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RMAF 2009 - Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009 Report / Coverage
RMAF 2009 Show Coverage
Article By Tom Lathrop

  The big Gamuts - Gamut showed a system with their El Superiores 9 speakers in a fairly large hotel meeting room, driven by Gamut electronics. These speakers are quite large, and cost $140k/pr. They were very transparent with great definition. At times they sounded a bit boomy but I think that was probably the room.

YG Acoustics Anat Reference II - The ads for these speakers say "the best speakers on earth". And they might be right! They're really fast, with lots of detail. They have deep, tight bass. Vocals have wonderful immediacy and presence. They have remarkably little box coloration.

Hansen Emperor - These sound terrific, driven by Accuphase electronics. Are they as good as the YGs? That's hard to tell. Different music, different room. Hansen Prince - These are smaller than the Emperors. They sounded good, but a bit boomy. That could be the room, though. They were in a the same room as the Emperors, but it was a large room, and the Princes were in a different part of the room, backed to a different wall.

Focal Grand Utopia EM - Hmmm, maybe these are the best speakers in the world! They're fast, have lots of punch when needed, and they're very transparent. They were being driven by very high end MBL electronics. I later heard a Focal rep say that he thought that they sounded better than they did last year, because they had them dialed in to the room better. (These speakers have lots of adjustments.) I heard them last year, and I agree that they sounded better this year.

Legacy - I heard a large pair, not sure of the model. They weren't bad, but I had just come from the Grand Utopias, and the Legacys definitely aren't up to that standard.

Vivid - This was the 3rd year that I've heard Vivid speakers at RMAF. These were bigger and stranger looking than the others that I've heard. They looked like aliens from a bad sci-fi movie from the 1950s. They sounded very immediate and open. They disappear well for fairly large speakers. But when I heard them they sounded a bit colored. These were used with the Synergistic Research ART system. I heard a demo of this system with and without the ART system. I have to admit that I was skeptical about that system. It seems like something that couldn't possibly work, "snake oil", as the objectivists would say. But it made a huge improvement in the bass. It was hard to believe that removing a couple of small metal balls and metal cups from the listening area could turn the bass from tight and controlled to boomy.

Horning Eufrodite - These were used with Tron electronics. They sounded really good at a price that wasn't astronomical. The speakers are quite transparent and clean.

Raal speakers - These speakers from Serbia look like articulated lamps. They have an interesting design, with a ribbon tweeter mounted between two metal cylinders that hold the midrange drivers. I didn't listen very long. I thought they sounded colored. A friend of mine who has been to a number of audio shows was quite intrigued with these,  and spend a good deal of time listening to them. He was impressed with their spatial presentation. He may buy a pair when they become available.

McAlister Audio was showing Class A single ended power amps with multiple output tubes per channel.

Podium speakers - fairly large panels that look like electrostats. They have four small dynamic drivers. Imported by Laufer Teknik.

Von Schweikert Unifield Three - $15k/pr. I think that I heard these last year and liked them. I liked them again this year.

Katana speakers by Gemme Audio.$12k/pair. These sounded really nice. They were driven by Veloce electronics in the first room where I heard  them, although I later heard them in at least one other room, and they sounded good there as well. Veloce makes some interesting equipment. They make a battery operated tube preamp. The power amps are Class D with a tube input stage. They are also battery operated. They use lead-acid batteries. The electronics can run for 60 to 70 hours on a charge, and re-charge in 15 minutes. Because of this, the owner doesn't have to worry about the batteries. You just use your equipment as you would any other tube equipment, and turn it off when you're not using it. The batteries will re-charge. You have to replace the batteries every few years, but they're relatively cheap and widely available.

Jones Audio - They were showing a preamp and solid state monoblocks. The system sounded really good, with the electronics helping a mid-range pair of B&Ws to sound much better than they usually do.

I visited two rooms with the new Emerald Physics speakers. I think that they were different models. Both rooms sounded really good. These speakers are notable for their lack of box resonances, which shouldn't be surprising, since they're an open baffle design.

Green Mountain - They were OK, but I wasn't blown away. The ones that I heard were the EOS HDs, a two-way stand mount speaker that cost $5500/pr. I think that they have a very low WAF. And from what I heard, they don't sound nearly as good as my Usher Be-718s.

Volent speakers. A two-way stand mount with ribbon tweeters, a bit bigger than my Ushers. These have great sound, quick and detailed.

Joseph Audio - They had a pair of rooms. In the first one that I visited, they  were showing the new Pulsars, a smallish two-way with some of the prettiest wood I've ever seen on a speaker cabinet. They sounded very musical, not at all hi-fi. I could live with these easily, but they're $7k. If I had $7k to spend on speakers, I'm not sure that I'd pick these over a pair of Harbeth Super HL-5s or Reference 3A Episodes, for instance. But for a small listening room, these might be ideal.

In the other Joseph Audio room, they were showing the new Pearl 2 speakers. They are floor standers that look somewhat like Wilson WATT/Puppies. They sounded really good, driven by Bel Canto electronics. They cost $28.5k, though. As with the Pulsars, I'm not sure that I'd buy these if I were spending that much money.

NAIM - They were showing their new Ovator speakers, driven by their electronics. The speakers cost $10.5k/pr, and have an interesting midrange/tweeter design called a balanced mode radiator driver. There was a quality about the sound in this room that's rare at RMAF. It was exceptionally musical, not at all hi-fi. I wish I'd had the time to spend a couple of hours in this room just listening to some nice
music.

PMC - This British company had two rooms. In the first room that I visited, they had a pair of quite large speakers. They were quite tall and about 18" wide, and cost $48k. I didn't spend much time listening to them. I think that they were too big for the room. In the room next door, PMC was showing a pair of small floorstanders for $11k. I didn't hear anything to convince me that they were worth that much money, but my friend heard them later and liked them. They also were showing a pair of mini-monitors, about the size of my Spendor S3/5s. Amazingly, these use a transmission line, like all PMC speakers. It's quite a trick to squeeze a transmission line into a box that small. These sounded quite nice. They had more of a sense of ease than my Spendors do. They cost $2k.

Reference 3A was showing their Episode, which fits in their line between the Veena and the Grand Veena. They cost $5500/pr. They sounded very relaxed, easy to listen to, but with quite a bit of detail. They are exceptionally coherent.

Bel Canto was showing their new DAC3.1, an improved version of the DAC3 with what they call a virtual battery power supply. From what I read in their literature, this is an AC-powered switch mode power supply that's designed to be exceptionally quiet and well isolated from power line noise.

Fritz Speakers, Korato electronics. This room sounded really nice. There was good depth to the sound. Korato makes tube electronics in Serbia .

The Lotus Group was introducing their Granada speaker. This is a fairly large open baffle design. It uses a 5-inch Feastrex field coil driver. This is normally a full-range driver, but in this design it is augmented by two woofers. The speaker is bi-amplified with an active crossover. This system sounded very good, with a very open sound.

KingSound was showing their King full range electrostats. As one might expect from ESLs, these sounded very transparent and detailed. They retail for $8000 per pair.

Gallo was showing their new Strada stand-mounted speaker. The Strada seems to be essentially the mid-range and tweeter units from Gallo’s successful Reference 3 floor standing speaker, packaged as a stand mounted speaker. They sound very open, but to my ears they sounded somewhat “hi-fi” with the music that was playing when I was in the room. They were being used with a sub-woofer, and the combination had quite good bass.

Silverline introduced their Bolero Supreme speakers, which sell for $12,000 per pair. This marks a move upscale for Silverline, which has a line of well-regarded speakers selling for much lower prices. The Bolero Supremes sounded very promising, although at that price there is some strong competition.

Janszen showed their Model One electrostatic hybrid speaker. This is a 3-way design, with electrostatic tweeters and midrange units, and a pair of 8-inch dynamic woofers per speaker. They cost $27,000 per pair. I wasn’t blown away by these, but they may not have been working well in the room.

LM HiFi was showing their System II, which is an active speaker system with power amps matched to the speakers. The speakers are small two-way design mounted on top of larger sub-woofer units. This system sounded very good, with a lively sound. Cymbals were particularly well reproduced. The system also had good depth. This system is currently in pre-production. The cost is expected to be $16,000 for the speakers and matching amplifiers.

Ayre was showing a prototype of their new DX-5 universal player with support for Blu-ray discs, and with USB audio input.

Induction Dynamics was showing their ID-115 speakers These are large floor-standers which cost $16,000 per pair.. I liked these quite a bit. They have a very relaxed sound with a natural midrange, and are easy to listen to.

Wilson had their new Sasha speakers on display, driven by an Ayre preamp and Ayre monoblocks with Transparent cables. The Sashas replace the venerable WATT/Puppy in the Wilson line. I was very impressed with this system. It sounded exceptionally coherent and clean.

In another room a prototype pair of Snell Protégé speakers was being driven by a Marantz SACD player, preamp, and power amp. This system sounded quite good, but perhaps a bit too “hi-fi”.

Benchmark had their ADC1 USB, a stereo 24-bit/192kHz analog to digital converter with XLR, coax, optical, and USB outputs.

Genesis was showing their Genesis 7.1 floor standing speaker, a new model in their entry level 7 series. This is a three-way system with a ring-ribbon tweeter and a servo-controlled bass driver in a sealed box. These speakers sounded quite good when I was in the room, but they were playing acoustic guitar music, so it was difficult to evaluate how their performance would be on music with more dynamic range and low frequencies.

Soundsmith was introducing their SG-200 strain gauge phono system, which they claim offers the same audio circuitry and sonics as their higher-priced SG-400 system. They were also showing the Sussurro phono cartridge, a new top of the line moving iron design. In addition, they had a new MCP-2 phono preamp.

Usher had their new Dancer mini two, a small floor-stander with drivers that look similar to those in the Tiny Dancers. However, the tweeter in the mini two is a metallic-ceramic dome rather than the beryllium dome used in the Tiny Dancers. The mini twos have dual 7-inch woofers. There’s also a mini one with a single woofer. The mini twos sounded fairly similar to the Tiny Dancers, but with a larger presentation and more bass.

One interesting piece of equipment that I noticed in several rooms was a Korg MR1000 portable DSD recorder. This little unit sells for about $1200. It looks like just the thing to convert your LPs to digital with minimal sound degradation.

A new addition to RMAF this year was Harman International’s High Performance AV truck. This was parked in the parking lot of the hotel, with its own power generator. Inside there were two rooms. One room had the Revel Ultima Salon2 speakers driven by Mark Levinson electronics. Unfortunately, the room had very limited seating, so it was difficult to evaluate the system. The other room had a pair of JBL K2 horn speakers. This system wasn’t playing, since the two rooms were not isolated from each other.

I was able to hear JBL horns in another room, the Kimber Kable surround sound demo room. This year they were using a very large pair of JBL speakers in the front, with dual 15-inch cone woofers and horn loaded midrange and tweeter. These were the Project Everest DD66000, which cost about $60,000 a pair. The rear speakers were the smaller K2s. This system sounded terrific, very natural, with no evidence of the colorations that are sometimes associated with horn drivers. These are true high-end horns.

Another fine sounding but very expensive pair of speakers with horn drivers was in the Acapella room. In previous years Acapella has shown huge horn speakers that cost well into 6 figures per pair. This year they showcased the High Violon MKIV, which sell for $68,200. They’re a thee-way design with an 11-inch cone woofer, a horn midrange, and an ion tweeter. They were being driven by an Einstein tube preamp and dual tube monoblocks. The sound had a distinct family resemblance to the larger models, quite transparent and uncolored, with great dynamics.

In past years Analysis Audio has shown their large planar ribbon speakers. This year, perhaps because of the economy, they were showing their smaller Omega model.  It’s still a fairly large speaker, and it’s not exactly an entry level model, with a list price of $22,000. I liked the sound of the larger models when I heard them, and the Omegas sounded quite nice as well. They were being driven by a Sonus Veritas Genoa preamp and two Arion Audio MK 1000 monoblock power amps, with JPS cables. The source was a PS Audio Perfect Wave transport with the matching DAC, a combination that was in several other rooms at the show.

Harbeth had their new P3ESR mini-monitors on display ($2195/pair). This is the first model in the P3 series with a RADIAL2 midrange/woofer. They sounded very musical, as one would expect from Harbeth, and more transparent than other monitors that size. Also on display were the Super HL5s, an oldie but a goodie. It seems like the English have a knack for making great speakers. The Harbeths were driven by Perreaux electronics, from New Zealand . Fidelis AV, the Harbeth distributor, is re-introducing Perreaux to the US market. They were showing a prototype of a new transport in their high end éloquence series, as well as the 150i and 250i integrated amplifiers in the same series. I can attest to the quality of Perreaux electronics, as I own one of their headphone amps.

Thiel was showing their CS 3.7 speakers, driven by a pair of McIntosh MC2301 300 watt tube monoblocks. I heard these speakers two years ago at RMAF, and was very impressed. They sounded very natural and coherent. But when I was in the room this year the system sounded rather “hi-fi”. I’m quite sure that the problem wasn’t’ with the speakers, and it doubt that it was an amplifier problem. It could have been in the musical material that was being played, in component matching, in the room setup, or with any number of other things. That shows the perils of trying to evaluate equipment at a show. Even very good equipment doesn’t always sound good at a show, and there usually isn’t time to return and see whether the situation has improved.

Another example of this occurred in the Pioneer TAD room. In previous years TAD has had a large room upstairs in the hotel. But this year they were on the main floor, in a large room with a high ceiling. They were showing the TAD Reference One speakers, driven by Bel Canto electronics. I heard those speakers two years ago, and loved their relaxed, musical sound. But this year the sound was not as good, probably because of the room.

Acoustic Zen was showing their Crescendo speakers ($14,000/pair), driven by electronics from Triode Corporation of Japan (Tri). The amplifiers were TRV-M88PP monoblocks ($13,900, per pair I believe). These put out 200 watts in an ultra linear configuration and 125 watts when used in triode operation. This system sounded very good. Triode Corporation of Japan makes a fairly extensive line of tube amplifiers, preamps, and a CD player. This equipment looked exceptionally nice, and is fairly modestly priced. TRI has China do the highly labor intensive parts to make such things as the chassis, faceplate, knobs, footers, back plate, transformer covers and wood sidings. The transformer and the hardwiring and final assay are done in Saitama, Japan. Major components inside are A-1 are made in Japan too.

Dynaudio had their new Consequence Ultimate Edition, a fairly large five-way floor standing speaker. It uses an inverted driver arrangement, with the woofer on the top and the tweeter on the bottom. They were being driven by Octave Audio electronics. Octave Audio is a German manufacturer of high end tube electronics. Octave Audio is now being imported into the USA and Canada by Dynaudio North America.

Merlin was showing their VSM-MXe speakers driven by Joule-Electra VZN-100 OTL tube monoblocks. The preamp was a Joule-Electra LA-300 Electra Memorial Edition, and the source was an Audio Aero Prestige CD player. Cables were by Cardas. It seems like the Merlin room always has good sound, and this year was no exception.

A fun room was the J-corder room. This room was full of high quality tape decks. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen so many tape decks in one room before. J-corder specializes in upgrades and restoration for vintage tape decks.

Acoustic Technologies was showing their Classic Series single driver loudspeaker, which uses a single 3” driver in a slim tower enclosure. These speakers do a great job of creating a sound field that includes the whole room, without a “sweet spot”. One of the people manning the booth did an interesting demo in which he turned one of the speakers to face the side wall. The sound changed very little. The introductory price on these speakers is $2450 per pair.

Sanders had their Model 10B hybrid electrostat, with a 10-inch dynamic woofer. ($12,995/pair) These were driven by a Sanders power amp, a solid state unit which is optimized for driving electrostats. I heard this system last year, and liked it very much, so I didn’t spend much time in this room. The speakers are very transparent with lots of detail, but they have a narrow sweet spot. Roger Sanders sets up his room with a single row of chairs, one behind another, aligned on the axis between the speakers, so that no one is listening off axis. This year Sanders introduced a smaller model, the Model 11, with a retail price of $9,995/pair.

In a different room from the top-of-the-line Focal Grand Utopia Ems were two pairs of more affordable Focal speakers. I heard the Electra 1038 Be, which is a 3-way floor stander with three 7-inch woofers, a 6.5-inch midrange driver, and a 1.25-inch beryllium inverted dome tweeter. These were driven by the Pathos T.T. integrated amplifier, a hybrid tube/solid state design. The source was a Pathos Endorphin CD player. This system sounded very good. The sound of the Electra 1038 Be’s bore a definite family resemblance to that of the Grand Utopias. Also on display was a pair of Focal Chorus 826V speakers. These are smaller than the Electra 1038 Be’s, but are also a three-way floor stander. I did not hear these. Pathos had various models of their electronic components and a CD player on silent display in this room. Their equipment always looks great.

Esoteric was showcasing their full line of disc players, electronics, and speakers. They had both their MG-10 stand mounted speakers and their MG-20 floor standers on display. Their C-03 line stage preamp was driving their new A-03 class A power amp. Source equipment included the G-03X master clock, X-05 CD/SACD player and the new E-03 phono stage. The SA-50 combines a 32-bit DAC, a digital preamp with four sources, a re-clocker, and a CD/SACD player. Even the cables in this system were made by Esoteric. There were also some small format TEAC electronics on display in this room.

ModWright was using their LS 36.5 tube linestage and their solid-state KWA 150 power amp to drive a pair of Daedalus Audio DA-RMa monitors. They were also showing their new KWA 100 power amp, which will be available in December for $3295. This room had very fine sound.

Sonist was showing their new all wood Concerto 3, a small two-way floor stander with a ribbon tweeter. ($4195/pr) These were driven by a five watt/channel Glo-Amp One, an SET design using EL84s. ($648). This system sounded quite good, especially considering the relatively modest cost of the equipment.

This year’s show will be memorable for a series of events on Saturday afternoon. First there was a power failure. Nothing shuts down a hi-fi show faster than a power failure. After 10 minutes or so the power came back on. Then perhaps 15 or 20 minutes later the power went out again. This time, about a minute later, the fire alarm went off. Most people evacuated the building, or at least made their way to the lobby. The fire fighters came and checked things out. They fairly quickly determined that there wasn’t a fire. Apparently when the power went off, the kitchen fans stopped and smoke from cooking set off the smoke detectors. Someone said that before the first power failure, the line voltage in the hotel was 103. That sounds like a good argument for regenerative power conditioning, at least for audio shows.

I attended an interesting presentation in the Nordost room by Roy Gregory, who is now marketing director of Nordost and Steve Elford of the British cable company Vertex AQ.  They weren’t selling anything, but were reporting on work that they’ve been doing for the past year, trying to come up with a way to measure the effects that cables, power conditioners, and vibration isolation can make in an audio system. They’ve been working with Acuity, the audio division of the British defense contractor Avansys. Acuity has done extensive research involving measurement of radar and sonar signals. Acuity has been working with Nordost and Vertex AQ in an effort to come up with better measurements for audio equipment. They started by recording the output of a high quality CD player which was playing a music CD, and comparing that to the original analog music signal. This resulted in a difference signal, which is the distortion introduced by the system. Then they replaced the stock power cords with high quality audiophile cords, added a power conditioner, and a vibration isolation platform. They repeated the tests with each step. The difference signal was reduced with each change, and was the smallest when all three upgrades were in place. These differences only show up on musical signals, not on steady-state signals, which is why no one has been successful in measuring these effects before. This is very much a work in progress, but it seems to be the first objective evidence that power cables, power conditioning, and vibration isolation can make a measurable difference in audio equipment. Hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of the causes of these differences, and better ways to measure those differences.

A new feature at this year’s RMAF was CANJAM. This was a large room with manufacturers of headphones and headphone amplifiers, held in conjunction with the headphone web site head-fi.com. I listen to headphones at work, so I spent some time here. Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser were showing an assortment of their headphones. I tried the new top of the line Sennheiser HD 800s ($1400), which sounded very nice, similar to my HD 600s but better. Headroom had their line of headphone amps and DACs, as well as a collection of headphones by different manufacturers. I was particularly impressed with the Audio Technica ATH-ESW9A, a closed back design with wood earpieces. Headroom sells them for $295. Ray Samuels was also showing his line of headphone amps and DACs, both portable and desktop. He had several pairs of headphones on demonstration, including the very rare wood bodied Sony MDR-R10, which sells for $2500, if you can find a pair for sale. I listened to these briefly. They may be the best headphones I’ve heard, although I can’t claim to have heard all of the high end headphones. They also seemed quite comfortable. Woo Audio had their line of tube headphone amps on display. These range in price from $470 to $4990. CEntrance was showing prototypes of a nifty little DAC/amp called the DACport. It combines a 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC with a headphone amp in a small package that’s powered from the USB connection. Pricing has not yet been established. JHAudio was demonstrating their custom in-ear monitors, which range in price from $399 to $1099. You get an ear mold made by an audiologist, then JHAudio will make the IEMs from those molds. They sell a lot of these to professional musicians, who use them on stage. There were a few other vendors at CANJAM, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit them all. There were also some Head-fi members who were showing their personal systems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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