And, here is what I learned...
While nowhere near as exciting as a crowded floor, this format does give each stereo system its own private, though usually small, room. On the fifth floor were a few large suites. Instead of the $2000 fee for the typical small square hotel room, these long rectangles – equal to two or three rooms – cost the exhibitors $5000 for the right to show off their systems all weekend. In general, the larger rooms had more impressive sound. Many of the rooms did not have bass traps. A few left the hotel mattresses up against the wall. None of the systems in the show used equalization to flatten frequency peaks. In general, none of the display systems sounded horrible. Most gave a pretty good first impression. If I were shopping for a new audio system, it would be very hard to propose a marriage just on this first date.
As a touch of class, and for a valuable, on-the-spot comparison to the real instrument there were live piano and violin performances. You never really get a second chance at a first impression. A few suites on the first floor and those on the fifth gave incredible first impressions. These were the really expensive audio systems. Here are some of my favorites...
Audio Loudspeakers & Atma-sphere Amplifiers
CAL used Karsten's famous Output TransformerLess (OTL) amplifiers to power their big ole horns. With their banks of tubes, his M-60 amplifiers were visually impressive and acoustically quick. The CAL display horns had wood mid-range horns of stained Popular in stark contrast to the Zebrawood pattern of the cabinet. An upgraded version of the James B. Lansing Hartsfield loudspeaker, the T-1.3 Reference weighs 450 pounds each! Four feet high, the 1.3 has a 15” low bass woofer, 15” mid-bass woofer, 2” throat, and 4” Beryllium midrange comprehension driver in a wood Tractrix horn exclusively designed by Dr. Bruce Edgar. The dog statute was for sale, the parrot apparently not. The statutes have no obvious effect on sound. They were present mostly for attitude adjustment.
This was one of my favorite rooms. First impressions were that the big ole horns had none of the mid-bass bloat of so many other systems at the show. They were incredibly clear, clean, with natural sounding vocals. Cymbals and bells really ring on horns, and these big babies were no exception. The deep bass sounded accurate but lean compared to some of the other, more conventional loudspeaker designs. It was certainly there. I could hear, just didn't feel the thrum like a few other top-of-the-line displays did.
It is hard to get everything everybody wants in one system and the YG/Krell combination is no exception. This system did not make every disc sound great. A Rush CD sounded hard and thin. Instead of sparkling cymbals and bells, the YG system subdued treble effects. I heard the high-end, but it did not project out in the room and resound like the real thing. At least not as I might wish for from such an incredibly well made and expensive system. It could be me. I am such a horny guy, but to me, this otherwise flawless system still had the hard mid and high end edge of solid-state amplifiers with cone speakers. A few of the systems downstairs had these cool (okay, they run really hot) plasma tweeters. I think a system as expensive as the YG speakers might consider something like plasma to heat up their high-end.
But that is just me, and it could be have been the room. The poor exhibitors really did need a truck full of RealTrap room treatment (as reviewed here) to take the hard concrete edge off the hotel rooms. Otherwise, after Dick Diamond tweaked them, YG's soundstage, imaging and detail were superb. These are nits by the way – anybody winning any of the high-end systems at the AXPONA show would never give them up.
Timo Engstrom came in from Sweden to answer questions about his stunning $90,000 pair of THE LARS tube amplifiers sitting on large Critical Mass System platforms. He is the Founder and Industrial Designer of the amplifiers and is responsible for all esthetics. Design and construction by his uncle, Lars Engström, cofounder of the company and the reason why the amplifiers sound so amazing. The two-foot tall Engstrom & Engstrom amplifiers use forearm size 300B XLS tubes and are wrapped in four sheets of clear Plexiglass. Power is a very solid sounding 36-watts at 1% distortion. This is all you need for 93dB/W/m efficient arrays. In his review, Art Dudley called these some of the best amplifiers he ever heard! They certainly looked gorgeous and Timo is a true European gentleman.
Alan Eichenbaum of Scaena picked out music for the dCs front end. The digital system was dCS' $70,000 Scarlatti system with up-sampler, SACD/CD transport, master clock and DAC. The black digital playback units were housed in an unbudgeably solid stack of Critical Mass System's black Platinum racks and stands. The racks do not float the equipment. At $3,300 per level, the racks directly couple equipment to the room. They drain vibration away by providing a high-speed ground. Jeffrey Smith held fifteen thousand dollars of shimmering gold and white Silversmith Palladium connections up from the carpet with…plastic cups. I came back to a few of the top-of-the-line systems (Acappella, CAL, YG and Scaena) again and again over the weekend. Then on Sunday afternoon, I spent hours after the show spinning reference disc after disc in the Scaena system.
No, the Scaena system did not have the wide-open spacious soundstage and incredible clarity of the CAL horns; bells and horns aren't as impressive as the big ole horns render them. On Dire Straits' 1985 mega-hit, Brothers in Arms (Warner), for example, I wish the Scaena system had more bite, faster attack perhaps with the guitar riffs. No, the Scaena system did not have the awesomely tight middle bass of the YG blocks either. But disc after disc always sounded good on this system. None of them had the brittleness that mars digital playback. Multiple details stood out easily. I did not feel the system relegated sonic effects, like tinkling treble notes, to the side. The Scaena with THE LARS amplifiers seemed to have enough drivers and power to reproduce everything almost as faithfully as anybody could want. Despite subwoofer barrels and tube traps taking up the front quarter of the room, the striking good looks of the Scaena seemed to be a hit with the few ladies in attendance.