2003 HE Show San francisco

Mark Twain is credited with saying: “The coldest winter I ever spent, was a summer in San Francisco.” To be completely honest, I’ve always thought that that quote came from Mae West in protest of what she perceived to be a lack of quality male companionship during a vacation in the city by the bay. Instead, Twain was supposedly talking about the weather, which is notorious for taking bone-chilling nosedives at night. Fortunately, the days inside the rooms of the Westin-St. Francis Hotel, were loaded with hot music and even hotter equipment during the Home Entertainment 2003 Show.

The Avalon Acoustics room was my first stop. The Opus Ceramique loudspeakers ($13,995) and Wavestream Kinetics V8 mono amps was the first system I heard. It was obvious that they had spent their time well, getting the system dialed-in to the room. Kudos to Avalon for selecting the Wavestream amps. It had been a while since I had heard a system using these splendid tube behemoths. Spending time with that combination was a great way to start the day.

Terry Cain, the Cain & Cain Company’s tremendously humble and talented loudspeaker designer, was showing off his finely crafted $1,500 Abby (in what Terry called his “Kind of Blue” finish) and $12,500 BEN (Big ENough) ES loudspeakers. The craftsmanship of these real cherry wood speakers has to be seen to be believed. The BEN ES features a full range driver and a horn-loaded super tweeter. Paired with the gorgeous Teres Audio turntable and Art Audio tube electronics, both speakers produced wonderfully imaged and detailed sound. Vinyl, tubes, and horns; live recordings never had it so good.

Only Stereo Times’ own Copy Editor, Dave Thomas, could make the stunningly massive Calix Signature Phoenix Grand loudspeakers look small. Sonically, they dwarfed him and filled their rather large listening room, powered by Edge Electronics through Acoustic Zen cables. The sound was realistically scaled with deep tight bass. This is a beautifully built five-way, five driver system that goes down to at least 20 room shaking Hz.

German loudspeaker company, Fischer & Fischer, showed an impressive line of speakers built with slate cabinets and high-quality magnesium drive units. The most stunning unit of the line was the SL 1000, which features 4-piece modular construction, the famous Dynaudio Esotar tweeter, and Scan Speak woofers. It made glorious sounds while being driven by Canary Audio electronics.

There was plenty of multi-channel DVD Audio sound at the show, but nobody did it better than Meridian. And nowhere did it sound better than through the delicious cherry red DSP 8000 loudspeakers that were used with Meridian’s state-of-the-art 800 Series system. One person commented during a demo of a Rolling Stones disc that the sound “ … was as if you were right on stage with the Stones.” Having heard that, I couldn’t help but thinking, “does anybody really want a listening experience that puts them on stage during a Stones concert?” Ah, you can almost hear the clanking of empty Glenlivet bottles. Give me two channels and place me fifth row, center thank you.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t pay much attention to a speaker system that my girlfriend calls “cute,” but the Morel Octwin mirror-imaged mini-monitors sounded mighty fine driven by Electrocompaniet electronics. The sound was quite pleasant and I was shocked by the amount and quality of bass from these tiny boxes. And yes, they did look kind of cute too.

Ken Christianson is the co-owner of Pro Musica, one of Chicago’s finest High-end shops, and a recording engineer for Naim Audio. Here he shows off the SL2 loudspeaker in a system driven by the CDS3 CD player, NAC 252 preamp and NAP 300 power amp. Naim may be perceived as having a cultist following, but I don’t know of any company that produces better sounding products so consistently. And if you are a fan of pure music and minimalist recording techniques, no body does a better job of recording a live music event than Christianson. Check out his work on the Charlie Haden & Chris Anderson recording, “None But The Lonely Heart” [naimcd022]. 

The Nearfield Acoustics Pipedreams loudspeaker system sounded better than I’ve heard yet in show conditions. Of course, the $10,000 VAC Phi 70 Ultriode mono amps may have had something to do with that. Unlike Pipedreams demos of the past, the soundstage was huge but did not overpower the room.

One of the better sounds at the show was the $8,000 Silverline Audio Bolero loudspeaker. Bolstered by the new Conrad Johnson Premier 140 power amp ($6,795) and ART 2 pre amp ($15,000), this three-way floor standing design uses all Dynaudio drive units and was finished in a beautiful high-gloss tigerwood veneer. And get this: each speaker comes with a specially made cover typically used for expensive pianos. Silverline’s super-friendly President, Alan Yun, was as much of a joy to spend time with, as his speakers were to listen to. On a humorous note, the only thing that excited Alan as much as the continuous flow of traffic into his demo room, was the huge bedroom of his suite. I think he showed it off every chance he got. What a guy!

Being a Talon Audio speaker owner myself, I was very eager to hear the new $26,000 Firebird loudspeaker system; I was not disappointed. Its sci-fi-meets-hi-fi looks are interesting, but almost belie the fact that this is a wonderful reproducer of music. It uses Accuton ceramic midrange and tweeter drive units and an 11” Focal Audiom woofer that produces deep yet musical bass. It was driven by the fine Canadian electronics from Sim Audio, including the enormous $29,995/pair Moon Rock mono amplifier. Great big speakers, great big amps, great big sound, and a great big price tag.

Talon Audio Chief, Mike Farnsworth also showed his dazzling new $8,000/pair Hawk mini-monitor and monstrously built (and priced) $10,000 Thunder subwoofer. At a combined price of $18,000, the sound and flexibility of this tandem (when you consider home theater use) may be one of the best all-around music and theater systems available. Musically, this is one of the most seamless satellite/sub systems I’ve ever heard. Physically, the Hawk looks as though someone simply cut the top off of a Talon Firebird and stuck it on a stand. But driven by the Electrocompaniet NADA 400-watt mono amps and bolstered by the Thunder, the room filled with a soundstage that was spacious and detailed. 

The Tetra Speaker Company was showing off their Live loudspeaker system which features a tetrahedron-shaped tweeter-midrange enclosure on top of a dedicated stand (not a subwoofer). The tweeter is a Scan Speak treated cloth unit and the woofer is a Morel NeoLin Neodymium-damped polymer composite driver. Despite its smallish enclosure, this speaker produced surprisingly deep bass and a nicely focused soundstage.

They’ve come a long way, and so have their speakers. Mr. Tsai Lien-Shui, founder and principal owner of Usher Audio and Mr. Paul Chen, Secretary of General Manager, presented their impressive and relatively affordable loudspeaker range, from the small but solidly built $950 X-718 to the huge $8,400 Model 8871. A couple of years ago, most of the talk about these speakers was about their stunning cabinetry and but average sound, but since adding famed speaker designer Dr. Joseph D’Appolito to the design team, significant changes have resulted in speakers whose sound will get your attention more than just their good looks. And believe me, they look damn good. Stan Tracht of Thee High End, Usher’s U.S. distributor, was a pleasure to talk to and is uncommonly passionate about the value that these speakers represent in today’s high-end market. These speakers (and a complete line of electronics) are made in Taiwan. If they were built in the U.S. or Europe, you can bet that the price tag would be a whole lot higher.

Von Gaylord Audio (formerly Legend Audio) is still putting on wonderfully musical, if not understated, show demos. The Legend Mk II loudspeakers and Nirvana amps combined to put on the kind of sonically enjoyable demo that I have come to always expect from them. Also on display, but unfortunately not active, was the new “Uni” 200 watt triode mono amplifier. The tubes actually sitting in a liquid that helps to keep them cool. I am told that the sound of the new amp is very … fluid. (Yeah, I know. Bad joke.)

Does anything say elegance and power the way that a Wisdom Audio speaker system does? The $42,000 M-75 system features a 6’ tall planar-magnetic line source column and dual 12” woofers inside a separate enclosure. Their own Wisdom Amps drove them via cables from a new and exciting cable company called Soundstring. The system was fronted by a new Wisdom SACD player, which is based on an Accuphase model. Sonically, well the only thing more enjoyable than hanging out with the good-humored guys in this room was listening to the late Eva Cassidy come to life before me. For big speakers, these things imaged wonderfully. And keep an eye out for these cables; you’ll be shocked at the level of quality and performance for cables costing less than $600.

The Canary Audio Reference One mono amps. They’re 30” deep and weigh 110 lbs. Physically, they’re a beast; sonically, they’re a beauty. Used to drive the massive Fischer & Fischer SL1000 loudspeakers. This is an extremely promising amplifier that offers the most potent 80 watts (via eight 300B tubes per side!) you may ever hear. A drum solo on a recording that was being played had realistic impact and voices had a holographic quality that at times was downright creepy.

Alan Warshaw of Jason Scott Distributing, is the distributor of both Electrocompaniet and Morel loudspeakers. Electrocompaniet was a winner earlier this year of a “Most Wanted Component” award from Stereo Times for their wonderful AW220 Stereo/Mono amplifier. The award is shown above perched atop the Nemisis CD Player which is part of the new “N” series of components which are based on the current Electrocompaniet product line except with optional “high class” anodized silver faceplates.

Coming soon to an audiophile boutique near you will be the Hovland HP 200 pre-amp. It is a pure tube design like its predecessor the venerable HP100, but this new design offers remote control and no tape loop or onboard facility for phono. But hey, who gives the proverbial “rat’s ass” about that. Of course it sounds good, but this honey also ups the ante on the chrome and crazy sexy cool blue accent lighting of Hovland’s Radia solid state amp and Sapphire tube amp.

Every show has a jaw-dropper and for me this quartet of 75wpc Ming Da MC300B-845A amplifiers ($12,500) that were on display in the Pure Audio room driving the tall, dark and handsome Dali Megaline speakers ($35K). I liked the sound from this room on my first visit and loved it was on my last. Also in this system was the Ming Da MC67/HA pre-amp, MBL 1621 transport, Zanden 5000 MKIII DAC and the fabulous Xindak FS-01 speaker cables and ASC-2 active interconnects.

One of the nice new finds at the show was the wonderful line of cables from Soundstring Cable Technologies. These attractive looking and sounding cables are ultra-flexible, miraculously affordable and delivered a balanced presentation through a complete Wisdom Audio system that was better than I had heard at previous shows. This company made its bones by doing OEM projects for numerous other companies. Now, they’ve taken what they’ve learned and put their own stamp on it. The power cord ($475 for a 6’ cord) features a unique one-piece molded connector and the interconnects feature low-mass 24KT gold plated beryllium copper RCA plugs with cured wood housings. All of their products come with a 100% lifetime guaranty against manufacturer defect. Review to come.

My choice for “Most Fun At The Show” was the new Penaudio Charisma monitor perched atop the Chara subwoofer. This lovely speaker system from Finland can more than fill a room with an engaging and realistic presentation that will put you in the best seat of a live jazz recording. This was one of the few speakers that sells itself. Think I’m kidding? Check this out. I brought three of my reference discs to the very friendly and accommodating Penaudio rep, Val Kratzman and instructed him on which tracks on each disc I wanted to hear. Initially I was the only one listening so I sat back, closed my eyes and listened to Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man by the Ray Brown Trio from “Live at the Loa.” After the song ended I opened my eyes to find that the room had filled with people, mostly non-industry folks who just enjoy good music. I found myself sitting next to a lovely young lady who asked to hear another song. So Val quickly put on the beautiful Night Dream from Kurt Elling’s “Live In Chicago.” By the time this song had finished the young lady had asked Val if she could purchase a pair of the speakers. That’s what this show and the industry should be all about. The rest of the system included the Conrad Johnson Premier 140 amplifier, Premier 17LS line stage, and an Audio Note CD player.

Andrew Jones and Brett Frank of Technical Audio Devices (TAD) demonstrated their new Model One loudspeaker. This was the most stunning sound I heard all weekend and at a price tag of more than $40K, it damn well should be. TAD has developed what I feel will be a statement product their first time out and will quickly takes its place among the upper echelon of the state-of-the-art. As part of their demonstration, which shifted from two-channel stereo to multi-channel theater, they displayed a raw model of the Model One’s cabinet to show off its massiveness and rigidity. The cabinet is comprised of more than fifty stacked layers of laminated birch wood and finished in a gorgeous high-gloss plum color. It uses an ingenious beryllium tweeter/midrange driver and woven Aramid fiber/foam acrylic composite mid-bass and bass drivers. They also showed a prototype stand mounted speaker and center channel. My one qualm with their demonstration was that when someone would give them a disc to play, they played only a small portion of it then went back to their own demonstration disc. Fellas, you should know that most folks aren’t going to get the chance to hear their favorite recordings on your speakers in their homes so when someone gives you a disc to play, be kind and let them hear their song.

The Europa II (pictured here in a beautiful cherry wood veneer) from German speaker company Isophon, is a speaker that I have been dying to hear ever since I first saw them advertised. This is a beautifully finished six-driver design that is imported by Symcore Technologies in Miami, FL. They were being demoed along with equally attractive electronics from Vincent Audio, a manufacturer of a full range of high quality audio products that is new to the U.S. market. The Europa II’s ability to image and present a realistic soundstage was very enticing despite the confines of a typical show room. Their elegant styling makes them almost as delightful a speaker to look at as to listen to. Review coming.

So that ends my first ever trip to a Hi-Fi show as a member of Stereo Times. I’d like to thank Clement Perry and the other Stereo Times staffers who were there, and to the many manufacturers, dealers, designers, etc. who were so generous with their time and attention. I’d particularly like to say thanks to all the very accommodating HE 2003 personnel who make navigating the hallways and conference rooms so easy. And finally, I’d like to thank the many non-industry music lovers whose enthusiasm, curiosity, and interest in our industry make this show so unique. So now it’s on to Las Vegas for the 2004 CES. See you there!