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My friends in the Portland, Oregon area have been prodding me to come out to a VSAC Vacuum Tube State of the Art Conference for several years now, claiming it has the collegial spirit that is essentially non-existent at the larger commercial shows like CES. I've never been to Oregon or Washington so the invitation was easy to accept.

The Vancouver, Washington Hilton hotel was the site for VSAC 2008 and provided attendees with reasonable rates and overall good food, from all reports. The show was certainly on the smaller side as shows go, with a total of nineteen exhibitor rooms. In addition to exhibitor rooms, there was a Craftsman's Room for the DIY builders to showcase their creations, a vintage room, a number of excellent seminars and some wonderful live music performances. The head count for attendees was not announced but it was apparent that they could have handled at least double the crowd. Compared to CES, this was a cinch to cover and see absolutely every room - at least twice!

My friends were exhibiting at the show and I got enlisted to help haul gear from Portland to the room. In the interest of full disclosure, I was helping Harry Zweben of Two Bald Guys Audio. (The other bald guy is Kent Layden). I also helped set up my other friends' room, Rich Brown and Charlie King. They were not on the official exhibitor roster but had been given permission by organizers Carolyn and Michael Kilfoil to set up a system in an unlisted room and invite show goers to have a taste of prime reel-to-reel (RTR) tape playback. Rich has a vast collection of jazz and classical reel-to-reel tapes and Charlie is a wizard at restoring and tweaking RTR decks.

Since I was already in the room, I first covered Two Bald Guys Audio who had a pair of vintage Altec 415A biflex drivers mounted on Joseph Esmilla open baffles (which I believe are fashioned after the original Western Electric cabinet for the WE 755 - see below). Harry had an Audax horn tweeter mounted off axis but later switched to a Fountek ribbon tweeter. Everyone seemed to like the sound of the Altecs but from a marketing perspective, they wanted to show their sellable wares. So in went the single-driver Zigmahornets, already favorably reviewed by Jeff Day [see above].

The Zigmahornet cabinet design is a quarter-wavelength tuned pipe, plans for which are in the public domain and are provided to customers who purchase the 4-inch doped paper cone drivers from Kent or Harry. The drivers were designed by Dave Merrill and specified for manufacture in China. They are about 92dB sensitivity and were designed to have a smoother response than the Fostex Sigma Series of drivers originally used in the Zigmahornet cabinets. Also, the drivers are cheaper than the Fostex, selling for a mere $65 delivered. This is a chart topper for bang-for-the-buck speakers, albeit you need to build the cabinets yourself (apparently not difficult). Dave admits that he is on a mission to get good sound out to even people on very limited budgets.

Also showing in this room were the GINI Systems, Chinese imported two-way mini-monitor speakers modeled after the classic British LS3/5a design. They do not adhere strictly to the BBC parameters, especially in omitting the latter's intentional midbass boost. Rather, GINI provides a separate bass cabinet that doubles as a stand called the Bass Augmenter. These little speakers are another sonic bargain. Their tonality is very pleasing with a good sense of presence. At this price, they sacrifice some transparency and resolution.

Scott Kaufman, of Sterling Audio, provided the push-pull 6V6G tube amp for the room. What a beautiful example of craftsmanship, with excellent sound to boot. Price is TBD. Scott has been laboring over this design for the past three years.

The tube amplifier-building workshop led by the capable Paul Birkeland, part-time employee of Bottlehead, had three takers but their enthusiasm made up for the lack of additional participants. I sat in on them for a short while and wish I had the time to participate myself. They finished their amps.

In Rich Brown and Charlie King's unofficial RTR tape demo room, playback was via several tape deck options: "Piovox" (a hybrid Pioneer transport with Stellavox electronics) or Stellavox SP7. Here is Rich making the final connections between Kara Chaffee's new deHavilland nine-pin tube preamp based on the vintage Pilot SP-210 preamp. I own the Pilot SP-210 and it is a favorite of mine and one which I hope to cover more in future writing. The amp was Charlie King's 6B4G DHT modified Dynaco ST70, which I have commented on favorably when used in some of my past reviews. The speakers were Daedalus Audio DA-RMa. The combination was very musical although I don't think the speakers did ultimate justice to the explosive dynamics and room-filling bloom available on these tapes. Not many speakers can for that matter.

Down the hall from the two bald guys was the most talked-about exhibit at VSAC 2008, the Experience Music room. Jeffrey Jackson designed the huge time-aligned horn system while Ming Su was on hand as importer of the Goto Unit compression drivers used by Jeffrey.

The sense of scale and dynamics on this system was unsurpassed, especially when Charlie King's Stellavox tape deck was used as source in combination with the Arnold Overtures tape from the Tape Project. Jeffrey explained to me that the somewhat crude lumber setup was a result of the speakers being hurriedly finished just before he left North Carolina for the show. In fact, he had not even had time to listen to them before the show. Quite an audacious project and one, which Jeffrey says, will be receiving more design work. The level of accomplishment in both the electronics and speaker design by Jeffrey is truly amazing!

One of my only objections to the sound in this room was that the orchestra imaged too high in the soundstage, naturally due to the lofty placement of the midrange horns. Jeffrey agreed and assured me this would change. His Herculean efforts to design all of the electronics and horns in this room were rewarded with the Best Sound of Show award as voted on by attendees. Nice job, Jeffrey! I understand that he won by only one vote. This reflects the fact that overall, the sound quality in almost all of the rooms at this show was well above average show standards.

Doc Bottlehead himself, Dan Schmalle, had a system on display that must have equaled Jeffrey's for setup effort, with a bank of SET amps powering their line array speakers. At first blush, my reaction was that it was a decadent display. However, I later learned (Dan was busy talking with others while I was in his room) that the speakers had a 4-ohm impedance and that four amps were connected in series off the 1-ohm taps to power each speaker.

I wish I could have gotten an explanation of the rationale here but every time I was in the room, Dan was chatting up a storm with show goers. Plus, it was never playing when I entered the room several times,so I did not feel justified in pursuing this further. Bad luck, that's all. Of course Dan was using RTR tape as a source, too, since he is one of the principals behind the Bottlehead Tape Project.