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JV’s RMAF 2012 Show Report

JV’s RMAF 2012 Show Report

Though well supported by the public and much (not all) of the industry, sonically the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was one of the least memorable high-end shows I’ve ever attended. From lobby rooms to eleventh floor suites the sound was mediocre. Oh, there were a few enjoyable systems, and a couple (which we will come to) that were better than that; yet I didn’t walk away from a single exhibit room thinking, “This is something I have to review.”

I have no idea why this should have been the case. The rooms were exactly the same dimensions as previous years; the electricity, as far as I know, was as good or bad as it has always been; many of the same speakers and electronics that had impressed me in the past were on display; and there were even a number of promising debuts. Nonetheless, like Mama and Papa Bear’s porridge, the sound was almost invariably too warm or too cool, too dark or too light. Just right was nowhere to be found.

So, keeping that in mind, here is a list of the “highlights” of my little ultra-expensive corner of the audio world, with the usual apologies in advance for mistakes in pricing or specifications—and to those exhibitors I overlooked. As I’ve written many times before, I’m just one guy with a briefcase full of blues (and classical) and the Denver show is very very big.

I will begin with the most prestigious debut, the $48,500 Wilson Alexia driven by VTL electronics and sourced by a Spiral Groove ’table and dCS’s brand-new four-box Vivaldi stack (soon to be reviewed in our pages by Robert Harley). A three-way, four-driver (10” and 8” woofers, 7” midrange, and 1” dome tweeter), rear-ported floorstander, the Alexia fills the gap between the Sasha and the MAXX 3, physically, sonically, and economically. Like the MAXX 3 (and the Alexandria XLF), the Alexia uses Wilson’s articulating tweeter and midrange mounts for time alignment at the listening seat; like the Sasha, it is compact enough to provide big speaker sound in smaller rooms. Its low-frequency loading is said to be very similar to that of the Sasha, though its 8- and 10-inch woofers increase volume and dynamic range. Wilson also claims that the Alexia’s articulating tweeter allows for greater precision in adjustment than that of the MAXX, and its ported midrange is the same unit found in the XLF.

Be all this as it may, sonically the Alexia was a mixed bag. I listened to it twice—once at the start of the show with Dave Wilson’s own (truly great) recording of the Debussy Violin Sonata (would that he would reissue this performance on vinyl!) and “Take the A Train” from M&K’s (equally great) direct-to-disc recording For Duke, and once on the last day of the show with a variety of my own LPs, including the superb Argo recording of the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto. On both occasions, the sound was beautiful and enjoyable with absolutely sensational dynamics (this speaker, like all Wilson’s, has extraordinary transient response in the midband and sensationally lifelike weight in the power range). The trouble for me was that the bass, though extremely powerful, seemed on both occasions plummy and not particularly deep-reaching. (I can’t imagine it was going much below 60Hz in the largish second-floor Marriott suite). For instance, on the Shostakovich Concerto the bottom-most notes of the piano and the doublebass pizzicatos and ostinatos were much muddier and less low in pitch than they are on my own system at home, plus there was a touch of brightness in the upper midrange that made John Ogdon’s piano sound a bit too bright and clangorous on certain forte passages. In spite of these drawbacks (which, at least in the bass, may have been aggravated by the room), I very much liked the Alexia’s power, beauty (gorgeous on violins), and spaciousness—and listened to it, as noted, with consistent and considerable pleasure. I just felt that, for nearly $50k, it should have gone deeper with better clarity and grip and higher with less bite.

Speaking of beautiful, if sounding lovely were a chargeable offense the $20k Serenity Acoustics Super-7, powered by Dodd electronics, would have to spend some time in its room (to mangle David Mamet). A planar-magnetic/servo-woofer combo in a single enclosure, the 7 sounded unusually sweet, dark, and handsome on a Patricia Barber cut. Ditto, on Keb’ Mo’. In both cases, the voices were a little less focused than I’m used to, though neither was ill-defined. Alas, in both cases the voices were also prettier than realistic.

Andrew Jones intro’d his entry-to-the-TAD-system loudspeaker, the $29,800 Evolution One (powered and sourced by TAD electronics). Like the CR1 and the Reference One, the three-way E-One uses TAD’s coincident driver, a beryllium tweeter and (in this case) magnesium (rather than beryllium) midrange, with two slightly smaller (7”), less-all-out woofers made of Aramid fiber—all in a rounded-top, ported enclosure. On Boz Scaggs’ rendition of “My Funny Valentine” the smaller TADs had, as usual, very good low-level detail, excellent grip in the bass, and superior weight and transient response. Indeed, though a mite dark in balance (like all TADs), they were quite lovely and powerful on this cut and on Muddy Waters’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” But, like the Wilsons and the Serenities, they were ultimately prettier-sounding than they were realistic. Since realism improved on Bill Kenton’s version of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” it will clearly take more listening to reach a reasoned judgment.

The $108k Lansche No. 7.1—a three-way, ported floorstander with six conventional drivers flanking that fabulous corona plasma tweeter—sounded exactly the way that Robert Harley described it in TAS. Powered by Ypsilon electronics and sourced by Johnnie Bergmann’s gorgeous $54k air-bearing Sleipner turntable (with air-bearing tangential-tracking tonearm), the 7.1 was exceptionally high in resolution and lightning-fast on transient attacks throughout Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. It was also the first speaker at RMAF that made a voice, in this case Leonard Cohen’s on “Lover, Lover, Lover,” sound persuasively realistic. However, the Lansche was also way too light in overall tonal balance, with a CLX-like lack of weight and tone color in the power range and the bass.

The $32k KEF Blade, with coincident mid and tweet and side-mounted woofs in a striking orange enclosure, sounded rather the same as the Lansche—very high in resolution, very coherent, very fast, but too thin in balance. Like the No. 7.1, the Blade was capable of realism in a relatively narrow range (for instance, on Guitar Gabriel’s “Keys to the Highway”), but on anything with real power and bass it was as tight and constrictive as a T-shirt you accidentally put on backwards.

On the eleventh floor, I listened to the $29.5k Rockport Avior three-ways (powered by BAT). There certainly was no lack of color or midbass here. The Aviors were very rich in timbre, doing an extremely nice job of conveying the weight and body of the synths on Blue Tofu’s “Battle Between.” Unfortunately they were a little too rich for me—sounding overripe and lacking in the cleanest transients and subterranean bass on the Tofu cut and on “The Calvini Hit” from The International soundtrack.

What can I say about the $70.5k MBL 101 E Mk II omnis driven by MBL’s top-line electronics that I haven’t already said, repeatedly? Here they demonstrated (yet again) their uniquely expansive, extremely full-range (with the world’s most three-dimensional tweeter) presentation. Though their bass is much improved (as is their upper midrange), the 101 Es are not the last word in bottom-octave reach; still, they sounded unflaggingly entertaining (and persuasively lifelike) on Blue Tofu and other albums. Simply a wonderful speaker-and-electronics system.

Also on the eleventh floor, the $65k three-way, carbon-fiber-driver Eventus Nebula, driven by a 160W directly-heated-triode amplifier and sourced by a $16.5k Triangle Art Signature turntable with Kuzma 4P ’arm was, I’m afraid, nicer to look at than to listen to. Dry, lean, and sibilant on Melody Gardot (who is none of these things), it just wasn’t my cup of tea at this show (though I’ve liked it in the past).

Moving to the tenth floor I had a bit of a surprise. In the past I haven’t been a fan of Venture loudspeakers, which have seemed to me more like eye- than ear-candy. However, the $45k three-way, four-driver Encore floorstander proved to be an exceptionally sweet and entertaining number with excellent detail (although it was anything but analytical), dynamics, and pace. On Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” and Lou Reed’s “White Heat/White Light” it was absolutely the most-fun-to listen-to speaker of any I’d yet heard (the mbl’s excepted). Whether it sounded real (and it probably didn’t) didn’t seem to matter while I was in the room (and I was in the room for quite awhile—it was that enjoyable).

On the ninth floor Verity showed its $30k Amadis three-way with rear-facing woofer. Powered by Musical Fidelity and sourced by dCS, it did a very decent job on my Blue Tofu cut, with very deep bass (occasionally muddied by a little room-boom). The Amadis may have been a touch dry in the midrange and treble, but it was still quite good on voices, like those of Frank, Dean, and Der Bingle on “Style.” All in all, a decent showing for Verity, which, at this show, was almost a triumph.

The Wilson MAXX 3, powered by Doshi electronics and sourced by a tape deck, was extremely liquid and dimensional in the midrange with a lovely sense of ambience and depth. Of course, using reel-to-reel tape is a bit of a cheat, but…the MAXXes showed very well, nonetheless.

Driven by Cary electronics, the $22k Adam Gamma Mk II with AMT tweet and mids and dual sealed-box woofers had good imaging on my Blue Tofu cut, but the presentation was also a little bright and aggressive, with overdamped bass and zip ambience. Another cup of tea I’d skip.

Wisdom Audio was showing its L75 planar-magnetic floorstander with electronic SC-1 crossover and SCS subwoofer ($30k for the system). Since the L75 was sourced by a server I could only listen to Wisdom’s playlist, but the sound seemed present, detailed, and dynamic, with truly exceptional midrange and treble transient response (among the very best of the show in this regard). Wisdom’s so-called “Suitcase Sub” (because of its profile) blended fairly well with the planar-magnetic mid/tweet; nonetheless, it still sounded less nimble and well-defined than the panels, depending on the cut.

I was in for a surprise when I visited the ninth floor Vandersteen room, where the $50k Vandersteen 7 (with M7 crossover) was being driven by—who could’ve guessed?—a brand-new, two-box, $30k statement preamp from Audio Research, the Reference 10, and the fabulous Reference 250 monoblock amps plus the Ref Phono 2 SE, AMG table, and Lyra Atlas cartridge. This room was literally a tale of two cuts. On my Shostakovich disc, the sound was a bit bright but mostly excellent, with a touch too much aggressiveness on the upper registers of John Ogden’s piano (shades of the Wilson Alexia) and a touch less body and color in the lower mids and upper bass. Since I’ve gotten used to the “newer, fuller ARC sound” of the Reference 5 SE/Ref 250, this Vandy/Ref 10 system almost seemed like a throw-back to ARC’s lighter, brighter, leaner days of yore (I have a feeling the Lyra cartridge was playing a large part in this). However, on my Lou Reed LP, the system positively rocked—lively, thrilling, very detailed, and (strangely) not overly bright in the treble or overly leanish in the midbass. I will reserve judgment on the Ref 10 until I hear it in my own system, but, at this show (and in spite of any uncertainties), this was definitely one of the best rooms.

Speaking of good rock playback, down on the fifth floor, the $64k three-way Cessaro Affascinate horn speaker, driven by Tron electronics and sourced by a TW Acustic Raven GT turntable sounded extremely exciting on my Lou Reed disc. The Cessaro may not have been the very last word in low bass and there was definitely too much added sibilance coming from its tweet, but for rock ’n’ roll played real loud and real clean these Cessaros were hard to match.

And now for something completely different—and totally unexpected, When I walked into the April Music room, one of the Korean gents at the door proudly pointed to the tiny $6.5k April Stella 700 integrated amp sitting between Marten’s $35k, three-way, ceramic and diamond-driver Coltrane loudspeakers. “It’s Class D!” he said, beaming. I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t resist. “What happened?” I asked. “Did all your other amplifiers break?” He was not amused. And, as it turned out, he was right. I almost hate to admit this but the Martens and that dinky April amp were simply gorgeous-sounding on Joan Sutherland’s soprano voice! The combo then proceeded to show superb transparency, neutrality, detail, bass, imaging, and realism on Blue Tofu. Guitar Gabriel? The most lifelike I’ve heard since the Scaenas at CES. Contender for best of show? Well, yeah, but…even though the Stella 700 might be high among the most realistic Class D amp I’ve heard, it still lacked ambience and depth of stage and image (rather like CDs do). Still and all, real is real. And, in a show where nothing else was this consistently lifelike, I’m willing to grant the April Stella 700/Marten Coltrane combo its foibles.

Still on the fifth floor, the aluminum-boxed, aluminum-coned $90k YG Anat Signature 3, driven by MSB electronics, made my Blue Tofu cut sound very beautiful. Though the YG/MSB combo had more meat on its bones than the Marten/April system did, it was not quite as present and lifelike—at least to my aged ears.

The Estonian loudspeaker company Estelon debuted its $32,500 XB three-way with ceramic tweeter, mid, and woof. Driven by Vitus electronics, the XB was not as lifelike on voice as the Marten/April was on my Blue Tofu cut (although it had considerably more ambience retrieval and stage depth); however, it was as realistic on Captain Luke’s “Rainy Night in GA” as the Marten/April was on Guitar Gabriel’s “Keys to the Highway.” A very auspicious debut, indeed.

We come now to the weirdest exhibit at RMAF, the $175k Goebel High End Epoque Reference loudspeaker—a tall, angled floorstander, that uses a unique rectangular bending-wave driver from 180hz to 30kHz, flanked by four active woofers ( two in front and two in back) and eight passive ones. Undoubtedly the most interesting and novel speaker at he show, this bending wave device reproduced Captain Luke even more realistically than the Estelon Xb did (although it also brought his voice unnaturally forward, which the Estelon didn’t). For the first time in show memory I just sat and listened for fun, to cut after cut. The Epoque may not have been the most lifelike speaker at RMAF or the deepest reaching and most spacious one (it was hard to know as it was parked so close to the wall), but it was intoxicatingly fun and exciting to hear, ergo another Best of Show contender.

The latest improved version (with revised driver) of Voxativ’s intriguing, one-way, $32.5k Ampeggio floorstander sounded, well, improved. Although it was impossible for me to make a considered judgment, since I couldn’t listen to music I was familiar with, it definitely sounded more spacious, more of a piece top to bottom, and more three-dimensional in imaging than I remembered it.

Also on the fourth floor of the atrium (which is where we now are), the $52,750 Zellaton Studio Reference One made its world debut at RMAF. Driven by Nagra electronics, this handsome, two-driver, two-way floorstander with a seven-inch full-range mated to a nine-inch woofer made Eric Satie’s Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear sound a little too leaned out in the power range, although the Zellaton had excellent sparkle on top and very good extension and articulation on the bottom octaves of the two pianos. My Shostakovich LP also suffered from this peculiar hole in the power range (which may have been a classic step-response issue), making strings and certain octaves of the piano a bit too dry and bright. Nonetheless, this was an intriguing speaker.

One of my favorite speakers, the three-and-a-half-way multi-driver $27.5k Audio Physic Avantera was being shown with Funk ’table and arm and one of Soundsmith’s cactus-stylus cartridges. This was the first (and only) room that actually sounded lifelike on my (very lifelike) Melody Gardot LP. The speakers were just right for her vocal range, although the bass was a bit anemic (unlike previous RMAFs) and the treble had just a touch more sibilance than I’m used to from these wonderful transducers—but just a touch. The Soundsmith cartridge may not be quite as finely detailed as what I use at home, but it was, nonetheless, very detailed. All in all, another best of show contender.

On the mezzanine, Musical Surroundings was showing Focal’s $50k Maestro Utopia three-and-a-half-way, four-driver floorstanders driven by Aesthetix electronics and sourced by a Clearaudio Master Innovation Wood ’table. The presentation was big, full, dark, and spacious, with excellent dynamics and nice resolution (although it was not the last word in detail on the Argenta Espana). Another very enjoyable exhibit.

However, I thought Focal showed even better with its $90k Stella Utopias, driven by Soulution 700 Series electronics and sourced by a Turbillon Grand II turntable with Air-Tight Supreme cartridge, all mounted on those fabulous Critical Mass stands. On the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto, the system made the best overall sound I heard at RMAF, with fantastic staging and wonderful timbre. There was just a little room-induced tubbiness in bass but the sound was superb, nonetheless. Another BOS contender.

Powered by Audio Power Labs $175k 833 amps, the $65k Leonardo planar-magnetic floorstander with ribbon bass sounded quite robust and detailed on a Rebecca Pidgeon cut, with lovely timbre and surprising bass. I found them very promising.

The $17.5k Raidho C1.1 was being used to demo the improvements made by the use of progressively more expensive Nordost cable and power cords. I wasn’t familiar with the music being played, but C 1.1 still had that magical midrange vibe. A great loudspeaker.

Finally, we come to the $160k Cabasse L’Ocean active, three-way coaxial, “giant eye-ball” loudspeaker with a 15-inch woofer behind the coaxial array. The speaker comes with dsp, preamp, and amp built-in (or –on). Of course, it digitizes all signals and on an LP of Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time,” that digitization generated terrible distortion when the amps were inadvertently clipped. On digital sources, it was an entirely different story. Blue Tofu sounded excellent, as did Captain Luke’s “Rainy Night” (although his voice was pulled forward). This is a fascinating speaker. 

For my picks of best of show, you will have to purchase TAS Issue 229. For further photos of the rooms at RMAF, go to http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p204057713.

By Jonathan Valin

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