Herb's Third Report from CAF

Throughout the 1990s, whilst I imported Audio Note products from the UK and Japan (now called Kondo), I longed to simplify my life and add more Zen to my lifestyle: I just wanted to import high quality tube-amp kits from Asia and Europe. But alas, the Great Force had other plans for me.

When I walked into the VK Music room, I was jealous and embarrassed. I was jealous, because obviously VK Music's Victor Kung was doing something I admire; I was simultaneously embarrassed that I had never heard of his British Columbia-based operation. Not only that, I was jealous because his TU-8600 single-ended 300B stereo amplifier kit ($1185 w/o tubes) looked even better than the ones I imagined importing.

I auditioned the TU-8600 with the $585 Lundahl transformer upgrade. It was driving the German made AER BD-1 full-range drivers ($5000/pair); mounted on custom transparent open baffles (NP) and sourced by a Kazutoshi Tsukahara-designed Sparkler Audio model S503 "Spiral" CD player/transport ($1750).

My jealousy amped up even further as I let out my breath and enjoyed the vividness and (no pun) transparency of "Waltz For Debbie" by Diana Panton. I asked the guy sitting next to me what he thought. He said he was totally impressed, but pointed out that the AER speakers were rolling off very quickly below 200Hz. I agreed, but reminded him that these full-range drivers appeared to reach cleanly and beautifully into that rarified 10–20kHz octave that most full-range drivers only speculate on.

Overall, this was a truly impressive Zen-type system; maybe only a subwoofer shy of greatness.

I always become anxious when I sit through one of Ted Denney's 15-minute Synergistic Research demonstrations. It is not that the sound is not good. The sound is always very good—but only in a very hi-fi audiophile sort of way. It is not that the demonstration is not effective—it clearly shows easily audible degradations as each of a battery of SR room treatments ($249—$3495 each) are subtracted—and then improvements as they are reintroduced. The Synergistic stuff—including the PowerCell 12 UEF SE power conditioner ($6495)—seem to work as advertised. But to what end? Where's the beautiful music? Thirty-second soundbites being played over and over so the audience can compare one sound to another are my idea of a bad way to spend my time.

Synergistic's good-sounding stereo system consisted of a Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference series 2 MQA with Alpha USB Module ($21,395.00) and an Aurender N10 Music Server ($8000), a Solution 520 Preamp ($25,000), a Solution 511 stereo amplifier ($35,000), and Magico S5 Mk.II loudspeakers ($38,000/pair). The total cost of this base system (by others) is $133,890. That is without the $100,000+ worth of Synergistic Research racks, shelves, grounding , cables, and acoustic treatments—which the demo demonstrated were needed to sound really good. (Each Synergistic Research SR25 Limited Edition AC power chord cost $20,000.) Can you see why I become anxious?

In an effort to cool my surging proletarian jets and subdue my anxiety, I ran from the Synergistic Research room to the room of the more scruffily dressed Washington DC DIY HIFI people. They know I am a scruffy rat-rodder (not a Porsche guy) so they welcomed me with big smiles and flannel shirts.

The DC DIY guys live in a completely alternative reality where almost nothing is for sale. They probably never even heard of Synergistic Research, and if they did, they probably went home and tried to make their own Home Depot versions of Mr. Denney's inventions.

In this room, they were serving water and snacks—not lectures or pedagogy. The only "product" that was actually for sale were the $25,000 "Egg" speakers that appeared to be a distillation of all their received wisdom about speaker building. Everything else in the system (except the Creek Evolution 100A integrated amp (used as a preamp) including the Mirror Image Audio T-1.15, class-D, "Cherry Bomb" amplifier (NP) was made by a member of this long standing DIY club.

When I say "everything else" I mean everything, including the Essential Source power cables, the custom (by David Raden) interconnects, the custom loudspeaker cables by Tom Penazucca, and, even the stunning recordings they played were by club member, Warren Bernhardt.

How would this system compare to a big oligarch system? How did it compare to the best sounds at CAF 2017? I thought it was fast and clear and precisely detailed but maybe a little rough and forward (they were playing it way too loud) but damn man (!!!) it equaled 52% of the gazillion-dollar system at 5.2% of the price. Think Chevys and kakis vs $5k tailored suits and low, shiny cars. Think sparrows vs eagles. Conclusion: I'm a sparrow.

Let's get even more humble and really good—both at the same time. I have always been a fan of Dan Clark's organic-sounding, down-to-earth designs for his own company, MrSpeakers. Who hasn't enjoyed his $1799.99 Ether Flow headphones? But now Dan has two very sexy-looking new models called Aeon (closed) and Aeon (open) and both cost only $799. I say "only" because the finely formed liquid quality their sound suggests they should cost three times that much.

I listened back and forth (between closed and open) alternating between the $11,288 Chord DAVE D/A headphone amp and the just-clear-and-glorious-sounding Ampandsound Kenzie Encore single-ended tube amplifier ($1650) connected to an Aurender N100H music server ($2995).

The MrSpeaker Aeon open and closed look very similar (only the grills are different) so at one point I started forgetting which I had on—they both had a powerful way of connecting me to the music program without forcing the sound on my attention. When I realized I didn't know which I was listening to, I started paying extra attention to how each one sounded. They were both exceptionally relaxed but yet solid and detailed. Both imaged very precisely. In the end, it was a noisy CanMania room and therefore, the sound of the closed design was the most appealing. I look forward to spending more time with both Aeons and the Ampandsound Kenzie.

Schiit's Jason Stoddard was nowhere to be found, but the astounding $99 Schiit Magni headphone amplifier was. So was the $149 Schiit Loki "high-quality tone control" unit and the ridiculously natural-sounding Modi 2 DAC ($99).

The Magi was connected to the new MrSpeaker Aeons described above and I was playing a file of a vintage analogue RCA recording: Pictures at an Exhibition from Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Fritz's Pictures sounded smoother, more naturally detailed, and easy flowing than they ever were on my floor-speaker system. (Don't forget, with headphones, you don't need room treatments or cable-lifters, and with wall-warts you don't need no $20k power cords. Sounds like a win-win-save-save situation to me.)

The rumor persists that I am a triode-horn guy but I continue to deny it. Why? Because I have heard only a few horn speakers I could live with. A single horn can exhibit low distortion within the confines of its very narrow passband, but once you get out of this one-or-two octave comfort zone, they exhibit either a borderline personality (at best) or are flat out sociopathic. Except . . . the exceptions can be astoundingly exceptional.

These blue Vu Hoang/DéjàVu Audio horns are one-of-a-kind creations using new (facsimile) Western Electric field-coil drivers instead of the permanent-magnet drivers found in every other commercial loudspeaker. Electromagnets make the sound's texture extremely grain-free, which in turn makes the textures of voices and instruments stand out—in a more vivid and textural manner—like they do in real life.

Vu Hoang calls this 3-way system the "Naked Horn Speaker System" ($140,000/pair) and it uses G.I.P. Laboratory reproductions of the 18" Western Electric TA 4181A woofers, the WE 555W midrange driver, and the deservedly legendary WE 597A high-frequency driver.

Amplification consisted of original Western Electric 124 tube monoblock amplifiers (restored by Aldo) with optional WE 350B output tubes ($24,000/pair). The WE197A-based preamp was part of the Déjà vu Audio "Vintage Collection" (also by Aldo). It includes WE 197A output transformers, and a moving-coil phono stage with WE 618B step-up transformers and the always-to-die-for WE 310A pentodes ($50,000). If you are not familiar with this kind of gear, please believe me when I say it is other-worldly good.

Digital conversion was another 'tube & transformer' (non-oversampling) creation by Aldo ($19,000).

If you don't know Déjà Vu Audio, and you've never experienced any of Vu Hoang's one-of-a-kind creations, you are in for a big surprise. This was surely the most, voice-intelligible, lucid, vivid, colorful, well-sorted, horn system I've encountered. If I had the space and money—I would have bought those Naked Horns (and the rest of the system) right there on the spot. Déjà vu Audio is in McLean, VA.

roscoe13's picture

The "Egg" speakers were in the DC HiFi Group room, which is a separate organization from DCAudioDIY. DC HiFi Group is only about a year old. and their primary focus is on commercial gear. That said, the guy who built the Eggs is also a member of the DCAudioDIY group....


Ortofan's picture

... not familiar with the ELEKIT amps.

Try these sites:

This site has articles covering the assembly and performance of the TU-8600 amp kit: http://wallofsound.ca/

RH's picture

Those egg-shaped speakers, with a pyramid shaped base containing large woofers. Now where have I seen that design before...?


Kal Rubinson's picture

It was an immediate thought for me. ;-)

Anyone else?

AJ's picture


RH's picture

I once had the alluded-to-speakers in my home, before that company went under, and still have a pair of the egg-shaped monitors which continue to sound superb!

jond's picture

...were astonishing! Best sound of the show by far for me and the deepest, fastest, most natural sounding bass I've ever heard coming from those 18" woofers. Vu told me someone wanted to take a picture of Johnny Cash he sounded so realistic. Disclaimer I am a very satisfied Deja Vu customer though those speakers and Aldo's gear is sadly out of my personal price range. Great report Herb!

rschryer's picture

"...his TU-8600 single-ended 300B stereo amplifier kit ($1185 w/o tubes)..." Wha...? Wow.

"...and sourced by a Kazutoshi Tsukahara-designed Sparkler Audio model S503 "Spiral" CD player/transport ($1750)." Ooh. Nice.

"Overall, this was a truly impressive Zen-type system; maybe only a subwoofer shy of greatness." How sweet is that?

hayden chris's picture

I want to start out by saying I was a custom installer for 28 plus years and have been around and installed a number of fine sounding systems. I wish that SR latest technology could have been sold as part of the install.
Capital fest had many rooms with real expensive gear and some form of miss guided acoustical placed treatment that sounded ok for what a show usually can offer . I have heard a number of these products in proper settings and it was night and day to what was offered at the show
A real deal room acoustically speaking are created by a company in California named Acoustic Fields by Dennis Foley. Dennis carries the same passion for great sound that Ted Denney of Synergistic Research aspires to achieve these results in a different way. Dennis rooms which are dedicated in there build construction from the ground up than fully tricked out with all his different panel configurations based on room templates he creates along with real time measurements and lastly his extensive knowledge of 30 years as an acoustician. They can run $300,000 plus in cost. Now that said IMO the results I heard in that ban size box room at the show without having the space built and how the SR products were able to extract the music while making the space a non entity using the UEF technology is hard to realize that this could possibly be achieved. Believe me I was extremely skeptical but I know what I heard and it was IMO a "STUNNING ACHIEVEMENT" and what I aspire to have in my home
One other important fact this reviewer misses is your UEF technology will allow me to eliminate 95% of the unsightly panels you need to implement in a common living space which can also be a costly and some what unsightly proposition depending on others who live with you in dealing with all the rooms possible problems.
Besides ones ear and a use of a mirror viewed from your primary seating showing first second reflection points real time measurements and proper diffusion bass traps etc.. most likely will need implemented. The most important aspect of using this type of treatment you really have to know what you are doing. SR technology has been IMO so well thought out with the latest UEF technology that the implementation of the product is so much simpler in achieving these stunning results of a properly treated paneled room.
I will leave you with this. My lady who is no way is a connoisseur of sound and in general says she can never hear the differences in the sound as subtle changes in my room were made I played the latest you tube videos through my headphones and every bit of what I remarked to her about in the sound transformation utilizing SR latest UEF gear she heard. IMO that really hit home with me. I am awaiting to demo SR new powercell 12 with much anticipation

mjc's picture

I’m intrigued by your reference to “Waltz For Debbie" by Diana Panton. I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I’d love to purchase. Can you point me to a source? Thank you.