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RMAF 2018 – JV on Loudspeakers $20k and Up

I haven’t been to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in three years. And although the show is planning to change venues in 2019, after this latest visit to the Marriott Tech Center I’m not sure I’ll be back. Why? This was one of the worst-sounding North American audio shows I’ve ever attended. Between the tiny rooms, the lousy electricity, and the single day that RMAF and the Marriott allow exhibitors to unpack and set up, you’d have to be mighty lucky—or mighty mighty good—to get anything approaching top-notch sound. Most didn’t. Oh, there were the usual handful of exceptions, but in room after room I heard the same miserable mix of brightness and darkness—like the sonic equivalent of noonday sun and shade. 

In any event, I made my way from floor to floor, aided by the fact that the show wasn’t particularly well attended. It was, however, fairly well populated by gear in my segment. I did my best to cover the field, but, as is always the case, I’m sure I missed any number of exhibits. I’m also sure that I’m going to get some of the nomenclature and prices wrong in the rooms where I did stop to listen. My apologies in advance to those manufacturers I didn’t get to see and for any factual mistakes I’m about to make. Taking notes, taking pictures, and talking to friends old, new, and would-be—all at once—is no way to run a railroad, or compile a show report. 

The Best

I’m going to begin with the two best-sounding loudspeakers I heard at RMAF. Since I’m not a big fan of either marque, both came as surprises. Nonetheless, good is good, whether you expect it or not—and these exhibits were very good. The first was B&W’s $30k 800 D3 three-way floorstander (1″ diamond-dome tweeter, 6″ Continuum cone FST midrange, and two 10″ Aerofil cone woofers), driven and sourced by Moon electronics. Though the 800 D3’s bass and power range were a bit lighter than what I’m used to from Magico M3s, the overall presentation was far and away the most neutral, transparent, and lifelike I’d heard up to that point in the show. I listened to two digital tracks I’m very familiar with— “Shame, Shame, Shame” from Lake Street Dive’s Free Yourself Up and “Don’t Play that Song” from A Brand New Me: Aretha Franklin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra—and on each the 800 D3s supplied a fair taste of the realism these cuts are capable of via my MSB Reference digital, Magico M3 loudspeakers, and Constellation Hercules II Stereo amp. Not bad for about a quarter of the money.

Better still was the $130k Sonus faber Aida four-way floorstander (1.1″ damped-apex silk-dome tweeter, 7.1″ natural-fiber midrange, two 8.7″ sandwich-cone woofers, and 12.6″ nano-carbon-fiber/foam-core subwoofer, with rear-firing “Sound Field Shapers” comprising a 1.1″ damped-apex silk-dome tweeter and two 3.15″ midrange drivers), driven (wonderfully) by Audio Research Corporation’s Reference 160M monoblock amplifiers and Ref 6 preamp, sourced by a Clearaudio ’table with Goldfinger Statement cartridge feeding a Clearaudio current-mode phonostage, wired by Kubala Sosna, and supported by HRS stands. Although I’m a lifelong fan of Audio Research, it’s been a while since I’ve heard the company’s latest offerings. Given the magic the 160Ms and the Ref6 performed with the Aidas (speakers I haven’t always loved in the past), I’m clearly missing out on something exceptional. On every LP I played, from Chet Baker to Enescu, this was the best demo of the show—and not by a little bit. The Sonus/ARC/Clearaudio combo simply had more of the breath and bloom of life than any other exhibit. (Also shown in this system was the DS Audio Master1 cartridge and phono equalizer, both of which were quite good but just a bit crude compared to the Clearaudio Goldfinger and Clearaudio phonostage—like impasto compared to fine brushstrokes.)

Michael Børresen and Lars Christensen, formerly of Raidho, have started their own speaker company—Børresen Acoustics—to go along with their electronics company Aavik and their cable company Anszus, and judging from their initial offerings at RMAF the Danish duo are going to be very successful. Michael showed two models in Denver. The first was a two-way stand-mount called the Børresen 01; the second (and, at this show, the superior) was a five-driver two-and-a-half-way floorstander called the Børresen 03. Both transducers use Michael’s newly devised ribbon tweeter, carbon-fiber-sandwich mid/woofs, and an entirely new motor system with no iron (and hence no inductance) in its magnetics. The $30k two-way, driven (like the two-and-a-halfway) by Michael and Lars’ Aavik electronics and wired with their Anszus cable, was dark, fast, detailed, present, and hard-hitting with quite decent low end (especially for a petite mini) on bass-heavy cuts like Blue Tofu’s haunting “A Battle Between.” However, the 01 wasn’t as sonically sophisticated as Michael’s big boy, the $70k Børresen 03. Michael confided that the driver in the 01 still needed a bit of tweaking, thus the  touch of brightness, sibilance, and aggressiveness in the upper mids and lower treble. The Borresen 03, a more finished product, didn’t have any of this added edge and brightness. Sweeter, bigger, smoother, and deeper-reaching in the bass, it was just plain natural sounding, albeit a mite dark in the Marriott room.

Jeremy Bryan showed MBL’s superb $72k 101 E MK II Radiastrahler four-ways, bi-amped with MBL’s Noble Line Class D N15 monoblocks and sourced by MBL’s N31CD/SACD DAC/player and by Greg Beron’s terrific United Home Audio UHA Ultima4 tape deck. As usual, the 101 E MK IIs—classics by any measure—displayed their nonpareil room-erasing spatiality and three-dimensionality to great effect. On Blue Tofu’s “A Battle Between,” the speaker also added a delicate breathiness to Andrea Mathews’ voice, with air behind her, good snap on percussion, and big, solid, hard-hitting bass. Though the overall presentation was dark in timbre, as is always the case with MBL, and the treble a little soft (as is also usual with MBL’s N15 Class D amps), this was still a Best of Show contender. MBLs always seem to be. It is amazing how adaptable Radialstrahlers are, even in crap rooms like this one. I was really smitten by Paul Simon’s “Train in the Distance” (from his greatly underrated Hearts and Bones album) Again, the air, the dimensionality, the breathy delicacy of the midband vocals combined with the sheer power in the bottom octaves was arresting.

Holger Adler of Voxativ showed his wonderful Pi 9.87 one-ways, driven by Voxativ’s terrific new T-805 integrated amp and hooked up with Synergistic Research cable and conditioning. This version of the 9.87 (which, BTW, is the number “pi” squared—symbolizing the advantages of adding Adler’s dedicated, powered Pi-Bass woofer to his Pi monitor) was dark in timbre, as was virtually everything else at RMAF, but simply gorgeous to hear! Using Adler’s top-line field coil drivers, which are clearly richer and fuller in the midrange and upper bass than the excellent neodymium drivers I’ve been using in my versions of the 9.87s, the system was a BOS contender. On Chet Baker Sings the field coils made Chet’s voice and trumpet—recorded with warm, rich RCA BX-44 ribbons—sound just like they should have, ravishingly lovely and lifelike.

The (previously unknown to me) Spanish company Alsyvox made a spectacular debut with its gorgeous $87k, three-way (4544 cm2woofer panel, 15mm-wide mid/tweeter panel, 5mm-wide super-tweeter) Botticelli planar-magnetic, driven by Omega Audio Concepts electronics. Of all the speakers debuting at the show, this is the one I would most like to review. Though all sources were digital, and unfamiliar digital at that, the way this large line-source reproduced big band was simply breathtaking—astonishing transient response (lightning-fast), great body, dense tone color, and better-integrated treble than I’m used to from ’Pans (even the 30.7s). IMO, the best intro at the show, the Botticelli’s could be a genuine breakthrough in planar-magnetic design. Of course, only a long listen could prove the point (are you listening, Alsyvox?) 

The Next Best

Carl Marchisotta’s $40k Nola Metro Grand Reference Gold 2, driven by a VAC integrated amp, sourced by an ARC CD8, and wired with Nordost cable, was remarkably open and spacious and airy, though a bit dark in timbre and, because of setup, a little phasey. Still, the Metro Grand Reference was impressively natural on Gilberto’s voice and Getz’s sax. Same on the instruments from Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, with excellent transients on bass drum and a great presentation of acoustic space. Carl makes superior loudspeakers.

Von Schweikert Audio debuted its $200k multiway (two 9″ reinforced ceramic woofers, 7″ reinforced ceramic midrange, beryllium tweeter, ribbon super-tweeters on the front and back, a magnesium horn-loaded tweeter on the rear of the enclosure, and a 15″ compound woven subwoofer with dedicated 1000-watt amplifier also on the back) Ultra 9 floorstander. The latest in VS’s flagship reference series, the Ultra 9 was being driven by a gorgeous new VAC integrated amp from Kevin Hayes. Using much the same technology as the Ultra 11s (including highly adjustable bass and treble), the Ultra 9s sounded quite lovely and neutral (!) on “Mood Indigo” from my Ellington LP, with good reproduction of breath and timbre on tenor sax, and wonderful realism on voice! This was a very good exhibit. 

Ted Denney showed Magico’s $72k, carbon-fiber-and-aluminum-enclosed, three-way (1″ diamond-coated beryllium tweeter, 6″ graphene midrange, and three 7″ graphene woofers) M3 floorstanders, powered by Constellation electronics, sourced by Constellation digital and (most notably) by a Sonorus reel-to-reel tape machine, and wired, of course, with Denney’s new Synergistic Research Galileo X cable. As is always the case with Ted’s presentations, the room was elaborately treated with SR’s UEF wall panels, Atmosphere multi-wave RF field generators, and other ingenious SR tuning device. Although timbre was exceedingly dark on my first visit to this room (on Day One of the show), Ted was also managing to coax surprisingly deep-reaching bass from the M3s’ three 7″ woofers, as well as mind-boggling surround effects (I mean behind-your-head imaging!) from a Pink Floyd tape. For sheer immersiveness this system couldn’t be touched by anything else at the show. On my second visit to the room (on Day Three), Denney had adjusted his room-and-cable tuning, and tone color now sounded quite a bit closer to neutral on tape (and on digital, as well), with the same terrific bass and very open mids. What a great loudspeaker the M3 is.

No stranger to ingenious technology from his years at MartinLogan, Gayle Sanders introduced his new, active $25k Eikon Image1 three-ways (two opposing 8″ aluminum woofers, a 5″ paper-pulp midrange, and an AMT “wave-guided” tweeter) at RMAF. The price includes an “Eikontrol” box, which handles digital and analog inputs, source selection, and amplification of the drivers. The Eikontrol also houses a DSP engine that executes the loudspeaker’s crossover in the digital domain, as well as providing “acoustic wave-shaping in the room, minimizing sidewall interactions and helping to achieve energetic bass lines as well as phase-perfect mids and highs.” This is a highly advanced all-in-one system to which you only need add a digital or analog source. How did it sound? Very good! Obviously the DSP was working well, because the Eikon Image1 system managed to make a fine loudspeaker in a dreadful room sound like a fine loudspeaker in a decent one, which at this show was kinda miraculous. 

Gideon Schwartz of Audioarts showed Zellaton’s new, $27,950, 2.5-way (0.8″ soft dome tweeter, 5″ full-cone mid/woofer, 8″ passive radiator) Legacy stand-mount (the extra half-way comes from the passive woofer on the rear of the Legacy’s wee enclosure), driven by an Ensemble integrated amp coupled with a Thoress phonostage, and sourced by a Thales turntable and Thales Statement tonearm. On a first visit to the room (early in the show), the Legacy’s made my Chet Baker LP sound quite dark in timbre (yet again), and a bit hard-edged in texture. On a second visit, the sound was considerably improved from the first hours of the first day. Though the Legacy was still dark in timbre, the hardness was gone and delicacy of timbre and texture greatly increased, particularly on a Fischer-Dieskau LP of lieder. It’s funny but the big issue with Zellatons is usually dynamic range. With this speaker’s 8-inch passive woofer on the back of its cabinet, the little Zellatons had the punch and weight that the larger ones can be a mite short on. Of course, the Legacy’s are not as uncannily neutral, of a piece, extended, and realistic as something like the big Zellaton References, but they are more dynamic and quite surprisingly full-range for such tiny transducers.

MSB (than whom no one else makes better digital source components, IMO) showed its Select DAC with $72k Magico M3 three-ways and MSB’s own cylindrical M204 amps. Once again, the sound in the lousy Marriott room was dark, dark, dark; nonetheless, a Harry Connick CD sounded good, with excellent resolution of detail top to bottom, lovely string tone, good attack on brass, and superb soundstage depth. “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” sounded its usual excellent, minus a little room darkness (and consequently realism). Though lacking the breathiness of the best rooms (and what I hear at home from MSB’s Reference DAC), the MSB demo kinda made up for it in the low end, which on Christian McBride’s doublebass was simply the best I heard at the show— remarkably defined, detailed, dimensional, and natural on both arco and pizzicato passages.

Japan’s Kiso Acoustics Co. showed its $20k, stand-mounted, two-way HB-X1 mini-monitor (in a cabinet made by Japanese guitar-manufacturer Takamine), driven by Karan Acoustics electronics and sourced by a Thales turntable. In spite of, or maybe because of, its incredibly diminutive dimensions (the HB-X1 really puts the “mini” in mini-monitor), this was an extremely impressive transducer—no box/driver coloration (of course), utterly open and unconstrained soundstage, lovely breathiness and realism on Chet Baker’s vocals and trumpet, and surprisingly decent upper bass (though no low bass to speak of). When they’re good, minis do certain things better than any other kind of cone speakers, and the Kiso’s are good.

In the Constellation room, the $38.5k Rockport Technologies Avior II 3.5-way (1″ beryllium-dome tweeter; 6″ carbon-fiber sandwich-composite midrange; two 9″ carbon-fiber, sandwich-composite woofers) floorstanders were being driven by Constellation Revelation Series electronics—Taurus monoblock amps, Pictor preamp, and Andromeda phonostage—sourced by a Constellation Obsidian turntable with OrtofonA95 cart, and wired with Transparent cable. As I use the humongous Constellation Hercules II Stereo amp at home with Magico M3s, I wasn’t surprised that Chet Baker sounded realistic with this gear, though I was a little surprised by the system’s neutrality, given the inherent darkness/brightness of virtually every other room at RMAF. While Constellation’s Irv Gross wasn’t getting a lot of stage depth in this space (wotta shock!), he was getting excellent timbre on trumpet, voice, and everything else. (I also heard the Rockport Avior IIs in another room, driven by CH Precision electronic and sourced by a turntable with a Lyra Aetna cart, and even though Chet Baker once again sounded a little dark in timbre, there was also a very nice breathy delicacy on his voice, tighter definition on the bass fiddle than I’d heard elsewhere, and genuinely 3-D projection of his trumpet.)

In the Nagra room, Rene LaFlamme was showing a different Rockport Technologies loudspeaker, the $62.5k Cygnus 3-way floorstander (1″ beryllium-dome tweeter, 6″ carbon-fiber sandwich-composite midrange, two 10″ carbon-fiber sandwich-composite woofers), driven and sourced by—guess what?—Nagra electronics. I picked this room not for the sound—which was (yet again) dark overall, simultaneously a bit bright in the upper mids, and rather vague in imaging—but for the music. Rene played a tape-transfer of a (de-clicked and de-noised) 78 recorded in 1945 of Peggy Lee doing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Even though room acoustics were preventing her from sounding as realistic as she should have (after all, in ’45, she would have been recorded direct-to-disc), the song and the singer were still a delight to hear. Yeah, the presentation coulda been better, but with Peggy Lee in her prime who cares about hi-fi stuff?

Richard Vandersteen was showing parts of his $149k Vandersteen System 9, which (when complete) comprises a pair of Model 7 Mk. II loudspeakers on granite bases coupled (below 100Hz) to a pair of Sub Nines and driven by Richard’s M7-HPA amps. Though the M7-HPAs were missing in Denver, the rest of the system was intact, driven by VTL electronics, wired with AudioQuest cable, and sourced by an AMG ’table with Lyra Atlas cartridge. Chet sounded pretty wonderful on this rig, and his trumpet was superb, Yeah the sonics were still just a little bright and dark, and I thought I could hear the VTL (and the Sub Nines) warming and thickening things a bit—but just a bit. This is another system I could see myself reviewing.

The Rest

Art Manzano of Axiss Audio showed Piega’s 3-way, dipole Master Line Source 2 floorstander, driven by Air Tight electronics, sourced by a Transrotor Rondino Nero turntable with Air Tight’s new Coda cartridge (which replaces the PC-1), wired with Tara Labs cable, and supported by Joe Lavrencik’s Critical Mass Systems Soto Voce rack and CenterStage II feet. The sound was dark (surprise!) but livable, excellent on Chet’s voice, with very nice detail on his trumpet and good dynamics overall. I thought the piano was a little lacking in brightness on the top and a bit thumpy on the bottom. Still, this was a pretty fair showing given the conditions.

The Mexican firm Troy Audio showed its $140k, 4-way (with Fostex’s superb horn-loaded super-tweeter, a 16″coaxial midrange/tweeter, and a 16″woofer developed by ex-Altec guys) Helena MKII, driven by Trax 300B amps, sourced by a Trax DAC, and wired with Synergistic Research cable. The sound was rich, dark, and lovely, albeit a little forward and slightly vague in imaging due to the small room. 

Focal showed it $20k, 3-way Sopra 3with Classe electronics and AudioQuest cable, I thought this was one of the better (i.e., less objectionable sounds at the show), especially considering the source was CD (and some high-res).

The $69.5k Wilson Benesch Resolution, driven and sourced by Ypsilon electronics, sounded darker and richer than what I’ve heard in the past from WB. On Kenny Burrell the presentation was actually quite lovely, with very good bass. On Shelby Lynne’s “Just a Little Loving,” the vocal was a little dark and loosely imaged but not bad. The tweeter was great on cymbal. All in all, one of the better rooms.

Gershman showed its $120k Posh loudspeaker with VAC electronics. At the time I listened to it, I thought the Posh was the most neutral presentation I’d heard thus far—not quite as warm in the mids on Chet Baker as I’m used to, but for once not darkened or brightened or both. A little forward and aggressive on trumpet, it had a bit of that ceramic sound in the mids—a little mechanical and hornlike. The $52k Gryphon Pantheon D’Appolito three-way, driven by Gryphon electronics, wired with MIT, and sourced by a tape deck was dark in balance on a Ben Webster tape but very dynamic, with good definition, extension, and natural weight on standup bass. Quite lovely, actually. The $65k Cessaro Wagner was wonderful on Chet Baker vocals—not as breathy as I’ve heard but very solid in imaging—lovely on trumpet and piano (though not really extended on top), and just plain good on bass. Aside from a touch of cupped hands coloration, this was a nice exhibit. The $514k ESD Dragon system, with carbon-fiber spherical horns, sounded remarkably coherent and quite lovely in timbre for a multiple-cone horn system. Neither forward nor overly dark, it managed to get pretty good (and relatively deep) bass from a big hyperbolic quarter-horn. 

Best of Show

Best Sound (money-no-object): Sonus faber Aida driven by ARC and sourced by Clearaudio.

Best Sound (for the money): B&W 800 D3 driven by Moon electronics.

Best Introduction: Alsyvox Botticelli planar-magnetic winning by several lengths, with the Eikon Image1 and the Børresen 03 taking place and show.


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