TAS at RMAF: Neil Gader on Electronics Under $20k and Loudspeakers Under $20k

Show report
TAS at RMAF: Neil Gader on Electronics Under $20k and Loudspeakers Under $20k

Neil Gader on Electronics Under $15,000 and Loudspeakers Under $20,000

I’m no economist, but in spite of the year’s financial ups and downs I was more inspired by what I saw and heard at this year’s RMAF than any in the past few years. The mood was vastly more upbeat and the passion and energy of the attending audiophiles remains unwaveringly high. But it was in the resiliency and imagination of the industry that I glimpsed a silver lining to all the recent negative fallout. Many smart designers are avidly courting a market a few rungs down from the reference flagship buyer. This is a boon for deal-seekers. Mid-priced and entry-level—digital and analog—have never sounded as good as they do today. Is it over industry anxiety that hobbyists are welcoming a new era of modesty and restraint in buying habits? Who knows? But clearly the high-end is game for a challenge. I found gear in all categories that was scaled back in price and features but not in the level of raw performance. My coverage encompassed electronics in the sub-$15k level and loudspeakers beneath the $20k waterline. Often way, way under.

Speakers that Spoke to Me

In celebration of the company’s 25th Anniversary, RMAF marked the debut of the Audio Physic Virgo 25. This three-way design with side-firing woofer represents an all-in-house redesign based on a unique cone tweeter and midrange unit, each sporting dual baskets for isolation and heat dissipation and a technology that effectively decouples the drivers from the raked baffle. The 41" tall 64-pounder has a nominal impedance of 4 ohms (bottoming out at a reasonable 3.5 ohms at 400Hz) and a sensitivity of 89dB. Driven by the attractive Trigon Energy electronics, the Virgo 25 possessed the clarity and detail I’ve always enjoyed form AP speakers. Price: $12,500

The Avatar Acoustics room was featuring a sensuous, new speaker entry, the Rosso Fiorentino Volterra. Italian obviously, it’s a relatively short floorstander at 41** in a 2.5-way configuration. The enclosure resembles an inverted trapezoid form, top and bottom, decoupled in the center by a fully isolated crossover enclosure. There’s an 8** Nomex woofer in the sealed lower cabinet and a 6.5.** Nomex midbass and 1.12** soft dome tweeter in the ported upper module. A super-tweeter option is available on request. Price: $12,995. The sound was smooth and elegant in an otherwise superior system comprised of a Dr. Feikert Blackbird turntable with the Feikert DFQ 10.5 tonearm and all AMR electronics including the AM-77.1 integrated. Price: $9995.

But the big news from AMR is the all new tube-driven phono preamp, the AMR PH-77. One of the new generation of combo-phonostages bundled with a 24-bit/96kHz USB/DAC, it is accommodating to say the least, it will handle three cartridges via a trio of switching inputs plus a bypass, with the option of custom settings. It sports on-the-fly remote-control settings for gain, curve, and impedance. This level of excitement doesn’t come on the cheap but it was a beauty. Price: $11,995.

Another show premiere was the Dynaudio DM 3/7, a slim-line, 38** tall, two-way floorstander sporting Dynaudio’s own 1.1** textile dome tweeter and a pair of 6.7** composite midbass transducers with oversize 3** voice coils. A bass-reflex design, it has a solid non-resonant 25mm front baffle. Sensitivity is 86dB with a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. Price: $2000

The Ovator Series is expanding beyond the S-600 with the North American premiere of the Naim S-400. A slightly smaller version roughly 2/3 the size of the original Ovator S-600, it uses many of that speaker’s principles including the BMR balanced-mode-radiator driver. An 88dB sensitivity, 4-ohm speaker that weighs in at 66 pounds with a price of $5250/pair, the bass drivers are 6.5** versus the S-600’s 8** and the BMR is 47mm versus the S-600’s 85mm.

PMC demo’d the latest Fact Series models, the PMC Fact 8 ($9999) and the stand-mounted PMC Fact 3 ($7950 plus $1300 for stands). The back panel features +/-2dB treble adjustments and -3dB or -6dB for the bass. The speakers share drivers and crossover, but the floorstanding Fact 8 benefits from a much larger transmission line, which can be heard in better dynamics, with more ambience and extended bass. The speakers’ footprints are close to the same, so in my view opt for the Fact 8 if you can afford the relatively small additional cost. Credit is also owed the superb Bryston electronics including a 4B stereo amp, and BCD-1 player/BDA-1 convertor. Synergistic Research provided Galileo cabling and Tesla power conditioning.

The Rethm Trishna was one of the brightest surprises of the show. Designed for smaller rooms it retains the beautiful eccentricity of larger models, yet retains the designer’s vision with its paper-coned full-range driver in a narrow horn-loaded cabinet. The active bass is handled by twin 5** woofers in a sealed isobaric enclosure powered by an internal 75W FET amp. And the sound? Detailed and open with surprising extension given the speaker’s small footprint. Price: $4500

The Von Schweikert VR33 represents an interesting marketing innovation for these challenging times. This three-way, four-driver, reflex design will be sold factory-direct only—the only VS in the line that will be marketed in this way. Additionally, removing veneers and bringing back the 1976 Vortex Screen cloth-wrap design keep costs down without compromising performance. Designed to be friendly to rear-wall placement, its easygoing 90dB sensitivity and flat 8-ohm impedance make it compatible with tubes or solid-state. Roughly 50** tall, it weighs in at a hefty 100+ lbs each. Price: $3750.

Wharfedale’s new eight-model Diamond 10 Series looks and sounds like value with a capital V, most particularly the Diamond 10.7—a 40** tall, 90dB sensitivity floorstander that features a pair of 6.5** Kevlar woofers, a 2** midrange and 1** silk dome tweeter. Price: $1160.

And finally, Zu Audio, a manufacturer with a sense of humor to match its serious technical side, unveiled the Omen at $1500. Alongside the slightly pricier Soul and Soul Superfly loudspeakers ($1800 and $2600 respectively), the Zu Omen continues the retro trend established back in the late 1990s—high efficiency (98dB sensitivity, 12-ohm impedance for the Omen) and high output built around a classic but fully revised 10** full-range paper-cone driver (good to 10kHz) and a dome tweeter with a machined-aluminum waveguide. Affordable and fun, the Omen thrived on low-power tubes, clocking in with great dynamics and punch.

A Power Trip

Coincident Speaker Technology featured the debut of the Pure Reference Extreme loudspeaker, and it sounded fabulous (and at $26,000 it was well out of my category but look for forthcoming review in TAS). However CST also produces some terrific tube electronics, and I was particularly taken by the 8-watt M300B Frankenstein MK II SET monoblocks ($5600/pair), the Statement linestage (with a 41-pound power supply!) at $4999, and the Statement phono preamp, driven by a quartet of 12AX7 tubes with plenty of gain to handle most moving coils ($5499). Driving the 94dB sensitive Pure Ref Extremes, the CST electronics produced the widest, literally wall-to-wall, soundstage I heard at the show. Truly spectacular.

The Octave Audio V70SE (Second Edition) is the German company’s latest integrated amp offering. Revised within the larger V80 chassis, this 6550-tube-driven 70Wpc amp offers better circuit isolation than ever before. It features Ecomode power-saving circuitry and front-panel bias calibration with LED confirmation. Optional external power-supply capacitance modules and an mc or mm phono board are also available. Price: $6800 or $6950 with KT88 tubes.

The hugely underrated Revel Studio2 never had it as good as the power it was getting from the big Rogue Audio M-180 monoblocks ($5495/pair) and Athena preamp ($4995). But the big Rogue news is the Ares phonostage­ ($1995)—a comprehensive effort equipped with three gain settings and a slew of loading options. A tube-design based on the 12AX7, it handles a single tonearm, but a dual-tonearm version is also in the works. Cabling was provided by Tel Wire (as in Tin Ear Labs). The mid-priced wire sounded great in the system and is aggressively priced in the $700 to $1300 range for interconnects, power cords, and speaker cables.

T+A Electronics (stands for Theory+Application Elektroakustik, okay?) has been distributed in Europe by Dynaudio for thirty years, but has struggled to make the leap into the North American market. That may change quickly. Known for extreme and innovative topologies, its new entry-level T+A E Series (140Wpc integrated amp and CD player at $2800 each) and its revitalized nine-model mid-priced R Series have both the sound and the sonics for the long haul. I’ve spent considerable time with the now-obsolete R1230 preamp, and it performed superbly. For smaller rooms, a real sleeper might be the Caruso—a multi-source, single-chassis, Internet-streaming compact music system that is a virtual knockout at $3000.

A little outside my assignment, but one of my favorites, nonetheless, was the Bryston BDP-1 digital player—in essence a Linux-based playback computer designed for connection to an external DAC like Bryston’s own BDA-1. There’s no internal hard drive to fail because it is designed to handle “USB-anything,” via a variety of front and rear inputs—from thumb drives to external hard drives. It offers terrific isolation between audio and computer components and supports virtually all sample rates up to 24-bit/192kHz. Price $2150

One of the best values in automatic subwoofer correction just got better with the stereo version of the DSPeaker 8033Anti-Mode. Geared for 2.1-channel high end, it offers much improved dynamics and signal-to-noise and operates in a wider frequency range—from 16Hz to 240Hz. The 8033S features right and left preamp inputs with active summation rather than just the single RCA of the basic 8033C. Like the original it still calibrates automatically with the push of a button, with 24 custom-tailored filters at the ready to banish deleterious standing waves and improve frequency and phase response. Includes a calibration mike. Price: $450

More Electronic FYI

April Music hinted that a new Eximus integrated amp will be debuting at CES and will join the current CD5 with pricing in the $9k range. Although it didn’t make the show in time, Perreaux and Harbeth distributor, Fidelis A/V. will be sending TAS a review sample of Perreaux’s latest integrated amp with USB/DAC and a list price in the $3k range.

Neil Gader’s Best Of Show

Best Sound– Cost-No-Object

This category is always a combination of great gear, the right room, and a little luck. While the usual suspects impressed elsewhere my moment came as I sat listening to the Wilson Audio Sashas in the VTL 7.5/ M450Series III, dCS Paganini, Basis Audio, Transparent Audio suite. Out of the blue, Wilson Audio’s Peter MacGrath appeared and decided to cue up a couple of his extraordinary recordings. The result was musical, gorgeous, and hypnotic.

Best Sound–Lowest Price

Silverline Audio’s Minuet Monitor. Alan Yun’s teeny-tiny two-way captures the essence of music with its tonal honesty, openness, and transparency for only $600 per pair. It’s been around a few years, but recent tweaks and mods make it fresher than ever.

Greatest Bargain

LP playback is renowned for the sheer quantity of accessorizes and tools to align and optimize cartridges, but the guys at Soundsmith displayed an all-in-one single-box gizmo called the Cartwright that essentially does it all. Supplied with its own unique test disc of selected tracks keyed to each parameter, it guides the user in adjusting for VTF, azimuth, VTA, overhang. Price: $895.

Most Significant Product Introduction

The Sony SS-AR1 loudspeakers represent what might be Sony’s no-holds-barred response to current high-end royalty. In the Kimber/IsoMike ballroom they proved they are a force to be reckoned with. The question is whether they will be supported and embraced by the wider audiophile market. Pricing is yet to be established—at CES, most likely—but $20-30k wouldn’t be surprising.

Most Important Trend

I wouldn’t exactly call it a flight to value, but in this slow-growth economy more brands seemed to emphasize the more modest segment of their lines. Examples would be T+A’s new sub-$3000 components, German-built Music Culture Technology components, and Perreaux’s new integrated amp with USB DAC, to name a few.