I must admit that I wasn’t all that excited about auditioning MBL. I prefer high-efficiency speakers and single-ended tube amplifiers, which is the antithesis of low 80-dB sensitive speakers and 1000-watt amplifiers. And I have not generally liked the sound of omni-directional speakers though their design promise makes a lot of sense. MBL had two systems which they appeared to be alternating every 90 minutes. Before I auditioned their smaller Corona system (listed below), I was thinking this would be another edgy, bright, highly fatiguing solid-state affair. However, I was less rushed at CAS than CES, an advantage of a smaller show, and there happened to be a good listening position when I walked in. I was startled by the bass response of this system – very tight, very clean and no overhang – I wrote “wow” in my notes. I played Guns and Roses’ “Knockin on Heaven’s Door,” and I had played this in other rooms but this system did the best job of making me feel like I was at the concert – and unlike some systems this one didn’t fatten it up with mush. Incidentally, SETs and HE do a great job as well with their great transients. I listened to several jazz cuts as well as Sarah McLachlan and Loreena McKennett, and the system retained enough “beauty of tone” that I was quite frankly amazed.
Moving to the bigger system – this had the disadvantage of being placed on the long wall, like the Wilsons, but the room was much narrower and seating was closer. As a result there were really only a few seats that could get an optimum result. But I sat in that seat, and on Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela,” I ended up writing “Holy Cow.”
The room seemed to polarize people – some felt it was best at show, some on forums felt it was unlistenable. But of all the systems on the first floor in the big rooms, this for me was clearly the best of the bunch. Indeed, in many respects I would argue that this was the very best room at CAS. In terms of bass depth, speed and articulation it was difficult to beat. In terms of emotional involvement, I was moved by some other systems more; but those other speakers can’t do some of the things this system could do. With vinyl trouncing CD in every other system, I could not help but to wonder what some of those big $30k turntables could do in this MBL room. And while the sensitivity figures of MBL are low, that is slightly exaggerated by the fact that these are omni-directional, not direct radiators, so realworld sensitivity may provide an acceptable match with tube amplifiers.
Reference System D
MBL 101 E MK II Radialstrahler ($70,500/pair)
MBL 1621 A CD Transport ($28,000)
MBL 1611 F D/A Converter ($28,700)
MBL 6010 D Preamplifier ($26,500)
MBL 9011 Power Amplifier ($53,000)
Corona System C
MBL 120 Radialstrahler ($11,300/pair)
MBL C31 CD Player ($9,200)
MBL C11 Preamplifier ($8,800)
MBL C21 Stereo Power Amplifier ($9,200)
I deliberately chose to follow the MBL room report up with Acoustic Zen/Triode, because this is almost the polar opposite in design belief and yielded just as much of a musically valid result. Piano on Jackson Browne’s “Pretender” Acoustic Vol1 was exceptional. Perhaps the most moving full bodied piano I heard at CAS. And after some not-so great sounding systems, this room put me in a Zen-like state. How’s that for living up to a name.
The interesting thing here is how great this system could relax me while not sounding dull. MBL’s room was “exciting” and “alive” in a way little else could match, but Acoustic Zen has that all-day-listening appeal that after a hard day of work with a glass of wine would be at the top of my list, along with another room I’ll note later in my report. Further, there is a lot value here in the sense that while the gear is expensive it was a lot less expensive than a lot of other rooms. The Crescendo speakers were very good at CES 2010 and here again they were, perhaps, even better. And for such a large speaker in a small room their driver integration was quite good.
Triode TRV-CD5SE tube CD player ($2,500)
Triode TRX-1 tube preamplifier ($3,200)
Triode TRX-M845SE monoblocks ($22,500/pair)
Acoustic Zen Crescendo speakers ($16,000/pair)
Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper interconnects ($1,498/3-foot pair)
Acoustic Zen Absolute 75 digital cable ($480, 3 feet)
Acoustic Zen Gargantuan power cable ($1,040,6 feet)
Another polarizing sound comes from Zu Audio. Zu plays different sorts of music which is a nice break from the endless Diana Krall and Patricia Barber affair. Zu speakers have an upfront sound and sound tactile but also don’t seem to have a lot of depth or decay on tone. You either like the presentation or you don’t. In Hong Kong I have heard other Zu speakers mated to Line Magnetic and Melody amplifiers and they sounded much more to my liking. But part of that may be the Technics 1200 player, even with some modifications. Having said that, there is a certain something Zu brings to the table in cohesiveness that, with a better front end, could really make it sing – perhaps one of those 2A3 2-watt SETs, for example.
Zu Definition Mk IV loudspeakers ($12,900/pair)
This was another of the big systems at CAS. The sound here was quite good with relatively even frequency and played well at modest levels. Synergistic Research were demonstrating their cables and power conditioning and they did make a difference in spite of the room. I noticed less noise in the treble and therefore music came out of a blacker background. I can say that, under the short audition at the show, I preferred the overall sound with the music I brought with the Synergistic research cables active.
The overall room was solid – I really didn’t have anything bad to say about what I was hearing. I suppose I would say I wasn’t blown away by what I was hearing; but experience tells me that this can actually be a truly great attribute under show conditions because with the gee whiz fireworks of some rooms that impress under short auditions, rooms that sound a little underwhelming can actually be better over the long run.
• Aesthetix Janus Signature Preamplifier ($10k)
• Aesthetix Romulus Vacuum Tube USB/SDPIF DAC and CD Player ($7k)
• Aesthetix Atlas monoblock amplifiers ($16k pair)
• Benz Micro LP-S cartridge ($5,000)
• Brinkmann Bardo turntable ($11,990)
• Synergistic Research Element Series audio cables ($15,000 approximately)
• Synergistic Research PowerCell Power Conditioning and Power Cables ($15K)
• Synergistic Tranquility Base XL equipment shelves ($25k)
• Synergistic Research ART room tuning/treatment ($10k)
• Grand Prix Audio Monaco Racks ($12k)
• Vivid G2 loudspeakers – $49,990 pair
Angel City Audio/Melody/Wywire
This was one of the budget rooms at CAS that I quite enjoyed. Hearing Melody in Hong Kong, I have been impressed with the sound and build construction for attractive prices and the sound here was quite enjoyable at the price. I detected some coloration in some bass passages but nothing to get in a snit over for $2k speakers. The speakers seem well made and the amps from Melody are just so sexy. I would like to hear the system with a better source to possibly raise the bar.
• Angel City Trinity bookshelf speakers ($2,099/pair)
• Oppo 83SE Blu-ray/SACD/CD player
• Melody AN300B tube integrated amplifier ($5,679)
• Melody AN211 tube integrated amplifier ($5,679)
• Wywire cables
This room had arguably the most set-up with four systems facing each other and chairs rotated to face each system. Still, when faced with this I did my best to hear what they were about and I enjoyed what they were playing when I went in. A few, however, felt the speakers or amps were ringing. I didn’t hear this so perhaps it was the recording or the volume level or set-up. I heard robust bass lines and a toe tapping quality which was nice since most rooms didn’t get me very enthused. Sure, the room was bad and sound had lots of competition from side rooms and all the people in the room and poor set-up but I think there is much potential with this system.
• Lumenwhite speakers
• Ayon Digital Network Music Player S3
• Ayon Spheris II preamplifier ($40k)
• Ayon Triton IIs tube monoblock amplifiers
The Soundscape room was demonstrating the new MartinLogan Motion 20 and 40 Hybrid ribbon towers and the sound here was really quite enjoyable for a very affordable price. The treble was quite superior than the price would suggest and there was a solid amount of bass even with no sub. It may have lacked a little body and resolution but that was true of much more expensive rooms and this set-up was more enjoyable than most which says a lot given the price. I liked the sound of these speakers more than many of MartinLogan’s much more expensive panels in regards to cohesiveness.
• Vincent K35 tube integrated amplifier ($3.3k)
• Vincent C35 tube HDCD CD player ($2.3k)
• MartinLogan Motion 20, Motion 40 hybrid ribbon towers ($1,500/pair, $1,900/pair)
• Velodyne subwoofer
• Nordost Tyr II and Frey II cables
Von Gaylord Audio
The first day I went into this room I heard the overplayed Diana Krall and walked out. I just can’t take the same audiophile approved discs played over and over and over. I should have stuck around because it wasn’t until the last day of the show that I went back and found this to be one of my three favorite sounding rooms. Piano was brilliant on Jackson Browne’s Pretender Acoustic Vol. 1 disc and had great body weight and made me feel that Jackson and his piano were it was right there in the room. A lot of bass weight and rich fundamentals. Vocals were excellent and it passed my percussion discs with good great treble – not bright. Along with Acoustic Zen this room was able to move me emotionally – the only two rooms to really do this for me. Not as big or powerful as the MBL or YG Acoustics rooms but if emotion is high on your list and the ability to really present the presence of the hall this was a truly a wonderful experience. I heard the speakers without the extra bass module so I was highly impressed that even without it, the bass was well rendered. I can certainly understand why some would consider them “Legends.”
Von Gaylord Audio “Return Of The Legend” speakers ($12,995/pair)
Von Gaylord Audio UNI D/A Converter ($12,995)
Von Gaylord Audio UNI Preamplifier with separate Power Supply ($15,995)
Von Gaylord Audio UNI Mono Amplifiers ($16,995/pair)
Von Gaylord Audio “Return Of The Legend” Digital Cable ($1,500)
Von Gaylord Audio “Return Of The Legend” 7000S interconnects ($1,995)
Von Gaylord Audio “Return Of The Legend” 7000S Speaker Cable – high frequency ($3,600)
Von Gaylord Audio “Return Of The Legend” 7000S Speaker Cable – low frequency ($3,600)
Von Gaylord Audio “Live Performance” line conditioner ($4,995)
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