Several major new products had their U.S. premieres at the California Audio Show (CAS) this weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of these new entries were sonically stunning, despite the “challenging” room acoustics at the show. I didn’t get to all the rooms, so my apologies to those manufacturers whom I might have missed.
Notes: Given the response to my recent blog about “The Best Studio System I’ve Ever Heard,” I will try to avoid the word “best” although several of these new products were certainly deserving of that moniker relative to this show. I also hope to cover some other terrific products in a companion CAS Show Report.
Important note: this is Part 1 of a two-part blog. Part 2 covers CAS U.S. Product Premieres from Clearaudio, Graham, Luxman and Gallo. Click here to read Part 2.
Magico Q1 Mini ($24,950)
I got spoiled early on at this show after hearing the remarkable new Magico Q1 loudspeakers mated with Spectral electronics (SDR4000SL CD processor, DMC-30SS preamp, DMA-360 monos). Yes, a few lucky folks may have heard the Q1s in Munich, but this was the “unofficial” U.S. premiere of these gems, and they captivated me so much that I’ve been day-dreaming for the past few days about how I might afford a pair.
The stand-mounted Q1 monitor replaces the venerable Mini II, the loudspeaker that started the Magico juggernaut. With its advanced aluminum and copper, fully braced and damped, hard-anodized enclosure, and a new Magico-designed 7" Nano-Tec woofer and MBe-1 beryllium tweeter, the Q1 is more sensitive than the Mini, offers greater power handing, and an extra (reported) 7Hz of bass extension.
The Q1 worked very well in the small room at the Crowne Plaza, with transient attacks and decays that were exemplary, coupled with first-rate imaging, focus, inner detail, and coherence. These speakers have a world-class ability to disappear. Most surprising was how much of the foundation, if not the low-end weight, of an orchestra was reproduced by this tiny marvel; I was amazed at the deep pedal tones emanating from it when listening to pipe organ tracks. Here’s a mini-monitor that can satisfy quite mightily without a sub.
MBL Model 111F Radialstrahler Loudspeaker ($42,000)
MBL is making a major push on this continent, having established its own North American subsidiary, which is great news for MBL fans, audio enthusiasts, and music lovers. The Model 111F shared the long narrow room with its larger sibling, the terrific 101E Mk II—which gets faster and more coherent with each iteration, offering a higher degree of spaciousness, ease, and clarity than its predecessors.
Driven by new MBL Noble Series electronics, including the Model 9007 amps, the 111F produced a sonic signature that approached that of its larger, costlier brother. Massed strings were delicate and spacious and transient speed on all instruments was as fast as it gets. The 111F also excelled at macro-dynamics and inner detail. I admit that with its mix of direct and reflected sound, the 101 E Mk II combo blew me away, but I didn’t feel I lost that much when we switched to the 111F.
Audio Research Reference 250 ($25,990)
These luscious 250 watt/channel (into 8 ohm) tube amplifiers were driving the new Magico Q3 loudspeakers ($34,000) in a large room at the CAS, mated with an Auraliti L-1000 music file player ($3500), Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC ($5000), Accuphase DP-700 SACD player ($27,000), Audio Research Ref Anniversary linestage ($25,000), MIT Oracle interconnects and speaker cables, ASC Tube Traps, and Rix Rax and Billy Bags racks and stands. As the Ref 250s were brand new, Audio Image’s Bob Kehn had precious little information on them as they were from the first production run earlier in the week.
Fortunately, Audio Research’s Dave Gordon subsequently gave me the scoop on these formidable tube monoblocks compared with the Reference 210s. While both have the same size chassis, the Ref 250 has a 50% larger power supply, a new power transformer, new Teflon caps, a snazzy analog meter, and a much quieter fan assembly, among other improvements. It uses eight KT120 output tubes per chassis in a fully balanced circuit with XLR inputs only. Dave suggests that these improvements, and others, result in better dynamics, higher resolution, more “flesh on the bone,” and a bigger soundstage.
Their sound was really a tale of two days for me. On Day 1, the sound was quite good, but not as good as I have heard the Q3s sound elsewhere, with a heaviness in the midbass that made them sound a bit muddy at times. However, on Day 2, the sound was transformed, as if Bob had spent all night tweaking the system. As these amps had literally just come off the truck, they had little time to break-in and the caps hadn’t been allowed to discharge. On Day 2, the midbass snapped into place and the overall system was much more balanced with a wonderful bloom and richness I had not heard from the Q3 anywhere. I wonder how much better they’ll sound after the amps have had the recommended 600 hours of break-in.