Rocky Mountain 2010-Full Coverage

Sunday at RMAF I started some Velodyne and Tannoy brunch. These DC10T’s from Tannoy are seriously beautiful. The Velodyne in the background is the big story though.The newest line of subs from big V is called Digital Drive Plus.A completely redesigned driver..

Bigger magnet and new driver material adding up to more efficient. Paired with new PC compatible setup software that lets you see the results of the frequency sweep on any computer via USB (rather than a TV display) and lets you make all the necessary adjustments at the same time. Of course it was impossible to detect which of the notes I was hearing in this room were coming from the subs and that is how it should be when the setup is proper. High marks to the sound in this room wherever they were coming from. The electronics were by Linn, a Furman power conditioner was employed as well.

Harman HPAV were occupying a couple of rooms nearby. One with Mark Levinson No53 Reference Monoblocks driving Revel Ultima2 Salon2 loudspeakers…

and another with a Levinson No532 dual mono, 400W/ch amp driving top of the line JBL’s, the Everest…

Pictures don’t do justice to these big JBL’s, they are a bit more curvy than they appear hear, completely rounded on the back. Those are dual 15″ woofers on each one. I was anxious to hear my precious Pretenders CD in here. These speakers presented this difficult recording with such ease, no sign of strain and a very open sound. The one on the right was damaged during shipping – a small ding along the top edge. I offered $20 for the pair. The counter offer was 20% off the list price of $70k. We were not converging. Just as well, even if I had got them for twenty bucks I probably couldn’t afford to ship them back to Oregon.

The SimAudio room had some of the better sound at the show. The speakers were Sonus Faber Elipsa (not shown). I’m not sure if the digital I heard was coming from the 300D DAC or the CD3.3x CD player because myself and others in the room were clamoring to hear that big-ole Sumiko RM-10.1 table. Turns out we were limited in what we could play because the anti-skate was not installed. Still managed to rock some Stevie Ray Vaughn. (If you haven’t noticed yet, for rock recordings, Stevie Ray and Dire Straights (Money for Nothing) are the favored recordings.) I also heard about an upgrade that is available for my Sim 5.3P preamp. Watch for a future blog post on that.

Bryston were showing off their new BDP-1 Digital Player. Similar to Logitech’s Squeezbox – but with much more attention to power supplies and sound quality in general – the BDP-1 accepts a USB input (cable or memory card), and indexes and organizes the files through a web interface. This player does just about everything right. The web interface is not required. Files can be selected through the display, any known file format is supported (up to 24/192) and has a dedicated AES-EBU interface that matches with Bryston’s DAC (s/pdif is also available). The one drawback I heard with the BDP-1 is that when you unplug your digital source, it will forget about the files, the index will have to be rebuilt the next time you plug in. If this encourages you to make and keep a backup of your music drive(s) then it’s a good thing. If you kept two parallel copies going you could add files to the spare, replace the active drive (plugged into the BDP-1) and then have the one you just removed as your backup.

A pair of these Canton Reference 7.2’s were being driven by Herron Audio electronics (M1 Amp VTSP-3A pre) which were in turn driven by an Arcam CD 37. Returning once again to my recently acquired Pretenders CD I was impressed at how these speakers got out of the way as the sound seemed to come from an area larger than the speakers themselves. This is all to the good, especially as it compels you to look for where the sound is coming from and you keep seeing the beautiful Canton curves.

The Primaluna room was all Primaluna down the middle and Sonus Faber Liuto speakers on the edges. The thing that always impresses me about Primaluna is the low noise floor. I don’t know if it’s the lowest out there but these amps have a way of making it (the noise floor) into some sort of dark liquid so you see (hear) deeper into the music. New was the Prologue Premium Preamp (fun to say for sure). With a long list of features that make you think it’s getting expensive (Alps pot, dual mono among them) but then you remember who you’re dealing with and it’s only $2199. The monoblocks were also on display, these have dual output transformers which is a lot of extra expense but this allows the amps to have 2,4 and 8 Ohm taps.

I finished up with a tour of all the YG-Acoustics speakers I could find, the Carmel…

The Kipod..

And finally the Anat Reference II…

The Kipod was especially interesting as it was being driven by these entirely unique and exciting battery powered tube components by Veloce…

The LS-1 preamp enjoys 270V of battery power. The V-6 monoblock amps (not shown) are hybrid tube and class D solid state output. The sound was both open and controlled without any of the dimness that often accompanies battery power.

The final room for me though was with those monstrous Anat II’s and equally monstrous Soulution 700 Mono Amps. In this and the Carmel room digital files recorded DSD at twice the consumer DSD rate were the source. I heard Money For Nothing (what else?) recorded from vinyl in this way. The sound of the needle dropping was reassuring. The sound of the music was beguiling. As I’ve sometimes experienced before with super high end systems it seems as though I’m hearing more of the recording than the recording engineer did, or at least in a different way. When the separation between the various voices and instruments is so complete it tends to make the whole experience more relaxing than is usual. This may be proper and for the best. I’ll have to spend some more time with this system to know for sure.

On Saturday I started early, visiting first the Legacy Audio room. The Focus SE’s (center pair) still managed to sound pretty good even in one of the toughest rooms a the show, that curtain behind the setup is just that, a curtain, there is no wall for another 10 feet or so. Plus, big speakers are good at absorbing sound when they aren’t being driven so whichever pair was on here had to deal with driving the other pair as part of it’s load. The planar tweeters were not affected by all that though and still gave tons of detail.

Octave MRE 130 monoblocks were driving Dynaudio Confidence loudspeakers in Dynaudio’s room. The source was a new Wadia 971 CD Transport driving Wadia’s monoblock DACs…

Wadia engineering seems to know no bounds and the results speak for themselves. I managed to get my Pretenders CD played briefly and even though the Dynaudio’s were relaxed like their line typically is, the music sounded very right.I could have listened for a long time if the Pretenders weren’t unceremoniously dumped for something considered more acceptable (boring). But, did you catch that? Wadia is releasing a new CD transport, a company that marches to it’s own drum.

Emotiva folks taking pictures of me taking pictures of them. This is one of the few rooms where every single component, including the cables is by the same company. Lonnie Vaughn was there (I think he is the subject of the picture we see being taken) and was very enthusiastic about their new DAC (which is hard to see but is at the top of the stack there). The DAC improves upon the CD player with a completely redesigned analog section.

Silverline is coming out with some new speakers at $6k, the Sonatina Mk IV (the large ones in the photo, with the cherry finish). Speaker designer Alan Yun was quite humble in presenting himself to the room but his excitement overcame that when he started talking about these speakers. He is especially proud of the woofer and from what I heard it’s well deserved. Alan claims 92db efficiency (for real, no cheating like some other manufactures).

The sign on the MSB room emphasizes that they have been in business for 25 years. I had to be reminded still who they were. MSB was making DACs from day 1 it seems. They were pretty simple black boxes then. They have upgraded the cosmetics, even to the insides as shown here. Each of those shiny bits, as well as some other of the circuit boards is a unit that could be upgraded. The newest MSB DAC is capable of 32 bit, 384kHz playback. They demoed a 24/382 file that they had obtained from a recording studio, it did sound good but it’s pretty academic at this point.

MSB also had their own amps, full class A, they also function as space heaters..

These are the long awaited Naim S400’s. Driven of course by a full Naim stack (I took a picture but Naim components are an example of black body radiation which my camera doesn’t pick up well). At the top of the stack was the new Naim server, NDX. While we were waiting for my trusty Pretenders CD to be loaded Dave Devers found some Hector Zazou already loaded on there. This is some audiophile music I can endorse. The opening track on Songs From the Cold Seas has two women singing an aggressive line simultaneously. I was hearing their two voices as distinct from each other as I ever have. Gotta go home and see how it sounds there. It took a long time to get the Pretenders loaded because Naim performs multiple reads over an 8 minute timeframe to get all the bits and correct the ones that are bad. I grilled them about a question that bothers me – are our CD’s decaying before our eyes? You might recall some articles in the mainstream press about 10 years ago (maybe more) saying ‘hey wait a minute, turns out these CD’s aren’t meant to last, they might all fall apart in 5 years’. I think we forgot about it when they didn’t but what if they fall apart in 15 years? Fine if you’ve got them ripped already but this also says that Naim is really onto something. The older the CD the more errors are likely. They report that this seems to be the case.

Aperion are at RMAF with a brand new high end speaker line (though still affordable as is their wont). The Aperion Versus Grand. Seems about everything is new, the cabinets are curved as you can see (gorgeous), the tweeters are ‘Axially Stabilized’ (similar to a ring tweeter if I understood correctly), woven Kevlar cones, aluminum phase plugs and a new crossover design. Playing my favored Pretenders my immediate thought was this is more musical than I’ve been hearing in the other rooms. The driving components were all Marantz.

This was the Edge Electronics room, with Avalon speakers. I heard no music whatsoever in here as there was some protracted discussion about the nature of noise. I am quite excited about Edge however as they are under new management with lots of new product plans including a DAC and a phono stage. Can’t wait.

Another interesting room, Telwire. One of the few rooms being presented by a cable company. The electronics were all pretty spendy so I can’t make any specific claims to the quality of the wire but the room had that rock bottom noise floor that good cables bring.

In the Simon Yorke room some gorgeous turntables of course. This S10with an Airtight PC1 mono cartridge. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the speakers..

Lanshe #3 loudspeakers with glowing plasma tweeters. I detected no ozone but did detect some good highs. It just seemed effortless for these tweeters. Hard to turn away from the flame.

If you’ve got a turntable you’ll probably at least think about digitizing some of your records. I can tell you, it’s a lot of work. The seminar from Channel D software only reinforced the notion. There are a couple of unique things in their software, digital RIAA compensation and this display of the recoded file that helps you find the track breaks. The grooves shown are actually an analog (to a degree) of the grooves on the record, i.e., it looks like your record.

These two way speakers from German Physic were sounding pretty amazing. The tweeter is that cone on the top. They cover from 270 Hz on up. They have a full range version as well.

Some rooms draw you in by their signs. Holographic Healing – I’m in!

Here’s what I found inside, These 360 degree radiating speakers from Holographic Arts were sounding pretty sweet. The small ones are a quite reasonable $1800. The healing idea is that when the sound is properly imaged the body relaxes and a healing response occurs. I didn’t bring out my Pretenders CD. These speakers open up new possibilities for decorating.

RMAF was doing a hopping business on Friday afternoon. Don’t these people have jobs? Actually for a lot of the folks here on Friday it probably is their job. Makes me a little bit frightened about the crowds that could show up on Saturday. Stay tuned.

One of the most interesting items (to me anyway) that you might see at this year’s fest is this ultrasonic record cleaner from Audio Desk Systems. I’ve been asking to review this puppy for over a year. They say they can’t build enough to fill the existing orders so no units to spare for review. I don’t want to hear excuses! The beauty of this unit is the full automation, you put the record in and it’s done in 5 mins. Also, it’s small enough and quiet enough (I think) to be in a handy location like, oh I don’t know, your listening room! Nice discount on that show price there.

Of course you would spend the savings on some new records but you will not enjoy any sort of discount if you buy them here. Some sort of different ethos between the hardware and software manufacturers.

I was seriously tempted to get this one even for $35 but I held off, I didn’t bring any vinyl because I didn’t have room and I expect that to continue on the way back. Might have to get creative with the carry-on policy. Meanwhile I plain forgot to pack some of my favorite CD’s for auditioning. The music provided by the exhibitors tends to be audiophile recordings (Patricia Barber etc) and not of the rock-n-roll genre. So, I did buy a Mofo Gold CD of the first Pretenders record. A challenging recording with the vocals pasted over the top of chunky rock. Time to separate the tubes from the solid state gentlemen.

Did someone mention Patricia Barber? A 24/96 recording through a complete BelCanto stack was driving these TAD Reference I speakers. These may be the most visually beautiful speakers ever. Aurally they weren’t bad either. My notes say ‘neutral…copout’. They must sound like something right? Maybe they just aren’t adding any coloration. This was by no means an extended audition though. I would have expected a little more meat on the bottom end but I never got a chance to play my new Pretenders record, there was a long line of requests ahead of me.

It was exciting to see these new Focal 1038 Be’s in the Audio Plus Services room. I had an extended audition of the 1027 Be’s a couple of years ago. I really found a lot to like in those speakers but there seemed to be some confusion in the mid and lower bass. Focal has improved on the 1027/1037 to make the 1028/1038 line. The improvements include a redesign of the port which might be enough to correct what I thought I heard. They also improved their manufacturing process on the drivers, employing laser trimming instead of hand trimming of the driver material, a redesigned crossover and they now use a slightly larger tweeter – which means it is exactly the same as that used in the Utopia line. These tweeters are really something special. Sometimes I think they can draw too much attention to the highs but they sound so good you don’t care. In these speakers the balance seemed exactly right. Playing some Stevie Ray Vaughn I heard some vibrato that I suspect is normally too far down in the mix for most tweeters to bring out. Now, should they? Yes, Mr Vaughn was working pretty hard to add that effect, let’s hear it.

I thought it was interesting that John Bevier (of Audio Plus) chose to drive these speakers with an integrated…

The Micromega AS-400. 400 W/channel, class D. I did not hear the annoying noise floor that often accompanies class D amplification. The AS-400 has an Airstream wireless receiver built in. This is a pretty popular solution throughout the fest this year. There was an issue getting iTunes to work at one point though, I pointed out that vinyl does not have that problem.

Here’s John trying to get iTunes to work.

Esoteric is taking it up a notch since I first encountered their exhibit here in 2008. As I recall they were exhibiting from the lower end of their line at that time. I was impressed. Now all the more-so. The VPI Scoutmaster II turntable was spinning when I came in so I thought I was hearing some vinyl playback but in fact it was a 192/24 recording. That’s a lot of bits and perhaps enough. But, when we did switch to actual vinyl there was a difference I noted. This is illustrative I think. What I noticed was that when the music hit the refrain, when the tension came out of the melody, the tension came out of the room. This was not happening with the digital. Needs further study.

Headphone people are always put into a corner somewhere at audio fests. Headphone people are different. They are friendlier and more enthusiastic than the (already very friendly and enthusiastic) loudspeaker-type audiophiles.

My favorite headphone amps where these Gaanam Hybrid (above) and Tube (below) by Rethm. The Hybrid combines tubes and solid state but in a twist the tubes are up front and the solid state section drives the cans. Hopefully a review will be forthcoming.

Note those headphones plugged into the Gaanam Tube. Those are the hot new cans by Audez’e (sounds like odyssey). A balanced planar-magnetic design that presents an easy 53 Ohm load. Sound was deep and chunky. I hope to get to audition these completely at some point too. Made in LA, a reasonable $945 for something of this quality.

I left my pen somewhere in the CanJam room and if these people were truly friendly it would have been returned when I went back in there to look for it but while I was there I was urged to give a listen to the Smyth Research ummm… product. Don’t know what to call this – what it does is go to incredible lengths to bring a credible surround sound experience to headphones. The generic way to describe the method is to say that it attempts to recreate the room experience so the system being recorded/adapted need not be surround sound. Recording studios are using it for two channel as well. The technique involves an individualized profile that records for the particular listener in the particular room. One microphone in each ear. There is the Head Related Transfer Function and then there is Your Head Related Transfer function. This profile is used to modify recordings (surround or not) so that when played back on headphones it sounds like it’s not. Works pretty well too. I gave a listen to a snippet of X-man 3 (tuned for someone else’s head of course) and I was not interested in turning it off, I did not detect any artifacts and felt no fatigue.

In the Isis Room a collection of electronics by Empirical Audio including modded Parasound Halo JC-1’s driving these gorgeous Salk Sounscape 12’s. Very natural sounding.

In another room these gi-normous (ok, and gorgeous too) Venture Reference III speakers where playing some organ music and it was as though an organ was in the room. Very impressive.

This room set up by the Isomike recording group was an audio smorgasbord. Three of four Sony SSAR-1 speakers are pictured here along with three Pass Labs X350.5 amps and a selection of the hot EMM Labs digital playback gear. They were employing a professional level EMM DAC which can play a DSD stream from a computer (you’re not allowed to try this at home). Isomike records in DSD and here they were playing back in DSD. No compression, no limiting, no mixing. Stunning.

I remain a fan of Daedalus speakers and I’m not the only one. Besides Daeadalus’ own room (shown here getting a re-wiring by Lou Hinkley and Wayne Waananen of The Bolder Cable Company) the speakers are being used in three other rooms. The last of which was added at the last minute when another exhibitor’s planned speakers didn’t work out, the exhibitor drove home and retrieved his personal Daedalus speakers).

The DAC used in this room is from and Eastern Electric Mini-Max DAC modded by Bolder Cables. The DAC chip is the Sabre DAC by ESS.

In a bit of double serendipity the engineer who designed the ESS Dac stopped by. Wayne showed him the particular mods he had done to the power supply in this particular player. Lou Hinkley played us some ‘Money For Nothing’ real loud. A good choice as our engineering friend said he used that song while designing the chip.

Getting psyched about covering the RMAF again. This picture is the room I think most about from my last trip there two years ago. I’m not sure if these large-man size Focal speakers are the best I’ve ever heard but they’re on the short list. I’m trying to talk myself in to packing some vinyl along for auditioning purposes. We’ll see. 174 rooms and 3 days.. can it be done?? Well, no. But I will seek out the highlights.