The Big Systems of Tampa Day Three
As I began Day Three of the FAE, I was surprised to discover that I only had four rooms plus the sole hallway exhibit left to cover. With the realization that I could actually spend some time in the sun before flying home during the Pacific Northwest’s most paralyzing Snowmaggedon episode in many a decade, I allowed myself to take more time in each room.
It certainly wasn’t hard to linger in the mbl room on the second floor. Thanks to Jeremy Bryan’s set-up acumen, Nat King Cole’s impeccably enunciated “Stardust” and Blue Tofu’s “A Battle Between” both sounded warm and spacious, with fast, near-ideal bass. A live-to-two-track recording of the Tara Labs Allstars (David Benoit, Jim Keltner, and Nathan East) playing the Linus and Lucy theme from Peanuts sounded really nice and warm. By the time I got to Jennifer Warnes’s “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” however, I began to feel that, as amazing as the sound was, the same warm tinge on everything suggested some top end roll-off. As much as I loved hearing my own 24/96 files of Cecilia Bartoli singing Vivaldi and an ad hoc trio performing Debussy, as well as a superb tape transfer of Joni Mitchell’s 2000 recording of “Both Sides Now,” I wanted for more neutrality. Mitchell’s nicotine-tinged poignancy was a bit too sugar-coated for my taste.
Doing the considerable honors: mbl N31 DACCD player ($15,400), mbl 101 E MKII Radialstrahler loudspeaker ($70,500/pair), the West Coast premieres of the mbl N11 stereo preamp ($15,600) and N15 monoblocks ($17,800/each), United Home Audio Ultima4 ops-dc-powered tape deck ($30,000), Wireworld Series 8 Eclipse cabling, and SMT of Sweden room treatment.
The first time I entered the Legacy room on the 4th or 5th floor, three beer-guzzling guys had decided to turn the exhibit into their own public man cave. I later saw one of these guys staggering out of the elevator.
Unable to hear the music over the din, I returned on Day Three, when Bill Dudleston graciously took the time to copy my 24.96 file of the first movement of Andris Nelson’s Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony 4 to HD. (Note that this DG recording of Symphonies 4 & 11, which nabbed Grammys for Best Engineered Recording and Best Classical Orchestral performance just last week, was lauded in my January 2019 “My Back Pages” Shostakovich Symphony round-up, and is available for streaming in 24/96 MQA on Tidal and 24/96 flac on Qobuz. In September, I heard the BSO and Nelsons perform Symphony 4 in Philharmonie de Paris, and can attest to the recording’s sonic truthfulness.)
This was the most successful demo of Legacy loudspeakers and electronics I’ve experienced in many a show. Although I couldn’t hear much depth from large speakers positioned so close to the wall behind themDuddleston had no choice in the mattertimbres were extremely neutral and spot on. In the Shostakovich, the speakers threw a huge, high soundstage. I’m not sure that all the bass resonance I heard on the BSO’s drums was actually on the recording, but it sure made for rousing listening. As for the high, piercing piccolos, the system truthfully captured how they sound in live performance. I also loved how fine and neutral The Wailin’ Jennys’ live, a cappella rendition of “Bring me a Li’l Water, Sylvy” sounded. When I requested nastier music, I was impressed with the directness of the treble and strength of bass on “Billie Jean” by The Civil Wars. (For those wishing to bend reality just a bit, there’s a common theme to these three selections, sort of.)
Heard in the main system were the Legacy Aeris loudspeakers in what sounds like edible natural Sapele Pommele/Black Pearl finish ($21,150/pair as shown) with Wavelest DAC/preamp/crossover/correction unit (additional $3450) and new Legacy Powerbloc4 amplifier ($2950). Because auditioning the second, smaller Legacy system in the other room at real world levels would have required silencing the main system, I left that one for another show.
Martin Logan and Parasound went all out with their bigger system-the one that was playing when I visited their huge double conference room on the 2nd floor, in which two systems faced each other, with lots of space in between. On an exquisite song by soprano Arleen Auger, Branford Marsalis’s “Makin’ Whoopee,” another from Count Basie, and yet another whose name I didn’t get, this quite loud, warmth-tinged system did really well with complex timbres and colors, and also had excellent dynamics.
Transparency was lacking, however, which wasn’t surprising considering the digital source. Then again, I’ve attended a number of demos of electrostats, and have rarely if ever heard the vaunted transparency that some people say reproduces voices to perfection. I wish I could say more about the system, but one of the doors to this room was wide open, and there was a crowd of people just outside who seemed determined to shout over whatever music was wafting their way.
Seen and heard were the MartinLogan Neoliths in Rosso Fusso red ($80,000/pair); Parasound JC 5 two-channel power amp, one powering each channel ($5995 each); Parasound JC 2 BP two-channel preamp ($4495); Parasound JC 3 Jr. phono preamp ($1495); Rega P6 turntable with Rega cartridge ($2000); Aurender A10 music server/DAC with 4TB HD ($5495); and AudioQuest Niagara 7000 AC power conditioner and cabling (approx. $75,000).
If I dare say that the $35,000 system at the other end of the room was touted by the room sponsors as “affordable,” someone will surely have my head. So I’m not going to say it.
In another two-system face-off room on the 2nd floor, I heard the larger set-up headed by Von Schweikert Ultra 55 loudspeakers ($90,000/pair) and two Von Schweikert V12XS Shockwave subwoofers ($11,500 each). Von Schweikert was wise to stick to speakers smaller than the mammoths they’ve brought to some shows, which are challenged to produce tight bass in air-walled environments.
Given that the system also included VAC Statement 450iQ monoblocks ($120,000/pair), and VAC Statement phono stage ($80,000) and line stage ($75,000); Esoteric Grandioso P1 transport ($38,000), two Grandioso D1 monoblock DACs ($19,000 each), Grandioso G1 master clock ($26,000), and surprisingly non-grandiose N-01 streamer/renderer/DAC ($20,000); Kronos Pro turntable with Black Beauty tonearm and Ultracap power supply ($51,000) and Airtight Opus 1 cartridge ($16,000), Critical Mass Maxxum rack ($6,250 per component space x 12), and two Critical Mass Maxxum amp stands ($6250 each), I think it’s fair to say that the forces behind the room were hoping to make a no-holds-barred impression. In many ways they did.
Without question, the system handled everything thrown at it with aplomb. Nonetheless, after listening to the Sugar Plum Faeries sound very sweet on an LP of the Royal Ballet, and other cuts including the five-string double bass, flamenco guitar, drums, and percussion on “40 Días” from the Renaud Garcia-Fons Trio, I left the room feeling that the system was overly warm and a bit rolled off on top.
Moving back down to earth, as it were, the day ended at the far more affordable five-DAC Mytek table. There I heard, from left to right in the photo, the Mytek Manhattan II DAC ($5995 plus $995 for network card and $1495 for optional phono card), Brooklyn Bridge DAC with WiFi ethernet steaming ($2995), Brooklyn DAC +, which despite the “+” designation, lacks networking capability ($2195), Liberty DAC, which only accepts digital sources ($995), and Brooklyn amp ($2495). In noisy environments, I find it very hard to focus on music played through open-backed headphones such as the Audeze MX-4 model with balanced connections that was attached to the Brooklyn Bridge. Nonetheless, despite some struggle, I really enjoyed a “Red Book” file of Jeff Buckley singing “Be Your Husband.” I especially enjoyed a really pleasing and spacious 24/96 track by Marvin Gaye.
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