The California Audio Show: A Good Time Had by Most

by Marc Mickelson | August 12, 2012

here are too many audio shows." Rarely does a month go by that I don't hear this refrain from someone within the audio industry, usually with a colorful intensifier or two. You don't have to take the overabundance of audio shows as a matter of faith; you need only look at the calendar to see that, beginning with the CES in January and continuing unabated until the end of the year, there is a show somewhere nearly every month, and sometimes two. For companies that demonstrate their products, the cost of each show is high, no matter the cost of the demo room itself. Other expenses must be factored in: shipping and drayage, staff time, travel and hotel accommodations, transportation and meals, all for nearly a week at a pop. There is also the body blow that the lost week gives to productivity back at the factory, and the ripple effect that has on the weeks that follow, during which time planning for another show may begin.

Why then does just about every audio show garner enough industry support and public attendance to carry on year after year? Because they offer an increasingly rare opportunity for consumers in these days of a shrinking brick-and-mortar dealer base and increasing Internet sales: to see and hear products before purchase. Shows are dedicated temporary audio malls.

Into all of this strides the California Audio Show (CAS), which was held August 3rd, 4th and 5th at the Burlingame Crowne Plaza Hotel. This show has a few built-in advantages, at least as it's currently constituted, including a short drive from the San Francisco SFO airport and a huge population base from which to draw. There are also a number of audio manufacturers located in the Bay Area, along with a few prominent dealers -- all the better for selling demo space. But its August date falls in the midst of what is traditionally a slow period for the entire audio industry, as people are spending free time doing things other than sitting in a dimly lit room in front of a pair of speakers.

But more pertinent to this show, the venue made achieving good sound a challenge. The hotel is located adjacent to California 101, a roaring north-south artery with nonstop traffic. In addition, because the Crowne Plaza is obviously an older hotel, the windows are not effective at keeping out the 101's steady roar. The staff of the hotel are hip to this. It is literally the case that instead of a mint lying on your pillow when you get to your room, there is a pair of earplugs to help you sleep through the din, which one attendee measured at 60dB inside the hotel. And while the large ground-floor meeting rooms were of decent size (although the temporary walls between them were flimsy), the bread-and-butter demonstration rooms on the second and third floors were noticeably smaller than the standard rooms for other shows. In a couple of instances, I was seated no more than five feet from a speaker, creating truly intimate listening.

The noise and tiny spaces may explain why there were so few exhibitor rooms -- 31 total -- and why attendance was light, at least by my unofficial visual measure. It certainly explains why getting passable sound in the cramped upstairs rooms (the large meeting rooms had their own issues, as you will read) was such a challenge. Still, the CAS is something, a celebration of high-end audio, if not one that wards off the dealerless existence we all hope is not forthcoming.

The questionable conditions presented an opportunity for at least one exhibitor. Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis has a long and very impressive list of clients for which it designs dedicated listening spaces or simply improves existing spaces. For the CAS, Hodas used a false wall that fit snugly in front of the room's windows to reduce road noise. He then hung Ikea rugs on custom-made scaffolding to tame side-wall reflections. In the room was stuffed Focal Scala Utopia speakers ($32,500 per pair) that were driven by a pair of VTL MB-450 Signature III amps ($18,000/pair) and a TL-6.5 Signature preamp ($11,500), everything connected with TARA Labs cables. All of this was from engineer Piper Payne's mastering suite at Michael Romanowski Mastering in San Francisco. The source was truly special: the 1/2" reel-to-reel deck from The Tape Project.

In addition to doing on-location recording, Piper handles the critical duplication of 1/4" tapes for The Tape Project, and she played both released and unreleased cuts at the show, all mastered by Paul Stubblebine. The sound was immediate and see-through transparent -- as one would expect, given the pedigree of this work -- and it was certainly the case that traffic noise and the room itself were far, far less intrusive here than for any of the other smaller rooms in which I listened. Expect to hear much more from Piper Payne, an astute and talented young woman, in the future -- and not just for her Tape Project work but also her own recordings. And expect to read about her mastering suite in its usual habitat on The Audio Beat.

At other shows, I expend a great deal of time hunting down significant new products -- or merely ones unknown to me -- but a relative paucity of them at the CAS gave me more time to listen, which I did greedily. The most interesting unknown products I came across (from what was surely an incomplete list) were the power distributors from the German company HB Cable Design. With names like PowerSlave and PowerStar, these AC distribution blocks feature gold-plated buss bars, silver solder joints and conducting wires with multiple different wraps, along with outlets that the company designs and manufactures. The outer cases are made of acrylic or stone, the former allowing inspection of the massively overbuilt innards. The six-outlet PowerStar Horizon costs $3995, the eight-outlet PowerStar Acrylic $6995, and the eight-outlet PowerSlave Marble (shown above) $8995.

Von Gaylord Audio is an old name to me, as I first covered the company back in the late-1990s, when it was called Legend Audio and consistently made good sound in smallish rooms. The four-chassis Von Gaylord UNI Sea mono amplifiers ($140,000/pair) fall squarely into the unusual category, as they feature fluid-cooled tubes housed in a see-through cylindrical enclosure that looks like a small aquarium. The cooling fluid is non-conductive and keeps the transmitting tubes housed within from burning up "within five seconds," according to the company. At 200 watts each, the UNI Sea is billed as the most powerful single-ended amp in existence -- a claim I can neither confirm nor disprove.

The UNI Sea was on static display, while a full system of Von Gaylord electronics, cables and speakers played in the adjacent room. Von Gaylord UNI mono amps ($16,995/pair) drove Return of the Legend stand-mounted speakers ($12,995 per pair), with an UNI preamp ($15,995) and DAC ($12,995) also in use. Return of the Legend interconnects, speaker cables and digital cables, along with a Live Performance power conditioner, finished things off. The odd names aside, the sound was highly resolved with the all-digital source material right down to the noise floor, which fortunately wasn't completely washed out by ambient noise, and the system seemed appropriately sized for the room. It was 1999 all over again.

Loggie Audio, a dealer located in nearby Redwood City, paired pairs of YG Acoustics Anat III Studio Signature ($82,000 per pair) and Carmel ($18,000 per pair) speakers with Ypsilon Aelius mono amps ($36,000 per pair) and an Ypsilon PST-100 Mk II preamp ($37,000) to produce what was the most authoritative sound I heard in any of the small rooms. The source was the Esoteric P-02/D-02 transport/DAC combo ($47,000 total), augmented for file playback with a Bryston BDP-1 media interface ($2195), which Robin Loggie admitted was seeing little action at the show. Stage III cables were in use throughout, totaling nearly $50,000, along with one of aforementioned the HB Cable Design power distributors.

I listened here a couple of times, hearing both YG Acoustics speakers, though not with my music in either case. The larger Anat IIIs didn't seem to suffer from the cramped space, conjuring a soundstage that belied the room in which they were played, but my choice for the room would be the Carmels, whose svelte profile better suited it. I suspect that lower-priced electronics could also extract a great deal of the musical soul of these speakers. Robin Loggie clearly understood that using the right speaker for the room would pay off sonically.

Ambition can be counterproductive when it comes to assembling a show system. Cramming top-of-the-line speakers and electronics in spaces with questionable or downright hostile sonic conditions has led to more disappointing than acceptable sound. San Francisco dealer Music Lovers Audio didn't seem to get that memo, as the two systems they assembled, with the aid and muscle of the manufacturers whose products were used, could have turned ambition into hubris.

The first system used Vivid G3 Giya speakers ($40,000 per pair) with an assortment of Aesthetix electronics, including Atlas monoblocks ($16,000 per pair), a Janus Signature preamp ($10,000) and a Romulus CD player ($7000). Analog was also in generous use, a Brinkmann Bardo turntable with 9.6 tonearm ($11,990) and Benz Micro LP-S cartridge ($5000) spinning some of distributor Philip O'Hanlon's choice LPs. All cables were from Synergistic Research, which also supplied its ART room-tuning system and Tranquility Base XL equipment shelves. Grand Prix Audio Monaco racks were also in use.

Among the merits of Vivid speakers is very good retrieval of fine detail at the very threshold of the noise floor, and that was on display when Philip spun the reissued LP of Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light 'Til Dawn, which was nicely layered. However, as is often the case at audio shows, a noisy neighbor, in this case Legacy Audio, ruined the sense of tranquility with blasts of Aerosmith and Pink Floyd. I still give this Music Lovers system very high marks, and Philip was able to return the disruption somewhat when he played the test pressing for the upcoming Analogue Productions release of The Doors' L.A. Woman at near-annoyance levels. While you actually can pick your neighbors at an audio show, you can't be sure if one will periodically want to show off the high-output capabilities of a speaker or subwoofer.

Music Lovers' second room was at the other end of the building, and it "featured" an aluminum garage door that opened straight into the hotel's back parking lot. Some judicious use of damping materials effectively sealed it off as a cause for concern, while the packing crates for the system were carefully arranged on one side of the room (and hidden behind drapery) to act as sinks for any excess energy. With only one wall shared with the room next door, this space may have been as ideal as the hotel offered, and Music Lovers went all out, assembling a true super-system. Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF speakers ($199,500 per pair with custom finish) and a single Thor's Hammer subwoofer ($21,500) were driven by a trio of VTL Siegfried Series II mono amps ($32,500 each). A TL-7.5 III preamp ($20,000) and TP-6.5 phono stage ($8500) finished off the all-VTL electronics. Both analog and digital sources were in copious use. There was an AMG Viella W turntable with 12" tonearm ($16,500) and Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge ($15,000), both of which Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings distributes. A complete dCS Scarlatti stack ($80,000) handled both disc and hard-drive playback. Cables were from Transparent Audio, and racks were Harmonic Resolution Systems SXRs with M3X platforms (approximately $25,000 each).

First, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have Wilson XLFs in my listening room right now, so I'm familiar with their wide-ranging capabilities -- and I'm learning more about them with each CD or LP. I am also somewhat familiar with the Siegfried IIs, having heard them at length in June at THE Show Newport, where they drove Wilson Sasha W/Ps. So I had an impression of what this pairing would achieve, the amps gripping the large speakers, which in turn would reveal the amps' unique combination of explosive drive, harmonic complexity and delicacy to the noise floor.

However, the wild card that the Thor's Hammer presented was impossible to predict but very easy to hear. The greatest accomplishment of a good subwoofer is not extending the bass; the Thor's Hammer was crossed over at 30Hz, which left precious little room for downward movement. Instead, it functioned as a soundstage-augmentation circuit, expanding the sense of space in all dimensions, creating a more massive, physical, palpable soundscape. Again, this is what a very good subwoofer does. It also clarified the midband, increasing the intelligibility of voices especially, although this wasn't as pronounced as its spatial effect. Interestingly, I witnessed a few people hesitantly walk up to the sub and put an ear to one of the drivers. Even though it was placed between the speakers, its output wasn't at all directional, and this apparently caused some people to think that it wasn't being used.

Interesting music was free-flowing here, with both digital and analog in liberal use, along with requests from attendees. Playing requests is always a good sign that those who assembled the system are confident of its capabilities to play anything and scale properly. Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio played some of his high-rez recordings, a few of which were holographic in the extreme, including a portion of Verdi's Tosca in which the movements of the singers were tracked with rare precision.

After hours, I played cuts from my own CD-R samplers to discern more about this system, along with many of Garth Leerer's LPs, just for the fun of it. I careened from Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch to side two of Led Zeppelin II (the Classic Records version no less) to Ani Difranco to the Jacques Loussier Trio -- for more than two hours each night. Retrieval of detail was absolute, as was the lifelike stature of the performers and the immensity of the soundstage. When the room was full during the day, the volume was up, but at night I listened at varying levels, and it was only under these conditions that I could fully understand the system's seemingly unbounded bandwidth, resolution and dynamics. In these respects, this system rivaled the best I've heard, which happened to be in David Wilson's listening room, also with VTL Siegfrieds, albeit the first generation of the amps. The XLFs may be sensitive, but the Siegfried IIs still made a convincing case for their über power. A follow-up session in my listening room is imminent.

There are too many audio shows, but a system such as this is a reminder of what is possible from musical reproduction here and now, which goes a long way toward giving any audio show a reason for being.

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