The phenomenon of the "singing flame" has been known since the 19th century. Place electrodes either side of a flame and, if you apply a high enough audio-modulated voltage to those electrodes, the ionized particles in the flame will cause it to emit sound. (Search YouTube for "singing flame" and you'll find many examples.) This principle was developed into a practical loudspeaker in 1946 by a French inventor, Siegfried Klein, who confined an RF-modulated arc to a small quartz tube, coupled it to a horn, and called the resulting speaker the Ionophone. An intense radio-frequency electrical field ionizes the air between inner and outer electrodes to produce a distinctive, violet-tinged yellow flame in the quartz combustion chamber. When the RF field is modulated by the audio signal, this causes the almost massless ionized flame to expand and contract in what should be a perfectly pistonic manner.
"That sound real," I thought as I approached the room shared by Oracle, Burmester, and Genesis. "It sounds just like Canadian singer Anne Bisson," whom I had heard live at an SSI concert in Montreal a couple of years ago.
Stepping into the room, I was confronted by, yes, the real Anne Bisson, who was duetting with herself on one of the tracks from her Blue Mind LP on Fidelio.
I still remember the chills that ran down my spine when I saw the band Rufus, with a young, slim Chaka Khan, performing "Tell Me Something Good" at a small English club more years ago than I care to recall. So when I went into the smaller MBL room at the Irvine Hilton and Jeremy Bryan started playing a live version of the same song, I got a similar thrill.
A surprise was in wait for me as I sat in front of Magico's new S5 speaker ($28,600/pair) in The Audio Salon room at the Atrium Hotel. With the speakers driven by Constellation's Centaur 250Wpc amplifierthe amp in the photo is a dummy; the real one was behind mewith MIT cables throughout, Constellation's Peter Madnick selected a file on his iPad and told me I'd recognize the music. Indeed I did: it was Cantus performing Curtis Mayfield's "It's Alright," which I had recorded live in concert at Minneapolis's Southern Theater in May 2008. It had been released on a limited edition CD but I had completely forgotten I had given Peter a file of the final mixdown. Wow, the band was hanging there in space between and behind the speakers. And when the audience started clapping along with the music, they sounded above and to the sides of the speakers, as I had intended.
I don't have much to say about the sound in this room, produced by Vandersteen Model 7 speakers ($50.000/pair) driven by Audio Research Ref 250 tubed monoblocks ($20,000/pair) and an Audio Research Ref 5SE preamp, wired with AudioQuest cables, other than it was simply one of my best sounds at the Newport Beach Show (the others being the Magico S5 and the MBL 101E Mk.II, with the Wisdom LS4 and Luxman-driven YG Anat II Studio not far behind).
Source was a Basis Inspiration turntable and arm fitted with a Lyra Atlas cartridgethe complex mix at the end of Blood Sweat & Tears' "Spinning Wheel," played on an acetate cut by Bernie Grundman, where treble recorders contrast with the brass, was untangled in a most effective manner but without any spotlighting.
In their 10th floor suite, YG Acoustics was driving their Anat II Studio Signature speakers with Luxman B-1000 solid-state monoblock amps via Kubala-Sosna Elation cables. Total cost of the system was an eye-watering $275,000, but I don't think I have heard Talking Heads' live "Psychokiller," from Stop Making Sense, sound as viscerally real, yet without strain nor grain. (Trying to reproduce this track at similar levels with an all-Mission system a quarter century ago, I managed to melt the amplifiers' output stages.)
It is always a pleasure visiting the Joseph Audio room at Shows, not the least because Jeff Joseph knows how to set up a system to work with the room acoustics, not against them. In Newport beach Beach, as at some other shows, he had set-up the Pulsar stand-mounts ($7000/pair) along the room's diagonal. Source was Pure Music running on a MacBook Pro, feeding USB data to the Bel Canto. Powered by Bel Canto's new C7R integrated amp, which includes a phono preamp, D/A section, headphone output, and an FM tunerwait a moment, isn't that we used to call a "receiver?"and hooked up with Cardas cables, the Pulsar's produced an almost full-range sound. The double bass on the Bad Plus's arrangement of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had body and good definition,a difficult trick to pull off for a stand-mounted two-way.
Empirical Audio's Steve Nugent was showing three new products in the Atrium Hotel, demmed with the TAD E1 speakers that had impressed me in the TAD room at the Hilton, driven by Parasound Halo JC 1 monoblocks. Steve is pointing to the two-box Overdrive SE DAC ($5999), which has BNC, S/PDIF, asynchronous USB, and i2S data inputs, and a volume control, making it "all you need for computer audio." There is now an Off-Ramp 5 asynchronous USB converter ($1299), which now has HDMI in addition to S/PDIF and i2S outputs and replaces the Off-Ramp 4 that I very favorably reviewed in December 2011. The third new Empirical product is the Synchro-Mesh reclocker ($599), which dejitters the datastream for a source such as an Apple TV, Squeezebox, or CD transport.
Last summer I gave a presentation at Goodwins High End in Waltham, MA where I played some of the hi-rez master recordings through an MSB D/A converter. I was so impressed by what I heard that I arranged a review of the DAC and MSB's matching transport, both priced at $4000, by Jon Iverson, scheduled for publication in the October 2012 issue of Stereophile. MSB were demming the new versions of their digital gearthe Diamond DAC with the FemtoSecond Galaxy Clock, the Data CD transport, and the new S200 class-A 200Wpc stereo amplifierin the Atrium Hotel, using YG's Anat III Studio speakers. Whether it was CDHarry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis duetting on "A Nightingale Sang in Berkely Square"or 24/192k WAV files from Chesky, played back from a data DVD-R, there was something very right about the sound in this roomand not a magic bowl or adverse energy-draining base to be found!
"Let me turn off the Tranquility Bases and you'll hear what I am talking about," said Synergistic Research's Ted Denney.
I sighed inside. Ted had been subjecting me to the improvement on room acoustics wrought by his ART Acoustic bowls for the past few years and despite my skepticism, I kept hearing that improvement. Now he was talking about his series of Tranquility Bases. Ranging in price from $995 to $2995, these powered platforms have a ground plane and generate beneficial electromagnetic fields that are said to condition the signals passing through the components sitting on them and drain away the bad fields to ground. Yeah, right!