CAS 3: Coming Home

You can interpret the title of this blog in many ways. Speaking personally as a Bay Area resident, it means coming into the home stretch of the California Audio Show knowing that there are a host of dealers, distributors, and manufacturers in Northern California who are in love with music and dedicated to high quality music reproduction. It also means, in the literal sense, that CAS 3 included a number of systems that got to the heart of music reproduction.

One of those was Bob Hodas' room. Shown in part with recording, mixing, and mastering engineer Piper Payne, who also works with the Tape Project, Michael Romanowski Mastering, and Sonic Studio (the Amarra folks), Bob's room featured Focal Scala Utopia loudspeakers ($32,500/pair) with Sound Anchor speaker stands ($1,200), VTL 450 Signature Series III monoblocks ($18,000/pair), VTL 6.5 Signature Line preamp ($11,500), Tape Project 1/2" tapes & player, Electrocompaniet DVD player ($3995), Ground 1 Torus power conditioner {$5,000), Tara Labs Onyx interconnects and speaker cables ($20,000 total), RPG Harmonix K diffusors ($1200), Finite Elemente Signature E14 Maple equipment rack ($4,000), Bob Hodas Custom isolation wall (behind the speakers) built by Wall covering designs, and Ikea rugs and coat rack for first order reflections ($200).

After visiting a host of rooms that managed to seduce or at least beguile in one manner or another, but never presented anything close to the total gestalt of live music experience (whether acoustic or amplified), it was refreshing to discover in both this room and that of its Zesto/Wywires /TAD neighbor very straight ahead, honest, full-range sound that was impeccably controlled from top to bottom. With Focal Scala Utopias elevated on stands to decouple them from the floor and make their immediacy available to a room filled with audiophiles, a tape of Rimsky-Korsakov's Dance of the Tumblers from Reference Recordings' Exotic Dances at the Opera sounded right on. The midrange in Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane's "Why Was I Born" was just gorgeous. Sax and cymbals were a triumph on this system. It certainly impressed the San Francisco Symphony's recording engineer and producer, Jack Vad, who sent me an email calling the sound of Neil Young and Crazy Horse on this system "pretty transporting."

You already know that I was won over by the honest, straight ahead sound of this system. You can consider me sold on the Zesto Audio Andros PS1 vacuum tube phono stage ($3900) and Zesto Audio Vacuum tube Leto preamp ($7500), which I find manage to add bloom to the sound without skewing it too far in the direction of sweet, sweet, sweet. (Who wants Shostakovich to sound sweet?). Ditto for the TAD CR1 loudspeakers ($42,000/pair) on TAD speaker stands ($3600/set). All this works very well with the Merrill Williams Audio REAL 101 turntable ($7200) with Tri-Planar tonearm ($5800) and Dynavector XX2 MKII cartridge ($1985), Lindemann DAC 24/192 ($1099), Lenovo PC running J River 17 ($49.95), GamuT D200 power amp ($6000), and, for the sake of brevity, a host of what I discover to be very good sound WyWires cabling (approx. $7500 total) that was responsible for delivering all this good sound in so clear a manner. Oh, and a Steve Blinn Designs reference equipment rack ($1899) and Acoustimac Acoustic treatments.

"A violin that sounds more like a violin than in most rooms," I wrote. "Gets the harmonics. I love the inner warmth to the sound." The system may not have conveyed the full weight of cellos and basses, but it had one of the most neutral and pleasing tops of any system I heard at CAS3. I felt like leaving this room was an act of defilement. Lord, forgive me my sins; I have more rooms to cover.

I really enjoy the warm, smooth, clean and extremely seductive sound of Von Gaylord electronics. This system got all the depth and air around baritone Matthias Goerne's voice, and sounded great on the Holly Cole Trio's rendition of "Tennessee Waltz."

Doing the honors were Von Gaylord's UNI 180 watt triode mono amps ($16,995/pair), UNI preamp with separate class-A power supply ($15,995), UNI DAC ($12,995), Return of the Legend loudspeaker ($12,995/pair plus stand ($850), Live Performance line conditioner ($4995), and proprietary cabling.

Brady and Brett Bargenquast never expected to barge into the audiophile market, but once Stereophile got wind of how good what are now called the A5+ ($399/pair) and A2 ($199/pair) self-powered speakers sound, they were on their way. Central to their current line of diminutive products that make owners of desktop computer audio music systems very happy campers are the Audioengine D1 24-Bit DAC ($169), which can send audio through USB or optical, and D2 24-bit wireless DAC ($599), which can stream music from a computer to music system independent of your wi-fi network. We use the original A5s on one of our two old-fashioned, cable-less, hardly-state-of-the-art TVs.

Now here's an interesting one. Burwell & Sons, Gordon and Gordon, who work as electrical contractors in San Mateo, have taken the same vintage Altec 15" woofers and compression horn drivers that Art Dudley recently wrote up, placed them in one-of-a-kind English Walnut enclosures handmade from wood sourced in CA's Central Valley, and bundled the pair of Homage Series loudspeakers for a collectible $80,000. This particular pair's woofers came from the Fairmont Hotel, where they were in use 60 years ago, and were built in California. If you're looking for a rich midrange, you're not into roll your own, and your pockets are already fleshed out, give 'em a listen.

Why is Marc Silver of Soundscape AV in Santa Rosa, CA smiling? Besides the fact that he had a good night's sleep on the camping pad I loaned him, and he just finished kibitzing with a landsman, he's debuting the MartinLogan Motion 20 loudspeakers ($1500/pair).

"They only have 21 hours of break-in," he explained. "Believe me, they sound much better today than on the first day."

No, they weren't ready for a full evaluation, but they already showed a lot of beautiful warmth, if not yet the sweetness of their smaller, broken-in companions, the MartinLogan LX-16 ($800). They could also handle Taiko drums whamming away. I have a feeling they're soon to get a host of favorable reviews.

Completing the chain were the Vincent K035 integrated amp ($3500) and C035 tube CD player ($2300), Martin Vision Sound Bar ($1500) and Dynamo 700 10" sub ($700), all wired with excellent full-range Nordost Tyr 2 cabling.

Southern California interlopers Angel City Audio, distributors of Melody Audio products in the U.S., were showing Melody's Onix XCD-50 CD player ($3799), P2688 preamp ($6999) and M845 21W class-A amplifier ($5899), coupled with the Spiritual Audio VX-12 power conditioner ($9995), Angel City Audio Trinity loudspeakers ($2799/pair), and WyWires Silver Series interconnects and Blue Series speaker cables. The sound was sweet, sweet, sweet and, without any room treatment, a bit out of control in the bass.

Here we have the yin. . .

. . . and the yang of show's end. If I had to rely on Peter Mc Grath for these sublime photos of Jay Wheeler and one of his Music Lovers Audio accomplices breaking down [in] the Wilson Audio Room, or the exhausted Bea Lam of VTL smiling graciously as she packs her LPs and prepares to send her spouse Luke Manley off to the Hong Kong show, it's because I, having helped blow one of the Magico Q1's woofers close to closing hour, was thinking more about how I could exit graciously with my ass intact than what photo I might take to finish this blog.

The fact that, when in a pinch, I can rely on photos taken by others reflects one of the key aspects of the California Audio Show's success. The Crowne Plaza Burlingame's luncheon buffet and parking may be over-priced, and many of the large ground floor rooms acoustic quicksand, but the feeling in this relatively small hotel is extremely warm and inviting. I don't think JA wants to hear the name of a certain audio society that derives its name from the Bay Area one more time, but the presence of so many BAAS members who know each other, and a Hospitality Suite to hang out and kibbitz in, definitely helped warm the rooms and hallways of the Crowne Plaza. Plus, "local dealer" in the Bay Area means something very different from "local dealer" in Southern California or the Big Apple. People are far more loco than local in those places. (Hey, I was born in Manhattan and raised on Long Island, so I can say it.) Here we actually talk to each other rather than spending the days of our lives figuring out how to best compete and undercut the competition.

Some stats. Based on advance and at-the-door ticket sales, and the number of directories and lanyards distributed, Constantine Soo conservatively estimates 1100 attendees on Day 1, 1975 on Day 2, and 725 on Day 3. That's pretty healthy attendance for a small show. ("On the last day's attendee count, I have actually given a lower number to you than we estimate," he wrote by email. "We had 600 lanyards left on Sunday out of 2500, and my staff told me they were gone by 3. We had 900 directories left at the start of the day, and they were gone, too.")

I've had no time to poll industry folks—everything you read in these blogs, and every picture you see, was prepared in two days' time—but it's hard to imagine that exhibitors who really devoted time and energy to set-up did not depart with a sense of satisfaction in having made, at the least, a host of new contacts.

Those who have read these blogs already know my favorite rooms. Best of Show, hands down, goes to the Music Lovers Audio room with the Wilson Audio Alexandria XLFs, VTL electronics, Tape Project, AMG Viella, Clearaudio, dCS, Transparent, and other products. Runners up, in no particular order, include mbl; Constellation—Magico; Bob Hodas' magic way with Focal, VTL, Tape Project and Electrocompaniet sources, etc; and the room with Zesto, TAD, WyWires, Lindemann, and a whole lot more. (Those last two rooms are described above). Several other rooms showed potential to qualify for one of best of show had everything been broken in. I think in particular of Tone of Music's showing of Franco Serblin loudspeakers with Simon Yorke, CAT, and Air Tight gear.

If there's anything or anyone I've short-changed, it's the cable companies. For several years at CES, I was assigned coverage of cables, power products, and tweaks precisely because I've experienced first-hand how important they are. To be honest, with my right forearm currently aching from two days of non-stop blogging, there were simply too many models and prices to write down without pain. Shoot me if you will—wait, I live in America, where much too much of that goes on—better to say dismiss me if you will, but I consider cables, power products, and room tuning "accessories" as important as anything else in the component chain.

Audio shows are exhausting. But they are also a joy. Every time I walk among friends, and discover new music in room after room, I feel blessed. To be able to share this sense of discovery with you is an honor and privilege. May these show blogs help you find the right components and music, so that you too find in high-end audio a source of joy and spiritual renewal.

Hope to see you at the ever-wonderful Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and to again share my thoughts with you online. Until then, may your life be filled with music.

Jason Victor Serinus
Alive and well in Oakland, CA