Hot Contenders at the 2015 CAS

"Do you two have a bodyguard?" I asked Elac speaker designer Andrew Jones (right) and equally legendary Audio Alchemy electronics designer Peter Madnick (left) upon hearing the tremendous sound pouring forth from their bargain system ($5500 including custom-made music server and cabling). "If you don't, you'd be wise to consider hiring one. Given the virtually illegal amount of warmth, bass, and full-range sound you're getting from those tiny little speakers and that sub, I wouldn't be surprised if at least one high-priced manufacturer is tempted to do you in, lest you give the lie to the assertion that higher prices equate with better sound."

Yes, you can add me to the many who stumbled dumbfounded through the halls at Munich High End proclaiming that Jones' not-yet-released Elac B5 loudspeakers ($229/pair) are not only the best thing since Swiss cheese, but so good that you could stuff many a rival brand through the holes and not miss a thing. I intentionally skipped hearing the Elacs in Munich, because my assignment was to cover the high-priced spread. I don't regret doing so—the Elac pairing cannot equal the sound exhibited by systems that included speakers from Wilson Audio, Magico, YG Acoustics, Vivid, and the like. But the Elac combo sounds so damn excellent that many manufacturers of four-figure floorstanders and five-figure electronics must be quaking in their boots.

As for Audio Alchemy's DDP-1 DAC/preamp ($1995), PS-5 power supply ($595), and DPA-1 125Wpc power amp ($1995), in Munich they were paired with Jones' much larger TAD monitors in a huge room that called for more power than the DPA-1 could offer. It was only at CAS in Millbrae that I could truly assess how good they are. I'm dying to hear how the Audio Alchemy DDP-1 sounds next to my trusty Benchmark DAC-1 USB, as well as any number of other DAC/preamps in the below $5000 range.

Now, let's talk about the music. First off, from a CD quality track from 88 Basie Street, I heard such warm and wonderful full-range sound as to leave me dumbfounded. The horns and coronets sounded especially convincing, and the smoothness of the presentation, undoubtedly helped by the Shunyata Research Triton and Typhon power conditioning that Peter Madnick brought from his home to address potential hotel power issues, was uncanny.

Next up, the great Shirley Horn's recording of "Beautiful Love" sounded gorgeous. Beauty was also the operative term for Boz Scaggs' "My Funny Valentine."

Even before I heard a hi-res excerpt from David Chesky's Zephyrtine Ballet, I had written, "This system should be outlawed" in my notes. Even though the Kevlar cones in Elac's Chinese-made speakers couldn't convey all the realistic transients and decay of huge drums, the recording sounded almost too good to be true.

Jones did a very convincing demo of how he could use the downloadable Elac app, along with the microphone in his portable phone, to both adjust the bass response of the Elac S10EQ 200Watt subwoofer with 10" driver, 10" passive radiator, and DSP ($400), and to EQ the characteristics of the room. (Since the subwoofer wasn’t active in the system, I can’t report on the efficacy of this application.) Then he explained that Elac is a 90-year old North Germany company that, just like the much younger Audio Alchemy which is based in America, was being re-launched in the US. By ending the session with Anders Widmark playing jazz piano, he convinced many in attendance that the system’s exceptionally smooth and clean sound and supremely tight bass were tantamount to proof that Elac and Audio Alchemy's second time around is sure to charm.

Also in the system: Zellman/Marutani PC Windows-based server 2012 with Audiophile Optimizer on JRiver, and homemade Marutani interconnects and speaker wire that consist of Furutech plugs, store-bought wire, and Teflon tape shielding. In the groove: Everyone listening.

Winners of the Most Stylish Dresser/Loudspeaker Combo Award of CAS 2015, the partnership of distributor Jody Hickson of Audiopathways Inc. and the Avantgarde Acoustic Zero1 Pro XD speaker system with analog input ($21,000/pair) made quite an impression. Each speaker contains three class-D amplifiers, including a 400W baby for the bass; a built-in DAC that decodes up to 24/192; and a preamp. Bass output can be raised or lowered by 1dB.

The speakers were playing wired, which is said to show them at their best, but they can also play wirelessly. A future software upgrade to the XA series, expected at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, will allow equalization via computer.

Allied to a Bergmann Audio Magne turntable in white/graphite ($18,000), Sutherland 20/20 phono stage ($2200), Bel Canto REFLink and CD3t ($1500), AudioQuest USB and Ethernet cabling, Transparent S/PDIF and AES/EBU cabling, Kimber Select RCA cables, and a PC using JPlay, the system exhibited a beautiful tonal balance, extremely impressive bass, and on a recording of "Tin Pan Alley," lovely tonalities. A file of Bernstein's early recording of Mahler's Symphony 9, which starts much slower and much more mournfully than Ivan Fischer's recent foray, sounded less successful, with wiry strings. In terms of string sound, one of my period instrument recordings from Channel Classics did not fare better.

Since their first showing at CAS, Burwell & Sons have made quite a name for themselves by repackaging vintage 1960s Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater components in handsome, new cabinets of Black Walnut and English Walnut, and matching them together well. Of the Burwell & Sons "The Plain Jane" ($80,000/pair), a mating of the Altec 803A 15" woofer and 802C compression-horn driver whose price may send some to another plane, mastering engineer and room partner Paul Stubblebine of The Tape Project told me, "I've been listening to the combo of a 2-way 15" horn woofer with a horn tweeter for 40 years, mostly in the studio, and this is the best version of that type of speaker I've ever encountered."

In this instance, the other players in the big corner room on the third floor were Bottlehead Corp.'s Eros Phono tube phono preamplifier kit ($749), Tube Repro tape playback preamplifier ($4000), BeePre 300B preamp kit ($1175), and Paramount 300B monoblock amplifier kit with 5670 driver tube ($1699); and Bottlehead's RCA interconnects ($149/1M pair) and Power Cord kits ($80); The Tape Project's Otari MTR20 transport (NFS); and Luxman's PD-171 turntable with Jelco SA-250 tonearm ($6400) and Brinkman cartridge Pi ($2700).

I visited the room twice. The first time around, on Friday morning, master tape copies of Little Hatch performing "Mellow Down Easy" and, shades of my youth, Credence Cleerwater Revival singing "Fortunate Son" exhibited a very mellow midrange and some sharpness on top. Percy Grainger's "Mock Morris," transferred to tape from the Reference Recordings original, sounded just delightful, although the midrange again predominated.

On Saturday night, starting near show's close, singer Jacqui Naylor discussed the recording process, and let people hear portions of The Number White, her new recording for The Tape Project. With playback of this pioneering effort in 21st-century tape listening provided by The Tape Project and Bottlehead, the volume was quite loud, undoubtedly because Dan Schmalle (left) of Bottlehead and The Tape Project, Naylor, and Stubblebine (right) were sitting between the speakers and couldn't judge how loud the volume was in front of the horns. Be that as it may, at that volume, the sound was deliciously round and filled with color. Perhaps the system was not fully warmed up when I first entered the room on Friday.

I regret that I missed hearing the newest Tape Project release, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. My mouth was certainly watering, but I chose to address it by eating and writing blogs. I know. I'm a fool.

As I exited the elevators on Saturday morning, whom did I discover preparing for his rare Saturday afternoon seminar but the great recording and equipment engineer, Keith O. Johnson of Reference Recordings and Spectral?

The seminar line-up at CAS6 was as extensive as it was compelling. Trust me. Every seat in the house was filled for Nelson Pass's seminar, which I'll cover in a separate blog.

On Saturday morning at 11am, (left to right) yours truly, Jack Roberts of Dagogo, Steven Rochlin of Enjoy the Music, Barry Willis of Hi-Fi News, and Neil Gader of The Absolute Sound participated in an Ask the Editors panel. First revelation: show organizer Constantine Soo, who took our photo, is not an ace photographer. Either that, or he was so eager to get the show on the road that he failed to depress the shoot button halfway to enable auto-focus. To his credit, he took 20 years off each of our faces, and managed to get most of us to smile.

The discussion was lively, with lots of reader participation. Those who regularly read Stereophile are aware of what subjects were most likely to come up, and wish to test their psychic powers are now invited to close their eyes and report exactly what transpired. For starters, think next-generation listeners. . .

AndrewJ's picture

Hi Jason. Thanks for your clarification about the subwoofer in our room.
It makes it all the more amazing that we got he sound we did.
By the last day, I had resorted to putting up signs around the room. The one on top of the media server computer said "No: This is not a subwoofer!" and the one on top of the subwoofer said "No: This subwoofer is not connected! :-) "
I thought it wise to let everyone know, since we got a lot of comments about the bass performance..... :-)

dcolak's picture

Can't wait to get them. Let's see how they pan against JBL Arrays 1400 and Klipsch B3´s. :-)

I just hope no musicality is lost by going with 6.5" woofer compared to the 5.5" in B5?

philipjohnwright's picture

I'm mesmerised by his hair - very impressive indeed sir! (mine is a similar colour bit there is somewhat less of it)

This is a really interesting market segment. Pair these speakers with one of the low cost USB stick DACs (I use the M2Tech one) and spend a few bob on a decent amp - bingo, a cracking system for under $3000 I would have thought. Much more interesting than the latest $100k turntable report (sorry Mikey)

JCM's picture

Andrew Jones seems to like class D amplifiers in his demos. The DPA-1 seems to sound good. Jason, any comments about the DPA-1 amplifier. Stereophile doesn't seem to like class D amplifiers.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

My only comment on this subject is that Stereophile does not like or dislike anything. Individual writers at Stereophile, however, have their own likes and dislikes. Those, I might add, are not based on "beliefs," but rather on what is actually heard and perceived.

A later entry in my show report will focus on Nelson Pass' 50-minute seminar on Saturday afternoon. At one point, Nelson said something to the effect that Class D is certainly getting better, but it's not all there yet. It may be energy efficient and good for the environment, but designers of top level stuff still prefer other topologies. I'm not looking at my notes as I write this - I'm behind on deadline - but I think that's pretty much what he said. More to come on that score.

drblank's picture

There have been a variety of Class D power amps that they have reviewed and liked. Bel Canto, NAD, and others have been reviewed with very positive comments. I don't think they liked them when they first started to hit the market but many years have passed and they've been improving.

jporter's picture

Well Jason, you were obviously one of the lucky ones who got the golden ticket...

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you, and... The golden ticket, IMHO, refers to the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time with major 5 and 6-figure speakers that are only available from a few dealers in this country and abroad, and that only rarely surface at shows. In Elac's case, however, I heard gold, or at least the equivalent of the finest silver plated copper, from a speaker pair that costs less than a good 40" TV. And these speakers will soon be available for all to hear.

jporter's picture

I was actually referring to the fact that the guy on the left is a dead ringer for one of the original oompa loompas...

"If your not greedy, you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Like the Oompa Loompa doom-pa-dee-do"

BradleyP's picture

With this kind of glowing press surrounding the $229 ELACs, I'll bet that many of the pre-orders are going to competitors eager to disassemble the things. I'm sure the Audio Alchemy gear--welcome back!--is fine stuff, but it should be for the money. I'm curious how the ELACs compare to benchmarks like the KEF LS50 and other moderately priced two-ways. I'm also curious how they perform with more likely electronics like, say, a Peachtree, Marantz, or NAD integrated. That 85 dB sensitivity will require some juice to drive properly. It sounds like they scale up rather well. Finally, I'm curious what they sound like with the $500 ELAC sub with the smartphone-based EQ. No doubt, ELAC recruited a ton of dealers at the show. This will be fun!

hnipen's picture

What is is with Andrew Jones, he now makes dirt cheap speakers that leave people dumbfounded, has he become a magician, or has he always been a magician :-D

and we can't even get hold of the products in Europe at all... or am I wrong about this... Anyways Please Elac, you gotta make them available in Norway too !