It was the strangest thing. In the fall of 2008 I was comparing Ayre Acoustics' then-new KX-R line preamplifier with no preamplifier at allI was feeding the power amplifier directly with the output of the Logitech Transporter D/A processor. (Levels were matched for the comparisons, of course, made possible by the fact that the Transporter has a digital-domain volume control.) Being a rational being, I knew that the active circuitry of a preamplifier, as well as the extra socketry and cables, would be less transparent to the audio signal than a single piece of wire. I wanted to determine by how much the Ayre preamp fell short of that standard.
When I win the PowerBall and retire, I am going to have MBL North America's Jeremy Bryan on call as my set-up man. At show after show, Jeremy has demonstrated that he can tame the most recalcitrant, obdurately obstinate room acoustics problems, using whatever tools he can find, to allow his system to shine its brightest. When I went into the larger of MBL's two rooms in the Doubletree, it was apparent that he had worked his magic. But what I didn't know that throughout the show, snow melting on the hotel's roof was causing a stream of water running down the wall of the room behind the drapes. (I was impressed by the system's liquid-sounding midrange, however!!)
I had been looking forward to auditioning the 10th Anniversary Edition of Scaena's Silver Ghost speakers at the 2013 CES, but as I reported, there was a curious lack of recorded ambience. The Silver Ghosts, which cost $153,000/system with two active subwoofers, sounded much better at AXPONA, driven by Audio Research amplification. The front end was the new dCS Vivaldi rig and cabling was all Silversmith Audio Palladium. A duet between a woman singer and a double bass on the old Gloria Gaynor hit "I Will Survive" was absolutely convincing in its tonality and musicalitywith plenty of recorded ambience!
Chicago retailer Pro Musica, led by recording engineer Ken Christianson, had two rooms at AXPONA. The first featured a system built around Dynaudio's Confidence C2 Signature loudspeakers ($13,500/pair in standard Mk.II finishes; $15,000/pair in Signature finish). The electronics were a Naim NAP 300 amplifier with 300PS power supply ($11,495), Naim 282 preamp with NAPSC2 ($6795), Naim SuperCap2 DR preamp power supply ($6595), Naim UnityServe SSD server ($3045), Naim NDS streaming player ($10,995) with Naim 555PS DR power supply ($9645). Speaker cable was Naim NACA5 ($15/foot) and the equipment rack was the Quadraspire EVO (6 shelf, $1200).
In Pro Musica's second room, Dynaudio's Confidence C1 Signature speakers ($8500/pair in Signature finish, $7700/pair in standard Mk.II finish) were driven by Naim's SuperUniti integrated streaming amplifier ($6000), hooked up with Naim NACA5 speaker cable ($15/foot). I listend again to some of Ken Christianson's recordings on the Naim label, including a Schubert Symphony 5 performed by Iona Brown leading the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Sonics, music, balance, communicationI wanted for nothing.
I first heard the dipole Orion 4 speakers ($14,750/pair with Analog Signal Processor), designed by Siegfried Linkwitz and manufactured by Wood Artistry of Healdsburg, California, at the 2011 AXPONA in Atlanta, where they were one of the best-sounding rooms at the Show. They were in too large a room in Chicago, but still managed to sound clean and natural, with a full range of frequencies, driven by Pass Labs amplification with DH Labs cabling. I refer you to me 2011 report for details on the speaker's design but new at Chicago was a refined version of the Analog Signal Processor, with closer-tolerance crossover components, and an amplifier/processor that obviates the need to drive the Orions with 6 or 8 amplifier channels and the resulting confusion of cables.
Peachtree's room was typical at AXPONA, packed with an enthusiastic crowd of listeners enjoying the music all weekend. The Peachtree Nova125 that Sam Tellig reviewed in January ($1499) was being demmed with the MartinLogan Montis speakers that Robert Deutsch reviewed in September 2012 ($9995/pair). The speakers were certainly not let down by the inexpensive amplifier"The Nova125 will handle any source, any speakers," proclaimed Peachtree's Jonathan Derda (below)who played me Rickie Lee Jones on LP on a Pro-Ject turntable with Phono Box dual-mono phono preamp, the sax-and-bass duet on Sting's "Standing on the Moon, from a Turtle Records hi-rez file, and even a luminous-sounding MP3 streamed from Spotify.
Verity's US distributor John Quick (right) shows the Amadis speakers, with Brian Wasserman
Back in 2009 I recorded classical pianist George Vatchnadze for a live-vs-recorded dem. As well as being a superb classical pianist and teacherhe teaches piano at Chicago's DePaul UniversityGeorge has a parallel life as an audio retailer. His company, Kyomi Audio, had two 8th-floor rooms at AXPONA, featuring Verity Amadis speakers ($30,000/pair) driven by CAT amplification and hooked up with the huge and expensive helium-filled Stealth cables. Sources were either an Acoustic Signature turntable fitted with a Funk Firm arm and Colibri cartridge, or an Esoteric transport feeding data to a prototype non-oversampling D/A processor from Stealth, this featuring the AD1865 DAC chip.
In the second Kyomi Audio room, E.A.R. USA's Dan Meinwald was doing an effective dem of the Marten Django XL speakers ($15,000/pair) that Erick Lichte favorably reviewed in September 2012. He used a prototype CAT tube amplifier, a CAT SL1 Renaissance tube preamplifier, and an Esoteric K-1 DAC with standalone clock fed audio data from Amarra. Cabling appeared to be all Magnan. With the Swedish speakers set up firing along the room's diagonal, low-frequency room modes were tamed and vocal music blossomed, whether it was Peggy Lee singing "Fever," Paul McCartney singing a demo of "Mother Nature's Son," or Neil Young live from Massey Hall.
I loved the TAD Compact Reference CR1 speakers when I reviewed them in January 2012. And I am also a fan of the Parasound Halo JC1 monoblock amplifier. But when I walked into the Blue Smoke room at AXPONA and saw the latter driving the former, I was a little taken aback as this is not a combination I would have thought worked well together, both speakers and amplifiers tending toward the lean and clean side of things. But only a fool would allow his expectations to affect what he heard and the sound in the room was superb: clean, yes, but not lean; a rich, extended low end but without bass boom; and a wealth of detail with the feeling of anything being spotlit. The MSB Diamond DAC 4 with Femto Clock, the Argento cables, and the Bag End Electronic Bass Traps must have had something to do with the great sound, of course, but the source, Blue Smoke's new Black Box II (to be priced around $8000 when available) must have been the key.