The very first room I visited at the 2013 RMAF was Sony's, where they were demonstrating the HAP-Z1ES hi-rez file player ($1999) that I reported on in September. This neat device features a 1TB internal drive, Ethernet and WiFi connectivity, and can be controlled by an app running on a tablet or phone. It will upsample any format to double-DSD as well as handling native single-DSD and double-DSD files. It comes preloaded with 20 hi-rez albums from Sony, Warner, and Universal and the goal was to make file playback as easy and as fast as playing a disc. It doesn't, therefore, allow playback from a computer or NAS but a rear USB port allows the internal storage to be supplemented with an external drive.
Every music lover/audiophile with vision longs for the same thing: those magical moments when the system disappears, the time-space continuum parts, and we find ourselves mystically transported to a place where only the transcendent wonder and beauty of musical creation exists. For me, one of those unexpected listening experiences that make life worth living occurred on the Marriott’s mezzanine, when Kevin Hayes of VAC (Valve Amplification Company) played my JVC-XRCD of Sarah Vaughan and the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
Hardly ones to shy away from the big stuff, the folks at Apex Audio Denver filled the mezzanine’s large Blanca Peak room with an I-dare-not-do-the-math system that, for starters, paired Focal Stella Utopia EM loudspeakers ($95,000/pair) with Soulution’s 500 monoblock amplifiers ($55,500/pair), 530 integrated amplifier ($49,000), 520 preamp ($26,000), and 540 CD/SACD player ($32,500). Those still breathing can add in a Transrotor Rondino Nero turntable ($14,000), Graham Phantom Supreme ($6800), and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme Cartridge ($10,500).
Ah, Zu Audio, ever the chameleon, albeit with a distinctive color. At the California Audio Show last August, Zu paired their loudspeakers with gray-tinged tube electronics that toned down their sometimes metallic leading edge; at RMAF, with Peachtree Audio’s Grand Integrated ($4500), whose design let the true nature of Zu’s Druid Mk.V loudspeakers ($5200/pair), Submission sub ($3995/each), and Zu Event cabling, emerge in the best possible light.
The combination of Octave Audio V 40 SE integrated amplifier ($5300) and Dynaudio Excite X34 compact floorstander ($3400/pair) produced some of the fastest, most agile, and muscular sounds I heard at RMAF.
"Gauder?" I pondered as I went into the room shared by German electronics manufacturer AVM and speaker manufacturer Gauder Akustik, "I know that name." And when I met speaker designer Roland Gauder, I remembered why the name was familiar. Roland Gauder was the designer of the Isophon Europa II loudspeaker that Larry Greenhill had favorably reviewed for Stereophile in April 2004.
I have listened to Legacy's Aeris loudspeaker at earlier shows this year, but this impressive tower ($17,750/pair) sounded better at RMAF. Driven by an AVM SA8 stereo amplifier ($13,880) an AVM PA5.2 tube preamp ($5650), and AVM CD5.2 tube CD player ($6995) and wired with Morrow cables, the system reproduced the Crash Test Dummies' "Superman's Song" with authority.
I mentioned in my coverage of Steve Silberman's Computer Audio Seminar that I had been frustrated by the inability of the otherwise superb Marantz Reference NA-11S1 network player that I reviewed in October to handle every file format I sent to it. Following the seminar, I bumped into Steve in one of Colorado retailer Listen-Up's rooms where he just happened to have the Marantz players, hooked up, of course, with AudioQuest cables and with a Marantz integrated amplifier driving Sonus Faber speakers.
"I don't want you to talk about the nuts and bolts of computer audio, FLACs and DACs and files, etc, but to talk about the impact the computer has had on high-end audio," said AudioQuest's Steve Silberman when he asked me to be on the Saturday lunchtime panel session he was organizing for RMAF. Titled "Computer Audio and Beyondthe Ever-Shifting Landscape of Hardware, Media, and Content Providers," the session featured (from right to left in my photo), as well as Silberman, Joe Harley of AudioQuest and Music Matters, Chris Connaker (ComputerAudiophile.com), Matt Ashland (J River Media Center), Gordon Rankin (Wavelength), and Matt Green (Logitech/Ultimate Ears).
One of the joys of audio shows is the unexpected encounter. I wandered into the Positive Feedback Online hospitality room toward the end of the first day, drawn by the rumor that they had some high-end coffee on offer to ear-weary showgoers. And there, sipping on some truly first-rate, hand-roasted java, I bumped into Swedish recording engineer Jan-Eric Persson. Persson, a Blumlein-miking purist, has been responsible for some of the most gloriously natural sounding recordings on his Opus 3 label, first on LP, then on SACD. PFO had a system set-up in their room, courtesy of Jonathan Tinn of Blue Light Audio, comprising Evolution MMMicro One speakers ($4000/pair) and a Playback Electronics IPS-3 D/A amplifier ($13,000). I took a listen to some of Jan-Eric Persson's recordings, transferred to double-DSD from analog tape and was, in a word, gobsmacked by the sheer beauty of what I was hearing.
I walked away from Diana Krall only to run into Elvis Costello, this time thanks to T+A's new MP3000 HV digital media player ($12,500). (A couple of weeks ago, I saw the couple walking along Prince Street in SoHo. Apparently, they’re stalking me.)
In addition to the MP3000, this small, attractive system was made of Dynaudio’s Confidence C1 loudspeakers ($9000/pair), driven by T+A’s new PA3000 HV integrated amplifier ($16,500).
It’s no exaggeration to say that I love Harbeth’s Monitor 30.1 loudspeakers ($5995/pair). No matter where I hear them, regardless of music or associated gear, I’m always impressed by the warm, full-bodied, detailed sound. In Sam Tellig’s December 2012 review, he wrote of the Harbeths, “Whatever amp I used, the tonality was superb. Never, ever fatiguing.” My thoughts, exactly.
The demos given by High Water Sound’s Jeffrey Catalano are as much about music as they are gear. Attending one is like sitting in on a music history lesson with a wonderful professor. Catalano most enjoys making direct connections between the seemingly disparate.
On this occasion, he practically shook with excitement. As he walked across the large listening room, on his way to select one of the many vinyl LPs that had been propped up against a side wall, he paused to address the crowd: “For me, what I’m about to play . . . this is just the best piece of music I’ve heard . . . in . . . years.”
Founded in 2006, the Devon, UKbased Puresound audio company is distributed in the US by NYC’s High Water Sound. Puresound’s compact M845 monoblocks ($10,000/pair) were partnered with the company’s L300 line-level preamp ($8000) to drive a pair of Horning Aristotle loudspeakers ($15,000/pair). The source was a TW-Acustic Raven turntable with a Miyajima Shilabe phono cartridge going through Puresound's P10 phono preamp ($1000) and T10 MC step-up trannie ($500).
Earlier this year, Michael Lavorgna told us about Grimm Audio’s attractive and intelligent LS1 system ($39,900), which incorporates high-resolution (24-bit/192kHz-capable) A/D and D/A converters, six Bruno Putzeysdesigned NCore amplifiers, a DSP processor, USB interface, a preamp/control unit, integrated bass modules, and all the necessary cables. There is even an analog input. All you need to add, then, is a source.