Anthony Kershaw/ Denver, CO — 2013 is the tenth anniversary of one of the premiere stops on the audio show circuit. Known as a huge and friendly, two channel and new technology show, the tenth iteration was as good as my two previous visits.
Once again, Marjorie Baumert, organizer and her staff of volunteers from the Colorado Audio Society outdid themselves to make each exhibitor and guest feel at home and welcome.
The show seems to have morphed over the past few years into three shows, the two channel, audiophile floors, CanJam, the large space dedicated to mobile and computer audiophile products, and the much loved sales spaces where rabid punters can listen and buy any number of audio goodies, software and hardware.
We were rocked and rolled as we approached the massive Denver airport with thunderstorms and high winds. Even so, United got us in safe and sound, albeit a little late. The rental car song and dance went quickly and we were at the hotel in time for the welcome party to be in full swing. The hotel staff could not have been nicer and more accommodating, so we were up and down from our lovely room and drinking good Cabernet in no time. There seemed to be more people than ever at the welcome party. After meeting up with Baumert and other RMAF staffers, they mentioned this 10th anniversary show was going to be packed and special. We met up with Audiophilia staffer Karl Sigman and renewed acquaintances with lots of very friendly, familiar faces. It is always such a warm and inviting party — Baumert really knows how to get the show started right. By the time the shindig was over, everyone was in the mood for great sound, good friends, good food and more parties. Oh, and some hard work.
Which brings us to why we’re here. After a busy vacation in Southern California, we enjoyed a restful sleep in the Marriott’s comfortable rooms. Day One for me in any show is beginning at the top floor, working my way down through the rooms saying hello, taking a lot of photos, looking and listening for new, exciting gear, listening out for old favourites, and generally playing audiophile tourist. Other moments scheduled for Day One? Walking the sales floor and grabbing some audio goodies for home listening.
One of the true pleasures for me is bumping into fellow journalists and audiophiles and hearing their continuing stories and passion for our avocation. There were lots of wonderful tales of their successes and, of course, their failures. This business can be difficult and there is nothing sadder than a company that closes its doors. We lost some again this year. That said, there were lots of startups to replace them. These young folks were full of enthusiasm. Ready to kick ass and take numbers. The good news? Many of the progressive ones ‘get’ the new digital domain.
The morning of Day One was packed with lineups out the door. But, once registered, the huge show swallowed the registrants whole. Waiting time at the six elevators was negligible and rooms were easily navigable. The audiophiles at this show are so polite. No one that I saw hogged the sweet spot chair. No loudmouths spouting why they ‘only listen to tubes’ or why ‘this company sucks’. In fact, for an audio show, where the sound is always varied (but improves over the span of the show), the listeners held court with the talkers quietly discussing in the rear of the room or the hall.
A couple of brickbats in a show full of audiophile love.
1.‘Scheduled’ listening sessions. Sure, those of the pure of heart understand why they do it. Control the sound/talking/sales pitch. And, sometimes it works. But, many do it for ‘mystique’ effect. It’s affectation of the worst type, especially at this show. Those manufacturers reading this will know their reasons. If it’s the former, fine, the latter, change. Or, maybe, a sign on the door saying ‘Demonstration in progress, please enter quietly. Thank you’. Straight shooting audiophiles, who have a relatively short time to navigate a huge show, should not have to wait. Lineups out the door for popular gear and seminars are a different animal.
2. A locked door may mean a lost sale. Too many locked doors.
3. Three may be related to number two. Sure, there are audio emergencies and unavoidable delays, but they should be very rare. Not being ready for show opening sends a message and insults the visitors who have paid good money and travelled afar to hear all the products listed. Unless an amp blows up or a speaker croaks, it should never happen. If it does, post a note explaining why, when it’ll be ready, and an apology.
Back to the love.
The day’s walkabout was a discovery of excellent sound (a couple in my Best Of), new kit and exhibitors bending over backwards to make your room visit fruitful. So accommodating. They were more than happy to give a quick precis or a lengthy tome about the topologies and designs.
A speaker managed from Maui (the owner had a big smile on his face) and manufactured in Colorado caught my ear. Emerald Physics had their CS3 MK2 ‘Controlled Directivity Loudspeaker’ playing Handel harp concertos via a complete system, including Rel T9 powered subwoofers and their own electronics. The price for the speakers and subs was less than 5K. For that price, these speakers are an absolute steal and should be heard by any audiophile on a strict budget who wants Champagne sound. Dipole technology with point source design. No grain, no hash, well balanced and very dynamic were among my notes. And the two subs were integrated as well as any.
The DeVore Fidelity room was also instructive in its ability to offer refined sound from an elegant design for a reasonable price. The Orangutan 93s come in under 9K. And the 22 (tu:tu:) Hybrid Tube Amplifier that I have spied in several articles was even more exquisite in person. This is a gorgeous, tube hybrid tube amplifier. ‘The vacuum tube circuit and the output amplifier circuit are automatically shut down and it shifts to SLEEP mode when there are no sound signals for more than 10 minutes, therefore you will never worry about forgetting to turn off. When a sound signal is input again while it is in SLEEP mode, it will reboot automatically. (It takes 20~30 seconds for the vacuum tubes to warm up.)’ It sang sweetly, even in the large hall space.
Neat Acoustics’ speakers were far more than neat. This English company has forgone the politeness of previous years and now manufacture delightful, detailed and very musical speakers. The Neat Ultimatum XL10 was amazing in its way of handling detail in a very relaxed manner. A very fine speaker at $32K. Powering the speakers was kit from Audia Flight. Readers of Audiophilia will know that we recently reviewed both the pre and power amplifiers. Both superb.
Two of Audiophilia’s longtime supporters, Mojo Audio and New Zealand’s Antipodes Audio had very musical, but very different rooms. Antipodes was in the Hyatt Regency (RMAF is growing every year), a five minute walk from the Marriott, and was paired with Vapor Joule Black Loudspeakers ($13K) and Arte Forma Audio tube and pre and power amps that looked like works of art. Audiophilia writers are big fans of designer Mark Jenkins’ Antipodes Audio cables and I have been reviewing his new music servers. Quality products, quality people. In fact, we had a fantastic dinner with our wives and Audiophilia writer Karl Sigman at a local Italian restaurant where Mark explained much of his design philosophy and the differences he sees/hears between digital and analogue. I’m going to ask him to write an article for Audiophilia because I have never heard the differences explained better. Mind you, this was after happy hour and two fine bottles of Italian wine.
Dinner on the night before the show was with our friends from Mojo (see photo above). We got a pre audition before show opening. Owner/designer Ben Zwickel has a different philosophy for digital, his new DAC Mystique in particular. He wants the sound to be more relaxed/refined in nature and used his own speakers, amazing cables and a couple of vintage tube amps to dial in the sound he loves. It worked beautifully. The detail was there, the best of digital’s octave separation heard, but it was so easy on the ear. We listened for a long time with zero fatigue. Adding to the controlled sound were the secure platforms of Atomic Audio Labs. These resonance control devices look as good as their intended effect.
With the increase in vinyl’s coolness and availability, lots of rooms had turntables. They looked great, but not all sounded at their best Day One. Analogue sounded much better as the show progressed. The DPS/Ayre turntable ($12,750 with arm) in the Ayre room looked great and sounded very refined (Benz LP cartridge at $5K) playing Mahler’s First Symphony. It was so nice to hear some good classical. Very few rooms had classical music playing. Ayre had its room setup as a fictitious record store called Charlie’s. Ingenious and very cool.
Another cool idea that I’d never seen at an audio show was the Roksan room. I’ve always been a fan of its analogue gear. This room was highlighting its new integrated (the Oxygene at $6K, 7K with artwork and Roksan Darius Loudspeaker at $7.5K incl stand), but in a very intriguing way. The owner of Roksan (Robert Hienerwadel) is a big fan of Colorado artist Jay Paul Apodaca and owns many of his originals. He asked Apodaca to add his paintings to the Oxygene as a silk screen (but applied in a unique process making the applique impervious to scratching). I loved the art. I loved the concept. And, the sound was pretty good, too. A big shout out to Roksan and Apodaca for trying something new.
The slow demise of the CD continues. There were a handful of CD players, but all rooms had a file/server/DAC system playing with many adding vinyl. Several had reel to reel as a primary source. The computer files are now played by a dizzying array of boxes with full service rear panels able to accept any kind of digital connection. Boulder’s PS Audio was even playing vinyl through its novel NuWave Phono Converter ($1895). The sound was remarkably refined but the essence of the vinyl sound remained. I only had a short time to listen, but this machine warrants further investigation.
American pie ingenuity was represented by the ever present VPI turntables but Danish companies such as Hartvig held their own (TT Signature Gramophone $28,400). And many companies are riding the vinyl wave by adding a well priced, entry level table, many with great sophistication. The Project Xtension 10 turntable in the Emerald Physics room had total control over the repertoire and the much more expensive and superb Spiral Groove SG 1.1 turntable and Centroid tonearm ($31K) with a Lyra Etna cartridge was simply fabulous matched with Wilson Alexia loudspeakers ($48.5K) and VTL electronics.
The word seems to have got out about Diana Krall. She was no where to be heard. A few less than stellar female crooners took her place, but the voice of the show had to be male voices singing country/bluegrass/whatever in the lowest octave while swallowing a mouthful of gravel. One room even had an autotuned singer as its main music of demonstration. Ridiculous! Thankfully, just about all rooms took requests and we got to hear some great musicianship through classical, jazz and blues genres.
Looking at the recorded repertoire on the manufacturers’ iPads and iPhones, I usually found one classical selection (Apple does not include classical anymore on its iPod demos in their Apple Stores). The selection was inevitably Dance of the Tumblers played by the Minnesota Orchestra (Google this amazing orchestra’s plight and sign the petition, please) on Reference Recordings. No worries, as it is a musical gem and recorded brilliantly. It was superb through Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 loudspeakers ($26K). Albert has been making speakers for many years. I’ve always liked his style. The 44s replicatad the best of digital with a very refined sound. Incredibly dynamic, too, with a gorgeous representation of instruments.
As Day Two continued, we walked along the 2nd floor and the Mezzanine. Lots of fantastic sound, here, and also live music coming from the Mezzanine level. Fan-Ya Lin was back for a second year. Now at Juilliard, she continued to play beautifully for the passers by. We heard Chopin. Even from a distance, the ear can hear the differences between live music and the very best recorded sound. It’s always getting better, but the live event is pretty hard to beat. Especially when played so brilliantly by Ms. Lin.
Any contention regarding sound digital audio technology for loudspeaker correction, room acoustics compensation and digital crossover was put to bed in the DEQX room. Two Audiophilia writers love the products and use DEQX correction to solve some interesting room interactions in their New York City apartments. DEQX’ David Higginbottom switched the DEQX PreMate ($4495. add $500 for USB card) back and forth and the sound changes were not subtle. The YG Acoustics Kipods ($45) speakers had a serious bass hump through room interaction that was totally erased when the DEQX unit was in play. DEQX’ Higginbottom suggested it was more to do with time alignment. Whatever the magical elixir did, it worked.
Cable companies were out in force. Many had plausible and technical reasons why their cables worked best. I did not hear any cable shootouts and this was certainly not the venue. So, it would be impossible for me to tell you what cable I liked better than others. But, I will say that there was so much good sound that the manufacturers chose their cables very well. Do no harm. They didn’t. It was also good to see the promotional material so beautifully thought out. Companies like High Fidelity Cables, EnKLein, Antipodes Audio, Transparent, MIT, Mojo Audio, WyWires, Oyaide, Acoustic Zen, Tara Labs, Kimber Cable, and many others looked as good as they sounded. This tenth edition of RMAF was the first audio show that I have covered where the cable companies matched the component and speaker companies for sophistication and weight. They will tell you over and over again and are spot on — ‘a cable is a major component of your audio system’.
CanJam was back and bigger than ever. The audiophile mobile space is here to stay. Many companies were represented and we listened to headphones by Abyss (its Model AB-1266 Headphones @$5K). They were heavy on the head and incredibly substantial as a piece of kit, but the sound was wonderful. Very detailed and lots of air. The balance was excellent, too. Nothing blended together — there were three separate octaves that played nicely. Lovely.
Audeze was back in force with its LCD-3 ($1,995). Man, this is a comfortable headphone, and while it could not match the ultimate refinement of the Abyss Model AB-1266 Headphones (at over twice the price), it came pretty close. The better headphones like Abyss and Audeze (and a couple of expensive Sennheisers) give that feeling of space and hall. It almost makes me feel like I’m listening to two channel in a good room. Almost.
The little black boxes that hold your life’s music were everywhere. Powerful DACs are getting smaller and smaller and Korean giant Astell & Kern gave us an excellent demonstration of its DualDac AK 120 ($1,299). The box looks like class and has a sound to match. Listening to a Bach cello suite via Audeze LCD-3s was a very musical experience. After piano, soprano voice and french horn, cello is the most difficult instrument to record. For it to sound at its best, the harmonics that enhance the resonance of its sound cannot be washed out. To hear the cellist’s low notes with such authority and style coming from this mini wonder was exciting.
ALO Audio, from Portland was there with its Studio Six Reference Headphone Amplifier ($4,950). Listening through Audeze headphones, the amp made easy pickings out of complex orchestral music. And, with the lushness and detail good tubes provide. Not only does it look good and sound wonderful, it’s built by a Portland company that understands the new digital space. Great folks, too.
Which brings us to Best Sound of Show. These fun awards are difficult at some shows. I’m not sure whether the Marriott rooms are better than other show hotels, but the sound at my third RMAF was as consistently good as the previous two. Must be that fresh mountain air.
Some Audiophilia readers suggest that we award not just a one through three, but ‘best value’, best ‘no holds barred’, etc. That would be fine, but I like Best Sound. It can be unfair, because some companies have far more capital at their disposal. Yet, I heard a $266K box speaker and a $160K horn/box hybrid speaker that, at least at RMAF, were decidedly average. We also heard the Zu Audio Druid Loudspeakers ($5,200) that knocked our socks off. And, when matched to a Zu Audio Submission sub ($3.995) (through the wonderful Peachtree Audio Grand Integrated. $4,495) filled a large room with quality, stadium volume sound. Price does not always equal (perceived) sound quality.
Interestingly, while listening to the TAD room (Evolution One loudspeakers @$29.8K), my wife sat transfixed and loved the sound, me, not so much. Musical preference is so personal and we all perceive sound so differently that many of you would have different choices. Here, you have mine, my wife’s choices (who was invaluable on this trip in organizing pages and pages of notes and promotional material, names, prices, etc) and those of Audiophilia writer, Karl Sigman. Hanging out for three very musical days with Karl was such a pleasure.
As such, take the choices with a large grain of salt — there were many rooms that could have ‘won’. Manufacturers, if you did not see your name mentioned in the main body of the report or in a photo caption, please forgive us. It does not mean we did not enjoy your room. Even with three of us covering the show, it took all the time we had in Denver to see every room, hear your stories and listen to your amazing equipment. We didn’t have time to catch one of the wonderful seminars. Anyone who says our audiophile world is shrinking needs to visit RMAF in 2014.
1. Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF with Wilson Audio Thor’s Hammer Subwoofer(s); VTL and dCS
2. NOLA Metro Grand Reference Gold Loudspeakers
3. MBL 116 F Corona Radialstrahler
4. Wilson Audio Alexia Loudspeakers; VTL and Spiral Groove
5. Neat Acoustics Ultimatum XL10 Loudspeaker
1. Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF with Wilson Audio Thor’s Hammer Subwoofer(s); VTL and dCS
2. MSB room with the SoundLab electrostatic speakers
3. Wilson Audio Alexia Loudspeakers; VTL and Spiral Groove
4. Scaena Loudspeakers
5. TAD Evolution One Loudspeakers
1. Wilson Audio Alexia Loudspeakers; VTL and Spiral Groove
2. MBL 116 F Corona Radialstrahler
3. TAD Evolution One Loudspeakers
4. NOLA Metro Grand Reference Gold Loudspeakers
5. Zu Audio Druid Loudspeakers
The Wilson Audio room over at the Hyatt Regency was incredible. At nearly $500K worth of speakers, subs, and electronics, if it wasn’t, it should have been. The setup was in a large room and the Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF Loudspeakers filled the space easily with incredibly detailed, very musical and shockingly dynamic sound. David Wilson’s own recording of the US Air Force band playing John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare was one of the finest audiophile listening experiences of my life. It would not be for every time of the day or every taste, but when getting down to serious listening in a dedicated space, only the mighty Focal JM Labs Grande Utopia comes close. As for the Wilson Audio Thor subwoofers? The bass drum of the band and its quality player (it’s not just whacking a drum) was in the room and helping to implode chests.
In purely audiophile terms, nothing stood a chance after the Alexandrias. Yet, in musical terms, I enjoyed several rooms as much. The NOLA room highlighted its gorgeous Metro Grand Reference Gold Loudspeakers. These were very special and played all repertoire exquisitely. This is by far the best Nola speaker I’ve heard.
Wilson Audio once again captured musical hearts with the exceptional Alexia Loudspeaker driven by Luke Manley’s powerful VTL electronics. Janet Baker singing ‘When I Am Laid’ from Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ was the musical highlight of the show. This track left no doubt as to the sound direction of Wilson Audio. And the synergy between Wilson, VTL and Spiral Groove was unbroken.
Another room that on any other day could have been in a Top Three was the MBL room with the 116 F Corona Radialstrahler. Listening to the original recording engineer’s reel to reel tape of a 1986 Ravi Shankar concert was mesmerizing. Incredibly beautiful sound.
Photos will be added every day this week, so be sure to check back.
Tuesday, October 15 photo update
Wednesday, October 16 photo update
Thursday Oct 17 photo update