AXPONA 2013 - Part 3

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
AXPONA 2013 - Part 3

Ty of Tyler Acoustics was showing off something new – the Highland H3 loudspeakers ($8,500/pair). These are a real departure for Ty. Banished from the baffle were any sign of the pro-audio drivers in his famous Decade loudspeakers. Here, in the Highland, was a full panel of Scanspeak drivers, finished off with a beryllium tweeter. I was stunned! The sound was faster and more detailed than I’ve heard from a Tyler design – he’s on to something here. Specs put the H3 at 28Hz-40k, a sensitivity of 90dB/wm, and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. They’re big; expect to need friends to move the 140lb cabinets around. An eclectic collection of gear filled the rack, including a Transrotor turntable ($11k) with an SME 309 tonearm ($2,900) and a Clearaudio Mystro cartridge ($1,200). A BAT VK-P5 phono stage was connected to a Krell KRC3 preamp ($3,500) and a Conrad-Johnson ET-250 amplifier drove the speakers. An Oppo BDP-105 ($1,199) and an Olive 4HD Music Server ($2,900) did duty for sources. Over $10k of Silnote Audio signal and power cables held the gear together.

A pair of Focal Scala Utopia ($32k) caused my head to whip around. Surprisingly big if not monstrously so, the Scala are 92dB/wm at 8ohms, and with that beryllium tweeter, it can reach up to 40kHz and down to 38Hz on the other end. That latter bit was heartily enjoyed in the demo room, featuring REX II electronics from BAT, including the REX II Reference Linestage ($25k) and a pair of the REX Power II monoblocks ($19,900). The rack was stuffed -- starting from the bottom, I saw a reference pairing of the Shunyata Typhon/Triton line conditioner ($10k for both; $5k each), an AVID Pulsare II phono stage ($6,995), an AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable ($24,995k) with an SME V tonearm and a Lyra Kleos phono cartridge, and an Esoteric K-05 SACD/DAC ($8,299). I got treated to vinyl while I was in the room and I was a little bit gobsmacked. Really nice sound in there. I really wanted to take it with me, and it when they said “sure” is when I realized I said that out loud. Whoops. Heh heh. Hmm. Anyway, yes, power and drive seem to be the “thing” in the Utopia lineup.

Speaking of Focal, there was another demo on the lobby level that I seem to have left out, so lemme inject that here. Paired with the new dual-chassis Pass Labs XS-300 mono amplifiers ($85k/pair) were the colossal Focal Grande Utopia ($190k/pair). This is a monster loudspeaker. The digital path to the Pass Labs XP-30 preamplifier ($16,500) was a Playback Designs MPS-5 ($17k). A huge Clearaudio turntable with a Graham tonearm and a Goldfinger Statement cartridge, massaged by a Pass Labs XP-25 phono preamp, provided the analog entertainment and my introduction to Hyperion Knight playing Stravinsky’s Petrouchka on the Wilson Audio pressing. Dynamic? Ha. While 20th Century classical music is really not my cuppa, I have to say, the sound quality and wild dynamics of this recording were absolutely stunning. As in, “I’ve been hit in the face with a two-by-four and cannot move”. Incredible.

Have you seen the KEF demo where the sit a quarter on its side on top of the speaker and ask you to pick some music for playback that would knock it over? I’ve seen it about eight times now and that damn coin has yet to so much as twitch. I was pretty much convinced that they’d super-glued the darn thing, so now I just walk in a flick that bugger into next week as a matter of course. Played here with a rack full of Simaudio Moon gear (380 DAC, 360 CD, 400M monoblock amps), the big KEF Blades were set up on the short wall in this rather modest room, yet they sounded fully on-song. Interesting! Imaging and bass, in a challenging room? Well, yes, actually. They sounded better here than in any room in recent memory. I got so excited that I was randomly sharing this with folks I nearly ran over in the hallway, lugging my camera bag around. Bam! “Sorry about that knee-cap, dude, hey, have you heard the Blades?” Helpful. That’s me.

In the next room, I found another set of KEF loudspeakers, from the Q-Series, fronted by Audio Electronics by Cary Audio. AudiogoN is the exclusive online retailer for the new direct-to-consumer brand, an interesting move for Cary Audio, and a model more manufacturers seem to be exploring. Here, I found a Hercules amplifier ($1,895), good for 30wpc of ultra linear power from a quartet of EL34 tubes, a Constellation preamp ($1,495), and a Lightning DAC ($1,295). A suite of upgrades for each product is available to satisfy your inner tweaker. At a glance (and a surreptitious attempt at a squat-lift), these products are robust -- and feature some great specs and quality parts (even prior to stepping on to the upgrade path), at prices that are only possible due to the path to market. An experiment, currently in progress.

I’ve never heard of Van L loudspeakers before, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have given the unassuming-looking Silhouette ($3,995) more than a passing glance if Dan Wright of ModWright hadn't forced me to sit still long enough to listen to them. A time-aligned, transmission-line, cabinet with a wood cone woofer. Not wood as in “paper-pulp”, but actually carved out of solid wood. The tweeters were offset and the speakers were set so that the tweeters were on the inside. All that’s well and good, but what’s weird (as in “unusual” and also as in “good”), is something they’re calling “ambient recovery technology”. It’s bit to explain, but the upshot is fairly simple – the speakers use secondary voice coils and an additional speaker-to-speaker connection to create a much wider and better defined sound stage, with a bigger “sweet spot”, while maintaining an extraordinary stereo image all across those seating positions. It’s a neat trick. ModWright gear in the rack included an LS-100 Tube Preamplifier ($3,500), a KWI-200 integrated amplifier with DAC and phono stage ($6,500), and a heavily modified Oppo BDP-105, now with an external tube rectified and regulated power supply and a tube-governed analog output stage ($1,199 for the player, mods are an additional $2,300). Dynamic Design provided all of the signal cables, power cables and a prototype Opto-Signal AC Conditioner ($1,800 for 8 outlets). I did ask Dan the “what’s next” question, to which he replied, “a ModWright DAC”. “Rrrreeeeaaallly,” said I, “tell me more …”, to which he simply winked, grinned, and vanished directly into thin air. I hate that Cheshire Cat trick.