Herb Gets Into His Stride at RMAF

RockyFest Award Alert!

Best Sound: Vincent Bélanger
Best-Sounding Component: Monsieur Bélanger's 200-year old cello
Best Choice of Music: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsdaTVKmjdY
Most Impressive Audio Demonstration: Audio Note UK

I made a wonderful passionate new friend today. He is an artist. I love him. He speaks French, lives in Montreal and plays the most beautiful musical instrument I have ever almost touched. He spoke (in English), he sat between the speakers and played strong notes that lasted infinitely long; everyone in the room felt the air move. His voice seemed tangible and perfect in that between-the-speakers space where canned music always struggles to feel even a little bit real. When Vincent finished playing . . .

Mr. David Cope let the Audio Note UK gear play music. This "letting" included a pair of the new Audio Note AZ Two D speakers ($3250/pair estimated price), which were powered by an AN P3 amplifier ($10,000), which features a parallel single-ended 300B, and two tube rectifiers: a 6X4 which I presume is for the voltage amplifier and driver tubes and a 5U4G for the outputs. This was all driven and sourced by a CDT Three/II transport ($11,775) and a DAC 3.1/II ($9900).

Twenty years ago I distributed Audio Note in America. Like David Cope, I, and my partner Mike Trei, set up room after room. We put the speakers in the corners and played real quality music—no Famous Blue Hotels or Mojo Drum Tracks—but I do not remember any of our rooms ever sounding this good. And I am certain they never felt this tangibly human or real. These new hemp-coned speakers played better than any I ever installed. Bravo David! Bravo Vincent!

The Joseph Audio room was the first time, as an audio show blogger, that I got up and asked to hear something special. When an audio fest roomkeeper asks me what he should play, my first thought is typically: go ahead hang yourself! But instead, I politely say, "Play whatever you think will make your system sound best" (wink wink). This time, however, I saw how fierce the VPI Avenger ($30,000 including three 3-D printed arms) looked sitting on the rack up front; and that stoked my courage. Emboldened by the lure of vinyl, I exerted my reviewer privilege, and asked if I could please listen to an LP instead of a CD.

I knew Jeff Joseph was doing Beatles Mono Box White Album demonstrations and I wanted to hear "Back in the USSR" in mono. I have already enjoyed this über-classic Beatles rush with the extraordinary Miyajima Spirit Mono and the best of the best Miyabi Mono, but today, I wanted to hear what the Miyajima Zero Mono could do with those memorable jet engine textures at the beginning. I also wondered which songs Mr. Joseph liked. So when he said, "Which track do you want to hear?" I said, "Play your favorite!"

To my total astonishment, he played "You Won't See Me" off of Rubber Soul and I did not refuse to listen. At first, I thought it sounded a little hard and bright. But then I realized I had not listened to this song in about 33.3 years. I noticed I was remembering and comparing it to every other time I heard it: on the car radio, on diner jukeboxes, at high school dances, etc. I realized that I had so many good-feeling memories of this song that any way it sounded now could never compare favorably to my idealized recollections.

Next, Mr. Joseph played that ol' school audio salon chestnut: Muddy Waters' "Folk Singer"—which came together in a most satisfying way—right in front of me. I could see the sweat beads on Muddy's forehead. By the end of my listening time, the Joseph Audio Pearl3 three-way floorstanders ($31,500/pair) powered by the Halo by Parasound JC 1 monoblocks ($9000/pair), the Dynamic Sounds Associates, Phono II ($13,500), and Pre I line preamplifier ($16,500), were sounding completely rich and right. Good show Jeff Joseph!

The minute I started at Stereophile, I realized I had a lot of catching up to do. So much has changed since 2003—especially in digital. Therefore, I have been making a major effort to listen, think, and appreciate in front of some super-quality digitally sourced systems. Digital improved tremendously in its first decade. I started really enjoying it in its second decade. And now, all I can say is oh-my oh-my! Companies like Ayre, dCS, Wavelength, and Bricasti are making digital sound sweet, sassy, and beautifully authoritative.

The first time I experienced a system sourced by a Bricasti Design's M1 DAC, I didn't quite get it. The second time, I said, oh my I better pay attention now. And today, everything Bricasti's Brian Zolner played took me deeper into the music than I ever expected in a show environment. Maybe it was the German made Tidal Piano Diaceras loudspeakers ($35,000/pair), which felt perfectly sized for the room. Every musical selection had this enjoyable rich and fast but not too rich and fast feel to it. Space and image and instrumental textures scintillated in a disarmingly relaxed and supple way.

I was blunt, I told Brian, "Okay, this feels like the best digital playback I've ever heard: but why is that so?" I knew I asked the right question when I saw his huge smile. Mr. Zolner proceeded to explain how I was listening to a $10 DAC chip playing a standard CD quality file. "But!" he said, "The magic is all in what surrounds and comes after . . ." that tiny ten-buck device. Brian explained in detail and I listened the best I could. Unfortunately, Brian forgot to turn the music off so my mind kept slipping away to hear what was happening between the speakers.

More than enjoyable fascinating sound, the best thing about digital audio is the bunch of Mensa smart guys it has attracted to its problem-solving ranks. My old single-ended Sound Practices buddy Gordon Rankin is a big Mensa player, Ayre's Charlie Hansen is another, and clearly, with this new (tweaked) gold-chassis LTD version of the M1 DAC ($15,000), Brian Zolner has earned his position in the clouds of Digital Olympus. Thank you Brian for expanding my digital perceptions.

While I am apologizing, I must publically tell Brady Bargenquast at Audioengine that I am sorry. I am sitting now, typing, and listening to Audioengine's extraordinary A2+ powered desktop speakers and remembering I need to write wizardly or critically about the even more impressive B2 powered Bluetooth speakers (like I promised I would). Both are crazy good unprecedented hi-fi values, but I have been too caught up in reviewing "big products" (like the Shure SC35C?) to write about my Audioengine experiences and now feel very guilty. I was even afraid to enter the Audioengine room. My only excuse is that I am a slow learner and an even slower writer. I am surely so late with this project that, by now, most of you don't need me to tell you this stuff it leading edge rocked out audio for everybody kind of gear.

Besides the quality of their sound, what I like about Audioengine products is the quality of the decision-making behind them. To survive in today's audio marketplace a company must morph easily and keep their eyes on the big picture. Audioengine has clearly done both. Their new (to be released in November) HD6 powered, stand-mounted loudspeaker ($750/pair) is a perfect case in point; it plays naturally well on a desktop (which the A2+'s do with gleeful élan) and it plays even better on stands out in the room like old school British mini-monitors. With its furniture-grade finish, magnetic grilles, and solid aluminum remote control, the HD6 looks like it should cost at least twice as much. Did I mention the internal amps are class A/B monoblocks (one in each speaker)? The HD6s are equipped with analog (RCA), optical, and Bluetooth aptX inputs. Audioengine demonstrated these handsome new inventions using a U-Turn turntable driving their own X MT W3 wireless adaptor kit ($149). These new mini-monitors played music so well I have no choice but to resort to my old favorite line: I could live with them forever.

Hats off to Holger Fromme! Like Audioengine's Brady Bargenquast, Herr Fromme has made one (progressively) better audio engineering and marketing decision after another. The first time I saw and listened to these very beautiful white Zero 1 self-powered wireless plug-'n'-play 3-way horn-loaded loudspeakers ($21,950/pair), I was slack-mouthed in awe. Dang! These guys have made great progress and are showing no signs of quitting.

Everything but the source is hidden inside these beauties: digital processors, DACs, and power amplifiers. While I listened, the Zero 1s were sourced by a Questyle QP1R digital portable player ($899) and the sound was elegant, smooth and more smooth, but not lazy, soft, or boring. Every tune had sparkle and life and sufficient boogie factor to make those pace, rhythm, and Yorkshire pudding freaks happy. Every time I see them, I want to say, "Oh, they are just a lifestyle product" but that is totally not accurate. The Avantgarde Zero 1 is a full-on audiophile product that outplayed the majority of rooms at the show.

I just wrote a review of the GoldenEar Triton Five Tower loudspeakers for the December issue of Stereophile. I tried to put GoldenEar's Heil Air-Motion Transformer-inspired HVFR tweeter in a historical context. I mentioned the original ESS AMT1 loudspeaker and how smooth and wonderful it sounded—but I never realized that ESS was still in business. For that I apologize now. ESS is in fact, celebrating its 40th anniversary. ESS still has a lifetime licensing agreement from Dr. Oscar Heil, and they are still made in California. The ESS tagline states: "Sound as clear as light." And that is exactly what I heard. I listened to the modestly priced AMT -12 ($4499/pair) and the sound was smooth and musical like the original AMT1 but now more clear, detailed, and transparent.

dalethorn's picture

Nice to know some of the Mensa members are productive. I joined in my mid-30's and it seemed all the other guys were there just to chase the girls.

John Atkinson's picture
I never joined, due to my IQ, when I last had it assessed at age 12, being a lowly 135. But when Ken Kessler told me that he had joined Mensa, I asked him why he was working for me and not the other way around :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

John Atkinson's picture
Just a note on how much I hate CFC bulbs. Energy-efficient they may be, but not only do they spew RF noise into audio equipment's high-gain stages, they add a canary-yellow tinge to photographs. And if you try to correct for it in Photoshop, natural light, like that coming through the window in the Bélanger heading photo, turns an unpleasant shade of turquoise!

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Venere 2's picture

You would have to shoot RAW files. You would then have more leeway to fix the white balance in post processing. It would be more work though.

Not all CFCs give off a yellow hue. Most are 3500k, called soft white which is yellowish. I have 6500k bulbs in my home. They give a more natural looking light . Anyway, I know what you mean. I dislike yellow lighting...

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Just as we were about to install LEDs in our new dedicated music room (converted garage), I gave a call to Vince Galbo of MSB. Vince warned me that LEDs dump so much noise into the line that they were interfering with the company's remotes. To halogens we went. They consume more electricity, albeit less that traditional incandescents, but they also give off a lovely light (that, along with Tungsten lighting, seems to mess up photos). Then again, when you've got Pass Class A 200.8 mono blocks consuming electricity, halogens hardly make a dent in the overall utility bill.

FYI, before I submit photos to John, I do what color correction I can in iPhoto. We try... As for shooting RAW, which I have yet to try, by the last day of the show, that's the mode we're usually operating in ;-)

dalethorn's picture

If you could determine the actual color temperature of your subject at the time, with a meter or what, then setting the camera to that temperature (an easy menu adjustment) is usually best. In a lot of cases, when color shifts occur, bringing it back in post processing doesn't work because some areas shift more than others.

vincentbelangercello's picture

Thanks you very much Herb! It was nice for me too to discuss with you! I will send you more music of Cassado soon!
Best Regards!
Vincent Bélanger, cello

Allen Fant's picture

Great reviews and pics! HR.
I really want to demo the JA Pearl 3 loudspeakers. Which cables/cords were in that system?

LyleHughes's picture

Very neat to see live acoustic performances being demoed amid the speaker systems!