This year's show was a kind of coming-out party for yours truly -- my first big audio show in four years, and my first-ever RMAF. Having recently emerged from an extended period of health issues, and feeling better these days than in many years, I wanted to re-establish contact with many old friends in the industry/hobby, and see what products are emerging in this period of economic malaise. It was heartening to find a surprisingly upbeat atmosphere, with many exhibitors and, apparently, a good number of curious audiophiles in attendance.
This narrative will make no attempt at comprehensive show reporting. Our esteemed editor Steven R. Rochlin and colleagues Scott Faller and Ron Nagle, all experienced RMAF hands, are much better equipped to provide that coverage than a legally blind RMAF rookie laboriously trying to figure out where everything is at the venue. Instead, I will focus on a handful of rooms where everything coalesced to deliver a compelling listening experience. The number of rooms discussed here is small, not because there weren't many exhibitors showing very interesting products -- they were in abundance -- but because a really fine show listening experience depends on many things: the equipment itself of course, but also the setup, the presentation, absence of background chatter, the music chosen (and willingness to play the music requested by the listener), and the listener's ability to focus and shut out the ambient distractions related to all of the above.
I didn't make it to all of the rooms at the show, or even to all the rooms I had planned to visit, so by no means do I consider my favorites the only winners. I'm sure there were many fine-sounding presentations that I just missed. And, as always happens at these shows, there were many rooms with great potential that just hadn't come together, at least by the time I was there. It still surprises me that, given the costs of doing a show and the opportunity to showcase products for a perfectly targeted and motivated audience, many companies continue to show up with new, unseasoned units that cannot possibly convey the full sonic potential of the products. Those folks know who they are, and they don't need me to pile on.
Before proceeding to the room-by-room descriptions, let me make one general observation. In case there was any doubt about the convergence of high-end audio and computer technology, this show should help lay it to rest. I'd say well over half the rooms I visited were using hard drive music sources, either computers or computer-based music servers. It also
seemed that there were many fewer turntables in evidence than I recall from a few years back. Oh well....
Big and Bold
As regular readers may already know, I'm not by nature a low power/minimonitor/nearfield-type listener. I can appreciate those kinds of systems, but I generally prefer powerful, highly dynamic systems that can not only give proper weight to the symphonic and operatic repertory I love, but also scale down to reproduce convincingly more delicate and intimate music, be it classical, jazz, folk or whatever. So here are a few such systems that definitely floated my boat at the RMAF. (NOTE: As I began this narrative, my once-trusty note-taking cassette recorder self-destructed and ate the tape detailing the specific equipment in each room. All details from here on are based strictly on my less-than-stellar memory. I apologize in advance for the resulting omissions or misattributions.)
The large listening room in the Pioneer/WBT suite held a pair of the $60,000 TAD (Pioneer Professional) loudspeakers. I had heard about these big floorstanders before, but this was my first opportunity to hear them. Wow! extraordinary resolution with Incredible extension high and low; virtually flawless tonality; dramatically wide and deep soundstage with rock-solid image stability; very fast and clean leading-edge transients. Even in a big hotel ballroom, some of the best sound I've heard. Don't recall the name of the music server, but I believe Bel Canto electronics were involved. Part of the demo was to switch between speaker cables using different levels of WBT connectors. The differences there were instantly audible and not terribly subtle.
Since acquiring my Analysis Anphitryon planar/ribbon speakers I have been liberated from speaker envy, a pernicious symptom of
Audiophillia Nervosa. I have listened to many big-ticket loudspeakers that I would not even consider swapping my speakers for. But I have to say that those TADs fueled a brief exchange fantasy -- though since the TADs cost twice as much as my guys, the fantasy was brief. Wonderful sound, though.
Speaking of Analysis, it probably won't surprise anyone that the Analysis room was one of my best of show picks. Importer Mike Kalellis had set up the
$22,000 Omegas, and anyone who mistakenly believes that these boxless beauties can't produce really deep bass need only listen briefly to realize the fallacy of that notion. In fact, on the first day the bass was a bit too prominent, but some fine tuning had the speakers singing in much better balance on Saturday and Sunday.
Mike was also introducing new 500-watt class D monoblocks under his new Arion brand. The show booklet mentions plans for tube/class D hybrid amplifiers, but these amps were straight class D designs. Mike told me that the amps had not been completed in time for full burn-in before the show, and they sounded a bit cold the first day. But they too were getting much more impressive late Saturday and on Sunday. I'll be taking a much longer look at them in an upcoming review, but based on what I've heard so far, and the very attractive MSRP of $3995 for a pair, I expect them to be a strong contender in today's increasingly value-oriented market. There was also a good-sounding prototype line stage, and the PS Audio Perfectwave DAC & transport, one of the most impressive of the new-generation digital front ends I have seen.
Another big ballroom contained the $68,000 Acapella High Violon Mk IV speakers, driven by Einstein tube electronics, with Stage III and
Acapella cables, Isoclean power conditioning and numerous isolation/footer products from the Aaudio Imports catalog. Brian Ackerman sent me the full listing, which adds up to well north of
$200,000 for all the equipment in the room. A bit rich for my blood, but an impressive sound. I think those very high-resolution speakers -- indeed, in my experience, all born speakers -- work best in a large space where the listener has sufficient distance from the speakers. In a smaller space they might be a bit aggressive, but at 15 feet away they sounded great. If you have the money and the space, this gear is definitely worth a careful look.
The last mega room I'll discuss here featured Luxman electronics, big floorstanding Vivid speakers, and cables and room treatment by Synergistic Research. I was especially interested in Synergistic's Acoustic ART room treatment, which employs a set of Tibetan prayer bowls arrayed so as to 'tune' the system resonances, as well as the Synergistic Tesla cable systems with low-voltage-charged dialectics. Synergistic's Ted Denney had an effective demo in which the Acoustic ART system could be quickly removed and reactivated for comparative purposes, and the Tesla cables could be powered off
and on. Skeptical though one might be -- especially about whether a few small metal bowls could have much of an effect on a big system in a big room -- there was clearly a worthwhile improvement with the bowls in place, and the Tesla test had similar results, with a more expansively musical sound when the cables were powered. But even in plain form, this room had a big, complex and enjoyable
I spent probably more time than I should have in the room featuring the new Wilson Sascha speakers, Ayre electronics and Transparent cables. The Saschas are a replacement for the venerable eight-generation Watt/Puppy series. They exhibited the superb build quality and refined finish characteristic of that company. A soon-to-be-released Ayre
multi-format disc player with a USB input looks very interesting as well. The room was well set up, and to my ear the Saschas sounded like an improvement over their predecessors (though it has been a few years since I heard those). For me, though, the big draw of this room was Wilson's Peter McGrath, who always has interesting music that he has recorded. Especially exciting this time was his recording of a recent recital by the wonderful pianist Valentina Lisitsa that included a stunning
Hammerklavier Sonata, captured by new prototype condenser microphones designed by 87-year-old Joe Grado. It's too bad that this marvelous recital is not slated for commercial release; hearing it was a major highlight of the show for me.
There was plenty of good sound in some of the smaller rooms as well. One of the most musically refined speakers I have heard were the Kaisers from Germany
($55,000), driven by Absolare tube electronics developed in Turkey, linked by very interesting Echole cables. This system delivered music with a wonderful degree of emotional involvement--which took another leap forward when everything was plugged into the Bybee Wire Power Purifier I recently reviewed in Superior Audio. I wound up spending a good hour there, and couldn't resist returning for a second helping the next day. The speakers not only sounded marvelous, but also had as beautiful cabinetry as I have seen.
Another fascinating loudspeaker was the Audio Manufacture SLS from Swiss manufacturer
Boenicke Audio. These unusual designs are roughly 6 feet tall, over a foot deep and 4 inches wide, with side-firing woofers loaded to a transmission line carved out of the gorgeously stained walnut cabinet . It's been a while since I heard the old phrase "wife acceptance factor" bandied about, but I'm sure that good sound + visual appeal is still important in many buying decisions -- and the SLS looking like slender modern sculptures, get a great WAF score. They presented vocals and string sounds as beautifully as anything I heard at the show, and threw a beautiful soundstage with pinpoint imaging. Stay tuned --
Sven Boenicke is building me a review pair, so look for my review early in 2010.
During that session, the SLS speakers were driven by a new prototype amplifier co-developed by John Curl, Michael Vice and Jack Bybee. Production plans are not finalized, but I will be very interested in hearing the production version, as the prototype sounded superb.
The Usher/JPS Labs room featured the $4800 Mini Dancer 2, with Usher electronics and the JPS Aluminata cables I favor in my system. The compact floorstanding speakers, made in Taiwan, have beautiful cabinet work, an attractively shaped enclosure, and a beryllium dome tweeter that is one of the most natural-sounding metal domes I have encountered. The room also had exceptional hi-rez music files. Renée Fleming singing Bellini reduced me to a happy puddle! It seems to me that Usher is filling a gap left by the demise of Meadowlark Audio a few years ago -- high-value, beautifully finished and very musical speakers at real-world prices.
Denver retailer blu note audio's very well prepared room featured VTL electronics -- the latest Signature TL 5.5 Series II preamp and Signature MB-450 Series II monoblocks -- and the modestly sized but lovely sounding Avalon Indra speakers, with Cardas cables... and a turntable playing some fine jazz LPs. VTL's Luke Manley and Beatrice Lam were on hand, so the excellent sound in the room was no surprise; over the years they have always had musically satisfying exhibits. I wished I had had more time to spend there.
One of the things I most look forward to when attending a show is discovering something new that is both musically compelling and relatively affordable. For this show, that find was the Sonist Concerto 3, a nice-looking 95dB/W/m
sensitive three-way floorstander being driven by a 5-watt push-pull Glow tube amp. At under $4k/pair, these speakers easily filled the room, projecting a relaxed musicality that promised long listening sessions without fatigue. I heard speakers at double the price and more that didn't equal the ease and balance of the Sonists. The strong value theme included good-looking and good-sounding wire from Cable Research Lab. I was told that the two pairs of interconnects and the speaker cables I was listening to could be purchased for a bundled $895! SET lovers especially should check out this stuff!
I don't listen much to headphones at home, as I am lucky enough to be able to play music as loudly as I wish even late at night. But I still like to see where headphone listening is going, so I cruised through the CANJAM room, where I came upon my Chicago-area neighbor Ray Samuels. I listened for a while to Ray's gorgeous new A-10 Thunderbolt II tube electrostatic headphone amp ($6500) driving some marvelous-sounding Chinese electrostatics by Jade ($1800). Every time I listen to headphones through Ray's gear, I realize it would not take much to push me into more headphone time. The sound through this combination was dazzlingly clear and communicative. Ray also showed me the elegant little board for his soon-to-be-released new phono stage, which will carry an MSRP @ $600, and promised a review sample.
RMAF2009 was a stimulating and enjoyable three days, and I expect to return next year. Tough as things are these days, it was encouraging to see the resiliency and optimism from exhibitors and attendees alike.