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: Marten Coltrane Supreme II – Most Interestings of Show (part five)

Marten Coltrane Supreme II speakers on Pass Labs amps and MSB digital

Yeah. Spacey room treatments.

These speakers, and the pen-ultimate Momentos, reflect a new direction for Marten. The original Coltrane Supreme speakers, and their Coltrane speakers as well [we think both the original and V2], were, as I have often described, a tabula-rasa. A blank canvas. They played whatever signal you sent them. Which was cool, because we could put umpteen billion dollar expensive extremely high-quality gear on them and actually get to hear the gear. Other speakers have their own sound, to some smaller or larger degree, and you didn’t really get to hear the gear. Not fully.

Let’s take a step back. Hearing your gear, when it is a extremely well made relatively low-power 211-tube based amp, or GM70, or 300B, or what have you, is an experience akin to the most ecstatic moments we can experience in this life. All those subtle layers and layers of inner dynamics and harmonic transitions and all riding on top of a musical carrier signal that just steals your sorry ass away from this troubled world and into something a whole lot better.

The speakers had their own unique performance characteristics, like all gear, but really very, very little sound of their own.

OK. Hearing your awesome gear. Got it?

Now what happens when someone puts a not so wonderfully awesome amp / front-end on these same speakers? Well you hear that too. And who gets the blame for the resulting not-so-pleasant sound? Is it the inferior gear? Nooooo. It is the speakers.

Look at the reviews of these speakers. Same thing. They hear their [sorry, but…] woefully sucky gear on the speakers and then report on what they hear.

Are they idiots? Maybe, but it is not like anyone but us has been writing about this [and who pays attention to little ole us? Sure, we actually do have 10s of thousands of readers – but in the end it is just the ravings of a couple of nutty audiophiles against the realities of an anti-audiophile world]. We ourselves kind of stumbled upon this by accident, years ago. We just kept putting better and better stuff on the speakers and we kept hearing deeper and deeper into the sound [No, sorry, this is rarely if ever the case. Most speakers provide diminishing returns as you put better and better gear on them. See the room review below of the Lamm ML3 on the Verity Lohengrin speakers as just one example].

Now the factory just wants to sell speakers. They do not care about Mike and Neli [and a few of you out there] and whether we are experiencing musical ecstasy or not. In fact, I am willing to bet you that none of them, except perhaps [maybe] the designer [who is one of the best speaker designers in the world, but…], even know what these original speakers do. All these people trying to sell these speakers, they put mid-fi junk on them and think they are hearing what they do. Nope. They are just hearing their mid-fi POS junk.

So what does the factory do? They make the speakers more forgiving so that people putting inferior grade gear on them do not go home unhappy. A side effect of this is that the speakers are harder to drive. Remember all those cool, ultra-high-quality single-ended tube amps that you could use with the original Supremes, with the powered bass? No longer gonna happen.

So the sound in this room at CES 2014 was hard sounding and smeared, with not enough resolution, in the upper midrange [etc. let’s call it screechy] and fundamentally unenjoyable. As one might expect. But the point here, which is hopefully more clear after all the above background information, is that it wasn’t as screechy and unenjoyable as it should have been.

You could still hear the quality of the speakers through all that mismanagement of the musical signal. But this is like a 600 watt amp we got here. These puppies require Power [minimum 50 watts. The previous version had an active (2000 watt powered) bass and was easy to drive].

For many, perhaps most, of you this will be a welcome change. It will be easier to get a listenable sound, yet completely accurate with extreme high-resolution, with these speakers using your average everyday gear out there.

But what if you, like us, are going for the ultimate sound experiences? The reason we like to use smaller tube amps is because so many of the larger amps, both tube and solid-state, have had so many music-obliterating mind-numbing headache-inducing issues [i.e. they suck] that it has been easiest to ‘just say no’.

Now, we might able to say ‘yes’. After listening and listening and from all we have heard the 1500 watt EmmLabs MTRX amp is significantly different from (read: better than) their high-powered brethren. In fact they are starting to change the whole way we look at power-hungry speakers [and they are quite a bit less expensive than the Gaku-on and slightly less than the ML3. Less expensive is good, yes it is]. People going for the gold can now just put the MTRX on the speakers and drive the poop out of them. With these speakers this would be a truly powerful, accurate, no-nonsense-allowed musical reproduction. The sound’ll no doubt be excellent [not screechy nor unlistenable at all :-)]. But otherworldly? Maybe…. [hope so!].

Because of this change of focus, the Martens are now part of a different market segment. The Supreme I was part of a rarefied and august group of easy to drive ultra-high-end speakers, some a little too forgiving, perhaps, but with not that much sound of their own: the Acapellas, the big Wilsons, perhaps the Magico Q7, and perhaps a few others [there are conflicting reports].

The Coltrane Supreme II (and Momentos but not the Coltrane II), on the other hand, are up against many more, a few dozen or so, other statement speakers that are also somewhat forgiving, a little less [some might say ruthlessly, some might say perfectly] revealing, and a little hard to drive, each with their OWN sound [read coloration] that each person must decide is a ‘good’ sound or a ‘not so good’ sound: The Kharmas, Magicos (except perhaps the Q7), YG Acoustics, Perfect8, Avalon, Focal, Genesis, Tidal, … And many others.

What the Supreme II has going for it is higher resolution [that diamond midrange thing along with all those Accuton drivers] that is more musically true, more linear and accurate than the competition [Leif does innovative things with crossovers that keeps things sounding like music and not some mad scientist’s concoction, while still keeping true to the input signal], This all contributes to the enjoyment of the music, as opposed to just artificially calling attention to itself [look at me! look at me! i.e. it goes way beyond the basic Impressiveness which is all that the vast majority of statement speakers have to offer. Impressiveness, you know, is really cool – who doesn’t love that big, BIG sound! – but sometimes a person wants more than that].

[neli: We do hope to hear the Coltrane Supreme II with different gear, gear that is more to our taste [and more suitable for $500K speakers IMHO (mike)], in early summer [if our customer, Encinitas Jim is up for it]. At that point, the speakers also should be more fully broken in, and hence we should be better able to assess their performance compared to the original Supremes, and also to their current competition.]

So, yeah, enough about the sound. The Supreme II is 2 boxes versus the Supreme I’s 5 boxes [although we never had a problem positioning the 4 towers, perhaps others did]. The look is also quite different: there are no grills over the drivers on the front of the Supreme II. The new Accuton cell technology drivers look cool [what can I say? They do]. They are also fatter, kind of like the Coltrane II in that way….

Can’t wait to hear them again…. :-)

CES 2014: Most Interestings of Show (part four)

[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:

Kharma Elegance DB11S speakers on Kharma electronics and cables, dCS digital

I wasn’t happy with Kharma’s room last year at THE Show. It was cold and analytical. Not Kharma-ish at all.

This year’s room at the Venetian was way different. That old Kharma excitingness was back.

I have spent a lot of time trying to quantify and qualify this sound and what makes it different. It is definitively more exciting than most other speaker sounds [I used to compare it to how one feels about one’s girl (boy) friend versus how one feels about one’s wife (husband) – and I know none of us have girl (boy) friends, of course, but I think we can imagine just what that would be like just fine ;-)].

Is the midrange and upper bass slightly more dynamic than the rest of the frequency band? Are the mids more harmonically rich? I don’t know, but I do like it; although to hear it best I kind of have to sort of turn my mind’s ear and point it toward the 6th dimension [I don’t know how else to describe this].

Anyway, a bold sound, a little too much for the room but it worked much of the time. Very dynamic and powerful, especially in the upper to mid bass. Very harmonically rich and engaging. Uneven and not very linear top to bottom, however, and a little wild. But it was fun and exciting, so I liked it, especially in the context of the show where a lot of systems sounds are, whether good or bad, just plain boring.

Theorem Imaging Science speakers on Lampizator electronics

These guys are so infuriating. We only got a very little time to listen to these before they drug us over to the next room to see their smaller system that was not playing any music. Argh.

I think this system is interesting because it did sound pretty darn good. Maybe they do wonders with cross-overs but I suspect it is the fact that the cabinets are made from granite and are so inert and stable that there is not much box coloration at all. And this is seemingly very, very important if you want to elevate your playback into state-of-the-art territory. All of the energy for each note goes into the note and not into warming up and vibrating some large chunk of wood or fiberboard or composite material. Lots of good separation and dynamics. Speakers that start with an aluminum, granite or perhaps carbon fiber cabinet enclosure have a real advantage over those that do not.

The harmonics also seemed quite rich [but not too rich] and musical as provided by the Polish Lampizator company.

Lamm ML3 amps, LL1 linestage, LP2.1 phono, LP1 phono on Verity Lohengrin II speakers with Kubala-Sosna cables and HRS (under the TechDAS turntable) and Kanso rackage

We have a friend customer who has the ML3 amps on these the latest Verity Lohengrin II speakers [with Jorma cables instead of Kubala-Sosna and Audio Aero La Source front end, all on RixRax equipment racks with Harmonic Resolution Systems M3x isolation bases under everything]. His goal was [more or less] a sound that was always musical and never aggressive, otherwise with as high a resolution and as much accuracy as possible. That system succeeded wonderfully for him. He could spend 2 or 3 times as much and get something better [IMHO] but, heck, this is pretty gawd darn expensive already.

As I sat in this room and heard how much of the wonderfulness of the ML3 amps was not getting through to my ears, I still thought our friend bought the right thing… for him. But for me? I want to hear that amp. I know it to have wonderfully detailed and subtle harmonic and dynamic transitions that add so much [for me] to the music. And more.

But the speakers, and to some degree the cables, and perhaps even the unfamiliar Kanso equipment rack, were softening up the sound enough that I did not feel as engaged here as I did in previous years, or even as much as I did in the Lamm M1.2 amp on the Wilson Alexia speakers room next door.

[Vladimir Lamm swapped back and forth between the LP2.1 phono stage (which debuted this show. yes we have photos on the inside of the chassis to be posted on Ultimist) and the more expensive LP1 Signature phono stage, several times by using the two tonearms on the TechDAS at the same time [say what? this was fun]. With two very slightly different cartridges it was a little bit of a Fuji apples to Braeburn apples comparison, but the short and quick is that if you didn’t hear them back to back (the more expensive LP1 being smoother, less grainy, and just more of that good old analog wonderfulness) you would think you were already listening to the LP1 when it was in fact the less expensive LP2.1 all along (the original LP2 has been a giant killer among phono stages here at the Fed, at least until you get up into the $20-$30K range of the competition).]

Acoustic Zen Crescendo Mk. II Speakers on Triode Corp electronics

It is funny [or not] when I read the better show reports and how they report on these rooms setup by Acoustic Zen and Triode Corp at all these shows. They point out something like that they heard a slight issue with the sound of a part of one of the tracks they played here. Ah, then this, they imply, can’t be best of show then.

What this really says to the perceptive reader who reads a lot of these things and thinks to themselves a little bit is that, hey, these rooms are such reliable performers, and it is so boring to keep awarding them the accolades they deserve, that they will dig deep down and find something [anything!] wrong so they do not have to put them somewhere on the BOS list yet again. The Lamm rooms experience this same thing.

Show reporters get so bored with seeing the same things each show [most of the gear, the setups, the people… it is all 98% the same from show to show] that they need to mix it up once in awhile and pick someone else as BOS, someone else to talk and rave about. And heaven forbid that they bore the readers [equals less traffic equals less ad revenue] by talking about the same old boring rooms that sound good, that perform well, each show after show after show.

And the speakers are only $18K? And the electronics are actually fairly reasonably priced?? BO-ring. Can’t get any more boring than this. Show reports got to be exciting wiiiild stuff, man…

They played music here. It sounded like music. It did nothing egregiously wrong and got a lot just right. It was immensely enjoyable. Like freaking always.

Well, I guess [and after all I am kind of a show reporter too…] I am also a wee tiny bit bored :-).

Yah, you know, each show it is the same… I can’t ever afford to spend a lot of time here [and this is what sucks about being a show reporter who actually goes to all the rooms (otherwise you have prejudged the show before you even arrive! Having decided what is best by the choice of what rooms you omit even visiting)]. You know I have to go and check out all those other rooms…