Once again the land of Starbucks, Microsoft, many fine wines -- who woulda thunk? -- and lots of vacuum tube audio maniacs hosted the Vacuum State of the Art Conference and Show aka VSAC October 3-5 in the great state of Washington's Silverdale. VSAC could be appropriately titled "The Peoples' Show". It's a juicy jeans & sandals affair rather than arid swords & sandals spectacle, the focus on equipment-building hobbyists, live music, and real-world HiFi folks, the kind who are deep into vacuum tube audio and who, as a group, have way more fun than can be had at any other audio show! Many thanks to the Herculean efforts of Doc Bottlehead and the too-many-to-credit others who worked their collective fannies off to make it happen.

Due to the workload at my day job, I wasn't able to finalize attendance plans until the last minute. I thus got up at 4:00AM on Saturday to leave the desert-shrub steppe of Eastern Washington and drive 4.5 hours to the lush Pacific Coast rainforest that's the West Side of Washington State. I rolled into the Red Lion Silverdale parking lot about 9:30AM to be greeted by - what else but a hotel filled with raving audiomaniacs! Most folks had just finished their breakfast in the dining room to start cruising the audio lounges. I decided to grab breakfast and was seated next to a couple of cool musicians and audio enthusiasts. Drummer Jon and guitarist Gabe (I was having trouble reading my own handwriting of their names as usual) had come down from Vancouver B.C. and joined me and Stephaen Harrell (TAS, Audio Asylum, 6moons) to swap music and audio stories over breakfast. Of us four, three were guitarists so we oohed and aahed over the mystique surrounding our upcoming review of Gordon Rankin's single-ended triode guitar amp. Single ended guitar amps - now that's news!

The first room I stopped in was The Craftsman Room to look at all the hobbyist rigs on display. I love the idea of this exhibit! It was so kewl to see what all the home builders were up to. The creativity displayed was astounding. A number of craftsmen who've displayed in the past emerged since as major forces in audio, most notably Josh Stippich of Electron Luv fame. I particularly enjoyed seeing audio pal Pete Riggle's big 845 integrated amp - way righteous! Last time I saw this amp? 'twas in a parts box inside his car trunk. Way to go, Pete - it turned out awesome! Pete and Bill Van Winkle are regulars at the world's audio shows and can be seen cruising the halls hand-in-hand. No, no, it's not what you're thinking: Pete is Bill's sighted guide. Bill is blind, with Pete guiding him through the halls of audio. Both are audio guys with exquisite tastes, Bill a piano tuner with perfect pitch by trade. Along with Pete's amp-building skills and audio sensibilities, the two of them have some pretty insightful and cogent observations to make whenever they sit down for a listening session. These are two of the most wonderful human beings you could ever hope to meet. Be sure to say 'Hi!' when you next see them at a show. Rumor has it that Bill did most of the driving on the way to VSAC. Apparently Pete gave them both a good scare with a near-miss outside Richland. Tisk tisk...

Saturday was a rough day for a lot of exhibitors who were set up in the hotel's 2nd and 3rd floors. The crowds were horrendous, standing-room-only a rule in most demos. Everyone was still getting their sound sorted out so most rooms weren't yet the real sonic treat they morphed into on Sunday, by which time the crowds thinned out enough for a good listen. Could be related, eh - masses of bodies screwing up room acoustics? Ambitious guys running full-range systems in little rooms were at a big disadvantage - bass boom dominated their exhibits. Leave the subs at home next time! Also, loud volumes do not make up for poor setups. Keep the volumes at sane levels, please. And thanks to all who made up handouts summarizing the equipment used. It sure makes the job of us reporters easier - bless ya!

My Saturday highlight was the 6moons Thai lunch where fellow moonies Srajan, Stephaen, the lovely Marja and Henk (who flew in from Rotterdam) and I had a barrel-full of fun chatting about everything under the sun. Did you know that the maximum length of a man's beard is genetically predetermined? In Henk's case, that's about a meter. Henk shaved once as a teenager, forsook the barbarous practice and never shaved again. Go Henk! Did you also know that Srajan, Marja & Henk and I built our systems around the superb Avantgarde Duo loudspeakers? Yup. Stephaen uses the awesome Cain & Cain double horns with a sub for the foundation of his system. We are all into hot-rod SET amps and high-efficiency speakers so VSAC was heaven since that's its primary emphasis.

There is so much to report on at VSAC that it's impossible to cover everything. I probably but inadvertently left out some good-sounding rooms, deserving products, and some of the special people who make the show as entertaining as it is - so I ask forgiveness ahead of time. Consider this my little essay of "Jeff's Picks":

The Back to the Future Award: The only room I remember from Saturday as having great sound was the Cain & Cain room. I stopped in to chat with Terry Cain who'd brought his Big Ben double horns and Electron Luv amplification. Terry's truly gorgeous speakers, Teres turntable and accompanying Electron Luv amplification were the fashion statement of the show: Italy has been eclipsed by Walla Walla/Washington as the new haute couture center of the audio world. I asked Terry if he would play me a cut off Nikolai Dunger's brilliant new album Tranquil Isolation. As I handed him the CD, Terry quipped "I have to record it first". In confusion I blubbered "What the hey" as he slid the disk into his VRS Audio Systems audio server to record the disc for playback. The VRS did an excellent job and I want one. You can upload all your discs via the integral Plextor drive, make up play lists, then play back music any which way your mood dictates. You coul make up a jazz guitar list, or a bluegrass list, or a classical list, or an anything-you-want-to genre-hoppin' concoction.

My predication is that audio servers like the VRS will emerge as a new type of must-have component that will gain in popularity and perhaps eventually replace conventional digital players in enthusiast systems altogether. This type of device will likely not replace the turntables of vinyl devotees though LPs could certainly be converted for digital storage via an A-to-D converter. I'd love something like this as an alternate digital or perhaps even reference source to replace CD/DVD/SACD hardware, and definitely as a play-list generating music server. The Cain & Cain room wins my standout room award for Saturday with its combination of exotic and beautiful high-efficiency double horns and single-ended amplification, plus the mighty and futuristic VRS audio server. Good music at natural levels along with great sound made TC's room a musical oasis at VSAC! Terry subsequently invited me out for a visit to the Cain & Cain factory in Walla Walla so expect to see a factory tour and interview with Terry not too many moons hence in these very pages.

I woke up with a throbbing headache on Sunday that even a good breakfast, lots of coffee and a hearty dose of aspirin just wouldn't remedy. Loud systems and bad sound -- the norm on Saturday -- had taken their toll. I was out of it and cranky. Accordingly, I ventured out to cover the rooms with great trepidation. Fortunately for me and other showgoers, there was a big transformation in sound quality, with systems finally bedded in and rooms optimized. If you left early that day as lots of folks -- and I, almost -- did, you missed VSAC's best day.

The Thank You God Award: The first room I stopped in on Sunday morning was the Modwright & Rangers Audio exhibit which combined the Modwright modified Sony XA-777ES, Wolcott Audio Presence amplifiers, Quad 988 ESL speakers, Cardas Golden Reference cables and Supra power cords. Playing music to fine effect, this system had a high level of transparency and warmth combined with tubular holography: A very relaxing, non-fatiguing listening experience just as their fact sheet promised. Being a Sunday morning, I agreed with a hearty "Amen!"

This room was a real pleasure. I was able to sit and listen to great music at sane levels whilst having a nice conversation with Mr. Rangers himself. These gents achieved one of the best-sounding rooms at VSAC 2003 and deserve special mention for playing good music, at modest volumes that still conveyed the full musical vibe - no small accomplishment. My good friend Stephaen has been admonishing me for years that I needed to turn down my volume control and build a system around gear that sounded musically convincing at lower and more natural levels. He's right and I did. Thanks for the good advice, bud! My nasty headache actually subsided while in this room. For that I offered silent thanks to Charlton Heston lest he visit another irritating plague upon me. Live in the Portland/Beaverton area in Oregon? Stop by and visit these guys. You'll be glad you did.

The Bald Brotherhood Award: When I stopped in the Two Bald Guys Audio room, I felt immediately at home in that special fellowship that only us bald guys enjoy. Harry and Kent had a super-fine system that was composed of an Audio Note CD player, an integrated Sun Audio SV-2A3 amplifier and Omega Speaker Systems Super 3 loudspeakers. This simple and inexpensive rig had a synergy that just had to be heard to be believed. At less than $5000 for the system, this combination of kit put to shame many much more expensive setups. The unsubstantiated word is that Bill Van Winkle bought the 93dB-efficient Super 3s on first listen to take home to keep his Cain & Cain double horns company. That's a monster recommendation all by itself - remember, Bill is the blind piano tuner. What his eye sight lacks is more than made up for by his hearing. The Omega Super 3s are a bargain at $529. I also have the substantiated word that Stephaen and designer Louis have already made arrangements for a review of the next-model-up Omega 6s [confirmed - Ed.]

Srajan and I both talked to Harry & Kent about possible reviews of Sun Audio gear, so expect some 2004 write ups on these fine amplification devices. I was really smitten by the SV-2A3 integrated. The admirable thing about Sun Audio gear -- available through the Two Bald Guys -- is that you can get it either as an 80% completed kit that merely requires finish work, or you can have their expert technician build it up for you at a modest price. This is the perfect teaser for those of us who have toyed with the notion of a kit, but don't want to try a full-on kit on our first attempt. For example, the SV-2A3 integrated is $1250 in kit form, and $1850 assembled. Either way, the Sun Audio amplifiers are stone-cold bargains with terrific build quality, top-notch Tamura transformers and sonic wonders to boot. Check out the Two Bald Guys' digs in Portland/Oregon. What is it about Oregon that has so many cool dealers emerging? Must be all that rain that keeps folks indoors to listen to music!

The Love 'em or Lowthe Them Award: I have always liked Lowther-based loudspeakers, but some people just can't stand them. I think those who loathe Lowthers have been victims of badly set-up systems, played bad music or perhaps both. But who knows? Taste is a highly subjective thing. I heard my first Lowthers -- a pair of Medallions -- a couple of VSAC shows ago and was immediately impressed by their ability to play music. I have also been impressed by the Lamhorns that my buddy David owns, and the Carfrae Little Big Horns I heard at CES two years ago. Add the fact that Lowthers are highly efficient and work well with the single-ended-triode amplifiers I love so much. Hence I was more than interested to step into Jon VerHalen's Lowther America room to check out his latest creations. There were two speakers I found interesting: a half-size Medallion called -- you guessed it -- the Mini-Medallion or Mini-Me; and the Quarter Wave designed by Martin King.

The Mini-Me with the small Lowther DX55 extends down to about 80 Hz by itself but is deliberately designed for use with a sub to grow into full-range sound. Playing the acoustic music of Nikolai Dunger, the Mini-Me made a respectable showing but Jon [right] confided that he still has more cabinet tweaking to do before he releases this design to the public. The Quarter Wave extends to a low-for-a-Lowther 40 Hz, by using an equalization network that can be placed inside the amp or loudspeaker. Both of these new efforts are promising designs. I spoke to Jon about the possibilities of a Lowther review pair. Who knows, maybe I'll luck out and get a chance to tell you about the joys of lowthering in my own home? If so, I'll promise to explore the so-called Lowther shout to see whether reputation and reality converge.

The Biggest Woody Award: With a tip of the head to Kevin Deal, this award goes to Teres Audio for their absolutely gorgeous, all-hardwood Model 340 and 265 turntables - even the platters are hardwood! Word on the street? The no-efforts-spared 340 is the big stick on the block, beating the daylights out of everything short of a Rockport. I sure would love to sign up for a beating myself, having all 37 pounds of the 3.75" thick platter made from exotic hardwoods and generously loaded with lead shot come crashing down on my ego. Even the massive hardwoods assembly of the base is joined with aluminum cylinders which themselves are damped with further lead shot to increase overall mass to a hernia-inducing 130 lbs. Teres has seven models of turntables, starting with the entry level Model 135 ($1550 - $1750) and maxing out with the grand-daddy Model 340 at $6350 (for the basic table, arm additional).

The Most Innovative Display Award: This goes to Cardas for their hanging magnet display. Brian Von Bork came up with the following idea for their static cable exhibit: A big rack with a bunch of steel plates hanging from it. On each plate, the decapitated ends of cables were stuck on with magnets, so you could pull them off and investigate up-close how each model is made. This was definitely the most wicked cable display I'd ever seen. Kudos are due for creativity and execution. Bravo!

Incidentally, I also talked to Brian about a full-system Cardas cable review in my reference system. Expect a snake-pit mosh Cardas-style at 6moons in the near future.

The Leonardo da Vinci Award goes to Josh Stippich's Electron Luv designs, top audio's highest peaks featuring design brilliance and visual execution that transcends what any other builder is doing by an order of magnitude. Josh's work is to audio what Jesse James' is to choppers - utterly amazing! Josh had his concept 'Godzilla' amps on display that used a huge Russian transmitter tube the size and shape of a football, putting out ca. 15 watts of SET power. Josh also demoed his concept speakers that are huge hand-formed flowery metal sculptures. These beauties were too big for the room but sounded promising. Recognizing the room challenges, by Sunday these gents replaced speakers with Joshe's step dad Dave Adam's creations that sport PHY-HP drivers. Hooked up to the Godzilla amps, these drivers in Dave's custom cabinets produced some of the best -- if not the best -- sound at the show. The PHY-HP drivers are coaxial designs with piezo tweeters that extend down into the 20Hz range. That's big news: A single driver that's truly full-range, with Alnico magnets and 98dB efficiency? Whoa baby. Now let's see a cabinet for the PHY-HPs that evokes the classic Cris Craft look of the 50s, at a price even us in the audio masses can afford.

The Distinguished Alumni Award goes to Jeffrey Jackson's Experience Music designs. Jeffrey is another alumnus of the VSAC Craftsman Room and had samples in his Experience Music and the Lowther-America room. Guess what other Craftsman grad here hogged the choice listening seats with Jeffrey while us press'd types stood and listened? None other than Josh Stippich, the Electron Luv da Vinci award winner! These two protégés really got into shop talk, upping the creative ante at VSAC to a new level. Jeffrey's SET designs coupled with his Lowther-based horns and a vinyl-only front end gave me goose bumps you couldn't pound down with a sledge hammer. I wanted to talk with Jeffrey about a possible review of his amps but he snuck out of the room to BS with Josh too quickly for that. The rest of the tube world had better watch out. These two young lions are hunting with fully loaded rifles. They are a force to be reckoned with!

The Last but not Least Award belongs to Brian Cherry's DIY Hi-Fi Supply designs that were heavily featured in the DIYCable room of Kevin Haskins. I asked Brian to tell me about his product line and I have to confess that I was totally blown away. First of all, if you are thinking about getting started in kit building, you really need to check this gear out. It's right up there with Sun Audio in terms of quality and appearance, but not mostly-assembled as the Japanese kits and generally less expensive. I couldn't conceive of how he offers such great gear for such low prices. His secret: Inexpensive labor back home - in China. The amp that really caught my fancy was the Joplin integrated, a push-pull DHT that can use 45, 2A3, or 300B tubes. The sonic quality of this amp in the show system was to die for! I was also drooling over the large variety of tubes Brian brought with him. I am going to suggest a comprehensive tube exploration. Let's cross our fingers and hope Brian says yes!

Well, that's all for now folks. See ya at CES in January!