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Lone Star Audio Fest 2008

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I had current events on my mind while driving to the Lone Star Audio Fest. The increasingly high cost of fuel and slowing economy is bound to hurt manufacturers. Even though the Fed says the economy is still growing, consumers are tightening the purse strings. Still, manufacturers must advertise and trade shows will always be a viable way of getting exposure. While I did notice fewer rooms and attendees, the vibe I got was one of optimism. Hopefully, we’ll get on the other side of this valley sooner rather than later.

As far as I’m concerned, CES proper is anathema to audio. I wouldn’t step foot in that den of hype and constantly changing formats for all the Koetsus in Japan. THE Show is great, but it’s not convenient for the majority of audiophiles. The rise of more regional shows is a step in the right direction. Megalo-corporations have abandoned music lovers and audiophiles. There’s not much point in flying to Vegas to see what Toshiba or Panasonic will have coming out since it will be on the shelves at Best Buy and Wal-Mart within the month. Audiophiles need exposure to products from people who care and who are willing to accept feedback. I hope these regional shows become more common.

An interesting feature of Lone Star Audio Fest is that hobbyists rented rooms to share their experiments and experiences with others. That’s not something that you’ll see at CES—those people are not welcome! Cross pollination between manufacturers, customers and DIY-ers could lead to more great ideas.

Blank Stares!

It’s amusing to see the reaction of non-audiophiles to these gatherings. How odd we must seem. On the other hand, at least one teenage kid sheepishly walked into a room and asked if we were demonstrating stereo equipment. Maybe something he heard will influence his choices in sound and music.

My first stop was the MaxxHorn room, with help from Art Audio, Custom Isolation Products, Ayon Audio, ModWright and John Semrad. It was a good place to start since I’ve been reviewing the MaxxHorn Luminations with Feastrex Monster Alnico 5” driver. A review is forthcoming on these, so stay tuned to Dagogo. It was interesting to drift in and out of the room as components were changed and factions formed over which of the amplifiers sounded best with the Luminations: The Ayon Spark or the Art Audio Carissa. It proves the point that no one sound is going to make everyone happy. I had a favorite, but I’m not telling.

While the ModWright-modified Sony CD player sounded very good, I preferred the rebuilt and modified Micro Seiki BL-51X turntable. It had a totally custom plinth built by John Semrad which improves the noise characteristics. He was using an affordable Audio Technica AT-150MLX that uses a boron cantilever and microline stylus. The sound through the Art Audio Vinyl Reference was fluid, warm and beguiling. Overall, this room had the best midrange at the show. Think of an ESL with better bass, transients, power and control. Imaging was also superb. The mono recordings appeared dead center. Clarity Cable supplied all the cabling. Tate Blanchard of Custom Isolation Products supplied the beautiful, hand-built stands.

No, that’s not a factory supplied plinth!

In the Pi Speakers room, the Four π bass-reflex was playing with the Audio Note Kit 2. This particular version of the Four π was using JBL 2226 and B&C DE250 drivers. The crossovers were upgraded to the Auricap and Mills resistor options. These speakers appeal to my love of mid-20th century furniture. Wayne Parham of Pi finished these with multiple coats of hand rubbed tongue oil, just like they used to do it in the good old days. It’s a classic look that’s right up my alley. They are available as kits or fully finished. The entry level version, factory finished, starts at $1,600 for the pair. As shown, they were $2,800. For the quality of parts used, I consider that a very aggressive price. A parts kit starts at $350 per speaker. These would make a natural partner with any classic tube amp (think push-pull 6L6 or EL84) as well as flee-powered DH-SET.

Skip Pack was one of the DIYers that showed up and brought Lowther Medallion II Cabinets with PM2C drivers, a Squeezebox SB3, TwistedPear Audio Opus DAC, and Bottlehead S.E.X. Amp with EXO 45 OPTs. Though using very low power, the system had real authority. It would’ve been nice to hear a CD player or turntable though. Skip bought the cabinets and drivers used and the whole system cost less than some cartridges I’ve used.

Before lunch, Brines Audio put on a seminar about transmission-line enclosures. It was fascinating for a novice (me) to see how a well-designed computer program can closely approximate the real world performance of a speaker. The case was made for the Mass Loaded Tapered Quarter Wave Tube. An equally good case was made against the Voigt pipe. Perhaps the most interesting point was that certain bass-reflex designs that have a tall thin cabinet are a transmission line if the bass driver and port are located in the correct places. Very fascinating, but I’ll leave speaker theory and speaker building to the pros.

After lunch, my first stop was the Hawthorne Audio, MyAudioCables, Vaughn Audio room. The Hawthorne drivers are design for open and infinite baffle applications and they produce two different coaxial drivers. The bass produced by the model on display, using a coax and helper woofer, overloaded the room. It’s a case where these tiny hotel rooms just don’t work. I’d like to hear what these things could do in a good sized room.

The amp being used was Vaughn Audio Carina SE EL84 that has a Triode/Ultralinear switch. It uses PP in oil power supply caps (Hosanna!—I hate electrolytic caps). For a long while I’ve had the conviction that the EL84 and 7591 were the best (by far) audio power pentodes you could use. I really liked the sound of this amp. By the way, my picture of the Hawthorne speakers didn’t turn out, but they look a lot like a classic ESL from the front and sides.

Just next door was a DIYer that gave me the biggest shock of the show. John Busch had managed to make Altec 605A duplex speakers sound un-Altec like. With the exception of the 12” 601C, I hadn’t heard Altecs sound this smooth and “barkless”. John said the key to his success was a MUCH improved crossover and tube amplification (well duh! Altecs and transistors are not meant for each other). There was still a little disconnect between the HF driver and the 15” woofer, but there’s nothing that can be done to make a 15” driver act like a midrange. I’d love to hear what he could do with the 601C since the 12” driver is a much better midrange than the 605A. Anyway, it was surprisingly good and something I could live with. The Altec was coupled with a 15” helper woofer driven by a plate amp in an open baffle. Somehow, John was able to get these sounding very smooth in a hotel room. He knows something that some of the other exhibitors don’t know.

It was nice to meet James Harrell of Jumping Cactus Loudspeakers. James attempts to address many different loudspeaker challenges in his designs. The build quality is impressive, using thick-walled aluminum cabinets and a beautiful wood veneer. The speaker stands are built of 2” by 2” square solid aluminum (I don’t think flex will be an issue). Though these speakers are large and heavy, they sound very light on their feet with great imaging (more like a mini-monitor). I did note in the literature that James recommends the use of a subwoofer with these. Low frequency is flat down to 65Hz, the penalty for a sealed enclosure of that size. On the other hand, they sounded resonance free in the few minutes I listened. They can be supplied with a passive crossover, but James recommends the use of a Marchand XM44 crossover. As shown they were using the passive crossover with a single-ended amp. The high efficiency design means that they can be coupled with relatively low-powered amps, a design criteria James had when he designed the speakers. Dagogo is working on a full out triamped review of the system, so stay tuned for more on these speakers.
The price with passive crossover is $8300.

AudioKenesis was showing their Dream Maker, a dipole model with low-powered tube amplification. These might’ve had more slam than any other speaker at the show. Unfortunately, it was another case where the bass overpowered the room. These are speakers for good sized rooms and need to breathe. This was a popular room and I really didn’t get a chance to visit or even get a good seat. There’s always next year. From my way-off-axis position, I could hear that these speakers image well and produce a large soundfield. The amps were a design by Richard Gray, but I didn’t get a model name.

As I noted earlier, Brines Acoustics gave a nice talk on transmission line speakers. In the Brines Acoustics room, four models were on display. I like the quarter-sewn red oak used for the veneers. The sound was immediate, with loads of detail. Dynamics were first rate. The thing I didn’t like was the use of a computer as a source. It sounded like down-sampled wav files. A decent CD player would’ve fleshed out the sound. Still, considering the logistics of bringing four sets of loudspeakers with tube amplification, I understand the choice of source. I just don’t think I really heard what these speakers are capable of. These are well-engineered designs of high efficiency that would make a perfect coupling with single-ended amps.

For some reason, Neli Davis of Audio Federation was on the ninth floor by herself. She blamed hotel incompetence, but I know the real answer. The guys on the 7th floor were scared of Neli Davis. She gets my vote for best demonstration at the show.

She’s comfortable with a crowd of audiophiles, anticipated questions and always had great answers. Audio Federation is the US distributor for Audio Note UK. She brought an Audio Note system based on the AN/E Spe He speakers, OTO Phono SE integrated amp (uses EL84 outputs and has a MM stage), the CD 2.1X/II CD player, TT2 turntable with Arm Three, AN-S4 step-up, IO1 MC phono cartridge (with the holy-crap-how-low? output of .05mv), silver litz cables and isolation products from Harmonic Resolution Systems.

This room gets highest possible marks for making the most of CD playback. The sound was very analog-like, warm and dimensional. Overtones sounded natural. I’m not saying the LP playback was somehow lacking. The turntable combo sounded low distortion, tracked flawlessly and had lots of detail. Still, that CD player is pretty amazing. Also amazing is the amount of bass from the little 2-way speakers. They look like a classic British speaker of the ‘80s, but sound nothing like you’d expect. They are 98dB efficient and pretty darn full-range for a compact 2-way design. Neli explained that the design uses birch plywood in a way that allows the box resonance to complement the sound of the speaker. I put my hand on the enclosure and felt no unusual amount of resonance, but I’ll take her word for it. She compared it to the sound board of a musical instrument. The bargain in the room was the integrated amp. It had great dynamics, transparency, dimensionality and plenty of detail. I would’ve loved to hear this amp with the MaxxHorn Luminations during my review. Considering it has the phono section, I think the asking price of $3,850 is very fair.

Final Thoughts and Observations

Attendance was down significantly this year. I know at least two guys who had rooms last year and had significant health issues this time and couldn’t participate. Others were having issues with the steep gas prices and slowing economy. I hope that show organizers and attendees can work through these tough times and keep things going.

I’d like to offer a few opinions about choice of music and choice of formats. The MaxxHorn and Audio Federation rooms brought a mix of vinyl and CDs that were both good sounding and interesting. I really got into the music in these rooms. They had some audiophile stuff, but there was just as much good music that could stand on its own merits (in spite of the sound). Several other rooms had an interesting variety of music, but having the vinyl was an added dimension.

While the Squeezebox is a nifty device, it’s nice to see a decent CD player. I’ve used my IPod as a source in the system, and it doesn’t sound that bad. However, I’d never use it to audition or demonstrate equipment because it’s not a lossless format (no matter what Apple claims to the contrary, it doesn’t sound as good as the CD after conversion to the “lossless” format). Any decent CD played will sound better. I like internet radio and “shuffle play” for background music, but it just isn’t as good as CD or vinyl. Even when a high quality DAC was used after the Squeezebox, I couldn’t tell as much about the system. Bottom line: let’s hear what that gear can really do.

This being my first show report, I’m glad it wasn’t a large event. It gave me a chance to meet and mingle and ask questions. Without exception, everyone I met was friendly and passionate about audio. Having DIY hobbyists, local manufacturers and national distributors in the same place is something that won’t happen in Vegas. This is the kind of event that will help reinvigorate the high end, like a grass roots movement. I left feeling optimistic about the hobby than when I arrived.

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