Monday, 27 June 2016

The Vancouver Audio Show 2016 (June 25): Pictorial & Comments (the MQA Demo, and Show Musings)

As I mentioned a few weeks back, the folks at the Chester Group have put on the Vancouver Audio Show again this year at the Hilton Metrotown (in Burnaby). I must admit, it's not the ideal weekend for an audio show. Summer holidays starting, weather getting better, this is also the opening weekend for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival... I guess the "music lovers" can enjoy the great outdoors while "audiophiles" can hang out indoors checking out the gear :-). Last year, they had it in May which probably makes more sense.

I spent most of Saturday at the show. It was a blast meeting up with Mitch (aka Mitchco on Computer Audiophile, recent eBook on the use of DSP in the listening environment) and wandering the hallways through the various showrooms with my buddy Phil and catching up with my dad who was there as well. As I mentioned before, I think Vancouver has the luxury of a decent selection of "high end audio" stores already but it's certainly nice to be able to come to one place to check out the gear and listen to what's new.

Like I did last year, this post will show a number of the rooms and stuff that caught my eyes and ears. I know I missed a few rooms and certainly did not have enough time to go through all the individual pieces of gear. But I believe I have hit the highlights...

Here we have the ArtVibes Audio room with their DaVinci, Dali, and Picasso speakers on display. Ranging from CAD$10K to $28K. They sound pretty good (using Scan-Speak drivers) but just as importantly, the proposition here is the custom commissioned artwork. Workmanship looks excellent with nice artwork adorning the exterior. An obvious reminder to audiophiles that the cost of audio equipment is as much the "non-utilitarian" aesthetics (jewellery for men!) as the utilitarian role as a good sounding transducer. Nothing wrong with that IMO.

Folks at VKMusic were there with a table of their DIY kits and such. Some Elekit units, Sparkler Audio S303 CD player is unfortunately off to the right just outside of the picture (designed by ex-47Labs), and in the front a USB-DAC board based on the PCM2704C (pretty basic, non-hi-res chipset). Some music was playing through the day with the CD player noted above in this "ballroom" kiosk with a couple other stalls nearby.

Wilson Audio speakers with Simaudio electronics. Those are the Sabrina speakers, US$16,000 or so. The Simaudio electronics not including the turntable would retail for <$10K so that's reasonable at least in terms of proportion of how money should be spent IMO... Building the system around the best speakers (and the room) one can afford has always made the most sense to me.

That's a Nottingham Space Deck turntable on top playing Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingu√© Lovers (1957). Sounded great - good frequency extension, expansive soundstage... Hey, it's Billie Holiday on a nice system, how can you go wrong?!

Sony with their setup. Speakers are the SS-NA2ES. As expected, they're continuing with the push for "Hi-Res Audio". The demo was centered around the whole "Vinyl goes portable" meme on the wall there with their PS-HX500 turntable (US$600) with built-in ADC that can output PCM up to 24/192 and also DSD64 and DSD128; that's a neat trick.

The ADC conversion chip is the PCM4202. Of course, no matter how good the ADC is, we're talking vinyl sound quality here which does not require hi-res beyond 16/96 as far as I'm concerned (the 96kHz samplerate as acknowledgement that vinyl can have some content >22kHz). They had preloaded the Sony HAP-Z1ES with a few DSD128 vinyl rips like Supertramp's Crime Of The Century flipping back and forth between the direct LP playback and the digital rip. Of note, this was the only sign of DSD anywhere.

Next up... Check out this Boulder stack and the SL Speakers (Speakerlab) Super Seven:

I didn't take a picture of the whole room, but this was the strangest sound system set-up I have seen! Speakers on the floor near the corner, nowhere near ear level for the tweeters. Boulder stack 1021 player + 1010 preamp + 300W 1060 power amp - we're talking an asking price over US$50K here. Very expensive electronics driving the ~$2500 kit Super Seven (92dB sensitivity, 8-ohms) speakers (I think the rep said $5000 pre-built)!

Clearly the sound wasn't at its best. I did lean down a little for listening and I thought the planar magnetic ribbon midrange did sound quite smooth with the light jazz playing at the time. I just had to take a picture of the back of the Boulder amp:

Check out that blue power cable guys! Looked like this thing should be plugged into an industrial power outlet rather than the standard 120V mains :-).

Next up - audiophile gear from France's Atoll √Člectronique with Davis Acoustics speakers:

The main system consists of the Renoir speakers (I think asking for $14K). 3-way Kevlar and cellulose drivers, rated 94dB sensitivity, 4-ohms impedance. Tweeters are supposed to be of the "super" variety with a frequency extension up to 40kHz. I recall hearing the Pink Panther theme being played... I didn't get a chance to sit at the sweet spot, but the timber, frequency extension and dynamics were good. Obviously, I don't have hearing acuity up at 30-40kHz to verify but the high end sounded nice and clear :-).

The smaller Matisse Signature speakers look interesting. I can't recall the asking price (something like $1600), it seemed quite reasonable. Unfortunately with the placement they sounded too boomy when turned up but I can appreciate the potential in a typical medium sized living room. You can also see the small monitor speaker, Eva, in the back. Again way too boomy where it was placed and the sound seemed constrained which again was likely a reflection of the room/placement rather than the speaker itself.

Next up is the Soundhounds room from Victoria. Mainly AudioNote gear in here. While I was there, the CD player was busy with Kurt Elling's Flirting With Twilight (2001). There was a bit of commotion with folks taking off LPs and such so didn't get a really good listen plus I'm not familiar with the music at all. I gather those are AN-E speakers. There's a CDT Three transport, a Meishu integrated amp (9W), and one of the AN "Signature" DACs (NOS variety of course!). I see a Black Sabbath LP below the Meishu... Hmmm, wonder how some hard rock/metal sounds on an Audio Note system.

There's a Focal room with their Sopra line of speakers, the No. 1 and No. 2 sponsored by Commercial Electronics. Solid Tech rack, various Roksan and Thorens gear.

What caught my eye at the back of the room was the new Focal Utopia headphones with beryllium drivers:

Feels nice in the hand, solid construction, soft and comfy ear pads. Costs about $5000 here in Canada. Hmm, will have to wait to have a good listen at some point. I hope it's comfortable for extended periods as it did seem like one of the heavier headphones I've tried.

Ahhh yes, the Devialet Phantom speakers. Well, at least this year they had a matching pair of Silver Phantoms (CAD$3300 each) playing unlike last year where there was one regular Phantom and one Silver. Good clarity and impressive bass for such small units. Obviously lots of DSP computations going on in order to deliver good sound. As I said before, I think it really depends on whether you like the "space age" looks of these orbs. Alas, it would stick out quite noticeably in my home decor (and probably in most homes).

Dynaudio Focus XD range of active speakers with integrated amp and up to 24/192 digital input (coaxial SPDIF, there's also analogue line level RCA in). Notice how clean it looks when hooked up to just the Aurender music server. Digital volume control on the server device is obviously necessary. The smaller speakers are the Focus 200 XD and the larger one is the 400 XD (I see there's a larger 600 XD available as well). I got a chance to sit in the sweet spot for a bit of a listen to the 400 XD. Really clean sound, plenty of volume, I like this :-). I didn't ask about the current retail price though... I read previously that this could get rather costly with the 200 XD somewhere around US$6000.

Those are the new Magico S5 Mk II, they cost ~US$40k, and weigh around 250lbs a piece. As with other Magico speakers, we're looking at an extruded aluminum enclosure. It covers the bases in terms of high-tech driver material - diamond-coated beryllium tweeter, carbon fiber and graphene midrange, aluminum with graphene 10" bass drivers. Sensitivity rated as perhaps surprisingly only 89dB. Obviously, they're being powered by Devialet's Expert Class-D amps. I spent quite a bit of time at last year's show listening to the Magico so didn't spend as much time this year. My dad thought this system was the best sound he heard this year.

Harbeth speakers, Hegel amp (I believe it's the massive H30 with potential for 1100W into 8-ohms sitting on the ground, asking US$15,000), Hegel HD30 DAC (~US$4,800) fed by Aurender digital server. As you can see from the banners, this was also the Nordost room where they ran a cable demo. Since I had stayed for the full cable demo last year, I only spent a few minutes this time while the salesperson switched out a generic USB ("printer cable" and other dismissive comments used like "who knows what the impedance is", "timing issues"...) with a Nordost "Blue Heaven" and then a "Heimdall".

The DAC volume control looked like it was being used and it stayed the same throughout. Curious they picked the Christina Perri track "Jar of Hearts" (from the album Lovestrong, 2011) as the test track which is a rather processed pop tune with low dynamic range (DR6).  There appeared to be a fade out processed into it after about a minute or so, so I assume it was prepared for the demo and music was selected from a tablet. Of course there's no blinding involved and it took some time to switch cables. Plus the noise in the room was not good - notably audible air conditioning system.

Was there an audible difference? Interestingly, I kind of agreed with the guy in the sweet spot, the sound did seem to be fuller (like a midrange boost) going from the generic USB to the Nordost. But I could not tell a difference between the lesser and more expensive Nordosts... Realize of course I have no real way to know the tracks were identical, that there was no other change in volume, and that psychological effects like the recency effect and cognitive biases were not at play. Fast A/B switching and blind testing are the clear next steps in order to elevate these impressions into the realm of knowledge should one want to do so.

One strange comment made by the wire salesman is that there's "mechanical" tuning involved in these Nordost USB cables. For a 2m cable, apparently the "Heimdall" is slightly longer (maybe a couple inches). Apparently there's some kind of "4.186 magic number" based on the connectors, termination technique, solder factored into the "sound" of the cable. Furthermore, this length is somehow recorded for each cable and the cables are serialized to prevent folks from just buying bulk cable, terminating themselves and selling as if "authentic". Well, that's one way to maintain an aura around the specialness of the wires and preventing "unauthentic" sales I suppose!

Check out the KEF - Naim system. The speakers are the KEF Blade 2's (~$25k) with the Uni-Q driver array. I've seen pictures of these speakers and in person they're even thinner than I anticipated! They're driven here by the massive Naim Statement amp. It's actually 3 pieces - the central NAC S1 preamp with dual flanking NAP S1 monoblocks. Each amp can provide 746W into 8-ohms, optocoupled volume controller located on top of the preamp, all together weighs >250kg (550lbs) (~US$250k). This thing is a real beast. Looking at that thing, I couldn't help but think the industrial designers must have been inspired by a Cray supercomputer and I almost expect it to be endowed with the sentience of HAL 9000.

How does it sound? What can I say? It was playing the song "Dustin' Off The Bass" by Rob Wasserman (off the album Trios, 1994). It's a rather bass-laden and gritty track which was reproduced in a gritty and bass-laden fashion. By the time I got to this room, it was getting later in the day so admittedly my ears/brain were a bit fatigued already.

By the way, in the same room was a KEF LS50 (~$1500) setup:

I'm sure many of us have heard of the accolades for these mini-monitors. I've heard them a number of times before and I certainly have no hesitation in recommending them for those looking for a small pair of well constructed hi-fi speakers that perform beautifully.

MQA Impressions...

I mentioned previously that MQA was being demonstrated at the Show. Check out the system used by the Meridian / Element Acoustics crew:

The system consists of Tidal Sunray G2 (~US$185k for the more expensive veneer finish weighing in at 640kg a pair!) speakers hooked up to the Burmester 909 Mk 5 amp (~$80k), Burmester 111 MusicCenter/preamp (~$55k). Digital source with MQA decoding is the Meridian 808 V6 Signature CD/DAC (~$22k). The analogue source is the Kuzma Stabi XL2 turntable (~$40k or so). In all I'm guessing around of US$350k for digital playback alone.

No doubt, that's some serious asking price there. I must say that listening to LPs on that system to my ears clearly demonstrated the limitations of vinyl. Any noises, clicks, surface crackles were made obvious. Of course good music is still good music, but LPs limitations as a carrier medium are quite clear.

Let's talk about the MQA demo then. I was fortunate to be sitting in the front row with Mitch and Phil; best seats in the house. They ran the demo every hour on the hour that afternoon. The Meridian/MQA rep had the typical Meridian talking points - "audio origami", the importance of time domain performance, "apodizing filters" being employed, the idea that the technology was developed out of "neuroscience" and psychoacoustics... There were clearly comments made which were either contentious or wrong - that time domain performance is even more important than frequency domain in hearing, a contorted explanation of impulse response confounding it with sinusoidal waves, promoting the myth that high-resolution samplerate is a major determinant of "better timing".

He made claims that even if you don't have an MQA decoder, an MQA processed file will sound better than CD on the order of being "like 48kHz to 96kHz". I guess what he's trying to say is that the deblurring DSP (which we've discussed before) must be the rationale for this improvement.

After that intro, he played 3 tracks to "demo" the MQA sound: Dave Brubeck's "Take 5" (off Time Out, 1959 of course - "unfolded" to 192kHz), "Arnesen: Magnificat 4. et Miseracordia" from 2L (off the album Magnificat, 2014, unfolded to 352kHz), and finally a vocal/pop track I'm not familiar with supposedly originating from the 2012 Montreal audio show (unfolded to 88kHz). [If anyone knows what that last track was, let me know! It sounded excellent with fantastic production quality.]

As feared, no A/B switching with an actual CD much less an equivalent file-sized 24/44 version. Brent Butterworth got it right - how is anyone supposed to know what is or is not a contribution from MQA?! And judging from the others in the room at the time, I'm sure this was on everyone's mind. Walking around the showrooms I certainly did not get the sense that many manufacturers or sales folks were all that passionate about it either despite acknowledging that they may have signed up as the "more than 100" manufacturers looking at implementing MQA. Seriously, I suspect if Tidal does eventually switch on an MQA stream, or Warner release MQA-encoded music, it'll be a decision made in the back rooms for whatever financial reason rather than a grassroots demand from the listening public.

As you can see in the image above with the Meridian 808 V6 and the Meridian Control 15 screen, they did play other MQA-encoded music through the day. "Blue In Green" (from Kind of Blue, 1959) decoded to 192kHz. I even heard Adele's "Hello" in MQA (clearly sourced from 44kHz as there was no upsampled "unfolding" indicated on the DAC display!). They all sounded as they should on an expensive system with state-of-the-art electronics! I was quite impressed by 2L's Magnificat track by the way - kudos to the quality of 2L's hi-res, natural recording technique. Even better, it's available as a free test track here from 2L.

I can say I've heard the MQA demo now. No change to my previous opinions and technical suspicions. How can it when the demo offers no opportunity to compare!?


Let me just end this little "walk through" with a few miscellaneous thoughts about the audio show and what I saw.

1. Price.
Q: "How much is that speaker there Mr. Salesman?"
     A: "Oh, it's asking for ten."
Q: "What about that amp?"
     A: "Around 25."

Of course, that's ten thousand and 25 thousand bucks. I think it is interesting how the cost of things have gone up over the years. Housing, food, high quality clothing, etc... Luxury goods have gone up even more - like good artwork. Just the way Central Bankers want it. But that's another discussion :-).

The way I see it, when I come to an audio show, it is an opportunity to see and hear what's "state of the art" out there. And I honestly don't mind the expensive items. In fact, would I even bother coming if they didn't have all these "audacious audio" goods on display? Of course not! That would be like going to a car show with no exotics, prototypes and concept vehicles, featuring only domestic Chrysler and Fords, imported Kias and Toyotas...

I think the important thing is not to envy, because that could subconsciously be converted to some kind of anger or disgust, eventually turning yourself and others off the whole hobby. Remember that much of the gear is over-engineered and as far as I'm concerned, no better sounding than much less expensive equipment. I think it's better to consider and embrace the "non-utilitarian" functions of high-end audio (equipment as furniture, works of art, etc...) and not always have to believe that they necessarily "sound better". If I had a bigger sound room, a large budget available, and wanted to impressed friends and family, why not spend $200k on an amazing sound system with all the bells and whistles, top notch workmanship and materials? No different than a fancy car that typically depreciates the first time you drive it off the lot or expensive art work hanging on the wall which might or might not appreciate in cost. Let's not forget other stuff men can spend big money on - Armani suits, Patek Philippe watches, Louis XIII cognac, etc...

2. Lots of 1" tweeters and 6" cones.
That's what Mitch whispered to me as we wandered the halls. Yup. Other than the Speakerlab ribbon tweeter and midrange, the rest of the transducers were of the traditional variety. Last year Martin Logan made a showing with the massive Neolith to represent electrostatics and there was also the ionic plasma tweeter in the Acapella room. It's worth thinking about because the speakers are the most distortion-prone devices in the audio chain and it certainly would be nice to have a variety of other technologies for listening comparisons.

3. Balance.
I'm always curious about the allocation of cost of equipment among the rooms. While I don't feel that there's any magic formula, the combination of the KEF Blade 2 and Naim Statement seemed audacious with a ratio of the preamp/amp costing 10 times that of the speakers!

It would seem that a billionaire probably would match the Naim Statement with something like the mbl 101 X-Treme. Now that would be one heck of a European system I would love to hear... A full horsepower of amplifier muscle paired with an omnidirectional transducer that can put the juice to good use. Heck, something like that would also provide listeners with another transducer technology to evaluate for themselves referring to item 2 above. (Hey, we can all dream. :-)

4. A standard demo CD / lossless audio files?
I think audio shows should issue a "standard" demo CD/lossless files of music available to all the audio rooms. I know some Asian audio shows do this. Even better, provide a copy to all attendees before the show so they can familiarize themselves with the music before the show (maybe a digital download when registering?). That way, in each room there is the possibility to hear the same track for comparative evaluation. Only then can one really perform some "apples to apples" sonic evaluation of old-skool Audio Note and Harbeth systems with modern designs like the KEF or Tidal speakers; comparing also to the sound of one's own system at home.

On the CD / download, make sure to represent a few genres. Make sure the music is well recorded (no nasty dynamic compression). Use this music for the cable demos if possible. Get in touch with a local studio and maybe help promote local talent on this sampler! You know, life these days is about experiences (very important for the younger generations), make the audio show an interesting experience in comparative listening with a little memoir using this collection of music...

Although the Vancouver Audio Show is a small local show I suspect it's a reasonable taste of what the bigger ones must be like (hey, maybe one day I'll take a trip out to T.H.E. Newport or Rocky Mountain Audio Fest). Despite the hobby being relatively small, it is nice to see the passion and joy (a shout out to Mark Macdonald, owner of The Sound Room who did a great overview of turntable set-up for example). I found the reps friendly and approachable without any off-putting attitude in the rooms. And as one who is "more objective" in my views on audiophilia, I can certainly still appreciate the "non-utilitarian" qualities of beautiful equipment that can complement one's home, and as works of industrial art for the person with distinguished tastes :-). Yes, an objective-leaning audiophile can still enjoy an audio show!

Made better with friends to bounce some ideas off of, of course...

Have a great week ahead everyone.


  1. Thank you for this walkthrough. Good points all along. I like the table in the Dynaudio room. In addition the Burmester 909 Mk5 would fit very well with this fanless Streacom db4 enclosure for an HTPC, dissipating 220-260 Watts of heat:

    1. Wow! Impressive case Gadgety! 200+W of power dissipation... That's some HTPC.

      I guess it'd be good for a silent gaming rig with an i7 and GPU. Looks like a mATX size, right?

  2. Nope, Mini-ITX. I guess they figured mATX would just get people to want multiple pci-E cards, larger PSUs etc, which couldn't be cooled passively anyway. HDPlex does a 95+95 version for HTPC. Yes, a lot of power for HTPC, and it could be used for gaming, and for madVR, or HQPlayer assist on the GPU. It's 65 watt of dissipation for each side x4, but joining two sides to one component brings the total down a tad. HDPlex has a 2x95 watt case, I believe, but this one looks better with that $80k Burmester.

    1. "Cool" :-).

      Those HDPLEX cases look nice for mATX, even ATX solutions.

    2. :-) HDPlex with underclocked GTX970 and an i3: and According to rumor the GTX1060 will equal GTX980 performance at 120W. I wonder if a slight underclock of that could be possible in a HDPlex chassis.

  3. Great post! Looks like you lots of fun and lots to see at the audio show. The technology space has long been the most exciting and watched Roborace for a number of years now. Innovations in the sector have radically changed the way we live.