The 1998 Vacuum State of the Art conference & Show (VSAC 98)
by Dick Olsher
What's wrong with this picture? Imagine the elegant Silverdale on the Bay Hotel nestled on the west shore of Puget Sound; audiophiles and hobbyists filling exhibitor rooms focused on cool tube gear and tube-friendly speakers; a series of seminars by industry experts on various audio topics; evenings filled with music, animated discussions, and good food. In my opinion, absolutely nothing! Fun by the Bay is exactly how I'd describe the Vacuum State of the Art Conference & Show (VSAC 98) hosted by VALVE Magazine, August 21 -24, in Silverdale, Washington. This is more than just a regional consumer audio show. The strong emphasis on hobbyist needs makes VSAC worthy of national attention -- in essence a forum on emerging tube art, the seed of tomorrow's high-end designs. I enjoyed myself so much, that I hereby declare my intention to make VSAC an annual pilgrimage.
Are you ready for some highlights? What follows are some of my favorite moments in both words and images.
If you're at all nostalgic about the golden age of tube kit building exemplified by 1950s icons such EICO and Heath Kit, get ready for a blast from the past! Emulating the 50s experience, ASUSA-Kit, formerly Antique Sound USA, (Tel.: 425-481-8866) showcased its full range of affordable tube kits. If you want to build a basic 30-watt push-pull stereo amp using a pair of EL-34s per channel, try the model A-4 at a base price of $449.
The pairing of the Lowther PM2A full-range driver in a Medallion II cabinet kit from Lowther America (Tel.: 503-370-9115) with the Welborne Labs (Tel.: 303-470-6585) Moondog 2A3 monoblock power amps made a strong sonic impression. Note that I have a pair of Medallion IIs on hand for evaluation, complete with Lowther PM2A drivers with silver speech coils. Look for a future report on my experiences with these speakers.
New from Welborne Labs are the Apollo I and Apollo II SE monoblock amplifiers based on KR Enterprise 52B power triodes. These amps are well worth checking out.Wright Sound Company's (Tel.: 253-859-3592) model WPA 3.5 is an interesting single-ended 2A3 based monoblock ($599 ea.) using a MagneQuest output transformer and a cathode follower output stage to derive a 4-watt output from the diminutive 2A3.
Electronic Tonalities (Tel.: 360-697-1936) unveiled the ParaS.E.X kit, the latest generation of their Single Ended eXperimenter's kit, for just $399 for the basic kit. S.E.X is good, but ParaS.E.X is even better. The circuit has been improved with the implementation of parallel feed output circuitry, pioneered by Electronic Tonalities and MagneQuest's Mike LaFevre.
Tim de Paravicini's innovative Yoshino V20 integrated power amp ($4595), distributed by E.A.R. USA (Tel.: 310-396-1919), made a lot of friends driving the Samadhi Acoustics Ichiban loudspeaker. No power tubes in this puppy! And they said it couldn't be done: a total of 10 12AX7 small-signal tubes are used in parallel per channel in the push-pull output stage to deliver 24 watts of sweet and refined sound. I should know, as this is the coupling I've used extensively to evaluate the V20 for an upcoming Fi Magazine review.
First Sound's line of line stages has got to be high-end audio's best-kept secret (Tel.: 425-271-7486). Emmanuel Go showcased the exceptional Presence Line Stage, a unit I have lived with and enjoyed over a prolonged period in my own system.
"No, it's not an electrostatic," explained designer Claus Zimmermann of MZX, Inc (Tel.: 805-375-5734). What looked to be a modestly sized flat panel, was described as an electrolytic speaker. For one thing, it was not plugged into the wall and was said to get its polarizing potential from the audio signal itself. I plan to keep a close watch on this developing technology.
I connected with Musical Surroundings' Garth Leerer (Tel.: 510-420-0379) and got my first look at the Basis 1400 turntable. I liked what I heard. Outfitted with the Basis RB250 (a modified Rega arm) and the Benz Glider MC cartridge, we're talking about $2,100 for a complete system.
The most exciting cable news came from Sahuaro Audio (602-943-23260) with a line of custom air dielectric interconnects, speaker cable, and power cords. A unique (and funky) wire array is configured so as to allow the electromagnetic field around the conductor to expand externally without energy absorption in insulation materials.
My vote for the most entertaining room at the Show goes to Audio Technical Products (Tel.: 425-641-5044). ATP's Jack Strayer not only delighted visitors with great stories but also demonstrated the capabilities of the TA-25 stereo amp in a unique fashion. This amp uses two pairs of Svetlana 572-10 directly-heated power triodes. At one point, he proceeded to convert the amp from push pull to single ended operation by extracting two of the Svetlana output tubes (with a towel wrapped around his hand) and readjusting the bias while the system was playing music.
What proved to be one of the most popular rooms last year, the Craftsman's Room, was also a hit this year. In this room attendees were given a chance to demonstrate their own homebrew and DIY projects in the context of a reference system. Some absolutely amazing stuff, as the pictures plainly show. Valve's Dan Schmalle (AKA Dr. Bottlehead) seems pleased with the sound of First Impression's model 1 loudspeaker. Kudos goes to Dan for all his hard work in pulling off another great Show.
Some more figures:
One of ASUSA's kit offerings.
A mind blower from the Craftsman's room -- Scott Divers' leather-finished KT88 power amp
A homebrew 211 SE kit
Yet another DIY homebrew construction
eXtreme Audio's eXemplar horn speaker
A relaxed Mike LaFevre of MagneQuest
fi's Don Garber is having a good time
Wright Sound Company's George Wright
Am attendee is mesmerized by Tim de Paravicini's Yoshino V20 integrated amp.