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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 2
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Mike makes the VSAC Show; Or, How the PF Clan Set the SET Crowd on its Ear!
by Mike Pappas

Well, David Robinson harangued me into taking a weekend off and going to the VSAC show outside of Seattle. "It will be a blast and you will have a good time," he said. Ya right… Just what I wanted to, do hang out with a bunch of 4-watt single-ended amp guys. David also said bring up a Direct Stream Digital (DSD) machine and a bunch of masters and we’ll take a listen. Well that was more like it!

I scouted up a Genex GX-8500 8 track DSD recorder with 5.2 gig magneto optical drive from Mickey at Wind Over The Earth in Boulder and browbeat Ed Meitner to drive down to the Show from Canada with one of his latest and greatest D to A converters.

I made flight arrangements via United Airlines to fly me to Portland and return me back to Denver from Seattle for the minor sum of $209. Next I checked the Genex and a backup 1st generation Meitner D to A converter. Nothing like having 15K worth of gear (all of which I don’t own) riding around in the belly of a Boeing 737, courtesy of United Airlines. I opted to hand carry the 12 hours of first generation Jazz DSD masters on the aircraft (I can always get new gear, the masters were another story!).

I lucked out and got an upgrade to First Class on the ride to Portland. Figuring it was a vacation I fired up a Bloody Mary made with Finlandia vodka as we hit cruising altitude.

Rick Gardner offered to pick me up at Portland’s airport and entertain me for the day. Little did Rick know what he was getting himself into. United deposited all of the gear and my luggage at the baggage claim area of the airport without drama. I scooped up the hardware and went looking for Rick.

After a couple of cell phone calls Rick and I connected and were off. A stop at a great Vietnamese restaurant for some sustenance and we were off to Rick’s house. I hadn’t had time to index any of the DSD masters I brought with me so I set up the Genex Machine and the back up Meitner converter, and we sat down for a 4 and 1/2 hour session of listening.

I started with a master of live performance by Jazz Trumpeter Ron Miles. I was scanning through the cuts and found the cut I was looking for. I was about to move on and took a look at Rick. His eyes were closed and he had this look of sheer enjoyment on his face. I decided to let the whole 15 minute cut run to completion. At the end of the cut I asked Rick if he was OK and if he wanted to hear more. Affirmative was the answer. I dug through it all looking for the choicest cuts.

Rick’s system was sublime, and I really enjoyed the presentation. Great imaging and soundstage with accurate tonality. We don’t compress or use limiters, so the peaks on these recordings were upwards of 25 dB above the average levels. Rick’s system had huge horsepower, which made it a pleasure to listen to all of my DSD recordings. His playback system consists of a BAT VK-50SE line stage preamp, BAT VK-500 power amplifier and ESP Concert Grand Signatures speakers. JENA Labs cables were used through out the system.

About 3 hours into the session, Rick cracked open a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon as we picked our way through session after session of live jazz recordings.

By the end of the day we had the "crème de la crème" of cuts all lined up and ready to go. Rick was in a new world and was plotting how we were going to rock the VSAC show with the DSD recordings. I was a bit more sanguine about it. How were you going to get 25 dB peaks through 4 watt SET amps driving single driver full range systems? I was going to have to think about this further. Just then our Fearless Editor David Robinson called. He had talked to Rick several times during the day and was dying to get me over to his place for a listen. Now!

We packed up the DSD system and headed off to David Robinson’s abode. Of course we had to make a stop at the local Tobacconist Shoppe for some supplies. I don’t partake (due to allergies), but the aroma of fresh cigars was out of this world! Suitably armed we headed over to David’s house.

David was in rare form when we arrived, and I proceeded to power up the DSD system before we went out to dinner to let the gear warm up. David was like a small child on Christmas morning with a new flamethrower! He wanted to know all about the system and how it worked and on and on. David’s other half, Lila Ritsema, wanted to get some dinner. In the interests of marital bliss we headed off to a local Mexican restaurant and slurped margaritas and stuffed ourselves with fine South-of-the-Border fare.

After a thorough splurge we headed back to David’s where I drooled over his rare 1990 Porsche 928GT and got a test-drive at speeds well above those considered to be "reasonable and prudent"! Yah, but fun wasn’t it?!

After that act of madness we retired to his listening room where I proceeded to "rock his world" with about an hour worth of first-generation Jazz DSD recordings. David’s system was lots of fun to listen to, consisting of an Audio Research Corporation Reference Two Mk. II preamp driving Linn Klimax power amps (which is what I use at home) into a pair of Nova Rendition II Loudspeakers. Interconnects were by JENA Labs, Cardas, and Linn. Power cables were by Cardas, First Impression Music, and Sound Applications with a Sound Applications CFX Line Conditioner, Quantum Octave and Symphony Pro Line Conditioner/Line Stabilizer, Tice Signature III Power Block, and VansEvers Clean Line.

The system was really dynamic, musically involving, and a blast to spend time with. Our tour de force listening session ended about 11:00 PM. We were planning on getting an early start the next day for the drive to the VSAC show, so it was off to bed.

6:30 AM came quite early (as it usually does!), and we needed to hit the road by 7:30. Rick Gardner arrived promptly and we packed David’s PT Cruiser for the 3-hour drive.

Mr. Gardner started off the day by arriving with not one, but two Thermos loads of custom-blended coffee liberally laced with Tia Maria. His opening line was "this is the best you are going to feel all day!" You know what, Campers? He was right!

Things got a little scattered (yah, right—like saying the elephant man had a little puffiness around the eyes), so fasten your seat belts as here are the official "PF Road Trip notes": We were talking about music and things kinda morphed from there....  Then there was the discussion of food, and the notes say, "This sure doesn’t taste like chicken!" My next set of notes read "No good can come from any of this." And we’ll leave it at that!

We arrived in Silverdale Washington about 10:30 AM. and staggered into the lobby to check in to the VSAC host hotel—and whom do we run into? Ed Meitner. Ed had driven his Mercedes E-420 Sport with AMG mods like a demon, and arrived at the hotel about 2:00 AM; he was just getting around to checking out the hotel.

As in all matters of Love and Audio, timing was everything and we proceeded to check in and scope out the scene. Fate was with us as the Meitner D to A converter was waiting for Ed at the front desk. Ed said he needed to "eat something" (code word for: beer time) and we all marched off to the restaurant. David, Rick and Ed partook in some of the local micro-brews. I am on a no carbohydrate diet and the sun was past the yardarm (in England), so I went for an Absolut on the rocks with a lime.

As usual we discussed all of the guy things. Audio, booze and broads. What else is there? After lunch we twisted Ed’s arm to giving all of us a ride in his E 420 Mercedes. Again no speed limits were spared in this V-8 masterpiece of Teutonic engineering. What a great ride! We pit stopped at a local store to get some batteries and cassette tapes to record the DSD round table session scheduled for the next day. As Ed, Rick and myself stood around the E 420 with its hood up, shamelessly ogling its motor and the girls in the parking lot, the discussion turned to women and audio.

Rick was still recovering from the sonic world rocking I gave him the day before. David was still out orbiting Pluto. Then Ed dropped the big one. He said to Rick " You know that the D to A I have here is three generation better than the one that you were listening to yesterday. We even cryogenically treat the wires." Rick was knocked out..!

When David returned from his hunt for batteries and cassette tapes a few moments later, we headed back to the Hotel. I dropped all of my stuff at the room and opened the box with the Meitner converter.

Wow, things have certainly changed since the first one! The current Meitner converters are all 8 channel. Ed says this is because the cost differential between the 2-track version and the 8-track version was "stupid". (I take this to mean that there was little difference in price.) The new 8-channel version has a thick front panel and significant heft. Lots of switches let you configure it for a myriad of applications. It will even do PCM if you should so desire—but why would you?! (Friends don’t let friends use PCM!)

The back is chock full of connectors of various sexes and types. The converter will even act as a master clock (for use with the Sony Sonoma DSD editing system). Ed had mercy on all of us older guys who couldn’t see the recessed trim pots on the old versions. He arranged to have red LED’s back light the trimmer holes so you can see where to put the screwdriver (in a dark room it makes the converter looks possessed). I got Ed to help me pull the cover, which uses a boatload of Torx screws (in two different sizes to deter the curious) and checked out the construction quality.

Let me say this about Ed’s work: First Class! All glass epoxy boards, lots of surface mount, the switching power supply is referenced to the clock of the signal (Ed says that he has the lowest jitter power supplies in the world), and cryogenically treated wire make one hell of a converter!

I fired up the Genex machine and noted the Meitner converter’s big bright blue Lock LED had come on. When the blue light is on, you are good to go!

A meeting of the troops was scheduled to happen in the outdoor lounge area overlooking the Puget Sound. As it was well past the time when the sun is over the yardarm, I was back to the double Absolut on the rocks with a lime while the boys (which now included Stan Ricker amongst others) checked out the local micro-brews. The discussions ranged far and wide for quite sometime. As it was getting dark and the brews and booze were working on the digestive systems of the participants, we retired to a local fish restaurant for some sustenance.

Many tall tales were told at dinner, which was casual and the food was outstanding. I was kind of running on empty, and retired shortly after we returned to the hotel. We scheduled a meeting for 08:00 the next morning.

My room faced Puget Sound (East) and the morning sun illuminated my room through the creases and cracks around the curtains. The morning got off to a late start and I didn’t have time to get breakfast before the events of the day got under way.

The first order of business was to get the Positive Feedback room setup for business. This entailed us humping boxes of magazines and putting the PF banner up on the wall of a meeting room. We also had to set up to record the round table discussion, which was scheduled for later in the day.

All morning David had been plotting to get the DSD system set up in George Cardas’s demo room. I went down to his room, which was directly across the hall from mine to check out the system. Scott Frankland was there showing off a bunch of new Wavestream power amps that he had designed into a pair of Von Schweikert DB100 speakers with a Hovland preamp and tons of Cardas interconnects, speaker leads, power cords and AC strips. He was driving these with some low power SET amps which were nice, but I didn’t think would cover the 25dB peak-to-average level the DSD master recordings that I had brought with me had. He also had a pair of hulking prototype 80 Watt monoblocks lurking in the corner just waiting for someone (like me, maybe?!) to ask him to fire up.

With very little prompting, Scott agreed to power them up, and told me to come back with the DSD gear in about a half an hour. Ed was with me and we determined that what we needed to do was to go the restaurant and have some breakfast. We arrived at the restaurant and were told that it was too late to get breakfast. Bummer! Ed whipped out $20 and told the Host to ask the chef if we could "entice" him to make us breakfast for a "minor consideration." (Heh heh!)

Two minutes later we were seated and breakfast was ordered… After our repast we headed back up to the Cardas room to check out the amps. I got a bad feeling when I noticed that all of the lights in the three demo rooms prior to the Cardas room were out, and the rooms weren’t making any noise. Being a veteran of "Power Wars Down at the Not OK Corral" in an audio show or two, I figured that this was not a good sign. I figured right.

Scott Frankland told us that every time he tried to power up the amps it would take out the power. Hummm. 1) "How about we tap the power out of my room, which is right across the hall?" sez I. All we need is a big gage power cord about 75 feet long and a roll of gaffer’s tape. The question was how to procure this. I had a "brain seizure" and called the hotel maintenance folks. A nice gentleman showed up about 15 minutes later with a couple of wimpy 25-foot cables. This wasn’t going to make it.

Taking Ed’s cue and really wanting to hear the amps, I cracked out a spanking new $20 bill and gave it to the guy. In what seemed like about 2 seconds the nice gentleman from maintenance returned with a nice big fat power cable and new roll of gaffers tape. He proceeded to lay it out, plug it in and tape it down in world record time. Ed pointed out a little graft goes a long way. Guess so!

Now that we had good power, Scott could warm up the monster tube amps. We consulted with George Cardas who had just popped into the room for a moment, and determined that we should really power all of the head end gear off from the same power feed. That project would require an additional 25-foot power cord, which we didn’t have. No problem. I just picked up the phone and called "our man" in maintenance. By the time I had hung up the phone we had a nice 25-foot extension cord and another brand new roll of gaffers tape. This bribe thing really works!

I dragged over the DSD gear and set it up. We ran into a couple of problems. The big one was that all of Ed’s new converters don’t have unbalanced outputs. Of course the preamp that George was using didn’t have balanced in… Jennifer Crock of JENA Labs fame can to the rescue with a pair of XLR to RCA adapters. (Bless her!)

Our next problem was a ground loop that reared it ugly head with the new powering system. Scott was working on isolating the problem doing something that I had never seen mere mortals do with tube amps. That’s right campers: Scott was disconnecting the outputs of the tube amps WHILE THEY WERE RUNNING!

Now I don’t know about you folks, but I was always terrified to disconnect the output of a tube amp while it was running. It seems most of the tube amps I have been around would have a tendency to toss their cookies if you unloaded them while they were fired up. The output tubes would glow cherry red, and if you were really lucky you would only fry some tubes. If you rolled snake eyes, the amp would fry its innards, releasing a large amount of factory installed smoke, requiring a trip to the shop.

I was waiting for the inevitable Chernobyl melt down of the amps—and guess what? They didn’t! Then he started to patch the inputs to the amps with nothing connected to the output and the amps running. This guy has cajones! I have seen tube amps blow up just by looking sideways at them, and here is Scott fearlessly plugging inputs and leaving the outputs unloaded while the amps are fully fired up. Amazing.

After what seems like a long while George Cardas pops back in the room and fixes the entire ground loop hum by using one of his slick power strips—in about 1 minute! Sound emanates forth from the system and I fire up the Ron Miles cut.

Right then David Robinson runs into the room and is dragging me out of the room by the scruff of the neck to the DSD round table discussion. I tell Scott that Genex machine is up and running and I will be back later to take a listen, expecting him to switch back to the Sony SCD-1 that they were using.

I make the DSD round table discussion only slightly late, and an hour later I finally make my way back to the Cardas room. As I walk down the hall, I can’t believe my ears. It’s the Ron Miles cut being played at a fairly brisk level (fairly brisk = just less than hair parting). People are lined up out of the door. After a couple of "shift changes" I finally get in the room. I ask Scott what was up. He said that it sounded so great that he kept playing the Ron Miles cut over and over…

OK, so let’s get serious. I broke out the rest of the masters and started running through them with Scott. We started with the Eric Gunnison trio. A classic Jazz trio: Piano, Bass and Drums. Well campers, the system in the Cardas room with Scott’s new amps was out of this world! The room was so stuffed with people you couldn’t move.

I then went to "something completely different" Denver bassist Kenny Walker leading a sextet. From there we trekked to a screaming hot paced version of "These are a few of my favorite things" with Mary Anne Moore on vocals, featuring a drum solo by Paul Romaine that Scott had cranked up way past the polite level (close to hair parting). One of the listeners in the front seat asked Scott to turn it down. I was shocked when Scott refused, saying this is what music should sound like!

Well campers, those amps that Scott built were rocking my world. Stan Ricker stopped in for about an hour and the look of bliss on his face just had to be seen. I went through my entire arsenal of cuts and finished with a Dianne Reeves cut that I recorded with her and her Brazilian guitar player doing a cover of "Misty." The system was awesome. Huge dynamics were handled with nary a strain. There was no unseemly bloom or artificial midrange. It generated low end that was tight and controlled. It had groove and was joyous to listen to for hours on end! No doubt about it: 200% killer!

I found myself thinking strongly about buy a pair of these Wavestreams. That’s right folks! I had an epiphany with these amps. Me, the solid-state guy, is starting to have unlawful carnal knowledge about these amps.

Maybe I can get Scott to send me a pair to review. Readers, you will be the first folks to know if my epiphany holds and I become a convert to, as Ed put it, "Fire FETS!"

Scott went crazy after I showed him how to run the Genex and gave him a list of all the cuts. I told him that the bright blue lock LED must be on or "you’re fucked!" as the converter wouldn’t make a peep with the lock light out. This became the running mantra of the show. If you said, "The blue light is out," everyone who was in on the joke would respond with "...you’re fucked!"

As the day progressed, Scott played DJ with the Genex and my masters. I spent a fair amount of time in the hallway outside of the Cardas room (since the room was stuffed with people, and I didn’t want to suck up a seat and deprive folks of a chance to check out the system). It was really interesting to watch the expressions of people’s faces as they exited the room. They were divided into two classes: those who had heard what music reproduction could really be like, and those people who walked out of that room looking like a miniature poodle that had been licked on the rump by a Rotweiller! Those folks had run right up against their beliefs about music reproduction and were faced with the fact that highly euphonic, limited dynamic range systems need not apply to the brave new world of DSD…

Scott played DJ well past the closing time of the show Saturday night. I had an early flight the next morning and was persuaded (I believe that the term used was "you’re leaving them, or you will never see your dog again"—very convincing, even though I don’t have a dog!) to leave the masters so that Scott could demo the DSD system all day Sunday. The word I got was that the blue light was on and people were lined up out of the room to get a listen.

I needed a "break" (code word for "drink") and joined David, Rick, Stan, Ed and George out on the veranda to hoist a couple, and shortly thereafter we retired to the same fish restaurant we had been at the night before. This time however, instead of 7 of us, we needed a table for 18. All had a great time, and we got back to the hotel about 10:00 PM. I ask Scott if he had left the amps running, because I wanted to go up to the room and spend some time listening to the amps without the throngs.

I spent the better part of an hour listening with Alan Kafton from Audio Excellence of Arizona in the front chair. Those amps were a revelation for me. Everything I fed them they handled with aplomb. For the nightcap I played the Mary Anne Moore cut at about 100dB. I put Alan right in the drum kit. It was outstanding!

The next morning came early, and I packed up my bags and caught the shuttle to SEA-TAC airport. I ran into George Cardas in the lobby, and we discussed the possibilities of making an SACD. We’ll see what happens.

So, I didn’t spend two days with a bunch of 4 Watt amps. Instead I got my world rocked with Scott Frankland’s killer amps, and tossed a whole bunch of SET folks on their ears. I would guess we would have to be considered the "Bad Boys" the VSAC show. Running Scott’s killer monster amps into the VSR speakers, and taking no prisoners! It was a great time; I can’t wait until the next time VSAC rolls!

As always you can send your comments to me at mpappas@qwest.net, or call me at 303/988-0976. The Sturgeon General’s warning applies big time: Anything you send me or call me about is potential fodder for my next ranting for Positive Feedback!

Ask anyone who is doing time in the literary pen...

 

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