The 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

Robert Harley on Affordable Loudspeakers and Show Highlights

Show report
The 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

I gave myself the assignment of searching for the best-sounding affordable loudspeakers at this year’s show. Sure, it’s fun to listen to the megabuck systems, but there’s something rewarding about discovering great-sounding speakers that nearly any music lover can afford. Of all the systems I heard at the show I’ve cherry-picked the very best sounding, highest-value speakers that are also new to the U.S. market and have not been covered previously in TAS. Most are priced below $6000, with one stunning surprise costing just shy of a grand.

Neat Acoustics of England makes some great-sounding loudspeakers, but the company has had a low profile in the U.S. because of on-again-off-again distribution. Now the company has a new distributor, High-Fidelity Services, and a new generation of the popular Motive line of speakers, priced from $1795 to $2995 per pair. The Motive XS series benefits from an entirely new tweeter based on an anodized aluminum dome. The ultra-minimalist crossovers feature expensive Mundorf capacitors—surprising at this price point. In addition, cabinet bracing has been improved, and the tweeter now resides its own sub-enclosure.

The Motive SX line comprises three models; the SX3 ($1795) is a two-way stand-mount, the diminutive floorstanding SX2 ($2395), and the larger floorstanding three-driver, 2.5-way SX1 at $2995 per pair. Each model is available in one of four finishes, walnut, black oak, natural oak, and satin white. I was greatly impressed by the SX2; the sound was smooth, natural, and engaging. The bass extension and dynamics were surprising from a speaker of this size and price. But it was another Neat speaker that absolutely blew me away—the $995 per pair Iota. This tiny monitor, designed to be positioned near a rear wall, features a 4” mid/woofer coupled to a 2” planar-magnetic tweeter. The sound was big, robust, and went far lower in the bass than the cabinet dimensions or woofer size would suggest. But beyond that, the Iota had a sweetness in the midrange and treble that was in sharp contrast with the hardness and glare endemic in this genre. Moreover, the Iota threw a wonderfully developed soundstage. The Iota gets my vote for greatest bargain at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Watch for a review. Incidentally, Neat doesn’t just make entry-level speakers. The company offers eleven models, with the flagship Ultimatum XL10 topping out at $31,195 per pair.

Dynaudio’s newly revised Excite line made its North American debut in Denver. I saw this line’s launch at the Munich show in May, but wasn’t able to audition them. At this show I had an extended listen to the largest floorstander, the Excite X38 ($4500 per pair) as well as the slightly smaller Excite X34 ($3400 per pair). They were driven by the excellent German-made Octave Audio tubed integrated amplifiers. The smaller floorstander fared better in the tiny hotel room than its larger sibling, but both exhibited seamless integration between drivers, tremendous midrange clarity, and a powerful bottom-end. I was struck by the naturalness of piano through the X34; it had an intelligibility that’s rare in any loudspeaker, never mind one priced at $3400. The X34 also played “bigger” than its cabinet dimension and driver complement, spatially, dynamically, and in bass extension. Mike Manousselis of Dynaudio North America, insisted that I listen (briefly) to a track with extremely powerful synthesized bass at a high playback level; my choice of music didn’t begin to explore this loudspeaker’s capabilities. I thought I was listening to a speaker at least three times the size, the bottom end was so extended. Despite the over-the-top bass and listening level, the X34 remained composed. It’s worth mentioning that this dynamic performance was delivered by 70 tubed watts, courtesy of the Octave Audio V70SE integrated amp ($7000).

Although far from new to the U.S. market, I also greatly enjoyed Dynaudio’s Confidence C1 ($8500) driven by some innovative electronics from Germany’s T+A, specifically, the MP 3000HV CD transport/DAC/streamer ($12,500) feeding the T+A PA 3000 integrated amplifier. Watch for more on the T+A electronics in the coming months.

I found another good-sounding, high-value loudspeaker from newcomer Endeavor Audio Engineering. This new California-based company launched the brand with three models, the E-1 stand-mount at $1495 per pair, the larger dual-woofer stand-mount E-2 at $3500, and the three-way floorstanding E-3 priced at $5995. All the products are built entirely in California, with drivers sourced from Denmark. The E-3 is a tall and slender model with cabinet that tapers from 9” wide in the front to 5” in the rear, thus eliminating parallel surfaces. The 82-pound E-3 features dual 7” aluminum-cone woofers mated to a 6” Kevlar midrange and a Dual Ring Radiator tweeter from Vifa. Driven by CI Audio’s D-200 Mk.II monoblocks ($4000 per pair), the VAC Standard preamp, and a YFS music server, the E-3 was highly engaging, with an assertive and upbeat presentation. This is a lot of loudspeaker for $6000.

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