The California Audio Show Part 1

The Ninth California Audio Show took place July 26-28 at the Hilton Oakland Airport, which has been the hosting venue for the last few years. Our reports on the 2017 CAS can be seen here and here; and on the 2018 show, here and here.

As the hotel’s name suggests, the Hilton is a stone’s throw from the Oakland Airport, and is readily accessible from several interstates. While the location might lack the glamour of San Francisco, it also avoids the costs, parking nightmares, and the hemmed-in between newly-erected highrises feeling that’s so much a part of SF these days.

The setting for the show is surprisingly quiet considering how close the airport is—you can look out doorways at the ends of hallways and see planes taxiing down runways. The hotel grounds have plenty of trees and plantings, which offer the chance to escape small exhibit rooms and get a breath of fresh air. As mentioned in previous reports, the show is notable for a congenial, relaxed vibe, and exhibitors comment on the serious and well-informed nature of the attendees. People who actually BUY things. >gasp<

There were a few changes in the show layout this year: previously, registration, the marketplace and a few large exhibit rooms were in a building which also houses the bar and restaurant, while the majority of the exhibits were housed separately in Building V. This year, everything was housed in Building V, which also contained most sleeping rooms. The first floor had registration and the marketplace in the Empire Room; seminars in the Forum Room; five largish exhibits in Boardrooms 1-5; and finally, six regular exhibit rooms (standard hotel rooms with furniture removed). The second floor had nine regular exhibit rooms.

 

That gives a room-count of only 20 exhibit rooms, in addition to the marketplace and seminar area. But: having everything located in one building gave the impression of a very busy show indeed, and exhibitors I spoke with were pleased by the turnout. Both Friday and Saturday had hallways and popular destinations crowded all day; things were lighter on Sunday…which was helpful for photography.

Enough whining! On to the rooms!

The marketplace had the predictable—sellers of records and record-cleaners—and a few unexpected twists.

Like industry legend John Curl in registration…PAYING to get in? Come ON! He’s a national treasure!!

When it comes to audio shows, Charles Kirmuss’s record cleaners are almost as ubiquitous as Lyn Stanley. Almost.

Audio biz veteran Steve Holt was there again with LPs from his store, The Audio Nerd.

…along with a youngish demographic, there was longtime vendor, Reference Recordings…

…as well as Enmusic, dealers in Asian specialty recordings.

In previous years, Pass Labs electronics were everywhere. This year, not a piece of Pass was to be seen, but it seemed like Aurender server/streamers were everywhere. Brian Ackerman’s Aaudio Imports had an Aurender feeding Ypsilon electronics and Wilson Benesch Act One speakers. That spare tire on the floor is the WB Torus “infrasonic generator and amplifier”—in other words, a powered sub. I’ve enjoyed bigger WB speakers in the past, but this set-up seemed a little edgy to me, perhaps attributable to the Ypsilons. I was also disappointed by the lack of impact of the Torus’ output; the generally-powerful timpani strikes in “Fanfare for the Common Man” seemed very light indeed.

Across the hall, Audio Federation had a familiar set-up with Audio Note UK driving big Acapella speakers with ionic tweeters. I’m fond of the Acapellas, but to my ears they needed more power and amps that provide a tighter grip.

The Margules Audio room next door has generally been one of my favorites, featuring their own tube amps and multi-way speakers. Vintage Verve jazz recordings were reproduced with grace, space, and pace—as they used to say about Jaguars. There were also a few appearances by the she’s-everywhere songbird Lyn Stanley, who discussed a recent recording. She may have sung, as well.

There were four rooms at the show in which I would have happily stayed for a good long while, thanks to a combination of expertly paired and demonstrated gear, good music, and amiable pros doing the presentation. Dealer Tim Marutani’s room was the first of the three; big MartinLogan electrostats and subs were powered by Nick Doshi’s wonderful tube amps, and tapes from the Tape Project were played back on a refurbished Ampex ATR reel-to-reel. The sound was effortless and edgeless, but still had plenty of impact and the delightful sense of reality that only the best systems can manage. I’m not usually a fan of MLs, but they sounded terrific here—whether it was the expert set-up of longtime rep Dennis Chern, the tubes, the tapes—whatever, it all worked together.

It came as no surprise that the Aurender room featured their top of the line W20SE server; what was a surprise was that the speakers were Aurender, as well. The prototype S88 speakers featured ceramic drivers, and paired with the big Berkeley DAC and Constellation amps, produced a civilized, polished sound with none of the nasties sometimes found in “projects”.

Pairings of Whammerdyne tube amps and Pure Audio Project speakers are always interesting, although the results have varied a great deal. The amps are all 2A3 based, one model single-ended, another features a pair of 2A3s in parallel in each channel. One interesting feature of the upper models is what the Whammer folks call “Remote Advanced Magnetics”—output transformers divorced from the main chassis, connected by umbilicals. The claimed benefits are lowered noise and EMI, allowing greater dynamic headroom. The Pure Audio speakers are all modular open-baffle designs, but the ones I’ve seen have ranged from tall 3-ways with horns and Heil AMTs (!), to 2-ways with cone drivers—and frankly, I’m not sure what all was in the “Classic” 15 speakers in this system. They didn’t look like open baffles, and all that could be seen was the back of one driver in the rear of the cabinet. I didn’t get the sense of power and ease that the best Whammer/PAP systems have provided in the past.

I’ve previously enjoyed Tidal speakers at CAS and elsewhere. This year I seemed to have become sensitized to a certain edginess in the Bricasti electronics heard in this system and two others. Combined with the too-big-for-the-room syndrome, I just didn’t love this system the way I expected to.

The modular casework of Wyred 4 Sound products is familiar, but like Aurender, the company had a surprise speaker. Like all the W4S products, the $6,000 TempuS speakers provided a lot for their price: a separate 12″ woofer in a heavy ported cabinet formed the base, while the upper cabinet held dual 8″ mids and 2 high-power ribbon tweeters with neodymium magnets. Total system cost was $25k, less than the cost of cables in several exhibit rooms. Sound quality was balanced, punchy, and enjoyable.

I had hoped that my second exposure to the peculiar Unisinger speakers—are they ashtrays? Fire extinguishers??—would provide a better impression than I received last year.

It did not.

Fortunately, outside that sad little room I encountered Cookie Marenco, one of my favorite human beings on Earth. For the pic I forced her into a tight shot with another legendary recordist, Prof. Keith Johnson—who seemed delighted by the pose.

Wrapping up the first floor was a system consisting of server and DAC from new-to-me Musica Practica, with a Benchmark amp and speakers by Selah Audio. The server and DAC seemed promising, but —whether it was the amp or the speakers, I couldn’t be sure—the music seemed trapped inside the speaker cabinets. I stayed for several cuts to be sure, but things didn’t improve

It was time to go outside and get a beer. Or several.