I found the Blue Smoke room to be deeply satisfying, but I wasn’t expecting it to. First, the TAD CR-1 loudspeakers are not known for being kind or forgiving, so seeing them paired with some large Parasound monoblock amplifiers, I fully expected to back out of the room as fast as I’d bulldozed my way in. Not that the Parasound amps are bad, not at all, just not what I’d pair with those TADs in, like, a bazillion years. The secret to the setup, according to Ron Laporte, was in the unassuming server feeding the MSB Platinum Diamond DAC IV (with Power Base) in the rig. The server was almost invisible to my jaded eye as it looks like just about every other $1,000 off-the-shelf media server I’ve come across in the last six months. The interesting bits are all on the inside, of course, but amounted to a custom “software pipeline” written and developed exclusively by Blue Smoke, leveraging the innards of Windows and tweaking them beyond any recognition—and completely impenetrable—to that original operating system. The result? The best media server software available today, they say. Curiously, the team is completely agnostic to the actual playback software used—it just doesn’t matter anymore, they seemed to say, once the back-end has been sorted out. Anyway, this means that you can use JRiver and a room correction set of templates to customize your experience, or whatever tickles your fancy. The only really different bit, at least that yielded itself to my powers of perception, was the I2S interface proprietary to the MSB line of DACs. Said I, “Ah-ha!” The Black Box II is currently in prototype, but should be available shortly. Expected retail is $8,000. I know, that’s a stunning amount of money for what looks and sounds like a DIY server, but all I can say is this—whatever they’re doing, whether it’s the “jitter-free” I2S or the impenetrable audio software—it was working a treat. This was one of the very best sounds at AXPONA.
Convergent Audio Technology makes the biggest, baddest, tube amps on the market. Says me, yes, but then, this is me writing, so there. Anyway, the JL5 Triode Stereo Amplifier ($12k) was announced back at CES, and it’s arrival marks the shift at CAT to the new KT120 power tube. Shown here with the Django XL loudspeakers from Marten Designs ($15,000/pair), the still-in-a-prototype-chassis JL5 derived from its big brother, the JL2, the sound was slammin’. A CAT SL-1 Renaissance tube preamplifier (with phono—$10k) was connected to a Townshend Rock 7 turntable with DC motor ($5,100 for both) with Helius Omega tonearm ($5,100) and Brinkmann Pi cartridge ($2,700). I heard the digital side, coming from an Esoteric K-01 SACD/DAC ($19,500) with G0rb clock ($17,000). The newly revived Magnan Cables provided the signal and power cables. Marten distributor Dan Meinwald, there representing his dealer Chicago’s Kiyomi Audio, scared the crap out of everyone in the room by tilting the Townshend Seismic Stand (~$3,500) back and forth. Dude. Stop that. Seriously.
The second Kiyomi Audio room featured the CAT JL2 Mark 3 ($22k), the top of the line preamp, the CAT Legend ($20k, with phono), an Acoustic Signature Thunder turntable ($13,500) with a Funk FXR 12” tonearm ($3,100) and a Van Den Hul Colibri cartridge ($7,000). It must have been the timing, because I missed that excellent analog system and instead caught the Esoteric P03 transport ($13k) playing into a prototype non-oversampling tube DAC from Stealth ($TBD, but preliminary pricing puts it at $24k) featuring Western Electric 417A on the output stage. The Verity Audio Amadis ($30,000) loudspeakers sounded superb, and as good as I’ve ever heard them sound. Of note were the helium-filled Stealth Sakra and Dream cables crossing the floor. Yes, I said “helium filled”. I have no idea why. But I do know that they look uncomfortably like alien life forms sent here to strangle me in my sleep. Eek.
The Beauty of Sound/KT Audio Imports collaboration room had a tremendous display, with more glass and chrome than I’m used to seeing in one place. I was mesmerized by all the reflections. The Triangle Art turntables, including the Reference ($16,500) and the Signature ($12,500), are big hunks of liquid metal. The Ikeda IT407CR1 12” tonearm ($6,500) and Ikeda Kai moving coil cartridge ($10k), were feeding signals into a Tube Guru ECC 808 phono preamp ($4,400), in turn connected to electronics from NAT Audio, including a Magnetostat “Reference Vacuum Tube Line Stage” ($17,490) and a pair of Magma monoblocks ($44,990/pair). That latter features a stunning-looking 450 vacuum tube, good for 160wpc of single-ended, Class-A power. Phobos loudspeakers from Eventus Audio ($19,500), here in complementary silver finish, made all the music. And sweet music it was. Kaplan Cables, a Slagle Step-Up transformer, and a Pi Audio uberBUSS rounded out the system.
Scaena brought the magic and the music with their reference/10th anniversary edition “Silver Ghost” loudspeaker system ($153k). Audio Research’s Reference products were matched to the Vivaldi digital system from dCS, and the result was electrifying. This is one setup that would definitely benefit a bouncer as some guy from The Absolute Sound kept hogging up the sweet spot. Sheesh. Anyway, I mention it because while the sound off-axis was still quite transparent, true holography is reserved for the center seat. A stunning-looking speaker, the Silver Ghost is, not surprisingly, mirrored, and while easier to photograph than the pearlescent finish on the “regular” Scaena loudspeakers, these guys clearly are messing with me.
The last “big surprise” of AXPONA came from the jokers over at Peachtree Audio. David Solomon looked on bemusedly while Jon Derda seemingly veered off script suddenly, magically producing a small tabletop box about this size and shape of Sonos satellite loudspeaker. He set this down on a side table, talking about a new Peachtree venture they’re calling “deepblue”. The speaker system, still awaiting its last aesthetic tweaks before an announcement later this year, is very compact and is completely active. An analog input was promptly wired to a laptop via a Dragonfly DAC from Audioquest, and the little deepblue system suddenly pounded out some shockingly deep bass. Jon, his roguish grin appearing like a rabbit out of a hat, turned the bass both up and down—yes, there are contour filters available to tune the box to your particular setup. Sweet! And the sound? It beats the snot out of the tabletop systems I’ve heard lately. And then Jon yanked the analog cord out. That sneak had been playing the entire time via Bluetooth to the integral DAC in the unit. The name suddenly makes sense now, eh? The final shock? The target price is $399. I’m still flabbergasted. Expect to hear a lot more in the coming months.