CAF2016: Artie's Friday Afternoon

I like the out-of-the-ordinary, possibly because I have been disappointed by the ordinary often enough that I'm not uncomfortable looking elsewhere. So I'll admit up-front that I was predisposed toward enjoying Larsen loudspeakers, from Sweden, which are designed to perform their best, not in an anechoic chamber but in a real room, when positioned up against a real wall. Even that bit of psychological preconditioning didn't prepare me for how impressed I was by the Larsen 8 ($7000/pair), driven by a GamuT Di150 integrated amplifier ($13,990), itself fed by a Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard turntable ($5000 w/tonearm) and an Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge.

On a variety of recordings—the Annie Lennox album Nostalgia, Claudia Gomez's Salamandra, a solo recording by cellist Elinor Frey—this system sounded alive, not with distortion but with the constant flux of tension and release associated with real music. Bass notes, while slightly (and pleasantly) plummy, came across with unusually good momentum and timing. Top-to-bottom tonal balance was just about perfect. Beautifully saturated timbral colors were present and accounted for. Spatial performance, though lacking the abundant sense of "stage" depth prized by some, was characterized by very solid, substantial images. And tactile nuance and force were satisfying. In six words: I could live with this system. In one word: wow.

The inspiration afforded by such a great playback experience sent me scurrying for the nearest record vendor—and I'm happy to report that CAF 2016 had some good ones. Indeed, while visiting the exhibit sponsored by Orto Records, in the Hilton's Plaza Ballroom, I found these two LPs, one of which (Monk's Misterioso) I'd been on the lookout for. While there, proprietor Chris Armbruster told be he was expecting a big delivery of Pablo jazz titles, plus lots more classical LPs; DC-area collectors, consider that a heads-up.

Also present at the Plaza ballroom was Gary Foreman of the Arlington, Virginia LP source Blue Groove Soundz. And wouldn't you know it: when I suggested posing with one or two random titles, one of them was a must-have by the Animals—in mono!

In addition to LP dealers and at least one audiologist (seriously!), the Plaza ballroom at the Rockville Hilton played host to a number of hardware vendors and manufacturers, including HeadAmp Audio Electronics of Charlottesville, Virginia. Among their more popular products—I was told that the company has maintained a wait list for it since its 2004 introduction—is their Blue Hawaii Electrostatic Headphone Amplifier ($6500), whose nominal job is accomplished with four push-pull, direct-coupled EL34 pentodes.

Although MartinLogan has a long history of designing and building electrostatic-dynamic hybrid loudspeakers, their newish Expression ESL 13A (to vintage-audio enthusiasts, that's a little like naming a brand-new car the XKE) seemed to herald a step forward in musical coherence and impact. The 13A mates a 13"-wide electrostatic panel with a pair of powered (300W each) 10" woofers, placed at the enclosure's front and rear in what the company describes as a "PoweredForce Forward" arrangement. Used with an Audio Research Reference 150 power amp and LS 27 line-level preamp and a McIntosh MCD 550 SACD/CD player, the MartinLogans gave a colorful and well-textured account of themselves on a Branford Marsalis recording.

Toward the end of Friday afternoon I visited the room sponsored by Audioism, who describe themselves as the manufacturers of "the world's first tube-powered ribbon loudspeakers." Their calling-card is a 6'-plus-tall quasi-line-source speaker ($5000/pair) that combines a vertical array of small cone drivers with a long ribbon array that's manufactured in the Philippines. Driven by Linear Tube Audio ZOTL10 and ZOTL40 power amplifiers—operated without enclosures—the speakers at first enchanted me with their prodigious bass extension (heard on a track by Adele) and very abundant texture (heard on Pink Floyd's "Breathe"). But apart from those commendable strengths, a considerable amount of bass overhang and unwanted harmonic products became apparent, the latter especially so when playback of the Beatles' "Come Together" exhibited bass notes whose pitches were either indistinct or seemingly unrelated to the intended fundamentals. A promising design, but one that, I dare say, needs more work.

Joe Whip's picture

As well and was very impressed with these speakers. It was a very fine sounding TT as well and sounded as well if not better than all the VPI tables at the show and for a ton less money. While I don't need new 2 channel speakers, the smaller Larsons are on the audition list when I upgrade my HT set up. they also make a center channel speaker as well. I was really impressed with this room. It was my fav of the whole show.

mag33's picture

Hey Art,

Appreciate the post. Unfortunately I was out of town but wanted to go, and am really bummed I didn't get to experience that system you started out describing. Do you know who had the setup and if they are an authorized dealer of the components, particularly Larsen?

Appreciate it!

KLH007's picture

Jose Ramirez is Dr. Vinyl, the DC metro dealer for Larsen, Pear, and Gamut,, 787-525-8119