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RayofSound had the recently reviewed JBL 1400 Array speakers powered by an Audio Valve integrated tube amp ($6500), MacBook Pro server and Blacknote tube DAC 30. What caught my eye was the Blacknote’s USB 3.0 input, which is claimed to be 40 times faster than USB 2.0 as well as having 24/192 capability.  The sound was very dynamic with detailed and natural mids and highs but perhaps a slight discontinuity in the bass.

We decided to hit the big rooms in the Mezzanine next where we’d heard some fantastic sound last year. Philip O’Hanlon’s On a Higher Note room was one of my runners up for best sound last year. This year his room was no less impressive even though he demonstrated the smaller Vivid G2 Giya speakers ($55,000/pr.) with Luxman 800 preamp, Luxman 800 amp and Audio Aero LaSource CD/SACD player. I did not notice any Acoustic Art resonator room treatments this year. Also unlike last year’s megabuck Synergistic Research cabling, “inexpensive” Shunyata cables were in use. Still the sound was spectacular. I happened to be in the room when Philip was playing a big band number. The trumpet section blared with near-lifelike dynamics and absolutely no cringing necessary. This was a pure joy to experience!

Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings was camped in the Audio Unlimited Blanca Peak room spinning records on a Clearaudio turntable through Aesthetix electronics into Hansen speakers.

Of most interest to me here were the two cartridges both mounted on Graham Phantom tone arms: a Clearaudio Goldfinger and a Benz LP-S. Listening to the same cut played with each cartridge, the Goldfinger showed ultra clarity and focus but the bass was somewhat boomy. The LP-S tightened up the bass nicely while exhibiting a bit more warmth and bloom.

Moving on to the second floor of the Tower, Aaudio Imports’ second room (room 2004) contained some very exotic equipment, most notably the Bergmann air bearing turntable with air-bearing linear-tracking tone arm playing into the very expensive Ypsilon Electronics phono stage (over $28,000 with MC input transformers).

Add the Lansche speakers with their ion tweeter and you have some of the most revealing and lowest-perceived distortion vinyl playback I have ever heard. Playing Peter Paul and Mary’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone, every voice and instrument was separated with Teutonic precision. I yearned for a touch more warmth though.

The Synergistic Research room 2009 was one of my show favorites. While the Ayon Triton integrated amp, Ayon CD 05 CD/preamp and YG Acoustics Carmel speakers were obviously happy together, a lot of the magic here must be attributed to the Synergistic cables and power conditioning products: Galileo Universal Speaker Cells, Galileo Universal Interconnect Cells, PowerCell 4, Basik AC Precision Power Cable, Tesla SE Power Cables, Galileo Element Interconnect, Big MiGs mechanical interface grounding and TeslaPlex SE outlets. The sound was gorgeous…dynamic with warmth, air, nuance and balance. We were able to get a demo of the Tesla active-shielding cables plugged and unplugged. The sound was cleaner with less distortion when they were active. Also when the active circuitry in the PowerCell 4 was switched off, the sound became noticeably less focused. This was a truly remarkable sounding room and I came back the next day for the sheer pleasure of listening.

A potent combination of marquee names, VTL/dCS/Wilson were on demo in room 2030 with a Basis Audio Inspiration turntable with Vector arm and My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent EX cartridge, VTL electronics, Transparent cables and Wilson Sasha speakers. Having owned several VTL amplifiers (VTL Compact 100s, VTL 120s) years ago, I am always curious to hear their current sound.

It was dynamic and full-bodied with a huge soundstage. Some felt this was Best of Show. While I can see why, I was unable to spend enough time in this room to feel that confident myself.

Getting my vote for the best sound per dollar system had to be the Audio by Van Alstine room. Salk Signature Song Tower QWT loudspeakers ($1795/pair) were powered by the Van Alstine Ultravalve tube amp ($1695). The front end was a novel setup using an Oppo Blu-ray player and sending the HDMI output into an Atlona AT-HD577 Audio De-embedder, which picked out the stereo audio signal and sent it on to a Van Alstine Vision Hybrid DAC (decodes up to 24/192). I didn’t know the source material playing when I entered but it had a wonderful full and rich female vocal with a punchy bass underpinning. You really had to wonder if anyone needed to spend more money than this for musical enjoyment.