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A Personal Introduction with Thoughts and Musings from the 2023 Pacific Audio Fest

07-10-2023 | By Dean Waters | Issue 128

An introduction

Greetings everyone!

Dean Waters with cigar:  a study. SeaTac, WA, 2023 (Photograph and image processing by David W. Robinson)

My name is Dean Waters, and I'm both thrilled and delighted to be joining Positive Feedback as a reviewer and Musician-in-Residence. It is indeed an honor to join such an amazing group of talented writers, editors, and publishers.

My musical musings started in elementary school singing in school plays, and I started playing piano in junior high school. I received my first piano at 15 (40 years later and I still have it), and have been heavily involved in music since then. My keyboard collection has grown considerably since then, consisting of my 40-year-old upright, a 6-foot grand, an 1890's pump organ, and a 3-manual digital organ that connects via MIDI to a Hauptwerk pipe-organ sound-sampler. My singing took off in earnest as a boy soprano in the Crystal Cathedral Boy Choir in Garden Grove, California.

In college I studied vocal performance and music education, with a choral conducting emphasis at Cal State, Fullerton back in the late 80s and early 90s. I paid my tuition and living expenses by directing and singing in many church choirs, operas, weddings, caroling—basically anything I could do to make rent as a starving college musician, and loving every minute of it. I was fortunate enough to direct choirs at the high school and collegiate levels, as well.

I started my vinyl collection back in high school while I was the manager of a local record store in Rancho Cucamonga, California. I've been collecting ever since. All formats are welcome in my library, although I did give away my old TEAC reel-to-reel when I moved away from California in 1999 (it was just too heavy!). My CD library is over 1000 albums and with near as many vinyl LPs. Mostly classical and – Barbershop!

My other musical love besides classical is barbershop harmony! I've been an avid "Barbershopper" since 1987, when my college roommate invited me to a rehearsal of a group called The Masters of Harmony. I was hooked and signed up immediately. I've been Barbershopping ever since, having won two gold medal international championships with the Masters. I've enjoyed great life pleasures singing in many competition-level quartets over the last 30+ years, having taken performance tours in such faraway places as New Zealand (twice!), Australia, Japan, Canada, and more US states than I can remember.

Barbershop: It's not just hobby, it's a lifestyle! (Much like audio.....).

Tying together the collector and barbershopper in me has allowed me to accumulate over 700 barbershop albums over the decades. This is likely the single largest collection of barbershop recordings anywhere. The albums go as far back as the 1920s and continue up to present day. Over the last five years I've been painstakingly digitizing the entire collection to preserve for future generations to enjoy. Otherwise, these performances and recordings could get lost to history.

I started being an audio aficionado back in college starting my old Kenwood Model Eleven II receiver (I wish I would have kept it), and my Soundcraftsman 20-band EQ w/zero-gain controls (I really wish I would have kept that!). Since then, I've had speakers, tape decks, turntables, amps, and you-name-it, from at least a dozen different equipment brands.

I am excited at the prospect of meeting you all at future audio events, and through our collective writings. I look forward to many future wonderful conversations, articles, tradeshows, music, and all things audio.

Again, it's not a hobby. It's a lifestyle.



Thoughts and musings from the Pacific Audio Fest 2023 Show

If someone asked me to sum up the PAF show into one word, that word would be "marvelous!" To be honest, even marvelous doesn't quite cut it. Just as others would describe this event, it was like drinking from a firehose. There is just so much information to gather and so much to learn from so many talented people. To say my eyes were opened would be an understatement. Just seeing and hearing what's happening today in audio and (even more importantly) where we're headed in the coming years is both something to be proud of and something to look forward to.

There were many takeaways from the weekend. I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight some of those here. It is my sincere hope and wish that I will have the opportunity to continue the never-ending education and passion for what it is we love so dearly and invest so much of our time and resources in.

The products – so many standouts!

(Image courtesy of Vanatoo)

First up on my favorites list are the Vanatoo Transparent Zero Plus and the upcoming Vanatoo Transparent One Encore Plus integrated powered speakers. Talk about exceptional value. The best way to describe these gems is to say they're anything you could want in a small, quite affordable package.

Let's start with versatility. No matter how you want to connect to these, Vanatoo has you covered. For the smaller Zero Plus model, you have standard 1/8" analog, Toslink optical digital, Bluetooth (AAC & aptX-HD), and USB direct connect (for connecting directly to your PC/Laptop). Step up to the larger One Encore Plus model and you add coax digital. Both models feature tone (treble/bass) controls that can be adjusted using the included remote control. No more fiddling with dials then moving back to your seat only to get up and fiddle with dials again. The Encore Plus speakers also have physical tone control dials on the back.  

The Zero Plus features a 4" woofer with an equally sized 4" passive radiator along the bottom (elevated) edge. The Encore Plus sports a 5.25" woofer with a 5.25" passive radiator at the back. This is great for keeping air pressure steady within the cabinet. In theory it might also produce a matching signal that is 180-degrees out of phase with what's coming out the front. By the time this rear-firing sound bounces off a back wall (or desk surface for the Zero Plus) and reaches your ear, the out-of-phase issue might very well be moot.

When listening, I didn't readily detect any obvious comb filtering or other sonic annoyances related to phase issues. All I hear is a smooth, responsive, balanced sound. Loved it. Both models go up to 48kHz for either native DSD or 96kHz PCM sampling rate playback. The published frequency response is nearly flat with just a small roll-off over 10kHz. I found the sound to be extremely well balanced and easy to listen to. I don't think ear fatigue will be an issue with these even after several hours of continuous use.

There is one additional party trick that these offer: Hook up a powered sub, and the Vanatoo's will automatically change the internal crossover to send low frequencies to the connected sub. This means you can start with this system "as-is" and upgrade it later simply by adding a sub of your choice. No need to reconfigure. Just plug in and go. The price for the Zero Plus is $449.99 and the larger One Encore is $649.99. I think that's quite a bargain! The Zero Plus speakers are available now and the One Encore's should be available by the end of August. I will be purchasing a set of the One Encores as soon as they become available.  

Next up is the Popori Acoustics WR2.23XL Electrostatic Loudspeakers.

These use a single wide-range panel planar transducer to provide a literal "wall" of sound. My previous experience with these types of panel loudspeakers had always left me disappointed with bass response. They were pretty much mid- and high-frequency loudspeakers. Popori seems to have come a long way in this regard. I didn't notice the usual lack of bass with these. Quite the contrary, while these had great clarity in both the high and mid-ranges, I never felt that the low end was lacking. Great job!

This wide-panel design allows sound to flow into the room and envelop the listener rather than having sound driven at the listener by a cone (or series of cones). Ambient sounds become almost directionless and allow the listener to be whisked into the sound stage. The speakers disappear and what remains is a most pleasurable sonic experience.

Well done, Popori!

The J.Sikora Reference Turntable

Of all the reference turntables I saw (more than I could count….), the one that caught my attention was the J.Sikora Reference Turntable, represented by Notable Audio Products. At a glance this thing is impressive almost beyond measure. First time I've seen a turntable with four centrally controlled DC motors and eight belts to ensure consistent speed and pitch accuracy. Up to three tonearms can be supported. What more could anyone ask for?

I did spend a fair amount of time listening to the Dutch & Dutch 8c. This is another fantastic system in a mid-size package. Three 8" cones in a speaker only 19" high: One forward-facing (mid-range) and two rear-facing (low range). The idea being that the lows should bounce off at least one surface (rear wall) rather than being sent directly to the listener.

These produced a sound that belied their size. You would expect a huge hulking set of back-breaking monster speakers for sound this rich and clean. An additional piece of exceptional engineering are the side-vents next to the mid-range 8" cones that mirror what the mid-range cone is producing, at 180 degrees out-of-phase. This is done to help reduce interference from the rear-facing low frequency acoustics being reflected off the back wall on the way to the listener.

If memory serves me correctly, this is one of the few rooms that did not have acoustic treatment at the first reflection point on the wall mid-way between the speaker and the listener. It simply wasn't needed. The speakers feature a beautiful solid oak construction and would be nice complement to just about any décor. I think the ideal market for these would be someone living in a studio apartment who wants a great sound setup without the need to dedicate substantial floor space, nor desiring to carry a set of 200-pound speakers up three flights of stairs! The 8c features direct network connectivity for streaming without the need for a separate DAC. It's all there. Brilliant.

Charles Kirmuss of Kirmuss Audio was there demonstrating his KA-RC-1 ultrasonic record cleaner. The guy knows his stuff! Charles was wonderful. He presented an hour-long PAF 2023 seminar talking about the pros and (mostly) cons of various record cleaning methods and products. Charles did an excellent job of backing up his conclusions with examples and explanations. I was thoroughly impressed with what he had to say and the way he presented the information. I had no idea about the presence of pressing oils or releasing agents within the pucks that are used to press vinyl records. Nor had I ever considered the effect of positive vs. negative charged records and cleaning agents before his session. It was a highly informative session that should be of interest to anyone who loves vinyl.

The Triangle Art Metis Horn Speakers were especially appealing to my ears. The word I would use to describe them would be "butter." As in butter smooth. These produced the warmest mid-range sounds I heard all weekend.

They have a large solid walnut wooden horn that is attached to a 6.5" driver that is tuned for 200Hz to 1.6kHz. This is where you want to hear the warmth in the vocals that simply "invite" you out of the audience and onto the stage with the performer. And this is precisely what these speakers offer: a personalized invitation to participate in the experience of real enjoyment. It seems so brilliant.

Concert halls use wood panels for both walls, ceilings, and for the sound shells on stage. Hmm, there's a reason for that! Well, here we take the same approach and move the warming reflective characteristics of the concert hall and attach it directly to the mid-range drivers. The result was magical. Instantly fell in love with these. I could have just as easily stayed in that room all day and been a happy camper.

I saved the best for last.

That would be the Børrensen M6 from Audio Group Denmark. At the close of the show on Saturday night, I had a fantastic opportunity to talk with Peter Hansen, Area Sales Manager for Audio Group Denmark. Starting about midnight on Saturday evening, he and I, along with the Editor-in-Chief of Positive Feedback, Dr. David Robinson, and one additional engineer whose name I sadly can't recall, were treated to a private deep-dive listening session via streaming audio from Qobuz.

At one point, Peter handed me the tablet so I could construct the playlist. We spent the next two-and-a-half hours listening to Wagner, Duruflé, Brahms, Orff, Verdi, Widor, and Bach. These were mostly old Telarc recordings from the 80s and 90s (I'm an old Telarc guy, what can I say?). Each of these recordings emphasized a different and unique listening experience to be had.

I was identifying the things within the recording we wanted to listen for, and Peter was able to speak at length about what was happening in the speakers to produce what we wanted to hear. It was incredible! This was easily the highlight of my entire week. Peter highlighted and demonstrated exactly what makes the M6 so special.

Without a doubt these are zero-compromise speakers. It's apparent that the engineering team threw cost to the wind and set out on a course to create the absolute best listening possible. I gleefully applaud their efforts and their results. I mean, who would have thought to create driver baskets out of Zirconium? That's the same material that nuclear fuel rods are made of! And then they had to find a way to 3D print the Zirconium to get what they were after. Amazing. And that's just the start of it.

I had never previously thought much about magnetic resistance within a speaker driver. Peter had a useful example of their driver motor using both a "traditional" coil (found everywhere), and a coil they create using materials that don't introduce magnetic friction in the driver. The difference was shocking and enlightening. It makes so much sense. By lowering the resistance in the driver itself, the amp and drivers run cooler, while consuming less power. At the same time, the responsiveness of these drivers increased significantly.

And I was amazed at how well the M6's delivered bass using "only" 4.5" drivers. Sure, there were 12 of them, but still….  As Peter explained, low frequencies are all about moving AIR. The two things that get in the way of that are friction and mass. The friction issue is addressed by using coils that don't introduce magnetic friction (impedance) within the driver. The mass problem is solved by the unique 4-layer infused driver cones that Børrensen has created. The result is a cone that is both durable and light.

The ribbon tweeter is also featherlight in its own regard. Net-net is that the drivers can move with incredible accuracy and without deflection of any kind, all the way down below 20Hz.

Now to be fair, at the price of $550,000 per pair, these might as well be made from Unobtainium. However, realize what can be done over the next 5 to 10 years! What starts out as (nearly) impossible to obtain today becomes (somewhat) commonplace over time.

Hats off and hearty "Thank You!" to Peter and the rest of the team. Simply superb.

The people – the best part of the show


A gathering of the Audiophile Cigar Society…great folks all! (Photograph by David W. Robinson)

The most wonderful part of the entire show experience for me was by far the people. It's very difficult to find a group of individuals that are this passionate about their trade and what they do. And yet passion is exactly what we get. To a person, everyone I interacted with deeply cares about audio and achieving high results with both what's doable today, and what comes next. No one in this space says "Well, that's it. Gone as far as we can go."

Quite the contrary, everyone is both celebrating their well-earned successes of today, and looking for ways to move forward and to incorporate today's Unobtainiums into tomorrow's Prosumer market and beyond. What is happening today was unheard of ten years ago. And yet ten years from now, those innovations will trickle down into the commonplace.

What a fantastic time we live in. And, as wonderful as it is, it only gets better from here!

I can't wait.

All photographs by Dean Waters, unless noted otherwise.