Dartzeel/Evolution Speakers/ Playback Design/ Steve Dobbins
Of the many systems which I heard at the show, this is one of the very few that I would consider owning exactly as it was set up. Jonathon Tinn is closely associated with each of these products and assembled a system that was clearly greater than the sum of its parts. Every component represented something very special from a musical perspective.
The Evolution Acoustics MM Two speakers, while not their most expensive, were ideally suited to the room size and truly full-range. The powered bass driver integrated seamlessly with the ceramic midrange and the ribbon tweeter. The ability to separately adjust the level of each driver also helped minimize detrimental room interactions. I am not usually fond of ribbon tweeters or ceramic drivers; however, any resonances that might mar the sonics of these drivers were carefully controlled and inaudible. Imaging was excellent, as were dynamics and tonal balance. The preamp was the Dartzeel NHB-18NS; the amp their new flagship NHB-458 monoblocks. Both were beautifully designed and constructed. Digital was provided by the Playback Designs MPS-5. Analog was handled by a 30-year-old Technics SP10 which had been totally and lovingly rebuilt by Steve Dobbins, who replaced all caps and diodes, and rebuilt the motor bearing. It might be more accurate to say that Steve scavenged selected parts from the SP10 but built much of the table himself. The SP10 was mounted in a custom plinth also provided by Dobbins. The arm was a Reed equipped with an Ortofon MC A90 moving coil cartridge. The Reed has a number of unusual design features such as the use of an ebony arm wand and a laser to set VTA.
The sound of the combination was stunning. The best way to describe the sound of this system would be to think of the sound of Quad 57’s partnered with tube electronics but with real bass, extension at the top, dynamics and clarity. The sound was sweet and extended but with excellent slam. The re-issue of Bring in the Clowns by Classic Records was stunning! Male voice was rich, sonorous and harmonically right. Transients and low-level detail were also excellent. I liked this system so well that I requested review samples of the Playback Designs, the Dartzeel mono amps and a new and better ground up turntable effort by Steve Dobbins (the Beat).
Audio Note UK (T.H.E. Show at Flamingo Hotel)
For the readers who may have read my road trip- Audio Note article, the system which Mike and Neli of Audio Federations, U.S. importer of Audio Note UK, were showing was comprised of the same equipment which I had heard in London: 211-based Gakuon mono amps, an M-9 phono preamp, an S-9 step up, CDT-Three CD transport and DAC 5 Signature and AN-E SEC Signature speakers. Also on display was the flagship Audio Note turntable and cartridge. Sound early on Thursday was disappointing, but improved dramatically by Saturday as the equipment settled in and as Mike and Neli refined the corner placement of the speakers. The system had very believable image height, and differentiated well between the height of the different instruments. The string tone on violins was very natural. PRAT was good as was the integration between the upper and lower frequencies. Drums were very taut with excellent impact. The top seemed extended and detailed without any bite or harshness. Most noticeable was the ability of the 8” driver to create pressure gradients within the listening room which were noted as density changes in the air of the room. I have heard few large systems capable of doing this as effectively as these drivers when corner loaded. I should also note that the bass was not ”one note” or overblown.
This system had no problem separating the bass lines. Male voice was excellent, particularly in capturing the expression of the singer. I found myself drawn into the music and my foot tapping. The sound was totally non-digital and effortless, unbelievably liquid and incredibly dynamic. Had I not known better, I would have been searching for the subwoofer. The power of the amp was more than necessary to drive the speakers to listening levels that were painful. Unlike many transistor amps, the Gakuons produced depth on the kick drum and other bass instruments. This is one of the best systems which I heard at the show.
Although both Tidal and BAlabo have been imported into the US for several years, neither has had a particularly high level of exposure until the last Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. In the case of Tidal, this can probably be attributed to a change in importers or perhaps that enough of the speakers have finally made it into systems in this country to reach a critical mass. For whatever reason, owners of these speakers are quite vocal on Audiogon and other internet forums in singing their praises. While I am not aware that BAlabo has changed importers, it has also begun to create a favorable buzz in the audio community.
The first of three rooms showing Tidal speakers was demonstrating the penultimate speaker in the Tidal line, the Sunray which retails for $178,600. These were being driven by a BAlabo preamp and a pair of their mono amps which utilize solid-state devices in a novel design. The source was a Zanden transport playing into a BAlabo BD-1 D/A. The speakers use critically damped ceramic drivers and a diamond tweeter in a massive non-resonant cabinet, which was finished in a glossy black that would have been fitting for a Hamburg Steinway.
For some reason, this room never seemed to attract much of a crowd. I was much taken by what I heard in this room. The Sunrays were very “out of the box” and had exceptional low-level detail performance particularly in their dynamic coherency and ability to scale properly and convincingly at almost any loudness level. While I was initially concerned about the ability of the speakers to produce low bass and properly pressurize the room, the bass actually produced in the room was more than sufficient. Image size, specificity and depth of field were all good as was articulation. It probably goes without saying that these speakers could not have achieved this level of performance unless the electronics driving them was extremely neutral and had sufficient power. The BAlabo electronics are a strange combination of the virtues of tubes and solid-state. They are clearly very powerful and have excellent damping. They also have the type of image density, dimensionality, liquidity and harmonic envelope that I normally associate with tubes. At first I thought that the top-end response of the system was a bit soft; however, further listening revealed that what I was not hearing was not musical information but noise and grain that is almost always part and parcel of even the best solid-state electronics.
A friend from Hawaii who has very discerning ears wrote, “I’m having a hard time getting the Tidal Sunrays out of my mind. As I stepped in the door to the room on Sunday, there was a gentleman sitting up front listening to a disc of solo acoustic guitar. I am usually not swayed by how well guitar music sounds on an audio system because in my experience just about all reasonably good systems make guitar music sound attractive, and I am not enough of an aficionado of guitars to sort out the fine differences. Let’s just say I got three or four steps into the room and the sound of the guitar music playing on the Tidals stopped me in my tracks – and it got better from there. I might add that until this experience, I was not a particular fan of Tidal speakers, having heard them at CES and RMAF over the last few years. They have always sounded good to me but never reached out and grabbed my attention. ”
Ypsilon/Audio Stone/Perfect 8
This system was comprised of the Perfect 8 The Force speakers; Audio Stone Pythagoras turntable; Ypsilon SET100 Mk II amps, VPS100 valve phono stage, M16 moving coil step-up, CDT100 transport, , and PST100 preamp. The speakers are a ribbon/dynamic driver hybrid with separate subwoofers. The electronics, except the amps are all tubed including rectification. Although I initially had some reservations, the sound was stunning. I had heard the Ypsilon hybrids at RMAF and at CES last year and was rather disappointed both times. The amps are now in their Mk 1.5 version and soon will see the Mk 3 changes. In any event, the ugly duckling of the otherwise superb Ypsilon line has been transformed into a beautiful swan. The amp is now warmer, sweeter and more liquid but retains its extension at the top and openness. This combination was producing a very stable image and huge sound field with excellent focus and good depth. Dynamics were superb.
Another system that was sounding much better than at past shows included the Vandersteen Model 7 speakers driven by Aesthetix electronics. This was one of the few systems at the show that used no digital source, only analog. In this instance, the vinyl was very special, a Clearaudio Innovation turntable with their Universal tonearm and periphery clamp, a Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge into an Aesthetix Io/Callisto combination. Imaging was excellent, tonality very good and the bass tuneful and easy to follow. While the sound did not rise to the quality of the above two rooms, it was still very good.
More to come: Genesis/Weiss/SOTA/SME, EAR/Marten, Vitus/Bergman/Martin, Acapella/Einstein, Tidal/Bergman/Ypsilon, conclusions
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