At the end of the first day of RMAF, veteran audio journalist Ken Kessler moderated a seminar titled "High-End Audio: Regaining the High Ground." Some such eventsI would go so far as to say most such eventsmake me feel more like a reporter for Whine Spectator than Stereophile, but this one wasn't bad, and some of the observations expressed on the relationship between education (as in: music appreciation) and industry (as in: us) could actually prove useful. Ken Kessler stimulated the conversation with his own passionately held opinions, and many in the audience responded in kind (if with a little too much wind, in one case). Seen above are panelists Peter McGrath (Wilson Audio), Kathy Gornik (Thiel), Michael Fremer (Stereophile and AnalogPlanet.com), and Roy Hall (Music Hall).
Todd Garfinkle of MA Recordings was so busy cueing up music for visitors on the three headphone amps in his room that he barely had time to talk. I’m a huge MA Recordings fan, finding their choice of music from all genresthere’s even a recording of music composed and performed by Stereophile Contributing Editor/Web Monkey Jon Iverson. Alternesiaand their sound quality on both CD and high-resolution discs unique and compelling. In the photo, Todd is listening to his latest CD, Résonance, on which Nina Ben David plays music from baroque to contemporary on viola da gamba.
Robert Kelly of German Physiks strikes a pose worthy of a Kraftwerk album cover while showing off the company's newest loudspeaker, the Unlimited Mk.II ($13,500/pair). With the company's omnidirectional DDD driver handling everything above 200Hz, the Unlimited Mk.II had an unsurprisingly open and spacious sound, with the same sort of near holographic imaging I heard in the Nola room: very impressive.
There’s nothing like an active AB demo to convince that something major is going on with Synergistic Research’s increasing arsenal of mind-bending products. In one comparison, Ted Denney and Peter Hansen turned on and off the two Tranquility Bases ($1995/each including MiG supports) which were placed under their Computer Audio system and Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum integrated amp ($2195). The difference in clarity, three-dimensionality, a lower noise floor, and image size was striking. Having a similar effect was turning on and off the Active Shielding on the company’s SR Active Firewire 800 cable ($595).
There’s nothing like a good demo to change one’s opinion of what are now called Harman Luxury Audio components for the better. I had previously heard the pairing of JBL’s visually striking NDD66000 Everest loudspeaker ($60,000/pair) with Mark Levinson electronics at the speaker’s debut at CES a few years back. Although the buzz around the speaker was major, I recall thinking how dark and monochromatic the system sounded, and how it lacked the luminosity and color that I prefer.
Here, by contrast, the sound was some of the best solid-state sound I heard at the show . . .
Squeezed into a small hotel room were the towering Gbell Epoque loudspeakers ($70,000/pair), driven by Artemis MK II monoblock amplifiers ($120,000), Stahl-Tek’s Opus DAC ($40,000) and Opus CDT ($37,000), with connections courtesy of Purist Audio Design 25th Anniversary cabling. How all this would have played out in a larger room, I do not know, but here, both period instrument and modern violins sounded edgy on different recordings, and bass was out of control on a third recording of a Mahler symphony.
Having heard the complete Haniwa 24/192 system twice, at two shows, I confess that I don’t get it. The ad for this $18,000 system, which includes 4" speakers, digital preamplifier with channel divider and DSP, and digital amplifier with recording and playback capabilities, proclaims: “An authentic 3D image pops up from sharply focused, high resolution left and right images . . . .Then, an authentic 3D sound should pop up from sharply focused, high resolution right and left channel sounds...” What I hear from digital copies of fine classical analog recordings is bright, edgy sound.
Thank goodness I wasn't shooting with film: It took several frames to get a decent photo of the Da Vinci DAC ($31,000) from the California company Light Harmonic. But I didn't mind spending all that time trying, as the music was superbly tactile and compellingthanks in no small part to amplification from KR Audio Electronics, represented at RMAF by the enduringly gracious Dr. Eunice Kron.
I’m afraid I hit High Water Sound’s room at the end of the fourth floor at a time when, overwhelmed by how many systems I had left to visit before show’s end, could only muster the words “very nice sound” in my notes. Clearly I owe you an apology, and Jeffrey Catalano’s high-end emporium a visit the next time I’m in New York City.
Hawaii-based Emerald Physicsa company I hadn't heard of until RMAF 2012demonstrated their own US-built loudspeakers and electronics with a Peachtree Audio novaPre preampD/A converter playing music files from a laptop computer. Emerald's CS2P open-baffle loudspeaker ($2990/pair) works as a dipole below 1000 Hz, with a 15" woofer and a horn-loaded 1" tweeter. The retail price of the system I heard, including the Peachtree unit; the Emerald Physics CS2P loudspeakers; Emerald's DSP2.4 active outboard crossover/EQ unit ($850); and the company's EPI100.2 100Wpc digital amplifier ($1600) was under $7000, not including computer and playback software. While far from perfectthe bass wasn't especially taut, and there was little in the way of the sorts of texture and tone I cravethe performance was clean, spacious, and satisfying.
Vapor Audio’s Rick LaFaver had reason aplenty to smile. Playing MA Recordings’ fabled CD of Sera Una Noche: La Segunda, his system nailed the timbre of instruments spot on. I was amazed at the depth he achieved from his small speakers, and took special note of the realistic decay of the sound of brushes on cymbals and bells being struck. “The hollow resonance of the percussion seems real,” I wrote in my notes.
Steve (Sze) Leung, a neighbor of Stereophile’s Wes Phillips and a joy to boot, made my day when he played a 45 rpm audiophile pressing of Elvis’ “Are you Lonesome Tonight.” As the great one began to intone the chapters of this teenage melodrama with tongue-in-cheek sincerity, the sound was so vivid and lifelike that images of the night I tried to ask Ellen Schmidt to go steady flooded through my mind.
As I was heading out of the Sony room, which John Atkinson is covering separately, I spied an open door. Like a cat to a paper bag, I dove inside to discover the sensational recording engineer and producer Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records. A strong proponent of DSD, with which she records many of her projects (including free hi-rez downloads), Marenco was hanging in Sony’s storage area/hospitality suite prior to delivering one of her four guest demos in the adjacent Sony room. (Gus Skinas of Sonoma Systems presented three other demos, and Chad Kassem of Analogue Productions the remaining two). I promised Cookie, when snapping the photo, that I would say nothing about the tantalizing, not-yet-released products intentionally hidden from view.
Nordost’s Lars Christensen has become an industry legend of sorts for the enthusiasm with which he launches into cable comparison after cable comparison. At RMAF, he notched his demos up several steps, inviting people to hear the effects that cabling, power distribution, and resonance control products from Nordost and other companies can have on system sound.
“The bottom line is, despite the science involved, if you can’t hear it, it matters not,” Nordost’s West Coast distributor Michael Marko told me outside the demo room...