by

James & Linda Darby

It seems audio shows are proliferating like USB DACs these days. We always cover T.H.E (The Home Entertainment) Show in Vegas every year since it is held simultaneously with CES, but now there's another one popping up in California, just outside LA in Newport Beach. We'd heard that several of the new shows were rather worthless and virtually a waste of time, but since the same gang that put on the worthwhile gig in Vegas was behind this one, we decided to check it out. The thought was that it would be much smaller and that we could take our time much more since there would be less to cover since there probably would be less vendors there as well as less new products since companies like to debut tuff at the larger shows. Hence, we thought, a more relaxing experience as opposed to frantically rushing from room to room for four straight days just trying to cover everything.

But nooooo! When we got there there were as many rooms as Vegas it seemed. We were right in that there were less NEW products being introduced at this show, but it took just as long to find them since you have to physically go into each room to see if there's anything new worth telling you about. So, this is no attempt to cover everything that was there since we've reported on most of it from CES, the other THE SHOW and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest as well as a couple of shows in Canada. There were so things we'd seen and heard before that stood out however, so we're including those.

Be sure to read the "Best Sound at Show" at the end of this report.

James: let's start with some of our favorites - namely the Best Source at the show..

This is D. J. Conti. He is a genius and one of the bright stars in all of high-end audio. He designs and makes Basis turntables.

His masterpiece is called The Work of Art, an understatement in terms of beauty of appearance and sound. In an age where digital rules, the best sounding source we've heard in a long time was analog. The big buzz in the high end right now is direct DSD or even Double DSD playback. More on that later. But his is pure analog. True, the cost of this stunning musical machine is dear at $179,000 plus cartridge, but when you're in pursuit of the best of the best, that's the sphere in which you play. The cut that was playing when we walked in was a very popular demo track from Hugh Masekela's masterpiece “Hope” entitled The Coal Train. The detail, quietness, fluidity and massive dynamics were unlike anything we've heard; simply stupendous! Then we spied an album sitting in the corner that is one of my all-time favorites and a recent reissue mastered at 45 RPM by ORG, mastered by Bernie Grundman from the Original Analog Master Tapes & Pressed at RTI - Numbered Deluxe Laminated Gatefold Jackets; the 1970 release Blood Sweat and Tears. Every sound on this album is etched in my musical memory having played every cut on it in different bands, but what this turntable elicited from this disc was again beyond anything I have experienced with this album. I knew this was a great recording, but I didn't know it was this good.

The Work of Art is not a new product, it's been around for several years, but this is the 1st time it's ever been played at a show. It was so amazing that it was worth the trip to California just to hear it.

The rest of the system was made up of Vandersteen, Audio Research, Lyra, AudioQuest and HRS. Estimating the total cost of the system, the figure of around $425,000 tallied in my mind. Still, we've heard many systems in that price range and even double that which sounded not nearly as good. Congratulations to Mr. Conti for bestowing us this true Work of Art.

 

 

 

  AYON

Charlie Harrison of USA Tube Audio, the Harwil Group, who imports and distributes an increasing number of high quality brands

like Ayon, Akustic Arts, Lumen White, Cayin, AVM and Bob Carver to name a few, was showing the new Ayon Titan superamp monoblocks. They should be super

  at $125,000 each. Yes, that's right. They are designed to be the best in the world at any price. They sounded stupendous driving the new to us Ayon Blackhawk speakers.

As you can see, they looked achingly gorgeous with all the book-matched woodwork. At $35,000/pair, they are not cheap either, but my oh my were they mind boggling. At last, some very expensive gear that sounds AND looks like you really invested some money in them.

Uh, we will NOT be reviewing either the amps or the speakers, though we have reviewed a lot of Ayon stuff. We prefer their lower priced but equally impressive affordable gear that looks as good as the $$$ stuff and sounds nearly as good.

 

 

Linda: for me, the best looking and most visually striking system at the show was this combo of pure white MBL electronics and the new Totem

"Element Earth" speakers at $8,995/pr. Lot's bass as usual from Totem.

According to Totem, features of the"green" speakers in white are:


Unique architectural design and geometric conception
Stunning multi-angled chassis
Available in gleaming, luxurious, 4-coat polyester finishes
Custom designed & machined aluminum terminal back plates
Variably adjustable “center front claw”
Technical features
7-inch Torrent™ hand-assembled drivers
Fabulous platinum W.B.T. connectors (bi-wireable)
Revolutionary magnetic field technology
No active or passive cross-over parts in the woofer section
Fully rear-damped 7-inch cone

 

Linda: other analog news was the Rega RP 8 that features the new "skeletal design". The dual brace technology to increase rigidity between the newish RB808 tonearm mount and main hub bearing is taken a step up on the RP8. Two different materials are used for the stressed beam – the top layer is magnesium and the bottom layer is phenolic, which Rega touts as two of the lightest and stiffest materials available. This lowers any propensity to pick up airborne vibrations. New triple layer platter and low noise motor. The RP8 is $2,995, however US customers can purchase one with Rega’s $1,800 Apheta MC cartridge attached and set up for $3,995.

 

 

James: Another impressive turntable was the new Symphony from Triangle Arts by Tom Vu at KT Audio for $5,990.

It wasn't hooked up, but Tom is going to hook us up with a review sample very soon.

KT Audio always has the most unusual and unique gear at the show including the impressive Eventus Audio "Phobos" speakers at $19, 500/pr.

 

Linda: While I missed seeing Jonathan Tinn, one one of my favorite guys, his Playback Designs was smokin' the IPS-3 integrated amp ($13,000) pushing the amazing and tiny Evolution Acoustics MMMicro One speakers at an increased $4,000 a pair (below). Even at that price, they are very musical and dynamic with a huge, and beautiful soundstage. Jon promised Stereomojo the first review pair a couple of years ago. I hope he follows through with that. I can wait to hear them at home!

 

James: we might as well get this out of the way. Magico was playing their new S1 speakers at a rock bottom, super bargain (for Magico anyway) price of only $12,600/pr that were being driven by Constellation electronics and Kubala-Sosna cables.

The new big dogs on the technology scene is nowadays are DAC that play pure DSD and up to 384 Khz. Yep, your poor little asynchronous 192 Khz DACs are all obsolete! But don't worry, there's very little (almost nonexistent) sources of direct DSD or 384 Khx for you to play right now, and not likely anytime soon. we haven't even seen much at a lowly 24/192 yet. The $29,000 Cygnus media player that handles DSD and 384 was driving the Magicos, but off the top of my head I can think of at least a dozen speakers I'd rather own for $13k or much less. Like these....

 

Here's one of them! We actually walked out of the Magico into Ryan Scott's Vapor Audio emporium and heard his new "Nimbus"

model, pictured above. HUGE, cohesive sound with fast (even with the 15" woofer!) deep, deep bass that was very detailed with lots of texture.

The mids were pristine and airy as were the highs. VERY impressive, and at only 250 lbs each and a shockingly measly $8,995 per pair in just about any color or wood, they easily blew away the puny, hard to drive Magicos with their very amp friendly 93 db sensitivity.

Driven by a pair of 40 watt Arte Forma custom made to order mono tube amps that use a pentode to drive an 805 Triode, and Empirical Audio digital goodies, the system was one of the best sounds at the show and easily one of the BEST VAULES. We'll soon be publishing a review of another Vapor speaker, the Breeze which is a tiny stand mount monitor. Another world's first, of course.

 

You won't hear this anywhere else! George Counnas of Zesto Audio, whose wonderful Andros phono preamp we reviewed last year (a world's first!) is coming out with a new POWER AMP! We're sworn to secrecy about the details, but trust us, it sounds every bit as good and at a typical Zesto bang-for-the-buck price as the phono amp and preamp. We were told we'd get an early production model for review.

NOLA

Carl Marchisotto is the the unquestioned master of the universe in open baffled speakers. That is very apparent with his new Micro Grand Reference Gold models at $22,200/pr with designed-by-his-daughter stands and massive new Alnico magnet woofers. We've reviewed almost every speaker in his portfolio and these speakers sound ENORMOUS despite their dainty 1 square floor footprint. The 160 mm magnesium gold bass drivers utilize massive Alnico ring magnets for increased clarity and definition and even lower distortion than his previous models. The solid copper phase plugs are gold plated to provide damping by the soft gold layer over the solid copper. Bass is very deep with tighter improved definition.

He also has developed a new true ribbon tweeter that extends up to 100,000 khz. Go ahead. Listen to these and then listen to any price Magico, MBL or other ultra priced speaker and tell us that their soundstage is deeper, wider and more layered, airy, transparent, natural and realistic than these. We dare you! They actually sounded very, very close to his $55,000 Baby Grand models we reviewed a couple of years ago. Carl has done it again.

 

Linda: It seems my husband isn't the only one who occasionally uses pictures of scantily clad women...ahem.

This is Larry Kaye of BSG Technologies pointing to the QOL "Signal Completion  Stage" for $3,995. It's one of those "magic in a box"  devices with a vague topology. It's not a does no equalizing, filtering or digital manipulation. It is said to "restore the correct phase relationships" found in live music but mangled in recorded music. Well, he's right there. Phase information is changed by microphones and just about everything else in the recording chain. You don't hear about that much, but it's true. The QOL is said to fix that. Does it work?

Well, Larry demo'd it by simply pushing a bypass button on the unit. QOL in, QOL out. Was there a difference?

Oh yeah! Was it "better"? Oh yeah again. And it wasn't subtle, even in a strange room and unfamiliar system.

Are we going to get one for review? What do you think?

With angled drivers is the Heed Enigma speaker $3850 in standard finish, $4250 in rosewood as seen here.

Definitely different.

 

DC Gold Audio model Fifth Row floorstanders at $24,000 with six 10” woofers and a ESS Heil Air Motion Transformer on top.

 

I had to laugh when I saw these in the room. They are the original ESS AMT Model 1 with the then new Heil Air Motion Transformer, thus the "AMT". When I say "then" I mean circa 1970. I was working part-time in a high-end audio salon while in high school when these came in. Revolutionary! They sounded amazing! Much better than the Dalquist DQ -10s and the Large Advents that we were selling in droves. they were very hard to drive, though, so well sold them mostly with Crown DC-300 amps or Phase Linear 400/700's. The only problem is, just about every pair we sold came back with fried drivers!

Amazingly, you can buy the "new improved" model from ESS right now for only $4,500 with US shipping! No Crown or Phase Linear, tho.

The Air Motion Transformer has come a long way since and is being used in a few great speakers today, like the Legacy Aeris we have at home for review right now and also featured at the show (below). Our review will be another World's first. I don't want to give anything away, but if you're shopping for speakers in the $15,000 and over (ANY price over!), don't buy till you read this review!!

LEGACY AERIS

 

 

These are the Rockport Technologies‘ Atria speakers at $21,500/pr. The Aeris ate them for lunch. Really.

Even with the system detailed below set up by local dealer Cake Audio.

 

Taiwan-based Lawrence Audio has three speaker models on static display: the Mandolin ($5500/pair), Violin ($7500/pair), and Cello ($19,000/pair.

 

 

 

Winning our award for "Most Unusual Component" " was the Dared RD-2Retro Radio integrated amp & tuner. 

Its a multi-purpose design can be used as an FM radio, FM tuner aside from it's line level preamp and BlueTooth capability.

And it's tubes!  It uses 6N1 and 2 plus a 6E2 to produce 25 wpc!!! And it goes for $799!!!

 

Angel City Audio Trinity Speakers  at $2 600 were driven by a Melody P2688 Preamp ($7000) a pair of Melody PM845 monoblocks ($8500).

An Onix XCD-50 $3800  which we reviewed awhile back was the source.

 

On static display (unfortunately) was the Melody AN211. As you can see,

it was our 2011 Tube Integrated Amp of the Year. Are you getting tired of hearing "world's first review" yet?

 

James: Well, here's another one. This is Bill Glen of Spiritual Audio. Two of our reviewers listened to their systems with a $2,995 Spiritual Audio VX-9 Power Conditioner. After the review, they both purchased one. That's only happened once before with the Eastern Electric DAC a few years back.

After the show, I'm buying ones VX-9, too. Does that tell you anything???

 

 

The Sanders 10C at $14,000 hasn't changed much since our world's first review 4 years ago - just the electronics that come with, including the new Magtech amp at 500 wpc and the external crossover which has been improved. I include it here because there were several other electrostatic or ribbon type speakers at the show. Most cost more and sound nowhere as good as the Sanders, our Product of the Year in 2009. Martin Logan's $10,000 Mantis we heard at the show didn't come close. Not Kingsound, Jantzen or anything else. Harry Pearson reviewed them several months after we did and concurred, whatever that's worth. Still one of the best bang for the buck speakers in the world if they work in your room.

 

OK.  The Fritz REV 7 Towers are not a Stereomojo World's First Review. Yet. But they will be soon. They're in house and cookin' right now.

 

Quintessence Stealth - $25,000. Double JBL on the bottom. Ribbon drivers on top. 92.5 DB. Designed by T.S. Campagna, but built by PBN.

Can be adjustable. This is the final prototype. Just for the record, this one is not a "world's first review"! Yet.

 

From the "We Told You So" files, the Vanatoo speakers were huge hit at the show. I'm tired of typing "World's First Review" so I won't for the Vanatoos. But there were. If you're looking for a small speaker that is also an amp, DAC and a few other things, for $499 you can't beat it.

 

The Vanatoo isn't wireless yet. But the DynAudio Xeo 3 is.

We've been waiting for this a long time. You've seen wireless mics, guitars and everything else on stages everywhere

for decades, but not at home for audio. How did it sound? Not great. But the freq. response is only 48 Hz – 22 kHz.

The Vanatoo's sounded much better. But these are wireless. Except for the power cords. Gotta plug that in.

 

 

 

Onda Ligeria amps and speakers are made it Latvia. We've reviewed things from Serbia and many other exotic countries (like Canada?), but have never seen or heard anything from Latvia. Until now.  The huge Athenaeum speakers $35,000 U.S. pair.  You can't really see it in these pictures, but there is a vertical opening in the lower cabinet that looks for all the world like a medium sized horn mounted vertically. But playback didn't sound at all like a horn mid. Upon closer inspection, turns out there were opposed woofers in there!

The port is said to be very low Q.

The speakers sounded fantastic. Worth $35,000? Hard to say.

Compared to the $18,000 Legacy Aeris, probably not.

Specifications

Type 3-wayspeaker system
Case construction Technology of low-Q controlled resonanceOL
Acoustic design Bass reflex with acoustic load
Package LF: 2×203 mm (8 in), hardened paper diffuser, voice coil 50 mm (2 in)
MF: 152 mm (6 in), light paper diffuser, neodymium magnet, 45 mm (1.77 in) aluminium coil.
HF: 25 mm (1 in), soft diffuser, neodymium magnet, non-resonance aluminium chamber.
Sensitivity 2.83 V / 93 dB
Frequency range 27 — 30000 Hz (37 — 25000 Hz ± 2 dB)
Crossover 270 Hz / 3700 Hz, of the first/second order
Nominal impedance 4 Ohm
Power input 15 — 450 W
Dimensions (WхHхD) 43×122×57 cm
Net weight 100 Kg

 

The Onda Ligeria IPA 003 integrated reminded me of all things MBL with the gold trim.

It's 300 wpc at 4 Ohms and $13,000. Nice!

How about an award for Best Amp From Latvia?

 

 

The Exasound e20 DAC is reputed to be the world's first DSD 256 DAC. DSD 256 = 11.2896 MHz. You're gonna have to learn this stuff.

DSD is Delta Sigma Modulation or better known commercially as Direct Stream Digital. DSD converter implementations were pioneered by Andreas Koch and Ed Meitner, the original founders of EMM Labs. Andreas Koch later left EMM Labs and along with Jonathan Tinn, founded Playback Designs who have pioneered the transfer of DSD files over USB connections. Got it?

What we get now is PCM for the most part, or Pulse Code Modulation. The best available today are 24 bit 192 kHz music files from the likes of Reference Recording and a couple of others. The problem with most DACS today is that they have to CONVERT standard PCM files to DSD via a very complex and sound degrading algorithm. Pure DSD? Not so much.  The e20 doesn’t just play standard 2.82MHz DSD files, it also plays the 5.64MHz double- speed DSD files but don't try to find those. There aren't many pro recording studios that have that yet. I use Protools at home which is used by probably 99% of all recording studios. Protools itself does not "do" DSD. Those are Sonoma, Pyramix or SADiE only.

There are about DSD 50 albums, probably none by people you've heard of (no Joni Mitchell, Diana Krall or  or Elvis etc) and expect to pay $50 per album and you'd better have very fast internet cause they are only accessible via the net. It will be years before you can go toe Walmart and get pure DSD, if EVER. The public still loves mp3s!

 How does the Exasound e20 DAC sound? Outstanding! No tube output though. But - it's only $2,499 for bleeding edge technology. This is not the ONLY DAC that does DSD, there are maybe a dozen others.

How does DSD (or Double DSD) sound?

Well, Dr. Rob Robinson of Channel D Audio who makes Pure Vinyl, the best LP transfer software and whom says he is

and "analog guy", said "If I had the same recording on vinyl and DSD, I'd probably listen to the DSD".

For more info, watch this video which features the godfathers of digital audio including our reviewer, Bruce Brown.

http://audiofest.net/new/videos/dsd-hardware-software-meet-an-update/

 

Linda: This is the new KEF LS 50 at $1,500 pair. The gold concentric driver looks like a little gem - jewelry! Maybe that's why I like the looks so much! Outstanding sound, even in the bass. Great musical image.

Worth the money? Hard to say from a show demo, but maybe - just maybe!

 

We reviewed the Antelope Zodiac DAC earlier this year. It was NOT a world's first. See - we don't take credit where credit is not due.

This is a whole 'nother universe from Antelope though. It's the Rubicon Atomic AD/DA Pre am. IT is a world's first however -
World's first 384 kHz converter, phono stage preamp and headphone amplifier with an integrated atomic clock.

The atomic clock is 100,000 times more stable than a traditional crystal oscillator. Coupled with Antelope’s 64-bit Acoustically Focused Clocking technology, the Rubidium achieves a breakthrough in jitter management. The same technology is implemented in the company’s flagship master clocks used for scoring blockbusters such as Avatar and available at the best recording and mastering studios around the globe.


The transformer-based, ultra-low noise, discrete JFET phono preamp is a complement that will be highly appreciated by many vinyl lovers. In addition to the 384 kHz DAC, Rubicon also includes ultra-high sample rate A/D conversion. These functionality together with the high resolution USB recording capability provide the users with the sublime experience of digitizing their favorite tracks, still keeping the depth and the warmth of the original analog recordings.

In addition to the 384 kHz USB streaming, Rubicon offers DLNA capability. The DLNA streaming gives users the opportunity to wirelessly push audio files from their smart phone, PC or NAS (Network-attached storage) server and play the content through the high-sample rate DAC.

Start saving up your pennies though, the Rubicon goes for a cool $40,000. We might get one around September.

This is Steve Norbert, former head honcho at the now defunct Edge Audio.

Edge made very expensive components to an audience mostly in the far east.

Steve's new company is PranaFidelity - not the wire company. he was showing his new

new speaker dubbed the Fifty90, a symmetric two-way system with front-firing reflex port. When he told me they cost "thirty nine fifty", I assumed he meant $39,500. You never know these days. While they don't look like $40k speakers, that means nothing We see lots of gear that doesn't look that expensive but is and vice versa. We prefer the latter. No, these are $3,950 per pair. The drivers are home-made. Steve makes 2 other models, both at prices around $35,000, so he hasn't abandoned his high-end intentions or ears. These seem to be a bargain, though we should have more info soon as he promised to send us a pair for review.

James: We also heard the Wilson Audio Shasha III's driven by Ayre. For $30,000 for the speakers alone, I was underwhelmed.

Very coherent and transparent, yes - but rather antiseptic, dry and mechanical - to us, the house sound. No offense to two of our esteemed reviewers who own Wilson speakers (Maxxes and Alexias). Another of our reviewers owns a pair of Magico's. That's the sound they like. But hey, I'd bet that I've heard a lot more live music as well as audio gear in my lifetime as they have. That's because I've heard live music, lots of it, almost every day since I was age 2. Anyone interested in my background is welcome to write, or look me up on Facebook - lots of pictures of me in several venues at various ages. Recording studio, solo performances, conducting symphony orchestras, conducting large choirs and ensembles, etc. I made my first record at age 14. Yes, record. There were no CDs, cassettes or even 8 tracks then.

 

Linda: Oh! That reminds me! Legacy Audio has included two of James' works on their new Audiophile demo CD which gives you a little taste of his musical as well as recording studio talents. Cuts 4 and 8! I'm pretty proud of him.

James: Aw shucks babe. These are just two tracks I put together as stereo torture tests that sounded

a lot more fun than frequency sweeps, pink noise and test tones. I played them when Bill was setting up the Aeris speakers.

He liked them and asked if he could use them. No big deal....if I have time I'll put them up on Stereomojo.com for our readers sometime soon.

 

 

Linda: This is one very cool looking and even more impressive from an audio point of view.

James: I agree. It's by George Warren. It looks like it could be $45,000, doesn't it?

It's not. It's only $4,500 AND that includes a Moth Arm2 Incognito-wired tone arm. Sounded wonderfully.

 

This is the new Luxman A550Ax class A integrated amp. We've reviewed a couple of its older siblings and loved both of them. This new update looks a little less retro and a little more modern and sleek, but still features those very cool analog meters. It's 20 watts of pure class A goodness, but sounds a lot gutsier.

One of the best audio buys at $5,400 if you have the right speakers/room setup.

 

Go to the next page to see our Best of Show Awards.

 

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