Vacuum State of the Art Conference 2001
What a show! We had an all-star cast of recording engineers, craftsmen, audio designers, writers, enthusiasts from all over, and most of all, just plain music lovers. Not only was the sound the best of any VSAC, but the level of the seminars was top-rank.
No AES engineering seminars on digital compression, watermarking, and transport-level encryption, thank you very much. No CES armies of grey-suited marketers handing out White Papers touting the wonders of yet another 2000-watt amplifier, 300-lb speaker, or 7.1-channel receiver. Just straight-ahead High Fidelity for the people who love music.
Stan Ricker, Paul Stubblebine, Ed Meitner, and Mike Pappas wowed the crowd with the latest in studio-quality 176 and 192/24 PCM, SACD/DSD, and the traditional favorite, 1" analog tape at 15 IPs on a professional Ampex tape deck with Tim de Paravincini electronics. Most of us had never heard a first-generation mastertape before, much less a direct comparison of mastertape, high-resolution PCM, DSD played on pro gear, and standard-resolution Red Book 44.1/16 digital.
What was surprising was how close high-res PCM and pro-quality DSD actually are to each other - it's only at the consumer/audiophile level they sound significantly diffferent. Although we all were aware of the difference between the high-res digital formats and the analog master, they were all high-quality, high-fidelity recording mediums, and the differences were pretty small and not that objectionable. The drop down to Red Book CD quality, though, was pretty obvious - this was clearly not mastertape sound, even on the highest quality professional-grade electronics available in 2001.
How the shlockmeisters of 1982 could claim that CD's delivered mastertape sound - on the truly appalling first-generation digital systems of the day - is still unimaginable. It's not like analog mastertapes of the early Eighties were bad - heck, we were listening on a tape system made back then - a whole lot of engineers and marketers were telling big fat whoppers that the audio press gladly ate up. (That's when I dropped out of the Audio Engineering Society, come to think of it, so I guess I can date my departure from the mainstream to the introduction of the CD.)
As a classical-music fan, the most memorable sonic highlight was the 192/24 PCM hard-disk playback of "The Pines of Rome" by Respighi. This Keith Johnson recording was one of the best I've ever heard, despite the auditorium listening conditions. It may not have been appreciated by the jazz-n-blues crowd, but this was my kind of music ... and the power amps were all-transistor! Nothing wrong with the Avalon speakers either - I usually don't go for mainstream sound, but this was an excellent system by any standard.
Top-notch sources made their appearance in the exhibitor rooms, with gorgeous phonographs playing favorite records, DSD hard-disk systems straight from the recording studio, and no shortage of open-reel tape decks, either. This was not an all-CD show, thank goodness.
The Dixie Bottleheads easily won the award for Most Fun Room at the show. Southern Hospitality was enlivened with a terrific selection of music ... everyone knows the South is the home of really great music ... and superb electronics too. The DB's collection of 45, 300B, and 211 amps, combined with Classic Audio Reproductions T3 TAD horns, were well worth an extended visit.
One of the most astonishing sights of the show was a battleship-grey 220 lb amplifier (that's right, 100 kilos) sitting in the middle of the Dixie-room. (This 211-powered behemoth was driven by automobile all the way from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Silverdale, Washington, no small accomplishment by itself, and rivalling the previous ton-mile record set by Ed Billeci for the first VSAC show.)
The single-driver folks were well served by the Hammer Dynamics Super 12's, as well as the noteworthy Cain & Cain backhorn-loaded Fostex FE208's. As you may have heard, John Wyckoff, the designer of the Super 12, passed away on January 28, 2001. Hammer Dynamics carries on, thanks to John's wife, Colleen Wyckoff, and a dedicated band of Super 12 enthusiasts at the Single Driver Website. Do Super 12's live up to what you read on the Internet? Yes, they do. At US$650 a pair, these speakers are a heck of a deal.
Speaking of tubes ... this was the VSAC, after all ... Valvotron was selling mesh-plate 2A3/300B like hotcakes at US$275 a pair. The very attractive globe-style 300B is actually available in two filament voltages (2.5 and 5 volts), so can be used in a 2A3 or 300B circuit depending on which model you order. The brand-new reproductions of the Western Electric 101D ($180/pr), 102D ($180/pr), 205D solid-plate ($225/pr), and 205D mesh-plate ($335/pr) seeming to be jumping off the table at a good clip too. I suspect wayward VSAC husbands will be telling their wives that they won these little gems as a prize. Now, where's that Western Electric catalog ...
Josh Stippich made his debut with visually striking - and technically unique - confections in steel, brass, and exotic flavors of direct-heated-triodes. The circuits are immediate and straightforward, but realized with parts that are as far from industry-standard as can be imagined - and the looks, well, like nothing else you've seen before. The word "one of a kind" is casually thrown around in the hifi industry - with Josh, it means what it says. Every item unique, and unique-sounding, too.
Although American SET has been around for less than 10 years, it's gone a long way from the first amplifiers back in the early Nineties. The sound at this year's VSAC was more dynamic, quicker, and more musically versatile than 2 years ago at the last VSAC, and with even more sweetness and beauty. The charm of the VSAC is that it goes straight for the things that matter ... beauty, elegance, and a genuine community of craftsmen and music lovers.