RMAF 2016: Hi Ho, Hi Ho…

…It's higher up we go. The day is Sunday, October 9, and show attendance is light. John Atkinson has flown to California, and Stereophile's three remaining bees are buzzing between rooms and seminars, searching for the Nectar of the Gods while skillfully avoiding the occasional spray of Roundup.

Happily, this bee's last two floors included three exceptional rooms at altitudes rarer than before. In the biggest end-of-hall space on floor 10 of the Marriott Tower, the men of Nagra have made a major statement with a setup that began with two Nagra ClassicAmps ($16,000/each), a ClassicPreamp ($17,000), ClassicDac ($14,000), CDT transport ($16,000), and fabled Seven 2-channel portable digital recorder ($4800).

Completing the chain were Avalon Acoustics Indra loudspeakers ($34,995/pair) and a Kronos Pro turntable ($38,000) with Black Beauty tonearm ($8500) and EMT S75 cartridge ($3390). A handsome Modulum rack ($1995), an entity new to me but which the Nagra folks consider the most effective rack they've tried, and Kubala-Sosna Master Reference cabling kept it all together.

I really love the Nagra sound. It has a warm, non-fatiguing, pearl-like finish that, to these ears, is less colored than mbl's and infinitely pleasing. I didn't think I could sit through one more listen to tenor José Carreras and chorus' opening to the overplayed Missa Corolla LP, but the air, transparency, and natural timbres of the presentation were positively hypnotic. The sound of Nagra is like a warm smile, and musical to the Nth degree. You can quote me.

Turning to CD, low bass was fabulous, and an operatic soprano voice perfectly conveyed without distortion on the recording of Théodore Dubois' Seven Last Words of Christ that Rene Laflamme recorded 20 years ago. The music transformed the room into sacred space. Back to LP, Chicago Pro Musica's take on Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat was perfectly controlled and saturated with color. Puzzling, however, was the sound on two of my own CDs. I know some of the tracks backwards and forwards on my CD transfer of soprano Elly Ameling and pianist Dalton Baldwin performing Schubert, and the system for some reason replaced the natural sound of a very resonant space with a gray "whuh" around Ameling's voice. That was the only questionable in an exhibit that otherwise sang as one of my Best of Shows.

Studio Electric, operating on its own, demmed the third generation of their much-admired Monitor ($2800/pair). With a frequency response that reaches down to the mid 40s and ascends to a bit above 20kHz, 6 ohm impedance, and sensitivity of 88dB, the speaker paired with Benchmark's familiar DAC2 HGC and AHB2 amplifier (see earlier blogs), a MacBook Pro, and cables from Benchmark and Mogami to produce sound alive and convincing.

Less successful in this particular space was the sound of their larger, 9-year old T3 loudspeaker ($8500-$11,000/pair), which sports a new tweeter and custom finishes. The sound was beautifully smooth, with a warm midrange. Bass, however, was not fully controlled on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2, and another classical track had too much midrange. Monty Alexander performing live also sounded kind of flat. The T3 may have needed more room to breathe.

I don't know how to correctly pronounce Sweden's Lejonklou HiFi either, but in American-based distributor Nokturne Audio's room, their long-wall set-up turned many heads. There, Lejonklou's Sagatun mono preamps ($9900/pair) and Tundra mono power amps ($9900/pair) alternated with their new Bouzu integrated amp ($4199)—the name derives from the reindeer that the people of Northern Scandinavia eat. These joined a Linn Sondek LP12 Klimax setup ($24,000), JBL 3677 Professional theater speakers ($1766/pair), Ofil X677 custom stands from Sweden ($990/pair), new Noktable turntable stand ($599), and Linn cabling. The sound was very liquid, but also rather boxy and flat. A track from The New Standard by Jamie Soft, Steve Swallow, and Bobby Previte had too much grayness to it, and speed of attack was not a strong point. The finger points to the speakers, which seemed ideal for people who value smoothness über alles. This ride did not bring me home to Jesus.

Matt Alterman of Crescendo HiFi in Wheat Ridge, CO displayed a fine system that paired Ayre Acoustics' AX5 Twenty integrated amp ($12,950) and QX5 Twenty digital hub ($8950) with an Octave Phono EQ2 phono preamp ($1900), Brinkmann Bardo turntable w/Brinkmann 10.5" tonearm ($10,000 total) and Kiseki Purple Heart low-output MC cartridge ($3499). Cabling was Cardas Clear—there was a lot of Cardas Clear at the show—and support an HRS RXR four-shelf frame with R-series shelves ($6775).

From Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass's 45 rpm version of Again, "I've Got the World on a String" from 1976 had a gorgeous midrange. Guitar sounded very real, but the overall presentation was a bit gray. Despite that grayness at the core of the sound, Radiohead's "Reckoner," from In Rainbows (45 rpm box set), exhibited an attention-seizing wide soundstage and eminently pleasing timbres. After playing Hilary Hahn doing a Bach Violin Concerto (DSD file) and the Grateful Dead's "To lay me down" from Reckoning (Analogue Production 200 gm reissue, 33 rpm), Matt Alterman and Crescendo HiFi won my Joint Best Taste in Music Award for RMAF 2016.

As you can see from the photo, the new cooling/heating shaft in each Marriott standard-size hotel room really cramped speakers together, challenging the tall Von Schweikert Audio Endeavor E-5 loudspeakers ($35,000/pair) to deliver their best. The company's Leif Swanson told me that, had he known about the space shrinkage, he would have brought smaller speakers to the show.

Be that as it may, despite some room-induced grayness, Jascha Heiftez's Guarneri sounded mostly wonderful on the classic recording of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. (Heifetz fans can hear the same violin at the San Francisco Symphony, played by Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.) I say "mostly" because the high range was a bit squeaky. This, I suspect, was due to a surfeit of GIK Acoustics room treatment. I also note that being forced to sit so close to already-squeezed-together big loudspeakers ensures that they will not disappear.

The system could sound delicious when everything got going. Janis Ian's youthful voice sang wonderfully on a third-generation tape of "All Roads to the River." Heard, in order of appearance on the room sheet: room co-sponsor Skogrand Cables' Beethoven and new high value Vivaldi lines, Von Schweikert Shockwave V 12 subwoofers ($11,500/each), custom-built two-tonearm VPI Signature Reference 4 turntable ($unavailable) with Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge ($7999.95), Technics 1520 J-Corder reel-to-reel ($12,000), YFS Ref 3 music server ($13,500), EMM Labs DAC2x ($15,500), VAC master preamplifier with phono ($40,000) and Signature 200 IQ amps ($14,000/each), PS Audio P10 PerfectWave Power Plant ($4999), and Stillpoints ESS Racks (over $8000 each) plus their Ultra 5 Isolators ($695/each) and Aperture panels ($699-$749). People who are rushing to get the Stillpoints products for next to nothing because someone accidentally shifted the decimal point two digits to the left on this room's price sheet are in for a shock.