Wednesday, October 16, 2013
I'm back from the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. This year's meet--the tenth annual, by the way--seemed a little quiet compared to past years, but perhaps that's because we were on the second floor of the tower, which seemed like an orphan since it was so isolated from the action on the seventh through the eleventh floors. Still, CCI had a productive show...we added a dealer or two as well as a new product line. I'll elaborate on that in a couple of days on the CCI website.
Once again we shared our room with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and Bob Clarke of Profundo, so we set up two systems side by side and switched them every hour on the hour. It never failed that as soon as we switched over, someone would come into the room and request a tune or two on the other system. In addition, I was without Colleen's help for the first two days of the show--it's getting busy at CCI these days--so I had to rely on Dan and Bob's help more than usual.
With every trade show that we do--and this was our sixth of 2013--there's always one particular component that emerges as the star. This year it was the Opera Callas loudspeaker, which seemed to defy physics in terms of low bass output. Last year we used the floorstanding Opera Grand Mezza loudspeakers and were vexed by the lack of deep bass in the room--it was almost as if someone disconnected the woofers. It took plenty of tweaking late into the night before the show to coax the lowest frequencies from those five-inch woofers. With the Callas speakers, however, the bass was deep and impressive as soon as they were plugged in. Since we were once again sharing with Blackbird Audio Gallery and Profundo, we had to place the Operas in front of the big floorstanding Trenner & Friedl Pharaohs--and everyone was convinced that they were subwoofers. No, all that bass (the Callas is rated down to 32 Hz, amazingly enough) was coming from the little Operas.
Quite a few show attendees were curious and initially critical of the five--count 'em, five--tweeters on the small but beautifully finished Callas. Most visitors were very aware of the Callas review a couple of months ago in Stereophile, and John Atkinson's follow-up in this month's issue as well. JA was very skeptical of the use of two tweeters above and below the SEAS woofer, and of the "triplet" array of tweeters on the back panel--I think his exact words were "It shouldn't work!"--but his measurements supported reviewer John marks' enthusiastic review. As a result, almost every "serious" visitor to the room walked behind the Callas to see those extra drivers.
Here's the crazy thing--the Callas has been around since the '90s. It was reviewed in Stereophile by Sam Tellig many years ago. It hasn't changed that much since then...perhaps new drivers and a few improvements here and there, but it's been the same basic design for close to two decades. Yet everyone thinks the Callas (and its big brother, the Grand Callas) is sporting some revolutionary new design.
Finding an amp for the Callas proved to be the real challenge. We planned on debuting the new Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier at RMAF, but it didn't quite make it to CCI headquarters on time. We plan on showing it at CES in January, complete with its optional USB DAC feature. So we decided to bring in the gorgeous push-pull P40 integrated amplifier instead. This is the first one we've brought into the US, although it's been selling well in Europe for several years. It features a stunning Murano glass faceplate that really captures and reflects the light when placed properly in the room. Since the glass is hand-blown, each faceplate is slightly different from the next one. Unfortunately, a bad EL34 tube flared up and we didn't have a replacement tube until our Denver dealer, Blu Note Audio, helped out. By the time we got the new tube in, the P40's replacement was already impressing the crowds--so we left everything as is and showed the P40 in a static display right at the entrance of the room.
The P40's replacement was a seemingly modest Unison Research Unico Nuovo, part of the hybrid amplifier line. I brought it as a back-up amp, yet it shined in the RMAF spotlight. The Nuovo was just reviewed by Marvin Bolden of StereoMojo (review to appear very soon); he was so impressed he bought the unit. Here you see the Nuovo paired with my trusty Unico CDE CD player--the same one I've been using in my system for over two years, and the same one we've used at probably a dozen shows. I know CDs are fading away, but this is still one of my favorite players out there.
One of the highlights of the show occured when Dean Peer popped into our room, plugged in his bass and started playing for the attendees. Too bad he was only there for about twenty minutes.
The other system in the room was also very impressive. Bob Clarke brought in his usual battery of pint-sized Heed Audio components from Hungary--preamp, power supplies, phono stage, monoblock amps, DAC and transport, all small enough to take up a single shelf. But if you know Heed, you know that it's small but mighty. The turntable is the awesome Basis 2500 Signature, mated with the Basis unipivot arm and the new flagship Transfiguration Proteus cartridge. The speakers, like last year, are the Trenner & Friedl Pharaohs, but this time they're in a striking pure white finish.
Before we left Denver, Colleen and I headed over to Blu Note Audio for a visit with Brandon Howell, the owner. Blu Note is our Unison Research dealer in Denver, and they've spent the last year building a state-of-the-art home entertainment and automation store that's truly impressive. I immediately saw two of our Unison amps--the S6 and the Simply Italy--sitting in a place of honor along the main wall of the showroom. I've never seen the Simply Italy with the cherry faceplate before...this was the first one we brought into the US. The S6, also in cherry, looked great right next to it. I told Brandon about the new Triode 25, and he's getting one of the first units. I told him to place it right between the two other amps.
The nicest thing about RMAF 2013 is that we only had to drive five hours back to Western Colorado, as opposed to 20 hours back to Texas. It snowed while we headed over Vail Pass, but it wasn't dangerous--just breathtakingly beautiful. Now that we're back home, Colleen and I are already planning CES as well as a PureAudio dealer event next month at Blackbird Audio Gallery. In addition, we have a new product line to promote. But I do want to thank Dan and Bob for making this year's RMAF run so smoothly, and I can't wait until next year!
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
It's almost time for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest! This year will be slightly different because we already live in Colorado, albeit 250 miles away from Denver. But a five hour drive is far preferable to a twenty-hour drive, and we plan on this show running far more smoothly than last year.
That's why we're keeping it simple this year: we'll be showing a system comprised of the Opera Callas monitors, fresh from their review in Stereophile, the Unison Research CDE CD player and the Unison Research P40 integrated amplifier, with all cabling and power management by Furutech. This is the first P40 we've had in the US, and as you can see from the photo it's strikingly beautiful and different. The faceplate is made from genuine hand-blown Murano glass, which contains all sorts of amazing variations that pick up the light in unusual ways. In other words, each P40--as well as its big brother, the P70--looks a little different from every other one.
Like last year, we'll be sharing a room with our good friends Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and Bob Clarke of Profundo. Bob plans on showing Viva from Italy, Trenner & Friedl from Austria, Heed Audio from Hungary and Transfiguration of Japan. The turntable will be from Basis, right here in the USA. Also representing the US is Cardas Audio cabling. We'll basically have two separate systems like we did last year, and we'll switch off every hour.
We'll have a few extra surprises which I'll announce over the next few days as well. We may have more goodies from companies such as Ultrasone, Carot One and Furutech, so check back!
Thursday, June 6, 2013
As I said in part one of this report, CCI partnered with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery for the Newport Beach show last week. Dan also partnered with our good friend Bob Clarke of Profundo--US distributor of VivA, Trenner & Friedl, Transfiguration and Heed--in two additional rooms next door at the Atrium. Colleen and I didn't get a chance to see many other rooms during the show, but we did get to spend a lot of time on set-up day with Dan, Bob, Alpar Huszti of Heed Audio, Alan Fong of Syncopation (a dealer in Stockton, California) and Edwin, one of Alan's favorite clients. In other words, I did get to hear some great sound at the show--other than mine, of course, heh heh--courtesy of these guys.
You might remember that CCI, Blackbird and Profundo partnered up at last year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. We had two separate systems in that room and offered kind of a "dueling distributors" theme--we played our system for an hour, and then Bob would play his system. Dan acted as sort of the mediator and kept the music flowing. Well, we all had such a great time doing that room that we may repeat the set-up at this year's RMAF in October. In fact, it felt sort of odd to be at the same show with Dan and Bob this time--but separated by a parking lot.
Of course it helps that Dan and Bob are both vinyl lovers, which is why we all get along so well. Dan is a Basis Audio dealer, and Bob is a huge Basis fan--and owner. I'm pretty sure he'd be the US distributor if they weren't already made here in the US. In one of their two rooms at the Atrium, Bob and Dan included this Basis 2200 Signature turntable, with a Basis arm and the new flagship Proteus cartridge from Transfiguration--my current favorite manufacturer when it comes to cartridges. I'm also a big fan of the Basis turntabes--ordinarily I'm not in love with acrylic plinths, but Basis TTs always extract the light from the music in a masterful, confident way.
The big news at Profundo, however, is the introduction of the latest speaker from Trenner & Friedl, the Isis. The Isis is cut from the same cloth as the Pharaoh and the RA Box--wide, shallow cabinets and efficient designs--but the Isis is a 3-way design with a 15-inch woofer. It offered a sonic presentation that seemed without boundaries, effortless and thoroughly engaging. It reminded me of Trenner & Friedl's flagship, the Duke, which I heard at the 2011 CES. That's saying a lot, because the Isis costs less than one-fourth the amount of the $175,000 Duke. More than one person in the room commented that the Isis gives you a big hunk of the Duke's sound in a much smaller footprint. But as you can see from the photos, the Isis is still an imposing loudspeaker.
Amplification in the room was by VivA, another stellar brand imported by Bob. The VivA amplfiers offer some of the most beautiful designs available among tube amps, with rich, sexy curves, big tubes and gleaming surfaces. Of course they do--they're made in Italy! Cables were from Cardas Audio--enough said. This was an absolutely amazing room.
In the second room was an all Heed Audio system. As great as the first room was, this room really caught my attention because it made such a compelling sound from relatively affordable equipment. Those unique-looking Heed Enigma speakers are only $3800 per pair, but they offered full, impressive bass response and a huge soundstage--the kind of sound that you usually expect from speakers over $10K. You know how I feel about Heed electronics--the Obelisk integrated amplifier with X2 power supply is my first choice for solid state amplification for less than $5K. Here, Bob and Alpar brought their top-of-the-line monoblocks, preamp, phono preamp and digital transport and DAC. Dan also included his excellent Funk Firm turntable and arm with another Transfiguration cartridge. This was a system I could easily live with for the rest of my life.
These new equipment racks from Audio Strata were gorgeous as well. Dave Neilson, formerly of Splintr Design, made these racks specifically for the show. He was going to make one for us, but we all ran out of time. We should have one for Rocky Mountain and CES, so come on by and see these lovely pieces of furniture in person. (That's an in-joke--Colleen thinks racks should always be called racks, while Dave prefers audio furniture.)
I've said it before and I'll say it again--Bob Clarke has exquisite taste when it comes to representing product lines in the US. Although I don't have any seat time with VivA, I do own a pair of Trenner & Friedl speakers, I've reviewed Heed Audio and I've used Transfiguration at other trade shows. All four of his lines are just musical beyond belief, and that's coming from a "competitor" in an industry where "if I don't carry it, it must be crap" is almost a motto. And this speaks doubly well for Dan Muzquiz, who carries Bob's lines as well as ours--lines that I'm very proud of, too.
I recently had someone call me on this at a recent trade show--he was listening in as I told a retail customer that I carried the lines I did because I loved them. I'm not a salesman by trade, and I don't think I could sell something I didn't like. "That's a great sales line," that person said, and we laughed. But it's absolutely true. I think Bob is the same way--he loves his brands, and his system at home (which I've heard a few times) is made up of these brands and it sounds great.
As I've said more than once, I have the best job in the world. And I get to hang out with the best people.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
"I bet you thought you were coming to Newport Beach."
That was sort of the running joke at this year's T.H.E. Show, which has been dubbed "the Newport Beach show" for some time--despite the fact that it's not actually held in Newport Beach. It's actually held at the Hilton and Atrium hotels near John Wayne Airport, whioh means they're actually in Costa Mesa...or Santa Ana, or Irvine. You know, the place where all those cities congeal. I was born and raised in Orange County, so I know the Newport Beach show isn't actually in Newport Beach, but nevertheless many show attendees and exhibitors seemed a bit distressed when they looked out the windows of their show rooms and saw no ocean, no port and no beach.
This was the third annual T.H.E. Show in Newport. Colleen and I missed the first two--we just couldn't fit the show into our schedules in 2011 and 2012. We were told repeatedly that we had made a horrible mistake because the first two shows were reportedly well-attended and lots of fun. Maybe the bloom has come off the rose this year, but the show was merely good--no different than any other show we've attended this year (and we've done five in the first five months of 2013).
The pros of the show were great weather, of course, and well-mannered and well-informed attendees. (On that note, I don't think I've seen so many German cars or Reyn Spooner shirts in one place in all my life.) I also enjoyed the cigar booth in the lobby, and the fact that I could enjoy one of those cigars out by the swimming pool.
The cons, however, centered around the exhibit rooms at the Hilton, where CCI was located. There were no power outlets near the front of the room, where the system needed to be set-up--hence the strange equipment rack configuration you see in these photos. In addition, the floors of the room tended to be either concave or convex, which meant that even when my bird's-eye level said my speakers were sitting flat, my eye-crometer told me that they were actually tilting toward each other. Finally, the rooms were NOISY. The halls were NOISY. The AC unit in the room was NOISY. The walls between the rooms were obviously thin, which meant it was very difficult to audition our equipment in a reasonably quiet environment. We spent most of the show competing with the PBN room across the hall, and those speakers were almost seven feet tall. In other words, we lost that battle.
In the Atrium, where our partner Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and our friend Bob Clarke of Profundo were exhibiting new products from Heed, Trenner & Friedl, Viva, Transfiguration, Basis and Cardas Audio, they fared a bit better. The power outlets were located all over the room, the proportions of the room were more complementary to a sound system--despite floors that were far more lumpy and uneven. If we come back next year, I want to be at the Atrium.
Here's a shot of our basic system. We used the Unison Research Giro turntable with arm and UN1 cartridge ($3995 complete), PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier ($4500), Unison Research Unico CDE CD player ($4120), Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier ($6495) and the Opera Seconda loudspeakers ($3995/pair). All cabling and power management was from Furutech of Japan. Those of you who read this blog regularly or know me from Facebook have probably already recognized this system as my own. Yup, that's right--that's pretty much what I've had in my listening room over the last year. I do rotate the Trenner & Friedl ART monitors and the My Audio Design Grand MS speakers whenever I can, and the PureAudio Vinyl preamplifiers tend to get sold as soon as they arrive which means I have to use my back-up Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE more than I'd like (it's a wonderful $1000 phono pre but it's NOT the PureAudio). But when it comes to the turntable, arm, cartridge, CD player and amp, those are my daily drivers. And they sounded very nice at the show.
Here's a shot of the Secondas. People at the show dug them in white. Of the four finishes Opera provides (black, white, cherry and mahogany), white used to be ranked choice #4. In the last couple of years, it's now #2. White audio components are HUGE in Europe right now, and getting bigger in Asia. It's getting more and more popular in the USA lately as well.
Here's a pic of the system I stole from Dan Muzquiz. Here you can see the strange set-up, which did prompt some queries from the attendies. We tried to put everything along the side wall, where the power outlets were located, but it sounded terrible. So what you're seeing is the result of power cords being stretched out as far as they would reach so the speakers could fire out from the front wall. I was typically unhappy with the sound on set-up day, but by the time the first attendee walked through our door, the sound was much closer to what I experience every day in my listening room.
Here's a close-up of the Furutech power filter and the power cords. Man, this is gorgeous stuff--beautifully constructed, classy looks and great sound. Most of it was hidden behind the rack in the corner, which was a shame--these cables deserve to be front and center. When Peter Breuninger of A/V Showrooms came into our room to shoot a video, I almost forgot to mention Furutech. When the video is posted, you can hear me scrambling to mention Furutech before he leaves the room.
Colleen and I were trapped in the room for almost all three days. Dan Muzquiz did relieve us for an hour or two, but for the most part I saw very little in other rooms. Fortunately, everyone seemed to come and visit us--including Mat Weisfield of VPI. He was carrying around the revolutionary new VPI 3D tonearm which has been created out of epoxy by a 3D printer. The photo above is of Colleen and Mat, sharing the 3D love. I talked to Mat briefly about a future interview for my Vinyl Anachronist column in Perfect Sound Forever, and he's up for it!
At every trade show, John Atkinson from Stereophile always stops by on the last day about 15 minutes before the show ends. This year he came about three hours early, catching us off-guard. On the first day of the show Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds dropped off some test pressings of new releases, and I spent a big chunk of the show playing Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Tin Pan Alley." That's what we played for JA, and I'm pretty sure he dug it--his head and body were swaying from side to side. JA currently has the PureAudio Control preamp and Reference monoblock power amps for review, so he enjoyed a chance to listen to the matching Vinyl phono preamp.
By the way, that's Dave Neilson to JA's left. Dave was one of the two guys who started Splintr Designs, makers of the wonderful Trellis equipment racks we've used at the last few shows. Dave has started a new audio furniture company, Audio Strata, and we hope to use his beautiful new products at the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Show and at CES 2014. The new racks are quite a bit more advanced than the Trellis racks, using new composite materials.
Finally, I'll wrap it all up with a photo of the PBN Groovemaster turntable from across the hall. These guys offered amazing sound all during the show--even from across the hall. We kidded them a lot about their volume levels, but they had a huge system and they needed to show it off. I spoke with PBN's founder and designer, Peter B. Noerbaek, and he's designed one hell of a beautiful turntable--which sounds great as well.
I'll have a part two to this report in a day or two, where I'll cover the happenings at the Blackbird Audio/Profundo rooms. Lots of good stuff over there, including an amazing new speaker from Trenner & Friedl!
Monday, October 29, 2012
We started our week with some bad news. Bob Clarke of Profundo informed us that Terry Combs, proprietor of Sound Mind Audio in the Dallas area, has passed away.
Terry was easily one of my favorite two or three dealers in the country. He loved music, had a lot of fun with what he was doing and always passed on his enthusiasm to his customers and everyone else he met. That was especially true for 78rpm records--Terry had a wonderful collection and a dedicated system to play them. I interviewed Terry for the March 2011 issue of Perfect Sound Forever (which you can read here), and I also blogged about it right here.
Terry was the only dealer I knew who would get up and dance while customers auditioned systems (back in the adjoining room, so as not to disturb them). He's also responsible for one of my favorite quotes about high-end audio: "If your system doesn't make you cry, it ain't worth that much money!"
Well said, Terry. You were truly one of a kind.
Friday, October 12, 2012
Here are some great pics, courtesy of Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery, from yesterday's set-up day for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2012. We're in Room 1113, so please stop by and say hello!
Monday, October 8, 2012
As I said, there will be two separate systems in our Blackbird Audio Gallery room at RMAF 2012. Here's the system Bob Clarke of Profundo is bringing: Trenner & Friedl Pharoah loudspeakers, Heed DA/DT CD transport and DAC, Heed Obelisk PRE/PX linestage with power supply, Heed Obelisk PM monoblock amplifiers, Heed Quasar phono preamplifier and Cardas Clear cabling. Dan Muzquiz is also bringinghis Funk Firm Vector/FXR turntable/tonearm with the Transfiguration Axia cartridge. Great sound in Room 1113...be sure to drop in!
Saturday, August 25, 2012
It's been an interesting week at CCI headquarters. First we get the PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier in for evaluation (and after four days, it's getting better and better), and now I just received a Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge from Bob Clarke. Bob runs Profundo, the US distributor of Heed, Trenner & Friedl, VivA and Transfiguration, and we're teaming up with him, as well as Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, for the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October.
Even though we're sharing a room with Bob, we'll each have a separate system that shows off our latest gear. Profundo will be showcasing such new arrivals as the Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh loudspeakers and the recently updated Phoenix, and Colleen and I will be showing off the Unison Research Simply Italy integrated and perhaps the upcoming Opera Grand Mezza loudspeakers. It'll be similar to the Hootenanny we had last year at Whetstone Audio, where Bob and I took turns playing music, but we've already agreed to forego the "you've been served" back-and-forth musical challenges.
Here's where the Transfiguration comes in: Profundo doesn't import a turntable (although Bob is very fond of Basis, a US company), and CCI doesn't import a cartridge other than the Unison Research UN1 that comes with the Giro turntable. The UN1 is a fantastic cartridge for the money, but it's basically a $550 moving-magnet. We wanted to up the ante for RMAF and feature a first-class analog rig, so we're pooling our resources and going with a much more ambitious moving-coil. I've been given the job of breaking this Phoenix in. I know, it's a hard job but I'll manage.
I'll mount this tomorrow and give initial impressions in a few days. I'm expecting great things, especially with the Phoenix matched to that utterly fantastic phono stage from New Zealand.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
It's kind of amazing when an idea pops into your head, you plan for it and you execute it--and it's a success. Our idea for a music event in Austin came from humble beginnings. I've been in Texas for more than two years, Colleen Cardas has been here in Austin since early March, Bob and Stacy Clarke of Profundo moved to Round Rock a couple of months ago and Brian Di Frank of Whetstone has been here the whole time. We've joked about building an Austin Hi-fi Empire ever since we all got together, and I think we set a proper foundation last night by hosting our very first Hootenanny at Whetstone Audio.
The idea was simple. The Clarkes represent such stellar brands as Trenner & Friedl, Heed, Transfiguration and VivA, and Colleen and I represent Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers. What if we each assembled a system in Whetstone Audio and invited everyone in Central Texas to come to Austin, drink some beer, eat some pizza and listen to our best efforts? Although Colleen Cardas Imports and Profundo are technically "competitors" for your high-end audio dollar, we're all good friends and know that there's always room in the marketplace for high-quality music reproduction.
We only had one problem: how many people would show? Although there are a handful of high-end dealers in Austin, this is a music town, and the old audiophile adage that musicians tend to have shitty audio systems (mostly because they're spoiled by the real thing, and partially because many musicians tend to be po') may influence the number of people who would be interested in such an event.
After we all set up our systems and fine tuned them in Whetstone Audio's big yet crowded sales floor (Brian has a ton of great gear on display), we waited for 6pm to arrive with a modicum of nervousness. Brian ordered two Gigantor pizzas and plenty of beer supplied by Jester King Brewery, and the Clarkes brought some amazing wine from their extensive cellar, and we all wondered how much food and drink we would have to take home at the end of the night.
When 6pm arrived, cars started pulling up--much to my surprise. By 7pm, the place was packed. Suddenly, Bob and I were coerced into a stereo war, where he would play one track and I would play one track. Our systems were very different (his was solid state with a lot of power and dynamics, ours was tube-based and airy and delicate), but the crowd was equally thrilled by both types of sound. I will say one thing in the spirit of self-promotion: chicks dig our Giro turntable. There were a handful of women at the event, and every single one of them loved its looks. One even turned to her significant other and said, "We need to get one." Talk about WAF (Wife Acceptance factor).
By the end of the night we were all tired, yet excited and happy. We're even leaving the system at Whetstone for the next week or so because we were too tired to break it all down. (So if you want to come by and check it out, feel free!) We are planning future events at Whetstone, especially since Unison and Opera are introducing so many new products in the coming months--including a music server and a DAC. The Clarkes also want to keep coming to Whetstone. By the way, Brian will be hosting an event next month with Sean Casey of Zu, so check out Whetstone Audio for more details.