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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013: Speakers $20,000 and Above

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013: Speakers $20,000 and Above

This year the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest celebrated its tenth anniversary, which is hard to believe since it seems like only yesterday that the then-daring experiment of sponsoring a trade show in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains was first tried. Happily, RMAF’s success was immediate—and the results of its success have been profound. Almost single-handedly RMAF spurred today’s trend of regional trade shows, which continue to proliferate (Chicago being the latest addition).

I’m happy—and surprised given recent experience—to report that the tenth-anniversary RMAF was also the best-sounding RMAF (in fact, the best-sounding trade show) I’ve ever attended—or at least it was in my ultra-expensive patch of the high-end woods. Never before have I heard this many hotel rooms with outstanding sound. Either exhibitors are catching on to the manifold quirks of the Marriott Tech Center or audio gear is getting uniformly better. From my point of view, the result is both delightful and perplexing—delightful because it is always more pleasant to praise than to bury, and perplexing because it has made choosing a 2013 Best of Show Winner ultra-tough. (You won’t find out who makes my final cut until Issue 240.)

I would also have to say that this was the largest RMAF I’ve attended, with more exhibitors than ever before. At the same time, and quite ironically, this may also have been the poorest attended RMAF in recent years. Civilian traffic certainly seemed down to me. Why I’m not sure. (Someone told me that there was a beer fest in downtown Denver the weekend of the show and, of course, there was a Broncos home game on Sunday, which may prove to be the answers.) Nonetheless, from a sonic standpoint RMAF 2013 was a smashing success, and since you folks who skipped it don’t know what you missed I’m going tell ya.

I’ve divided the report on the basis of the Marriott’s geography, starting with the huge downstairs Atrium and Tower Mezzanine rooms, moving to the hotel rooms in the Tower, then to the rooms in the Atrium and ending with a brief trip off-site. As is the case every year, I’ve done my best to cover everything worth covering, but, as usual, I am quite certain that I’ve overlooked some folks. My apologies in advance to those I’ve missed; it wasn’t intentional, believe me. Also apologies in advance for any mistakes in pricing or nomenclature. I do my best to get things right, but I’m just one guy with a lot of ground to cover.

First Floor Atrium Rooms and Tower Mezzanine

The first room I visited was Conifer 1, where Wilson Audio’s four-driver (10” woofer, 8” midbass, 7” midrange, and 1” dome tweeter) $48,500 Alexia floorstander. Replete with technologies adapted from Wilson’s statement XLF (including time alignment and rotational dispersion adjustments), the Alexia was being shown with Doshi Audios’ new 3.0 Series electronics (linestage, phonostage, tape stage, and Jhor monoblock power amps), an ARC CD9 CD player, a Pro-Ject HL Signature turntable with Koetsu Azule cartridge, and a Studer A90 tape deck, all wired with Transparent XL cables and interconnects. I was smitten with the Doshi gear and for the most part liked the speakers, which were quite realistically robust but also a bit bright, edgy, and forward on both the winds of Lt Kije and Lisa Gerrard’s lead vocal on Dead Can Dance. Whether it was the famously awful acoustics of the super-large Marriott Atrium rooms or the Wilson tweeter or some combination of other things, I’m not sure, but the system’s upper midrange and lower treble got a bit ragged on fortes. In addition, though impressively solid and powerful in the midbass, the Alexias didn’t have as much room-shaking deep bass as I’m used to hearing from both the Reiner Kije and the DCD LPs in my own system.

In Blanca Peak, the four-driver (13” electro-magnetic woofer, twin 6.5” midrange, and beryllium tweeter), three-way $90k Focal Stella Utopia was paired (once again) with Soulution’s phenomenal 500 Series electronics and sourced by a Transrotor ’table with the Graham Phantom II Supreme ’arm and Airtight cartridge. The Focal/Soulution combo, which has won Best Sound of Show Awards numerous times, was (once again) stunning: big, full, solid, and gorgeous on full orchestra in Kije, though (like the Wilson Alexia) not as room-shaking on the explosive timp and bass drum strikes during “Kije’s Birth” as I’m used to hearing from these same Soulution electronics with the Walker Mk V phonograph, the Goldfinger Statement, and the Raidho C 4.1 in my (admittedly far more congenial and highly treated) listening room. Still and all, the Stella Utopia was my first Best of Show contender.

In Maroon Peak, VAC electronics were being paired with Tannoy’s four-driver, three-way $69,995 Kingdom Royal statement floorstander—a rarity on these shores. With a 15” treated-paper cone woofer, Tannoy’s famous Dual Concentric 12” multi-fiber mid/woofers with concentrically mounted 3” compression-driven aluminum-alloy tweeter, and ceramic-coated magnesium-alloy-dome super-tweeter, all housed in a large highly engineered enclosure, ported for the bass driver and sealed for the Dual Concentric unit, the Kingdrom Royal is indeed an odd-looking beast. Nonetheless, Lt Kije sounded extremely detailed and robust through the Tannoys, with a very prominent upper mid and treble that managed to hold detail on the swooping strings and winds throughout the very loud bursts of brass and percussion in “Kije’s Birth.” There was, however, a little loss of bass/power-range color, extension, and drive on Janis’ “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” which left her voice sounding a bit too “exposed” and shouty. On the other hand, soundstaging was exceptional on both discs. I liked the Kingdom Royals, but have to confess that (at least in this room) they added a slight granular roughness to the sound.

In Crestone Peak, Musical Surroundings was showing the three-way $32,500 Focal Scala v2 Utopia floorstander with Aesthetix electronics (Callisto Eclipse linestage, Io Eclipse phonostage, and Atlas monoblock amps), Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable, Grahmam Phantom II Supreme tonearm, Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge, all sitting on Critical Mass’ impressive new Soto Voce rack and wired with Nordost Valhalla 2 wire. The system was impressive on Lt Kije, but just a tad lighter-weight on Lou Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal, where the bass line on “White Heat, White Light” lost a bit of its phenomenal heft and presence, although the presentation still had good pace, air, and detail. All in all, an excellent showing.

In Larkspur, AAudio Imports intro’d the gigantic $266,000 Lansche No.8.2—a seven-driver (two 18” rear-mounted actively powered subwoofers, four 8” coated-paper mid/basses, and Lansche’s justly famous 0.3” Corona ion tweeter), two-way floorstander in an 880-pound, Brobdingnagian-sized, sealed enclosure. The Lansches were paired (as usual) with Ypsilon tube electronics (SET100 monoblock amps, PST-100 MkII preamp, VPS-100 phonostage, etc.), a Hartvig TT Signature turntable with Thales Simplicty tonearm, and Stage III cables and interconnects. Despite their imposing size the No.8.2 proved to be much more neutral, nimble, and of a piece than any previous Lansche I’ve heard—to the point where it sounded light, lean, and limber in balance where other Lansches have always sounded over-full, darkish, and disjointed. Something’s been improved here—and not by a little bit.

In Lupine, Classic Audio Reproductions showed its horn-loaded T-3.4 Project speaker driven by AtmaSphere Novachron amps and sourced by a Kuzma reference ’table with 12” Triplanar tonearm. At RMAF, CAR’s horn speakers have always been mixed bags. Here, the T-3.4 had lovely color on solo violin, showed surprisingly little horn coloration on “Long and Winding Road” with better foreground focus on Paul’s voice than CAR horns usually have (although the speaker did seem to lose focus and resolution on background instruments and chorus). A little dry and bright on crescendos, the T-3.4 suffered from a marked lack of top and bottom end on all music (at least in this gigantic room).

In Primrose, HiFi Imports systems showed the six-driver (four 7” carbon-fiber/graphite-composite woofers, one 7” carbon-fiber/graphite-composite midrange, and a 2” Abaca/graphite-pulp-composite tweeter), three-way, $98k Venture Grand Ultimate MkII floorstander, driven by Thrax electronics (Dionysius preamp, Orpheus phonostage, and Heros Class A hybrid monoblock amps) and sourced by a Spiral Groove SG1.1 turntable with Graham Phantom II tonearm and Transfiguration Orpheus cartridge. Einklein cables were used throughout. The sound was doubtlessly the best I’ve heard from any Venture loudspeaker. Kije was terrific—realistic tone color, excellent staging, with very good bass, dynamics, and resolution. Keb Mo ditto, though his voice lacked a little focus (but then I was sitting a mile away). The presentation may have leaned slightly to the dry side, but only slightly; nonetheless, this was a big improvement over previous Venture ventures.

Tower Rooms

The $29,800 three-driver (two 18cm woofers, one coaxial midrange/tweeter), three-way TAD Evolution One powered by Zesto electronics and sourced by a Merrill Williams turntable with Dynavector ’arm and cartridge and WyWire cabling made a nice middle-of-the-road showing. I found nothing special to rave about here—and nothing to complain about, either. I’ve always liked TADs and I liked these littler numbers, too.

Lawrence Audio showed its $28k Double Bass ribbon/cone floorstander driven by Rowland electronics. The sound was rich, beautiful, and full-bodied, albeit with just a hint of hollow, cupped-hands coloration on male voice.

In the past I have not been wild about Rockport Technologies’ four-driver (two carbon-fiber woofers, one carbon-fiber midrange, one beryllium tweeter), three-way, $29.5k Avior floorstander. For that matter, on the one occasion I heard them at a show I wasn’t all that crazy about Absolare’s electronics (although I did hear them sound great in Robert’s room with the Magico Q7s). However, in the XactAudio room, where the Avior was mated with Absolare’s Passion Signature monoblock amps and Passion Signature preamp, The Beat table with Schroder LT ’arm, a Lyra Atlas cartridge, and Echole cords and cables, what hadn’t impressed me in the past turned into a strong contender for Best of Show. The Avior/Absolare combo provided simply wonderful texture and tone color with an unusually open soundfield and genuinely realistic power-range weight, richness, and body. Lt Kije was almost as good as I hear it sound at home. Janis Joplin was phenomenal. This was far and away the best sound I’d yet heard at RMAF (and I’d heard some good sound)—full and smooth without loss of resolution, fast without aggressiveness, rich and sweet without being syrupy. In other words, a great stereo system. The only thing missing was that last octave of bass that I hear at home

It is unlikely to go from one great room to another and hear many of the same sonic virtues, but this was the case with the mbl 116F powered by MBL’s new Corona electronics. Although the MBL system may not have had quite the same focus and density of tone color as the Avior/Absolare combo, the 116F came close, plus (being an omni) it had just a tad more openness and air on top, sounding simply fabulous on a Rodney Crowell cut.

The $20,400 Volti Audio Vittora, a hand-made (in Maine) three-way, fully-horn-loaded loudspeaker (with 15” folded-horn bass driver, 2” compression-driver midrange loaded by a Tractrix horn, 1” compression-driver tweeter also loaded by a Tractrix horn, and outboard 18” dynamic subwoofer) was powered by a BorderPatrol Audio Electronics parallel SET amplifier and triode linestage preamplifier. The Vittora proved to be unusually neutral-sounding for a horn (even better of-axis in this regard). Very focused, a bit forward, and a little supercharged in the mids (as horns often are), it was still pretty smooth and powerful overall with a better-than-decent blend between the horns and the outboard dynamic subwoofer.

The three-way, three-driver $38k YG Acoustics Kipod II, a speaker I like, was being shown with Veloce electronics and a Kronos table. On Brubeck’s Take 5 the system showed very good air, separation, and definition top to bottom, though timbre was a little dry and bright. I thought it might be the record pressing that was thinning out color, but my copy of Acoustic Sound’s soon-to-be-released (and quite voluptuous) remastering of Kije sounded the same. Likely the room was a factor.

Usually I like Vandersteen 7s driven by ARC electronics. But this time…there is something about ARC’s new Reference 10 preamp and phonostage that bothers me. Unlike their predecessors—the Reference 5 SE, the Anniversary 40, and the Reference Phono 2 SE—they are not inherently dark and ripe sounding. This is a good thing—their balance has returned to a more classic ARC neutral. What isn’t so good is that they take the devil’s own time breaking in, and while they are going about this they tend to sound a bit confused—whitish in balance, dynamically lax, and somewhat lacking (by ARC’s own very high standard) in resolution. This is what I heard in the Vandersteen room. Both Kije and The Doors “Riders on the Storm” were a little lax dynamically, a little planed of detail, and a little “whited out” in tone color, rather spoiling the typically lively, realistic Vandersteen presentation.

On this same subject it was interesting to compare the Vandersteen 5a Carbon driven by D’Agostino electronics in a nearby room. Here there was a lot more color and definition than in the ARC/Vandersteen demo, although the sound was more tightly wound than in the ARC room—not as bloomy or as free-flowing. Frankly I thought the presentation was being held back by the source—a Rega RP8 turntable. Still and all, Kije was pretty damn thrilling.

Even though it wasn’t strictly in my category, I couldn’t resist listening to Vienna Acoustics’ $18k two-way The Kiss driven by Boulder’s more affordable 800 Series electronics. I did this in part because I’m a sucker for two-ways and in part because I wanted to hear what Boulder was up to in its less-expensive line. I’m glad I took the detour because the sound proved to be excellent: dark, sweet, rich, hard-hitting, and full-bodied for a monitor. The Kiss/Boulder combo handled Kije—a tough test for most full-range speaker systems—with aplomb, even reproducing the deep floor bounce of the bass drum more prominently than many a giant three- or four-way.

Speaking of superb two-ways, Doug White of The Voice That Is has impressed me before with his show setups of the tricky-to-set-up Tidal speakers. This time he did it again with Tidal’s gorgeous $37,690 three-driver (two 7” black-coated ceramic woofers, one 1.2” black diamond tweeter), two-way Piano Diacera floorstander, driven by SMc Audio’s VRE-1C preamp, Audio Power Labs 50TNT Class A monoblock amps, an Aurender W20 server, and a dCS Scarlatti stack, all wired with PranaWire and seated on Paul Waukeen’s Stillpoints racks and footers. The sound was truly gorgeous, with Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre simply phenomenal through the Tidals and the Aurender/dCS source. This was another BOS contender: extremely sweet string tone, superb depth and resolution, and fantastic bass for a two-way.

Broadmann Acoustics showed its $20k Vienna Classic 2 with Electrocompaniet electronics. On a digital recording of a Mozart piano concerto the sound was dark and rich in timbre, but somewhat boxy (Broadmann, a piano maker, deliberately uses material resonances as part of its enclosure design) with a forward presentation and little stage depth (this could’ve been aggravated by my close listening seat). That said, the timbre of Kissin’s piano was lovely with a nice sense of the ambience surrounding it.

Jeff Joseph was showing a new version of his classic dual-cabinet Pearl floorstander, the four-driver, three-way, $31.5k Joseph Audio Pearl 3, driven by Rowland electronics and sourced by a VPI ’table. On two vastly different LPs, Kije and L.A. Woman, the sound was fabulous—power, color, detail, staging, everything you could ask for. Another BOS contender,

The British professional monitor company PMC has been growing its business in the worldwide consumer market, and if the $20k fact.12 four-driver (two 5.5” woofers, one 2” mid, and .75” tweeter), three-way, transmission-line floorstander is a fair sample of its offerings the company should fare quite well. This modest looking number was actually quite impressive on Shelby Lynne’s Dusty Springfield tribute Just A Little Lovin, with terrific presence, tone color, and bass. This is a speaker TAS should review and, yes, though you may be tired of hearing it by now, another BOS contender. (I told you this was a good-sounding show.)

Atrium Rooms

High Fidelity Services was showing the multi-driver (four 168mm NEAT woofers, two 168mm NEAT mid/bass drivers, two 25mm EMIT planar/ribbon tweeters, and one 26mm SONOMEX dome supertweeter), ribbon/cone $31,195 Neat Acoustics Ultimatum XL10 floorstander, powered by Audio Flight electronics and sourced by a VPI Classic 4 turntable with JMW 10.5” tonearm and Lyra Kelos cartridge. On my tricky recording of George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes, the XL10 showed very high resolution and superb transient response, with just a little suckout in the upper bass and power range thinning color somewhat. Nonetheless, this was an good presentation with outstanding definition and surprising deep bass.

One of my favorite small floorstanders, the multi-driver Audio Physic Avantera has now been improved in a $28k Avantera+ version, which now incorporates an ingenious multi-layered honeycomb material for the walls of its enclosure. I heard this material demonstrated at AP’s factory in Germany and it had an astonishing ability to reduce box resonance without the addition of internal damping materials that can also kill dynamics and smother detail. In Denver the Avantera+ was being shown in two rooms. In the first, it was driven by Grandinote electronics and sourced by a Funk turntable. The tiny space was causing an issue in the midbass, but that did not keep Cat Stevens from sounding quite realistically “there.” In the second room, driven by Trigon electronics and an Acoustic Signature turntable with Dynavector 20XL cartridge, the speaker sounded ab fab. On my Crumb LP, transient response was superb with excellent color and just a bit of added brightness when pushed. Resolution and realism were simply remarkable. A BOS contender without doubt.

Wynn Audio was showing the $85k four-way SW Speakers Magic Flute. Each of the Magic Flute’s four drivers resides in a “turbine-shaped” carbon-fiber cabinet that is sealed and isolated from the others, making for a weird totem pole of progressively smaller spherical enclosures that looks rather like a deconstructed Cabasse. Nonetheless, driven by Reimyo electronics and hooked up with Harmonix cords, cables, and tweaks, this was one beautiful-sounding transducer. Since there was no analog source in this room, I couldn’t make a considered comparison with other top contenders. Still, I would bet this is a pretty good speaker and look forward to hearing it again (this time with LPs or tape).

JBL was showing its top-line $75k Everest horn-loaded loudspeaker driven (‘natch) by Mark Levinson electronics. It sounded swell, but more interesting (because newer) was the JBL M2—a compression driver two-way with a uniquely sculpted waveguide horn. Its $40k price tag includes a DSP crossover and Levinson amps. The sound was good—exceptional actually—with terrific midbass despite a little added room boost and a very good blend between its woofer and tweeter. Rich, dark, chocolaty in tone color and exceedingly fast and hard-hitting it is another speaker that someone on this magazine ought to review.

Over the years I’ve heard many interesting loudspeakers from the German company Cessaro Horn Acoustics (now imported by High Water Sound). One of them had the most realistic treble I think I’ve ever heard; another some of the best midbass. The trouble is that while I’ve liked Cessaros in bits and pieces, I’ve never been able to like them as wholes, primarily because they’ve never sound “whole.” As is the case with so many other horn speakers, Cessaros tended to sound like a collection of (excellent) drivers—a veritable pipe organ rather than a single source. While the four-way $165k Cessaro Liszt with front-loaded bass horn may not solve the coherence problem completely, when driven by Tron electronics and sourced by TW-Acustic’s terrific Raven AC Anniversary turntable with TW 10.5” tonearm and Ortofon Windfeld cartridge, it came closer to ideal than any other Cessaro I’ve yet heard. With tremendous dynamics, very rich dark color; bass that is well integrated (though still not quite as fast or full as the horn midrange and tweeter) it was far and away the best horn at RMAF. Along with the Rockport Avior and another we will come to it reproduced Lt Kije with greater beauty, realism, and power than anything else at this excellent show. Obviously, a BOS contender.

The rather chillingly named YourFinalSystem was showing with the $26k four-driver, three-way Von Schweikert VR-44 Aktive loudspeaker with powered woofer, driven by Constellation Audio’s superb Centaur amplifier and Virgo preamp and sourced by a YFS-modified Mac Mini with Meitner DSD DAC, all hooked up with YFS’s own cable and interconnects. The sound was sweet and well defined with good depth. Given a very slight room resonance the bass was otherwise excellent. Good sound for your, uh, final resting place.

I was intrigued by the pioneering German company Zellaton (which invented the sandwich driver) when I heard one of its speakers in Munich earlier this year. In Denver Audio Arts showed the $49,750, two-and-a-half-way Zellaton Grand Purist Version—purist, I suppose, because of its custom-cast crossover parts. Driven by a CH Precision A1 amplifier and a Robert Koda K-10 preamp and sourced by a Holborne Analog 2 MkII turntable with Jan Allearts cartridge, the Grand managed to produce the second best Kije at the show, with terrific tone color, transient speed, and overall realism. Judging by what I heard at Munich this is a much improved speaker, and a Best of Show contender.

On its own, the massive, ultra-expensive ($140k) Von Schweikert VR-100XS Universe multi-driver floorstander was not a Best of Show contender, even when driven by superb Constellation Performance Series electronics. In the large tricky room it was in, with conventional sources, bass and power-range response were problematical—as was image focus. However, add United Home Audio’s UHA Phase11 reel-to-reel tape deck and Puget Sound’s mastertapes to the equation, and none of that other stuff mattered. At lifelike levels (which is to say about 90dB average SPLs with well-over-105dB peaks), nothing else at the show—and this was, once again, a great show—came as close to sounding real as the Universe/Constellation/UHA playing back The Doors’ L.A. Woman. It just goes to show you the essential importance of source and source material. With a great reel-to-reel deck and a really well-recorded tape of rock music, the Universe was obviously a Best of Show contender (maybe the Best), even though the speaker (in this room) wasn’t the equal of the other BOS nominees on a wider variety of music.

Now imported from Germany by GTT Audio, the all-in-one Grimm Audio LS1s $39.9k three-way floorstander incorporates an AD/DA, a clocking circuit, six NCore amps, a DSP processor, a USB interface, a preamp/switcher/control unit, integrated bass modules, and cables for a complete system. All you have to do is add a source. Since there was no analog in the room (though the LS1s has an analog input) I perforce listened to digital I was not familiar with. The system sounded nice though the bass was a little soft and drummy and not particularly dynamic. Lean and relaxed it is a speaker that bears more listening to with more familiar sources and source material.

In another GTT Audio/Kubala-Sosna room, the $72.8k YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 Passive made exceptional sound. Powered by the Mola-Mola Kaluga amp and Makua preamp, sourced by the Luxman DA-06 DAC, and wired by Kubala-Sosna, this had to be the best digital server system I’ve heard at a trade show. Bass was terrific, soundstaging was terrific, and timbre was ravishing. What more can I say? A BOS contender, even if the YGs were a little ragged at very very loud levels on sax.

Knowing that Alon Wolf wasn’t planning to come to RMAF, I was shocked to see a Magico Q1 in the MIT room. Apparently, this world-class $28k two-way belongs to Brisson’s company, which used it and some fabulous Spectral electronics (the DMC-30SS preamp, DMA-260 stereo amp, and SDR-4000 SL CD transport), as well as a Sutherland Phono Block phonostage and an AMG V12 phonograph, to show off its cables and Z-Power products. I rave-reviewed the Q1 last year and it certainly lived up to my expectations. The system’s reproduction of Keb Mo was the best I heard at RMAF, an almost ideal mix of speed, color, resolution, and realism! Likewise, Kije was reproduced with a timbre that was just right on brass, strings, and winds, while the bass was amazingly powerful, defined, and extended for a two-way. Because of the tiny size of the room MIT didn’t get as much soundstage depth and width as I know this little giant of a loudspeaker is capable of. Frankly, this was one of only two rooms that produced a sound I recognized from my own system. I’m not going to announce my Best of Show winner on-line, but you can be sure that the Q1/Spectral/MIT room will be a finalist

Ironically, the other contender for best two-way in the world, the $28k diamond-driver Raidho D1 driven here by Rowland Electronics (see opening photo), was also being displayed at RMAF without its designer, Michael Borresen.The room it was in didn’t have an analog source, so I had to settle for a server serving up the Mercury of Pictures at an Exhibition with Byron Janis. Since I have these selfsame speakers in my second-floor listening room, I know what they are capable of and I wasn’t hearing 50% of it in Denver. That said, timbre on the Janis recording was absolutely gorgeous, and while the room was adding a bit of bass resonance and smear to David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” everything else was toe-tappingly marvelous. 

From peak to peak, Carl Marchisotto’s $33k Nola Metro Grand Reference Gold multi-driver, short line-source, ribbon/cone quasi-dipole floorstanders were being driven by ARC. To touch on a point I raised earlier, here the ARC Reference 10 gear sounded fully broken in—and fabulous. Certainly this was the best room in which Audio Research was being used. The speakers themselves were dark and beautiful in timbre, with well defined bass on “Autumn Leaves” and lovely reproduction of vocals and piano, and spectacular staging, resolution, and dynamics on the Mercury Romeo & Juliet. There may have been a smidge of room resonance here, too, but not enough to matter. It’s obvious that the Metro Grand Reference Gold is another great-sounding speaker from a guy who doesn’t make anything else. Certainly yet another BOS nominee.

Outboard at the Hyatt

Scaena was showing its $120k Dominus ribbon/cone line-source loudspeaker, with Raven tweets and six subs. It was hard for me to be sure because a digital server was being used; however, to my ear the Dominus sounded “subwoofed,” meaning the bass had a slightly different quality (slower, less defined) than the ribbon/cone columns.

Finally, Wilson Audio showed its $200k XLF with a pair of Thor’s Hammer subwoofers, driven by VTL electronics and wired by Transparent. The sound couldn’t fail to be lovely given that Dave Wilson was using high-res versions of some of his own superb recordings (including that marvelous Debussy Sonata) to demo the system. I hate to sound ungrateful because I truly admire Dave Wilson, who is one of the genuine giants in this industry, but in spite of its many obvious virtues (color, speed, impact) there was something not completely refined about the presentation—call it a want of very low-level texture—that bothered me just a bit. It was as if the XLFs got the big things really right but slightly (and I mean slightly) short-changed the littler ones. What I’m guessing I was hearing on the basis of my own past experiences (I don’t know this for a fact, mind you) was that the Thor’s Hammer subwoofers were very subtly veiling the output of the XLFs. This was not like the Scaena experience–there was not a hint of timbral, dynamic, or spatial discontinuity in the Wilson setup. There was just this very slight sense of veiling that I’ve heard before in my own home when I’ve added subs to extremely high-resolution, high-speed mains. Having said this, it would be ungrateful (and unfair) of me not to freely grant the sensational power and beauty of the XLF/TH or not to grant it a BOS nomination.


By Jonathan Valin

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