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RMAF 2013 Loudspeakers Under $20k

RMAF 2013 Loudspeakers Under $20k

I bet you didn’t know that Jonathan Valin played football. I’m pretty sure he was a linebacker, actually. Why? Because I hadn’t even stepped out of the van from the airport before he tackled me. Honestly, I had no idea he could move that fast.

As he hauled me back to my feet, he said something about talking to Robert Harley about helping cover the show. Just then, my mobile rang.

“Hey Scot! Jonathan says you’ll be helping out with the show coverage – that’s great news! We’d really like you to cover ‘Loudspeakers under 20k’, will that work? But just the Tower – I’ve got the Atrium,” he said and I heard a distinct click as the phone disconnected. I looked up in time to see Valin stomp the gas of the rental, kicking gravel fifty feet down the driveway to the squeal of abused rubber. Jim Hannon was hanging out the passenger side window, waving cheerily “Thanks, Scot!” And then they were gone; the only sign, a trail of smoke gently curling up from the burnout tracks in front of the Denver Marriott.

How do they do that?

But that’s how I found myself covering the 10th annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the largest of the consumer audio shows in North America. First stop? The bar. Next stop? The Tower.

Let’s start with the AudioKinesis/James Romeyn Music & Audio room. To say that AudioKinesis’ Duke Lejeune is an “interesting guy” is to say something akin to “caffeine is helpful”. I was familiar with Duke’s work with the Swarm subwoofer system, something I’d quite admired, but here he was showing something almost baffling: the Event Horizon 210 (price is still TBD, but will probably be well under $10k). This is a patent-pending design featuring a “Manipulated Vortex Waveguide”. He looked almost sheepish as he attempted to describe the prototype he had on display, and quite frankly, he made my brain hurt. The speakers are rated at 96dB, but based on the way they interact with the air, they experience dynamic expansion, not compression. Said another way, their sensitivity increases with volume. Yeah, I don’t get it, but the point is that these may well be the ideal PA-speaker. And the sound, set up along the long-wall in a crowded room, was exhilarating. Flipping the seat around, we were then treated to Duke’s collaboration with James Romeyn, the new Dream Maker LCS ($8,800). This is a four-piece ensemble, with two of the loudspeakers placed just so behind the “regular” two, but flat on the floor facing the ceiling. Oh, that “LCS” stands for “Late Ceiling Splash” and it’s exactly what that sounds like – the rear two flat-on-the-floor loudspeakers fire up at the ceiling. Because of their corner positioning, they take advantage of your regularly shaped room to create something of a horn-effect – based on their distance from the wall and ceiling, their signals arrive at the listening position after the point at which your brain would interpret it as smearing. With the LCS speakers engaged, what I heard was an incredible sound stage, as if the sidewalls and ceiling had been completely demolished. Just wow. And that was the first room.

You get the feeling that Jim Salk and Frank Van Alstine have been putting together demos for audio shows for far longer than … well, longer I’ve been going to audio shows. The term “old pro” doesn’t really seem to cover it, and judging by the fan-base that both have earned, I have no doubt whatsoever that these two gents are masters of their crafts. Interestingly, it was Frank (the one who keeps putting the “value” in valve) who steered me through the room at RMAF, telling me that I “had to hear” the Salk Sound speakers before I moved on. First up was the Veracity ST ($4,195/pair), a slim column that features drivers from SEAS and RAAL in an MTM configuration, here clad in a startling White Ebony finish. If you ever wondered about “best kept secrets” in audio’s high-end, Salk might be a great place to start – these floor standing speakers were remarkable in the air and detail they were able to produce, with a lovely and textured midrange. When we switched to the SoundScape 8 ($7,995/pair), another RAAL-tweeter design, but this time coupled to an Accuton mid, dual 8” woofers and dual 12” passive radiators, I kinda wished I’d held on to a few superlatives. Everything just got deeper – both the bass and the soundstage took big, happy steps in all the right directions. And that custom hand-rubbed Pepperwood Burl that Jim mounted on his own, personal (NFS!) pair is swoon inducing – I might have spent a few moments too long in loving, caressing admiration. Ahem. But when we swung about and faced the opposite wall, Frank giddily plunked me down again in the sweet spot. I swear, “giddy” was the right word for his mood, and when the music poured out of the new two-way slot-ported stand-mounted Exotica (still TBD, but targeting $5,995/pair), featuring drivers from SEAS’ Exotic line, I was ready to grab those prototypes and make a dash for the elevator. I figured I had a reasonable shot at making it. Anyway. Three players. Three winners. Another great demo – and that was the second room.

Room Number Three was a known quantity for me, but I’d been clued in by a little bird that this demo of the Volti Audio Vittoras ($17,500/pair) was something I couldn’t miss. I’d been lucky enough to spend six weeks with these horn loudspeakers late last year and had been nearly undone by the experience – my love for them only outdone by love for my wife … but that’s another story entirely. No, here the big Vittoras, which may bear more than a passing resemblance to some classic designs from Klipsch, were driven by some new electronics from BorderPatrol that promised a revelatory experience. The S20 parallel single-ended 300b-based choke-input filtered and tube regulated stereo amplifiers had been given a huge leap forward with the addition of a pair of hulkingly huge power supplies. Added to the Vittoras, this system was very nearly the last room I visited at RMAF. Out of spite, I requested some Morcheeba and was reminded that the optional, matching subwoofer ($2,900) really did keep up. I’m sure the neighbors were thrilled when I finally left, wrung out, and a bit damp about the head and face. My, oh my.

The other Volti Audio room featured the Alura, another Tractrix horn-based loudspeaker, this time mated to a 15” bass driver. Driven by some arrestingly gorgeous amplifiers from SST Audio, I was struck by the delicacy and air out of this speaker (and devastating slam, too). With that tweeter horn at the top of the stack, designer Greg Roberts managed to lift the sound stage to completely fill the entirety of that front wall. Hee hee! What a great show!

Moving down to the 10th Floor, I ran into John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity in the room of one of his West Coast dealers, Eugene HiFi. There, I got a chance to hear the lovely Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers ($12,000) that have been my own personal references for the better part of this year. Here, they were driven by some sweet tube electronics from Line Magnetic. The big Orangutans never fail to surprise me with their big sound, tonal richness and full frequency range reproduction. This room was like suddenly and unexpectedly coming across an old friend, and I was very tempted to stay. Suffice it to say that I’m a fan!

Next stop was to see Robert Lee of Acoustic Zen. Robert shows with Triode Corp of Japan, and distributer Santy Oropel of Twin Audio Video was on hand showing off “the big tube” amps in the Triode lineup, the monstrous TRX-M845SE. I’m pretty sure they weigh more than I do, and I’ve been eating well lately. Speaking of which, the Acoustic Zen Crescendo loudspeakers ($16,000/pair) were here clad in a magnificent light burl, are equally robust and together, I got treated to an eerily realistic recreation of Fan-Ya Lin from her Emerging CD. I say eerie, because I actually got to hear her play those very same pieces the night before (and she’d play them again that night) when I happened on her, sitting alone in the Marriott Lobby. A few of us were poleaxed into place, trapped in the fairy-circle of her music. So, again, here. It gave me goose bumps when Robert queued the disc. These Crescendos mark a significant point in the price/performance curve, and after this point, experience tends to unmoor such landmarks like ‘meaning’, ‘reason’ and ‘value’. Again, another too-comfortable room to tarry in or I’d never leave.

There were two Emerald Physics rooms I wandered into here at RMAF, and both were exceptional. The first was the smaller of the two systems, featuring the latest iteration of the “entry-level” model, the CS3, now a Mark II ($3,500/pair). The lineup features a coaxial-driver with a 12” woofer; it can be and was driven by a single amp, and here paired with a digital crossover, a DSPeaker Anti-Mode 2.0 bass correction system and a pair of REL subwoofers. Throw in a Jolida Fusion DAC/Transport, and Walter was selling the bundle for a hair under $9,000. That is, everything you’d need (except cables), in one ready-to-go package. The cool thing? Ha ha – as if you needed more – you could put those speakers just about anywhere and expect (and get!) top-to-bottom performance that not only rivaled but exceeded that found in systems in the Tower that were 5x the cost. If this is the future, we’re all gonna need shades. It was a convincing demo. Moving down the hall to the much bigger room and the much bigger pair of CS2.3 Mark II loudspeakers ($5,950, including the DSP crossover/processor), I got more of the same. With some new electronics from Wyred 4 Sound, including their new ST500 Mk II amplifier, the sound coming from the bigger EP speakers was deep, resonant and detailed. The bass alone is to die for.

King Sound has been making full-size electrostatic loudspeakers for who-knows-how-long, and it’s that “full-size” bit that really makes a big difference. Instead of mating a cone-driver or powered sub to the mix, King Sound just makes a bigger panel, with the result being deep bass that’s full integrated and every bit as fast as the rest of the sound pulsating out at you. Neal Van Berg of Sound Science was showing the King III loudspeakers ($14,995/pair), all naked-like, to show off the panels in all their glory. Driven by an EAR 868 and an Innamorata stereo amp from Wells Audio, fronted by a music server of Neal’s own design and a DAC from Antelope, the sound was … well … electrifying. Har har. No, really – there really is nothing like the speed you’ll get from an ESL and with no box-colorations, the sound stage was crisp and open and airy and and and. Oh, and yes – the King III is rated into the low 30Hz region, which will move some serious air.

Over the next two days, I managed quite a bit of skedaddlery, which is a requisite skill if you want to have any hope of making it through a show as large as RMAF. Unfortunately, I’m generally terrible at it. On the other hand, knowing this about myself, I simply gave up the notion of “completion” for the notion of “satisfaction” and the whole thing proceeded quite well, actually.

Speaking of satisfaction – let’s talk about Zu Audio. The newest drivers, the nanotech impregnated 10” paper-core wide-banders (a fun phrase to try out with your non-audiophile friends) are dramatically stiffer than those of old but still retain a life to them, a naturalness to them, that is unfortunately rather unusual. Paired with the massive Radian tweeter, the new “house sound” of Zu Audio has grown up – considerably so. If you’ve been turned off because of something some forum monkey wrote, it’s past time to put that to bed and get with the new. You’ll be glad you did. To wit: here at RMAF, Zu Audio was showing the newest iteration of their now-iconic pillar loudspeaker, the Druid Mk V ($5,200/pair). This loudspeaker is as far from the original Druid as you can get and still share a scrap of DNA, but shown here with a Peachtree Audio Grand Integrated, the sound was effortless even as, to paraphrase fellow scribe Brian Hunter, the sound was coming through at rock-concert levels, or as the Zu Audio team calls it, “normal”. Paired up with a stunningly large subwoofer aptly called Submission ($3,999), the sound in this large mezzanine room was immersive, textured, and shockingly lovely. Through some quirk in the fabric of space-time, I actually managed to wander in while “regular audiophile” music was being played (a fact which I will use to tease Sean about for the next couple of years), and so I got to compare apples-to-apples to many of the other rooms here in the Tower. The result wasn’t so good for the rest of the Tower.

A quick stumble across the mezzanine and I fell into Philip O’Hanlon’s On A Higher Note room, where I visited with the superbly balanced Vivid Audio B1 loudspeakers ($15k/pair). I think we can take it as read that the aesthetic of the Vivid loudspeakers is polarizing, but the sound here, with Luxman gear fronting the alien-shaped 3-ways with their pass-through front-to-back porting, was exactly as I was expecting – electric linearity with transparency, refinement and ESL-like speed. No, the B1 isn’t going to plumb the depths – there are larger Vivid loudspeakers that can do that quite handily – but if you say you’re looking for that “window on the music”, well, here it is. The Vivid “house sound” seems to be “none at all”.

Back upstairs, in the Blackbird Audio Gallery room, I was treated to some time with the Trenner&Friedl loudspeakers, the $13,000/pair Pharoahs. Yes, that is how it’s spelled. The Pharoahs are some of the most lifestyle-friendly hi-fi speakers at the show, and are designed for a near-wall placement, which means lots more floor space (my wife would love that); this also gives them a bit of a bass-boost, as well as generally lifting the sound stage to a surprising height. I was captivated. A swap to the little Opera Callas stand-mounts loudspeakers, with their five tweeters (2 front, 3 rear), meant bringing speakers way out into the room, and once there, the little Callas’ threw another wickedly surprising sound stage. A delightful sense of air and depth that I suppose makes sense with all those tweeters, but was happily surprising and thoroughly welcomed.

The new 7.2f is a new full-range floor-standing model from the new Genesis Loudspeakers line. It’s a whole new look, very sleek, but with the same nifty features carrying over (trickling down?) from the much more expensive 5.3 model, including a tunable, integrated, powered sub and fully customizable tweeter/treble response. Another, defeatable, tweeter fires aft – if you’re thinking ambiance, space, and air, you’ve hit the mark. What all these knobs mean is that if you don’t like the sound you’re getting from this loudspeaker, it’s because you’ve not tuned it right. One size fits all? Yep, pretty much. Deep, wide, fast and altogether gripping, this $12,500/pair offering is going to be huge for designer Gary Koh. It’s also part of a larger lineup that includes an LCR model (7.2c, for $3,000 each) as well as some stand mounts that would probably be awesome (and overkill) as satellites (7.2p for $4,800). I can imagine multi-channel enthusiasts just found their endgame. Burmester gear was balanced out by a Thorens turntable, and altogether, the package was sleek and modern.

The previous two speakers, with their fore-and-aft tweeters does provide a remarkable sense of space, but if you’re really interested in diving in those waters, German Physiks has chartered cruises with your name all over them. The design features a cone-shaped driver that operates across 200Hz-20kHz, and by “cone”, I mean, “radiates in 360 degrees”. This gets mated to an 8” bass driver mounted in the column, and the result in the case of the Unlimited Mk.II loudspeakers ($13,500/pair), is a frequency response from 32Hz-24kHz and a completely unbelievable wrap-around-the-room sound stage. Sweet spot? Yes, there still is one – but it’s multi-seat, not multi-millimeter. This was an impressive pairing, here with the Vitus Audio “Reference Line” electronics. All you need is a little space – the more the merrier, actually, to get the “full effect” of the omni driver.

Speaking of interesting drivers, Jim Jordan of Vaughn Loudspeakers had an outrageous demo of his new Triode/Plasma floor standing speaker, here paired with some very nifty tube electronics from Wavelength Audio. The Triode/Plasma ($15,000/pair with factory supplied plasma tweeters) is something of a chimera, featuring some rebuilt vintage parts (the Dukane plasma tweeters), some “retro” bits (the Fostex wide-band/full-range driver) and some rather modern parts (the powered woofer). The whole wove one of the most convincing musical portrayals at RMAF this year. Availability is subject to, well, availability – in this case, due to a limited number of Dukane Ionosphere tweeters wandering about, but for those wanting what may well be the pinnacle of audiophile tweakery and extreme performance (tweeters made of fire!) this Vaughn needs to replace “the list”. Breathtaking sound here – and judging by Jim’s giddy helplessness as he walked through the demo, he knows he’s got a winner.

Another standout (that is, stand way out) for me was the Odyssey Audio Kismet Beryllium Reference ($3,900/pair). These speakers are, in essence, monitors with integrated stands. The front baffle is the narrowest part of the cabinet, which flares out to the rear, a design that should help significantly with resonance. The speakers feature Scanspeak drivers, specifically their beryllium tweeter and a Revelator mid/bass driver, and the sound I heard was spectacular. The speakers held on to their nuance, detail, and tone even as the volume crept suspiciously close to “11”. The fact that the entire system, with cables, retailed for $6,700, was not only icing on the cake – it had “Steal Me” stamped all over it. Seriously. This was not only one the best sounding rooms, it was easily one of the best values. Winner winner, chicken dinner!

I got to hear Magico’s diminutive S1 loudspeaker a couple of different times during the show, once with Hegel and once with Krell. Both times, the sealed $12,600 two-way, featuring the distinctive beryllium tweet and carbon nanotube driver, sounded remarkable full and altogether classy. Other notables included: the stylish $7,000/pair Elac “Boss Edition” paired with Burmester; the $18,000/pair The Kiss from Vienna Acoustics on their seemingly precarious offset stands paired with Boulder; and the $9,850/pair Aerial Acoustics 7t driven by Ayre electronics. All were all fine showings.

But the room that took me most by surprise was built around the Abyss headphone ($5,495). RMAF marked my first time with these robust “ear speakers” and their blacksmith/biker chic, but the sound – especially paired with the outstanding Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold headphone amplifier and the candy-apple Da Vinci from Light Harmonic – made me find religion. I believe in headphones! I believe. Of course, a $30k+ headphone setup is … ahh … over the top? Yeah, a little. But, wow, what a performance! I’m still a bit weak in the knees just remembering that session.

So, that’s it. I’m already way over my word-count, but in my defense, there was a lot to reminisce about. Five floors and the mezz, all stuffed full of audio awesomeness, and by the end of the three days, I was limping and leaking marketing collateral every time I turned my wheeled camera bag around. You’re feeling my pain, I’m sure. Oddly, I never did see the rest of the TAS crew during the weekend, though I’m told that someone was doing donuts and burnouts in the parking lot with the big Bentley/Maim demo car. Ahem.

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