California Audio Show 2015: Striking Gold on Day 3

How to explain this one? At other shows, the most problematic rooms for an exhibitor to control are usually the large rooms on the ground level, where a combination of air walls, air-conditioning ducts, wall composition, and secrets pacts between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (which, in this case, was literally across the street from the Westin SFO) can defeat any and all attempts at good sound. But at both the California Audio Show and the last T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, most of the big rooms on the ground floor produced excellent sound.

The first additions to a "Best Sound at CAS6" list that already contains Bricasti and Elac/Audio Alchemy came via the two systems demmed at either end of the long AudioVision SF room on the ground floor. At one end of the room, a Bel Canto Black Amplification System ($50,000), reviewed by Michael Fremer in the July issue of Stereophile, kept company with YG Acoustics' Hailey 1.2 loudspeakers ($42,800/pair); Pear Audio's Reference 2-box phono stage ($4495), Kid Thomas turntable with Cornet 2 tonearm and optional external supply ($9995 total) and Charisma Ref MC cartridge ($7900); Antipodes DX 2TS SSD server ($7500); DEQX Premate Plus room/speaker calibrator ($5500); HRS RXR equipment rack ($3895–$5295) with R3X shelves ($1395); and Nordost's Odin 2 speaker cable ($37,999/2M pair), power cables ($16,999/1.25m), what I presume to be Odin 2 interconnects (inadvertently omitted from the handwritten price sheet), and QX4 ($2699), QB8 Mk.II power distributor ($1599), and Qv2s ($349 each).

The first delight arrived via Viktoria Mullova and Katya Labeque's violin/piano recording of Clara Schumann's Romanze for violin and piano, op 22/1: No 1 in D-flat Major. True, the piano's clarity was compromised by the fact that the speakers were far closer to the wall than they would have been had there not been opposing systems in the room competing for limited space, but the violin came through with such realistic clarity, and the overall tonality was so drop dead gorgeous that it was easy to forgive.

Then came Paula Cole's "Sex" and Joe Bonamassa's "High Water." The tonalities were absolutely beautiful—demonstration class—and both snap and bass control were exemplary. Tonal balance, midrange, you name it—everything was ideal. In terms of system synergy, this one had it all.

At a considerably lower price point, the other end of the room showcased two set-ups. The one that, to my ears, produced outstanding sound consisted of a Dynaudio Focus 600 XD 600Wpc active digital loudspeaker system which supplied amplification and digital-to-audio conversion ($13,500/pair), Lyngdorf TDAI 2170 Room Correction integrated amplifier ($4999) used solely as a preamp and for room correction, Atoll ST200 Prestige streamer/preamp/network player with Bluetooth and DAC used solely as a music server ($3150), Atoll DR200 Prestige CD Transport ($1750), Melco N1A 4TB External Music Drive ($2000), Pear Audio Kid Howard w/ Cornet 2 tonearm ($4995 total) and Clearaudio MM cartridge ($900) and Pear Audio Classic phono stage ($1995), Nordost Heimdall 2 and Frey cabling, and HRS RXR equipment rack ($3895–$5295) with R3X shelves ($1395).

Most of my notes were misplaced when the small sheet of paper on which all these components were initially scribbled got lost in the shuffle—an LP of Bettye Lavette sounded fabulous, and everything else I heard on this system impressed similarly. That this was possible through a speaker system that was compromised by its close proximity to other loudspeakers and the wall behind them indicates just how good the Focus 600 XDs are.

In the system in which Dynaudio Focus 340 loudspeakers ($6500/pair) did the honors, the Lyngdorf TDAI 2170 provided amplification, DAC functions and room correction, and the Atoll ST200 was used solely as a server. This system certainly delivered a huge expanse of sound and enviable clarity when the Lyngdorf was engaged, but the corrected sound could not equal what I heard from either Dynaudio's Focus 600 XD speaker/amp/DAC combo or the far costlier YG /Bel Canto Black etc. system on the other side.

Michael Vamos of Audio Skies encountered several obstacles to success in his GamuT room on the lobby level. First of all, the brand new GamuT RS3 loudspeakers in ruby ($19,990/pair) take several hundred hours to open up, and they only had, at the most, 50 hours on them by Sunday afternoon. Then, the air conditioning, which could not be controlled from the room, was so loud than when my Rachel Podger Perla Barocca SACD was playing, delicate passages were literally over-ridden by the din. (In a number of other rooms I visited, I asked if air conditioning could be temporarily turned off.) The only way to listen was to ride the volume control up and down, which defeats the whole point of SACD's dynamic range and a system's ability to replicate same.

John Atkinson has just reviewed the GamuT RS7 floorstanders, and thought highly enough of them to put them on the cover of the September 2015 issue of Stereophile. Because that review is not yet online, this excerpt from the review will have to suffice as a description of what I wish I could have heard: "The RS7 had a very open sound with clean, grain-free highs and a smooth, uncolored balance . . . [It] is indeed a superior-sounding, superbly finished loudspeaker . . . "

While the RS3 offers, of course, less lower extension and weight—it is said to extend down to 34Hz—even at 50 hours it produced a beautiful midrange. That, of course, was due, in no small part, to the rest of the system: GamuT D200i Dual-Mono Power amp ($13,990), GamuT D3i Dual-Mono preamp ($8290), GamuT CD3 CD player ($7990), GamuT Biwire Signature Speaker cables ($4990/3m pair), GamuT Signature interconnects ($2990/unspecified length not supplied), GamuT Signature Power cables ($2990/unspecified length), Pear Audio Blue—Kid Howard/Cornet 2 turntable/tonearm combo ($4995), Pear Audio Blue Reference phono stage (2 Box) ($4495), and Ortofon Cadenza Black MC cartridge ($2729).