- Written by Chris Groppi and Rick Schmidt
- Published on 13 October 2008
This year was the first time at the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival for secrets writers Chris Groppi and Rick Schmidt. Unlike many of the other trade focused shows, the RMAF is open to the public. Both manufacturers and retailers show products here, and displays are focused on listening demonstrations. This year, there were more than 160 display rooms each usually showing equipment from several manufacturers. Rooms were from both retailers as well as manufacturers and distributors, with a wide range of equipment from around the world. All the big hitters were here, plus many companies I had never heard of.
In addtion to the rooms, seminars on topics ranging from turntable setup to digital recording technologies are offered. This is an intimate show, focused on 2 channel audio, and everyone has a chance to see every room. The show was great fun for both of us!
Day 1: Chris Groppi
My first day at the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival has been a whirlwind. I've gone quickly through all the floors to see what's here, and made a point to stop in rooms run by our friends at Secrets. Here's a sampling of what I saw.
These beautiful Bamberg Audio Series 5 TMWs were being driven by Emotiva's new XPA-2, now being reviewed by Secrets. Emotiva is one of my favorite manufacturers, and they sounded fantastic. More fantastic that many much more expensive setups!
This Headroom desktop listening system uses Tannoy minimontors driven by Headroom's Desktop power amps. You can run either the speakers or headphones.
I am a big fan of headphones. My first Hifi system was a headroom classic amp with a pair of Sennheiser HD580s. This is the ultimate evolution of that! The Headroom balanced max amp, fed by a Wadia CD player, driving Denon's new Flagship AH-D7000 headphones ($999). These two pairs are the only two in the united states. They are some of the finest pieces of audio craftsmanship I've ever seen. Denon was represented by none other than Alvino Raigoza, who sold me my first audio equipment when I was in high school. Small world!
Here is the more moderately priced ($1599) headroom Ultra Desktop amp driving the Denon AH-D5000 headphones. This would look (and sound) pretty good on my office desk at work!
This is Avid's Diva entry level turntable, at $2400, without the arm. It is a very well made turntable for the price. Unlike Avid's higher priced offerings, this unit is not spring suspended. I'd be happy to replace my old Linn LP-12 (vintage 1984) with one of these.
I finally got to hear the gargantuan AV 123 LS9 line source loudspeaker. They are HUGE! At $5999, they're not hugely expensive, though. The sound was extraordinarily large and dynamic. If I only had a room large enough to fit them...
Mark Schiffer of AV123 was most proud of this ELT525 surround system. $999 buys you all 5 of these speakers, including delivery. Let me tell you, I have seen 5 channel systems costing 3 times more that were not built as well. These are real wood veneer, no vinyl. I guarantee you'll see these reviewed at Secrets, along with Mark's killer new MFW-15 subwoofer.
My vote for jaw drop of the show. Acoustic Zen Maestro loudspeakers
driven by 6, count-'em 6 Halcro DM-88 monoblocks. This system uses the
fabulous DEQX HDP-3 DSP system to perform driver correction, driver
correction, time alignment, and room correction. The crossovers in the
custom Acoustic Zen Maestro speakers are totally bypassed. Each driver
type (tweeter, mid and woofer) are driven by their own Halcro DM-88.
The source was a Qsonic Q110 music manager (a high performance digital
jukebox system). This system's MSRP is approaching the cost of my
Day 2: Chris Groppi
Day 2 of the RMAF was a bit more relaxed, so I was able to listen more carefully in several rooms. I was surprised at how some of the big money systems disappointed me, but there were still many great sounding rooms.
These beautiful TAD CR-1's sounded fabulous driven by Bel Canto 500W monoblocks. The Bel Canto system used a prototype "virtual battery" DC power supply to provide power to the CD player and DAC. These speakers were not cheap, at about $30k, but really sounded excellent. I usually miss the bottom octave, but not with these.
These Von Schweikert VR-9SEs were the most realistic drum presentation I heard at the show. Many demos tried the drum thing, but in my opinion, these did it best. These are some seriously big, massive speakers.
These $192,000 (!) Acapella Triolon Excalibur speakers sounded very alive and dynamic, but were also identifiably horn like. They did look cool (or goofy, depending on your tastes).
If the Triolons were not goofy enough for you, these sure will be. These Golden Acoustics room treatments were in the same room as the Triolons. They are calculated and built for your specific room.
These Studio Electric T3s ($7900/pair) were my favorite speaker of the day. They're only about waist high. The sound put many big money rooms to shame, with stupendous aliveness and dynamics, and great bass extension, down to 34 Hz.
The Studio Electric T3s were also put to great use in the Modwright room, with Modwright's electronics. They've been entirely building their own amps and preamps for 5 years now, as well as continuing mods of source components. This was definitely one of the best sounding rooms at the show, and was something like 20 times less expensive than the biggest money rooms.
These 120W Dodd Audio monoblocks are built entirely by hand to order for a mere $4800 per pair. They were driving the AV123 X-Statik loudspeakers ($799/pair). This entire system costs less than $10k, and sounded ridiculously good.
These Dodd monoblocks (280W, ~$30k) were powering the AV123 LS9s. These are some beautiful amps. The AV123 LS9s let you spend a bit more on your electronics.
These more reasonably sized AV123 LS6s might even fit into my room. At $4500, they're a steal. They were powered by Dusty Vawter's CIA D-500 class D monoblocks in the Channel Island Audio room.
This EMM Labs multichannel system, using 4 big Soundlabs electrostatic panels, plus some bespoke Sony speakers imported from Japan, was the first multichannel system that has ever realy gotten my attention. The EMM Labs 6 channel in, 4 channel out preamps provide phantom center and rear channels.
Day 3: Chris Groppi
On day three, I went through the show to see all the rooms that were too crowded before, and to hear some recommended systems.
I heard MBL's omidirectional speakers for the first time today. This was a true reference class MBL system, with all their top of the line electronics. The sound was the most open and spacious I have ever heard period. They do image in a rather odd way, and can be a bit bright, but the openness can't be beat. I personally think they look cool, too. Some think they're the ugliest things around, but I like them.
Yesterday, I showed the fantastic Studio Electric T3 speaker. This is what was driving them in the Studio Electric room. The model 4 amp is a 275 WPC dual mono hybrid tube and solid state amp. It also sells for $7900, just like the speakers. This system was my pick at the show if it was my money on the line.
These $27,000 Vienna Acoustics The Music loudspeakers, driven by Jeff Rowland Design Group electronics had a stupendously real presentation of piano when I heard them. The flat driver in the top enclosure covers 125 Hz to 20 kHz. The tweeter below covers 15 kHz to 100 kHz, both with no crossovers. The top enclosure is adjustable with detented screws for toe-in and vertical tilt, allowing the user to precisely set up the speaker, and change things without fear of losing the starting point.
The show had some interesting finds for me. One was two completely different paths to good sound. In the Bamberg Audio/Emotiva room, the $799 Emotiva XPA-2 amp and $699 RSP-2 preamp were driving the $8000 Bamberg Series 5 TMW loudspeakers. In the Dodd audio room, the Dodd 100W amplifier ($4900) and Dodd preamp ($2600) were driving the AV123 X-Statik loudspeakers ($799). Both of these systems sounded excellent. Both cost about the same amount of money, but where that money was placed in the system was very different. The one common thread was both used equipment that performed well beyond it's price for the budget components involved. Another interesting find was that many of the mega-buck systems with 6 figure price tags were decidedly underwhelming. My favorite system of the show was the Studio Electric T3 loudspeaker, driven by the Studio Electric model 4 amplifier and Benchmark DAC with built in volume control. While this wasn't the best sounding system here, it was close. And it was less that $20k MSRP for everything. I heard a few $100k systems that were better, but the Studio Electric was the most impressive for the dollar. Another favorite was the Daedalus audio room, with the Daedalus Ulysses speakers and Manley tube electronics. This was well set up, in a big room, and it rocked. Too many rooms played polite, boring, unoffensive music. In the Daedalus/Manley room, not so much. And the big Ulysses in a decent sized room loved it.
Day 2: Rick Schmidt
I stopped in the Jones Audio room where their PA-M300-1 Monoblocks fed by a Benchmark DAC were in turn feeding some B&W speakers. I haven't heard B&W's in a long time. These sounded lighter and more direct than that distant memory. But then it could have been these amps too, very lively.
One of my first stops was to visit with Lou Hinkley of Daedalus Audio and to hear the top of the line from Daedalus, The Ulysses. This is the big cousin to my 2.1's and so has much of the same stuff, like the drivers but more. More drivers and indeed more sound, especially on the low end. The Ulysses was playing in two rooms, the first one way too small for these big speakers it was also balmy-warm thanks to the Clayton Audio S100 Balanced Class A amp. I'd like to hear more of that amp. It seemed to have ample muscle for pushing the dual 8" woofers around but smooth like class A amplification should be. In the second room the Daedalus' were driven by Manley gear but the biggest difference was the room. Plenty of room for the speakers to breath here.
My most astounding experience on Friday (even more than the Dow swinging 1000 points) was the AVR PH77. Now here is convergence. This NOS tubed phono stage has a digital side to it. A digital side that would put many home theater processors to shame. Built in to this phono stage and switchable from the remote are every RIAA curve known to man, customized equalization for every cartridge known to man as well as the loading for that cartridge (well of course it would have that!). In addition, you can customize each of those settings and store them. Oh, it also knows how to compensate for certain record company biases such as Decca pressings etc. A phono stage like no other. The sound was immediate and sweet. Pictured here with Darren Censullo.
Validating my recent experience with Stereo Dave's single driver speakers was the MaxHorn. The huge cabinets help these speakers measure flat from 50Hz to 18kHz and the sound was simply enchanting. Folks just did not want to leave this room.
Jumping to the other end of the technological spectrum, the MBL room. Looking at these speakers makes you feel like you are on the set of Star Trek. Listening to them makes you fell like you are living Star Trek. You keep looking at the speaker because of the way it looks but your mind keeps telling you that the sound is coming from somewhere else. This new model, the Mark II's, feature Porsche Leather upholstery around the base which encloses a built in subwoofer.
I'd heard that Focal was revamping the Utopia line and was anxious to see and hear it. At the lower end of the scale is the Diablo.
The Grand Utopia replaces the conventional fixed magnet in the subwoofer with an electro magenet. You can see the outboard power supply for it on the floor to the left of the speaker on the right. This allows the woofer to be 96db efficient at 16Hz. Listening to these speakers with all Boulder electronics was one of the few times it seemed like the performers were in the room with you. Living with these speakers would be a fundamentally different experience than what we are normally talking about when we talk about hifi because the sound just envelops you. You know we often wonder what speakers the sound engineers were using when they mixed, well it wasn't these. Cost, $180K. Not the most expensive speakers at the show though.
These were the most expensive speakers at the show - Marten Coltrane Supreme $295,000. Well, I presume they are the most expensive.
The Krell room had a complete Krell system that was dynamic and powerful.
My compatriot Chris Groppi glued himself to these Denon 7000 headphones. The folks from Headroom were annoyed but they couldn't remove the headphones from his head without damage so they're Chris's now.
Day 3: Rick Schmidt
When I walked into the Oracle room they were playing the Beatles mash-up 'Love' on vinyl. Several folks were sitting in rapt attention, afterwords we exchanged stories about kids these days who don't even know who the Beatles were. I was interested in the CD player - CD 1500 Mk II which is carved out of a solid billet of Aluminum. I could barely lift it. I was able to listen to it with no problem though. We played my favorite Juliana Hatfield live cut 'Hotels' which ends in some spectacular guitar. That was the case in this room as well, the relaxed presentation of the Usher 716-Be's was distinct from most other speakers at the show.
I was drawn into the Esoteric room while passing by. Both the sound and the look of these MG20 Magnesium driver loudspeakers. The drivers are Magnesium coated with ceramic. The finished look is a lustrous white. The sound was detailed but not fatiguing or metallic.
I read in the catalog about the worlds only glass speakers so I had to see them. Waterfall Audio makes them from tempered glass and there are many other inovations including a tunable downward firing passive radiator. I put my hands on the sides for the vibration test. The were more inert than many wood speakers I've put a paw to. The sound was lean and clear when driven with the NuForce amps.
My favorite room at the show was the Modwright room. Dan Wright was using the same Studio Electric speakers that Chris raved about but all with his own electronics. The soundÂ through a Slimaudio Transporter fooled me as there was a turntable spinning at the same time. That's pretty good. We put on a record though and it was better. The room was bass heavy but you take what you can get in these rooms. The sound otherwise was completely enchanting. This was one of the rooms where people tended to sit for long periods. There was better sound to be had for mega bucks in other places but as I wrote above about the Focal Grand Utopia's, that is really a different experience than what we are normally talking about when we say 'put some music on'. The fun of these shows is that you can get a first hand experience of all manner of hifi. Bring your own music though.