At the end of the first day of RMAF, veteran audio journalist Ken Kessler moderated a seminar titled "High-End Audio: Regaining the High Ground." Some such eventsI would go so far as to say most such eventsmake me feel more like a reporter for Whine Spectator than Stereophile, but this one wasn't bad, and some of the observations expressed on the relationship between education (as in: music appreciation) and industry (as in: us) could actually prove useful. Ken Kessler stimulated the conversation with his own passionately held opinions, and many in the audience responded in kind (if with a little too much wind, in one case). Seen above are panelists Peter McGrath (Wilson Audio), Kathy Gornik (Thiel), Michael Fremer (Stereophile and AnalogPlanet.com), and Roy Hall (Music Hall).
Perhaps I don't spend enough time at my local Apple storewhich is, after all, only 70 minutes awaybut I confess that I'd never heard the word thunderbolt in a high-tech context before RMAF 20212. Now, having attended the computer-audio seminar moderated by my friend Michael Lavorgnaof sister site AudioStream.comI know that Thunderbolt is now the preferred interface for connecting a music-storage drive (or NAS) to a current iMac or MacBook. Seen here are panelists Rob Robinson (Channel D), Mark Waldrep (AIX and iTrax), Steve Silberman (AudioQuest), and Michael Lavorgna (left to right).
Tone Audio’s founder, Jeff Dorgay, seated in the center of the photo, made sure to bring his lava lamp to set the tone in his publication’s hospitality suite on the 5th floor of the Marriott Atrium. Enjoying the ambiance were Shelly Williams of GIK Acoustics and John Derko of Digital Audio Review. Tone Audio celebrated its 7th anniversary at RMAF, Stereophile its 50th!
Electronics designer and manufacturer Ron Sutherland, who is surely one of the nicest and most upstanding people in our rather motley trade, brought to the show a sample of the brand new Sutherland Insight phono preamplifier ($1400). Essentially, an AC version of the battery-powered Sutherland Ph3D ($1000), the beautifully made Insight uses a well-screened switch-mode power supply, and offers a battery (sorry) of options with regard to gain and loading values, all selectable by means of gold-plated jumpers and pinswhich, according to Ron Sutherland, are far better-sounding and more reliable than DIP switches.
As a card-carrying member of The Insecure, I tend to clam up when I'm around people who are considerably more intelligent or well-informed than I. Consequently, I had embarrassingly little to say in the presence of Bricasti Audio's Brian Zolner, whose understanding of the various digital-filtering choices offered by his company's M1 D/A converter ($8495) was as deep as it was generously and at times even humorously offered. In any event, the Bricasti sounded fine at the front of a system in which a pair of Harbeth HL5 loudspeakers ($5690/pair) was driven by the undeniably beautiful Dan D'Agostino Momentum Stereo amplifier ($25,000).
The German manufacturer ADAM Audio, whose high-frequency drive-unit technology is descended from that of Oskar Heil's Air-Motion Transformer, introduced their new Gamma loudspeaker ($22,000/pair), which is built around a 25mm-thick aluminum baffle: a departure from the honeycomb material used in elder ADAMs. Demonstrated with a pair of Cary SA 500.1 solid-state monoblocks ($4995 each), Cary SLP 05 preamp ($8495), and Cary CD 303T CD player ($6995), the Gammas were clear and distinctly articulate, with a pleasant balance overallalthough I wouldn't have wanted them to be an iota lighter.
I've heard TAD's high-tech CR1 loudspeakers ($42,000/pair) on other occasions, at other shows. But they've never sounded as good as they did at RMAF, where they were demonstrated with electronics from a new company called Zesto (a great, un-self-conscious name that sounds like an affiliate of Slusho, the imaginary Japanese soft-drink company created for the 2008 film Cloverfield). The source was a Merrill-Williams REAL 101 turntable ($7200) with Triplanar arm ($5800), Dynavector XX2 MkII cartridge ($1985), and Zesto Andros phono stage ($4300) and Leto preamp ($7500), plus GamuT D200 amp ($6000) and WyWires cabling which, like the Zesto gear, comes from Thousand Oaks, CA. On selections by Illinois Jacquet and others, this system sounded richly textured and very involving.
The big news in Soundsmith land, besides the fact that Peter Ledermann’s fastest top-of-the-line Hyperion cartridge with its cactus spine and diamond tip was making wonderful sound in multiple rooms at RMAF, was the introduction of the Hyperion Mk.II ($7500). Boasting great channel separation, its 10-year warranty includes retipping for the original owner.
The sound in the room from Arte Forma of Taiwan, represented in the US by Aire Audio, completely seduced me. Playing a wonderful recording of pianist Murray Perahia performing Handel, I was captivated by the presentation’s beautiful glow and air. It felt as though a light was shining from within the piano. This system portrayed the high treble delicacy of the piano’s strings like few others.
John DeVore, loved as much for his eagerly anticipated Monkeyhaus musical gatherings, where music new and old wins over hearts and minds, as for his speakers, had a surprise in store for me. After playing an LP of Indian drums, whose depth and resonance were captured wonderfully by the forthcoming high-sensitivity DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 loudspeakers ($7900/pair estimated cost), pictured on the outside of the soundstage, he pulled out a rare Vanguard LP of soprano Netania Devrath singing Yiddish songs. If that name sounds familiar, she’s the very same Israeli soprano who made the extraordinary, dialect-correct recording of Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne that has become an audiophile favorite. In Yiddish, she sounds positively adorable.
Thank goodness I wasn't shooting with film: It took several frames to get a decent photo of the Da Vinci DAC ($31,000) from the California company Light Harmonic. But I didn't mind spending all that time trying, as the music was superbly tactile and compellingthanks in no small part to amplification from KR Audio Electronics, represented at RMAF by the enduringly gracious Dr. Eunice Kron.
Was it divine retribution that inspired Zu Audio’s Sean Casey to play The Evens intoning “Shut Up! Shut Up!” just as I entered the room? All I know is that, while I have been critical in the past of Zu Audio’s incisive sound, I never fail to find the room full of people digging it. More than that, Sean surprised me by playing Ella Fitzgerald, later in life, performing “Good Morning, Heartbreak,” and I too was digging it. Clearly Zu speakers, cabling, and cartridges are suited to jazz as much as raucous rock.
Rob Robinson of Channel D (Pure Music and Pure Vinyl, left) and Paul Erlandson of Lynx Studio Technologies (right), along with Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio (in absentia), had plenty of reason to smile. In addition to announcing that Channel D’s Pure Music 1.9 ($129, updated without charge for current owners) is due October 30, and Pure Vinyl 3.1 ($279) is coming out a week earlier, on October 23, the system they had assembled was producing wonderful sound despite its far less than stellar set-up. . .
At every dinner I attended with industry members during RMAF 2012, someone invariably asked, “How was the Magnepan demo?” As I soon learned, it seems that Wendell Diller’s decision to forego exhibiting at consumer showssince the last Stereophile show in San Francisco, in 2003, he has displayed product only at the annual CES trade event (not open to consumers)has only heightened buzz around the Minnesotan company’s fabled planar-magnetic loudspeakers.