6moons industryfeatures: Chip Stern's report from HE2003 in San Francisco
Two other state of the art reference systems powered by vacuum tubes achieved commensurate levels of goosebumpology on both the thermonuclear and subatomic plane. Jim Smith of Avantgarde Acoustics and Geoff Poor of Balanced Audio Technology collaborated on a very exciting demo, although in fairness to them (and in deference to those who heard the room at different times and didn't share my enthusiasm for this system), the acoustics varied wildly at different points in the room. Depending on where attendees were sitting or standing, there were a variety of null points and some incredible bass peaks. I've already written extensively about my enthusiasm for the Avantgarde Trio/Basshorns system elsewhere on the 6Moons site, and I was privileged to take the full measure of several fine single-ended triode amplifiers at impresario Bob Visintainer's Avantgarde Music & Cinema showrooms.

Which is why I was so keen to experience US distributor Jim Smith's contrasting audition style with these unique loudspeakers. However, the plot lines were completely reversed at the SF show: I got to hear this ultra-efficient system driven by some real powerhouse amps. Again, I have no problem with single-ended triode amps - it's SET fanatics I find so b-o-r-i-n-g, as if anyone who experienced audio in any other manner were doomed to perdition. Of course there's no denying the glorious midrange attributes of single-ended triode amps. And with their extraordinary efficiency (>110 dB/1 watt/1 meter into 19 ohms), the Trios are made to order for SET amps. However, they also boast very significant power handling capabilities. And if ever an argument were to be made on behalf of Stern's Law-- that while more power isn't always necessary, it is always welcome -- the Balanced Audio Technology VK-150SE Monoblocks ($17,000) would be my first witness.

Can I get an amen? No? Well, if you find yourself in Greenwich Village, wander over to 18 East 16th Street for an audition at Sound By Singer. Then let me know if you think I'm blowing smoke up your butt. Those qualities I so admired in the Butler Audio Model 100-A Monoblocks? At 150wps, the BAT VK-150SEs had that special combination of SET silk and high power steel in triplicate - a beautifully engineered, fabulous sounding amp.

BAT's Geoff Poor, a devout music lover if ever I met one, proudly auditioned some of his lovingly recorded blues productions for me, while kvelling about the VK-150SEs advanced circuitry and its use of a 6H30 SuperTube in the driver stage; its fully balanced/zero-feedback topology; single-ended bridge design; and dedicated new power supply. But my ears told me everything I needed to know, and Jim Smith made a very compelling argument on behalf of the Trio/Basshorn system's incredible dynamics and realistic representation of a live music experience.

On Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban's "La Luna", the system's instantaneous response to transient peaks and its subterranean bass perfectly conveyed the gigantic electroacoustic ambience of this hybrid Cuban guitar music. Having heard this track a number of times with several different amps on Visintatiner's Trio system, I was taken aback by the effortless physical immediacy, spectral transparency and midrange aura the VK-150SEs put across. More significantly, while the Visintainer Trio system I auditioned this past spring was lushly textured in the mids and portrayed a very expansive lateral image, its front to back soundstaging was relatively shallow. But when Jim Smith plugged these high-powered BAT single-ended triodes into the same system, the difference was dramatic. The Trios threw a much deeper, more layered soundstage that never shortchanged dynamic speed or clarity in favor of midrange lushness.

In closing, don't confuse my full-blown enthusiasm for the VK-150SE monoblocks as an argument in favor of one approach to amplification over another. I consider such posturing snobbish and elitist. I love the velvety warmth, harmonic complexity and textured elegance of SET amps. And believe you me, I'd be gassed to hear the Trios driven by those 6wps Art Audio PX-25 monoblocks. I simply want to counter the received wisdom that holds more power to be a mindless indulgence. All else being equal, for dynamic thrills and chills, heightened low-level and low-volume resolution, you can't go wrong with a generous helping of high-quality power.

Speaking of thrills & chills and oodles of power, perhaps my most exhilarating audition experience in San Francisco occurred in a suite shared by Vacuum Tube Logic and Wilson Audio, which featured a truly no-holds-barred system showcasing the immense, in-your-face Wilson MAXX Loudspeakers and the prodigiously endowed VTL Siegfried Monoblocks ($40,000/pr). Talk about balls! You'd need a pair of wheel barrels to accommodate these symbolic genitalia. I've fallen and can't get up. Even for my power hungry alter-ego -- that deranged audiophile felon, Vlad The Impaler -- this system was a little over the top. But hey, no escapee from the Maximum Security Prison of Audiophile Lust ever so enjoyed a conjugal visit. I mean, think about it: For every pound those speakers represented, Luke Manley and the VTL design team anted up a watt of vacuum tube power.

Let me repeat that equation: 800 lbs per channel = 800 wpc (in tetrode, that is - they're a mere 400wps in triode). And we're not just talking about brute power, but speed, focus, detail, realism, refinement, dimensionality and a surprising degree of texture and relaxation. But such is the magic of a well-engineered tube amp - and the VTL Siegfrieds have mucho magic to spare. Based on five years of intensive research, the Siegfried, like the MAXX, is a statement product and priced accordingly. As such, it represents the ultimate refinement of everything Luke Manley has learned about vacuum tubes' strengths and pitfalls in high-power designs. In pursuit of a 'smart' amp that could monitor and correct itself on the go, the Siegfried's diagnostic functions are legion.

They feature an automatic tube biasing circuit and logic software that compensates for and/or alerts users to critical peaks and sags in tube current draw, underages and overages in voltage, brown-outs and thermal runaway. Meanwhile, the Siegfried's balanced input stage and a new generation of regulated power supplies contribute to the velvet fist-like output of a dozen 6550cs per chassis.

Having lived with a pair of VTL Reference Series MB450 Monoblocks for several months back in 2002, I was completely captivated by the rich layering, immense soundstaging and visceral realism of the MAXX/Siegfried system. They promised a true no-compromise sonic. And while many are called in high-end audio, few are truly chosen. During my Press Day audition, I was naturally curious about the transient speed and dynamic impact of the system, and so straightaway referenced percussionist Jonathan Faralli's performance of the "Canto" from Elliot Carter's Eight Pieces For Timpani. Nothing could have prepared me or the room's sponsors for the emotional lightning bolt of that opening tympani hit.

It was like taking a spear through my chest from a giant crossbow at close range. When that transient made contact with my corporeal being, I heard a loud voice, not unlike my own, exclaim: "Whoaaa, fuck me!", much to the delight of Luke and Wilson's Peter McGrath. Ah, so, an audiophile epiphany: All audio is not created equal. Point Taken! Still, it wasn't simply the power of that tympani transient which I found so compelling. That initial strike is only a small component of the sound. It was the manner in which the Siegfried and the superb VTL 7.5 Reference Pre-Amp ($12,500) tracked the totality of the sound and brought it back alive and kicking; fleshed out the fundamental, the associated overtone series, decay patterns and reverb trails; allowed the MAXXs' bass drivers to sustain their focus and snap back in anticipation of the next big bang - all the while maintaining the veracity of the recording's immense acoustic space.

On Patricia Barber's "Pieces", the power of Joey Barron's booming little bass drum was just as believable as the dark flotation and airy aura suffusing Barber's somber recitative and the spatial mystery of Neal Alger's sweeping stereo guitar. As with the Dyanuadio/Musical Fidelity mega-system, the Siegfried/MAXX system didn't simply excel at large gestures. It barely broke a sweat rendering small gestures with lifelike immediacy. On Richard and Linda Thompson's chamber-music styled "The Great Valerio", the immensity of the upright bass, the sparkling delicacy of the steel string acoustic guitar and the tawny timbre of Linda's folkish alto were perfectly delineated and proportioned; right in scale with the looming silence and each other. And Peter McGrath, another delightfully devout muso, made my audition time a real pleasure with his own primo selection of analog and digital source materials. This included some excellent piano recordings of his own making, which served to illustrate the MAXX's winning combo of power and finesse.

Finally, when I allowed as to how in my estimation the Siegfrieds represented the ultimate attainment of VTL's dynamic prowess -- but with an advanced new level of refinement that clearly trumped the MB-1250 Wotans like a proud Mama lion protecting her brood --Luke Manley countered that the Wotans "still rule if you want that last word in grunt". More grunt, Luke? Marone! Like maybe you want to pass a kidney stone the size of Gibraltar? Grunt notwithstanding, to this pilgrim, Siegfried is the new King of the Gods, and VTL plans on having a single chassis stereo version (roughly half the power at roughly half the price) to show retailers and distributors at the 2004 CES in Las Vegas.

Having said all that, it's worth noting that I've never been much of a Wilson fan. However, in several other rooms at this show, they captivated this listener with a new level of ease and refinement. Heretofore my experience of the Watt Puppies, in several different iterations, was of enormous vitality and dynamic impact. But what I perceived as a hump in the lower mids and fatiguing glare in the upper mids -- let alone what other listeners have reported as a ringing in the upper treble -- just wore my ass out. But the Berkeley audio retailer Music Lovers had an exhibit that paired the new Wilson Audio Watt Puppy Sevens with Spectral electronics in a setup by Keith Johnson; and in yet another room, a relatively more humble level of Spectral gear paired with the three-way Wilson Audio Sophia Loudspeakers.

The latter sounded very good indeed, but I want to comment on the Watt Puppy Sevens. I was most impressed by how Wilson Audio has tweaked this speaker. The overall presentation was much, much smoother. High frequencies were much more natural and relaxed, and that edgy quality in the upper midrange had thankfully been dialed out. More significantly, given the Watt Puppy's pedigree as a no-compromise full-range icon, the lower bass seemed far more focused, forceful and clear, and communicated a much more persuasive sense of rhythm, pacing and soundstage depth. And because that upper bass/lower midrange happy gas no longer seemed so dominant to these ears, the speaker's presentation was less forward and aggressive. I was better able to experience bass as fullness and scale and spatial foundation, rather then as a pleasing coloration. Nor have these changes taken away from the vitality and visceral impact that is the hallmark of the Puppy. Simply, the sound of the new Watt Puppy Sevens is far more refined and inviting. I thought Brother Srajan put it best when he observed how "the Watt/Puppy Sevens locked into focus like a high-power laser beam to create some of the best center fill money can buy". Like Srajan, I too prefer a more spacious, silky sound, but I could easily live with these new Watt Puppies - quite friggin' magnanimous of you, to be sure, [c]HIPSTER[n]. Let's put it this way: While I have always been impressed by Watt Puppies, this time around I genuinely enjoyed 'em.

In wrapping up and offering a parting nod to several sound systems of merit, it's worth mentioning that on the final day of the show, I desperately ran about from floor to floor trying to at least get a taste of several noteworthy loudspeakers: Some represented a new experience for this listener, others reflected new levels of refinement and sophistication on the part of their designers. In some rooms, such as the Genesis suite featuring the imposing and, at $9000pr, cost-effective by audiophile standards Genesis 6.1 Loudspeaker and TEAC's Esoteric DV50 Reference SACD/DVD audio/video player that Paul Bolin was raving to me about, I barely had enough time to get acquainted - even though I liked what I thought I heard in passing.

Then there were other rooms that my fellow scribes were screaming the praises of, such as those of Anthony Gallo Acoustics, TAD and JMLabs, where I either spaced out, couldn't get in the room or was unable to command any audition time.

Having cast my lot for spaciousness and silkiness, I counted myself lucky to find an empty room and a pair of Quad ESL989 there for the listening. Yes, yes, yes, I know that the Quad ESL63 is a legendary performer (the smaller Quad ESL988's are their direct descendant). No self-respecting audiophile can pass on into the Land of Canaan (a land flowing with midrange honey) unless he has taken the measure of this legendary speaker. Alas, the musicians and aspiring stereophiles I hung out with in my formative years lacked the ways and means to explore such exotic fare - Dynaco kits and Ohm Loudspeakers with 3-D Walsh drivers were about as hip as it got. Without the input of veteran audio enthusiasts like speaker designers Jeff Joseph and Richard Vandersteen, and classical music mavens such as my good friend A.C Douglas, I'd have been flying blind coming into my first audition.

Anyway, it didn't take me long to get a sense of why audiophile hearts go pitter-patter at the mere mention of this unique loudspeaker - and it's new, larger, literal descendant, the ESL989 (anywhere from $8000-9500/pr depending on finish and features). I heard something very airy, open, spacious and transparent about the midrange, which made the experience of vocals utterly involving. Revisiting Renée Fleming's vocal performance on "Ave Maria", there was something very pure, very natural and very true about the portrayal of her voice in a believable acoustic space. Ditto for the relationship between Alice Kosloski's plum-like alto register, as accompanied by a single drone instrument on the medieval Sephardic airs of La Rondinella's "A'her Noghenim". I was also quite taken by the spatial cues the Quads revealed on pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's performance of Erik Satie's "Gnossienne #4", as again there was a very sweet, spectral, luminous quality to the piano. The Quads also tracked subtle nuances of this pianist's touch -- the peaks and valleys of his attack -- from ppp on up in a very accurate, natural manner, with good pace and timing. But for all the harmonic and timbral veracity, and as true to life as those rises and falls seemed in time and space, the Quads' presentation was less compelling in the frequency extremes. I also felt myself yearning for a certain transient snap and dynamic immediacy that weren't apparent to these ears - at least in this demo.

This, and the somewhat shallow soundstaging likely had as much to do with setup and system matching as anything else. Though it was a fairly large room, the ESL898s sounded as though they should have had more distance between each other, and been placed much farther away from the rear wall. Likewise, the sound got a little harsh and shrouded when I cranked the gain. It seemed like a fairly narrow volume range within which you could push the Quads. And while the bass extension and focus were surprisingly good, in terms of large scale dynamics the Quads were rather light in the loafers - nothing special to these ears. Still, considering how revealing these speakers were in the midrange, and how true to life on certain source materials, I concluded that all things being equal, I must presume the Quads innocent until proven guilty. Thus as prosecuting attorney on behalf of consumers, I sought out a reputable advocate to speak on behalf of the defendant. "The Quad ESLs have the fastest, snappiest and most accurate transient response of any speaker ever invented", my friend A.C. Douglas stated unequivocally, with the deep religious conviction of an experienced owner. "That you heard those transients as sluggish is the instant sore-thumb clue that something was wrong, very wrong, with the setup, either in terms of room positioning, something in the upstream chain or, more likely, both."

It's worth noting that the speakers were direct-coupled to the output of a power amp driven by a CD player, without the midwifery of a preamp's buffer stage - not a very endearing sound. To optimize soundstaging on such revealing loudspeakers, I think you need to be way more fastidious in terms of selecting the proper amplification (and a perfectly matched subwoofer and crossover network wouldn't have hurt, either). Still, if you listen mostly to small-scale recordings of vocals and chamber music, and want to zero in on a particular element of delicacy and detail in music reproduction (such as vocals), and you have a room large enough to properly accommodate them, these classic speakers represent authentic high-end value and audio verity; more than worthy of a serious audition.