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Prologue to my Top 3 rooms!
“Audio Show” is a funny term to me. “Audio” and “Show”. They don’t really fit together, do they? How can you show sound? Or is audio show shorthand for audio gear? Whenever I go to an audio show, I’m always unsure of which aspect attracts visitors most to an audio show. Is it about the sound, or the gear itself? Music or the machine?
For me, it’s neither. What I’m interested in, more than anything, are the people there. And by people, I mean both the attendees and exhibitors. The attendees are basically people like me with the same “condition”—sure, it’s not a medical one, but it can be as serious as one in some ways—and that’s the relentless pursuit of better sound quality. For them, I mean for us, just listening to music isn’t enough. At least not for serious listening. For serious listening, what’s as equally important as the music itself is the combined effect of how faithfully it’s reproduced, and how much that faithfulness has the power to move us. It’s a unique kind of passion, and that’s a big part of the reason I go to audio shows: to see the faces of my tribe. In fact, I wouldn’t mind going to an exhibition that has no audio products, only audiophiles. For example, I’d go to a show about a special variety of houseplants that could interest audiophiles because these plants are said to improve the frequency response of listening rooms. Silly? No. I have such a plant and it works.
The second group, the exhibitors, include people who are no less interesting to me. They’re the ones who supply the “stuff” that gets me high. So meeting them and talking to them is always a pleasant and enlightening experience. At the 2022 T.H.E. Show, held at Hilton Long Beach, my experience was no different. I had fun and learned something from every rep I met in every room. But there was one particular reason I was especially thankful to those I met: they each gave me a chance to listen to their system by the rules that I set, which was to let me listen to the tracks I picked, at the volume I designated, and from the seat I chose. Not an easy thing to accommodate when you have other visitors.
The reason I insisted on these conditions was to level the playing field across the rooms, from which I wanted to pick my top 3 rooms of the show, as I did last year. And like last year, I listened to several rooms in the course of a day, which not only meant that I listened to several systems, but also to the same tracks several times. I know, there are worse things in life than having to listen repeatedly to the same tracks on audiophile gear, but as I write these words, post-show, I can’t imagine myself willingly listening to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five or Mahler’s 1st Symphony any time soon. Listening to these tracks more times than I cared to wasn’t entirely painless.
But that’s fine, because I’m happy to report that there was gain from my pain. It was fascinating to discover all the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences among the different systems. I found it amazing that all the systems I heard sounded different from each other, which made me appreciate my hobby even more. I felt I grew a little as a critical listener thanks to this intensely varied experience.
Before I reveal my Top 3, I feel compelled to introduce you to some of the great people who were hosting the rooms I visited. First—a young speaker designer named Nick Tarnofsky, whom I met in the Black Ocean Audio room. It was so refreshing to see such a young face jumping into a field where most of the participants, including the customers, seem to be in their golden years. Nick proudly presented his creation, a pair of stylish nearfield monitor speakers named Le Chiffre Studio ($4500 /pr, including the external crossovers in matching mahogany cabinets), and they sounded great, with excellent imaging and punch.
And there was the very friendly Cornelia Davis, whom I met in the Audio Federation/Audio Note UK room. She was one of those great sales people who can highlight their products’ strengths without sounding pushy or too sales(wo)man-y. Of all the interesting things she was telling the audience, one especially caught my attention: the Audio Note UK AN-E/SPe HE speakers ($12,453/pr) being showcased are meant to be sharply toed in, about a foot or two inward so that they aim quite a bit in front of the listener. To which I joked, “Someday someone is going to build speakers that sound the best when they face each other”, which prompted someone to say, ‘That’s called headphones”.
All joking aside, the sound I heard was very special in a most natural way. It was one of the most relaxing demos I’ve heard. The sound just put me at ease.
I also had a great time in the Reference Components room. Jim Dasteel, the sales rep of Zingali speakers, was the main guy there and a familiar face to me. At last year’s T.H.E. Show, his room didn’t qualify for the top 3 because he only had an analogue setup, which meant I couldn’t play my digital files.
But as I reported then, the most visceral listening experience I had at the entire show was in his room. At the time, I saw a lot of creative touches that tried to address the room’s acoustics, including cardboard boxes cloth-wrapped and positioned on the side walls, and silk fabric wrapped around the curtain rod to prevent the rod from ringing.
Last year, I really wanted to meet the guy behind all the tweaks and this year, he was there! His name is Victor Liang, an audio consultant specialized in optimizing the performances of audio systems and listening rooms. I enjoyed our chat together.
A funny aside. After I played Mahler’s 1st symphony on the system in the On a Higher Note room, Graham Audio distributor and master of ceremonies Philip O’Hanlon, in his Irish brogue, cracked, “That sounded horrible, didn’t it?”. I doubt anyone else at the show would’ve said such a thing about their own room. That he did endeared him to me.
It should be noted that Philip usually demoes with a turntable, but in my case, he agreed to use a cheap digital player he brought only for the purpose of setting up his system and not to be part of the system being exhibiting. So a big thank you to Philip for his good spirit and hospitality, and for the incredible save that followed. After the Mahler incident, Philip played a vinyl track of country blues music and, while it couldn’t qualify for one of my Top 3s due to it being analogue, it sounded marvelous.
Covering an audio show is an exhilarating and exhausting experience. It’s exhausting because I try to listen to as many setups as possible, but also because the word “redundant” doesn’t begin to explain what it feels like to listen to the same two tracks* repeatedly for a whole day—even though I objectively really like those tracks. (Is it even possible to objectively like something? Hmm.) So with all that in mind, I apologize to the people and rooms I overlooked, promise to try harder next time, and now present to you, dear reader, from the rooms I did manage to visit, my Top 3 !
In ascending order of preference:
#3: High-End by Oz
- Thrax Audio Spartacus 300B mono amplifiers ($97,500/pair)
- Thrax Audio Libra 300B Preamp ($67,000) with outboard power supply.
- Verity Audio Sarastro MkII Speakers ($65,000/pair).
- Vitus Audio SCD 25 MkII, serving as transport only ($26,400)
- Thrax Audio Maximinus Silver DAC ($39,500)
- Cabling: Ansuz C2 (various)
- Racks: Hifistay Mythology ($4900/tier)
One attribute came to mind a few seconds into my listening to my Brubeck track on this system: resolution. I felt I could hear everything on the recording, without the sound veering into the cold or analytical. It was just full. There wasn’t just an abundance of sound, but of texture, tone, sweetness, and a clear sense of the recording venue. Everything sounded well organized, smooth, and clearly defined.
Playing the Mahler recording didn’t alter that opinion. It isn’t an easy job for an audio system to resolve many layers of a large-scale symphony where close to 100 musicians are playing at the same time, but this system, led by the Verity Audio Sarastro MkII speakers, delivered even the most complex and demanding parts without breaking a sweat. It was something to behold.
#2: Alma Music and Audio
- Wilson Audio SabrinaX loudspeaker ($19,000/pair)
- Bricasti M21 DAC/Preamp ($16,000)
- Briscati M25 Stereo Amplifier ($18,000)
- Innuos Statement Network Music Server ($15,100 with 1TB internal storage)
- Kubala-Sosna Sensation cabling (various)
- Finite Elemente HD09 ED amplifier stand (various)
- Nemesis Decorac acoustic panels (various)
I visited this room while the two gentlemen there were packing up and getting ready to leave. When I told them I’d try to drop by next year, they politely insisted I stay and have a listen, and I’m glad I did.
I’ve heard various models of Wilson Audio speakers in many setups, and they always make the same impression on me: they sound natural. They provide a lot of information but don’t like to brag about it. They don’t hijack our attention to, say, their deep bass or detailed midband, although the SabrinaXs in this room delivered both deep bass and a detailed midband.
What the Wilsons always impress me with is their rich musicality, silk-like refinement, and honest transparency. The latter, of course, might be too much of a good thing if the upstream components aren’t up to snuff.
And here the upstream components were up to snuff. The Innuos Statement network music server, Bricasti M21 DAC/preamp, and Briscati M25 Stereo amp more than delivered the goods because what I heard in the Alma room was sound of the highest caliber. Instrumental timbres were spot on. The cymbals, the sax, the famous string section of the Berlin Philharmonic, they all sounded so much like themselves. In a word, I would describe the sound in the Alma room as perfectly right! Okay, two words.
#1: Katli Audio
- Usher Audio ML-801 ($11,950 /pr satin wood, $13,850 /pr. piano gloss)
- Conrad Johnson ET-7 S-II tube preamp ($13,500)
- Conrad Johnson ART-150 stereo power amp ($19,500)
- Esoteric N-05XDnetwork player/streamer/preamp ($11,000)
- Audience aR6-T 6-outlet power conditioner ($4800)
- Cardas Clear and Siltech Classic Legend Series cabling (various)
By the time I swung by the Katli room, I was a bit worn out from having listened to so many systems. But let me tell you, like a godsend from the heavens, the music I heard on this system restored my ears and my spirit. It was glorious from the first bar of the Dave Brubeck track all the way to the last bar of the Mahler track.
This was the kind of sound that just diverted my attention away from the usual audiophile descriptors such as soundstage, imaging, and resolution, to the music itself. I became totally engrossed in the beauty and thrill of the test tracks, despite getting tired of hearing them.
While listening to this system, I thought, ‘Man, I could just forget about checking out the rest of the show and stay here for a couple of hours’. But I did get up and march on to the other rooms, rejuvenated by what I’d experienced in the Katli room. No other room had this much of a positive, energizing effect on me. That’s why, at this year’s T.H.E. Show, Katli Audio has earned my favourite room of the show!
Here are a couple of rooms that didn’t make my Top 3 but left such a positive impression on me they deserve a shout-out.
- Aurender N30SA music server + streamer ($24,000)
- Aurender MC20 Master Rubidium Word Clock ($30,000)
- HB Design PowerSlave Marble MKII Power Distributor ($21,500)
- StacoreCLD footers / set off 3 ($1,080)
- Wilson BeneschDiscovery II loudspeakers ($ 27,750)
- Wilson Benesch R1 Carbon modular HI-FI Rack ($10,500 / module)
- YpsilonPhaethon SE Integrated Amp ($52,000)
- Ypsilon DAC 1000SE ($52,000)
> Gorgon Interconnects ($10,600)
> Xphynx USB Link (eliminator of jitter, inconsistent code and timing errors ($9,000)
> Kraken Ac Power cord ($12,000)
> Proteus Ac Power cord ($16,000)
> Poseidon Ac Power cord ($26,000)
> Cerberus Speaker Cables ($45,000)
What can I say, I love nearfield listening. There’s something just so special about it. In my experience, bookshelf speakers tend to work better than floorstanders for nearfield listening. When I sat close to the Wilson Benesch Discovery II loudspeakers in this room, I got exactly what I always look for in nearfield listening: coherence, intimacy, and accuracy. Oh, and sweet music.
- E.A.R. Acute Classic CD Player ($6,795)
- Townshend Audio Allegri Reference Mk. II ($14,000)
- PranaFidelity purna/ma amplifier ($9950)
- PranaFidelity Dhara loudspeakers ($7950/pr with stands)
- Cabling by Ken Goerres (various)
I fell in love with the Dhara speakers before I even heard them. They look gorgeous in person. They exude a style I’ll call calm elegance. I actually wouldn’t mind having them in my living room even if they didn’t make a sound. The good news is they also make a sound, as gorgeous, natural, and musically engaging as their look. Of course, the Dharas couldn’t have sounded this good without the help from the upstream components. So kudos to all the players. There was great synergy going on here.