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2023 California Audio Show – Constantine Soo reports

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The biggest room of the show was the Lobby Platinum Ballroom, two rooms down from the CAS Registrar and across from the Aaudio Imports room. Measuring 39 feet long, 21 feet wide and 10 feet tall, the Lobby Ballroom is the only room in this hotel with ceiling high enough to house the nine feet tall, 89 dB/8 Ohms Sound Lab Majestic 945PX electrostatic panel speakers. Two columns of three ASC Isothermal 13” x 3’ TubeTraps were stacked directly behind the panels to minimize interaction of the back wave and the front walls. Exerting magnificent and complete control of the monolith speakers was a pair of $24,000, tall-standing, fully differential and cool-running Bricasti Design M28 solid-state monoblocks, outputting 200 watts into 8 ohms and the Argento-finish M20 preamplification, via a $26,300 pair of the A.R.T. Sensor Haute Couture flagship the $20,200 3-meter pair of the A.R.T. Analyst EVO speaker cables. This was essentially the same setup at my house as my reference, albeit with the six feet tall M645PX.

For the entire Friday and most of Saturday, I tuned the speakers’ BRILLIANCE control to 10 o’clock on account of the speaker’s spanking, factory-new condition. The LOW FREQUENCY LEVEL was set to “0” amidst “-6dB”, “-3dB”, and “+3dB”, just to see how the room would respond to those massive electrostatic panels. The Sound Lab performed meticulously from the start, considering the caliber of the amplification driving it, and it flaunted room-filling full-spectral presentation. Because it is a line source, it emits sound vertically from floor to ceiling, hence creating a very narrow horizontal dispersion, mitigated by the company’s patented, arcing panel at 45 degrees angle. Attendees heard no side wall interaction as the panels were toed-in completely where the central vertical line of each speaker was pointed at the center listening spot in the front row of seats. Attendees in the adjacent and back seats were nonetheless covered by the 45-degree vertical dispersion of each panel and were also treated to live-like soundstaging.

Damon Gramont of Bricasti Design premiered the company’s Reference Disc Player at the show, supported alternatingly by the M1 Mk II and M21 DACs, and they underscored the continued superiority of the physical formats. There is a last word in clarity that only top tier disc readers such as the RDP can provide.

But at around 3pm on Saturday afternoon, a group of attendees sat down and handed us a solo violin SACD. I happened to be sitting in the last row, soaking in the live-like sound when one attendee moved to a seat in front of me and said, “These Sound Labs are mellow sounding.” Time to change! I stopped the music, explained my setting the panels’ BRILLIANCE to 10 o’clock, and proceeded to increase the level gradually, asking the audience to stop me when appropriate. I was stopped at the four o’clock setting, short of the five o’clock maximum. We listened a bit, and I dialed it back to the three o’clock position, and everyone was happy, and in strolled attendee Gerald who has various Acoustat panel models and he said it was the best-sounding Sound Lab presentation he’s ever heard.

Then came multiple discussions of the reason I tuned the panels to sound so mellow to begin with. My reasons are several. First, the Sound Labs were new, and as such I thought it more prudent to soften the sound a bit so as to be more forgiving in replaying materials that could otherwise give attendees the wrong impression of the panels being edgy sounding. By Saturday afternoon, I not only set the BRILLIANCE to 3 o’clock, I also set the LOW FREQUENCY LEVEL to “+3”! The result was remarkable. Apparently, the panels each with a massive, 3,125 square inches of radiating surface need not subwoofers, and attendees agree.


A pair of $60,000 complete field-coil speaker system was in Parlor Suite on the 12th Floor, namely 1211. It was the German-made Wolf von Langa London, an open-baffle design with a huge coil behind the “Dipole Twin-Cone Field-Coil Fullrange Driver.” Weighing around 180 pounds each speaker, it has two 15-inch field-coil midrange/bass drivers per speaker and is equipped with WBT nextgen™ connectors. Nashville, Tennessee importer Colin King of Gestalt Audio partnered with Bay Area cable manufacturer/importer Joe Cohen of Lotus Group, Novato, California, whose very high-end Pranawire cable system and Interceptor Ground Conditioners, Linebacker In-Line Passive Power Filters and Vault Ground Conditioner provided airy, pristine music as fed by the SW1X Audio Design full system electronics that Joe also imports from England.

Unbeknownst to U.S. audiophiles, Wolf von Langa has been in the business since the 1970s. This is the only room at this show that consistently showcased the system’s ability in rendering demonstration-class venue spatiality and instrument tonality by playing very quiet acoustic recordings to jaw dropping sonic extravaganzas. The dynamics and quietness of the 8 wpc SW1X Titan DHT SET integrated amplifier as heard through the 95dB sensitive full field-coil speaker system were the stuff that memories are made of. The field-coil main midrange driver resembles the Lowther in appearance but the constantly charged field-coil drive system puts the speaker in a different league altogether; its sound is tantalizingly addictive and smooth sounding, its dynamic and spectral behavior defies expectations from its modest façade. And while I suspect the speakers could use an even larger space, I do think their good looks inadvertently invites placement amongst intimate and tasteful interior décor.

New from England is the SW1X Audio Design, now being imported into the U.S. by Lotus Group. In addition to the directly-heated single-ended triode 300B integrated amplifier that was the Titan, Joe also showcased the company’s DAC IV Special that featured such novel designs including a quasi dual mono power supply via a double set of C2xLC rectifier tubes, output transformer decoupled triode output stage, custom copper wound super HiB DC core chokes, decoupled Philips TDA1541 18-bit DAC utilizing Black Gate capacitors, etc. The SW1X Level III Balanced Phono Stage preamplifier and VDT IV streamer rounded out the system.


Finally, a pair of the $65,000 Audio Note UK AN-E SPx LTD field-coil speakers was being demonstrated in Room 1222, across the hall from Room 1223. Hosted by Neli Davis of Castro Valley dealership Audio Federation, the room featured an all-star cast, beginning with the incomparable, 2-way rear ported, 1-inch field-coil tweeter, 8-inch field coil bass driver field-coil speakers. They were internally wired with the AN-SPx, 31-strand silver litz cable, flaunting a 98 dB sensitivity with external field-coil power supply. Take note that there is no magnet in this speaker. In its place is a tightly wound iron coil to be charged externally to generate an electromagnetic field the stability and strength of which no permanent magnets could begin to match. Hence the mindbogglingly lacquered and layered sound.

Music was fed to the AN-E SPx LTD by the $14,000 CD4.1X CD player and the $16,531 TT Three turntable with the attendant PSU3 power supply, Arm Three/II ($2,465), IO1 moving-coil cartridge ($5,028) and an S4L step-up transformer ($7,542). “Dynamic. Dexterous. Harmonically complete” is the tagline on the presentation brochure. This is the first time I see dexterity as description on an audio gear, and on a full ANUK TT Three system, nonetheless. It is spot on!

But also in the room was the social media-babe Meishu Tonmeister integrated amplifier, this time in a phono-equipped silver edition ($19,300). Featuring 8 watts per channel from the class A, 300B SET topology, the Tonmeister (German, “ton” is volume, “meister” is master, but together “tonmeister” in audio industry colloquial refers to the Mixing Engineer at the studio console) comes with a moving-magnet phono stage, 12AU7 and 5687 tubes in the first gainstage, 12AX77 and 6DJ8 for the phono section, 5U4G for rectification. It is a classic MM phono stage the topology of which has been entrusted by vinyl critics and fans alike. I naturally want one for auditioning and reviewing high-efficiency speakers.

One of the highlights of the show for me was conversing with attendees about all things audio, which was the highlight of the show for me. Among the juicier subjects was the machines of bygone eras, such as the mighty cassette decks of the eighties by Aiwa, Denon, Nakamichi and Teac, the conversation further enhanced by our being able to pull up images and specifications from the internet right off our phones.

In closing, I would like to thank the attendees for coming to the show. There are new attendees showing up every year despite the ever-growing list since the first CAS in 2010, and my special thanks to attendees who bought tickets just to support the show.

CAS11 (2024) is set for July 19 through 21, 2024 at Hilton Gardon Inn again. More announcements to come!

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