Expensive high end is exciting and at times stirring but I have to admit that there are times when the stiff entry fee can be a little dispiriting. The antidote was only a few doors away in the Salk Sound, AVA (Audio by Van Alstine) room. There, Jim Salk and Frank Van Alstine were demoing the stand-mount, two-way Exotica loudspeaker driven by a couple Van Alstine premieres; The new Fet Valve CF preamp ($1899) and Fet Valve Hybrid amp (the 400R, $2699; 600R, $3199). Both are high power, high current power mos-fet in the output driver designs. The R stands for regulated output supplies, ten in all, five for each channel. Jim put the system through its paces with a stunning violin sonata that was a showcase for system synergy with a sweet, fluid treble, quick transient attack off the bow and a rewarding amount of low end reinforcement to aid spatiality and the reproduction of venue ambience. For me this dose of real world high end was a most welcome relief.
Further continuing the theme of “down-to-Earth” audio, Hegel demoed an impressive and impressively affordable new integrated amplifier in the H80 (pictured above). Based on the SoundEngine topology from its flagship H30 monoblocks and the preamp stage of the mega-integrated H300 it outputs a healthy 75Wpc, offers five digital inputs an improved DAC and output stage and at $2000 is, voila, the same price as the H70 it replaces. Driving the Magico S1 ($12,500/pr) with a MacBook Air computer as source and Nordost Red Dawn cabling it revealed a finer more textured presentation during the extended A/B comparison with its predecessor. Images were more discrete. The soundstage offered a greater dimensional component with more air and notes seemed to sustain and decay in finer gradations. An apparent win-win on all counts.
By the time I entered the VTL room I’d already heard some terrific demos. But the combination of the Wilson Audio Alexia paired with VTL’s new stereo amp the S-400 Series II ($33,500) was almost too much to bear. At it’s core, the tower is a one chassis 300Wpc stereo version (also triode switchable to 150Wpc) of the Siegfried Ref II monoblocks. As you might expect, the front end was all VTL–specifcally the TL-7.5 preamp and TP-6.5 phono stage, plus a Spiral Groove SG 1.1 table with Centroid tonearm and Transparent Opus and Nordost Odin cabling. This was also my first encounter with Lyra’s latest cartridge the Etna, one of only three in the country I was told at time. Although it’s significantly less money than the pricier Atlas it’s already garnering praise in some circles as being the new king of the Lyra line. As I listened to the Speakers Corner reissue of the Carmen Fantasie with violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter the first words that came to mind were buttery, and liquid harmonics. The instrument would alternatively sound agreeably aggressive (as it actually does) but with none of the trailing, metallic astringency so often heard on lesser systems when the violinist digs in with the bow. I came away from this demo knowing I'd just heard one of show's best presentations.
The Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeakers have become pretty familiar to me over the past few shows but there was a further surprise as I entered the Paragon Sight and Sound exhibit that featured Doshi Audio and once again, the Alexias. The all Doshi tube front end was comprised of its latest 3.0 gear, line stage, phono stage, tape stage (projected price for each should be under $20,000.) The all tube monoblock amps were Doshi’s 3.0 Jhor 160W units (price estimate, under $36k/pr) What made my experience all the more interesting was not only the mid-range common ground that was shared between the VTL/Alexia based system and the Doshi/Alexia but the fact that each system’s unique strengths went in slightly opposite directions as they approached the frequency extremes. It was an impression that one of my TAS colleagues had crystallized later in the show–that the Doshi came off a bit warmer, ripe and filled with a heavier, richer low end cues while the VTL interpretation seemed to shed a little more light and openness on the upper portion of the spectrum, with greater inner detail and precision. Dynamics, in both cases were impressive. Much of differences could be explained away by room and setup but it reminds me once again about the importance of system synergy–how equipment is mixed and matched for a given listening bias. Both of these systems were sheer magic, chest-beating, tire shredding high performance. However it also goes to show that even at these exhalted levels each system will ultimately be a reflection of its owners choices–his or her view on what defines the finer points of state-of-the-art musicality.