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So Doug Schneider, Jeff Fritz, and I are walking into Sonus Faber’s suite at the Venetian Hotel, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. There to present the Italian brand with a Product of the Year award for their excellent Venere 3.0 loudspeaker, which Jeff reviewed last year, we run into 33-year-old Livio Cucuzza, chief designer for the Fine Sounds Group, which owns Sonus Faber. Cucuzza introduces himself, and despite being preceded by quite a reputation, given his work on Sonus Faber’s Venere models, their stunning Aida speaker, and sister brand Wadia’s Intuition 01 integrated amplifier-DAC, I can’t help staring at his shirt. In this sea of ill-fitting suits, bad plaid, and dad-khakis, Cucuzza is rocking tight jeans and a plain white T-shirt with a bat on it. Except that the bat’s head has been replaced by a cat’s head. It’s a bat-cat. Naturally.
When we mention that we’re there to present the award, Cucuzza lights up, and hustles out of the room to fetch the rest of the Sonus Faber crew. A few minutes later he strolls back in, followed by four colleagues. These dudes look like they’ve just sauntered off a Versace catwalk. Two wear impeccably tailored suits: one sports a skinny tie and a fierce tan, while the second is a Jeremy Renner look-alike with a spread-collared Oxford and a pocket square. The other two, between them, wear stylish designer glasses, a supremely well-fitting tweed jacket, and award-winning smiles. Doug and I just stare at these guys, then at each other, then back again. We feel like total slobs.
I’ve known Chris and Melissa Owen, of Clarity Cable, for seven or eight years. Like many industry professionals, I was first attracted to them by the CDs they give away each year in Las Vegas, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. They do this not for money or favors, or to get good reviews or favorable comments in show reports, but because they love music -- it’s their way of sharing something special with other audiophiles. I enjoy talking music and cables with the Owens, and if I miss a CES, next time they always have extras of the discs they gave away the previous year.
Early Friday evening at last winter’s AXPONA show, in Chicago, I found myself rushing to get a friend home before sunset on that Sabbath. As we hurried through the crowded halls, trying to remember how to get to the parking lot, Chris Owen appeared. Oh, no, I thought. He’s going to want to talk, and we’ve got to get out of here. Sure enough, Owen invited me to visit the Clarity Cable room -- he had some “candy” I might want to hear. I apologized, and told him I’d be back the next day. I can’t forget the look of disappointment on his face.
Last year, at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, I was secretly on the hunt for a new pair of reference loudspeakers. With my eyes focused on new products and my ears seeking nirvana, I was quickly reminded how much one’s personal taste is a part of choosing one’s speakers. Think of the variables: the character of the speaker’s sound, its cost, its appearance, how well a pair of them will blend with one’s ancillary equipment, how well they measure -- the list goes on. One speaker that stood out for me at CES 2013 I found in the EgglestonWorks room: their new Nine Signature ($18,900 USD per pair), a revision of their model Nine. At first I was impressed by how they looked. Then I took notice of the suite of new drivers housed in what I would later learn was a highly revised cabinet, and I was hooked. Unfortunately, I was also pressed for time, and so was unable to linger and spend a good while listening to them. I was glad when, some weeks later, Jim Thompson, founder and lead designer at EgglestonWorks, approached me to review the Nine Signature.
The name Light Harmonic may not at first sound familiar. But most audiophiles are at least aware of their Da Vinci 384kHz DAC ($20,000 USD), which was a legend in its time, and the even more over-the-top Da Vinci Dual DAC ($31,000). As of this writing, those two ultra-high-end DACs and the subject of this review -- the LightSpeed USB cable -- are Light Harmonic’s only retail products. Given so few models and such high prices, you can bet that Light Harmonic is laser-focused on performance, both objective and subjective. At $1399 for the 1.6m length, the LightSpeed is a seriously expensive USB cable -- there’d better be a darn good reason to spend so much money on it.
Light Harmonic decided to separate the wires carrying power from the wires carrying the digital audio signal. The LightSpeed has a single connector on each end, but between the connectors run two bright-red cables, kept some 2.5” apart by a series of clear acrylic spacers. That’s not the LightSpeed’s only unique feature. Light Harmonic claims to have devised a cable geometry capable of transmitting data 20 times faster than USB 2.0’s highest speed, and twice as fast as USB 3.0’s highest. They say that this speed results in a “bit-perfect” cable.
Many manufacturers claim that their products are “innovative,” but few merit that description more than the amplifiers designed by David Berning. His recent power amps have used a circuit he describes as a “unique Impedance Converter that replaces the traditional audio power output transformer and greatly extends and improves amplifier performance. We call our technology ‘ZOTL’ for Zero-Hysteresis Output Transformerless. Operating at a fixed high frequency without traditional audio output transformers, the ZOTL Impedance Converter eliminates the frequency-dependent performance limitations inherent in all transformer-coupled tube amps.
When audiophiles gather, they inevitably salivate over Esoteric’s cutting-edge digital components -- its transports, digital-to-analog converters, and word clocks. Analog? Not so much. Mention Esoteric’s preamplifiers and power amplifiers and you’ll likely hear this common generalization: Despite their technical competence, the sounds of Japanese analog products lack body, passion, and soul.
That generalization is not true of Esoteric’s analog gear, which is fast and detailed, yet also rich, full-bodied, and romantic. I’d go a step further -- I believe that one of the key ingredients in the secret sauce Esoteric uses to make their digital gear is the outstanding design of their analog circuitry.
I head up SoundStage! Ultra’s sister site SoundStage! Access, which is the SoundStage! Network’s site for affordable hi-fi gear. In my time writing for Access, I’ve come across enough overachieving components that I now evaluate considerably more expensive products with cautious ears and eyes. For example, my Hegel Music Systems H300 integrated amplifier-DAC ($5500 USD) measures exemplarily well, and sounds it. My reference loudspeakers, KEF’s R900 ($4999.98/pair), are equally impressive, and despite their having shared time in my system with Cabasse’s Pacific 3 earlier this year, they were never outperformed by the pricey ($16,000/pair) French monoliths. Then, in two substantial wooden crates, the Vivid Audio Oval V1.5s showed up . . .
Vivid Audio’s Oval V1.5 ($7700/pair) is made in South Africa and looks . . . well, avant-garde -- like a creature from one of the Alien films. The cabinet, in the shape of an elongated teardrop, drips down to form an integral stand with a flared base. The Oval V1.5 measures 44.5”H x 10”W x 9.5”D, weighs 50 pounds, and sits on five high-quality, stainless-steel footers. Hidden under at the rear of the speaker’s base are four five-way binding posts placed only an inch or two above the floor. Their height and close spacing make using cables terminated with spades possible but awkward. Banana plugs are strongly suggested here; Vivid includes banana jumper cables to permit use of single-cable runs.
I’ve long had an interest in Daedalus Audio’s loudspeakers. At first it was because of the company’s cool-sounding name -- but after I heard first their DA-1.1 and then, several years ago, their Ulysses, it was their sound that interested me. Friends have told me that they, too, had heard and liked Daedalus speakers, but I’d seldom seen their products reviewed. I concluded that the next time I saw Lou Hinkley, Daedalus Audio’s owner and designer, at an audio show, I’d talk to him about reviewing a pair.
Hinkley and I finally met at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, where we talked about my reviewing his speakers. He had in mind the Argos v.2, which was used in Purity Audio’s room at last winter’s Axpona 2013 show, in Chicago. Arrangements were made.
The Daedaluses arrived nicely packed, with foam buffers for each speaker’s corners, sides, and top and bottom panels. Unpacked, the Argos v.2s looked handsome and solidly built. The speakers measure 46”H x 11”W x 16”D, weigh 103 pounds each, and cost $12,950 USD per pair. The standard finishes are solid Cherry or Walnut; also available, for $950/pair more, are Maple, Quartersawn White Oak, or Ebonized Walnut. The review pair were clad in the beautiful Cherry finish. The front and rear baffles are made of solid layers of walnut and ash, respectively, and add to the Argos v.2’s seamless appearance. Lou Hinkley told me that the “cabinets are solid 3/4” hardwood with additional hard maple bracing and layers inside for a very solid cabinet. It would take at least a 300-pound MDF cabinet to be close to this stiff. Finish is an old-world-type oil varnish, which is very durable, long lasting, and easily repaired and restored.”
Tubes or transistors -- which sound better? Ask a typical group of audiophiles, then stand back as the argument heats up. Octave Audio, a German company, is firmly in the tube camp, contending that “true musicality in high fidelity can only be realized with tubes.” Their wide range of preamplifiers, amplifiers, and integrated amplifiers all use a combination of tubes and modern circuitry.
Octave Audio’s V 70 SE certainly looks like a modern integrated amplifier. Available in black or silver, it measures 17.8”W x 5.9”H x 16.3”D and weighs 48.5 pounds. It’s low-slung in front, with a streamlined tube cage that protects the tubes, and tiny fingers and noses, from contact with each other. I’ve never seen a tube cage that I could call handsome, but the V 70 SE’s looks better than most. Unlike in older designs, the V 70’s transformers are inside its case, which certainly looks sleeker. The V 70 SE sells for $7000 USD, or $7600 with optional moving-magnet or moving-coil phono stage. The phono board uses solid-state devices, and the MC version has a fixed input impedance of 150 ohms, with a signal/noise ratio of 73dB and an input sensitivity of 0.5mV. Those values should work with a wide range of MC cartridges, but wouldn’t with my van den Hul Platinum Frog cartridge, with its recommended input impedance of 500 ohms (I prefer 1000 ohms).
When I met KR Audio’s Eunice Kron at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, we spoke briefly about where we thought the high-end industry was going and about KR Audio in general. I found her to be very knowledgeable about music and about what’s going on in the industry, and we tentatively agreed that I would review one of KRA’s new amplifiers. After clearing things with my editor, I was in touch with Alfred Kainz, of Highend-Electronics, KRA’s US distributor (KRA is based in Prague, in the Czech Republic). I had worked with Kainz when I wrote about Artos Audio’s Sunrise speaker. He was most helpful, and extremely punctual about getting equipment out and answering my questions. Several days later, the KR Audio VA910 mono amplifiers ($16,500 USD per pair) were delivered.