Monday, May 7, 2012
Lone Star Audio Fest 2012
It's difficult to go to a small regional trade show such as LSAF and not compare it to the grandaddy of all high-end audio gatherings--the Consumer Electronics Show held every January in Vegas. Regional shows are usually more casual and therefore populated by manufacturers who are more hobbyists than major corporations. In other words, LSAF is organized by audio lovers, men who build amplifiers and speakers and want to share their passion with fellow hobbyists. They freely discuss their designs in detail and never show concern over such things as corporate espionage, reverse engineering or copyright infringement.
I had to remind myself of that since I was representing an established high-end audio company who doesn't necessarily share design secrets. When someone asked me how much voltage was getting to the grid of our Simply Italy amplifier, I had to resist telling him it was none of his business. Instead I told him I didn't have that particular specification available. That gentleman left in a huff.
Colleen and I first visited the Lone Star Audio Fest last year, when Polk Audio marketing guru Russ Gates asked us to stop by and possibly supply him with some cables. Since Colleen still represented Cardas Audio back then, she happily obliged. I tagged along and blogged about it and was entertained by the do-it-yourself vibe and actually had an unexpectedly great time. LSAF is an antidote for those terse, all-business trade shows such as CES--it's free to attend, everyone knows each other and no one really expects to get a 500-piece order from a dealer. It's relaxed and fun, much like Texas.
So when Russ asked CCI to partner with him again this year, we didn't hesitate to say yes. I offered him the Unison Research Unico Nuovo integrated amplifier and the CDE CD player because a) we had them in stock and b) the Nuovo had 90 watts per channel and I had no idea how efficient his Polk speakers were. Last year Russ demonstrated the flagship LMiS707 speakers ($4000), and I was very impressed with them. They would have deserved a Best Sound in Show Award if it hadn't been for the $18,000 YG Acoustics Carmel speakers in the Advanced Home Theater room. Polk is definitely trying to break back into high-end audio, and the 707s are fantastic speakers for the money. This year Russ was showing the slightly smaller LMiS705s ($3000) which appear to offer the same drivers in a slightly smaller enclosure.
The night before the first day of the show, however, Russ was concerned that the system, which also included Chris Sommovigo's excellent and affordable Black Cat interconnect and speaker cables, was a little bright. He wanted to know if he could do some tube-rolling to soften up the sound. While the designers at Unison Research suggest sticking with the stock tubes--Giovanni Sacchetti has tried everything in the world and prefers the sound of the Russian Tung-Sol tubes--I told Russ to give it a try. But by the time we arrived in Dallas the next morning, Russ was much happier with the sound. Colleen and I were worried about the HUGE bass the Polk speakers put out into the room; it was slightly detached and one-note in quality. But we made it through the first day, which saw light attendance, in one piece.
Just before midnight, we received a text from Russ. We had brought the Simply Italy integrated along for a static display; it's brand new and selling like hotcakes. I had already told Russ that we could try it in the system at some point--like I said, I wasn't sure how the little single-ended amp's 12 watts per channel would work with the Polks. Then Russ told me that the Polk had 91 dB efficiency. "Dude," I said, "that's way more than enough!"
So he quietly took the Nuovo out of the system, replaced it with the Simply Italy, and instantly fell in love. "I want to take it home and name it," he texted us. From that point on, we were very happy with the sound of the system. To that stern older woman who told me that Polk Audio and Unison Research was an odd pair, no it's not.
My only reservations about our set-up was the small, squared room with its rather thin walls; deep bass was still rather forceful and there were some bothersome room reflections--in other words, it was a typical hotel display room at an audio trade show. But for anyone who thinks that single-ended, modestly-powered amps are wimpy at the frequency extremes, the Simply Italy will prove them wrong. Our system sounded big, powerful and exceedingly musical.
Thanks to Russ' room-running skills, as well as the rather modest size of the entire show, Colleen and I were able to venture out and visit every room. This year, the show seemed less DIY and more commercial, probably best exemplified by the big Legacy Audio room downstairs just off the lobby. Legacy was showing off their new Whisper XD speakers, and the entire set-up was as big and as impressive as any demo I've seen at shows like CES and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The Whispers delivered a GIANT sound but still resisted making the instruments sound larger than life.
It's hard to see these huge electrostatic panels from Crescendo Systems and not instantly think of Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF), although Colleen thought they were pretty cool. (She found out that she could get them in pink.) This photo just doesn't do justice to the immense size of these speakers, especially since owner/designer Kim Beumer is an exceptionally tall gentleman. Nevertheless, his speakers offered an almost delicate sound; it was amazing how different areas of the huge panels seem to produce just the right sonic effect without becoming distorted or overwhelming. Mr. Beumer is also one of those designers who is it in for the love of audio...his magnificent creations can be yours for just $6000. International shipping alone on these puppies might double the very modest price!
This modest system from Paolo Audio really caught my eye as well as my ear. First you'll notice the lack of parallel surfaces on these small single-driver speakers, which are called the Klassika (the drive unit is from Tang Bang in China and offers 93 dB sensitivity and a bass response down to 50 Hz). It's a striking look, one that I really enjoyed. I asked the cost of the speakers, and the final price had not been set; when purchased with the matching $4200 Klassika integrated, also shown in the pic, the system price is an affordable $5900.
Honestly, if these speakers are less than $2000 a pair, then I would have considered taking a pair home for a second system. Both the amp and the speakers, coupled with a modest Pioneer DVD player as a digital source, offered a very pleasing and relaxed sound that was seductive.
What's that, you ask? One of those Mpingo discs? Nope, that's the remote control for the Paolo Audio system. It only controls the volume, but it does so with style and panache. You simply point the bottom at the system and turn it like a big mid-air knob. Very cool.
Arguable the most interesting product offered by Paolo Audio is the Petit speaker pictured here, which is basically a tiny version of the Klassika speaker. Designed for use with your computer, the Petit contains a small 4" driver that has a frequency response from 80 Hz to 20 kHz. That's not bad for something you could easily hold in one hand. This I might buy one day.
This very interesting system was from Seijin Audio, a Utah dealer who is planning a move to Austin, Texas. The system was unusual in that it matched affordable products (Jolida), expensive products (Vitus Audio) and in-between products (Linn). While the sound was excellent, Colleen and I fell in love with the equipment rack. Made by a company called Custom Isolation, these supports feature beautiful acrylic shelves that resemble brushed aluminum at different angles.
Oh yeah, the rack can also change colors. I think Colleen has finally found the equipment support of her dreams.
From the feedback gathered at the end of the show, LSAF 2012 was a big hit. This is definitely a show at a crossroads; half of the people there wanted the show to grow and expand and become something big like Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the other half wanted to keep things modest and casual and friendly. Colleen and I have already spoken with Russ about next year. He wants to do some vinyl, and I'm more than willing to help. He and his girlfriend Cyndi Myers were exceptional hosts (Cyndi told me she reads my blog, so hello, Cyndi!), and we can't wait for next year!