I always enjoy visiting the MBL room at a show. Not only I am addicted to the quality of the German company's "Radialstrahler" omnidirectional tweeter, which has a delicacy to its presentation that escapes conventional dome units, but MBL North America's Jeremy Bryan is obsessive about set-up. His RMAF system comprised the MBL 116f speakers ($29,000/pair) driven by a pair of MBL C15 amplifiers ($12,500/pair), a C11 preamplifier ($8800), and a C31 CD player/D/A processor ($9200), all hooked up with WireWorld Eclipse cables. (The electronics are all from MBL's Corona line.)
Listening to Scaena's Silver Ghost speakers ($153,000/system) had been a highlight of last March's AXPONA in Chicago. At the Denver Tech Center Hyatt, the speakers had been set-up by Sunny Umrao (in photo) firing diagonally across a much larger room than in Chicago. With a system comprising a dCS Vivaldi digital source driving an Audio Research Reference 75 stereo amplifier for the towers and six inexpensive Crown class-D amplifiers for the six woofer modules operating below 120Hz, the sound of a live recording of Dave Brubeck's "Rondo a la Turk" did indeed sound live.
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.
“It’s all on this USB stick,” declared digital genius and Wavelength mastermind Gordon Rankin, as he pressed lots of data into my hand. Once accessed, I learned that I had enjoyed a MacBook Pro Retina 15 16G-RAM/480G-SSD connected via Thunderbolt to a 4T library; Wavelength’s battery-powered Crimson + Denominator DAC ($9000) connected to the computer via an AudioQuest Diamond USB; Wavelength’s new Europa analog/digital preamplifier ($7500) with ESS ES9018 DAC chip, network support, three analog inputs, and either Ethernet or WiFi remote; Wavelength’s new all-silver Napoleon 300B amplifiers; Vaughn’s new Plasma loudspeakers ($15,000/pair, or $20,000/pair for the signature series w/upgraded power and MagneQuest custom modulation transformers); and Audioquest’s Sky interconnects and Redwood speaker cables.
Resonessencewhat a great name for the equipment that closed out my three days of blogging RMAF 2013. Happily it sounded really good as well, especially when JA pointed out that the reason this simple system’s top at first seemed rolled off was because the only way to align our ears with the tweeters of the 20-year old, unusually short B&W mini-towers was to either crouch way over or kneel on the floor.
Ray Kimber always gets great sound at shows, but this year, although he was still using four Sony SS-AR1 loudspeakers hooked up with Kimber Select cables and an EMM DAC to play his four-channel IsoMike DSD master files, there was something extra-magical happening in the room. Both pianist Fan-Ya Lin's album Emerging and the Romantic Album from violin and piano ensemble the Formosan Duo, sounded tangibly real. The key, it turned out were the gigantic, 300lb MTRX class-A/B monoblocks from EMM Labs, can be seen in my photo. This brute will output 1500W into 4 ohms and, in Ray Kimber's words, extracts "cheerful obedience" from the speakers it is tasked to drive.
Wired with Transparent cables, the extreme audio system in the large room at the Denver Tech Center HyattdCS Vivaldi digital source, VTL TL7.5 III preamp, VTL Siegfried power amps, Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers driven full-range and twin Thor's Hammer subwoofers driven by 250Wpc Parasound Halo A 21 amplifiers below 38Hzworked its magic both on the disco-meets-EDM of Daft Punk's "Lose Yourself to Dance" and the delicate harmonic traceries of Dave Wilson's Debussy violin sonata recording transferred to DSD by Puget Sound's Bruce Brown. In both cases, there was a sense of loss when the music stopped. It is difficult to imagine how music reproduction could get any better than what I heard in this room the Saturday afternoon of the show!
We end this show report as we started, with a photograph (this time by John Atkinson) of singer Lillian Boutté, who both opened and closed the RMAF with her band Eric Gunnison on piano, Mike Marlier on drums, and Mark Simon on bass, in the Denver Tech Center Marriott’s Atrium.
As had happened at the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, there were so many exhibitors wanting to show their wares at the 2013 show that there was some overflow housed at the nearby Hyatt Regency Tech Center. I'll be writing about the Scaena and Wilson exhibits at the Hyatt in stories to be posted later, but the first room I went into featured speakers from a company of which I had been unaware, Missouri-based Vapor Audio (www.vaporsound.com). The floor-standing Joule Black speakers ($12,995/pair) were being demmed with a BMC preamplifier and monoblock amplification, but beyond that I have nothing to write as no-one in this room seemed interested either in playing me music or giving me any information.
Denver retailer Gold Sound was featuring Focal's new tower speaker, the Aria 948 ($5000/pair), in its room at RMAF, in a system featuring a Cambridge Audio 851E preamp ($1799) and Cambridge 851W 200350Wpc amplifier ($2499), both also new at the show. Front ends were either a Cambridge 851C CD player or a VPI Classic turntable fitted with the 3D-printed tonearm and an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC cartridge and amplified with a Parasound Halo JC3 phono preamp.
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.
Colorado Springs-based HiFi Imports were demming their system in one of the Marriott's very large ground-floor rooms. Speakers were the Venture Grand Ultimate Mk.IIs from Belgium ($98,000/pair), which combine Venture's proprietary 2" tweeter, which uses a graphite-pulp-composite diaphragm, with a 7" midrange unit and four 7" woofers. All the lower-frequency drivers use carbon-fiber/graphite-composite cones and the speaker's frequency range is specified as 22Hz60kHz with a 92dB sensitivity.
Bent Holter, founder of and designer for the Norwegian company Hegel, explained that his circuits are based on work he had done designing ultralow-noise preamplifiers for the European CERN laboratory. Hegel's new H80 D/A integrated amplifier ($2000) replaces the H70, which was introduced in 2010, and uses the low-noise preamp circuit from the $5500 H300 amplifier and Hegel's patented feed-forward "Sound Engine" amplifier topology. It has two single-ended analog inputs, one balanced analog input, and five digital inputs, including USB. Though this doesn't operate in the usual asynchronous mode, it uses a proprietary topology said to eliminate jitter. The H80 offers 75Wpc into 8 ohms compared with the H70's 70W.
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.