In the life of an audio reviewer, there is
always the search for the perfect sound. Perfect? Never possible, of course, but every once in a while, there is a little surprise waiting for you. In a show, which has any number of harsh sounding home theater rooms, starting out on Saturday with a high level stereo demonstration was a treat. I know, vinyl would have been too much to ask for. But tubes in a single-ended amplifier, a simple, excellent CD player and a pair of excellent speakers made the morning sing. The $2,500
Audion Sterling Extended Triode Single-Ended (ETSE) integrated amplifier is a 12-watt, EL34 amplifier, which took the output of a John Shearne Phase 7 CD player ($2,895) via the Shearne Phase Alpha interconnect ($695).
Results? It created resolved, deeply involving music when it played through a pair of
Jean-Marie Reynaud Evolution 3 loudspeakers ($3,495). The Shearne, like the Audion, hews to a philosophy of simplicity in design and quality component. The Jean-Marie Reynaud speakers use a tuned triangular transmission line and 1.1-inch thick front panel of dense medite material. They are handsome speakers, finished in strips of solid beech, an inch thick bonded to the inner cabinet with viscous elastomer resin, a material which never dries completely, so that it damps vibrations from the cabinet, reducing resonance and making interior damping material almost completely unnecessary. Although the speaker claims
a sensitivity of 86 dB/w/m at 4 ohms, the 12 watts of the Audion obviously had no difficulty in mobilizing the woofer and tweeter into musical wonderland. Bass was strong, but very smooth. Its high frequency extension was also very smooth, with lots of detail to make instruments such as brushed cymbals surrender enough sizzle to make a hi-fi nut happy.
Clliffhanger Bulldogs ($3,800) are demanding speakers; their 83 dB/w/m
sensitivity rating needs a little kick to achieve liftoff. But when they get that kick, they make for some serious listening. At this point, the electron-happy Jolida JD 1000A integrated amp steps forward with its 100 watts of tube power to bring the Bulldogs to life and do they ever! For $1699, this amplifier moves more electrons per dollar than most of the rest of the market. To put some shape into those electrons, this system used the laughably inexpensive $550 Jolida JD 603 CD player. High-end sound at real world prices makes this an outstanding system.
Vandersteen's 2Ce two-way, three-driver speakers provided a good listen for $1,850. The vigor which made the satisfying sound came from the $2,000 McCormack DNA 125 amplifier and its mate the $1,600 RLD1
pre-amplifier. This room used a GamuT CD1 CD player and QED Silver Series cables and interconnects. The real world result was hearing the string section's fluidity in Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music's playing of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The result was hearing the growl of the bass viols supporting the higher strings as Mozart's masterpiece played out.
Why do the French and the British excel at high-end audio? No answer? It does not really matter, because, as we discover in Montreal, there is no point to the question. The only answer is another two questions: "Who cares? Could you turn up the volume a little please?" And then just keep on listening. These thoughts were rearing their ugly little heads as we entered the
Atoll and PEL room. Atoll is more than something from a World War II Pacific theater movie. It is a French company, which manufactures a reasonably priced, set of high-end electronics. The CD100 CD player retails for about $1,000. The PR 200 pre-amplifier defines some kind of price-quality matrix at approximately $700 and the 100 watts of the AM 100 amplifier does the same at $800, What is more, the PE Leon Classic speakers, selling for $1,700, match the Atoll challenge. At $1,700, these speakers are fun to listen and rewarding when you sit down to consider them carefully.
After suffering through some rather horrible home theater demonstrations on Friday (and we mean brutal), we showed up at the
Rega room hoping for some peace and quiet. Ian White, who seemed to know more about the products on display than what was printed in the brochure, suddenly turned pale and almost collapsed when a rather portly gentleman moved away from the equipment rack and gave him an opportunity to sample the goods. "Oh my G-d!" he exclaimed. "A real working turntable!" Even standing up, the two of us realized that something really special was going on in this room. We were too excited to listen to the super-helpful Rega representative, so we planted our behinds in the two chairs and concentrated on the music.
"Best sound so far," whispered Ian after about thirty seconds.
I must confess that my slightly tense colleague was not too far off and dead on if one considers that the overall price of the system wasn't even close to some cables in the
Nordost room. Ian and I both picked the representative's brain for more than thirty minutes and we hopefully secured some of this fabulous gear for review in the near future.
Listen to this. First of all, the functioning turntable - a Rega 25 table and RB600 tone arm ($1,200) used a Rega Super Elys cartridge ($325) to decode the squiggles in the vinyl. Then, the signal traveled to a Corsa pre-amplifier ($900). For another $900, the 85-watt Rega Mai amplifier prepares the squiggly electrons for the Rega Naos two-way speakers ($1,800). The sound? The best we had heard to this point. Superbly detailed, responsive at all parts of the sound spectrum, life-like piano and voice - everything for which one could ask. White turns to me and says, "I could live with this system."
Okay, before I let Neil make fun of me anymore, let me just state for the record that this sub-$10,000 system (if one includes the superb Jupiter 2000 or Planet 2000 CD players) was a monumental achievement for the dinero and not some case of self-loathing by a reviewer with $8,000 worth of single-ended heaven at home and some lovely Spendor SP2/3s. With the introduction of the Naos, Rega has legitimately joined Naim and Linn as a supplier of a complete and synergistic high-end system. We bow in awe of the man they call "Gandy".
The next room showed off the Rogue Audio tube amplifier system. The improvement in the Rogue gear from the 1998 Toronto Show was very obvious to Roy Gandy's new best friend. Now, you can buy the Rogue 66 tube pre-amplifier for $745 and the Rogue M-120 tube monoblocks for $2,800 with matched quads of KT88 output tubes. An
Audio Analogue Paganini CD player and a pair of Spendor FL9 loudspeakers rounded out this very warm and liquid sounding system. The FL9 ($4,800) had all of the traditional Spendor qualities; warmth, midrange detail, and resolution. We were both very impressed by the smooth tonal balance that also included some kick in the bass, something that has never been a trademark of Spendor loudspeakers.
Part of the success of this system was in the Wireworld interconnects and cabling used. Connecting the CD player to the mains was the Aurora power cable ($230) and powering the pre-amp and monoblocks was the Stratus cables, two meters of which cost $70. From the Paganini to the pre-amplifier was the Equinox interconnect for $210 and to the monoblocks as well. The Equinox speaker cables tri-wired the monoblocks to the Spendors by using a shotgun cable for two of the sets of terminals and a single cable for the third set. The total tri-wiring cost is $1,270.
Then everything fell apart. We heard a set of speakers which left us dumfounded. Everything else shrank into relative insignificance. Unlike Ian, who has owned numerous pairs of electrostats, the experience was a new one for me.
Quad has returned to the high-end (ahh…where did they go Neil?) with a vengeance with the release of the 989 electrostats ($12,000 CDN). Not only were they lifelike, detailed, transparent, tonally accurate, but they actually had bass. Real potent bass. After handing his copy of some obscure Garcia/Grisman CD to the Quad rep, Ian and I settled into our seats and prepared to be dazzled. After the shock faded, we both thoroughly enjoyed what was clearly a monumental reproduction of the guitar and the best speaker so far at the show. The Walker family should be very proud of their contribution to the art of music reproduction, because the 989 take all of 57's strengths, loses all of the 63's weaknesses, and improves on the overall sound in a significant way. A pair of new Quad monoblocks and a Conrad Johnson digital front-end played their respective roles superbly.
The Wilson-Benesch Discovery loudspeaker was on static display. This is an innovative speaker with a cabinet made of carbon fiber, selling for $8,500. It contains three drivers: a tweeter, a midrange and an iso-baric tactic woofer.
Both the Oskar Heil Aulos and Kitara loudspeakers were on silent display. Both of these speakers use the Heil midrange and tweeter consisting of an air motion transformer and looking a little like an egg-slicer. Fans of this system swear by this innovative approach to fast speaker response. A little bird at the show told us that a full-range Heil driver might be making an appearance sometime later in the year and that music lovers looking for an alternative to large horns should be hanging out with us in the trees.
Speaking of weird, making an appearance in prototype form in Montreal was a new OTL amplifier from maniacal genius
David Berning. The yet-to-be-named amplifier looks rather strange in its current form, but if one squints their eyes enough, they'll notice a little piece of clear plastic in the front section of the amplifier. What is it? A stator panel you say? Not possible.
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