CAS Day Two: The High and the Mighty

I've previously praised EnigmAcoustics' Sopranino self-polarizing electrostatic supertweeter ($3690/pair), which I first encountered at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach. The Sopranino claims a flat response to beyond 40kHz and fully passive operation without the need of external bias.

Here I heard a pair of Sopraninos in two different configurations. The first was atop EnigmAcoustics M1 loudspeakers ($14,900/pair). Paired with Ayre's V5-XE amplifier and K5-XE preamp, a Mac Mini as source, and Cardas' Golden Cross speaker cables, Clear balanced interconnects, and USB cable, the system produced a very warm, smooth, and listenable presentation of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter playing the well-worn Carmen Fantasie, albeit one that lacked midrange heft and soundstage depth. Depth and air improved on Mahler's Symphony 3, conducted by Pierre Boulez, but the system's overarching sweetness and lack of midrange were not to my taste.

Across the hall, the second, far more successful demo perched the Sopranino atop Magico V3 loudspeakers. (The Sopranino's attenuation is adjustable to accommodate a range of loudspeakers). As much as the Magico has been praised, it sounded somewhat flat and uninvolving without the Sopranino. I was tempted to ask if this was solely because of the Sopranino's magic, or because there also a careful choice of cabling and electronics that emphasized the differences when the supertweeter was switched in and out. But then I looked at the equipment—a Mac mini running Amarra, dCS P8i SACD player, Light Harmonic Da Vinci DAC, Lindemann 832 preamplifier, Pass Labs XA60.5 amplifier, Cardas Clear Beyond speaker cable and interconnects, and, between the Sopranino and Magico V3, MIT StyleLine SL12—and was tempted to conclude that the Sopranino is probably as good as it sounds. All I know for certain is that, with the Sopranino switched in, the soundstage grew larger and higher, and music became far more vivid and filled with life. Very impressive.

I was so happy to see one of the high-ends true gentlemen, Julián Margules, and enjoy his all-Margules system: Margules Orpheus loudspeaker ($7900/pair), Margules SW-3 active subwoofer ($1,150), Margules U280sc stereo tube amplifier ($3,900), Margules SF220r stereo tube preamplifier ($3,000), Margules ADE-24.1 Analog Digital Enhancer (claimed to remove odd-order harmonics) ($275), and Margules TT-100 turntable ($2,500). On Mahler's Symphony 1, conducted by Ivan Fischer (Channel Classics SACD), the system beautifully conveyed the breadth of the orchestra, if not the sheer weight of the instruments.

Granted, the system was exceedingly warm, rather than neutral sounding. But dynamics were excellent, and the system conveyed the glories of soprano voices with absolutely no distortion.

Most important to me, despite the sweetness, this system got to the heart of the music more than 9/10 of the systems I heard at CAS. When I heard Beverly Sills sing the great aria from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, her voice was so clear, the communication so intimate, and her emotions so real that it was all I could do to not break down and cry like a baby. Brava, Bubbles, and bravo, Julián.

IMG_0027 YFS Jolida.jpg A major debut took place at CAS, the first showing ever of Endeavor Audio Engineering's E-3 speaker system ($5995/pair). With a frequency response of 32Hz–22kHZ ±2dB, a 4 ohm impedance, and 88dB sensitivity, the 82 lb loudspeaker, hand-built in Corona, CA, was part of a system that produced excellent tonality, bass and midrange, with realistic timbres and impressive percussive slam. On Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, conducted by Eiji Oue (Reference Recordings), all that the system wanted to elevate it to reference quality status was more air.

This was also my first listen (or so I think) to Jolida's 1000RC integrated amp ($2699) and upgraded Fusion DAC/transport ($3500). Paired with the YFS (Your Final System) HD. REF-3 SE music server transport system ($15,500)—the lengthy name of the component must be worth $10,000 all by itself—which includes a 22" touch-screen monitor with 10.1" tablet for remote control; YFS "Split" Reference USB cable ($475), and YFS PS-5 linear DC power supply for the USB ($900), the musicality and timbral neutrality of this combo made me wish that I could have lingered far longer than I did.

It was so dark in MIT's room that I had to ask Steve Holt to bring the sole equipment list outside to take a shot. Inside, the company debuted its new StyleLine Series (Styline 12 speaker cable, $1200/8 ft. pair; StyleLine 6 interconnects, $500/1m pair), which made very fine sound with Spendor SP 1/2R2 loudspeakers; Bel Canto's DAC2.5 DAC Control Center, REF 500s stereo amplifier, and CD3i CD transport, the latter connected by a renegade MIT Oracle MA-X digital interconnect. Digital playback was via a PC running JRiver Media Center, connected by an MIT StyleLink Digital Plus USB cable, and power filtering courtesy of an MIT Z-Strip.

I can't remember whom I encountered in the hallway who couldn't believe how good Napa Acoustic's largest system sounded for the price, but I second the motion. Manufactured in China, which accounts for the pricing, Napa Acoustic's MT-34 tube amp ($1199), BOW-A2 tower loudspeakers ($2299/pair), NA-3900 Audio power conditioner ($239), and speaker cable ($239), along with entry-level JIB-USA interconnects and stock power cables, did a wonderful job conveying the bass on Patricia Barber's Smash (Mobile Fidelity SACD).

"Slightly warm, great sound," I wrote in my notes of a system far larger than that usually shown with Napa Acoustic's adorable little components. It boggles the mind that, save for the JIB-USA interconnects, the entire system was available at CAS for the special show price of $3060.

Quite a crowd gathered for Saturday's 2pm, hour-long, unamplified performance by a trio of musicians from the San Francisco Symphony. As the clock reached 2, and perhaps a bit beyond, anticipation grew amongst the musicians themselves until, at the last possible moment, violinist David Chernyavsky showed up to join cellist Jill Rachuy Brindel and violist Victor Romasevich for music by Beethoven, Mozart, Taneyev, and Dohnányi.

There was a bit of laughter as host Constantine Soo tried every light switch in the room in an attempt to shine more light on the musicians' scores. Eventually, they resorted to good old-fashioned squinting as their musicianship illuminated the music. As at the unamplified jazz duo performance in the Blue Coast Records room, what struck me the most is how difficult it is for microphones, mastering engineers, and components to capture and transmit the warmth and fullness of an acoustic instrument's midrange while at the same time not overemphasizing the leading treble edge of the tone or adding artificial, syrupy sweetness. That exceedingly smooth, somewhat gray midrange that many manufacturers of both tube and solid-state gear attempt to pass off as "musical truth" is anything but.

Operapug's picture

I completely agree with your comments on the Margules room. Julian was gracious enough to let me listen to a disc that I brought of a 1975 French radio broadcast. I have never heard that disc sound better than on his equipment. The Mcintosh solid state gear will be moving out of the house and the Margules tube pieces will be moving in. I think this is going to be the exit system.