Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013


Jim Clements Report: Part 1

Well, the 10th annual Rocky Mountain Audiofest has come to a close. The show has outgrown its original venue. That meant that this year there would be some rooms set up at the nearby Hyatt Regency.  We had several SECRETS Team members covering the show: yours truly, Jim Clements, Piero Gabucci attended RMAF for his first time, and John (Editor-in-Chief) and Susan Johnson.  RMAF is one of John's favorite shows.  I once again wore out my shoe leather in an attempt to squeeze as much coverage as possible into a three day agenda. The following report is the culmination of this effort and, as always, I hope you find it entertaining and informative.

Oh, and if you missed the Google+ coverage real-time, do check it out....we have some video coverage that we think is pretty cool!

RMAF can generally be viewed from a digital and/or an analog perspective. On the digital side, the growth of high resolution downloads had the greatest influence on the products I saw. And it seemed like everybody was jumping on the DSD bandwagon. It is very much debatable whether DSD is the best format out there but at least now we have more options to choose from and the end user can decide for himself. So go ahead and grab some downloads of your own and see what you like best!

Another "digital" growth area is the continued proliferation and advancement of Class D amplifiers. More and more companies are diving into the Class D pool. I hesitate to call it a 'revolution' per se but each year's refinement lessens the characteristic Class D "sizzle" that many find unsettling. Perhaps Class D is finally coming of age? Lord knows I like the green aspect of the technology.

I also saw more Bluetooth products being marketed as high end options for audio streaming. Some of these demos kind of impressed me; kind of. This is another technology you should give a try and formulate your own opinion.

On the analog side, I think 90% of the systems had a turntable with numerous new product launches from the entry level to the uber high end. Plus I noticed many more reel to reel rigs than last year. I made a point to listen to more reel to reel demos this year too. Not all of them were that impressive, but that could have been constrained by the associated equipment and possibly by some of the tapes themselves. However, the best tape demos were totally amazing.

Headphones and IEM's are continuing to expand as well. It seems like most everybody is getting in on that game too. I am all for this as it should help draw a younger crowd into the high end hobby.

I also think there were more tubed products than in years' past. Along with that come more horn loaded speakers as well. Two things I rejoice. Curiously missing from the show were planar speakers. I don't think I saw any outside a super tweeter. So without further adieu, let's get on to my report.

PSB just launched the Subseries 100 Subwoofer ($249) that is designed to complement their Alpha PS1 powered desktop speakers which I recently reviewed. The sub matches the look of the PS1's and has a computer-optimized 5-1/4" driver in a sealed box driven by a 100 watt peak output Class D amplifier. I have requested a review unit of this little sub. Look for an update to my Alpha PS1 review on the Secrets main site which will incorporate an analysis of the Subseries 100.

Paul Barton also demonstrated a prototype product that he is developing in concert with brand stablemate, NAD. The system is a dsp contouring method that will be imbedded in NAD electronics. The system on display at RMAF involved a NAD D7050 amp connected to a pair of Imagine T's. The dsp system is controlled via an iPad app and effects equalization that mostly improves the bass by providing more extension and flatter in-room response. The system is not a room correction feature but instead offers subtle contouring to refine the sound of specific speaker models. It will first show up in two-channel systems and may be expanded for 7.1 surround systems at a later date. The demo was quite fascinating.

bel canto was displaying their new BLACK system. This is a three-box turnkey system. It doesn't follow a DAC, preamp and amp concept so you won't be able to mix and match with other brands. The three boxes are the Asynchronous Stream Controller and two Power Stream Monoblocks that are connected via bel canto's proprietary Streamlink ST Fiber Interconnects. We auditioned the system by listening to a mix of pipe organ, orchestral works and a Paul McCartney track.  This neat and tidy system had a very "analog" sound.

Here is a close-up of the BLACK Bluetooth controller.

This system featured two new products from Rogue Audio: The Pharaoh hybrid integrated amplifier and the Triton phono preamp. The George Warren turntable was fitted with a Soundsmith cartridge. We listened to Chet Atkins on a slightly warped recorded which was handled well by table with mostly insignificant dynamic issues.

Here is a closer shot of the table ($4,850 in walnut). It is servo controlled and the belt is made of fishing line.  That's a new one on me.

Music First Audio was showing this system built around an Otari MX5050 Mk. III-2 reel to reel deck with its heads direct connected to a Bottlehead Eros tape head preamp. Power amps were Electra Fidelity 300B monoblocks and the speakers are the wonderful Audio Note UK AN-E Lexus HE's with silver voice coils. This is all very fine equipment but the system was not living up to its potential when we visited. Perhaps more tweaking or warm up was in order?

Dupuy Acoustique was showing the Conga speakers and the new Daisy Reflector. The reflector is intended to cancel rear wall reflections. The system was plagued by an amp that sounded as if it was clipping even at relatively low SPL's. 

This system included AnnaLyric Systems' AC-8 AC conditioner ($1,800), Dynamic Design Anniversary Edition Nebula Series cables $5,500 - $12,000), Marten Getz speakers ($20,000/pr.), ModWright Instruments LS36.5 DM tube preamp + KWA 150SE stereo amp + a tube modified Oppo BDP-105 player ($3,695 - $9,995). The other source was the Helius Design Alexia turntable with a Helius arm and Dynavector cartridge ($13,600). I'm glad they had a "for sale" sign in the room. Patricia barber on vinyl was very rich sounding. Maybe more than just a little too rich, honestly. 

Here is a close up of the ModWright/Helius rack.

Astell&Kern burst onto the scene with 2 models of high fidelity music players plus a portable USB DAC. All their electronic products feature 24-bit Wolfson DAC's. This year they were at RMAF demoing their new standmount speakers. These two-way speakers have cabinets fabricated from 6 layers of carbon fiber. We listened to Hotel California (Live) but the speakers sounded disappointingly vague and indifferent.

Here is a closeup of the Astell&Kern players that were used in the demo. The amp is a one-off design.

After hearing a series of systems that just weren't up to par, it was a real breath of fresh air when we wandered into the Kubala-Sosna Research room. Finally we found a system with a confident, purposeful sound. Female vocals were spry with clean sibilants while leading edges of strings had that addictive presence. (An aside – every room with YG Acoustics speakers had excellent sound this year.) The breakdown: YG Sonja 1.2 Passive Speakers ($72,800/pr.), Mola-Mola Kaluga Monoblocks x4 ($7,500/ea.), Mola-Mola Makua Preamp ($10,000), Luxman DA-06 DAC ($4,990) and Kubala-Sosna Elation cables and interconnects. This room didn't need a "For Sale" sign!

Fritz Speakers had a demo system at RMAF again this year. Seen here are the Fritz LS 7/R speakers ($3,500/pr.), Wyred4Sound mINT amp & DAC ($1,495) and a Parasound Zcd CD player ($400). Guess who was playing when we entered the room (drum roll) . . . Stevie Ray! This system offered a clean and open presentation with lots of air in the treble. 

Here is a display of a few other Fritz speakers.

I was really looking forward to visiting the Constellation room this year. They went to great lengths to provide a stellar set up and the resulting audio quality was commensurate with their exhaustive efforts. The amplification was via two Constellation Centaur Monoblocks which offer 500 clean watts per channel. Was that necessary? Not really as they were driving a pair of Von Schweikert Audio VR-11SE Mk2 speakers which have 2,000 wpc powered subs and a sensitivity rating of 99 dB! This system had eerily transparent mids and an extremely solid foundation in the bass. The source we listened to was a UHA reel to reel feeding through a Constellation Virgo preamp. The sound of a jazz xylophone was huge but with a stunningly natural timbre.

A closer look at the UHA decks in Constellation's room.

Sadurni Acoustics was showing this eye-catching pair of horns in a live demo (~$30,000/pr.). This is actually a four-way system. The three horns cover the frequency range from 120 Hz to 40 kHz. The black horizontal tubes in the back are subs that add bass extension down to 25 Hz. The dividing network is fully active. They claimed to be driving the system with a total of 2-1/2 watts per channel. At first, I thought they had a characteristic horn sound, but they quickly won me over with a vivid midrange and I was amazed by the deep, tuneful bass. I bet this system can go loud.

My next stop was a quick visit to the CanJam area of the show. It was pretty busy on day one.

Focal had a collection of headphones on display. I gave a listen to their new Classics (far left). DAC duties were being handled by a Micromega MyDac with amplification via a Pathos tubed headphone amp. I auditioned a Fleetwood Mac song and found this system had a rich, meaty sound with good balance in the upper registers. Mid bass was spot on with excellent pacing. The phones were comfy if just a little tight. But I would suspect they will soften up with use. They did a good job isolating the ambient noise as well. 

Here is a little closer shot of the Micromega MyDac and Pathos amp. The Pathos DAC on the bottom was awaiting a firmware update and was consequently out of service at the time of my visit.

I auditioned the Audeze LCD X headphones next ($1,699). Audeze is marketing these as "Reference-level planar magnetic headphones". They played the Hi Res version of Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" for me. There was fine weight on the opening synth pulses and vocals were supported with an intense drive. My only criticism was a very slight brittleness on strings.

I can't believe Audeze would let their secret formula go exposed in public ;-)

Legacy Audio was showing off their award-winning Aeris speakers again this year. And why not? They have been getting rave reviews from all quarters since their introduction. Looking in my crystal ball, I think we might one day see a review of these speakers on the Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity main site (complete with bench tests).

A Rega 40th Anniversary RP 40 limited edition table was available to audition used records before purchase. Nice.

This is a wide shot of the Acoustic Zen and Triode Corporation room. The speakers are the Acoustic Zen Crescendos. All the electronics are courtesy Triode Corporation – TRX-1 Pre amp with a pair of TRX-M845 monoblocks. The speakers were widely spaced and toed in just slightly so I thought there would be a hole in the middle. Not so, the staging was remarkable. Even though they were spinning redbook cds, this sounded like real music to my ears with a warm tube glow both literally and figuratively. 

A closer look at the Triode Corporation gear.

Volti was showing their Vittora speakers in collaboration with the British electronics firm that impressed me so much last year, Border Patrol. Rim shots had clean transients and the alto sax had a masculine timbre. The subwoofer (not shown) filled in the lowest octave admirably. I really love the finish on these speakers as well. 

The Border Patrol rack shows their utilitarian aesthetic. I wish their components had more flair, but who cares really when they sound this good?

Resonessence Labs had their brand new Herus DAC at the show. These are the tiny boxes with the blue logos in the middle of the display. All Resonessence's DACs are built around ESS Sabre chips. The Herus is their smallest DAC yet and uses the new ES9010K2M chip. This asynchronous USB unit supports DSD64 and DSD128 as well as high data rate PCM at 24bits up to 352.8Ks/S. It is rated to have greater than 100 dB SNR and 0.003% THD. I auditioned one over a pair of HD 700 headphones. The source was an iPad. On Patricia Barber "She's a Lady" I heard fine bass extension and nice transients on finger snaps. In many ways, this was one of the better headphone demos I heard on Day 1.

Audio by Van Alstine had two new products on display: FET Valve CF Advanced Vacuum Tube Preamplifier ($1,899) and the Ultravalve Vacuum Tube Amplifier (35 wpc; $1,999). As always, these are high quality, high performance and high value offerings. In this case, the imaging was truly holographic and an orchestral work we enjoyed was defined on a grand scale. 

This is the rack with the new preamp near the top and the amp is below.

Salk had a new speaker model this year. Dubbed the SoundScape 8, this nifty three-way features an RAAL ribbon tweeter, an Accuton midrange, dual 8" woofers and dual 12" passive radiators. Claimed frequency response is 25 Hz – 60 kHz +/- 3 dB with 88 dB sensitivity. They look sweet too ($7,995/pr.).

This is the other rack of Van Alstine electronics that were driving the SoundScape 8's.

Now that Bryston has developed a line of speakers, you can get a system that is all Bryston. This system sounded terrific. It comes with their amazing build quality and the industry leading warranty on everything.

SST Audio is a Russian company I am not yet familiar with. They teamed up with Volti Audio to assemble this impressive system. The heart of this system was "The Essence" amplifier. This is a single-ended tubed 'integrated' monoblock with GE 813 output tubes. (40 wpc; $62,000/pr.). The Volti speakers in this room were the Alura A15/MT1 3-ways with a 15" bass driver in a bass reflex cabinet, 2" midrange compression driver and a 1" compression tweeter in a wooden Tractix horn. This was one of the better sounding rooms on the first day. An acoustic bass solo had a very legitimate you-are-there-sound. 

I just had to highlight the look of these SST amps that are said to be made in collaboration with the Zagato Studio in Italy. Materials for the chassis include titanium, stainless, copper and African Frake wood.

Zesto Audio introduced their new power amp at the show this year. They have named their new baby the Bia ($12,500). This amp keeps the now familiar Zesto visual theme. I have been impressed by all the Zesto products so far and the company owners, George and Carolyn Counnas, are fine people to boot.

Here was the complete Zesto/TAD system. They were playing Illinois Jacquet again. I asked for Steely Dan "Gaucho". This sounded extravagant and smooth as silk. Why not get vinyl and all tube electronics if you can?

Here is a closer look at the Andros PS1 phono preamp that started it all along with the Merrill Williams REAL 101 Turntable. 

Absolare was playing a piece I am not familiar with as I entered the room. This didn't matter much, though as this was clearly another fine sounding all-tube system - great micro and macro dynamics.  Trumpets were brought forward with excellent presence. 

The leather-clad Absolare amps and preamps are a sight to behold.