The 3rd annual California Audio Show was held in San Francisco, and this was my first time covering this event and first time to the wonderful San Francisco.
Before diving into the rooms, I wish to caution readers that findings here should be viewed with caution as many exhibitors were heavily impeded with regards to various room conditions which didn’t allow them to perform their best. I note those issues with rooms where possible.
What surprised me most about this show was the number of turntables and tape machines. Interestingly, in every room that played vinyl and/or tape, and CD/computer playback, the vinyl and tape utterly trounced CD/computer based playback. I was somewhat surprised by this, but it was the norm to my ears in every single rooms at CAS. Indeed, one room presented their $8k CD player and then played a $200 reel-to-reel and it destroyed their CD player. More details on this later. It is a shame that this format can’t be revived because people complain that music today suck or the recording is sucking the life out of otherwise good artists. Indeed, some rooms were so displeased with the CD medium they didn’t even have a CD player in the room.
That having been said, there were some truly amazing rooms that were CD/Computer-only that I would choose as top 3 to 5 of the show; but I kept imagining that if those rooms had had a good vinyl spinner how much better could they have been? I salivate at the notion.
Note: Price lists and equipment details can be found under Dagogo’s CAS3 Preview articles for the show. (Preview I, Preview II, Preview III.)
First up is the Music Lovers Audio Exhibit with the Wilson Alexandria XLF.
Muisc Lovers Audio
Wilson/VTL/dCS/AMG/Clearaudio/Transparent/Musical Surroundings (Plaza Ballroom III)
Walking into this massive room and seeing the Wilson’s along the long wall, I wondered why they were not placed in the generally better-for-acoustic shorter wall. But then I noticed the emergency exit door on that end of the room. The system here could play very loud with plenty of thunder but like at CES 2010 I had trouble with their cohesiveness hearing a series of separated drivers. This may be because the ear is positioned at the big woofer’s height and the tilted down midwoofer and tweeter is fighting that a bit.
Generally, I prefer the sound of single- or two-driver speakers where drivers sound similar enough to my ears that everything is coming from the same point. I am very sensitive toward speakers whose drivers are far apart. Still, large speakers like the Wilson Alexandria XLF have the advantage of higher volume, spectral extensions, the ability to generate a more complete scale of music. I have heard the Sophia and Sasha and have liked their presentation considerably more so.
• Wilson Alexandria XLF ($199,500/pair)
• VTL Siegfried Series II Reference tube monoblock amplifiers ($65k/pair)
• VTL TL7.5 Series III Reference Line Preamplifier ($20k)
• VTL TP6.5 Signature Phono Preamplifier ($8.5k)
• dCS Scarlatti Digital Playback System ($80k)
• AMG V12 turntable ($16.5k)
• Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($15k)
• HRS SXR Audio Racks ($25k)
• Transparent Opus cables and Power Conditioner ($90k)
• Wilson Audio Thor’s Hammer Subwoofer (21.5K)
Audio Space (Room 214)
One of the best budget rooms was the Audio Space room with their version of the famed LS-3/5A and SW-1A subwoofers. Jack Roberts has reviewed these standmounts as have I (coming soon) and they’re very musical monitors with enough bass and drive to satisfy on long sessions. Here, Audio Space was running one of their Reference amplifiers and the sound was quite smooth and had a relaxed manner. If you find it too relaxed, then they also have higher power EL34 and KT88 amps which generate a different presentation than the one presented at CAS. I preferred the sound of these speakers to the Audio Space mini-2 speakers of higher power than what I was hearing at CAS, which were terrific at lower levels in the midrange, had trouble at higher levels, as well as in the bass. This is about the room size that work best for these speakers, and they’re very popular in the high rises of Hong Kong.
Sonist/deHavilland (Room 218)
The first day I went in here I was running on empty and the twang of the strings forced me out. The next day I went back in recharged and played several cuts, and was quite pleased at how good this room sounded at higher levels with really very little to complain about. Staging was off due to the placement of the speakers but this was one of the better speakers at CAS and here again they impressed. I had them in the top five under $10,000. You get a lot for the money in terms of build and sound.
Audio Note UK (Room 202)
Audio Note E speakers utilize corner loading to generate significant bass, dynamics while reducing a number of room related effects. I have heard Audio Note speakers over the years in numerous rooms, and theirs is in my top 10 rooms both at CES 2010 and CAS3. I got a sense of those qualities here on several recordings but you needed to sit in the second row or up against the back wall to really allow them to create a sense of proper staging. There was some bass boom that could be excited depending on recordings, and having to place the left speaker beside a door surely didn’t help, but the system did manage to do an impressive job at showing up compressed pop recordings and differentiating those against a very superior set of drum recordings that played very clean, tight and with big impact. Mario Binner also demonstrated a wonderful 1959 Louis Armstrong LP from Realistic that, given the cheap, non-audiophile approved label, illustrated how good this system is in spite of the myriad of room issues.
Knowing these speakers as well as I do and owning their little brothers, the AN J/Spe, and listening to them as I write this report, I felt I was hearing this room at maybe 60% of their capability, especially in terms of bass quality, depth, dynamics, and drive. Still, they were musical and retained some of the timbre/tone they’re coveted for. Indeed, others in the room exclaimed “impressive” and “wow” after an amazing drum solo – and it was deserved by most equipment standards – but I had to bite my lip thinking “you ain’t heard what these babies can really do.” I know Mario was a bit down on not being able to get them in a corner because of the air conditioner, but the overall sound here was still quite enjoyable.
• E/SPe HE loudspeakers ($9,600)
• Meishu Phono Silver Signature ($20,600)
• CD4.1x CD player ($12,000)
• TT Two Turntable ($3,650)
• Arm Three ($2,100)
• 101 MC cartridge ($4,250)
• S4L step-up transformer ($6,400)
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