Articles

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013

ARTICLE INDEX

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.

 


Jim Clements Report-Day 2

As always, mbl was on hand showing a complete system. This year, they were featuring their entry level Corona line.

This is a side view of the mbl 116 Elegance speaker showing the side-mounted woofers.

The UHA tape deck brings a splash of bright colors to the mbl rack.

Every year, Emerald Physics assembles complete systems with performance far beyond their price points. Their open-baffle, controlled-directivity speakers are said to be less prone to room effects than other designs. Maybe that is one reason they sound good at these shows – the room doesn't faze them much. Another offshoot of the highly efficient open-baffle design is that they are very dynamic, making them perfect for those who like to play music at live levels without strain. This year, they had a very luxurious presentation throughout the entire spectrum. 

This is the Emerald Physics rack. Their system included a pair of Emerald Physics CS3 MK2 speakers ($3,500/pr.), two REL T9 subs ($2,400/pr.), one Emerald Physics EP100.2SE Special Edition power amp ($2,200), one DSPeaker Anti-mode 2.0 (preamp and room correction) ($1,200), a Jolida Fusion DAC/Transport ($2,300), a ProJect Xtension 10 turntable and NuWave phono stage.

German Physiks speakers' main strength remains their open staging. They used room treatments which made for a better demo than last year. They would still benefit from a sub and super tweeter but Patricia Barber did sound a little more refined than in last year's set up. 

Wyred 4 Sound had a new stereo amp at RMAF this year. This dual mono, fully balanced amp is available with either of two power rating levels – 250 wpc (ST 500mkII, $1,499) and 450 wpc (ST 1000mkII, $1,999). Both models are available in either black or silver. I listened to the ST 1000mkII driving a pair of Emerald Physics CS2.3's. Each time Wyred 4 Sound releases a new amp, it has less and less of the characteristic Class D sound which is a definitely good thing. I always enjoy W4S's staging abilities and this year the pacing was incredible as well. 

I accidentally photobombed myself in the D+M room! This room featured Boston Acoustics towers being fed via an all-Marantz rack.

Here is the aforementioned rack showing you all the Marantz goodness on display. New this year is the Refernce Series Network Audio Player (NA-11S1). It is AirPlay compatible and can stream online music services like Pandora and Spotify as well. It has all manner of digital inputs including front and rear panel USB's (DSD capable). DAC's are native 192/24. Stereo analog outputs are both single ended and balanced. Also new this year is the SA-14S1 Reference Series SACD player. This player is also natively 192/24 and has optical, coax and USB inputs but single ended outputs only.

The Audio Video Logic room had this system on demo – Krell Phantom III ($5,499), Krell S-350 CD ($2,500), Krell EVO 2250 ($8,000), Krell Connect Stream Player ($3,500), PS Audio P-5 ($3,495) and the Magico S-1's ($12,600). The sound was decidedly clean. I wish the speakers were farther apart. So I took matters into my own hands and moved my chair much closer. That was way better as these speakers image strongly. These compact tower speakers were naturally not the greatest in bass extension but were strong performers nonetheless. 

This is the Krell/PS Audio rack.

Here was another YG Acoustics room. This one featured Veloce electronics driving the YG Kipod II Studio/Signature passive speakers. A Diana Krall album was spinning on the turntable when I entered the room. This was an all-around balanced and fine sounding system with an extremely nuanced presentation.

This is the rack with the Kronos turntable on top. This turntable is equipped with the famously counter-rotating pair of platters. This patented technology eliminates torsional forces in the table's action. Other refinements include a double suspended plinth as well as a unique tonearm design where the bearing is below the stylus. These two features make the set-up far less prone to external vibration and skipping. Both these qualities were demonstrated to me by the designer, Louis Desjardins. I hate to pass out best of show awards because of all the different complicating factors, but if pressed to pick the best sounding turntable I heard at RMAF this year then I would name the Kronos as the outright victor. It was that good.

Ayre turned their room into a record store.

Odyssey always has a complete system (sans source) at an affordable price. The one pictured here included speakers, amp and preamp that will cost you just $6,700 for the set (cabling included). They also had new room treatments by GIK Acoustics at the show this year.

They were playing one of my favorite Richard Thompson songs in the Vienna Acoustics/Boulder Amplifiers room when I sat down for a listen. There was copious mid bass; it was more than just a little too rich though. In all fairness, it was impossible for me to evaluate this system with a large group of people in the room. The system comprised the Vienna "The Kiss" speakers ($18,000/pr.), Boulder CD1021 Network CD player ($25,000), Boulder 1010 Preamp ($15,000) and Boulder 1050 monoblocks ($46,000/pr.) all strung together with Analysis Plus cables.

The Audio Alternative room had epic sound on orchestral crescendos, but was somewhat shrill on a *Snowbirds'* album (not sure what my tablet substituted *Snowbirds* for?). Melody Gardot on CD was much more in balance if not downright seductive. The speakers are the Vandersteen 5A Carbons with M7-HP Balanced Crossover.

The Dan D'Agostino Momentum Monoblocks nicely displayed on the tilting Momentum stands.

The second Audio Alternative room was equally seductive. Seen here are the Vandersteen Model 7 speakers.

This is the rack with the Audio Research Reference 10 preamp, Reference 10 phonostage and Reference CD9 CD Player/DAC. Cables and interconnects were by Audioquest.

A closer look still to show the AMG Viella 12 Turntable with Lyra Atlas MC Cartridge. AMG turntables showed up in a lot of rooms this year.

audiohouse had a room full of gear that featured Parasound, Monitor Audio, VPI and Kimber Cable. Of note here are the Monitor Audio Platinum PL200 speakers in ebony ($9,000), the VPI Classic 4 with dual tonearms ($12,000) and the new Halo JC3+ Phono Preamp ($2,350). They were playing flamenco guitar on vinyl. I wanted to sit closer again. The sound was best when the speakers and I formed an equilateral triangle.

Here is the new Parasound Halo Phono preamp conveniently backwards in the rack so attendees could see the connectivity and adjustment options.

The Joseph Audio, Jeff Rowland, VPI and Soundsmith system was incredible. They played Elvis singing "Peace in the Valley" from the Essential 57 album (Living Stereo). This was the only demo I heard that earned a spontaneous, unanimous standing ovation at the end. Was it the equipment, the recording or was it the King? The table was the new VPI Classic Direct. I know this system with the Jeff Rowland electronics is very expensive but I swear I'm going to hold my breath till they give it to me.

Lovely.

The Cary Audio room.

Cary's new network player is seen on the upper right.

Cary's entry-level Audio Electronics line.

Rega turntables are now available with graphics representing your favorite football team? I want one with the Dallas Cowboys on it (but you can go ahead and leave Tony Romo off there please).

The speakers shown here are the new PMC Fact. 12 reference floorstanding 3-ways. They have adjustable crossovers, twin transmission line woofer loading and come in a number of gorgeous finishes including white satin. They have dual 6" woofers, a 2" soft dome mid and a 0.75" soft dome tweeter. Claimed frequency response is 26 Hz – 30 kHz. ($19,500/pair.) There were a number of new products on display from Rega here as well – the Elicit-R Integrated amplifier (105 wpc, $2,995), the Saturn-R Dac and CD Transport ($2,995), the RP8 turntable with Alpheta MC cartridge ($3,995) and the Aria MC/MM phono preamp ($1,495).

The all-seeing eye(s) of McIntosh were looking right through me. XRT1K ($45,000/pr.)

Check out the amazing new Sonus faber Olympica III's! The lyre shaped cabinets are mirrored pairs finished in real wood veneers. These speakers are a full three way design with all new drivers and dual 9" woofers.

Top view of the Olympica III showing off the cladding with the Sf logo embossed into the natural leather.

The ported enclosure of the Olympicas fires through these side vents. The user can choose to place the speakers so the vents are on the inside or on the outside giving them the opportunity to tweak the set up for the best tonal balance in their room or for their particular tastes.

This is Wadia's new streamer, DAC and amplifier called the INTUITION 01. It is rated at 350 watts per channel and features 384 kHz/32 bit DACs with native DSD playback via USB.


Jim Clements Report-Day 3

This is a small tower speaker from German manufacturer, Manger Precision Sound. This is their bending wave driver that has claimed linear response from 330 Hz to 45 kHz. One can liken its action to a pebble in a pond – the voice coil excites the innermost part of the driver and then waves trickle outward through the flexible membrane. The technology is designed to tap a human's primordial ability to sense micro transients and should therefore relax the listener. They were lightning fast, but I felt that the frequency balance could use further refinement (albeit in a very short audition).

The rear panel of the Manger tower reveals that it is self-powered via a Class AB amp. The switches allow tailoring the response. Manger is still looking for a US distributor. Expect retail prices in the ~$20k/pr range.

Here is the lineup of Lindeman electronics in the Manger room.

The Aaudio Imports room is always jam packed with show goers and cost-no-object gear. The speakers here are the Lansche No.8.2's ($266k). The electronics were from Ypsilon, turntables from Hartvig and Thales with cabling primarily by Stage III.

The equipment in the Aaudio Imports room was on Tandem Series Equipment Racks ($16,100) and Amp Stands ($4,500).

This room featured Daedalus Audio, ModWright Instruments and WyWires gear. The DAC was a pre production prototype from ModWright known as the Elyse ($TBD). The preamp was the two box ModWright LS 36.5 DM ($9,995) while the amp was their KWA 150 Sig. Edition ($8,495). The speakers were the Daedalus Ulysses version.2's ($14,950). Power distribution was via the pictured WyWires/Daedalus Power Broker AC dist. ($2,499) which showed up in a number of rooms this year as a hedge against the compromised power in the hotel. This system unfortunately sounded strained on Paul Simon's "Graceland".

The Daedalus Audio/ModWright Instruments rack up close.

This is the VPI Classic Direct that showed up in a number of rooms this year. It was a consistently good sounding 'table wherever it showed up.

A pair of Atma Sphere Novacron Limited Edition mono block amps ($12,000/pr.). These amps are the famous output transformerless architecture and are rated at a robust 60 wpc into an 8-ohm load.

This was the Doshi Audio/Paragon Sight and Sound Room. The "core system" was all Doshi – 3.0 Line Stage ($20,000), 3.0 Phono Stage ($20,000), 3.0 Tape Stage ($20,000) and the Jhor 160 watt Monoblocks ($36,000/pr.). The speakers were the Wilson Alexias ($48,500/pr.). The source was a vintage Studer A 80 RC Mk 2 Tape Deck. This demo was waaaay better than the Wilson/VTL demo I heard last year. They played CCR "Suzie Q" when I was there. I was kind of totally blown away if you know what I mean. The level of transparency was remarkable.

The Doshi Jhor monoblocks.

The Pro-Ject HL Signature Turntable ($12,000) with a Koetsu Azule Platinum Cartrdige ($12,000) in the Doshi/Paragon room.

This was the Studer A 80 RC Mk2 tape deck from the Doshi/Paragon room. Must be nice.

The Mass Fidelity relay is a stand-alone Bluetooth receiver with high end aspirations. Apparently, Bluetooth got a bad rap early on and advances have improved the technology tremendously. (I learned that Bluetooth has a much higher bandwidth than I was aware of.) So this flexible, little box can be connected to any audio system and provides a high quality Bluetooth interface. They had an A/B demo where they switched between a direct feed and one that came through the relay. The relay was not perfectly pristine, but was remarkably close to the direct feed and the convenience factor is very high.

In years past, the Luxman and Vivid suite has always been a bright spot on my coverage and this year was no exception. Male vocals were dynamic and at first the orchestra filled a rather large room at near live levels until a big crescendo which revealed they were pushing the amp too hard.

Apex audio had two rooms at the show. This was their big system with Focal Stella Utopia EM speakers ($95,000/pr.), Solution 500 Monoblock amps ($55,500/pr.), Solution 520 Preamp ($26,000), Solution 540 CD/SCAD player ($32,500), Transrotor Rondino Nero ($14,000), Graham Phantom Supreme tonearm ($6,800) and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme Cartridge ($10,500). The system sounded "great" (and expensive) on vinyl.

This is the turntable rig on a Critical Mass MAXXUM rack system ($5,650/level) in the Apex audio suite.

The smaller system in the Apex audio suite with Focal Diablo Utopia speakers, Air Tight electronics and Transrotor 'table and 'arm. Though still expensive, this is much more my speed.

Tannoy Kingdom Royal speakers. Bling. Envy.

Here is the VAC Statement 450S "dual mono" amplifier ($44,000). This bad boy has 8~KT88 tubes and is rated at 225 wpc. He's so cool, he needs a separate power supply (bottom).

These Induction Dynamics 2013 ID1 speaker ($15,000/pr) had a really nice groove on "Hey Nineteen" on SACD. Other EQ on hand: Oppo BDP-105 ($1,200), McIntosh MT-10 turntable ($10,500), McIntosh C2500 Tube Pre Amp ($7,000) and McIntosh MC452 Power Amp ($8,500) with wiring by Kimber Kable.

A close shot of the Oppo/McIntosh gear in the Induction Dynamics room.

2013 marks Phase Technology's 30th Anniversary and to celebrate, they decided to recreate the first product they ever produced all those years ago, the PC60 CA ($1,500/pr.). They had a most excellent soundstaging ability and gave me a wonderfully smooth performance. There was no noticeable transition between drivers likely because of their absolute phase crossover technology. Other equipment in play - Oracle Paris Turntable ($5,000) (cartridge/tone arm incl.), Oracle Paris CD Player ($3,750), Oracle Paris PH200 Phono Amp ($1,795), McIntosh MX150 Processor ($10,000) and McIntosh MC207 Power Amp ($9,000).

I really appreciate the honest and robust build quality of the Phase Technology PC60 CA's.

This is the McIntosh and Oracle rack up close.

ENIGMAcoustics was on hand with their Sopranino electrostatic super tweeters. These tweeters do not require AC power as the membrane is permanently charged as with an electret microphone. They operate over the range of 8 kHz – 40 kHz.

The Sopraninos were atop a pair of Magico floorstanders, speakers that don't need a lot of help to sound good. The demo was an Oscar Peterson track. They played it three times – once with the tweeters in, then out and then back in again. I must say it really does work. You can hear a harmonic structure that just isn't audible with them defeated. It may be largely due to the response in the 8 – 12 kHz range, but it might also be due to our ability to sense ultrasonics but not actually hear them as sounds. Who knows for sure?

Back view of the Sopranino.

JBL was showing these new, smaller horns that they referred to as studio monitors. They have a dual voice coil compression driver that operates down to 800 Hz and is capable of 159 db output! The waveguide (horn) is a new design too. Like many horns, the sound was vivid and palpable but with very decent bass extension too. These were bi amped via an active crossover. I was impressed. Also seen here are a pair of the Revel M105's that I reviewed recently.

Here is the plate amp/DAC from a pair of Vanatoo powered monitors. These little speakers impressed me with their sound via a direct USB input from a laptop. This was a Hi-res file. They had just a trace of the Class D sound with claimed bass extension to the low 40's. The imaging was fine as you would expect from a compact speaker ($499 - $549 depending on finish).

The SW speakers said, "Take me to your leader."

Music Hall's new cowhide mat ($75). It is treated so you shouldn't get lice or mad cow disease.

A new vacuum record cleaner from Music Hall as well ($750).

One more new product from Music Hall was the Ikura 'table ($1,195).

The new Acoustic Signature WOW turntable ($1,595) with a Funk Firm F-XR arm ($2,495) in the Goener Communication room. The speakers were the Audio Physic Avantera Plus+ ($28,000). I had them play some Bach organ works on vinyl. I was able to really relax and tune out the noise from the other rooms at the show. There was an excellent representation of the performance hall on this pipe organ considering no sub.

The electronics in Goener's room were the Trigon Chronolog CD/DVD Player/Music Server ($949) and the Trigon Epilog integrated ($12,995 add $1,495 for a phono module and $1,695 for the DAC module).

Things were chaotic in the SVS room when I stopped in. At least they were playing some modern and relevant music (NIN).

The new Dynaudio Excite X34's ($3,400/pr.) were being fed via a rack full of Octave tube gear.

The Sonist Audio Recital 3 speakers are made from gorgeous real wood and the sound was equally luxurious.

Take a look at this Hifi Man prototype mini player that should come to market in a few months. It has Hi-Res capabilities and balanced outs. I listened to Jack Johnson over a pair of Hifi Man's dynamic IEM's. This was a very promising performance with fine microdynamic shadings.

Yours truly enjoying a demo of the Hifi Man HE-500 'phones. I can clearly see why these are Stephen Hornbrook's reference phones.

This is the EF-5 amp that was driving the HE-500's.

Here is the Hifi Man EF-6 headphone amp that has become John Johnson's reference along with the HE-6 planar magnetic headphones. The combination of the two basically blew me away.

First Impression Music had a selection of silver and gold discs as well as vinyl at the show. I will be getting some of these excellent sounding discs for my collection very soon. Highly recommended.

 


Piero Gabucci Reporting in...It's a Wrap!

This year's show proved to me that digital audio, at the highest level is finally here. Some might say it was inevitable or already prevalent, but the audiophile world is not apologetic about it anymore, in fact embraced. The irony is that I've never seen so much analog at a show either. The mix of sources and playback gear is astounding. We heard turntables and reel-to-reel, we heard CD's and SACD's, we heard digital music from laptops, SD cards and servers. I saw more DAC's, table top and portable. Digital formats included standard redbook mp3 and flac, high resolution at all levels and DSD native resolution and even BluRay. Headphones galore, with Class A amps! I haven't heard so much room correction for a two channel show before - the music world is alive and well, thank goodness!

Jim Clements and I visited every room and went back to many of them over the few days. Hope that you liked some of our videos on Google+. Jim has presented a very complete picture of this year's RMAF and I wanted to add some additional images and input as a final wrap of the show.

Parasound Halo

Although Parasound's CD 1 player has garnished a lot of attention this last year, the new P 5 preamplifier has mine. A replacement to the popular P 3, the P 5 offers adjustable high and low pass crossovers, balanced inputs and outputs, a built in DAC and digital inputs. Retail should be around a grand once available in November.

Bryston

Unsatisfied with just producing significant hardware Bryston has dabbled with speaker design. Last year's Model T has turned into an entire line called the HT Series. This speaker hardly befits its name as the Mini T bookshelf at about $2,500 plus the stands. I heard clean full sound with plenty of bottom end.

DeVORE FIDELITY

Brooklyn, New York based speaker designer was auditioning it's line called Oragutan, a highly sensitive speaker designed to be powered by low powered tube gear. A sensitivity of 93 dB and rated at 10 ohms, I liked the simplicity of design and enjoyed listening to it. The O/96 sells in the $12,000 range while the more affordable O/93 at about $8,400.

Sadurni Acoustics

All kidding aside, these sculptural, floor-sitting horn loaded loudspeakers are impressive. I appreciated the modest volume playback but at just 2.5 watts the sound was truly pleasurable. The separate subwoofer array placed behind the speaker is referred to as ABW, or Added Back Wave. The "system" begins around $25,000 and can climb to $40,000. Bring a crane, they each weigh in the 500 pound range.

SST Audio

SST Audio gear is visually stunning. This Russian brand tube gear is expensive but it looks it. I'd give it "Best eye-candy" of the show as the design aesthetic was a collaboration with Zagato Studio in Italy. "The Essence" is a single-ended class A 40wpc monoblock. I should mention the Volti speaker Alura A15, 3-way featuring a wood midrange horn and a 15" base driver. Based in Maine, the stunning lacquer-finished rosewood cabinet speakers sell for $13,900 for the pair. A truly great sounding room.

VTL

Luke Manley was on hand to audition their new S-400 Siegfried Reference II amplifier stereo version at $33,500. Paired with Wilson Alexia $48,000 speakers, the amplifier is rated at 300 watt, triode switchable to 150w and left me drooling, almost literally. I went back to listen several times.

Joseph Audio

I suppose it's expected for a $31,000 speaker pair to sound amazing, but the Pearl 3 was exceptional in looks and performance. There were a handful of speakers I'd say I'd love to take home, those were one of them. Using a VPI classic direct drive turntable and Jeff Rowland Design Group amplifiers, my notes read, "Clear, open, accurate with a full bottom dynamic." Even loved the Elvis!

Raven Audio

JJ and I marveled at these beautiful tube amplifiers made in Groveton Texas. Expect JJ to review the Silhouette monoblocks at $12,995 and the Preamplifier at $13,995. But they had beautiful units starting at $1,495 with a 20 wpc Nighthawk. I omitted the bad image I took but JJ got a superb image which is included here.

VELOCE Audio

A few rooms included YG speaker for paring their amps. Veloce audio llc showed and auditioned their Lithio Series Saetta hybrid amplifier. With a Class A tube driver stage and solid state output. By making this a hybrid battery/AC system, it removes AC noise for a lower noise floor, I though the room sounded clean and detailed.

Dynaudio

Always a favorite stop of mine, Dynaudio introduced the Excite Series with the X34 3-way floorstanding speaker that will retail for $3,400 per pair.

Along with a modestly powered 40 watt tube amplifier from Octave in the V40SE at $5,300 entertained me with a rich and dynamic sound.

Also pictured is the X38 at $4,500 per pair.

Antelope Audio

Just stunning in design, introduced last year, the Rubicon Atomic AD/Da preamp, atomic referring to the atomic clock said to be 100,000 times more accurate. 384 kHz, DNLA streaming, analog and digital input/outputs galore. Don't recall the actual price, somewhere in the $40,000 range.

Also, their Zodiac Platinum DSD 768 kHz DAC, the poor image doesn't do it justice. With the power supply about $5,000.

EMM Labs

With the total cost of the room around $275,000, yes that's more than most pay for a house EMM Labs played SACD in recorded 4 channels. Although the music was amazing, the room may have been slightly too big to fully appreciate the surround sound. The technology used to record in 4 channel is called IsoMike or Isolated Microphones - 4 microphones are suspended separated by IsoMike baffles.

Neat Acoustics

Even I was struck by the hot pink speakers from Neat, the Motive SX2 at $2,395, but the sound was coming from the $995 Iona speakers on the back stands. Sonneteer provided the Sedley USB phono preamp at $1,495, the Byron CD player at $2,795and Orton Integrated amplifier at $3,795. Vinyl playback from the VPI Scout 2 turntable and Dynavector cartridge, $2,400 and $850 respectively.

Nola Speakers

I've never come away from listening to New Jersey based Nola speakers disappointed, in fact always impressed. Fine detail from a ribbon tweeter, magnesium gold bass drivers, the Metro Grand Reference is finished in rosewood. Audio Research (found in many rooms) provided the amplification and cables from Nordost.

Jeff Rowland Design Group

A number of rooms included Jeff Rowland amplifiers. The image shows how from a single block of aluminum that a chassis is cut. The optical illusion wavy faceplate is unmistakable.

Krell

Audio Video Logic included in their room Magico S1, a two-way, $12,600 per pair speaker with an aluminum cabinet. I was stopping by to see the Krell audio player in the Connect at $2,500, ($3,500 with the on-board DAC). I loved the display of course. the other equipment included the Krell Phantom III preamp at $5,500, CD player S-350A $2,500 and EVO 2250E power amp rated at 250 wpc @ 8 ohms, $8,000.

Audio Alternative

This was a great sounding room with Dan D'Agostino Momentum monoblocks and pre-amps, Vandersteen 5A Carbon Loudspeakers , the new Rega RP-8 turntable and Audioquest cables.

Devialet

One of the beautiful pieces, and there were many including Wadia Intuition, is the french made Devialet D-Premier which combines Class A and Class D power.

Sony

Sony's audio reputation has skyrocketed in the last couple of years with the SS-AR1 and AR2 loudspeakers. Their commitment to two-channel audio continues with the high resolution audio player at $1,999 shipping later this year.

The Sound Organization T.S.O.

The group showing in a couple of rooms included the Naim NAIT Series integrated amplifiers from $1,800 for the 5si and $2,900 for the XS2 and SuperNAIT 2 at $4,900. Add the Naim network music player and a pair of Dali Epicon 6 loudspeakers at $13,995 for the pair.

PMC also very impressive with their beautifully finished Fact 12 at $19,500 for the pair. Rega's new RP8 turntable, $3,995 with cartridge and new integrated amp, DAC, CD transport, and phonostage made for a rich, articulate presentation.

I did admit to the good people at T.S.O. that I'd become more familiar with their line up thoroughly. Loved what I heard in both rooms.

PSB with NAD

The Lenbrook Group pair teamed up to deliver an exceptional demonstration that Paul Barton presented himself. The PSB Imagine T2 that I reviewed powered by the unique NAD D7050, $999 digital integrated amplifier that should say more about what audio components will look like in the future.

Thorens

Just because, I liked the new Thorens complete table for $1,499!

JBL and Mark Levinson

JBL's M2 sounded amazing with Mark Levinson equipment. "Master Reference" monitor for those who like that professional studio accuracy. I didn't catch the price but wow, impressive.

Rogue Audio

Last year I marveled at the Sphinx Integrated Hybrid Amplifier, 100 wpc into 8 ohms for under $1,500 which powered one room on the other side of the hotel, while the new Pharaoh integrated Hybrid powered a different room. The price is $3,495 but such a great value in my book.

And now for the "other" stuff that caught my eye, and ear....

Stillpoint

This audio rack is just a thing of beauty! Talking to Stillpoint's Bruce Jacobs who shared some thoughts about it with me, I was struck by the elegance and technical simplicity. American made, the ESS rack can be customized to any component configuration you need.

At this show they cleverly showed their Stillpoints products as graphics for acoustic room treatment.

MIT or Music Interface Technologies

If you're into hardcore cable technology, MIT can help you, because you have a problem. But these new reference audio cables called Oracle MA-X Super HD speakers cost $53,000.

Marigo audio Labs

Marigo displayed the newer version, the Ultima High Definition Signature Mat at $239. Thinner and lighter than it's predecessor, it will work with all disk formats for improved audio and video.

Finally met the man behind the Marigo Ron Hedrich. Merigo makes cables as well as the mat but was showing the beautifully conceived and fabricated Mystery feet. $799 will buy you a set of 3, since that is the minimum to support a speaker or component. Each turn will produce a different sound Ron articulates.

DEQX

Speaker and room calibration DEQX paired their Premate DC/DSP/DAC room calibration with a VPI Scout turntable, an Apple MacBook Pro and Mac Mini, Plinius amplifiers and YG Acoustics Kipods. The changes in EQ'd and not EQ'd is subtle but adds a bit of refinement especially in the mid range.

DSPeaker

More room correction with this totally customizable system with the Dual Core for $1,099. The tiny screen is controlled by a remote that offers a significant configurability.

Dupuy Acoustique

The Daisy Reflector, or should i say three of them stacked is said to improve clarity is placed directly between the speakers and practically over the components. Shown with their Conga 3 way speaker and equalized by the DSPeaker mentioned above.

Some additional photos I just liked, but didn't have time to write about.

Audioengine

The new A2+ powered speakers for $249 for the pair

JBL Everest

Not new but always impressive to look at and listen to!

 


Postscript - John Johnson - 10-28-13

My impressions at the RMAF are that the high-end audio arena is moving back to analog at light speed. At each show, there are more turntables and tape decks being used as sources.

 

It was a beautiful couple of days at the Denver Tech Center. No snow this time, just great fall colors.

RMAF

 

The tape decks are getting away from just refurbished older decks, and now they are appearing with extraordinary color expression. This Tascam deck is certainly someone's audio system centerpiece. The second photo is a close-up of the hand-painted artwork.

RMAF

 

RMAF

 

Here is a Thorens turntable with Burmeister electronics. Notice also the more visually appealing outer design of the power amplifier at the bottom. This is another trend: special attention to appearance to match the high-end performance.

RMAF

 

Another gorgeous power amplifier.

RMAF

 

Headphones and headphone amplifiers are also increasingly seen at shows. This amplifier uses a 300B triode as the output device. Pure Class A triode produces a velvety smooth sound.

RMAF