RMAF Report: Speakers Over $20k

Show report
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Audio
RMAF Report: Speakers Over $20k

The best part of a trade show from my point of view is seeing old friends. Although I talk to most of them almost daily, Robert, Neil, Jacob, Jim, Chris, Steven, Alan, and I generally only meet face to face twice a year—at RMAF and CES. Thanks to the Internet each of us works out of his home, in cities that literally span the continent from coast to coast. It’s well worth the trek to Denver and Vegas—and the trekking that each of us has to do at the shows, nine to six, from room to room, often listening to the same pieces of music thirty or forty times in a row—just to be able to sit down together at the end of long days, break bread, share observations and some very good laughs.

This year our show impressions pretty well matched up (not always the case, BTW)—at least when it came to the better sounds at RMAF, of which, I am sorry to say, that weren’t all that many. Though the show was very well attended by manufacturers, and moderately well supported by the public judging from hall and elevator traffic, sonics-wise it was not a particularly strong outing—or so I thought, although I’m not sure why this was the case as the lineup was, as noted, strong. The Marriott Tech Center did lose electricity for about a half an hour on Saturday (so did other hotels and homes in the general area), so poor or insufficient juice might help account for the generally lackluster sonics. (When the lights went out, some wag on the darkened eleventh floor hall asked aloud which room had flipped on the Krell Evos.) And of course the Marriott hotel rooms are none too great sonically, even by hotel-room standards. (The Venetian is definitely better.)  It also occurred to me that the prevalence of server/DAC combos, of which there were many, might have played a part. I’m not knocking digital, of course—heaven forefend!—just opining that sticking a computer hard drive in front of any ol’ DAC may not result in the sonic Nirvana that almost everybody and his brother and his uncle say it does. OTOH, there were a lot of turntables at the show, too. So I’m not at all sure that the server/DAC thing holds water. And before you start throwing darts—and I’m sure you will before I’m done—let me confess that some of the better displays at the show were using digital, including my pick for Best Sound Overall.

So…on with the show. I’ll take the speakers in the order in which I heard them, beginning with the Big Boys in the large, particularly bad-sounding, first-floor “suites.”

First up the Primrose Suite where YG Acoustics was showing its large multiway $107k Anat Reference IIs. Housed in CNC-milled aircraft-aluminum/multilayered-alloy enclosures, using YG/ScanSpeak drivers with a ScanSpeak Illuminator motor in the tweeter and a ScanSpeak Revelator motor in the integral powered subwoofer, and proprietary crossovers said to be individually optimized for each pair of speakers, the Anats were being driven by the $128k FM Acoustics 811 Mk II amps and the $23.2k FM Acoustics 245 preamp (rare showings for FM Acoustics) and fed by the $34k Weiss Jason/Medea CD player and Black Note DSS30 Tube “digital streamer.” There was a lot of money and high technology on display in this room; alas, the sound was simply amusical. Oh, the very low bass was good on the demanding techno-pop cut I played (Track 7 of The International soundtrack—a disc that is a little dry but a killer), as was bass transient response. But overall the sound was cold, bright, and piercing, particularly on hard transients in the mids and upper mids. However, before you think I’m bashing YG, the selfsame speakers in Bill Parish’s GTT Audio/Video room (535) sounded better than I’ve ever heard them sound before, anywhere—astonishingly neutral, detailed, sweet, open, lifelike. No hot spots, no shoutiness, no metallic tinge. The difference was almost unbelievable. I don’t know what to attribute it to—the superb Soulution electronics Parish was using, the Kubala-Sosna cables (which tend to soften, sweeten, and ripen timbres in a beguilingly Technicolorized way), the room itself, Bill’s setup? Whatever it was, it is now clear that the Anat Reference II is capable of remarkably realistic sound, if everything is to its liking.

Next came the Larkspur Suite, where the $68.2k three-way Acapella High Violon Mk IV—which combines an ultra-exotic horn-loaded ion tweeter, a spherical midrange horn, and a bandbass woofer (hidden inside the High Violon enclosure)—were being driven by pricey Einstein tube electronics. Although the sound was better than the first YG room, it certainly wasn’t as good as I’ve heard these intriguing Acapella oddities sound in the past. I played one of my old favorite CDs—Captain Luke singing “Rainy Night In Georgia”—and while Luke’s basso voice and guitar were more immediate than in the first Anat room, they were also more forward and shouty—and not as realistic as I know this cut and Guitar Gabriel’s “Keys to the Highway” (on the same disc) are capable of sounding.

Next up was the Bluebell Suite where the $22k Analysis Omega planar/ribbon floorstander, looking every bit the Apogee Duetta clone, was making lovely music via inexpensive ($3.9k) Arion monoblock amps and a PS Audio Perfect Wave transport and DAC. The sound was smooth, dark, sweet, not aggressive but not lacking in dynamics, either. A nice showing for Analysis.

The horn-loaded Classic Audio Reproductions Project T1.3 with all field-coil drivers was being shown in the Lupine Suite, with Atma-Sphere electronics (as usual) and a Kuzma Reference turntable decked with Tri-Planar arm and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge. I’m pleased to say that, as was the case at CES, the T1.3s (which have been updated with T.A.D. drivers since January) had virtually no horn coloration. I threw a toughie at them—Attila Bozay’s Improvisations for Zither [Hungaraton], about as complete a test of attack, decay, timbre, and resolution as I know of—and they did well, though tone color was not as rich and decays not as extended as what I’m used to hearing. There seemed to be less top end, too, which rather curtailed harmonics.

Danish hi-fi manufacturer GamuT was displaying its large multiway floorstanders, the $150k S-9s, in the Evergreen A Suite, driven of course by Gamut electronics. Since Gamut’s owner used to be a key player at ScanSpeak, the drivers were naturally sourced from that company; the gorgeous cabinets were built (very Magico-like) of stacked birch-ply, reinforced internally by solid wood fan-shaped structures. The source was a $20k Music Life O/ turntable/tonearm from Germany decked out with a ZYX cartridge. The sound here was the first I marked with an asterisk—meaning it was the first contender. On my great Nova LP of Reiner Bredemeyer’s “Schlagstücke 5,” which can sound as if it were cut direct-to-disc on the right system, the sound was superb—neutrality, transients, resolution, tone color, and driver-to-driver coherence were all top-notch. Oh, the bass might have been just a little soft (I’m not sure of this), but the S-9 sourced from the Music Life ’table was clearly the best sound I’d hear thus far.

In Evergreen B I listened to the latest incarnation of JBL’s $60k Everest DD66000 loudspeaker, with horn-loaded beryllium high- and ultra-high-frequency drivers and twin pulp-cone woofers. The system was driven by Levinson electronics and sourced via EMM Labs digital. When I came into the room someone was playing back a CD of “All My Trials” sung by the Mormon Tabernacle choir in, uh, the Mormon Tabernacle. Maybe, I’m just used to hearing Joanie sing it with a single guitar accompaniment, but the effect was…not the same. The sound was very dynamic—as you might expect—but a bit piercing on crescendos.

We now move one floor up to the Mezzanine, where the first thing I heard was the $70k Dynaudio Consequence Ultimate Edition, a relatively compact floorstanding five-way that looks like its built upside-down (woofer on top, mids in the middle, tweet on bottom). Driven by Levinson electronics, it was not at all what I expected from Dynaudio—by which I mean it was quite musical and not overly bright and analytical. A little dark-hued with a lively touch of extra upper-midrange energy and very impressive weight in the bass it sounded swell on drum, fiddle, voice.

Next on the Mezzanine came the lovely, $57k, candy-kiss-shaped, multiway floorstanding Vivid G1 Giya, driven by Luxman Anniversary monoblocks and wired with Synergistics new Gallileo cable (so named, I assume, because you will need a telescope to bring its out-of-this-world price into focus—$40k for the cable, $25k for the interconnect). If there were an award for most-improved sound, the G1 would win (although it would have to share the award with one other). I’ll be goddamned if I know what all has changed since I heard its less-than-sterling debut at CES, but this year the G1 was terrific—neutral, fast, surprisingly airy, just plain excellent, with none of the bloat and confusion it suffered from in Vegas. Wotta difference!  Definitely one of the better sounds of the show. (Maybe that cable is worth what Synergistics asks.)

Next on the Mezz came Hansen’s The Emperor—a $60k three-way, four-driver floorstander driven by Accuphase electronics and wired with Tara Labs. This was one smooth, coherent transducer—simply lovely sounding. In the room it was in, I thought it was a bit polite, perhaps because there was a bit too much bass; still, The Emperor sounded gorgeous, as Hansens typically do.

Next on the Mezz was the $185k Focal Grande Utopia—Focal’s huge, articulating, multidriver flagship, which had such a rough debut last year. As was the case with the Vivid G1 Giya, here is another instance of a speaker that made a considerable turnaround, sounding much better this time when driven by MBL’s superb electronics. Big, bracing, fast, more coherent top to bottom, with tremendous power in the midbass, the Grande Utopia was superb on brass, drums, bass. The smallish room caused it to sound as if it were a little dark in overall balance, and I thought I heard a tiny bit of overhang on the woofer, but, good Lord, what an improvement! Another Most Improved Sound Award winner.

Also on the Mezz was the Legacy Helix—a big $46k multiway floorstander that sounded good but not great.

On to the second floor of the so-called Marriott Tower, where Focal was playing its $30k Scala three-way floorstanders. I happen to have the two-way Focal Diablo Utopias in house for review and, honestly, these things sounded so much like Focal’s two-ways with more bass that I was shocked. I played a little Joan Baez and she sounded very damn lifelike, with no excess sibilance on voice or guitar. Indeed, the Scalas were neutral, transparent, fast, coherent, and lifelike on everything I played, including an LP of HK Gruber’s big, noisy, delightful Frankenstein!! The Scalas may not have resolved the last iota of ambience, but so what? This is one excellent loudspeaker.

In room 2007, MBL was showing its latest omni, the $34k 111F, driven by the usual panoply of ultra-expensive, ultra-good MBL electronics. Folks, I know you’re tired of hearing me say this, but those MBL omnis are just fantastic. You can literally sit anywhere (including “behind” them) and hear a breathtaking stereo soundstage, full of detail, energy, beautiful tone color, and phenomenal bass. I swear it’s like going to the Berliner Philharmonie. If I hadn’t done it so many times before, I would award these sui generis musical-excitement-and-color machines yet another Best Sound of Show. As it is, they were one of the top two or three, as they always are. The damn things gave me goosebumps playing back Track 7 of The International!

In Room 2004, I heard the $71k Tidal (pronounced “Tee-dahl”) Contriva multiway floorstanders with all ceramic and diamond drivers. (The $20k Bergmann air-bearing-tonearm, air-suspended-platter record player was also being shown in this room, and it was terrific.) I think the best word to describe the Tidal sound is beautiful, because it certainly is that. Joan Baez came across with more ambience than I heard with the Focal Scalas and very good reproduction of her characteristic tremolo and her fingerpicking. Though not quite as high in resolution as what I’m used to listening to—nor, ultimately, as lifelike on something like Guitar Gabriel’s “Keys to the Highway”—the Contrivas are truly gorgeous-sounding transducers.

The $48k multiway, floorstanding Hansen Princes were being shown in Room 2013. I listened to The International again on The Princes and the sound wasn’t as dark as it was in the MBL room (a signature of MBL amps), nor was it as thrillingly dynamic. That said, it was still pretty damn thrillingly dynamic. Good speakers.

We come now to one of my two big surprises (the second awaits you later on). In Room 2017 I heard a speaker I’d never heard of, Electrocompaniet’s The Nordic Tone, a $30k 3.5-way in a beautifully sculpted aluminum enclosure. Apparently, this speaker was a Norwegian state-funded project that’s been in the works for four years and, having been taken over by Electrocompaniet, is finally on the verge of coming to market. Folks, I played Track 7 of The International in many rooms, but none of them—including the fabulous MBL room—came close to delivering the extraordinary detail and extraordinary dynamics of this speaker. The experience was tremendous, astounding (which is what I wote in my notepad). I would’ve named this newbie Best of Show were it not that I wasn’t sure, on the basis of the short amount of listening I did, whether the slight darkness I heard with it was coming from Electrocompaniet’s own electronics or from the speakers. In any event, this is one I plan to review. It could well be one of the truly great ones.

A speaker that I know considerably better—and that I also will review—was in Room 2021. For several shows in a row now, the $55k, open-baffle, ribbon/cone hybrid Nola Baby Grand Reference has been making wonderfully lifelike music. This year, at RMAF, an improved version (with better ribbons) driven by ARC electronics and sourced by a tape machine playing back The Tape Project’s second-generation dubs of mastertapes was simply marvelous—so open, so sweet, so clean, so continuous. If there was anything about it I could criticize, the BGRs might have been a little less transparent in the bass than in the mids and treble. But I don’t know for sure. Alongside the Vandersteen 7s, they sounded the most like music to me.

I transport you now as if by magic—I had to take an elevator—to the ninth floor of the so-called Marriott Tower, where Wilson Audio was introducing, in Room 9022, its new floorstanding, multidriver, WATT/Puppy 8 replacement, the $27k Sasha W/P, driven and sourced by ARC electronics. Since I visited this room twice (as you will see), consider this a first take. On “Rainy Night in GA” Captain Luke’s voice and guitar were duller and darker-hued than what I’m used to hearing—not as bloomy and alive as they usually sound. OTOH, the speaker did respectably well on a very challenging Mario Lanza aria, with only a little (perhaps amp-related) compression on his incredibly powerful fortississississimos and good bottom-end “finish” on the piano. Altogether, not great but not bad (the very words I wrote). HOWEVER, when I returned the next afternoon (at RH’s request), things had…changed. Mids had opened up. Air, bloom, sheer realism were shockingly improved. There was still a little room-induced boom in the midbass, but the low bass was now tremendous. If I gave an award for Most Improved Sound At the Show, the Sasha W/P would win going away.

In Room 9010, Carnegie Acoustics was showing its open-baffle, multiway floorsander, the $22.7k Grande Lux, driven by McAllister amplification. On a variety of music, I thought the bass was well defined albeit a little soft; the mids were a little forward, adding nice bite to saxophone but also adding a little upper-midrange brightness (though not enough to really bother me). Cymbals sounded sweet but a little down in energy, as if the top were slightly rolled. The sound was good, but not among the best.

A few doors down, in 9013, I did hear genuine high-end greatness in the $45k Vandersteen Model 7, sourced and driven (like the Wilson Sashas) by ARC. Both Robert and I wrote at some length about the Model 7 in our CES reports; outside of its integral powered 12” woofer, which is taken from the Vandersteen Model 5, the 7 is an all new design, incorporating Vandersteen’s most advanced thinking and R&D. Its beautifully sculpted, demure enclosure is built of layers of carbon-fiber over carbon-fiber struts; other than the woofer, its drivers are carbon-fiber/balsa composites. It is darling looking, and its sound…well, might as well spill the beans here. Its sound was, overall, the best I heard in Denver, with particularly remarkable midband and lower treble. No other speaker reproduced Captain Luke’s guitar and voice, Guitar Gabriel’s guitar and voice with the kind of realism that this Vandy/ARC combo mustered. They just sounded “there.” Bravo, Richard! (And congrats Robert—our Mr. Harley will be reviewing this little gem in the near future.)           

In a corner room, I heard the $51k Audio Note AN-E/SEC Sig—a plain-looking two-way box speaker that is meant to sit in corners, like a very bad boy. The thing has silver voice coils, Alnico magnets on both drivers, three-braid SOGON (AN’s top-grade cable) wiring, silver-foil caps—the usual Audio Note niceties. It was driven, naturally, by AN electronics and an EMM Labs DAC. A bit to my surprise, the AN-Es were sweet and smooth customers, with lots of bass (predictable given the corner locations) but pretty good bass definition (not so predictable). Imaging was a bit woolly (predictable), but not completely amorphous (not so).

Back in Room 9002, I came across a speaker I’d never heard before (or at least, don’t remember hearing), the $20k Haniwa HSP2H07—a DSP’d two-way from Japan comprising a spherical horn on top and a spherical sealed-box woofer in a small curvaceous enclosure. Not only was this the best horn speaker at the show, it was one of the best sounds period (and remember I’m not wild about DSP). On piano, the Haniwa was just plain terrific—sensationally realistic. In fact, it was damn good on everything. It might have been a little bit down on top, but not much. And there might have been a bit of a room-induced thump in the midbass, but, once again, not much. Dynamic range (in spite of DSP’ing and digital XO’ing) was fee-nominal. This is a speaker The Absolute Sound ought to review; in fact, I ought to review.

On the tenth floor, I heard the two-way floorstanding Merlin VSM-MX sound rich, warm, and sweet, and the quasi-Walsh-driver German Physiks Borderland Mk IV (driven by Vitus electronics) sound quite open but, alas, also quite bright and aggressive.

Like Rapunzel, we move out of the Tower now back to the so-called Marriott Atrium floors and Room 422, where the whimsically named $20k Wharfedale Airedale—a front-ported, three-way floorstander with drivers boasting Alnico magnets—made its American debut. Alas, it wasn’t an altogether successful opening night. The speakers were sweet enough, certainly, but also a little dark and boxy and a little bright on top. In Room 457, I heard the three-way, floorstanding, $23k 21st CAT Shangra-La, which, unfortunately, were considerably less special than their name. In Room 403, the $20k Avalon Indras—longtime favorites of mine—were plying (or would that be “playing”) their trade. For reasons I don’t understand, this was not a good showing for the Indras, which sounded pleasant and present with decent detail, but curiously dark and canned, short of their usual breadth, air, and bloom. Maybe it was the electronics.            

On to the Fifth Floor of the Atrium, where, in room 589, I heard the $28.8k Joseph Audio Pearl II three-way floorstander, driven by Bel Canto electronics. “Rainy Night in Georgia” sounded very delicate and full-range, but a little dark and not so much realistic as lovely. I gotta admit I tend to point the finger at the Bel Canto stuff, which has given T.A.D. speakers a somewhat similar signature. In Room 556, I heard the Audio Acoustics Sapphire ti-c—an MTM two-way that uses Accuton ceramic drivers in a very interesting box made up of seven layers of gel-coated laminates. The sound was very promising—in fact, it was gorgeous. Given the Sapphires very high sensitivity, they might be just the ticket for SET fans. A speaker for TAS to consider for review.

The three-way $20k Ascendo F—with adjustable head unit and bandpass woofer—was in Room 582, and sounding impressive on Track 7 of The International. The bass was just a little loose and ill-defined (coulda been the room); everything else was good.

Another Fifth Floor winner was the Lotus Group’s $69k-$160k two-way dipole Granada with ultra-sexy full-range Feastrex field-coil 5" driver, two cone woofers (to augment and take a bit of the load off the Feastrex), a rear-firing ambience tweeer, and (great Caesar's ghost!) a digital XO (the same, I am told, that A. Wolf uses in his near-half-million-dollar Magico Ultimate II horn system). Although it hurts me to say this, on the basis of listening to this speaker and the Haniwa I gotta admit that digital XOs have definitely gotten better (or, at least, these two have).  In fact, this speaker was so good it earned one of my little asterisks as a “Best of Show” contender (and I only gave out a handful of these). Outside of the Vandy Model 7, the Granada reproduced my Guitar Gabriel (“Keys to the Highway”) and Captain Luke (“Rainy Night in You Know Where”) cuts with more sheer you-are-there realism than anything else at the show. I know nothing about Lotus Group but, like the Nordic Tone and the Haniwa, this is a speaker that may truly be great. (BTW, the Granada’s design is uncannily similar to that of the Da Vinci Virtù, which so wowed me at the last CES and which I also think may be a world-class transducer.) I don’t know if it was the Granada or my ecstatic response to it, but soon after I left the room the lights in the hotel went out.

In Room 505, I heard the $27.5k electrostatic/cone hybrid Janszen Model 1s, driven by Bryston’s 28B amps. On “Rainy Night” the Model 1 generated a big image with fundamentally neutral tone color on voice and guitar. Captain Luke sounded a tad more forward than he usually does, perhaps because of speaker placement. Low-level detail was just superb, as it always is with ’stats. I was about to award the Model 1 an asterisk when I listened to a bit of the Rach 4 and found I could hear the cone woof (which crosses over at 250Hz, I believe), doing a little bit of woofing. It wasn’t a marked coloration—just a little reminder that when it comes to mating cones with electrostats or ribbons nothing comes free.   

Best Sound of Show: Vandersteen Model 7, with the Nola Baby Grand Reference, the MBL 111F, The Nordic Tone, the Lotus Group Granada, the Anat Reference II (Parish room only), and the GamuT S-9 runners-up

Best Introduction (or Speaker I Hadn’t Heard or Don’t Remember Hearing Before): Lotus Group Granada, The Nordic Tone, the Haniwa HSP2H07 (tie)

Best Source Component: The UHA-HQ 15ips 2-track tape deck from United Home Audio ($10k) and Tape Project tapes in the Nola room

Best Bargain: Well…in my neck of the woods a bargain ain’t exactly a bargain, but I did hear Odyssey Khartagos sounding mighty damn sweet in somebody’s room

Biggest Improvement Over Previous Shows: Focal Grande Utopia and Vivid G1 Giya (tie)

Biggest Improvement During the Show: Wilson Sasha W/P

Most Interesting New Trend: From my point of view it wasn't the plethora of server/DACs or the abundance of those Draculas of high-end audio, turntables, tonearms, and cartridges. Nope, it was the improvement in digital XOs and eq.  In at least two very impressive systems, I heard digital XOs sound, well, terrific (and shockingly non-digital).