Sunday with Herb

Last year, Vaughn Loudspeakers' flagship Plasma Signature towers ($20,000/pair), featuring eight midrange drivers in a bipolar configuration (four front and four rear), a 12" powered subwoofer, and their signature plasma tweeter, were my BIG best-in-show discovery.

My runnin' buddy and turntable setter-upper, Michael Trei, texted me to come to room such-and-such: "…you MUST hear these speakers." After listening to a few songs in silence, Michael leaned over and asked, "So? What do you think?" Beaming and smirking I sputtered (with 100% conviction), "They're the best speakers I've ever heard."

By "best" I meant they had the most tonally accurate, perfectly detailed, and fully textured midrange (maybe a little short of the Western Electric 12A and the Quad ESL). For me, midrange tone character is king and god. Tone character is what separates classic, enduring loudspeakers from wrong-sounding "tweeters-in-boxes" also-rans.

I promise you, no one will ever say that about Vaughn's spectacular plasma tweeter. In fact, I have never met a soul on earth who would argue that plasma tweeters are anything less than the best tweeter available today—period. Ribbons and quasi-ribbons gallop in second place; while those little domey domes limp across the finish line—a distant third.

This plasma tweeter is not the only reason these Vaughn speakers are so good—but it is surely what makes them such an extraordinary value at $20,000. Folks, this is a speaker that can compete with any speaker made anywhere, and it costs only $20K.

For those of you who only heard the Plasma Signature at RMAF 2017, I should mention that this year, to me, the Plasma Signatures sounded slightly off. Something was weird in (I think) the sub-woofer-to-midrange crossover region (an adjustment perhaps?). The 80-200Hz area sounded weaker than I remember and slightly vague—causing the speakers to lose some of their previous midrange perfection. (I feel certain that, if it was not a setup, voicing, or room issue, it was because Gordon Rankin's amazing wife Kelly—they're the people behind Wavelength Audio—was not there to smile and be sagely.)

Always in the forefront of what's best, Gordon Rankin's Wavelength electronics never have an off day. This year, he was featuring the Crimson 32/384 USB DAC ($9000) driving the Sine V6 Silver preamp ($7500) and the always-excellent Napoleon Silver single-ended DHT monoblock amplifiers ($35K/pair).

Power conditioning, power cables, and interconnects were by AudioQuest. Loudspeaker cables were Nordost.

Additionally, a new DAC from renowned digital master Gordon Rankin is always big news; and this year, Wavelength introduced the Secant DAC, which uses the ESS ES9038 DAC chip. It is a directly heated triode design with an external tube-rectified power supply and transformer coupled outputs ($5000).

And one more: Wavelength's leading-edge, old-school preamp called the Europa v2—a modular analog and digital preamplifier. It has only a single analog input (Boo! Hiss! Doesn't everybody have two turntables?), but has the following available digital inputs: USB HS (32/384 PCM, DSD64/128), Toslink (24/192), Ethernet, and WiFi. The basic module offers USB HS & Toslink only; the fully equipped, networked module includes all available inputs (prices range from $7500).

It was extremely nice to see, hug, and chat with my tall French friend Francois Saint-Gerand (and his new wife, Ana, who, every time we meet, renews my faith in the Force of Life that put us all here). Francois' company, Ana Mighty Sound, makes moving-coil phono cartridges—their newest cartridge model is the TNT 15 (price on request)—that always sound electrifying. Today, the TNT 15 was mounted on a custom Schröder arm (also price on request), itself mounted on a restored and enhanced (and very beautiful) vintage Garrard 301 turntable (price high and variable).

Also in use was Frank Schröder's own diminutive looking—but heavy—Pabst-motored, rim-drive design ($6000). I heard it play only two records, but that was more than enough for me to recognize this little shoe-box-plinthed beauty can punch it out with the best anywhere. It seemed more alive, direct, and precise, than the all-out Garrard 301 sitting behind it.

Ana Mighty Sound's newest product is the $3600 Le Phono phono stage, which was driving a Triode Corporation TRX-1 line-level preamp ($3000) and TRX-P3H triode tube amplifier ($6500) pushing the brand new Troy Audio Hellena loudspeakers ($100,000/pair). Interconnects, power and loudspeaker cables were by the venerable Japanese company: Zonotone.

Troy's Hellena loudspeakers are giant, shiny, 330 lb four-ways. They employ new Altec and Fostex drivers and are made in Mexico City by Francois' old friend, and Troy's super-passionate owner-engineer, Francisco Jileta.

I listened to some extraordinary records like Dom La Nema's Cantando (Francois has the world's best taste in music), and all sounded naturally vigorous, tuneful, and sunshine bright. Transient speed and instrumental tone were there in good measure, but I could not escape noticing a slightly coarse top octave. When Francisco asked if $100,000 was too high a price, I laughed pretentiously, and told señor Jileta,"You should upgrade the tweeter and double the price!" He frowned sternly. Then more hugs and kisses (on both cheeks) to everyone, and back to halls. (I had over 100 rooms left to cover.)

Crack O' dawn I was in the Linear Tube Audio/Fern & Roby room, comparing Linear Tube's new David Berning-designed 10Wpc ZOTL10 amplifier ($3200) to the more powerful and more expensive ZOTL40 ($5800), which I reviewed in Stereophile's October issue. Not as many watts, a linear power supply in a separate chassis, and not as many dollars, but (!) plenty of pure, rich, all-natural, midrange energy. Tone so rich I noticed it instantly: It took only about ten ten-watt seconds to realize how much I preferred this new amp to the ZOTL40.

Like I mentioned earlier, I am a tone freak. A highly textured midrange, with pure saturated tonal colors, is extremely important to me. Both amps were driven by LTA's microZOTL2.0 preamplifier-headphone amplifier ($2100), which is the center-post of my Stereophile reviewing practice, and is Rembrandt-like at delivering highly transparent midrange colors. What makes recorded music sound more real than accurate tone and authentic texture? Nothing I know of.

Chesky Records' new Macy Gray LP, Stripped, was the main joy of all this listening. I was at the Stripped recording sessions, and I can say with good certainty: LTA, Fern & Roby, and DeVore Fidelity (see below) were expressing lots of musical truth.

Unquestionably, Fern & Roby's $8500 Montrose Heirloom turntable with its standard Unipivot tonearm, and standard Soundsmith/Fern & Roby moving-iron cartridge, and optional on-board Maverick MM/MC phono stage ($500), played an important part in the ZOTL10 vs ZOTL40 comparison. As did my home reference speakers, the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93s ($8500). All of this goodness was strung together with Black Cat interconnects and Ghostwire Silverheart loudspeaker cables. Mark Schneider had the Linear Tube Audio gear plugged into an AudioQuest Niagara 1000 power conditioner ($1000), which in turn was plugged into the hotel wall with an AudioQuest NRG 1000 power cable ($1000).

Xact Audio's Steve Dobbins played George "Wild Child" Buttler's "Sho-Nuff" (Analogue Productions) via the new XXMagDrive turntable ($19,000), with a van den Hul Crimson Stradivarius moving-coil cartridge ($5,500), mounted on a Schröder Linear Tracker with magnesium armwand upgrade ($12,500). Wild Child sounded pretty good, but less full, big, supple, and musical than I imagined it should. (I mean, geezee Louizee, how much should rich, supple, and musical actually cost?)

I doubt I can blame the Zu Definition MKIV loudspeakers ($18,500) because I have heard them sound fine-grained, lively, and truly sublime on previous occasions. I am not familiar with the VDH Crimson Stradivarius cartridge, nor the $2200 Xact Audio #9 phono stage…so maybe it was one of them? My eyes couldn't see the cartridge perfectly; maybe Steve Dobbins was playing the $18,250 the van den Hul Grail SB cartridge listed on the room sheet? (But I hope not.) Lots of people I know admire CH Precision electronics' L1 line-level preamp ($34,500) and A1 amplifier ($37,000), but I have no experience with their creations, so therefore, I cannot not speculate about their basic character.

Cables were by van den Hul and Echole. Equipment racks by Stillpoints. Room treatments were Stillpoints Apertures. (No line conditioning was mentioned)

In retrospect, I am thinking: these sonic impressions may have been affected by tiredness, and by how much all this stuff cost.

klosterman's picture

Great writing here Herb. Felt like I was there (I wish).

Marvelousmarkie's picture
Marvelousmarkie's picture
Wavelength's picture


It was great to see you as always! Thanks for the nice comments, Kelly will be at the next show with a smile and a joke :)