HE 2004 Nack Report
Home Entertainment 2004
Tubes, tubes everywhere!
When I arrived at the New York Hilton, the site of this year’s Home Entertainment2004, I decided I would start at the top. I wanted to get my day off to a good start so my first stop was in the Harmonix Combak room. I was not disappointed. Coming from the busy Manhattan streets, my senses sharpened by the intense bombardment of stimuli, I entered the roughly 15’ X 15’ hotel room and was startled by the first few minutes of the very first CD I heard. My brain received auditory cues that told me I was in a space of much greater proportions. But the other “real world” cues I was receiving stood in stark contrast and made for an auditory illusion that was magical.
The sound was coming from the new and very compact Harmonix Bravo two-way monitors ($3,900). They were sitting atop prototype subs ($TBD), effectively becoming a floor-standing speaker. Now get this: The Bravos and passive subs were driven by the “prodigious” seven watts of the Reimyo PAT777 300B tube stereo amplifier ($27,000 to $21,995)! The sound was wide open and dynamic, which was remarkable considering the Bravo’s 87 dB sensitivity. These ain’t no ordinary watts! A chain of Reimyo components completed the picture: CDP777 CD Transport/Player ($17,000 to $13,995), CAT-777 Preamp ($17,000 to $13,995), ALS777 AC Power Stabilizer ($4,900 to $3,795). All cabling and a full suite of tuning accessories from Harmonix were also employed.
The special SET midrange was happening, along with extended highs and fairly deep, tight bass. Occasionally, there was a soft clipping on peaks, and the sub sometimes overpowered Cecilia Bartoli’s voice on Live in Italy [London 289 455 981-2], but keep in mind it’s only a prototype. No tizziness or glare here, just very smooth and grainless sound. Cecilia sounded beautiful in this room [far right, Reimyo's chief designer Kazuo Kiuchi and I take a pause for the cause].
Continuing in this vein, I escorted Ms. Bartoli to the High Water Sound room. She was less resonant, more focused and textured here. The songs seemed to have a faster pace, which was no doubt aided by an uncommonly fine lower register. The thing about this bass was its naturalness. Yes, it was articulate and there was plenty of it, but it was also musically appropriate, and supported the music’s pulse. Excellent articulation characterized the overall response of the Horning Hybrid Agathon Ultimate speakers ($15,000), a four-way design using the Lowther driver for the midrange only, with a separate tweeter and two bass drivers—usually the Lowther is employed full range. Amplification was the Audio Note Japan Ongaku Neiro 2A3 stereo amp ($30,000), the Ongaku M77 pre-amp with phono ($42,000). Digital source was the 47 labs Flatfish CD transport/Progression DAC ($5,400/$4,500 respectively, including separate power supply dumpty’s). Vinyl was retrieved via a Simon Yorke S7 LP spinner ($16,000) with the ANJ IO-J cartridge ($15,000), ANJ SF2 step up ($7,500). All wiring was by ANJ. To top it off—or level its bottom—were a pair of Active Vibraplane platforms ($5,000 each).
Some affordable good sound
The Sonic Spirits room featured the Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD player ($3,500),Blue Circle Audio BC3000 MkII tubed, dual-mono preamp ($6495), Blue Circle BC206 hybrid stereo amp ($9,995) and Focus Audio Signature FS-888 floor-standing speakers ($7,750). The BC206 hybrid stereo amp had a footprint about the size of a small bookcase. This large, visually unavoidable object, has a tubed input stage and comes in a choice designer colors. It was sitting on a slab of blue foam but still produced a sound that was clean and tidy, full-range and full-bodied. The soundstage had notable dimension (especially after some side-wall absorbers were removed). Cecilia sounded quite good, if not up to what I heard in either the Harmonix or High Water Sound rooms, but then this whole rig comes in at somewhere between one-half to one-third the cost of either of those systems. Cabling was allAudience Au24 and power conditioning was the Audience adept Response($TBD). Highly recommended for very good sound at a moderate price point.
Another room offering uncommonly good sound and value featured the Tetra Live Series 505LTD speaker ($8,000), Birdland Audio Odeon-Ag DAC with built-in re-clocker ($1850) and Birdland Pleyel-Ag stereo amp ($1,950). Cables were by a new company that I think we’ll be hearing more about, with the unusual name Kubala-Sosna. The two-way Tetra 505LTD, with its pyramid driver enclosure, is said to eliminate standing waves. However it does it, I felt caressed with a big, warm sound, while listening to an XRCD of Bill Evans doing Waltz for Debbie. This was accomplished without any room treatments.
It was near the end of the day and we were dragging our feet, but I did bring Cecilia up to the GTT Audio room. Ahh, but what’s this, no digital playback in this room? Horrors! I had to put Cecilia away and suffer through the famous Decca LP of the Bartok Divertimento for Strings, with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Wow! What texture, what depth of tone! The hair on my arms was tingling. There was no room treatment, but the sound was focused, clear and pure, without glitz. This might have something to do with the amazing new Kharma Midi Exquisite-DE speaker ($75,000), the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold LP Turntable($27,000), the Lamm Industries LP2 Deluxe Phono Stage ($6,990), Lamm L2 pre-amp ($14,290), two sets of Lamm ML2.1 SET mono blocks ($29,290/pair),Kharma Enigma cabling, Shelter 90x cartridge, and the Gingko Audio Cloud 10component platforms. Without a doubt, this was the most refined and involving sound at the show.
I listened to Bill Evans doing Waltz for Debbie again in the Tenor Audio, Epiphany,EMM Labs room. How different the experience was! In the good sound/good value Tetra room I felt caressed and involved, and now I felt a strong dose of reality had been introduced. This presentation was very airy, super articulate and detailed, with amazing presence and dynamics; you were transported to the club where it was recorded. The only problem was that the sound seemed a bit larger than life, but this could have been room related. The Tenor 300Hp hybrid Mono amps ($30,000), an EMM Labs prototype pre-amp ($10,000), EMM Labs DAC ($10,000), Epiphany Audio 12-12speakers ($14,900) and Shunyata wires and power conditioning were in the driver’s seat. The flawless precision here was a great example of what our current technology can do.
The EMM Labs Transport and DAC were also doing the bit stream in theBrinkman/Marten Design/Jorma Design Cables room. The sound of CDs was notable here, but it didn’t compare once we switched to LPs spinning off theBrinkmann Balance Turntable ($12,900), with its tube power supply ($2,700),Brinkman Tonearm ($3,500) and EMT phono cartridge ($2,500) amplified by anE.A.R. 324 phono stage ($3,995). The Royal Ballet LP, with Ernst Ansermet and the OSR, was very dynamic and faithful to the source through the impressive and elegant-looking three-way Marten Design Coltrane Alto speakers ($24,000). Jorma Design cables were used throughout. Brinkman Marconi Symmetrical pre-amp($9,600) and Brinkman Mono Power Amps ($11,950) completed the picture.
Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds stopped by the smaller GTT Audio room to spin some of his favorite LPs on the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold LP Turntable ($27,000), Walker Reference Phono stage ($12,500), Lamm L2 pre-amp($14,290), Lamm ML1.2 mono blocks ($19,690) and Kharma 3.2FE speakers ($21,000). This was the world premiere of the Kharma Ceramique Subwoofer($7,000). The sound was “in the groove,” as they say, and the room was rockin’, listening to Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan trading licks on In Session [Analogue Productions AAPB 7501-45]. Kubala-Sosna cabling tied everything together.
Really affordable good sound
After the boom and sizzle of so many rooms, I was delighted to stumble upon the unpretentious, almost humble, April Music room. The ambient fill that we like to call “the recording venue”—such an elusive goal until a few years ago—has becomeubiquitous. So many rooms have this now, it produces a dulling sameness after awhile. It was happily absent here. Tunes were crisp without being dry, instruments sufficiently textured and the whole presentation straightforward without excess bloom. Then I got a look at the price list: the Stello CDT200 CD transport ($1,195), Stello DP200 DAC/Pre-amp ($1,995), Stello M200 mono amps ($2,995/pair) with 200 watts per channel. Wiring was of humble origin (no-name brand). These electronics were driving the attractive, compact Stelar 1 speakers by WEGG3 (left $5,500). Who is WEGG3? None other than William Eggleston’s new company. Eggleston claims the Stelar 1’s compete favorably with the original Andra. Cecilia sounded pretty real here.
Some general observations
I noticed a couple of things that may indicate trends: first, the large number of new cable companies with good sounding wires; second, the many new component racks and isolation products; third, more rooms spinning vinyl than ever; fourth, as usual, some of the better sounds were to be found in the smaller rooms, with more affordable gear.