Preview: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 4

Show report
Preview: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 4

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, 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 4 of the report, by Robert Harley.

Enjoy, and please do join in us in Denver for RMAF 2009. --Chris Martens


Mile-High Music

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2008

Robert Harley on Digital and Electronics

If you asked me the day before the opening of the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest what the overall theme of this show had been for the previous four years, I would have answered without hesitation “tubes and vinyl.” Although still in evidence, tubes and vinyl took a backseat this year to a powerful new trend—computer-based audio. If the exhibiting company wasn’t selling USB DACs, hard-disk storage products, and media servers, it was likely to be using a computer as a source component. When you see as traditional a company as the Audio Research Corporation using a Mac Book to drive its electronics and Wilson Sophia 2 loudspeakers, you know that computer audio has come of age.

The most interesting and exciting digital product at this RMAF was undoubtedly PS Audio’s Perfect Wave transport and UltraLink DAC. Unlike a conventional transport, the Perfect Wave is designed to read discs into hard-drive storage rather than play them on the fly. The transport has 64GB of RAM on-board, enough to store four minutes of music. The idea is that you connect a NAS (Network Accessible Storage) hard drive to the Perfect Wave and load your library to the drive for decoding through PS Audio’s UltraLink DAC. Of course, you can play discs conventionally, with the added benefit of the on-board data buffer. The LCD touchscreen display is extremely cool, although you can also access your music library wirelessly via an iPod Touch. PS Audio will offer a ripping service that transfers your music library to hard disk; you ship it your CDs, and PS will return the CDs along with a hard drive loaded with your library. The Perfect Wave will ship with CD-quality resolution but a firmware upgrade in the future will make the Perfect Wave compatible with high-resolution files. In addition to all the usual interfaces (BNC, AES, USB, optical), the Perfect Wave transport and UltraLink DAC can be connected via the I2S bus (on an HDMI connector) which carries a separate clock line and greatly reduces jitter. The price for each product is $2000, with availability expected in February. Watch for a full review.

Britain’s dCS launched the Scarlatti Upsampler, a digital-to-analog converter and upsampler designed for use with music servers as well as with a CD transport. The Scarlatti Upsampler uses the same Ring DAC technology found in dCS’s Scarlatti DAC and Puccini CD player. The full dCS Scarlatti stack (the $67,000 three-piece system) sounded wonderful at the front-end of a BAT system including the Rex preamp and VK-600SE monoblock power amplifiers (both of which I’ve had in my system) driving the Hansen Audio Emperor loudspeakers with Running Springs Audio’s new Dmitri power conditioner, all through Tara Omega and 0.8 interconnects and cables.

Manufacturers are retro-fitting or redesigning their CD players and outboard DACs to accept digital audio on the USB interface. The English-made Abbingdon Music Research CD-77 player ($11,999) is a good example. This amazingly well built player, which first came to my attention at the 2007 CES, can now decode external sources via a USB jack. The distributor, Avatar Acoustics, conducted an interesting demonstration in which it compared the sound of a CD played in the CD-77’s transport with the same music decoded by the CD-77 but sourced from a hard-disk drive. The HDD had a decided advantage. The room’s sound, with AMR electronics and Rethm single-driver speakers, was excellent.

Another company adapting its product line to the needs of today’s audiophiles is Esoteric. The company showed a USB upgrade kit for its outstanding D-03 DAC. The upgrade provides not only a USB jack, but the ability to accept streaming wireless digital audio from a PC or Mac. You simply plug a small transmitter into the computer’s USB port and the D-03 will capture the signal and then process it with upconversion and jitter reduction before the D/A conversion stage. The system is compatible with WAV, FLAC, Windows Media, Apple Lossless, and MP3 files, and operates over a distance of up to 300'. The wireless link supports up to 48kHz/16-bit uncompressed PCM, and the wired link up to 96kHz/24-bit. The $1200 kit, which includes a new board and firmware, will be available in January. You must return your D-03 to the factory for the upgrade. Esoteric hinted that products introduced in 2009 will have this functionality built in.

In the upper-end electronics category, I was glad to see that Bladelius Design products are being imported into the U.S. Michael Bladelius is a talented Swedish designer (Threshold, Primare, Classé), who now heads his own company. Distributor Laufer Teknik showed a wide range of gorgeous looking and sounding gear, including the Ymer, a 300Wpc stereo amplifier at $10,000. The build and casework suggested a much higher price. The Ymer was driven by the Saga preamp ($7495), with a Nova Physics Memory Player at the front end. Bladelius also offers a 165Wpc integrated amplifier, the $4500 Thor Mk. II, that looks like it could be a contender in the highly competitive mid-priced integrated amplifier market. The Bladelius gear is on our radar for a full review.

Laufer Teknik also showed an insanely over-the-top solution to vibration control—the Halcyonics active isolation platform. Designed to isolate scanning electron microscopes from vibration, the Halcyonics products sense vibration and actively adjust the platform to counter it. Front-panel LEDs show you the activity of the servos that keep the platform stable. Each of the three models can be calibrated specifically for the weight of the component on it. The technology will soon be available in equipment racks rather than only as isolation platforms. As you might expect, the Halcyonics products aren’t cheap: The top model is $11,500. Incidentally, Laufer Teknik also produced a terrific sound with the Volent VL2 speaker driven by Bladelius electronics. The Volent VL2 is a $5000 stand-mounted unit that uses a Heil Air-Motion Transformer driver.

It’s truly unusual to discover a new line of preamplifiers and power amplifiers that brings something innovative to the table. One new company that has radically rethought the preamplifier and power amplifier is Veloce. Its $12,500 Platino LS-1 linestage is a battery-powered tubed design—the first in my experience. Every circuit of the LS-1 is supplied by batteries, including the 240V plate supply and the tube biasing. The unit will reportedly run for 100 hours between charges. The LS-1 is beautifully built from 6061 aircraft-grade aluminum, and the front panel is a full inch thick.

If you thought an all-tubed, battery-powered preamp was unusual, wait until you hear about Veloce’s power amplifier. It too is battery powered! How can you make a battery-powered power amplifier? By combining a tubed input stage that’s transformer coupled to a highly efficient Hypex Class D output stage. The company claims that the combination of tubes and battery power transforms the sound of a Class D output stage. The sound I heard was excellent. The V6 power amplifier delivers 180Wpc into 4 ohms, and will be available in late January at $12,500 per pair. A more powerful version, called the V8, that delivers 400W into 4 ohms will be available later in 2009.

Robert Harley’s Best of Show

Best Sound

My pick for best sound surprised me—the Scaena 3.2 loudspeaker ($54,000). I say I was surprised because I’ve heard this system four times at previous shows and never been impressed. For the RMAF, Scaena rented a large room and brought its reference system from the factory—VTL 450 amplifiers and a Nova Physics Memory Player. The sound had a wonderful combination of resolution and ease, with a spectacularly big and resolved soundstage. All previous auditions have been in standard-size hotel rooms, which are obviously not big enough for this ambitious and unusual loudspeaker.

Another exhibit that sounded terrific was the Dynaudio Sapphire loudspeaker ($16,500) driven by Pass Labs XA100.5 amplifiers and Wadia’s 781 CD player, all connected with XLO cables. And although the new Focal Grand Utopia seemed to be fighting the room it was in, I listened through the room and heard the best midrange resolution and focus of anything at the show. I was also greatly impressed by the Hansen Emperor/BAT/dCS/Running Springs system described earlier—huge soundstage, natural timbres, wide dynamics, and deep bass extension.

Biggest Bargain

It’s hard to judge the sound of electronics at a show, but the $3995 Audio Space Reference 3 integrated amplifier sounded mighty sweet driving both the Gini Systems LS3/5A-like monitor alternately with the new Von Schwekert Unifield 3 ($15,000). The Reference 3 is a 27W 300B-based integrated amplifier with a build-quality that makes it looks like it should cost twice that price.

Most Exciting Product

PS Audio’s Perfect Wave transport and UltraLink DAC. This is the type of forward-looking product that will transform how we access and enjoy music. PS Audio seems to have done this right, with an outstanding user interface, upgradability, and attention to sound quality.

Biggest Surprise

To see computer-based audio go from zero at last year’s show to its massive dominating presence. It was more than a little amusing to see a MacBook at the front end of a system with 300B tubed amplifiers and horn loudspeakers. The show guide even had icons to alert showgoers to the rooms with a Wadia iTransport so that they could plug in their iPod for an audition.