RMAF Report: Analog Sources - Part 1

Show report
Record-cleaning machines
RMAF Report: Analog Sources - Part 1

Most readers of show reports tend to point out the rooms or equipment that a reviewer missed during the show, as if he should have covered them all. However, any seasoned audiophile/music lover who has attended the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (now in its tenth year of operation) knows that covering every room with any degree of completeness is downright impossible. Even covering the stuff you think you’d like to hear is often impossible. I’ve attended six of the ten Rocky Mountain Audio Fests and I’ve always missed something.

“This year will be different” is what I told myself last year. I pre-planned for the rooms I myself wanted to see, set time aside for rooms that friends wanted information on, pre-scoped out the rooms that tend to get raved about by reviewers, and…came nowhere close to executing my plan. But this year really was different. For the 2013 RMAF I was recruited, deputized, inducted by, talked into covering analog at the show for The Absolute Sound. Since analog is right up my alley, I figured how difficult could that be?

Remember what I said above about covering all the things in that plan I had last year? It was just as complicated in 2013. In some rooms I had the opportunity to evaluate equipment a little longer than usual, and in other rooms, not so much. Additionally, I’m pretty sure there where several rooms I missed because there really wasn’t enough time to cover them all. I did my best but…well, keep this in mind.

First up In Part 1 of my report are some of the new, updated, and revised analog components I encountered at RMAF.

Lyra Audio displayed for the first time its all-new Etna cartridge. Stig Bjorge, the head of the company, told me during our conversation that the Etna is the replacement for the Titan i. The cartridge features a solid titanium center-structure surrounded by a black anodized aluminum outer body. The structure follows the two-piece blade construction of the Skala and features the asymmetric-designed offset-yoke concept and X-shaped coil (also called cross-coil) design first introduced in Lyra’s flagship Atlas.

Owning two Titan i cartridges myself and having set them up and listened to them in several systems, I knew that the Etna had big shoes to fill. Thankfully, two rooms at RMAF had turntables with the Etna cartridge installed, which gave me an initial taste of what the cartridge was capable of.

First up was the room with VTL’s special two-input 6.5 Signature hybrid JFET/tube phonostage outfitted with special dual MC inputs. This version of the VTL phonostage replaces the moving-magnet input with an MC transformer step-up input capable of 65dB of gain (in addition to the standard JFET MC input capable of 68dB of gain). The Etna was mounted on a Spiral Groove SG 1.1 turntable w/Centroid tonearm. The preamplifier was the VTL 7.5 Series III and the amplifier was the newly revised VTL S-400 Series II. Cables were Transparent Opus MM2 and Nordost Odin and Valhalla power cables and conditioner. The digital system (which I didn’t listen to during my time in the room) was the dCS Paganini 4-stack playback system. The final component in this system was the Wilson Audio Alexia loudspeaker.

Luke Manley and Bea Lam from VTL were kind enough to spin a few of my LPs and play a couple of their own for me. The music ranged from a very explosive and energetic live Rossini performance to the small-scale vocals of Ella Fitzgerald and Ray LaMontagne. In each instance the Etna was able to pull a large amount of information from the LP grooves. The rest of the system, in turn, seemed to be able to deliver a good deal of what the Etna was supplying. The large, quick, and energetic crescendos on the Rossini Italiana in Algeri were well reproduced; Milt Jackson’s vibes remained intact; and soundstaging was presented in a believable manner on all the LPs. The cartridge/system had pretty good pace as well, and the overall sound was very good.

In the Alternative Audio Room, The Lyra Etna was paired with the AMG Viella 12 turntable and tonearm, ARC Reference 10 Phono, Reference 10 preamplifier, ARC Ref CD9 (which I didn’t listen to), Reference 150 Amplifier, and Vandersteen Model 7 speakers, tied together with Audioquest cabling resting on HRS stands. I managed to get two LPs played in this setup and the Etna cartridge tracked both pretty well. The sound had good rhythm and pace but was somewhat soft and rounded in the lower midrange and bass. Given that the Etna had sounded anything but soft in the VTL room and the Vandersteen speakers have had good pacing when paired with ARC amps in the past, I’m not sure what the issue was. A return trip on Sunday afternoon showed the overall system to have gained much more spaciousness, detail retrieval, heft, and punch, which goes to show that things tend to settle in and get better a day or two later in the show. Overall, the Etna settled in nicely with this setup.

Considering the track record of the latest creations (Delos, Kleos, and Atlas) introduced by Lyra’s Chief Designer Jonathan Carr and the combining of key features from both the Skala and Atlas, I suspect the Etna will be worthy of taking the place of Titan i. However, a more thorough evaluation of any cartridge well-set-up in a more familiar setting is a wise suggestion for any user before taking the plunge. This would be my approach as I’m very interested in working with the Lyra Etna cartridge in the future. 

Keith Monks introduced the $2495 discOveryOne record-cleaning machine, designed to have the same reliability as the original at a more affordable price point. To cut cost, the drive mechanism is now a sourced OEM unit. The original Keith Monks Point Source vacuum system and now optional (in the $2995 discOveryOne Classic upgrade) Mini Cooper washer-pump with on-deck Classic Keith Monks wash-system brush are retained.

Win Tinnon Audio introduced its new Saskia II turntable, which uses a custom-designed three-phase hysteresis (the designer’s words) AC motor that directly drives the very heavy center-weighted platter via a unique idler drive interface. As seen from the pictures, the all-slate body with platter has striking visual appeal. A tonearm (Schröder Reference) and cartridge (Miyajima Labs Kansui) complete the package. The electronics were sourced by EMIA which included the silver-wired EMIA 1:20 step-up transformer, the EMIA Phono (a two-chassis, tube-rectified, choke-input, directly-heated-triode design), the Remote Autoformer transformer volume control, and the Permalloy 50 amps, which delivered approximately 2 watts to Win Tinnon’s personal 1950s- era RCA LC-1A LS-11 speakers [RCA’s in-house monitors throughout the Golden Age—JV]. All of the wiring for the system was provided by Tel Wire.  My time in the room was very enjoyable. The sound was 1950s era high end with the RCAs, which proved how good the sound was back then (and with the Saskia II, still is now).

Vana Ltd. displayed the Acoustical Systems’ Axiom Tonearm mounted to a beautiful-looking Dr. Feickert Analog Firebird turntable, the Arché Headshell, and the SMARTractor. The tonearm features adjustable SRA at the headshell, specially sourced nano-bearings, and additional VTA adjustment via a tower at the rear of the tonearm near the pivot point. The Arché removable headshell also features adjustable SRA, azimuth, and overhang. The SMARTractor includes settings for standard Loefgren and Baerwald cartridge alignment in addition to a unique UNI-DIN alignment.

Triangle Art displayed the newly added Symphony ($6000) turntable. Also on display was the Signature turntable ($20,000) with included Walker Audio motor controller. The electronics were NAT Signature phono, Magnetostat preamp, and Magma mono amps. Speakers were the Eventus Audio Phobos. The cartridge in the Signature turntable was a Koetsu Blue Lace. The ISIS cables and Ra power conditioner were from Triangle Art. The sound in the room was light and airy without any hyping of the upper midrange or treble.

Parasound introduced the newly updated JC-3+ phonostage. The new JC-3+ features an adjustable loading selection. For moving-coil inputs, the user can now choose 47k ohms or switch to continuously-variable loading that allows anywhere between 50–550 ohms. Many users, I’ve been told, have been asking for more loading choices from the unit and will be pleased to see this new feature.

Every year at RMAF, High Water Sound is a must visit room for me. Jeff Catalano, High Water’s proprietor, is said, by many to be one of the nicest guys in this industry. I’d have to agree. In this room, TW-Acustic displayed its Raven AC Anniversary SE turntable with two TW 10.5 tonearms. The Cartridges were the Ortofon Windfeld and Miyajima Labs Zero Mono. Rounding out the system was the Cessaro Horn Acoustics Liszt ($165,000) loudspeaker, Tron-Electric Telestar GT SE 211 stereo amp ($65,000), Tron-Electric Syren II GT Preamp ($55,000), Tron-Electric Seven GT Mono Phono ($15,000), SRA Scuttle Rack and Ohio XL Bases, Silver Circle Audio Tchaik 6 power conditioner ($9500), High Fidelity Cables for speaker and interconnect, and Shun Mook and Tel Wire power cables. The sound in the room was exceptionally good. Several of the LPs I brought with me and one selected by Jeff sounded very enjoyable. The Raven AC Anniversary SE with tonearm and cartridge was able to pull off a musical treat with this combination. There was a delicacy to the music—an ease that was enticing. Sometimes horn-based systems can display frequency anomalies that diminish all of the good things they do best like dynamics, detail, and efficiency. Not so with the Cessaro Liszt speakers on this day! This was the best presentation High Water Sound has put together for RMAF that I’ve observed. Bravo!

A newcomer to record cleaning, Klaudio showed its KD-CLN-LP200 ($3999.99) 200W Ultrasonic cleaner for the first time at RMAF. The company also introduced a new adaptor for 7" 45rpm LPs to be used with the unit. The Klaudio allows for a hands-free wash and drying cycle from 3–9 minutes based on user settings. It features a nice user display and selection console and an easy change water reservoir. And did I mention it only needs distilled water? Think of the money saved for purchasing more LPs to be cleaned in this machine. I think I want one…for review.

Paragon Sight & Sound put together a nice array of components that had very good synergy. At the heart of the system were two Doshi preamps handling tape and phonostage duties. The newly introduced 3.0 Series of components (outer cosmetics to be available at a later date) included the Doshi 3.0 Phono Stage (<$20,000) and the Doshi 3.0 Tape Stage (<$20,000) along with the Doshi Line Stage (<$20,000) and the Doshi Jhor 160 watt mono amps (<$36,000 pr). The Audio Research CD9 ($13,000) was used for digital playback. Tape playback was from a Studer A80 RC Mk2 tape deck. Vinyl playback was via a Pro-ject HL Signature turntable ($12,000) with a Koetsu Azule Platinum cartridge ($12,000). Speakers were the Wilson Audio Alexias ($48,000). Cabling and power conditioning was from Transparent Audio ($67,955) with stands provided by HRS ($25,350). The new 3.0 Doshi Tape Stage and Phono Stage produced very natural, spacious, and enjoyable music during the demonstrations. Both devices in this system were very similar in sonic presentation, making them pleasing and relaxing enough for very long and extended listening sessions. Without a doubt, Larry Marcus of Paragon Sight & Sound produced the best sound he has ever gotten at RMAF. Bravo again!

In Part 2, I will continue to report on the systems and sound of some of the rooms providing analog (both tape and LP) at the show this year.