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Tubes, Turntables, and Tall Speakers: Home Entertainment 2004

by Robert H. Levi

At Home Entertainment 2003, seven floors of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco were devoted to stereo, surround sound, and home theater. Mountains of software including LPs, CDs, SACDs, DVD-As — you name it — were available. It was an adventure in music and sonic wonder. Tubes, turntables, and tall speakers were the treats of the day, and were found in almost every demo suite.

I give one RHL prize for best sound this year: The Wisdom Audio suite also won best sound of the show with its Adrenaline M-75 speakers ($55K), Wisdom amps, Wisdom crossover, and Wisdom SACD player. All were hooked up with a new cable, Soundstrings—pure copper cable that uses a patented wire formulation, made in upstate NY by a company that has been an OEM supplier to others up to now. This system was music. Though I sat on the front row in a smallish room, these tall planar speakers magically wove note after note. It’s interesting that both best-of-show systems were solid state, but oh well. All in the suite freely admitted that the Soundstrings and AC connectors were superb. Everything matters, of course, and whether we give the speakers, amplification, source, or cabling the not, who cares? It was amazing to hear!

Big, big, big sound and power was the word at Avant Garde, where we were treated to the Trio 3.0s with bass horns, six BAT VK-75 tube amps, Cardas wire, a BAT preamp, and a turntable and cartridge personally set up by George Cardas. Whoa! Classic Records’ Casino Royale was alive, with Dusty Springfield singing and a jazz club piece that took you to the venue. If you have a room big enough—and I do mean big—plus a couple of hundred thousand bucks to splurge, look no further. (The speakers do come in smaller sizes.) This was gorgeous stuff, in red automotive lacquer finish, and Jim Smith was a great host, as always.

First up, Classic Records. Michael Hobson was at the Acoustic Sounds booth, talking about his latest releases, and was more than happy to give our readers a sneak preview.  The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East, a two-record 33rpm set on 200-gram vinyl, is due out in July. Procol Harum (their first LP) will also be a two-disc 33 rpm set, with a special 33/45 disc of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and the first thousand copies will also include a unique 7-inch 45 of “Lime Street Blues” in stereo. Belafonte at Carnegie Hall will also be available, and Gounoud’s Ballet (LSC 2449) will be reissued in 200-gram vinyl.

Over ART Audio, Joe Fratus, their extraordinary inspiration and GM, showed me the Carissa amplifier, named after his beautiful daughter. It features two 845 out put tubes, and pumps out about twenty pure and powerful watts per channel. What a light show! It sounded dynamic on a pair of tall Cain & Cain loudspeakers of 97dB efficiency. Joe’s ART phono stage was also on display, as were other gorgeous pieces in chrome.

The Nearfield Acoustics suite was crowded and a bit overwhelming. The big 7.5-foot Pipe Dreams were not shown to their best advantage, even with the gorgeous VAC amplification—monoblocks that sell for $10K each—but the baby ($20K) speakers, the Model 9s, were truly lovely. VAC 220-watt monos powered these jewels, and all was hooked up with Nordost cable. Though not a showstopper, this room, through small, had great sound.