Apropos of nothing in particular, let’s change things up a bit: what do you know about analog tape?
The answer in my case is a solid “not much” – but I’m learning. Why? Well, mainly because United Home Audio’s Greg Beron has been beating me over the head the last few years, and quite frankly, the dude has just plain worn me down. My objection – that the albums are so hideously expensive – is, perhaps, a just turn of events in favor of the thing that actually brings most audiophiles to their listening chair in the first place: the music. Touché. Albums aside, from a fidelity perspective, I have to say that “analog tape” may well be best bargain in the ultra high-end. Think about it – with some turntable manufacturers pricing their latest assaults on par with the cost of a condo in Miami Beach, a “new” 15ips analog tape machine – which usually includes the cost of the preamp, a necessary extra cost for the vinyl nut – seems downright reasonable. Add to that the stunning sound quality that’s reserved for master tape – and the fact that you actually can finally listen to those usually-hidden-behind-locked-doors master tapes – and the case is fairly clear. Get ye to a demo, posthaste.
The best sound I heard at AXPONA came from one of Greg’s analog tape machines, a UHA Phase 11PB. Wired into a monster-pair of TAD Reference One loudspeakers by way of some Lamm M2.2 220wpc monoblocks ($23,790) and a Model L2 Reference preamp ($15,790), the Phase 11 played out a master tape recorded by Jonathan Horwich of International Phonograph (who was running the room), and I swear, a trumpet player stepped into the room. Not eerie, not freaky, just startlingly real. Ska-doosh.
Two other UHA close encounters happened, courtesy of MBL. The first came from a white Phase II paired with a pair of white MBL 116F loudspeakers ($29,000), powered by Jolida electronics clad in a matching white enamel finish. I felt distinctly underdressed, as if I’d worn a black-tie to a white-tie event – right up until Led Zepplin came on song and everything became clear – all this white gear came from the land of the ice and snow. It fit. Ta-da! A Luxor preamplifier and matching monoblock amps (price is $TBD), some custom cabling from Greg Beron’s Celtic Silver Pendragon line, all sitting on $28k worth of racks and stands from Critical Mass Systems.
I found out the next day that the “big” MBL room had suffered something of a catastrophe – the hotel was imploding, slowly, and the snow melting on the roof had pushed its way through into their room. See? Told you March in Chicago was just tempting things! The loudspeakers that first day were the big $70,500 MBL101MK2 Radialstrahler – very ably powered by the MBL Reference Line ($259,700), which included a pair of 9011 monoblock amps, a 6010 D preamplifier, a 1611 F D/A converter and a 1621 CD Transport. Late Saturday night, I was swept into an afterhours listening party where Jeremy and Tara Bryan of MBL North America married up Greg’s white UHA Phase 11, and played one-off master tapes the Doors, the Beatles, Elton John, Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald, Led Zepplin … yeah. Channeling Ben Fong-Torres, it was “crazy”.
Pricing for the UHA tape decks starts at $8,900 for an entry-level playback-only Phase 8PB reel-to-reel machine, with improved parts and recording capabilities dragging the price to a rather lofty $22,000. Information on the decks, and some excellent sources for tape, can be found on United Home Audio’s website.
Meanwhile, over in the Purity Audio Design room, Bill Baker and Joe Jurzec were demoing their spanky new all-metal preamp chassis. Bill told me that the new chassis are significantly more robust than the outgoing acrylic trapezoids, and while they are, I kinda miss the oddball shape of the old design, which kinda reminded me of a sandcrawler (minus all the unsightly blast damage). New, along with the upgraded casework, is a tube circuit that features a 6SN7 tube, and the “power supplies now utilize high current toroidal transformers, choke filtering and 100% polypropylene capacitor filter banks.” Paired with the all-wood, asymmetrically-faced Argos loudspeaker from Daedalus Audio ($12,950), the impressive two-chassis Silver Statement preamp ($32k) was actually upstaged by another what’s-this-it’s-new offering – a rather sleek pair of very black parallel SET mono amps, based on the 300b tube. The $26k (est. pricing) prototypes, carrying the moniker PSE300b, were actually completed earlier that same week, but were very ready to shake the room with some astounding bass. Wasn’t expecting that out of a 300b! Other bits in the Ball Tech rack were a Playback Designs MPD-5 DAC ($13k), a Sony XA777ES (used as a transport), a digital cable from High Fidelity Cables, signal cables from Gingko Audio, and power cables from WyWires.
In the first of two Venture Audio rooms, I found the Ultimate Reference ($145k/pair). Paired with Venture Audio V200A+ mono amplifiers ($120k/pair) for 200wpc of Class A power and a VP100L preamplifier ($35,100), the Venture system was fronted by a rather unusual DAC, the Phasure NOS1 ($4,500). The Phasure is an asynchronous USB DAC that comes with it’s own software player, XXHighend, and is capably of handling 24bit files with up to 768kHz sampling. It’s also got the most distinctive shape – a big “H” that looks like it’s made out of iron. Cool. Want to know how it all sounds? I’m almost embarrassed to say that the system sounded superb – and in this spacious, open and uncluttered room, it may well have been the best I’ve heard out these loudspeakers. Very nicely done, but, I’m still not precisely sure why the Venture loudspeakers are that expensive.