6moons industryfeatures: Chip Stern's report from HE2003 in San Francisco
Speaking of eyes in the sky, French speaker manufacturer Cabasse teamed up with Butler Audio honcho B.K. Butler for an audio presentation that had all the spaciousness of the Kimber suite, and then some: To wit, a level of midrange illumination, bass extension and dimensionality that was as ineluctable as it was alluring. That's because the approach Butler took to hybrid vacuum tube amplification was a little off the beaten path - I leave it to 6Moons potentate Srajan Ebaen to hold forth on the gory details. Although the room tended to have a slightly lugubrious influence, for this listener the aural impact suggested wining proportions of both silk and steel. The Cabasse Kara ($14,228) is a four-way design that employs a 12" woofer (the 30M22) in a semi-cylindrical cabinet incorporating what Cabasse refers to as GDS (a Global Dampening System) to "optimize the acoustical neutrality of the cabinet's structure". Mounted atop this obelisk-like structure is Cabasse's proprietary TC 22, a three-way concentric (tricentric, if you like) descendant of the TC21 driver I first encountered in their flagship Atlantis loudspeaker way back in 1996 at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel during what was then known as the Stereophile Hi-Fi Show (accent on two-channel fidelity).

The $85,000/pr Atlantis featured a pyramid-like structure housing two self-powered 12" drivers, with the spherical TC21 positioned mid-way down the face of the cabinet like a giant zit on the nose of the Sphinx. At that time, I was startled by how all the speakers' point source characteristics seemed to melt away. Cabasse's updated TC22 driver as employed in the Kara combines lower-midrange (80-1000 Hz), midrange (500-5000 Hz) and tweeter (3000-22,000 Hz) functions in a single driver. Its off-axis behavior and dispersion characteristics were most impressive. The Butler Audio Model 100-A monoblocks ($9995/pr) reverse the current thinking on hybrid designs in which tubes are generally employed only in the gain stage while solid-state devices are employed as output devices.

Again, I defer to Srajan's explication of the technology, but my understanding is that the 100-A has no output transformer, though it is not strictly speaking an OTL-style amp; and that it derives its 100 watts of single-ended output from a single Western Electric 300B triode tube, which is somehow direct-coupled to the speaker load. There. I'm sure I've made a complete botch of that. Be that as it may, while the Karas are rated at 93.5dB sensitivity into a nominal 8-ohm load, a dip to 3.2 ohms would indicate a pretty significant demand for power from the Karas' bass drivers. Nevertheless, the Butler amps drove these speakers effortlessly, with a varnished high frequency sheen and a touch of midrange mink we might readily associate with 300B SET designs - and reserves of dynamic power we do not. Full, richly detailed and extended, the Kara/Butler system was a little bloomy in the mids, and not quite as transparent as some systems we heard (again, I'd factor in the room). Still, this audiophile pairing produced a big, fat, musical presentation with nimble rhythm and pacing, powerful dynamics and a soundstage expansive enough to make John Barry's theme music from the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service sound like a majestic wide screen epic.

Another stunning chapter in the realm of the mysterious and ineluctable was writ large by Art Audio amplifier designer Joe Fratus in a wonderfully smooth, balanced- sounding room he shared with loudspeaker designer Terry Cain of Cain & Cain. Apparently Joe and Terry switched between a variety of amps and speakers over the duration of the show, but on the day I dropped by, they were driving the Cain & Cain Studio BEN-ES ($12,000/pr) with the 6wpc Art Audio PX-25 ($6000). The former are a tall, shallow, twin rear-horn loaded design, featuring a single driver in the middle of the cabinet, augmented by an Alnico super-tweeter with an SET-friendly sensitivity of 97dB. Now, I'm not ordinarily drawn to single-ended-triode amplifiers. Not out of any ennui for the technology, but because in my experience the fringe elements of single-ended-triode fan-dumb-mentalism are utterly obnoxious. Sniff sniff - oh push-pull and solid state are simply inadequate. Uh huh. Get a life. But Joe Fratus was such an earnest, down-to-earth fellow that I got caught up in his unbridled enthusiasm for the sonic signature of the pre-World War II VT-40 triode tube.

Joe explained how he was inspired enough to call upon the late Ricardo Kron of KR Audio to revive the PX-25 tube, and was in turn inspired to refine his transformer designs to take advantage of a steady supply of this more robust modern approximation of his beloved vintage triode sound. Now in my experience, six watts per channel is a joke - awesome midrange with the right speakers, but where's the transient snap, where's the frequency extension? Well, how would you like your crow, Chip? Poached or fried? I'll admit my eyes kind of glazed over as Joe expounded on voltage versus current issues, and his experiments with different styles of transformers, but the proof was in the listening. The synergy between amp and speakers was sublime, with exceptional resolution and surprising bass control and dynamic range. No, the bass didn't have great weight or chakra- vibrating depth but excellent speed, focus, harmonic complexity and character, especially in that lower midrange transition zone. I was particularly surprised by how hard I could push the system: Ahmad Jamal's hotly recorded piano maintained its coherence and timbral balance; Jaco Pastorious' fretless bass on Pat Metheny's "Missouri Uncompromised" was beautifully articulated and I heard more woodiness in Regina Carter's violin on her arrangement of Debussy's "Reverie" than I did on any other system.

Best of all were the rhythm and pacing of bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Billy Higgins on Sonny Rollins' "You Are My Lucky Star". This 1963 stereo recording is not, strictly speaking, an audiophile object d'art, but a hard swinging, avant-garde tinged performance that sums up everything I love about tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and trumpeter Don Cherry during this period in their development. All the vocalized nuances of Sonny's phrasing were magnified and illuminated. The high frequency presence and layered midrange detail of this system gave the cymbals a weightless, shimmering buoyancy, and the taut, nimble bass response conferred a convincing likeness of the musicians' literal presence in the room. I felt as though I was right in the thick of things at the moment of creation. What more could you ask for?

Hahahaha. Silly rabbit! For more trix; more resolution, more power, more dynamics, more immediacy, more visceral impact, more volume, more layering, more transparency, more air, more excitement - more of everything! And so, having struck a heroic blow for budget and space-challenged audiophiles, your intrepid avatar, positioned as he is at the very epicenter of hip, must surely confess that where high-end grandeur is concerned, nothing succeeds quite like excess. Even so well-traveled a listener as the [c]HIPSTER[n] gets all school-girl weak in the knees in the presence of the unimaginable and the unobtainable: Over-the-top dream systems.

Which is why a lot of people attend these shows in the first place. I'd be less than honest if I didn't confess to popping a spiritual woody in the presence of cost-no-object audio systems. Such is our sense of perspective from high atop the summit of Mount No-Compromise, that when we return to our humble homes in Rancho Trade-Off Valley, we have a basis for comparison. Out of that, hopefully, we derive some sense of how to approximate that all-encompassing perspective, reduced in terms of absolute volume and frequency extension but not in scale, dimensionality or midrange grandeur. Needless to say, I was favorably impressed by the musicality, physical impact and dimensionality of several rooms that really got my juices flowing (never mind how compromised by acoustic boundaries). In fact, I was rather surprised by the lack of props they've received amongst some fans and colleagues who gravitate as a matter of principle towards low-powered SET amps, yet find SS and tube muscle amps trés excessive.

Once again, it all comes down to system synergy. We've already heard how with certain speakers, a 6-watt amp can sound like a million bucks. Likewise, all things being equal, given the lower sensitivity and current demands of certain dynamic designs, more power is often a necessity. Still, in my experience, when referencing high-quality electronics, while more power isn't always necessary, it is invariably welcome - for unlimited dynamic headroom, lifelike, distortion-free transient response and a surprising degree of nuance and low level detail. And as is the case with many real-life bruisers, the flip side of unlimited power and aggressiveness is often a surprising degree of sensitivity and depth.

And for sheer muscle and nuance, you'd be hard-pressed to top the two suites shared by Dynaudio and Musical Fidelity. In a small room just adjacent to the main suite, I experienced the superb Dynaudio Special 25 ($4800/pr) mini-monitors driven to perfection by the 300wpc Musical Fidelity TRI300 Tri-Vista Dual Mono Integrated Amplifier ($6000), the first release in Musical Fidelity's limited-edition series of hybrid components employing the low-noise, wide-bandwidth, military-spec, tiny triode tube known as the 5703 Trivistor. Again, please consider the tactical advantages of how perfectly you can couple a pair of small speakers to your room. And when you're talking about the Special 25s, you're not just talking about any small speakers. You're contemplating the last word in no-compromise mini-monitors: Astonishing clarity, resolution, soundstaging depth, dynamic range, transparency and air+air for days, just as sweet and open and detailed as you please. And with all that warm, clean, pure, honest power to lift them, the Special 25s' speed, snap and bass extension were stunning.

I was mesmerized. And as revealing as the Special 25s were, they offered an ideal portal into the sonic signature of quality electronics and digital sources - in this case the stunning Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD Player ($6495). Anyone with space limitations; anyone who is looking for a revealing near-field monitor; anyone who just loves a good coherent two-way mini-monitor owes it to themselves to give this involving little speaker an audition. Was all of that Musical Fidelity amperage and current really necessary to drive these little sweethearts? Not really, but the overall impression of weight, tone and physical immediacy which that power conveyed was glorious.

However, nothing could prepare me for the Herculean heft of the statement system in the main suite, which was surprisingly accommodating to the big Dynaudio Evidence Temptations ($30,000/pr). With their symmetrical arrays of drivers, these tall, gracefully proportioned loudspeakers employ Dynaudio's finest proprietary transducers, with a central array of twin tweeters and midranges, the idea being (according to the website's technical paper) to greatly reduce vertical dispersion and thus minimize reflections and acoustic cancellations in floor to ceiling boundaries. This is said to make them "much less dependent upon room acoustics and listening position as compared to any other high-end loudspeakers". That may very well be, but based upon past show experiences of the Evidence Temptation and their [very] big brother, the Evidence Master, it is damn hard to demo these loudspeakers in a hotel room, though their speed, frequency extension, dynamic range and lack of coloration have always been impressive - that is when those room weren't ringing like a J. Arthur Rank ceremonial gong.

Having said all that, this is the first show in which I truly got a sense of how the line-source Temptations might transcend the point-source experience and pull off a disappearing act on par with the Special 25s. The Temptations present amplifiers with a 4-ohm load, and while they're not a bear to drive, there's no point in even getting involved unless your amps were pushing some very serious current. Well, in San Francisco, the Temptations met their perfect match. Musical Fidelity chose this audition space for the first public roll-out of their limited edition KW [Kilo-Watt] Monoblocks ($24,000/pr) and matching KWP Pre-Amplifier ($12,000), hybrid designs featuring the 5703 tiny triode tubes in the driver stages, along with choke regulation and separate power supplies. Musical Fidelity's Tri-Vista SACD Player completed the signal chain.

"Ridiculous overkill like buying a Ferrari for the street you never get out of 3rd gear?" Srajan groused while detailing their astonishing technical specs in his real-time show report. Yes, single-ended triode boy, by any community standards, at first blush 1000 watts into an 8-ohm load would certainly seem hyperbolic. And seeing as how the Evidence Temptations presented the KW amplifier with a 4-ohm load, MF rated the KW's output as a completely überbolic 1800 watts!

The one symphonic track on my compilation disc arsenal, the "Largo" from Elliot Carter's Clarinet Concerto, served to illustrate the system's unlimited headroom and dynamic range from ppp to fff, from a tiny bell hovering in the background to a cresting snare drum roll. The resolution was superlative, everything in scale and naturally illuminated against a deep, dark voluminous soundstage. But it was the sheer unencumbered buoyancy of the clarinet, woody and weightless as it hovered above a clearly depicted acoustic venue, that truly took my breath away. Again, was all that power necessary?

Well, how vivid do you like your sunsets? On Hendrix's "Drifting", the Musical Fidelity/Dynaudio system conjured up not only the leviathan scale of Billy Cox's Fender Jazz Bass, but a swelter of smaller orchestral details etched in multi-tracked electric guitars - and all this without shortchanging the snap, crackle and pop in Mitch Mitchell's snare, the airy metallic hiss of his sizzle cymbal or the palpable holographic presence of his drum-set. But it was within the smallest of gestures that this system truly validated its arc-welding reserves of current. For me, Schubert's "Ave Maria" is one of those classic Actors' Studio Sense-Memory trigger mechanisms. The moment I hear the opening stanza, I completely well up in tears as I recall the first time I saw a clip of the great Marian Anderson, standing astride Maestro Leopold Stokowski & Orchestra, her hands clasped before her in a posture of indomitable dignity as she invoked that celestial melody and mythological image of the all-consoling, all-forgiving mother.

Well, standing before nothing but an acoustic piano, the great young soprano Reneé Fleming ranks a close second. The manner in which the KW Monoblocks allowed the piano to gently emerge from complete silence while tracking the incremental dynamic steps and expressive tears in Fleming's glorious voice, made for an emotional connection that epitomized what every dedicated listener longs to achieve - Oneness with the music. I felt the notes well up in the recesses of her diaphragm, move through her throat and attain shape and color in her mouth, as she snapped off the phrase on top of her palette. And as those notes grew in volume and blossomed with nuanced detail on the micro-dynamic plane, I was swept up in the enduring grace and sheer power of the human voice. Clearly, high-powered amps are capable of both emotional immediacy and textured intimacy. Their power is not simply an adjunct to volume, but a means of achieving levels of resolution sufficient to make the silence itself come alive.