Average Crazy Joe Audiophile attends CAS7
After a year of hiatus, the California Audio Show (CAS) returned to the Bay Area for its 7th iteration. The venue moved from hotels across the bay near San Francisco Airport (SFO) to the Hilton Oakland Airport, literally across the street from the Oakland airport (OAK). I’ve attended many shows in the past throughout the US as well as in Asia, but this was the first time that I attended a show wearing a press badge instead of an attendee badge. The badge came with responsibilities. Instead of my usual 3-days-in-a-toy-store attitude, I had to actually “work” by ways of conducting interviews with manufacturers, paying attention to how each room sounded, as well as profusely jotting down notes and impressions.
David Snyder, Dan Rubin, and I divided up the 21 rooms for “primary” coverage to make sure that every room was well reported on. (There are other Dagogo reviewers also filing reports of the show.) Of course, we all visited every room, which is one of the great things about smaller shows for attendees and reviewers alike. I was glad we only had to cover some 20+ rooms instead of 120. During those big shows, my ears would be ringing at the end of the day and I would return to my hotel room with sensory overload and a big headache. Yes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. What follows are some general observations about CAS7, then my reports on “my” rooms, and finally some comments on a few other rooms of note to me.
I decided that, rather than trying to capture all the technical details in my notes, I would ask the good folks exhibiting to talk about their products in short videos, which I would upload to YouTube. This way, you get to meet the folks behind the products and hear the information directly from them. Click on the hyperlinked manufacturer names and pictures in this article and they will bring you to the associated YouTube videos showcasing the products.
I tried to keep a low profile throughout the show. When I attended other shows in the past, I did not like it when manufacturers kicked everyone out when a reviewer walked into a listening room. Most of the time at the California Audio Show, I hid my badge under my shoulder bag strap. I felt it was more important for the manufacturers to spend time engaging with the consumers directly instead of with me. I only flashed my badge as a courtesy to the exhibitors to get some information I needed for the write-up & to request to shoot the videos.
Many of the rooms were set up a day or two prior to the show starting, but a few rooms were still setting up when I arrived Friday morning, about an hour before the show started. The usual caveat applied. The hotel rooms suffered from the typical shabby construction, and was prone to boominess in the bass region and other room acoustics problems, noise in the power line, and noise from the neighboring rooms. One additional thing I’ve learned this year: Systems need time to settle in after being disconnected, transported, and reconnected. I heard dramatic differences from one day to the next in several of the room and asked how the exhibitors how they had set up their rooms the night before. In some cases, things were moved or adjusted, but in other cases, like the big Von Schweikert Audio/Valve Amplification Company (California Room) Exhibit, nothing was changed. The rep simply indicated that the crystals within the cables needed 48 hours to settle in, and I did hear a big difference between Friday and Saturday in the VSA/VAC room.
One of the major reasons to attend a show like this is to hear the gear for yourself. As you can see from the show’s attendee voting results, opinions vary from what sounded best at the show to the most innovative product. Everyone’s ears and brain are slightly different. On top of that, everyone has different priorities. What floats my boat may not be your cup of tea. So if you are shopping for a new component, it is worth investing a few dollars to attend a show near you. I heard a lot of comments from show attendees as well as from friends and acquaintances I was trying to entice to go to the show. Most of them wished the show was bigger and had more manufacturers and products to see. However, one of the advantages of a small show like this is that you have the luxury of spending more time in each room, so you can really listen and learn about the products. Another benefit is that you can really get to know the people behind these products and learn about their stories.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the manufacturers, distributors and retailers for spending a weekend to showcase their products. I want to especially thank Jeff Haagenstad of Exogal. Other than showcasing a fine digital DAC (Comet) and PowerDAC(Ion), he shared a few stories with me on Sunday morning that just exemplifies the personal side of this hobby that seems to have been lost with the advent of the internet (See Exogal CAS7 YouTube video). I saw many kids at the show, probably dragged by their dads to tag along. Most of them looked bored and were mostly fixated on their phones. On Saturday, Jeff saw a 9-year old girl in the back of the room staring into her phone. He asked the gentleman sitting in the sweet spot if he wouldn’t mind stepping away from the seat. He then proceeded to invite the girl to sit in the sweet spot and played a track by Katy Perry for her. Most audiophiles in the room were frowning wondering why Katy Perry deserved airtime in an audiophile show. The 9-year old girl left the room with her face glowing and I think Jeff converted her to an audiophile right there and then. I think her father is probably thankful that now he and his daughter have something they can both enjoy and bond over.
On with the show…
First up are the electrostats. MartinLogan (MartinLogan CAS7 YouTube video) continued to showcase their happy marriage between electrostats and traditional cone bass woofers in the award-winning Neolith ($80,000/pr) & Expression ESL 13A ($15,000/pr). The Neolith (Neolith CAS7 YouTube) sounded grand in the Forum room. They were driven by a pair of Pass Laboratories X600.8 monoblock amplifiers ($27,300/pr) and the 3-chassis XP-30 preamplification system ($16,500). The front end was the Aurrender A10 music server ($5,500). All cables and power conditioning were done by industry veteran MIT Cables. In the 2nd Floor Standard Room, MartinLogan’s smaller electrostat hybrid, the Expression (Expression CAS7 YouTube) were driven by an Exogal 150wpc Comet/Ion PowerDAC digital amp that came not much bigger than a MacMini. Unfortunately, I was having too much of a good time talking to Jeff Haagenstad of that I ran out of time to give them a good listen.
The Sound Labs debuted their Ultimate 545 ($21,650/pr) (Sound Labs U-545 CAS7 YouTube) at this show. Albeit the best effort from Joe Cohen of Lotus Group USA/PranaWire and Allen Perkins of Spiral Groove in the room to try to make them sing, they seemed to put out lots of top energy and not enough bass. Perhaps for the size of the room, these speakers would have been happier being paired up with a pair of subwoofers. The room had a great ensemble of electronics: The Spiral Groove Revolution turntable with the Centroid tonearm, with Audio Technica cartridge feeding into the EAR MC4 step-up transformer, then into the AirTight ATE-2005 phono preamp, then the AirTight ATC-2 preamp into the Pass Labs X350.8 stereo amplifier. All cables and power filter were supplied by PranaWire (PranaWire CAS7 Joe Cohen YouTube), which included the Linebacker XE power conditioner, Avatar interconnect, speaker and power cables, MahaSamadhi power cable, PranaWire Cosmos interconnect and power cable, Nataraja interconnect, and Kensho interconnect.
Somehow, I ended up covering all the horn speaker rooms. As much as they have a big following in Japan, I never really got into them. To me, all the horn speakers at this show seem to have a very narrow band of sound (vertically). Burwell & Sons (Burwell & Sons CAS7 YouTube) debuted their L’il Brown speakers. They had literally just rolled off from the test bench the night before. These were driven by Rogers High Fidelity (Rogers High Fidelity CAS7 YouTube) amplification. On the other side of the room, Burwell & Sons showcased the larger Plain Jane ($8,700/pr). The Plain Jane seemed to be more extended on both ends of the spectrum. Both units have a very warm and seductive voicing. But to my ears, they sounded somewhat constricted like someone speaking through a megaphone. They have a very wide dispersion angle horizontally but seemed vertically challenged. I tried sitting on the floor to get my ears aligned with the horns, but the soundstage just didn’t increase in height.
The pair upstairs (Burwell & Sons active DSP speakers with Gordon Burwell Jr. CAS7 YouTube) had 125wpc DSP controlled amplifiers built in. These worked fine, but I think they could have used a bit more power. The prototypes were built with vintage Altec horns. The production model will have a different horn as shown in the far-right picture below.