Jana's Friday Afternoon at AXPONA

A couple of months ago, I listened to a prototype of the Sonoma Acoustics electrostatic Model One Headphone System ($5000) at CanJam NYC, so I was excited for the opportunity to have some more one-on-one time with a production model of the system at AXPONA. (No major changes have been made since CanJam NYC.) The Model One Headphone System includes electrostatic headphones made with Warwick Technologies' High-Precision Electrostatic Laminate audio transducer (HPEL), and a proprietary class-A Energizing Amplifier. Sonoma booked an entire hotel room where more than a handful of headphone enthusiasts could simultaneously listen in a relatively quiet space. I had an exceptional time listening to an impressively transparent and realistic Hugh Masakela recording through this analog setup.

A few key things to know about the Model One System:
• Sonoma Acoustics is made up of ex-Sony guys who worked on the SACD project and are all incredibly knowledgeable about hi-rez.
• The Model One headphone is the first (and only) to utilize Warwick's new HPEL transducer, and thus uses a proprietary amp, understandably. Therefore, the headphone and amp are sold as a system ($5000) and cannot be interchanged with other headphones/amplifiers.
• And a last cool fact for you Daft Punk fans: Random Access Memories was recorded on an eight-track Sonoma DSD recorder.

Additionally, Sonoma Acoustics GM David Kawakami informed me that, from the start of the show, Acoustic Sounds began selling the Sonoma Model One at their booth and there seems to be a large amount of interest.

As soon as I saw "Rogue Audio" on the sign, I knew whatever lay in store for me inside just had to be hip and affordable. Compared to the majority of their competitors in the world of high-end audio, Rogue Audio is quite rogue in their pricing and demeanor. (Read: super good bang for buck sold by ultra-chill people.) A few years back, when I used to work as a hi-fi salesperson, I visited Rogue's factory in Pennsylvania and was impressed by how homey and down-to-earth their whole operation was. I got to see both men and women on workbenches assembling components, Mark O'Brien, the company's owner and electrical designer, casually working on the next circuit board design in a t-shirt and jeans, and I learned that Bill Magerman, Rogue's Sales Manager, also ran a blueberry farm in the summertime.

This particular room featured the Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum II ($2495), Tannoy XT8F speakers ($2600), a Sony HAPZ1ES streamer ($2000), and Nordost cabling. Of this system, I was previously familiar with the Cronus Magnum II and the HAPZ1ES, but not the Tannoys. The room was small, and the chairs were a bit close to the system. We listened to "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, and "Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin. Both tracks had a nice warm quality, and I immediately fell back in love with the Cronus Magnum II that I had long lusted after in my pre-Stereophile days, remembering how it could cast a warm analog spell upon all its encounters of the digital nature. Even though the room was small and the setup wasn't optimal (even taking into account that this was an audio show), the Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum II was my favorite, most lusted-after piece of the day.

Right next door, I stepped into a room that featured another very affordable system, including a NAD C338 integrated amplifier with built-in DAC ($649), an NAD C516BEE CD player ($300), a BlueSound Node 2 ($500), PSB Imagine XB bookshelf speakers ($500/pair), PSB SubSeries 125 power subwoofer ($450), with Nordost cabling throughout. I played Aphex Twin's "Alberto Balsalm" from the album I Care Because You Do from my phone and they played me Rickie Lee Jones "Showbiz Kids." I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of power such a small system could exude! Affordability continues to surprise me.

Nashville-based manufacturer Thiel showed two new wireless speakers at the show: the Aurora LifeStream Tour ($600 each) and the Aurora LifeStream Home ($900 each). They premiered at CES in January and are both slated to ship from May 1. An excerpt from Thiel's site: "a new twist on high-performance wireless audio streaming." The LifeStream Tour is battery powered, while the LifeStream Home needs to be plugged in. Both are very lightweight, but even then, the Tour is still too big to function as an on-the-go unit. Thiel's Chief Revenue Officer, Stuart Levine, shared with me that showgoers seemed surprised by the sound quality of these wireless speakers.

Both can be controlled via DTS Play-Fi, Apple Airplay, and Bluetooth. Up to 16 speakers can be played simultaneously, and two can be programmed as a stereo pair. Both allow for interchangeable faceplates (not included up front) in wooden and metallic finishes. They are very cute.

After listening to a couple of tracks on both the LifeStream Tour and LifeStream Home, I oddly feel more compelled by the more pronounced midrange on the Tour, and found the bass on the Home to be a bit much. But regardless—in functionality and price point, both Aurora LifeStream products will fill a growing niche in audio somewhere between Devialet and Sonos, with an ultra-chic look nearly on par with Bowers & Wilkins' T7 collab with Burberry. (Ugh, so beautiful.)

My last room of the day: Schiit/Salk. With all the recent excitement and controversy surrounding Schiit, I had to make this room a Day 1 priority. Word on the street is, you either like Schiit or you don't. There is no in between. After a second listen, I think I do.

I reported that I was impressed by sound and affordability of the Schiit/Salk room at RMAF 2016, and the system they're featuring at AXPONA this year is even more affordable. This system features a Salk StreamPlayer Gen III controlled by Roon playing through a single-ended Bifrost DAC ($599), the Schiit Saga single-ended preamplifier ($349), and a prototype of the Schiit Vidar amplifier ($699) in stereo single-ended operation, through a pair of Salk Song3-A speakers ($3695/pair). (The fire extinguisher next to the Vidar is a little inside joke.)

"I decided at the last minute to stick to the simple, affordable system. I wanted to see what we could do at a quite affordable price point." Jason Stoddard said, when I asked why they didn't go with their original plan of demoing multiple systems at different price points. The more expensive system would've included Schiit's two top-end products: the Yggdrasil DAC ($2299) and Ragnarok integrated amplifier ($1699). He thoughtfully added, "We're trying to keep the electronics reasonable to that maybe people can spend more on the speakers."

Jason and David let me play some of my own music choices as the room emptied out at the end of the show. I listened to a track from Geotic's latest album Abysma and my default soundstage/cleanliness evaluator track "The Other Day We Thought Our Friends" by Kidsuke, and was so pleased with how fun and responsive the system was.

Schiit Audio, I like you very much.

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Both shoes are covered with it, O my gawd.

These Schiit guys are like Apostates taking over pews at the Cathedral.

Their overly sexiness accentuating their plunging, low-cut price points.

They don't belong, they don't fit in, they're very bad ( a disaster ) for "legitimate" Audiophile Manufacturing.

What on earth are you thinking? Pre-amps for under a $1,000, who ever heard of such a thing?, especially if they sound pretty-good. Geez, B recommended stuff at half C- pricing? All they'd need is some $2,000 Packaging and they'd be A level Recommended stuff.

Get out whilst you still can, it's not too late.

These guys are giving the middle finger to all our Proud producers : Levinson, MSB, D'Augistino and everyone else that "Create" true Audiophile works of Art.

Just look at me, I'm a pitiful example, I fell into their seductive trap an now I can't justify spending a measly $12,000 for an MSB Analog DAC! I'm ruined, destroyed by them, I own many Schiit pieces. I try to look at the really pricy stuff and can't justify owning it. I'm a lost soul.

It's not too late for you. JA and friends need to do an "Intervention" for you. It'll kinda be like an Exorcism, let them SAVE your soul from the Schiity grip.

Tony in Michigan

AllanMarcus's picture

"With all the recent excitement and controversy surrounding Schiit..."

What was the excitement and controversy?

Odin 412's picture

Stereophile posted on their Facebook page that the Schiit Yggdrasil DAC was obsolete because it uses 20-bit DAC chips, which of course ignited a bit of a firestorm. This in turn triggered/inspired Schiit to develop their current ads which are titled 'Obsolete'. If you get a chance you should give the Schiit stuff a good listen - it's, well, the Schiit.

AllanMarcus's picture

I have a Bimby and a Mjolnir 2, so I'm familiar.

AllanMarcus's picture

Jana's comment about the "controversy" is bull-schiit. The only controversy is Stereophile post incorrectly using the term obsolete. "Obsolete" is defined "no longer produced or used; out of date." The chip Schiit uses is not obsolete as it is still in production, and it's state-of-art to boot. A journal like Stereophile has only two ways to communicate: words and images. Images can be altered or misleading and words can be used incorrectly. In this case, the word "obsolete" was clearly used incorrectly and Stereophile should correct the post. There are so many other words that can describe the author's concern with a 20 bit chip being used, but obsolete, in this case, is factually and objectively incorrect. How can we trust any other facts in the journal if Stereophile can't correct (and easily editable on-line) such on obvious error?

Is it a controversy when a Journal makes an error and readers point out the mistake? The only controversy is why Stereopile can't use a dictionary, can't correct a factual error, and can't find the correct words to describe a design concern. I have little respect for a journal that manufactures controversy like this. And then promotes the controversy in other articles. Shame.

John Atkinson's picture
AllanMarcus wrote:
The only controversy is Stereophile post incorrectly using the term obsolete. "Obsolete" is defined "no longer produced or used; out of date." The chip Schiit uses is not obsolete as it is still in production, and it's state-of-art to boot.

As I explained in earlier threads, the 20-bit chip is obsolete in the context of 24-bit audio. And as you can read in our review, the Yggdrasil doesn't handle gracefully the problem of how to match that DAC with data having a bit depth >20. Although Schiit claims that the Yggdrasil "rounds off" the 4 LSBs with 24-bit data, my measurements showed that it appears to truncate them. This in my opinion, is sub-optimal engineering.

AllanMarcus wrote:
The only controversy is why Stereopile [sic] can't use a dictionary, can't correct a factual error, and can't find the correct words to describe a design concern.

As I have repeatedly explained what I feel are the issues with the Yggdrasil's design, I'll let you have the final word.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

AllanMarcus's picture

Thanks John. I still contend "obsolete" is the wrong word in this context. some more descriptive words in this context might be: underpowered or Inappropropriate. The chip is clearly not obsolete as it's currently in production an is state of the art.

John Atkinson's picture
AllanMarcus wrote:
Thanks John.

You're welcome.

AllanMarcus wrote:
I still contend "obsolete" is the wrong word in this context. some more descriptive words in this context might be: underpowered or Inappropriate.

I don't disagree. I also don't have a problem with people liking the sound of the Yggdrasil, as my reviewer indeed did. Sound quality is a multidimensional quality and it is possible that someone might prefer the sound of truncation to formally correct dithering. But I regard my role as being akin to Robert Heinlein's concept of the Fair Witness in "Stranger in a Strange Land": pointing out the truth of something regardless of the reaction from others.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

E-Gads!

Those Schiit guys could've simply gone with 24 Bit, they chose not to, for who knows what reason.

The Entire World records in 24 Bit with only a tiny few still using 16 Bit ( obsolete ) Redbook gear.

What's the big deal?

Besides, I heard the Yggy ( Jude of Headfi's Yggy ) it doesn't move the needle. It sounds nearly identically to any decent DAC.

Defend Schiit if you want but even they admit their DACs are obsolete, ( except their cheapest one ).

Get over it, for gods sake, they even advertise their gear as being obsolete.

The trick is on the loyal Schiit defenders that step forward.

Another dirty trick is that Schiit won't admit MQA benefits, of course, MQA won't work with their DACs.

Schiitintology and it's loyal following.

Actually all of Schiit stuff is rapidly becoming obsolete, Class D is the Global Standard and Schiit won't offer it.

I still like my obsolete Asgard 2 headphone amp but I'm leaning to MYTEK for MQA access.

The best part about Schiit is their dirt cheap pricing but their turning Audio into a Religion is hard to defend ( unless, just maybe, they start making 20/96 CDs )

Tony in Michigan

ps. does anyone offer a Record Player that only does 26 rpm and not 33 1/3 ? or is that a bad analogy?

dalethorn's picture

I bought a tiny DAC from them (Schiit Fulla), assuming with all reason that it would run from an iPhone7 using the "camera kit". It didn't unless externally powered, unlike the better Dragonfly Black. No biggie, I'll just return it I said to myself. Big mistake! Getting that returned was like getting the CIA's permission to look at Raphael Cruz's personnel record.

dce22's picture

"The Entire World records in 24 Bit"

Not true the world records in

Best 24bit192khz Sigma Delta Converters (Apogee/Weiss)
-110db Noisefloor -103db THD+N -6dbFS (192khz) 18.3bits
-119db Noisefloor -103db THD+N -6dbFS (44.1khz) 20bits
Best 24bit96khz R2R (Lavry Gold)
-123db Noisefloor -103db THD+N -6dbFS (96khz) 20.5bits
-127db noisefloor -103db THD+N -6dbFS (44.1khz) 21.1bits

Only superduper mastering ADC like Lavry AD122-96 MKIII can go above 20bits slightly

Best DSD Grimm AD1 1bit 2.822Mhz
-116db noisefloor -113db THD+N -6dbFS decimated to (44.1khz) 19.3bits
-20db noisefloor -20db THD+N -6dbFS decimated to (192khz) 3.4bits

tonykaz's picture

to see the Legacy Line. I wondered if their stuff could survive Florida's humidity, I don't think it can, they build with Wood. ( nicely veneered wood ).

A quick walk thru the place was depressing, like visiting the largest Funeral Home I've ever been to, a few mourners, walking around, paying their respects. Five or Six "Industry" people for every consumer, a guy ( Cool Cleveland ) interviewing people in the main hallway.

Headphone ( local ) meets are jam-packed by comparison.

A small Cessna had me back home for dinner, a total 6 hours for the "Round-Trip".

The excitement in this Industry is reading Stereophile and looking at Internet Content. Somehow, JA & friends are breathing life into my Generation's Hobby ( thank you ) but it's dying, right along with us but not-so in Europe.

Tony in Michigan

John Atkinson's picture
dce22 wrote:
tonykaz wrote:
The Entire World records in 24 Bit

Not true...

While the noisefloor of a 24-bit A/D converter will lie above the 24th-bit level, truncating the 4 LSBs with such a converter will still reintroduce quantizing distortion. Bob Katz has done listening tests where that the effect of such truncation was found to be audible.

Incidentally, one of the best-performing A/D converters I have measured is the Ayre QA-9. You can find its measured behavior at www.stereophile.com/content/ayre-acoustics-qa-9-usb-ad-converter-measurements.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

You're like the Chief Partner in the Law Firm that represents us.

You-da-man

However, I'm not all that fussy about any of this Bits stuff, the noise floor in my listening area hovers around 40db., add 10 Bits of Music and I'm at 100 db. listening levels. ( 10 db more than I'm comfortable with ). I'm delighted with 16/44.1 !

Maybe MQA is right down my path of desires, I hope it is, Herb seems to like it.

Annnnnd, B.Katz is outputting some beautiful stuff.

I wish all y'all well,

Tony in Michigan

dce22's picture

"While the noisefloor of a 24-bit A/D converter will lie above the 24th-bit level, truncating the 4 LSBs with such a converter will still reintroduce quantizing distortion."

100% correct.

Properly designed 24bit ADC will use dithering in 20bit mode also 20bit DAC needs to dither from 24bit input data.

I was just noting that 20 bit dac (properly done of course) is not a weakness because there is no 24 bit recording from analog source.

Cheers

tonykaz's picture

Sell it on eBay, they're fetching $50, the Fulla 2 is getting twice that.

My Asgard 2 is selling for $200.

Oh well, sorry for your loss.

Taking good care of customers is an expensive part of business, screwing customers is even more expensive.

Lesson: Don't buy first gen. Schiit stuff! Annnnd, Stodard admits that the Caps they use are only good for 8 years.

Don't complain too loudly, the Schiitintologists will label you a disruptive person ( like me ).

Tony in Michigan

ps. I know that I'm not being "helpful"

Allen Fant's picture

Nice coverage- Jana.
Did you have time to enjoy a nice Scotch?