Michael Fremer enthuses over the sound of the Esoteric E-03 phono preamplifier in our forthcoming December issue, and this $6500 component was being featured in Esoteric's ground-floor room at RMAF, fed from a VPI Scoutmaster turntable fitted with a Dynavector DV20X phono cartridge. The rest of the system, which sounded excellent on Eva Cassidy's Songbird LP, comprised Esoteric's C-03 preamp, A-03 class-A solid-state amp, and MG-20 tower speakers, hooked up with Esoteric's XL cables. (I very much liked the MG-20 when I reviewed it in the August 2008 issue.) The digital front-end was the X-05 player feeding the $4800 D-07 D/A processor, which I will be reviewing in the January 2011 issue of Stereophile.
Patricia Barber is a secret guilty passion of mine, so when I heard the sound of her singing "The Quality of Mercy" from Café Blue coming from room 2024 in the Marriott Tower, I had to go in. The system featured GR Super V open-baffle speakers ($2495/pair as a kit), which were designed by Danny Richie, who had done some of the crossover design on the well-regarded Usher Be718 speaker. Amplifiers were Dodd Audio tube monoblocks, preamp Dodd's battery-powered tube-buffered passive design. the D/A processor was the Tranquility from dB Audio Labs. This $2395 processor was being fed data via USB from a Mac mini modded by Mach2 Music. For $1495, Mach2 supplies a turnkey Mac mini fitted with a 40GB solid-state drive and 4GB of RAM, as well as a 320GB external drive for data storage and the playback software of your choice. The mini's Snow Leopard operating system has been slimmed-down by removing anything that would otherwise interfere with the task of streaming music data from the USB port.
I must admit that I had never heard of Brodmann pianos from Vienna. The only Viennese piano manufacturer I was aware of prior to the 2010 RMAF was Bösendorfer, and Brodmann's Bernd Gruhn (pictured) enlightened me, explaining that back in the day, Herr Brodmann had been Herr Bösendorfer's teacher. I mentioned that it was a coincidence that a second Viennese piano manufacturer was branching out into loudspeaker productionBösendorfer launched an idiosyncratic line of speakers at a New York Stereophile Show a few years backonly to find out that it wasn't a coincidence at all. The Brodmann speakers are designed by Hans Deutsch, who had licensed his designs to Bösendorfer. When that company withdrew from the speaker business, Deutsch approached Brodmann.
Colorado dealer Listen-Up had three rooms at RMAF. The first one I went into featured Sonus Faber Liuto 3-way speakers ($6000/pair) with PrimaLuna amplification and CD player (the latter the Prologue 8 that Fred kaplan and I reviewed for the magazine a couple years back) and AudioQuest cables and a SolidSteel stand. The Liuto speaker is intended to offer Cremona-like performance for half the price; it combines a 1.25" silk-dome tweeter with a 6" woven composite-cone midrange unit and a 7" magnesium-alloy cone woofer. The nicely finished enclosure follows Sonus Faber's usual technique of laminating cherry sections.
The second Listen-Up room featured PSB Synchrony One speakers ($5000/pair) driven by the NAD M2 Direct Digital amplifier ($5999), both of which were very favorably reviewed by Stereophile. Source was the NAD M5 CD player, wired with AudioQuest cables. Listen-Up has been a B&W dealer pretty much for ever, so I was surprised to see them take on PSB; a staffer told me that B&W's recent decision to have Best Buy sell its affordable speakers led this specialty retailer to look for an additional high-quality loudspeaker line to carry.
Featured in Listen-Up's third room was a bevy of new gear from Canadian manufacturer Simaudio: the Moon 310D phono stage ($1799, which Michael Fremer falls in love with in our January 2011 issue), the Moon 300D D/A processor ($1600)this handles digital data with up to 24-bits word length and 192kHz sample rate via both S/PDIF and USB and uses 32-bit Sabre DACsMoon 350P preamp, Moon 400M monoblocks, and Moon CD3.3X CD player. (Apologies for not noting the prices of these components.) Analog was being played on a Sumiko RM10-1 turntable, and the speakers were Sonus Faber's Elipsas ($18,000/pair).
A familiar dem track was playing when I entered the large room from Colorado Springs retailer Audio Limits: "There'll Be Some Changes Made," from Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins. However, rather than LP or CD, it was being played back from a PC running the J-River player and feeding the well-regarded Weiss DAC202 Firewire D/A converter ($6670). Speakers were the beautifully finished Venture Reference II Signature ($135,000/pair), which combines an AMT (Air-Motion Transformer) tweeter with a 7" graphite-coned midrange unit and four 8" graphite-coned woofer. Amplification was the Swiss FM Acoustics 811 Mk.II amplifier (455Wpc into 8 ohms, $128,800) and the FM Acoustics 245 preamp ($23,200). Power conditioning was by Isotek and Audience; racks were from Harmonic Resolution Systems. The full-range sound was superbly clean and effortless, but I couldn't help thinking that the room was not doing justice to this very expensive system's potential.
A familiar face and voice stopped me in the corridor outside the MC (Music Culture technology) room. It was MBL founder Wolfgang Meletzky, who, following his recent departure from the Berlin-based company, has started a new company to produce more affordable electronics and speakers. The system Meletzky was demming was based on the MC RL31 3-way tower speaker ($10,000/pair), this a conventional dynamic-driver design rather than the omnidirectional type that MBL was renowned for, driven by the MC801 power amplifier (180Wpc, $3300) and MC601 preamp ($3500). Source was an Onix CD player, as MC's own player had been held up in shipping. I listened to the Dutch Turtle Records CD of Sting's "Walking on the Moon," played by a trio of saxophone, double bass, and drums. The sound offered sharply defined transients, a natural midrange, and excellent low-frequency extension, and despite the room being one of the smaller ones in the Marriott Tower, the system's high frequencies were in natural balance with the rest of the spectrum.
I had been impressed by the sound Classic Audio were producing from their T1.3 Reference speakers at last March's Axpona Show in Florida. In Colorado, the Michigan-based company was using the smaller T3.4 speakers, which still use a field-coilenergized 15" woofer and Fostex horn tweeter, but with slightly smaller, Tractrix-flare midrange horn crossing over at 300Hz rather than 250Hz. The speakers were being driven by Atma-Sphere M60 tube monoblocks and an MP-1 preamplifier.
"Good grief, those look like Apogees," I muttered as I went into the Analysis Audio room and saw the Analysis Omega planar-ribbon speakers ($22,000/pair). Driven by Arion HS-500 hybrid monoblocks ($5995/pair), which combine a tube input stage with a class-D output stage, the speakers sounded a bit too warm in the upper bass on Jennifer Warnes version of Leonard Cohen's "Way Down Deep," but this could well have been a room effect. The soundstaging was to die for, in terms of stability and accuracy.
Perhaps the very prettiest gear of all I saw at RMAF was in the room occupied by Kaiser Acoustics, GTE Audio, and Fono Acustica. This was also the most physical sound I heard at the show; this system, more than any other I heard at RMAF, seemed to bring the musicians and instruments into the room with really impressive body and force.
See those little, white, star-shaped things? Those are room-tuning accessories from Stein Music. These were scattered, perhaps haphazardly, about the roomon the floor in front of an equipment rack (as seen here), as well as affixed to the walls and ceiling!
I ended Saturday's incredibly packed tour of the 15 rooms on the Marriott Tower's 10th floor with a stop in Musical Fidelity's room. It was a good choice. This was the first room at the show where I pulled out Channel Classics' superbly recorded hybrid SACD of the Ebony Band Amsterdam performing a unique arrangement of Revueltas' elemental, gutsy, phantasmagorical Sensemaya. The sense of air was immense, with amazing soundstaging that belied the small size of the room. I also loved the height of the soundstage, and the deep reaches of the bass. But as much as I savored the presentations' air and depth, this hardly laid-back system sounded a bit tipped-up in the highs, a common factor in many of the smaller rooms at the Marriott.
After building ModWright Instruments' reputation as a quality source for equipment mods, Dan Wright has expanded his business to include manufacturing his own components. Perhaps because his gear was called into play in a number of rooms, his own room was mobbed until Sunday, when crowds traditionally lighten up.