I've always wanted to win the lottery so I could buy a pair of Jed Barber's much-coveted Joule Electra tube amps. I've spent hours in the Joule-Elrod room at several CESes, always entranced by the sound, but have never before heard the Joule LA150 Mk.2 preamp ($7000) and VZN 100 OTL monoblocks ($19,000/pair) paired with Merlin VSM MXE loudspeakers ($10,500.pair) and the Audio Aero Prestige CD player ($14,000). Wired with Cardas Golden Reference, this system did a superb job of bringing out the lovely, warm, full-range sound and delicious richness of Gary Karr's double bass on his Cisco Systems Adagio d’Albinoni CD.
The fourth annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is taking place this weekend at the Denver Tech Center Marriott. Registration was up 15% this year; snapped in the line in front of the registration desk at 9am was erstwhile Stereophile staffer Jonathan Scull (sensible suit, smart tie, and flashy glasses), these days a successful PR and marketing consultant.
According to Marjorie Stiefel, who with her husband Al slaves over the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest for months on end, this year's RMAF has 142 exhibit rooms, 29 more than last year. The show, has in fact, not only reached the hotel’s size limit—the DTC Marriott is Denver's third-largest—but also exceeded Marjorie's and Al’s energetic capacity. Fried to a crisp beyond the smile, the couple is considering hiring help for next year in order to meet increased demand from such major players as Linn, McIntosh, Esoteric, dCS, Kimber, Wilson, BAT, Gamut, Clearaudio, Edge, Ayre, Nordost...you name them.
Nelson Pass is up to good again. Following the wonderful sound of Ella and Billy I heard in the corridor, I discovered Nelson's prototype open-baffle speaker system. It sports both a Lowther PM6A full-range driver and a pair of SEAS W26 10" woofers. The 40"-high open baffle, which at this stage of the game is not intended to be a final design statement, has no side panels, only a central brace in the rear. The system was bi-amped, with the Lowther driver fed using a 60Hz, 6dB/octave high-pass filter feeding a First Watt F3 7Wpc JFET amplifier. The woofers were driven by a Pass Labs XA30.5 fed by a 12dB/octave active crossover. No equalization was employed. That the sound was so good was especially amazing, considering that the digital front end was pieced together at the last minute after the originally intended computer drive arrived minus its charger chord. I look forward to hearing the finished product.
Santy Oropel of Twin Audio Video Inc. of Loma Linda, CA was producing some very nice sound with Triode Corporation’s TRV-A88SE, a KT88-based, 12Wpc, single-ended integrated amplifier ($1800) and TRV-4SE Limited Special Edition tube preamplifier ($2750). Everything save the faceplate and casing is made in Japan.
I was utterly intrigued by the innovative speakers from Dr. Shelley Katz’s UK-based Podium Sound ($5995/pair). Katz produces panel loudspeakers that mechanically vibrate via electromagnetic drivers. Inherently free from phase error and less sensitive to placement than electrostats, they operate full-range without any filters.
John Atkinson and I have made an agreement. When John is not taking part in any of the eight "Demonstration of Live High-Resolution Recordings" seminars he has scheduled over the course of the Fest, he will cover the exhibits in the Marriott's Atrium rooms, and I will cover exhibits in the Tower. Of course, each of us is free to cross over to the other side if we're dying to hear something. But that's the plan.
As Jason said, I started my coverage of the much-expanded RMAF with the Atrium rooms, and at the corner of the ground-floor level, I encountered Gary Leonard Koh of Genesis Advanced Technologies. Gary brought me up to date on what has been happening with the Seattle company since parting ways with veteran speaker designer Arnie Nudell.
"How often do you hear no limiting, no compression, no mixing, and no equalization? Recorded in DSD and played back the same way today" announced the blurb for Ray Kimber's IsoMike dem at RMAF. Inrigued, I entered the ginormous Ballroom F to be confronted by a system costing no less than $507,288! The six pairs of humongous Sound Lab ProStat 922 electrostats were joined by two pairs of a prototype speaker from Sony in Japan, all driven by no fewer than 8 Pass Labs X350.5 monoblocks. Source was Ray's latest four-channel DSD master files stored on a Genex hard-disk recorder and decoded by EMM Labs DACs. Kable was all-Kimber, of course.
One aspect of audio Shows that I love is the software pavilion, where audiophiles can browse new, old, are rare vinyl to their hearts' content. Acoustic Sounds’ Chad Kassem wanted to show me some of his new Analog Productions releases, but ended up telling me about his recent purchase of 30,000 sealed LPs—one and a half 53' trailer's worth—that had been in storage since 1981, the stash assembled by an eccentric collector long since passed away.
I couldn't resist the wonderful sounds of Louis Prima coming from the Green Mountain Audio room. Paired with Jaton Corporation’s Operetta AP2140A 2-channel Distributor amplifier ($1000, 140Wpc into 4 ohms, 70Wpc into 8 ohms), whose "processing filter circle eliminates 99.99% of noise at maximum volume," the intriguing-looking Green Mountain Calypso loudspeaker ($10,000/pair for the next month or so before the price increases 10–15%) was producing the kind of extremely smooth sound that draws you into the music. The speaker measures 88–89dB sensitivity, and utilizes a simple, first-order crossover to achieve "perfect" time-coherence. The midrange and tweeter are also adjustable forward and back for optimal sound in the listening position. The entire system, including the speaker, was wired with Marigo wire. I constantly find that Green Mountain's innovative designs produce lovely sound. Expect a whole new line of smaller, less-expensive speakers to appear on the Green Mountain website in another month or so.
Walking to the Kimber dem, I heard the familiar sounds of the Beatles' "Come Together" coming from the open door of the Usher room. I had to go in. A pair of the Taiwanese manufacturer's Dancer Be-718 two-ways ($2795/pair) was playing the song, fed by the LP release of Love on an Oracle tonearm/turntable fitted with a Zyx Atmos cartridge, which in turn was feeding the Oracle Temple phono stage, Oracle DAC 1000 preamp, and Usher's R.15 amplifiers. Cabling was all JPS Aluminata. Considering the large room, the relatively small Dancers appeared to have no problem filling it with sound. This is a speaker that deserves review coverage in Stereophile, I feel.
I always make a point of seeking out a Wilson dem at Shows, and in the RMAF room run by Denver dealer Audio Unlimited, I encountered not one but two systems featuring Wilson speakers. The smaller system offered WATT/Puppy 8s driven by Balanced Audio Technology's VK53 CD player and $6000 VK55SE integrated amplifier—compared to its predecessor, this now uses 6BH30 input and driver tubes, sitting on tubed current sources—and sounded sweet indeed. But the real reason to visit this room was to hear the mighty MAXX2s driven by BAT's new Rex three-chassis ultimate preamp, VK600SE solid-state monoblocks and the new Paganini three-box SACD player—transport, clock, DAC—from English company dCS. BAT's Geoff Poor put on Frank Sinatra's Nelson Riddle-arranged "What's New," which Geoff feels is the singer's finest performance. Wow! Mr. Sinatra was there in the room with us.
We first encountered the South African Vivid speaker, designed by B&W alum Laurence Dickie, at a CES a couple of years ago and was impressed with their clarity, dynamic range capability, and freedom from coloration and distortion. For whatever reason, the brand failed to get a foothold in the US, but it was announced at RMAF that Vivid was now being distributed by On a Higher Note. I sat down in the sweet spot and after listening to a rather nice recording of Aaron Neville singing "Save the Last Dance for Me," Philip O'Hanlon put on a DVD-A he had burned on his PC using the $49 Cirlinca program and was playing back on a Weiss Jason transport and Medea DAC, which On A Higher Note is also now distributing. Now there was a familiar sound—it was the 24/88.2 master of my recording of the slow movement from the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, which I had completely forgotten sending Philip a few years back.
Undoubtedly contributing to the excellent sound I heard from the Vivid speakers in the previous story was this neat 30Wpc class-A integrated amplifier, the L-590A II ($9000) from legendary Japanese brand Luxman, shown here sitting on the top of the stack of Weiss gear. On A Higher Note is now distributing Luxman in the US.