“I’ll tell you ’bout Texas Radio and the Big Beat,
Soft drivin’, slow and mad, like some new language” †
The most important audio shows aren’t the ones for industry insiders, distributors, dealers and reviewers. It’s the local shows, open to the most ignored people in high-end audio: the end users. CES (and the rest of the big shows) does serve a purpose, but for me it is a corporate business environment, an uptight make-or-break contest for many exhibitors who shell out tens of thousands of dollars. For many, the bang-to-hype ratio is way out of whack. The local shows are open to the public, more affordable, and provide local manufacturers on tight budgets a way to connect with potential local customers. For some exhibitors, this is the only way to get on the map without going broke.
Lone Star Audio Fest has a way to go before it “energizes the base”, but it does appear to be in good shape going forward. I saw decent attendance, local high-end devotees, reviewers, and people from hundreds of miles away. The bad economy is definitely hurting both attendees and exhibitors alike. A few from last year didn’t make it back, but I did see a few new faces.
Friends and Peers
“Some call it heavenly in its brilliance,
Others, mean and rueful of the Western dream.
I love the friends I have gathered together on this thin raft.
We have constructed pyramids in honor of our escaping.
This is the land where the Pharaoh died”†
A trip to a show always includes breakfast with an audiophile friend or peer. I met up with audio mentor Bob McGehee, the friend who, when I was in high school, introduced me to the AR-XA turntable and Dynaco tube equipment (great sound 101). The local audio groups, like the Dallas Audio Club, have largely stepped in to replace dealers as the place to hear new equipment (also modified older stuff and DIY), disseminate ideas and hear new music. Bob introduced me to http://www.FMtunerinfo.com guru Jim Rivers, who started the Dallas Audio Club, where I met plinth designer and audio renaissance man John Semrad, reviewer/photographer/Audiogoner Albert Porter, amp designer Gary Dodd, speaker builders Danny Richie, Robert Spence and Johan van Zyl, artists like Ka Yeung, and arts patrons like Alan May. Thanks to the advent of the internet, we music lovers and audiophiles can find each other in a state the size of Texas.
Dreamers and Prophets
John Wolff of Classic Audio Reproduction is a glutton for punishment. The stuff he hauled from Michigan made my eyes bug out. He had two complete horn systems: T1.3 Ref, and T3.3.
The T1.3’S were powered by the Atma-Sphere MA1.5 Novacron OTL amps, and the T3.3’S were powered by Atma-Sphere M-60 OTLs (that’s two sets of monoblocks). It was all driven by the Atma-Sphere MP1 preamp with phono stage. He had the field-coil power supplies for the T-1.3 Ref. A Kuzma Reference turntable with Triplanar tonearm and Air Tight PC1 phono cartridge, and an Esoteric DV50S with ASI/TEK mods were the sources. Then there were drivers, horns, lenses, accessories, statues, records, CDs, etc… I’d like to know how many pounds all this stuff weighs. Like I said: glutton for punishment.
I first heard that Muddy Waters record that I don’t listen to anymore (Folk Singer). It sounded fabulous though. On the smaller of the two horn systems, the T3.3, the soundstage was enormous, though width and placement from left to right was better than the stage depth. As you would expect, attacks and dynamics were superbly clean, fast and impactful. There wasn’t much of any characteristic horn sound, other than the ability to play at realistic levels and reproduce dynamics like a horn system should. Although they weren’t as cohesive as some other speakers, I’d take these for their ability to kick butt where other speakers poop out or blow up. Frequency extension was a little lacking in the bottom octave (15Hz to 30Hz), but there wasn’t any boom or muddiness. Treble extension was as good as any comparable horn system I know of.
We then listened to John’s flagship model, the T1.3 Reference. The T1.3 starts at $36,500; these were upgraded to reference standard with field coil drivers and a host of other improvements and would sell for $59,500. I associate this kind of speaker with kickin’ ass and takin’ names, so I pulled out my Led Zeppelin CD. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” had a massive sound, with vocals firmly placed in the middle, guitar behind and outside and the bass of John Paul Jones pressurizing the left side of the room.
I think they mixed the bass out of phase because a good system will put it on a different plane of sound than the rest of the band, somewhat out in the room and way out to the side. Depending on room acoustics and bass response, the effect can be completely lost. This system got it. Jimmy Page’s plucked strings were fast, clean and dimensional. Obviously the system could play loud. That it was playing as loud and clean as it was, with extraordinary body, and being driven by Atma-Sphere Novacrons, shows that the speaker, even though it is huge and complex, is an easy load and very efficient. There was no harsh classic horn sound. It actually managed to sound warm and pretty on well recorded music.
On “Bright Size Life” by Pat Metheny, with Jaco Pastorius on bass, there was plenty of detail: lots of fret, rosin, gut and what have you. At the same time, it was warm and non-analytical. Where the T3.3 was a little lacking in depth, the 1.3 Ref was among the best imaging horns I’ve heard. This is a reference class product, and if you were thinking of VOTTs, K-Horns, Hartsfields, Patricians, TAD, Westlake or any other multiway classic horn design, don’t buy until you hear these. The price is high, but I can attest that you are getting a lot of very refined speaker for the money (field coils, beautiful veneer, first rate build quality, etc.). This was the most complete sounding system at the show, but John really had to work at it. He rented a massive room on the bottom floor, and anything less would’ve limited these big speakers. He reminded me of “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness”, except in this case, he’s an evangelist for classic horns done right.
Next was the Van Zyl Audio room, where Johan van Zyl, designer for BassMaxx and MaxxHorn, was introducing his own line of horns. Johan, an émigré from South Africa, is a deeply religious man that believes in the spiritual power of music. After working the pro side (BassMaxx) and the cost-no-object high-end (MaxxHorn), he wanted to develop a speaker that had broader appeal. A speaker for “the common man”—Johan’s words. His solution blends SEDHT features (full range driver) with more traditional speaker design (moderate efficiency, ribbons). The model on display was the Frontline, a quasi tractrix loaded full-range horn with ribbon augmentation. It employs the Jordan JX92S full range driver (a 4” unit) and the Aurum Cantus G2Si ribbon tweeter. The Jordan runs full range, and the tweeter is brought in at a very high frequency with a capacitor. I guess this would be called a 1.5 way design.
Due to a SNAFU by the veneer supplier, the cabinets didn’t arrive until the day before the show, leaving Johan no time to work on room placement. The drivers were just mounted, the finish was still curing and Johan was fighting room acoustics. His designs are sensitive to room placement and movement of a half inch can dramatically change the sound. The small room was causing a rise from 40-80Hz, which was obscuring the midrange and low bass character. I could hear more deep bass on the other side of Embassy Suites’ huge atrium. Even with room problems, there was plenty to like about this new speaker. Response was relatively flat from the mid 30Hz region to well above audibility. Compared to more typical small horns, the Frontline has much better bass extension and slam. Forget that they use 4” drivers. There were overtones in abundance, where all single-driver speakers (other than headphones) make the sound dark. Imaging was very good. Soundstage depth was excellent, being more like a traditional mini-monitor. They have much better coherence and clarity than classic horns. By far the most outstanding attribute was amazing quickness from top to bottom.
One thing I like about the Jordan full-range driver is the absence of the whizzer cone. These will play at remarkable levels without the bite of whizzer cone speakers. Actually, I’ve never heard a whizzer cone play this loud and this clean. No, there isn’t the sweet midrange of a pricey Feastrex, some Fostex drivers, etc… Everything is a trade-off. It would be interesting to hear these with several different choices of amplification, especially single-ended.
Also in Johan’s room, from StereoKnight, was the passive Magnetic Silverstone-B&R, a transformer volume control with remote control operation of balance and volume, selling for $1,900, which seems a bargain. The unit offers a combination of single-ended and balanced inputs and outputs, and can be operated fully balanced input to output, or single-ended if you prefer. It was driving the StereoKnight M75 monoblock tube amps, selling for $3,850 the pair, which is also a balanced design. Connecting it all together was cable from Chris and Melissa Owen at Clarity Cable. Altogether, it was a fine sounding system and an auspicious debut for Mr. Van Zyl. Retail is $4,995, though he is offering a healthy discount for the first pairs sold.
A perpetual favorite room of mine is the Audio Federation/Audio Note room. One friend described it as polite. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a relaxed presentation. I’ve never heard anything ugly from one of the Audio Note rooms, and more often than not, the results are very satisfying.
The system was the TT Two turntable at $1,925, the Arm 3 $1,925, the IOI phono cartridge $3,575, AN-S4 step up transformer $5,200, R Zero II phono stage $1,400 and E/SPe HE speakers $7,600. The cartridge and speakers were contributing more to the sound than the rest of the equipment. The IOI phono cartridge is a low distortion, very low output affair (.05mV output) that doesn’t have the glare or bite of some competing designs with higher output. The E/SPe HE (they really need to give this speaker a proper name) is extremely easy to drive at 96dB per watt, uses birch plywood that sounds more natural than MDF, is rear ported and designed to be positioned close to the rear wall for good room gain. Even placed close to the wall, the speakers image as if they were out in the room. It’s one of the few ported designs I really like: there doesn’t seem to be any classic port artifacts like my old JBL Century L100 or similar designs, while the tonal balance is classically British: laid back, perhaps a little dip in the presence range.
† “THE WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)” by Jim Morrison
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