Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014: Floorstanders and Tubed Amplifiers

Show report
Tubed power amplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers
Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014: Floorstanders and Tubed Amplifiers

Wrapping up the 2014 U.S. audio-show circuit in Denver, Colorado, the eleventh annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest featured familiar exhibits, exciting launches, and some surprising affordability. There has been a lot of change in the high end since I first attended RMAF in 2006, but the familiar Denver Marriott Tech Center and the laid-back vibe were just as I remembered them. The biggest change from 2006 to 2014 has to be front-end sources; transports and SACDs have been—for the most part—supplanted by music servers, streaming services, and analog playback. There were still plenty of CD/SACD players, but carrying CDs to demo has become more of a chore than anything—ripping music to the demo music servers is now commonplace. My prediction: By 2020, high-res streaming will be ubiquitous, and the only physical medium at high-end shows will be vinyl and your cellphone to control the playlists of the demos.

Most Significant: Floorstanders

Von Schweikert Audio VR-55 Aktive
Albert von Schweikert’s new VR-55 Aktive ($49,995) is one precise, taut, spacious sounding speaker. Employing a 400W amplifier to power the two 8” custom-made woofers, the VR-55 Aktive’s low-end extension dives to an incredibly low 21Hz while remaining tight, fast, and accurate. Listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s “Experience” from his phenomenal In a Time Lapse, the VR-55 Aktive reproduced the lower registers of Einaudi’s piano with such lifelike eeriness that goosebumps rippled down my arms, and the haunting cacophony of violins remained distinctly separated within the soundstage—a rare occurrence when listening to this track at shows. Despite being in a smaller room, the large VR-55 Aktives played nicely, thanks in large part to the adjustable low-end adjustments, which avoided a lot of the bass bloat. Small rooms also wreak havoc on the depth of the soundstage, but the rear-firing dipolar ribbon tweeters allowed the VR-55 Aktives to really stretch out and avoid the soundstage issues commonly caused by lack of leg room. Fronted by a YFS Music Server ($15k), EMM Labs Meitner DAC2 ($15k), Constellation Virgo linestage ($27k), and driven by Constellation Inspiration monoblocks ($20k), the VR-55 Aktive floorstanders were the best sounding speakers at the show. Also available in a passive version for $42k, but the control that the Aktive provides is the way to go.

YG Acoustics Hailey 1.2
With the Hailey 1.2, YG Acoustics has built another sensual speaker, both in terms of sonic capabilities and styling. The Hailey 1.2 ($42,800) takes after its bigger sister Sonja 1.3, yet will provide you with most of that ultra high-end sound without the $106k Sonja price. At RMAF 2014, the Hailey 1.2s had an incredibly seductive soundstage in terms of depth, width, and accuracy, and made my copy of Buena Vista Social Club: Live at Carnegie Hall come to life. YG Acoustics builds its speakers in-house with imported CNC machines that turn large pieces of billet aluminum into curvaceous speakers—speakers that are dead accurate and precise, with very little perceivable resonant distortion. The results are spectacular, as anyone who has heard the Kipod II, Carmel, or Sonja 1.3 can attest. Fronted by the Kronos Sparta turntable ($21,500) with 10.5” Helena ’arm ($6500) and Air Tight PC-1 cartridge ($8500), Audionet PAM G2 phonostage ($16,800) and PRE G2 preamp ($23,350), two Audionet MAX monoblocks ($30,500/pr.), and connected with Kubala Sosna Elation cables, this system was one of the best sounding at the show.

Endeavor Audio E-5
After having the Endeavor Audio E-3 in my home for many months, I was excited to hear what the new E-5 ($29,850) could accomplish. While the E-3’s 44” height is the size of most floorstanders, the E-5 is enormous, well over six feet tall. When I first walked into the Endeavor room, I was almost scared of the acoustics before I had even listened. Surprisingly, the E-5s sounded much better than I expected, given the smaller hotel room, and the impressive soundstage was immersive. If you’ve heard the Focal Grande Utopia EM or the Wilson Alexandria, you know what a really large speaker can accomplish. Dispersion isn’t limited to a narrow height, but rather swallows you whole and surrounds you with music. It’s unfortunate that these speakers were in such a small room, because with more space they could have opened up into something grandiose. Still, the E-5 is remarkably cheap in the ultra large speaker category, and has the finesse to approach the capabilities of the big boys. I imagine the $29,850 price won’t stay low for very long, as is wont to happen when a small company starts getting recognition. The system was coupled with basically the same electronics in the Von Schweikert room: YFS Server, EMM Labs Meitner, Constellation Virgo, and Constellation Inspiration.

SVS Ultra Tower
Does $2k buy you a great sounding floorstander these days? You bet. Though I wasn’t expecting anything extraordinary when I was invited to audition the SVS Ultra Tower ($2k), I was really shocked by the sound quality and soundstage depth of these speakers. Best results will be a semi-nearfield setup in a small- to medium-sized room with these speakers, but those looking for an affordable speaker that will work well in their apartment or small bedroom will be pleasantly surprised by the Ultra Tower’s low-end extension and fairly precise soundstage. Don’t expect phenomenal, but do expect many, many hours of musicality and enjoyment.

Polymer Audio Research MKS-X
I first heard the Polymer Audio Research MKS-X ($60k) at Newport Beach 2014 and was blown away by the depth of the soundstage. Of any point-source speaker I’ve heard, the MKS-X has the deepest soundstage, and some of the best separation at any price point. There are only a handful of speakers on the market that do a better job of instrument placement and pinpoint accuracy, and the price of those speakers are well over two or three times the price of the MKS-X. At RMAF 2014, the Polymer room caused some unfortunate—yet very minor—bass modes to stand and overlap, yet the same incredibly deep and wide soundstage was present. Plus, these speakers aren’t super large, so they will fit well in most rooms. But their normal size belies their 365 lbs. weight, which makes NFL linemen wish they weren’t so featherweight. Fronted by a Weiss Man301 server ($12,262), Thrax Dionysos preamp ($21,500), Thrax Hero hybrid amps ($38,500), and connected by the really stellar Enklein David interconnects and power cords ($14k/1m), the Polymer system stuns almost all who appreciate huge soundstage capability.

Most Significant: Tubed Amplifiers

VTL MB 450 III Signature Monoblocks
Tubed amplifiers were rare at RMAF 2014, but there were still some standouts among the rest. The VTL MB 450 III Signature Monoblocks ($20k/pr.) drove the EgglestonWorks Andra III ($24,900) floorstanders very nicely. After many years of critical listening, it doesn’t take long to hear when a system sounds right, and this system—while not mind-blowing—sounded sweet and seductive, and made me wish I had more time to listen. Soundstage wasn’t as deep or large as I would have hoped, but there was magic in the sound, and that magic makes you want to listen as long as possible—which is the point of a high-end system.

Atma-Sphere S30 OTL
I love SET and OTL amps, and have been building them for many years. So when I see an affordable OTL amp, I get really excited. There’s something about them that makes me fall in love with hi-fi gear all over again, and that’s what the Atma-Sphere S30 ($3950) does. This Class A, Triode, direct-coupled OTL amp is affordable, sweet, and…only 30W. So it takes a special audiophile and a special speaker to really appreciate this amp. It sounded really good with the super unique AudioKinesis Zephrin 46 floorstander ($4900). Again, this isn’t an amp for shaking walls and shattering eardrums, but you can do that at a Metallica concert.

VAC Statement 450 iQ monoblocks
Like tubes and want ridiculous amounts of power? Try the VAC Statement 450 iQ monoblocks ($116,000/pr.), which output an incredible 450W of power. 450W of tube power is just crazy powerful, but hey, why not? Not only do they produce enough power to drive basically any speaker ever built, they have the finesse to do it well. Of course, the accoutrements in the room were just as radical: Focal Grande Utopia EM ($195k/pr.), Esoteric digital front end ($70k), VAC preamp ($66k) and phonostage ($70k), Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable ($58k), Shunyata cabling and conditioning ($65k total), and Harmonic Resolution racks ($10k+). Yes, a $650,000 system sounds amazing, even in a hotel. Just imagine it in your home!

Aesthetix Atlas Hybrid
Another winner was the Aesthetic Atlas Hybrid stereo amplifiers ($8k), which output a solid 200W into 8 ohms or 400 in 4. Though not an all-tube design, the Atlas blends the best of solid-state amplification and tube finesse into a sleek design. Definitely a much more affordable option than going with an all-tube design with similar power output.

Zesto Audio Bia 120
Though not new to the audio show circuit, the Zesto Audio Bia 120 ($12.5k) is still one of the most beautiful Class A tube amplifiers on the market. With 60W of output, the Bia 120 (pronounced by-uh, as in bias) matches perfectly with Zesto’s superb new Andros 1.2 phonostage.

Auspicious Debuts

Legacy Audio V
Even though Legacy Audio came out with their really intriguing new V floorstander (price TBD, $50k estimate) at RMAF 2014, all that I can say about it is that I will need to reserve judgment for another show. Unfortunately, Legacy was in a shared room with a divider, and when I tried to stop by there was a lot of cross noise coming from the hallway and from the other room. From what I heard, the speaker sounds really promising, but I can’t report much on a speaker that I couldn’t properly hear. Others raved about the speaker, and especially the Lyn Stanley live A/B demo with her SACD, but I’m going to stay neutral until I have a better listening opportunity.

PSB Imagine T3
Paul Barton was showing off the new PSB flagship Imagine T3 ($7500) floorstanders, which are a force to be reckoned with in the sub-$10k floorstander world. One of the really cool things about this speaker is that it is tri-ampable, which gives the listener so much control it’s crazy for this price range. Not everyone will bi-amp or tri-amp, but having the option is a bonus. The rear ports of this bass-reflex speaker can be plugged at various points to help control room overload and to achieve a smoother low end. This is a really solid speaker for the price, and with decades of design experience, Paul Barton’s latest flagship will satisfy for many years to come

SVS Prime Tower
Like its bigger brother, the SVS Prime Tower sounds much larger, and much more accurate than the $1k price tag would lead you to believe. The low-end extension isn’t as good as the Ultra Tower, and is lacking in comparison to other speakers, but if you are accustomed to less expensive speakers, or even similarly priced speakers, the SVS Prime Tower is going to be a great starter floorstander. Its diminutive size allows it to function well in small rooms without overloading them, but expect to listen nearfield, even if you have a medium-sized room. Soundstage was thoroughly expansive, though fairly shallow. Accuracy was good enough to produce an engaging experience, but separation was limited. Then again, we are speaking of a $1k speaker, and most $1k speakers will do nothing more than present a flat soundstage with little instrument separation. Definitely worth a listen for anyone looking to build their first system.

Salk Exotica 3
Jim Salk’s Exotica 3 ($11,995) is the best speaker he builds, in my opinion, and has been shown at other shows, though this is the first time I’ve seen it without another speaker next to it. When placed in a big room and with a wide stance, these speakers produce a huge soundstage that is both deep and wide, while still retaining great accuracy and instrument separation.

Other Notables

Sandy Gross’ GoldenEar Triton 1 ($4998) always sounds great at shows, even with the very affordable Marantz electronics he pairs with them. I like that he shows his speakers with electronics that match the cost of his speakers, which is more of a real-world test, rather than pairing with ultra expensive components. The AudioKinesis Zephrin 46 ($4900) bipole speaker is a really unique and interesting design. Paired with the Atma-Sphere S30 OTL amp ($3950), the Zephrin 46s pumped out plenty of really fulfilling and musical sound. A great speaker for the right listener. Though the Rogers High Fidelity EHF-200 Mk2 ($15k) integrated tube amp wasn’t paired well with speakers that show off its capabilities, it’s still a fantastic amp that should be auditioned by anyone who likes tubes, Class A, ultralinear, integrateds, and 112W. Combine all of those things, and you’ve got the EHF-200 Mk2. The AVA FET Valve 600R ($3499) is a really great hybrid amp for those who like tubes but also need enough power to drive lower-sensitivity speakers. The FET Valve 600R has been around, but it’s still a great choice. Frank van Alstine has been designing a long time, and you will get a high quality product for a decent price with any AVA component. Odyssey was showing off the Lorelei floorstander ($2900), which was paired with Odyssey components, naturally. This speaker actually surprised me with its ability to produce a surprisingly realistic and musical soundstage.

Top Five Systems

  1. Von Schweikert Audio VR-55 Aktive with Constellation
  2. Raidho D1 with Constellation
  3. VAC, Focal, Esoteric room
  4. Polymer Audio Research with Thrax and Weiss
  5. Endeavor Audio E-5 with Constellation

Best Sound (cost no object): Albert von Schweikert’s VR-55 Aktive sounded right in every regard.
Best Sound (for the money): PS Audio Sprout with GoldenEar Aon 3. An under-$2k system that sounds this good breaks all the high-end rules.
Greatest Bargain: SVS Prime Tower. For $1k, everyone can afford a floorstander.
Most Important Trend: Headphones as a gateway for new audiophiles.
Most Technically Innovative Product: TIDAL CD-quality music streaming service. Soon, there might not be a need to store music locally, which is a huge advantage.
Biggest Surprise: The lack of tube amplifiers. Solid-state dominated at RMAF 2014.