Jason Discovers More Fine Sound on Day One

Most of my audio show experiences have been mixed, with strings of fine-sounding rooms punctuated by others that have sounded mediocre or worse. On the worst of days, the pattern has been reversed, with room after room sounding so dismal that I occasionally began to wonder if I was suffering from a temporary case of sonic indigestion. But on the Renaissance Schaumberg's 4th floor, despite room layouts that seemed to have been designed by the Son of the Set-up Demon himself, room after room delivered fine sound.

This was certainly the case in the Fidelis Music Systems room, where Stenheim Alumine Five loudspeakers ($50,000/pair; see Art Dudley's review in the March 2018 Stereophile) joined with the new VAC Sigma 170i integrated amplifier (approx. $14,000), new Acoustic Signature Double X turntable ($5795) with TA2000 9" tonearm ($2395) and Dynavector XX2 cartridge ($1995), the soon-to-be-replaced MSB Technology Analog DAC ($9950), Aurender N10 music player ($8000), new Tellurium Q Statements cables, and Stein Music's new line of Harmonizers (more on this below). A Red Book file of Rickie Lee Jones singing "Las Vegas" sounded quite fine—the LP version that I also heard sounded far warmer—with a very open and extended top end. Ditto for an RCA Victor LP of Ansermet conducting The Royal Ballet in an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Diana Krall sounded especially warm in 24/176.4, and a 32/96 MQA flac file from the Agathe Jazz Quartet was a total winner.

Part of the room's success may have been due to the influence of Holger Stein's new, easier-to-position H1 Harmonizer ($499), larger H2 Harmonizer ($2395/set of two), and Harmonizer Pro ($995). In my experience, these units, when positioned optimally and set to the appropriate level, work with the Blue Suns, Blue Diamonds, and Stars that I saw on the walls of the room to enhance music flow, three-dimensionality, and a whole lot more. Whatever the reason(s), this room sounded really good.

One element that the Renaissance Schaumberg seems to consider essential to the luxury feel of its hotel is a small, motion sensor-activated TV screen that's embedded into the mirrors of its bathrooms. As soon as you turn on the light in the loo, the TV starts playing. I don't know if "You will never be alone in a Schaumburg property" is the intended message, but what comes to mind instead are rather declassé recollections of gas stations that have TV screens atop every pump.

The commercial that appeared when I entered the bathroom in the Fidelis room seems perversely à propos, don't you think?

It's rather amazing that the brand new LSA-20 Signature column loudspeakers (projected at $3490/pair) in the Emerald Physics room sounded as good as they did, given that they were assembled the day before the show began. (They're not even on the room's equipment list.) Fed by a Mac Mini running Audirvana and an Outlaw Audio RR2160 receiver ($799), the system had a really impressive soundstage and bass, as well as a fine midrange.

Unfortunately, so jarring was the propensity to change tracks without notice every 40 seconds or so that I have no idea if the system was actually capable of delivering an emotionally compelling musical experience. I do know that the LSA-10 Statement reference monitors (projected at $3495/pair) that were switched in during the demo—apologies if I've got that wrong, because there are discrepancies between what's on the printed sheet and what I wrote in my notes—sounded significantly less lively than the larger speakers, whose ultimate sound will first be determinable after they begin shipping in late June or July. Hopefully they will be exhibited in a manner that treats music as more than a random string of extended soundbites.

Western Electric Export Corporation—whose famous trademark has graced the world's most coveted vacuum tubes and other audio products—will release in October its 91E integrated amplifier ($7500), a 22Wpc baby that uses 300B tubes. Together with a Western Electric 203C tubed CD player ($8500), 351C PCM/DSD DAC ($12,500), and Gauder Akustic Berliner 7 loudspeakers, the system sounded gorgeous on a track by Natalie Cole. The midrange was to die for—"just magical," I wrote in my notes. In truth, there were several resonant peaks that I prefer to think were caused by room nodes; regardless, this system's warm bouquet was hard to resist.

Brand distributor Mark Sossa of Well Pleased A/V delivered an international smorgasbord in the form of Rethm Bhaava speakers ($4495/pair) from India, Qualiton a50i amplifier ($7500) from Hungary, Innuos Zenith SE music server ($7000) from Portugal, Aqua La Voce S3 DAC ($4750) from Italy—look for my review of the company's top-of-the-line Formula DAC in the June issue of Stereophile—Gigawatt PC-3 SE EVO+ power conditioner ($6500) from Poland, and Anticables cabling from Minnesota. The sound was lovely, warm and free, with fine depth on "Teardrops for Jimmy" by Tony Overwater.

A bit of Ivan Fischer's Channel Classics DSD recording of the Mahler Symphony 3 also sounded quite warm and liquid, albeit devoid of the weight essential to depiction of an oversized Mahlerian orchestra. Although I'm not convinced that Mahler is best served by sweet colorations, on other music, this system was a delightfully non-fatiguing winner.

Sonoma Acoustic's all-in-one Sonoma Model One Electrostatic headphone amp/headphone system ($4915), which is said to have won no fewer than seven awards, sounded extremely quiet, lovely, and smooth in a 2xHD hi-resolution transfer of Holly Cole's "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues." Ditto for baritone Håkan Hagegård and pianist Anders Öhrwall's 2xHD hi-rez issue of Schubert's "Ave Maria." A bit warmer than neutral, perhaps, but absolutely engaging.

Master recording engineer and Wilson Audio brand spokesperson Peter McGrath told me over lunch on Saturday that he had recently staged, in Hong Kong, a stunning demo of the mammoth Wilson WAMM speakers that used multiple multi-box components from CH Precision in Switzerland. Peter loved the sound they produced. I, too, have heard far less exotic but nonetheless high-priced CH Precision equipment, including the components used in their AXPONA demo, sound superb at some audio shows. Thus my puzzlement at a system that, while captivatingly transparent on Rodrigo y Gabriella's "Hanuman" and Allan Taylor's "Running on Dreams," lacked mellowness in the midrange and weight in the bass.

The system consisted of the CH Precision D1 SACD/CD drive ($38,000) with Sync I/O clock synchronization board ($1500) and Reference II universal integrated amplifier ($38,000) with five different digital, USB, Ethernet, Phono, and Sync options ($16,500 total). Speakers were YG Acoustics Carmel 2, cabling Nordost Valhalla 2 on power and CH Speaker Link on speakers, and power treatment a combination of Nordost QX-4 and QB-8. I am quite familiar with the sound and effects of the Nordost products, and know they were not the cause.

barrows's picture

Thanks for the coverage Jason! I just wanted to note that the source in the Western Electric room is the Sonore Signature Rendu SE, an Ethernet Renderer serving USB audio out to the DAC.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent coverage! JVS

jamesd55's picture

you claim that the nordost products cannot be responsible because you are familiar w them. Are you familiar w them in conjunction w the exact combination of components in this room? If not i doubt you could accurately predict the result. Also you start out by siting problems due to the room. As a long time Stereophile reader I'm so sick of hearing about problems attributed to "the room". All rooms will inherently have problems. i would expect that components costing many thousands of dollars are designed to function properly in a vast variety of rooms and that the professionals installing them for the show can determine the best possible position regardless of the design of the room. Any product that is so sensitive to its surroundings and its performance so easily downgraded should be considered inferior and those costing in the multi thousand dollar range broken. Please stop defending retailers and manufacturers whose products don't work in an average room. I doubt the majority of your readers have designated sound rooms. Even if i did i wouldn't spend my money on a product that only worked in one room that was designed around the product. The audio components should be designed around the average room. Not the room designed around the average component. Thanks -james

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

What is an "average room?" What is an "average reader?" Are you and your tastes and environment "average?" What makes them so?

Is a hotel room with walls and floors of unknown composition an average room? Is the fact that this is AXPONA's first show in this environment, and that no one knew in advance what the rooms would sound like, of no relevance?

Every tweeter has a different dispersion pattern. Some work better at certain distances and heights, and in certain environments. Is this a fault of the speaker designer, or is it a fact of life? Note that when John Atkinson measures a speaker, he discusses the ideal height of a listener's ears, and often mentions the size of the room in which a speaker will work best.

Michael Fremer and I have similar sized listening rooms. But where mine opens to a relatively narrow hallway, Michael's, I am told, opens to a much larger expanse. Therefore, his room pressurizes sound differently than mine, and can support larger speakers with bigger bass output. That means that the Wilson Alexx loudspeakers which he owns work far better in his room than they would in mine.

I recall a story about soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who preferred the sound of a certain hall in Vienna that was lined with rosewood. She understood how much the room affected how people received her voice.

jamesd55's picture

is great and I'm sure some speakers prefer some rooms which is part of what makes hi fi so much fun- searching for what works best in ones set up. but for a hotels rooms in general to cause "problems" acoustically for the majority of hi fi systems id have to say the hi fi is designed or wrong if there is so little flexibility in the its arrangement it cannot work in this hotels rooms. or the hotels rooms at the last show or the show before that and before that. That is what i would call the "Average " hotel room. Every show that passes i read how awful the rooms are how they made good equipment sound bad. Things the author knows the brand well and they don't usually sound that way so it must be the roo. It sounds to me more like bad set up or design. If the designers or distributors or dealers can't set this stuff up in an average room to sound good what hope do i the "average" listener have?If a speaker doesn't work all of a sudden because there is one more door in a room or hallway i would say the design or set up needs work. Perfection is impossible there will always be challenges in the design of a room i believe a designer should account for as many as possible. in my mind a component designed to work in the ideal room is at best ill conceived and at worst in the words of John Atkinson "broken" (audio note). I don't believe you got the point i know the room can make the most difference in a system but that a hi fi component cannot be set up by professionals to sound like what it costs in most rooms as they will most likely be bought and placed in "most" rooms by an "average" person who like me is not professional then there is something wrong with it and it surely doesn't deserve print space where readers probably "average " readers like mere reading to find recommendations of good equipment. Again your attempt at belittling me be referencing a probably operatic or some other stuffy type of singer from the record collections of the old guard is childish but shows that with attention to detail things can be made well to sound good. i didn't write to start a debate just voice my frustration of reviewers excusing bad sound by placing blame on a badly constructed hotel room instead of the gear that is making the sound and then going even farther to let readers know they have experience w this company and that they don't make bad sounding hi fi. its axiomatic if guys involved so deep in the creation and promotion of said components can't make it sound good i surely can't either. Thanks james

jamesd55's picture

in addition the comment that the speakers were just too big for the room. This i am sure happens very often. Maybe the guys who brought the too large speakers to the room should be held accountable. Im sure one could google the smallest possible dim,entions of a room at a certain hotel and be prepared w something the would sound good . Instead i have the feeling they are selling big cosmetically flashy things not things designed to sound good. They choose what to show. Bring an appropriate selection. Otherwise in my mind the person occupying the room is interested not in the show goer hearing their best but buying the coolest looking or fanciest speaker these are hi fi they are lifestyle speakers designed for rich people to show off. Yes in a good business model they need to sell the high priced stuff w large margins but why are you who claim to be concerned chiefly with sound quality writing about bling?

klosterman's picture

On another note: this I will never understand. I read that comment often in room reports: the gear is brand new. It's time to shine, no?

Did they just realize Axpona is the next day? They're sold out? That's great, but set aside settled in item(s) for the 100s or 1000s of potential customers, not too mention reviewers.

Doesn't affect me, but I don't get why it doesn't matter to them...?

Fruff1976's picture

I agree and was thinking the same exact thing. This is the biggest show in the U.S, and there is adequate time to prepare. Make sure the equipment is "broken in" Seems like it would be sales 101. Also, blaming the room. My room, and probably most peoples rooms I would think are close to that size, what gives? I heard way more systems that sounded bad than good. I'm not sure why my mid-fi system can sound great in a room that size, but the uber expensive gear can't seem to handle it. BTW, JBL L100 sounded great, and no need to blame the room.