RMAF 2011 Report – Loudspeakers Priced at $20,000 and Up
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Another October, another trek to the Mile High City to hear some of the world’s best loudspeakers—and see old friends. Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is famously a great “consumer” show. Unlike CES, which is really for and about the trade—a convention where deals are made and worldwide business is done—RMAF is primarily for civilians—a place where you can audition the stuff that, given the dearth of brick-and-mortar hi-fi stores, you can no longer hear back home and where you can swap opinions with other savvy audiophiles.
Unfortunately, this year’s Fest did not appear (to me) to be the best attended I’ve seen. Perhaps it was the lousy economy, but what started off looking like a roaring success from the throng of people waiting to buy opening-day tickets on Friday morning seemed to dwindle down to average or less-than-average crowds on Saturday and Sunday. Oh, you still had to wait now and then for a (frighteningly bumpy) elevator to carry you from the Tower rooms to the lobby in the Marriott Tech Center. But you didn’t have to automatically take the stairs every time you wanted to travel from floor to floor (as has been the case at Fests past).
Also, unfortunately, this was not the best-sounding RMAF I’ve attended. Not that I thought the sound was bad. It was, in fact, generally pleasant—which is to say, warm, rich, soft, dark. But lifelike, neutral, transparent to sources? With exceptions I will come to, very few rooms offered up the kind of sonic realism that makes your hair stand on end and shivers run down your spine. This was a gemütlich show, not an absolute sound one.
As usual, my apologies in advance to manufacturers whom I missed or for any mistakes in nomenclature, specs, and pricing. As I’ve said at the start of every show report, I’m just one guy with a briefcase full of blues (and classical) LPs, and there are a lot of loudspeakers in my diamond-spangled neck of the woods.
I will, as I customarily do, report on speakers in the order in which I heard them, starting with the $75k TAD Reference Ones, which I actually auditioned before the show officially opened—at a breakfast that Luke and Bea Manley had for the launch of their new VTL Siegfried II amplifier.
With the stunning success of its MB-450 Series III Signature monoblocks at last year’s CES, VTL has been on a roll, and I was looking forward to more of the same with its flagship. Alas, when I heard the Siegfried on this first morning, the sound wasn’t bad, just a bit disappointing—seemingly a step backward toward the “older,” overtly tubey VTL presentation, rather than forward in the MB-450 Series III Signature direction. Although dark and lovely in tonality, the Siegfried clearly wanted transient speed, inner detail, and overall transparency on the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements [Decca]. The amp didn’t have good stage depth, either, which VTLs have always had in abundance. Though strikingly “pretty,” the sound was neither exciting nor realistic. Since I’ve heard the TAD Reference Ones sound both exciting and realistic on numerous occasions, I can assure you that it was not the speakers that were at fault here. It may have been the source or it may have the room or it may have been the cable or it may have been a combination of things. I’m told that the sound improved considerably on Saturday and Sunday. But I didn’t hear the improvement, so I can only report on what I heard.
My next stop was Room 9022, where the latest Magico speaker, the diminutive $25k Q1 two-way, stand-mounted mini-monitor, was making music, fed by (get this!) a Zanden phonostage, a Clearaudio Innovation turntable, a Goldfinger Statement cartridge, and $$$ BAlabo electronics. (Yes, this was Magico’s room.) Having just departed the disappointing TAD/VTL room, I was expecting a sonic improvement and, indeed, the sound here was much faster, clearer, and more detailed, but still and all (and once again) the presentation was closer to “pretty” than to truly “transparent.” My reference recordings did not have the layered depth or dynamic clout they should have had. In addition, voices, such as Joan Baez’s gorgeous soprano, lacked the focus and naturalness I know they have. Since I’d heard the Q1s sound astonishingly lifelike with virtually the same analog sources (different amp and preamps, however) on a trip to Berkeley a month or so ago, I chalked the disparity up to the room and the electronics.
Later in the show, several of my colleagues urged me to revisit the Magico room, which they thought now sounded exceptional. So, late on Sunday (the last day of RMAF), I trekked back up to the ninth floor of the Tower and gave the Q1s a second listen. Sure enough, things had really gelled. Timbre, focus, bass, dynamics, staging, overall resolution, everything that matters were now much closer to what I’d heard in Berkeley. (Wolf feels that the BAlabo gear needed several days to warm up and come into its own, and he may well be right because the overall difference in neutrality, delicacy, and impact was marked.) I still think that the Q1s sounded considerably better in Magico’s dedicated listening room than they did in a Marriott hotel room, but then, I suppose, they damn well should have. There is no question that the Q1s are one of the world’s great loudspeakers.
From Magico on the ninth floor, I traveled up to the eleventh floor, and in Xact Audio’s Room 1126 heard the $27,900 Wilson Sasha multiway floorstanders sound good but not great. Sourced by The Beat magnetic-drive turntable decked out with Reed 3Q laser-guided and Schröder-LT “linear-tracking” tonearms and driven by Allnic’s L5000-DHT linestge, H3000 phonostage, and A5000-DHT 12-watt monoblocks, the Sashas (my personal all-time-favorite Wilson W/Ps) sounded very delicate and finely detailed, but the treble was a little hot and the bass a little one-note.
In Room 1122, I listened to the $30k Behold Tamara three-way active loudspeakers, bi-amped with $25k worth of Behold’s own electronics. Since Behold was using a server loaded with music I wasn’t intimately familiar with, I was a little at a loss when it came to forming an opinion. Nonetheless, James Taylor sounded terrific, as did several other performers. The sound was certainly detailed and open, with a refreshingly neutral balance.
The Sonicweld Pulserod—a quasi-line-array active loudspeaker with six midrange units, a single tweeter, and six bass drivers housed in a strikingly svelte CNC-milled enclosure—was on display in Room 1102. The Pulserod comes equipped with eight ICEpower Class D modules, individually dedicated to various frequency bands. Of course, any source, including my Melody Gardot LP, ends up getting digitized by the Sonicweld; nonetheless, Melody’s voice sounded good, albeit not as detailed or alive as it usually does (and considerably darker in timbre).
In Room 1013 Veloce Audio was showing its battery-powered preamp and battery-powered Class D amplifiers with YG Acoustics’ $48k Kipod Mk II Signature (a speaker I liked quite a bit in Munich and will have to more say about in this report). Although I wouldn’t say the Veloce/YG combination was a lively one, it wasn’t bad. Trombones had good weight, as did other instruments that played into the lower octaves. But the overall balance, as is often the case with Class D amplification, seemed (again) a bit dark to my ear.
Bogdan Audio was showing its $36k Petra loudspeaker—a floorstander with a RAAL ribbon tweeter, a 7″ midrange, and an 11″ woofer in a handmade MDF cabinet. The Petra showed particularly well on large-scale instrumental cuts, with outstanding imaging, excellent bass, and a very nice blend of its ribbon driver. It wasn’t quite as good on vocals, however. Like so many other speakers at RMAF, I thought it was a little dark in overall balance.
From Bogdan I returned to the ninth floor and, in Room 9018, to another set of the $28k Wilson Sashas, driven this time by Rega (!) electronics. The sound here was not impressive—dark (again), bland, nondescript, and (on vocals and complex instrumentals) relatively inarticulate.
Room 9026 also housed a set of Sashas, this time driven by Doshi electronics. The speakers showed very nice definition on Joan Baez’s “Gospel Ship,” although the channel balance was screwy (Joanie was thrown to the left when she should have been dead center). Once again, the presentation was darkish—not the last word in transparency, neutrality, or detail.
In the Telluride Suite (Room 9030), I heard the wonderful Vandersteen 7s (now with a new subwoofer crossover) driven by ARC Reference 250 monoblock amplifiers. This was the first time I’d heard the new ARC amps, and they were something! Even though I was sitting toward the back of the room, the sound was more neutral, natural, and lifelike than anything I’d heard thus far at RMAF, with exceptionally good, tight bass that (for once) was not so overbearing that it darkened the entire soundfield. If I had to nitpick I’d say that the treble was a bit bright on massed strings and certain vocals—but just a bit. Clearly, this was a high-fidelity sound and my first nominee for Best Sound of RMAF.
From this terrific exhibit I moved on to Room 8013, where Sonus faber was showing its gorgeous Guarneri Evolution two-way stand-mounts driven by PrimaLuna (!) electronics. I listened to Cat Stevens’ “Hard-Headed Woman” on Acoustic Sounds’ new reissue and, a bit to my astonishment, found the presentation to be excellent—rich and fast and (yes) a little dark, with superior bass. The Guaneri/PrimaLuna wasn’t Vandersteen 7/ARC neutral and transparent, but it was very good. I liked it.
From Sonus faber, I moved on to Ted Denny’s Room 8030, where the YG Acoustic Kipod II Signature was being driven by Esoteric electronics and hooked up, of course, with Synergistic Research’s Galileo Element Series actively-shield, air-dielectric, tungsten-wire interconnect and silver/copper speaker cable. The real story here might have been what Denny calls The Music Cable, which is a plug-and-play solution for high-res computer audio: A 24-bit DAC that comes prewired with Synergistic’s Active Tricon USB cable (to hook to your Mac Mini) and actively-shielded tungsten
interconnects hardwired to the DAC board (to go to your preamp). The Music Cable also comes with a built-in power conditioner and two power supplies. All I can say about this combo is that it delivered a good deal of the same sound that I get in my own room with full-bore Galileo interconnects and speaker cables and a Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC/Mac Mini for about one-fifth the price. Equally interesting was Denny’s new 30V DC power supply for biasing cables and interconnects, the Enigma Mk II, which allows you to switch between solid-state and Mercury-vapor-tube power. This is one you’d have to hear to believe, but with the Mercury-vapor tubes doing the active biasing, I thought the Kipods sounded better than anything else at the show with digital sources. The sound was, well, so analog-like.
I think I was on a bit of a roll by this point because the next room I visited, Room 8028, was also a winner. Here I heard the beautiful new $32k MBL 116 F (with Radialstrahler tweeter and midrange, side-mounted push-push cone midbass drivers, and side-mounted push-push cone woofers) driven by MBL’s affordable Corona Series electronics. As is always the case, the sound from these strikingly good-looking MBLs was open, spacious, airy, exciting, and (a somewhat new wrinkle) downright lovely. Audible improvements have been made here to the tweeter and the woofer (and its cabinet), making for a more coherent presentation of surprising delicacy, with superior focus (another newbie) and excellent low-level resolution at lower levels (never before an MBL strength). The 116 F would have been good enough (and audibly improved enough) to make my finalist list for Best Sound at RMAF, were it not for a slight room-induced issue in the low end that was lumping up the midbass.
From MBL I went down to the second floor and heard the $30k Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary multiway floorstanders, driven by Jolida electronics and sourced by Greg Beron’s UHA Phase 9 reel-to-reel 15ips tape deck. The sound was excellent. Tonality, spaciousness, dynamics—all first-rate. Of course, in a way this room was unfair. Greg was playing back Tape Project mastertapes, including a freshly minted Beethoven Ninth, and when they’re good those tapes are hard to beat. The only nits I could pick were a touch of boominess in the bass (probably a room thing) and a slightly closed-in treble.
We come now to a surprise, Room 2004, where the $45k Lansche 5.1s were being driven by the electronics that so impressed me at the Munich High-End Show, the Ypsilon PST-100 Mk II preamp and Aelius monoblock amps, and sourced by Johnnie Bergmann’s “budget” linear-tracking ’table, the Magne. The Lansche 5.1s are different than the spherical-horn Acapella High Violons I’ve heard from AAImports in the past. Though they use the same Corona plasma tweeter as the Acapella horn speakers, the rest of their driver are conventional cones—a 4″ Audio Technologies midrange and two 8″ glass-fiber/polyester-fabric woofers. The cabinet is made from layered damping materials. How did the 5.1s sound? When I listened to a familiar Holly Cole cut, I heard a presentation that was so close to what I’m used to hearing at home it shocked me. These things were models of transparency, neutrality, and realism. True, they were also a little lightweight in the bass, but so well defined in the lower octaves I didn’t care. The best Lansches I’ve heard and one of the best sounds at RMAF, the 5.1s immediately went into the charmed circle—nominees for my BOS Award.
Like the MBL 116 Fs, the $58k Nola Baby Grand Reference Series II, driven by ARC electronics, were also audibly improved. To my ear, they sounded more immediate and of a piece than the original Baby Grands that I liked so well, though they are still not the last word in bass definition (for that, I think they might need a cabinet redesign). Still and all, the new Babies are truly excellent full-range loudspeakers that can fill a large space (and they were playing in a large space) with ease, subtlety, naturalness, and power. Pity Carl wasn’t using Greg’s tape player, like he usually does.
In Room 2009, the $40k TAD CRM-1 three-way stand-mount monitors sounded, as they always do, superb. Driven by TAD’s own electronics and source component, they were ripe in tone color, lively in transient response, and thrillingly dynamic. Though a smidgeon dark in balance (like so many other speakers at this show), they were still very natural and appealing.
I next went to the Crestone Peak room on the Mezzanine, where I heard the $39k Sonus faber Amati Futuras driven by ARC electronics and sourced by Wadia digital. (Sonus, ARC, Wadia? Coincidence? You decide.) Although I was unfamiliar with the music, the Amatis sounded quite lovely in timbre, as Sonus loudspeakers always do, and livelier than Sonuses sometimes sound, which I attributed to the ARC electronics, with good presence on voice and terrific authority and snap in the low end. Perhaps (sigh) a little dark in overall balance, the Amatis were still the best large floorstanding Sonus faber loudspeaker I’ve heard. This was a very good show for Sf.
In the Bianca Peak room I heard the $90k Focal Stella Utopias driven by Soulution electronics. In a word, these are simply gorgeous-sounding loudspeakers. Joan Baez sounded wonderful; so did the famously beautiful strings on Venice. The Stellas may not be the last words in inner detail or as untrammeled in dynamics as some competitors, but when it comes to capturing the spirit and the beauty of a performer and a performance they are hard to beat.
In the Maroon Peak room, I heard the Vandersteen 7s again, this time driven by Aesthetix electronics and sourced by Clearaudio’s new Master Innovation turntable (which looks like a mini Master Reference) and Goldfinger Statement cartridge. The sound was a bit dark (I blame the room), but crystal clear, with superb articulation and transient response. Nits? On the Nova recording of Paul Dessau’s First Piano Sonata, I thought I heard a little clanginess in the upper midrange and a loss of delicate detail in the top treble. (I noted a bit of brightness with the Vandy 7s in the ARC room, too.) Still, this was a terrific sound.
On to the Atrium exhibits, where, on the fifth floor in Room 542, I heard the Wilson Sashas yet again, this time driven by D’Agostino Momentum monoblock amplifiers. This was another room with a built-in advantage in the person of one Peter McGrath, whose digital mastertape recordings of the Mahler Fifth, Vladimir Feltsman playing a Haydn sonata, and Renée Fleming singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs were just superb. So, by the bye, was the sound. Sparkle, speed, body, air, spaciousness. Oh, the bottom end might have been a bit curtailed and somewhat ill-defined (the room, I think), but the presentation was otherwise so articulate and powerful that it was hard to beat for sheer theatrical dynamism. Power delivery here was instantaneous and inexhaustible. Yes, with digital sources you lose some of the texture, air, and dimensionality of analog (and of life). But what you lose in these things you gain back in transient speed and excitement. If not the overall Best Sound of RMAF, the Wilson/D’Agostino combo certainly wins for Best Dynamics at RMAF.
In the fifth floor Keystone Suite I listened to the $66k Kaiser Kawero ribbon/cone hybrid floorstanders, driven by Concert Fidelity electronics. Though a bit on the light side in tonal balance (a refreshing change), the sound was still lovely—a little sibilant but not lacking in density of tone color. A relaxed, listenable, pleasant-sounding loudspeaker.
In the fifth floor Winter Park Suite, I heard the $120k YG Acoustics Anat Reference Professional II Signatures fed by Tenor electronics and sourced from a server. The sound of the new-generation Tenor amps is undoubtedly beautiful—and will strongly appeal to many of what I call “as you like it” listeners. Unfortunately, from my point of view, the Tenor gear tends to make everything sound beautiful, including the speakers they’re driving. It was thus rather difficult to get a fix on the Anats, save to say that they sounded lovely on everything that was played. Their actual character—their timbre, dynamics, resolution, imaging, staging, etc.—I can’t judge because the character of the electronics was so overwhelming. (This could mean, BTW, that the Anats are very transparent to sources. OTOH, it could mean that, like the Tenors, the Anats themselves are warm, civilized, and gemütlich.)
We come now to Room 570—and another surprise. Indeed, an enigma. In this room I heard the $29k Schimmel Voxativ Ampeggio—a single-driver speaker with a whizzer tweeter in a large folded-horn cabinet built by the Berlin piano-making firm Schimmel. I’ve heard plenty of single-driver cone loudspeakers over the years—and liked very few of them. In very narrow frequency bands, they can be astonishingly realistic. But they are almost always thin or anorectic in the bass and either rolled or “whizzy” in the treble, making them very much one-trick ponies. The Schimmel…well, I’m not sure. I can tell you this: On the “Gospel Ship” cut of Joan Baez in Concert no other speaker at RMAF sounded as lovely, lithe, and lively as the SVAs. It was the most natural reproduction of voice I heard at the show. Indeed, down to about 70Hz or so (SV claims bass extension down to 38Hz, but I sure didn’t hear them going that low flatly), these were very natural sounding loudspeakers. There was little sense of that whizzer tweet, to boot. Although bit brighter and leaner than life (the bass and power range were problematical in this room), these things were so fast, present, finely detailed, and realistic on certain sources that the effect was kind of astonishing. For instance, on “Copper Kettle” (from the Joan Baez LP I just mentioned), the SVAs were the only speakers that reproduced the individual strings of Baez’s guitar (everything else made it sound as if she were playing block chords). Here are the words I wrote: “Amazing! A little hot, a little ragged perhaps, but, Jesus, so realistic where it plays!” When push comes to shove, I can’t award the SVAs a BOS award (although I can and will nominate them for that honor) because they clearly lacked weight in the power range and low bass (although they were much better in these regards than previous dynamic one-ways). But I want to pick them as Best of Show, because what they did well they did uniquely well.
We come now to yet another surprise—and enigma—the $62k Cessaro Affascinate I SE three-way horn-loaded loudspeaker, with spherical midrange horn. These gorgeous-looking beasts were being driven (beautifully) by Tron electronics and sourced by a TW Acustics Limited/10.5 turntable. Let’s get the bad news (and it’s not all that bad) out of the way first. The folded-horn bass of this speaker is a bit discontinuous (but just a bit) and doesn’t go much below 50Hz. That said, the Affascinate is the most coherent horn loudspeaker I’ve ever heard—very nearly of a piece from top to bottom with zero cupped-hands coloration. When people think of horns they think (rightly) of playing loudly, but what non-aficionados don’t understand is that for the same reason (unrivaled acoustic efficiency, drivers with extremely-low-mass diaphragms and zip distortion) horns will also play softly with the speed, delicacy, and resolution of electrostats. The Affascinates are a case in point. What these speakers did for the string choirs on Venice was simply remarkable. Nowhere else did these violins sound this gorgeous, whether they were playing pianissimo or fortissimo. Nits: Other than the low bass, perhaps the treble was a little soft, but that won’t keep the Affascinates from the charmed circle. Another nominee for BOS.
In Room 517 I heard the $66k Estelon XA Diamond three-way floorstanders driven by Concert Fidelity electronics. These strikingly beautiful loudspeakers from Estonia are back in an updated version with diamond tweets to go with their ceramic midrange and woofer. I liked the Estelons last year at CES, and I liked them again at RMAF, where they once more made a very natural and beguiling sound. Of the speakers at the show, the Estelons have, perhaps, the best low end—very deep, well-defined, and articulate bass. They also have a wonderful sense of liveliness in the midband on solo instruments and vocals. The blend of drivers here is exceptionally smooth, with no sense that the diamond tweeter is “sticking out” or that ceramic drivers are compressing dynamics.
In Room 521, I listened to the $24k Tidal Piano Ceramic, two-and-a-halfway floorstanders with black ceramic Accuton drivers, driven by Tidal’s own electronics. On Melody Gardot’s “My One and Only Thrill,” the Pianos sounded lovely, but (guess what?) a little dark and recessed with a slight room-induced boominess in the bass. In a better room, these might’ve been contenders, but not here.
Down to the fourth floor now, where in Room 427 I heard the D’Agostino Momentum amps again, this time driving $45k Sonus faber Stradivari loudspeakers. I like the Stradivari, but here their image focus seemed a little vague and resolution a little reduced. Plus soprano voice was more than a little bright, Perhaps it was the Onedof turntable, which was clearly having some problems with pitch stability; perhaps it was the D’Agostino amps. It wasn’t the speakers; I’ve reviewed them so I know.
In Room 449, I heard—and was wowed by—the $26,800 Coincident Speaker Technology Pure Reference Extremes, three-way floorstanders with Accuton ceramic drivers and side-firing woofers. These speakers had unusually lifelike attack, presence, resolution, and neutrality, with a nice sense of weight and density of tone color, to boot. To me they sounded curiously horn-like without any horn colorations. In other words, they were dynamic as hell, although they tended to be a bit aggressive on a John Lee Hooker cut.
In Room 478, I heard the selfsame speakers that I currently have in house, the $24k Audio Physic Avanteras, driven by a dinky-looking $5k Trigon Elektronik “Energy” integrated amp and sourced by a wondrous Acoustic Signature turntable from Germany (which I would dearly love to audition in my home). It is rare that I hear a product under review sound better than it sounds in my own listening room with my own gear, but the Avanteras came close to doing that very thing in Denver. They were, in a word, phenomenal, reproducing everything from Clearaudio’s incredibly hard-hitting, deep-reaching Percussion Record to Joan Baez’s whispery tremolos with a naturalness, detail, and dynamism (both on pianissimos and fortissimos) that I heard in bits and pieces in other rooms but never together in one spot. Put differently, the Avanteras probably didn’t have the best bass, the best midrange, the best treble, the best transient attack, the highest resolution, etc. of anything at the show. But, in this room with this equipment, they came close to having the best combination of all these things. Clearly, contenders for Best Sound of RMAF—and truly great transducers that live up to Audio Physic’s motto: “No loss of fine detail.”
In Room 477, I auditioned the $100k Audez’e Ether-1 multidriver floorstanders—planar-magnetic/cone hybrids that are actively dsp’d and, at RMAF, amplified by Modwright electronics. These odd-looking triangular speakers sounded very pleasant, though it was hard to make judgments about them since I was unfamiliar with the music being played. One thing I can say for certain: You definitely have to sit in the “sweet spot” to hear the Ether-1s at their best. Perhaps this is because they are dsp’d for the “sweet spot,” though to be fair most speakers sound best when you sit precisely between them. In any event, when you sat where you needed to sit, the sound was extremely delicate with excellent transient response and good timbre, although the presentation was a little darkish (seemingly because of a slight roll in the treble).
In Room 483, I heard the $20k KEF 207.2s driven by McIntosh electronics. These three-way floorstanders (with tweeter in a separate module atop the mid/bass cabinet) produced an exceedingly sweet but rather bland sound—nice but nothing special.
In Room 482, JBL was showing its Everest horn speakers. As usual, they were extremely dynamic but also (as usual) a little coarse and aggressive on “Coal Train.”
We now finish our tour of the Marriott Tech Center by descending to the lobby rooms, in the first of which, the Lupine Suite, I heard Classic Audio Loudspeakers’ $46.5k T3.4 horn-loaded speakers, driven by AtmaSphere electronics. The T3.4s feature field coils on the midrange and the bass drivers. Although they sounded a bit bright on the massed string fortissimos of Venice, the T3.4s were lovely at moderate-to-pianissimo levels. (For some reason, perhaps the room, they tended to fall apart on loud passages, losing clarity and sweetness, but they were just fine on anything less than ff.)
In the Penrose Suite I heard the $90k Venture Grand Ultimates—large three-ways with two tweeters, a single midrange, and four woofers per speaker-side—driven by B.M.C. electronics. The Ventures combined a ripe, lovely tonal balance with excellent transient response and precise imaging. These are beautiful-sounding speakers that also have a touch of lifelike presence to them. Though ultimately a bit prettier than real (at least in this room), I liked them—a lot.
In the Bluebell Suite, I auditioned the $22k Apogee-like Analysis Audio Omegas ribbon/planar floorstanders. Driven by an Arion amp and Sonus Veritas preamp, the Omegas reproduced the strings of Venice with great delicacy of timbre and texture and terrific resolution of detail. Along with the Cessaros, the Omegas had perhaps the most silken string tone of any speaker at this year’s RMAF, but (unlike the Cessaros) they were not killer-dynamic on big orchestral tuttis.
And finally, in Evergreen A, I listened to the $21k Legacy Audio Whisper Xds, dsp’d and amplified (woofer only—you supply the mid/treble amp) multiway floorstanders. A bit to my surprise, given their oddly discombobulated look, the Whispers sounded rather impressive—smooth, spacious, nicely detailed (although not overly so), with excellent dynamics. They may have been a little forward and aggressive, but they were still good on everything played, and quite good on bass-baritone voice.
Jonathan Valin’s Best in Show
Best Sound (over $40k)
Vandersteen 7 (with ARC Ref 250 amp)
Runners-up: Lansche 5.1, Cessaro Affascinate I SE, YG Acoustic Kipod II Signature (with Esoteric electronics), Vandersteen 7 (with Aesthetix electronics)
Best Sound (under $40k)
Audio Physic Avanteras
Runners-Up: Magico Q1 (on Sunday), Wilson Audio Sashas (with D’Agostino Momentum amp and McGrath tapes), Coincident Speaker Technology Pure Reference Extremes, Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary (with The Tape Project tapes), Schimmel Voxativ Ampeggio
Trigon Elektronik “Energy” integrated amp, Synergistic Research “The Music Cable”
Most Significant Product Introduction
Audio Research Reference 250, Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement moving-coil cartridge
Runners-Up: Schimmel Voxativ Ampeggio loudspeaker, Synergistic Research “The Music Cable” and Enigma II power supply, Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable, UHA-Q Phase 9 reel-to-reel tape deck
Most Important Trend
DSP’d and/or amplified loudspeakers
If you would like to see more and larger photographs of many of the loudspeakers reviewed, go to: http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p980229970.