At every audio show there are products that stick out: for their sheer brilliance or their impact on the market as a whole, their novelty or simple audacity and willingness to raise their heads above the parapet of public opinion. Some will become staples, classic units that carve themselves a name in the audio firmament: others will disappear, just as quickly as they shot into view. While it’s not always predictable which of these products will suffer what fate, one thing’s for sure, you want to miss them, whether it’s to witness the birth of a legend or the fleeting passage of a “never wozzer”…
Wilson Audio Sabrina
Wilson’s youngest and slightest floorstander is already making waves. Instantly identifiable from it’s sculpted cabinet and automotive finish, the svelte Sabrina promises to be easier to accommodate and easier to driver than her more substantial siblings, making her a shoo-in in the financially and spatially challenged European market. But what was really interesting was the impact the $15,900 Sabrina appeared to have on the show as a whole. I’m sure there weren’t all those systems using $15K to $17K loudspeakers last year…
Vandersteen Quatro Wood CT
Which brings us to another leading (but in this case well-established) middleweight contender. Like the Sabrina, the Quatro Wood CT is steeped in the family DNA, taking its overall topology, carbon tweeter and clever high-pass filter/active bass configuration from the bigger – and significantly more expensive – Vandersteen models, while giving away precious little in terms of performance and bandwidth. At $14,895 this is an awful lot of speaker built into a slim and highly tunable cabinet. Vandersteen’s price structure might make the European cost look steep compared to the Quatro’s price in the US, but examine the material content and you soon realize just what a bargain this speaker represents.
dCS Rossini Master Clock
While RMAF represented the official US launch of the dCS Rossini CD Player/DAC it was the presence of the matching clock that really set the antennae twitching. With the withdrawal of both the Paganini and Puccini players, the uClock has gone too, removing the most affordable clock option from the range: bad news if you’ve just convinced yourself to splash out on a two-box Vivaldi set-up – only to discover just how big a difference an external clock makes to the overall performance. Priced at $7,499 in the US, the Rossini Master Clock steps into the breach, offering superior performance to either the Paganini or Puccini units and in casework that’s a better match for the flagship’s styling.
HRS RS Shelf
Harmonic Resolution Systems have long been the benchmark against which other rack/support systems have been measured. Their clever, modular system allows owners to select a rack style and then furnish it with isolation or grounding platforms to suit the equipment and budget available. The only problem has been that all that versatility and performance doesn’t come cheap. Well now it does. The advent of the RS shelf (as well as the more affordable RXR, wood framed rack or amp stand) means that $495 will get you a neat, deceptively simple but remarkably effective equipment support – around a third of the price of HRS’s next nearest platform – bringing the overall cost of an HRS solution significantly nearer to the pocket of mere mortals.
Vaughn Loudspeakers “DuKane” Tweeter
What you see here looks suspiciously like an Ionofane tweeter from the mid-60’s, based in turn on the DuKane Ionovac design from the US. The giveaway lies in that big horn flare and the nomenclature: the DuKane was a plasma tweeter, using a modulated plasma discharge in place of a conventional diaphragm – the original zero-mass design. The problem was the by-product of this process – poisonous ozone. That’s where the horn comes in, keeping the plasma corona small enough to maintain ozone levels within acceptable limits. But what makes this picture remarkable is that this is no historical curio, disinterred for the show: this is an all-new, ground-up build based on the original Dukane design but employing modern materials and techniques to improve consistency and reliability. Coming in at $8,990 a pair, the Vaughn tweeter isn’t cheap, but it is startlingly impressive to listen too.
Avantgarde Zero One XD Loudspeaker
Avantgarde’s innovative source-plus system, the horn hybrid Zero One has been around for over a year now, but as is the way with such groundbreaking products, it has been evolving throughout that time. In its latest XD guise, the master speaker not only communicates wirelessly with its slave, it accepts both digital and analogue inputs, making this a genuine, ready to play, two-box set up, combining spherical horn loaded, Class A driven mid and treble units, with a DSP tunable, Class D driven bass driver to create a system that offers quality AND quantity, in a discrete and thoroughly modern cabinet. The Zero One is certainly ready for prime time: the real question is whether prime time has realized it’s ready for the Zero One?
Dan D’Agostino Classic Stereo Amplifier
If you are one of those who remembers the stir created by those first D’Agostino designed Krell amplifiers when they first appeared, then you’ll doubtless experience a warm, nostalgic glow at the sight of the Master Power Stereo Classic amplifier from Dan D”Agostino Master Audio Systems. Thankfully, the product is a lot less fussy than the names, the substantial, block-like chassis offering 300 watts into 8 Ohms (a power output that doubles all the way down to 1,200 watts into 2 Ohms) and a pair of traditional carrying handles that, with the amp weighing in at almost 50kg, are more than mere decoration. For such a heavy amp, coming with such a heavy reputation, the UK price-tag is a surprisingly modest £11,500.
Linear Tube Audio ZOTL Amplifiers
David Berning’s innovative output-transformer-less tube amps enjoy a cult following in both the US and the UK, owners appreciating them for their light-weight, robust power output (at least as far as OTLs go) and legendary resolution and transparency. What they don’t appreciate is just how hard it can be to get hold of them and, to a lesser extent, the quirky styling of the pre-amp. Both things may be about to change with Washington DC-based dealer Urban Hi-Fi licensing three Berning penned designs and offering them under the Linear Tube audio moniker. The MicroZOTL 2.0 is a compact, two-input headphone amplifier/pre-amp that lists at $1,100. That can be paired with one of two power amps, the ZOTL 40 delivering 45 watts from two pairs of EL34 output tubes and costing $5,800, or the ZOTL 10, that uses the same attractive external casework as the 40, but teams EL84 tubes with a simplified power supply to produce 10 watts per channel at a price of $2,400.
Grand Prix Audio Monaco v1.5 Turntable
RMAF provided a timely reminder of just what an exceptional performer Grand Prix’s direct drive Monaco turntable can be. Paired with a 12” Triplanar Ultimate tonearm, Lyra Scala cartridge and the latest version of the Tom Evans Groove+ phono-stage, it drove a surprisingly modest system to quite remarkable musical effect, combining absolute musical and dynamic authority with a muscular, fluid and expressive sense of rhythmic flow. Why timely? With rumours of a more affordable model soon to appear, this is a space that all analogue fans should be keeping under close observation.
You might think the re-issue market is already over-populated with 180g record vendors offering yet another pressing of Kind Of Blue, but Intervention Records is a welcome addition to the scene. With the dream-team of Kevin Gray and RTI responsible for mastering and pressing, quality is pretty much guaranteed, matched by the quasi-religious zeal devoted to the artwork on the covers. But what makes IR special is their choice of titles – recordings that have been unduly neglected, poorly served by their original pressings or simply unavailable on vinyl: their first releases underline that point, with two albums each from the Rafferty/Egan driven Stealers Wheel and Portland grunge-meisters Everclear. But what should get British ears a prickin’ and toes a tapping is news that the first two Joe Jackson albums, Look Sharp and I’m The Man are on their way: the test- pressings are spectacular!
There’s something about the way the Japanese manage to combine diverse materials and metal, form and proportion to create under-stated products of remarkable grace and simplicity: think Connoisseur; think Zanden – praise doesn’t come much higher than that. Well, now you can add the unlikely name of SPEC Corporation to that list. Their two-box phono-stage ($11,500) and line-level integrated amp ($9,500) are built into matching cases, as bijou as they are beautiful. But the kicker is that these sound as great as they look – despite the integrated amplifier being a 60 watt Class D design. That low rated output and the extraordinary attention to detail and component choice clearly play their part, but these are genuinely gorgeous products that deserve wider recognition.
Volti Vittora Loudspeaker
Volti’s retro horns have been both a fixture and a highlight at recent RMAF shows, their exceptional sound and 104dB sensitivity matched by a surprising affordable $25,000 price tag. That’s around £16,600 for a five cabinet system (two mid/treble cabinets, two folded horn bass cabs and an active ELF cab) built into substantial birch-ply enclosures with curved walls and a range of beautiful veneer finishes. Believe me, see these things in the flesh and you’ll wonder how Greg Roberts does it for the price – a sentence that neatly sums up the appeal and frustration of the Volti offer. The low price is easy: the company supplies direct to the end user, cutting out distributors, dealers and their associated margins. But that’s also the rub: actually getting to see and hear the Vittora means taking a trip to Maine – although that will shortly become Tennesee. Mind you, factor in the flight, the shipping, the duty and the VAT and the Vittoras still look like a bargain of monumental proportions – and it’s not just the construction I’m talking about…
And now, for our traditional (almost) freebie: the AudioQuest Jitterbug. Looking remarkably like a USB thumb-drive, the Jitterbug is actually an in-line jitter reduction device (it has a USB socket in the other end) applicable to any USB data stream. Simply plug it in, plug your USB cable into it and away you go – substantially better sound in seconds. The beauty is that it only costs $49 and that if that isn’t enough to satisfy your audiophile expenditure cravings you can either stack them or insert them anywhere into a common USB bus to added advantage. The benefits in clarity, dynamic range, timing and bandwidth are far from subtle, proving once again that high-end audio should be all about delivering high performance rather than simply high-prices.
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