Preview: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 3

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Preview: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 3

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.

To provide a preview for RMAF 2009, AVguide.com is posting The Absolute Sound’s report from the 2008 Fest,--a report that was originally published in The Absolute Sound issue 190 and was presented in four parts.

This post presents Part 3 of the report, by Neil Gader.

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

Neil Gader on Electronics and Floorstanding Speakers

My beat was the under-$10,000 segment of audio with special consideration given to recent electronics and floorstanding loudspeaker developments. Here are my room-by-room snapshots.

Floorstanding Standouts and More

Allen Perkins announced that speaker company Sonics, a company he owns in partnership with former Audio Physic designer Joachim Gerhard, has moved its final assembly and QC facility to Berkeley, California—the home of Perkins’ Immedia Sound. Their first jointly conceived model is the $5500 Amerigo, a wonderfully well-balanced three-way reflex design that had seamless driver integration. Immedia’s Spiral Groove line of electronics was also on display, including the new DP1 linestage preamp, whose chassis is milled from a single billet of aluminum. The matching E60 is a dual-mono 60Wpc pure Class A amplifier. Even with eight MOSFET output devices per channel and Class A operation, the E60 ran surprisingly cool by virtue of an ultra-quiet internal fan and sophisticated dual heat sinks. The DP1 and E60 are priced at $15,000 each. Look for Spiral Groove’s new phonostage in January.

High-end importer and distributor Dan Meinwald always manages to get great sound regardless of show conditions, and this year his setup of E.A.R. Electronics and Marten loudspeakers followed that tradition. With a diagonal positioning of the Swedish-built Marten FormFloor speakers, the system sounded wonderful. The $6500 FormFloor is a three-sided slender tower with a ceramic woofer and ribbon tweeter. Add the matching FormSub (10" woofer with 400W Class D amp) and the total price comes in at a not unreasonable $11k. And no wonder they sounded so clean and transparent—they were being driven effortlessly by E.A.R.’s 890 70Wpc amp ($7300), Acute CD player ($5900), and 868 preamp ($5300 or $6900 with phono). I later ran across E.A.R. designer Tim DeParvacini who confirmed that he was working on a USB DAC for introduction at the 2009 CES.

Speaking of the USB DAC market, this segment will be the one to watch next year. And geared to put a new high-end spin on the iTunes culture is the Audio Research DAC7—a preamp-sized digital-to-analog converter priced at $3495. Using a 24bit/192kHz Burr-Brown DAC and fitted with five different digital inputs, it can operate as the hub for multiple digital sources—PC, Mac, Apple TV, or sophisticated music server.

Tash Goka of Divergent Technologies (distributor of the Reference 3A line of loudspeakers) never fails to extract great sound under difficult show conditions. But Reference 3A’s new Episode may be one of the bargain discoveries of this RMAF. Positioned between the Veena and the Grand Veena, the Episode fills a crucial gap at its welcome price of $5500. Following Reference 3A’s tradition there’s no crossover on the woofer. With a sensitivity of 92dB and an impedance of 6.2 ohms, the Episode should be easy to drive. The sound was rich and full-bodied, with a captivating sense of transparency. At least some of the credit accrues to the Antique Sound Labs Flora EX preamp that, along with its tube gain stage, features an autoformer volume control that completely removes resistors from the signal path. Price: $3500.

One of the more interesting speaker designs at the show was the $7900 Studio Electric T3, a floorstanding three-way with a side-firing woofer that looked like a Tesla coil. The tweeter is positioned below a silver sphere that houses the midrange driver. The T3 was driven by the new Modwright KWA 150, a fully balanced solid-state, dual-mono, stereo monster expected to sell for $5995. With the Reiner-conducted Scheherazade cued up, the sound was rich with complexities and dynamic excitement.

Among the more mysterious goings-on at the show was an Usher prototype based on the S520 mini-monitor ($479) atop a new side-firing subwoofer module. I was told that the sub modules should punch in at $599 for a pair. This should make for one special blue-plate WATT/Puppy.

The gorgeous Oracle SI 1000 integrated ($9300) which premiered but was not demo’d at last year’s RMAF drove the Usher Be-718s through JPS cabling. Jennifer Warnes’ recording of “If it be Your Will” sounded rich and transparent and extended on this system.

Avatar Acoustics showed two speakers from Rethm, the company known for its single-driver loudspeakers. The base-model Marga ($6750) has recently been upgraded. But the real news was its larger brother, the Saadhanna, which will tip the scales at approximately $9995. With Belafonte playing on the new Dr. Feickert Analogue Twin turntable ($9k) and Abbingdon Music Research (AMR) electronics (CD-77 CD player and AM-77 integrated amp with USB, $11,995 each), the system created a huge soundstage with stupendous dimensionality and warmth. The sound of the brass section kicking in was amazing. AMR is working on a new phonostage that will accommodate three cartridges with on-the-fly switchable loading and variable EQ curves.

Emerald Physics, the upstart DSP-based speaker company whose CS2 was reviewed by Robert E. Greene in Issue 188, premiered its new CS-1 Reference. The $10,800 system is a five-driver, two-way system with four 15" woofers and a 1" compression tweeter built into an 11" waveguide. A 48dB/octave phase-coherent digital crossover flattens out the upper midrange peak. The system was driven by a new line of electronics called Wyrd 4 Sound. The company showed its balanced Passive Control Center, a $2000 preamplifier. Wyrd 4 Sound also showed a 200W modular multichannel amplifier (prices start at $1995), as well as a new integrated amplifier to be released next year.

In the Audiophile Systems room Burmester demo’d the attention-getting B25, a three-way featuring a horn-loaded tweeter. The sound was very clean and fast, but fairly full for a short floorstander. I heard a bit of forwardness and hardness, which was likely due to the underdamped room. Burmester also announced that its “budget” Rondo line has been thoroughly revamped with the introduction of the 051 integrated amp (150Wpc into 4 ohms, $9495) and the 052 CD player with switchable upconversion at $6995.

Compacts to Crow About

In the Raidho room I found one of the prettiest little speakers in the svelte Ayra C-1.0. Its ribbon tweeter and ceramic mid/bass were articulate and fast, yet relaxed and welcoming. And the imaging and soundstage performance was remarkable. The C-1.0 had decent bass for such a small speakers, but most listeners will want some reinforcement from a subwoofer. Completing the $15,000 package are the gorgeous burled-walnut cabinetry and architecturally stunning integrated stands.

In the alcove of the TAD/Bel Canto room, TAD’s parent company, Pioneer, displayed but did not demonstrate a trickle-down version of TAD’s concentric-driver technology. The $4000 Pioneer S-4EX looks like a two-thirds-sized version of TAD’s outstanding $6000 S2-EX, one of my favorite speakers in that price range. The Pioneer is equipped with a ceramic-graphite midrange-tweeter—the beryllium tweeter is reserved for the higher-end TAD line.

TAD also showed the CR-1, a compact monitor expected to ship next Spring at a price of about $30k. They were being driven by the new Bel Canto Class D separates including the Ref 500 monoblock amplifiers at $2495 per pair, the $2495 DAC3 processor, and the $2295 CD-2 CD player. Cables were courtesy of Argento Audio Serenity.

The high-sensitivity speakers from Sonist have continued to evolve, and now offer smoother and warmer sonics, terrific resolution, and great value. Recent upgrades include enclosure tuning that delivers deeper extension, along with a newly designed waveguide for the ribbon tweeter. The waveguides are integrated into the solid poplar baffles. All the crossovers are hardwired first-order types. The Concerto 2 is a compact monitor ($2495), and the Concerto 3 is a 40"-tall floorstander at $3500 per pair. Both speakers have a sensitivity of 95dB, making them ideal for low-powered tubed amplifiers.

Odd but noteworthy was the squat, little speaker out of Sweden from a company called Guru. The company’s QM10 (for Quality Manager 10, no less) lists at $2695 and is designed for placement against the wall. With only a 4" woofer and 0.6" tweeter it mounts on the wall for reinforcement! The sound was rich and transparent, and thanks to adroit positioning, nicely extended into the midbass. Widely spaced on the room’s long wall, it threw a terrific soundstage.

Completely new to my experience was the elegant Viennese Trenner & Friedl line. The company’s budget Ella ($10,000) is an exquisitely constructed, vented, two-way floorstander using a proprietary Vifa tweeter and ceramic woofers. They were being demonstrated in the Profundo room driven by the 22Wpc Viva Solista Mk.II amp ($16k), Naim’s 555 player, and Crystal Cable Reference wiring. The sound was sweet and resolved.

Cool Stuff and Honorable Mentions

Two phonostages caught my attention. The first was the Sutherland Engineering Hubble, so named because it is, in Ron Sutherland’s words, “an instrument for discovery and exploration.” The battery-powered device offers flexible cartridge-loading and variable gain. The 16 D cells reportedly deliver 1000 hours of playing time. Sutherland distributor 2-Channel Distribution also demonstrated the new Aqvox 2CI Mk II phonostage. The $1999 2CI has balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs, variable gain to accommodate moving-magnet cartridges (as well as moving coils with outputs as low as 0.15mV), and fully discrete circuitry. The 2CI, fed from a Thorens TD 160HD turntable and driving Herron Audio electronics, was smooth and well balanced.

Venerable designer Steve McCormack’s new company, SMc Audio, displayed the $9995 VRE-1 Virtual Reality Engine preamp. The VRE-1 is the embodiment of everything McCormack knows about audio-circuit design—his masterwork. Unusually, the VRE-1 is transformer coupled. It also features a precision stepped-attenuator, gorgeous non-resonant casework, and an external power supply. A matching power amplifier is in the works.

Hong-Kong-based Volent speakers made a splash with its VL2, a $5000 stand-mount, and the VL3, a $9650 floorstander. Sweet and transparently open, the VL2s are based around a distinctive 3" Heil Air Motion Transformer tweeter and graphite-titanium mid/bass drivers. Their cabinet work and swirling bubinga pommele veneer finish are gorgeous. The VL2s clearly excelled when driven by Bladelius Design Group electronics. Listening to Diane Reeves’ “How High The Moon” I appreciated the wonderful soundstage depth.

When you think futuristic high end, think Lyngdorf Audio. The company’s latest system is based on the dipole DP-1 satellite speakers ($3000) and BW-1 subwoofers ($1700 each). The rest of the system included Lyngdorf’s CD-1 player, the TDAI-2200 integrated amplifier with Room Perfect room correction, and the SDA-2175 subwoofer amp. This system threw one of the widest soundstages of the show. The room-correction demonstration was not only informative, but rendered a distinct and highly musical improvement.

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Neil Gader’s Best of Show

Best Sound Regardless of Price: I was wowed by the new Focal Grande Utopia EM flagship, but with my modest listening room somehow I always end up thinking small. The TAD CR-1 compact reference (described in this report) was spacious, warm, and dynamic. It’s the biggest sound I’ve ever heard from a compact loudspeaker, bar none.

Best New Product: PS Audio’s Perfect Wave Transport is a touch-screen-controlled CD transport. It rips the CD’s optical data off the disc into a hefty memory buffer. The low-jitter output is then fed to PS Audio’s Ultralink DAC via the I2S bus. Price: $2k each, with delivery expected in February.

Bargain Product: I’m fond of headphones, and Denon’s latest sealed designs are something special. But it’s the AH-7000 that is the real standout at $999. From the fresh new design, to the superb comfort level, to the sonic impact and extension, this new line is a great personal speaker system alternative–and to these ears very high end.

Best Sound for the Money: A tough call, but the Reference 3A Episode speaker (described in this report) made a believer out of me. Clean, fast, and beautifully finished, at $5500. This Episode deserves bravos.

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