Tuesday 12 May 2015

Vancouver Audio Show 2015: Pictorial & Comments...

Remember folks! Get me your "Digital Filters Test" results :-). Thanks to everyone who has already responded with the survey submission so far... Great work. Final results could be very interesting; keep the submissions coming.

Over the years I have traveled to other parts of the world and have enjoyed visiting "tech malls" as I just love technology, science, and advancement. There are huge complexes of geek-toys in Beijing (check out Zhongguancun), or of course Tokyo's Akihabara. You will find the occasional audiophile hangout at these places but admittedly rare... Not surprising I guess given how small a market for what really are luxury niche "audiophile" products (at least the "high-end" specialty shops). A few years ago I showed some pictures of Singapore's Adelphi Mall and I must say that this place still stands out as something special for the audiophile (not to mention places like SunTec and Sim Lim Square not far away in Singapore).

Now as you know, I'm primarily an objectivist when it comes to hardware so I guess it might surprise some that I also will check out the audiophile haunts over the years (like here and here) without getting too disgusted by the usual myths and pseudoscience promulgated. For me, it is a hobby that's fun and merges my love of music (the "spirituality" of the experience and where the subjective enjoyment resides), and the desire to understand how the world and technology truly works (where the objective side lives). The two IMO must exist in harmony, each finding balance in fulfilling the emotional side of being, yet not lost in the realities of this world and what just is.

Fine. Enough with the philosophical mumbo-jumbo :-).

Today, I'm just going to post up some fun photos and hopefully reasonable comments and thoughts from the recent Vancouver Audio Show (May 8-10, 2015). It's apparently the first audiophile show in Vancouver in the last 15 years (before I moved to this city). For myself, I've actually not been to these types of events even though I have seriously thought of visiting Denver over the years for Rocky Mount Audio Fest... Maybe one day when I have some holiday time in the fall.

As such, a smaller regional show like this is great to see and I had a fun day on Saturday (May 9) wandering around the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown checking out the showrooms. Without previous experience, I can't compare with other shows, but there was certainly enough interesting people to chat with and equipment to spend the whole day spread over >20 rooms in the hotel... Heck, I regret missing the Audio Note and Focal set-ups as I look back! Thank you for everyone who put this together. It was really great to see local audiophile stores gathered at one place with their "wares" on display... Hi-Fi Center, The Soundroom, Element Acoustics, Pat's Audio Art, Liquid Sound all did a great job with the displays doing what they could in challenging layouts. Diffuser and absorption room treatments were used to good effect, remembering of course that at best we're only getting a taste of the sound and what I hear is not necessarily what it would be like in the home. The Chester Group runs the Montreal Audio Show / Salon Son & Image as well so obviously experienced in these things. I found staff were universally friendly and open to questions... Even when an objectivist poses a question they may not have thought about, exchanges were always gracious. It was fun.

I did attend 2 demos - Nordost and AudioQuest. I will probably write more about the "art of cable demonstrations" in another post later :-). Let's just say for now that I have not changed my opinion about cables after the experience...

Alright, where to start? Too bad I didn't take a picture of the giant Sony headphones at the entrance :-). [See here.] Let's start then with the first demonstration I attended that day - AudioQuest talking about computer audio and then demonstrating their (mostly) digital cables - including USB and ethernet.

The computer demo part was quite good... Starting with showing the use of a MacBook Pro connected to a Primare I32 integrated amp with MM30 DAC module including USB input, speakers being the Sonus Faber Olympica II. Time was spent on discussion of CD ripping with iTunes, then working up to use of JRiver. There was a discussion of file formats and they repeated the idea that somehow AIFF uncompressed lossless sounded "better" than ALAC/FLAC compression (which I think is ridiculous with any decent computer!). There was then discussion of networking and use of NAS for music - not much detail given time restraints and the huge variety available of course. dBPowerAmp was recommended for the PC (I agree) for ripping and file conversions, and a few other audiophile programs were mentioned like Audirvana. Thankfully no bizarre discussion or suggestions for quirky or more fringe "audiophile music players" with unusual claims (like JPlay). After this were the cable demos with A/B cable switching and all... Like I say, I'll talk about this another time I think.

Here's the upcoming $50 JitterBug device. Looks like it's still their demo/prototype without casing, supposedly coming out in about a couple months:

As you can see, it's pretty tiny - about the size of that AudioQuest Diamond Ethernet connector just above it connected to the back of an Apple AirPort Extreme router. The claim being made is that it "reduces noise by 6dB, and jitter by 8%" through the USB port. I'm unclear if there are any claims about noise reduction through the USB data pins, just discussion about power filtering. It's supposed to be able to pass through a full USB 2.0 signal so I'm guessing it doesn't provide isolation through the data lines. I'd certainly be very curious how well something like this would be able to reduce the 8kHz USB data packet noise I experienced as I demonstrated previously (where the 8kHz tone was reduced by 20dB through the optical USB cable).

One rather unusual claim made by AudioQuest was that you could/should plug a bunch of these JitterBug devices into all your open USB connectors (I'd need 6 of them in my home theatre room based on this advice)! Supposedly this would incrementally improve sound quality... This is why you see the device plugged into the USB port of the router above even though there's no USB device connected. They did a demonstration... Hmmmm...

Given that this is AudioQuest, there's the table of all their wires and the upcoming NightHawk headphones which I listened to a few months back.

Here's the McIntosh room:

Funky McIntosh XR100 speakers - 8-ohms, 87dB sensitivity, 4 woofers, 10 midrange, 1 titanium tweeter. Full rack of McIntosh gear. The computer was playing through the C2500 tube preamp / DAC, amplified by the dual MC301s (300W/2,4,8 ohms). It sounded good as expected. What I found interesting was the MEN220 "Room Correction System" (left mid rack). I was told it's based on Lyngdorf technology. Too bad there was no demo for the device! That would really have been interesting I think.

Next we have the Nordost cable demo:
Source was that Marantz CD6005 (analogue out) sitting under the laptop on the right image panel. Amplification provided by the dual Devialet 400's illuminated by the little table lamp. Speakers were the Magico S3. Overall another good sounding system. Devialet has certainly made quite an impression with audiophiles using the convenient and small form factor. Clean solid-state sound through this with excellent frequency response, dynamics, and soundstage. Nordost ran through a number of cables - Blue Heaven, Heimdall 2, up to Valhalla 2 interconnects and power cables including generic USB and typical IEC equivalents... Again, let's talk about what I "heard" later...

Speaking of Devialet:

The Phantom was on display. Futuristic esthetics; which might or might not fit into one's decor. They certainly sound clean and able to play low. As I'm sure you've seen on videos, those woofers certainly vibrate in a very visible fashion when hitting low notes. Digital Signal Processing is clearly being put into good use with these little babies (their "SAM Processing")! They're also wireless which is great for this type of "lifestyle" device.

You might notice that the left Phantom is the standard (99dB SPL @ 1m) version and the one on the right is the more expensive and more powerful Silver Phantom (105dB). Using an uneven pair in the room did lead to a bit of channel imbalance so it was hard to gauge soundstage and imaging. I think it would be very interesting to see what measurements look like with these speakers!

I asked about multichannel and it looks like it's not quite ready yet and there's some kind of router-type device that might be needed... I didn't quite understand the details from the rep so will have to wait and see how the hardware and software eventually takes shape.

On the other side of the technological spectrum, there were a number of "classic" systems like this one:

Spendor SP2/3R2 speakers from the UK. Jadis I50 Class A integrated tube amp (KT150 tubes, 50Wpc Class A, USB input), Jadis DPMC Tube phono preamp. The Brinkmann Bardo turntable (Dynavector 20XL MC cartridge I think) had a jazz LP on. As I said, "classic" system with a very sweet sound. Classy. (I must admit that the little Chord Hugo TT DSD/PCM DAC sitting left bottom rack seemed a little out of place here!)

Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to visit the Audio Note room to compare the sound...

Nola and VTL teamed up in this room presented by Pat's Audio Art:

Nola Studio Reference Gold speakers, EMM Labs XDS1v2 CD/SACD player, VTL TL6.5 Series II Signature Preamp, and massive VTL S-200 Signature stereo amp (triode mode 100W into 5ohms). Impressive sound. Very nice treble from those ribbon tweeters and of course interesting open baffle mid-range.

Nice looking Vertere MG-1 turntable with RG-1 tonearm but didn't get a chance to listen to it. I believe it's an evolution of the multilevel plinth design of my friend's Roksan TMS which I measured back in November 2014.

A big sponsor was Sony with a room of portable products:
I got to play with the new Walkman NW-ZX2 (~US$1100). A pretty hefty bit of portable gear! And well it should for that price of course... Gorgeous 4" screen color and contrast. 128GB built-in storage plus microSD slot. Rated 60 hours MP3 and >30 hours hi-res playback. Functions like a speedy Android phone but of course no phone functionality. Herein lies the dilemma with these new portable devices (including Pono and A&K)... Just how big of a market do manufacturers expect? If I already have a cell phone that looks like the new Walkman, and plays music on the go, and I really do need the cell phone, why would I carry both? And if I don't carry both, then I have a really expensive piece of gear ($1100 is much more expensive than the phone) sitting idle much of the time!

Given how well built the new Walkman is, I could see myself splurging on something like this with a great headphone amp built it if it was also a phone with a bigger screen!

Sony is also making a push with their new ES line of products:
On the top we have the HAP-Z1ES music player (with 1TB HD, everything resampled to DSD for playback, supposedly handles DSD128 according to the rep). TA-A1ES 2-channel integrated amplifier. And of course the SS-NA2ES speakers - soft dome tweeter, paper-cone woofer, Scandanavian birch, 90dB sensitivity, ~US$5000 each. Overall a clean "modern" sound based on the demo I heard. The low end on the speakers is rated at 45Hz but at -10dB according to the spec sheet... Unfortunately I found the demo room a little on the small size and I think a nice sub to fill in the lows would have sounded great with this set-up. (At the bottom of the rack is a Belkin PureAV conditioner, looks like a model higher than my old PF60.)

I found the TA-A1ES stereo amplifier a little perplexing... For an 80Wpc "Class A" amplifier, it's remarkably cool running (notice that it's on the second tier with little room for heat dissipation). Here's what it looks like "top off":
Heat sinks aren't that hefty either... There's some discussion on this page about Class A bias adjustment tracking volume control. Even so, I would have thought that typical Class A efficiency (let's say a rather "efficient" 30% design) would dictate at least 250W of heat at the rated 80W full volume. But we also have 2 channels in this enclosure. Any thoughts from hardware folks?

I visited two of the The Soundroom's displays:
Revel Ultima Studio 2 speakers paired with Arcam electronics - CDS 27 Streamer SACD/CD, C49 Preamp, dual P49 monoblocks (200W into 8 ohms, 50W Class A bias). As expected this system sounds excellent.

Alas, all the electronics were tucked into the right side; I guess it sounds better this way. Anyhow, we have Wilson Sasha 2 speakers, played with Devialet 400 amplification and used as a DAC for a MacBook Pro computer. Peter McGrath was demonstrating some classical selections and sharing stories of recordings he made, demos he gave, and discussions he had had with "Prof" Keith Johnson while playing the organ piece "Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor" (off The Bach Gamut, Virgil Fox, Reference Recordings I believe) loud. Great sound through the Devialet and Wilsons even at the high volume without strain. Good reproduction of the bass (the lowest register not all there through these smaller Wilsons). This was the loudest demo in the whole show, in loud parts easily heard in adjacent demo rooms!

A show attendee brought in a vinyl copy of George Ezra's Wanted On Voyage in LP and played the track "Budapest" off the Nottingham Analogue Ace Space 294, 12" Tonearm, and Soundsmith Boheme cartridge. Good rendering of detail and smooth sound. I'll have to check out the CD...

Burmester made a showing with their full system: BA 71 speakers, dual 956 MK2 power amps (stereo amps I think run biamped). The device with the screen is their 111 Musiccenter (up to 2x3TB HD, PCM to 192kHz, UPS built in, 62 lbs), and just above it the 100 Phono Preamp, balanced, with a ton of input resistance/capacitance settings for the tweaker, nice UV meter, even an optional USB DAC. Didn't get the model number for the rest of the stuff. Jazz playing on the turntable. Sounded good. Shiny. Expensive :-).

Acapella Violon MK6 (CAD$56k/pair) was in the Element Acoustics room; sealed dynamic woofer, horn midrange and plasma ion tweeter. Zoom in and you can see the electrical arc inside that right plasma tweeter. Amplified by the Air Tight ATM-1S (36Wpc into 8 ohms). Unfortunately I only had time for a quick "hit-and-run" in this room. What I did hear was surprisingly good! About 5 years ago, I listened to another Acapella + Air Tight set-up and left disappointed probably because the CD player used was not up to par. Certainly no concerns like that this time around...

So, let's end off with what I thought was the most impressive system at the show (purely subjective of course given all the options and rooms I missed):

Martin Logan Neolith. The first word that came to mind: behemoth. At 75" tall, almost 400lbs each, asking price US$80k, these big boys will need double doors for the move, a massive room, and minimum 12' ceilings to do them justice. They are also passive with a sensitivity of 90dB, 4 ohms nominal impedance. In the demo room, they were driven with dual Mark Levinson No.53 monoblocks (~$34k each) delivering 500W each.

I actually visited this room twice. Once on my own first thing in the morning when I arrived and there were few people in the room. I was blown away by the soundstage! They were playing male and female vocal tracks (forgot exactly what now, I think one was a Sinatra track). There was that "you are there at the venue" sound. Close one's eyes and you'll see in the mind's eye the singer, band, bathe in the ambiance, experience the ease of sonic reproduction. Later in the day, I came back and was treated with Oscar Peterson's We Get Requests and Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. One caveat though - make sure to sit in the sweet spot with these speakers as one would generally expect from electrostatic speakers (specified horizontal dispersion of 30-degrees). The immensity of the soundstage was startling sitting front-and-center!

Music source for the Martin Logans / Mark Levinson was the Astell & Kern AK500N:

It sports 1TB of storage and is capable of PCM 24/192kHz, and up to DSD128 decoding. Streams WiFi, from other DLNA servers, etc. Very solid metal case and nice screen... It better be solid for ~$12k!

Well folks, it was fun! Met up with some local audiophiles I know, got to chat with the local store proprietors, Shazam tagged some interesting tunes; a concentrated and rare opportunity to hear many excellent systems all in one place locally. I wonder about the total attendance and I hope it was good for the show promoters and companies participating. With the Montreal Audio Show (Salon Son & Image) on March 27-29, AXPONA on April 24-26, that's a fair bit of audio stuff happening for a rather small hobby in North America. The demo rooms were not large and they were standing room only so it would have been uncomfortable if it got too busy at this venue.

Here's hoping that the Vancouver Audio Show continues in the years ahead. I would have expected a little more advertisement. For example, I was surprised that the Stereophile website didn't even have a post considering they often will make announcements for individual stores. Unless I just missed it, this seems to be a massive oversight!

Maybe we can attract a few more Pacific Rim companies and attendees given all the overseas investment in this city over the years. Also, depending on how currency conversion goes, it's an opportunity to attract American visitors to cross the border.

Until next time...


  1. I happened to be in Vancouver last weekend and attended the show for half a day. Funny, the Martin Logan's were one of the worst to my ears. The sweet spot was basically that - one spot. Disappointing for such large and expensive speakers.

    Did you check out the AudioNote room? That was by far my favorite. The guys there covered the mirrors with towels which is what I would have done. The other rooms sounded so bright and too loud for my taste. Insane pricing and too much snake oil on display.

    Not surprised about lack of press coverage. This was a dealer sponsored event.

    1. Yeah, I think the sound of the ML's is going to polarize folks. I agree with the comment about that *one* sweet spot. I really liked the sound of that sweet spot however in that the sound stage was just massive and tonally excellent - accurate, honest sounding with full frequency response. On the whole I agreed with the Audioholics guys on their review. Horizontal dispersion issues are a problem with these electrostatics... My brother has a pair of ML Aeons - a pain to get positioning right.

      Alas, missed the AudioNote room. Wish I made it... Maybe next time!

  2. I liked your philosophical mumbo-jumbo! :)
    Wow, you were busy taking all these pictures and writing down all the equipment used... What was the discussion of CD ripping with iTunes?

    1. Well... Maybe I'll elaborate on the mumbo jumbo more in the future then :-)

      iTunes CD ripping was pretty straightforward:
      - turn on error correction
      - iTunes PC worse than Mac for ripping
      - on PC, use dBPowerAmp CD ripper instead

      That's pretty well the gist of it... Nothing controversial and I can agree with the superiority of dBPowerAmp on the PC side.

    2. I use XLD for accurate ripping on OS X, but sometimes it fails with badly damaged library disks (please don't judge!). It just keeps spinning them forever. iTunes with error correction can rip them without problems. Also iTunes spins the CD much faster, it finishes the rip in about half the time...

  3. PS: BTW, dBPowerAmp for Mac is out of Beta for 3 months now and is working very good for ripping and also with perfect working file format conversations (including all ID3Tags and Album Art).

    1. Thanks Juergen. dBPowerAmp is as much a computer audiophile "must buy" as anything else IMO!

  4. I'm curious if you've had the chance to review the AQ Jitterbug. Seems to make some interesting claims that, I think, would benefit from some objective testing and measurement. Well, us readers would benefit for sure...it remains to be seen if the Jitterbug would benefit!