The California Audio Show 2015

Little But Lively!

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Loudspeaker cables
The California Audio Show 2015

The gathering crowds on Friday morning.

The sixth edition of the California Audio Show at the Westin Hotel adjacent to the San Francisco Airport might have been short a few exhibitors from last year—conspicuous in its absence was CAS perennial Wilson Audio—but attendees during the three-day event were fully engaged and energetic, particularly on Saturday and Sunday morning. Those exhibitors I spoke with also found a silver lining in the fact that they had more face-time with visitors who tended to hit every room and on average hung out longer, had more questions answered, and even enjoyed a seminar or two. Some expressed the opinion that the August time slot is crowded out by late summer vacations and school reopenings, and should be rethought. But I’ll leave that business to CAS organizer Constantine Soo and move on to my impressions of favorite rooms, which follow in no particular order.

It’s never a good idea to begin a show in the Elite Audio Systems-sponsored exhibit—the superb sound will spoil your ears for the rest of the show. Cued up in this banquet room was the gentle duet album featuring Sammy Davis Jr. and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Driving the Kharma dB7 floorstanders ($25,000/pr.) was a CH Precision D1 SACD drive and C1 D/A controller, with Viola Crescendo and Concerto preamp and amplifier ($22k each), Isotek isolation, Spiral Groove SG1.2 turntable ($25k), Centroid ‘arm ($6k), Ortofon MC Anna cartridge ($8924), and the Primare R32 phonostage ($1500). In the expansive space the system almost sounded modest at first glance, but it had one of the purest and most transparent midranges, well-defined midbasses, and highly dimensional soundstages I’ve experienced at a show. 

In the cavernous Laurel room, sponsor A.R.T. cables (Audio Reference Technology) demo’d its Monolith SE and Super SE cables, enlisting the enormous dynamic capabilities of the massive Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers ($40,000) in a Pass Labs bi-amped configuration with Pass Xs preamp ($38,000) and Esoteric K03 CD/SACD player cued to a chorale version of the 1812 Overture—and later some digital transfers of Sheffield Labs tracks of drummer Jim Keltner. While the impressive Tannoy could get a little rowdy and shouty at times, there was no matching the dynamism, massive scale, and brain-rattling impact of Keltner’s drumming anywhere else at this CAS. 

(above) On the second floor, cable and power products icon MIT was demo’ing a Paul Lewis piano recording of Pictures at an Exhibition with stellar Constellation Inspiration electronics and Cygnus music server, plus the redoubtable Magico Q3 speakers ($49,950). On first listen, I scratched my head, thinking the Magicos sounded a little restrained. But later in the show, when the music selections shifted to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, Cassandra Wilson selections, and the astounding percussion of Lars Estrand’s Live is Life, the system’s energy, explosiveness, and bass grip all reappeared in spades. The lesson? More than anything else, compressed recordings are the bane of ultra-high-resolution audio systems.

In the downstairs Magnolia room, Audio Skies featured the premium GamuT RS3 two-way floorstander ($20,000/pr. with stands). Thanks to its twenty-one-layer wood enclosure, the speaker doesn’t need heavy internal damping, which gives it a very quick and lively sound. Of course, it didn’t hurt one bit that the RS3 was driven by GamuT’s own D200i dual mono amp, D3i preamp, Pear Audio Blue turntable, and GamuT cabling. With the speakers widely spaced along the wall, I listened to the Reference Recordings classic “Dance of the Tumblers.” The sound was very refined, articulate, and cool in timbre, with highly specific image placement.

Meanwhile, upstairs Audio Skies was also partnering with Lavish Hi-Fi of Santa Rosa, demo’ing the Larsen Model 8 ($6995), described as “a speaker that doesn’t care about the room.” Driven by the latest GamuT DI150 Limited Edition integrated ($11,990), the Model 8 was positioned against the long wall and up close to listeners, but it still threw a lavishly detailed soundstage with clean images. Also present was the new Arcam CDS27 streaming Ethernet player with DSD ($1499) and the Parasound Halo Integrated ($2499), but I didn’t have a chance to hear them on this go-round.

CAS presented me with my first chance to experience a pair of new items—Pass Labs new INT-60 (a $9000, Class A, 30Wpc integrated), and YG’s revised Carmel 2, two-way floorstander ($24,300/pr.). Spinning Johnny Cash’s American Recordings LPs was a heavily modified Panasonic SP-10 Mk II ‘table fitted in a custom base with My Sonic Lab Eminent cartridge, and a Pass XP-15 phonostage. Maybe it was the Class A luster of the amp, but the new Carmel is a sweet-hearted speaker, warmer and more forgiving than the original. Still, as game as the slender Carmel was, I would have liked to hear it in a less cavernous setting where it could have more comfortably integrated with the room. I’m looking forward to reviewing the big brother to the INT-60, the INT-250, in an upcoming issue.

In Issue 245, I’d read Jon Valin’s glowing review, but it wasn’t until I heard the Avantgarde Zero 1 Pro for myself that I’ve become a believer. Exhibited by distributor Audiopathways of Toronto, the Zero 1 Pro version combines a fully active amp and preamp with Ethernet and USB, wireless capability plus the XA pro software and analog input option. Running direct into the Zero 1 was the Bergmann Magne air-bearing turntable ($18,000) playing through the Sutherland 20/20 phonostage ($2200) and Bel Canto CD3T CD/transport ($1500). A hi-res WAV file of Patricia Barber’s “Post Modern Blues” illustrated the system’s deep bass, density of vocal and acoustic instrumental colors and textures, along with its ultra-fast transient response during the bass-slapping solo at mid-song. This was followed by a quick comparo between the WAV file and a noisy LP version of the Laurindo Almeida/Ray Brown duet of “Moonlight Serenade.” Noisy surfaces and all, it was no contest: The LP’s soundstage was more expansive and the bass had more depth and richer harmonics throughout. (Pictured above & below.)

In the Audio Visions room and just in the nick of time—literally five minutes before the close of the show—I took in a few minutes of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella on the YG Hailey 1.2 speakers ($42,800), Bel Canto’s Black flagship DAC and electronics ($50,000 system), and Nordost Odin cabling. The challenging room setup with dual systems on opposite walls was a bit overwhelming and compromised the Hailey’s bass, but sax and ride cymbal were transparent and crystalline in clarity. 

“Insane!” “Amazing!” “How much did you say they were?” I assumed these attendees were exclaiming about the latest ultra-costly “unobtainium” component. But no, it was the $229-a-pair Elac B5, a small two-way bass-reflex stand-mount that premiered to gobsmacked audiences at Newport a couple months ago. Designed by former TAD wizard Andrew Jones who recently joined Elac, this dynamic little two-way augurs a strong new beginning for the German firm. And as Jones indicated in his seminar he won’t just be slumming with entry-level. There are big plans afoot and much to be revealed at CES, he hinted. (Pictured above.)

Powering the Elac B5 mighty-mites were debut components from a resurgent and reborn Audio Alchemy. The new small chassis series takes up little shelf space and includes the DDP-1—a preamp/DAC/headphone amp. It’s basically an all-analog, four-in-one preamp with DSD-compatible DACs and the option of four output filters and resolutions ($1995). To further complement performance and dynamics the owner can add the robust PS-5 outboard power supply—one analog supply and one digital in a single box ($595). For amplification, there is the DPA-1 digital amp, with Class A input and Class D output stages. The stereo version has 150Wpc of switch mode power on tap with switchable gain ($1995). A 400W mono version and a music player, the DMP-1, will soon follow. Classy design and excellent fit and finish are going to make these electronics highly desirable.

In Other News

Newcomer High Fidelity Cables uses magnetic conduction via an array of extremely powerful magnets that align electrons from one end of the cable run to the other and “propel” the music signal through the system–helping to eliminate the skin effect by focusing the signal’s electrons down the extreme center of the conductor. The permeable conductors are a combination of steel, copper, silver solid core alloy. Interconnect, $1600/1m pr:; speaker, $2800/pr.

The Aaudio Imports’ display was “vinyl only” courtesy of the DC-powered Thales TTT Compact turntable, Simplicity II tonearm, and Ikeda Kai MC cartridge ($13,200, $9200, $8500 respectively) played via the tube-hybrid 110Wpc Ypsilon Phaethon integrated ($24,800) and the Lansche 3.1 floorstander ($36,000). As Lansche followers are aware, the brand is known for its hypnotic, glowing plasma-ion tweeters. The sound was nicely balanced and plainly gorgeous, with a vestigial tube-like warmth, attributable in part to the Ypsilon and its Class A bias for the first 10 watts of output. (See below.)

Syncopation/Profundo delivered the goods by featuring the always-impressive Trenner & Friedl Pharoah, a $13,000, two-way, 94dB-sensitivity floorstander powered with Viva single-ended, 22-watt, 645-tube electronics. On Hugh Masekela tracks, the sound was articulate and explosive, very dynamic, and nicely balanced. 


Integrity High Fidelity Solutions featured the tube electronics (triode/ultralinear) and Orpheus loudspeakers with ceramic cone drivers ($9000/pr.) of noted Mexico-based manufacturer Margules Audio. A wonderfully precise, easy sound with a finely detailed top end filled the room on Holly Cole tracks and a stirring rendition of the Bruch Violin Concerto on DG. Bass resolution on the Cole seemed a little overdamped in this room, but show conditions are always a little tricky. Next up: the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

Burwell & Sons deserves a special mention  for it’s modern implementation of reconditioned classic Altec and JBL horn drivers in stunningly finished, hand-rubbed wood cabinets.  Featured here was the exquisite two-way "Plain Jane" model ($80,000/pr.). Conjuring up the Voice of the Theater experience of old, Burwell loudspeakers, while retaining certain vintage sonic qualities, are also the essence of immediacy.   

Another notable listening experience was provided by the Bricasti Design M28 monoblock amplifier ($30k) paired with the M1 digital-to-analog convertor ($8995) and the revealing Tidal Piano Diacera speakers ($35,000), a 2.5-way design noted for it’s diamond tweeter. The Tidal’s were supported with Stillpoints. Treble performance was as sweet and extended as I’ve experienced at an audio show. Cables were Reference Lab and power cords, Oyaida.