We audiophiles can't resist pushing the boundaries of intimacy. Step on those cables, jostle them ampswe just gotta take a look at what's going on from all angles. Trying not to do permanent damage, here's what I spied on the back of Lowther America's Field-Coil EXR Open-Baffle loudspeaker (estimated price of $15,000/pair).
The sound in this room blew me away. When I walked in, Dr. John's "In a Sentimental Mood" was sounding as lovely and mellow as can be. Switching gears 180°, Reference Recordings' LP issue of Stravinsky's Firebird had absolutely amazing bass. "Amazing," I wrote twice in my notes.
You can always count on EAR's Dan Meinwald to be spinning some great platters. When I walked in, whatever jazz recording was playing sounded very alive and incisive. (EAR's electronics and Marten's speakers are not shy and recalcitrant). When Dan switched to an old classic LP, Meeting at the River, the Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's unique guitar sounded uncommonly beautiful and clear. Had I not had 18 rooms left to visit on Saturday, with a lot more screaming for attention, I would have stayed longer.
Departure Audio seems to take their name seriously. In a system fine-tuned by Shakti Hallographs (the candelabra-like devices at the edges of the photograph) and the infamous you know whats from Synergistic, the Fort Collins dealership was showing Canton Reference 7.2 loudspeakers ($7000, presumably for the pair), Herron Audio's VTSP-3A preamplifier ($6550) and M1 power amps ($6850, presumably for the pair), Arcam CD 37 ($2295), Blue Circle Audio BC 507 DAC ($2095, with options available), Audio Magic cabling and Oracle power conditioning ($7500). The sound was clean and incisive, which means somewhat tipped up. I would have stayed to explore more, but constant conversation in the room led me to take Departure Audio's name literally.
"Bring the concert home!" declared the Jones Audio brochure. The 18-month old company, whose products are "handcrafted" in Seattle, took advantage of RMAF to debut the Jones Audio PA-M300 monoblock amplifier ($24,000/pair). This 300W into 8 ohms, 560W into 4 ohms baby, which uses a 35 lb toroidal transformer, kept company with the Jones Pre-S2 preamplifier (approx. $11,000), the Revel Ultima Salon2 loudspeakers I've lusted after on multiple occasions ($22,000/pair), a Benchmark DAC1 Pre, and Kimber cabling with WBT connectors (approx. $1000 worth).
After building ModWright Instruments' reputation as a quality source for equipment mods, Dan Wright has expanded his business to include manufacturing his own components. Perhaps because his gear was called into play in a number of rooms, his own room was mobbed until Sunday, when crowds traditionally lighten up.
I ended Saturday's incredibly packed tour of the 15 rooms on the Marriott Tower's 10th floor with a stop in Musical Fidelity's room. It was a good choice. This was the first room at the show where I pulled out Channel Classics' superbly recorded hybrid SACD of the Ebony Band Amsterdam performing a unique arrangement of Revueltas' elemental, gutsy, phantasmagorical Sensemaya. The sense of air was immense, with amazing soundstaging that belied the small size of the room. I also loved the height of the soundstage, and the deep reaches of the bass. But as much as I savored the presentations' air and depth, this hardly laid-back system sounded a bit tipped-up in the highs, a common factor in many of the smaller rooms at the Marriott.
See those little, white, star-shaped things? Those are room-tuning accessories from Stein Music. These were scattered, perhaps haphazardly, about the roomon the floor in front of an equipment rack (as seen here), as well as affixed to the walls and ceiling!
Perhaps the very prettiest gear of all I saw at RMAF was in the room occupied by Kaiser Acoustics, GTE Audio, and Fono Acustica. This was also the most physical sound I heard at the show; this system, more than any other I heard at RMAF, seemed to bring the musicians and instruments into the room with really impressive body and force.
"Good grief, those look like Apogees," I muttered as I went into the Analysis Audio room and saw the Analysis Omega planar-ribbon speakers ($22,000/pair). Driven by Arion HS-500 hybrid monoblocks ($5995/pair), which combine a tube input stage with a class-D output stage, the speakers sounded a bit too warm in the upper bass on Jennifer Warnes version of Leonard Cohen's "Way Down Deep," but this could well have been a room effect. The soundstaging was to die for, in terms of stability and accuracy.
I had been impressed by the sound Classic Audio were producing from their T1.3 Reference speakers at last March's Axpona Show in Florida. In Colorado, the Michigan-based company was using the smaller T3.4 speakers, which still use a field-coilenergized 15" woofer and Fostex horn tweeter, but with slightly smaller, Tractrix-flare midrange horn crossing over at 300Hz rather than 250Hz. The speakers were being driven by Atma-Sphere M60 tube monoblocks and an MP-1 preamplifier.
A familiar face and voice stopped me in the corridor outside the MC (Music Culture technology) room. It was MBL founder Wolfgang Meletzky, who, following his recent departure from the Berlin-based company, has started a new company to produce more affordable electronics and speakers. The system Meletzky was demming was based on the MC RL31 3-way tower speaker ($10,000/pair), this a conventional dynamic-driver design rather than the omnidirectional type that MBL was renowned for, driven by the MC801 power amplifier (180Wpc, $3300) and MC601 preamp ($3500). Source was an Onix CD player, as MC's own player had been held up in shipping. I listened to the Dutch Turtle Records CD of Sting's "Walking on the Moon," played by a trio of saxophone, double bass, and drums. The sound offered sharply defined transients, a natural midrange, and excellent low-frequency extension, and despite the room being one of the smaller ones in the Marriott Tower, the system's high frequencies were in natural balance with the rest of the spectrum.
A familiar dem track was playing when I entered the large room from Colorado Springs retailer Audio Limits: "There'll Be Some Changes Made," from Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins. However, rather than LP or CD, it was being played back from a PC running the J-River player and feeding the well-regarded Weiss DAC202 Firewire D/A converter ($6670). Speakers were the beautifully finished Venture Reference II Signature ($135,000/pair), which combines an AMT (Air-Motion Transformer) tweeter with a 7" graphite-coned midrange unit and four 8" graphite-coned woofer. Amplification was the Swiss FM Acoustics 811 Mk.II amplifier (455Wpc into 8 ohms, $128,800) and the FM Acoustics 245 preamp ($23,200). Power conditioning was by Isotek and Audience; racks were from Harmonic Resolution Systems. The full-range sound was superbly clean and effortless, but I couldn't help thinking that the room was not doing justice to this very expensive system's potential.