Among the many delights in the Audio Feast room: a prototype of an autoformer-based volume control called the Finemet TVC (price TBD). The real attraction, of course, was the fact that Audio Feast played real music in their room. (They were playing a Miles Davis disc when I was thereand I don't mean one of the umpteen audiophile reissues of Kind of Blue.) I look forward to getting to know Audio Feast in the months ahead.
I finally got to meet one of my audio heroes, John Tucker: founder of Exemplar Audio and co-designer of the legendary Exemplar Horn loudspeaker system. Tucker, who spent the early part of his career working for NASA at the Johnson Space Center, is an engineer and software designer who keeps a distinctly open mind when it comes to the audible effects of seemingly anomalous mechanismsfrom acoustic resonators to powered cables. (John is also featured in an article of mine that will appear in the Autumn, 2012 issue of The Fretboard Journal.) These days, Exemplar's products include a heavily modified version of the Oppo 95 disc player ($3500, including base Oppo unit) and a line of active interconnect and speaker cables called Portals.
Cardas Clear Skythe sample to which VP of Sales and Marketing Andy Regan is pointing in this photois the latest and most affordable of the company's "Matched Propagation" speaker cables, and is said to be ideal for owners of high-efficiency loudspeakers. The retail price is $775 for an 8' pair, terminated with Cardas spade connectors. (I have requested a review sample, and hope to report on the Clear Sky cables within the next couple of months.)
It was that rarest of rare occasions in audio-show reporting: I entered the demonstration room of a brand that was unfamiliar to me, and was impressed at once by a sort of musical rightness I seldom hear from modern playback gear. Sure, I was familiar with the company that made the CD player, preamp, and monoblock amps in useElectrocompaniet, whose solid-state amps are among the few I consider worthy of comparison to the best tube designsbut the Austrian loudspeaker manufacturer Brodmann Acoustics was new to me. Their stand-mounted Festival S ($4500/pair), driven by a pair of Electrocompaniet AW180 monoblocks ($5425 each) allowed the solo violin in a Paganini work to have far greater than usual texture, tone, and presence. Based on my experience at RMAF, the pairing of these two brands is something you should go out of your way to hear.
Danny Richie of GR Research, which supplies drive-units and other components to the DIY community, designed and assembled these panel loudspeakers using push-pull planar-magnetic drivers from BG Corporation. The loudspeaker, which hands over to a servo woofer at 200Hz, sounded open and detailed with all-battery-powered tube electronics from Dodd Audio. (There was also, on static display, a gorgeous one-off Dodd preamp using 6C33C tubes for voltage gain!)
Strange that I should travel 1800 miles to hear products that are designed and manufactured less than two hours from my home. Happily, the McIntosh experience at RMAF was worth the effort, especially inasmuch as the hallowed brand distinguished itself by playing real music as opposed to audiophile chestnuts. (Think of it!) I especially enjoyed some selections from the Beatles' Anthology 3 collection, played via JRiver software on an HP laptop, through a McIntosh C50 preamp ($6500) and MC452 amp ($7500), along with the McIntosh MEN220 room-correction system ($4500, which includes the microphonebut not the standseen in this photo). Rounding out the system were the company's recent XR100 speakers ($10,000/pair): certainly the best McIntosh loudspeakers I have yet to hear.
Speaking of McIntosh, there was lots of Binghamton bling on display in the Totem room, where showgoers enjoyed the world introduction of the Totem Forest Signature loudspeaker ($6000/pair). Driven by a McIntosh C50 preamp and MC452 amplifier and fed by an Apple laptop running Amarra software, the Forest Signatures sounded like great all-around-ers, combining thoroughly impressive spatial performance with surprisingly good color and "body," plus a very natural top-to-bottom tonal balance. As with the Brodmann/Electrocompaniet, Wilson/VTL/dCS/Spiral Groove, Audio Feast, and MBL demonstrations, having to leave the cocoon of this room was a drag.
There's pretty much only one way to hear Rammstein at a hi-fi show: Visit the demonstration room of Swedish-based, American-built Sjöfn HiFi. (As close as I can tell, the name is pronounced hoofin, although you have to do something funny to the H.) Sjöfn 's Managing Director, Lars Erickson, approaches the selection of demo music with a adventurousness and whimsythis is the man who turned me onto the great Israeli trance duo, Infected Mushroomand the sound of his new two-way loudspeaker, The Clue ($999/pair, direct, including shipping) was up to the task. As with earlier Sjöfn designs, I have no idea whatsoever how he manages to wring such enormous scale, clarity, and impact out of such a tiny box. But he does.
I ended Day 1 of RMAF with my first visit ever to the MC room. Although the MC-501A CD/USB player ($3995) and MC-701 integrated amplifier ($4595) were initially driving MC’s RL-21 loudspeakers ($3495/pair) too loud, generating an unwelcome host of small room interactions, the system did an exceptional job, at more realistic volume, playing a recording of a traditional jazz trio. Not only did the music sound very alive and in the moment, but the piano also had a special illumined quality absent from many systems that cost far more than this one.
Nordost’s Lars Christensen has become an industry legend of sorts for the enthusiasm with which he launches into cable comparison after cable comparison. At RMAF, he notched his demos up several steps, inviting people to hear the effects that cabling, power distribution, and resonance control products from Nordost and other companies can have on system sound.
“The bottom line is, despite the science involved, if you can’t hear it, it matters not,” Nordost’s West Coast distributor Michael Marko told me outside the demo room...
Not to be outdone, Kent Loughlin of MIT (Music Interface Technologies) staged 5-minute cable comparisons in the MIT room on the 2nd floor of the Marriott’s Tower. Using a Cary CD player and Cary monoblock amplifiers, and Polk Audio monitors with Custom Sound Anchors stands, Loughlin initially chose the beautiful, albeit oft-played soprano solo from Reference Recordings’ superb version of Rutter’s Requiem to let people hear the difference that MIT’s AVT Speaker Module ($149), which added up to 10 poles of articulation, brought to MIT’s custom installation cable (80 cents/foot for 12-gauge cable with two conductors).
As I was heading out of the Sony room, which John Atkinson is covering separately, I spied an open door. Like a cat to a paper bag, I dove inside to discover the sensational recording engineer and producer Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records. A strong proponent of DSD, with which she records many of her projects (including free hi-rez downloads), Marenco was hanging in Sony’s storage area/hospitality suite prior to delivering one of her four guest demos in the adjacent Sony room. (Gus Skinas of Sonoma Systems presented three other demos, and Chad Kassem of Analogue Productions the remaining two). I promised Cookie, when snapping the photo, that I would say nothing about the tantalizing, not-yet-released products intentionally hidden from view.
As Jason Victor Serinus mentioned, there was a party going on in the Music Hall room; and, while this meant that you really couldn’t evaluate the sound of the system, it also meant that you were bound to actually have fun.
Hmm: Evaluate sound or have fun, evaluate sound or have fun?