Holger Stein (center), designer of the Stein Harmonizers that have such a baffling effect on system performance, was beaming in the Hilton lobby. Perhaps he was thinking about all the attention his new phono cartridge is getting.
Damn. In the midst of my power coverage, my brief listen in the Perfect8/BAlabo room was so enjoyable that I resolved to return. But when I finished my final floor of the Hilton on Saturday, with just enough time for a return visit before I headed across the street to the airport, I found the door locked. Only later did I learn that the door had not been locked intentionally; if I had pounded hard enough, I could have gotten more of this equipment configuration’s wonderful sound.
Ray Kimber has blown minds at previous shows with his IsoMike surround-sound exhibits. I recall, in fact, one at RMAF with huge Sound Labs electrostats that had everyone shaking their heads in disbelief at how amazing it sounded. But in this case, despite the excellence of four Sony SSAR-1 loudspeakers, Pass Labs X350.5 amplification, an extremely expensive array of EMM Labs equipment connected to a Sonoma32 super audio center, and excellent Kimber Kabling, something was not right.
My ears first opened to the tantalizing sounds of JansZen Model ZA2.1 electrostatic hybrid loudspeakers ($7495/pair) with AirLayer outboard side-firing tweeter option ($495/pair) at AXPONA Chicago. In California, they were again paired with an exaSound DAC and, I think, Bryston linear amplifiers. With the source a PC equipped with J River Media Player feeding the DAC via a stock USB cable, the sound was quite nice on a track of somewhat formulaic jazz.
Despite being the kick-off seminar presenter on Friday, and starting just one hour after the doors opened, John Atkinson herded almost a full house to "Garbage In, Garbage Out." An expanded version of a seminar he originally delivered at RMAF 2012, the description reads:
Making value judgments on audio components using commercial recordings has pitfalls that many writers gloss over. The way recordings are made drastically affects what you hear from your system, explains John Atkinson using his own recordings as examples.
KEF, the loudspeaker company that has made sure that every audiophile on Planet Earth knows about their Blade loudspeaker, held a premier of sorts: the first showing of the KEF R900 ($5000/pair). The results were mixed. I’m a little unclear about the amplificationI was told that it was a Chord CPM 3350 integratedbut whatever it was, paired with a Chord Chordette DAC, Parasound Halo CD-1, and Wireworld cabling, I was surprised to discover that the CD player produced much smoother sound than the PC running J River Media Player.
“That sounds like the Crusaders,” I said as I sat down to listen to the Kharma DB9 Signature speakers ($36,000/pair) driven by Exquisite Signature monoblocks ($88,000/pair) and an Exquisite preamplifier ($40,000), hooked up with Transparent cables. It was, the Second Crusade LP from the Jazz Crusaders, played on a Spiral Groove SG1.1 turntable with a Zesto phono preamplifier sounding very good indeed.
I was taken back more than 20 years when I entered the Musical Surroundings room in the Atrium, as Garth Leerer was playing “Le Temps Passé” from Michel Jonasz’s LP La Fabuleuse Histoire du Mr. Swing. This cut from the French singer used to be a staple at shows in the late 1980s. Played on the AMG Viella 12 turntable and arm ($17,000) that Michael Fremer describes as a “good value” in our August 2013 issue, fitted with the same sample of the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge that Mikey reviewed, with Wilson Sasha W/Ps driven by an Aesthetix Atlas amplifier ($10,000), Aesthetix Janus Signature preamplifier ($10,000), the LP produced a wall-to-wall soundstage with excellent dynamics.
The Taiwanese company Lawrence Audio was founded in 1996 but was new to me. Their speakers are impeccably finished and are all named after string instruments: the large Cello (right) features twin ribbon tweeters and two 8" woofers and costs $18,000/pair; the smaller Violin ($7500/pair) a single ribbon tweeter; and the smallest Mandolin (just out of shot on the left) costs $5500/pair. Demmed with the new 125Wpc Model 125 stereo amplifier from Jeff Rowland Design Group, with the source a Bryston BDP-1 media player, the Cellos produced a clean, clear sound on a Japanese transcription for tenor saxophone of the first Bach Cello Suite, with none of the otherwise ubiquitous upper-bass boom I heard at the Hilton.
The Legacy Audio Aeris Premium ($18,850/pair, outboard), with dual 500W ICEpower amps for the bass section and 24-bit DSP, certainly offers a lot for the money, but in Monarch Ballroom III, the speaker also sounded boomy and rather flat. The latter condition, I soon discovered, was easily remedied. When I played Reference Recordings’ CD of two ballet scores by Délibes, the image was pulling so far to the left that it was hard to believe that no one else had noticed the imbalance. Sleuthing revealed that someone or some dark force had messed with the balance control. Once it was returned to center position, the soundstage from the Pioneer Elite CD player and Coda 15.5 amplifier ($10,000) grew in size, and the sound, while hardly transparent, far more inviting and filled with air. As for the boominess, hopefully more attention to set-up and associated electronics would do the trick.
That was the message on the poster in Magnepan’s room. Wendell Diller, celebrating his 40th anniversary with the Minnesota company, explained that Magneplanar speakers use 90% US-sourced parts and demmed the new, 48”-tall, two-way-plus-woofer Super MMG ($1199/pair with one bass panel, $1750 /pair with two) with an Ati amplifier and a Theta Casablanca preamplifier. The sound on a varied program was sweet, almost full-range. I couldn’t see the bass panels; Wendell pointed to the end tables on the outside edges of the speakers. To increase the Spouse Acceptance Factor, he had disguised the planar woofers.
With MBL’s sonic excellence long established in these pages, I lingered in Jeremy Bryan’s room just long enough to confirm that the sound was as gratifying as usual. On a cut from the Reference Recordings’ classic of Rutter’s Requiemhappily not the “Pie Jésu” that everyone and their mother choosesI was immediately seduced by the beautiful air and warmth of the Radialstrahler 111F loudspeaker ($42,000/pair) fed by MBL’s Corona line C31 CD player ($9200), C11 preamplifier ($8800), and C15 mono power amplifiers ($25,000/pair).
No one needs me to detail the strengths of McIntosh equipment, not the least of which is its consistently smooth midrange. But in a system that included the McIntosh C2500 tube preamp ($6500), MEN220 Room Perfect room correction ($4500), MC452 power amp ($8500), MPC1500 power controller ($4500), MCD1100 CD Player ($10,000), and XR100 speakers ($10,000), the tightness and impact of the bass was nothing short of startling. Call it the “Whoa! Factor.” Equally noteworthy was the very warm, large, and all-enveloping presentation.
I still remember how much I enjoyed the sound of hi-rez files decoded by MSB’s DAC, when it resided briefly in my system after I performed the measurements to accompany Jon Iverson’s review last October. So MSB’s room at the Atrium was one of my first stops. A pair of YG Anat 3 Signature speakers with Billet-Core midrange units and woofers was being driven by MSB’s S200 200Wpc, zero-feedback, class-A amplifier ($17,995) and source was the Platinum Data CD IV transport. However, the bits were being converted to analog not with the Diamond DAC but MSB’s new “entry-level” Analog DAC ($6995 with standard outboard power supply, $9990 with upgraded Analog Power Supply, which shares the same form factor and is shown sitting underneath the DAC), which is said to offer “a generous percentage of MSB’s technology.”
The Music First Audio system, which included the Music First Audio Step-up and Music First Audio Baby Reference preamplifier (in front, in red), helped create a midrange-strong system that, on a recording by Eva Cassidy, sounded very smooth indeed. Favoring the midrange over brilliance in orchestral fare, the system transmitted the natural resonance of horns, and credibly communicated the full and meaty sounds of violins.