AXPONA Ups and Downs on Jason's Day 3

Never have I had to work so hard to convince someone that a product that first surfaced at CES 2017, just started shipping, and was just awarded MQA certification belonged in a new-product show report. Finally, after several minutes of what was beginning to look like a Socratic dialogue, Michael McCormick, President of Minneapolis-based Bel Canto Design, acknowledged that the single-box Bel Canto Black Box ACI 600 ($25,000) was indeed deserving of coverage by the publication that awarded the three-box Bel Canto Black system "Best Amplification Product of 2015."

Billed as the "Ultimate Integrated"—"It's essentially an app-controlled server/streamer that manages a library," said McCormick—the ACI 600 decodes MQA, up to DSD 128, and up to PCM 24/384. Roon-ready, it features Bel Canto's "tilt control," which compensates for room anomalies by adjusting treble and bass while holding the middle at a constant level. It also includes a programmable phono stage, selectable headphone output, 1 TB drive, and various remote-control apps. The ACI 600 outputs 300Wpc into 8 ohms, and 600 into 4.

Paired, by Chicago's Precision Audio & Video, with MartinLogan Expression ESL 13A loudspeakers and Cardas Clear Beyond cabling, the ACI 600 was handicapped by heavy drapes that impacted the speakers' rear-firing musicality. Despite the draping and the Expression ESL 13A's touted Anthem Room Correction, I found it impossible to fairly evaluate the Bel Canto unit in its echo chamber of a room. Nonetheless, when the Agathe Jazz Quartet performed "I've Got a Crush on You," MQA's ability to make voices sound real was clearly in evidence.

Applause is due the US premiere of the Clearaudio Charisma phono cartridge ($2000). The cartridge was part of a Clearaudio Performance DC Wood turntable with TT-5 tonearm/swing base ($6500) that was exhibited by Quintessence Audio. Equal applause goes to the new Dynaudio Contour 60 loudspeaker ($10,000/pair) and to the Simaudio Moon 850P preamp ($30,000), 810LP phono preamp ($13,000), 650D CD player/DAC ($9000), 780D streaming DSD DAC ($30,000), and 880M amplifier ($45,000/pair). On Marian Hill's "Down," the lovely vocals were enhanced by impressive, well-controlled bass and various effects. On this and other tracks that were playing when I entered the room, the sound was excellent.

It was excellent sound all the way at MoFi Distribution's world premiere of the TAD Laboratories Micro Evolution One loudspeaker ($12,495/pair). Paired with a Dr. Feickert Analogue Blackbird Deluxe 12 turntable with second-tonearm package ($9485) that was outfitted with Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue MC ($5995) and Urushi Vermillion mono MC cartridges ($6495), Balanced Audio Technology VK-P12-SE phono stage ($9995), TAD D1000 SACD player/DAC ($15,000), TAD C2000 preamp ($29,000), TAD M2500 amp ($24,000), Isotek power products and cables, Solid Steel racks, TAD speaker stands, and Nordost Valhalla 2 cabling, the speakers delivered a gorgeous midrange over a silent backdrop.

StillPoints Aperture panels, rather than heavy draping, certainly figured in the system's success. "Analog sounds extremely clear and quiet, with gorgeous timbres," I wrote in my notes before a 16/44.1 file of Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller's "Miller Time" was conveyed with ideal speed and beautiful timbres.

After the show, when I emailed Andrew Jones, formerly of TAD, to explain the evolution of the Micro Evolution One, he responded, "The Chief Engineer for TAD, Toru (Tad) Nagatani, worked with me all through my period of designing TAD speakers. Tohru Nakamura did a lot of the driver engineering. Both are brilliant engineers.

"The project concept started while I was there, but became stalled. It was picked up again after I left. The speaker uses a concentric driver that had been developed with TAD engineers for another project, and that I thought would be the perfect driver around which to base a new compact speaker design. As I left before the project re-started, I give all credit to Nagatani-san for its development and sound tuning. They have developed a stunning speaker."

While it will take a full review to confirm Andrew's assessment, a short listen under far less than ideal conditions suggested that the TAD Evolution One could join the short list of outstanding diminutive speakers that have caused people to re-evaluate the need for large floorstanders.

The all-new MSB Select DAC ($84,500) with Femto 33 clock and mono power-base options ($9950 and $19,950, respectively) contains a new 16/44.1 digital filter and in-home-upgradable firmware claimed to raise CD sound to hi-rez levels "without oversampling or other processing tricks." Though it can play DSD natively, the MSB Select DAC offers a new "DSD Optimized Mode" firmware upgrade that addresses DSD out-of-band artifacts in a new way. MSB claims the Select DAC is future-proof, in that new DAC ladders and clocks can be installed in its modular architecture whenever they are developed.

Joining the DAC were the MSB Universal MSB Universal Media Transport V with Dual Signature Transport Power Base ($11,990), M204 monoblocks ($39,950/pair), YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 loudspeakers ($72,800/pair), and Analysis Plus cabling.

First up was Dean Martin's "I'm Confessing that I Love You" on SACD. One of those close-recorded, intimate tracks that, like many of Ella Fitzgerald's recordings from the 1950s, invariably makes a system sound good, it was beautifully quiet, intimate, and smooth. However, when I was played a blues track to demonstrate how the DAC made a piano sound like a "real piano," it failed to convince.

Asking to hear my oft-cited Murray Perahia CD of Handel and Scarlatti, I discovered that the system over-emphasized the lower parts (undertones) of individual notes, and lower-pitched tones over higher ones. As smooth and lovely as the sound was, the system's lower midrange imbalance put too much emphasis on the notes in Perahia's left hand, and highlighted the piano's percussive plunk while diminishing its sustain.

Linear Tube Audio's new ZOTL40 Mk.II power amplifier ($5800) contains different tubes, caps, and internal wiring than its predecessor. It shares with its companion, the LTA Micro ZOTL preamp ($2100), circuitry designed to provide the detail of solid-state and warmth of tubes.

Equally new in the room were Spatial Audio's M3 Triode Master speakers ($4000/pair), which were designed to be tube-friendly. With an in-room frequency response of 32Hz–18kHz, ±3dB, the speakers claim 95dB efficiency.

The rest of the system included Lampizator's Komputer server (€3900), which contains a Linux-based computer that, I was told, is "really tricked out" and offers Roon, HQ Player, upsampling to DSD, and the ability to play DSD512, and Lampizator's Golden Atlantic DAC (€9000). The DC uses directly heated Russian 4P1L tubes and a ladder digital engine, plays all forms of PCM and up to DSD256, and doesn't upsample.

On music that contained, at most, one vocalist and two instruments, the system made some enticingly beautiful, warm sounds with a very smooth finish. The noise floor seemed low, and the presentation clear. However, when the presenters were asked to play something complex that would reveal the extents of the system's abilities, they could find nothing on their server that would suffice. Consider this a disappointingly hung jury of one, with no verdict possible.

I prefer not to end on a down note, but the sound in the room put together by Saturn and Harold of TuneLand Vegas was as incomprehensible as the system and setup. (Several conversations were going on while music was playing.) You can only see part of it—the Audio Note AN-E loudspeakers, Audolici all-tube electronics from Portugal, a $30 Magnavox DVD player, ca 2002, used as a source, Audio Note and Transparent cabling, and some of the Michael Green Audio devices—but not the equally unattractive Michael Green room treatment that was positioned at a 90º angle to the system beyond the picture boundaries.

dalethorn's picture

I was looking into that TAD Micro Evolution One, and it looks really great - then I see that each speaker weighs 20 kg. Jeez - what do they put in those boxes? No doubt the advanced cone materials and high-tech magnets provide great bass given their size, but when the customer is carrying their new "micro" speakers up the stairs, they're going to be reevaluating the meaning of "micro".

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I didn't think of including the weight in my report. Perhaps people who buy them will love them so much that they will install them in one location and not move them up and down the stairs if they can't handle 44.1 lbs.

tonykaz's picture

Get a Bose Wave, it provides "perfect sound" at a price anyone can afford!

Tony in Michigan

or consider a pair of Genelecs, like you'll find in nearly every Recording Studio, probably under $1,000 or $1,500 with the matching Sub-Woofer. Genelec is an Engineering outfit that makes Engineered products that have zero "Audiophile Nervosa" BS but do have built-in DSP.

tonykaz's picture

I was hoping for a "proper" evaluation of all these important Tuning devices. I'd make for some interesting nonsense about how it brings a "full expression of the music's dynamics and harmonics" ( direct quote from the Michael Green web page ).

Consumer Audiophile has always had a BS product line-up, from various outfits. VPI made those "magic bricks".

I'll have to try to be "Fair and Balanced" by saying & thinking that Audiophile BS takes a back seat to Political BS.

We even have a headphone electronics outfit proudly claiming that most of it's product line is "Obsolete"!, for gawd's sake. This outfit's owner is a Marketing Guy who uses meaningless phrases to describe things.

I'd hafta assume that old-fashioned drinking water is obsolete, now that we have gourmand Bottled Water.

Is there any other hobby area with a BS component depth as deep as Audiophile? ( maybe Alcoholism )


Tony in Michigan

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The obsessive blog commenter hobby?

Sorry, couldn't resist. I actually enjoy your straight shooting, off the hip comments immensely, Tony. I just need to remember to keep breathing as I read them.

Your alcoholism crack is worth its weight in something other than crack.

tonykaz's picture

It's one of the very few places where I can take a work-break and read about interesting Adventures in a field where I was once professionally active. I saw you being interviewed in front of the Legacy Room.

Stereophile's journalism is darn good and presents a few easy targets for a bit of satire. I'm delighted to read your response & critique of my silly comments.

Your observations about that Green Room tickled me. I had a 40 foot pegboard wall ( at my Esoteric Audio Salon ) dedicated to selling Audiophile Nonsense items. ( so, I was a whore too ).

Today, a large component of the Audiophile Group are not "True Believers" in the Far-out theories but it's hard to deny a demonstrated improvement from Wire stuff, I sold tons of Bruce Brisson "interface" cabling systems, with an included 100% Refund for dissatisfaction, of which none ever got returned.

However, 100% of the Vitamin/supplement people are 100% True Believers of All the Nonsense the industry generates. Reasoning with them is impossible. For them I've daydreamed about having a line of "Holy Waters". I'd give the Bishop a cut plus full dealer price-points for all Parishes carrying my Lines ! ( even Limited Edition Sculptured Bottles & Packaging )

Well Jason, thanks for being there for us.

Tony in Michigan

ps. have you been to Munich?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I covered it in 2015 and 2016. Paul Messenger does our coverage this year.

I once owned Michael Green tunable speakers. I have a Justa-rack for sale.

tonykaz's picture

I recognize your confession, I forgive you!

I admire Germany but I couldn't live there, it's too Disciplined for someone like me and, like Japan, it's too clean. ( no empty Vodka bottles on the side of all roads, like S.E. Michigan )

Tony in Michigan

Solarophile's picture

Well I admit I do visit sites liek AIX and Archimago. They do provide some really interesting "alternative" perspectives! But damn, I do learn a lot from these places on things I don't see here!

Archimago's picture

Come on Solarophile!

It ain't "obsessive". Just passionate dude :-). Gotta do and say things that some apparently don't bother to say and do, even if much of it is rather obvious for many!

Seriously, I think audiophile land needs more facts to support what we believe and separate what is "fact-based" from opinion and "faith-based".

readargos's picture

Also capitalize on B.S., with studies "proving" that a new supplement is 300% more effective than competitors, even though it's the same active ingredient. Similar to recent ads in the audio mags where a graphene power cord had 8 million times the conductive density of copper.

What was it Mark Twain said about statistics?

tonykaz's picture

Well, my "Holy Water" IS! better and I can prove it. You get into heaven a hundred times faster without the scrutiny of that Old Gate Keeper because 'You' wisely invested in a St.Peter dispenser! A measly $10,000 Papal Dispensation will accelerate the Process. Do you care about your loved ones? or not?

All that electrical "Power Cord" stuff is a Sin-full Invention of that Atheist Ben Franklin to be a clear path to Beelzebub's full-time service center.

Cleanse your mind of your Suppressive thoughts with just one bottle of St.Antony's Blessed Waters. only $14.98 at better Parishes everywhere.

Need I say more

Tony in Michigan

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

do not mix, unless you really want a shock. Please, let's move on.

tonykaz's picture

Tony in Michigan

readargos's picture


I think there is a difference in the marketing hype of bodybuilding supps within the broader category of the health food industry, but my experience mirrors yours when it comes to the fidelity of some health food practitioners. I'm sure we've all been guilty of too much zeal at times!

hcooper99's picture

Hi, this is Harold from Sound Consultant Ltd. Come on Jason, we know the room was seriously compromised! It was our first show and everything was done last minute. I will send Saturn to beat you up!

The Audio Note speakers are meant to be set up in corners, and since we wanted to make it a combination display and listening room because of the introduction of the new Audolici products from Portugal, we had to compromise and do the best we could. We had a room plan and when we got to the room we could not set up the way we wanted to because we could not move the dresser! We did not have nearly enough help to do this in one day! We did not have real corners and the sound set up was far from ideal. If you want to hear what this system can do please come to my showroom or better yet, come to TuneLand Vegas and we will blow your mind!

The "unattractive" room treatment that Jason mentions is the RoomTune Deluxe Floor Stander - the first ever floor standing room treatment in the industry. There is nothing else that incorporates the principles of absorption and reflection in the same product. It has received many great reviews, is inexpensive, and it works! And it is still one of our best selling products even today. Most people think they look like speakers, which I think means they are far from unattractive. We were creating a "listening oasis" (the exact words of a visitor) with the floor standing devices and it worked.

I want to thank all those who visited, and especially all the sales that it has created for me, both for Audolici products and Audio Note. We got lots of very positive comments like "wow finally music", "fantastic sound" and so on. Some folks just don't understand the basics - I'm not making excuses, just stating facts.

By the way, the Audolici AVP-01 MM/MC phono stage just got a fantastic review in TONEAudio [URL deleted by John Atkinson] Please check it out!

We had a great show and lots of fun! Isn't that really what this hobby should be all about?

michael green's picture

Oh come Jason is right, be a little more adventurous than this Jason lol. Right about now every Tunee out there is laughing. Why? Because every advanced audiophile on the planet that tunes knows all you had to do is ask to have the system tuned to your taste. Your above comments don't show very much tuning experience and or willingness on your part.

I suggest you go back and read your comment again and see if that's what you really meant. Think about it, an audio reviewer that doesn't know how to tune, really? That's a problem that needs to be moved past.

You know if some of you guys who are writing as representatives of high end audio don't take the time to learn the basics beyond plug & play, how do you expect these other folks to ever grow out of the BS throw back lifestyle enough to become the next level of audiophiles?

My thought is why did you say anything at all? If you don't understand something enough to ask....well doesn't that put you a few steps behind the intellect of the versed Tunee? Or don't you believe in tuning as a music harmonizing method?

LOL, come on Jason step up to the plate buddy

[Promotional content deleted by John Atkinson]

Michael Green

Anton's picture

So, the listener before Jason preferred poor sound, and likely used the system's ability to be tuned against it, making it into a bad sounding system just as Jason arrived.

If Jason was worth his weight in spit as a reviewer, he would have realized what was going on and tuned, or 'requested tuning' to make the system not sound bad.

This is the reviewer's fault, completely. JVS should never have expected to be able to enter a room run by the world's foremost room tuner and expect things to have been sounding right to begin with?

An important question now becomes, "Who was the evil anti-tuner who had ruined the room's sound right before Jason arrived?"

Side question: would it be fair for a reviewer to enter a room with the expectation that the exhibitor would know enough about his gear, room, and tuning protocol not to be standing in a room full of bad sound to begin with? Jason had to figure it out, then it's his fault for what he heard.

Ah, well, welcome to American Logic 2016 onward.

Let me help Jason here: "The MGA system would have sounded fantastic if I weren't such a deaf fuckwit and had taken the time to tune the damned room myself. Michael and Howard are blameless. They, in all likelihood, set the room up to sound bad to entrap listening challenged reviewers."

michael green's picture

Anton, it looks like your doing the same thing Jason did, and there's nothing wrong with that, to each his own. But it seems your not understanding what tuning is, or what Sound Consultant was doing at the show. There's no blame to put on Jason, he made a choice. I wasn't at the show but from the outside looking in it almost appears (people who tune) to others at the show that perhaps Jason missed the opportunity that many reviewers before him didn't.

But than who am I....or Harry, Tom, Guy, Glenn, Les, J Gordon, Mike and a long list of other reviewers, artists and listening friends who came specifically to have fun at our many after hours tuning parties.

[Promotional content deleted by John Atkinson]

no blame or shame just a whole lot of advanced listening fun!

Michael Green

PS Some may remember the New York penthouse tuning event held in 96 (or around that). Five reviewers from the most prominent rags at the time, including a reviewer from this one. All 5 reviewers preferred to have their recording (same recording) tuned different. Same system, same recording different ears and taste.

So yes, I do like it when listeners step up to the plate.

Anton's picture

I was saying that it's not the problem of someone who walks in your door at a show to demand you fix the sound or figure out a way to tweak it himself....he likely assumed there was someone on hand with the expertise to have set the room up properly in the first place and he formed a listening opinion.

Harold just told us the woes of the room. Of all the exhibitors in the whole show, who would you have gone to to get help making the room sound better?

michael green's picture

Anton, lol, demand? I believe what you are again doing is showing the gulf between plug & play listening and the more advanced methods active audiophiles do on a regular basis.


When visiting with Stereophile's own Guy Lemcoe, what do you think we did with his system while listening? You can go read about it in the archives of the Stereophile reviews. Or, you can read the some 200 reviews written over the last few years, both pro and home. Personally I can count on my hand how many reviewers I have listened with where we didn't actively tune the mechanics, acoustics and electrics of the system.

Anton, I don't (never have) splash in the puddle, only making mud, when I can swim in the ocean and go anywhere I choose. I also can't imagine why any reviewer, or any other audiophile, would be satisfied with marginalizing the possibilities that await us in the recording.

Anton, music is an adventure wanting to be explored. It's a variable waiting to be unlocked through tuning. Big difference between standing outside the Ferrari looking in, and driving it. I'm afraid much of this hobby ends up being the reviewer peering through the window, instead of strapping themselves in for the ride sadly.

Michael Green

Anton's picture

"I'm afraid much of this hobby ends up being the reviewer peering through the window, instead of strapping themselves in for the ride sadly."

Not that you could set up a room for one.

You, of all people, who should have been able to make a proper presentation of the music, why blame Jason for hearing what you couldn't accomplish?

Even Howard said it...

"Come on Jason, we know the room was seriously compromised! It was our first show and everything was done last minute."

Michael, if Howard and you couldn't do it, why on earth are you blaming Jason?

More Howard: "...we could not move the dresser!"

What a horror! No way Room Tunes could have ever overcome such an insurmountable obstacle, I guess.

Still, you blame Jason for not coming in and doing your jobs for you?

Then, you doubled down...

"Right about now every Tunee out there is laughing. Why? Because every advanced audiophile on the planet that tunes knows all you had to do is ask to have the system tuned to your taste. Your above comments don't show very much tuning experience and or willingness on your part."

Yeah, seems you and Howard can't either.

Then, Audio narcissus arrives..."My thought is why did you say anything at all? If you don't understand something enough to ask....well doesn't that put you a few steps behind the intellect of the versed Tunee? Or don't you believe in tuning as a music harmonizing method?"

Yeah, it's not the exhibitor's problem, Jason, it's a you problem for not being able to stroll into that hot mess and tune it.

Suggestion for future shows: Tune the room yourselves, since you pretend to be experts at this.

Anton's picture

Howard: "Come on Jason, we know the room was seriously compromised!"

If only some advanced audiophiles had been there to tune it!

Yeah, it's a Jason problem.

I think Jason may have stumbled across a case of audio "cellar palate."

rebbi's picture

Hi, Jason,
I'm so sorry that you couldn't get more of a complete picture of the Spatial Triode Master M3 rig. I am using the M3 Turbo S with an Audio Note Kits 300B SET, but from talking to Clayton Shaw of Spatial, I know that this new model which debuted at Axpona is supposed to be specifically tuned for low power tube amps. Pity that they didn't have a wider variety of music. The M3 Turbo S has no trouble with complex (e.g., orchestral) music, so I'd guess the new model will do well in that regard, as well, but only listening will tell.
Anyway, thanks for the great and very vivid reporting.