RMAF 2011 Report - Loudspeakers $5,000 to $20,000

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RMAF 2011 Report - Loudspeakers $5,000 to $20,000

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As a writer familiar with covering trader events, it’s easy to forget the impact a regional consumer show like RMAF can have. Leaving on the airport shuttle I spoke with a young man about his experience. He was a musician from Oklahoma—an inexpensive plane ride to Denver. He was into headphones and ready to buy. He knew he’d never be able to audition so many cans in one place again. Ultimately he settled on an in-ear variety, had custom molds cast of his inner ear on the spot, and headed home knowing he’d made the ideal purchase. Would he have made this same trip if it was on the East or West coast? Doubtful. This industry depends on access to the gear. It’s a great reminder of why regional shows matter.

My beat this year was loudspeakers in the $5k to $20k range. Between you and me, a lot of product is waiting in the wings for CES, but here’s a quick snapshot of gear that piqued my interest in ascending order of price.

I read that Totem Acoustics was up to something special with its new Element Series but I wasn't prepared for what I saw and heard. Under development for the last five years, the trapezoidal designs incorporate Totem’s Torrent driver technology that features sophisticated neodymium magnets and a crossover-free network in the woofer path. The smallest model Fire ($6k) is a two-way compact, Earth ($9k) is a two-way floorstander with a passive radiator, and Metal ($13k), a slightly larger twin-woofer two-way. I didn't hear the Metal, but Fire and Earth were refined, dynamic powerhouses with superb coherence even at SPLs where many speakers toss their cookies. They struck a balance between detail and bloom and warmth that I haven’t always heard in previous Totem models. As always, Totem's attention to detail is superlative with gorgeous finishes and stylish trim.

This was my first encounter with the new Dynaudio Focus Series, in this instance the Focus 340 ($7500), and I came away with the sense that Dynaudio has hit it out of the park. Driven by T+A electronics this medium-sized, 2.5-way, bass-reflex floorstander had a mini-monitor like clarity and speed with a low-frequency balance that nicely warmed and filled out the acoustic space of Diana Krall's “All or Nothing At All.”

In a forthcoming issue, my friend and colleague Jonathan Valin will be reviewing the Audio Physic Avantera, but at $27k it's not for everyone. However, in the Esoteric room I spent some time with a pair of AP’s newest down-to-earth models. The Scorpio 25 (3.5-way, 91dB sensitivity, $9900) and the smaller Sitara 25 (2.5-way, 89dB sensitivity, $4990) scale down that flagship’s DNA, offering the distinct imaging, sophisticated soundstaging, and transient speed that this firm has long been known for. In my view, no one aspiring to own one of AP's new lineup will be left at the curb.

In unsteady economic climes entry-level aspirational models play a key role in a speaker lineup. For example, Avalon Acoustics, no stranger to the premium end of audio introduced a wonderful notion in its new Idea speaker. It’s a 36" tall, 2.5-way with classic Avalon proportions at the unexpected price of $7900. As I enjoyed the Oue-conducted recording of Bernstein's Suite from Candide on Reference Recordings, I was delighted with the Idea’s fuller, rosier sound, along with the superb imaging and lack of boxiness that I've come to expect from Avalon.

Candidly my experience with the paper whizzer cone experts at Rethm have been mixed, but the improved, larger $8750 Maarga with dual 6" powered woofers does something unexpected, it rocks. Also, the 60" tall Martin-Logan Montis ($9995) sounded to me like a serious upgrade of the Spire. With its new 24-bit Vojtko DSP engine and 200W Class D power, driver integration for this electrostat/dynamic woofer hybrid is much less of an issue than in the model it replaces.

The Sanders Sound Model 10c hybrid electrostatic with its transmission-line woofers remains a remarkable product at its $13k list price, especially since it bundles a digital crossover with Sanders Mag-Tech amp into the deal. Choral music was a joy—its ability to pinpoint scores of images was truly arresting.

MBL has been busy unveiling speakers and electronics at an ever-increasing pace. With the 120 model currently tucked away in-house for review, this was my first listen to the line’s smallest Radialstrahler, the 126 ($11,800). Like the 120, the 126 uses dual push-push, opposed woofers (5" compared to 7") but has only half the cabinet volume of the 120. Yet driven by new MBL Corona electronics the sound rivals that of the 120 as the most coherent omni top-to-bottom yet. Thanks to the improved resolution and reduced coloration in the bass, these new MBLs are more opulent and transparent than ever.

The $15,000 Vienna Acoustics Kiss is not just a great speaker, but it’s also a showcase for designer Peter Gansterer’s exotic flat-cone coincident-driver technology. After much talk about incorporating this driver into other models in the VA Concert Grand Series, it was confirmed that this is actually going to come to pass with the debut of the new über-version of the Beethoven. Slated to ship in the Q1/Q2 timeframe, look for a price in the $8–$9k range, with updated drivers in many of the other models including the Baby Grand.

The Verity Audio Leonore ($16,000) seemed to slip into its room like a velvet glove. As I settled in for Ricki Lee Jones’ “My One and Only Love,” the sound was immersive, airy, and relaxed, yet with a firm undercurrent of low-end potency that seemed to embrace the surroundings. Aided no doubt by a stellar front end that included the dCS Puccini player and mega-powered 500Wpc Musical Fidelity M6-500 integrated ($7k), this system produced one helluva soundstage and gave new meaning to the track that saw me on my way, Tom Waits’ "Hold On."

One of the busiest speaker companies in audio is Silverline and it debuted an upgraded version of its Bolero three-way floorstander, the Bolero Supreme, now with Dynaudio's best Esotar Series drivers specifically developed for this 91dB sensitivity, 8-ohm model. The sonics were big and brassy, with a captivating soundstage and great low-end extension.

One of the best sounds of the show kept me listening far too long. In the Purity Audio room I was greeted with the full-range, weighty sound from Von Schweikert's latest, the $20,000 VR-44 Aktive ($17,000 in a passive version). This three-way dynamic-driver system with 300 watts to power the dual 8.8** woofers performed with vivid brio. It had a slightly darker and mellower character in this venue, but the finest details were still delicately resolved.

Finally, several cable introductions caught my eye. From Siltech is the Explorer Series interconnects ($500) and speaker cable ($1000). EnKlein interconnect models begin at $1795, and Synergistic Research’s innovative Element interconnects start at $1200 with speaker wire at $1700. All prices are based on standard pair lengths.

Best Sound (cost no object)

The new Magico Q1. Driven by BAlabo gear the Q1 conveyed mini-monitor coherence, and dynamics with astounding low-frequency poise. Expensive at $25,000, but give the new Q a couple minutes and you'll understand why.

Best Sound (for the money)

A fabulous full range bundle from Emerald Physics–its CS3 open-baffle, coincident speaker with digital EQ/ crossover, packaged with the REL T7 subwoofer, is just $3500 out the door. Wow.

Greatest Bargain (individual product)

Got an app for that? Soundsmith has one for its CartRight cartridge-alignment tool. Like the original version ($899), the iPad/iPhone/Android edition comes with its own specially designed test record. $150–$250 (depending on system hardware).

Most Significant Product Introduction

When PSB’s Paul Barton sets his mind to something, watch out! The mega-comfy M4U 2 headphones ($400) are powered and travel-ready with active noise-cancelling. The sound? Terrific.

Most Significant Trend

CD? Meh. It’s memory sticks—all over RMAF, hundreds of tunes in the palm of your hand. Runner-up: Wireless streaming dongles and accessories are a big deal, and getting bigger as quality accelerates.

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