A Non-Comprehensive Journey
As eager as everyone is to impale 2-channel audio upon the crucifix of a flat panel display (Oh, Death, where is thy sting?), by the looks of things over the course of a lovely spring weekend at Manhattan's Hyatt Hotel (just adjacent to the legendary Grand Central Station on East 42nd Street), the corpse was proving remarkably lively.

True, any number of the leading lights in 2-channel were notable mainly through their absence -- the likes of Manley Labs, Thiel and Conrad/Johnson amongst them -- and the entire confab was truncated down to three days from its customary four (the opening Friday session featuring press-only types until 2:00PM) but oh Doctor, when those flood gates opened, did the people come. Zounds. Of course, the fact that there is a big audio confab hot on the heels of the New York show over in Germany's Munich might have something to do with some of bigger no-shows - the overseas market is a major part of everyone's business.

And so, whilst 2-channel seemingly reels under the relentless tripartite onslaught of portable iPod/MP3 devices, a burgeoning multiplatform cellular technology and the dreary drone of plasma tee-vee, Plasma TV, PLASMA TV (Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my...), the teeming crowds of pilgrims, prophets and patricians jammed onto three floors of audition rooms and two levels of suites and disc bazaars would seem to indicate that the patient has a pulse (as for a purse... stay tuned).

To further amp up the irony -- considering that this was ostensibly not a hifi show but a home entertainment expo -- the relative paucity of surround sound and home theater-based demos, whilst not signaling a sea-change in the marketplace, certain bespoke the combined enthusiasm of the assembled audio fans. And no, my cynicism and sarcasm should not mark me as a 21st century Luddite nor do I necessarily dismiss iPods, cellular phones and home theater as some sort of Axis of Feeble. It's all actually way cool. Just that while the notion of a nice portable personal on-the-go stereo is appealing, I am not particularly entranced by low-resolution audio formats and as I spend more time in my car, what might have been allocated to an iPod budget (or, more likely, to debt service) recently went for an inexpensive but slamming new Kenwood AM/FM CD-deck for my '92 Toyota Camry, replacing the deceased audio rig which came standard with the old car. As for home theater, I really haven't got the room, the budget or the inclination. I have an inexpensive 14" Toshiba Flat Screen (with an integral DVD and VHS deck) next to my computer station, and a 20 year old/20-inch NEC in the audio room.

So color me retrograde. But then I am filled with genuine horror when dealers tell me of the penny-wise and pound-foolish consumers who routinely invest vast sums on the automation system and video display while bolting some sad-ass speakers into the wall without so much as an audition. Still, audio companies soldier on bravely and offer the marketplace a surfeit of much better choices, much as they now try and entrance iPod enthusiasts with docking bays and other audio interfaces, all the while trying to nurture in them an interest in stepping up to this high-end audio thing. As for cell phones, I am apparently the last hold-out but then as a cab driver and sometime passenger, I am appalled by the narcissism of the cellular culture: cab drivers too busy on their own freaking cell phones to fully occupy themselves with the business of getting passengers safely to and fro; and legions of pod people walking around oblivious to traffic lights, speeding cars and imminent doom as they dial and text message in the midst of busy intersections. La-di-dah, Jesus loves me, I shall not be deceased. As a cab driver, I've already bagged my limit of cellphonites, which presently hang out back in my smoke house. Hey, a little mesquite, a little hot sauce... mighty fine eating.

But, I do go on. The point being that I still love music and the old school audio verities of the proscenium arch. Two-channel lives. Many a person approached me to say hello over the course of the show, to offer some kind thought, a word of appreciation for my writing and to share on some level their enthusiasm for this two-channel thing of ours. And I just wanted to say to all of you, thanks - and right back at you.

I guess over the years (cough) I've mellowed to a degree (go ahead, have your little chuckle) and I'd hardly gotten my wick wet on Day 1 of the Show when an earnest gentleman opined with something akin to Biblical certitude as to how high-powered tube amps could never be expected to match the audio verity of their less liberally endowed comrades.


Okay, this is something of an ongoing dialog between me, 6moons poobah Srajan Ebaen and my homie, contributor-par excellence Iron Chef PhotoShop John Potis, both of whom have extensive experience with single-ended triode amps and the speakers that love them. And yes, I get it, I get it - I am certainly not immune to their charms, particularly those of Art Audio's Joe Fratus, which I've had the pleasure of hearing at a number of shows and in John Potis' own reference system.

So when this fellow hit me with his Papal Encyclical on Vacuum Tubes, I kept my cool. In my youth I would have taken the bait and gone to DefCon8, but in my dotage an opening salvo of "Oh, bullshit!" seemed to suffice.

Hey, to each their own, but in room after room, the likes of VTL, Audio Research, VAC and Rogue put the sword to such received wisdom. I did allow to my new-found friend that if he had a conjugal visit with the 800-watts tetrode/400-watts triode VTL Siegfried monoblocks, he might just hear the voice of God. And as it so happens, nearby among the lesser deities, Sound By Singer's Andy Singer (the Johnny Appleseed of Tube Audio in Manhattan), was spreading mirth and light in his own winsome way down in the Plymouth room where VTL's Luke & Bea Manley held court over a spectacular system featuring Nordost and Shunyata neurologicals and gastrointestinals in a spectacular cost-is-no-object statement system featuring dCS' Scarlatti CD/SACD transport, DAC and Master Clock and Escalante Fremont loudspeakers. In tandem with the dynamic single-chassis VTL Siegfried 400 stereo power amp, Luke & Bea showcased their TL6.5 preamp and TP6.5 phono preamp, which made for a capacious soundscape that was both visceral in its impact yet awash in the kind of small intimate details that spell live music.

Likewise, Rogue's Mark O'Brien featured his mighty Zeus power amp in tandem with an impressive new statement preamp, the $7,499 two-chassis Hera -- breathtaking in its clarity, sweetly layered midrange veracity and graceful resolution -- driving the full-bodied Eggleston Rosas to impressive SPL levels, with dynamic realism, pinpoint control and intoxicating levels of linearity and detail. In another room, those beloved high-end audio vaudevillians, loudspeaker icon and straight man Richard Vandersteen and his long-time comic foil, retailer John Rutan of Verona New Jersey's Audio Connection, produced their customarily flawless soundstaging, showcasing the remarkable Vandersteen 5As in tandem with Audioquest neurologicals, which simply wipe the floor with most of the statement loudspeakers I've heard costing many times as much - and this demo was no exception.

When I mentioned to Richard my friend's theory as to the inferiority of high-powered tube amps, he looked at me as if I were Bullwinkle A. Moose, recently airlifted in from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. He pointed to the Audio Research Reference 110 stereo power amplifier and wondered if I found the sound wanting in any way. I did not. Elsewhere, Kevin Hayes of VAC had one of his sophisticated tube designs on display in one of two Rives Audio rooms featuring identical sets of Talon Thunderhawk loudspeakers, one featuring acoustic treatments, the other featuring electronic compensation from the PARC parametric equalizer. Reports varied from folks I talked to regarding which sound system they preferred, the treated or the untreated. But I was shuffled in and out of the room so quickly I couldn't identify the VAC model (I believe it was a 90wpcVAC Alpha integrated amp) and in subsequent visits, I never had the patience to stand on line for a demo nor did I choose to try and pull rank - I'm an important personage, sir, let me in. Not my style.

Which is why there were as per usual so many rooms I never had a chance to sample let alone linger in - a good problem for the 2-channel industry as interest was keen among show-goers but I missed many a room where I had a more than passing interest such as Hyperion, whose loudspeakers are much esteemed by many people whose ears I respect. So no, I am not here to report on the show so much as the manner in which I was content to nosh from the buffet table of sonic delights, ranging from the very outer reaches of the known galaxy to garage sales on the outskirts of the time and space continuum.

I mean, as far as such shows go, I've never been a completist by nature and while I poked my head into many a room, I lingered in fewer, content in the knowledge that my colleagues would pursue their passions much as I pursued mine - and is that after all not the name of the game. And looking at what peaked the interest of 6moons colleague Michael Lavorgna in his show report (or what he was able to squeeze in before his legs gave out), one can only exult, viva la difference.

One area where we seemed to have crossed paths was in the Cabasse room, where Christophe Cabasse was introducing a new set of statement speakers, the Invaders-from-Mars-styled LaSphere. When told they were retailing for $150,000/pr, I smiled and quipped "So Chris, the Atlantis weren't expensive enough," referring to the pyramid with internal subwoofers and a tri-axial driver sitting like a giant zit on its face that I first heard at the... oh, I forget, was it the 1996 Stereophile Hi-Fi Show at the Waldorf? Lots of dynamics and a pretty amazing spatial dimension were its sonic signature and the LaSpheres behaved in a similar manner as Cabasse claims dispersion within 2dB of reference response: over a sixty degree arc for any plane, forming a perfect sixty-degree cone.

Sitting atop a Tralfalmadorian nucleonic supporting stand is this immense 4-way point-source driver featuring tweeter, midrange and lower midrange elements and a 22" bass unit. No, that wasn't a typo. Each of the drivers was assigned their own separate BelCanto amp (e.One Reference 1000s I believe), four to a side, with a four-way active processor controlling crossover points and time alignment for the four acoustic centers. I didn't have much time to mess with them before the crowds and controlled demos came but despite the sheer weight of the bass, they were surprisingly dainty and spatial in their presentation. Of course, for $150,000, one would hope to get a lap dance and a villa in Lichtenstein as part of the package.

On the other end of the known galaxy, just to provide aesthetic and comic balance, Allan Yun of Silverline featured what I would characterize as an anti demo. Instead of a high-powered amp and sophisticated digital front end, he had a miniature 25-watt amp probably outsourced from the grand Duchy of Fenwick, and an ancient Philips CD player he had purchased for five bucks in a yard sale and restored to life with scotch tape and healing herbs (it is now available on e-Bay for ten bucks). He was driving, if I may be allowed the latitude to use that term so loosely given the heroic cheesiness of his rig, a pair of stand-mounted Silverline Audio Minuet loudspeakers, a biwire-ready set of diminutive ass-kickers with a surprising degree of extension and resolution, considering that they are all of 9" x 5.5" x 7.25" and feature a 3" woofer. Again, that is not a typo. Mind you, I didn't see the burning bush but they were authentic hifi speakers and a pretty good value at $600.

But when it comes to value, Roy Hall consistently delivers the goods - authentic high-end audio gear that is musical, easy to listen, non-fatiguing and involving. And this year's combination of new gear from Music Hall, Creek and Epos was no exception and that ain't just his whiskey speaking. Okay, given, it's a dirty little secret of high-end audio that the more humbly endowed loudspeakers invariably fare better in the horrific acoustics of hotel rooms than the more vociferously endowed as they are less prone to excite room nodes and suffer from reflections and other acoustic anomalies. Which is why, parenthetically speaking, Bobby Palkovic's Merlin loudspeakers invariably make a good case for themselves as they did this year in the newest VSM-MXE iteration, driven along nicely by a little 30-watt screen-mesh pentode/22-watt pure class A, E34L equipped integrated amp from ARS Sonum Filarmonia (there, can I have a witness, a low-powered amp... and I bet you didn't think I had it in me).

But on the level of pure musicality, the full-frequency system in Roy's room was engaging and lovely to listen to on any level and at any price point, let alone the relatively modest one this no-compromise system featured: the floorstanding Epos M16 ($1600) and M Subwoofer ($1195); the one-piece carbon tone-arm and Music Hall Maestro cartridge-equipped Music Hall MMF-9 turntable ($1999); the 100wpc Creek Destiny integrated amplifier ($2395) and Destiny CD Player ($2395); and a Whest Phono preamp if I recall whose price point escapes me. A whole system for well under what some high-end separates sell for.

A point worth remembering, because those of us on the inside looking out oft times forget that there are folks who aspire to join the party who do not have deep pockets and are not able to book extended conjugal visits with sophisticated gear. How do we reach these people? I met a lovely young man at the end of the show who had been all around and was almost apologetic in his inability to imagine how he could sign on to all of this good sound, which meant so much to him. I tried to tell him that it ain't all about throwing money at gear and just because someone is hawking a product with a huge price tag does not a priori make it better than one costing less; that you can make your compromises work for you. I suggested he go down to the Roy Hall room and check out their new Music Hall Trio, a terrific-sounding CD receiver putting out an honest 50 watts a channel for only $999 while driving a pair of little Epos 5 to perfection. Only $999.

Well, as the young man put it, "That's three weeks' money." I was embarrassed. I felt like I was patronizing him. But there's the conundrum, gear geeks. I can recall reviewing an NAD CD Receiver called the L-40 some years ago for Stereophile, which at the time was being sold in a single package with a pair of PSB Alpha mini monitors for $799. And it was a slamming little system, which could drive better speakers as you moved up the food chain so long as
you didn't drive them too damn hard and reveal the inadequacies of its power supply, which is where their designers made their compromises in this low-powered but high-value rig. NAD has since discontinued it. These are the products we need to be marketing, to ensnare those consumers throwing up their hands in I'll-Never-Be Able-To-Afford-It Despair, running out to get iPods instead. How do we hook them up?

But I do go on. Did I say low-powered amps? Perhaps only in passing. Did I mention high-value gear? Surely as I've intimated there was also plenty of high performance gear as well. In my journeys I encountered high value and high performance gear in equal measure. For instance, there was a dandy-sounding hybrid amp driving a pair of Joseph Audio's newly tweaked RM25XLs in the Moscode room, which if I can read my notes correctly was a 402P with a tube front end and a solid-state back end, putting out 200 watts per side and offering a lovely combination of tube refinement and solid state control, midrange layering, a sweet top end and solid low frequency focus. And in the Gershman Acoustics room, there was a new Sonogram three-way floorstanding loudspeaker, which while seemingly a rectangular box quite unlike their familiar pyramid shaped enclosures, features a pyramid-cum-triangular shaped internal structure, the better they claim to reduce standing waves. Priced at $2500/pr, this speaker has exceptional imaging qualities and low-frequency extension down into the high 20s, with a nice tight focus.

However, for me amplifier-loudspeaker nirvana manifested itself most palpably in the Earthly dimension in the Simaudio/Dynaudio/Cardas room, which to these ears was far and away the best-sounding room in the show. I reviewed the diminutive and startlingly musical Dynaudio Confidence C1 for Positive Feedback OnLine some months back, at which time I opined that if it wasn't the best sounding loudspeaker I had ever heard, it was surely the best-sounding mini-monitor. Had I lost my mind? I needed another listen.

Well, it would be hard to imagine a better sounding speaker than those I heard in this room, pulling off a remarkable variation on that old schoolyard game of where's the subwoofer? Well, there wasn't any but I didn't meet anyone over the course of the show who felt shortchanged by the astonishing bass, midrange layering, clarity and linearity of these speakers. And soundstaging? Forget about the speakers disappearing. The whole damn room disappeared! I had been hoping to hear the C1 with a really high powered amp but I never expected anything as balls to the wall yet refined as the Simaudio W-7M monoblocks, a fully balanced differential design with seemingly limitless reserves of current and dynamic headroom, which are rated (and pretty
conservatively at that) as 500 watts per side into 8 ohms and 1000 watts into 4 ohms (and the C1s). In tandem with the Simaudio P-8 preamp and the upcoming Andromeda two-channel CD player, the resolution, clarity and effortless dynamic range of this system was breathtaking - as was the power-handling capacity of the C1s, which just ate up all of that current without breaking a sweat. It's hard to imagine a better-sounding, no-compromise system and those people still hung up on the size of these loudspeakers should be sentenced to time on a Southern chain gang and, if feasible, proscribed from procreating - the better to prevent them from spreading their old wives tales and demon seed upon the firmament. It ain't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog - and the Confidence C1 can take on all comers. Woof.

However, Simaudio is not simply banking on all-singing, all-dancing products costing in the $12-to-16,000 range as they also introduced an impressive little integrated amp/CD tandem, the new 50 watt i-1 integrated and CD-1 separates, which retail for $1349 a piece and feature all kinds of sophisticated electronics and processors normally associated with much pricier products. Nice.

Also nice, no make that damn nice, were the Bel Cantoe.One REF1000 monoblocks (analog switching amps which John Potis reviewed for 6moons, retailing for a relatively tame $2000) and a pair of Bel Canto Dac3 digital level controls being used in the Joseph Audio room to drive a pair of the new RM33LE I reviewed some time back for Stereophile. I never did hear this newer iteration of the RM33si with the top-of-the line SEAS tweeter featured in the Joseph Pearls and Jeff has subsequently tweaked the crossover and the 8" bass driver. As a result, the speakers are more impactful, with a fuller and more focused low end as the leading edge of the bass transient is both tighter and quicker ... yet they maintain the lovely spatial and soundstaging qualities I've long admired in Joseph Audio loudspeakers. And it was impressive how effortlessly the Bel Canto rig drove these speakers, with a silky smooth yet crisply detailed sound. Now I can tell why Potis took notice.

If the Dynaudio/Simaudio room represented a peak experience of sheer resolution and musicality, the Wilson/Balanced Audio Technology/Shunyata room was an oasis of musical emotion. Featuring the new Wilson Watt Puppy 8, BAT REX reference preamplifier and Shunyata Hydra V-Ray Power Conditioner, as sophisticated as the gear was (and this new preamp retailing at $18,500 features 18 tubes, a power supply for each positive and negative polarity, adjustable current source in the gain stage... sophisticated enough for y'all?), the real star of the presentation was the music. Geoff Poor and Steve Bednarski of Balanced Audio Technology are first and foremost music people for whom the experience of live music, of a true immersion in sound, is paramount - as reflected most eloquently in their products such as the exemplary VK-150SE monoblocks (single-ended triode monoblocks with 150 watts per side of no nonsense power and refinement) being employed in this demo. Likewise, Peter McGrath of Wilson, whose live hard disc recordings were showcased in a fully darkened room in which the system disappeared, to be replaced instead by live music - or so it seemed... a lovely illusion for which I would like to thank them. The experience of a piano and a symphony in that room was utterly believable.

Finally, if the Dynaudio Confidence C1 represented something of a musical paradigm for me in terms of absolute loudspeaker performance, the stand-mounted Usher Audio Dancer Be-718 monitor speakers at $2500/pr were not all that far behind. Driven along by an all-Oracle rig featuring among other earthly delights their impressive CD 1500 player and buttressed by the extraordinary musicality of those new top-of-the-line JPS Labs Aluminata speaker cables, interconnects and AC cords (which Art Dudley raved about in a recent Stereophile), these speakers demonstrated the kind of tonal balance, linearity, image stability, soundstaging depth, frequency extension and overall coherence I covet in a minimonitor. If this represents the more or less entry-level quality of the loudspeakers Usher is looking to introduce to the American marketplace, they are off to a flying start. [John Potis is set to review a pair soon - Ed.]

As for the JPS Labs Aluminata series [designer Joe Skubinski above], it is easy to hear why Art Dudley was so impressed. Their portrayal of music has a degree of aural authority that must be experienced to be believed. I've long cherished the Aluminata AC cords for their performance in power applications but the new interconnects and speaker cables are something else again: linear, tonally accurate, jet-black/noise-free backgrounds, with exceptional image stability, soundstaging illumination and full-frequency realism. Oh, and they practically gift-wrap the bass.

And so the audiophiles come and go, speaking of Michelangelo...