Despite the rooms, there were several sounds that made the grade. This was one of the big questions at both ‘Meet The Editors’ sessions over the weekend, and the response was near unanimous. Almost everyone who heard the Scaena Spiritus 3.4 loudspeaker system, driven by a combination of AMR phono preamp and conrad-johnson ACT/ART amplifiers, being fed by a Kronos turntable and yet another dCS stack CD system on a decoupling of Stillpoints and a Silver Circle power conditioner, thought it sounded remarkable. It was well-integrated, possessed of deep bass (almost an impossibility given the room dynamics) and yet as fast as a small two-way sealed box. The ‘alien invasion’ looks might not appeal universally, but the sound certainly seems to.
Other universally liked systems took advantage of the room inequalities by either not playing to them or dialing them out altogether. UK passive magnetic preamp experts Music First Audio made something of a splash in their first US show, by making a fine sound through small, tidy equipment, playing tapes off a Revox reel-to-reel and out into a pair of old Rogers LS3/5a. This perfectly matched the limits of the smaller hotel rooms on the 15th floor. Similarly, Red Wine Audio’s increasing range of fine, battery powered amps were sounding great through a pair of Kudos Cardea C20 floorstanders, a MSB Data CD transport and Tellurium Q loudspeaker cables.
And then there was the Robyatt room, which coupled an Oswaldmill Audio Anatase turntable, King/Levinson preamp, Miyajima Labs output-transformerless tube power amps into a refurbed pair of Quad ESL-57. The OTL/ESL combination has long been thought of as a match made in heaven, but it was hell trying to extract any blissed-out listeners from their seats. This should be the note heard around the world, because it made you wonder if the last half century has really seen any tangible improvement in sound quality. Judging by this room, the jury’s still out.
Another fascinating take on retro was in the VAS/VPI room. This has perhaps two of the new stars of the show; the $1,299 VPI Traveller and the $4,000 VPI Classic 4. The couldn’t be more different; the Traveller could be called VPI’s Cub Scout, a trimmed down Scout complete with a wholly new gimbaled tonearm, that the lesser-spotted Harry Weisfeld has discovered can be made for less than a unipivot. The Traveller is a tribute to Harry’s late wife Sheila, who passed last year. Partnered with an entry-level Audio Note cartridge, this was making some very big, bold sounds through a VAS Citation pre and trio of monos into Aurum Cantus floorstanders to deliver trifield stereo sound from a late 1950s concept reborn. In terms of dynamics and scale, this ticked all the boxes. Where the VPI Traveller is a Scout on a smaller scale, the Classic 4 is the Classic built BIG; it’s basically a two-armed Classic 3!
A new deck for most people (myself included) was the Holborne, a minimalist Swiss-made £5,275 Analog 2 turntable with matching $3,475 turntable and a made-for-Holborne Benz-derived moving coil cartridge for just under $2k. Driven by a belt made of magnetic tape, the deck was sounding intriguing in a Berning pre/power (with the new 60w mono versions of the ZH-230), driving a pair of prototype versions of the Zellaton Concert, using Tellurium Q cables once again. The room desperately needed more people in it when I was there, but had distinct touches of greatness about it. As in, this was warming up to be one of the best sounds I’ve heard at a show. Perhaps any show.
For me, the best sound of the show probably wasn’t even the best sound of the show. It was sitting at the end of the Saturday in the Audio Note room listening to a Brahms piano intermezzo LP in its entirety. Four of us were in the room when it began, and all four were still in there when it ended. No rush, no fuss, no pressure from Audio Note’s David Cope… just good music, played in a relaxed fashion. OK, so the cost of the system was ‘meaty’ – nigh on $61,000, excluding cables – but I’d heard a lot more sound for a lot more money, but nothing quite so engaging.