For its 10th anniversary, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest has lined up some stellar entertainment. With more than a little help from Kimber Kable, Nordost Corporation and Reference Recordings, Marjorie Baumert began the celebration with a pre-show performance by vocalist Lillian Boutté. The only musician since Louis Armstrong to be decorated Ambassador of Music by the city of New Orleans, Boutté brought her 30 years of experience with jazz, gospel, and R&B to the first of three performances at the show. Backing her up were Eric Gunnison on piano, Mike Marlier on drums, Mark Simon on bass, and a singer whose name was not listed in the program.
I did not see the same kind of impressive attendance I've become used to seeing on RMAF's opening daylines stretching through the lobby, out the doors, and around the parking lotbut, at just past 12pm this afternoon, there was nevertheless a fine crowd of anxious hi-fi enthusiasts gathered round the registration tables.
At a 9am press conference Saturday, October 12, whose attendance was curiously dominated by Stereophile and our sister computer audio online site, AudioStream.com, Jared Sacks of Channel Classics and Philip O’Hanlon of On A Higher Note announced the November 1 launch of nativedsd.com. A world-wide accessible, multi-label download site dedicated exclusively to native DSD recorded stereo and multi-channel studio masters, the site promises centralized shopping for native DSD recorded Edit Master files, along with information and discussion of both software and hardware. We are also assured of “extensive site-wide search capability through the use of ID3v2 compliant metadata across all labels.”
I had been impressed by the 5.1 speaker from the German Lansche company when I reviewed it in July 2012. In particular, I found Lansche's horn-loaded ionic tweeter produced superb treble sound quality. At RMAF, I photographed Aaudio's Brian Ackerman standing by the enormous, 900lb Lansche 8.2 ($266,000/pair in Macassar ebony veneer), which combines that ionic tweeter with four 8" mid/woofers, crossed over at 2.5kHz.
Earlier this year, Michael Fremer gave us the scoop on Acoustic Signature’s new Wow turntable ($1950 with Rega 202 tonearm). It employs the same bearing design and AC motor found in all Acoustic Signature turntables, uses a 9-lb CNC-machined platter with a leather mat, and comes in high-gloss black or white acrylic. In person, the ‘table is very attractive and seems extremely well built.
No US audio show feels complete without hearing Acoustic Zen cables, interconnects, power cords, and loudspeakers connected to Triode Corporation electronics. Acoustic Zen’s Robert Lee deserved to smile, because his set-up showed everyone’s equipment at its best. Upsampled to 192kHz, a violin CD sounded gorgeous, and the low organ pedals on Saint-Saëns’ well-known “Organ Symphony” were equally convincing.
There were so many exhibitors at this year’s RMAF that it was not possible to go back to rooms. One of two wonderful rooms in the Marriott Tower that I most regretted not having time to revisit, Apex Audio’s mezzanine set-up of equipment mainly distributed by Musical Surroundings produced warm, gorgeous sounds and a “midrange to die for” on Reference Recordings’ LP version of Doug MacLeod’s There’s a Time (Stereophile’s May 2013 Recording of the Month). Managing to let the brightness of the latest CD transfer of Mercury Living Presence’s stereo version of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra come through while remaining a joy to listen to, the system inspired me to scribble, after listening to a track from an LP of guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, “one could listen for hours without fatigue.”
The Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DAC ($5500, including Voltikus power supply and remote control), seen here in the shadow of the wild Rubicon, utilizes the company’s 64-bit clocking technology, supports sampling rates up to 768kHz, and plays DSD files. It offers both analog and digital inputs, including balanced analog XLRs, unbalanced analog RCAs, AES/EBU, two coaxial, two Toslink, USB, and a 10MHz input for Antelope’s Rubidium Atomic Clock. Dual front-panel 1/4" headphone jacks, an analog volume control, and a spiffy app for PC, Mac, and mobile devices add to the fun.
These nice-looking standmounts are Salk Sound's Exoticas ($6000/pair), which use new high-performance drive-units from SEAS. Driven by an AVA solid-state amp (bottom in the rack), they produced a natural sound on a Kimber IsoMike cello recording. But when I first entered this room, the less-expensive, floorstanding Salk Sound Towers, which sell for less than $2000/pair, were producing a big sound on a Trentemoller track, driven by AVA's Ultravalve tube amplifier ($1995, above the solid-state amp in the rack), which gets 35Wpc from a pair of EL34s per channel. Preamplifier was AVA's new FET-Valve CF.
I’ve come to expect nothing but great and interesting music from Audioarts’ Gideon Schwartz. I walked in to Dead Can Dance’s Spirit Chaser, and, though the volume was much lower than that heard in most other rooms, the music was nevertheless engaging and in many ways more inviting: smooth and detailed, with exceptional image focus and superb stage balance.
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.
"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.
At the 2012 RMAF, Ayre Acoustics had decorated their room in the Marriott's tower to resemble a 1950s bachelor pad, complete with lava lamp. This year, the theme was Charlie's Records, complete with racks of bargain LPs offered for sale. It was great to see Ayre founder Charlie Hansen (left, above) back in action at a show, after a long hospitalization. The system featured JBL K2-9800SE speakers driven by Ayre's VX5 power amp and KX5 preamplifier, with source either an Ayre DX5 universal player or an Ayre/Bauer DPS turntable amplified by an Ayre P5 phono preamplifier.
Bel Canto's John Stronczer was excited. "The Powerstream amplifier's S/N ratio is 120dB measured at the speaker terminals!" I was impressed. This is equivalent to 20-bit digital audio, which means this digital-input monoblock, which costs $15,000 each, is one of the quietest amplifiers I have encountered. It offers 300W into 8 ohms, 1200W into 2 ohms. Audio data presented to the ST-optical inputs are reclocked and then converted to analog with a BurrBrown PCM1792. The analog signal is then fed to an output stage based on the well-regarded Hypex class-D modules, used in a proprietary low-gain configuration to maximize dynamic range.
John Siau of Benchmark (right) and Laurie Fincham of THX (left) gave a provocative presentation on the final morning of the show, entitled "Why Most 24-bit Audio Systems Still Deliver 16-bit Performance." The thesis was that even with D/A processors capable of operating with a dynamic range >20 bits, there is still the resolution bottleneck imposed by the amplifier. As I have pointed out in Stereophile's reviews, amplifiers with a sufficiently low noisefloor and a sufficiently large maximum voltage swing to equal hirez audio's dynamic range are a) rare and b) necessarily expensive. Benchmark, using the unique, high-efficiency amplifier modules designed by Laurie Fincham, Owen Jones (the twin brother of TAD's Andrew Jones), and Andrew Mason, that I wrote about in my 2012 CES report, aims to address both those issues.