Wilsons sound OK and other revelations from Sea.
Last night was the occasion of the fifth Music Matters product presentation at Definitive Audio in Seattle. This "event" consisted of six show rooms with equipment and manufactures' reps or owners from some well known audio companies. It was part busker, part evangelism, part educational, part ridiculous and part sublime. I will get to the sublime part eventually.
The event was crowded, and I'm not sure if it was the chance to hear some great systems or the free hour devours and wine that brought out the crowd, but it was hard to get a seat in any of the rooms. The first room I attended was the Vandersteen and Ayre Acoustics room. Richard Vandersteen was there to demo his new model 7, and I will relay that he is very proud of his hand built speakers. I thought they sounded nice with solid bass and natural timbre through the spectrum, but the choice of music, particularly the video of an outdoor concert in Germany was not particularly stirring. The Ayre electronics were polite to the point of being a little boring. It wasn't until John Harley from Blue Note pulled out a recent 45 pressing of Lee Morgan's Tom Cat and put it on the Ayre TT that the system seemed to open up. I'd give the speakers a B+ and the Ayre electronics a C+ (but the Ayre TT an A-).
Next up was the B&W and Classe room. This room featured the new version of the speaker maker's 802D and new mono block amps from Classe that look big, angular and retro compared to their rounded front end and line stage on display nearby. I really liked the Classe electronics, they had lots of punch, drive and PRAT. The new 802's had glorious treble and midrange. The bass was tight, maybe a little too tight... I was craving a sub woofer after about 20 minutes into the demo. I would give the Classe gear a B+ and the speakers a B, and a W as in "where's the bass?"
The next room was interesting - a pair of Maggie 1.6's, a hard drive source, a Peach Tree Decco integrated amp operating as a DAC and line stage connected to a 100 Watt Rotel amp hidden (along with the Wizard) somewhere behind the curtain. Total system cost: $5,000, a veritable bargain given this evening's other company. The sound was pretty good, mid range had that Maggie spatial thing going on, but why the Decco sales rep chose a Dean Peer song as a demo for this system I will never know - it was like "I am going to prove to you that under-powered Maggies can do convincing bass" and all he did was prove just the opposite. The Peach tree comported itself well, but everything had the slightest veneer or veil over the sound compared to the previous two systems. I would give the whole set up a B- by virtue of the pleasant and engaging mids and overall hoot spa of the presenters.
We seemed to time our progression around the place completely out of sync with the restocking of the food table, so we ate some artichoke dip with a torn up paper plate as a spoon and got another glass of wine while waiting to enter our fourth room (which was, incidentally, room #4) and which sported a Transparent power cable and conditioner demo - Oh Boy AB tests! I relished this opportunity because my co-listener is a retired engineering professor who thinks "cable" is just code for thick wire with big price tag. Wondered if he would hear a difference in this AB exercise. The test equipment was good quality, an Audio Research tubed CD and solid state integrated amp. Speakers were the new Wilson Audio Sophias. Based on previous listening experience, I was ready to like the electronics and HATE the speakers. I actually liked both, in fact I liked them both very much.
The actual demo consisted of listening twice over to a live recorded cut of a female singer and her rock band with the electronics connected to the wall via the stock AR power cords. Then they replaced the stock cords with two Transparent cables with that rat-in-the-python bulge midway down the cable that retail for $875 each. Then the piece de resistance (nudge, nudge) was to add Transparent's new black power box between the Transparent cables and the outlet. A third Transparent cable was used to connect their power thingie to the outlet.
To cut to the chase, both actions taken improved the sound. The power cables cut through the sibilance in the signer's voice, and the power conditioner thingie increased the perception of the performance hall's spatial cues. Very nice. My engineer friend heard it too. But as an aside, the presentation by the Transparent wire "technician" as he was introduced by the sales rep almost did more harm to the credibility of the products than the demonstration did good... Like Zappa, they should have just shut up and played their wires. Oh, and by the way, the AR and Wilson gear comported themselves very well, B+ for both.
The next room had had a long line outside all evening. The room was actually sponsored by AR, Wilson and Stereophile. The set up was some of AR's reference electronics - CD player, line stage, and the amplifier was one of two existing beta versions of AR's new 450W/channel stereo switching amp. Speakers were Wilson Audio's new Sasha's, and Michael Fremer was there jockeying a SME model 30/12 with the Lyra Titan cartridge, referring to the set up as a "Heirloom" product. Dave Gordon from AR discussed how the amp was so efficient that it was energy star rated, that AR had developed their own switching module for it, and that they were convinced it sounded as good as any amp they had ever built (more on that later). I believe he said it has a projected retail cost of $7,600.
Mr. Gordon played something next on CD, but what came later wiped my memory banks of whatever it was. Then Mr. Fremer gave a brief essay on the beauty of vinyl, and produced two plain white covered LPs - one contained a recent pressing of Nat King Cole in mono, and the other was a recent pressing of Fleetwood Mac Rumors in stereo. I think both were 45s. Geeee! The mono NKC album sounded great. The Fleetwood Mac album was absolutely revelatory. I saw them during that tour in 1977 and had people trying to buy my tickets at the gate for 5 times what I paid for them. It was one of the best rock shows I have ever seen. But that vinyl pressing on that system came MUCH CLOSER to the punch and impact of the band live than anything I had listened to before, and of course, like everybody else, I have heard that recoding on everything from elevator speakers to large audiophile systems. This was a totally new experience though. And it got better!
Peter McGrath from Wilson Audio was next up and he played a CD recording of Frank Sinatra from “Only the Lonely”. It was transfixing – great sound stage depth, great tone. Blue eyes sounded gooood. Then he played a very recent high resolution digital recording of opera, I believe it was the climax scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. Lights off, music on, people signing, people dying… WOW!!! My engineer friend wasn’t quite transported to the venue, but this was about as close as you can come. Very, very impressive! I have always had a soft spot in my heart for AR gear, but Wilson’s have left me cold in every previous audition. I am not sure if it was the synergy with the AR electronics, or that Wilson has done something fundamentally different with their speakers in the latest iteration, but this listening experience was in the top five of all time for me. Solid A’s all around.
PS – the amp was cool to the touch after playing the Sasha’s at moderate to high volume off and on for 30 minutes. Impressive, energy star rating indeed!
PS2 – I told M. Fremer about my multiple concert experiences with Fleetwood Mac through the 70’s and he questioned my ability to remember any of it. I protested feebly, but then lost my train of thought and left the room...
and went to the last room of the evening where the Linn Gear was set up. Now this was something of a let-down. First of all, the Lp12 they had set up wasn’t playing because they had found/put a scratch in the preferred cut on the record, and one of the sales people whisked it out of the room never to return. The factory rep also noted that Linn was cutting production of ALL their CD players, which I found kind of depressing, I don’t know why. My engineer friend was beaming because he has ripped all his CD’s and now hangs Christmas lights all over his old CD rack as a sort of light sculpture. Now he is digitizing “some” of his favorite LPs. No old fangled stuff for him (“how can you listen to all that noise between the tracks and actually think that is ‘better’???”). Anyway, we politely listened to the very polite sounding Majik Digital Stream integrated which is essentially a $4200, 100W integrated amp with built in DAC and phono pre, playing through some of their also very polite sounding Majik 140 speakers. More AB'ing, this time between the now ill-fated Linn Majik CD player and the DSi. It all sounded very polite to me.
If the CD is a “tweener” technology “between” LPs and streaming digital music, then Linn has now gone entirely “out-from-between” with their new analog-digital music server product. If I was forced to pick “between” slightly quirky HiFi gear from the UK, I think I would name Naim as my house brand – and there is NOTHING polite about that. They are even sold up the street in a decidedly, shall we say, more casual environment. I will give the Linn gear an “Incomplete” for failure to demo their fine turntable along with the Digital Streamer.
I would like to thank to Definitive Audio for opening their store to us Hi Fi bums, and inviting folks from far and wide to entertain us with their stories, story lines, and some great sounding gear.