California Audio Show: Elite Gold

Yes, boys and girls, there was yet one more distinctly superior system at CAS6. In addition to Bricasti, Elac/Audio Alchemy, and the two systems from AudioVision SF that included a varying combination of Dynaudio/YG Acoustics/Bel Canto Black/Pear Audio/Nordost and more, Michael Woods' Elite Audio Systems of San Francisco Kharma/CH Precision/Viola/Spiral Groove/ Primare/IsoTek and more system blew me away. Adding to his triumph is the fact that, on Thursday evening, a frustrated Michael (pictured on the right next to Kevin Wolff of Vana Ltd. and, on the left, Allen Perkins of Spiral Groove) had told me that he was having a near-impossible time controlling the room.

My first listen to the system, which was headlined by Kharma Elegance dB7 loudspeakers ($25,000/pair), was via a Burmester 151 Music Center ($25,000) connected to a Viola Crescendo preamplifier ($22,000) and Viola Concerto monoblock amplifiers ($44,000/pair). The sound was a little hot for my taste. But when we switched the source to either the CD Precision D1 SACD & CD Drive ($33,975)/CH Precision C1 D/A Controller ($37,750) or the Spiral Groove SG1.2 turntable ($30,000) with Spiral Groove Centroid tonearm ($6000), Ortofon MC Anna cartridge ($8924), and the surprisingly much lower cost Primare R32 phono preamplifier ($1500), the sound was to die for.

On a CD of the Manhattan Jazz Quartet playing "Autumn Leaves"—perfect for the backdrop, you must admit—the trumpet had just the right amount of bite, and everything else sounded, to quote my notes, "just gorgeous, with a warm mellow midrange and great air around instruments. Gets all the tonalities. Best depiction of a horn at the whole damn show. Just perfect."

Then came the beginning of the same Iván Fischer Mahler Symphony 9 SACD that I've written about so many times in this blog that you must think I hear it in my sleep. (I don't; my sleep is far more restful and peaceful than was Mahler during the final period of his life.) The system's midrange was, once again, gorgeous, the bass control and extension superb, the strings maximally liquid, and the soundstage height and width stunning. This system brought out the bass drum that proclaims disaster approximately 6 minutes into the piece better than anything I heard at the show. Not everything on the SACD was perfectly clear, but the overall musical, visceral, and sensual experience was so wonderful that I can only say, in summation, this system delivered what the high-end is all about.

There was more music: the DCC Compact Classics LP reissue of Elvis is Back, which sounded superb; Reiner's The Reiner Sound LP of Ravel's Rapsodie espanole, which sounded maximally atmospheric and inviting; and a track from a Rachelle Ferrell CD that sounded fabulous.

Also doing the honors: a shitload of IsoTek components, headlined by the IsoTek Mosaic Genesis ($11,995) and four different models of power cords (from $2495 to $195 each); other cables from CH Precision, Crystal Cable, Kharma, and ZenSati; and a custom Tonebase rack & amp stands (NFS). Doing the high end proud: Michael Woods of Elite Audio Systems, San Francisco.

The best sound I've ever heard from a Zu system came via the Zu Definition loudspeakers ($12,750/pair), complete with their built-in bottom-firing woofer that can be dialed into the room, and the Whammerdyne 2A3 4wpc amplifier ($14,000). Along with a Rega P6 deck ($1600), vintage Luxman 444 (NFS), Zu/DL-103 pickup ($460), and Jena Labs cables, mellow jazz sounded just as it should, and the treble sizzle on a cut by Rodrigo y Gabriela was more than balanced by a fine midrange and lots of rockin' energy.

In this configuration, Pass Labs XA60.8 monoblocks, which are on deck for review and have been used for some time by John Atkinson, had far more midrange, superior depth, and much less sizzle, but their overall impact was a bit muted for such lively music. That, I might add, is not the case with Pass Labs XA200.8 monoblocks in my reference system, which are mated with different loudspeakers, cabling . . . the whole nine yards.

In a room replete with Audio Reference Technology (A.R.T.) cabling and tuning cones, the company had quite a lot of success with Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers ($40,000/pair) bi-amped with Pass Labs' XA100.5 monoblocks ($16,500/pair) on top and XA200.8 monoblocks ($40,000/pair) on bottom. The preamp was Pass Labs' equally excellent Xs preamp ($38,000). Tonalities were as gorgeous as it gets. If you haven't heard the Pass Labs gear mated with compatible speakers and cabling, which is not always the case at shows, try to find a way to do so.

Nonetheless, while a FIM remastered CD of the Oscar Peterson Trio sounded gorgeous, the speakers simply could not cope with Mahler's Ninth. I know it wasn't the fault of the amps, because I've paired them successfully with Wilson Sashas and, now, Alexias, and Mahler Symphony 9 sounds glorious.

A word about A.R.T. is in order. In addition to A.R.T. cables, whose range in the room extended from the Low Frequency Effect AC/DC XLR ($955) and Super SE XLR interconnects ($5850/1.5m pair) to Monolith SE XLR interconnects ($1900/1.5m pair), the company has sets of Tuning Cones (above), both metal ($2050/set) and Wooden ($600/set). These were used throughout the room to tune and tame the environment. In fact, the company even wheeled in the hotel's grand piano so that its strings provided extra sympathetic resonance. Add them to the list of companies that use hard to comprehend, harder to explain why they work active and passive devices to tune equipment and rooms.

Finally, a regret that I shall repeat in my show wrap: It was only after speaking by phone with Michael Vamos of Audio Skies that I realized that the locked room I skipped on floor 3 was actually populated by Lavish Hi-Fi, Audio Skies, Larsen Speakers, and Pear Audio Blue. It seems that my visit coincided with a temporary absence by Dr. Craig Allison of Lavish Hi-Fi. Either that, or the room was locked because another member of the press was in there. Hence, there is no coverage of either Larsen Speakers or Allison's new Lavish Hi-Fi dealership.

For the record, my own personal policy on locked doors is this: I ask that rooms never be locked when I stop by. Nonetheless, it occasionally happens without my awareness, or against my express wishes. I'm all for closing a door to keep out music from systems blasting across the hall, but locking it is another matter. In fact, when I encounter locked rooms, I walk on by, and rarely if ever return. I find the policy of locking the door for "important" press abhorrent, because it communicates the message that we are somehow more important than folks who pay to get in. And that is certainly not the case.

Anton's picture

That was a great vicarious tour of the show!

I think I am finding "high end" Hi Fi runs about 4-10 times the price I would expect when reading the reports and asking myself what the "value" of a piece of gear would be.

Thank heavens for ELAC, at this point.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

There's actually a lot of lower priced stuff on the market that delivers excellent sound. In the September Stereophile, Michael Lavorgna presents three desktop systems at various price points that may very well work for you. That includes self-powered desktop speakers. Had I the time to visit the Headmasters room, I would have covered a number of headphone amps and cans that, together, may produce supremely musical sound.

Anton's picture

I am with you about lower priced gear being nice. I guess I am simply of an age where I can recall the epitome of Hi Fi was something that could be reached by normal middle class guys. An average income earner used to be able to aspire to the pinnacle of Hi Fi without a Hi Fi rig costing more than the median home price. I admit to being prone to reading "Blah blah blah" after I see a demo system hit the 200K mark.

Oh, well, I got priced out of Burgundy, too.

Cheers, Jason!

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I have never been so bored with hi-fi.

It's all about affluent, aging boomers who refuse to move on. High-end died in the early 1990s, with the shift to digital.

Looked over the list of the show's manufacturers. Nothing. No Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, Wilson Audio, Chesky, or VPI Not even JBL or Shure.

Hang on, Sloopy, hang on. Let's twist again, like we did last summer. I see the boys of summer in their ruin.

TheNoose's picture

I see you are still here commenting, being triggered by others passion and enjoyment and enjoying expressing your boredom in public. So I guess you are not bored enough yet? Ha ha ha.'s picture

Bravo ! Great description on Michaels room. With Kevin and Alan, one has to get awesome tunes !

Keith7'11'15's picture

It is regrettable that I was unaware of the protocols involved.
I simply was on the printed show program to give a talk between 11-12, had no assistance in the room and so had no choice but to lock it. I did leave a note on the door making clear that the room would re-open at a given time. There was no other reviewer. or other inference of any kind being made by the temporary closing of the room. You have made positive comments about the Larsen loudspeakers before, sorry I didn't get a chance to make you smile. But given the paucity of new hi-fi stores, any negative inference of any type seems to me to be singularly unjustified from a wide-angle point of view. I will admit to being somewhat shocked by the exact terms used to describe a protocol about which I know nothing even after 32 years in this business. Better communication sure would have taken care of matters. Thank You for taking this in.

TNtransplant's picture

Hey Jason - thanks for another great show report! Really appreciate your honesty, enthusiasm and passion.

Also applaud you for a very egalitarian and I feel appropriate personal policy towards reviewing. In this case it appears to be a due to unfortunate inopportune timing. However I've often been amazed by, well, a lack of awareness on the part of exhibitors and attendees that having loud ongoing discussions over the music kind of defeats the purpose of the demonstration. And if I'm in a room where press is treated like royalty and I'm a peasant is guaranteed to ensure I will never, ever consider that brand in future.

JCM's picture

Why were the Tannoys bi-amped? The Tannoys are high effiency and supposedly easy to drive?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This question is best addressed by the A.R.T. folks. You can reach them at

Allen Fant's picture

Much Thanks! JVS-

I have been wanting to demo those Kharma loudspeakers for some time

TheNoose's picture

We've just had the largest single loss in one day on the NYSE and here we are celebrating and showcasing so much wonderful hi fi engineering...

This seems topsy turvey, and yes I understand the flow through the system of such perturbations hasn't reached the marketplace and value chains yet...thankfully I say. Since such outrageous effort on such a hobby and business is staggering, and beautiful. Creativity at its best matey's. Who cares what the stock market does, it is just the time to retreat to your favourite source music and genre...and enjoy the moment.
Thanks Melanie Gardot...what a talent, what a story. Hardship has its rewards.