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Acoustic Zen, Triode Electronics, Twin Audio Video: Junichi Yamazaki stepped things up a notch this year with the introduction of his 845 SET monoblock amps driving the Acoustic Zen Crescendo speakers. This amp has an 845 driver for the 845 output tube. The sound was great again just like last year. It is hard to say if it was better given that different source material (Patricia Barber's Café Blue) was playing. I think there may have been a more expansive soundstage with the new amps and more authority.

Magico, Argento, BaLabo, Zanden, Nagra, Clearaudio: The new Magico Q1 monitor speaker ($24.950/pr) were given ample room to sing in this larger room which I believe Magico used last year for their larger speakers. The Q1 uses the beryllium dome tweeter of the Q3 and Q5 models. 

The electronics were tucked in a back corner of the room where they were manned by someone from Chicago retailer Musical Artisans. When looking over them for my note taking this gent seemed to want to brush aside any attention to the electronics. In any case I was able to determine that the following was in use: Clearaudio turntable, Zanden phono stage, Bottlehead-modified Nagra reel-to-reel tape deck, BAlabo BC-1 Mk. II line stage, BAlabo BP-1 Mk. II amplifier (500wpc into 8 ohms). 

This 165lbs amp sat out on the floor along the side wall looking its part as their website describes it: "A tour-de-force and the absolute last word in musical performance."  Dean and I were captivated when we were both startled by what sounded like someone shaking maracas from a couple of rows in front of us. It turned out to be coming from the speakers. Truly amazing! They also played a cut with a female vocal and the speakers handled the crescendos with aplomb. The clarity and resolution of the sound in this room was some of the best of the show.

Doshi Audio/Paragon Sound: As relatively new owner of a Doshi Alaap Purist full-function tube preamp I had a special interest in this room. Nick Doshi had his push-pull 90-watt Jhor EL34 amps finalized driving the Wilson Sasha. As I stated earlier, the Wilsons are not my favorites.  For my money (and my friend Dean) we felt they sounded their best in this room. Nick had the same front end as last year, the SME Model 20/3 turntable and Series V tonearm with a Koetsu Onyx cartridge and a Wadia S7i CD player both connected to his Doshi Alaap V2.1 full-function preamp ($14.995). This year, he also had a Wadia 171i iPod dock and a Technics RS 1506  open-reel deck. Nick also had a new product on display: a Doshi NAB tape eq stage ($9.995) for the Technics deck.

Audio Alternative, Audio Research Corporation,  AudioQuest, Vandersteen Audio: The Vandersteen 7 speakers were powered by Audio Research Corporation’s Reference 250 monoblock amplifiers in the Audio Alternative room. The Reference Recording Minnesota Orchestra’s Dance of the Tumblers was played as a 24/176 computer file. While the dynamics were stunning I detected a slightly whitish coloration that kept me from completely relaxing to the sound. I know that in the past, ARC electronics were labeled as the source of this type of coloration but I had no way of really knowing this. I thought that ARC had addressed that criticism from about the time of their VT100 forward. In all other ways the system was first rate.

Thiel, Simaudio, Straight Wire, Jeff Rowland: Bryston’s BDP-1 digital media player was the source playing through a Jeff Rowland Aeris DAC and 625 amp ($13.000) into the Thiel 3.7 speakers ($12.000/pr). The system was standing naked in the room without the slightest bit of room treatment - not even any plants! This room demonstrated perfectly what I don’t like about many Thiel speakers. They sounded very clean and there was no edginess to a female vocal but the overall feeling was just too dry and clinical for me. There was no warmth to the sound and the natural decay of notes was missing in action.

Lowther America: Lowther America continues their effort to maximize performance from the Lowther on an open baffle. Just like last year they had a field coil-modified version of the Lowther driver with the same powered 12-inch woofer arrangement.  New to the game I believe was the Raal tweeter. There was an impressive rack of associated equipment including the Bryston BDP-1 digital media player, Pass Labs FirstWatt S2, Pass Labs XP-20 preamp, Pass Labs XP-25 phono stage and Avid turntable with SME tonearm. To my ears there was a distinct discontinuity between the sonic signature of the Raal tweeter and Lowther. They just did not blend to my liking. Upon playing a couple of Elvis Presley LPs I also heard a strained or pinched quality to the upper range of Elvis’s voice.

Red Wine Audio, WLM: Vinnie Rossi had a bare bones setup with some furniture and chair cushions doing double duty as room treatments. The WLM LaScala monitors—I own their LaScala floorstanders—were driven by the latest Signature 15 integrated amp with the Isabellina DAC doing conversion for files fed from a MacBook Pro. (Vinnie uses the optical out on his MacBook.) We listened briefly and then I asked Vinnie to switch over to his new top-of-the-line Liliana hybrid tube/solid state monos (no longer T-amp technology) sitting on the bottom shelf. With the Liliana monos he connected the MacBook to his Isabella preamp with optional built-in DAC. 

After about ten minutes of warm-up time things were starting to really sing. Vinnie played me the Chesky recording of The Persuasions (one of my faves) singing the U2 song Stuck in A Moment. This sounded very good and the new monoblocks acquitted themselves well with a full-bodied and punchy sound. Having lived with the WLM speakers for a couple of years now I can say that they are very musical and coherent. While it is not particularly difficult to get good sound from them, they do respond very well to even the slightest improvement in the audio chain. Vinnie’s new amps using a tube front end and discrete transistor output devices are a clear improvement to my ears.