Given the firepower and reputation of a system comprised of the Kharma Midi Exquisite Mk.II speakers, MBL 1621a/1611e digital front-end, MBL 6010D preamp, MBL 9008a power amps (total cost $184,420), plus Kharma Enigma Cables ($8000/1st meter pair), I figured I had finally entered the right room in which to risk auditioning Ivan Fischer’s new recording of Mahler’s Symphony 2, the "Resurrection" (SACD, Channel Classics). Indeed, at the start of the glorious vocal section that ends the symphony, the MBLs' euphonic signature captured the violins with wonderful delicacy. Soprano, alto, and chorus too sounded wonderful, the soprano especially radiant. Given that the system’s sweetness was delivered with an enrapturing sense of air and depth, the sound swept me away. Gorgeous, simply gorgeous.
Scoring a "10" in the outrageous visuals department, especially when played in the dark, are the 200 lb, $42,000/pair Amber Wave 200W push-pull monoblocks. The space-consuming units, wide as well as deep due to their massive power supplies, utilize huge, readily available NOS 304TL transmitting triodes as output tubes. Complete with an audible buzz from the power supplies, and thus best situated far from the listening area, the amps give off so much heat that they require built-in cooling fans (which add to the noise). Amidst it all emerged a strong if not particularly sweet midrange and a guarantee that everyone on the block will want to take a look.
Peter Ledermann, former Director of Engineering at the Bozak Corporation and winner of numerous IBM awards, has spent the last 16 years developing the Soundsmith Corporation product line. Amplifier, preamplifier, phono cartridges, and now speakers—Soundsmith has it all. Available factory-direct from the Soundsmith website, the Strain Gauge cartridge and preamp and just-introduced loudspeakers especially caught my ear. The most expensive speaker, the Mantis 300, lists for $5800/pair and is equipped with dual 10" high-power woofers, a 6" long-throw midrange unit, and "zero diffraction," time-aligned 1" tweeters. Specs include 42Hz–22kHz frequency range and 91dB sensitivity. All speakers include amplifier clipping indicators and tweeter protection circuitry. Next January or so promises a $3800, 100Wpc integrated amp. This is exceptionally fine-sounding gear, a must hear for vinyl lovers.
I’ve eagerly awaited the opportunity to hear APL Hi-FI’s NOW-2.5, the no-hold-barred, top-of-the line model in their frighteningly named New World Order series of Universal Players. A redesigned Esoteric UX-1, featuring a 6H30 dual-tube output stage, the $21,000 unit threw an exceptionally three-dimensional soundstage mated with the ESP Concert Grand S1 speakers and Shoreline 300 monoblocks. My sense, however, is that the unit is capable of offering far more than what I was able to hear in the Show setting. With the assistance of Alex Peychev’s new Service Manager, Brent Rainwater, I look forward to eventually auditioning the NOW-2.5 in my reference system.
I confess. There’s a special place in my heart for Kara and George of deHavilland. Happily, the sound of their GM-70 amps and Mercury preamp deserves equal praise. Beautiful and mellow on the right music, with a simply lovely core to the sound, deHavilland electronics were sounding quite fine with Wilson Benesch ACT speakers, Audio Aero Prima CD player, Cardas Golden Reference cabling, and Custom Isolation Products. The Torus sub may have been connected, but it was being overly polite. Perhaps the Sonic Fusion speakers paired with deHavilland at T.H.E Show in January 2006 offered richer sound, but there was plenty to love here as well. I’d love to return to this set-up with some decent power conditioning in place.
I confess. The Ferguson Hill mini horn speaker system from England ($1195), distributed in the US by Ron, Ginny, and Rob Lapporte of Chicago’s Ultimate Audio Video, caught more than my eye. To compare their mellow sound with that of the hideous computer speakers that currently deface my home desktop was enough to make me weep. Instead, I entered their totally random drawing for a pair. Note the separate little woofers. A perfect combination for an iPod or a computer.
At the advice of Jeff Wilson and Bob Kuehn, two highly discriminating members of the Bay Area Audiophile Society back home, I auditioned a system with truly enviable, openness and three-dimensionality. The combination of the ART Audio Adagio 26Wpc stereo amplifier ($13,000 with the eye-catching canister light), Gill DAC/preamp ($7500), Audio Excellence power supply, Silversmith Platinum cables, Pranawire power cables, and Ars Aures Midi Sensorial speakers ($19,000/pair—where do they come up with these names?) offered a glimpse of the grace and vulnerability rarely exhibited by many of the brutes of the industry. As Karina Gauvin shared a bit of her soul on Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, I basked in the system’s all-enveloping warmth. The Bill Evans track chosen by Lee Landesberg of Landes Imports sounded fabulous. Definitely one of the high points of my Saturday morning at the RMAF.
The combo of Einstein NK60, 60W OTL monoblocks, Einstein The Tube preamp, Electric CDP7T Mk.II CD player, Adept Response power conditioning, A Cappella High Violin Mk.III horn speakers and cabling mated mellow, warm, nurturing sound with a lovely, sweet presentation. Playing the Ebony Wind Band’s take on the music of Silvestre Revueltas, the sound was especially beautiful and airy. Although not the greatest in the slam department, this system was not afraid of open, high extension. It also presented the midrange in correct proportion, which is no mean feat.
Rapidly approaching the staggering state observed among inveterate show attendees on Friday evening, I stumbled upon the debut of Duke Lejeune’s $4000/pair Jazz Modules. Note that the speakers were not intended specifically for jazz; the name came to Duke in a dream as he was preparing to graduate from amateur speaker builder to fledgling audiophile professional. With a claimed sensitvity of 92dB, the speakers extend from the upper 30s to about 17.5kHz. Port tuning is changeable according to listening position. Even with only two days of break-in—the woofers require several hundred hours to sound their best, Duke told me—the speakers threw a huge soundstage, and sounded remarkably full, warm and luscious in the midrange, I felt.
As a fan of VTL electronics, I was quite eager to hear their new autobias, 400W MB-450 tube monoblocks ($13,500/pair) and TL-6.5 preamp ($8500) paired with hardly broken-in, not exactly the same as the final product prototypes of the Thiel CS3.7. While the sound was fabulously fast, tight, and full-ranged on Patricia Barber’s new CD, Mythologies, the highs were crackling sharp to the point of irritation. Wondering what was up, I took my photo of Thiel’s Ken Dawkins and bid a hasty, but hardly final, retreat.