RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Daedalus, ModWright and WyWires convey raw emotion with polished products

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By John Stancavage

Logo - Blue VectorWhen packing to attend an audio show, the last thing I usually do is pick three or four CDs to take with me for demoing equipment. Two will be long-term references I’ve been using for years and the other two might be something that’s been dominating the home system recently.

It can be a tricky exercise, because I have to admit to myself that not everyone is into The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, China Crisis or Yo La Tengo as much as I am. These discs have been not-so-politely declined by certain individuals in certain rooms at certain shows, as the power-mad gatekeepers instead reveled in their umpteenth replay of The Sheffield Drum Record.

So, preparing to zip up the suitcase for RMAF 2014 as a badge-wearing member of Audio Traveler/Part-Time Audiophile, I was even more cautious than usual. Dire Straits? No, the remasters suck. Ella Fitzgerald? Too old-school. Bill Frisell? Too eclectic. So, what then?

I decided to go with my two trusty references, a Japanese import of Roxy Music’s Avalon and disc three of the Steely Dan box set. I added to that Beck’s Sea Change, which I’d rediscovered languishing in a drawer recently. And, lastly, I threw in my big find from a trip to Ameoba Music during the California Audio Show, a reissue of The Feelies pastoral The Good Earth.

Day one at RMAF, I stuck to Roxy and the Dan. So far, so good. Perhaps I was feeling a bit overconfident on day two as I reached deeper into my bag and presented Sea Change in a certain mezzanine room. “No,” said the stuffy sales rep, his nostrils flaring as if he’d sniffed something rancid in the air. He handed the CD back to me, spun on his heel and went about playing some 30-minute, audiophile-approved classical piece.

Limping out with my head down, I retreated to the first floor, where I heard the unmistakable phrasing of Rickie Lee Jones seeping out from behind a door. This was promising. Carefully, I tip-toed into the Daedalus Audio-ModWright-WyWires room.

The remainder of the Jones track was superb, with her voice front and center, plenty of snap to the guitars and visceral bass. The record was switched to John Lee Hooker. The veteran bluesman’s slurred mumble sounded menacing, while his guitar growled convincingly on its own.

So, I slowly handed forward my Beck CD. “Oh, Sea Change, great,” was the warm response. “Come sit in the center seat.”

I settled in as the first acoustic guitar chords of “Golden Age” were struck. The decays seemed to still be hanging in the air as Beck started singing, his mournful voice sounding like a wounded coyote alone in the rocky desert hills. As the track progressed, the electric guitar and glockenspiel accents emerged clearly from the mix, and the singer’s synth whooshed like an intensifying sandstorm. I caught a breath and marveled at how the system was conveying the heartbreaking emotion of the tale of lost love with more power than I’d experienced outside of hearing it performed live.

Afterward I inspected the components that had created this remarkable illusion. The speakers were the Daedalus Audio Ulysses, now in new version 2 form ($15,850 a pair) featuring, among other things, better internal bracing. The six-driver system has a quoted frequency response of 28hz to 24khz, with an impressive efficiency of 97 decibels.

I remembered that Daedalus was known for its hand-built (in the USA) crossovers and silver-copper wiring harnesses — two places where other manufacturers sometimes skimp. What I didn’t know was how the company focuses on creating a stable, nearly flat impedance load to be an easy match for almost any top-quality amplifier.

In this case, the front end included the KWA 150 Signature Edition amp from ModWright Instruments ($8,995), the LS 36.5 “DM” tube preamplifier ($9,995), and two new products from the company, the Elyse tube DAC ($6,900) and the PH 150 phono stage ($7,900). The DAC was an all-tube, transformer-coupled design with an internal tube-rectified power supply and the capability to handle 24/192 material. The phono stage, meanwhile, featured passive RIAA-curve equalization and front-panel cartridge loading. A VPI turntable, the new Prime ($3,500, with tonearm), sat on top of the rack.

Last, but hardly least, was cable from WyWires, including its Platinum interconnects ($1,495), Silver power cords ($429 and up) and Diamond speaker cable ($7,995).

The system worked so well, it tempted me to just take it home, as is. The total cost wasn’t chump change, but it’s stunning ability to convey feeling as well as check off all the usual boxes on the audiophile list put it in rare company at RMAF. Highly recommended.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Lansche sparks interest with Corona tweeter

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By John Stancavage

Logo - Blue VectorNormally, if I said to you, “Man, those tweeters are on fire!” you probably wouldn’t interpret it as a good thing.

In the case of Germany’s Lansche Audio, though, it would mean the company’s high-frequency units were working as intended. Lansche, you see, has developed the Corona plasma tweeter, which uses an 8 mm long arc, combustion chamber and high-voltage outer electrode to form an ionized gas field.

Sound is generated by the burning plasma’s direct stimulation of air molecules. Yes, this means your tweeters literally are fire — you can see the purple-colored flame in the center. This strategy may sound nuts, but according to Lansche, it’s safe. Moreover, it promises to eliminate the distortion introduced by mechanical membranes and magnets, and greatly increases speed.

The general concept of using this “singing flame” phenomenon for a speaker dates back to the 1940s. Lansche started making its version in 2008, and has made the Corona available only for its own line of speakers.

I’ve heard the Corona tweeter before at RMAF in some of Lansche’s huge floorstanders, but the company brought its mid-size 5.1 ($50,000 a pair) to the 2014 show. When I walked into the AAudio Imports room, the attractive speakers were playing Melody Gardot’s “My One and Only Thrill” on vinyl. The New Jersey-born Gardot’s faux-French accent sounded charming and the acoustic guitars and string section were particularly lush.

I settled into the center seat and listened for several cuts. The 5.1s had no problems creating a large, deep soundstage in the large room. Outfitted with two 22-cm woofers, the Lansche speakers provided a tight, slightly lean, bottom end. In between was a 155-mm midrange driver which the company says has an ultra-low-mass cone (just 7 grams) to better match the quickness of the Corona.

The drivers were housed in a beautiful light-toned wood cabinet that Lansche has gone to heroic lengths to brace.

On some other systems, Gardot’s recordings can sound a little edgy, but the Corona tweeter instead projected a warm ease. The many subtle instrumental touches in the songs, such as guitar fills and percussion, seemed clearer and more prominent in the mix, while her voice was palpable and dead-center. Cymbals, which with conventional aluminum tweeters in particular can take on the sizzle of raindrops hitting a hot frying pan, were shimmering and seductive.

Overall, it was an impressive demo, although I’d like to hear the 5.1s mated with a really worthy pair of subwoofers — such as those made by REL — that favor speed and depth over boom. In a space the size of what the Lansche speakers were charged with at RMAF, a little fuller low end would have created an ideal tonal balance.

The 5.1s were supported by electronics from Ypsilon, including the Phaethon integrated amplifier ($24,000), VPS-100 valve phono stage ($26,000) and the new MC26L step-up transformer ($6,200).

Playing the Gardot LP was a Thales TTT Compact turntable ($13,200) and Simplicity II arm ($9,200) with an Ikeda KAI cartridge ($8,500).

Connecting everything was an HB Cable Design Powerslave Marble power distributor ($8,995), Stage III Analord Master phono cable ($5,300) and Kraken power cord ($8,400), along with Thanes Line Cables ($2,200). Support was provided by the very modern, vibration-fighting Finite Elemente Pagode APS Hi-Fi rack ($10,200).

I could close here with some would-be snappy line, like the Lansche 5.1s left me with a burning desire to hear more, or say that they set the room on fire. Instead, I’ll just suggest that if they are anywhere in your pocketbook range you should hear them. They may ignite your passions like they did mine. (Whoops, couldn’t resist).

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Devialet’s small-package strategy

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By John Stancavage

Logo - Blue VectorSometimes I wonder if much of the appeal of the high-end is building an altar of gleaming equipment at which we can send prayers for better sound to our audio gods.

There’s another faction, though, that would just as soon get all the boxes and wires out of sight and just listen to the music. The WAF– or wife acceptance factor — often is mentioned here, but I don’t think it’s just women who appreciate less clutter and complexity. Just look at the explosion in so-called “lifestyle” systems, including the cleverly marketed Bose equipment.

Still, one of the most intriguing trends in the high-end is coming from a few designers trying to figure out how much they can put in a small box and still deliver sound equal to the mega-rigs. Not possible, you say? Perhaps you haven’t listened to Devialet.

Devialet is a French company that seems poised to re-invent the high-end on its own terms. Its chief engineers began with a goal of nothing less than reproducing the exact sound of live music. To do that, they looked around and found most of the existing technology wanting, so they invented their own.

Their latest product in that quest was on display at RMAF. The Devialet 400 bundles a 400-watt-per-channel stereo amplifier, preamplifer, D/A converter, phono stage and other functions into a sleek contemporary unit that’s about the size of the Bell & Howell AM/FM/cassette deck I had in junior high school.

The cost of the B&H, as I remember it, was about $70. The Devialet 400 is $17,495.

What you get for that big-ticket purchase, though, is not a collection of low-cost parts and “good enough” modules jammed together for the sake of size and convenience. Instead, the 400 consists of what Devialet says is the best technology it could find for each component. And, that includes some innovations developed by Devialet engineers themselves.

Take the 400-watt amp. Devialet believed that Class A amplifiers sound great, but gave off too much heat and produced some distortion in doing so. On the other hand, the newer Class D, or digital, amplifiers were much more efficient but didn’t provide the quality of sound Devialet was looking for. Their answer? Merge the two.

So, each Devialet 400 includes a Class D amplifier to boost the signal and an analog amp to correct it. The result, according to Devialet, is a hybrid amp that offers the best of both worlds.

Devialet also was bothered by the difficulties of matching speakers to a front end. To solve that problem, the company came up with a correction device that uses a special downloaded file that’s matched to your exact speaker model. If you change speakers, you just download another file, instead of starting another hunt for electronics that have that magic synergy.

At RMAF, the Devialet 400 was driving a pair of Focal Aria 926s ($3,299). The new Focals, which featured cones made from flax, sounded more like their bigger brothers through the Devialet. Connected by Crystal Cable ($1,300), the Focal speakers were detailed with good dynamics on Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again.” The treble, in particular, was smooth and the bass was tight.

All, in all, it was an impressive demonstration. It was so striking, in fact, that if I wasn’t trying to be an active member of this crazy audio review profession, I’d be tempted to spring for a Devialet, download a speaker correction file for my Revel Studios, and call it a day. Devialet says it will continue to offer upgrades for all the units in the 400, so it’s about as future-proof as you can get. And the price? Just add up all the gear on your audio altar right now (plus those interconnects and power cords). That makes the Devialet look like a must-hear option. Maybe less really can be more.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Wilson, VTL continue their affair

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By John Stancavage

Logo - Blue VectorEveryone usually can remember exactly where they were on a particularly noteworthy day. For me, the event was the best sound I’d ever heard, and the date and place was Monrovia, California, on the last day of April in 2010.

I had driven up to Brooks Berdan, an audio dealer I knew only by reputation. But, being just an hour away on a business trip, I decided to pay a visit. Once there, I was met by the shop’s namesake (now sadly deceased) and his friendly son, Brian.

The first thing I was struck by was the lack of attitude. Brian asked me what I wanted to hear. Being an electrostatic fan, I motioned to a pair of Quad 989s. After a fairly long demo, he waved his hand. “Come check these out,” he said, and led me into the main listening room.

There stood a towering pair of Wilson Audio Maxx speakers, each looking like a monster praying mantis that had been caught in a Mercedes-Benz spray booth and painted metallic silver.

In between them sat the biggest tube amps I’d ever seen, the VTL Siegfried Reference monoblocks.

“Let me see your demo disc,” Berdan said. For the next hour, we worked through the eclectic mix, consisting of Dire Straits, Van Morrison, Roxy Music, Steely Dan Luna, Julie Fordham, Johnny Hartman and Joe Williams, among others.

My jaw dropped as cut after cut was played. The music was not only detailed and powerful, it had an additional quality. It may be what some reviewers call “bloom,” but I would describe more as texture. For example, whereas Luna guitarists Dean Wareham and Sean Eden sound just fine on my Krell/Revel/Mark Levinson home system, with the VTLs and Wilsons you could hear — and feel — their own tube amps overloading at critical points during solos. It was the closest to live music I’ve ever been in a retail shop.

I thought this had to be the speakers, so I had Berdan swap in a less-expensive amp. The Wilsons still sounded good, but the live illusion was gone.

Since that day, I’ve noticed that VTL and Wilson often are shown together. This musical affair continued at RMAF, with Luke Manley and Bea Lam, the married proprietors of VTL, sharing a second-floor room with Wilson Audio Specialties. This time VTL was showcasing its S-400 Series II stereo amplifier ($33,500 each, with two in use), TL-7.5 Series III Reference line preamp ($25,000) and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage, with step-up MC transformer ($12,000).

Speakers were the Wilson Audio Sasha II ($30,900 a pair), with two Wilson Watchdog passive subwoofers ($9,800 each), and two Wilson control units ($4,000 each).

Feeding that impressive system was a full dCS Vivaldi digital rack ($75,000), plus a Spiral Groove turntable with Centroid tonearm ($31,000) and Lyra Etna cartridge ($6,995).

Cables were Transparent Opus MM2 ($110,000 for four pairs), Reference XL ($40,000 for three pairs), Nordost Odin Digital ($12,000 for three) and Nordost Odin and Valhalla power and distribution cables ($40,000 for 10 pieces).

I asked Bea if she’d mind playing my Luna “Rendezvous” CD. I’d just been turned down requesting a demo in the previous room I’d visited (where the snobby, would-be King of the CD Player displayed the arrogance of a waiter at a chic NYC restaurant being asked for a hamburger). So, I was delighted when the ever-charming Mrs. Manley interrupted a vinyl selection to pop my disc into the dCS. “John wants to hear this,” she told Luke. Wow! Talk about a 180 degree difference from the snobby room.

I requested track one, “Malibu Love Nest,” an atmospheric song that features a driving drum beat and wonderful layered guitar work from Wareham and Eden.

As the song kicked off, I felt a flashback to that day in Monrovia. The sound was enveloping, rhythmic, detailed and emotionally involving. Wareham’s vocals, not much above a whisper, were clear and the spaces between notes, which Luna often used to its advantage, were jet-black. It was the guitars, though, that really had me reliving my memories of the Maxx/Siegfried system. When both players headed for the rafters during their solos, it got louder, but not assaultive. The intentional distortion and feedback Wareham and Eden were wringing from their instruments was palpable, much as I imagined it must have been standing in the studio next to the actual amp.

Bea told me she and Luke were very happy with the way the improvements to the S-400 turned out. Indeed, it’s often said that lower-priced amp B will get you “90 percent of the sound” of much higher-priced amp A. Usually, that’s stretching the truth a bit. With the VTL S-400, though, I’m more inclined to believe one of these units really could propel you close to Siegfried territory ($65,000 a pair) without having to totally fry your nest egg.

As for VTL and Wilson, I hope they keep this affair going for many more years. They make beautiful music together.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Goodbye, Rocky Mountain High

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Or, an Introvert Goes to Denver

Logo - Blue VectorI’ve attended a few audio shows in the last 5 years. Okay, that’s not true. I’ve attended a lot of shows in the last 5 years. Every one of them is different in some fundamental way. Every one of them is also the same in other, also fundamental, ways.

The same, but different. I tend to think of them — all of the shows on what I call “the circuit” — as all one thing. A big, geographically challenged, party.

While I’ve managed to make this punctuated jubilee into work, the fact of the matter is that I really enjoy them. Part of it is the energy that they bring to the hobby. I’ve said it before, but it shouldn’t be a stretch to think of “audio shows”  as the fourth leg of the stool that audio’s high-end current rests on — with the other three being the rise of high-resolution audio, the resurgence of vinyl, and the explosion in headphone-based audio. Of those four, only the audio show actually brings like-minded players together, both with each other and with the artists that drive the industry forward — and no, I’m not talking about the “recording artists”. Music might be the black hole that our corner of the galaxy spins around, but I’m talking about the designers, the builders, the sellers, the pundits, and the critics and all of the rest of us. The soup that is the audio show is, to my mind, unique. It’s also hilariously fun.

But this year, I realized something about these audio shows. Or rather, I realized something about myself at these shows.

I am terrible at them.

No. Really. While some of you are snarking up your sleeves, I will offer that I’m completely serious. What I realized, about myself, bears directly on why audio shows are important. Why we need them. Why the industry relies on them, but also, could do so much more with them.

It’s not a big thing, really, but it was a bit of a surprise. To me, at least. Turns out, I’m an introvert.

I’d never really thought much about it, or assumed that it would mean anything for how I interact with the world — and just to be randomly specific, how I interact with the audio show world. Guess what? It does. Duh. Hugely. Double-duh. Honestly? I’m baffled I haven’t noticed it before.

Like how I tend not to introduce myself. At all. I kinda creep in. If someone looks like they’re looking at me, I’ll start taking pictures with my giant don’t-talk-to-me camera. Of course, this means I rarely ask questions. Or get names. Or shake hands. I’ll leave my card, sure — but on the way out the door, when the room staff can’t seem to find another sheet listing all the prices on the gear in the room. I practically throw the card at someone and almost dive out the door. This also means I tend not to meet many folks at a show. Or have plans for after-hours, which is a bummer. I’m skipping like a stone across the surface of the show. The bitch of it is that I’m completely unaware that I’m doing anything like this! I’m completely engaged with the task at hand. I’m focused. I’m stressed, but I’m also happy as a friggin’ clam, wrapped up in my head even as I bob and weave and marvel. But engage with people? Not so much. Unless … Unless I’m stopped and talked at. And not once. Repeatedly. Over the course of several shows. Until that person is no longer a blank face in my little mental rolodex. And then, maybe, I’ll linger. Maybe.

But here’s the thing — I like to linger. Hang out. Shoot the bull. I do! But my mind slips past that and automatically comes up with very clever, relevant and pressing reasons to keep moving. To get moving again, if I’ve come to a halt. In short, to bolt. Sitting still is really hard. And I can’t seem to help it. Being with and around people, people I don’t know, and in places I’m unfamiliar with, well … lets just say that it doesn’t exactly relax me.

It’s not that I’m shy. I’m really not. I’m loud. I’m crass. I’ll stand right up and talk to a crowd of one or 1,000 and I totally don’t care. I get buzzed from that. But after spending an hour or two presenting or working with a client (something I do rather regularly in my day job, for example), I just don’t chat when the time is up. The electricity stops flowing and I am out.

Turns out, I’m just terrible at small talk — I can’t seem to make myself do it — I automatically assume you don’t want to, either, so I’m off. It’s like I’m ADD (which I’m not … I don’t think so, anyway). But I am terrible at the little things that other people do in social situations — and now, I’m aware of it. I saw myself doing it. Over and over and over at this year’s RMAF. And I couldn’t seem to help that, either.

I’ve had some intuitions banging around, of course. I’m not an idiot. Saw a few Facebook memes on “How to talk to an introvert” and laughed at how bizarre “those people are.” Then, I stopped. Thought about it. I mean, that’s what introverts do. We examine, turn over, obsesses. Then, I did the uncharacteristic thing — I asked someone else about it.

My wife nearly snorted coffee out of her nose when I suggested that I thought I might be introverted. She pulled herself together, got all moon-eyed and said, totally deadpan, “You think?”

I had thought she was introverted (she is), but that was the extroverted one. Sharing this led to hysterical laughter, some sputtering, and her calling her sister and a couple of her friends just to laugh at how funny that was. I may not be an idiot, but I’m clearly not winning in the whole “Know Thyself” challenge.

So, I went into RMAF with a bit of an experiment in mind. I just kinda “did my thing” on Friday, but on Sunday, I woke up and stopped myself before I flung forth. I went over my “how to interact with humans” routine. God help me, I practiced small talk (I’m never doing that again). Gah. The whole thing made me itch. But, loins girded, I set forth to do battle with my inner reflexes.

Even now, a month later, there’s a voice in my head telling me how much more efficient I could have been. How many more rooms I could have covered. How I could have prepared more thoroughly. How, next time, I’ll be doing it differently.

I kinda want that voice to STFU. Because I had a ball on Sunday. I met people. I chatted them up. I shook hands. Kissed babies. Encouraged others. I was outgoing. Well. Sort of. On the 10-point scale of “massive introvert” to “massive extrovert”, I might have taken exactly one whole step to the right, but whatever. I felt like I was doing something more. Even if it hurt me. By the end of that day, I fell over and didn’t move until it was time to catch my plane the next morning. But still.

Look at me, Ma! I’m growing.

This isn’t to say “woe is me” … gimme a break. I’m not not wandering even within hailing distance of that. But I am aware of one of the ways I’m interacting with the world around me (or failing to do so). That is, I am now. Wasn’t before. It was all kinda subliminal and now I feel a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat.

Anyway, if I didn’t introduce myself, shake your hand, or seem to take sufficient time to get to know you, your history, or the ins and outs of your story, product, or innovation, please accept my apologies and rest assured that it wasn’t you. Okay, it might have been you, but chance are, it was because I’m not wired that way. Next time, tackle me. I mean, if you want. You don’t have to. But if you shout “INTROVERT” at me as I’m running toward the door, I will probably freeze or look blank, or perhaps even flinch, but that’s okay. I’ll talk, I promise.

Now, all of this is a long way to go to make a point about the audio show thing, generally, and it’s this: I think there are a lot of folks like me in this hobby. Introverts! Unite! Separately, in our own homes!

I think this reflex is exactly why going to an audio show is something you need to do. Even if you’re a holed-up-in-the-man-cave introvert. Even if you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t need to go to something like that to hear gear, or listen to music, or [fill in randomly generated complaint here] — I have all that right here, and without all the fuss and bother of [fill in randomly generated set of potential or imagined irritations here].”

I want you to consider — just consider — the fact that an indelible part of your personality is tricking you into not experiencing something bizarrely magical. That being at an audio show may well be the only time you, the audio enthusiast, are the average. Everyone around you at an audio show shares something with you. All of those strangers are your people.

And if you do — try to step outside of your comfort zone (all I’m asking is for a conscious attempt!) and talk with some of the folks you meet there. They’re fascinating. And there are a lot of them! Do this and you may have the realization that you’re not as weird as you think you are.

And that’s a strange and heady feeling. It helped me. I mean, you’re way weirder than I am.

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Look closely, lower right corner — that’s Steve Rochlin, on a mad photobombing run!

 

Most Interesting

Each audio show is an opportunity to see and hear something novel, and acknowledging that feels like I’m being a bit head-scratchingly obvious. So, here’s two that stood out for me.

Tidal HiFi

TidalStreaming media is not new and it’s not a fad. According to all manner of recent studies and prognostications, it’s going to eat downloads as a viable market in pretty much the same way that CDs nearly wiped vinyl off the shelves. I will admit that I am a big fan of Pandora and that I loved MOG to pieces. But even with the strengths of those services, neither really sounded terribly good.

As CNet’s Steve Guttenberg would be quick to point out, the format is almost irrelevant if the material is crap. But given that the material isn’t, format becomes incredibly important — and that’s where Tidal HiFi comes in.

Launched at RMAF this year, streaming media just went full-resolution.

Redbook, or CD-quality, streaming has been something of a Bigfoot — the assumption has been that MP3-quality audio was “enough”, and most online services have been built with that delivery in mind. Tidal takes that up a notch. A big notch. CD-quality can be a radically better experience.

It’s not the first to do it, of course. It probably won’t be the last. But for $20 a month, I get access to a huge catalog of music and I can get it streamed, on demand, right into my Hi-Fi rig. And it sounds good. That, my friends, is a first.

Ultimate Ears 3-D printing

The problem with custom in-ear monitors, over their more common universal versions, is that they’re difficult to make. Which means delays. Anything that speeds up that process, and also improves the fit, is an unqualified win.

Ultimate Ears is addressing that with 3-D printing.

Impressions can be taken and immediately scanned. The digital renderings sent on for construction. The 3-D printer does that flawlessly. And they’re out the door. They whole process is very new, so they’re inspecting the daylights out of it just to ensure that the process is as reliable as they think it is.

I received a pair of UE Reference Monitors in two weeks, and ⅓ of that was due to UPS. I’ve been told that, once the process gets the full green light, UE is aiming for a total turnaround time of less than 1 week.

3-D printing, FTW.

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Most Wanted

Of all the nifty things down in CanJam this year, it was the stack of high-res micro-SD cards holding the entire Blue Note library that had me wringing my hands, mumbling to myself, and actively scheming.

Apparently, this library comes loaded on the Astell&Kern AK240 Blue Note Edition.

I want it. I want it all. With a most powerful wanting kind of wantingness of Want.

[drool]

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Biggest improvement

Food trucks!

It may be silly, but the ability to eat and eat well without having to get a ride from a cabbie or an Uber driver is a huge improvement to the overall show-experience. I never want to leave a show — I barely have enough time as it is, and taking 2 hours to sneak in a reasonably enjoyable meal doesn’t seem wise or viable. Rolling in a set of non-staurants for an awesome grab-and-go experience was the single best improvement to RMAF this year.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Biggest Surprise

No pot!

Based on the media response to marijuana legalization in Colorado, I was expecting the Marriott to have converted into an Amsterdam “coffee-house”, with slumped forms of burnouts face down in mountains of weed, pretty much everywhere you looked.

I was disappointed.

In fact, I didn’t see a single bong. Or a even a lonely doobie — much less “mountains of weed”. I’m sure there were partakers, but wherever they were, they were discreet and out of sight.

All in all, the lack of obvious “drug culture” on display was something of a let down. Damn you, FOX News!

The liquor and cigars, however, were on full display.

Sometimes, you just have to make do.

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Best Sound

This was a tough year to pick winners at because a lot of players brought their “A-Game”, and that’s a win all around. That said, it’s worth taking a moment to single out those demos that I found particularly compelling.

Whether it was the gear or the incredible skill of the set up team, doesn’t really matter.

These rooms “did it” for me this year.

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Sandy Gross is a legend in high-end audio and for good reasons. But while you might catch a glimpse of Sandy at some of the regional shows, chances are low to actually catching him showing off gear. RMAF this year was different — and that was a very good thing.

The new Triton One from GoldenEar is a monster. It’s tall, it soundstages like a cranked up demon, and whenever needed, will reach down into the abyss for your bass response. For $5k/pair, this is the best value I know of when it comes to high-end loudspeakers. Absolutely astounding.

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Endeavor Audio, with YFS and Constellation Audio

Leif Swanson of Endeavor Audio is not a newcomer to audio’s high-end. He’s been building speakers for decades, having graduated some years ago from VSA. His E-3 loudspeakers that I heard early this year remain one of the front-runners for “Best of 2014”, but what he brought to RMAF this year was nothing short of a monster. Tall and slender, the new E-5 was a stunner.

The other half of the story came from Your Final System and Constellation Audio. Together, the triumvirate proved devastatingly effective here at RMAF.

Playing quality music on such a system is not only a joyous exploration of what the SOTA has to offer, but a clear statement of what the new players can bring.

Keep an eye out for these guys.

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Zesto Audio, with WyWires and TAD

George and Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio have ever right to be giddy. Their electronics have been universally praised in the press, and their show demos have been wickedly enjoyable. Their analog-only formula, with partners TAD and WyWires, seems to leverage the best of all of the designs and I am completely convinced — this is game-ending gear.

At RMAF, we got to see the new Andros 1.2 phono stage, which has seen significant internal tweakery and taken the products in whole new directions. The new formulation of the WyWires cabling has seen a similar evolution, and the newest “Diamond” formula is the best yet to come from them. Combined with the crushingly transparent TAD loudspeakers, everything in the recording was laid out for inspection. But instead of a dissection, I was treated to a sonic feast. This was the best I’ve heard this gear sound and it was one of the most thrilling at the show.

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Viva HiFi, with Daedalus, ModWright, Skogrand

What a difference a few weeks makes!

The last time I heard the Daedalus Audio Muse loudspeakers, I was very impressed. Hearing them here, at RMAF, it was as if an already great loudspeaker had been completely transformed. Yes, that’s hyperbole, but in this case, there really is no other way to capture the delta between the two presentations. I was not prepared!

Shown with ModWright electronics and cabling from Skogrand, this not-inexpensive system beat the snot out of systems ten times the price.

Synergy. It’s whats for dinner.

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DeVore Fidelity

If I had to vote, today, for the most impressive loudspeaker at RMAF, I’d probably have a kitten. I can’t do it. Several of them completely unzipped my head and stuffed awesome inside — the question would quickly devolve to “what can I afford” and “what can I pair them with” and “where would they go”.

But I’ll offer this — the new Gibbon X from DeVore Fidelity is, in my opinion, the best thing designer John DeVore has done to date.

To be fair, it’s been a long time coming. I first heard this speaker over a year ago at CES, and while the current speaker bears resemblance more in intent than in actual execution, the result is so good I don’t really care. If I was starting over, I’d buy them in a heartbeat. In fact, they’re good enough to make me reconsider my reconsideration.

Love. Love. Love.

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Legacy Audio

Walking in to see Legacy Audio’s Bill Dudleston this year, I knew he’d have something interesting to show. I mean, he’s been muttering under his breath for the last couple of months about his new speaker.

Face to face with the reality, however, was quite another thing than merely “surprised”.

This was one of the first rooms I walked into at RMAF, and the immediate impression — of huge sound — stayed with me the entire weekend, spoiling me completely for many of the rooms that followed.

It’s really hard to distill the new V into something concise, but this is another case of an expert designer at the very top of not only his game, but of the industry as a whole. This is game-changing sound. It was insane.

Me likey!

The challenge of an audio system — to successfully get the listener to suspend disbelief — is usually contingent on the illusion being suspended in front of them. To recreate, in real-time and local space, the performance. The V takes that idea, and turns it on its head — it took me to the performance. And to borrow a phrase — that, my friends, is audio winning. 

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High Water Sound

With all of these spectacular audio visions to immerse yourself in, it’s hard to choose a winner, so I won’t bother. But if I had to point at the system that caused me to completely loose my composure and undo an entire year’s worth of projected spending, it was the High Water Sound room.

Jeff Catalano’s room, once again, featured Hørning Hybrid loudspeakers, this time driven by 3 watt amps from TW Acustic. Tron and TW shared the rack, with fancy cables from Zen Sati, power conditioning from Silver Circle, isolation from SRA, and the whole thing cost more than a little.

But the sound … oh. Oh. Oh, my.

To me, this was what “it” was “all about”, and I lost myself for a very pleasant half-hour. I’ve been circling Jeff’s sonic aesthetic for years now, but I think I’m pretty much done at this point. Jeff is my hero.

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And that’s a wrap. More or less.

There’s a few more to come from the various and sundry, but I’m done with my coverage of the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

I want to thank Marjorie Baumert for her kindness, her assistance, and for just being awesome. RMAF is what it is because of her, and she’s an absolute treasure.

I want to thank Warren Chi of Audio360 for his help getting me ready for the show and for his assistance with all the graphic work to launch The Audio Traveler in time to carry all the RMAF coverage.

Thanks to Mal, Kirsten, Darryl and John for their help carrying the lantern and for contributing to the show coverage.

And so it goes.

Here it is, your Moment of Zen.

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Brian Hunter of Audio-Head.com

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A caterpillar that died on Brian’s face

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Mal Kenney

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Mal & Brian

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Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney

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Melinda Grace Smith and Larry Love

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Jason Victor Sirenus and Michael Lavorgna

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Lee Scoggins and Steve Guttenberg

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Scott and Harmony Hicks

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Pink Goo

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Zu Audio room, after hours: Brian Hunter, Scot Hull and John Darko

 

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RMAF 2014: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here

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Logo - Blue VectorYou’d think that attending so many audio shows so very, very regularly would start to do some pretty serious damage to anyone’s enthusiasm. How exciting can it be to repeatedly trudge through crowded hallways for a weekend just to sit in front of a hundred or so stereos? How many speakers can you stand to photograph before you start thinking about subcontracting to a police sketch artist? How much novelty can there really be? How much beer can one man drink?

You’d be on to something. The routine quickly gets tiresome. Except for the batteries in my flashgun trying to catch fire while taking pictures, the process of covering a show for The Audio Traveler or Part Time Audiophile can be fairly tedious. That’s why we changed up our process this year.

With five writers broken out into four groups, we split our coverage on geographic lines. Scot Hull took the tower rooms. Kirsten and I hit the Atrium as a team. John Stancavage listened to the big systems in the big rooms downstairs. Darryl Lindberg wandered everywhere and gave us a broad perspective. Meanwhile, our good friend and associate Brian Hunter of Audio-Head.com took over most of the CanJam coverage for his site, relieving our five folks of the burden of covering so many more dozens of exhibits.

Even with that duty roster, we argued about what needed coverage. The scale of RMAF is such that we quickly abandoned any hope of a comprehensive survey. That left only two basic rules.

  • First: If you write about something, you should either like it or hate it. If you couldn’t be moved enough by what you heard to have an immediate emotional reaction, it didn’t need to be covered.
  • Second: If anything surprised you, you had to write about it.

Given those rules, the biggest surprise of the show is how close to comprehensive our coverage turned out to be. We found something to say about fully half of the exhibits we experienced. Rather than giving us a weekend filled with some sense of been-there-done-that boredom, the exhibitors at RMAF managed to move us and surprise us every few minutes.

That’s really something when you think about it. In fact, it’s downright spectacular.

It’s also the reason why I hate the idea of a “Best in Show.” When so many people work so hard, when so many of them manage to cut through what could be a terrible slog with great music and constant amazement, it’s difficult — if not outright dishonest — to claim that one, single setup at one, single moment was a star.

There were stars, though, and some of them deserve a specific mention.

George and Carolyn Counnas of Zesto Audio had some Basie ready when we dropped by on Sunday morning. They couldn’t have picked a better record to show off just how much more energetic their new Andros 1.2 phonostage is compared to the previous model. I’ve always felt that the previous model was just a smidge too laid back for my taste. The new baby doesn’t have that problem. The music leapt out of their system as though it had finally had a big enough cup of coffee. It’s a huge step forward for Zesto, and it elevates their phono stage from a “completely solid” ranking in my mind to “holy crap this is good.”

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Schiit’s upcoming Yggdrasil DAC provoked a similar response. Schiit’s been working on common sense affordability for so long that it’s easy to forget that Mike Moffat is a legitimately crazy person with extraordinary engineering chops. A brief audition of the Yggdrasil left me desperate to get a review sample. Unless the production version is significantly worse, this is likely to be a solidly reference-grade PCM DAC. At its projected price point, the Yggdrasil is shaping up to be the giant slayer.

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Kirsten has written more than a few words about Charles King’s tape demos. I’d like to echo her sentiments. Mr. King’s tapes played through the Audio Note system simply brought more music to the table than anything else I heard that weekend. I want to thank Mr. King and Audio Note’s David Cope for being considerate enough, at least, to hold these demonstrations after hours. It would be simply impossible to hear that sound and then go into some other rooms without feeling an overwhelming sense of loss. There would be no way to listen fairly. That sound comes very close to being the Holy Grail wrapped in a Golden Fleece. If you ever have the chance to experience it, you’d be a fool to do anything else.

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Speaking of after hours… I have to mention that Zu and Peachtree threw an open-door party, with loud music, buckets of free beer, and plenty of dancing on all sorts of furniture. I spent the bulk of Saturday night in a blissful haze. Sometime after three in the morning, I found myself sitting on the couch, scrounging through back records with the die-hards, and thinking, “I f***ing love this music.” If there’s anything more joyfully representative of this hobby than staying up too late because you’re listening to music, I’m not sure that I want to know about it.

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And so another audio show is in the bag. You might think that attending so very many audio shows so very, very regularly would be so very, very boring. It turns out that nothing could be further from the truth. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

I hope I’ll see you there.

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RMAF 2014: Goodnight and Good Luck

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Kirsten’s Final Thoughts and Gold Stars

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For the past few years, I’ve attended two big audio shows: T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach, and Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Whichever one I’m attending at the time tends to be the one I think of as “the best”: sitting by the pool in L.A., I will expansively declare that T.H.E. Show is the “most fun ever.” Over dinner in Denver, I will equally expansively say, “Man, I LOVE this show. This is the BEST.”

There’s something pretty special about RMAF, though, a certain sense of a family reunion. You walk in and realize that not only do you know a lot of these people, but that most of the hotel staff remains the same, and you practically start humming the Cheers theme. Part of the reason I’m as deep into this hobby as I am can be attributed to (blamed on?) a most welcoming conversation I got dragged into at the bar during the first RMAF I attended a couple of years ago.

You end up in these conversations with people who you keep seeing year after year, at the bar and in the elevator and at dinner, and the question everyone always asks is “What’ve you heard that’s good? What’s the best thing that you’ve heard? What are you excited about?”

These questions tend to make me stumble a little, because even after three days I know I’ve only heard a fraction of what’s there, so it feels strange to say what’s “best.” I can, however, usually speak pretty well to what I’ve personally heard so far that’s exciting, and in reality, that’s all that anyone’s interested in, anyway. They want to know what they should be checking out, or they want to tease you that you’re full of shit, or say, “Oh, I KNEW you would love that room as soon as I heard it.” They want, in short, to have a conversation. I can do THAT. Most of the time.

So, keep in mind, dear reader, that this is what I’m doing with you. I can’t say what was best, but we can stop in the elevator and I can tell you what’s floating my boat. Here’s some things that I found exciting, and that I’m still thinking about a month out.:

Most Surprising Room: AllSonics

This was one of the rooms that I kept talking about all weekend, just because it surprised the heck out of me. I’d never heard of the company before, so I had no idea what to expect when I visited the room. What I found were the Allure loudspeakers ($4,950), which uses Great Plains Audio Altec 416s for the low-end, with two Great Plains Audio compression drivers in a dipole configuration for the upper range. These were paired with the Momentum subwoofers, also fitted with 416s ($3,500). The Momentums melted into invisibility, and the whole system was fabulously detailed and musical. You can read Mal’s whole write-up here — we were definitely of an accord on this one. I don’t know who these guys are, really, but I hope to hear from them again.

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Favorite Speakers Under $5,000: PranaFidelity

This category actually had some pretty good competition this year, with excellent performances from the aforementioned AllSonics and from Chapman’s T-5s. But the speakers that my thoughts keep returning to with admiration are PranaFidelity’s Fifty90 ($3,950). While I’m sure these speakers were helped along by Steve Norber’s excellent electronics, I was enormously impressed with their dynamics, punch, and natural sound.

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Best Real World Sensibility: PS Audio Sprout

It’s hard to express what I mean by “real world sensibility” without feeling like I might inadvertently insult someone, but essentially what I mean by this is, “What would I have a decent chance of selling a non-audiophile, music-loving friend on?” And the winner here is PS Audio’s Sprout, hands down. It’s good-looking, it’s under $1,000, and it’s versatile. It solves a problem a lot of people have. It’s a fabulous little gadget. The only thing that would make it an easier sell is if I could plug my Apple TV into it and have sound for my movies, too.

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Favorite Reference System: Endeavor Audio

This should maybe be the award for “most chutzpa.” Endeavor Audio launched their $7,000 E-3 last year, and it’s fabulous. Now, just over a year after I first heard the E-3’s, Leif Swanson & Co. have launched the E-5’s: six and a half feet and $30,000 worth of awesome. The combination of these speakers with Constellation amplification started off my weekend right with The Clash’s “Sound of Sinners” and propelled me through the weekend.

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#1 Lottery Wish List System: Audio Note UK

This is the closest you’ll see me give to a Best in Show. If I had to pick an entire system (not just one or two components) I heard over the weekend to take home, what would it be? The AudioNote UK system this weekend absolutely fit the bill — with the addition of Charles King’s modded Stellavox reel-to-reel (with built-in KingSound tape preamp), natch. This system had me hearing Dire Straits and Leonard Cohen like I’ve never heard them before. It was the kind of sound that makes you think, “You know, if I ever decide to just settle down with one system forever and ever until death do us part…” Yeah. This system was the marrying kind. Hats off to David Cope, Charles King, and AudioNote UK. That was something special.

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All right, folks. Those are my favorites, the stuff that got me excited, the stuff that put me in my happy place. Gold stars all around!

Now it’s your turn. What did you like?

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RMAF 2014: 3 Simple Rules for High-End Audio Show Attendees

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Or, How to Avoid the Utter Humiliation of Being Thrown Out of a Hotel Room by Your Favorite Audio Icon

By Marc Phillips

“The customer is always right.”

I spent 18 years in retail and restaurant management, so I know that old adage very well. But one day I was attending a management seminar with one of my former employers, and the CEO of the company said something to us that was really interesting and provocative. “Sometimes you have to fire some customers,” he told the crowd. Later in my retail career I had to quietly adapt that rather blunt and striking decree into something a little more practical: “If I’m losing money by dealing with you, by definition you are no longer my customer.” Most customers would probably become quite agitated if you said this to their face, but that’s sort of the point—you say one thing to your customers to preserve your base and build sales, but you actually do the other thing for the very same reasons.

I started thinking about this line of thought while noticing—and probably audibly complaining—about certain trending behaviors by attendees at high-end audio shows. Shelling out $25 or more to attend one of these shows can and will foster particular feelings and attitudes, most notably “I want my money’s worth.” This attitude, however, can get you into hot water for the singular reason that attending a trade show is not the same as walking into a retail outlet and demanding excellent customer service for your hard-earned dollar.

That’s why I’ve proposed these three unwritten rules for high-end audio show attendees—not because you’re all driving me crazy and I’m ready to snap, but because I really don’t want to enforce any of these rules. I just want people to understand the reasoning behind them without having to look like an unbelievable jerk for merely bringing it up.

Rule One: “Sorry, No Public Restrooms”

As a fellow audiophile who spent many years attending trade shows before going behind the scenes, I totally get the fact that when you have to go, you have to go. Even though there are plenty of public restrooms downstairs in the lobby, have you seen the line at the elevators? Look, every single exhibit room has a bathroom in it, and trade show attendees should have the right to use the facilities if necessary…right?

Not exactly, and I’ll explain why. A couple of years ago I was exhibiting at CES with one of my European manufacturers. I was discussing something with him—sales strategies, upcoming products, what to have for lunch—and he suddenly looked toward the bathroom door in our exhibit room with a mixture of shock and pure, unbridled anger. “Who was that guy who just came out of the bathroom?” he asked. I turned around and indeed a perfect stranger had exited our bathroom and was now heading down the hall toward the other exhibit rooms. He didn’t even have the decency to come into our room to hear our system—he just ran into our bathroom and then ran back out.

“All of my money is in the bathroom! My passport! If that guy had taken anything, I’d be totally screwed!” He was absolutely right to be furious, of course. At audio trade shows, the bathrooms have to serve as our storage and staging areas. Not only do we have our valuables and personal belongings in there, we also have extra components and expensive cables that can easily be stashed away in coat pockets behind closed doors. Plus, not every hotel puts a lock on the bathroom door—I know, I can’t believe it either—so when you barge in you might catch your favorite audio personality in a very private moment.

There’s not a lot we can do to prevent this. I hate the idea of posting a DO NOT ENTER sign—it’s the first thing you’ll see when you walk into the room and it’s a very negative first impression at that. I’m merely bringing it up because it’s becoming a more common behavior with every show we do. My own semi-effective strategy for dealing with bathroom requests is to say “someone is already in there.” But that doesn’t work when people just dash in and dash out without even asking permission. At some shows you’ll find hospitality suites sponsored by some of the audio magazines, and that’s always a great idea for the Vesicare crowd. Better yet, the hotel could just open a room on every floor so people can freshen up occasionally. Until these practices become the norm, however, it’s a genuine dilemma—I don’t want to be the insufferable prick who tells you no, you can’t use my bathroom. But I may have to.

For those of you who continue to rush into bathrooms without asking permission from the exhibitors, you might even find a security guard waiting for you when you come out. I’m not saying that it’s already happened—I’m just saying that I won’t be surprised if it does. And I’m not even going to bring up the show attendees who come in, drop the kids off at the pool, and then thirty seconds later everyone in my exhibit room suddenly clears out. It has happened to me, and more than once. As my high school journalism teacher used to say when I’d ask for a hall pass exactly ten minutes into each and every class, “You need to regulate yourself.”

Rule Two: “Please Do Not Touch”

One of my oldest audiophile stories involves a dealer at a trade show who once told me not to breathe on his turntable. He had it placed on top of an impossibly high equipment rack, and I had to practically stand on my tiptoes to see what it was. (It turned out to be a Versa Dynamics 1.0 player, the first and only one I’ve seen in person.) For years I used him as an example of how NOT to treat potential customers—I never stepped foot in his store as a result of this exchange—but now I’m not so sure he was wrong.

I’ve seen show attendees do crazy things in the exhibit rooms. At this year’s RMAF, I witnessed the following things in my room alone:

  • A man who started crawling around behind my equipment rack to see all the connections, and then bumped the rack with his big audiophile butt while a record was playing. A rare, expensive record.
  • Another man who started to furiously rub his thumb on the raised company logo on the plinth of my turntable—once again, while a record was playing.
  • Yet another man who was so enthralled with the feel of the volume knob on my preamp that he kept turning it up and down, up and down, while a roomful of people were trying to listen to a delicate classical piece. He finally turned it all the way down and then walked out of the room.
  • A woman with a beautiful set of painted fingernails which she used to scratch at the silk dome tweeters of my $12,000 loudspeakers. Do you know the scene in the 1990 film Miami Blues with Alec Baldwin and the Hare Krishna in the airport? That’s what I wanted to do to this woman.

If you were in my house and you did any of these things, you would be asked to leave and you would never be invited back. Again, I hope I never have to kick someone out of my exhibit room, but all four of these people came perilously close to being the first. Paying $25 to attend three days of an audio show does not entitle you to complete and total access to everything, especially when it includes the sudden and heartbreaking depreciation of my current demo stock.

Rule Three: “No Requests”

For years audiophiles have been trained to bring their favorite music with them whenever they audition equipment. This is especially useful when visiting dealers, especially ones who have taken the time to carefully tune their showrooms so that most types of music sound absolutely incredible to the customer’s ears.

At trade shows, however, we don’t have that luxury. We usually have just one day to bring everything in, set it all up and dial it in. As you probably already know, hotel rooms can be problematic when it comes to getting good sound. Noisy AC units, uneven floors and flimsy walls all conspire to prevent us from achieving great sound. At RMAF I had to deal with big speakers in a very small and very live room. So while the system I used can kick some serious butt in a more friendly environment, totally cranking it up at the show would result in a less-than-satisfactory listening experience for the people in the room. So for that RMAF show attendee who kept asking me to turn up the volume and to play some “real rock and roll,” the answer was no.

You see, my job as an exhibitor is to make good sound in a hotel room. That means I have to use musical selections that show off the strengths of my system. So when you hand me that bootleg Napalm Death CD-R and ask me to play it on a system with tiny mini-monitors and a low-powered SET, you’re setting me up to fail in a roomful of people. I won’t do it. Most room exhibitors will do it, and a few I know openly solicit the attendees for their musical choices because, as one person has told me, “That’s the best way to discover new music!” But some will not, and it’s important to know why and to not hold it against them.

Here’s the perfect example of why I no longer want to take requests from show attendees unless I know the recording already. A reviewer once walked into my exhibit room with his special trade show mix CD. We accommodated him because he was already reviewing one of our products. Unfortunately, his mix CD sounded awful. Every track was thin and harsh and barely listenable. It almost seemed like he was playing a trick on us to see how we would respond. I kept looking at the other people in the room who were all wrinkling their noses, shaking their heads…and leaving. I did notice one guy who walked into the room—a reviewer from a major publication who was covering that show. Before I could yank that odious CD from my player, he walked out. Later, in his show report, he mentioned that the sound in our room was thin and harsh and barely listenable. So to that other reviewer with the questionable hearing, thanks buddy. Thanks a lot.

Again, how do you enforce this rule without looking like a total asshole? It’s tough. But I tried a new strategy at this year’s RMAF that worked fairly well: I played only vinyl in the room. My inner being felt whole and complete each time an attendee handed me a CD or even worse, a flash drive, and I was able to say sorry, I can’t play that. In fact, I only played one LP the entire show that wasn’t from my own personal collection, and it sounded pretty darned good. But that’s the rare exception.

(And if you ask me to play Diana Krall and you huff and puff and exit the room in a dramatic fashion when I tell you I don’t have any Diana Krall, I might tell jokes about you for years and years. Just so you know, Russian guy from New Jersey with the cheap Hawaiian shirt.)

It comes down to this. It’s easier to say the customer is always right. It’s better to run your business that way. One of my favorite dealers likes to say that he’s been around for decades and hasn’t has a single unsatisfied customer in all that time—which of course is crucial to his success and his excellent reputation. But exhibitors are not the shopkeepers. We’re customers, too. You may have paid $25 to get in the door, but we paid thousands and thousands of dollars just to get into our exhibit rooms. That doesn’t include the price of our sleeping rooms, travel expenses and food—and being away from our businesses for a week or more. You may have expectations about the way you’re treated at these shows, but so do we.

Right now is a great time to be an audiophile. When I first joined the hobby, there weren’t high-end audio shows every six weeks. If you couldn’t get into CES, then you didn’t get to see very much—only what trickled down to your nearest hi-fi shop. These days you can see—and, more importantly, hear—all sorts of exotic audio equipment several times a year. If you’re lucky enough to live in places like Denver or Chicago or Washington DC or San Francisco, you don’t even have to leave town to do it. But that can all change if it becomes too costly and too frustrating to do trade shows anymore—especially if attendees don’t seem to appreciate our hard work.

In other words, I don’t want to ever have to shout the words “No audio for you! Two years!” But I will if I have to.

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RMAF 2014: Bricasti Design and TIDAL Audio

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Logo - Blue VectorIf you follow The Audio Traveler, you’ll note that the Bricasti and TIDAL Audio system on display this year at RMAF mirrored the system that Scot had opportunity to hear at AXPONA earlier this year. So much the better, as far as I’m concerned; it’s not fair when Scot gets to have all the fun.

The speakers were the Piano Ceras from TIDAL Audio ($24,000); they feature ceramic drivers and the shiniest piano black cases you’re likely to see. They also have this nifty ability referred to as “Variogain” that lets them be tuned to suit the room: they can run in true 2-way mode, linear 2.5-way mode, or 2.5-way mode with Gain A. The amps were Bricasti’s newish M28 reference monoblocks ($30,000/pair), which have their own tweakability: pairing these amps with the Bricasti M1 DAC ($9,000) forms a balanced differential signal flow from source to speaker, and the M28 also offers 18 db of stepped attenuated gain adjustment. The amps and DAC were accompanied by a Silver Circle power conditioner ($10,000), an Oppo Digital CD player, and Luminst Revision cables by Purist Audio Design.

I was able to take the time for a nice long demo, for once, and sit through a couple of tracks. The first was a PCM recording of a selection from one of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works (my notes fail me as to which one; please forgive me). I found the percussion very realistic and impactful, and the treble was nice throughout. However, I thought there were some issues with the lower strings, which seemed a bit dull and smeary in comparison to the violins, and lacking in definition. Then, a second Tchaikovsky piece — a recording of the Romeo & Juliet Overture, this time in DSD — eliminated these perceived issues essentially entirely; the cruft was gone, and the sound was pure and precise.

I don’t know if the folks running the room intended to give me an impromptu listen to the benefits of hi rez, but it was instructive — if only because it reminded me to check the quality of the recording before I make assumptions about the capabilities of a system! I was left to conclude that system would be an excellent choice for a power junkie who’s looking for a great deal of detail and speed.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Hegel Audio dances with Magico

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Logo - Blue VectorFor those of you not in the know, Hegel was one of the greatest philosophers to take pen to paper. And boy-howdy, did he. One of the most prolific writers of his time, Hegel was one of the last in a long, long line of thinkers with a story for everything. And the stories he told … complex, intricate, interwoven, baroque. But oh, so ambitious!

I think of that time spent in school, attempting to read his work, whenever I run across Hegel Audio. I’m sure you could construct a tottering sort of analogy betwixt and between, but I don’t really see the point. For me, the links are there whether I will it or no — but this is about as far as I’m going to burden you.

I will say this, however — the stories that Hegel Audio is telling, today, on the canvas of audio’s high-end, are both gorgeously plotted and exceedingly well-told.

My experience with Hegel isn’t particularly breathtaking, but I have heard just about everything in their current lineup. I will further offer that their flagship amp may well be the best value in the ultra-high-end for solid-state amps.

Here, the story was more about the new HD12, the upgraded and updated DSD-capable DAC ($1,400). I introduced folks to it back at the New York Show in September, so I’ll refer you there.

What’s new? The H160 integrated amplifier ($3,500)! The amplifier can put out 150 w/pc into 8Ω and 250 w/pc into 4Ω. The integrated headphone amplifier (!) is also rated at 270 mW/pc into 64Ω. It includes a DAC (I think it’s 24/192) with coax, optical, USB and Ethernet as inputs. Interestingly, it’s also AirPlay and DLNA compliant. Nifty.

Nordost cabling carried the signals too and fro, and Nordost also provided the power distribution.

The speakers were the mid-level Magico S3 loudspeakers — extraordinarily integrated, if I may say so, and perhaps the best value in the Magico line (~$20k/pair).

The Hegel + Magico combo was perhaps one of the most musical I’ve heard from Magico, and I found the sound to be very easy-on-the-ears, with detail, extension and warmth. I overheard several attendees expressing surprise at the overall sound, and the departure it seemed to mark for Magico’s generally. Me, I wasn’t surprised — Magico tends to be fast and transparent — as far as windows go, this one tends to be rather clear.

Kudos to the ListenUp team — this was a great room.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Spatial takes your boxes, smashes them flat

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Logo - Blue VectorSpatial Audio has been knocking it out of the park at each of the show demos I’ve encountered, and the show at RMAF was yet another “win” on that string.

The “why” of that, though, may not be readily apparent. At least, to me, it wasn’t. Isn’t. Wasn’t. Whatever.

There’s just not a lot there there. It’s a panel speaker, sure. Boxless! This generally speaks to a radiation pattern that does less-horrible things to a room. Got that. I understand, too, that the “controlled dispersion” design takes that radiation pattern and optimizes it radically — again, to minimize room interactions and additionally doing serious heavy lifting to ensure an optimal frequency dispersion at the listening position. Got that.

So, that explains why it doesn’t sound like a hot mess. What it doesn’t explain is why Spatial Audio speakers sounds so good.

The last Spatial Audio speaker I heard was the M2 — here, The M1 open-baffle loudspeaker ($4,000/pair) is double what the M2 costs, and is considerably more awesome. A 2-way design and fully passive, they have and need no bi-amping and no DSP correction. Interesting, as this is something of a departure for designer Clayton Shaw, especially given his earlier work with Emerald Physics. The frequency response on the M1, at 32Hz-20kHz, means significant extension, and a 95dB sensitivity with a 4Ω impedance means you’re probably not gonna need your mega-power amp, either.

So, the Red Dragon Audio S500 stereo amplifier ($1,995), for example, is probably way more power than you’ll ever need or use. Based on Pascal Technology Class D modules, the S500 can put out 250 watts into 8Ω; this doubles into 4Ω, and the little amp can be bridged for over 1kW of output.

A Prism Sound Lyra DAC ($2,250) did double-duty, part decode, part preamp. This DAC is “trickle down” from the award-winning Orpheus design, and has been here simplified for those of us that don’t actually need 8-channels of I/O.

GIK Acoustics provided room treatments.

So, here’s the skinny on the skinny — I think Clayton is on a roll. Emerald Physics was very interesting, and while he no longer seems involved with that project, it’s clear that he’s far from finished with high-end audio. Speaking of which, in doing a bit of fact-checking for this post, I found out that he’s also got a much bigger speaker hiding in the wings — the Lumina (starting at $13k/pair). A big jump in price, yes, but … well, here’s what he has to say:

The new Lumina series open-baffle speakers portray a level of emotional engagement seldom heard outside live music. Lumina’s free breathing expression is a marvel to experience. Spatial’s new X32 series of precision coaxial drivers incorporate the world’s first pure Beryllium compression tweeter diaphragm for unparalleled transparency and natural tonal density. Lightning quick acceleration is courtesy of the X3212’s 96dB Sensitivity and 35 lb magnetic structure. Twin 12 inch Servo Controlled Subwoofer drivers provide crisp, resonance-free bass down to 15Hz. The open-baffle bass section is self-powered by 600 Watt monobloc servo amplifiers. 

Not sure when we’re gonna see that, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for Spatial Audio. You should, too.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: An Education in STAX

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Logo - Blue VectorSTAX electrostatic headphones — or “earspeakers,” as they call them — are near-legendary. I’ve been hearing about them since I first started to get into this hobby, as one of the most venerable and grail-like of high-end headphones. I had started to think of them as a bit unicorn-like, however; I’d run into a pair or two at meet-ups or as part of other vendors’ demos, but I don’t think I’d ever run into STAX themselves at a show.

Fitting, then, that when I finally ran into them, it was in the most comprehensive and welcoming way I can think of. Rather than dealing with the space constraints of Can Jam, STAX elected to set up in a room in the Atrium and demo their entire line. In just a few minutes, I was able to try out the full range, from the in-ear SR-003 ($350) to the flagship SR-009 ($4,450) and everything in between. Really, everything. It was the greatest education in STAX one could hope for. It’s absolutely delightful, by the way, to put on the lowest-end headphones in a line and think, “Oh, that’s good! Detailed, musical, very nice!” and then discover that it really does keep getting better all the way up. Wyred 4 Sound provided the digital-to-analog duties, and amplification was provided by a range of STAX amps commensurate with the individual headphones’ cost; cheaper models were primarily demo’d with the SRM-252S ($450) and SRM-323S ($875), while more expensive models were paired with the SRM-006ts ($1,325) and SRM-007tII ($2,150).

As much as I love the conviviality of the convention floor at Can Jam, STAX has me halfway convinced that we might be going about this the wrong way. It was enormously enjoyable to circle the table in that Atrium suite, trying out different gear, without the noise of a cavernous room and several hundred people to contend with. I didn’t trip over a single headphone cord!

It also got me thinking about this idea that gets tossed around from time to time about headphone listening as a “gateway drug” to Hi-Fi. Now, leaving aside that it’s foolish on its face not to consider headphone listening “Hi-Fi” in the first place, I think this is probably a silly concept at least half the time: there are plenty of audiophiles who are just never going to see the need for loudspeakers unless they’re throwing a party, just as there are plenty of audiophiles who are never going to get into headphones beyond the times when loudspeakers just aren’t convenient. But there’s still a lot of potential for crossover, and the current show set-ups tend to discourage said cross-pollination. Barring a few exceptions like STAX, the general trend tends to be that you’ve got the headphone folks over here, the loudspeaker folks over there, and never the twain shall meet.

I hear people saying things like, “Eh, the headphone people just aren’t interested in speakers,” or “Yeah, speaker guys, they just don’t get headphones.” Meanwhile, while they’re all at the same show, they’re essentially in two separate buildings. Maybe it’s time to start folding the two together a little more, and start treating the headphone rigs like the high-end stereos they are, rather than like second cousins twice removed from the real show. Mingling has its drawbacks, mostly involving the cost of additional rooms, but the potential for serendipity and discovery shouldn’t be disregarded.

[Amen–ed.]

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Colleen Cardas sings Opera with Pure Audio

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Logo - Blue VectorThe bar had closed on Thursday night for reasons that still remain somewhat obscure, so when Mal and I ran into Marc Phillips of Colleen Cardas Imports and Brad Serhan of Axis, it took about three seconds to convince them to join us, though I’m pretty sure the bag of cigars and bottle of bourbon I was swinging around had somewhat more to do with that decision than anything else. Temptations, temptations.

It was raining. So, we promptly dragged a table and a couple of chairs from the hallway next to the hair salon (yes, the Marriott has a hair salon!) out into the damp and chilly Denver night. I mean, what else were we to do? Rain, shmain. Kirsten, the smart one, escaped to a not-terribly-sane bed time. Poor Colleen talked to voice mail. The four of us Guilty Remnants, meanwhile, spent the next several hours trading stories about the more dented and tarnished corners of audio’s high-end, doing considerable damage to ourselves in the process.

Marc, if you’ve never met him, is a fine and affable fellow. What I find interesting (for rather many reasons), is that he’s also a long time audio journalist, both prior to and around his work with Colleen. He’s written for TONE Audio (though we won’t hold that against him) and a few other outlets; Marc’s personal soapbox, The Vinyl Anachronist, has been entertaining and informing me (and you, too, probably) for at least the past five years. Since making the jump to “the dark side”, Marc has been mostly writing about music — check it out, he’s got good taste in tunes. It was with all this in mind when I took the opportunity to see if he’d offer up a piece for us on his audio show experience — he agreed, so expect that shortly.

The day after that ill-conceived jaunt was almost wasted effort — thankfully, the show didn’t start until noon on Friday, so I did manage some time to recover enough to stumble into Marc’s demo room. Not much of a stumble, really, as the two rooms Colleen the Giving and Generous was helping to run were directly next door to my sleeping room. In a staggering act of kindness that will never be forgotten, Colleen the Magical and Marvelous brewed real coffee for me and served it in a cup the size of a bucket. All hail Colleen the Wise and Wonderful, first of her name!

As for Marc, well, I’m pretty sure she made Marc sleep in the hallway.

Anyway.

The first bit of gear I noticed in the room looked remarkably like what I found at the New York show in Shayne Tenace’s demo room — lots of Opera Audio loudspeakers! — And that was a very good thing to have my eyes fall upon.

For those of you who happen to be fans of Sonus Faber, you’d be forgiven for your confusion on walking up on a pair of the new Grand Callas 2014 ($11,995/pair). The gorgeous wood veneers, with the angled-plane cap and leather-wrapped fascia — it pretty much screams “Italian” and for me at least, in the speaker world, that pretty much means SF. Yes, I’m a bit provincial. Consider my horizons broadened.

Given their size and bulk, this level of fit-and-finish on these floor-standing loudspeakers is flat-out impressive — my initial thought was “this must cost over $20k, easy”. I love it when I’m wrong. 89dB, 4Ω and a frequency extension of 32Hz-25kHz, fill in the picture a bit. It’s a bass-reflex design, but the “wrinkle” here is the pair of rear-firing tweeters. Expect to want this gent to sit off that front wall a bit to take advantage of this feature.

The sound is classic “big-speaker” — there’s this “thing” that big speakers can do that “little” speakers just don’t. That is, they sound big. I really don’t know what’s going on — it seems more than mere bass competency and something about deep reserves of natural presence. I’m sure someone can capture this better than I as I can’t really explain it, I just note it, and “it” was there in spades. There was also detail and delicacy, which was surprising, and the mid-range textures were fully round, fully immersive.

If I hadn’t already been familiar with the Pure Audio electronics, I might have wondered if there were tubes stuffed into those sand-blasted exoskeletal creatures filling out the audio rack. Marc tells me that the Pure Audio team, Gary Morrison and Ross Stevens, graduated from Plinius back in 2005, a brand I’m rather familiar with. Listening, it makes sense — there’s a lot of “fullness” to this sound that just doesn’t seem to happen with a lot of “modern” solid state gear. Again, that’s a good thing.

Their current lineup consists of three products.

  • The Reference Class A mono block amplifiers ($15,500/pair) are good for 65 watts into 8Ω. Interestingly, the standby circuit only draws 5 watts — once the preamplifier is brought out of standby, the Class A circuit engages. Thoughtful, that.
  • The Control Preamplifier ($9,500) features a giant rotary dial … and that’s about it. Turned all the way to zero, the pre goes into standby. There’s a remote, too, but input selection is “automated” — that is, the preamp auto-selects the input with actual input. The volume control is a 32-step attenuator with non-magnetic Vishay-Dale resistors.
  • The Vinyl Phono Preamplifier ($4,500) is a half-width box. Gain is preset to 62dB (but more or less can be special-ordered), and the typical loading is available.

All three share an aesthetic that is most definitely outside the expected (to say the least), and pretty much at right-angles to the lush Italian they were paired with. The top plate is mostly just skeletal, with the electronics inside shielded by a mesh screen. In addition to allowing for better air flow and heat dissipation (these are Class A designs, so that’s more than a little important), the casework is designed to be non-resonant. Whether you love it or loathe it, “Me Too” this is most definitely not. I’ll have more to say about the electronics at some point in the future — they’re “on the bench” now and a review will be forthcoming!

In the meantime, up on the top of the rack was a Unison Research Giro turntable ($3,995). This sweet-looking wood-and-acrylic belt-drive spinner was a neat bridge between the wood-and-leather aesthetic of the loudspeakers and the all-metal construction of the electronics. Almost … too neat. It’s almost like they planned it that way. Hmm …. The Giro comes with a matching tonearm and UN1-MM cartridge, making it a complete vinyl playback package. Here, Marc had mounted a Transfiguration Axia cartridge ($2,500), with a .38mV output. Just because.

Furutech Speakerflux loudspeaker cables and Lineflux interconnects were used with Alpha PS-950-18 power cords and a f-TP615 power line conditioner.

The sound in this room was several leaps beyond “smoking jacket”, but I say that because it was completely non fatiguing. This is the kind of gear (and sound) that not only lends itself to “critical listening”, but more importantly, to “regular listening”. Again, speaking in specifics, this is the kind of sound I can have going all day. I probably would, if I owned it.

But it’s also a “share your record collection” sound, not “see what a wing nut I am” sound. Would that make it a bit counter-culture in today’s speed-freak audiophile culture? I imagine that Bentley Guy with gear like this, the middle-finger salute raised to all and sundry — this is FU sound. The owner, I imagine, just isn’t sitting around with a slide rule or furiously pounding “the Internet” with how wrong everyone is. This guy is sipping Scotch. Thumbing through records. Lots and lots of records.

If you get the chance, I highly encourage you to let Marc share his collection — do that and I guarantee you an experience worth remembering. I caught Marc several times throughout the show, and I swear he spent more time taking about his records than the gear. Which was pretty much perfect.

Some game-ending gear here. Easy contender for Best in Show.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Felicitous PranaFidelity

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Logo - Blue VectorAs is his wont, Steve Norber of PranaFidelity was once again cheerfully and seemingly effortlessly bringing great sound to the RMAF Atrium. This year, he elected to demonstrate his Fifty90 stand mount loudspeakers ($3,950). Preamplification was from the purna/ca, which is available as a single-ended line stage for $4,500, balanced for $5,950, single-ended with a phono stage for $8,500, or balanced with a phono stage for $9,950. The phono stage accommodates both moving magnet and moving coil cartiges, and has multiple loading options. Amplification was the purna/ma amplifier ($8,950). The sources were a Technics RS 1500 reel to reel with a Charles King outboard tape head preamp, a Kuzma turntable with a Denon DL103 mounted on a Kuzma 4-Point tonearm, a ModWright modified OPPO CD player, and an Exogal Comet DAC with DSD ($2,229).

Norber’s oft-stated goal is to remove barriers between the listener and the music and create an experience that feels musically right. With these goals in mind, he demonstrated how the Fifty90 loudspeakers’ tuning can be tweaked with small toggle switches on the back to suit the listener’s taste or to suit the room or even the recording. With just a flip of a switch, the treble can be brought to the forefront, the bass can be goosed, or one can opt for a more flat, neutral sound.

I had a chance to listen to this system with multiple sources and multiple tunings, and I gotta say, no matter the source or the toggle position, the Fifty90s sounded great. In combination with the Purna components, the sound was dynamic, rich, and lacking in any kind of graininess. The Fifty90s were easily the best speakers under 5k I heard over the course of the weekend. It seems like every time I listen to a PranaFidelity room at a show, I walk out thinking, “Wow, that was surprisingly good.” It’s really well past time I started giving Mr. Norber more credit, and stopped being surprised.

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RMAF 2014: Your Final System, fetishism, and a total audio satisfaction

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Logo - Blue VectorThere’s only one place to go to finish room coverage of a show like RMAF, and that’s the room presented by the (modestly named) Your Final System — a company with no sense of hubris at all.

But, in all honesty, the name has nothing to do with it. Kevin and Brad always manage to detonate some kind of bomb of sheer exuberance during a show. The room is always mellow, the system is always well matched, the music is always fun, and the trip is always a pleasure. This time, though, was just about the best I’ve heard from the guys.

This time, you see, they brought their system.

The speakers were Von Schweikert‘s Unifield II Mk3 standmounts ($12,000), and, sure, the dac was EMM Labs’ DAC2X ($15,500), and, sure, damn near the cheapest thing in the room was the Macintosh Labs MC 202 ($3500) that the guys brought to manhandle the Unifields’ woofers, but everything else in the room was a product of their own skull sweat.

The source, of course, was the familiar YFS Ref-3 computer transport, now bearing a Mk2 designation ($12,500). The YFS guys are a just a little, tiny bit howling mad when it comes to computer transports. The number of linear power supplies feeding this thing is nearly fetishistic.

New to the front-end was the YFS DT-100 Transport ($2500 alone, $2000 with the server). This is… well… this is a disc spinner. And it’s a drive for ripping. And it has even more power supply fetishism in it, with different supplies for the spinning bits and the communication bits.

Next up was their own entry-level preamp, the YFS CA-60A. It’s a pretty simple, traditional affair with three 12au7s, no remote control, and a $3,900 price tag. A motorized remote control ads another $1500.

The big deal in the room, though, were a pair of Mac MC75 monoblocks that had gone under the knife in the service of YFS’s power supply fetishism. The MC75 has always been a musical joy, a fat, old Cadillac that could take you around in style. This was not fat. This was not old. That big Mac sound — the 454 of audio — was still there, but this was the high-compression piston version of it. These were faster, stronger, and much, much quicker to respond than the run of the mill MC75. $10,000 for the pair, and easily the most fun amplification I’ve heard these guys use.

Something in the neighborhood of $15k worth of YFS’s own cables hooked everything together. This was not — NOT — a budget system. At some point, you have to wonder if it’s called “Your Final System” because you’re totally out of money after buying it. Whatever the name, and whatever the price, this was easily one of the most all-around satisfying systems on display in the Atrium.

Kevin and Brad knew it, too. Those guys are not all big on the humility thing.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: UE goes 3D

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Logo - Blue VectorOne of my contenders for “Niftiest Tech” goes to Ultimate Ears for their new 3-D scanning/printing service.

The way this works is pretty clever — you get an impression of your ear taken, as normal. That is, you go to an audiologist, they shoot your ear canals full of pink goo and you sit there until it firms up enough to remove. Then, instead of mailing them to your custom in-ear monitor maker, you have them scanned in a 3-D scanner (or, you send them in and have UE do that for you). The benefit of having this done remotely is pretty straightforward — speed. UPSP can take a few days to get them to your destination, and then there’s all the concerns about safe delivery and whatnot. Whatever. After the scan takes place, they’re modeled in with CAD-like rendering software, and “adjusted” for irregularities and smoothing out some corners. Then, they’re printed. On a 3-D printer! This is instead of the mold-then-cast (then maybe mold again, followed by another cast) before your product is then finished, filed, polished and sent on. With the 3-D printer, all of that crap — including the filing and polishing — is done at one time. The result? Perfect fit and to your door in less than 2 weeks. Which is exactly how long it took me to get a brand new set of Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors ($999) — and 4 days of that was due to UPS Ground taking their sweet time to get back to the East Coast.

The UE lineup is something relatively familiar to me — it was the same as I explored it last year at Canjam. My personal favorite of the line was and remains the UE18Pro — it’s just a marvelously musical instrument, and I love listening through them. But they’re not exactly neutral — a fact that I freely and happily acknowledge. But when it comes to reviewing a piece of electronics, I felt that another data point on my measuring stick would probably be wise.

Now, all this is not to say that my brand new UERMs are in any way less than fantastic — they are. They’re just voiced differently from the 18Pro. Not a good thing, not a bad thing, just a thing. And now, I have both to work from (and enjoy). More to come on that score.

In the meantime, take your own tour through the UE catalog. Heartily recommended.

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RMAF 2014: Rogers High Fidelity and Snake River Audio

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Logo - Blue VectorArmed with a George Warren turntable (about $4,200) with Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge ($2,300), Snake River Audio cables, and Vienna Acoustics speakers, the folks from Rogers High Fidelity were well-prepared to demonstrate just what their gear can do.

Rogers High Fidelity is the brainchild of Roger Gibboni, an experienced electrical engineer who counts RCA and GE among his former employers. His intent with Rogers is to build quality, hand-built components that can be treated as heirlooms — the kind of thing the kids will fight over later.

Rogers brought along both of their integrated amplifiers: the EHF-100 ($6,350) and the EHF-200 MK2 ($14,000). The EHF-100 features a frequency response of 65 watts per channel and a classic KT-88s/12ax7 combo in the tube complement. The EHF-200 can be toggled between ultralinear mode, which offers a frequency response of 112 watts per channel, or triode mode, which offers 80 watts per channel. Its tube complement consists of KT-150s, EF86s, and 12ax7’s. MK2 brings a preamplifier input and preamplifier output for a powered subwoofer, so that it can be used as a stand-alone power amplifier with another preamplifier of one’s choosing. MK2 also includes a remote volume control, which is always handy. These were paired with the much-lauded PA-1A Phono preamplifier ($7,400).

During my visit to the room, we listened to the EHF-200 MK2 get down and dirty with some Mississippi John Hurt. The system brought a great deal of immediacy to Last Sessions, picking out the texture of the blues singer’s voice, and offering very nice bass authority with just a touch of roundedness in the bottom end. It didn’t so much make me leap up and say, “Wow! Would you listen to that detail?” as let me lean back and say, “Aw yeah. Listen to that.” The performance was strong, comfortable, and musical.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Return of the Jumping Cactus

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Logo - Blue VectorJim Harrell’s Jumping Cactus Loudspeakers returned to RMAF this year after a long absence. The 2000’s had Jim regularly showing off his sealed, aluminum enclosures stuffed with high-efficiency drivers and matched to active crossovers. Back then, the price was creeping in on ten grand for the eponymous speakers before a person even bought some amps.

Jim’s new speakers bear the same name (Jumping Cactus Loudspeakers) but absolutely no resemblance to the previous outings. Instead of milled aluminum, there’s veneered mdf. Instead of multiple driver enclosures, there’s one box. Instead of multiple drivers, there’s a single Visaton BG20. Instead of active crossovers, there’s no crossover. Instead of an analog signal path, a Behringer DCX2496 handles the equalization needed to make the sound tolerable. Instead of ten grand, the price is $2500 — including the stands.

When I expressed my surprise about the total change in direction, Jim said “Well… I just kept squishing all those drivers closer together. Eventually, I just gave up. These are more fun.”

Jim clearly knows his fun. In a hotel full of megabuck systems milled from purest unobtanium, Jim brought what can only be described as a Real World Rig. An old Rega P3 and a sadly discontinued Shure V15Vx (with a Jico stylus, so you can skip the MR) topped the rack. A Bellari VP130, breaking the bank at $275, handled the RIAA duties. A couple of regular-guy disc spinners filled the gaps around the Behringer box if someone wanted to hear digital. And, of course, a well-loved Moscode 300 loaded down the bottom shelf.

Really, Jim? Moscode?

“The speakers do prefer solid state, but I just like tubes. This is the way I compromise,” says the man.

That may be, but “compromise” is a completely misleading word to use for the sound here. A not-terribly-exotic pressing of the ubiquitous Time Out was spinning, and while the system may not have had that last touch of sparkle, or that overpowering resolve of some of the more exotic systems, it more than made up for it with straight ahead wholeness and a surprising absence of any boxiness. There was a little of that Behringer glare, but the sound was generally just slightly warm, and so, so inviting.

This room was filled with pedestrian parts, the DIY spirit, and a solid sense of fun. I felt right at home here. If anyone wants to talk about “giant killer” systems, you might want to start by talking to Jim Harrell.

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RMAF 2014: GamuT Audio and Pear Audio Analogue Run the … No, That’s Too Easy

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Logo - Blue VectorDanish company GamuT Audio brought a little bit of Denmark with them to the show, with their blue-skied backdrop and a live recording of the Danish blues act Shades of Blue. 2014’s been a good year for GamuT; early in the year, the former subsidiary of Kvist Industries became an independent company, and they’re celebrating with an absolute explosion of new products.

The most visually arresting is the RS Superior line of speakers. Like the original S-Series, the inner structure of these speakers is still based on Finnish birch engineered wood. Now, however, the outer skin consists of five thin layers of ash wood. The internal networks, damping, and drivers have also been revamped and upgraded. I was more than a little in love with the RS5’s ($32,000) clean visual appeal, particularly the combination of blonde birch and the metal grills.

So new that it’s not yet named was GamuT’s DAC. This was still in the prototype stage, but production is planned for December, and it will likely retail in the realm of $12,000. Also demoing for the first time ever were the Signature power cords ($2,500/each) and prototype leather-covered Reference speaker cables (likely retailing around $14k).

Preamplification came from the less-brand-new, but no less exciting, D3i Dual Mono preamplifier ($8,000). This solid state preamp features a dual Mos-fet hybrid in- and output buffer and a separate power supply for each channel. It makes a good visual match with the M250i mono power amps ($13,000 each). The rest of the power cords were also from GamuT. Pear Audio Analogue provided the analog source, their gorgeous Kid Howard turntable from the new Pear Blue line ($2,850).

While I was visiting this room, I mainly listened to a digital recording from Shades of Blue. This was a live recording, and it definitely sounded it! The noises from the crowd during the performance were particularly well-expressed, the sound stage well-defined and the band alive. At one point, I thought that there was some kind of hum going on in the system, a ground loop or somesuch — only to realize that what I was hearing was actually a hum from the PA system in the recording. I thought the impact, clarity, and decay on the snare drum and cymbals was particularly impressive.

Independence seems to be treating GamuT well.

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RMAF 2014

RMAF 2014: Audiohouse rings bell with Joseph Audio

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Logo - Blue VectorI found David McPhee of Denver’s Audiohouse in two different rooms, each featuring speakers from Joseph Audio.

I love Joseph Audio. I’m pretty sure I’m on record about that. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

The first room paired the $13k Perspective with electronics from VTL. The TL-5.5 Series II Signature Preamplifier ($10,500) includes a phono stage and some serious improvements over the outgoing platform:

Much of the engineering prowess inherent in these world-class preamps has been transferred to the new TL5.5. New fully regulated power supplies are similar to those of its bigger siblings and the unit is now fully balanced, for inputs as well as outputs. Similarly, VTL’s latest thinking from our new and acclaimed TP-6.5 Signature phono stage is now applied to the optional MC phono stage, which can be easily retrofitted internally. It offers 68dB of gain and a balanced output, with a JFET/12AU7 high current MC stage (or high-grade stepup transformer), split-pole passive RIAA stage with a dual 12AX7 MM stage for maximum headroom voltage swing. Triple-precision power supply regulation and full gain and load setting with RIAA enhanced and rumble cut functions translate to a clean and quiet yet dynamic sound that brings vinyl to life!

This was matched to the S-200 Signature Stereo Amplifier ($12,500) features eight KT-88 tubes and is good for a very healthy 200wpc. This amp is derived from the highly pedigreed MB-450 and MB-185 Series III Signature mono blocks, and here, we found it clad in a lovely black chassis.

Hefty ropes of bright blue Cardas Clear cables were used throughout.

While Bel Canto electronics handled the digital conversion, while I was in the room, all playback came from the Grand Prix Audio Monaco Turntable ($23,500), mounted with a Tri-Planar Ultimate 12 tonearm, with a carbon fiber wand and pure silver wiring ($9,800), in turn mounted with the flagship Anna cartridge from Ortofon ($8,924).

The sound in this room was incredible.

Rich, layered, with oodles of detail and delivered with tone and slam, I was in heaven. Sign me up. Take it away. Gimme. Gimme!

Of all the bits in here, I was most surprised by the VTL I have had very limited exposure to their mid-line stuff as Luke Manley tends to only show his top-shelf stuff — and that, he tends to only show with Wilson. Seeing it here was not only a pleasure, the sound quality was something of a shock. I might need to give them a call at some point [cough].

The next room was complete different, and yet, not. Parasound electronics paired with one of my all-time favorite stand-mount loudspeakers, the Joseph Audio Pulsar ($7,700/pair — Sound Anchor stands were another $750/pair).

The Parasound JC2bp preamplifier ($4,795) was paired with the A21 stereo amplifier ($2,495). Analog again ran the tunes, this time into a Parasound JC 3+ phono ($2,995). The source in question was an SME 10 turntable with an SME Model 10 300 Series tonearm ($8,100 for the combo) and mounted with an MC Windfeld cartridge from Ortofon.

Kimber cables were used throughout.

Taken by itself, this room was dynamite. The little Pulsars certainly didn’t sound little, and the electronics drove the living snot out of them. Fed by the analog system, the tunes straddled a line between tone and speed, and the result was balanced and immersive.

Taken together, the bigger room with the VTL electronics was fuller, more rounded and generally my cuppa tea. Of course, the total system price was three times what the “littler” system cost, but to my ears, the difference was obvious and big — but I do wonder if that’s my bias leaking through.

Doesn’t matter. What was clear was that Audiohouse was rockin’ RMAF and was very clearly showing off their flexibility in catering to varied listeners. Kudos to them — this was a great visit.

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