It had been a long wait. The ninth annual California Audio Show took place in 2019, but COVID concerns forced the postponement of the 10th. While the rest of the country was treated to AXPONAs, Capitol Audio Fests, T.H.E. Shows, and the new Seattle-based Pacific Audio Fest over the last year or two, audiophiles in the San Francisco Bay Area were without a show until now.
Constantine Soo, producer of the California Audio Show.
Constantine Soo, editor/publisher of the Dagogo audio review website is the man behind the show. Anticipation was at a high level when the return of the California Audio Show (CAS) was announced in the spring as a Friday through Sunday event. However, many of the biggest names in high-end audio chose to sit this one out. Contributing factors may have included recent participation in the Southern California and Washington State shows. Where the 2019 CAS featured over 20 rooms, now there were just six rooms featuring systems from a good mix of companies. Although this year’s event was scaled down from the previous ones, there was no shortage of enthusiasm from both exhibitors and attendees alike. Post-show feedback from exhibitors reflected a desire to return.
The Hilton Garden Inn, Emeryville, California.
The 10th Annual CAS was held from September 22 – 24 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville, near the east end of the Bay Bridge that connects Oakland with San Francisco. The registration room was on the ground floor, as were two of the exhibit rooms. Constantine and his wife, Vivian, greeted the attendees warmly. Also in the room was recording engineer/producer/composer Cookie Marenco, the driving force behind OTR Studios and high-quality recording company Blue Coast Music. Cookie was a delight to talk to. She had a display set up in the room, and was generously giving out tote bags containing a double LP and two CDs from recording artist Fiona Joy Hawkins, who was attending all the way from Australia. Fiona was in the country for another recording session and had hoped to do a live performance at the show. Sadly, logistical problems with obtaining a suitable piano for her made that impossible. Instead, Fiona and fellow musician, violinist Rebecca Daniel, sat behind a table with merchandise and engaged with the showgoers.
Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Music.
Most of the exhibitors relied on streaming for source material, although there were a few turntables and disc players. Wi-Fi issues did interrupt the occasional demo, but not for long.
The imposing Bricasti/Sound Lab system.
The Bricasti system.
The largest room of the show featured Bricasti Design electronics with Sound Lab nine-foot-tall full-range electrostatic speakers. Damon Gramont of Bricasti played a wide range of pieces. The sound was impressive and, despite the size of the speakers, presented with realistically sized images. The Bricasti complement of an M19 SACD Transport, M1 Series II Argento Edition and M21 Platinum Edition DACs, M20 Argento Edition Preamplifier, and M28 Special Edition Monoblock amps clocked in at just shy of $85,000. The speakers (which are one down from the top of the Sound Lab line) retail for about $45,000 per pair. Cost was not specified for the ASC Tube Traps and A.R.T. cabling.
Damon Gramont in the Bricasti demo room.
Sound Lab dealer Tom Bourret of Ultimate Audio is dwarfed by the mighty Majestic 945 electrostats.
The other exhibitor on the first floor was Aaudio Imports, distributors for Wilson Benesch, Thales, Ypsilon, and more. Their system, far and away the priciest of the show, featured the new Wilson Benesch A.C.T. 3zero speakers ($54,000) with a $34,000 WB IGx Infrasonic Generator (read: subwoofer). Ypsilon provided the electronics with a DAC 1000 SE valve dac ($52,000) and Phaeton SE integrated amp ($54,000). Music was streamed through a Pink Faun 2.16 Ultra Music Server Streamer ($36,000). Cabling from Stage III (power cords/interconnects/speaker cables) totaled a staggering $100,900. Miscellaneous accessories and treatments added another $45,080. All told, the room held just over $375,000 worth of high-end toys! Yes, the sound was exceptional, but good golly…
The most expensive collection of gear was in the Aaudio Imports room.
Brian Ackerman with the Wilson Benesch A.C.T. 3zero speakers.
The rest of the exhibitors were on the 12th floor, so it was elevator time. There was a cool graphic on the wall opposite the elevators – was it done especially for the show, or was it simply serendipitous? I forgot to ask.
Artwork on the wall opposite the elevators.
Audio Note UK had unique systems in separate rooms on the floor, each from a different one of their two SF Bay Area dealers (True Sound and Audio Federation). The True Sound room featured the TT Two Deluxe turntable with Arm 3/II and IQ3 cartridge (total $8,063), R Zero/II phono stage ($2,036), CD 1.1X disc player ($3,771), and Cobra tube (excuse me, “valve”) integrated amplifier ($5,458) powering a set of AX Two/II stand-mounted speakers ($3,995). All cabling was from Audio Note as well, but pricing was not provided. A PS Audio PerfectWave Power Plant 12 was utilized to compensate for the poor AC quality. This was the smaller of the two systems – to my ears, the better-sounding one – but both were noteworthy (pardon the pun). It was also one of the least expensive systems at the show.
The Audio Note UK system from True Sound.
The Cobra integrated amp with eight valves and understated styling.
Nick Gowan of True Sound.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the True Sound room was the music that was played. Leonard Norwitz presented the most wide-ranging samples of demo material imaginable, from classical, jazz, and even hip-hop (if my categorization is correct). He shared his musical knowledge freely and became quite animated when playing some of the pieces.
Leonard Norwitz – a true music (and sound) lover.
The Audio Federation Audio Note room featured the USA premiere of their new AN-E SPx LTD field coil loudspeakers (approx. $65,000, including power supplies for each speaker) on low stands. Field-coil speakers do not use permanent magnets like the vast majority of modern drivers. Instead, a separate power supply energizes electromagnets. The concept dates back to a time when permanent magnets were insufficiently powerful for use in speakers. The turntable system was the TT Three w/PSU3 motor controller, Arm 3/II, IO1 cartridge, and S4l step-up transformer for a cool $31,566. The CD4.1X player ($14,331) had a built-in DAC and a pair of 6DJ8 tubes in the output section. Amplification was provided by their Meishu Phono Tonmeister Silver 300B SET integrated amp ($19,300) pumping out eight watts. HRS stands and isolation bases added nearly another $20,000 to the overall cost of the system.
The more expensive of the two Audio Note UK systems.
Audio Note UK makes every component in their systems (including speakers).
The room inhabited by San Francisco audio retailer Audio Vision featured an all-Technics system (except for speakers). They had chosen to exhibit for only the first two of the three days. A Technics SL-1200G table and arm was fitted with a Clearaudio Virtuoso V2 moving-magnet cartridge at a total price of $5,499. The $3,499 SL-G700M2 combination unit (CD/SACD/DAC/Streamer) was the other source equipment. Power and control came via the $9,999 SU-R1000 integrated amp w/phono stage and DAC.
Bookshelf speakers were either Rogers LS 3/5a ($6,890/pair including dedicated stands) or Harbeth P3ESR XD at $2,990/pair. They were supplemented by an REL Acoustics T/7x active subwoofer ($1,099). Cabling (power/interconnects/speakers wire) was all Nordost, coming to about $7,000. The rack and accessories added another $4,000 or so.
In all, the setup came to $35,000 – $38,000. I didn’t get to hear the Harbeths in the system, but for my ears, this was the least-compelling sound of the show – not bad, but not impressive, either.
The all-Technics system from Audio Vision.
A Rogers LS 3/5a on its stand with an REL subwoofer.
The system that I found most compelling featured equipment from manufacturers that were all new to me. Gestalt Audio, a Nashville-based dealer, and The Lotus Group, from Novato, California, teamed up to inhabit a room with SW1X Audio Design electronics, PranaWire cabling and grounding components, and Wolf von Langa London field-coil speakers. The Amp V Titan Special integrated amp is a tubed model with directly heated 300B valves and a complement of driver/input valves, selling for $21,495. Source material came via the VDT IV Valve Digital Transport Player and Streamer ($27,725). Despite the name, no disc drive is present in the unit. A DAC IV Special D/A converter conveyed the music to the amp for $27,725. PranaWire cabling was imposing in its physical presence (the speaker cables reminded me of the shed skin of an anaconda – see the photo of the grounding units below), and total pricing was in the high five figures. The two Interceptor ground treatment units were connected to separate components at a cost of $3,250 and $5,250.
The $60,000 Wolf von Langa speakers are an open-back dipole design with two 15-inch woofers in the three-sided lower enclosure and a full-range speaker with a glass or plexiglass baffle on top. Other baffle materials are apparently available for this 95 dB/watt/meter model. The look of the speakers being demonstrated was a bit prototype/”work in progress” to my eyes. For that kind of money, I would expect more attention paid to aesthetics, but, again, the website images lead one to believe that prettier veneers are available for the lower cabinet as well. There was no complaining about the sound – it was smooth and clean with a very wide, deep soundstage.
The SW1X/Wolf von Langa system.
The SW1X components.
PranaWire Interceptor Level III and Level II ground treatment system.
Wolf von Langa speaker, front view.
Wolf von Langa speaker, rear view.
The power supply for the field-coil speakers.
All in all, the 10th California Audio Show, despite its scaled-down nature, was a successful event. I had attended many of the previous shows, but this was the first time I had gone as a correspondent. It was a perfect introduction to reporting on this sort of expo. I learned a lot – such as how to force the flash on my new phone (a little too late for some of the pics, I’m sorry to say). I’m looking forward to the next one.
Header image: Blue Coast recording artists Fiona Joy Hawkins and Rebecca Daniel.
All images courtesy of the author.