Rocking Rockville: Late Day One and Early Day Two

Listening to music in the Emia Labs room was one of those moments when I was reminded of how very little I know—that and how distressingly easy it has become for me to acclimate to different levels of audio goodness when confronted with different levels of build quality and design ingenuity. Earlier in my first day at Capital Audiofest 2018, I had heard other things I had thought were very good—and they were, in their way. But listening through the Emia system to recordings I know well—especially LP reissues from the Electric Recording Company, which co-sponsored the Emia room—was an experience far in advance of most.

As at previous shows, Emia's Dave Slagle has demonstrated his signature modified-and-stacked Quad ESL loudspeakers, for which he designs and builds a custom transformer that serves as both the speaker's input transformer and as the output transformer of the dedicated tube amplifier he also adds to the speaker (price on request). But this year, Slagle demonstrated with two pairs of stacked Quads, each additional speaker oriented at a 90° angle to its left- or right-channel counterpart and aimed outward, toward its respective side wall. It worked astonishingly well, bringing to a new level the already shocking dynamic range heard from the Quad-Emia system. These speakers were literally horn-like in their ability to recreate the force behind recorded music, and they allowed familiar jazz recordings to sound more whole and more human than I've ever heard. They were that good.

Also worth noting in the Emia Labs room: Dave Slagle's campaign to build a from-scratch, wholly original (except for its Namiki cantilever and stylus) moving-coil phono cartridge—with a field coil (ie, electromagnet) in place of a permanent magnet—continues, and has resulted in the prototype shown above. He remains unsure if it will become a commercial reality; I certainly hope it will.

If a company's success is measured not only in the volume of their sales but also the impression they make on the rest of the industry, Richmond, VA-based Fern & Roby has come a long way in a scant few years. They're now developing audio electronics—including the Z10 integrated amplifier plus Maverick phono preamp seen here ($4950)—in cooperation with the DC-based firm Linear Tube Audio, and DeVore Fidelity has turned to Fern & Roby's bronze-casting expertise for the woofer frames and other components of their forthcoming flagship Orangutan loudspeaker.

New this year from F&R is their floorstanding Raven loudspeaker ($8500/pair as seen here in walnut; a bookshelf version is available for $4500/pair), in which a SEAS full-range driver can be loaded with the user's choice of a sealed enclosure or, with a plug removed from its front baffle, a bass-reflex port. Listening to LPs played on a Fern & Roby Montrose Heirloom turntable and Uni-Pivot tonearm ($9500 combined) plus Hana EL cartridge ($475), I was impressed with the system's overall balance and very good musical flow and momentum, although trebles were grainy in a manner suggesting that something in the system had yet to run-in.

Ohm Acoustics chose for themselves an unusual demonstration space—two spaces, really: At the top of an obscure staircase, in a room the Rockville Hilton refers to as The Library, was a pair of Ohm Super Walsh 4.4012 loudspeakers ($8000/pair), plus 10 (!) MicroWalsh omnidirectional wall-mounted satellite speakers ($700/each), driven by a Denon AVR-X8500H 13.2-channel AV receiver and fed by a Sony BDP-BX510 BD player ($30—Ohm's literature proclaimed it "the cheapest Blu-ray player we could find!"). The demonstration centered around the lizard-eating scene from the last Mad Max film, and though things got quite loud, they never got harsh or otherwise unpleasant. In fact, I was charmed and entertained by the quality of the sound and the good humor and unpretentiousness of Ohm's presentation.

In the anteroom outside The Library was another system from Ohm—this one built around a pair of Ohm F-5015 speakers ($11,000/pair) driven by an Outlaw RR2160 receiver-DAC ($800) and fed by a BlueSound Node2 digital player ($500) and an Oppo DV-980H disc player ($170). As I passed through, Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" was playing on the system—the man running the dem was busy with multiple attendees, so I couldn't determine whether I was listening to a file or a disc—and I was impressed with how the system nailed the deep, liquid-y reverb tone of Isaak's electric guitar. Another very convincing, very enjoyable demonstration!

I hate the Doors. Hate 'em! Yet I loved the sound of "Riders on the Storm" from the big system in VPI's demonstration room. The source was VPI's brand new 40th Anniversary Direct Drive turntable ($15,000, including tonearm) equipped with a Soundsmith Hyperion Mk.II cartridge ($7999.95), feeding a VPI Voyager phono preamp, Krell line-level preamp and monoblock amplifiers, and Wilson Alexx loudspeakers. The system had the sort of extraordinary, large-scale spatial performance that paid musical as well as sonic dividends—each instrument was completely separate from the others—and was relentlessly, engagingly propulsive. (Sitting as I did, closer to the right speaker than the left, I got a big dose of John Densmore's drumming—which, I admit, was superb.)

VPI's electronics specialist, Mike Bettinger, spoke to the SRO crowd about the development of the new turntable—"We started with the motor: an ironless, thin-gap design with overlapping poles"—and proceeded to offer us a comparison between two identical 40th Anniversary Direct Drive turntables equipped with different cartridges: the above-mentioned Soundsmith and, in the other, a Lyra Etna. Both were impressive, but the Soundsmith cartridge sounded more natural to my ears.

Ortofan's picture

... used in the Emia Labs room appears similar to that which SME has/had set up in their headquarters listening room - except using the 63 model.

Also, the 1980s vintage Levinson HQD system was based upon stacked QUAD 57 speakers, with the addition of Hartley sub-woofers (in armoire-sized cabinets) and Decca ribbon super-tweeters.

HansRamon's picture

Why use a transfomer at all with the modified Quads electrostats, wasn't that the whole point back then.......? (Using tubes as amplifiers that is..)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Problem stacking-up a dozen or so Quads on top of each other, per side? ........... Just call 'takl' ........... There is an 'app' for that :-) ...........

DarthMatzoBrei's picture

Would be curious to know the size of the room Emia demonstrated in, and how they reproduced the bottom octaves. Drool is not the word.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

KLH 9 full range electrostatic speakers have similar appearance like Emia ............ JA and JGH wrote about them in Stereophile ............