California Audio Show 2015: Day One Continued

The California Audio Show may be for consumers, and the Consumer Electronics Show for members of the industry, but they have one thing in common: the venues in which they display high-end gear, the Westin SFO and Venetian Las Vegas, share a similar upper floor layout where corridors fan out from a central area near the elevators. But there, the similarities end. Because at CES, where displays are identified by identically sized signs in long corridors that seem to stretch down three very long roads, only to terminate at some unholy confluence between Infinite Bliss and the dreaded Black Hole, at CAS, corridors are shorter, signs are individuated and far more distinctive, and there is always the sense of light at the end of the tunnel.

One of those tunnels led me to one of the highlights of Day One at CAS, the room put together by Bricasti. The opening track in Brian Zolner of Bricasti's sensational salvo may have been drawn from, God help us, the soundtrack to Alien 3, but the midrange was gorgeous, and the dynamic range immense. Simply immense. This Bricasti and friends system exhibited the largest dynamic range sweeps of any system I recall hearing in a standard-size hotel room.

Equally impressive was some of the finest and best-controlled low bass I've ever encountered at an exhibit that didn't use a subwoofer. Combined with the system's beautiful warmth, the set-up delivered an all-encompassing musical experience.

In a very happy act of synchronicity, Zolner and Damon Gramont had in their music library DSD files of the same Channel Classics DSD-native recordings of Mahler's Symphonies 2 and 9 that I bring to shows and use to fine-tune my systems at home. I marveled at how well Zolner and Gramont's system conveyed the bass foundation of both symphonies with impressive weight and solidity. Perhaps the upper bass/lower midrange was a bit over-emphasized, and the highs just a bit toned down for listenability in such a small environment, but the overall experience was world class. I loved it.

At the end of our shared listening session, Zolner allowed me to compare the edited, DSD to PCM to DSD mix of Mahler Symphony 9 that is available on SACD and via download, to the unedited, pure DSD master file that Channel Classics Jared Sacks gave him. The difference in you-are-there realism was enormous. On the master, instead of the slightly zingy edge I always associate with the violins of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, I heard beautifully silky and much fuller strings. The entire presentation, from double bass and timpani on up, was far more open, airy, weighty, and truer-to-life. The master DSD experience was a bit like listening to one of the Direct-to-Disc Sheffield recordings of old. Pure DSD, boys and girls, is something else.

Doing the honors were Bricasti's M1 digital-to-analog convertor, gold-plated edition ($15,000—the handsome black price is $8995) and M28 monoblock amplifiers ($30,000/pair), Tidal Piano Diacera speakers ($35,000/pair), Silver Circle Audio Tchaik6 power conditioner ($10,000), Reference Laboratory cables, Oyaida Tunami V2 power cables, 8x Stillpoints Ultra 5 on the Piano Diacera speakers, 3x Stillpoints Ultra SS on the laptop, and 8x ASC TubeTraps. It's a system that I hope every visitor to CAS gets to hear.

On to Voss Audio. While I must acknowledge that the notes scribbled into my notebook by John Dormandy, owner of Voss Audio, have left me wishing that coherence consistently extended beyond the realm of the sonic, what I have managed to piece together, hopefully correctly, is that Voss Audio's 170Wpc solid-state amplifier employs a "new technology" that achieves "ultra high-linearity" with "unmeasurable" (less than 0.0002%) distortion, as well as a perfect squarewave response past 500kHz. Boards are aerospace-grade ceramic-impregnated Teflon, which reportedly evens out losses, and contain pure copper traces.

While a prototype of the amp was shown at Newport 2014, CAS marks its first official showing. Production units should be ready in two or so months, with dealers projected for Northern and Southern California. The price will be in the $30,000 range.

Paired with Audio Note AN/E copper speakers, Music First Step-up and Baby Reference preamp, and a Triangle ART Symphony turntable with Osiris tonearm and Triangle Art Apollo cartridge, the system sounded exceptionally liquid and smooth on a rendition of the ballet music from Gounod's Faust. Similarly, Mel Tormé's voice sounded maximally lovely and smooth. There wasn't much depth to be heard, but that may have been due to the set-up. "Simply lovely" appears over and over again in my notes. I believe a supertweeter has since been appended to the speakers.

Serene Audio of Vancouver, whose email address begins with "HappyToHelp," displayed its intriguingly shaped Talisman self-powered desktop loudspeakers ($395/pair including shipping). Engineer/designer Sia Rezari reports that he began his company in 2010, and launched the speaker in 2011. As someone who has been designing speakers since he was 13, he has continually improved his little babies while retaining the original look.

At their first audio show showing anywhere on Planet Earth, the speakers streamed the highest quality Spotify can offer in a most seductive manner. The Talisman's unique and expensive drivers, manufactured in China, include a "really big" magnet with under-hung (short) voice coil. This is said to increase linearity and "drastically" reduce distortion. The brochure claims a frequency response of 65Hz–20kHz ±3dB, and includes a 3.5mm input and 3.5mm headphone output, plus an RCA subwoofer output with internal crossover at 120Hz. Headphone amplification is via a 130mW, class-A/B amplifier. Sales are via the Web.

The day after Richard Schram of Parasound told me that he will include Bybee Rails in his next product from designer John Curl, I ate lunch with Jack Bybee (right) and his nephew Marc Stambuk (left), as well as Curl and two other renegades not included in the photo. Bybee, now 85, was eager to discuss his latest product, the Room Neutralizer.

When Jack said, "This concept is so outside the box that it's hard to understand," he wasn't kidding. While a pending patent prevented him from spilling the beans, he likened the technology to Spintronics and what the Neutralizers do to the effect MRI has on your body. "We do essentially the same thing but in the atmosphere in your listening room," he said. "Air molecules are a barrier to sound waves, and inhibit their free travel from speaker to your ears. The Room Neutralizers, which are activated by the electromagnetic waves of your amplifier, allow sound waves to travel without impedance or attenuation. They keep sound in phase as it travels far from the speakers, and prevent high frequency roll off. Stein Harmonizers essentially do the same thing but on a much smaller scale. They activate crystals. My technology does not use crystals, and affects primarily nitrogen, which accounts for 78% of the atmosphere. The Neutralizers also affect oxygen via hydrogen."

What can I say? Well, this much. Jack sent me some Neutralizers a few weeks back to play with. While they're hardly a fashion statement, when I taped them up in our purpose-built music room using blue painter's tape, they did seem to create an even more boundary-less presentation than I had already achieved via devices from Holger Stein and Kerem Ku&231;ukaslan. I didn't get to spend a whole lot of time with them, in part because the tape would hold them up only so long before they'd fall to the floor. Once I find the optimal position for each of the eight devices you hang in the room, I'm going to paint them before affixing them to the walls to avoid a major Spouse Acceptance Factor (SAF) issue.

Lone Mountain Audio and AcousticFrontiers exhibited a mid-price system that included the Aurender N100H 2TB music server w/Tidal integration ($2699), DEQX PreMate speaker/room corrector and digital preamp ($4999), ATC P1 dual-mono 150Wpc power amp ($3599), ATC SCM40v2 loudspeakers ($6999/pair), JL Audio E112 subwoofer ($1899), Torus Power RM15 isolation transformer/power conditioner ($2199), and Wireworld cabling ($1599 total). Listening to Terry Evans singing "Down in Mississippi," streamed via Tidal, I heard very clear and clean sound with most impressive, absolutely tight bass. Low frequencies especially excelled, but the overall presentation lacked the expansive, warm, and naturally unbloated midrange that invariably floats my boat.

Regardless, the system's clarity and enviable control left me eager to explore what a Torus Power unit would sound like in my own system. The incentive that I could plug it into the wall via a stock power cord (of the same gauge as the Nordost Odin 2 power cords I'm now using) without loss of sound quality left me especially enthused.

When I entered the room co-sponsored by Stockton-based dealer Syncopation and Profundo imports, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and their equally exemplary cohorts were holding forth on a track from their 1978 LP Yessir, That's My Baby. I don't have any other way to readily describe what I heard other than strange, old-fashioned sound. Ditto to the sound of violinist Nathan Milstein playing I forget what on an LP conducted by William Steinberg.

Switching to digital, the midrange of the CD layer on Channel Classics' superb SACD of Ivan Fischer conducting Mahler Symphony 9 was quite beautiful, but the sound seemed rolled-off on top, with a somewhat gauzy quality and slight buzz/edge to the truncated highs. It's essential to note that there was an infernal electronic hum coming from beneath us that I heard in no other room, and that may have been interfering with the electronics. Here's hoping the hotel was notified and the hum addressed, because it really was awful.

Playing were Viva Audio's Numerico DAC/transport ($12,800), Basis Audio 2200 table/SA9 Superarm (price not supplied) and Transfiguration Proteus cartridge ($6000), Viva Audio's Fono phonostage ($17,000) and Solista Mk.3 integrated amplifier ($18,500), Trenner & Friedl Pharoah 2-way loudspeaker ($13,000/pair), Cardas Clear cabling, and Genesis power cords.

The same exhibitors also showed a much smaller system with loudspeaker and headphone components. Despite the fact that the Trenner & Friedl Sun micro-monitor loudspeakers (Edit: $2995/pair) were brand new, and the Heed Audio Elixir integrated amplifier ($1195) had only been unpacked the day before, the system had a most lovely midrange that made me wish that I could have lingered longer. But that would have meant more time with that hum.

How great to reconnect with the entire Audioengine crew, including the ever-refreshing David Solomon (formerly of Tidal and Peachtree). Quite impressive, especially for a system whose Audioengine A5+ self-powered loudspeakers cost $399/pair, was the engaging sound of full CD quality sent over Bluetooth using an Android tablet with aptX. Even the sound through the considerably smaller Audioengine A2+ loudspeakers ($189/pair), which I once used at a potluck to replace a DJ's ear-burning portable loudspeaker setup, was enticingly warm.

"We have something new coming in October for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest," the forever understated, normally sedate Solomon declared. "It's the greatest things Audioengine has ever done!!!" Chimed in Brett Bargenquast, who even managed a half smile, "It's gonna be awesome!" Add several more exclamation points, and you begin to get the drift.

CarterBro's picture has the channel classics Mahler 9 and supposedly they don't accept DSD converted to PCM. Any idea if their version is the same as the version you heard at the show?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

DSD must be converted to PCM (DXD) during editing. Period. That's how it must be done. Channel Classics reportedly does it in a way that involves minimal degradation, if you wish to use that term. But the differences were clearly audible.

John Atkinson's picture
Jason Victor Serinus wrote:
DSD must be converted to PCM (DXD) during editing. Period. That's how it must be done.

The Pyramix system converts to DXD (24-bit/384kHz) just for the duration of the crossfades, then transcodes those crossfades back to DSD, leaving 99.99% of the file as untouched, pure DSD.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

As much as I'm sure that you are correct, John, I want to assure everyone that the sonic differences between the two files are far more than .01%. Maybe Jared Sacks can chime in about this at a later date. I'll write him now.

tailspn's picture

Double post

tailspn's picture
tailspn's picture

The Mahler 9 clip provided to Brian for equipment demonstration and product testing was a raw DSD session take. Like all Channel Classics projects, it was analog mixed into stereo, recorded in 64fs DSD using the Grimm AD1 A/D converter, along with every microphone also individually recorded as well. It's the same as the session recordings provided freely at under the Just Listen label.

A complex multi mic'ed orchestra recording is different than a small ensemble music project, and typically involves greater post processing to satisfy the producer and conductor for music content release. That may include re-balancing orchestra sections to meet the conductor's/producer's vision of the work. As John Atkinson pointed out above, the many edits common to all recording only involve transferring to DXD for the crossfade interval. But a re-balancing if required, affects the entire period of time where performed with a one time DSD > DXD > DSD conversion.

On the other hand, solo and small ensemble recordings, the majority of Channel Classics catalog, are only edited as John described.

The consumer side of DSD has advanced much faster and further than the available professional DSD recording tools and products. Sonoma (Sony), the now defunct Genex, as well as SADiE (Digital Audio Workstations) all made DSD mixing tools eliminating the need for PCM conversions for DSD post processing. At the time, there just wasn't sufficient interest to mature and grow those products. As the demand for DSD recordings increases, we all trust the investment will be made for the appropriate DSD mixing and processing tools. In the meantime there's a wealth of DSD recorded and minimally processed music available, and more coming. It's all dependent on demand.

Jason, the fact that you could distinguish a sound quality difference between the release BFO Mahler 9 and the session take, points out not only the benefits of DSD, but the room we have to yet advance in music reproduction delivery.

audio33's picture

"Trenner & Friedl Sun micro-monitor loudspeakers ($299/pair)"

I'll take 10 pair at that price. Thanks!

I think you're missing a zero.

I've heard these and they did sound extremely good.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

That's the price on their handout sheet. We only do what we are told. We are good. Or at least we try to be. We are so good that I just called Bob Clarke of Profundo. The price should be $2995/pair. He had no idea that he had made a typo.

Bob also says that the room came alive on Saturday. If I finish covering all the other rooms, I'll try to return. But, to be honest, the chances of that happening are very, very small.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Bybee says "Air molecules are a barrier to sound waves, and inhibit their free travel from speaker to your ears."
My understanding is that air molecules are the vehicle of sound waves. Has mechanics changed so much from my college days?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

More to come on this score, I hope.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Truth be told, Jack Bybee never expected that I would write a blog. We ate a quick lunch together because we enjoy each other's company. My blog proposal came only at the end of our meal, when I asked him and his nephew to pose for me in a hallway. But since I did write the blog, and Kal raises a legitimate question, I include Jack's reply There are only slight edits for the inevitable typos that come with the email process:

Air is stiff and resistive. The RNs (Resonators) make the air more compliant (less stiff) and active.

I fully appreciate that many individuals do not fully understand how air affects the transmission of sound waves. My technology makes use of the listening room atmosphere to allow the music signal to propagate without serious attenuation. An example would be: A conductor of an orchestra hears the music being played without much attenuation; the patrons seated in the rear of the hall hear the same music, but it sounds difference because the higher frequencies are attenuated and phase shifting has been introduced.

The concept of making the atmosphere (nitrogen gas in particular) more active, which results in better transmission of the music signal, is foreign to most people and way outside the box. I have been developing this technology for over three years, and it is still in the early stages. It was my experience utilizing the Stein Music Harmonizers that got me started on investigating the role that atmospheric gases have to do with music signal transmission.

The very first step was to determine the resonance frequency of the nitrogen gas (everything has a natural frequency resonance). The second step was to find or develop a material that, when activated, would oscillate at that frequency. The third step was how to activate that material without using a massive amount of outside energy. All the rest of this story involves the C13 carbon atom and Spintronics alignment of protons etc. and shall remain a secret. The Room Neutralizers technology is a hard concept to accept, and really must be experienced to be believed and appreciated.

Jack Bybee

Kal Rubinson's picture

I cannot say that I can follow or understand all of what Jack is describing. However, it seems that the original statement attributed to him was misleading since he is not saying that air, per se, is a "barrier" to be eliminated. He appears to be dealing with ways to effect the organization of the air molecules improve/enhance their transmission of sound.

bclarke3's picture

First, thanks to Jason for putting up with whatever that humming sound was, that was emenating from below. Second, thanks for the phone call this morning alerting me to the typo on the system list I gave him. Apologies, but shows always call for late nights and early mornings and my eyes apparently failed me while proofreading standing there at the office depot... Jason's description of the sound when he was in the room was on the money. Unfortunately, with the gear and cables we use, it takes at least a couple of days for everything to settle down, clarify and open up, so the first day is always one of waiting and just dealing with the non-linearities, dynamic flatness and lack of focus. Saturday, after two days of settling in, things clarified, smoothed out and came to life dynamically. In fact, it might have been the best sound I have ever been able to achieve under show conditions. It was a lot of fun for all of us. Hoping Jason can make it back, but realize how hard it is to cover everything...late nights, early mornings...

Tomtin's picture

Jason: Thanks for your comment re: Bricasti, which I have no relationship to ( and don't own). I think they are good, and whether intentional or not, it was nice to see you side step or make up for that fiasco by MF and followup by JA.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Bricasti was one of the four best sounding rooms at the show. Plain and simple. If it hadn't been, I would have said that. But beyond all that, thank you for your post, and for your enthusiasm.

Okay. Having now said that there were four standout rooms at the show, I realize that some readers are going to wonder, what are the other two rooms. So far, I've only indicated Bricasti and Elac/Audio Alchemy. More to come, boys and girls, more to come...

Audioengine Dave's picture

Jason, You must be the hardest working reviewer in show biz. Thanks for stopping by. Good seeing you as always and great show coverage in general.