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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014: Digital and Stand-Mount Speakers

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014: Digital and Stand-Mount Speakers

This year’s RMAF, like last year’s and the year before, was the biggest one ever. This was due in part to the increased manufacturer participation in CANJAM, which outgrew its ballroom location and spilled out into the adjacent hallways. My beat for this year was digital products and stand-mounted speakers (what old folks used to call “bookshelf”). Since I’m in the throes of moving from a 3700 square foot home to one with only 2700 square feet, my interest in small-footprint speakers that fit into modestly sized rooms has increased dramatically during the last couple of months. What better place to survey the field than at the 2014 RMAF?

As usual, I found enough interesting new products to fill my page allotment twice over. So to conserve as much space as possible for all the cool gear, without further excess verbiage, welcome to my 2014 RMAF report.

Ten Most Significant Products

PS Audio Sprout
Begun as a Kickstarter project, the Sprout is a jack-of-all-trades that masters them nicely. It can drive speakers via its built-in 50-watt power amplifier, or headphones from its front panel. The Sprout has USB, digital co-axial, and analog inputs, as well as a built-in Bluetooth receiver that supports AptX lossless streaming. With a stepped analog volume control and a line-level variable output, the Sprout can even support a subwoofer or second set of speakers.

Sprout specifications include a better than 90dB signal-to-noise figure and a headphone output of 500mW into 16 ohms and 435mW into 300 ohms. With less than 0.025% harmonic distortion, the Sprout is a serious product aimed at capturing the fancy of entry-level audiophiles. Judging by the interest garnered from Kickstarter and the bustle around the PS Audio table at CANJAM, I expect to see plenty of Sprouts popping up in systems throughout the world; after all, it only costs $799!

Vinnie Rossi’s LIO
One of the biggest headaches for audiophiles who use digital products is obsolescence. Often a brand new cutting-edge device turns into a boat anchor overnight as newer formats become available. Vinnie Rossi of Red Wine Audio has come up with a solution that is so unique that he’s created an entirely separate company, LIO, to produce it.

The LIO PCM/DSD DAC is a modular design that employs a series of function-dedicated modules that can be combined to form a component that does exactly what the end-user wants it to do. There’s a MM/MC phonostage module, plus an RCL phono loading module that will permit users to alter cartridge loading from their listening position. Other modules include a MOSFET amplifier module, tube-stage module, and headphone amplifier module.

Red Wine Audio is known for battery-powered components, but LIO uses ultra-capacitor banks in place of batteries. With two separate banks, one can be charged while the other is in use, so the LIO never needs to be put into “charging mode” and is always ready for use. Pre-built LIO configurations start at $3280 and go up to $6250. The base model without modules is $2500.

ifi Micro Octa DSD512 USB DAC Headamp
There’s no commercial software that’s currently available in this format, but when there is, the ifi Micro Octa USB DAC will support up to DSD512 (8x) and double speed DXD (705.6/768kHz). Besides hosting these lofty sample rates, the new ifi Octa also has a very powerful headphone amplifier that can put out 4000mW into 16 ohms. It has three output power settings so that everything from 115dB sensitivity in-ears to power-hungry full-sized planar headphones can be successfully mated with it.

In addition to its USB 2.0 input that supports up to 768/32, the Octa also has S/PDIF input and output. When using USB as an input the Micro Octa can be used as a USB-to-S/PDIF adapter. The Octa also has digital filter options—“bit-perfect,” “minimum phase,” and “standard.” Other features include the option of using the Octa with its variable-output volume control, or as a fixed output device. Finally, the Octa DAC has a built-in lithium polymer battery rated at 4800mAh so it can be used as a portable headphone amplifier. The ifi Octa DAC delivers a lot of functionality and value for $499.

T+A PDP 3000 HV CD SACD player with PCM-DSD DAC
The latest player in T+A’s HV series of components combines the functions of a multi-format disc player that can read CDs, SACDs, and CDRs, as well as function as a DAC. The PDP 3000 HV is the first player I’ve seen that uses separate signal paths for PCM and DSD. Each digital format even has its own set of analog outputs. The reason for the dual outputs is quite simple—the PDP 3000HV is really two complete DAC systems in one chassis. The PCM unit supports up to 384/32 while the DSD DAC can play DSD512 (Octo). Both share the same disc reader. With a published signal-to-noise figure of 116dB and 110dB of channel separation, the 3000 HV CD delivers some of the best specifications I’ve seen. Its disc mechanism is enclosed in a solid machined aluminum case decoupled from the rest of the unit via pushrods. The $20,000 PDP 3000 HV could be ideal for an audiophile looking for a premium DAC that won’t have to be replaced after a couple of years.

Schiit Yggdrasil DAC and Fulla USB DAC
Schiit is one of those companies whose products have an edge. For RMAF Schiit introduced a new flagship DAC, the Yggodrasil (say that fast three times) that is touted as “the world’s only bit-perfect DAC.” To achieve this lofty goal the Yggodrasil uses proprietary “adapti-clock” topology combined with VCO and VCXO re-clocking. The DAC’s analog stage uses differential current-feedback topology with a fully discrete design populated by both JFET and bipolar transistors. For $2299 the Yggdrasil delivers a lot of unique technology and flexible functionality. It sounded great driving a pair of Audeze LCD-2 headphones.

At the other end of the price spectrum Schiit rolled out their new entry-level USB DAC/headphone amp, the Fulla. Described as a “Dongle DAC” the Fulla is a USB-only device with a headphone amplifier capable of putting out 300mW into 32 ohms. Small enough to fit into the coin pocket on a pair of Levis, the Fulla has a real volume knob and an attractive price of only $79.

Stenheim Alumine
Tethered to a pair of Nagra VPA 845 power amplifiers the Stenheim Alumine monitors ($15,975) in the AudioArts room on the fifth floor proved to be a welcome respite from the many rooms containing speakers that were far too large for their surroundings. With their all-aluminum 10-to-15mm thick cabinets and “bespoke craftsmanship” that features no exposed fasteners or screws, the Alumine speakers have a beautifully understated presence. Their 93dB sensitivity makes them easy to drive with even low-powered amplifiers. The Nagra VPA 845 wasn’t even breaking a sweat while supplying enough juice for realistic volume levels. I was especially impressed by the Alumine’s superb microdynamics combined with their precise imaging. For city dwellers with small listening spaces the Alumines could be an ideal solution. With over 30 anodized colors, as well as custom surfaces, the Alumine will fit into almost any living room with aplomb.

Joseph Audio Prism
It was love-at-first-listen with the new Joseph Audio Prism, which looked positively petite on the oversized stands in the Sutherland room. Jeff Joseph had brought the Prisms for Ann Bisson’s RMAF presentation, but when the speakers originally intended for the Sutherland room got hung up in customs, Joseph loaned Ron Sutherland the Prisms for the show. According to Jeff Joseph, the Prisms deliver “70% of the performance of the Pulsars for half the price.” With a retail price of $3699/pair and available in either black, burgundy red or white, the Prism was designed for audiophiles who’ve lusted after the Pulsar but could not afford its price tag. The Prism’s 160mm aluminum midrange/woofer has the same throw and surface area as the Pulsar, but in a smaller and less elaborate enclosure. Even the Prism’s dual section dome tweeter material is also identical to the Pulsar. Given its size I suspect the Prism might be an ideal option for someone who wants that Joseph Audio sound in a nearfield or desktop setup.

Enigma Acoustics Mythology M1
Although the Enigma Sopranino super tweeter has already been reviewed by Dick Olsher for TAS, and the Mythology M1 was unveiled in 2013, the 2014 RMAF was the first opportunity for many show goers to hear the $3690 Sopranino mated with the $14,690 Mythology M1 loudspeaker. Listening to my live recordings I was impressed by the Enigma system’s ability to render subtle spatial cues and low-level details even when played at lower volume levels. Although you can use the Mythology M1 without the Sopranino super-tweeter, they were designed to be used together. According to Enigma, the “unique woofer and tweeter combination was specifically designed to complement the transparency and transient response of the Sopranino super tweeter.” Using a 34mm soft dome tweeter coupled to a polypropylene and mica 180mm midrange/woofer which are both made in-house by Enigma, the Mythology does all the things a fine small-footprint should do, but it also manages to produce surprising bass extension and impact from such a small package.

Dantex Radio Scansonic MB-1
Holding court in the Raidho/Constellation room on the lobby level was a new small speaker from a designer who is known for great sounding, small, and very expensive designs. The Scansonic MB-1 is only $3000 with stands ($2300 without) yet it delivered a good part of “the Raidho sound” that Michael Borresen has developed during the last 12 years for Raidho. Measuring only 178mm by 312mm by 285mm, with a sealed ribbon tweeter and a carbon cone 5” mid/bass driver, this diminutive transducer created a huge soundstage with precise imaging and surprising bass extension. During my time in the room I also listened to the Raidho D-1 and X-1 and although the D-1 had more bass extension and slightly better imaging, the MB-1 wasn’t far behind it for 1/10th the price. Driven by a pair of Constellation Centaur monoblock amplifiers I was surprised by how fully-fleshed out Ray Brown’s big acoustic bass sounded in such a large room with no subwoofer. Some of the credit for the room’s stellar sonics should also go to the Ansus Acoustics cabling and Alberto Sabbatini room treatments.

Rogers 50th Anniversary LS5/9 speaker
Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of audio nostalgia from time to time? And when that regard for classic designs turns into a 50th anniversary commemorative recreation, why not sit back and enjoy? The Rogers 50th Anniversary LS5/9 has an instantly likable quality that encourages and rewards any listener. Built with the original BBC specifications the “new” LS5/9 has a 34mm fabric dome tweeter and Roger’s proprietary LS2/14 midrange woofer in a ported thin wall cabinet. The new version looks exactly like the originals down to the Velcro grill cloth fasteners. Distributed in North America by Dared Audio International, the Rogers LS5/9 speakers cost $3900/pair. in the US.

Auspicious Debuts

Lambert Audio “Small Wonder” System
Steve Holt, whose company is called The Audio Nerd, has become the exclusive US distributor for New Zealand’s Lambert Audio. The complete Lambert mini system includes Lambert’s Control preamp, Force monoblock amplifiers, subwoofer, The Cleaner AC regulator, Uptight equipment stand, and Last Word speakers. The entire system retails for around $6200. Soon to be part of a crowdfunding project, the Lambert system sounded as good as it looked.

Dynaudio Zeo 4 and 6 Introduction
Dynaudio expanded their Zeo wireless speaker lineup with two new speakers, the Zeo 4 ($2300/pr.) and Zeo 6 ($4000/pr.). The Zeo 4 stand-mounted speaker has two 50W amplifiers (100W per speaker), while the floor-standing Xeo 6 uses three 50W (150W per speaker). Both employ the new Xeo Hub wireless transmitter, which can be placed up to 50 meters from the Xeo speakers.

Prana Fidelity speakers
Steven Norber’s Prana Fidelity had an interesting A/B demo comparing a two-track master tape from Groove Note Records with the LP. Surprisingly I preferred the LP to the tape played back over Prana’s Fifty 90 2-way symmetrical array loudspeaker ($3950) Purna/MA power amplifier ($8950), and Purna CA preamplifier ($4500 to $9500).

Lumin And Digibit
In room 465, DigiBit showed the Aria auto-ripper/streamer/server & “mini,” a desktop server with optional ripper & new iPad control. Digibit’s database includes 18 metadata fields, which allows for more accurate album descriptions to be displayed. New from Lumin was the T-1 streamer & L-1 library, which has a built-in 2TB drive, eliminating the need for a NAS drive (or, at least allowing far more music to be stored locally without Network Attached Storage hard-drives). Source Systems imports both lines.

Bel Canto DACs
Bel Canto updated their entire line of DACs in time for RMAF. The 1.5 became the 1.7, the 2.5 morphed into the 2.7, and the 3.5 now bears the 3.7 designation. Improvements include 192/24 capability via USB for the 1.7 and 2.7 as well as the addition of Bel Canto’s Asynchronous Algorithm Circuit which takes it to the next (9th) generation of Bel Canto’s proprietary anti-jitter mechanisms.

Mytek Manhattan
Mytek had two simultaneous unveilings of their new Manhattan processor, one at RMAF and the other at the Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention in California. With its new Femto clock, support up to 384/32 PCM and DSD256, 130dB S/N, and discrete analog and digital power supplies, the Manhattan should be a serious contender for space on many audiophile’s and pro engineer’s desktops.

La Rosita Server
Newly introduced to the United States, distributed by Fidelis from Nashua, New Hampshire, La Rosita makes a server called π™ ($13,000). The server connects wirelessly via WiFi to your computer and uses Rosita’s patented single-loop-clock-system in its clock circuit. Rosita also makes a preamp, the Cloud 9 ($6,000) and power amplifier, the Tender ($13,000).

Herus DAC Plus
Resonessence Labs has added another model USB DAC, the Herus Plus. For an additional $50 more than the $350 Herus, the Plus adds the option of choosing one of two filters via a switch. Users can opt for either the IIR filter or Resonessence Labs apodizing filter. The Plus also supports every format up to DSD256 and DXD.

Astell&Kern AK500N and Castor
Astell&Kern are known for their stellar portable players, but they also make other audio components. At RMAF A&K had their AK500N network music player on display. It was tethered to A&K’s impressive looking Castor monitor speaker. With its duraluminum, carbon-fiber enclosure and reversed diamond dome tweeter this compact—yet heavy—64 lbs. speaker looked as good as it sounded.

Other Notables

There’s a TIDAL Wave Coming
In Europe, WiMP (known as TIDAL in the U.S.) ranks as the number one streaming service for music lovers who want full-bandwidth uncompressed music. With 25 million tracks of lossless 1411kbps music already in their vaults, TIDAL will be coming to the U.S. very soon. It will be a paid subscription model at $19.95/mo. for an unlimited number of devices. Tidal could be the site that finally makes streaming a sonically viable alternative to user-owned music.

Under the category of “Why didn’t anyone do this before?” Sony unveiled a new headphone that includes a DAC. The MDR-1DAC ($399) supports up to 192/24 PCM and DSD (converted to 176 PCM). It’s compatible with Apple Lightning cable, Xpeira, and micro USB, and delivers 7.5 hours on a charge.

Sony also demonstrated their new PHA-3 ($999.99) portable DAC headphone and new Kimber Kable collaboration headphone cable. This eight-wire braided cable is designed to naturally reject outside interference with its 4-core structure and separated grounds. Manufactured by Sony and priced between $99 and $249 depending on the length and terminations the new cable should boost the performance of Sony’s already excellent new MDR-27 headphones ($699) to an even higher level of performance.

Top Five Systems

Raidho/Constellation in Aspen 1
Although I’ve heard the Raidho D1 before, I can’t remember it ever sounding quite as glorious as it did coupled to the Constellation Virgo II preamp and Centaur monoblock amplifiers. Regardless of the source I was surprised by the large, cohesive, and detailed soundstage that came from such a small transducer.

Rowland/YG room 2000
Using a pair of YG Sonjas connected to the Jeff Rowland Design Group’s Continuum S2 integrated amplifier fed from an Aeris DAC and Mac Book Air, JRDG’s small system produced some of the most musical and accurate renditions of my own recordings that I heard at RMAF. Especially at lower volumes this Rowland/YG system delivered remarkably accurate and involving sound.

ZU/Peachtree Pikes Peak
Saturday evening I attended a “dance party” in the Peachtree/ZU room that proved, unequivocally, that the Zu Druid Mark V speakers are remarkably good high-volume speakers. Driven by the Peachtree Audio Nova 220Se, the Druids augmented by a pair of Zu Undertone subwoofers produced distortion-free SPL levels in excess of 108 dB at a listening position ten feet away.

GoldenEar Triton One room 8021
Year after year, show after show, Sandy Gross’ Golden Ear speakers produce exceptional sound that rivals systems costing 10x more. For 2014 RMAF the Golden Ear Triton Ones were mated with a Marantz SA-11S3 player and PM-11 S3 integrated amplifier. The sound was clean, clear, musical, and completely involving.

Best of Show

Best Sound (cost no object): With a total cost of $521,520 the Kimber/ISOMIKE/EMM Labs system in the Evergreen room was impressive, yet musical. Using Sony SSAR-1 speakers the system could do everything but fly.

Best Sound (for the money): The combination of Emerald Physics EP-X speakers with the Wyred4Sound mPre and two mAMps with the show special price of $3995 was easily the “steal” of the show.

Greatest Bargain: For only $499 the ifi Micro Octa USB DAC supports any digital format you can throw at it, can be used as a USB to S/PDIF converter, and will drive anything from high-sensitivity in-ears to 600 ohm pro cans.

Most Important Trend: Portable and personal audio is the future. You only had to stick your head into the CANJAM room to feel the palpable energy and young enthusiasm, even from old goats like myself.

Most Technically Innovative Product: Using Magnepan 1.7 speakers for the demo, DEQX proved that their latest PreMate+ preamplifier solved sonic problems in a uniquely effective way that no amount of sound treatment could replicate

Biggest Surprise: I realize that the CD format is going the way of the Betamax and micro-cassette, but at RMAF I found only a half dozen rooms that even had the means to play a CD. 

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