CAS 2013 Day One: Scaling the Heights

Far more beckoned on the lobby level, but you can only keep them down on the farm so long. Eventually, the lure of unexplored territory pulled this Cancer crab out of the questionable security of his shell onto the wilds of the Westin's second floor. There I encountered the wildest of them all, Sean Casey (above), spinning platters in the Zu Audio room.

Sean must have been a chameleon in another lifetime, because his Zu Audio loudspeakers, cabling, and other equipment sound radically different each time I encounter them. Three shows ago, they sounded bright and abrasive, like a hybrid between heavy metal, punk, and post-industrial noise. (If there isn't such a thing, there will be soon, and Sean will quickly add it to his amazingly eclectic collection.) Last show, they sounded beautiful on some of the music I love. And here in Millbrae, they transmitted a very listenable albeit decidedly gray-tinged midrange, a toned down and surprisingly dark top, and an exceedingly wide and spacey openness that must be a total trip on psychedelic rock.

In short, Zu's loudspeakers do exactly what any good speaker should: they allow you to hear how the front end of the system conveys and, in this case, colors recordings.

Doing the honors were the Zu Druid Mk.V loudspeakers ($5200/pair), which extend down to 35Hz; Zu/Denon DL-103 Mk.II pickup ($439); Luxman PD444 turntable ($1000); Rega RB-200 arm; K and K To-The-Max phono stage ($1000); Allnic L-5000 preamp (Sean wrote $$$); prototype amp; one Zu Submission active sub ($4000) that came in at 30Hz; and Zu cabling ($2000 total.

The playlist was yummy. First came Mark Lanegan's Blues Funeral, then a cut from Bjork's latest album, and finally, Frank Sinatra. Curiously, Sinatra's recording yielded far more top than the other two discs. The musical juxtapositions left me smiling. They also kept people in the room for cut after cut after cut.

Given that Phasure was one of the show's sponsors, I wish I could describe the sound of Peter Stardiau's Phasure NOS1 asynchronous USB DAC ($5000). I do know that the DAC handles files up to 768/24 without upsampling, is designed to work without a preamp, and uses PCM1704U-K multibit D/A chips. It took advantage of Phasure's XXHighend software, which upsamples to 768/24 and minimizes the Windows 8 to allow the software's proprietary audio engine to take over all cores of the cpu.

The Windows 8 computer used by Phasure for playback involved a Zalman (fan-less) chassis built around Chris Connaker's Zuma design, which includes an Intel multi-core processor, two solid-state drives, and 16GB RAM. Output to the Phasure NOS1 DAC was via an active USB cable provided by Synergistic Research.

But I also know that the Surreal Audio Fifth Row loudspeakers ($25,000/pair), equipped with the ESS Heil tweeters that I've found oppressively bright at other shows, were not only brittle sounding, but also distorting like crazy on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's mezzo-soprano and Syd Barrett's far lower pitched vocals. Yes, you could hear Barrett smoking between phrases, and enjoy the largeness of the soundstage, but not the top end of anything I heard. I'm told that, as the show progressed, the Phasure folks resorted to playing music that concentrated on the lower octaves, where the dynamic capability of the speakers excelled.

Also in the bi-amped chain were a Crown XtI 4002 ($1000) for the bass and Wells Audio Innamorata amp (120W solid-state design) for the mids and tweeter ($6200). Dynastrand and Synergistic cabling and ASC tube traps did what they could.

One of the absolute highlights of CAS was the show premiere of the Wilson Audio Duette Series 2 loudspeakers ($19,500/pair) in the first of three rooms sponsored by Music Lovers Audio of San Francisco. The Duette-Series 2, the first speaker executed by Daryl Wilson, Dave Wilson's outrageously tall son, uses a version of the same tweeter found in the Alexias that John Atkinson is currently reviewing.

It is also an "absolute design" intended for use against a wall boundary. The back inside corner of the loudspeaker, or the stand on which it rests if it's not on a bookshelf, is designed to be backed up to the back wall. It thus differs significantly from its Duette predecessor.

The pair demonstrated by Peter McGrath (left in photo, with yours truly) was brand new. While it was capable of producing astounding depth for a speaker backed against the wall, and fully transmitted the huge grandness of a symphony orchestra or the incomparable warm midrange of dramatic Eileen Farrell's huge voice, its tweeter had not yet settled in. Thus we took advantage of the speaker's adjustability to insert a resistor or resistors that took the tweeter down 1dB. By the following morning, when everything had settled in, highs were smooth and glorious, midrange and bass superb, and everything drenched in natural color. Yummy yummy yummy yummy yummy.

The Duette 2 didn't do it alone. Kudos to Ayre's KX-5 preamplifier (not yet released), VX-5 power amplifier ($7950), and DX-5 A/V Engine ($10,950), as well as to the beautiful Grand Prix Monaco audio racks (approx. $8000) and the Shunyata cabling and power conditioning (models/prices unspecified). I note that a brief listen to LP on the wonderful sounding Aesthetix Rhea Signature phono stage ($7000), AMG Viella 12 turntable with 12/2 tonearm ($16,500), and AMG Reference tonearm cable ($1500) revealed that either the LP or the needle was in need of a serious cleaning.

Photo: Dennis Haines

CAS offered a number of seminars, some organized by Lee Mincy of Phasure. I could attend only the lively, surprisingly early Ask the Editors panel on Saturday, which included, from left to right, Jack Roberts (DaGoGo), Michael Mercer (Positive Feedback Online), yours truly (Stereophile), and Neil Gader (The Absolute Sound). A topic to which we returned multiple times was system set-up and room acoustics first aid.

The Aaudio Imports/Legacy Audio room was one of two I visited at CAS where former negative feelings about a speaker's ability to control bass and sound colorful were completely altered by a radical change to a high quality front end. In this case, the highly efficient Legacy Audio Aeris speaker system with DSP room correction ($18,850/pair) joined forces with Ypsilon's Aelius monoblock amplifiers ($36,000/pair), PST-100 Mk.II tube preamp ($37,000), CDT-100 CD transport/player ($26,000), and DAC-100 Valve DAC ($29,000), whose combined quality showed up Legacy's front ends at several previous shows.

In addition, we had Thales line cables ($2200); three different levels of Stage III Concepts power cables, the most expensive being the Kraken ($8400); Stage III Concepts Mantikor speaker cables ($14,900), an HB Cable Design PowerSlave Marble power distributor ($8995), and Legacy's James Thompson on the controls. All that left Elvis sounding great on "Fever," likewise Eva Cassidy on the overplayed "Fields of Gold." There was some midrange over-emphasis on a track from Rosa Passos and Ron Carter, and the equipment configuration also imposed a distinctly warm, sweeter than neutral color to everything we heard. But the system's lower reach and control of double bass were quite impressive, and its ability to convey great air around cymbals and other instruments gratifying. Bass response on timpani on San Francisco Symphony's recording of Mahler 2 was as fast as the doctor ordered.

MikeMercer's picture

I had a BLAST up there w/ you guys Jason!!

Great times with great friends, music and fine sound.  Yeah, I had a BLAST, especially at the headphone meet and Headmasters!!