Part 2: Variations on a theme

Before launching into the remainder of my Festival Son et Image 2004 commentary, I would like to pursue some tangential observations which have a bearing on the topic at large. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with audiophilia that sound reproduction is a fascinating combination of art and science, blended with technology and mystery. To the extent that there are variations in how we hear, interact with, and enjoy music/sound reproduction, there is a yet wider range of possibilities in how our audio gear renders that sound. Recent trends in certain domains of audio componentry seem to reveal a degree of sonic convergence. My sense of this is that some of our better electronics appear to share commonality in how they generally sound [please pardon the over-generalization here].

There are limits to this, of course. I am not thinking of comparing a behemoth solid state amp to a 6 watt SET amp, but I think you know what I mean. Yes, most of us can discern, through a well planned comparison, that different amps [or preamps] sound differently. But in spite of variations, it is often surprising to see how much they actually share in broad terms. When it comes to transducers, matters do get much fuzzier, however. This should be easy to comprehend since devices like loudspeakers or phono cartridges have a more mechanical side to their existence, at least more so than we would expect from a gain stage. I think this is why so many different speaker styles have arisen. Why settle for vanilla ice cream when you can get Hazelnut-Mocha-Truffle Supreme?

Just take a moment to think about listening to live music. First, my general preference is for live, unamplified, acoustic music ranging from classical to jazz repertory. [I stopped listening to rock music just after 1974.] Given the option, do you sit up close to the performers, or is the mid-hall seat, maybe even deeper, your preferred position? This will probably dictate much regarding the types of equipment you select for your sound system. In earlier times, people used to talk about the genteel and conservative New England sound of Acoustic Research or KLH speakers versus the up-front, perhaps more brash California sound à la JBL, Altec etc. Aspects of this general concept will resurface a bit later on.

I like the idea that variations exist everywhere on the planet. As a geneticist by training, I have learned to really appreciate the role of mutation. It is a potent source of differentiation in myriads of ways across all living systems. If your biology class was too far in the distant past, let me note that the process of biological mutation is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. It is one way for variation to feed into the mechanisms of evolution. Most folks usually only conjure up the nasty side of mutations when thinking of genetic diseases etc. Like the squeaky wheel, serious disorders stand out from all of the other forms of variants that really exist, but mutations per se are not necessarily deleterious; they contribute to difference and evolution. If biological variation had never come to pass, none of us would be here today - at least not in human form!

Variations seen these days in audio equipment allow each of us to seek our version of 'sonic truth' if you'll pardon my French. During my early years as a music lover and audiophile, I enjoyed sitting in the middle/center part of Carnegie Hall, primarily for the sonic perspective - but something has changed. Recently the shift has been to a more forward listening position. It took a while but I finally figured out that this was a side effect of my live concert taping activities. When possible, I place my microphone stands where they will do the best sound-capturing job. This typically means close to, but not on top of, the musicians. Remember also that I sit next to this equipment. I am therefore usually in a nearfield location during the performance. It appears that I have consciously [or subconsciously] retrained my hearing and listening behavior to a degree. Now my old preference for that distant soundstage perspective has given way to a desire for a more immediate sense of things. This is very obvious to me now since I just sold my 10-year-old Nestorovic speaker system which did the mid-hall things beautifully. If you wish to learn more about how some of this works, merely find a way to sit in on a recording session in a professional studio - it can be a revelation! Someday I plan to write about a sonic and emotional experience I had at a concert rehearsal during which I had the opportunity to stand at the podium of a symphony orchestra. I was not prepared for the aural delight that occurred when the finale approached and they unfolded a major full-powered crescendo. No sound system audition could have prepared me for that!

Now the quest is on to find the proper fit for my current needs and desires. This is going more slowly than envisioned and I think I have a sense of what is behind it all. It's due to the wide range of product variation out there. Of the hundreds of speaker systems that make sense to serious audiophiles, my shopping list has been narrowed to about a dozen choices. I am a consumer just like you. Attending audio shows, visiting fellow audiophiles' home or stopping off at friendly audio showrooms should make the selection an easy one. However, it clearly isn't! With these new listening priorities [again instigated by my taping experiences], I have considered electrostats, horns, mini-monitors and exotic full range speakers. Maybe plain old vanilla isn't such a bad idea, he says in jest? Time will tell!

Perhaps that's where the fun is, but the search continues and the variations accrue. The prime directive to keep in mind through all of this is that different is different. It isn't always better!

Back to business
Let's see what these variations and differences mean as we look toward the balance of the show report.

Gingko Audio is marketing an equipment isolation platform that is creating good impressions on lots of folks. This $300 device, based on unique compressible balls and encased in a fine looking two-part acrylic enclosure package, seemed quite effective during a room demo at the show. Without going into detail, two identical CD players were alternately measured for vibration levels using appropriate techniques. A computer screen generated real-time scrolling scans showing a dramatic improvement for the player sitting on the Gingko Cloud 10 platform. It was helpful to see a demonstration like this and I extend thanks and admiration to the chaps at Gingko Audio for developing this and related products, as well as being terrific exhibitors. Their enthusiastic and friendly attitude was a pleasure to witness.

At one of the Song Audio rooms I was immediately impressed by the dynamic and lively sounds emanating from their main demo system. The A-1 preamp and SA-300 MB monoblock tubed units delivered fine CD playback through a large, high-efficiency Loth-X Troubadour speaker system. I did find a fair amount of image shift when changing lateral seats, yet the engaging qualities in the sweet spot could not be denied. Immodestly, I should note that excerpts of Gregorian Chants and a Debussy Sonata [for flute, harp and viola] that I played from my own recordings came across in particularly convincing fashion. Mr. Song Kim and his lovely wife were gracious hosts. Song Audio has developed a sweet-sounding line of audio gear which is well built, good looking and nicely priced too. Keep up the good work.

The Quad 22L dynamic speakers were a pleasant surprise. Having read about the 22L in the British audio press, I was not prepared for how well this modestly sized, floor standing design could sound. In a smallish room using Quad electronics and an Audio Note CD transport and DAC, the overall sound quality was remarkably extended, open, clear and engaging. There was a generous amount of good bass performance, seemingly reaching down to about the mid-30 Hz range and the overall coherence made terrific music. I don't know how the 22Ls would sound on more modest electronics, but this demo seemed to garner many positive comments from the attendees with whom I spoke. Congrats to this other side of Quad!

Innersound electrostatic speakers have earned a lot of praise in the past for their hybrid high performance systems. A new model was being demonstrated to very good effect. The Kaya is an outgrowth from the Eros III and has a fresh, larger, contemporary appearance. My prior experience with the Eros had me primed for a positive experience and Wes Bender made that easily happen. In addition to hearing my own recordings delivered accurately and effectively, he played some Canadian Fidelio discs with marvelous results. The ability to deliver properly scaled sound was delicious. Using Innersound electronics and the MSB Platinum CD player, I was a happy camper. Pricing on this new series is higher than had been standard for the prior models but the visual and sonic presentation was mighty tasty. [We're presently negotiating for a Kaya review loan for Les - Ed.]

Omega Speaker Systems of Norwalk/Connecticut offered an eye/ear opening listening experience that pointed to cost-effective, solid performance coupled to smart thinking. You might want to see Stephæn Harrell's fine March 2004 write-up regarding what these sweet-sounding speakers can do [and our own Jim Bosha uses them as his reference speakers - Ed]. Modest electronics were connected to their Super 3 system, which utilizes a small Fostex driver in a medium-sized enclosure that really did sound super. This is a crossover-less, high-efficiency design that came across convincingly. It delivered dynamics and tight bass of the sort that one typically expects from bigger, more complex and expensive speakers. Vocals sounded spooky-good, but there was much more to be had. There are lots of finishes to select from although I was really taken by the Blue Arctic look.

The $550/pair standard version can also be ordered in an enhanced form for $750. On top of it all, if there is no dealer near you, they offer a 30-day in-home trial policy for direct purchases that should make everyone comfortable. By the way, there are several other models in the line and you can expect commensurate performance both up and down the price range. Nice job Omega!

Art Audio showed with Cabasse and Ensemble in a bi-amped sat/sub system with the tri-concentric French ball monitors augmented by substantial subwoofers.

Our own Jules Coleman is presently listening to the new Ensemble Dichrono CD player while I'm taking delivery of Art Audio's Gill Alana tube preamplifier. Based on my experience in Montreal, both Jules and I should be in for a good time, and it seems only fair to suggest that Cabasse ought to be represented in our 6moons pages sooner than later as well.

Gradient loudspeakers of Finland offered one of my personal Montreal highlights in a most tasteful, satisfying and enjoyable show demonstration. While the company has been around since the early 1990s, it has not had high visibility in North America. The initial product release was the SW-63 subwoofer specifically designed for the Quad ESL-63 electrostatic speaker system. It quickly became well respected and established its uniqueness among subs of that era. By the mid 1990s, Jorma Salmi, the company's designer and owner, created a full-range speaker called the Revolution. Many unusual features were incorporated - in fact, too many to itemize here. The dipole bass approach combined with the ability to rotate the bass driver enclosure independently from the rest of the system makes for unique flexibility with respect to room placement and optimization of overall performance.

While the Revolution [$5K/pair] has received several positive reviews in the audio press, it remains less widely known than it deserves. In the most recent turn of events, there have been subtle improvements to the coaxial midrange/tweeter driver. However, I became truly fascinated by the development of an active Revolution system.

It allows for enhanced bass performance by employing multiple bass section add-ons. Jorma was most kind in allowing me to hear all of my own recording excerpts which range from small choral ensembles to choirs, pipe organs, Jazz quartets, piano and solo voices. It didn't take long for me to see the high level quality in the Revolution speakers. In addition to a very neutral tonal balance, the natural air and spaciousness of the music created marvelous soundscapes. Of course, it was instructive and revealing to also hear a broad variety of commercial classical releases that Jorma provided from his own CD collection. The speakers really did that elusive disappearing act! Mr. Salmi, who has a strong engineering background, began his professional life in microwave technology research; he is also a very serious classical music lover. His tastes and awareness of musicianship and talent were quickly obvious. On top of all that he is a kind, engaging and delightful person. His room demo incorporated the standard Revolution speaker offering in combination with a Gamut preamp and power amp and a McCormack CD player. Speaker wires and cables were nothing extravagant. The total sonic experience was quite special! We all need to know more about this excellent company and the Revolution speaker system and our publisher is presently working on securing a review sample from Nizar Akhrass of May Audio who represents this brand in Canada and the US.

My final comments will focus on two Canadian manufacturers that were seen in several rooms at the show. I am referring to Verity Audio loudspeakers and Tenor Audio amplifiers showing with Silversmith Silver and Palladium cables. I have enjoyed the Verity Parsifal speaker [$17K] on several occasions in varied settings, always finding them cosmetically beautiful, sonically transparent and capable of sound much larger than their physical size might imply. While they are expensive, the construction and parts quality is first rate, and one could easily spend more money and find less to like. At this show, I saw Parsifals played with Nagra electronics in the Fidelio Audio room. This Canadian recording company provided lots of sonic bliss for those of us who appreciate live music events. In one of the Tenor rooms, the Parsifals along with Meitner digital gear were operated with a Tenor HPS 150 hybrid stereo amplifier to great effect.

Tenor first arrived on the audio scene as a low wattage OTL tube amplifier maker. Now they have broadened their offerings to include hybrid designs that are beefy, unique, exquisite sounding and fascinating. This demo occurred in a spacious salon and allowed everything to blossom naturally. In fact, in addition to finding my own recordings captivating there, Paul Candy had just picked up an Audite CD reissue of a 1975 Mahler's 9th Symphony recorded live in Japan. Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra gave an incredible reading of this piece and we all listened to a very long section of it, practically hypnotized by the sheer musicality and emotive power of the performance and playback quality. This was a special treat for sure. Clarity, effortlessness, tonal purity and more were in abundance. In the Verity Audio room, their biggest system, the Lohengrin [$60K] was on display but not played; it looked impressive and massive, and I would love to see what those babies can do some day soon.

Fortunately the new Sarastro model [$30K, above] was operating and doing so with grace, power and conviction. Lots of expensive gear was connected from makers like dCs and Ayre and the sound in this largish room was a major delight. The ability to transport me back to the concert spaces in which I'd made my own recordings was uncanny and telling. On rare occasions, I have visited a few friends' homes and felt that their super deluxe [and expensive] sound systems could convey the natural acoustic of those venues really well, thus enhancing the musical experience. This is really difficult to do in show settings but the Verity Sarastro setup managed it quite effectively. Interestingly, a few other listeners came up to me after that session wanting to find out how to obtain my recordings; I suspect they were as moved by the experience as was I. Of course, these are private tapings and not for sale, but it was flattering to receive those kind compliments. The playback system here really delivered the goods. Clearly, I have high regard for both the Tenor amps and Verity speakers and suggest that if you can hear them in combination at some point, don't fail to do so. While none of this fits within my budget, it was my good fortune to get these listening opportunities and to have the luxury of extended listening periods using music which I knew well. It was instructive and allowed for a useful and enjoyable evaluation. Thank you Tenor and Verity.

Obviously there were many other demos and exhibits taking place that aren't mentioned here. Bringing my listening preferences and biases to bear, I hope that something along the way has intrigued or even motivated you to find out more about this enjoyable and challenging hobby. Perhaps there is greater commonality amongst music lovers and 'gear heads' than is sometimes painted in the press. If so, I hope that some of my comments might have helped to reflect that. Happy listening!