocols, and more. Challenging though they may be, computer-audio products are a tonic for reviewers inclined toward apathy.
Years ago, while editing Listener Magazine, I received a call from a record-company publicist with whom I was friendly: The drummer Ginger Baker, whose work I admire, was promoting a new release, and we were offered a 30-minute telephone interview with the artist. I jumped at the chance, but wound up leaving the article in the canpartly because it was so short, partly because its subject was so cranky. As with vacation trips to certain locales, second prize would likely have been 60 minutes with Ginger Baker.