RMAF 2018 – Loudspeakers Under $20k

Photography by Dennis Weeks

Show report
Categories:
Floorstanding,
Stand-mount,
Subwoofers
RMAF 2018 – Loudspeakers Under $20k

Whenever I crossed paths with my colleague Jonathan Valin at RMAF 2018, he didn’t look happy. Though there were exceptions, he said, mostly the sound was not so great. My experience was different and the reason, I think, is pretty clear: The smaller speakers I was covering had a better chance of succeeding in the rooms they had to inhabit at the Denver Tech Center Marriott than the more ambitious designs that Jonathan was listening to. In 2019, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest will move to a new venue, the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center in Aurora, CO, and it’s said that the rooms for exhibitors there will be a big improvement over those endured for the past 15 years. We shall see. In the meantime, here’s a tour of the many new (or at least new-ish) loudspeakers under $20k at the 2018 edition of RMAF.

Most Significant Product Introductions

Vanatoo Transparent One Encore

A small, great-sounding, functionally flexible powered loudspeaker priced in the mid-three figures: That’s a product worth knowing about. The $599/pr. Vanatoo Transparent One Encore’s enclosure is handsomely finished ¾" MDF, housing a 1" tweeter crossed over at 2100Hz to a custom 5 ¼" aluminum woofer. Each of these diminutive (10" x 6 ½" x 7 ½") speakers holds four Class D amplifiers, two 100-watt devices for the woofer and two 12-watt amps for the high-frequency driver. The “master” speaker of the pair has an SPDIF coaxial input and well as a USB input, both capable of handling a 24-bit/96kHz signal. With well-recorded rock and orchestral music, dynamics were impressive and room ambience was nicely reproduced. The Encores will be shipping in January of 2019 and the pre-order price at the show was $499, a price still available online as I write this. Proceed expeditiously if you feel they could fill a need—you’ll get a full refund if you change your mind.

Sonus faber Electa Amator III

To mark the 35thbirthday of Sonus faber, the company has produced the third iteration of a loudspeaker model that was key to establishing their international reputation, the Electa Amator III. (The original was introduced in 1987 and version II in 1997.) This two-way stand-mount—the stands, with an elegant marble base, are included in the $10,000 price—has a reported frequency range of 40 to 35,000kHz, a sensitivity of 88dB, and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Characteristically the cabinetry is exquisite, though the styling is sparer and more modern than seen in the previous edition. Even in a small hotel room, the speakers imaged beautifully and voices were spookily real. When an SF Gravis VI subwoofer ($7000) was added in, bass dynamics were nausea-inducing. In a good way.

Focal Kanta N3

Focal introduced the Kanta N2 at RMAF 2017 and the rest of the line—Kanta N($8000), Kanta N($12,000), and Kanta Center ($6000)—were debuted at this year’s show. Like N2, the three new loudspeakers have Focal’s flax drivers, a sandwich construction that, unlike the cones in the manufacturer’s pricier models, can be mass-produced by a machine, significantly lowering costs. The Kanta Nsports Focal’s excellent inverted dome beryllium tweeter, a 6 1/8" midrange, and two 8" bass drivers. Driven by Naim electronics, an NDX 2 network music player ($7495) and a Uniti Nova integrated DAC streamer (also $7495), the biggest Kantas manifested precise imaging and prodigious bass—as much as it was possible to tell in a room where more than one speaker was being played at the same time.

PranaFidelity Bhava

PranaFidelity, a company that builds its loudspeakers and electronics in Denver, demonstrated the robust stand-mounted Bhava ($4950). Designer Steven Norbar, previously a principal in EDGE electronics, put the new speaker through its paces. The Bhava employs a 30mm tweeter with a neodymium magnet and closed rear-chamber construction; there are two 6" long-throw woofers positioned both above and below the high-frequency driver, a “symmetrical two-way” configuration. Norbar offered that there are adjustable “tuning circuits” in the Bhava’s crossover. The Bhava’s eight-sided enclosure—the show sample was painted a sexy Alpha Romeo Red—is fabricated from a treated MDF material called Medite. The loudspeaker is ported to the front, which can potentially make positioning the Bhava near a room boundary less problematic. Sonically, the speaker was notably uncolored: Listening to Adagio d’Albinoni,a perennial audio show favorite, Gary Karr’s string bass, operating in its highest register, didn’t sound like a woozy cello. 

MJ Acoustics Kensington Sub-Bass System

MJ Acoustics is a British manufacturer devoted almost exclusively to making subwoofers. Of the five lines of subs they produce, the Master-Class series is the most exalted and the Kensington ($3995) is the middle of three models. The substantial MDF enclosure is beautifully finished with either wood veneer or high-gloss paint, and the top surface is a toughened glass mantle. Inside are two 10" ultra-long-throw drivers, built in-house and powered by 550-watt MOSFET amplifiers. The Kensington can accept an LFE input in a home theater application, but for stereo music reproduction the sub is intended to run off the main amplifiers via a Neutrik connection. A free app turns one’s cell phone into a remote control with up to four presets to adjust the Kensington’s volume and LFE roll-off frequency on the fly.

Auspicious Debuts

Muraudio SP1

An electrostatic/dynamic hybrid, the Muraudio SP1 ($14,700) produced impressively detailed and transparent sound with both symphonic fare (Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter from Witches’ Brew) and a jazz quartet (Dave Brubeck’s Time Further Out)Handclaps on the latter were startling in their speed and impact. The four 6" aluminum cones, a pair in each of two sealed enclosures, are crossed over at 750Hz to the ultra-light Mylar membrane.

AudioKinesis SuperStands

The always-affable Duke LeJeune of AudioKinesis conceived his SuperStands—a pair of 25Hz sealed subwoofers with LeJeune’s “Space Generator” plus a dedicated amplifier to drive them ($3500)—as a platform on which to perch your favorite smaller speakers. Duke deadpanned: "We’re optimists. Every listener with a pair of mini-monitors is a potential customer." You’ve got to admire that kind of entrepreneurial spirit. With LeJeune’s Azel Stand Mount speakers ($4800) on the SuperStands, plus a pair of outboard subs ($1500), bass reproduction in the small and otherwise inhospitable hotel room was smooth and powerful. 

EgglestonWorks Emma EVO

The latest iteration of one of EgglestonWorks least costly loudspeakers, the Emma EVO ($5495), performed at a level that fully reflected the brand’s sonic reputation. Driven by pricey Brinkmann electronics (the total cost of the Nyquist MkII streaming DAC, Marconi MkII line preamplifier, and Brinkmann’s monoblocks came in at well over fifty grand), soundstage depth and dynamics were stunning. The speaker revealed loads of orchestral detail—for example, the tambourine at the back of the stage in “Dance of the Tumblers”, the opening cut from Reference Recordings’ Exotic Dances from the Opera.

ArtistCloner Rebel Reference

ArtistCloner, of Montreal, played Edition 6 of their Rebel Reference ($11,999, with stands), a 16" x 9" x 14.5" powerhouse. New to this version is a crossover with a series topology that has no capacitors in the circuit, said to result in better blending of the two drivers. The cabinet is comprised of two layers of ½" HDF to provide constrained damping benefits; the show pair sported a gorgeous charcoal automotive finish. The advertising copy promises “a bookshelf speaker that thinks it’s a full-range” and the Rebel Reference, powered by a Scorpi integrated amplifier ($9999) and playing files from a Merging PL8 NADAC + player ($13,500), acquitted itself more than adequately with Iván Fischer’s Channel Classics recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

Dali Oberon 7

One of the more exceptional values I came across was Dali’s new Oberon 7 ($1399) that will be available in November. The two-and-a-half-way floorstander employs a new “oversized” (29mm) Dali-produced dome tweeter and a pair of 7" wood fiber cones that borrow the SMC magnet system from the company’s more expensive models. Driven by suitably priced NAD electronics, a 368 integrated amplifier with DAC ($899) and a C 268 amp ($799), both operating in bridged mode to output 300 watts per channel, “Dance of the Tumblers” was tonally balanced with plenty of dynamic headroom. I actually preferred the sound to that of Dali’s more expensive Calisto ($5750) that was playing in the room next door.

Audio Solutions Figaro XL

Audio Solutions hails from Lithuania and the company’s Figaro XL ($15,000), the flagship of the new Figaro line, is a bigspeaker, over five-and-a-half feet tall and tipping the scale at roughly 230lbs. The cabinet is constructed from plywood using self-locking T-joints—no glue is involved—and the driver complement includes a 1" silk dome tweeter, a pair of 6" paper cone mids, and four 9" woofers deployed in a D’Appolito arrangement. Powered by a 300-watt Vitus R1 100 integrated amplifier ($15,400) there was excellent depth and rich tonal characterization of orchestral instruments; the speakers easily maintained their composure with the Big Phat Band playing full-out on “Act Your Age.”

In Other News

The Klipsch La Scala Heritage will be shipping within the next few months. To the untrained eye, the fully horn-loaded enclosure doesn’t look a hell of a lot different from the original version introduced back in 1963; I guess that’s the idea. We’re told that the tweeter (like the midrange, a phenolic diaphragm compression driver) has been updated and there’s AudioQuest wire inside. The price for a pair is $9998. Revel was showing off its $10,000 Performa F228Be, a three-way, four-driver design that’s described by its handlers as “an Ultima speaker in a Performa cabinet.” On a Maroon Five track, bass and kick drum really locked in. Coming in January 2019 is the $799/pr. Kanto TUK, a powered loudspeaker with an AMT tweeter and an aluminum concave cone woofer. The “master” speaker of the pair features a USB DAC and analog inputs as well as a headphone jack (!) and subwoofer out. At reasonable levels, I heard good transparency and well-articulated bass.

All five of the drivers in the Markaudio-Sota Viotti are run full-range. With PS Audio gear behind them, the sound was dynamic and Bonnie Raitt’s voice (on “I Can’t Make You Love Me”) was gratifyingly uncolored. JWM Acoustics demo’d an updated version of the Alyson AML II—it now gets an "SE" designation—beginning at $8500, depending on finish. Designer Joshua W. Miles has devised a way to mount the front wood panel without having it actually touch the baffle behind, with audible benefits. New to the U.S. is the Technics Ottava SC-C50 loudspeaker ($799), an arc-shaped compact metal speaker with each of the seven drivers (in this 3.1 system) serviced by its own digital amplifier. The SC-C50 accepts optical digital, USB, Ethernet, and analog inputs though I suspect most users will go wireless. Chromecast is integral, allowing a range of streaming services. Pretty much all formats are supported, including 2.8 and 5.6MHz DSD. The QLN Prestige 3 ($10,000) gave commanding presentations of both Mahler’s Third and Led Zeppelin, a neat trick. Finally, the most impressive performance by a total unknown came courtesy of Gill Audio, of Stone Mountain, Georgia. The Cassina 10 ($6900) is a three-way loudspeaker with a cabinet shape reminiscent of Avalon’s enclosures. Solo violin was beautifully reproduced and I’d also wax enthusiastic about how accurately the Cassinas rendered the voice of a certain Diana someone-or-other—except I’d have to own up to requesting such fare at an audio show…

As a preamble to my BOS winner Von Schweikert Audio ULTRA 9 described below, I wanted to share some thoughts about these VSA speakers’ on-the-fly fine-tuning capabilities.

While I have heard plenty of large, complex (and vastly expensive) loudspeakers perform as well as the VSA ULTRA 9s in other settings—a palatial domestic listening space, a manufacturer’s factory testing area, a committed dealer’s biggest demonstration room—this was the most impressive showing of such a product at a trade show I’ve experienced. VSA’s Damon von Schweikert and Leif Swanson had met their 600-pound-per-side speakers at the Marriott on Thursday, and it was late Saturday afternoon that I got my hour with them in a 20' by 25' meeting room that, obviously, lacked much in the way of acoustic treatment. Yet I heard the reproduction of scale, naturally resolved detail, and power that I’ve heard from other mega-speakers in more painstakingly optimized settings. 

I believe the reason that VSA could bring this off—beyond the deeply considered design and no-holds-barred execution of this flagship product—were the analog controls located on the rear panel of each loudspeaker that allow for on-the-fly adjustment of tonal balance. There are controls for subwoofer level and frequency, front tweeter and super-tweeter levels (20-position auto-formers that VSA insists don’t degrade the sound), and a rear ambience level control. Damon and Leif had tweaked the system in time for the show and were happy with its performance, but begged me to find fault as I listened to the familiar music I’d brought. With a little effort, I concluded that Kevyn Lettau’s vocals on her meticulously engineered and mastered Songs of The Police [JVC XRCD24-NT012] sounded slightly dull and airless compared to what I was used to at home through my Magicos. Damon and Leif each went behind a speaker and, within 45 seconds of adjusting the tweeter controls per my feedback, had restored the missing sparkle and openness to Lettau’s voice. I don’t think the expectation is that ULTRA 9 owners will be using these dials as tone controls on every recording. Rather, the significance of this feature is that it greatly increases the likelihood of getting a substantial world-class loudspeaker to work well in a real-world listening room.  

Andrew Quint’s Best of Show

Best Sound (Cost No Object)

Von Schweikert Audio ULTRA 9 loudspeakers ($200,000), driven by a VAC Statement 450 iQ integrated amplifier ($150,000). I brought five favorite CDs in various genres to be played on an Esoteric digital “stack” comprised of the $38,000 Grandioso P1 transport, two $19,000 Grandioso D1 monoblock DACs, and the $20,000 G-01 rubidium clock. It was like hearing the music for the first time.

Best Sound (For the Money)

ELAC Adante AS-61 ($2500) driven by Audio Alchemy electronics—a DDP-2 DAC/preamplifier/streamer ($2500) and a DPA-2 power amp ($2500)—with an ELAC SUB3070 subwoofer ($2500) thrown in for good measure. Other rooms had cables costing as much as this whole shebang and didn’t come close.

Most Significant Product

Von Schweikert Audio ULTRA 9 loudspeakers. Though the room was bigger than most, conditions were still far from ideal. Yet the listening experience was transcendent. 

Most Significant Trend

Integrated amps. Fewer boxes, fewer wires, less expensive—what’s not to like?

Most Coveted Product

I’ll choose something I could actually use in my own listening room, YG Acoustics Sonja 2.2s ($76,888). These were played at the Classic Album Sundays sessions, always a RMAF highlight for me. Steely Dan’s Aja never sounded better.

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