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The second runner-up in my Saturday musings was the room put together by US distributor Avatar Acoustics and Tri-Art Audio. Although radically different from the systems of Coherent or Zu/Ocellia both sonically and technologically, the Avatar room was just as engaging. The first thing they did right was size the system to the smaller space they occupied, relying on a pair of Italian Rosso Fiorentino stand monitors to energize the room instead of massive speakers that would have overwhelmed it.

Another showing of the muRata piezo tweeter

The source was AMR’s now well-reviewed CD777. With the bamboo and concrete-clad Tri-Art electronics the combination was lively, dynamic and highly resolved without hard edges. The speakers provided surprising bottom extension without the bloating or lack of resolution one usually gets from pushing a small speaker too far in the bass. The midrange was as clean yet organic as they come. The super tweeter added just the touch of sparkle I did not get with Zu and Coherent. Or perhaps it was all due to the room being fully treated with ASI’s line of acoustic resonators and sugar cubes. To me it sounded like a room put together by somebody who knows how to get the best from a given setup regardless and is not trying to wow you with unnecessary artifacts to instead let the music speak for itself. Of course this did not have the scale of the Coherent setup or the dynamics of the Zu/Ocellia system. Yet in a smaller room I would have picked the Avatar/Tri-Art system over the other two because it just sounded right, unrestrained and incredibly resolved though still organic. Arrangements have been made to explore this further. I was really puzzled by the overall system synergy these folks managed to achieve.

The third runner-up is accustomed to best-of-show awards and again did not disappoint. On top of that I don’t think Ian Grant knows how to put an expensive system together even if he wanted to. Grant Fidelity’s demo was once again excellent and their system should put many manufacturers to shame. Grant Fidelity was showing one of their smaller USB DACs, a 50-watt tube integrated and a pair of nicely finished monitors on stands. Sticker shock? $4200 for the total package. I know it's Chinese but the result was excellent and the cost a welcome departure from what I have seen at shows over the past few years. Was it perfect? Of course not. The three previous systems bested it in many ways but they were a lot more expensive too. The Grant system did nothing wrong and many things very right. I simply listened and the music was natural and unrestrained in the ways I enjoy. Here again was no attempt at playing a too-big-for-its-shoes speaker. Instead they elected to show how a well-chosen two-way can do marvelous things in the proper setup.

Monarchy Audio showed their modestly priced electronics with a similar philosophy. While the resultant sound was excellent for the price, it was not quite as involving and communicative as the Grant Fidelity system yet for their price tags both went far beyond my expectations. We need more Grants and Monarchys in this hobby!

And that’s it folks. Four rooms were truly accomplished and memorable and I caught myself wanting to stay longer than I had planned to. That said there were many others which deserve honorable mentions starting with the never disappointing Audio Note UK room.

They were demonstrating what for them was a 'reasonable' $25.000 system with CD 4.1x, OTO-se integrated and AN-E/SPe HE speakers. The sound was exactly what you would expect: a gorgeous midrange—probably the nicest most natural of any at the show—a recessed treble and what I have come to call 'Audio Note bass', i.e. a strong bump in the upper bass resulting from corner placement. This setup with strong toe-in produces the most predictable repeatable sound signature from show to show and room to room and never sounds bad. It also sounds the same from disc to disc and style to style. That’s why I struggle with the AN/E speakers a bit although I love the Audio Note electronics. Don’t get me wrong, I’d pick their system over many $100.000 installments I heard over the years but I’d pick any of the first far cheaper four rooms before I’d pick the complete Audio Note rig. The AN electronics with the Coherent speakers ... now that would probably have been a different affair altogether.

David and I also found ourselves quite pleasantly surprised by the Rutherford Audio room showcasing Burmester electronics and Elac Linie 500 speakers. Both of us reflected that this was the first time we heard an Elac demo that did not bleed our ears. Although the sound still lacked somewhat in body versus what I enjoy listening to, I expected pain and got very listenable music instead.

I was similarly surprised by the overall listenability of the Atoll/Elac room. This leads me to believe that the German speaker company has finally exorcised its demons of squeak. Of course the Burmester jewels went a lot further in resolution and finesse than the Atolls but the price was not comparable either. I love it when a brand positively surprises me at a show. This was clearly the case with Elac this year.

Eden Audio too showed a solid-performing system built around a pair of Tannoy Prestige speakers, simaudio Moon CD player and Jadis amplifier. The point-source construction played its magic for imaging and the Tannoys sounded as rich and British as they ever have. But I couldn't shake feeling that the presentation sounded a bit flat and cozy compared to what I know the Tannoys are capable of. I suspected the Jadis amplifier with its fully assumed distortion and euphonics. The sound was not bad but I could not immerse myself in the presentation completely with the reservation that it would have better fit a library whilst reading a book by the fireplace and sipping a 20-year old single malt - not ideal for Renaud Garcia Fons but certainly fantastic for listening to a Schubert lied before going to bed.

Contrary to Eden Audio's reserved dynamics, Crown Mountain presented the extrovert and equally impressive Kudos Audio Titan driven by the very surprising Mimetism electronics created in France and built in Switzerland (usually off-shore manufacturing means cost cutting but here I suspect it means perfectionism). The Titans were absolutely outgoing, dynamic and unrestrained but full bodied as well. It was so impressive in fact that I was going to settle into the room for a prolonged session when the distributor switched playback to the recording of a helicopter played back at realistic levels. It confirmed that nothing can faze those speakers but it had me leave in a hurry. Too bad. I truly felt those giants hid tons of tonal refinement.