Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2019: Electronics and Analog

Show report
Categories:
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Turntables,
Cartridges,
Tonearms
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2019: Electronics and Analog

The high-end audio industry approached this year’s Denver show with more than a bit of trepidation. The venue was new and unknown, and the cost to exhibit significantly higher, leading many potential exhibitors to take a wait-and-see attitude. Consequently, the show was smaller than in previous years, with about 80 rooms. Moreover, poor communication about the “trade-only” day on the Thursday before the show’s public opening on Friday resulted in many exhibitors thinking that the trade day was actually set-up day. Throw in poor signage on Thursday, the great walking distances inside the sprawling convention center complex that is the Gaylord Rockies Resort, and initial disorganization (no show guides until late Thursday), and the show appeared to be headed for disaster.

But once the crowds arrived on Friday, all was forgiven. Attendance seemed good, but it was hard to gauge because the show was so spread out. But every exhibitor I spoke with was thrilled by the quantity and quality of attendees. In addition, the venue was well suited to an audio show, with superb-sounding exhibit rooms and plenty of big spaces to showcase large systems, along with ample and quick elevators (a problem at the old venue). I expect that this year’s exhibitors will be back next year along with many who sat it out this time.

My beat this year was electronics and analog. Here are the highlights.


The PrimaLuna line of super-high-value tube electronics has been completely overhauled and upgraded from top to bottom. U.S. distributor and retailer Upscale Audio showed the new EVO series that includes four integrated amplifiers, four preamps, and four power amps. The integrated amps range from the $2295 EVO 100 (40Wpc) to the $4999 EVO 400 (70Wpc). The new integrateds now include a headphone output that’s taken off the speaker taps. The amplifiers are packed with super-premium parts and design techniques, including PrimaLuna’s Adaptive AutoBias, point-to-point internal wiring, ALP’s Blue Velvet volume control, and relays rather than a switch for selecting sources. The two upper models feature balanced connectivity, upgraded resistors and capacitors, Swiss-made silver plated OCC internal wiring, along with additional features. The Adaptive AutoBias allows you to use a wide range of output tubes without manually adjusting the bias. In fact, PrimaLuna demonstrated the new power amplifier with eight different output tubes running simultaneously in the same amplifier! The styling retains the classic PrimaLuna look, but with upgraded metalwork. Four new EVO preamplifiers and four EVO power amplifiers round out the new line. The preamps and amps are also called, confusingly, EVO 100, EVO 200, EVO 300, and EVO 400, and follow a similar hierarchy as the integrated amps. All the preamps, which range in price from $1999 to $4699, are dual-mono design with tube rectification. The stereo power amplifiers sell for $1999 to $4699, but can be operated as monoblocks.


Upscale Audio is also now importing the gorgeous Pathos line from Italy. On display were the 20Wpc Classic Remix hybrid (tube input stage, solid-state output) at $3095 and the 45Wpc InPol2 at $9495. The latter amp features Pathos’ InPol Class A output stage. All the Pathos products dripped with luxurious Italianate styling. TAS’ tube maven Dick Olsher and I visited the room together to line up some reviews of both PrimaLuna and Pathos.

The most ambitious integrated amplifier at the show had to be the new Vitus SIA-30, a model above the SIA-25 that Neil Gader swooned over several years ago. Forget everything you know about integrated amplifiers; the $40,000 SIA-30 is built like dreadnought separates, but in a single massive (120-pound) chassis. Much of the weight is consumed by the huge, fully regulated power supply. The SIA-30 outputs 30Wpc in Class A, and can deliver 200W in A/B into 8 ohms. These figures double into 4 ohms. The SIA-30 sounded terrific driving Audio Solutions Virtuoso M speakers from Lithuania. The modular architecture can accept optional streaming and phono boards. Vitus and Audio Solutions are distributed in the U.S. by High-End by Oz, who has just set up factory-authorized service for all Vitus products in the U.S. Vitus is a world-class electronics line with a strong following around the world, but has not had solid U.S. distribution until now. Watch for a review.

     

Balanced Audio Technology celebrated its 25-year anniversary by introducing the third generation of its flagship Rex preamplifier and power amplifier. The goal was to retain the classic Rex musicality while making the electronics more transparent. The all-tube $30k Rex 3 preamplifier and $25k Rex 3 power amplifier sport an all-new look, with aluminum chassis rather than stamped steel. The power amp is rated at 80Wpc of pure triode power, or 160W when used as a monoblock. Both begin shipping in December.


The new, stunning-looking McIntosh MA352 integrated amp made its debut at the show. This new product has a tube phonostage and tube linestage coupled to a solid-state output section. The phonostage is integral, and no digital capability is offered. The polished chrome front panel features a five-band equalizer.

           

European Audio Team (EAT) is an offshoot of the massively successful turntable and electronics manufacturer Pro-Ject, and leverages that association to bring to market very high value products through the parent company’s economy of scale. A good example is the $9995 E-Glo all-tube integrated amplifier with a unique circuit, high-level execution including a stepped-attenuator volume control, and beautiful metalwork. The E-Glo 1 is supplied with Electro-Harmonix tubes, with EAT’s own in-house-made KT-88s as an upgrade. EAT distributor VANA also introduced a new cable line from Scotland called Atlas. An Atlas technician was on-site during the show to demonstrate how they terminate their cables. The cable’s design and construction were impressive, particularly considering the prices, which start at $99 for an interconnect.

Leave it to Elac to offer a full-featured and powerful streaming amplifier at an affordable price. The $750 Discovery DS-A101 made a great showing with Elac’s $499 Debut Reference DBR62 stand-mount speakers, for a total system price of $1250. The 40Wpc Discovery is Roon-Ready, offers every type of wireless streaming as well as Ethernet, and includes app control along with some kind of room correction.

   

Danish company Aavik Acoustics introduced a new version of the U-300 integrated amplifier that Don Saltzman reviewed in Issue 263. The new U-380 incorporates the preamplifier section from the C380 preamp, and adds a new DAC with DSD capability. The Class D powerhouse (300Wpc) can be ordered with two phono inputs by omitting the DAC. Price: $39,000.


At the more affordable end, Cambridge Audio debuted an updated version of its popular CX series, specifically the new CXA61 and CXA81 integrated amplifiers. Both models offer additional connectivity including Bluetooth streaming and improved USB input. The CXA81 features the new ESS Sabre ES9016K2M DAC that supports 384/24 PCM as well as DSD256. The 80Wpc CXA81 will sell for $1299 when it begins shipping in October. The 60Wpc CXA61 is priced at $999.

Also on the affordable integrated amplifier front, Parasound demonstrated (with speaker maker Tekton) the NewClassic 200, a 110Wpc Class D model that features the same DAC as in the Halo P5. The $1199 NewClassic 200 also offers a phono input along with a subwoofer output with analog bass management. It’s packed with features, and sounded quite good in the demo.


Krell has updated its amplifier line to XD status, including the Duo 300 XD demonstrated at the show. The circuit features a very low output impedance for a high damping factor, along with a very fast slew rate. The amplifier features Krell’s iBias technology, a variable bias scheme that keeps the output stage in Class A operation up to 300Wpc without the heat dissipation and massive power supplies, output stage, and heat sinks of a fixed-bias Class A amplifier. The XD power amplifiers were designed by a 32-year veteran of Krell.

 

Vinnie Rossi showed the new Signature Edition integrated amp which features a zero-feedback direct-heated triode preamp section driving a 100Wpc MOSFET output stage. The amp is bristling with tweaky design touches including dual-mono construction, a discrete 64-step resistor-ladder volume control, and integral Stillpoints feet on the machined aluminum chassis. Phono input and a DAC module are options. Price: $18,995.

    

Although primarily known for its outstanding music servers, Lumin also makes power amplifiers. Distributor Source Systems demonstrated the Lumin servers with the Lumin Amp (that’s its name). The Amp is a true dual-mono design housed in a case machined from a solid aluminum block, and features fully discrete input and voltage gain stages. The Class AB amp delivers 160Wpc into 8 ohms, and doubles that rating into 4 ohms. It can operate as a stereo amplifier or monoblock.


In its first amplifier introduction in nine years, Simaudio launched the Moon 860A V2. The techniques the engineers developed for the 860A were reportedly such an improvement over the company’s previous designs that Simaudio discontinued the 870 and 880 models above it, making the 860A the second in line below the mighty 888 monoblocks. In fact, the entire gain section was taken right from the flagship 888. The dual-mono, fully differential 860A outputs 225Wpc into 8 ohms, and can double that figure into 4 ohms. Price: $18,000.


Analog

PS Audio introduced the $2499 Stellar Phono Preamplifier, a fully discrete Class A circuit (no op-amps) with adjustable loading via the remote control. The two inputs can accept a wide range of cartridges, including very-low-output moving-coil models thanks to the whopping 70dB of gain. Outputs are both single-ended and balanced. PS Audio’s first product was a phonostage back in 1975. Incidentally, PS Audio co-founder Paul McGowan’s just-published autobiography 99% True offers an interesting insight into what’s involved in starting and running an audio company. It’s a tale of resilience and bouncing back from defeats—and an engaging read.


Rega distributor Sound Organisation showed the recently introduced Planar 8 and gave me some hints about the upcoming Planar 10 turntable. The Planar 8 features the “skeletal plinth” design that combines very low mass with very high rigidity. It sells for $3100 without cartridge, or $3800 with Rega’s Athena. The Planar 10 will be built on the same plinth but feature a ceramic platter, outboard power supply, and upgraded ’arm. Price: TBD. Sound Organisation also showed the new Rega Aura phonostage ($6000), a moving-coil-only design with 63.5dB or 69.5dB of gain and front-panel loading adjustments. It appears to be designed and built to a very high standard.

Venerable British turntable manufacturer SME introduced, via U.S. distributor Bluebird Music, the company’s entry-level Model 12, which replaces the Model 10. The new ’table has higher mass than its predecessor, with adjustable feet from SME’s upper-end Synergy turntable for greater isolation. Other upgrades include better electronics for lower noise, and the integral 309 tonearm is now wired with Crystal Cable. The Model 10’s increased mass and stability reportedly bring its performance closer to the company’s Model 15. Price: $10,900.

Bluebird Music also showed the new Chord Huei phonostage ($1495). The diminutive chassis is machined from solid aluminum, and the Huei offers both balanced and single-ended outputs along with front-panel gain and loading adjustments. It is powered by a small outboard supply.


Schiit Audio introduced its first turntable, the $799 Sol. Although shown at AXPONA, the company just started shipping the turntable on the show’s opening day. Schiit’s economy-of-scale manufacturing allowed them to invest in tooling to injection-mold the metal chassis. The Sol comes with a unipivot tonearm that is designed for easy swapping if you want to play different cartridges. The company sold more than 100 units over the show’s first two days. An excellent 24-minute video on YouTube takes the owner through the step-by-step process of assembling the turntable.

EAT distributor VANA showed the Jo N°8 cartridge, the new flagship in the EAT moving-coil line. It features a body machined from Italian chestnut, a boron cantilever, and a Shibata stylus. These internal components are shared with Ortofon’s upper-end, premium-priced cartridges. Price: $2495.

Distributor Notable Audio Products showed a line of turntables from Polish manufacturer J.Sikora. The company is a second-generation metalworking business that has decided to combine its expertise in metals with the passion for vinyl playback. The plinth and platter are made from elaborate combinations of different metals, which is said to reduce resonance. Prices start at $7995 for the Initial and top out at the $28,995 Reference. You’ll need to add your own tonearm, or the single model J.Sikora offers, a 12” unit made from Kevlar ($5295 or $6996 with VTA adjustment). The Reference turntable looks like a six-figure model, and sounded superb with an Ortofon Anna cartridge at the front end of a system with Doshi Audio electronics, the new Joseph Audio Pearl 20/20 Graphene loudspeakers, and Cardas cabling throughout. This room, which was one of the best-sounding at the show, also featured the digital front end I use at home: Aurender W20 music server feeding a Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series 3.

Great Sound

This show was significantly better sounding overall than previous Denver shows. There was something about the hotel room’s dimensional ratios or the wall construction that resulted in generally good sound. In addition, some of the exhibits in the large ballrooms were terrific.

There were many great-sounding rooms, but if forced to choose one it would be the YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3 speakers driven by VTL Siegfried Series II amps, TP-6.5 phonostage and TL-7.5 linestage. Digital was via a dCS Rossini and Clock, analog by VPI HW40 turntable and Lyra Etna cartridge. The entire system, from the cartridge pins to the drive-unit terminals inside the YG speakers was wired with Nordost, who also contributed their QB8 and QB4 AC Distribution Units, Qkore Ground Units, QPoint Resonance Synchronizer, and Sort Kones/Fut/Lift isolation devices. In the large room, the sound was absolutely enchanting—liquid in texture, spectacular in dynamics, coherent from top to bottom, and immensely communicative.

I also had a chance to hear for the first time the Göbel High End Divin Noblesse speaker driven by CH Precision electronics with a Kronos turntable at the front end. This was also a spectacular demonstration, particularly in the ability of this huge speaker to completely disappear spatially and to present a highly resolved yet musically relaxed rendering. The room was put on by Göbel distributor Bending Wave USA of Florida.  

The full-range planar magnetic Alsyvox ($89,000) from Spain was stunningly great, with the lifelike transient performance that only planar designs can deliver.

CH Precision had a great show, with four superb-sounding rooms featuring that Swiss company’s excellent electronics driving Stenheim Alumine 3 and Alumine 5 speakers in different rooms, and the Rockport Atria II in a third. (The fourth room was the Göbel High-End exhibit.) Although the entry point into the Rockport line, the Atria II ($27,500) embodies many of the qualities of Rockport’s world-class reference speakers.

Another favorite was the Joseph Audio, Doshi amplifiers, Berkeley DAC, Aurender music server, and J.Sikora turntable, all wired with Cardas cables and interconnects. It was one of those systems that makes it easy to forget you’re listening to hi-fi.

Wilson Audio had a great showing with its Sasha DAW loudspeaker powered by VTL, which also happened to be featured in my top-two systems at the January CES (one with Nagra, one with VTL). There’s some special magic in the DAW that always manages to captivate. This show the DAW was demonstrated with a pair of Wilson Watchdog subwoofers and Wilson’s new outboard crossover. Throughout the show they did comparisons with and without the subwoofers engaged, with surprising results. Adding the subwoofer affected the entire spectrum, with greater spaciousness along with higher resolution of midrange detail.

PS Audio’s new work-in-progress speaker was a knockout, with tremendous transient fidelity, ability to disappear, well-defined bass (the woofer section is powered), and terrific extension at both frequency extremes. All the drivers are blank-sheet designs, with planar-magnetic midrange and tweeter drivers. It appears that it might be a giant-killer, with a projected price of about $17,000.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed the small-scale intimate presentation of the Acora SRB two-way speaker in a solid granite enclosure driven by an Esoteric F-03A 30Wpc Class A integrated amp. Although it lacked the scale and bombast of the show’s big systems, the Acora/Esoteric pair was extremely expressive and involving.

Robert Harley’s Best of Show

Most Significant Introduction
The Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX loudspeaker. This ambitious product incorporates elements from the WAMM with newly developed materials and technologies in a new flagship for this iconic company.

Most Important Trend
Compared with previous Denver shows, this year’s vibe was decidedly more upscale, with fewer garage-built products and a greater presence of major global manufacturers.

Best Sound (For the Money)
Elac Discovery DS-A101
streaming amp ($750) and Elac Debut Reference DBR62 speakers ($499) at the entry level, but the new PS Audio speaker (est: $17k) rivaled speakers approaching six figures.

Best Sound (Cost No Object)
YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3 speakers, VTL electronics, dCS digital, VPI analog, and Nordost cable throughout.

Best Demos
Wilson DAW with and without subwoofers; Nordost turning on and off their new QPoint Resonance Synchronizer in the room with YG and VTL; music-server company Innuos inserting their Phoenix USB Reclocker in the digital signal path and elevating the sound to a new level.

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