Several significant high-performance audio products made their US, consumer, and/or worldwide debuts at the 3rd Annual California Audio Show from August 3rd through 5th at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Burlingame, California. This was a chance for Bay Area audiophiles and others to hear some of the best high-performance audio products available in a venue that typically allowed good seating in rooms that ranged from spacious ballrooms to relatively small hotel rooms.
The most awe-inspiring product debut was of the Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF loudspeaker ($199,500) coupled with Wilson’s Thor’s Hammer Subwoofer ($21,500) in one of three Music Lovers’ rooms. While I have typically preferred Wilson’s smaller speakers, like the Sasha, in show environments, the XLF sounded absolutely stunning in a large ballroom that must have been quite an acoustic challenge. Using either the wonderful dCS Scarlatti digital playback system ($80,000) or the lusicious AMG Viella W turntable with 12J2 tonearm ($16,500) and Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($15,000) as front ends, with magnificant VTL electronics (TL 7.5 Series III linestage, TP6.5 Signature Phonostage, and three Siegfried Series II Reference monoblocks!) wired with Transparent Audio Opus cables and power conditioning, the sound was breathtaking.
What distinguished this room from last year’s large Wilson system (using a MAXX Series 3), was the third dimension, among other things. The sound was “3-D” and seemingly holographic, with lifelike dynamics, and an enormous, yet focused, soundstage. You not only can visualize performers moving about the stage, but you can feel them, as in a live performance. Here’s a system that not only captures the ambience of the hall, but also lets challenging instruments like a concert grand piano bloom without any compression. Additionally, the XLF system also sounded terrific on small-scale works, too, with remarkable transparency and nuance for such a large, multi-driver speaker. As usual, the demonstration was greatly enhanced by listening to Peter McGrath’s brilliant recordings, but this time through a full-fledged dCS Scarlatti playback system which is the most analog-like digital playback system I’ve heard (and that’s high praise!).
At the other end of the spectrum, AudioVision San Francisco premiered the remarkable KEF LS50 ($1500) to US audiences, using a Unison Research “Simply Italy” tube integrated ($2450) wired with Nordost LS Blue Heaven cables, with a Clearaudio Performance turntable or Unison Research Unico CD Primo as sources. I heard the LS50 in Munich in a large room, and was floored by how surprisingly big it sounded. With its advanced Uni-Q driver and other innovations derived from the KEF Blade, the LS50 disappears, is remarkably coherent, and puts out more bass than you might think, given the size of its coincident 5.25 inch magnesium/aluminum alloy driver (down -6dB at 47Hz). Inspired by the LS3/5a, here’s a speaker that could attract a bunch of people to this hobby.
In another AudioVision San Francisco room, the DALI Epicon 6 Reference loudspeaker ($15,000/pair) made its US consumer debut, supported by a Clearaudio Ovation ‘table with Benz Ebony L cartridge and Simaudio Moon 810LP phono stage, or a Simaudio Moon 650 CD player/DAC, with a Simaudio Moon 600i integrated amplifier and Shunyata Anaconda cable and Hydra power conditioner. This system produced a big, detailed, uncolored, and natural sounding presentation, as the Epicon 6 Reference utilizes Dali’s new Linear Drive Magnet system which eliminates four distortion factors in the motor system. It is the best DALI loudspeaker I have heard, and appears to be quite special.
In the Audio High room, Musical Surroundings was demonstrating the Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable ($27,500), the first time it has been shown in a live demo, according to Joe Wessling. One of the (many) things I really like about Clearaudio is that most, if not all, of its ‘tables are field upgradable. For example, one can take the Innovation Wood turntable that I previously reviewed in TAS #204, and take it to Master Innovation status, adding magnetic platter drive (derived from the Clearaudio Statement turntable) among other “innovations.” These additions elevate the already fine performance of the Innovation Wood to near reference levels. With the Master Innovation equipped with a Clearaudio Universal 9-inch all carbon fiber tonearm ($5.5k) and a Benz Ruby Z (Zebrawood) cartridge ($4,000), on a Clearaudio Everest turntable stand ($8,000) and using an Aesthetix IO Eclipse phono stage ($18,500) this was quite a formidable analog front end! Driven by a Chord Electronics CPA 8000 preamplifier ($45k) and SPM 14000 monoblock amplifiers ($86k/pair) wired with Kubala-Sosna cables, the KEF Blade ($30k) produced some of the most natural, realistic sound I heard at the show, with powerful, and well-controlled deep bass. The sound of the Blades was better than at either of the shows in Munich or in Newport.
Ayon Audio of Austria introduced several new products to these shores. Its new Triton III ($8995) tube stereo integrated amplifier offers 125 watts/channel of pure Class A power and uses BT SK KT-88 tubes made by Ayon. The Ayon Audio S-3 ($8500) is a tube network media player that functions as a tube preamplifier, tube DAC, and tube output stage. It has a fully analog volume control that can be operated by an iPad, iPhone, or Android smart phone. The Ayon Audio CD-5s ($11,380) is a tube CD player/DAC that can also be used as a tube preamplifier with all digital inputs/outputs and a fully analog volume control. The Ayon combo sounded very natural and powerful, with explosive dynamics driving Lumenwhite loudspeakers ($25k), with an immediacy that I found quite engaging.
AVM Audio of Germany is increasing its footprint in North America, debuting the AVM PA8 ($10,000) tube stereo preamplifier that operates in pure class A, along with its 400 Watt/channel MA 3.2 mono amps that offer both balanced and RCA outputs ($5750/pair), an AVM CD 5.2 ($5,500) that can also function as a tube preamplifier, and a AVM PA 5.2 ($5,500) tube stereo preamplifier. The AVM electronics were used to drive the Legacy Whisper XD ($20,500), yielding a system that had awesome dynamics without overdriving the room. The secret is that the Legacy includes room correction as part of its solution, along with powered (sub)woofers in the Whisper XDs with a 500-watt internal amplifier for the bass.
Another German company, Audioblock Audio was debuting a relatively inexpensive CD player, the Audioblock C-100 ($795) that supports both Redbook CD and HD, mated with the Audioblock A-100 stereo amplifier ($1450) that puts out a reported 150 Watts/channel and the P-100 stereo preamplifier ($999) that includes a phono stage; and a combo unit, the Audioblock MHF-700 ($999) that includes a stereo amplifier, CD player, streamer, internet radio, FM radio, MP3 and comes with a pair of bookshelf speakers. That’s some entry level system!
Several products from Raysonic Audio, a company based in Toronto Canada, made their US debuts, including the Raysonic SP-500 tube stereo integrated amplifier ($3100) that delivers 90 Watts/channel from 7591 output tubes and Tungsram NOS signal tubes running in Class A; the Raysonic CD-288 a two-piece, top-loading tube CD player with a separate tube power supply and XLR and single-ended inputs and outputs; and the CD-128 ($2400), a top-loading, tube CD player that also supports balanced and single ended connections. The Raysonic electronics were coupled with the Legacy Focus SE, but unfortunately, the room was configured for the Legacy Whisper HD when I arrived, so I did not get to hear that combo.
Soundscape was premiering the MartinLogan Motion 20 loudspeaker ($1500/pair) and the floorstanding Motion 40loudspeaker ($1995/pair). Both use a terrific Air Motion Tweeter with the Motion 40 employing two 5-and-a-half inch woofers. It was mated with a Vincent K35 tube integrated amplifier ($3.3k) and C35 tube HDCD CD player ($2.3k) and Nordost cable. The larger system demonstrated quite a lot of impact and speed when Mark Silver played a Kodo drum selection, and I have to admit that I thought the companion subwoofer was in the system (It was not).
While Eficion used the amps in Newport, Plinius USA was premiering its SA-103 monoblocks driving Eficion F300 loudspeakers ($16,900). Whereas the SA-103 can operate as a 125 watt/channel stereo amplifier, two were used in fully-balanced mode as monoblocks producing a prodigious 400 watts/channel. This system had very good clarity, detail, and transient speed on guitar, and was very powerful on larger works.
In a show with so much gear, I may have missed a few US premiers, but hopefully will pick them up in my follow-up blog, where I plan to report on rooms that were particularly noteworthy.