AXPONA 2015

AXPONA 2015: The Voice That Is, with TIDAL, Bricasti, Aurender, Purist Audio Design, Silver Circle

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Doug White of The Voice That Is built a gorgeous system around the TIDAL Contriva GS speakers ($69,690 as shown), easily the best looking speakers at the show. Note that this speaker is also a complete reworking of the Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers. From TIDAL:

The all new successor of the worldwide praised TIDAL Contriva Diacera SE (2007-2014). We did not let things as they were, all is completely new with the Contriva G2. Like with iconic design classics improving does not mean changing. It means making dimensions and proportions better while strictly continuing and following the generic and unique design of it. So we made the Contriva G2 45mm less tall, 5mm less wide and we gave it 3° degree more slope to give it a more dynamic and elegant look while improving also the sonic dispersion of it.

The cabinet is made out of TIRADUR, TIDAL’s proprietary cabinet material for this 102 Kg beauty. Also we equipped it with all new BCC drivers, a complete new x-over design, an all new terminal with TIDAL’s completely new pure silver binding posts. The result is the very best midsize speaker we ever built.

The source was a Bricasti M1 ($8,995) fed by an Aurender W20 ($17,600).

Amplification also came from TIDAL, with the unbelievable, three chassis, Presencio Preamplifier ($77,990) feeding a pair of Impulse monoblocks ($64,990 per pair).

Everything was wired together with Purist Audio Design cables, and everything was sitting on Stillpoints. Power distribution came from the massive Silver Circle Tchaik 6.

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CES 2015

CES 2015: High Water Sound brings a Flood the City of Sin

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ces-logoOkay, I’ll confess. I might have gone a bit bananas in the High Water Sound room, shooting the new Ortofon A95 cartridge. Whoops.

The A90, which was discontinued some years ago, was an incredible feat of both engineering and general sound quality. Using a then-new process called “selective laser melting”, the A90 was fast-fast-fast, and to some ears, rather unforgiving — I’m pretty sure Stereophile’‘s analog guru Michael Fremer used it as reference for this reason (well, that and it’s sound) — and “they” didn’t always mean that in a good way.

The A95, then, as a successor to this polarizing and somewhat controversial reference-level cart, has quite a hill to climb.

Finding it in a system constructed out of High Water Sound’s resident wizard, Jeff Catalano, was something of a stiff finger in the eye of any doubters.

The new housing is made of titanium, welded together rather precisely the “particles of titanium”, creating an “extremely high internal damping”. Using a neodymium magnet structure that is both lighter and more compact. The coils are all six-9’s OFC and the mechanism leverages Ortofon proprietary technology, including their “Field Stabilizing Element” to improve the performance of the magnet, and the “Wide-Range Damping” system, to improve response. The resulting system, using the Ortofon Replicant 100 diamond mounted on a boron cantilever, tracks at 90μm at 2.3g tracking force.

More stats:

  • Output voltage: .2 mV
  • Channel balance: < .5 dB
  • Channel separation: > 25 dB
  • Frequency range (F3): 10 Hz – 50 kHz
  • Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz @ +2 db/-1 dB
  • Compliance: 13 μm/mN
  • Internal impedance: 7 Ω
  • Recommended load: > 10 Ω
  • Weight: 6 g
  • Price: $6,500

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Yes, there were other things in this room, too. Including the magnificent Black Knight turntable from TW-Acustic ($40k), here mounted with two TW tonearms ($5,500 each) — for the record, the other cartridge on this table was the Ortofon Cadenza Mono ($1,219). That table is an absolute monster, and that giant copper platter is about as eye-catching as bling gets in audio today, without tipping over into the oddly overdone or artistically suspect. In other words, I wept like a baby just looking at it. My wallet also made mewling sounds as it tried to melt into my pocket. Happily, TW also makes less pricey tables (note that I didn’t say “inexpensive”), the case in this particular point being the GT SE ($12,500) sitting next to the Black Knight. You still need tonearms for that table, and this one was carrying a pair of Ortofon 309D ($3,400), one mounted with an Ortofon SPU A95 ($3,500) and the other a Quintet Black ($1,000).

For the rest, a quick look turned up the new TW-Acustic RPS 100 phono stage ($17k) introduced back at RMAF. This phono is pretty interesting in that’s it’s actually digitally controlled — something of a first for the brand — and as such lets you choose a whole mess of alternative curves for your analog playback pleasure. Most of my vinyl exploration tends to be of the modern variety, so it’s all RIAA for me all the time, but for those of you with vintage discs, this could be really interesting.

The mono block amplifiers –the SE Monos ($18k/pair) — were also from TW, and rocked out the almost absurdly low output 45 tubes. Played into the newest iteration of Tommy Hørning’s Eufrodite Ellipse loudspeakers ($30k/pair), you’d be forgiven if you thought the amps were anything but flea-powered — the big Lowther-featured towers were hopping in this room.

A Tron-Electric Syren GT preamplifier ($55k) was the most expensive thing in the room and not by a little bit. Jeff gets pie-eyed talking about how big a jump the Syren is over the more pedestrian (and more affordable) gear from Tron is, but not having had the pleasure of a side-by-side, I’ll have to trust Jeff’s ears. Not hard to do, actually, since I’ve been a happy and satisfied customer for most of the last decade.

Other bits? The seemingly ubiquitous Silver Circle Tchaik 6 ($10,500) line conditioner and Silent Running Audio Scuttle Rack and Ohio XL component shelves. In an interesting turn, Jeff is now heavily leaning on Symposium Acoustics for their Super Plus speaker platforms instead of any fancy set of outriggers or footers — he just stands the achingly heavy Eufrodites directly onto the platform … and that’s it. He shrugs his typical New Yorker shrug at me when I raise my eyebrow. “It works,” says Mr Laconic.

Tel Wire provided the power cords; Ortofon provided the signal cables. The amps sat on textured blocks of Terrastone from EdensoundShun Mook footers sat under most of the equipment — another decision that drew a raised eyebrow, as the brand is very well-known to charge an arm and three legs for what seem to be rather simple widgets. Jeff didn’t get defensive, though, “Look, a lot of the products in this space are complete bulls***. But some aren’t. These aren’t.” There you go.

So, finally, lemme get to what I loved about this room — none of this stuff comes from your run-of-the-mill audio brand. That is, most of this stuff, you’ll never find anywhere but High Water Sound. Jeff is really careful about what he carries and how his rooms are put together. Wouldn’t be all that interesting, except he’s got great taste in music and an excellent ear for setup — this room was definitely one of the better I’ve heard Dr Strange produce. Tubes fronting these tower speaker is a magical thing, and yes, you have to run them with vinyl. It’s getting me all Zen just thinking about it. Of course, I have a pair at home, so maybe I’m biased.

Biased. Get it? It’s a tube joke.

Never mind.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Bricasti Design and TIDAL Audio

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Logo - Blue VectorIf you follow The Audio Traveler, you’ll note that the Bricasti and TIDAL Audio system on display this year at RMAF mirrored the system that Scot had opportunity to hear at AXPONA earlier this year. So much the better, as far as I’m concerned; it’s not fair when Scot gets to have all the fun.

The speakers were the Piano Ceras from TIDAL Audio ($24,000); they feature ceramic drivers and the shiniest piano black cases you’re likely to see. They also have this nifty ability referred to as “Variogain” that lets them be tuned to suit the room: they can run in true 2-way mode, linear 2.5-way mode, or 2.5-way mode with Gain A. The amps were Bricasti’s newish M28 reference monoblocks ($30,000/pair), which have their own tweakability: pairing these amps with the Bricasti M1 DAC ($9,000) forms a balanced differential signal flow from source to speaker, and the M28 also offers 18 db of stepped attenuated gain adjustment. The amps and DAC were accompanied by a Silver Circle power conditioner ($10,000), an Oppo Digital CD player, and Luminst Revision cables by Purist Audio Design.

I was able to take the time for a nice long demo, for once, and sit through a couple of tracks. The first was a PCM recording of a selection from one of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works (my notes fail me as to which one; please forgive me). I found the percussion very realistic and impactful, and the treble was nice throughout. However, I thought there were some issues with the lower strings, which seemed a bit dull and smeary in comparison to the violins, and lacking in definition. Then, a second Tchaikovsky piece — a recording of the Romeo & Juliet Overture, this time in DSD — eliminated these perceived issues essentially entirely; the cruft was gone, and the sound was pure and precise.

I don’t know if the folks running the room intended to give me an impromptu listen to the benefits of hi rez, but it was instructive — if only because it reminded me to check the quality of the recording before I make assumptions about the capabilities of a system! I was left to conclude that system would be an excellent choice for a power junkie who’s looking for a great deal of detail and speed.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Hitting The Wall, with High Water Sound

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Logo - Blue VectorWe were 600 miles out, and the road lay as flat and straight as a dropped spear, stabbing into heart of mountains far too distant to yet see. With the windows down, the wind was howling through the cab like an angry ghost, pulling at us, snapping and biting. We were doing 120. It was midnight.

“Don’t be such a pansy,” Jeff said. “Friggin’ hit it already.”

So, I did. The engine skirled like a kicked hornet’s nest, whirling up past 5000 RPMs. The ghost wind vanished, the car now encapsulated in a torpedo of air. I was positive there was crap getting sucked out, the windows were like vacuums, and anything not nailed down had already left or was about to.

I didn’t care. When the speedo tipped past 200, the engine was making sounds somewhere past normal hearing and holding the steering wheel straight was damn near impossible. I snuck a quick glance to the side, but there was nothing out there, just wind. Nothing in front of us, just the dark. There was no road. No car. Only the sure sense that something terrible was about to happen. 


When I was a kid, which pretty much approximates any time prior to the birth of my own kids, I listened to a lot of Pink Floyd. A lot. I’m pretty sure I even went to a concert somewhere in the late 80’s, but those memories seem to have taken a holiday. In all fairness, it was a long time ago.

The most specific memories I have of Pink Floyd have to do with math. Or rather, math class. Even more specifically, Calculus in 12th grade. That’s where I used to sing DSOTM and The Wall. Me and a couple of guys. We’d sit there, doing exercises, and someone would start. Maybe semi-consciously. Tap-tap-tapping out a bass line or exploring a drum solo. Someone would pick up the lead, and by the time the chorus hit, seven or eight of us were right there, more or less on (or near) key. Not quietly, either, which is why I probably didn’t spend as much time in that class as I should and goes a long way to explaining why I eventually got a degree in … Philosophy. I really hated Calculus.

It was probably the homework. I detested homework. It’s a loathing that I’ve carried a long time, which goes a long way to explaining why that PhD degree is still ABD some 20 years on. Somewhere along the way, I found the Oracle, you see. Not sure how I got there. Not sure why. But I remember the words on the arch, quite clearly. Oh well. Everyone has their limits.

I’ve never really had a problem with teachers, but I will offer that I have had precious few that were worth it. Fewer still actually reached me, that inspired me. Lit a spark in my mind and was patient enough to blow it into an inferno. To help me discover my passion or my life’s work. It’s not a teacher’s job to do that, but I do wonder what it would have been like to have had that kind of passion, and wonder if I somehow missed out on my Prometheus moment.

Teachers, for me, were more of an obstacle. I didn’t really try very hard, which was part of the problem. I could, and did, phone in 3 extremely proficient years of exemplary work in high school, and then promptly took a nap through my senior year. Note to self: stay on the kids all the way through — accountability is the midwife to inspiration.

“He’s very clever,” wrote one teacher, on an 11th grade report card. “But I’m not convinced he’s applying himself.” I found that in a box, along with a lot of other yellowing, random, documents my parents had squirreled away for reasons obscure. Yeah, yeah.

I loafed through college, too, which wasn’t a terrifically intelligent thing to do. Electrical Engineering lifted me and my non-existant work habits into the air, shook me like a doll and crunched around for the juicy bits, and then spat the remains into a liberal arts program. Which, looking back on it, was where I would have ended up if I hadn’t still been blindly following the advice of a Junior High guidance counselor. The unreflected life leads to all manner of stupid places.

My friends and I all went to different schools. Not unsurprising. Some of them had studiously failed to nap their way into a safety school, so seeing them on holidays was the highlight of the year. The cars, the trips to Seven-Eleven for strawberry milk and microwaved whole-wheat donuts (don’t ask), evenings spent at the airport waiting for the cops to chase us off. Lost boys.

Grad school meant more teachers. Another grab-bag of academic inconsistency. The brilliant prof was usually a pig-headed one-note douche. The aspirants were the interesting ones, the hopeful, clutching their decades of indentured servitude like a Get Out of Jail Free card. This is where learning happened. In the Ending, there were the Words. And they were Fire. Finally. The fuse had been lit. Finally. And the fireworks, when I cannoned into The Wall, again, were legend.

But all explosions, even the ones that echo down the long halls, fade. New voices come. New hopes worn on new aspirants, all shiny. And me? Well, I spend a lot of time wondering where the lines will appear on my kids’ faces. It’s a father’s right.

Wheels turn. Night passes. And I still don’t really know why I hate calculus. But I’m pretty sure it was that jackass at the front of the room.


It’s been 20 years since I listened to The Wall. When tracks hit the radio, I changed the station or turned the radio off. I avoided the re-releases. “Ah, jeez,” I’d say. “There’s been entirely enough of that.”

A signpost. Pointing at history.

I still see the Lost Boys occasionally, some of them anyway. Fourth of July. New Years. It’s a zoo. The kids are all pretty much of an age, and now old enough to entertain themselves, which they do with an abandon that borders on “worrisome”. Our drug of choice these days is “good food”, and getting together usually means production levels best measured in pounds.

We don’t see each other enough. There’s always that wistful moment, near the end, when we hug and look past the strangeness that time has written on top of our friendships, when we almost remember.

We lost one of our best a few years ago, a casualty to inner demons. Another transitioned from aspirant to prof. The rest of us are making ends meet. It’s interesting, surprising even, to see how far the bands have stretched, and we spend time talking about how much left we have to do. I still smile. That’s a good thing, I think.


Jeff Catalano of High Water Sound is a drug dealer. A wizard. A man to be feared.

I had absolutely zero intention of sitting down and getting sucked into my own navel that afternoon at RMAF. I almost didn’t even notice that the LP he was playing was that reissue of The Wall. It’s like it didn’t register on me, as if I was somehow immune to it, or that I had a perceptual block installed that prohibited me from recognizing it. I took my photos, shook hands, and realizing that I actually had the time to do so, I sat down.

There was a moment of panic. I think I might have started to get up. But there was Jeff’s voice, wavering in my head, like some kind of ragged ghost of Christmas Past, telling me to floor it. “Don’t be such a pansy.

It took about three seconds. Doors swung open. The beat started. I knew all the words.

Music, like magic, isn’t a gift. It’s wrong to think of it that way. It can cut. It can heal. It can do whatever it is that your imagination will let it do. But it’s not in any interesting way, independent or real. Not by itself. Meaning comes from the listener. And sometimes, with the right circumstances, the right tap-tap-tapping, it can open you. But it’s not a gift. It’s a mirror.

I want to say that this room, with this gear, was the best I’ve heard from Team Catalano. At this show, or any other. Reading that back, however, that tastes a bit like weak tea.

In my perhaps-too-long-of-a-visit, I was visited by visions. By demons and ghosts. By triumphs and frustrations, old and new.

It was awful. It was thrilling. It was the best f***ing thing I’ve heard in ages. Thanks, Jeff. I’m really not sure I needed that. But what a ride!

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: DSA leads with TAD, VPI, Wells and Silver Circle

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Logo - Blue VectorThe Dynamic Sounds Associates (usually just DSA) were here at RMAF to show off their new line stage preamplifier, the Pre 1 ($16,500). This new preamp is cosmetically matched to the Phono II ($12,000). With six inputs (three balanced), the Pre I allows the owner to set the gain on each input between 6dB and 15dB. There’s also a headphone jack under the front panel.

The Phono II is another interesting story. Solid-state and heavily configurable — and all from the front panel — the Phono II can handle three RCA/XLR inputs with individually varying gain of 40, 50, 60 and 66dB. Did I mention that it got a Stereophile Class A recommendation?

The turntable on the rack was a Classic 4 from VPI, here mounted with two JMW tonearms and regulated by the external SDS speed control system. On the one arm I got to hear was the brand new bamboo-cantilevered Miyajima Madake ($5,995); the other arm carried a Miyajima Zero ($1,995), Michael Fremer’s favorite mono cartridge.

A Wells Audio Innamorata Signature stereo amplifier ($15k) sat to the side of the Kanso Audio Furniture rack ($8,477). The Innamorata Signature really takes the base Innamorata and adds in super-choice parts — Duelund PIO caps, for example. Full readout is on the Wells Audio site.

A massive Silver Circle Tchaik 6 ($10k) handled power distribution. There’s a photo below with a Tchaik with an acrylic cover — get a load of that transformer! Yes, it’s huge — the thing weighs over 100lbs! I first explored this unit back in 2012, and it’s been anchoring my system since. Here, it sat on its own Kanso amp stand ($1,700), which is probably a good thing or that Innamorata may have been swinging in the air.

The loudspeakers were the TAD Compact Reference CR1 Mk2 & TAD-ST1 Stands ($45,000).

DanaCable Classic Quad speaker cables, 3.5m length ($4,480) Diamond Reference 1.0m ($1,500) Gold MC phono 1.0m ($1,600) PowerForce Power Cord, 2.0m length ($295) Source Clarifier Power Cord, 2.0m length ($395).

A popular room, here, and rightfully so. The sound coming out of the incredibly revealing TAD speakers was fluid and lovely. Given that these speakers are notorious for holing the pride of many a designer, this is an accomplishment. Nice work.

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CAF 2014

CAF 2014: Bricasti Design brings catapults, hurls insults at poor quality audio

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Brian Zolner of Bricasti Design has a good reason to be smiling. His new under $30k/pair (est.) 200wpc M28 mono amplifiers are simply outstanding. His M1 DAC has been sitting on top of the A+ Recommended Components List at Stereophile since its launch. Oh, and as lauded as these accomplishments are, it’s his pro-audio stuff that’s really killing it — his M7 Reverb unit is wildly popular.

Blah blah blah. I want those amps. Whoops. Did I just say that out loud? Heh heh. Whoops.

But it’s true — the amps are really impressive. Part of my adoration comes from the fact that I know the speakers Brian is using as part of the voicing process. They’re TIDAL Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers, and I happen to have a pair and I’m routinely stunned by what they can do. When Brian shows, he tends to bring their baby-brother stablemate, the Piano Cera ($23,990/pair), and I’m pretty familiar with that speaker too — but driven by Brian’s amps, I’m not sure anyone has ever heard what a TIDAL loudspeaker can do. Bass? You want bass? Bah! You know nothing, Jon Snow. I’ve got yer bass right here, and I’ll raise you a magical midrange and a treble purity that will make you weep for the Fae whose voice are no longer fairest in the Nevernever.

In other words, Ba-da-BING. Hook me up! Continue reading

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