"What did you think of the Sonus Faber/Ayre system?" I always feel like I'm being put on the spot when being asked this kind of question, and I usually say something vaguely positive but noncommittal. "Um, it sounded nice." I had listened to that system only briefly at that point, and had just a general favorable impression. I went back later, listened some more, and came to the conclusion that this was one of the most natural-sounding systems at the show. Not loud and spectacular in an obvious way, just "natural." But then I don't think I've ever heard a non-musical-sounding Sonus Faber speaker, and these Amati anniversarios (to be reviewed by John Atkinson in the May issue of Stereophile) were perfectly complemented by Ayre C-5xe universal disc player (Stereophile's Joint Product of 2005), K-1xe preamp and V-1xe power amp.
The Elac FS 609 XP-1 is a speaker that has intrigued me since I first saw it, but somehow never got a chance to listen to it. On the Friday, my first day at FSI, I was in the room where they had a pair of these speakers, but, wouldn't you know it, they were not the ones being played. Then, on Sunday morning, I saw Vince Scalzitti, the importer, and said "Vince, do you by any chance..." but he didn't let me finish. "You want to hear the bigger Elacs, right? They're playing in the room next door." And indeed they were. Demo'd by the genial Jack Bakerdjian of Audio Gallery, a Toronto Elac dealer, the FS 609 XP-1 (catchy name, what?) driven by Korato tube electronics sounded quite promising, with a very spacious sound, even though the room was almost certainly too small for them. The FS 609 XP-1 ($17,000) uses an improved version of the famous Heil driver, with an omnidirectional supertweeter on top.
No show report can be considered complete without at least one picture of an esoteric tube amplifier, and I wouldn't want to break with this tradition. The Wavac HE 833Ver 1.3 is the stripped-down version of the $350,000/pair SH-833 that was reviewed by Michael Fremer and caused some readers apoplexy. This one is a mere $140,000/pair, the lower price reflecting less elaborate power supplies. A bargain, I'm telling you! I have no reason to believe that this would measure any better than the one reviewed by Mikey, but I must say that the sound of the Verity Lohengrins driven by these amps, using a dCS digital source, was—apart from some bass softness, which could even have been room-related-absolutely terrific, certainly one of the best sounds at the show. Go figure.
The most expensive system at the show, costing about US$200,000, was this all-McIntosh system, based on two of the company's three-chassis monoblock amplifiers, their four-chassis preamplifier, and their speakers with too many drive-units to count. (Okay, there are 110 per channel—40 tweeters, 64 midrange units, and six woofers!)
The German Canton line of speakers has a new flagship: the Vento Reference 1 DC ($30,000). Looking closely at these beautifully finished speakers, I noticed that in the back panel of each the speaker there were about a dozen signatures. Could it be that some FSI visitors have been engaging in some audiophile graffiti? No. These are the signatures of the speaker's designers, including Canton's chief engineer Frank Göbl, and the people who built these specific speakers. I really like that.
Linn Products has moved in a major way into multichannel and multi-room systems, but some new products demo'd at FSI showed that they haven't abandoned the part of their customer base that just wants to listen to music in high-quality two-channel, in one room. For these folks, Linn had the Majik line: CD player ($4250), preamp with MM/MC phono stage ($3800), and 100Wpc amplifier ($3100). Very nice, well-balanced sound through Espek speakers ($5800), with an LP12 phono source.
The two most expensive systems at the show, each costing about US$200,000, were the all-McIntosh system, and the system using Pierre Gabriel Grand Master speakers and Jadis electronics/digital source. (Actually, the Pierre Gabriel system was "only" US$180,000, so you can afford a trip to France with what you would save over the McIntosh.) Did they sound impressive? Yes, but, personally, I have trouble relating to any system whose price is so far beyond the reach of ordinary audiophiles. Having said that, it's good to have systems like this at shows, so that people can judge for themselves what they offer in the way of sound quality. M. Gabriel himself was on hand to demonstrate the system featuring his speakers.
Fidelio Records, based in Montreal, has an impeccable—um—record of producing CDs and SACDs of the highest technical and artistic quality. Their latest SACD of the Nemesis percussion ensemble, played back on Verity Parsifal Ovation speakers ($24,000), with a gaggle of Nagra electronics and Esoteric SACD player, made one of the best sounds I heard at the show. Fidelio recording engineer René Laflamme did a comparison for me of the SACD and the backup analog master (Nagra open-reel), and I have to admit I preferred the clarity of the SACD.
John Meyer's Newform Research's ribbon/cone hybrids have been around for a while, and, like Bruce Edgar's Edgarhorns, every revision I've heard sounded better than the previous one. The latest R645v3 has undergone some very significant changes: the midbass/bass box is now sealed rather than ported, with additional bracing and damping (Corian top), and the result is much-improved blending with the ribbon and greater transparency throughout the lower midrange. Sold factory direct, $3484 delivered makes the R645v3 an astonishing bargain in today's marketplace. The partnering electronics undoubtedly made a major contribution to the fine sound of the Newforms, and are interesting in their own right: they signal the return to the business of Richard Dolan, whose PM1 preamp was highly regarded in the 1990s. The Newforms were driven by Dolan Audio SMM-120 monoblocks (US$11,500/pair), with a prototype line stage (about US$7500), Shanling CD player source.
As usual with shows of this type, many of the systems demoed at FSI cost tens of thousands of dollars. However, Angie Lisi of Audiopathic, distributor of some stratospherically-priced equipment, made it a point to assemble a relatively affordable yet highly musical-sounding system, consisting of the Manley Stingray integrated amp ($2250), Totem Rainmaker speakers ($1198/pair), and an Accuphase CD player. Oh, did you want to know the price of the CD player? Umm—$6995. When I pointed out to Angie the incongruousness of having this expensive CD player as part of the system, she replied—somewhat sheepishly, I thought—"It was the cheapest CD player I had around."