RMAF 2018 – Electronics $15k and Up

Show report
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
RMAF 2018 – Electronics $15k and Up

Most Significant New Products 

VAC Statement 450i iQ integrated amplifier

This new and state-of-the-art Statement 450i iQ integrated amp from Kevin Hayes of Valve Amplification Company (VAC) makes a statement indeed and epitomizes extreme audio. Standing—literally, as it’s a unique vertical design—nearly 4 feet tall and weighing in at 460 pounds, the VAC 450 iQ integrated is extremely striking, gorgeous-sounding, and not surprisingly, expensive at $150k. Essentially it combines the 450 S iQ power amp, the Statement Linestage, and the Statement Phonostage. Its vertical orientation isn’t just for show. Hayes explained the reasons behind his unconventional approach: The 100 pounds of power transformers are at the bottom, isolated from the rest of the design, the rectifiers and filter banks are above, the output transformers are placed right next to the tubes for quick and direct access to current; the linestage is next—right beside the volume control and selector switch; the phono section is at the back, right by the input jacks. There are three phono inputs and gain structures with variable loading, five line-level inputs, a fully balanced processor loop, plus VAC’s patented iQ tube auto-biasing system. This stately Statement tube amp debuted in the Maroon Peak room presented by the Marietta, GA-based The Audio Company in a blockbuster system where the integrated drove the new Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 9 loudspeakers—in a glorious fire-engine-red finish—with glorious style and swagger. On playback of the CD Arcoluz from the Renaud Garcia-Fons Trio, attacks were hard-hitting and substantial, yet detail wasn’t muddied or overshadowed.A listen to “St. James’ Infirmary” from my Analogue Productions LP of Satchmo Plays King Olive rgave this listener goosebumps, so eerily embodied were Louis (larger than life), his trumpet, and the rest of the band from cymbal taps to cackles. The pulsing, offbeat tension, especially on percussion, on Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” from its Stop Making Sense live LP made for the perfect show closer. Sure, the system looks sexy/flashy but it brings technical cred, musical chops, and fun. 

Voxativ T-805 SET integrated amplifier

I first heard the late-stage working prototype of the T-805 SET inMunich in May, but the actual production model of the Voxativ integrated amp ($35k) made its official debut at RMAF. (I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing it chez Jonathan Valin, where it was paired with the maker’s amazing Pi 9.87 single-driver speakers plus Pi-Bass woofer units.) Voxativ founder and engineer extraordinaire Holger Adler’s design idea was to create the first Voxativ amp capable of driving a wider range of loudspeakers, and not just Voxativ’s high-efficiency units. With its 30W of single-ended 805 tube power, this integrated can power a broader range of speakers—reportedly some are calling it the “Kondo killer”! Conceived in Berlin and handmade entirely in Germany, this new 805-based design is housed in an elegant 120-pound chassis milled from a single aluminum block. The outside surface is anodized, not painted. Although the T-805’s exterior resembles Voxativ’s previous T-211 model, the internal workings have been reimagined. The circuit is now DC-coupled with no interstage choke for a more direct, unfettered connection between the music signal and the power tubes. A channel-separated power supply has also been implemented. The KT66 driver stage works in triode mode driven by the ECC83 input stage, delivering pure Class A. This integrated amp is additionally equipped with a preamp-out stage to drive the Voxativ PI-Bass modules directly. 

Boulder Amplifiers 2108 Reference phonostage

The first production sample of Boulder’s 2108 Referencephonostage premiered at the show on static display in Denver-based Soundings Fine Audio’s demo room. While the two-chassis affair (outboard power supply is included) retains Boulder’s distinctive and distinguished minimalist aesthetic, the 2108 represents a full evolution of the company’s 2008 model. Built for vinyl lovers who desire plenty of flexibility, it offers selectable XLR inputs for up to three turntables and tonearms, in addition to “personality cards” for various settings—Boulder’s solution for maintaining better signal purity (and sonics) than loading such selections via remote control and then running the signal through switches and relays. Each discrete input has its own card (and slot) that contains and saves loading options for capacitive, resistive, high-gain, low-gain for mm and mc cartridges. The user inserts the card into the slots, and the signal passes through the cable connection through the cards directly on to the gain stage. Also, two pairs of outputs allow you to drive both a recorder and a preamp. This elegant example of pure analog heaven—no digital conversion here—will be priced at $52k and is slated to begin shipping before the end of 2018. 

Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature monoblock amplifier and preamplifier

Vinnie Rossi introduced his namesake L2 Signature monoblocks ($14,995/pr.) and L2 Signature preamplifier ($14,995; $21,985 with L2 DAC and phonostage modules installed) where they drove Harbeth 40.2 40thanniversary edition monitors ($17,990/pr.). The preamp is an ultra-wide-bandwidth, Class A, directly-heated triode (DHT) design. Offering active balanced XLR and RCA inputs and outputs, it features a discrete, 64-step resistor ladder volume control with Pickering England silent relays, and a dual-mono power supply containing patented super-regulators. The L2 DAC module ($3495) uses top-line AKM AK4977EQ chips and Crystek femto oscillators to play back PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz and DSD up to DSD512 through a fully discrete Class A output stage. The L2 phonostage module offers one set of mm inputs and two for mc—all with Cardas jacks. Vinnie’s statement L2 monoblock amp delivers 75W RMS into 8 ohms (140W into 4 ohms) via a newly designed Class A/AB MOSFET topology housed in an attractive half-inch-thick, solid-aluminum chassis.

Ensemble Massimo Fuoco power amplifier

Although pricewise it’s just shy of my assigned category for this show’s coverage, I’m compelled to mention that AudioArts presented as a debut the Ensemble Massimo Fuoco control power amplifier ($14,975). Given its name, one might assume it’s an Italian product but no, it’s actually handmade in Switzerland; its moniker refers to the Italian musical directive “con fuoco,” meaning “with fervid emotion.” Based on a “first look and listen”—i.e., a few songs—it appears to offer the build-quality, design know-how, and clean yet musical sound often associated with electronics made in Switzerland, but for less dough than many of the big-time Swiss manufacturers. A hybrid design delivering 100W into 8 ohms (150W into 4 ohms), the Massimo Fuoco uses a combo of tubes and solid-state—classic matched ECC81 (12AT7) dual-triode tubes (with Ensemble’s proprietary “TUBESOX” tube dampers to prevent microphony) in the input stage, and bipolar transistors for output. The Massimo Fuoco represents the manufacturer’s most major update to the amp’s design since its initial production in 2006. It contains all-new capacitors and circuitry, and the transformer, main-board inputs, and rear panel (outputs and power input) are all decoupled from the chassis housing in a “floating” architecture meant to balance rigidity with a little “give,” I’m told, for the sake of musical flow. Indeed, the sound was highly detailed, voluptuously musical, and surprisingly substantial through the more diminutive Zellaton Legacy two-and-a-half-way stand-mounted speakers ($27,950).

Other Auspicious Debuts

In the Longs Peak room, On a Higher Note unveiled Gryphon Audio of Denmark’s brand-new Zena preamplifier ($17.5k), pictured below, the first production piece to be shipped. The preamp offers module options of a DAC ($6k add’l.) or a phonostage. In this Gryphon electronics and speaker system—plus MIT cables, Shunyata Research Denali power conditioner, Artesania racks, and sources that included a MacBook Pro laptop running mostly hi-res tracks via Audirvana, and a vintage Revox open-reel tape deck (with SonoruS modifications) playing back ¼-inch two-track 15ips compilation reels from The Tape Project—resolution ran high and bass dipped low on everything from Zeppelin to Ellington to Marley, and light and dark sonic elements came through with compelling presence. 

A pair of the Ayon Audio Epsilon Gen 4 monoblock amplifiers ($18,000/pr.), one of which is pictured below, were introduced in a system with an Ayon Auris preamplifier ($10,500) and an Ayon S-10 network-streamer vacuum-tube preamp ($8300) in front of LumenWhite Kyara loudspeakers ($49,900) in a French nutwood finish. Ayon’s Epsilon amps employ five KT-150 tubes and this setup combo delivered a lively, potent sonic presentation with not a trace of “tubey-ness”—fast, clean, and harder-hitting than expected on some tough tracks via Tidal, such as Boris Blank’s “Electrified,” and The White Stripes’ “In the Cold, Cold Night” where the echo on Meg White’s plaintive vocals came through and the deep organ rumbles were well-controlled. In tonal balance most playback selections registered as slightly top-down, i.e., tending towards a more treble-leaning sound, so heavier rock tracks had a touch less heft. Enjoyable listening!

In the High Fidelity Services demo room,Trilogy Audio Systems debuted its 135Wpc Model 925 hybrid integrated amplifier ($15,995), a fully balanced, zero-feedback design with triode “super tube” input stages and a combination of FET/bipolar devices for output. Along with generous input options—three each of RCA and XLR—a 3.5mm headphone input, and RCA tape outs, the 925 also offers plenty of other handy features, such as user-selectable home-theater bypass, and balance and phase controls.

TriangleArt, a SoCal company primarily known for its strikingly shiny reference turntables, has also been manufacturing electronics for the last few years. This time, TriangleArt President Tom Vu introduced the Ultimate TA-350M tube monoblock ($59,900/pr.) on passive display, and the TA-200M monoblocks ($73,000/pr.) in an active system, where those pure Class A amps powered Muraudio SP1 point-source electrostatic speakers to superb results. The source? Naturally, TriangleArt’s Master Reference turntable ($39,900).

Quebec-based manufacturer Verity Audio world-premiered its extreme—as in it costs more than a million dollars and took a decade of development—Monsalvat loudspeaker system at the show, which comes with a Pro-6 DAC/preamp processor with six-channel crossover and was powered by a trio of Amp-6 amplifiers ($58k each). A passive display in the same Primrose room (which was relatively off the beaten track) included the new Amp-45 stereo amplifier ($25k)—a younger sibling to the Amp-60—a 45W, high-current Class AB design employing MOSFETs. Presented alongside these components were a new DAC/pre ($25k), and the open main chassis of the aforementioned new Pro-6, showing its sophisticated ADC/DAC circuitry, with eight DAC processors for each of its six channels, along with galvanic isolation between its “pure analog” preamp stage—though analog input signals get digitized at a very high sampling rate before being reconverted—and its digital stage, where DSP and precision filtering, delays are handled; time and phase alignment are user-adjustable. 

Paired with Dynaudio speakers, the second edition of the Octave Jubilee Mono SE ($80k) monoblock amplifier, pictured above, made its North American debut. Upgrades include a new power supply and output transformers as well as updated circuitry; thanks to some advanced proprietary technologies, each of the eight KT120 tubes can now be biased individually, a handy feature for troubleshooting and/or tube rolling. Only the chassis design of this 440W amp remains the same, and now in addition to the standard slate rock option, customers can request granite or custom stone to be integrated into the aluminum housing.

Marantz is back on the map—now under the auspices of Sound United, which has acquired Classé Audio, among other marques. The classic brand presented a special limited-edition component from its new Marantz Ruby series designed by Ken Ishiwata, the PM KI-Ruby ($4k) integrated amplifier, a close-up of which is pictured above, in a debut for the U.S. market; only 999 units will be released here. 

The High Water Sound room on the fifth floor presented a couple of North American debuts from small-batch, UK-based manufacturer Tron-Electric—the Atlantic integrated SE tube amp ($18k) with 300B valves, pictured below, and the Convergence mc phonostage ($2850). The amp’s mere 8W of pristine power drove the Cessaro Horn Acoustic Wagner two-way speaker systemspectacularly. On a listen to “St. James’ Infirmary” from my Satchmo Plays King Oliver LP (Analogue Productions), Louis Armstrong’s vocals gave me goosebumps, so eerily present and stunningly realistic were the imaging. Ditto on the soundstaging and instruments, from clarinet to trumpet. This seamless, smooth, and effortless presentation transported me back in time to a hot, sticky night in New Orleans. A show-stopping, foot-tapping good time.

In Other News and Great Sounds

As usual, the Musical Surroundings room offered a listening treat: new test pressing of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On on Mobile Fidelity’s new super vinyl that Josh Bizar of MoFi hadn’t even heard yet. Playing it back through a BOS-worthy system with Clearaudio’s Innovation turntable with Universal tonearm and Goldfinger Statement cartridge, Audio Research Reference Phono 3 phonostage, Reference 6 linestage, and Ref 160M monoblock amps ahead of Sonus faber Aida II speakers, revealed extreme resolution and realism, tiny details and layers, huge dimensionality and lifelike presence. The background was ultra-quiet, allowing the silky-smooth grooves to convey far more musical information than I could have imagined. Wow, was it stunning. Like hearing the LP for the first time. Ah, the magic of vinyl lives on.

Speaking of superb sound and standout demo material, Nagra introduced its new HD-DAC-X ($65k) in a setup with its other HD-line electronics, a vintage Nagra tape deck, and Rockport speakers. René Laflamme presented myriad well-recorded tracks ranging from Norah Jones’ new live album (upsampled to DSD256) to Sonny Boy Williamson, plus rare gems, such as a digital file transfer of a mono recording of Peggy Lee singing “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” from 1948, where her voice displayed a more earthy naturalism compared to her vocal styles on later material. But those Rockport speakers really disappeared like never before on one of René’s own (analog) recordings where the harpist was fully present, in three-dimensional flesh, and convincingly scaled to lifelike proportions. A few show-goers walked in and exclaimed, “Now, we’re talking!”

Ozan Audio showed the Vitus Audio RI-101 Reference integrated amplifier ($15,400) with DAC option ($2700 add’l.) ahead of huge D’Appolito floorstanders from Audio Solutions of Lithuania. I wasn’t familiar with those speakers but based on the presentation’s impressive resolution and speed—not to mention hefty, jump-out-of-your-seat attacks on a digital version of Drum Variants—they sounded like they offered big bang for the buck priced at $15k. Could be worth a closer look and listen.

Scott Walker Audio and Ted Denney of Synergistic Research presented a powerhouse demo, complete with his company’s brand-new top-line Galileo SX cabling and full HFT and UEF room treatment system, Constellation electronics, Magico M3 speakers with MPods, and a modified SonoruS open-reel tape deck. The lights were low and magenta-hued, the Kraftwerk music was holographic. And loud. A fun finish to a packed Saturday show day.

In the Larkspur Suite, Aaudio Imports demo’d Ypsilon electronics—PST 100 MKII Valve preamp and Hyperion monoblock amps—powering Wilson Benesch Resolution speakers. These latter two products both received TAS Golden Ear Awards this year and lived up to that honor on digital tracks from cellist Zoe Keating to Arctic Monkeys (who, like Wilson Benesch, also hail from Sheffield, England). Playback revealed fine detail and spaciousness, and though the midrange was excellent the system didn’t skimp on the lower octaves. Another room where listening was purely enjoyable and utterly non-fatiguing, even on that Sunday afternoon near the show’s end.

Julie Mullins’ Best of Show

Best Sound (Cost No Object) 

A tie between: 

High Water Sound’s room: Cessaro Horn Acoustic Wagner speaker system, Tron-Electric electronics, Holbo air-bearing turntable. Goosebumps don’t lie. 

Musical Surroundings’ room: Sonus faber Aria II speakers, Audio Research Reference electronics, Clearaudio Innovation turntable. 

Hot on the heels were Nagra/Rockport, The Audio Company’s VAC/VSA combo, and Axiss Audio’s paired flagships from Air Tight and Piega.

Best Sound (For the Money)

The second generation of Elac/Audio Alchemy products are still a hard combination to beat.

Most Significant New Products

Unveiling the first entrants from his new line of namesake speakers (the Børreson 01 stand-mount is pictured below), Michael Børresen showed once again how superior sound can result from innovative design ideas that are as beautiful as they are functional. Also the VAC Statement 450i iQ integrated amp for its all-out, well, all-out-ness.

Most Significant Trend

The continued proliferation of integrated amplifiers, single-box systems, and modular components. Also the gap keeps widening between the extremes of the high end and more affordably priced products, with increasing divergence in either direction—with companies either reaching for the ultra-high-end, and/or manufacturers of upper-tier gear finding ways to trickle-down advanced technologies and newer materials to offer more customers access to great sound and performance at relatively more “real-world” prices.

Most Coveted

As usual, too many audio goodies to mention! Børreson’s new speakers (any model), Voxativ’s system, the beautifully designed, small-footprint Schroeder turntable, the new mini (yet still hefty) version of the cast-iron Jern speaker (pictured below).