As last year, Totem Acoustics had by far the show's most aesthetically sophisticated exhibit: a trippy mix of shapes and textures both organic and industrial, in which lights, flowers, textiles, and scents shared senses with the sound. The latter, also in typical Totem form, was exceptionally involvingespecially the Beatles' "Within You, Without You," Insane Clown Posse's "Ain't Yo Bidness," and "lua" by Dudu (no relation) Salinas. At SSI Totem also introduced a product that's still in concept stage, called Totem Skin: a removable sock-style cover that transformed cabinetry into artliterally. Among the company's goals for this show, according to the Totem rep with whom I spoke, was to gauge consumer response to the Skins, and the reaction so far is positive.
The Multi Electronique suite was home to a tasteful, sedate display of Focal loudspeakers and Simaudio electronics, fed by an iMac computer running iTunes: just like home, except these guys had WAV files instead of the AIFFs that I prefer. The music selection was superb, and included the young jazz singer Melody Gardot, whom I hadn't heard before today, and the always interesting Dee Dee Bridgewater. Even without the luxury of an "audiophile" setupwhich is to say, these musical furnishings were arranged in the manner of a normal person's homethe sound of the Focal Chorus 826W ($3795/pair), Moon 3.3 DPX D/A converter ($4000), and Moon 3.3 amplifier ($4000) was utterly charming, and I left my comfy red seat with only the greatest reluctance.
I got to see and to hear the legendary Platine Verdier turntable in the Excel Stereo suite, and though language differences and crowd noise confounded my efforts to learn either its current price or the name of the curious birdsong-and-fiddle record being played, I was delighted to see it in use with a proper (12") tonearm and Ortofon SPU pickup head. Seems I didn't leave civilization behind after all!
Coming soon to a salon near you: a 45Wpc integrated amp that even a schoolteacher can afford. Advanced Acoustics, whose products are designed in France and manufactured in China, showed a prototype of their forthcoming MAP-101, which sounded decent driving a nondescript pair of tiny tabletop speakers. And if that sounds like darning with faint praise, consider that Advanced's MAP-101 is intended to sell for only $649. Alors!
Of one room I can honestly say: The sound pulled me in. A succession of convincingly deep, tactile drumbeats caught my ear, and I followed the thwacks to Cabasse, where the Sphère ($150,000/pair, more or less, and reviewed by Michael Fremer a year or so back) held court, driven by Cabasse's own Bel Canto-sourced amps; the Cabasse outboard digital crossover; and McIntosh's C2300 preamp and MCD500 SACD/CD player. No less impressive was Christophe Cabasse himself (left), who patiently led me through the Sphère's impressive technical backgroundin English, I'm thankful to say. Monsieur Cabasse also reminded me that his company celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, having been founded by Georges Cabasse (père) all the way back in 1960.
I started my day the right way: listening to a good LP of acoustic music. In one of three Coup de Foudre rooms I listened to Skip James's final album on a system comprising the new Brinkmann DD turntable (price TBD) with an EMT TSD 15 fineline phono cartridge ($1800), Auditorium 23 step-up transformer ($995), Leben RS30 EQ moving-magnet phono preamp ($2595), Leben CS300 XS integrated amplifier ($3495), and DeVore Fidelity 3XL loudspeakers ($3700/pair without stands), the latter of which were capable of allowing the music to sound surprisingly, delightfully big. Cables were all by Auditorium 23, and the source and amplification components were supported by a typically beautiful Sapele rack from the Box Furniture company.
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.
Next door to Cabasse, Samuel and Jean-Pierre of L'Atelier-Audio had somewhat less Englishand my command of French is virtually non-existent. But I had no trouble understanding the music played through their Ocellia Calliope 30 Twin Signature loudspeakers (exhibited in pre-production form, price TBD), driven by their Quaero 300B push-pull amps ($15,000/pair) and Quaero Signature preamp ($9000). As with all Ocellia loudspeakers, the very efficient Calliope 30 Twins use high-sensitivity drivers from the French company Phy, and the exquisitely beautiful cabinets are built with intentionally very thin walls, braced in a manner not unlike a guitar or violin, and equipped with an adjustable port/open baffle system for matching the loudspeaker to the volume of air in the listening room. The performance was lovely, insofar as I could tell in such an unavoidably setting, and I've requested a pair for review.
In an industry whose newest products are often as discouragingly unaffordable as they are short of the sonic mark, the Naim Audio Uniti ($3795) stands out. In a single reasonably sized box, the Uniti combines the guts of Naim's Nait 5i integrated amplifier and CD5i CD player with various additional sources: an FM/DAB tuner, and interfaces for an iPod, a USB memory stick, an iRadio, and a UPnP-compatible connected computer or serverall for the price of a very good television set.
On two occasions I've caught myself wondering how to afford a pair of Wilson Audio loudspeakers. Interestingly, both happened within the past year. The first was in April 2009, at the Son et Image show in Montreal, during a demonstration of the MAXX Series 3. The experience was notable for its blend of genuinely great sound with genuine musicality: Each performance unfolded of its own natural accord, with human randomness and nuance, and without the fussy, mechanical, shallow artifice that attracts some audiophiles in the way a carnivorous plant attracts fliesand, if they're lucky, kills them (the audiophiles, that is).