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AXPONA 2013 – Part 2

Apropos of nothing in particular, let’s change things up a bit: what do you know about analog tape?

The answer in my case is a solid “not much” – but I’m learning. Why? Well, mainly because United Home Audio’s Greg Beron has been beating me over the head the last few years, and quite frankly, the dude has just plain worn me down. My objection – that the albums are so hideously expensive – is, perhaps, a just turn of events in favor of the thing that actually brings most audiophiles to their listening chair in the first place: the music. Touché. Albums aside, from a fidelity perspective, I have to say that “analog tape” may well be best bargain in the ultra high-end. Think about it – with some turntable manufacturers pricing their latest assaults on par with the cost of a condo in Miami Beach, a “new” 15ips analog tape machine – which usually includes the cost of the preamp, a necessary extra cost for the vinyl nut – seems downright reasonable. Add to that the stunning sound quality that’s reserved for master tape – and the fact that you actually can finally listen to those usually-hidden-behind-locked-doors master tapes – and the case is fairly clear. Get ye to a demo, posthaste.

The best sound I heard at AXPONA came from one of Greg’s analog tape machines, a UHA Phase 11PB. Wired into a monster-pair of TAD Reference One loudspeakers by way of some Lamm M2.2 220wpc monoblocks ($23,790) and a Model L2 Reference preamp ($15,790), the Phase 11 played out a master tape recorded by Jonathan Horwich of International Phonograph (who was running the room), and I swear, a trumpet player stepped into the room. Not eerie, not freaky, just startlingly real. Ska-doosh.

Two other UHA close encounters happened, courtesy of MBL. The first came from a white Phase II paired with a pair of white MBL 116F loudspeakers ($29,000), powered by Jolida electronics clad in a matching white enamel finish. I felt distinctly underdressed, as if I’d worn a black-tie to a white-tie event – right up until Led Zepplin came on song and everything became clear – all this white gear came from the land of the ice and snow. It fit. Ta-da!  A Luxor preamplifier and matching monoblock amps (price is $TBD), some custom cabling from Greg Beron’s Celtic Silver Pendragon line, all sitting on $28k worth of racks and stands from Critical Mass Systems.

I found out the next day that the “big” MBL room had suffered something of a catastrophe – the hotel was imploding, slowly, and the snow melting on the roof had pushed its way through into their room. See? Told you March in Chicago was just tempting things! The loudspeakers that first day were the big $70,500 MBL101MK2 Radialstrahler – very ably powered by the MBL Reference Line ($259,700), which included a pair of 9011 monoblock amps, a 6010 D preamplifier, a 1611 F D/A converter and a 1621  CD Transport. Late Saturday night, I was swept into an afterhours listening party where Jeremy and Tara Bryan of MBL North America married up Greg’s white UHA Phase 11, and played one-off master tapes the Doors, the Beatles, Elton John, Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald, Led Zepplin … yeah. Channeling Ben Fong-Torres, it was “crazy”.

Pricing for the UHA tape decks starts at $8,900 for an entry-level playback-only Phase 8PB reel-to-reel machine, with improved parts and recording capabilities dragging the price to a rather lofty $22,000. Information on the decks, and some excellent sources for tape, can be found on United Home Audio’s website.

Meanwhile, over in the Purity Audio Design room, Bill Baker and Joe Jurzec were demoing their spanky new all-metal preamp chassis. Bill told me that the new chassis are significantly more robust than the outgoing acrylic trapezoids, and while they are, I kinda miss the oddball shape of the old design, which kinda reminded me of a sandcrawler (minus all the unsightly blast damage). New, along with the upgraded casework, is a tube circuit that features a 6SN7 tube, and the “power supplies now utilize high current toroidal transformers, choke filtering and 100% polypropylene capacitor filter banks.” Paired with the all-wood, asymmetrically-faced Argos loudspeaker from Daedalus Audio ($12,950), the impressive two-chassis Silver Statement preamp ($32k) was actually upstaged by another what’s-this-it’s-new offering – a rather sleek pair of very black parallel SET mono amps, based on the 300b tube. The $26k (est. pricing) prototypes, carrying the moniker PSE300b, were actually completed earlier that same week, but were very ready to shake the room with some astounding bass. Wasn’t expecting that out of a 300b! Other bits in the Ball Tech rack were a Playback Designs MPD-5 DAC ($13k), a Sony XA777ES (used as a transport), a digital cable from High Fidelity Cables, signal cables from Gingko Audio, and power cables from WyWires.

In the first of two Venture Audio rooms, I found the Ultimate Reference ($145k/pair). Paired with Venture Audio V200A+ mono amplifiers ($120k/pair) for 200wpc of Class A power and a VP100L preamplifier ($35,100), the Venture system was fronted by a rather unusual DAC, the Phasure NOS1 ($4,500). The Phasure is an asynchronous USB DAC that comes with it’s own software player, XXHighend, and is capably of handling 24bit files with up to 768kHz sampling. It’s also got the most distinctive shape – a big “H” that looks like it’s made out of iron. Cool. Want to know how it all sounds? I’m almost embarrassed to say that the system sounded superb – and in this spacious, open and uncluttered room, it may well have been the best I’ve heard out these loudspeakers. Very nicely done, but, I’m still not precisely sure why the Venture loudspeakers are that expensive.

 

There was a lot to see and hear in the Orion room. Wood Artistry’s Don Naples was on hand demoing his version of the kit wonder-speaker, the Orion-4 ($14,750). I’ve seen several iterations of this design, in several levels of fitment, and Wood Artistry is the only one I’d buy. The price includes an Analog Signal Processor crossover/EQ system so that “each woofer, mid-range, and pair of tweeters is driven independently”; it was driven here by three Pass Labs stereo amps (X250.5 for the lows, XA dot-5s for the mids and highs), a Pass Labs XP-20 preamp, and a Jolida phono pre. Sitting atop the rack was a George Warren turntable (prices start at $3,700, without tonearm). This clever, well-thought out, and genuinely pretty turntable actively monitors and corrects platter speed. Did you see that the motor sits on only two feet? It leans into the belt to provide the right amount of line tension. Like I said, very clever. Mounted here was a Pete Riggle “Woody” tonearm ($1,600); the VTA, azimuth, and anti-skating can all be adjusted on the fly. A Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge walked the grooves. Sound in this room was explosive – the Orion/Pass Labs combo is a killer.

Another new-to-me experience was in store at Nightingale Audio. A rather svelte Italian-made open-baffle loudspeaker, the CTR-02 ($9,750/pair) features a quartet of drivers set into a nicely turned out wood frame. Nightingale also makes the components – here, we found a pair of ONDA 90 mono amps ($12,450), with, yes, 90wpc from a sextet of 7581 power tubes, and the PTS-03, a battery-driven preamp ($9,750). Also in the lineup were some retro designs that look just fabulous, with matte wood and brass fittings. Take my advice and check out that line up. Sweet, right? Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a lot more of these folks.

Next up was more Venture Audio – this time, paired with Thrax Audio. What a great name! Thrax! I was about to get all Marvel Superhero and whatnot. Thrax! Okay, so it was a new brand for me, and with the chunky aluminum/pinched-front aesthetic, I’m unlikely to forget it. The Dionysos preamplifier ($21,500) uses a transformer-based volume control; a pair of Spartacus monoblocks ($48,500/pair) cranked out 70wpc. The Spartacus is a complicated little beat, featuring zero feedback, and sets of DHT tubes run in or out of phase, for cancellation of noise. The inputs are transformer coupled and there’s a choke input full wave tube rectified power supply, all in a microprocessor controlled system. And yes, it’s a tube amp. Holy cow. Other bits here: a Thrax Orpheus phono preamp ($21,500), a 32bit/384kHz Maximus DAC ($33k), a Weiss MAN301 (starting at $9,083) for archiving, playback, CD ripping, Internet radio streaming, &c. EnKlein Areos signal, power and digital cables made all of the connections. All of this fed a pair of Venture Audio Grand Ultimate MKII loudspeakers ($98k/pair) for some more truly remarkable sound. No, really. This might be getting a little redundant, but boy-howdy, this six-figure price point was really knocking my socks off, and all over the hotel. This was yet another case in point – AXPONA seemed to be saying “if you have the means, we have the toys”. A must-listen on the tour.

Legacy Audio was on hand to show off the latest Whisper (starting at $21,500/pair) and Focus SE (starting at $9,200/pair) models, now with the dual-AMT tweeter array Bill Duddleston showed me back at Capital Audiofest last year, and first launched in the new Aeris loudspeakers ($17,750), also here on display. A challenging room, acoustically, but I’ve been thrilled by this demo at recent shows. Bill has great, big, crazy plans for his loudspeakers in the future, and I’m totally psyched to see the evolution of these already-great designs. Shown here with Coda electronics, an Oppo digital player, and cabling from Morrow Audio.

Stepping across the foyer, I found another Purity Audio preamp, this time, a Reference ($11,495) fronting a pair of Bob Carver Black Beauty monoblocks ($12,900/pair), cranking 300+ watts into a pair of King Sound King III ESL panel loudspeakers ($12,000). Clarity Cables provided all the signaling and power cables. An Oppo BDP-95 provided the front end. And you know what? Holy guacamole, Batman. This is one cave I was not happy to leave. The big King panels can put out “real bass”, which seems to surprise just about everyone, but brings the speed and detail that an ESL is known for. Truly remarkable, and a price point that’s comfortably under six figures; a reminder for which I was rather grateful after visiting so many sky-high priced systems.

Another Aragon and Waterfall Audio demo showed me exactly what I’ve done wrong in past attempts to sneak loudspeakers past my wife – I used loudspeakers. Silly me. What was I thinking? Waterfall speakers are glass – so they pretty much disappear. Into any décor. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that? Nifty. Indy Audio Labs, the parent of top-flight Aragon, and the more affordable Acurus Audio, were showing an Aragon 8008 stereo amplifier with an Aragon 18k preamp. I didn’t get to hear them here at AXPONA, but I did spend some time with them at CES and was impressed by the sound they made there.

Icon Audio was showing a pair of new FRm 2 “full range” single-driver loudspeakers, paired with their tubed electronics, including an ST40 MK III integrated amplifier ($2,495), a KT88-based design good for 20wpc in triode or 40wpc in ultralinear. For an affordable system, I was impressed, if not exactly blown away. Now, I’m not sure “cute” is a good word for a monoblock amp, but the MB30m ($1,799/pair) are just that, so, fuggedaboutit. 27wpc in ultralinear, this KT120 based amp can run in triode too, for 16wpc. A 6SN7 double-triode drives it, and a 5AR4 does the rectification. Did I mention you can fit one in one hand? Ah, well. Another time.

 

Audio Note brought a set of room-friendly stand-mounts, the K/SPe ($3,700/pair – stands are an extra $650). 90dB/wm 2-ways with an 8” woofer and a silk dome tweeter, and the sound was surprisingly full-bodied. Okay, not really a surprise, as this is exactly what Audio Note is known for, but whatever. The OTO SE amplifier ($5,500 as a linestage, $6,300 with the phono), an EL84-based integrated was fed by a Stellavox SP 7 analog tape deck, plopped on a convenient chair. Pretty cool – more tape!

Benchmark Media was showing their new HGC all-in-one, a DSD-capable DAC, a preamp, and headamp, supporting asynchronous USB that they released last November. The HGC is a hybrid design – with digital inputs, all signals are attenuated by a full 32-bit DSP. The analog inputs, and there are two, are not converted, but instead are attenuated by their very own analog volume system. Color me shocked – and pleasantly so. This is a compact package, folks, and some cutting edge tech that I hope to hear more of in the future. Here, it was paired with speakers and electronics from Studio Electric. The new T5 floorstanding loudspeaker features a horn-loaded compression-driver tweeter mated to an 8” paper-cone pro-audio driver with a 2.5” voice coil. Nominal impedance is 7 ohms, with a 90db/wm sensitivity and a frequency response of 38Hz-19.5kHz. The bass-reflex cabinet is 1” thick. Prices start at $5,100 for black; an upgraded wood horn adds $400. A variety of exotic woods (for the horns) will be available; it was shown here in a reddish Puduk, not exactly my favorite combo. I think Info should hit their site in about three weeks.

Herron Audio had a room full of … Herron Audio. Some prototype loudspeakers stood tall in the room’s front wall corners and were paired with some familiar and some not-so-familiar Herron gear. Starting with the amps: M1A monoblocks ($6,850/pair), good for 150wpc in 8 ohms and 275 into 4, these were paired with a VTSP-3A (r02) vacuum tube preamp ($6,550), a single-ended only design with a mono switch, HT bypass, mute, dual outputs, a tape loop, 100K ohm input impedance and 100 ohm output impedance. Dude. Wow. A prototype DAC that does PCM to DSD up-conversion helped out with the input, and a big VPI Classic 3 in luscious rosewood ($6,000), sat atop the rack, was wired up to a VTPH-2 vacuum tube phono stage ($3,650).

Wadia’s new Intuition ($7,500) is an integrated amplifier with onboard DAC that made a huge splash at CES. The aesthetic was designed by sister-company Sonus Faber, and the clean, flowing lines are certainly a departure – a welcome one, as this is a pretty neat looking piece of kit. The unit is entirely digital – a 32bit AD/DA engine sits at the heart, which means that both analog inputs are converted before being passed over to the FPGA system for attenuation, and off to the ESS 9018 Sabre DAC chip for decoding back into an analog signal. DSD is supported over the 32bit/384 kHz USB input. The unit is not a typical Class D – Wadia calls it “Class D+” – and these bits are not sourced from B&O or Hypex, but comes from an “Italian innovator” – the output stage is solid for 350 wpc of output. Available in silver or black, shipping begins in April.

Big transmission-line loudspeakers and triodes may not be the first pairing that comes to mind, and that’s a shame. Because they do make a damn fine pairing, a fact that Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen and Santy Oropel of Twin Audio Video, the importer for Triode Corporation of Japan, have proven repeatedly on the audio show tour circuit. The imposing (60lbs each) TRX-M845SE SET monoblocks from Triode feature a 845 output tube and provide a very robust 50wpc into the Acoustic Zen Crescendo loudspeakers ($16,000/pair). The sound in here was totally non-fatiguing, with deep bass, a darkly luscious mid range and a sweet treble that had me thinking terrible thoughts about my bank account. Beautiful gear making beautiful music? I love it when that happens.

Perhaps it was inevitable that audiophile-level computer audio would become a dark warren of thorns, snarling teeth and black magic, but if you’re lost, Rob Robinson is one of the precious few in audio’s high-end who actually knows what the heck he’s talking about. Rob created a couple of nifty little programs for his company Channel D and has had some success converting the unenlightened to the multitudinous joy that is digital. I’ve been using Pure Music ($129), now in version 1.89, for several years now, and I’ve been nothing but a satisfied customer that entire time. One program I haven’t tried out is what Rob’s been using for converting vinyl, called appropriately enough, Pure Vinyl ($279). Suitable for archival as well as vinyl playback (!), Pure Vinyl also lets you fix your old records, “non-destructively” smoothing out those surface defects you can’t clean away, the ones that make those pops and ticks, while preserving the “warmth, clarity and dynamics of vinyl reproduction”. Just add an AD/DA converter, and you’re off. Speaking of which, Rob was showing with a Lynx Hilo “Mastering Quality” USB ADC/DAC ($2,499), with native DSD support, which he used for all the conversions to and from the computer. Playback assistance came from a Hegel Audio H20 200wpc stereo amplifier ($5,750) and a pair of Joseph Audio Pulsar loudspeakers ($7,000). The sound from this setup was just shockingly good.

Analog playback came from an Artemis Labs SA-1 turntable ($7,800) mounted with a Kuzma 4Point tonearm ($6,500) and Zu Audio Grade 2 Prime DL103 phono cart ($650). The way it works: a Channel D Seta Model L+ phono preamplifier ($5,799) diverts the “flat” analog signal directly to Pure Vinyl for the application of the RIAA curve, correction, archival, and/or playback through the USB ADC/DAC. Another clever device, the Seta DAC Buffer “Transimpedance Amplifier”, takes the analog signal come out of a DAC and applies extremely high-quality analog attenuation so that a DAC can stay within it’s sweet spot of plus/minus 12dB – any more play than that, and many DACs audibly lose resolution. Even if you choose to go with zero attenuation, the Buffer still brings a killer-app to the party, and it’s something that most DACs lack – wicked-good impedance matching. The Seta Buffer has a two mega-ohm input impedance and an absurdly low 20 ohm output – your DAC has never driven your amplifier directly anywhere near this well. Now with single-ended outputs, the Buffer is still balanced-only on the input (for common-mode noise rejection). I’m getting one of these bad boys for myself. 

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