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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
When Jason Serinus visited the room shared by DeVore Fidelity, Tone Imports, and Oregon dealer Eugene Hi-Fi, the $12,000/pair Orangutan O/96 speakers that are Art Dudley's new reference and are shown in Jason's photo were playing. But when I visited the room, the smaller, floorstanding Orangutan O/93s ($8400/pair) were playing, and sounding very good indeed on a favorite Stephen Mejias album from Jenny Hval. (However, don't ask me about my reaction to the lyrics, which involved Ms. Hval applying an electric toothbrush to a body part other than her teeth.)
I went into the SimpliFi room expecting to see the excellent Weiss MAN301 media player and effective DSPeaker room correction and D/A devices. Yes, there were there at RMAF but SimpliFi's Tim Ryan wanted to talk about the Swiss Klangwerk Ella active speaker ($15,000/pair) shown in my photo. This modest-looking floorstander uses DSP to make it work as a time-aligned virtual point source. A constrained layer-damped Corian front baffle supports an advanced Aerogel-dome tweeter from Audax and a 5.5" woofer; two more 5.5" woofers covering the same passband are placed on the speaker's sides, and all three are reflex-loaded with a downward-firing port. The advantage of this design is that it has a wide listening window on both vertical and horizontal planes, explained Tim, and indeed, on Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms," I found that I could move up and down and from side to side without any significant change in the perceived balance.
Michigan retailer Paragon Sight & Sound's room on the Marriott's ground floor featured the Wilson Alexia speakers $48,500/pair. I was familiar with the Alexia, having just finished reviewing it for the December issue of Stereophile, as I was with Audio Research's CD9 CD player ($13,000), but not all with the Doshi Jhor 160 tube monoblocks (projected price of <$36,000/pair) that were driving the Alexias via Transparent Audio Reference XL cables, or the Doshi 3.0 tubed line stage and Doshi 3.0 tubed phono stage, both of these projected to sell for <$20,000 each. Michale Fremer was playing a Acoustic Sounds 45rpm test pressing of a Beach Boys album on the Pro-Jekt HL Signature turntable, fitted with a Koetsu Azule Platinum cartridge, when I entered the Paragon room, with all the equipment mounted on impressively engineered HRS racks and stands. "Midrange magic!" I wrote in my notebook as the Beach Boys launched into "In My Room."
"Together, We Make Beautiful Music" proclaimed the one-sheet that was handed to me in this room. "You are listening to a complete audio system that cost under $15,000," it continued, adding that "we put together this relatively modest playback system to better demonstrate the musical purity and refinement produced with products manufactured by: Mojo Audio, Atomic Audio Labs, VH Audio." $15,000 doesn't sound "relatively modest" to me, but the sound in this room was surprisingly good considering that the speakers were a DIY design using a full-range 8" unit and the amplifiers were vintage Allen organ tube models, based on the Williamson circuit.
"That's a lot of bass!" I was listening to the audiophile version of Nine-Inch-Nails' "A copy of a copy..." on Bryston's three-way Mini-T stand-mounted speakers ($2695/pair). The speaker's woofer has a large half-roll surround, suggesting good linearity at large excursions, which was confirmed by the fullrange sound in the room. The rest of the system included Bryston 28B monoblocks, hooked up with StraightWire cables and with a Bryston BDP-2 file player and BDA-1 DAC as the source.