Although the buzz in advance of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest—a high-end audio extravaganza scheduled for Denver’s Marriott Tech Center in late September 2005—was intense, I wondered if TAS might be gilding the lily a bit by sending three reviewers (Robert Harley, Chris Martens, and your truly) to cover the show. As it turned out, we should have sent four or five guys. Where exhibitors had occupied a little over sixty rooms at 2004’s RMAF, this year they virtually doubled that. Hundreds and hundreds of high-end products were on display and, try as I might, there was no way I could hear all of them. This was a shame because the 2005 RMAF was one of the best-sounding shows I’ve been to, and one of the most interesting and varied. Though plenty of “big name” product lines were on exhibit, a goodly number of smaller companies— some of which I’d never heard of before and all of which were making very musical sounds—also showed at the Marriott, often via turntables, tonearms, and good ol’ LPs. So, with apologies in advance to those exhibitors who don’t make my short list, here are my Rocky Mountain highlights.
I’ll begin with the Sound Sensations room where the high-sensitivity (96dB) Ambience Reference 1600 ribbon/cone hybrid loudspeakers ($12k) were being driven beautifully by the Audio Aero Prima CD player and the Berning Siegfried tube power amplifier—a 10W, 811-based, Class A, single-ended-triode design from high-end legend David Berning that is priced (get this!) at $800. The sound on the Barber Violin Concerto (the Isaac Stern/Leonard Bernstein recording on Sony CD—a disc I often bring with me to shows) was simply gorgeous in the midrange, and while the 1600’s ribbon-based treble was a bit bright it still sounded lovely on the massed strings of the New York Philharmonic, which can be harsh on overly aggressive speakers and electronics. The Berning amp popped up in other rooms and, at under a thousand bucks, is clearly something we need to look into.
In one of its rooms Colorado Audiophile Sound & Design was showing German speaker-manufacturer Audio Physic’s Scorpio loudspeakers ($6500)—a new three-way floorstander with side-firing woofers—driven by Conrad-Johnson’s just-introduced CT 5 linestage preamp ($7500) and venerable MV60SE power amp ($2995). The sound was wunderbar—excellent staging, bass, and inner detail.
One of HP’s favorites, Herron Audio, put on quite a show with its highly-regarded VTSP-2 tube preamp ($4995) and new M1 solid-state monoblock power amps ($6850/pair) driving Herron’s own ESP-1 loudspeakers ($TBA). Though the gargantuan ESP-1s were a little boxy-sounding—no surprise given their girth and the size of the room they were shoehorned into— they were also gorgeously voiced. I made a little note to myself that the electronics were a “must review.” The speakers, however, are out of the question in my house—there’s no way anyone could get them up three flights of stairs without a death in the family. (And I mean my family.)
Gini Systems was showing Hong- Kong-based JAS Audio Orior loudspeakers ($3750)—stand-mounted twoways with a 5" twin-ribbon tweeter and a 7" Accuton ceramic mid/bass—driven by the Audio Space Pre-2 preamp and Audio Space 21Wpc, push-pull 6M- 300B amplifier ($3990). Though deep bass was necessarily limited, the sound was quite lively, with particularly good treble and nice definition throughout.
One of the best sounds of this verygood- sounding show was found in Jonathan Tinn’s largish room, where Von Schweikert VR-9SE’s ($60k) were being driven to a fare-thee-well by darTZeel’s NHB-18NS solid-state preamp ($20k) and NHB-108 solid-state amp ($18k). The source was an EMMLabs SACD player. The VR-9SE’s are Von S’s scaled-down flagships— beautifully finished, two-piece, stacked and time-aligned floorstanders, with a powered 15" sealed subwoofer, twin 9" magnesium-coned mid/bass drivers, a 7" Aerogel midrange, a 1.5" dual-concentric ring Revelator tweeter, and a 5" ribbon supertweeter. I haven’t been much of a fan of Von Schweikert loudspeakers in the past, but the sound here was aweinspiring— voluptuous, extended, transparent, finely detailed, and as authoritative as Rockport Hyperions (which is what the VR-9SE’s reminded me of). I know nothing about darTZeel (save that it has a helluva reputation with certain audiophiles), so I can’t say how much the electronics were contributing to the overall effect, though they certainly weren’t hurting things. Here is a case where it might be worth a death in the family—or at least a minor injury—to secure a home audition
As long as I’m speaking of loudspeakers I haven’t much liked in the past, Wilson Benesch A.C.T’s ($13,500) were being shown with deHavilland electronics—the GM70 50wpc singleended triode amplifiers ($10k/pair) and Ultra Verve preamp ($2995). The A.C.T.’s—so called because of their “Advance Composite Technology cabinet construction”—are 2.5-way floorstanders. Coupled with the deHavilland gear, they sounded very open, with fine balance and excellent transient response. Unlike previous W-Bs, they weren’t overly cool or analytical.
Also mated with deHavilland gear—and sounding quite good—were the Nola Viper Reference loudspeakers ($12k), three-way, “open-baffle” floorstanders that Carl Marchisotto debuted at the show. Like the Von Schweikerts, the Nolas were one of the better sounds at RMAF—not as authoritative as the VR-9SEs but every bit as beautiful and transparent.
A newbie to the high-end scene, speaker-manufacturer Magico was showing its stand-mounted Mini ($20k/pair), driven by the Rowland 302 stereo amp ($14k) and Concerto preamp. The Minis are exquisitely made two-ways, fashioned out of Baltic Birch, aircraft-grade aluminum, and unicorn horn. I’m just kidding about this last item, though Magico’s Alon Wolf, like Kharma’s Charles van Oosterum, has a penchant for using only the very best, rarest, and, hence, most expensive component parts. At $20k, the minis take the two-way Kharma RM3.2s head on and, judging from what I heard at the show, the final call would be extraordinarily close. These are super speakers (and you know—and will shortly see again—that I consider the RM3.2s one of the greats).
High-end stalwart Avalon showed its NP2 Evolution Series multichannel loudspeakers ($1995/pair, and, yes, you are reading that price correctly) at RMAF. They were surprisingly good sounding, as were Avalon’s Eidolon Diamonds ($34k), driven by a wide variety of BAT electronics. (Best not to ask about the Avalon Isis, however.)
Canadian manufacturer Hansen Audio’s “The King” loudspeakers ($55k) sounded very neutral, open, and authoritative, though just a shade forward and bright. These stand-mounted two-ways—naw, I’m joking, they were MAXX-like multiways with seamless cabinets made from a proprietary composite- epoxy material—were driven impressively by Rowland electronics. (Would that we could get our hands on some of Jeff’s goodies.)
YG Acoustics—yet another speaker- maker I’m relatively unfamiliar with—was showing its aluminum-cabinet Anat Reference Studio ($55k, with subwoofer), powered by relatively inexpensive (but very good sounding) Krell electronics. The sound was downright gorgeous.
I took some time to listen to George Kaye’s Moscode 401HR—the “HR” stands for the late and still muchlamented Harvey Rosenberg, who perfected the Moscode tube/transistorhybrid design. Driving Dynaudio Contour S 5.4 loudspeakers, the Moscode had a rich, lovely midrange (gorgeous on strings and oboe), very nice (albeit a little loose) bass, and a sweet, musical treble. A review is in the works.
Precision Acoustic Labs Model 32 loudspeaker ($65k) is a multi-driver, line-array, rather like a Pipedream in a solid aluminum cabinet. It comes with subwoofers and sounds sensational. Driven by comparatively modest electronics— an Italian Audia Flight Pre preamplifier ($3500) and 600Wpc, ICEpower, Class D Red Dragon Audio Leviathan Signature Series monoblock amps ($5595)—it was unusually rich, rosiny, and open on strings, particularly cellos. Its bass was a little big and wooly, but when everything else is so lovely who cares?
My award for the best affordable speaker at the show would go to the stand-mounted Mobile Fidelity OML-1 ($999), a stubby little two-way sold online through MoFi and Music Direct that sounded very full and robust. As far as I could see there was nothing special about its drivers—a silk-dome tweeter and what looked like a paper-cone woofer— but it certainly sounded special.
Also sounding special were the three-way Rhino Acoustics MaxxHorn Immersion loudspeakers ($8600/pair), driven by Berning Labs Micro-ZOTL integrated amp/preamp ($680) and a JE Labs 300B SE ($TBA) single-ended-triode amp. Combining a ten-foot foldedhorn bass unit with a front-firing, hornloaded, coaxial midrange/tweeter, the Maxxhorns were unusually sweet and alive-sounding, with no obvious horn colorations and darn good staging.
Audio Federation was showing the Swedish-made three-way Marten Design Coltrane loudspeakers ($50k), driven by Edge NL Reference amplifiers, Lamm L2/LP2 preamplifiers, a Brinkman Balance turntable, and a Meitner (EMMLabs) SACD player. The Coltranes produced a very Kharma-like sound, which isn’t surprising as they use the same Accuton ceramic drivers for bass and midrange that Kharma uses and the same diamond tweeter.
In the Audio Limits room I got to hear Arnie Nudell’s newest babies, the Genesis G201 loudspeakers ($48k), driven by superb FM Acoustics electronics (the 611x amp [$87k], 255 linestage [$34k], and 122 phonostage [$13k]) and a Red Point Model D turntable with Triplanar arm ($25k). The new Genesis speakers (like the old Genesis speakers) combine circular ribbon tweeter and ribbon midrange drivers with a separate powered servo-woofer tower. The sound was superb on piano, strings, and voices, with a wonderful sense of air on top and of overall spaciousness. Though I’ve had my problems with servo-controlled bass in the past (a bit too smooth and homogenized for my taste), the G201s came very close to being the best sound at RMAF.
The AudioMachina Ultimate Monitor loudspeaker ($10k)—a handsome, stand-mounted two-way that uses D’Appolito-configured ScanSpeak drivers in a solid aluminum-alloy cabinet— had extraordinary resolution and an overall lovely balance. Fed by a French Audio Aero Capitole CD Player Reference ($9k), which has sounded fabulous every time I’ve heard it, the AudioMachinas reproduced tiny details, like the creaking of the piano bench on Tori Amos’ version of “Fire,” with exceptional clarity. Though a little dark in balance and maybe a wee bit compressed on dynamics (though only a wee bit), the Ultimate Monitors were another best of show contender and well worth a review in TAS.
The slim, elegant Sonus Faber Domus Series Concerto ($3500) twoway floorstanding loudspeakers took me by surprise. At their moderate price I simply didn’t expect such elevated sound quality, even from a speaker-maker like Sonus Faber. Driven by Musical Fidelity electronics, they were, well, great—unusually open, rich, and detailed, with surprisingly good bass for a two-way.
I can’t say I’ve saved the best for last, since there were so many fine-sounding products—many of which, like the Bastanis and Cabasse loudspeakers, the Galibier Design turntable, and Einstein Audio electronics aren’t going to get the attention that is due them because I don’t have room to cover them in detail. What I can say is that my two personal favorites were old favorites.
The first are the Kharma Reference Monitor 3.2 two-way, floorstanding loudspeakers ($20k) coupled with the Kharma CeSb1.0 sub in Bill Parish’s GTT Audio/Video room. Driven by Kharma’s own Class D MP150 monoblocks, a Nagra preamplifier, and a DCS P8i CD player, the subwoofed RM3.2s did their usual nonpareil job of soundstaging and imaging. Simply put, this is a classic speaker system, blessed with fine detail, beautiful tone color, incomparable coherence, and, with the addition of the sub, killer dynamics. Even in a show filled with great sound, the RM3.2s were still standouts (though they were certainly pushed hard by some of the two-way competition).
The second is the MBL 101 E omindirectional loudspeakers ($46k), driven by MBL’s superb Reference Series electronics (9011 monoblock amps [$73k], 6010 D preamp [$18k], 1611 E/1621 A CD transport and DAC [$42k the pair]).
Show in and show out, the MBLs continue to make their mark, drawing in more listeners than any other exhibit with their unique combination of power, finesse, and transparency. It was no different at RMAF, where, if laurels must be handed out, they would’ve earned mine (yet again). Like the Kharma twoways, these are classic loudspeakers that do virtually everything at least as well as the competition and do some things (like top-treble transients, midrange presence, and bass dynamics) better than anything else.
In closing, let me encourage those of you with a taste for great sound to attend RMAF in 2006. If next year’s show is like this year’s, it will be worth the time and money.
The Way High-End Audio Should Be
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest reminded me why I got involved in this hobby in the first place, and not just because of the dazzling equipment on hand but because of the people involved. Event management (audiophiles themselves), demonstrators, and attendees alike struck me as being smart, humorous, generous individuals who share a common passion for music and fine audio equipment. If you didn’t attend RMAF, put it on your calendar for next year and find a way to go. You won’t be disappointed.
I made a point of visiting as many demo rooms as possible, and so came away with more fond memories than I have room to share here. Rather than provide a dry list of demos heard and equipment seen, let me describe ten demo suites that, together, capture much of the flavor of RMAF 2005.
MBL/TARA LABS SUITE: TEUTONIC TOWERS OF POWER AND CABLES THAT SPOILED ME FOREVER
Nothing else in the high-end universe sounds quite like MBL’s Radialstrahler omnidirectional loudspeakers, and nothing brings their sound alive in quite the way that MBL’s own electronics and source components do. These speakers are explosively dynamic, transparent, highly revealing, and yet smooth, and they throw a wider, deeper and more natural soundstage than any other speaker I’ve heard. Their sound, quite frankly, left many an enthusiast slack-jawed. A significant part of that sound was attributable to Tara Labs’ insanely expensive Zero cables [reviewed by JV last issue].
After hearing several good sets of Tara cables, including the excellent Vector (starting in the $200–$300/meter range) and even better Airs (priced at $1000/meter), I pretty much “tilted” when the $13,000/meter Zero cables were plugged into the MBL system. They proved so superior to the Airs in every respect that the performance gap— gulp!—seemed greater than the 13:1 pricing differential would lead you to expect. An audio buddy who heard the comparison blurted out, “Holy @#%*!” Those cables make the MBLs sound like totally different speakers.” Amen, brother. The only problem is, once you hear the ultra-lifelike Zeroes, everything else is merely “good hi-fi.”
THE GERSHMAN/RED ROCK AUDIO SUITE: SUPERNATURAL NATURALISM SPOKEN HERE
Sometimes great gear flashes its greatness like a rapper showing off the latest bling, and I suppose that’s okay. But to tell the truth, I much prefer Gershman and Red Rock Audio’s approach, which is to build components so disarmingly natural-sounding that—within seconds— listeners forget about being finicky audiophiles and just lose themselves in the music. On demonstration were Gershman’s gorgeous two-piece flagship Black Swan speakers powered by Red Rock Audio’s equally lovely Renaissance monoblock tube amplifiers (they were so visually appealing I almost didn’t care if they sounded good, though in fact they were superb).
I set out to listen to “a few minutes” of Hilary Hahn’s performance of the Edgar Meyer Violin Concerto, but wound up listening to the better part of an entire movement. I just couldn’t resist, and the reason why was that I found myself enthralled by one previously unnoticed aspect of the music after another. To a rare degree, these components graciously step out of the limelight to let the music take centerstage. And isn’t that precisely how high-end systems should work?
KHARMA/NAGRA/DCS SUITE: THE ULTIMATE “LEFT BRAIN” SYSTEM?
Though TAS Editor Wayne Garcia and Associate Editor Jon Valin have always spoken highly of Kharma speakers, the things had never really clicked for me until I heard them at RMAF, where U.S. importer Bill Parish had a pair of Ceramique 3.2s and their companion Ceramique Subwoofer dialed in to the nines. Suddenly the spheres aligned and I could understand what all the fuss was about, and that would be a sound that offers pretty much dead neutral tonal balance, first-rate imaging, and an extraordinary level of focus, resolution, and detail. The effect is not unlike listening through the sonic equivalent of an electron-scanning microscope; the finest details and textures are effortlessly revealed, plain as day. Part of the credit, of course, goes to dCS’ new cost-reduced SACD player (a resolution merchant if ever I heard one), the Nagra preamp, and Kharma’s small, gem-like Class D monoblock amps. A fellow RMAF attendee perfectly crystallized my view of the Kharmas when he observed, “It’s one of the great speakers, but very much a ‘left brain’ speaker.” You don’t just listen to music through the Kharmas; you study how it is put together.
NORDOST/EBEN SUITE: A SCANDINAVIAN TOUR-DE-FORCE
Many people consider Nordost’s ultraexpensive Valhalla cables the finest in the world, until now believing the only acceptable lower-priced alternative might be Nordost’s Number Two cables, the still-quite-expensive Valkyrja. At RMAF, though, Nordost announced replacing Valkyrja with not one but four it’s new families of cables—called Baldur, Heimdall, Frey, and Tyr—all sonically superior to and more affordable than Valkyrja. In a highly entertaining demonstration, Nordost proved that even the least costly of its new cables (the Baldurs) offers greater clarity and three-dimensionality than Valkyrja, with the sound getting even better as you move up the range.
What loudspeakers did Nordost choose for this demo? The new Eben X- 3 towers from Raidho Acoustics of Denmark. The X-3s feature Raidho’s planar-ribbon tweeters, Audio Technology/ Raidho-developed piston-type drivers (said to be among fastest ever made), and internal wiring from Nordost. What impressed me about the Ebens was that they were exceptionally transparent (they easily delineated the subtle differences among Nordost’s four families of cable), yet not at all icy or analytical. On the contrary, they captured the natural warmth of good recordings and seemed full of life. These will definitely bear further listening.
CAIN & CAIN SUITE: A FULL-RANGE HIGH-SENSITIVITY SOLUTION
If you’re familiar with high-sensitivity speaker systems, the name Cain & Cain will undoubtedly ring a bell with you; if not, may I politely suggest that you commit it to memory? Cain & Cain’s speakers succeed (brilliantly) where many horn-loaded, single-full-rangedriver- based systems fail, and that is at the frequency extremes. Wisely foregoing strict single-driver purism, Cain & Cain’s $5500 Single-Horn BEN floorstanders are based on superb Fostex full-range drivers augmented with small horn-loaded supertweeters. The system’s bass can be supplemented with one or more $1500 Bailey subwoofers, the voicing of which perfectly matches that of the Single-Horn BENs. The result is a truly uncompromised, high-sensitivity design that offers extraordinary midrange and treble lucidity, deep yet articulate bass, and you-are-there dynamics. In short, this system sounds alive. Visually and sonically, the Single-Horn BEN/Bailey combo proved a feast for the senses, appealing to me in many of the ways that certain big Avantgarde models do, but at a far more manageable price.
WILSON-BENESCH/DEHAVILLAND SUITE: CAN SYNTHETIC MATERIALS PRODUCE ORGANIC SOUNDS?
For many years I played a Steinberger bass guitar made of carbon fiber, and ever since I have been fascinated with audio products based on composite materials. Surprisingly, though, it was not until RMAF 2005 that I had an opportunity to hear Wilson Benesch’s speakers, whose enclosures are made of
carbon fiber. Many people assume that carbon fiber produces a hard, cold, sterile sound, but in my experience the exact opposite is often the case, and so it was with the W-B speakers on hand at the Fest (the A.C.T., priced at around $13,500, and the Curve, priced at $7995).
Wilson-Benesch teamed with amplifier-maker DeHavilland on demonstrations whose inviting sound pulled me in like a tractor beam, with the DeHavilland/W-B Curve combo especially capturing my imagination. Without imposing euphonic colorations, these components somehow managed to convey the sheer richness of music, drawing out deep, soulful aspects of recordings in surprising ways.
FOCAL/CAMBRIDGE AUDIO SUITE: BRITISH ELECTRONICS + FRENCH SPEAKERS = SUAVE SOUND At CEDIA
Expo 2005, Focal had its new family of Profile speakers on static display, but at RMAF 2005 I was able to hear them in action, driven by Cambridge Audio electronics—in particular, by the cool new Cambridge AudioFile music server. If I had to capture the gestalt of the resulting system in just a few words, the words I’d choose would be: expressive, neutral, and balanced.
Focal’s new Profile 918 floorstanders are priced a tick below $4000, and they appear not to be finicky about electronics. In fact, Cambridge’s eminently affordable gear made them sing quite nicely. As I watched Cambridge reps fire up the AudioFile music server—essentially a cross between an audiophile-grade CD player and a really well-executed harddisc recorder—it occurred to me I was catching a glimpse of the future. Imagine a component as easy to use as a conventional player, but with a terrific graphical user interface and enough capacity to store the contents of a very large CD collection.
SONUS FABER/MUSICAL FIDELITY SUITE: HOW TO SAY “BELISSIMA” WITH A BRITISH ACCENT
Sonus Faber speakers are known for expressiveness that transcends price, and Musical Fidelity amplifiers and source components have a well-justified reputation as high-end overachievers. Put them together and what do you get? One of the sweetest mid-priced systems to be heard at RMAF. Here’s the recipe. Take one pair of Sonus Faber Domus Concerto floorstanders (about $3500), add one Musical Fidelity A5 Series tube-type CD player ($2500), and complete the system with M-F’s A5CR preamp and A5 power amplifier. The result is pure magic: a system that combines the accurate yet soulful sound for which Sonus Faber is known with the articulation, neutrality, and sheer power that are hallmarks of the best Musical Fidelity designs.
TYLER ACOUSTICS SUITE: BLUE-CHIP SOUNDS FROM THE BLUEGRASS TAS
reporters from past shows have brought back word of the remarkable speakers being built by Tyler Acoustics, of Owensboro, Kentucky, and now I know why. Here’s the deal: Tyler builds a wide range of stand-mount and floorstanding speakers, and even some bundled surround systems, that use premium drivers and parts, offer superb woodwork and craftsmanship, and sound better than you’d think possible for the price. Check out the $3200 Linbrook System 2. Study it closely and you’ll find drivers not too different from those found in speakers selling for around $20,000. Of course, it’s one thing to include premium parts and another to know how to make them work, but it sounds to me as if Tyler knows exactly what it’s doing. The company, which sells factory-direct, also offers a generous trade-back policy should you wish to upgrade in the future.
ONIX/PERPETUAL TECHNOLOGIES SUITE: VALUE WITH A CAPITAL V
Mark Schifter, former president of Audio Alchemy, now heads up a group of Chinese high-end audio companies whose collective aim is to build products that deliver compelling value for the money. And judging by what I heard of Schifter’s products at RMAF, especially from his Onix/Rocket loudspeaker and electronics, the program is right on target. In Denver, for example, Onyx debuted its new Strata Mini floorstander, which features a built-in, 350-watt, 8" powered woofer, 5" mid/bass couplers, 8"- long planar-magnetic ribbon midrange drivers, and 1" ribbon tweeters. Priced at an almost unbelievably low $1595, the Strata Minis sound at once delicate and exquisite, yet potent and hearty, too.
The Premier Hi-Fi Event in North America
One of the most unusual—and best-sounding—exhibits was presented by distributor Globe Audio. The system front end was the Audio Aero Prestige SACD/CD player with tubed output stage, along with multiple analog and digital inputs that allow it to be used as a preamp. The line-level output fed an external active crossover, which drove four Audio Aero Prestige 40Wpc SET amps providing bi-amped power to the 100dB-sensitivity German-made WGM Aura loudspeakers ($8600). The WGM features a proprietary high-frequency driver mounted in free air atop the cabinet, whose principle of operation the distributor wouldn’t disclose. The bottom end was augmented with a WGM Duo 12 subwoofer driven by a 200W solid-state amplifier. Analog playback was provided by a Wilson Benesch ’table, arm, and cartridge, with an Aesthetix Rhea phonostage. The room looked awesome, with four large chassis filled with tubes distributed around the floor. Somehow, the whole she-bang clicked, delivering a delicious midrange, silky treble, and deep, extended bass. Listening to this system was a real treat.
YG Acoustics may be a new name to you (it was to me), but the company has been producing high-end loudspeakers for 15 years, and claims a Number One market share in $50k speakers in Japan. The company used the RMAF to launch a new marketing effort in the U.S. The Anat Reference Studio combines a two-way monitor with a pair of subwoofers that serve as stands. The enclosures are extremely deep, and made from a titanium-aluminum alloy that is reportedly unavailable outside the Israeli military, where designer Yoav Gonczarowski (hence YG Acoustics) reportedly worked.
“The King,” an ambitious loudspeaker from a new Canadian company called Hansen Audio, made its debut at the show. The King is a tall, curvaceous, floorstanding speaker using custom- built drivers and a highly unusual cabinet construction. The drivers (except the tweeter) are designed and built by Hansen Audio for “The King,” and employ multiple cone layers for extreme stiffness. The enclosure is made from three different custom anti-resonant compounds, handapplied to a mold one at a time and shaped into the final statuesque form.
The cabinet’s shape, coupled with first-order crossovers, results in perfect phase coherence, according to Hansen. The $55,000 King, driven by all Rowland electronics, sounded big, open, and detailed, with remarkable soundstage depth.
The Danish-made Eben loudspeakers that sounded so good at the Montreal show (report in Issue 154) again impressed with their remarkable combination of superhigh resolution and a complete lack of etch and brightness. The $9200 stand-mounted X-centric (two 5" drivers mated to Eben’s own ribbon tweeter) sounded fabulous: coherent, musical, and surprisingly dynamic and extended in the bass. One floor down, Nordost used the larger floorstanding Eben X-3 ($14,000) to demonstrate its new line of cables. In both systems, the Eben loudspeakers were driven by the new Chapter Audio Preface preamp and Couplet power amplifier. The Eben products appear to be special, indeed; watch for a review soon. Some hi-fi systems at shows tell you how good they are simply by their ability to switch you out of the usual show mode of “quick analytical listen and move to the next room” and into the mode of “I think I’ll sit for awhile and enjoy some music.” Two such systems did this for me at the Audio Fest, and perhaps not coincidentally, they both featured “mature” audio technologies. In the High Water Sound room, I heard Horning Hybrid Perikles loudspeakers ($8500) fed by a Tron- Electric Siren preamp ($1500 with phono), Tron-Electric Cantata 300B SE monoblocks ($25k), and an analog front end composed of a T.W./Acoustic Raven AC turntable ($10k) with the gorgeous Swiss-made DaVinci Audio Labs Grandezza Reference tonearm ($6700) and Dynavector XV1-S or TE Katora Ru cartridges. Digital playback was via a Reimyo CDP-777 CD player ($15,000 Similarly, I was completely captivated by the sound of LPs played on a Transrotor Atlantis ’table feeding an Air Tight ATC-2 preamp and ATM- 211 SET monoblocks, all finished off with a pair of Tannoy Yorkminster loudspeakers. The sound was a departure from much of the rest of the show, favoring musical directness over hi-fi fireworks. It was hard to get up and go to the next room. The demo was presented by Denver retailer Audio Unlimited and distributor Axiss Distribution.
Audio Unlimited sponsored some other great-sounding rooms, including the Avalon Diamond loudspeakers driven by Balanced Audio Technology electronics (VK-600SE monoblocks, VK-51SE preamp) and a Clearaudio ’table. Power conditioning was provided by Running Springs Audio (which also provided the AC conditioning in the Transrotor/Air Tight/Tannoy room). On a smaller scale, I greatly enjoyed the expressive musicality of the new Sonus Faber Domus Concerto loudspeakers ($3500) driven by Musical Fidelity’s A5 preamp and A5 power amp, with power conditioning by Shunyata Research. This system, presented by Denver retailer Listen Up, had a musical “rightness” that made me want to keep pulling out disc after disc. From what I heard, the Domus Concerto appears to be a bargain— and it features Sonus Faber’s gorgeous cabinetry to boot.
The small MBL 121 stand-mounted loudspeakers sounded absolutely spectacular, although they had the advantage of being driven by MBL’s reference electronics. The clarity in the midrange and treble, coupled with the wide-open soundstage, had the roomful of listeners transfixed. Another of my favorite sounds was provided by the new Black Swan from Gershman Acoustics. This $30k speaker uses a novel method of both time-aligning the woofer with the midrange and tweeter as well as decoupling the woofer cabinet from the mid-and-treble enclosure. The technique, which gives rise to the speaker’s name, mounts the midrangetweeter cabinet on large “wings” reminiscent of a swan that flank the woofer module. The bass was particularly impressive, combining precise pitch definition, lack of coloration, and considerable weight, heft, and extension. The Black Swans were driven by a highly modified Denon DVD-3910 (by APL Hi-FI: $6499), Modwright SWL 9.0SE tubed linestage ($2200), Red Rock Audio’s magnificent Renaissance tubed monoblocks ($38,750 the pair), and Magnan cables.
The best soundstaging at the show, and one of the two or three best sounds overall, was produced by a pair of Von Schweikert VR-9SE loudspeakers ($60k) driven by a Meitner transport and DAC, and darTZeel electronics. The sound had a remarkable tangible quality, with lifelike rendering of timbre and an immediacy that was captivating. The sound was also big dynamically, with effortless reproduction of musical peaks.
Truth be told, there were many, many other great-sounding rooms that space prohibits me from describing, and others I simply didn’t have time to visit. That’s how big the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest has become, and that’s what a great venue it is for featuring fabulous sound. What started as a homegrown show has become, in my view, the premier hi-fi event in North America. Next year’s show will be held October 20–22 in the same hotel. For details go to www.audiofest.net.
Monitor Audio Silver RS8 Loudspeaker
Monitor Audio is known for building speakers based on its exotic metalalloy driver technology, and for some years the British firm’s Silver S line has been quite successful in the marketplace. The new Silver RS-series is designed, says Monitor, to take “the performance of the award-winning Silver S range to the next level.”
The flagship Silver RS8 is a two-and-ahalf- way, bass-reflex, tower-type speaker. I was impressed by the review samples’ gorgeous “Rosenut” enclosures and C-CAM (Ceramic-Coated Aluminum Magnesium alloy) drivers—a 1" gold-dome tweeter, 6" mid/bass driver, and two 6" woofers. The drivers are mounted in a non-metallic castpolymer frame, whose matte silver matches the appearance of the speaker diaphragms.
If you believe the stereotype that all British speakers sound “polite” or “subdued,” the Silver RS8 will change your mind—it loves to boogie. The RS8 offers an updated version of the Monitor Audio “house sound,” which emphasizes bright (but not painfully bright) well-defined treble response, a lively yet smooth-sounding midrange, and hearty, robust bass.
While these characteristics reflect significant aspects of the RS8’s sound, they don’t really convey the overall gestalt of the speaker, which might be summed up in one word: transparency. In “Texas Sky” from Lori Lieberman’s Monterey [Drive On], Lieberman sings lead vocals and, in some choruses, adds her own background harmonies, which are so subtle that they are difficult to hear through some speakers. The RS8 reveals them with crystalline precision. Similarly, when you listen to Patricia Barber’s “I Could Eat Your Words,” from Verse [Blue Note], the RS8 lets you hear the way Barber controls the tiniest inflections and colors of her voice to convey the song’s cerebral yet seductive message and how the delicate, finely textured brushwork on cymbals and snare add to the track’s dark, sultry feel.
Although the RS8 achieves a certain measure of transparency, it falls just short of an even more desirable and profound kind of clarity. One reason is that the speaker’s resolution isn’t uniform across all frequencies; instead, clarity and definition seem to increase with frequency, meaning the woofers sound moderately clear, the mid/bass driver more so, and the gold-dome tweeter clearest of all (though some find the tweeter more bright than clear). On some almost-subliminal level, your ear knows this balance isn’t quite faithful to the sound of live music. It’s not that you hear large top-to-bottom discontinuities that throw you off in any abrupt way, but rather that the speaker’s many virtues never quite manage to gel into musical lucidity.
Another reason the RS8 can sound unclear is that, at low to moderate levels, its bass is quite forward and slightly under-damped. While not overpowering, it is prominent enough to sometimes obscure soft, delicate midrange details. Oddly, as the volume is raised the RS8s become better balanced, eventually achieving a pleasing neutrality. If you don’t feel like turning up the volume, you can try trimming the low-bass output by repositioning the speakers, or using bass damping materials in your listening room, or installing the foam port “bungs” that Monitor provides as basse