Hegel, Magico, Nordost. Hegel surely knows how to run an informative and enjoyable demo!  They introduced a new integrated amplifier with onboard DAC called the H160 ($3’500, 150wpc).  They candidly stated that they had discovered some residual high-frequency distortion in their circuitry and that the H160 is the first product with new circuitry to fix it. Files from a laptop were played straight into the amp and powered a pair of Magico S5 speakers ($32’400 - $35’500/pr) with Nordost cabling. Despite all of the crazy money electronics I have heard with Magico, this relatively humble amp was sounding just great with them.  My notes exclaim “clean and smooth” especially in the difficult upper registers of the female vocal recording being played. Hegel is a first-class operation!

Golden Ear Technology, Listen Up. Golden Ear Technology speakers have been almost universally acclaimed as some of the best values in high-end audio. Designer Sandy Gross was demonstrating the flagship Triton One ($5’00/pr) with a modest Marantz SA-11S3 player and PM-11 S3 integrated amplifier. Each speaker has three 5x9-inch sub-bass drivers powered by a 1600-watt DSP-controlled class D digital amplifier. On each side of the speaker cabinet are two 7x10” X sub-bass radiators. Higher frequencies are handled by a D’Appolito array of 2 x 5.25” drivers surrounding an AMT tweeter. A CD of Gaite Parisienne was being played. I am quite familiar with the RCA Living Stereo LP version.  here was great tonal balance and a spacious soundstage with surprisingly good depth. This is truly a lot of performance for the money. A step up to even more serious electronics would probably improve the presence and transparency as I found the sound to be slightly recessed.

Channel D Pure Music / Pure Vinyl. Just like last year, Channel D were demonstrating playback of vinyl records that had been digitized with their state-of-the-art recording and playback technology. When I first encountered it last year, it took me a while to learn how their system works. Steven Stone reviewed the system some time ago and declared it to be the best vinyl ripping technology available. I concur. Here is how I explained their technology last year: The digital files were made by playing vinyl from an AMG turntable into a SETA D phono preamp (wide bandwidth linear amplification without RIAA EQ), then into a Lynx Hilo A /D converter and stored on a Mac Mini. For playback of the digitized vinyl, the file was played from the Mac Mini through Channel D’s Pure Vinyl software (which applies RIAA EQ), then to the Linx Hilo D/A converter, through the Channel D DAC buffer/attenuator and finally on to the amplifiers and speakers. I can’t recall the amplifiers they were using but they were getting exceptionally good sound again this year with Joseph Audio Pulsar two-way speakers with subwoofers.

Axis VoiceBox Loudspeakers, Unison Research. This was the first I had heard of this Australian speaker company. From looking at their website, it appears that they only have one product, the Axis VoiceBox S loudspeaker ($2’49/pr). Colleen Cardas Imports and Blackbird Audio Gallery of Santee/CA were demoing them.  It is a handsome two-way monitor with a gloss black finish. Its response is rated at 45Hz to 20 kHz +/- 3dB. Sensitivity is on the low side at 83dB with a 5-ohm impedance. A Fountek ribbon tweeter crosses over to a 5¼-inch Nomex paper cone at 3kHz. A Unison Research Triode 25 D/A integrated amp ($3’995) and Unison Research tube CD player fronted the speakers nicely. These little guys may have been the darlings of the show as they were seemingly liked by all with whom I spoke for their open and engaging sound. They sounded clean and full-bodied with well-controlled bass when the host played a CD of an artist unknown to me doing a cover version of Prince’s Little Red Corvette. These might just catch on.  They have been mainly distributed in Southeast Asia until now. Hong Kong audiophiles must love them based on their predilection for the LS3/5A and the like. Lastly, the simplicity of this rig almost made me want to cry.

Spatial Audio, Red Dragon. This company is trying to make a statement in the 100dB open baffle speaker arena. It does appear to be a slowly growing trend. The Spatial Audio M1 speaker employs two 15-inch woofers mounted closely together on a rectangular baffle that is slightly tilted back on the floor. The top driver has a horn-loaded compression driver coaxially mounted for frequencies about 800Hz. The crossover is sleekly stashed inside a compartment on the back bottom corner of the frame. A MacBook Air played files into a Prism Lyra 1 DAC/preamp ($2’250) with a Red Dragon S500 amplifier ($1’995) and Verastarr cables. One of my show buddies, Dean Beckwith, liked them quite a bit. I thought they were well balanced and sounded pretty good overall but from my seat I did not hear much presence or bloom, i.e. they were not as “spatial” as I like.  On the other hand, Dean was up closer in a better listening seat.

Vapor Audio, GIK Acoustics, Antipodes Audio, API Technologies, Care Audio, Verastarr.
I was anxious to hear this demo since last year I happened to enter the Vapor Audio room when one channel was not working. The Vapor Joule Black loudspeakers ($16’89/pr) were strutting their stuff majestically with the Allnic T-2000 integrated tube (KT150 tubes, 70wpc), Antipodes DX server ($7’400), Allnic D5000 DAC ($11’900) and all silver Verastarr cables. Led Zeppelin was playing when I entered and the Verastarr designer Mike Powell leaned over and whispered that the recording was pretty bright and not to assume it was the system. Still, the recording showed the ability of these speakers to energize the entire front height and width of this larger room. The system was both powerful and precise. This was a very impressive demo!

VTL, Wilson Audio, Spiral Groove, dCS, Harmonic Resolution Systems, Transparent, Nordost. This was one of the big-gun rooms with the system totaling a whopping $505’655 according to the handout sheet!  The Wilson Audio Sasha II speakers (now $30’900/pr) were supplemented by two Wilson Watchdog subwoofers ($9’800 each) each with a Wilson Controller ($4’000 each). The Spiral Groove 1.1 turntable/Centroid tonearm/Lyra Etna cartridge ($37’995 total) provided LP playback while digital was handled by a full dCS Vivaldi Playback System ($75’000). Electronics were two VTL S-400 Series II Reference Stereo Amps ($33’500 each), a TL-7.5 Series III Reference preamp ($25’000) and a TP-6.5 Signature phono stage with stepup MC transformer ($12’000). Cables were supplied by Transparent and Nordost, with the most expensive being four pairs of Transparent Opus MM2 cables for a staggering $110’000. Okay, how about the sound? On a Mahler recording, the dynamics were handled with aplomb. The tympani drums were very distinct with no blurring or muffling. Luke Manley asked for requests and I suggested Count Basie. He pulled out a $5 record store purchase of Count Basie’s 88 Basin Street and played the first cut "Bluesville". The trademark dynamics and rhythm of Count Basie’s band were faithfully rendered and the widely placed Sasha II’s supported the illusion of a big band.  My ears were relieved to hear Wilson’s new Convergent Synergy silk dome tweeter too.  The older tweeters were not to my liking. While this system did a whole lot of things right and was certainly one of the best of show, I still preferred the two-way Wilson Duette speakers for their more coherent sound where, again, a properly done two-way speaker is hard to beat.

Audio Limits: Thrax Audio, Polymer Audio, FM Acoustics, EnKlein, Weiss. I had never heard of Polymer Audio until they started advertising quite a bit in the magazines lately. They were set up in a large room where the Venture loudspeakers were last year. The Polymer Audio Research MKS-X ($60’000/pr) speakers were paired with a bounty of very fine electronics: Weiss Man301 server ($12’262), Thrax Maximinus 32/384 DAC ($33’000), Thrax Dionysos preamp ($21’500), Thrax Hero hybrid amps ($38’500) and cables by EnKlein. Fortuitously, a gentleman by the name of Rich O’Neill was in the room and offered a thumb drive of a digital transfer he’d made from an Ampex ATR100 reel-to-reel recording of the CSO performing Scheherazade and recorded at 30ips on ½ track tape. Wow, this was one of the most riveting demos I heard at the show! The violin tone was perfect and the full power and drama of this performance was laid out in a beautifully transparent soundstage. Without a doubt, this was the best I had ever heard Scheherazade sound. I did not get a chance to hear this system with any ‘normal’ quality recordings.