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 Sennheiser HD800S Headphone Review 01

Variations on a Theme by Sennheiser

You may remember something I wrote here seven years ago: “These are the single greatest headphones in the history of the world.” I was writing about the new Sennheiser HD800 headphones, which caused enormous excitement in headphone circles. They pushed the limits in multiple dimensions. They set a new bar for competition all over the world, and with all the attention, people began to focus on their faults as well as their merits. No one doubts there are astonishingly revealing and extended, and the wide image they throw still sets the standard few others approach. Comfort levels are superb. But there are certain weaknesses at both ends of the spectrum.

First, in the deep bass, although the HD800 extends way down, it is also significantly down in level, especially in comparison with some of the more recent designs from Audeze, Abyss, Focal and others. This may be especially distressing to rock lovers, since many headphone manufacturers apply deliberate reinforcement in the nether regions because dammit, many of us simply enjoy bass boost.

Second, in the high frequencies, centered around 7k Hertz, there is a treble peak of around 7 dB which some people find tiring and abrasive. Put these two flaws together and you get a sound which you may find tilted up in the treble and lean in the bass.

Now if you read my earlier review, you won’t see criticism of the frequency response. There are two reasons for that. First, I was unhappy with the cable Sennheiser provided so I replaced it with a far superior cable – Cardas Clear. This not only improved the resolution over the stock cable, but also improved the bass response and reduced any peakiness. Second, the competition at that time, apart from some ultra-expensive electrostatic models, could not offer anything with such a wide bandwidth or clean bass and treble. Third, headphones sit on your head, and the frequency response changes as you adjust their position, so how you experience these things is very personal.

Sennheiser is well aware of the criticisms, and I’m sure they have field tested the competition, some of which is around the same price and some considerably more expensive. They have now decided to offer an alternative tweaked version, the HD800S ($2,199), rather than introducing a replacement for the HD800 (now $1,899). There are four changes. The most obvious is the provision of a balanced cable in addition to the unbalanced cable that comes with the earlier model. Second, they supply the new HD800S in a very attractive matt black finish instead of the silver finish of the HD800. Third, they have “enhanced” the bass by introducing some second order harmonics which reinforce the sound. Finally they introduced a mechanical resonator to absorb some of the treble peak. Some people have designed their own DIY resonators to retrofit the HD800. Word on the street is that Sennheiser’s implementation is superior to most if not all of these DIY mods.

OK. How do I feel about this? Do I feel cheated? Shouldn’t Sennheiser have fundamentally redesigned the phones rather than applying tweaks to the HD800? I suspect they tried that but are not yet able to significantly improve the design without a major increase in price. So for now, it’s tweaks or nothing. Then they are acknowledging that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or rather, the ear of the listener. They have the original design or an option with a flatter response, and you pick which one you like best. Fair enough, I say. I’ll lay out how I feel about the two phones. Fortunately, I still have the HD800 in house, and I can compare the two models using a Graham Slee Solo Ultralinear headphone amp. For even more refined listening, I can connect both phones directly to the balanced outputs of my reference EMM Labs Pre2 preamp using a balanced version of the superb Cardas Clear cables.

Why Do We Need Better Cables.indd

We should examine the work of a bunch of pioneering guys – Peter Walker, Ivor Tiefenbrun, Julian Vereker, Bob Stuart, Mark Levinson, Dan D’Agostino, Ed Meitner, Dave Wilson, Alon Wolf and Yoav Geva. Who are these guys? What did they do to awaken the interest of Joe Reynolds (Nordost), George Cardas (Cardas Audio), Dr. Ray Kimber (Kimber Kable) and Edwin van der Kley (Siltech), leading lights in the cable industry?

So let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, amplifiers, turntables, speakers and cables all produced considerable levels of distortion and had poor levels of definition, with speakers at the top of the list of offenders. One lone Englishman, Peter Walker, threw out conventional wisdom and abandoned the traditional moving coil speaker design we all know and love, in favour of flat electrostatic panels – introducing the famous Quad Electrostatic Speaker in 1957, followed by the Quad ESL-63 in 1982. These early Quad speakers had their faults to be sure. They couldn’t play loud, they were weak in the bass, and they beamed their image to a very narrow hot spot, but they raised the bar dramatically in terms of speed and accuracy, and showed the world just what was possible. The rest of the speaker industry has been innovating to match and improve upon Walker’s designs ever since. Moving coil speaker designers have now finally succeeded in challenging the electrostatic designs on all fronts, while surpassing them in dynamics, bandwidth and image width. For many years the high end in moving coil speaker design revolved around Dave Wilson and his Wilson Audio speakers. More recently Wilson Audio has been challenged by Alon Wolf’s Magico and Yoav Geva’s YG Acoustics among others. High tech materials, incredibly close tolerance construction and advanced computerized design and manufacture are behind dramatic reductions in distortion levels.

Today we can say the loudspeaker is no longer the weakest link. If it’s not the speaker, then what is it? Linn Audio’s Ivor Tiefenbrun surprised almost everyone in the 70’s with his claim that the turntable was now the most important component in the system. His famous maxim “Garbage in- garbage out” and his iconic Linn Sondek LP12 turntable changed the world. HiFi Choice reviewers voted the LP12 the most important hi-fi component ever sold in the UK. It inspired a bunch of imitators. Now in its 54th year, it remains in limited production, its basic design untouched by time. The LP12 offered reduced rumble, greater speed stability and a platform to support ever finer tonearms and cartridges. The LP12 propelled other turntable manufacturers to new heights, using high tech materials, advanced design, massive construction and ever more refined cartridges to lower distortion and expand the effective frequency range. The LP12 has been the subject of numerous optional upgrades, from Linn and others, to the plinth, the power supply, the suspension, you name it. Today’s best turntables can set you back over $100,000, and then you can spend large amounts on highly refined arms, cartridges and phono stages designed to extract the very best from the black vinyl disks, now experiencing a resurgence of popularity. These too exhibit greatly reduced levels of distortion, and a corresponding improvement in image size and precision. We live in a golden age of analog.

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The CD kicked the LP off its perch as the medium of choice, but early CD players were not capable of challenging the sound fidelity of a well set up high-end turntable. One small step for convenience but no giant leap for fidelity. One man was up to the challenge of improving the sound of those early CD players, and that man was Bob Stuart (Bob Stuart) of Meridian Audio. Although many will know him better from his pioneering work on active speakers, DVD-Audio and now MQA, his work on improving the sound of Redbook CD is perhaps his greatest achievement. In 1985 he introduced the Meridian MCD player, the world’s first audiophile CD player. His latest offering in this field is the Meridian 808v6 Signature Reference CD Player, a wonderful machine which any music lover should be proud to possess.

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As wonderful as Redbook sounds through the 808 and some other high-end CD players that compete in that space, digital audio can sound better if it captures more bits per second. While DVD-Audio and other high sample rate mechanisms offered one way of improving on the 16 bit, 44.1k sampling frequency of Redbook, Philips and Sony pushed for and pioneered another method altogether, DSD, introducing SACD players based on that standard in 1999 (Sony SCD-1). Central to this development was Canada’s Ed Meitner, whose EMM Labs is among the leaders in the field of DSD and DAC technology today. He is not alone but his work is remarkable and he has pioneered a purity of sound that sets the standard for the industry, and which leaves the humble CD well behind. Ed Meitner was the first to identify jitter as the villain behind the edgy sound of early digital audio and developed advanced technology to minimize it.

 

Today we see high bit rate streaming and downloads of high resolution audio files with more information even than the DSD standard. The high processing power of today’s chips and a greater understanding of digital processing has provided some remarkable improvements in DAC technology. You only have to look at what PS Audio and Chord do today in producing better sound for far less money than the best digital technology of a few years back. Common to the approach of EMM Labs, PS Audio and Chord avoid the mass produced DAC chips that mainstream converters rely on, since they see them all as fundamentally flawed.

So we’ve seen dramatic improvements: in source components (analog or digital) and equally dramatic improvements in loudspeakers. What about amplifiers? Well yes, we’ve also seen some improvement there, but not to the same extent. That’s because in the good old days of tube electronics, the standards were already pretty high. It has taken decades for silicon based amplifiers to improve so they can stand up to comparison with the best tube amps of yesterday, and the best tube amps of today set even higher standards for many listeners. Who do we have to thank for the high achievements of today’s reference level silicon amps? I would mention Julian Vereker of Naim Audio, for his pioneering work on power supplies, and Dan D’Agostino for his groundbreaking Krell Class A amps and the latest remarkable efforts under his own name.

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The State of the Art

Valhalla is the cable that turned the cable industry upside down in the year 2001. Unconventional in appearance as in performance, Valhalla set a new standard for many, and became my reference cable back in 2004. The key technology behind Valhalla is Micro Mono-Filament. By winding a single FEP filament in a precise spiral around each conductor, before extruding an outer FEP “sleeve” over the top, Nordost created a structure combining the best available dielectric material while spacing the insulation away from the core.  This minimized contact and dielectric absorption as well as created a virtual air environment.

Today we are testing the Valhalla 2 which debuted in 2013, a culmination of 12 years of development. While there are many similarities to Valhalla, every aspect of their construction was reexamined. Major innovations include Dual Mono-Filament technology, HOLO:PLUG connectors, and revisions to the number and diameter of the conductors.

By spiraling a carefully controlled thread of FEP clockwise around the conductor, and another wound counterclockwise (Dual Mono-Filament), the insulating material can be held at a fixed distance from the surface of the conductor and the air trapped between the conductor and the insulator acts as an excellent dialectic material. FEP itself is an expensive synthetic, the very best available for this purpose, and is of even higher purity than the version used in the original Valhalla. The technology used for this highly accurate extrusion process is exclusive to Nordost, very time consuming and costly to implement.

Terminations have come in for radical changes. Not satisfied with any commercially available components, Nordost designed their own connectors, which they call HOLO:PLUG Connectors. They found that much of the information loss in cables happens where the cable interfaces with the conductor. With HOLO:PLUG Interconnects and Speaker Cables, each conductor is assigned a point on an internal ring which continues to the tip of the connector. This ensures that each conductor is transmitting to the connector with the lowest signal loss possible. HOLO:PLUG Power cords utilize a carbon fiber back-shell connector, solid core bronze alloy pins with 85 microns of gold, a low mass dual ring design, vibration control and a 360 degree contact mating surface to minimize eddy currents.

The conductor material is made from an extremely pure solid copper core (99.999999%) plated with 85 microns of pure silver. The interconnect now uses ten 24 AWG conductors, the power cord uses seven 16AWG conductors and the speaker cable uses twenty eight 22 AWG conductors in four groups.

Cable lengths are carefully mechanically tuned to minimize resonances which can have a harmful effect on the sound. Nordost now recommends spade termination for speaker cables and biwire speaker cables are no longer available. Instead Nordost offers Valhalla 2 Bi-wire Jumpers which I used in my testing.

My reference system features the latest version of the EMM Labs XDS1 SACD/CD Player feeding an EMM Labs Pre 2 Preamplifier. The power amp is a ModWright KWA150 SE driving the new YG Carmel 2 speakers. It’s a breathtakingly revealing system, with vanishingly low distortion, and one that should easily show any differences between cables.

In the left corner, we have the Nordost system of yesterday, featuring a Nordost Thor Power Distribution System and Valhalla cables end to end. In the right corner, I asked Nordost for a QRT Power Distribution System and a full loom of Valhalla 2 cables. Let the games begin.

The older Valhalla setup is very revealing, has massive articulation and pinpoint locational accuracy. It’s also a little hard driving and decidedly lean. I like the sound very much, but I don’t find it fully satisfying. It is perhaps a little clinical.

Anthem 225 Integrated (Custom)

What You Should Know Before Selecting An Amplifier, Integrated Amplifier Or AV Receiver

The integrated amplifier or AV receiver is the heart of your stereo or home theatre system and also its control centre. It accepts inputs from a range of sources – computers, CD players, Blu-ray players, turntables, tuners, smart phones, tablets and DACs. It lets you choose which source to listen to. It amplifies that signal and feeds it to your speakers or possibly your headphones. It may even allow you to adjust the sound through bass and treble controls or a loudness contour. In most cases it will also come with a remote control so you don’t have to get up from your chair. Well that’s the job description. Are all amplifiers equally good at all these tasks?

You can’t tell everything from the spec sheets, but you can learn quite a lot. Sometimes it’s what isn’t shown in a spec sheet that can be the most revealing. Maybe there’s something to hide. In my day job I get a lot of applications from new graduates. Those with good transcripts usually attach them to their application. Those with poor marks will usually omit them.

It may surprise you to know that the difference between two amplifiers may be quite small on one set of speakers, but very significant with another pair. An amp can do well with one source, say CD, but perform poorly with another source, say vinyl. Let’s take a closer look at the spec sheets.

Unison Research Simply Italy

Tubes or Transistors
There are lots of very strongly held opinions in this field, just as in the analog / digital divide. In fact there are excellent valve amps and excellent tube amps, just as there are mediocre ones of both types. But the vast majority of amps are fully transistor based, since tube amps are often considered temperamental and high maintenance. Silicon amps usually achieve high reliability and can be left on at all times, whereas tube amps are often less efficient and tubes have a finite lifespan. Tubes can also go microphonic (a mechanical vibration), may need periodic bias adjustments and tube amps often have a higher level of hiss and hum than transistor amps. But many enthusiasts love the distinctive tube sound which encompasses a warm and present midrange and excels at both imaging and tonal quality. Owners of tube amps can re-tube their amps with higher quality tubes than the manufacturer supplies, thereby tweaking the sound to their own preferences. Look for talk about NOS (new old stock) tubes from Telefunken, GE, RCA, Westinghouse, etc. Transistors are often preferred for their wide bandwidth and low background noise.

In this article I will focus on transistor amps, but if you want more information about tube amps I can point you to the article “Tube Magic” by my colleague Malcolm J. Gomes in the 2012 Aug/Sept edition of CANADA HiFi.

Hybrid Amplifiers

Some manufacturers (such as Rogue Audio, Blue Circle Audio and Pathos Acoustics) offer a hybrid approach, whereby the preamp stage is tube based and the power amp stage is silicon based, which they claim gives you the best of both worlds.

Jeff Rowland continuum S2 front (Custom)

Integrated Amps or Receivers
An integrated amp is traditionally a two channel affair dedicated to the audio side of the equation. So it will have two channels of amplification, which will usually share a common power supply. A fine example is the Arcam FMJ A19. Some amps, like the NAD M3 have a dedicated power supply for each channel, and these are often described as dual-mono. This is an expensive feature, but allows each channel to operate more independently of the other, reducing cross-talk and improving fidelity.

A stereo receiver will add a tuner section to the mix. This used to be a very popular type of amplifier but is less commonly seen today in high quality components. Canada’s own Magnum Dynalab is one of the few companies offering a high end stereo receiver, the MD 209 Hybrid Audio Receiver.

An AV Receiver will allow you to play stereo or multichannel audio and will also be set up to support subwoofers and video switching. Don’t expect the same kind of audio fidelity you will find in dedicated stereo amplifiers unless you are willing to pay a lot of money. When you have to provide 5, 7 or more channels of amplification, that puts a lot of strain on the power supplies and many of these units are mass produced and designed to hit particular price points. But once again there are exceptions. Anthem, Krell and Bryston are among the companies who have not compromised quality when moving from 2 channel to multi channel, but they offer separate AV Preamps and Power amps rather than Integrated receivers. Marantz now offers its SR6007 Receiver supporting the new 4K video format and is a strong performer.

Cyrus Audio Streamline2 Three components are seeing major growth in the audio market: headphones, DACs and streaming music players. Today we’ll take a look at a streamer from Cyrus Audio, a well established company operating out of the Ermine Business Park in Huntingdon, England, home also to Meridian Audio and not far from Cambridge University.

The Streamline2 is an update to the original Streamline model first introduced in 2011 and offers a network streaming platform for the modest price of $1999. Just connect to a network, add speakers or headphones and install the free Cadence app on your iPhone, iPad or Android device and you’re in business.

Cyrus strongly recommends connecting the streamer through a wired Ethernet connection, which is how I used it for my testing, but you can connect wirelessly too and that worked well for me, two rooms away from my wireless router. While in wireless operation, the sound quality seemed unimpaired but stability was a bit of an issue – the network connection was lost several times.
Cyrus does offer a powerful remote control unit, the n-remote, complete with a colour LCD display, but most people will use it as I did, through the Cadence app.

I found the Cadence app a little old fashioned in its presentation, but quite functional. However when things go wrong, like when a wireless connection is lost, it sometimes takes a lot of fiddling to reestablish the connection. Also the app has a tendency to revert to the main iPhone screen for reasons I cannot fathom. But it’s just an app, and I’m sure it will get more stable and functional over time.

The Streamline2 can play the music I’ve downloaded to my iPhone, but only by connecting the two together through a USB cable and selecting the iPhone input, not wirelessly.

Your primary input choices are Network, Radio and AUX but each of these leads to multiple source options. Network could see all the music on my two PCs and on a NAIM UnitiServe music server attached to my network. Radio opens up the world of Internet Radio with its tens of thousands of stations accessed using familiar categories, regions and favourites. AUX offers USB or any of five digital inputs (2 optical, 3 SPDIF). The setup menu allows you to adjust the balance.

How to get the sound out? The unit is setup for banana terminated speaker cables and I used YBA Diamond cables to connect to a pair of Totem “The One” bookshelf speakers, mounted on target stands. There is a 3.5mm headphone socket on the rear of the unit – a rather unusual positioning. Cyrus tells me that they prefer the rear position because it’s neater for a consumer to buy a longer extension lead and run it to the listening position since not many owners site the player next to the listening position. The USB A socket is also on the rear because it will often be used for charging an iPhone via a dock that can be permanently fixed. I would have preferred both on the front panel as on the competing NAIM UnitiQute but I can appreciate the argument. When you plug in your phones, the speakers automatically mute, as you would expect, but Cyrus goes one step further. You can leave phones and speakers connected at all times and toggle between them using a front panel switch. Nice touch! I tried a couple of tough to drive phones, the AKG K701 and the Sennheiser HD800. I was quite happy with the results. The unit has enough power to drive them both to good levels while maintaining calm control and a good level of detail.

The back panel offers quite a few connection options. You get two sets of line level RCA outputs, one fixed, one variable, for feeding external power amps or preamps. You also get an Ethernet port, MC Bus for integrating your unit into a full Cyrus system, a digital out for connection to an external DAC or digital amp and an RS232 port reserved for future possibilities. But if you use the Streamline2 to drive a pair of speakers you’ve got a full 30 wpc into 8 ohms, with a distortion of .01%, enough to drive speakers of moderate or high efficiency.

To make the unit easier to navigate, you can assign names to each of the digital inputs – for example input 1 could be CD. The digital inputs can cope with a variety of PCM formats up to 192/24, including Apple Lossless, WAV, FLAC, AIFF, AAC and MP3, but not a DSD bitstream.

As you might hope for with a digital device like this, the firmware is upgradable on the Streamline2 and Cyrus makes a point of offering upgrades to current users across their line, so I am optimistic that this machine will gain new functionality over the next few years. Updating the firmware is a job for the dealer, although I had the opportunity to do so myself. This involved opening the box so I was able to see the careful construction and neat cabling the user doesn’t normally see.

The packaging is consistent with other Cyrus models, featuring the familiar half width precision lightweight alloy casting (brushed black or quartz silver finish), hand crafted. Front panel controls include direct input choices (Music, Radio and AUX), a large volume control which also acts as the selector when pressed, as well as Mute, Phones and Power switches.  There is also a Menu button and back / forward buttons. These are easy to use and the menu system is nicely laid out and simple to master. In the centre there’s an LCD status screen, not as detailed as I would like to see but functional.

So we are down to the small question of sound quality. I found this to be an interesting system to listen to. On the one hand the amplifier has balls – it had no problem driving the demanding Totems. Bass was clean and powerful, and the treble was detailed and extended, with vanishingly low distortion. The image was not particularly wide or deep, but it was stable. There was a rather bright balance to the sound, especially when compared to the warmer tone of the UnitiQute which always sounds a little more relaxed. This was more noticeable as the volume level goes up. I found the sound extremely sensitive to the quality of the original recording. Good recordings will always sound better than mediocre ones, but here the difference was exaggerated. I think that’s down to the tonal balance being tilted up. Feed the beast with good quality signals at CD or higher res and all is well. Outstanding results from Keb’ Mo’s Every Morning, Leon Fleisher’s Emperor Concerto, and Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else. But offer it heavily compressed MP3 data, or one of the lower bitrate Internet radio stations, or a shallow or bass shy recording and the Streamline2 will reveal all its faults. At its best the sound is punchy, articulate and strong both in the bass and the treble. At its weakest the sound can take on a flat or hollow tone, and the aggressive treble can prove tiresome on some percussion rich recordings. So you’d better feed it good stuff.

Overall, I think this is quite an excellent achievement at its price point, and you can upgrade it with an external power supply or matching power amp from Cyrus if you begin to get the urge for higher fi. Check it out.Cyrus Audio Cadence App

Sidebar – What can the Cadence app do?

  • Cadence allows you to wirelessly browse and select music through your Cyrus unit
  • Control most of the playback functions of your Cyrus streaming unit with a flick or tap of a finger on your phone or tablet
  • Browse, control and listen to your digital music collection
  • Adjust volume
  • View more information about the track you’re listening to and show the album art
  • Create a favourites list of up to 250 songs
  • Explore and select from thousands of radio stations on TuneIn Radio
  • Save songs and radio stations as favourites
  • Individually control different Cyrus units running on the same network
  • Browse and select inputs, including controlling the CD section of a Cyrus Lyric 05 or Lyric 09 all in one players
  • Cadence can control a variety of Cyrus products

Cyrus Audio
www.cyrusaudio.com

Distributed by Kevro International
www.kevro.com
(800) 667-6065
(905) 428-2800

Cyrus Streamline2 Streaming Music Player
Price: $1,999 CAD

TAVES is back and it’s bigger and better than ever. So big it had to relocate to a larger venue this year, and bursting with new ideas. High art (yes there were paintings and other artworks all over the exhibit floor) and high tech are bursting out all over. Where else can you see a Sony 4K Laser  Projector – the only example in Canada – a series of 3D printers, a headphone room and an electronic mind reader, designed to relax and concentrate your brain? An expanded range of seminars when you need some down time, and some Tesla cars – the list goes on. All this in addition to the bread and butter of the show – High Fidelity Audio.

Let me introduce you to some of the exhibits:

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Speakers just don’t get more distinctive then Acapella Audio Art’s range of horn speakers, with their distinctive spherical horns. The new hyper spherical horn design is being introduced across the range for increased low end bandwidth and improved dispersion characteristics. Herman Winters, designer of the ION tweeter, is standing by the Violincello II Mk2 speaker but he was even more excited by the new Acapella Integrated LaMusika hybrid integrated Amplifier which will run a cool $120,000.

Acapella speakers are actually very efficient, but they felt the need for an amplifier which was without any limitation on dynamic range over the full audio bandwidth. The amp is made by hand with a maximum of 10 units a year. The finish and design are exemplary and the sound in this room, sourced from an Aesthetix Romulus Player is exceptionally natural and clear.

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McIntosh is introducing the MB100 Media Bridge with a 1TB hard drive so you can import your music and play it on your McIntosh system.

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There is also the MC152 150wpc solid state Stereo Power Amp, featuring Autoformers for full power across any impedance and the MC301 300w Quad Balanced Power Mono Amplifier.

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These units are so new the prices have not yet been announced. They are designed for use where space is at a premium, being just 6” tall. Playing in this room are the MCD550 SACD Player with the C3500 Tube Preamp with a built-in DAC and the MC452 450wpc Power Stereo Amp feeding XR100 4-way Speakers. Completing the system are the MEN220 Room Correction System and the MPC1500 Power Controller.

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Unison Research is showing the 25th Anniversary Edition of its Triode 25 amplifier and it sounds every bit as good as it looks.

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The amp was matched with ASW Genius 310 Speakers, Siltech Cable and a Unico CD Player also from Unison in Italy. The Triode 25 now offers 25 wpc in triode mode or 45 wpc in Pentode mode and has a built-in meter for bias adjustments, with a special rosewood finish to add a visual flourish. It has a USB input and a built-in DAC and will sell for $3850 as an introductory special.

Lawrence Audio from Taiwan showed 3 speakers, and I was successful, as you would have been, in guessing the name of two of them – the Cello ($18,000) and the Violin ($9,000), although I didn’t guess the name of the smallest, the Mandolin ($5,500).

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They also showed a carpet! The sound is pretty impressive, especially for the price. Interestingly, straight lines are used throughout.  The Cello is a 3.5 way vented box offering a bandwidth of 32Hz to 40kHz and incorporates an Air Motion Tweeter up front, a rear facing aluminum ribbon tweeter and two 8” sandwich cone woofers based on non woven carbon fibre.

ModWright Instruments are showing their new PH 150 Reference Tube Phono Stage with an external SS PS 150 Power Supply.

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It has adjustable output gain for both MM and MC inputs, while both resistive and capacitative loads are adjustable via front panel controls, all adjustments available on the fly, including a selection of inputs for when you are using multiple arms. It’s a fully balanced unit, with a rear panel phase toggle. This is going to be a winner at $6500.

I’m still searching for the perfect headphone amp. SimAudio Moon has just introduced its entry in this category, the Neo 430HA, available with or without a DAC.

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It looks gorgeous, and offers a great deal of flexibility, including balanced (one plug or two) outputs and unbalanced outputs, and a defeatable crossfeed circuit. The optional DAC offers both PCM and true DSD conversion (standard, double and quad speed). It doubles as a preamp, with fixed and variable outputs, with a single balanced input and two unbalanced inputs at the rear plus a miniplug input at the front. Unlike the Bryston I reviewed recently, it has an IR remote control. It costs $3,500 without the DAC or $4,300 with the DAC.

Vince Galbo of MSB introduced me to his Universal Media Transport, based on an Oppo front end, into which they install an MSB processing board. Whether playing a disc or music from the network, they leave the noise and the jitter at the door. When connected to the MSB DAC it uses a proprietary I2S connection which is not electrically connected to the DAC section, isolation coming via a small optical buffer. The DAC requests the data when it is ready, the clock being fed from the DAC. Separate power supplies are used for the Oppo front end and the DAC section. Pure resistor ladders are used instead of off the shelf chips. When MSB introduced DSD processing, it came via a simple firmware download. We were listening to the Platinum Signature Diamond DAC ($41,000US), which used to be the top of the range but a new model, the Select, now sits above it at $75,000US. Business is excellent. The Diamond is a four year old model, but with the stream of updates, it sounds better than ever and as a modular unit, owners can upgrade the hardware as well as the firmware.

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MSB was part of the best sounding system at the show. It was feeding a D’Agostino Momentum Preamplifier

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into 2 Momentum Monoblocs,

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driving Wilson Audio Sasha speakers, which sounded better than I’ve ever heard them.

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Dan D’Agostino, formerly of Krell, is one of the most brilliant designers in HiFi and his Momentum amps excel both in the looks and the sound. I was present at the introduction of the Momentum brand at CES, but they were not sounding this good back then. All cabling is Nordost Odin, and if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. But oh, the music! It fills the large space effortlessly with a three dimensional image of beauty, delicacy, refinement and power. Judge all the other rooms against this one.

The Canadian Premier of the Kudos Audio X3 speaker ($4200) could be witnessed in the Crown Mountain Imports room.

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I’ve reviewed the upscale Kudos Super 20 which is a much more expensive cousin, but the family resemblance is immediately obvious in both sound and looks. The X3 has a new 18cm main driver. The cone is a blend of paper and reed, while a copper clad aluminum voice coil is designed to increase transient response and dynamics while a copper shorting ring reduces distortion. The X3 is the big brother to the existing X2, with which it shares the 25mm soft dome tweeter, and is designed to offer a bigger more dynamic sound. Crown Mountain Imports is now the distributor for the small Italian manufacturer Norma Audio.

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The Revo IPA70 amplifier is expected to come in just shy of $5,000 and the more powerful IPA140 will probably run around $8,900. Both amps feature a USB input and an internal DAC, DSD compatible and a MM/MC phono stage. Their top of the line DAC with CD transport ($6,600) offers 5 digital inputs and includes a high quality TEAC drive. These units really look good and the sound is very promising, but they only have 2 days on them so far. There will also be half width components in the Norma range, all built in Cremona.

I spoke to Rachel Grant of Grant Fidelity, a Calgary based business founded in 2006 by the late Ian Grant. Grant Fidelity specializes in importing high end audio from Asia and shipping it directly from the factory to the consumer for the best possible value. Grant Fidelity conducts the quality control at the factory in China. Most of the models are not available at retail stores in Canada. Service is available at your local HiFi repair shop, and Grant Fidelity will make schematics available to these shops. The most popular models are based around the KT88 tube. Rachel explains that Chinese HiFi quality is not less than European or North American brands, but manufacturing costs are much lower. Some of these manufacturers have been producing high end equipment for some very big brands you may have heard of, and have been in operation for 20 years. Without a showroom, potential customers must rely on published reviews often from other customers. I listened to Psvane T417 two chassis Preamp ($4900)

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feeding Psvane T-845 Monoblocs ($8,950 /pair)

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playing through open baffle speakers designed in Israel, manufactured in Germany and selling for $3,500 in kit form. They are showing for the first time in Canada. I must say the sound was impressive and these components are worth investigating. Here is Ze’ev Wolf, the designer of the speakers, standing next to his creation.

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The speakers are modular, and designed to bring the knowledge of the DIY world to the regular consumer. Open baffle designs bring out the natural ambience of the room, and are used also in professional applications in walls of sound at concerts. Ze’ev selects good components that are well matched to open baffles, for example 10” Morel drivers. Very high quality components are also used in the crossovers, for example Mundorf caps. No special tools are required for assembly. For the Canadian market the wood panels for the feet and baffles will be made locally. Drivers can be bought locally and the crossovers come from Germany.

Eli Gershman from Gershman Acoustics has a new speaker, the Grande Avant Garde ($12,500).

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Under the main cabinet and extended to the rear is a special chamber used to trap the backwave from the bass drivers.

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Gershman calls this BCT – Backwave Control Technology, and it’s their exclusive, working in tandem with their Regulation Line.  The result is a surprisingly powerful, accurate and quick deep bass response, extending down to 22Hz. All this in a 39.5” tall cabinet that directs the tweeter output to ear level by angling up the baffle. I walked away very impressed. The tweeter looks a little vulnerable to the abuse of kids and pets, so Gershman includes a two piece slotted cover for the front baffle. It’s acoustically quite transparent so you can keep it on except for the most serious listening. The woofer is an in-house design, the midrange is an Audax design and the tweeter from Peerless. The Grand Avant Garde is aimed at people who want a big sound with a rich deep bass, but don’t want the large boxes that would normally be associated with such killer bass. Owners of the regular Avant Garde can upgrade to the Grand Avant Garde. Driving the Gershmans were the excellent XP30 preamp and 600.8 amps from Pass Labs, with the beautifully finished Alpha DAC Reference Series from Berkeley Audio Design.

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I really like the clean design of the US made Spatial open baffle speakers ($3,000) in the Wyred 4 Sound room.

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Wyred 4 Sound used to make the components for PS Audio before they moved production to China.

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The new MPRE has a very distinctive look to it, as do the 250 watt Class D MAMP Monoblocs. Connecting the components are AudioQuest cables. I’m not normally a great fan of Class D amps but these seem to be thoroughly sorted.

Reference 3A has a new speaker, and it’s a big one – the Sema Zen ($22,000), 67” tall and 100kg each.

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The main drivers are applied in full range with no crossover and just a basic high pass filter on the tweeter. The cabinets are very complex. The baffle is isolated acoustically from the rest of the cabinet and the upper baffle is angled down so the tweeter is aimed at the listener’s ears at the target listening position. The tweeters are in a waveguide loading for fuller response and transparency, and they are also isolated from the main baffle. Internally there’s a vertical spine and crossbraces that don’t make any contact with each other and all the drivers are mechanically grounded to that spine so the excess energy is drained out to the frame. The four main drivers act like one, electrically speaking. The cabinet is constructed from HDF with a coating which is very effective at damping vibrations and also absorbs floor reflections. Lenses are used in the main drivers to eliminate air turbulence noise generated by the shape of the cone, while magnetic conduction devices are used on the binding posts. Completing the system are Copland’s upgraded CTA405A integrated amp ($5990)

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and a new exaSound quad rate DSD DAC, the e22, ($3500 US) natively playing special hirez tracks recorded at DSD256. Here’s Tash Goka at the controls.

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This system was a standout, and it represents excellent value. The Reference 3A Episode speaker gets new drivers developed for the larger enclosures extending down to 29 Hz, and a new name – the Taksim ($6900). Tweeters in the Reference 3A models are exotic beryllium dome designs.

Does anyone offer a wider range of price points than NAIM? Here’s their elegant new all in one Player / Streamer, the Mu-so ($1699), with Internet Radio, USB and analog inputs, 6 drive units with a Class D amp behind each one, interchangeable grill cloths and an invisible antenna.

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The control knob looks like the Nest thermostat but is taken from the Statement amp in the next room, which runs well into six figures.

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Brian Smith introduced me to a new company ANK AudioKits. The company originally started 11 years ago as the Audio Note kit business, but parted ways last year. Their kits are still based on Audio Note designs. They sell worldwide over a website ankaudiokits.com. They sell amplifiers, preamplifiers, DACs and speaker kits to the DIY audience. They also have a builder in North America who will build the kits for you but 90% of sales are DIY. The products are Audio Note designs and some of the components, but not all, are sourced from Audio Note (UK). They use various levels of part quality depending on the level of the kit. The Mentor Preamplifier, a Level 5 series product with a shunt power supply is in the $5,000 range.

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Coming in 2015 is the DAC 4.1X (around $4,000), also with a shunt power supply. It uses the 16 bit Audio Note resistor ladder DAC technology with no oversampling or upsampling. You can see how much more sophisticated the new Level 4 shunt power supply is compared to the M2 tube rectified design in the entry level DAC 2.1 ($1625). The DAC 4.1X will also feature a 48 step volume control. Also new is a range of EL84 single ended amplifiers – there’s a stereo 11wpc version with or without a preamp section and a monobloc.

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You may notice the large output transformers. All the chassis are made from 3mm aluminum, powder coated.

Stayed tuned to novo.press for part 2 of Phil Gold’s TAVES coverage, as well as show coverage from George de Sa and Gaelen Andrews.

Rega Research SATURN R 02Rega has consistently produced products that stand the test of time, and which sport the simplest of controls. While most manufacturers use some kind of motorized drawer to get the CD in and out of the system, and a few use a motorized slot based mechanism, some have chosen the top loading route, as Rega has done. I have little patience with most top loaders – they often require you to add a puck which can easily be forgotten or lost. I’ve always liked Rega’s no nonsense mechanism, with a hinged lid that incorporates its own clamping. In this iteration, Rega has used an articulated design which requires minimal free space above the top surface. Very neat, although I found it a little more difficult than earlier Rega CD players to grab hold of the disc from the platter. But it’s easy to use, quick and reliable and it looks good. To add to these ergonomic pluses, the front panel is simplicity itself. A large button for on/off, a large button for play, and three smaller buttons arrayed vertically for previous, next and stop, with a modestly sized status display. It’s different, but again it all works very well.

This unit is really two components in one – the Rega DAC, which I reviewed earlier in these pages, upgraded in a few areas, and a top loading transport, all housed in a sleek low profile, full-width black chassis, whose edges are neatly chamfered. The Solaris R system remote control unit is a very well laid out plastic wand with a total of 45 buttons, four of them bidirectional (filter, DAC input, preamp input and volume).

Rega offers a range of four CD players. This one is in the middle and sells for $3,299. At the top of the scale sit the Isis and its near twin, the Isis Valve, three times or more the price of the Saturn-R, while the entry level Apollo-R is around one third its price. All feature top loading drive units. Rega is perhaps most famous for its extensive range of high performance turntables, tonearms and cartridges, but offers a full range of components including speakers and amplifiers. The box proudly proclaims “Rega – Made in England”, where the company has been in business since 1973 when Roy Gandy first introduced the Rega Planet turntable.

When you pop a disc into the recessed well and close the lid it takes about 8 seconds to read the table of contents, about average for a CD player. But to my surprise, when you subsequently press play there is a further four second delay before the music starts, although switching from track to track is instantaneous. Other than that, I found no operational quirks. Unusually, you get a choice of five different digital filters, but I found the differences to be minor, and my preference for filter number 4 (an anodizing option) may not match yours. Rega suggests starting at number 1 and trying each in turn.Rega Research SATURN R 01

This is not just a CD player, although it certainly works well in that role. It has a full functioned DAC inside too. Well perhaps not full functioned, since it does not support the new trend for DSD streaming. Rega deliberately does not include any upsampling options, since the company does not believe any real benefit derives from them. I would also like to see a headphone output, but that would of course add to the price. But you do get 5 digital inputs – 2 optical, 2 coaxial, and an asynchronous galvanically isolated USB input, all capable of accepting signals up to 192kHz/24bit, in addition to the direct feed from the drive unit. The Saturn-R offers unbalanced analog outputs and two sets of digital outputs, one marked DAC (from the digital inputs) and the other marked CD (44.1kHz/16bit), available in both optical and coax formats. One curious omission – there is no ground pin on the mains socket. I guess it is not needed, and certainly there were no issues with hum.

Twin Wolfson WM8742 DAC chips sit at the heart of the DAC section, fed by a sophisticated power supply. Twin WM8742 chips also contribute to the fine sound of the well regarded Cambridge Audio 851C CD player, although they are not as widely used as the ESS Sabre chips. It is not so much which DAC chips you choose, but how carefully you implement the circuitry and the quality of the power supply that really determines performance. Rega uses Wolfson chips here and in the Apollo-R and the Rega DAC, while the Isis has two Burr-Brown PCM 1794 chips and the top of the line Isis Valve has a different Wolfson DAC chip, the WM8741. Go figure.

I inserted the unit into my reference system comprising the EMM Pre-2 preamp, ModWright KWA150SE power amp and YG Carmel speakers which should be resolving enough to test the limits of the abilities of any digital source.

So how does the Rega hold up when viewed purely as an integrated CD player? I’ve been listening to it next to my old reference, the Meridian G08 CD player. You’d likely be very happy to own either one. Both offer fine value at their respective price points, they both look good and are easy to use, and both offer a forward presentation in an effortless fashion. For that matter, both hail from the UK, home of many other fine CD players from NAIM, Arcam, Linn, Musical Fidelity, Chord Electronics and Cambridge Audio to name just a few. There must be something in the air. Well maybe not, other than rain. But strong local competition in the UK market means you’ve got to keep your standards up if you want to be successful.

Bill Frisell’s “Street Scene in a Frontier Town” shows the basic character of the Rega to a T – bright, clean, forward, and a wide but relatively shallow image. His “No Moe” does even better by offering more by way of image depth, while the familiar “Washington Post March” is lively with a strong image but not quite the same resolution that the Meridian provides. The Shostakovich Quartets illustrate the Rega’s great pace but while avoiding the hard edge of some competitors it lacks the warmth the Meridian and the EMM Labs XDS1 reveal. The imaging here is awesome, and the background as black as you could want. Ali Farka Toure’s “Bonde”, recorded in collaboration with Ry Cooder, is again cool to the touch, with a strong heartbeat, very clean and quick. Image depth is lower than the Meridian on this track. The Overture to The Force of Destiny is Verdi in a nutshell – it starts off with a beautiful, delicate theme and then suddenly all hell lets loose.  What’s not to like? The Rega offers nice air in the upper registers and realistic texture on the wind soloists, especially the flute. Although it doesn’t covey all the detail and weight of the Leema Elements DAC, there is a lot of detail to enjoy and no sense of strain. Thelonius Monk was rarely well recorded, and often played on inferior pianos, but it all hangs together on “Blue Monk”. The Rega reveals a strong sense of the original venue’s acoustics with a full and open piano sound. The dynamics here are exemplary but as so often with Monk, there is some stridency to the sound that only the very best electronics can resolve.

To test the Saturn-R as a DAC I first installed Rega’s XMOS USB driver and directed traffic using the JRiver Media Centre 17 software on my Dell laptop, which holds a large selection of music in a variety of digital formats. I heard a very clean treble and good presence and colour in the vocals and piano on the Astred Gilberto/Stan Getz classic “The Girl from Ipanima”. The bass was fast but somewhat low in level but it contributed to a lovely warm sound. The one minor glitch I noticed occurred when playing another track at a different bit depth. The Rega would emit a short digital noise as it locked on to the new frequency. Freddy Kempff’s Beethoven revealed a hard edge to his piano in the higher registers that was somewhat less perceptible through the Leema DAC I had on hand, while the image was also placed somewhat further back than through the Leema. “Yellow Car 3” on Patricia Barber’s sonically amazing Café Blue displays the sharp reflexes you want to hear, and the tricky percussion comes through lifelike and detailed. The image width was exemplary although the image depth was around average. The dynamic range and bass attack trailed the Leema and the NAIM UnitiQute. The Rega was not well suited to The Buena Vista Social Club, since this really needs equipment which preserves or even emphasizes all the dynamic range. It emerges rather too polite here, lacking the excitement the EMM Labs XDS1 and the Chord Chordette QuteHD DAC provides.

Let’s move on to the other digital inputs. I set up the Rega to act as a DAC to the digital output of the excellent Meridian G08, using a TosLink connection. By carefully calibrating sound levels, I could directly compare the performance of the Rega’s DAC to the Meridian G08’s integrated DAC section, which I know to set a very high standard. The Rega produced a sound entirely consistent with its USB input. It’s a clean, wide bandwidth sound with quite high resolution and a strong sense of pace, but the Meridian’s internal DAC offers a little more in terms of image spaciousness and colour, and somewhat greater dynamic range in the bass. Again this is a strong result entirely consistent with the relative price of the two units, and with the Saturn-R’s place within Rega’s product range.

I also reviewed the Rega DAC back in the spring of 2011, feeding it from the digital output of that same Meridian G08 CD player, and the two Rega components appear remarkably consistent in sound. The Saturn-R performs just like the Rega DAC through its regular digital inputs, but takes a sonic step up through the USB interface which now offers fully asynchronous operation. It also takes a step up in aesthetics, the new casework being slimmer and better proportioned.

I would give a slight edge to the Meridian G08 / Saturn-R combination over the Saturn-R as an integrated player, indicating the excellence of the special error correcting drive mechanism in the Meridian and the ability of the Saturn-R’s DAC to reject any jitter in the digital stream. But these differences are minor and leave us with a very well balanced and wide bandwidth sound, the ability to resolve low level details, excellent pacing and a strong stable image in space.

The Saturn-R is a very neutral sounding animal, neither adding warmth nor veering to the clinical, two common faults. As such it is well suited to a wide variety of music. It may lose out in ultimate levels of detail, image precision, tonality and slam when compared to some considerably more expensive devices but it performs very well and I’ve heard nothing better at the price. Do try this at home.

Sidebar: Musical Selections

This was a chance to pull out of bunch of recordings I hadn’t listed to lately. I selected Bill Frisell’s Have a Little Faith [Electra Nonesuch 9793012], an excellent sounding and very eclectic musical selection, Ali Farka Toure’s Talking Timbuktu [HNCD 1381] and Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool [MFSL 2003]. For classical music I picked the famous André Previn recording of Carmina Burana, recently reissued in much improved sound on HiQ Records [HIQXRCD8], Shostakovich String Quartets [harmonia mundi HMG 508392.93] from the exquisite Jerusalem Quartet, heard last October in superb form at the St Lawrence Centre in Toronto, and Sinopoli’s Gramophone Award winning recording of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino [DG 474903-2]. You may think you’ve never heard that opera, and never will, but if you’ve ever enjoyed The Godfather, here is the inspiration for its famous theme. Toughest of all tests is the piano, so I’ve included a solo album by Thelonius Monk – Thelonius Alone in San Francisco [Real Gone Jazz RGJCD332]. All of these are killer albums in their own way, and deserve to be heard on equipment of this calibre. They offer outstanding sonics applied to phenomenal musicianship.

For digital streaming I selected the Buena Vista Social Club (96kHz/24bit), the superbly recorded Getz / Gilberto album (88kHz/24bit), Freddy Kempff’s recording of Beethoven Piano Sonatas on BIS (88kHz/24bit) and another Patricia Barber album Café Blue (44.1kHz/16bit), albums that need no recommendation from me.

Rega Research
www.rega.co.uk

Distributed in Canada by Plurison
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Rega Research Saturn R CD/DAC Player
Price: $3,299 CAD

ELAC BS 244 Black Edition Bookshelf Speakers

These are small speakers with a big sound. Their size might lead you to think they are imaging champions with a limited maximum output and you’d be half right. Their imaging is near miraculous. If you close your eyes you really can’t tell where they are in the room. But despite their small size, just 33cm high, 20cm wide and 28cms deep, they can easily fill a big room. There’s obviously some pretty impressive technology at work here. Let’s take a look inside the box.

The front baffle gives us the first clue. The tweeter is a Jet III design, common to the majority of the ELAC range. This derives from Dr. Oscar Heil’s Air Motion Transformer, first introduced in 1993. It features a lightweight folded foil membrane driven by a magnet system of neodymium rods which provides high efficiency and strong dynamics. The bass/midrange driver is also unique to ELAC. It’s an 18cm AS-XR cone featuring a crystal membrane. The design is a recent refinement of ELAC’s AS aluminum-paper sandwich cone first introduced in 1993.  More precisely the aluminum foil stamping is faceted like a gemstone rather than smoothly finished as in more conventional designs. This increases the stiffness of the cone, reducing resonances which results in lower colouration and increased dynamic range. The voice coil is attached to the rear paper cone and also to the bottom of the aluminum dome, a technique which ELAC says will increase the transmission range by a full octave. The rubber surround is wider than normal, allowing for a very long throw which provides high maximum sound pressure and smooth production of deep bass.

A quick glance will confirm meticulous attention to detail throughout the design of this speaker. For example, the four high quality binding posts at the back of each speaker are recessed and angled up for ease of access, the cabinet is exquisitely finished with rounded edges to reduce diffraction, and the stands are slim and elegant. They can sit happily on a carpeted floor or on a hard surface, offering both spikes and soft rubber feet in a fully configurable design. Fabric grills are supplied but the tweeters are protected from prying fingers so I left them off for best sound. They are very easy to fit, brass pins sliding into bushings and held in place by magnets.

The regular BS 244 runs $2,400 and comes in white or black high gloss. But the review pair is from the new upscale Black Edition which sells for $2,800. The Black Edition covers more than the cabinet and stand finish. It extends to a black finish for the crystal driver membranes and for the Jet tweeters. At rear the name plate is aluminum instead of just an adhesive label used on the standard edition. More importantly, ELAC has upgraded some parts for better sound. The wiring is now Val den Hul Skyline Hybrid, plus upgraded air cored foil capacitors and resistors in the crossover.

The speakers are pretty fussy about room placement, at least in my room. It took quite some effort to get them to show their full potential. I asked Bruno de Lorimier from Unison Sales Resources for help in stetting them up and he quickly found out why I was not hearing them at their best. Not only did I have them too far from the rear wall, but my demo pair was missing some accessories which would normally be in the box. Most importantly, there were no spikes, so I couldn’t get a strong coupling to the floor in my carpeted room. He also added a fabric dispersion control ring to the tweeters, which were otherwise a bit too lively in my setting, and he experimented with different port control inserts to optimize the bass response. Some speakers are a lot less fussy about setup, but the good thing is that ELAC supplies these multiple physical adjustment options in the box so you can get the best out of them in any room. Your dealer should be able to help you with this process or perhaps do the setup for you.

The BS 244 BE is a fairly sensitive speaker at 88 dB but it has a low impedance of 4 ohms which may be a problem for some amplifiers optimized for an 8 ohm load. ELAC claims a frequency range of 38 to 50,000 Hz, which compares favourably with other small speakers. The similarly sized Totem Ember ($4,200) which I enjoyed so much recently claims a bandwidth of 43 Hz to 25 kHz. Of course the ear cannot hear above 20 kHz so I wouldn’t start worrying just yet.

In case the name ELAC is not familiar to you, I should add that the company is based in Kiel, Germany where all their speakers and drivers are made. The company can trace its history back to 1926 when it began research into sonar technology and the passage of signals and sound through air and water. Loudspeakers became their focus in 1985 and their exclusive domain in 1997. Their six strong development team is led by Rolf Janke.

Once properly set up, I could now focus on the listening. I paired the speakers with a Meridian G08 CD Player, an EMM Labs Pre 2 preamplifier and the powerful KWA 200SE Power Amp from ModWright, linking them all with Nordost Valhalla cables. Bruno positioned the speakers about 8 feet apart and just under a foot from the rear wall, well away from corners. He inserted a hollow foam ring into the rear port as well as the tweeter dispersion ring for best sound. Several characteristics were immediately obvious. First the tweeter is indeed exceptionally smooth and extended, with an enormous capacity for peak loads. Your amplifier will give up before the speakers will. Second the speaker has been designed to be as uncoloured and neutral as possible. Thirdly it throws a really big image, which together with its considerable bass extension makes you think you are listening to a much bigger speaker.

Advertisement: Shop for ELAC loudspeakers at the CANADA HiFi Shop (novo.press/shop).

Nordost

The Nordost room is a reviewer’s delight – the one room where you get controlled experiments. This year I heard a comparison between two identical sets of speakers, one with the manufacturer’s spiked feet, the other with the Nordost Sort F?t. And a second where a single Valhalla power cable was replaced by a Valhalla 2. Now these may not be perfect scientific tests but they are certainly indicative of some remarkably effective technology, and I hope to conduct further testing later to see how things work out in my own home. Maybe you should do that too. Nordost used a very good but not high-end setup as the background to their tests, based on a SimAudio Moon CD Player and Integrated amplifier, complete with various Sort Kones, QRT power purifiers and Valhalla 2 cabling, the upgrade of the famous and highly regarded Valhalla cable.

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In the first experiment, we were testing the new Sort F?t which does for loudspeakers what the Sort Kones do for amps and CD players.

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Here you can see the two modestly priced Dynaudio Excite speakers, identical but for the feet (the Sort F?t on the right).

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To these ears, the modified speakers were clearer and more relaxed. They make the footers in three sizes to fit differently threaded speakers, and they sell them in packs of four (with a level) or individually. I’ve used the Valhalla cables as my reference for many years and they were the top cables in the line until the introduction of the extraordinary and ultra expensive Odin cables. The new Valhalla 2 lies between Valhalla and Odin in price and performance. Crucial to the new design are the unique HOLO:PLUG terminations. I am told the most price effective gains come in the power cables. I wish more manufacturers would take the approach that Nordost has in demonstrating the effects of their upgrades.

The Gramophone

This was one of the best sounding rooms, and this was my first time listening to the Marten Design Django XL speakers with their ceramic drivers and adjustable bass ($15950) in the company of Bryan Taylor.

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The Gramophone is an Edmonton based retailer, in business for 25 years, and also for the last 6 years, a high end distributor. Their brands include ATC loudspeakers from England, Marten Design speakers, AVID turntables, AMG turntables and Audiodesk from Germany. Audiodesk make the very successful Vinyl Cleaner which ultrasonically cleans and dries both sides of an LP automatically ($3800) and also a precise CD lathe. They are also the largest classical and jazz retailer in Alberta and stock a large collection of headphones, including STAX. The AMG Viella 12 turntable and 12” tonearm ($17500) is top rated in Germany’s Stereoplay magazine and offers superb build quality. The platter is made form aircraft aluminum.

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The cartridge this time was the Benz Micro SLR ($3000). Among the headphone amps this is the Fosgate Signature tube amp with switchable bass boost circuitry and Panorama control ($1600) brought in by Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings California.

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Coup de Foudre

In this room I heard the Avalon Compás speakers ($35000US) driven by a Spectral DMC-15SS Studio Preamplifier and DMA 200S Series 2 High Resolution Amplifier.

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The sound quality here was simply exceptional by show standards. There are many, many stories to hear about Spectral and its resident guru and perfectionist Keith Johnson, so if you are in Montreal, pop in to Coup de Foudre and listen to the stories and the components. I promise your eyes will be opened and maybe your wallet too.

Linar Audio

Gilles Dupuis showed me the elegant new Linar Audio P107 dual mono Preamp ($8500) and A120 Monobloc Power Amp ($8000 each) driven by an Esoteric SACD Player.

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Linar was founded in 1993 by Victor Simard after selling SimAudio. His circuits use JFET devices at the input and MosFET devices at the output to create a tube sound using solid state components. Gilles purchased Linar in 2009 – “I liked the sound so I bought the company” he joked. Linar’s A120 monobloc offers 200 watts of class A true balanced sound in a relatively compact chassis using very efficient heat sinks. There is also the A105 dual mono 50 wpc stereo amp ($8000), using no feedback, displaying its massive power supply and multiple capacitors so that there is power instantly available for each power transistor.

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Circuits are beautifully laid out. Linar Audio is based in Ottawa. Feeding Focal Scala loudspeakers, these Linar components produced a warm, vibrant and three dimensional sound. Sales are moving well in Quebec and now Gilles hopes to replicate this success in Ontario.

MA Recordings

Among the specialist labels, none can beat the recording quality achieved by Todd Garfinkle of MA recordings with his unique microphones and authentic recording venues. He is happy to offer you recordings in a variety of formats including CD, CDR, SACD and hirez DVD ROM. Take your pick here with Será una Noche. As you can see, he is now turning his hand to LP releases from his best recordings.

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VK Music

Something for the do it yourself crowd. Vancouver’s VK Music’s Victor Kung imports a wide variety of amps and drives from Japan for all skill levels, including some made specifically for children to build. Here’s the TU-8100 PCL 86 Vacuum Tube Amplifier kit, which retails for a modest $345.

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Going upscale we have the elegant Hybrid Tube amp Elekit 22 which can be yours for $795. Designed by Koichi Futatsumata it offers 12wpc, it has two input sections, one designed to match well with the headphone output of various portable devices. The tubes shut down automatically after 10 minutes without signal and come alive again when a signal returns.

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And here’s the Elekit TU-8200 at $725.

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If you’re looking for a kit portable battery powered vacuum tube headphone amp try the hybrid TU-HP01 at $245.

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Follow the instructions and Victor is sure you’ll be fine. You need a soldering iron and a multi-meter. If you get into trouble – Victor will help.

V-MODA

V-MODA headphones are selling like hot cakes I’m told. Here’s me sporting the top of the line Crossfade M-100 ($300) which sounded pretty good driven directly from my iPhone and was pretty comfortable too. It is the number one selling headphone in the $300 range.

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It’s made of military grade steel so it’s virtually unbreakable. The plug-in cables are made of Kevlar and tested up to 1.2 million bends – standard in the industry is 60,000 bends before deterioration. It folds up pretty neatly and travels in the case which is included. The company has been around for 10 years but this year is the breakout year for V-moda. Karl Detken showed me three models in all, good/better/best. Good is the LP ($200) and Better is the LP2 ($225). Best is the M-100. They all have the same closed-back ergonomic design, with just the sound drivers being different.

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They also make an audiophile universal DAC/headphone amp/battery pack ($598) – the Vamp Verza which you can also wrap onto your smartphone. Made in Japan, designed in Italy, it can directly access the digital output of an iPhone 5/5S or Galaxy S3 device with the supplied Lightning and micro/usb connector cables, and fits within the optional Metallo case ($101 – custom made for those with an iPhone 5/5S or a Galaxy S3) if you don’t want to use a rubber band.

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VMAX

The new Hegel H80 75wpc integrated amp replaces the H70 model. It has 5 digital inputs, and three analog inputs include one balanced input.

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It has trickle down technology from their higher-end separates. Fed by a Hisound Audio Studio V MP3 player and driving a HiFiMan HE6 headphone through the speaker output.

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This is about the toughest headphone load you can get, and the combination was very rewarding. The Norwegian made Hegel retails around the $2000 mark. VMAX is also showing a new version of the Korean made Stelllo HP100 headphone amp/preamp/DAC with USB input. It is one of the few headphone amps that can drive the HE6 and it sells for $1295.

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The Headphone Shop

While walking one day around Yonge and Lawrence in Toronto I discovered the Headphone Shop, and I was happy to see their booth at the show, chock full of headphones, headphone amps and accessories.

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This is certainly a booming part of the market and one in which I take a key interest. Charles Park gave me a guided tour. The highlight is the excellent Astell & Kern AK120 hirez portable digital audio player with DSD decoding, 64 GB memory and dual DACs. It will drive a wide range of headphones including high impedance models and sells for $1349.

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Next to it (on the left) is the Fiio X3 from China. It has a Wolfson 8740 DAC and sells for a remarkable $199.95. I found its user interface less sophisticated than the AK 120. The single DAC, 32GB Astell & Kern AK100 with a less sophisticated output section sells for $769. There are a number of new canal headphones on show from Westone – the water resistant Adventure Series and the UM series with 1, 2 and 3 drivers compatible with the iPhone. You have to visit this store if you are considering phones.

Liberty Trading

In the large Liberty Trading room – the Palm Court – there’s a galaxy of CDs, SACDs and LPs plus a number of equipment manufacturers. Gutwire Audio Cables’ Herbert Wong was on hand to introduce his new high end USBe-1 USB cable -$299 for a 1.2m length, with up to 5m available. One big difference from the rest of the market is that they make their own plugs rather than buying off the shelf. The shell is made of beryllium copper and the pin itself is made of gold-plated 4N copper. All the termination is done through crimping – no soldering allowed, while the insulation is pure Teflon.

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Bill Akhrass introduced me to Burson Audio and April Music components. Australia’s Burson is making a big noise in headphone amps, with models running from $1000 and up. Shown here are two of the new Timekeeper power amps. You can use one as an 80wpc stereo power amp or you can use them as a pair of 200w monoblocs ($4500/pr).

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Sitting above the amps is the Conductor headphone amp/preamp/DAC featuring fully discrete Class A circuitry and ESS SABRE32 DAC with an asynchronous USB input capable of 192kHz/32 bit processing. Korea’s April Music is tackling slightly less well healed buyers with components running up to the $1000 mark. Their new headphone amp and power amp were so new Bill had not yet had a chance to unbox them when I interviewed him on Friday. Also not showing is a new USB DAC from Quad which should be arriving just in time for Christmas.

Audioscape

Phil Medford showed me around the Audioscape room. He introduced me to the new Prima Luna Dialogue Premium integrated amp ($3799) which was making lovely noises hooked up to the Prima Luna Prologue Premium tube CD player ($4369). This Prima Luna amp features the latest iteration of adaptive autobias and also a bad tube indicator. It is hand made with point to point wiring and unusually it offers a dedicated mono subwoofer output and stereo home theatre pass through. The CD player uses Burr Brown upsampling DAC chips and superclocks for jitter reduction. You can feed in a digital signal through its high-rez USB input. On the top shelf you can see the Nottingham Space 294 ($3979).

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A range of Dual turntables was on display – here we see the CS460M automatic belt drive model complete with Ortofon OM8 MM cartridge ($899).

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The company went out of business but management bought them back, and the turntables are still produced in the same factory in the Black Forest of Germany.

Perhaps the most impressive component on display here is the Usher S-520 monitor ($529) – a tiny bookshelf speaker with a big sound. Remarkable value. By doubling them up, with the upper speaker inverted as shown here an astonishingly rich and vibrant sound surprised all comers.

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Worth checking out. Usher introduced a new series of speakers including the N6300 bookshelf ($1999). The 1” domed tweeter protrudes slightly from the top of the box. The 7” mid-bass driver combines with the tweeter for a response from 36Hz to 28kHz (-3dB) in a cabinet designed to minimize internal standing waves.

Usher N-6300

The floorstanding N6311 and N6361 ($3500) speakers complete the range.

Audio Note (UK)

No new components this year but that’s no reason not to spend time in Audio Note’s room with David Cope.

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The sound is always so direct and lively, based on low powered amps and high efficiency speakers. On display this year was a relatively modest system for Audio Note. The speakers are positioned, as Audio Note models are meant to be, right in the corners of the room for best effect. ISIS speaker cables are appearing at TAVES for the first time. These are the new top of the line copper speaker cables. Also appearing are the new ISIS copper power cables which allow the components to do very interesting things according to David, allowing a system to sound much more open and freer, with dramatically greater impact in the bottom end. We listened to the CDT Two/II CD transport ($7400), the DAC 3.1x balanced D/A converter ($10000), the M2 Line Preamp ($3900) and Conqueror Silver Stereo 300B Power amp ($6900) driving a pair of AN-E/SPe HE speakers ($9300) offering a remarkable 98dB efficiency.

TAVES 2013

In spending 11 hours at the show I could only take in about half of the rooms in any detail, and just a small sampling of the available seminars, while I really had no time to peruse the many LPs, CDs and HiRez software on display. You could spend a whole weekend here. I commend all the exhibitors for the efforts they put in to display interesting gear and answer questions from attendees with great patience. Extra thanks to those who left out candies and especially those who played music that could act as a good test of their equipment and still be enjoyable. The trend towards streaming and the strong interest in headphone sound is obvious and welcome. Digital is sounding less digital every year, and LPs are not going away any time soon. Best of all there were large numbers of attendees, and that’s a great sign for the industry. If only we could further improve the ratio of females to males in the halls of TAVES (I know that the show organizers are working on this) and in this hobby in general!  To read about the TV and home theatre demonstrations at TAVES 2013, please check out George de Sa’s TAVES 2013 article by clicking here.

There was something for everyone at TAVES 2013 – whether you wanted to to see the new 4K Ultra HD TVs or you were looking to buy your kid a kit amplifier. Here are some of the interesting audio exhibitors that I came across.  To read about the TV and home theatre demonstrations at TAVES 2013, please check out George de Sa’s TAVES 2013 article by clicking here.

Let’s start with the extensive series of seminars at this year’s show.  There were 11 different topics on offer at TAVES 2013:

  • The Home Theatre of the Future… Today
  • Cutting Edge TV Technologies – 4K Ultra HD and OLED
  • Speaker Setup and Optimization
  • The Future of HiFi
  • Recording Classical Music – Healey Willan’s “The Reproaches”
  • Assembling a System under $10k and Improving the Sound of Existing Systems
  • High End Audio: From Production to Playback
  • DSD DACs and High End Computer Audio
  • Advanced Turntable Setup
  • Nordost Introduces Visitors to 2 New Product Lines
  • Acoustic Treatment Which Pleases the Ears as Well as the Eyes
  • IMAX History and IMAX Private Theatre

Some were purely informational – others were trying to sell you something. You can tell which is which from the title and from the name of the sponsor. The seminar list expands every year and kudos to the TAVES team for such an impressive lineup. Keep it up.

The ones I attended are in bold. Here’s a picture from the DSD DAC seminar presented by George Klissarov of exaSound.

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George explained how exaSound came up with the world’s first DSD 256/12.28 MHz DAC and the world’s first Multichannel DSD DAC, although I think EMM Labs might also have a claim to that title with their professional DAC8 design. Very interesting products in any event.

Divergent Technologies

I’m used to sloping front panels on the Reference 3A speakers I’ve spent time with (Grand Veena, Episode, MM De Capo), so the rather more boxy Nefes BE ($9450) took me by surprise. Tosh Goka showed me his new design of the full bandwidth speaker.

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As usual the main drivers are connected directly to the amplifier, with a very simple high pass filter only for the new beryllium dome tweeter. The two main 8” drivers are similar to those used in the MM de Capo and the Episode, but have been adjusted to match the new application. In common with some other Reference 3A models, Surreal Acoustic Lenses are used to diffuse driver cone turbulence while Magnetic Wave guides purify the incoming signal. These are big speakers, 120 lbs each and 52” in height. At the rear is a large diameter flared port. Cabinet walls are of different thickness all around to minimize resonance. The tweeter is recessed for time alignment with a cabinet profile engineered to avoid both the horn effect and side reflections.

Copland has a brand new 50wpc integrated stereo power amp, the CTA 405A ($5990) using the same KT120 power output tubes they pioneered in the 90wpc stereo power amp CTA 506 ($6500).

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Compared to its KT88 based predecessor, the CTA 405, the new integrated amp offers the same power but twice the current drive. It will be able to control a much wider range of speakers. Copland can upgrade the CTA 405 integrated amp to the new specifications. This amp looks gorgeous and since it is closely related to the CTA 506 which I have reviewed, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a winner.

Legacy Audio

Brian Herchenrader is quite a big guy (6’2”), so that will give you an idea of the size of this Legacy Audio Aeris speaker.

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It’s a 4.5 way design using the Legacy Dual Air Motion tweeter system (1” AMT super tweeter plus 4” AMT tweeter), an open air dipole midrange, dual active subwoofers driven by a 1000 watt ICE amp with room correction. Through windows at the side and rear, you can see all the amplification and crossover electronics inside the cabinet, which just adds to the fun.

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The midrange is an 8” titanium encrusted design with an enormous Italian motor structure. There is a 10″ bass driver in addition to the two active subwoofers, so you can take it for granted this speaker has simply prodigious output capabilities. Each speaker weights 171 lbs and stands 58 inches above the 1” base. The Aeris starts at $17750, and the Black Pearl finish model on show runs $18850.

Tri-cell Enterprises

I caught Vince Scalzitti in the middle of his lunch (a quick sandwich). He is very excited about the new Zesto BIA 120 amplifier ($12000), made in California.

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Zesto’s president and chief designer George Counnas was on hand to introduce the new amp. It’s a 60wpc Pure Class A, push pull Ultralinear design with Auto-Bias. It uses KT88 tubes, but is also compatible with the new KT120 high output tube. There is no negative feedback. Here’s a stack of 3 Zesto components (Andros PS1 Phonostage ($4300), Leto Preamplifier ($7500), BIA 120), showing off their sensual design and high levels of fit and finish, topped by the Air Force One turntable.

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The Japanese TechDAS Air Force One turntable ($83000 with Graham Phantom Elite arm) sports two outboard boxes to power the air suspension and air bearings supporting the 30kg platter and to generate a vacuum to pull down the LP onto the platter.

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Joseph Audio Pulsar speakers on the end of this stack sounded great with a vintage Cat Stevens pressing.

Louis Desjardins was on hand to demonstrate his high end KRONOS turntable with counter rotating platters. $32,000 for the turntable and $8500 for the arm.

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Louis builds the Kronos near the Atwater Market in Montreal. You have to admire the spectacular looking Acapella speaker with its glowing ION tweeter  in this room, making lovely sounds with the Aesthetix Atlas Power amp and the Accustic Arts Preamp.

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For my ears, the best sounding Tri-cell room featured the Joseph Audio Pearl 3 ($31500) with the proud father Jeff Joseph standing by.

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This new version introduces a new optimization of the Joseph Infinite Slope Filter. Jeff was able to reconcile two aspects of sound that are usually at odds with one another – the sense of clarity, presence, detail and snap together with warmth, body and richness. Only the crossovers have changed, and older models can be upgraded to the Mk 3 level, the cost being dependent on the age of the speakers. The Pearl 3 is available in a wide range of finishes including a new Pure White. The Brinkmann Bardo direct drive turntable with their own tonearm and a Benz Glider cartridge sits atop an Aesthetix Romulus CD Player, the new Thoress Phono Enhancer ($9000) which supports a huge range of phono equalization curves, and an Acoustic Arts 135wpc integrated amp. Cabling is Cardas Clear beyond. Jeff also uses Cardas wire inside his speakers. Part of the reason for the fine sound may be attributed to the excellent vintage Elvis recording just visible to the left of the amplifier.

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The best feature of the sound was being able to enjoy fine sound in almost any position in the room, a refreshing change.

Vince has just taken on distribution for the excellent range of headphone amps and other related products from New York’s Woo Audio. Take a look at the new WA7 Fireflies . It’s a tube headphone amp with USB DAC, all for around $1150. There’s a lot of competition in this exploding field, but clearly this is something special, and I’d like to get my hands on it for review.

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Jack Woo was on hand to demo this (yes I brought my own phones) and the cute WTP-1 CD Transport / WDS-1 DAC combo ($1380 each) which can also be stacked.

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Plurison

NAIM has updated three integrated amps for this year’s show. The 60wpc NAIT 5si ($1795) features an improved power supply, a passive preamp section and a new headphone output.

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Expect a significant boost in performance over earlier models. The 70wpc NAIT XS2 ($3195) has an active preamp section which means you can update it with a FlatCap, HiCap or SuperCap power supply. It borrows its Class A headphone output from the SUPERNAIT 2.

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Then we move up the line to the new 80wpc SUPERNAIT 2 ($5895) NAIM has removed the DAC and upgraded the power supply with NAIM DR (discrete regulator) technology to comply with new European standards and lower noise.

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Devialet amps have made a very big impression in previous shows, as much for their physical design as their advanced digital electronics, but have not had much impact on the market due to their high prices. Now with two less powerful (and less expensive) models available, all this may change. At the top of the range is still the 240 model (240wpc) at $17495, with the 170 (170wpc)  at $9495 and 110 (110wpc) at $6495 offering most of the features of the top model including streaming, 2 optical and 2 coax inputs, RS232 in/out, Trigger in/out and the remarkable Devialet RF remote control.

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To achieve the very best performance you can use a combination of two 240s as monoblocs – 500wpc and $35000. All the 170 lacks is the ability to daisy chain up to 8 units together, while the entry level 110 also forgoes the line and advanced phono stage (MM input is available), a balanced input , digital out and subwoofer out.

The Devialet 170 made very enjoyable, relaxed sounds through the well priced new Focal Aria 926 speakers ($2995).

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Attendees could examine the construction of the unit’s Flax woofer cones which incorporate Focal’s “F” sandwich technology, which involves a 0.4mm layer of well damped linen fibres between two 0.04mm layers of glass fibre as well as the well known concave tweeter. Linen is both very rigid and very light, since the fibres are hollow.

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Focal is one of the few manufacturers who make everything in-house, including their own drivers. The same driver types can be seen in the 2-way bookshelf Aria 906 ($1500).

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Other models in the all new Aria 900 range include the bigger 936 ($4200) and the 948 with two 8” woofers ($5200), a centre channel and an upcoming subwoofer.

Focal also introduced the new EASYA wireless speaker system ($2799). Each tower speaker has a 1” tweeter, two 5¼” woofers and an 85 watt amplifier while the Kleer (full CD bandwidth) based transmitter Hub has apt Bluetooth wireless streaming and multiple inputs: USB, Toslink, coax digital, 3.5mm analog and RCA analog. They sounded pretty good to me for wireless speakers. They are available in black and white.

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Also showing in the Plurison rooms – the new skeletal Rega RP8 turntable ($3195) and the spectacular looking Pathos Acoustics integrated amp with its four red capacitors,

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the Pathos Converto DAC, and the Pathos Aurium tubed headphone amp. The Pathos designers should take a sabbatical so other designers have a chance to catch up!

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 Wynn Audio

It was a pleasure to meet Wynn Wong from Wynn Audio, a distributor that brought an interesting mix of high end components to the Canadian market. One name I know well is Japan’s Combak / Reimyo / Harmonix. This picture gives you a sample of what Wynn brings to the table. In the centre stack you will find a Reimyo CDT-777 CD Player ($12500), Reimyo CAT-777 MK II Vacuum Tube Control Amplifier, the new upsampling Reimyo DAP-999EX DAC ($12000) and Reimyo ALS-777 Power Stabilizer.

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The Combak Bravo SE bookshelf speaker ($8500), shown here on a Dinosaur stand, is a dual concentric design capable of the highest possible level of imaging.

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Reimyo’s KAP-777 puts out 200wpc and weighs a cool 33kg.

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I guess there was some biamping involved here because I count two of them. All cabling is from Harmonix, including their new sweeter, warmer and more dynamic power cord, which runs around $1500 for a 1.5 metre length. If you have to ask the price of this system, you can’t afford it.   Even more esoteric is this SW 4 driver carbon fibre speaker showed inside this room from Sweden ($85000). Wow!

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Muraudio

I’m always happy to greet a new Canadian manufacturer, particularly one as ambitious and innovative as this. Many people know that you can’t beat the purity of an electrostatic speaker, such as a Quad or Martin Logan. But there are two things holding them back. One is the bass response. To get a true full range electrostatic speaker you need very large panels indeed, so most manufacturers must try to pair dynamic woofers with electrostatic panels for the upper octaves. It’s very hard to find dynamic drivers that can keep up with the speed of an electrostatic panel. The second, even more severe problem is the narrow dispersion pattern of an electrostatic panel. Sure you can curve the panel to some extent, but until now, pretty much all electrostatic speakers have been very directional with a relatively narrow sweet spot. Until now! Ottawa’s Muraudio is introducing an electrostatic speaker with a 360 degree dispersion pattern called the Domain, the world’s first omni-directional electrostatic speaker. It has been in development for about 12 years. From my brief listening experience, I would say they have nailed it, albeit at a very high price ($48000). In this picture you can only see one side of the speaker, but imagine that it has three sides to its dynamic aluminum woofer base and an almost continuously circular upper electrostatic panel array. The 3 in-house designed bass drivers are mounted in a triangular pattern so their vibrations cancel each other out, and carry 10kg of magnetic structure to drive their aluminum cones.

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The panels are curved in two directions, unlike conventional or curvilinear panels. They call this a Panoramic Point Source and you can see it better in the poster here.

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There are 55,000 holes in the panels and part of their success is in the high level of finishing to each hole which allows them to use at least double than normal panel voltage, which means significantly higher power handling. Both drivers are powered by internal active Hypex amplification modules (Class D) crossed over at 450 Hz. A variety of custom finishes are available including Ferrari Red and Piano Black. Height is 57” and each speaker weighs 64 kg. How well they have matched the dynamic drivers to the electrostatic panels will require extensive listening. I’m looking forward to that, given the chance.

To read TAVES 2013 Report by Phil Gold (Part 2) – please click here.