2015 RMAF Show Report – Loudspeakers Under $20K

Show report
2015 RMAF Show Report – Loudspeakers Under $20K

Covering an audio show successfully is less about technical sophistication or highly developed listening skills than time management. An advance look at the list of exhibitors and other activities planned for RMAF 2015 was pretty intimidating. There were around 375 companies presenting their products in something like 125 rooms and communal spaces. Fortunately for me, there were large chunks of commercial enterprise that could be skipped entirely. I didn’t set foot in CanJam, the orgy for headphone aficionados, for instance. Manufacturers of raw drivers and other parts for the audiophile DIY constituency also got crossed off my list. The Stereophile table could be safely passed over. And I did have an assignment. I did my best ahead of time to identify all the loudspeaker manufacturers but it wasn’t always easy to establish who would be demonstrating something in the designated price range that was truly new. (For some companies, it seemed as though if a speaker hadn’t been previously exhibited in Denver’s time zone, the product was “new,” as far as they were concerned.) Designers and publicists are usually interesting people who are easy to talk to and, once in a room, it’s hard to simply turn on one’s heel and leave without a listen, even after discovering that the speaker before you costs $58,000 and has been on the market since the second Bush administration. By the afternoon of the second day, I’d dispensed with all foreplay. Before I sat down, it was “What does it cost, and have you brought it to a show before?” I’m sure I did miss some worthy products in my category. But I did hear plenty to enthuse about, and present here my leading discoveries with what counts these days, in high-end circles, as a modest to moderate outlay for a pair of speakers.

Most Significant Product Introductions

Vandersteen Quatro Wood CT
It’s a noteworthy event when Richard Vandersteen introduces a new product, and the demonstration of the Quatro Wood CT loudspeakers ($13,900) was surely a highlight of RMAF 2015. A four-way system (that includes a 250-watt high-current amplifier to drive the two 8” carbon-loaded cellulose cone drivers in the subwoofer section), they were attention-grabbing with both Elvis Costello (“Fools in Love”) and the recording of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 (Haitink/Concertgebouw) I brought with me and tried to hear in as many rooms as possible. The Quatros don’t employ the “Perfect Piston” drivers present in the Vandersteen Model Seven Mk IIs that got a “Best of Show, Cost No Object” designation from Robert Harley at last year’s Newport Beach show but, instead, a 4.5” tri-woven composite cone for the midrange and a 6.5” woven-fiber cone for the mid-woofer. A transmission-line dome tweeter completes the driver complement. At a cost of around $50,000 less than the Model Sevens, one can see why Vandersteen (the man) insists that the Quatro Wood CT is “the best value in our line.”

NOLA is still very much a family operation with Carl Marchisotto working alongside his wife Marilyn and younger daughter Kristen to show off their latest loudspeaker, the $12,000 KO 2. The speaker continues elements familiar to those who have followed Marchisotto’s designs over the years: an open-baffle dipole design mated with a multi-driver bass enclosure. The KO2 has eight new woven carbon midrange drivers with edge-wound Kapton voice coils and cast aluminum frames. All three of the crossovers have been modified, the bass chamber has been retuned, and Nordost wire has been employed more liberally throughout the speaker. The KO 2s sounded vivid and involving, with perfect scaling of solo instruments in the Shostakovich symphony. An organ recording selected by Marchisotto impressed with powerful bass lacking any overhang—subwoofers need not apply.

Focal Sopra No. 1
The smaller sibling of the Sopra No. 2 made its first U.S. appearance at the show. To get a Focal Sopra No. 1, take the upper module of the bigger speaker (with its 6 ½” mid/woofer and 1” beryllium inverted-dome tweeter) and turn it upside down. And subtract $5K from the price: The Sopra No. 1s go for $8995. They’re billed as “bookshelf” speakers but deployed on stands, as they were in the AudioPlus room, the Sopra No. 1s sounded like good-sized, full-range transducers. The reproduction of voices was exquisite and, partnered with Naim NAP 250 DR amplification, they played low and loud without stressing at all at the demands thrown their way.

Alta Audio Rhea
Especially given their modest price tag of $4495 the pair, I was quite impressed by the Rhea, a product of Alta Audio of Bridgeport, Connecticut. These two-way floorstanders have a reported frequency response specification of 32Hz to 47kHz; bass power is prodigious for a speaker this size, thanks to a transmission-line design and innovative cabinet construction. Orchestral colors on the Shostakovich disc were beautifully represented and acoustic bass had wonderful body and weight on small-group jazz recordings. Its graceful form factor and a wide choice of finishes assure compatibility with virtually any domestic decorating style.

Tradition-bound audiophiles generally view powered loudspeakers, other than subwoofers, with suspicion: They’re so…pro audio. Here’s a product that could go a long way towards changing that prejudice. The Kii Three, designed in Germany by Bruno Putzeys and imported into the U.S. by GTT Audio & Video, is a deceptively modest-sized speaker (8” x 16” x 16”) that has a frequency response of 20Hz to 25kHz +/1 0.5dB. Yes, that’s right—zero-point-five decibels. A three-way system driven by six 250-watt Ncore amplifiers (Class D, naturally), the Kii Threes are capable of 115dB peak SPLs, should you want to get the attention of your condo association. They retail for $13,900/pr. with matching stands an additional $2500. The Threes delivered true Big Speaker dynamics and spaciousness with the old Ansermet recording of The Three-Cornered Hat. I left the room lusting for more, and hope I get the chance to enjoy these speakers in my own listening environment ASAP.

Auspicious Debuts

Introduced in April of 2015, the Dynaudio Contour S 1.4 LE ($3950/pr.) was intended to have a commercial life of only a few months. Sales were so brisk that the Danish manufacturer opted to continue the LE models—there are two—as an ongoing product range. Compared to the previous generation of Contours, there have been upgrades to the tweeters, crossovers, and internal wiring; newer “exotic” finishes are available as well.

The most beautiful loudspeakers at RMAF, old or new, were those from the Hawaiian company JWM Acoustics, who also make turntables and accessories (e.g. cable cradles). Crafted from unusual woods—obtained in an environmentally responsible fashion—such as monkeypod, sapele, bubinga, and pretty much anything else you’d like for JWM to fashion an enclosure from, the two-way Alyson AML ($6900 to $7200/pr.) featured top-notch imaging and frequency extension.

Devialet had just introduced their strikingly high-tech Phantom wireless speaker to the U.S. market a few weeks before RMAF ($3980/pr. in white, $4780 in silver). They may look like a pricey accessory for well-funded interior decorators to play around with (Beyoncé has them already), but a few moments of focused listening makes it abundantly clear that this is a serious audio device, a highly sophisticated powered speaker—3000 watts per channel!—designed to produce “ultra-dense sound with physical impact.” They do play loud, but also handled orchestral music gracefully. Stands add $758, wall brackets add $298 to the cost.

A phenomenal bargain for fledgling audiophiles (or experienced ones with a summer home to equip) is ELAC America’s entire line, though it was the F5 floorstander ($558/pr.) making music in Denver. ELAC speakers have been designed by Andrew Jones, who has created much more expensive gear for KEF, Infinity, and TAD. An audio-show-length audition revealed that the F5 has surprisingly substantial bass, detail, and spatiality; it may be the least costly loudspeaker I’d call “high-end” that I’ve ever encountered.

The EgglestonWorks Camilla ($17,200/pr.) had its U.S. introduction in a vinyl-only room. The speakers were well-balanced from top to bottom and imaged precisely. The two-way design employs a 1” dome tweeter that’s crossed over at a lower frequency than usual to a 9” poly woofer. Curved exterior surfaces are a manifestation of an interior environment that’s virtually free of parallel surfaces.

The Technics C700 speakers ($1700/pr.) utilize drivers that are “similar” to those in that manufacturer’s $27,000 Reference model—a coaxial two-way design that’s crossed over at 2500Hz. These monitor-sized transducers are available only with a white high-gloss finish that will be stunning in many contemporary décors. Listening to several musical genres underscored a growing impression that Technics is “back” as a high-end marque.

The diminutive Raidho X1 isn’t a new speaker (RH reviewed it back in TAS 252) but a version featuring a titanium-coated mid/woofer ($7900/pr.) represents a new development. The process changes the resonant frequency of the driver and thus its sonic performance. A direct comparison of the original X1 to the titanium model demonstrated more bass detail, and a generally more continuous presentation across the frequency spectrum with the latter.

In Other News

RMAF 2015 was well run and an overwhelmingly valuable experience for the industry professionals, journalists, and crowds of audio enthusiasts who attended. One negative experience deserves comment, however.

A couple of months before the show, Marjorie Stiefel, the widow of RMAF founder Al Stiefel, announced the first Rocky Mountain International Hi-Fi Press Awards (RIHPA)—“The Oscars of the audio industry,” to quote the press release. Nominees and winners would be chosen anonymously “by the world’s leading high-end publications.” There were 26(!) award categories, from music servers to tonearms to monoblock amplifiers to floorstanding loudspeakers to headphones to recordings—and, in each category, typically five nominees. The idea that any audio journalist, even the rare full-time ones, would have had meaningful experience with even a fraction of all the products is preposterous. TAS declined to participate in this meaningless exercise and one hopes that other responsible journalists did as well. But somebody voted because the awards were given as planned on the first night of the show. One hopes that the event isn’t back in 2016.

Best of Show

Best Sound (Cost No Object)
As usual, it was hard to choose among the rooms featuring the biggest and best loudspeaker systems. The suite that debuted Magico’s S7 and SSUB speakers (in a suite at the nearby Hyatt) could only cause jaws to drop—but in terms of musical pleasure, it was the room back at the main-venue Marriott that featured YG Acoustic’s second most expensive model, the Sonja 1.2, driven by four Audionet MAX monoblocks, that won my heart.

Best Sound (For the Money)
Maier Shadi, the owner of The Audio Salon in Santa Monica, set up a system with Wilson Sabrina speakers, Audio Alchemy electronics, and modest Transparent cables. Files were streamed from TIDAL. At under $25,000, this setup was within striking distance of the best-of-the-best.

Most Significant Product
The Kii THREE. A reasonably priced powered loudspeaker that needs not make apologies for achieving the loftiest of audiophile ideals.

Most Important Trend
Not sure if this is a good thing, but it was remarkable how many rooms gave the listener a choice of either vinyl or computer files as a source—but not CDs/SACDs. Is the handwriting on the wall for 120mm polycarbonate discs?

Most Coveted Product
The Muraudio Domain Omni PX1. An electrostatic with 18 stator panels that radiate in 360 degrees, mated with dynamic woofers, for $63,000. Incredibly dimensional sound. If these had existed 15 years ago (and I could have afforded them, which I couldn’t have), I might not have headed down the multichannel path.