Clayton Audio | DH Labs/Silver Sonic | SoundRack Systems

Full Report Coverage by Contributor
Greg Smith

Ariel was showing off two systems. Their home theater setup consisted of a Sony DVP-S7000 for DVD, a Theta Data III for laserdiscs, and a Theta Casablanca surround processor. Amplification was via the Mark Levinson No.333. The front speakers were Ariel 8s ($4500/pr), the center was the CC3 ($1,200), and surrounds were Ariel SR3s ($2,600/pr). Video consisted of a Faroudja line doubler driving a Zenith HD projector onto a Stewart screen. The stereo-only system used an Audio Research CD2 player with DAC3, attached to an AR Reference One preamp. Amplification was provided by a pair of Mark Levinson No.33H amps attached to Ariel 7B speakers ($3,500). All cables were Transparent, while the rack was from Sound Anchor.

Legend Audio Design was one of those rare companies showing off a system built totally with their own products. I wandered into their room to hear some excellent vocals from Jennifer Warnes' The Hunter. The front end was their new CD80 connected to the CD960 DAC ($4,995) with Legend Digital Reference cable ($349). The LAD-L2 preamp ($4,495) output through their Legend 6 interconnect ($975) to their LM triode monoblock amplifiers ($5,495/pr). Speakers were the Legend 4, which looked and sounded better than you'd expect at their $2,400 price. I tried not to hold against them the fact that they were giving out literature with rave comments from that crazy Steve Rochlin guy.

Canadian-based electronics manufacturer SimAudio was displaying their prototype Moon CD3, expected to retail for around $4,000 when released. As well, their Celeste P5 Preamp ($3,795) and Moon W5 power amplifier ($4,595) were all wired up with JPS Labs Superconductor cables to the Totem Acoustics Shaman speakers ($11,000). Oracle, a well-known manufacturer from years gone by, is back, and they had their Delphi 5 turntable ($3,400) on display. As well, they had the prototype for a new CD player they're working on that simply looked outstanding.

Thiel had a couple of new products to show off that they were alternating between. Their base system consisted of Mark Levinson No.31.5 transport, No.30.5 DAC, No.380S preamp, and the ever-popular No.33H monoblocks. Analog interconnects were Kimber Select KL1130, speaker cable was Kimber Select KS3038, power conditioning was by Power Wedge, and the rack was Sanus. The fairly new Thiel CS2.3 ($3,300) features a combined 3.5" midrange and 1" dome tweeter in one driver, which makes the box a little less complicated. Also on display was the prototype of the CS7.2, using a similar coaxial driver for higher frequencies, combined with a big ol' 12" woofer and 12" passive radiator. How much would you pay? Try $13,500. Thiel expects to be shipping them by the end of February.

3D Labs was showcasing their T1000 transport, but the real focus was their DAC 2000, capable of decoding at 24 bits/96kHz using an Analog Devices chipset. Other electronics were the Pass Aleph 2 preamp and power amp, all wired up with Apertura cabling. I can't tell you too much about the Apertura Athena speakers, as most their literature was in French, but I found this comment rather disturbing: "...is capable of both extreme smoothness and extraordinary violence."

I went hog wild watching Babe on Meridian’s home theater setup. The Reference 800 DVD player they used is expected in mid-summer, with retail pricing in the $10,000-$12,000 range. The upgraded Reference 861 surround processor is expected to run anywhere from $12,500 to $18,000, depending on how much you take advantage of its plug-in-card upgrades—you could configure the beast to drive a whopping 16 speakers with room correction! Other scary possibilities include dropping eight digital inputs in, wiring up a 200-CD changer to each, and having 1600 CDs at your fingertips. Front speakers were the DSP 6000 ($16,995/pr), while center and rears were the DSP 5500 ($5,575). Audio interconnects were AudioQuest Opal x3, digital cables were the Digital 2, while video traveled over the RGB 2, and power cabling was an appropriate number of AC-12s. Video implements included a Snell & Wilcox line doubler, Runco 991 projector, and the ever-popular Stewart screen. Other new Meridian products announced at the Show include the Reference 800 CD player (expected to be approximately $8,000 when released). Reference 800 series components feature a Windows-based setup program that even allows free software upgrades over the web, allowing a new form of audio elitism ("No wonder your sound sucks! You've got V1.0 of the CD player, you dope!"). Also soon to be available is the 581 Video Controller, which shifts video switching duties out of your preamp to a component capable of converting between composite and S-video to allow easier video hookup.

The cable mavens at Transparent had some new tricks up their sleeves. Would you believe their Link 200 Interconnects start at $70/1M? How about Premium Component Video Cable designed for DVD at $50? At the higher end, Transparent has introduced bi-wire versions of their cables. While they claim that their network cables make the usual bi-wire issues like back-EMF reduction in the higher frequencies less important, you can't ignore that many customers still want that capability.

While Sonic Frontiers had an Oracle turntable attached to their system, I suspect that it was just there so they could show off their new Phono 1 ($1,995). The real front-end excitement was the Transport 3 ($6,995). Inspired by the sunlight moderating irises at the Institute of Arabian Studies in Paris, this new transport summons visions of "space: the final sonic frontier...." Equally adept but not as cool to play with is the new Processor 3 ($6,995), which is designed for maximum upgradibility as new formats are released. The rest of their system consisted of Line 3 preamp ($4,995) and Power 3 amplifiers ($9,995). Speakers were the B&W Signature 30s (approximately $14,000). For those with considerably less cash to spend, the Anthem line includes a new Pre 1P phono stage at $895. Audiophiles who like the smell of solder can build the new Assemblage L-1 ($599), a hybrid line-stage preamplifier, or the ST-40 tube power amplifier ($699). Weenies can get the kits pre-assembled for a couple of hundred dollars more, while real men will spend some more dough and slave away at installing the Signature parts upgrades that are also available. I was unable to get pricing on the mattress pump Sonic Frontiers was using to blow up the balloons celebrating their 10th anniversary.

By far the most bizarre demo music I heard at the Show was in the Presence Audio/Venture B.V.B.A. room. Would you believe Willie Nelson (with Sinead O’Conner! on the Across the Borderline CD – ed.) doing a cover of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up," mixing in just a touch of hillbilly? Frankly, I wasn't so sure I wanted to hear all the detail that this system was throwing at me with this music. In any case, the source was the Bow ZZ8 CD player ($6,900) with First Sound Ultimate preamp ($13,600). Venture was using a prototype SE tube amplifier supplying 15Wpc to drive their La Perfection speakers ($25,000). All cables were also from Venture while power was conditioned by Chang Lightspeed. ASC supplied room treatment and the original Audiopoints supported components on the Lovan rack.

Ultimate Technology had two rooms packed with their products. Source was the UCD-100 ($895), featuring a Sony transport, Burr-Brown 1702 DACs, and Kimber wiring. Digital duties were escalated above what the player alone is capable of with the HDCD-10 D/A converter ($895). Other electronics included BAT VK-3i preamp, BAT VK-500 power amplifier, and SimAudio Celeste P-5002 with PS-5002 power supply, all cabled via Audio Magic wire. Speakers included the Ares I ($2,900), Ares II ($3,900), and the same Ares III ($7,900) speakers finished in the beautiful but oddly named mahogany crotch that I mentioned in my Hi-Fi '97 report. It is an especially distinctive wood grain which comes from the crotch where a large limb connects with the trunk of the tree. New products from Ultech include the UPA-650T power amp, with 130W into 5 channels ($3,500), and the five-speaker-plus, 200Wpc-powered subwoofer, Ultech home theater speaker system ($13,000).

Distributor QS&D assembled a well-integrated collection of components. The affordable gear from Roksan were the featured electronics, with Caspian CD player ($1,700), integrated amp ($1,500), and power amp ($1,000). A new Caspian Tuner is expected out in late January. Speakers were the Spendor F16 ($1,900), and everything was stashed on a Sound Anchor rack. While the DH Cones from Golden Sound were no surprise, finding their interconnects ($900), speaker cable ($900), and Navigator AC Power Cable ($350) was unexpected. A second room housed a system from Quad GmbH.

I was surprised at the appearance of the new ProAc Response Five speakers ($14,000). Typically ProAc's more expensive models have featured pairs of drivers that are vertically symmetrical around the central tweeter. In contrast, the Response Five has only one midrange (the famed ATC soft-dome model), and it's vertically aligned with the two woofers below it. A whole stack of Audio Research gear was driving the Fives, including CD2 ($3,000) as transport, DAC 3 ($3,500), Reference One Preamp ($8,500), and
100.2 amplifier ($3,500). Black Diamond Racing helped support the components on the Atlantis Reference rack, while ASC Tube Traps kept the room in check. Listening to a DCC release from Jim Croce, I found this system as smooth as anyone could ask for, a nice break from the overly bright systems found in many rooms.

I knew the price tag was going to be a bit steep when I saw the woodwork and driver quality of the system from Confluence. Using a formidable midrange driver from Phy-HP, the new gold tweeter from Audax, and a beefy Focal woofer, the Confluence Chimere will set you back a mere $30,000. Transport was the Micromega Classic Data, DAC was the Audiomat Tempo2 Evolution ($3,500), while an Audiomat Solfege integrated amp ($4,000) was supplying power. Bright Star isolation gear sat about as well.

Another setup with both two- and five-channel demos featured components from Spectron, JPS Labs, and Gallo Acoustics. The stereo system connected the Resolution Audio CD50 player to the new Spectron Model 10 preamp (approximately $3,400). The high-output Spectron 1KW ($2,900) was manhandling the new Gallo Reference 2 ($5,500). While on the surface these don't look like speakers from Gallo, it's all just camouflage—the usual collection of spherical enclosures are underneath the removable grill cloth, retuned a bit to sound correct with the grills in place. They actually look like normal speakers now instead of eyeballs staring at you—can you say WAF? JPS supplied their Superconductor 2 interconnect ($695), Power AC Cord ($442), Digital AC Cord ($349), and Superconductor NC speaker cables ("Neutral Copper," $1,950). Joe Skubinski had so many cables in this room, I wouldn't be surprised to find him making custom umbilical cords next. The rack was from Zoethecus, while Bright Star Audio's devices rested on top of the hard-working gear. Moving to the surround setup, the RoundSound part of Gallo was showing off their prototype Ditto system in a somewhat bizarre mix of pricing. These 4"-diameter speaker balls along with a subwoofer ($500 for stereo, $1000 for a full five channels) make a very compact and reasonably priced surround setup. That didn't stop Gallo from using them with a Sony DVP-S7000, B&K AVP 4090, and the new Spectron Crescendo five-channel amp (initially around $5,000- $6,000, with prices expected to drop as much as $1000 within four months as the integration on their digital switching units improves). Did I mention $15,000 worth of Dwin, via the System LD5 line doubler and HDP500 projector with Stewart screen? This demo, using the new DTS on DVD demo disc, showed that these little speakers could keep up with the huge soundtracks of Titanic and The Mask. Expect them to debut in a few months.

Royal Music & Cinema Imports had a big set of the Alchemist products they import on display. Their main system included the Forseti CD Transport ($2,180) with Forseti D/A Converter ($2,000). The built-in volume control of that DAC removes the need for a separate preamp. Amplification was by a component with perhaps the longest name at the Show, Tim De Paravicini's Statement Reference Power Amplifier, a 200Wpc dual-mono design ($6,500). Speakers were the Gershman 520-X ($9,500). The more affordable Alchemist system included the Kraken CD player ($1,200), preamp (with external power supply, $1,100), and power amp ($1,100). Also a bit scaled down compared with the big stuff in the other room were the Gershman Avant Garde RX-20 speakers ($4,300).

Zoethecus makes an array of racks that balance sonic concerns with a furniture-quality appearance. Their new Home Theater (HT) series racks are available in a variety of sizes and finishes, with a four-shelf component tower running around $750, while a fully stocked Media Bridge designed to house up to a 40" TV is around $2,500.

Distributor Mutine had an array of products in its rooms. The live system included the Mark Levinson No.39 ($5995) source connected to the Audiomat Tempo2 Evolution DAC ($3,500), Audiomat Solfege integrated amp ($4,000) and Equation 15 speakers ($4700). The equipment was sitting on a Target rack and connections between components were via Cable Esprit. On display were the integrated amplifiers from Vecteur next to their line of speakers. Their Tierce model ($2,400) features the gold piezo-electric elliptical dome from Audax, giving the speakers a unique look and sound. Also interesting is the rectangular opening at the bottom of the front panel, which looks like a transmission-line exit but is actually a regular port tuned for that shape.

You couldn't miss the display in the room for Gryphon Audio Designs and Rockport Technologies. CD source was from Gryphon's Tabu CDP1, expected to ship in May for $5,400. On the analog side, the Rockport Capella 2 turntable ($7,500) was fitted with their special linear-tracking arm ($6,750). The phono preamp was Gryphon's Orestes ($3,950), while the linestage was their Sonata with outboard power supply ($10,500). The 100W/ch Gryphon Antileon, the kind of huge class-A amplifier you'd expect from a company named after a monster, will set you back $15,800 in addition to the bills for the hernia surgery. All the cables were also from Gryphon. The equipment sat on an attractive rack from Vibex, while speakers were the Rockport Merak ($13,500).

Chateau Research was showing off speakers that surprised me a bit. The truncated-pyramid look of their Model 3 Elite, with nicely done wood veneer on the sides, evokes visions of a serious price tag. They certainly look more expensive than the $2,495 they sell for, and stylistically challenged folks like myself can save $500 by getting them in basic black instead. With the fancy name, I also wasn't expecting to find out that the company is based in Utah. Electronics were the Musica Nova Prometheus CD player, Phoenix preamp, and Pegasus power amp. There is no U.S. distribution yet for the Musica Nova products, so prices still aren't set for this market. Power conditioning was performed by Chang Lightspeed products.

When I hear music I love billowing from a distant room at any show, I take off toward the source. I've found a lot of great-sounding systems that way. This time, it was the opening track to Ottmar Liebert's Nouveau Flamenco, and the system was from a whole stack of manufacturers: Diablo Acoustics, Innovative Audio/Polycrystal, Ultra Systems Inc., and Cardas (who supplied all the cabling, including that inside the speakers). Source was the Wadia 860 CD player, and power amps were VTL 450s, but the first thing to catch my eye and ear were the Diablo Model 6 speakers ($2,500). Constructed with PolyCrystal, a composite of materials crushed to make an irregular structure that dissipates energy, these single-piece cabinets were as dead as I've ever heard from a reasonably priced speaker. Also available from Ultra Systems are PolyCrystal racks (starting at $499), amp stands (starting at $179), and other isolation devices. Particularly interesting were the Ultra Systems Cable Towers ($24), which use technology borrowed from the power industry to help improve shielding, giving better isolation when using high-current cabling. I can't discount that some of the great sound in this room may have been the result of using the Ultra Systems RoomLens.

You probably know their tubes under the Tesla brand, but JJ Electronic is the new name of this Slovak manufacturer. "Please make an note of it" says the operator. Their new 300B tube is aimed at buyers looking to purchase one of those popular units in the very reasonable $50-$60 range.

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