It was the worst of times….it was the worst of times. I was under the weather the week of Lone Star Audio Fest, it was actually an entire month of misery, so I didn’t get around to all the rooms. Some were at lunch/dinner when I passed through. I certainly didn’t enjoy myself as much as I should’ve. This year, regardless of my own misery, was a good year for LSAF.
With several very good rooms, it was a nice recovery from last year’s show, which was way down. The overall vibe was more positive than it has been in years, with some genuinely interesting products, and genuinely good sound. You have to wonder if the barometric pressure, or sunspots, or bad electricity makes some shows a failure. This year’s positivity must be attributable, I think, to some kind of recovery, or maybe even catharsis, after years of nothing but bad, bad, bad… never ending wars, the worst economy in 80 years…you name it. Are we on the rebound as a hobby or nation, or have we accepted the new order of things: a permanently mediocre world economy, high energy prices and bad employment opportunities?
Speaking from a position of experience, you sometimes feel better when you finally accept something and move on. What do you have left? Family, friends, hobbies, music, etc.. You don’t have to be rich to enjoy music, and I didn’t see any Astons or Ferraris in the parking garage. Actually, judging by reality TV, money makes you stupid and turns you into a douche bag. Perhaps that’s why we have so many musical treasures from The Great Depression. There wasn’t anything else to do.
Proving he can design something smaller than a 250 lb line source, Danny Richie was showing his Super-V kit, which sells for $2,495. The room was one of the better prepared at the show. Danny had acoustic treatments and was in one of the large ground level conference rooms. The sound was warm, with a very even bass presentation. Actually, though at a reduced volume, the bass of this kit is more linear than most speakers I’ve heard. The only issue I heard was a very diffuse image that lacked the clarity and focus of his more expensive speakers.
The rest of the system used the Dodd Audio Buffer, and custom built Dodd Audio power amp, Mach 2 Music modified Mac Mini and db Audio Labs Tranquility SE DAC.
I’ve always been a fan of the massive speakers from Legacy Audio. They project value and performance with their looks. I’ve only heard Legacy speakers in a few systems, and this was the first time hearing their speakers compete against each other. For a prospective buyer, it’s an excellent way of hearing what your extra money buys you.
The comparison was between two separate systems:
Whisper XD Cherry finish
Coda CSX amplifier
Ayon CD 7 CD player
Focus SE Cherry Finish
Coda CSX amplifier
Coda CL Preamp
OPPO BD 95 player
Jena Labs cables
On first listen, the Whisper XD was more subtle, though more capable of massive output, compared to the Focus SE. The Focus SE was more direct and plain spoken. Female vocals were “fatter” or “huskier” on the Whisper XD, enough to make me question which of the two speakers were closer to reality. Both speakers pack plenty of extension, top to bottom, and enough transparency to pick out subtleties in equipment and recordings. Across the board they are fine products if you have enough power—they need adequate current.
Here is the fly in the ointment: The Oppo falls on its face compared to the Ayon CD-07. The system used different sources and different cables, so it isn’t a true A-B comparison. Regardless, both sets of speakers produced excellent results. The other fly in the ointment: audiophile music. Phooey!
Raven (Grapevine room on the first floor)
The ground level Raven room had much curb appeal. Lots of tubes, transformers, and all finished nicely. Unfortunately, the sound was a little off. I knew the speakers being used because I reviewed a pair (GR Research LS9). The electronics all looked first rate and they were playing real music. But, the system was a little bright and grainy. Something wasn’t right, considering the obvious care and professionalism of the hosts. The room came available the night before the show began, and after scrambling to make things work, there were still problems for Raven. Owner Dave Thomson said their “first attempt…was terrible”. Considering the sound, I was guessing that power was an issue—maybe a bad connection in the house electrical that was injecting noise. He told me the AC outlet was reading 106VAC! Holy crap, that’s lower than I’ve ever seen anywhere, except for a blackout. Matter of fact, he told me that an electrician had to put a fan on the old Federal breaker panel to keep it from getting excessively hot! In other words, the electrical system in the hotel was being stressed out.
The equipment being shown was mostly new creations:
Reference Grade Silhouette Mono Block
Reference Grade Silhouette Preamplifier
Raysonic 238 CD Player – upgraded with Jensen paper-in-oil silver lead and jacketed capacitors – installed by S.E. Han
Haans T-20 turntable with Black Widow tonearm and Denon 103R Cartridge.
One possible culprit that exacerbated the brightness was the 6H30 “super tube”. I’d like to hear these with a 6N6p (6H6pi) substituted, which is similar, but much better sounding (in my opinion). I’ve never heard the 6H30 sound as good as “un-super” tubes that didn’t look as “super” on paper. Specifications can lie. If it was true about negative feedback, it can be the same for a tube. Of course, I’m trying to play “back seat designer” or “Monday morning quarterback designer”, when it might have been 100% the fault of the room. What is most odd about this room is how it compared to Raven’s system on the third floor, one that I thought was the….(see below).
The Emia room was more of an event than a room. Packed with lots of tweaky cool stuff like rare tubes, field coil loudspeakers, transformer volume controls and the best vinyl front end I heard at the show, the room was swinging every time I popped in. That meant more talking than listening, but what can we really learn from a few minutes of hotel room listening?
The vinyl rig was the Artemis Labs SA-1 table and TA-1 tonearm. Cartridges were Shilabe, Premium Be and Panasonic strain gauge. Strain gauge was powered by Dave’s custom power supply driving his custom wound transformers. The drivers were Lowther America field coils. Almost everything on display made by Emia is custom, to some degree, so what you get out is what you decide to put in.
The hallmark of the Emia room was immediacy. Listeners were placed closer to the music, with minimal circuitry and gain stages being used. The field coils were key here: they are very efficient and very sensitive to the tiniest of signals. The speaker cabinets were open baffle (using Panzerholz), so bass reproduction was ultra smooth and continuous.
The Emia room hosted the most unusual offering at LSAF: Barrett Tillman’s BlackMan Brew. Barrett, a true renaissance man, audiophile, website designer, coffee and beer connoisseur, brought three home brewed mini-kegs, along with their own purpose built refrigeration unit. I’ve had BlackMan Brew, and it’s fantastic stuff. Unfortunately I missed out on beer this time. Most disappointing.
Just for creativity and originality, the Emia room takes 1st prize. As Jules says in Pulp Fiction, “personality goes a long way”.
As is always the case, the Affirm Audio room (formerly MaxxHorn), was making wonderful music. Bob Spence, the man behind Affirm Audio was showing with KR Audio amplification, the $8,995 VA340 mkII. Bob is a new dealer for KR Audio amplifiers and tubes, and was excited to show off KR Audio’s brand new $6,900 VA880 kt88 based amp, which uses a hybrid circuit. I will be reviewing the VA880, and look forward to reporting on it.
The sound with the VA340 was immaculate, with revealing midrange and wonderfully dimensional sound. Depth and width in this system was among the best at the show, as far as I could tell. The speakers were the $28,500 Luminations, sporting the Feastrex D5 Monster Alnico driver. Though only rated at 20 watts, the VA340 driving the efficient Feastrex D5 in the tractrix horn could play as loudly and cleanly as you could want.
An unusual room, and a visual treat for me, was the Paolo Audio room. The amps and speakers were finished in a lovely walnut; one piece was in Rosewood I think. As a repairer, restorer and appreciator of classic audio, walnut veneer is for me what Rosso Corsa is for fans of Italian sports cars. There isn’t a prettier red, for a car, than rosso corsa. It screams fast. And walnut veneer says “serious about good sound” to me, and many others like me.
The Klassica Amp uses classic tubes, two 6sl7, two 6sn7, and four 6550 for 30 WPC of very classic tube sound. It reminded me of a cross between the Eico HF87 and HF60, soundwise, which is high praise if you’ve heard fully restored versions of those amps. The speakers were the lovely Klassica Speaker which uses a Tang Bang 8” neodymium full range driver, rated at 8 ohms and 93dB efficiency. This is a great driver. It had very little, if any, whizzer cone screech. If choosing between this and the much more expensive alternatives, I’d probably choose this driver. The penalty is lower efficiency, so you do need the 30 watts of the Klassica Amp.
The sound of the pair was very good. Midrange clarity was excellent, and the transition from lows to highs were seamless, as it should be since it’s full range, but nothing is taken for granted. Nothing stood out as “awesome”, which isn’t a criticism. The balance of strengths made for a wonderfully musical presentation. It’s like the $99 Deft II phono cartridge, which wasn’t perfect at anything, but makes great music.
Van Zyl Audio
The Van Zyl Audio room feels like home. I’ve known Johan van Zyl for a while and heard the progression of his design, the Frontline. The hallmark of his speaker is speed and I haven’t heard a faster speaker in the bass and mids. Using the ultra light Jordan JX92S in a tractrix flared horn, the Frontline was tight and quick. The almost total absence of overhang shows how sluggish other speakers are. The Jordan, running full-range, is augmented by an Aurum Cantus G2Si, passively crossed over at 21,500 Hz, just to fill in the highs lost by the fullrange driver. It’s an excellent combination of speed, dynamics, efficiency, and is very easy to drive since it lacks a complicated power-robbing crossover. Depending on the recording, quickness is everything, and this system delivered.
The rest of the system included the Oppo Bdp 93 Transport, Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 D/A Converter with integrated preamp, Leak Stereo 20 amp (rebuilt and modded), Jenna Labs interconnect and Clarity Cable’s Organic Speaker Cable.
The Oddwatt Audio room had good basic tube audio, but appearances are deceiving. Unlike the majority of push-pull amps, the OddWatt amps don’t employ a phase-splitter. Instead, by using a constant current sink for both output tubes, biasing the push-pull pair to class A and driving one of the output tubes forces virtually perfect push-pull AC balance from both tubes. It’s out of scope to talk about long-tailed pairs here, but if you are aware of the concept of the LTP, then understand that the output tubes act as a long-tailed-pair. There are few reasons not to do this, and plenty of reasons to do it. The circuit is simple and the results are very nice.
The amps were mono blocks, which can use 6L6, EL34, 6550 and KT88 output tubes. There are internal switches that allow you to switch the current between the various tube types. What you have here, then, is a Swiss Army Knife tube amp. As long as the transconductance of the output tubes are close, you will have almost perfect AC (push-pull) balance and no core saturation. Running class A means no crossover distortion. For such an affordable product, the logic is sound and the results are good sounding. The purity is similar to single ended amps: one capacitor and one transformer in the signal path, and very low feedback.
Speakers were Martin Logan Preface. The preamp was the Forewatt, which can be configured as an active or passive preamp.
OddWatt has very aggressive pricing for their finished products, and even better pricing for their kits. I’m hoping to review one, or more, of their kits, later this year.
Angel City Audio
If luxury and beauty is your thing, then Angel City Audio was the place to be. Nothing had the curb appeal of the Melody Valve HiFi amps and ACA speakers. Every time I went in, the place was hopping and I couldn’t find a seat. So, I went out and had a long talk about audio with Hugh Nguyen, owner of Angel City Audio. Look for big things from Hugh. He’s working on his own line of electronics, which I’m sure will be excellent and priced fairly.
Still in the mood for talk, I spoke with Wayne Parham of π Speakers. Wayne is the man behind Lone Star Audiofest, though he comes from Tulsa, Oklahoma (great city!). His room is always good, but definitely a throw back to the simpler days of horn loaded speakers. If you haven’t heard his products, just imagine more refined, and more affordable, competition for classic horns from Klipsch, JBL, etc.. The best thing about Pi is that all offerings come as kits. Kits, kits, kits! I like kits.
Of course, we spent the time talking about the show, about attendance, and the health of audio. We both agree that pulling in a non-traditional crowd would be healthy for the high end: musicians, any kind of DIY’er, car guys, etc… Oddly enough, he didn’t change his tactics from last year, but the attendance was way up. You can chalk it up to optimism I think. Or, people are tired of going to Vegas and getting screwed (not literally).
Raven (third floor)
The smaller of the two Raven rooms happened to be my last for the show, and my favorite. The Raven Reference Grade Reflection Integrated amp is an impressive amp, with plenty of power, deep bass and good imaging. Tubes are all “normal” hi-fi tubes: 6550, 12au7, etc, and all the tubes were NOS. The system was the most complete I heard at the show. I heard no problems. None. Really. Of course, 35 minutes of listening isn’t a review. I’m hoping to explore the limits of the Reflection Integrated amp, and have asked for a review sample.
Manning the controls was S. E. Han, designer and builder, from Korea. He is actually flying over to Texas to personally assemble each piece. We talked about amplifier voicing (which is a real thing), and he let me onto some secrets. All I will say is that he knows what he’s talking about. He blends select components, using as many as three different makes of resistors so that the sound doesn’t become dominated by a singular characteristic.
Even more remarkable about the room is that he had to switch speakers at the last minute to get a good balance. He started with the GR Research LS9, which I recently reviewed, but they overwhelmed the small room (and they can overwhelm rooms). He switched to the locally produced Silver Speakers from Stereo Clarity (designed and produced by Steven Salazzo). I heard an early version of these speakers and they’ve come a long way since then. Kudos to Steven and Mr. Hahn for an excellent sounding room.
I didn’t make it to every room. Some were closed for lunch or dinner when I walked by. However, attendance was excellent this year, and the overall sound quality was the best I’ve heard at LSAF. Hopefully this is an upwards trend that will continue.
A big thanks to the various room hosts for helping me gather information. I was feeling pretty bad and wasn’t at peak efficiency. Your help was greatly appreciated.
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