CES 2014: SoundLab and WAVAC

There have been some interesting comments, by Myles Astor for one, on this system. I want to respond.

Some background.

We were SoundLab dealers for 6 or 7 years before we amicably went our own ways about 5 years ago. We have no relationship to WAVAC; not having a lot of success when we auditioned them and hear them at shows. We have no intention to start relationships anew as we are too freaking busy to tie our shoes it seems these days.

We are all about the sound. As we become more and more familiar with this industry [12 years now as dealer, importer, publisher, etailer, and curmudgeon (me!)], we have come to realize that we are in the minority. Most opinions you will hear are not based on sound but rather based on brand strength, advertising expenditures, appearance, technology, history, friendships, business relationships, storyline and/or the social aspects of the hobby. Not saying this is terrible but it does make for a wide range of opinions and performance characteristics out there.

We do not like a lot of the sound at shows. But when we do we feel it is important to speak up. Among all the loser sounds someone did a good job. Truly amazing [he says sardonically]. They should be roundly and publicly applauded in our opinion.

Our perspective on SoundLab is from the point of view of an ex-dealer who at one time wanted to sell a boatload of them to people because they really are an excellent sounding single driver speaker for seriously not a lot of money in today’s marketplace.

Typically people try to put inferior sounding [even if perhaps well-designed] solid-state amps on these speakers. These kinds of amps fail even more miserably at reproducing music on SoundLab speakers than they do on box speakers because the SoundLabs, and electrostatics in general, are so revealing. The SoundLabs are very revealing of just the types of flaws that that typically abound in these kinds of amps: overly aggressive note attacks [or artificially rolled-off attacks] and overly quick decays, leaving little time for the notes themselves. Combined with these kind of amps characteristic leanness, this makes the presentation harmonically barren and a difficult listening experience for the unconverted.

We tried many, many amps, from about $5K to $140K, on these speakers. If we were to pick a winner based on these experiments that is currently available and reasonably priced we would pick the Sanders amp. No relationship to this guy either except that he lives [last we heard] somewhere up in the woods about 50 or 60 miles south of us.

The MSB amps, seemingly one of the better solid-state amps out there, which were on the SoundLabs upstairs on floor 4 is a good example. All the details were there. And maybe the imaging and soundstage depth was excellent. I don’t know because it did not sound like music. There wasn’t the rushing swell of the notes and hypnotic decay that we get from real music. There wasn’t the harmonic content that real music has. Because of the way the notes are deformed by the amps, there is not that continuousness, no natural flow of one note to another, that like you would hear when you hit two notes on a musical instrument one after the other. It fundamentally just isn’t as engaging as a music reproduction should be, and sounds more like a very high end tinny-sounding radio.

Fine I guess if you are going to put them in a mancave and treat them as some sort of laboratory experiment [what can I say, electrostatic and panel speakers are cool. Single drivers are cool. Box-coloration-free sound is cool].

Getting tubes to work well on the SoundLabs has been the holy grail – its is all about getting these awesome speakers to sound more like real music [we first heard and picked up the SoundLab line at the Tuscany at THE Show 2002, when they were on those inexpensive powerhouse of a tube amp – called…. anybody? We forget the name of these. The brand folded soon thereafter. Ah. I remember. Wolcott I think they were called]. But most tube amps hated being put on these speakers. It.. was.. often… very… scary.

This has been the state [albeit slightly exaggerated] of the SoundLab speaker universe.

But the factory has been slowly but steadily improving the efficiency and design of the speakers, from even before we went our separate ways, and now we have the Majestic 945PX [or 845PX, but looks like the 9’s to us].

Before we talk about potential problems lets talk about what was right about the sound of the WAVAC-powered SoundLab system at THE Show 2014.

We were thre about 5 hours before closing. In this particular room I only heard the digital. I was walking around half the time and in the sweet spot several rows back the other half. Neli [I think she heard the analog], and sat out of the sweet spot [yes, yes, I usually am smart enough to sit off center as well, but I just wanted to luxuriate and get the full impact of the SoundLabs finally sounding wonderful].

* First, there were harmonics. Not overly done but enough so the brain did not have to spend a lot of cycles adding in harmonics that it knew were AWOL in the sound of your typical SoundLab speaker on solid-state amp sound. This meant the brain could relax a little bit and listen and enjoy the music more. It was rich, colorful and nuanced. The best we have heard from a WAVAC amp BTW.

* Second, there was excellent control of the notes. This meant that a) the attack and decay were much more lifelike, more round and finessed, like real notes, than what we had heard previously on the SoundLabs [and, better, in fact than the vast majority of the rooms at the show]. It also meant that the notes had more authority; they were more solid and substantial.

* Third, there was excellent separation. Separate notes stayed separate [as much as can be expected given the sources. We heard relatively complex music, but not, unfortunately, full on orchestral music].

These 3 characteristics by themselves put this room in the top sounding rooms at the show. These characteristics, combined with a reasonable frequency spread and reasonably linear response to frequency and dynamics, is what turns sound into music. Quite rare for systems to be this good [whether at shows, in dealerships or in people’s homes].

OK. So I posted that I liked this room on WhatsBestForum [I know, silly me]. Myles Astor responded with a embarrassingly negative [hey, been there done that] expansion of his negative comments that he posted in his show report on Positive Feedback:

“Did nothing for me. If your head wasn’t clamped in a vise, the imaging sucked and the instruments were stuck to the panels. Not to mention there was zero, read nada depth. SS was two dimensional. Also what happened to the upper octaves?”

Even if the things he implied by these general accusations were true, it would STILL be in the top sounds at the show [though I somehow missed the big Focal room and the Estelon room was locked the few times I went by there – doh! thank goodness it is anatomically difficult to kick oneself – both rooms which were in his top 3 rooms].

Let’s look at these one by one:

1. Head-in-a-vise. These are curved panels, not flat, so there is not inherent head-in-a-vise issues like the flat panel speakers out there [considering most people listen to their systems alone and in the sweet spot, this is usually not a problem. I listen with my wife … sometimes :-) …. so head-in-a-vise does not work for us].

I am not sure how wide the sweet spot was. I would guess about 6 feet side in a large room like this. Just guessing. These speakers have 30 degrees of curvature. If you want a wider sweet spot you can order your speakers with 45 degrees of curvature.

When I was walking around I certainly did not hear any instruments being stuck to the speakers or LRC [left, right, center] effects. This does have a tendency to annoy me as well, so, yeah, don’t want this kind of behavior.

2. Soundstage depth. Have to admit we are not soundstage depth junkies, although a lot of our friends are :-) As long as we can get a realistic soundstage with room for musicians and instruments to be more or less correctly sized [smaller speakers obviously have problems, as do close-miced instruments and voices] we are good. Yes, of course, we want deeper soundstages for orchestras and music like Radiohead [which plays with the depth of notes all of the time to wonderful and fun effect].

3. Upper octaves missing. I think MylesBAstor is pointing out that the part of the Soundlab panel that generates high frequencies is above ear level. These were taller SoundLabs [7 feet?]. We get a lot of our directional cues from these frequencies, and this is probably the root cause of at least some, if not most, of the issues Myles had in points #1 and #2.

In my photos of the SoundLab speaker base, the lows are at +0, mids at +0 and Brilliance at Max. This is good. But this is a huge room [see added photo]. In-room response will be much flatter in a smaller room with more reinforcement of the highs [and lows] depending on the liveness of your room. What we did here at the store a lot, because some of our rooms are also relatively big [but not this big!] is tilt the speaker, which normally tilts up a little, so that it tilts down a little, pointing the entire speaker to the level of the listener’s ears.

That said we did not have any problems with the directional cues or ‘higher octaves’ in this room. Probably because this is a ‘show’.

Excepting , you know, the ENIGMAcoustics super tweeter rooms, most rooms at the show weren’t showing off a heckuva lot of air.

So many rooms add damping and power conditioning to purposely roll off the treble as much as possible at shows. It is so easy for things to sound bright and harsh and for listeners. Listeners have a heightened sensititivity to those frequencies because they are tired, because they are listening so intently, and probably for lots of other reasons.


Anyway, great sounding room. And this is why we thought it was in the top 2 or 3 rooms this year. Raises the bar for both SoundLab and WAVAC at future shows [just sayin’… :-)]. One of our original goals [which have evolved since then] for our dealership was to present the best of the 3 major speaker technologies for our visitor’s listening pleasure: cone drivers in boxes, panels (typically electrostatic), and horns. With this system the panel has caught up to the other two technologies. May the competition continue.

CES 2014: Most Interestings of Show (part one)

[Similar to the RMAF 2013 show report – we will put the politically correct version for all ages and levels of audiophile, along with well over 1000 photos, over on Ultimist – and we will put the more opinionated report here on the blog, which we will call ‘Most Interesting of Show’, for people who are focused on Pursuing the Ultimate Music Experiences.]

There were actually quite a few rooms this year that we thought were interesting. Interesting sometimes due to an intriguing pairing of different brands of gear together and sometimes due to interesting sonics, and there were also a couple of exceptional sounding systems as well.

In no particular order:

Acapella Atlas speakers driven by Einstein electronics and TechDAS Air Force One turntable

This system, when driven by the Einstein CD player, was more or less competitive with the best at the show: the Perfect8 / VAC / Walker, the SoundLab / Wavac, the Lamm / Verity, etc. But with the TechDAS Air Force One table on the Einstein OTL amp driving the Acapella Atlas speakers, this system forced me to step back [mentally :-)] and compare what I was hearing to the best I have ever heard [which was at about 4 times the price: Marten Supreme 1 speakers, Audio Note UK Gaku-on amp and M9 pre, Nordost Odin cabling and Brinkmann Balance TT (although we still had the Walker TT at the time, it was stuck downstairs. doh!)].

We played Tin Pan Alley. Not exactly a well-rounded test song but we have nevertheless heard it many times on many variations of very serious systems. Here we heard really good solidity and even-handed dynamics up and down the frequency and loudness spectrums [on other systems, the aggressive guitar notes are often over or under emphasized]. Really good separation and decent harmonics. Although not at the other-worldly level of resolution and harmonics of the aforementioned super system, this system here was directly on the path and was an in-kind sound and one of the best sounding systems I have heard. What a freaking surprise this system was to these somewhat jaded show-going ears.

SoundLab Majestic 945PX speakers driven by WAVAC electronics

Another system that took me completely by surprise. Yow. The WAVAC amps on the big SoundLab speakers was certainly the best I’ve heard the SoundLab speakers sound [and we’ve tried many, many different front ends with these speakers in the 5 years or so they were here at Audio Federation. (We decided to take a break from being dealers several years ago although we still like their electrostatic speaker line very much)]. Most people put cold and nasty solid-state amps on these speakers. Low and behold, they get a cold and nasty sound. Putting a nice sounding solid-state amp on these speakers tended to generate a sound that was kind of laid back and not very exciting [the Sanders amp and olde Edge pyramid amps were the best of these and did manage to be a little more lively than a sleeping dog]. Putting tube amps on these speakers was kind of the holy grail, but, at least with the previous generation of the Ultimate speakers, the tube amps tended to not like this gig a whole heckuva lot.

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time here, and I am not sure Neli did either when she was here, but we agree this was really something special. Warm and musical, well controlled, dynamic, lots of separation in the sound-stage… After all the previous show systems where WAVAC sounded cold and wimpy, and all the previous show systems where the SoundLabs were edgy and lean, thank goodness these two finally found each other.

This system made me think hard about what in my heart of hearts do I really want out of electrostatic speakers, and how would this be different from other speakers. And I think now that there should be no difference – that electrostatics should be held to the standards of standard cone driver speakers, but with their single-driver and high-resolution advantages they should not have a problem if correctly designed and partnered. Like this system clearly shows.

Perfect8 THE FORCE Mk II speakers on VAC electronics and Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond V turntable. Stealth cables.

The Walker turntable on VAC driving Perfect8 speakers had a few minor issues but did some things that were extremely pleasing making me wonder just what were those things, anyway, and how could we get to hear them here. The things I think we liked the best were the really nice sized scale of the sound and the easy dynamic swings in the upper mids. This was a big sound without any apologies. There was some really good separation in the upper frequencies – those ribbon drivers really kick ass: everything seemed very stable and clear sounding, and with excellent dynamics.

That said there was some blurriness and smearing in the mids and on down, with the commensurate lack of separation and resolution. Some of this is probably due to asking a little too much of the extremely high value but reasonably priced VAC electronics in a sea of state-of-the-art gear. The Perfect8 guys also mentioned that they chose to put the DSP time-aligned sub-woofer arrays to the outside of the speakers, and if instead they were placed inside of the speakers the bass would have a little more energy and tightness to it.

Anyway, another system that strove to break new ground. It was great to hear the Walker again, still one of the top 2 or 3 tables [we sold our store demo table a few years ago after they decided to change to a direct-to-customer business model] .

Wilson Alexia speaker driven by Lamm M1.2 hybrid amplifiers. CEC transport and TechDAS DAC through Lamm L2 Reference linestage. Kubala-Sosna cables

After privately wondering whether the Wilson Alexia was a flawed speaker, after much ballyhooed amp after much over-hyped amp after yet another amp failed to bring out the bass beyond a few little blumpety blumps, the good old relatively inexpensive Lamm m1.2 hybrid amp finally made the speakers sound like what one would think the big brother to the Sasha should sound like. High resolution, dynamic, some bass slam, wide-band… it was all there.

Atma-sphere M-60mk3.2 amps on PranaFidelity Vayu/fs speakers
Another pleasant surprise was the Atma-sphere OTL amps on the PranaFidelity speakers. I haven’t been a real fan of the Atma-sphere amps on the Classic Audio speakers system that they have been showing for the last, I don’t know, 5 years? 10 years? And Atma-sphere on the SoundLab speakers did not work for us either. But this system? It sounded bold and colorful and continuous [but not too smooth] and musical. Liked this I did.

The EMMLabs MTRX amp, and their DAC2X and PRE2 with laptop source, on the Sony SS-AR1 speakers.

These amps really drove the poop out of the speakers. Yep, poop ALL over the floor. You could hear exactly what the amps were trying to get the speakers to do, and whether the speakers were capable of doing it or not. Do not think ‘yet another big mofo solid-state amp’. Those other solid-state amps sound wimpy and weak and are probably in need of a flu shot. There really is that big of a difference – this is not one of those subtle audiophile-ish things.

The tone here is very Meitneresque: tuneful and clear sounding and not at all solid-state-ish, although it is certainly not tube-ish either. It is kind of like you always thought solid-state amps were supposed to sound, before you learned that the vast majority of them are stereotypically harsh, lean, uneven, aggressive and unpleasant to listen to.

These amps seriously change the landscape and set a new bar for performance, much like their CDSA CD player did several years ago, sounding better at $10K than the $60K top player at the time. At $130K these 1500 watters arn’t cheap, but there is finally [finally!] a solid-state amp commensurate with the extreme high quality of the bevy of hard-to-drive statement speakers from Magico, YG Acoustics and, more recently, Marten [not to mention Sonus Faber, Venture, Avalon, etc. Lots of hard-to-drive speakers out there that have never been driven well]. Word to the wise: Once you hear these on your favorite speakers, whether at a friends house or dealership, you are going to feel really silly [or perhaps some other emotion :-/] for having bought one of those other mega amps. Just sayin’.

CEs 2014: day 3, 4

WAVAC on soundLab. surprisingly, one of the, if not THE, best sounds of the show.

Perfect8 on Walker Audio and VAC

Kharma is finally back with their characteristically energetic sound.

Lamm on Verity Lohengrin speakers.

Lamm on Wilson Alexia speakers. First time I have heard the bass of the Alexia sound anywhere near what one would expect from a Wilson speaker