Time with fellow music lovers, intimate demonstrations of cutting-edge technology, all brought together by a gracious host is a humbling reminder of why brick-and-mortar stores are critical for music lovers everywhere.
The Venue (December 3, 2016)
Fidelis Home Audio in Nashua, New Hampshire is a safe-haven for music lovers and audiophiles alike. Walter Swanbon heads a team of skilled people in all relevant disciplines of high-end audio inside this sizable location that has multiple clean and well organized listening rooms.
Walking through the door of Fidelis, a fine attention to detail is apparent throughout. This should not be a surprise since Walter brings four decades of experience in service of the audiophile community to the table. The depth of his years is reflected in the refined product selection from entry-level, to the likes of the top-tier system we will get to shortly. Most importantly, the veteran music lover in him makes it all extremely accessible in a laid-back, enjoyable atmosphere focused on the music first.
MSB Technology was represented by Vince Galbo, National Sales Manager, and $130,000 USD of their best equipment in the form of the Select DAC, Universal Media Transport V, and M204 Amplifiers.
Circa 1985 or so when Sony/Phillips was pioneering digital audio, they used what is known as a ladder DAC (digital to analog converter) since chip-DACs, such as the Sabre DAC commonly used today, were not around yet. A ladder DAC is purely analog in nature, bulky, awkward, and very cost-prohibitive to bring to market. According to Vince it is, however, the most ideal way to convert digital to analog when all of details are considered and exactly why MSB chooses this path.
With clock precision measured in femtoseconds (one quadrillionth of a second or the time it takes light to travel about the thickness of a sheet of paper) this DAC is capable of reproducing standard redbook (CD quality) with the fidelity of high resolution formats—without up-sampling. Everything the DAC select converts stays native further reducing places where distortion can be introduced.
The Select DAC is modular to configure as the end-user wishes, and is "future-proof" according to Vince if for no other reason that the ladder DAC is analog. It does not care what format it is converting. It simply converts it, precisely, every time. "Future-Proof" is a very bold statement and my scientific mind tells me there are no absolutes, however when making this statement Vince challenged the engineering team at MSB to think of something that is coming, or may come, that the Select DAC would not be ready for and they came up with: Silence.
Speaking of silence, there are no adjectives which can describe the sheer purity of the Select DAC. 16/44, 24/198, and DSD, seemed interchangeable in terms of fidelity when playing, though there was no direct comparisons musically. Not to go unnoticed, the "Universal Media Transport V" also featured by MSB started the chain by pulling the data off the discs with enough precision to tip the domino that started this amazing musical journey.
There was a "stand-out" format which was birthed in 2014 called the MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) format. Despite the MQA material exceeding the performance of the other formats, it is important to understand that the regards for the MSB Select DAC is not a comparison to any other DAC I have experienced, or any price-point because that would be grossly unfair, rather to the musical integrity itself which is all that is left once the digital bits become analog waves.
If the ninety-kilobuck price-point is not exactly your thing, that is ok. A product like the Select DAC is paving new roads in terms of what is possible in digital audio so its children can easily follow. MSB offers the Analog DAC which is a far more affordable in the several-thousand dollar price range (configuration dependant) and delivers more of the Select DAC than it likely should according to Vincent.
Experiencing a product like the MSB Select DAC was less listening to the latest and greatest and more like standing on the precipice of what is possible, clearly looking forward at what is to come. That is what a state-of-the-art DAC should be about.
It is a shame that the line-out of a DAC cannot plug directly into loudspeakers without any sort of amplification in-between. This would have solved many problems for MSB. As they began to advance their DAC technology it became increasingly difficult to find an amplifier that was as powerful, dynamic, and uncolored as they required to keep advancing their discipline. This forced the hand of MSB to develop what was the most impressive piece of the day for me: The M204 mono-block amplifier.
The monolithic look of the M204 is by purposeful design. I found this out accidentally when first observing the system and got too close to one of the units. Like a moth to a flame, I was nearly set ablaze when leaning over it to look at the connections! At 200 watts "class A" operation, the entire chassis from its shape to the deep fins ringing the entire enclosure are there to exhaust the massive power the M204 dissipates at idle.
A little heat is an extremely small price to pay for the performance the $40,000 USD/pr. M204 amplifiers are capable of. Vincent explained that there is no negative feedback. This is an amazing feat as even the most exotic amplifiers employ at least a little negative feedback. If there is no negative feedback, amplifiers cannot practically withstand the back electro-motive force received by woofers while reproducing the lowest octaves. Industry nerds call the ability of an amplifier to control a loudspeaker damping factor (DF), and typically the negative feedback employed to achieve a desirable DF is far more useful than derogatory. That said, it can (and does) have a trade-off in terms of time coherency at higher frequencies which can cause distortion.
MSB overcomes the obstacle of a negative feedback loop in the M204 much like they have the ladder DAC. Designing to the smallest detail, and executing with perfection. Just how well does the M204 do without the traditional negative feedback loop? The pair of M204's effortlessly drove and controlled the Wilson Alexx right down to the 1.8 Ohm, extremely difficult impedance load they place on an amp with seemingly endless dynamics yet the most delicate touch.
It is not easy, or even practical to design or need a cutting-edge 200 watt "class A" amplifier but that is not the point. A line has been drawn in what is possible from an amplifier that all others need to pay attention to. Not from ego, or to simply say, "we could so we did", but to push what is capable in music reproduction forward. The primary reason rang through later in the day during the demonstration of the Alexx loudspeaker by Wilson's own Peter McGrath when he stated; "The top technology will eventually find its way down through the product line and that is why it is critical to keep pursuing perfection."
...And the Storyteller
Wilson Audio seems to be writing its own fairytale lately. The kingdom has officially been passed from David Wilson to his son, Daryl Wilson, who is seemingly not going to reinvent Wilson Audio, rather keep pursuing the perfection his father had. Daryl has designed the Sabrina, Alexia, the up-and-coming Yvette, and what was heard today: The $110,000USD Alexx.
New speaker drivers have been developed for the Alexx. Specifically the ten-inch and twelve-inch woofers which Peter McGrath, VP Sales for Wilson Audio, exclaimed are such an advancement in Wilson's driver technology, they will be featured in the soon-to-be-released WAMM Master Chronos which will take $635,000USD from your pocket.
Every last detail has been perfected in the Alexx and would take a dedicated review to explain in detail. There is one key feature of the Alexx that is critical to note: The ability to properly time align the midrange drivers, and the tweeter. A demonstration was given where Peter moved the upper-midrange 1/32nd of an inch which took it out of time with the rest of the drivers and the ill effect was clearly audible regardless of where people were located in the room.
Locked back into time, there was a coherency to the sound which I personally have only experienced a few times. This also increased the size of the listening position, and allowed for very minute details to play-through. Concert halls were captured with deep and wide decay. In the studio recordings or electronically created music Peter played, if the recording engineer wanted you to hear things in strange places, even from behind, they were there in uniform scope and breadth with the rest of the music. These effects can only be reproduced if a loudspeaker is extremely well executed.
Timbre balance was not completely neutral, but it was cohesive and as a single voice from the extreme top, to the deepest notes which at points were reproduced with such authority the track-lighting began to quake and paint the walls with a dizzying splendor of shadows.
The Alexx was not simply all pomp and circumstance, and they approached smaller chamber-type music with a delicate hand. Dynamic range was complete and even life-like at moments from large-scale orchestra, to solo-instruments where it is critical to capture a feature like the weight a performer gives a single note while running through a scale.
The result is that the Alexx loudspeakers by Wilson Audio are functional works of art both visually and sonically. It seems the land Wilson Audio will be kept fertile with Daryl Wilson sowing and harvesting it well into the future. It is exciting to think some of the technology featured in the Alexx will grace their products one day, and looking at the Sabrina loudspeaker, it is visible it has already started. Amazing work!
A Shift of Perspective
Perception is reality. A decade ago, I looked at the ultra high-end as a way companies may just be trying to get their fingers into the top pockets around the world. Sadly, it seems to be a reality for many short-lived companies who incorrectly don this perspective and try to make a quick buck. It only takes a single bad apple according to the old saying.
Yet having the opportunity to engage with these two companies, MSB and Wilson Audio, who have weathered the pluses and minuses of the industry for decades, all while pushing the envelope of what is possible in their respective disciplines was a pleasure beyond words. This was not some five-minute demonstration at a show, rather a well-planned, graciously hosted, educational opportunity to peek into what is moving the industry we all love so dearly forward. An experience which contradicts so much of what I read and hear about the industry.
The result of both MSB and Wilson combining some of their greatest works was simply breathtaking, and to reiterate, created a system from start to finish that closely approached, and may have even achieved absolute life-like sound at moments which is something everyone who loves music should hear. Engaging with Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio, and Vince Galbo of MSB made the experience even more pleasurable as there is so much to be understood when listening to industry veterans not simply talk about their products, but talk about what is next and what is possible with the fire of young passion in their eyes.
In this age of the internet killing the store, there is more misinformation than good information. None of the education experienced today would be possible if Walter Swanbon of Fidelis Home Audio has not spent his time bringing Hi Fi music to so many. This merit alone, crowning what has already been mentioned, complete the obvious reasons why the old-timey "brick-and-mortar" stores are critical to any serious music lover or audiophile regardless of budget.
I encourage any reader to get out there when dealer demonstrations are offered at local Hi Fi shops, and I challenge Hi Fi shops and their vendors to engage further with the community through such demonstrations as this. It was an experience I will not soon forget and a pleasurable reminder of what makes our community so great.
Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio having fun with the crowd.
Vince Galbo of MSB Technology explaining what makes the Select DAC tick. (Picture by Peter McGrath)
John Marks was elated to see his Esperanto "Blue" SPDIF cables brought along as the cable of choice for Peter McGrath's personal recording playback.
Empty bellies did not detract from the listening experience at this demonstration.
Finally, a captivated audience taking in the amazing sound. (Picture by Peter McGrath)