TAS at RMAF: Jonathan Valin on Loudspeakers Priced at $20,000 and Above
Jonathan Valin on Loudspeakers Priced at $20,000 and Above
Right on the heels of Robert’s declaration that the sound was less colored at this year’s RMAF, I’m here to say that, in my neck of the woods, the sound at RMAF was a mixed bag. There were several standouts and a handful of extraordinary demos, but an awful lot of the speakers sounded alike—very good for the most part, but not exceptional. This could be the result of similar drivers, similar crossovers, similar enclosures, or it could be the result of the similarity of the rooms (particularly the smaller rooms, which tended to suck out the bass and brighten up the treble), or it could be the result of the lousy electricity (which last year simply went off briefly). It was probably a combination of all three factors. In any event, this wasn’t the best-sounding RMAF I’ve been to. Nonetheless, it was interesting, cheery, and fun. The best part, frankly, was seeing my colleagues and friends—but then that’s always the best part of trade shows. I was also buoyed by the number of folks who stopped to tell me how much they like our magazine. (And when you’re carrying around fifteen pounds of LPs, CDs, and iPads, you can use some buoying.)
As usual I apologize in advance to any exhibitors I overlooked. I did my very best to cover the field. But it is a big field. And there are always going to be rooms that I miss.
I’ve listed the speakers roughly in the order that I heard them—not in order of merit.
As luck would have it the very first room I listened in (before the show even officially started) was one of the $27k Wilson Sasha rooms (a larger room with none of the bass-suckout and soundstage-constricting problems of the shoebox-sized closets that many others showed in at the Marriott). Here the Sashas were being driven by VTL electronics fed by Peter McGrath’s mastertapes. I have to say that Luke Manley has certainly improved his electronics. His amps and preamps were always rich and beautiful sounding with super-ripe midrange and midbass, but the ones I heard with the Sashas also seemingly added speed and detail and control I hadn’t heard before (or maybe that was the Sashas). The speakers themselves sounded gorgeous. Breathtakingly so. Indeed if I gave an award for sheer beauty of sound, they would’ve won. Of course, in spite of what my best friend and colleague in this business recently said in an editorial, I don’t believe that beauty and truth really are a single thing—in audio or anything else. (I’m with T.S. Eliot on this one.) I thought the Sashas sounded great—particularly on Peter’s superb recordings of a Schubert lieder and a Shostakovich Prelude—but like the real thing? Perhaps in an idealized—what some people call “musical”—sense. But, to me, they were fundamentally a good deal prettier than life, like a martini with a cherry and a little umbrella in it. For many listeners, even perhaps for most as this show report demonstrates, this ravishing voluptuousness is more than sufficient; it is the sound they want. But I prefer my music neat. Still, throwing all absolute sound biases aside, there was no denying that the presentation was breathtakingly beautiful and a joy to listen to. And thus the Sashas (in the VTL room) become my first contenders for Best of Show. (Just as an aside, I think Peter McGrath is one of the greatest audio engineers on the planet. And I also think that he’s had an effect on the sources that people show with. His mastertapes were so superior to the CD players and analog rigs that most people used as sources that it gave Wilson demos an undeniable leg up at RMAF and CES. When The Tape Project tapes came along, a few brave souls started turning to reel-to-reel, in part I think, to compensate for the McGrath advantage. Soon the trickle of tape players turned into a bit of a trend, and at this show into a mini-flood. Personally, I love it. But it also makes sense from a sonic/business point of view, given Peter’s consistent ability to produce some of the best source material ever played back at a trade show—or anywhere else.)
Jonathan Tinn’s $27k Evolution Acoustics MMMiniTwo is essentially a two-way MMMiniOne on top of a MMMiniSub, with the MiniOne ceramic mid/woof and ribbon tweeter housed in a beautifully finished transmission-line enclosure and the MiniSub ceramic-oval subwoofer in an equally beautifully finished acoustic-suspension enclosure. The speaker was driven by DartZeel electronics. The sound was downright lovely on a Mozart Violin Concerto (played back on a reel-to-reel tape deck, by the bye), with beautiful timbre, nice delicacy of texture, and none of the heaviness and darkness that have weighted down previous EA demos. I thought there may have been just a very slight edge in upper mids, but overall this was the best showing of an Evolution Acoustics speaker I’ve experienced thus far at a trade show. One of the better sounds at RMAF.
The German Physiks HRS 120 is a handsome little carbon-fiber-enclosured floorstander that uses a DDD bending-wave (transmission-line) transducer that looks a little like a foreshortened Walsh driver wearing a beret. In the past, these relatively dainty things have been shown in rooms that not even an Avantgarde Trio with Basshorn could fill. In one of the Marriott Tech Center’s walk-in closets, the HRS 120s fared considerably better. The sound was very dynamic, as usual, but with better, fuller tone color than I remember from previous shows. The DDD treble, which has been a little problematical in my experience, was still a little piercing on trumpet fortes, but not nearly as shrill or predominant as it has been in the past. Indeed, this speaker showed much better than it has in recent years because the room was so much smaller and so much more conducive to a speaker its size.
“Hey!” I said when I came into Room 1126, “you’re using an MBL tweeter and midrange on this speaker!” Duh. That’s because the speaker was a $39.5k MBL 111f—a hybrid that combines a Radialstrahler tweeter and midrange with a “pressure-chamber” piston woofer and two side-firing push-push cones in the lower midrange. Figuring these things would be as dynamic as Hölle, I asked the exhibitors to play back Sound the All-Clear (one very dynamic recording). The sound was a little dark, as all MBLs are, but very open, as all MBLs are. The 111Fs were not being driven by MBL gear, so they didn’t have quite the dynamic alacrity MBLs usually have, but they still had tremendous boundary-less soundstaging and life-sized imaging that was better focused than what you hear from a Radialstrahler 101 E. The speakers got a little too bright at very loud levels due to size of the room and the limitations of the amps (I don’t think these tube critters had quite enough power and current for MBL speakers), but the 111Fs were their usual excellent best at moderate levels. Always a crowd-pleaser (and a Valin-pleaser).
The $53k Waterfall Niagra, glass-enclosure, 2.5-way floorstanders sounded just plain lifelike on a Nat Cole mono, which, once again, struck me as very weird because you’d think an undamped glass enclosure would have all the sonic advantages of an empty aquarium. Just as in the past, however, these speakers were neither bright nor hard. At the right levels (which is to say mezzoforte) they sounded very natural on Captain Luke’s “Rainy Night in Moscow” and on Guitar Gabriel’s “Keys to the Highway,” all of which added up to another surprisingly good showing for a speaker that shouldn’t sound as good as it does.
Might as well spill the beans right here. The aluminum-boxed $60k Magico Q5 multiway floorstander (with beryllium tweeter) was, IMO, the best speaker at RMAF. Its sound was astoundingly beautiful and natural on a Tape Project tape of Nojima Plays Liszt (played back through Dan Schmalle’s smashingly good—and extremely rare—Nagra reel-to-reel tape deck). In fact, next to Robert Silverman playing Mozart on a real grand piano in the Marriott lobby, it was the most realistic grand piano I’ve heard at a trade show. Those who complain about (or at least have reservations about) Magico bass ought to have listened to this. The low end was fabulous (and this in a way-too-tiny room with the speakers driven by Spectral electronics—not the richest of bass reproducers!) On lesser sources, such as several of my 44/16 CDs, I didn’t think the Spectral (or maybe it was the CD player) was as good a match with the Q5s as the Soulution electronics and the Pacific Microsonics DAC/sever I heard these same speakers with in Berkeley. There was just a trace of dryness and sterility, particularly on the unbelievably dynamic Mario Lanza Live in London CD, which, to be fair, tested every system. Still and all, the sound was marvelous. And exceptionally lifelike. Wotta speaker!
As noted, I heard the $27k Wilson Sasha sound superb in several rooms, here with a beautiful-looking Alaap v2.1 preamplifier and a pair of Jhor monoblock amps from Doshi Audio. The presentation was a tad thicker, fuller, and slower than what I’ve heard from the Sashas in the past (or in the VTL room). Nonetheless, the tone color was, once again, staggeringly gorgeous (it may have been a coloration but it sure was a voluptuous one). Colored or not, this was one of the more beguiling sounds of the show.
I must say that this room was a bit of a disappointment for me, especially since I’m crazy about the $45k Vandersteen 7s and think that the ARC 40th Anniversary Edition Reference preamplifier is the best product ARC has yet made. Last year I heard the Vandys and ARC gear make such absolutely lifelike music I named them a Best of Show. This year, maybe because of the room, maybe because of the current (which was giving everyone fits), the sound of Captain Luke’s voice on “Rainy Night in GA” was a bit too thick and not as you-are-there realistic as it is capable of sounding. And the great Taking Heads’ cut “Take Me To the River” was lacking in the electricity and drive this number routinely supplies in my room with my record player. (I blame this last problem on the front end—what looked like an ancient entry-level turntable. How anyone could think to pair this level of gear with this record player is beyond me.)
The apostrophe-shaped $60k Hansen Emperor multiway floorstanders, driven by Aesthetix electronics, sounded dense in timbre and very full range, with good large-scale dynamics and an exceptionally good disappearing act. The presentation was a tad dark (weighted toward the bass) perhaps, but very beautiful, nonetheless. Through a Clearaudio analog front end, my LP of Attila Bozay’s “Improvisations for Zither” had very good decay and timbre; attack was a little less wonderful—just a little sluggish—but the texture of the zither strings was simply superb. All in all, one of the best sounds at RMAF.
The Focal Maestro Utopias, driven by Accuphase, sounded rather like the Hansens (not altogether surprising since they were in virtually the same sized room): very rich in timbre and solid in imaging, a little dark in overall balance, and just a little compressed in midrange dynamics. That said, this was the only room in which “Take Me to the River” gave me the kind of goosebumps I get when I hear it played back at home! (Oh, that Tina Weymouth bass!) The Focals had tremendous dynamic authority in the midbass—perhaps the best at the show. Indeed, the Maestro Utopias would have been a BOS contender if they’d handled the midrange as excitingly as they handled the midbass. But on Ian and Sylvia’s “Long Lonesome Road” (wotta great friggin’ song!), the duo sounded merely pretty and not remotely realistic. (They are “in-the-room” with you through the TAD CR-1s I currently use at home). So…a dense, lovely, incredibly powerful sound that could use a little less midbass energy and a little more speed and resolution in the midband.
What is it that HP blithely said about the Ortofon MC A90? “I shall not linger long nor tarry here?” The $20k Legacy Whisper XD multiway floorstanders with neodymium ribbon tweeter and midrange, four 7″ silver-graphite/Rohacell cone mid/woofs, and four carbon/pulp ICE-powered subwoofers were just a little too sibilant and spitty for my taste.
The $20k Sonus faber Ellipsa sounded lovely, rich, and articulate powered by less-than-ultra-pricey Simaudio electronics, which I think is quite a testimonial to Simaudio.
The $21,998 Revel Ultimate Salon2, powered by Levinson, must be pretty transparent because they sounded a little Class D-like. The bass was big but not taut, the mids were very good, the treble wasn’t. To be fair, the system suffered from a bad case of room resonance, which probably skewed the tonal balance more than the Levinson amps did.
The $70k JBL Project Everest DD66000—a gigantic “augmented” two-way with a horn-loaded compression driver blended to two 15″ cones, one acting as a mid/woof and the other as a pure woofer—was also driven by Levinson (analog Levinson in this case, I was told). It sounded very dynamic, as one might expect, on Cut 7 of The International, with a seemingly good blend of horn and woofs and maybe a slight edginess in the upper mids.
The marvelous $40k TAD CR-1 three-way stand-mounts, driven by Technical Brain electronics, a Walker phonostage, and a Walker turntable, were lightning quick on transients and nearly dead-neutral in midrange balance, without a smidge of the darkness, phony warmth, sibilance, or spittiness I heard in many other rooms. Absolutely phenomenal when it came to low-level detail, the TADs would have been best of show contenders were it not for the slight brightness and dryness of the tiny room they were parked in, which added a hint of the antiseptic—like a whiff of the isopropyl alcohol they used to dip thermometers into—to what was otherwise a supremely transparent sound. I’ll tell you this, if I only used the cut I played from Joan Baez’s second album, “The Banks of the Ohio,” as a test, this room would have come close to winning Best of Show.
The $100k+ YG Anat II Professional aluminum-enclosed three-way floorstanders, driven by Soulution electronics, are really a tale of two days (as are the TAD Reference Ones we will come to anon). On Friday, there were so many people in the YG room that the only open seat was in a far corner to the side of the left speaker. This was not a good spot for listening—I can assure you. So, on Saturday, I returned to the YG room, and this time was ushered by nice-guy Dick Diamond into the sweet spot. And sweet it certainly was. The speakers sounded gorgeous (albeit still a little dark), highly detailed, just a little restrained in dynamic range (though quick and clear on transients), and top-to-bottom coherent, with razor-cut imaging and a vast soundstage into which the Anats disappeared at the right volume levels almost completely. I was unable to play any of my own CDs and LPs on the YGs because a server was being used as the sole source, so it was impossible to judge their naturalness vis-à-vis what I hear at home; nevertheless, I certainly thought they sounded excellent on the music I ordered up from a printed menu. Although the Anats got a bit stressed on “Take Me to the River” (not the LP version from Stop Making Sense that I brought with me, but a different version stored on the server), which I asked to be played REAL LOUD, they held together pretty well at ultra-high volumes, despite some raggedness and compression on the loudest peaks. At moderately loud-to-low levels, they had no audible problems with any kind of music. Given their performance on Day Two, I’d have to rate the Anats as one of the better sounds at RMAF.
It was a genuine pleasure to hear the $28k Classic Audio Reproductions T3.4—the latest version of the three-way horn speakers (with field-coil drivers and two 15″ potted woofers) that I’ve liked so well in the past. As usual they were being driven by AtmaSphere electronics, and as usual the sound was exceptional—gorgeous in timbre, smooth in delivery, and very coherent top-to-bottom, with little of the typical horn discontinuity among drivers. Dynamics were terrific (naturally), with very solid and realistic-sounding bass. I detected just a trace of honkiness in the middle registers (but just a trace), and came away thinking what I always think when I audition the Classic Audio Reproduction horns: If these speakers weren’t so damn big and bulky, I would be sorely tempted to review them.
The $22k, full-range, planar-magnetic/ribbon Analysis Audio Omega floorstanders don’t just look like dead ringers for Apogees; they sound like dead ringers for Apogees. On orchestral music this was one truly great-sounding loudspeaker, with natural full-bodied string tone, very realistic brass and wind tone, unusually lifelike bass on the cuts I played (though my friend Andre Jennings, who was also high on this speaker, thought the room made the bass too heavy with his music), and excellent low-level detail. In my notes, I wrote: “This is one we should review.” A contender for Best of Show.
The $135k Venture Reference III Signature multiway floorstanders from Belgium, decked out with proprietary graphite drivers, a Heil-type AMT tweeter, point-to-point-soldered crossovers of the highest-quality parts, all enclosed in a beautiful constrained-layer beechwood cabinet, were impressive again, just as they were at CES. Driven by FM Acoustics electronics, they had excellent texture on acoustic guitar, and though the bass was being lifted a bit by the larger room they still had very good foundation with exceptional resolution of low-level detail and very good recovery of ambience. However, I thought I detected a trace of brightness in the midrange, which also sounded a little forward in this room; it was not enough of a problem to spoil the favorable impression I had of this speaker (again), but it kept them out of the running for BOS. Anthony Cordesman is slated to review a Venture speaker in an upcoming TAS.
We come now to another speaker that was a story of two days (actually of three days, although I didn’t hear it on Day Three, a turn-of-events I will explain in a moment): Andrew Jones’ (IMO, one of the three most gifted speaker designers in the world today) three-way floorstanding flagships, the $60k TAD Reference One monitors—equipped with his superb concentric beryllium midrange/tweeter and two 10″ high-tech-composite cones in a vented constrained-layer stacked-birch enclosure, and driven in Denver by Technical Brain electronics with a Walker Black Diamond II turntable as the source. This particular combination of amp and speaker is nothing new; I am told that the original TAD Model-1 was largely voiced using TB electronics and, before TAD developed its own amp and preamp, was shown throughout the Far East with Technical Brain’s TBC Zero preamp and TBP Zero v2 amplifiers (the latest version of which may be in line for yet another prestigious award from Stereo Sound magazine). Given this lineage and the quality of the source, you would have thought the combination would’ve been a shoe-in for Best of Show contention. But on the first day I heard it (Friday afternoon), it certainly wasn’t. I’m not sure what the problem was—although the decision to shoe-horn a couple of two-foot-wide/four-and-a-half-foot tall loudspeakers into a completely undamped ten-foot-wide/seven-foot-tall room might not have been the best strategy for a trade show. At some point a decision was made to bi-amp the speakers with two pairs of TBPs, which is how I heard them on Friday afternoon. All I can say is that the second pair of amps was either drawing too much current (a problem for several high-current amps at this show) or the amps driving the twin woofers weren’t hooked up properly (out of phase with the other pair of amps) because the speakers sounded like they didn’t have bass drivers—like they were all midrange and tweeter. With the uncorrectable room problem compounding it all, I decided to write Day One off and come back on Saturday for another listen. As I suspected it would (and certainly should have), the system sounded MUCH better on the second day (they had gone back to using one amp per speaker), with many of the same virtues that I heard in Lloyd Walker’s room with the smaller TAD CR-1 Compact Monitors driven by TB. The sound was crystal-clear, dead-center-neutral in the mids, extraordinarily finely detailed, preternaturally quick on transients, and better filled out in the bass, with none of the darkness or fulsomeness of many other exhibits—that sound which reminds me of a Flowers-By-Wire bouquet, gorgeous at first look but, given a few weeks or months, bound to wilt (and wilt you). The TADs were simply marvelous on my Joan Baez LP (every bit as good as the smaller TADs were in the Walker Audio room). Nonetheless, there was touch of sterility to the presentation (as there was in the Walker room), a thinness of tone color (particularly in the midbass), that puzzled me. I chalked it up to the tiny room. (This was a funny show in that most of these paper-walled shoe-box-sized rooms did anything but boost the bass, as the larger “suites” at The Venetian tend to do; instead, they sucked it out.) The exhibit would have earned one of my better sounds of RMAF award, if I hadn’t been told that the setup (and the Walker setup, as well) really came to life on Sunday (after I’d left Denver). To confirm this, I called Robert Harley who did audition the TADs and the TBs on Sunday, and he told me that the sound was, indeed, fabulous. “Better than the Magico Q5s?” I asked. No, he said, but pretty darn extraordinary, nonetheless. (Later, this was confirmed by another listener.) On the basis of these reports and my own experiences on Saturday afternoon, I therefore conclude that the TAD/TB/Walker rooms deserve to be included among the Best of Show contenders (although in all honesty I didn’t hear these systems at their apparently considerable best).
The $66k Kaiser Acoustic Kawero is a very-high-tech, thee-way floorstander with a RAAL ribbon tweeter, a proprietary midrange, a rear-firing woofer, and a time-, phase-, and resonance-optimized crossover using Duelund crossover parts, all housed in a 3-D computer-optimized enclosure made of exceptionally advanced materials. This is another speaker that I don’t think I heard at its best. When I auditioned it on Friday, it sounded a little dry and compressed. I made a note to myself to give it a second listen on Saturday (as I did with several other promising loudspeakers), but one thing led to another and there were so many loudspeakers to cover that I just never made it back. Once again, I asked Robert Harley, who heard the Kawero on Saturday, what he thought and he told me he thought it was one of the better sounds at the show. I would go with his opinion.
The $70k Marten Coltranes, decked out with ceramic drivers and a diamond tweeter (and driven by an Audio Note Ongaku!), sounded somewhat lighter weight (as ceramic-driver speakers often do), but they also had great delicacy of detail (as ceramic-driver speakers often do). A little bright and lacking in body (those farchachdat hotel rooms, again), the Coltranes were nonetheless extremely lovely to listen to—a sound very reminiscent of the better Kharma loudspeakers.
The Danish-made $22k Peak Consult Incognito X two-way floorstanders, which use an excellent Morel tweeter and Peak Consult’s own mid/woof in a ported enclosure of HDF covered with one-inch-thick hardwood, did a very good job on “Rainy Night in GA,” reproducing Captain Luke’s bass-baritone voice with all its cement-mixer-like gravelliness intact but without all its chestiness—a little lighter and peachier presentation than what I’m used to, but very good, nonetheless.Guitar Gabriel’s husky old man’s tenor was also very neutral and realistic. The speaker was good, as well, on my test cut from The International. It may have had a bit too much treble, but it also had great dynamics in the bass for a two-way. The soundstage was super, but the very bottom octave was missing.
The $20k Avalon Indra, driven by excellent Edge electronics, sounded fast, clean, lovely, and very detailed. Its bass was very good despite a slight room issue. As was the case with the TAD Reference Ones and the Magico M5s, the room was simply too narrow to get the full soundstage width that I know Avalons are capable of; nevertheless, soundstage layering was tremendous and midrange dynamics were marvelous. On Cut 7 of the International 7, the Isis was better on strings than the brighter Peak Consults and more robust in timbre overall. Transients were a little muted; still, this was one of the better sounds at RMAF.
The $42k Estelon XA is a three-way floorstander with all ceramic drivers (including the 11″ woofer) in a very cool-looking, marble-based enclosure. It reproduced Captain Luke’s bass-baritone with superior timbre and texture, and though a little bright on my test cut from The International, had superb dynamics and staging.
The $25k Lansche No. 3, a two-way with a 7″ mid/bass and Lansche’s famous plasma tweeter, turned out to be a surprise. It sounded wonderful on my LP of the Prokofiev First Violin Sonata. Though not as quick and articulate in the bass as it is in the treble (how could it be?), it was better integrated than any previous Lansche I’ve heard. A very good sound.
The $38k YG Kipod—an aluminum-boxed two-way that sits, WATT/Puppy like, on a separate subwoofer—sounded (at least initially) a little more civilized than the big YG (at least on Friday), doing an absolutely lovely job on a Peter, Paul, and Mary tune. Essentially neutral in balance (not at all dark), it struggled a little generating deep bass, but then almost all of the Marriott rooms had problems with bass (unless the speakers came with a built-in rise in the bass), and the speaker can’t be blamed for that. I didn’t think the Kipod sounded as completely freed up from its enclosure as I’ve heard it sound at other shows and there wasn’t much bloom, but this could have been the source and electronics.
It was a pleasure to hear Andy Payor’s (another of my top three speaker-designers) simply gorgeous and very lifelike sounding $35k Rockport Mira Grands floorstanders, which use a Scanspeak ring-radiator tweeter, twin Audiotechnology midranges, and two 10″ side-firing woofers in an MTM configuration housed in one of Andy’s gorgeous, sculpted, constrained-layer enclosures. The Mira’s reproduction of Captain Luke’s bass-baritone voice was positively great, with just the right amounts of throaty gravel and chest. Ditto for the timbre of Guitar Gabriel’s cracked old man’s tenor. This speaker simply had superb detail on guitar and great realism on both voices. If I’d stopped with these two tracks, the Mira might have won my Best of Show award (or tied for it). However, the speaker (or the amp driving it) ran out of headroom on my difficult Mario Lanza disc, just at Lanza’s most fortissimo moment. So…no Best of Show award. But a Best of Show contender, nonetheless.
The $29,995 Verity Amadis are a two-box, W/P-like three-way floorstander, with a neo-ring soft dome tweeter, a 5″ proprietary midrange, and a 10″ rear-firing woofer in a separate ported enclosure. The Amadis weren’t as finely detailed as some at RMAF, but neither were they dry or edgy or overly sibilant. Just a very pretty, often lifelike sound that I thought was very nice.
I’ll conclude with Carl Marchisotto’s $25k Nola Metro Grand Reference, which combines an open-baffle ribbon tweeter with an open-baffle Alnico-magnet midrange and two 6.5-inch magnesium woofers in a ported floorstanding enclosure. Like so many other exhibitors, Carl was using a tape player (one of Greg Beron’s United Home Audio modified Tascams) as a source; the electronics were Audio Research. Having recently reviewed Carl’s superb Baby Grand References in TAS, I was shocked at the sonic family resemblance between them and the much smaller, much less elaborate, and much less expensive Metros. You would simply have to hear the Metros to believe the quantity and quality of its bass (even in what was a relatively large room). As with the Baby Grands, the blend between ribbons and cones (a Marchisotta trademark) is kind of astonishing. On the orchestral tracks I listened to (dubbed from LP by Beron), the sound was just terrific. Open, detailed, dynamic as all get-out, and quite realistic. Another one of the best sounds at RMAF, and another Marchisotto triumph.
JV’s Best of Show
Best Sound—Cost No Object
Magico Q5s (with the Rockport Mira Grands, the TAD Reference Ones and CR-1s, the Wilson Sashas—in the VTL room—and the Analysis Audio Omegas as runners-up)
As usual, this is a tough one for me, since no speaker priced at $20k or more really qualifies as a “bargain”; however, given this stricture, I would say that Analysis Audio Omegas and the Nola Metro Grand References would tie for best “bargain.” (I suppose one could also make a case for the Magico Q5, seeing that it outdoes Magico’s previous flagship, the M5, and costs $30,000 less!)
Most Significant Introduction
In electronics, the Technical Brain TBP Zero EX power amps and TBC Zero EX preamp, which, as Robert just said, may set a new standard of transparency and resolution in solid-state electronics. Hearing them in tiny deracinating hotel rooms did neither anything close to full justice. They are remarkable, I assure you. In software, The Tape Project’s reel-to-reel tape of Nojima Plays Liszt (originally released on Reference Recordings) has to be one of the most realistic piano recordings ever made. And now we can all have it in the best sound yet—well, we can if we have a reel-to-reel 15ips deck and a spare $500 for the tape.
Most Important Trend
In my upscale neighborhood, it would have to be the prevalence of reel-to-reel tape decks on the analog side and of servers and DACs on the digital one, although there were plenty of turntables and tonearms, too. The once ubiquitous CD player, however, seems to be going the way of the passenger pigeon.