There was eye candy and great sound courtesy of Audio MIRЯOR (it took a while to figure out how to do Cyrillic characters). Bulgarian born Vladimir Bazelkov moved to the U.S. in 2000. He now lives in Houston. Hey Vladimir, move to Dallas! It’s not as hot, and we don’t have hurricanes. Besides, I’d love to see and hear this equipment on a regular basis.
I’d have to nominate his 45-watt SET parallel 6C33C triode monoblock amps ($3,449 the pair) as the best overall amplifier at the show. They sound and look marvelous. The input tube is a 6SL7, the driver a 6SN7 (easy-to-find tubes, and affordable).
The two 6C33C tubes per amp use individual transformer primaries, which allow each tube to be independently biased and isolated from each other. This isn’t a new technique. I seem to recall that some of the McIntosh amps used it, like the MI200 (a monster PP triode amp). However, this is a more difficult winding, one that is more expensive to implement, and it addresses the difficulties involved when you use the 6C33C, notably that since they have very high transconductance and that their plate resistance is very low, tube to tube variation is extreme. It’s not that the quality control is bad on these tubes (which might be the case). More accurately, when you have very high transconductance, any slight shifting of the grid assembly, in relation to the plates, causes a disproportionately large change in transconductance and plate resistance, something that you have to take into account when biasing the amp. If you don’t isolate the two output tubes, you will have one tube conducting a lot more current than the other tube. You can forget tube matching; it’s pointless. As the tubes age, they drift and your matched tubes are no longer matched. This is one of the few designs employing this monster output tube that I would consider. A few other features of the amp are silver wiring and grain oriented laminations in the output transformer. Perhaps I can pry a pair of these from Vladimir’s hands.
The rest of the Audio Mirror equipment included the Tubadour non-oversampling DAC ($1,300), and the T-61 linestage which uses two 6N1P dual triodes (like a 6DJ8, but with without frame grids) in SRPP ($1,279). It employs a 6X4 for rectification, comes with a remote for volume, mute and input selection, and features point-to-point silver wiring and Sonicap coupling caps. The Tubadour DAC doesn’t employ active IV conversion which usually uses a cheap IC or solid-state stuff. Instead, it is a passive design which is directly connected to the 6N1P output tube. This DAC must be good, as the whole system was sounding rather analog-like.
My nomination for the almost successful (but not quite) room was AudioFred’s Affordable Audio room (Fred Thompson, AKA “FredT300B”, and know to me as Mr. Fred Array). His mission was to show a $500 audiophile quality room. He wasn’t trying to sell any product, but an idea. It consisted of the Dayton Audio BR-1 two-way speakers (a kit) from Parts Express for $160, an Insignia NS-R2000 receiver from Best Buy (over my dead body) for $113 (you DEFINITELY get what you pay for), and the Oppo DV-980H player at $169. I give thumbs up to the effort. He was using some nice speaker stands, and some Belden wire (good wire in fact). Speakers: good. Oppo CD player: very good if you refuse to buy a really good CD player (like me). Insignia receiver: sounds worse than $113. The Insignia nearly ruined it for me.
Honestly, Radio Shack has better, covered in fake wood veneer. I put on my “acid test” Led Zeppelin disk. On several other systems, it sounded full, dramatic, powerful, yada-yada-yada. On this system…not so much, buddy. It was 2D and ugly. I heard him make “the hard sell” on an audiophile who just walked in. He gave his spiel about “judge for yourself”, and he put on a Norah Jones CD. Here’s the problem as I see it: if a system only sounds good when playing good sounding (audiophile approved) recordings, is it really successful? That’s your call. Fred did make a good point though. These are good speakers. If you are really, really broke, or you want to have some speakers for a second system, or for the garage, or the attic, or in the restroom, give them a shot.
www.bestbuy.com (again, you get what you pay for, especially from these guys)
http://fredt300b.smugmug.com/ (Fred’s page)
My “holy-crap –those-are-big-speakers, how-did-they-get-them-in-the-room” room, was the Crescendo Systems room. I did a triple take. “Were those ‘stats?” Yes, they were big ol’ awesome room filling electrostatic loudspeakers. I was immediately a fan of Kim Beumer’s approach. Beumer, originally from The Netherlands, now hails from the Dallas area. His joke: he was one of two Dutch engineers not employed by Philips. Really funny, actually.
His big panels, the ESL1, are 40” by 80” and sell for $4,995. Yes, four-nine-nine-five and no hundredths. He can make them in different colors, and smaller or larger, though who wants them smaller?! Kim has been working with ESLs since the ‘80s. He was driving the speakers with Solo monoblock amplifiers ($895), BM5.1 Bass Management module ($495) and PHA1 Phono stage ($1,495). The BM5.1 is a crossover, and was used to drive a small subwoofer to augment the bass. The PHA1 works with MC and MM cartridges, and has the all-too-rare 50kHz compensation option.
Though his sources were mid-fi (Pioneer universal CD player and Denon turntable), the soundstage depth was the cat’s meow, the bee’s knees…. He even played one of my favorite guilty pleasures: “Snowflakes Are Dancing”, by Tomita. These might have some of the same limitations as other full-range stats, but they definitely had better high frequency response than the last pair of Sound Labs I heard. Audiophile buddy Ka Yeung described their sound as “really big Quads”. The sound was speedy, though I didn’t get a strong impression of how loud they will play or how they will handle dynamics. I can forgive quite a bit if they do sound like “really big Quads”, and they sell for south of $5k. I hope to have these here ASAP for many hours of reviewing pleasure. He’s only twenty miles away, so if he doesn’t bring them over, I’m crashing his place.
A year later and Jumping Cactus Loudspeakers seems to be steadily improving an already fantastic product. James M. Harrell, Jr, a mechanical engineer I believe, has been working on this design since 2005. Every time I’ve heard it, it’s sounded better than the time previous. His time-aligned design and his incremental improvements remind me of Richard Vandersteen (I’ve owned several pairs of Vandersteens in the past). It’s easy for me to recommend a builder like James. He’s not undercutting his owners by changing and abandoning models every year.
The sound is very relaxed, phase coherent, and clean. Distortion seems to be very low and cabinet resonances are a non-issue. These are almost like much faster, more dynamic, more efficient Vandersteens, and with much quieter cabinets. They’re also more attractive. James does recommend a subwoofer. The bass starts rolling off at 65Hz. You can tell these are very well constructed speakers. Weighing in at 120lbs per side, they look smaller than that. Individual enclosures are made of aluminum. They are comfortable with low powered tube amps with 95dB/watt efficiency, but they aren’t so finicky that you have to be overly careful of amp choice.
Rounding things out (and not the last for any particular reason other than I went counter-clockwise after leaving the first room) was Pi Loudspeakers. Wayne Parham had his 4Pi with 3Pi subs, the AudioNote Kit 2 power amp, Cary Preamp and a Denon Blu-Ray player. Contrary to what the speakers may look like, they don’t have a classic sound. The finish is beautiful. I might have said that last year. They’re just as pretty this year. Classic looks, yes! Classic sound, yes and no! These have a decidedly laid back character. There was inviting warmth that would make for hours of endless listening. I didn’t hear the kind of midrange beaming I hear in older designs (JBL for example). Wayne has worked some kind of magic to get the benefits of those monster 2-ways of the ‘50s, while getting rid of the tonal oddities of yore. If you are into big band, rock, metal, power-classical and electric guitar, these might work much better for you than some of the other high efficiency speakers currently in vogue. They’re nothing like the whizzer-cone squawkers that only permit certain music.
You’ll find a lot of information about horns, designs, parts, tips and tweaks on Wayne’s website and at audioroundtable.com. He’s always ready to answer questions and offer suggestions.
“I’ll tell you this:
No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn” †
How do we keep this industry/hobby going? How do we spread the word and get more people to these shows? It’s good for the health of audio/music that these regional shows prosper and that new ones appear. A thought I had was perhaps to advertise in the “Playbill” of local musical groups (orchestra/operas/theater). How about mailing out invitations to the local car stereo shops? More than one car stereo nut became an audiophile. How about to the used record stores? There are people who are audiophiles, but they don’t know it yet. It’s up to the rest of us to figure out how to get them into the club.
† “THE WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)” by Jim Morrison
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