Photos of KEF speakers courtesy of KEF
CHICAGO, April 26, 2014 – I was first smitten in 1994. Behind their ivy-covered brick entry in the well-heeled Lincoln Park neighborhood, Pro Musica played music so pure, so otherworldly that I spent hours in their listening rooms. Scrimping for months, I bought my first serious speakers there as a first year teacher – a pair of black, piano lacquered towers for $900.
Twenty years later, I’ve bought and sold thousands of dollars’ worth of audiophile gear, and now I’m standing in their display room at the Westin O’Hare, where 4,372 people flock to attend Audio Expo North America 2014.
Why the draw? For some it’s curiosity, but for others like me, it’s a quest to grasp and, if possible, obtain the ultimate in home theater sound.
It’s a subjective pursuit. Some favor vinyl records, spending upwards of $30,000 or more on turntables alone. Others prefer reel-to-reel tape. For many, the end-all is digital sourcing that emulates the warm analog sound of vinyl, while others yet find that too romantic and colored, like a Hallmark movie filmed through a Vaseline-smeared lens; they prefer a dryer, more resolved presentation. Then there’s digital delivery: Some stalwarts favor red book (standard CDs at 44.1 kHz); others prefer downloading high resolution PCM (Pulse-Code Modulation, a means to digitally convey sampled analog signals) at frequencies of 96 and 192 kHz, yet others champion DSD, a format developed by Sony and Phillips to digitally encode audio signals from “64 times the sample rate of a CD… [to] 128 times faster,” according to PS Audio’s Paul McGowen. Then, there’s tube versus solid state amplification. The permutations are endless!
I attend Saturday’s session to survey the offerings and audition a handful of high end digital to analog converters (DACs) and music servers that might best link computer-based music to my home stereo. Topping the list are the Meitner MA-1 DAC, the Lumin Network Media Player, and the Abbingdon Music Research DP-777 DAC.
“What we have is a cowhide record mat with cork on the underside and real dead cow on the top,” Jeff, a Mooo rep, touts with cheek. “It eliminates static, reduces vibration, enhances bass response, and smoothes out the highs.”
It’s worth a try on my turntable, I muse. And at $60, the wife would like it, as they’d go well with the new hardwood floors!
“It can improve the sound quality of any record player or record you play on it,” he crows, adding that Music Hall distributes their mats, which are currently in 50 to 100 stores.
He turns to the gleaming white Ikura, resplendent in black and white Mooo, and proclaims, “This sound table came out last week, and we hooked it up and listened to it for the first time – and I was blown away! It’s an absolutely amazing value at $1,195 and comes with an Ortofon Blue Cartridge and is fantastic!”
My new Mooo Mat in hand, I spot a Sony Hap-Z1 ES DAC with a set of headphones at the Super HiRez booth and, seeing that it scored the cover of May’s issue of Stereophile and is reportedly flying off the shelves, I give it a listen. The experience is quite pleasant. Cannonball Adderley’s “Something Else” on a DSD 2.8 mHz recording is crisp and dynamic. I notice a slight hiss similar to that of a cassette tape (but cassette tapes were never so good) and mention it to the sales rep. He says that’s from the original master reel-to-reel recording. That’s especially impressive at just over $1,000, but I’m anxious to hear the premium players and DACs at higher price points.
I Could Have Had a V-8…Ultrasonic Record Cleaner
I surrender my headphones to a patron who’s been waiting and visit David Ratcliff of Ultrasonic Records. He’s pitching a stainless steel tub with a small spigot on one side and several vinyl albums soaking in distilled water via a horizontal spindle on top. Ratcilff, who’s sold five units of his Ultrasonic V-8 and is taking orders for more says, “There are a couple other machines on the market that use ultrasonic technology, but this is the first machine that allows for cleaning multiple records up to eight. And in a 10-minute cycle, the machine will stop automatically, and you remove the records, putting them in a drying station, and reload.”
He sets washed records in a drying rack and continues, “We use air drying for a couple reasons: one, it eliminates extra equipment and technology, but more importantly, there’s no static introduced on the clean record. Using a vacuum and brushes can reintroduce static, which would attract dust. We’re trying to avoid that. After the records are dry, we will wipe them with a carbon fiber brush and put them in a fresh, new sleeve. This is really not about clean one record and play one record; this is about blocking out an hour of time and cleaning a large quantity of records.” Priced at $1,495, sales are strong, he says with pride. Rock on.
Cable Me, Audio Art
Next door, Rob Fritz of Audio Art Cable showcases impressive looking audio cables. “We’re the direct seller of some premium audio cable products without the dealer markup involved,” he says. “We do business from a home office, cut down on our expenses and feel that we provide a real strong value model for the customer by running our business in that fashion – very high quality parts, very high quality cabling materials. We’ve been around for nine years and we have four industry awards to show for it. We’re glad to be here at the show.”
The Skinny on the Scaenas
Strolling down the hallway, I discover one of the prettiest and more esoteric setups in the Scaena room, which features their loudspeaker system and Mainframe Music Server. Two white tower speakers of 12 stacked small elliptical ceramic pods (designed to eliminate cabinet resonance and back waves, dissipating their energy as heat) house midrange drivers and are attached to vertical milled aluminum beams armed with nine planar ribbon drivers each to create the high frequencies. In between the speakers are two separate 18 inch woofers encased in short, cylindrical frames that produce the bass.
Its principal, Sunny Umrao, says, “It’s one of a kind. It’s the first in the world to have error correction and do it, and that’s what we’re showing at the show.” It’s also one of those systems where if you must ask the price, you probably can’t afford it, so I shove off.
African Art and Book Signing
I traipse through an enchanting display of carved African art was showcased at the Brown Art Museum exhibit and, in the hallway, encounter the slender, stately Robert Harley of Absolute Sound Press, who’s giving a video interview at his table where he’s signing copies of his book, “The Illustrated History of High End Audio.”
“We set out to create the definitive history of high end audio in a series of lavish, large format books, so we went back and interviewed the founders of these iconic companies,” he says. “We created profiles of their companies, their unique technologies, their technical achievements and asked them for photos from their family photo albums of their thoroughly prototyped laboratories, things like that.”
“The book is filled with these fascinating, never before seen archival photos. And it spans the entire history of the loudspeaker, going back to General Electric and Bell Labs all the way to the modern era.” It’s available at www.tasbook.com for $129 where, he says, viewers can watch him give a seven minute walk-through of his book from his listening room.
I snap a photo of the Lawrence Audio room, which sports their resplendent double-bass speaker looking like Pablo Picasso’s interpretation of an upright acoustic bass! And then it’s off to the Essential Audio room to hear the Abbingdon Music Research DP 777 DAC.
Monolithic Speakers and the Amazing AMR
Make that the AMR CD-777 ($9,995), which is essentially their CD player melded with the DP 777 DAC, in between the largest pair of speakers I’ve seen in my life! They’re monoliths, standing roughly eight feet tall, three feet wide and maybe a foot thick. They’re a pair of Sound Lab Majestic 845 electrostatic speakers driven by a pair of Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk. 32 Monoblock amps that, with the AMR, sound ethereal. Have I died and gone to heaven? My shoulders relax as I plop down in the center of the second row and listen for 20 minutes.
People weren’t kidding – the AMR really allows the listener get into their music. Bassist Jim Ferguson’s soft spoken vocals sound accurate, but when the sax, piano and drums lock into a fast Samba beat in “Another Early Autumn,” an elderly African American man sidles up for a closer listen. Like bobbing ocean swimmers overtaken by large swells, the music washes over us in successive waves.
Kurt Elling’s lush baritone vocals shine in “Nancy with the Laughing Face”, but then I notice something else. The infamous Vaseline smudged camera lens Hallmark movie comes to mind as I listen to the high hats and cymbals, which are pushed back a bit and subdued. It all sounds wonderful, but here’s the rub: It’s a little too colored for my tastes. As if roused from a pleasant dream, it’s for me to go. The proprietor, Brian Walsh, tells us we can get Sound Lab speakers today for only $35,000. Yeah, I think, in my dreams.
The Lumin in Absentia
The Lumin Network Media Player, which can serve double duty as a media player and DAC, has been advertised as the Muhammad Ali of this niche. It first caught my attention when the owner of a ground-breaking DAC admitted that he was selling it online to buy the Lumin. I soon discovered a plethora of praise on message boards all over the Internet, and the reviews sounded amazing: They claimed that it sounded the most analog of any digital player, with some favoring it over DACs costing tens of thousands more! After some months passed, I recognized that some message board posters were blatant in spouting pro-Lumin propaganda. Rumors were afoot that this was part of a media blitzing strategy. They’d have you believe that their media player walked on water.
Then, a few reviewers broke lockstep and suggested that it could be “too polite” (as in understated). Ouch. I can’t stand “too polite.”
I also started noticing the Lumins popping up for sale on www.audiogon.com. They weren’t flooding the markets, but one or two a month were now popping up used at around $5,000. Had the afterglow faded, or were people unloading their initial purchase (about $7,400) for an upgrade to their new flagship model that sells for $10,000? I wanted to hear for myself.
So, it’s off to the Source Systems room, where the Lumin Network Media Player awaits. I arrive to find the music heavenly. Unfortunately, not only does it sound like vinyl, it is vinyl! I am told that they demoed the Lumin for about an hour, but now they’re playing records. Ugh. At least they sound marvelous playing through this elegant – and very pricey – system.
I ask their principal, Ken Stevens, to tell me about it and he responds, “It’s the best of AXPONA.” Pausing for effect, he laughs and says, “Oh, you wanted more details?” and gives me the lowdown:
“The JL-5 – that’s what I make – that’s $12,000 – one-hundred watt triode amp. The SL-1 Renaissance is $10,000, (which) includes the phono stage. The Bird speakers, here, are $32,000 – all ceramic drivers, except for the tweeters – diamond. We have the Aria and the Linium digital server front end. First servers are heard; they really do a good job digitally, and they’re about seven grand. And, the turntable is – it’s called the “Thunder” – from Acoustic Signature. I think it’s like 18 or 20 (thousand dollars).”
Someone pass me the Grey Poupon. I had merely come to see the Lumin Network Media Player, which retails for a paltry $7,000. Or is it the new flagship $10,000 unit? I didn’t ask. Unfortunately, they’d just finished running it for about an hour and won’t be playing it for a good while, so I shove off.
The EMM Labs’ DAC 2X, a Legend’s Brainchild – and Electron Microscope
My blood is pumping. I’m finally about to hear a brainchild of the legendary Ed Meitner, who was among the first to produce a DAC that up-sampled digital feed “without ringing or overshoot” and, as a result was commissioned by Sony in 1997 to “build A to D and D to A converters in the studios that were to make the first DSD recordings,” according to The Absolute Sound, (February 3, 2010).
I arrive at Your Final System’s room, which is displaying Ed Meitner’s EMM Labs’ DAC 2X – and, I’m hoping, its less expensive cousin, the Meitner MA-1 DAC. It turns out I’m wrong, but enchanted, I stay. The suite is packed with listeners, so I have to stand. The jazz playing through the speakers is lush, vivid and very precise, underscoring the differences between the AMR CD-777 and the DAC 2X. If they were saxophone players, the AMR would be Stan Getz and the DAC 2X would be John Coltrane. Getz dripped of well-varnished sentimental flourish with his “I never played a note I didn’t mean” approach, while Coltrane’s was typically faster, mathematical and analytical. But, let’s not forget, just when critics claimed he couldn’t play a ballad, Coltrane produced his lovely album, Ballads, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.
The DAC 2X is an electron microscope, revealing previously missed detail and nuance in startling clarity. At its core is a hand-built DA converter chip that allows it to up-sample standard CDs up to 5.6 mHz (twice the standard Super Audio CD rate), support up to 24 bit, 192 kHz, play DSD and strip jitter (a slight signal unsteadiness) completely out of the audio signal, according to the EMM Labs site. Bottom line, like a glass of red Bordeaux, it’s a tad dry, but elegant, and clearly belongs in the category of “Your Final System.”
The host, Kevin O’Brien (a mechanical engineer who, along with his aerospace engineer dad and several techies, own the Internet-based YFS) calls to mind Sean Astin in his lead role in Rudy, the movie where the lovable little guy tries out for the Notre Dame Football team, as he intones his narrative: “We basically have our custom Windows-based server and our custom USB cables, along with the EMM Labs DAC 2X and, from there, we’re going into the Vertigo 2 Preamp from Constellation.” He’s on a roll. “And then we also have the Constellation Centaur two channel power amp – and that’s 500 watts into four ohms! And, we’re also showing the Endeavor Audio Engineering E-3 Loudspeaker, and that’s a four ohm load.”
He’s genuinely sorry for not bringing the Meitner MA-1, but reassures me that, at $7,000, it sounds surprisingly close to the EMM Labs DAC 2X, which retails for $15,500. In fact, he brags, his father owns and prefers the MA-1, which he says “is normal,” while he owns the DAC 2X which, at twice the price is “insane.” But, isn’t that the nature of our obsession?
I note that the DAC 2X sounds very resolving and he responds, “Well, thank you, yeah! It’s all high res and red book files played back through the DAC 2X, so it’s as good as we can get it right now.” You’re not kidding!
Fire Alarms and Bad Manners
Satisfied, I make it to the elevators to catch the next ride to the 12th floor when the shrill bleats of a fire alarm bring processions to a halt. As people file to exit the stairwells, a security guard informs us that everything is fine, that they are looking for the malfunction, but in the meanwhile the elevators will be shut down.
It’s eerie clambering up a cement stairwell, sirens blaring, as an ominous recording warns all to exit and scads of people pass you going the other direction, rushing to comply. Talk about peer pressure!
Eight stories later, I arrive on the 12th floor, puffing, to crowded hallways. I’m informed that it’s upwards of 100 decibels in the display rooms, so everyone is waiting in the halls until the alarms shut off. I start to panic. What if the security guard is wrong? What if this is my last day on earth? I imagine my wife crying at my graveside. Will she blame my death on audio addiction? Just as I’m about to dash, the alarm shuts off. Like mother ducks leading ducklings, the pitchmen return to their rooms with enthusiasts in tow.
Everything’s well – almost. I enter one of AXPONA’s marquee dealer’s room and, admiring the equipment, tell the salesperson that I’m doing a review of the show and wanted his synopsis of their display.
“A REVIEW?!? You call that a review?” He protests. “I don’t have anything to say,” he quips, folding his arms with a compressed smile. He rethinks his position and says, “I know I’m being a dick.” Yes, he is. He blathers on about their equipment; I record it, but round file it later. It pays to be nice.
Holm Suite Home
I take port in the friendlier waters of Holm Audio, who this last year let me home audition the Mytek 192 DSD DAC and the Bel Canto DAC 1.5, both fine DACs in their own right. The room sports a gorgeous black banner with the emblazoned words, “Rogue Audio”, on top and a graphic of a sphinx below, sandwiched in between two yellow banners covered in cool hieroglyphics behind their stacks of electronics.
“We’re highlighting our new Pharaoh amplifier, their spokesman says. “It’s a hybrid tube/solid state, 185 watts per channel; about 400 watts into four ohms.” Pointing to the pair of towers, he says, “These are the Dali Epicon Six Loudspeakers, which are brand new – they sound terrific with our gear. We’re playing a lot of vinyl (and)... using our Aries phono stage, which is an all tube phono [preamplifier]. The Pharaoh has a phono in it, but we also like these Aries as well.”
Again, the sound is lovely. As I visit other rooms, I come to the realization that most of the reference systems showcased at AXPONA sound wonderful. Some, of course, have marginally better engineering, components and synergy, which are often reflected in the price. But, when it comes down to it, this experience is like entering into an ice cream parlor offering 31 flavors – everyone has their own palate. Everything else equal, who’s to say chocolate mint is better than pistachio?
This brings me to my last entry.
A Love Revisited at Long Last at Pro Musica
Loud, well-defined jazz trumpet captivates 20 intent listeners leaning forward on folding chairs in the Pro Musica suite. The highs and midrange are still sublime as I remember it – maybe even a tad better.
“We’re showing two of the products we really like a lot: Dave Audio and Dyne Audio,” John Schwarz, one of three partners who founded Pro Musica in 1983, says. “We’re doing Naim’s current, top of the line electronics with Dyne Audio’s Competency C-IV [speakers]. And we think it sounds pretty good!”
It’s actually very good, but like a well-traveled man revisiting his first love years later, for me, the Naim sound doesn’t quite hold the same enchantment it once did. Our visit is brief. He informs me that they’re moving seven blocks away to 2713 Wrightwood, tells me to checkout partner Ken Christianson’s recordings at their site and be sure to see them at their new store. And, then, it’s goodbye. Ken, whom I spot later at another exhibit, gives me a warm smile and handshake.
In retrospect, I gave them a little business and they, in return, sparked a passion that led me here to AXPONA 2014 20 years later. My tastes have changed and now; I’m leaning towards names like Meitner and Mooo Mats but, nevertheless, it’s darned good to see them in this celebration of all things audio.