RMAF 2016: Sunday at the Show with Herb
Throughout the 1990s, Peter Madnick's reputation as a designer of modestly priced, reliable, and sonically superb audio products was etched in stone. (And Audio Alchemy's DAC-in-the-Box stands proudly next to Sumo's Charlie the Tuner as the most humorous and memorable of all audio product names.) To my ears, Peter Madnick's original designs delivered about 70% of what that era's cost-no-object stuff could muster. And now, today, with these new creations, I'd say that number is closer to 90%.
I had never before experienced the German-manufactured (not Andrew Jones-designed) Reference FS 507 VX-JET loudspeakers ($10,000/pair) but damn, I am hearing them now, and they are killing every song with perfect tonality, smooth-running ease, and German precision. Similar to many of Mr. Jones's designs, the FS 507 sports a sophisticated-looking X-JET coaxial mid-treble driver; a very handsome knob on the back of the speaker cabinet allows the user to move the tweeter assembly forward or backward, 4mm each way. This is not so much to time-align the drivers as it is to control dispersion and tonal balance. The control knob is so beautifully shaped and finished, it just begged me play with it.
I own an all-steel, industrial-strength Elac Miracord 40A turntable from the 1960s, and it completely shook me to see the new Miracord 90 "90th Anniversary Edition" turntable and its big flat drive belt ($2500). I would love to try the new 90, if only to compare the grandpaw with the grandkid. Wouldn't that be fun?
The Elac/Audio Alchemy equipment rack displayed the following: the Audio Alchemy DDP-1 Digital Decoding Preamp ($1995), plus its PS-5 Power Station power supply upgrade ($595), a pair of DPA-1M Digital (hybrid class-A/class-D) mono amplifiers, and the charmingand great soundingPPA-1 phono preamp ($1795), which decoded and amplified the signal from the Nagaoka 200 cartridge ($499) on the Miracord 90 turntable.
This was a quick audio-show room visit, but the fit, finish, and musical presentation of these $10,000 loudspeakers was as "unapproachable" as Peter Madnick's reputation. Surely among the best sounding systems at RMAF. Undoubtedly, Peter Madnick's electronics contributed to the vivid refined sound I experienced.
No one in in the world of high-end audio does the dog-and-pony thing better than Andrew Joneshe plays killer, non-audiophile recordings with a glib (but totally sincere) smirk that keeps me riveted. I am always in awe of Jones's ability to honestly and publicly explain how his designs came to fruition and the necessary compromises he chose to make along the way. Andrew (unlike me) smiles all the time. I am his biggest fan.
But I am still angry with him. I reviewed the Elac Debut B6 ($279.99/pair) and said it accomplished countless things incredibly well and now Andrew Jones just keeps bringing out better and better loudspeakers, one right after another. What's up with that? For just $1219.01 more than the B6s, (and a $100K less than a comparable speaker from another manufacturer), you can buy his new three-way Uni-Fi FS U5 Slim Tower loudspeakers ($1499/pair). The FS U5 Slim is designed around Elac's in-house designed soft-dome/aluminum-cone, concentric, Uni-Fi mid-high frequency driver. How good were these modestly priced towers? Crazy, ridiculous, goosebump good. Super precise imaging, giant soundstage, and hardcore-bass-slam good. And! they were being driven by Elac's long-awaited, superbly-styled, elegantly small (and obviously good sounding) Element Series EA101EQ-G integrated amplifier ($699). These fresh new Elac products really do seem to do it allas does Andrew Jones himself.
As I walked down the hall, a random hallway guy grabbed me and said, "Don't walk past that door!" I asked why not, and he replied, "Best sound at the show!" "How so?" I inquired. He smiled and said, "Presence!!!" Well now, I am a fan of audio with presence (and I already knew about Serious Stereo from several previous shows) so I smiled and walked right in.
At RMAF 2016, the only man cooler than Andrew Jones was Dennis Fraker of Serious Stereo in Montana. Never heard of him? Shame on you! But don't worryI'm here to tell you everything I can to impress upon you that this man is not only serious, smart, and kindly, but at every show his red-chassis, direct-coupled, single-ended triode amplifiers ($18,750/pair), his 15" coaxial transmission-line speakers ($13,750/pair), and his highly modified Pioneer PX-1000 turntable (NFS) play the devil out of the music I love (Hank, Lefty, George, and Frank).
Dennis's home-built audio gear plays "better music better"than all other exhibitors combined. Why? How can this happen? That's easy to explain: Dennis Fraker has heart and soul and he knows exactly what he wants his system to do. Most importantly, he knows when he has found it. This year, the music in the Serious Stereo room glowed like shiny gold nuggets at the bottom of a fast running stream.
Every year, Dennis Fraker makes his single-ended amps and big transmission-line speakers sound more focused, dynamic, and easy flowing than the last. This year, Dennis played Rosanne Cash singing "When Your Master Calls the Roll" from the album The River & The Thread, and it sounded exactly as (I imagine) God intended it to. Yes, Ms. Cash had "presence," but she also had depth and human soul. Her pure-female Carter-family persona was in the room with us. Her voice called out to me. And then Dennis played Jim Reeves
Two words perfectly describe Dennis Fraker's creations: handbuilt, heartfelt. I love this man.
Earlier, at breakfast, I read Robert Deutsch's report (in the November issue of Stereophile) on the Monitor Audio Platinum PL300 Series II loudspeakers ($14,496/pair). At the end, Bob said, "They've hit one out of the park. It's my new reference."
Of course I was curious to hear the Platinum PL300s; Bob Deutsch's sage opinions count for a lot in my worldbut I never thought that, just three hours later, I'd be in the Monitor Audio room with my left ear 3" from the PL300 drivers.
I always put my ears close up and listen to a loudspeaker's tweeter, mid, and bass driversindividuallyand in the extreme nearfield. Whether it's clear, garbled, mumbly or scratchy, the sound I hear just inches from the cones and domes is indeed real, and it is, in absolute fact, exactly what is pulsing off the drivers. What it sounds like, ten feet away, in the "sweet spot," is a dodgier phenomenon. If what I hear close up is succinct and intelligible as music or voice, then the driver is probably operating in a low-distortion mode. I tell you this because what I heard pulsing off these Monitor Audio speakers sounded more clear and low-distortion than any other drivers in recent memory. When I sat in a normal chair at a substantial distance, I was stunned by the clarity and directness I experienced: breathy and precise would be fitting adjectives. My listening notes said, clean but fullish, mostly fleshed out, ride and slide are good, pickin' purity, groove moving on.
Another good reason to respect Bob Deutsch, Stereophile's most loveable audio sage!
The electronics on the rack included: Cyrus Audio Pre 2 DAC-preamplifier ($1599), Cyrus Audio Stream Xa Streamer ($1999), Cyrus Audio PSX-R2 power supply ($1199), Cyrus Audio CDi integrated CD player ($1599), and, of course, the venerable Pass labs XA100.8 class-A mono amplifiers ($22,000/pair) were sitting nearby. The cables were all Clarus Crimson. The equipment rack, amplifier platforms, and cable risers were all by Massif.
The Dynamic Sound Associates room was very crowded. The demonstration alternated between talk and recordings that sounded well, dynamic, and unquestionably (ask anybody!) natural in a relaxed, organic sort of way. I could feel myself and the crowd responding to every record.
For centuries, I have had this huge guy crush on Spendor Loudspeakersespecially their three-ways, which remind me of my high school sweetheart, the Spendor BC-1. Back in my Listener Magazine days, I reviewed the Spendor SP1/2, and asked, "Can one speaker be all things to all people? The Spendor SP1/2, a descendent of their classic BC1, comes awfully close." I asked that same question while listening to the Spendor SP-100R(squared) (S11,995/pair) in the DSA room, and the answer was the same. Yes, I could.
What kind of audio reviewer guy am I? One that felt happily non-audiophile while listening to the new Dynamic Sounds Associates Amp I monoblock power amplifiers drive these completely rich-sounding Spendors.
The analog front end probably helped: It included a VPI Industries Avenger with three 12" 3D printed arms ($30,000 including arms) plus Ortofon's MC Anna ($9000), MC95 ($6500), and Cadenza Mono ($1280) phono cartridges. The phono stage was a Phono II ($13,500) by DSA, as was the Pre I linestage preamplifier ($16,500).
I also spotted a Tweek Geek Dark Matter Power Purifier ($7999), Stillpoints Aperture acoustic room treatments ($650+), some Stein Harmonizer room treatments ($2995+), and power cords, interconnects, and speaker cables by Luminous Audio and Synchestra Signature, as well as the equipment racks and amp stands by Kanso Audio Furniture. All this added up to nothing more than simple flavor-filled, natural sound. Like pure organic food, all-natural audio don't come easy (or cheep).
I read everything Michael Fremer writes because he's cool and smart, and because there are few better (or less expensive) ways to know what good sound sounds like. When he writes about high-cost turntables like the Thales TTT-Compact II ($14,500), or the Simplicity II zero-tracking-error tonearm ($9200), or pricey MC phono cartridges like the Ikeda Sound Labs KAI ($8500), or amazing valve phono stages like the Ypsilon VPS-100 ($26,000), or step-up transformers like the Ypsilon MC26L ($6200) my face turns red (with excitement) and then green (with envy) because this is high-level audio porn, and I may never even get to touch a front end that nicelet alone experience a reference system as lucid and revealing as Mikey's is purported to be.
But today, in the Aaudio Imports room, I may have came close. While I was listening, it occurred to me: Maybe this is it? Maybe this is what Fremer hears in his listening room? I see that ocean-deep soundstage, those ink-black backgrounds, that unmistakable tonal neutrality, that well-balanced, hyper-revealingbut still naturalsound that Fremer always alludes to. It made me smile to myself this must be at least a partial view of what Michael experiences that I do not. I was definitely jealous.
Aaudio Imports was demonstrating a system with the exact analog front end described above. Downstream from it, the Ypsilon Phaethon integrated amp ($25,000) and the Wilson Benesch A.C.T. One Evolution loudspeakers ($40,300/pair) plus Torus infrasonic generator ($12,500) were all operating in that same exclusive, ultra-fidelity realm. It was intoxicating. The music was present, not because of its tangible weight or body, but because of its extreme, detailed vividness. It was grand to perceive, cosmic in it beautybut not quite earthbound enough for my tastes.