Preview: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 1

Show report
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Preview: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 1

Coming Soon: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009—October, 2-4, 2009

Each Fall, music lovers and audiophiles of all stripes convene in Denver, CO for what has become an annual must-see/must-hear event: The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.

It can be difficult to capture the exact flavor of RMAF for those who’ve not yet made the pilgrimage to Denver, except to say that the Fest has less the feel of “trade show” (for example, the annual CES Expo held in Las Vegas, NV) and more the feel of a community of friends and manufacturers who meet to share and celebrate their common love of music and fine equipment to play it on.

RMAF has earned a reputation as an event where you can catch up with old friends and meet new ones, where you can sample very high-performance audio gear spanning all price points, and where you can see and hear new products and technologies that are just appearing on the horizon.

Perhaps the best way we can provide a preview of RMAF 2009 is to show you The Absolute Sound’s report from the 2008 Fest, which was originally published in The Absolute Sound issue 190 and was presented in four parts.

AVguide.com will post the first two parts of the report today, and the second two parts tomorrow. Enjoy, and please do join in us in Denver for RMAF 2009. --Chris Martens
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Mile-High Music

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2008, Part 1

Jonathan Valin on High-End Loudspeakers

I’m going to divide this report into four sections (though some products fall into more than one): 1) surprises (manufacturers or products which hadn’t showed well in the past that did an about-face or products that, well, just surprised me); 2) introductions (new products that were launched or made their U.S. debuts at RMAF); 3) mixed bags (products that were quite good but not as good as the very best, or that were a mix of very good and not-so-good, or that didn’t show as well as they had in the past, or that simply didn’t show particularly well); and 4) triumphs (flat-out winners).

Remember when you read this that I’m just one guy with a pair of ears and a briefcase full of blues, folk, and classical. Hotel rooms are notoriously unfair to exhibitors, and where it was obvious I will comment on how poor room acoustics affected the sound.

Surprises

In Room 522, YG Acoustics showed its $38k Kipod Studio, a floorstander with a two-way head unit perched atop a separate powered woofer. To be honest I’d never liked the sound of YG’s touted top-line Anat Reference. Oh, it has been very detailed all right, but it’s also seemed very analytical—the kind of speaker designed by an engineer rather than a music lover. On top of this, the Anat’s head units have meshed poorly with its woofer units. So imagine my surprise when the Kipod turned out to be wonderful! Very open, very dynamic (with terrific dynamic scale and range), very lively, with extraordinarily deep, fast, detailed, and well-integrated bass. Of all the speakers I heard at RMAF, this one (and the speaker that follows it on this list) was the biggest surprise—and certainly one of the better sounds at RMAF.

In Evergreen A, I came upon Classic Audio Reproductions’ $38k T-1.2 three-way horn loudspeakers. I’ve heard various versions of Classic horn-loaded loudspeakers (inevitably powered by Ralph Karsten’s Atma-Sphere electronics) for the better part of a decade, and while their sound has steadily improved I wasn’t prepared for the leap the T-1.2 has made. Using field-coil drivers designed by the redoubtable Dr. Bruce Edgar, these speakers were so greatly improved in focus, neutrality, resolution, and extension (and so much lower in amorphousness, “cupped-hands” midrange and Raven ribbon tweeter in the head unit and a SEAS magnesium woofer in the bass cabinet). Like YG’s three-way, the Unifield sounded simply terrific—open, neutral, lively, and very dynamic. If I were Von S I would always show with Audio Space amplification and preamplification. This is the second fest in a row where the combination of Hong Kong equipment-designer extraordinaire Peter Lau’s superb electronics (the $3390 Reference 3 integrated amp, this time) and Von S’s speakers wowed me (which hasn’t been the case with Von Ses in the past). Certainly one of the better sounds at RMAF—and quite a good value.

In the Blanca Peak room, Hansen introduced a three-way, “nearfield” version of The King, called The Emperor. Although I expected His Highness not to have clothes, to my utter surprise The Emperor sounded excellent on two cuts I know very well. Natural, detailed, airy, present, with good bass (which, I think, was getting a little boost from the room—enough to make it sound chunky but not fat), Hansen’s Emperor made far and away the best impression of any speaker I’ve heard from this manufacturer.

Speaking of the best I’ve heard from a manufacturer...I’ve certainly had my problems with Scaena 3.2 ribbon/cone line-array loudspeakers at trade shows, where they’ve sounded grossly colored and incoherent. At first, I thought the Ghost of CES Past was paying me a visit again, when I went to the Scaena room at the Hyatt and heard Guitar Gabriel singing and playing “Keys to the Highway”—a cut I know by heart. The sound was downright weird—no focus, no positioning, no coherence. What made this doubly weird was that Scaena was using a dCS Scarlatti as the source—the best-sounding CD player I’ve ever heard (and apparently I’m not alone because there were more dCS Scarlattis at RMAF than any other source of any kind). But...turns out the guy running the room was also using the dCS Purcell upconverter, which turns the DSD stream into 176kHz PCM. I asked him to switch over to DSD and, violin and viola, everything changed! The swimminess disappeared; the overripe timbres became natural (and recognizable); everything firmed up; and the record sounded, as it always does, great. No, the presentation wasn’t quite as detailed as I’ve heard from some of the very best, but honestly compared to what Scaenas have sounded like in the past this was quite good—quite good by any standard.

In Long’s Peak, On A Higher Note was demo’ing the $15k Vivid Audio B-1, a fashion-plate of a three-and-a-half-way that sounded extremely open and airy, albeit a little swimmy and defocused. Turns out that the most surprising thing in the room was on the walls, in the form of Synergistic Research’s ART (Acoustic Room Treatment) System. I don’t know what these little Christmas tree ornaments were doing, but, lawsy, they sure were doing something to the soundstage! With them “in,” the stage bulged as if you were listening to omnis. Without them...well, the Vivids still sounded great, but, boy, that soundstage sure did deflate.

In Room 581, I stumbled upon a Canadian two-way, the $15k Gemme Audio Katana. What made the Katana surprising was its woofer. Although it looks like a typical floorstanding two-way with ceramic drivers, it isn’t. If I heard right, the Katana uses a folded horn in the bass, hidden inside its piano-black enclosure! You sure couldn’t hear any kind of horn coloration from where I sat. In fact, the thing sounded extraordinarily quick and natural and very highly detailed from top to bottom. One of the better sounds at RMAF.

Introductions

The two “biggest” introductions were both in the Maroon Peak room, where Focal’s $180k Utopia EM made its stateside debut and Clearaudio finally allowed the rest of us (Don Saltzman and HP excepted) to hear, rather than merely look at, its massive, gorgeous $150k Statement record player.

I wish I could report that opening night was a complete success, but the room proved problematical. These are very big, very tall loudspeakers, and I think the relatively low ceilings in this otherwise giant room were responsible for a slight bloom in the midbass (60–80Hz) that disguised the deep bass and also, perhaps, for a bit of aggressiveness in the upper mids. I would not say that the Utopia EM sounded “bad” (or close to it) on first listen; it just didn’t sound as great as I think it must be capable of sounding from the reports of other knowledgeable listeners and past experience with Focals. For instance, on something like the first movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces [Mercury/Speaker’s Corner], it cast a very wide and deep stage but the strings (usually gorgeous) sounded a mite wiry, the brass a mite aggressive, and the plucked doublebasses didn’t have the depth of pitch, the definition of pitch, or the dynamic bite they should have had because of that midbass bloom. When I returned to the room late on Saturday night for a private listening session, the sound had turned buttery in the upper mids (perhaps adjustments had been made to the EMs or other parts of the system, or perhaps these huge speakers were just “settling in”). The Utopias sounded quite impressively big, rich, and dynamic on Bredemeyer’s Schlagstücke 5, but once again the lack of pitch depth and definition in the deep bass made the “big” dynamic moments of this piece (and, brother, they are big) slightly more compressed than they usually sound. It seemed to me as if the speakers wanted to “go” without limits, but that the room didn’t. (One reason I’m sure that the room was the problem was that the big Wilson Alexandrias, which were parked in a similar room last year, had virtually the same sonic flaws. Plus the two-way $9k Focal Diablo Utopias, which were fed by a Clearaudio Anniversary AMG table and Helios arm, sounded real good in Room 2013—making Marc Cohn’s cover of Willie Dixon’s “29 Ways” [MoFi] sound rich and full-bodied—perhaps a shade too much so—but still quite lively, with excellent staging and reproduction of that burbling Hammond organ.)

If the Utopias and The Statement proved a bit of a disappointment in the Maroon Peak room, Da Vinci Audio Labs’ new $27k Unison turntable and $7.75k Nobile arm (equipped with Da Vinci’s $7.3k Reference mc cartridge) in Room 9021 sure didn’t. Feeding the $25k two-way Deco 10 Signature loudspeakers from A.R.T. Loudspeakers of Scotland by way of a $57k Da Vinci Preziosa 300B preamp/line-driver combo and a $19.5k AcousticPlan Sarod phonostage and $12.5k Santor amp, the new Da Vinci table, arm, and cartridge sounded purely great on Cohn’s “29 Ways” with almost perfect neutrality and focus, not a hint of darkness or hoodedness, great Hammond organ, and bass that was very fast, (albeit a mite thick—probably room/port-related—on “Saving The Best For Last”). Clearly a contender and one of the better sounds at RMAF.

Pioneer’s Andrew Jones intro’d the latest (very close to production) version of his TAD mini-monitor, although there is nothing particularly “mini” about this large, stand-mounted two-way, either physically or sonically. At CES an earlier version had been parked against a wall in a tiny space. At RMAF the TAD had room to breathe—and to produce some shockingly deep bass for a two-way. Probably priced at or near $30k (putting it squarely up against the king of two-ways, the Magico Mini II), the new TAD is likely to turn more than a few heads when it comes to market late this year or early next.

Shown for the first time in the States in Room 2009, the $31k Montegiro Luso turntable sounded swell with a $11.6k Da Vinci Grandeeza tonearm (but then what ’table doesn’t sound swell with this superb arm [soon to be reviewed in TAS by moi]?) and Koetsu Coralstone cartridge, feeding a pair of $17k Chario Sovrans (three-way floorstanders that employ a “reversed vertical alignment” configuration). On “29 Ways,” the Charios and the Montegiro/Da Vinci sounded exceptionally neutral and lively; bass was excellent though not particularly deep-reaching in this smallish room. All in all, a very successful launch and definitely one of the better sounds at RMAF.

In Room 518 Krell introduced its aluminum-bodied $65k Modulari Duo—a two-piece 3.5-way with a two-way head unit and three woofers in a separate cabinet. Bass was, not unexpectedly, terrific. The entire sound was quite impressive, clean and a shade dark with tremendous soundstage width and very good depth and image focus. Like the Magico Mini II, you got absolutely no sense of a box with Krell’s thick aluminum enclosures. These new Krells could easily have gone in my surprise section, since they sounded better than any Krell loudspeaker I’ve previously heard. One of the better sounds at RMAF (but at a price, Ugarte, always at a price).

In Room 9004, Audio Machina’s $49.8k Maestro—a larger, more elaborate, more highly perfected version of the PURE System loudspeaker that so impressed me several years ago at RMAF (with its gorgeous hourglass shape, black-anodized aluminum body and yellow Fostex midrange, incredibly thin profile, and incredibly deep bass)—was introduced. I think the speaker’s designer, Dr. Karl Scheumann, is a greatly gifted fellow with a genuine love and feel for music and for loudspeaker design. Unfortunately, the smallish room and warm, overly ripe electronics didn’t serve his cause so well this time around. The Maestros did the same disappearing act that the PURE System pulled off, but on cuts like “Keys to the Highway” the overall sound was just a bit too dark, recessed, and polite. Anything but unpleasant or unattractive, mind you, but just not very “alive.” Having heard the PURE System in my own listening room, I have every confidence that the Maestros are better than they showed in Denver. This is a speaker I will keep an eye on.

Mixed Bags

In the Larkspur Room, Acapella was showing its $192k Triolon Excalibur three-way horn system with separate bass towers, driven by Einstein electronics. In the past I’ve liked the Acapella High Violin with Einstein gear, so it may be that the sound I heard was, as was the case with the big Focals, a huge speaker struggling with a lousy room. Whatever the reason this wasn’t an entirely satisfying presentation. Although tone color was rich and rather sweet, the Triolons were too forward and aggressive and “shouty” on dynamics. Deep bass from the towers was very good; soundstaging wasn’t.

In Room 1110, Audience was showing its 16-driver ClairAudient Line Source Array ($33k plus $9k for the 12" subs, which are also available with 10" or 15" drivers), with a $25k Immedia Spiral Groove SG-1 ’table equipped with a TriPlanar arm and Lyra Scala cartridge as the source. The sound was very nice, with good low-level detail and delicate textures.

In Room 1116, the first of two High Water Sound rooms, the $8k Odeon Rigoletto two-way floorstander with transmission line bass was being fed by a $20k TW Acustic AC-3 ’table and the newly introduced $9k TW Acustic phonotage via Thoress electronics. The sound was very fine, indeed! Limited in the low bass, of course (the Odeon was a two-way, after all), but rich in tone color (in part thanks to the TW Acustic AC-3), alive in dynamics, with good midbass, nice staging, and a sweet treble.

In Room 1118, High Water was showing the $9k three-way Hornung Aristotle, which use a folded horn for the bass. On my Marc Cohn cuts, via the TW Acustic Raven Two turntable and Tron amplification, the sound was pretty good if a mite polite. I thought the midrange was a bit accentuated and the bass a bit weak, but clarity was high.

In room 1121, the Serbian company Raal Advanced Loudspeakers showed its $80k Requisites, omnis comprising faceted columns of cone/ribbon drivers and woofers in cast bronze cabinets! The Raals didn’t have bad focus (for omnis), although the sound was a little dark and a little vague on “Keys to the Highway,” with a touch of “cupped-hands” coloration. That said, they showed better than I would’ve thought given their old-fashioned faceted-omni design.

In room 1122 the Chinese company Volent was showing its $5k VL2 two-ways, with a Air Motion Transformer tweet and cone mid/bass that looked very much like the titanium driver in the original Magico Mini. The sound certainly was Mini-like in many ways. Limpid, transparent, lively, a little thin in tone color but very fast. This is a speaker I think TAS might want to review.

In Room 1124, the Swiss loudspeaker company Boenicke was showing a $10-$12k ribbon/cone line source with a folded horn woofer. Light, bright, lively, without any edge, it made a very neutral, transparent sound. There wasn’t much bass, but the rest was commendable.

In Mesa Verde A, Harbeth was showing its latest version of the classic 40.1 nearfield monitor (now $13k!). Perhaps it was the room, perhaps it was where I was sitting (which wasn’t particularly nearfield), but the Harbeth didn’t show its best—one-note in the bass, colored in the mids, with virtually no stage width, although the 40.1 had good depth and excellent transients. I presume that something about the setup was playing small havoc with its sound.

In Room 9002, Feastrex was showing a $59k trial model of a horn-loaded single-driver loudspeaker with field coils in a gorgeous cabinet coated with many layers of Urushi lacquer. As exotic as you could find at a show filled with exotica, the speaker, alas, didn’t show particularly well—a bit hooded on “Keys to the Highway” (although very detailed), a little rough and boxy on “Rainy Night in Georgia.” This wasn’t a neutral sound.

In Room 9030, Audio Federation was showing a giant four-chassis speaker system from the Swedish speaker company Marten, the $295k (!) Coltrane Supremes driven by Lamm ML-3s (which sounded marvelous at CES). The sound was exceptionally sweet, smooth, and detailed but also, I thought, a little bland. I’m sure this is a swell speaker (I’ve liked Martens in the past) and I know the Lamms are great amps. I assume the room was taking a small toll in liveliness. Even at that, this was very fine sound.

In Room 540, I heard the $60,900 Tidal Contriva, a large floorstander with all-ceramic drivers in an enclosure beautifully finished by a piano-maker. In the room it was in, the Contriva was a bit boxy, very detailed, quite warm and lovely in timbre, but not as “there” as some others at the show on either the Guitar Gabriel or Captain Luke tracks. Were it not for the touch of added warmth and boxiness (perhaps room-induced), this would have been quite good. (Just as a point of comparison, the $39k Tidal Piano two-and-half-way sounded superb in Room 538—much more open, natural, and realistic. Perhaps it was the dCS Puccini used with the Pianos that made some of the difference.)

In Room 574, the Austrian company Trenner & Friedl showed the $10k two-way Ella floorstander with a ceramic mid/bass and Vifa tweeter. Unfortunately, the Ella was sounding more like the Louis—boxy, chesty, weighted toward the bass.

In Room 570, I heard an Apogee Diva ($13k) full-range ribbon, restored by TrueSoundWorks and driven by ARC and Pass electronics. The sound was superb—boxless, open, airy, with very realistic timbre.

In Room 2025, the $12.8k Sonus Faber Cremona M, driven by McIntosh electronics, sounded warm, sweet, a tad dark, and very beautiful—like Sonus Faber always does.

Winners

I’ve already mentioned several winning presentations in the other three sections of this show report. Here are the ones I considered the best of the best: As I said earlier, the Tangram room—with the A.R.T. loudspeakers, the Da Vinci turntable, tonearms, cartridge, and preamp—was a model of neutrality, focus, and pace. I’ve also already mentioned the YG Acoustics Kipod (it means “hedgehog”) in Room 522, which showed much better than I’ve heard YG show in the past; the Chario Sovrans and Montegiro turntable sounded exceptionally neutral and lively in Room 2009; the Tidal Piano, which showed very well driven by the dCS Puccini in Room 538; the Audio Space/Von Schweikert Unifield 3 exhibit in Room 551, which was so good it may end up a runner-up in this race; the Gemme Audio Katana in Room 581 with its ingenious folded horn/ported enclosure and very neutral sound; Krell’s Modulari Duo in Room 518, with its terrific disappearing act; the Classic Audio T1.2s, which have to win the Most Improved Sound of Show award.

In Room 9022, Audio Research showed its $3995 VSi60 integrated feeding Wilson Sophia IIs. I only listened via the Grand Prix Monaco turntable and ARC’s PH7. What I heard on Marc Cohn’s “29 Ways” and other cuts was superb. Very alive and bright and lifelike, very detailed, very realistic. When it comes to a natural midrange, there is nothing like ARC. Period.

In Room 9010, Gershman hit another home run with its $36k Black Swan driven by a $7.5k VAC Phi Alpha DAC, a $14k VAC Signature MkII preamp, and two $9k VAC Phi 200 amps. The sound was tremendously dynamic (bass was sensational) and detailed on full orchestra, and just as good on small-scale stuff like “Keys to the Highway,” with marvelous detail and tone color on Guitar Gabriel’s voice and guitar. Aside from a very slight bit of darkness (the sound was just a bit weighted toward the bass), there was nothing to critique here.

In Conifer 3, I was impressed for the second show in a row by McIntosh’s $35k XRT1K driven by (what else?) Mac electronics and a Mac turntable (!). The sound was very smooth and detailed on LP, without a hint of the aggressiveness that marred many of the other exhibits. This may not have been the most dynamic speaker at the show and parked, as it was, up against a wall, it didn’t generate a great deal of depth, but the sound was so gorgeous, who cared?

In the Powder Horn Suite (quite appropriately) the MBL 101 E MkIIs did their usual thing. Well, that’s not quite fair. Though they were being played too loud (as usual), they sounded more neutral than usual. I’ve heard this Mark II speaker at three different shows, and with its new midrange and tweeter drivers and new subwoofer and subwoofer enclosure it is clearly a substantial improvement over the Mk I. The sound here had tremendous staging, dimensionality, and separation of individual lines. (Only MBL does space between and around instruments and instrumentalists like this, allowing you to hear each part so distinctly.) On several Marc Cohn cuts (on CD), there was also superb detail on guitar transients and voice.

In Room 9025, the $20k Avalon Indras, fed by VTL electronics and a DSP turntable with SME IV arm and Dynavector Techatora cartridge, sounded (yet again) fantastic. On “29 Ways” the Indras cast a very wide, very open stage. Their balance was a little warmer than I’ve heard it sound at past shows (accurately reflecting, I assume, the balance of the VTL MB-450 Series II amps and TL-6.5 line and phono preamps), but still quite persuasively musical and lifelike, with the kind of front-to-back and side-to-side transparency that I’ve come to expect from these superb speakers.

In Room 431, the $55k Nola Baby Grand References, ribbon/cone dipole with separate woofer towers, powered by ARC 210 amps, an ARC Reference 3 preamp, and an ARC CD7, were (like the Avalon Indras) once again superb—very neutral with a wonderful density of tone color. They sounded simply great on the music I played—so lifelike in timbre and so dynamically alive and open and bloomy and airy that they came within a hair’s breadth of winning my Best Sound of Show Award.

However, that honor goes this year, as it did last year, to the $110k Symposium Acoustics Panoramas, driven by Fred Volz’s marvelous Emotive Audio Vita amplifiers and Epifania preamp. Almost (but not quite—after all, I knew what to expect this year) as astonishing as they were at the last RMAF, where Robert Harley, Jacob Heilbrunn, and I named them Best of Show, they were once again very free of driver and enclosure coloration, very big and open with lots of air and bloom and extremely fine resolution of detail. As impressively neutral as they sounded, the Pans looked even more impressive. Gone was any vestige of “garage build.” Indeed, the “production model” Pans are gorgeous. Beautifully constructed of black-anodized 6061T aluminum and glimmering stainless steel, they would fit proudly in any listening room.

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Jonathan Valin’s Best of Show

Best High-End Speakers of Show:

  • Symposium Acoustics Panoramas

Runners-Up:

  • Avalon Indras and
  • Nola Baby Grand References

Best Introduction of Show:

  • Classic Reproductions T1.2

Runners-Up:

  • Da Vinci Unison turntable, Nobile arm, and Preziosa linestage;
  • Montegiro Luso turntable with Da Vinci Grandeeza tonearm

Biggest Surprise of Show:

  • YG Acoustics Kipod

Biggest Bargain of Show:

  • Von Schweikert Unifield 3 with Audio Space Reference 3 integrated amplifier 

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