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CES

2009 CES & T.H.E Show Coverage 11, Day Three

Soundsmith, Magnepan, Sanders, Audio Note UK, Edge Electronics

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Day three began with a highly anticipated trip to Peter Ledermann’s SoundSmith room. I’ll admit to not keeping up on the latest audiophile news. I wasn’t aware of Peter’s DirectGrace Records. I wasn’t aware that he was a recording engineer, and that he could cut direct to disk on his own lathe. More germane to this show report, I had no idea that Peter had developed one of the best cartridges I’ve heard, and I’m not talking about his strain gauge.

I first learned of Peter because I have used Panasonic and Win strain gauge cartridges for some time. His very high-end execution of the strain gauge concept turns the design into a fully realized high end phono cartridge. They’re very transparent and dimensional, but somewhat of a niche product, though they shouldn’t be.

I heard his Strain Gauge when I first sat down in the room, but it was when Peter went to “The Voice” that he really had my attention. It’s been out for a while now, but The Voice, a moving iron design, deserves much more attention from the high-end community.

This is the first time the moving iron concept has been executed with the same high quality materials you would expect from a moving coil costing upwards of $5K. As much as I enjoyed the midrange of my Grados, they didn’t track like Peter’s cartridge, or image as well, or behave, etc…

The Voice is Peter’s top-of-the-line moving iron and is priced at $2,200 with Ebony Body. That doesn’t sound ridiculously affordable until you hear what it does. My time was limited, but what I heard was fantastic. What was even crazier was that he was using his $300 phono stage, the MMP3. So, either the MMP3 is also crazy-good for the price, or perhaps The Voice can do even more. I am begging and pleading to review both The Voice and the MMP3 (update—they’re on their way. Stay tuned for reviews in DAGOGO). By the way, there is an entire line of moving irons starting from the shamefully affordable up to The Voice. The entire line is available as medium or high compliance, as well as stereo and mono. This means that you can get a high compliance mono cartridge for those lightweight arms of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It means that The Voice can be tailored to perform at its best for my low mass SME V. Peter even offers a dual

vertical version for Edison cylinders, Pathés and other early vertical (hill and dale) cut recordings.

Peter’s Mk2 strain gauge was also sounding fantastic. He’s done two things to iron out the “problems” with strain gauge cartridges. First, he’s improved his low frequency filter to eliminate the low frequency detritus that can be found on virtually every record produced. Strain gauge cartridges are particularly sensitive to bad pressings, warps, and anything else that’s not supposed to be. It’s not a fault with the design—it’s actually a strength. However, even if you are listening exclusively to organ recordings, most anything below 15-17Hz is going to be junk. My old Panasonic cartridges would scare the crap out of me with subsonic garbage they would find on vinyl, such as woofers pumping, amps clipping, etc…. Peter’s design alleviates the issue and makes system integration (picking the correct arm; isolation, etc) much easier.

The second issue addressed is the slight frequency response aberration that occurs because the RIAA deemphasis curve isn’t being used during playback. If you didn’t know, the strain gauge puts out a line-level output and doesn’t use the RIAA deemphasis. The strain gauge, like the Stax electrostatic cartridge, the Weathers FM, and old style crystal cartridges that went before, doesn’t require the RIAA playback equalization. However, when a record is cut, it is recorded with the RIAA preemphasis curve and there are two “knees” (turnover and rolloff frequency points) that cause a dip and a peak to occur when not using the RIAA playback curve. Peter has finally, FINALLY, fixed the issue. It’s one of the reasons the strain gauge hasn’t been my main cartridge—the funny frequency response. You don’t notice it very often, but my fear as a reviewer is that it would cover up a problem with another component I was reviewing, which is also why I stopped using my subwoofer system. The best thing is: Peter accomplishes the EQ and sub-bass filtering without adding anything to the signal path. They are shunt circuits. This means that you still have the ultra transparent sound, but now even better.

Peter’s associated equipment included speakers from Green Mountain Audio, the Calypso HD ($14,900). Their sound was truthful and revealed the differences between the two cartridges. The table was a VPI HRX with two arms: The Schroder Reference was sporting the Strain Gauge and a VPI JMW 12.5 with the wonderful sounding The Voice. Also on display

were some nice sounding budget speakers from SoundSmith, the Dragonfly ($1,500) and the Monarch ($2,000). Amplifiers being used were designed by Peter: both zero feedback MOSFET designs, the HE-2006 (300w/ch @8 Ohms) driving the Monarchs and the HE-150 (little brother/same design @150w Min. @8 Ohms) into the Green Mountain Calypso’s.

Before moving on, I encourage anyone who likes good vinyl or good music to check out the DirectGrace releases. Since the money goes to charity, it’s like doing a good deed while enjoying good music.

http://directgrace.org/Home.html
http://www.sound-smith.com/products/
www.greenmountainaudio.com

The most hyped event at THE Show was a mystery demonstration by Magnepan. Press releases were coy. There was a payoff because what I heard was very exciting. The demonstration was of two pint-sized Maggies (think satellites) with two bass units (not subwoofers). They are 15” by 22” with a passive crossover to the low frequency enclosures at 300Hz. Efficiency is 87dB/watt. Electronics were Bryston. They were playing cuts at realistic levels, to the point that the Bryston amp’s clipping indicators momentarily activated. That was 1,000 watts and it sounded like the Maggies could take even more. Magnepan said they were gauging reaction and hadn’t decided to manufacture the speakers. Well, I’m saying make the darn things. I like my Magnepans, but this new system is much better in my opinion.

http://www.magnepan.com/

I’m a sucker for panels. If a room had a big panel, I was in. Perhaps the best overall sound I’ve heard from a hybrid ESL could be found at Sanders Sound Systems. Roger was showing his 10B ($12,995), a hybrid that incorporates a 10” woofer in a transmission line, which comes with active crossover and 600wpc bass amp. For the ESL part of the speaker, he was using his ESL Amp (designed specifically to drive stats). It’s an improved version of the amp formerly produced by Innersound, a design that garnered very good reviews. The ESL amp ($3,995) puts out 400wpc into 8ohms, 760 into 4ohms, and as a mono mode, 1,000 watts into 8 and 1,800 into 4.

The sound was very faithful to what was on the recordings. Listening to Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughn (how did he know I was from Texas?), the vocals were extremely compact and smack dab in the middle of the sound stage. It was some of the truest sounding vocals I heard. Most panel and line source systems will make the singer sound abnormally large and too diffuse, like they had a mouth 10 feet wide. It might sound cool, but it’s not right. The 10B’s performance was exemplary in this regard. Even at relatively high outputs, the voice stayed solid and compact. Meanwhile, the acoustic space stretched beyond the outside boundaries of the speakers, doing an excellent job of recreating the acoustic space.

Roger surprised me with a recording he made of Saint-Saens Organ Symphony (How did he know I had French relatives on my father’s side?), which did a good job of showcasing what the TL woofer can do. I could definitely feel the fundamental bass frequency. The acoustic space was realistic and frequency balance was first rate. Though I was there for a short time, I don’t think there are any integration issues with the woofer and ESL element.

The system had a wide useable sweet spot, with good impact and speed, could play big, and managed to minimize the sound of the room. The electronics were tube-like with the impact and noise level of transistors. Roger will be sending the 10B to be reviewed by DAGOGO. Based on what we heard, we are looking forward to that!

http://www.sanderssoundsystems.com/

One of the perennial favorite destinations for Dagogoans is the Audio Note UK room presented by Audio Federation (and the charming Cornelia Davis who has great taste in music). I’ve always found the AN digital products to be some of the finest made. This time, Audio Federation had the CDT-Three Transport ($9,550) and DAC 4.1X Balanced ($15,500). The rest of the system was the Ongaku ($95,000) and AN-E SEC Signature speakers ($51,000). The sound was simply fluid and natural, making digital sound as close to analog as any system I’ve heard. The tonal balance was slightly warm and very inviting. This room served the music well. It’s always a delight to hear an Audio Note system.

www.audionote.co.uk
www.audiofederation.com

The Edge Electronics room was showcasing a prototype CD player that uses a battery power supply. Projected to cost $15K, the Signature CD is an attempt to assault the boundaries of digital. The rest of the system featured the Reference Preamp ($58,000) and massive speakers from PBN, the WAS-2 ($55,000). The system had great bass tone with weight, but with no overhang. Very good outside-the-box imaging was coupled to thick, meaty images. It’s hard for me to say which component was responsible for the different aspects of the reproduction. I would say that means that these components work well together.

http://www.edgeamp.com/
http://www.sierraaudio.com/

The Classic Audio Loudspeakers/AtmaSphere/TriPlanar room was a unique experience, sporting cutting-edge execution of some classic ideas. The speakers were the Classic Audio Loudspeakers T-3.3 with field coil drivers, driven by Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk III amps, MP-1 MkIII preamp and a vinyl front end featuring the Tri-Planar arm and Airtight PC-1 cartridge. The sound was a unique blend of transparency, speed, impact, immediacy and romanticism.

Later that night, I got together with Ralph Karsten (Atma-Sphere), Tri Mai (Tri-Planar), Albert Porter, Marco Prozzo and Peter Schwartzman for Indian food, and after that, beer, scotch and lots of music back at the room. This is what audio should be about: food, fun, laughs, music, more laughs, more music, some good beverages and great sound. I was exposed to music by Isan, Porcupine Tree, Thunderbolt Pagoda (featuring a guy named Ralph Karsten on keyboards) and much more. I had a blast and took some ridiculous pictures.

www.atma-sphere.com/
http://classicaudioloudspeakers.com
http://www.triplanar.com/

More great digital sound was on display at the Purist Audio Design/Stahl~Tek room. Jim Aud was playing the Stahl~Tek Vekian DAC through a KR Audio Kronzilla SX1 stereo integrated amp into the Peak Audio Design Zoltan Signature loudspeakers. The PAD cables were the Proteus Provectus IC and speaker cables, Aqueous Anniversary Digital and Purist Limited Edition AC cables. The sound was very low-noise and calm, something of a hallmark of the Purist cables. The Vekian was sounding very smooth. The Vekian employs classic RF shielding techniques to prevent the digital trash from bleeding into the analog circuits. Individual sections are isolated with copper clad enclosures. It’s very pretty too.

http://www.stahltek.com/
www.puristaudiodesign.com

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