Day One's RMAF Odyssey Continues

The large, superb-sounding system in the High Fidelity Services room left me deeply impressed. The system was headlined by the debut of the Verity Audio Monsalvat speaker system with its included Pro-6 six-channel crossover ($675,000 total) and three of Verity Audio's Monsalvat Amp-60 stereo amps ($58,000/each). Together with a TW-Acustic Raven phono preamplifier ($18,000), TW-Acustic Raven Black Knight turntable ($42,000) with debut Raven 12 and 10.5 tonearms ($11,500 total) and debut Ortofon MC Century cartridge ($12,000), Melco N1ZH MK1 music server ($4995), debut Signal Projects cables, Vibex power distribution, debut CAD GC-1 ground control unit, debut Symposium Pro amp stand, Vibex isolation feet, and SRA rack, the system cost a mere $1,115,405. Note that it was not the only system at RMAF in this price range.

Shock and awe numbers aside, the system threw a huge—I mean HUGE—soundstage on a 384/32 recording of Miles Davis and Quincy Jones's Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux. Images were tremendous, and infused with believable body. Heard from the ideal spot in the center of the room's second row of chairs, the sense of air and space around instruments was captivating.

From there we switched to a 16/44.1 file of music from Anouar Brahem's The Astounding Eyes of Rita (ECM). Timbres were believable and fully fleshed out, and images solid and palpable. I would have liked more silence between the notes, but this may have been the fault of the "Red Book"-quality file or the recording itself.

When we switched to Lou Harrison's Violin Concerto (24/48), sourced from my solid-state 256GB USB stick, the system's ability to nail the timbre and decay of metallic percussion instruments was the best I've ever heard. "Space around percussion in the room, and the control of various instruments sounding at one, was absolute," I wrote in my notes. "There is an extraordinary quality to the overtones and the way sound hang and decay in space. This system is like a microscope, exposing small differences between similar sounds."

I have requested a Verity Audio Amp-60 stereo amplifier for review.

With the number of premieres to cover at RMAF much larger than three days' worth of show hours, I had resolved to skip all booth displays, static or otherwise. But with Music Hall's Leland Leard standing right before me as I navigated between rooms on the hotel's lobby level, I stopped to chat about the new Music Hall MMF-9.3 Walnut turntable ($2695). Occupying one notch down from Music Hall's top-of-the-line, the turntable comes with a Goldring Eroica LX low-output MC cartridge. For those who already own a cartridge of their liking, the MMF-9.3 Walnut can be had without the Goldring for $200 less.

"In my opinion, it sounds better because the plinth is a true Walnut veneer over MDF," Leland declared. "Better," in this case, means "better than the sound of the MMF-9.3 Black version ($2400)."

Leland also displayed Music Hall's "really fucking good and too cheap for its quality" Connect phono cable ($100). Released after two years in development with "a well-known cable designer," the cable includes "Grade 1" Canadian copper, and, according to Leland, "does a really good job with low voltage signals."

In honor of the late speaker designer Arnie Nudell, who founded both Infinity Systems and Genesis Technologies, PS Audio showcased a system based around Arnie's final prototype loudspeakers. Smaller than the Infinity IRS, the prototypes contain dual servo-controlled woofers, a mid-bass coupler, ribbon line-source midrange, and, for the top, a line-source arrangement of spiral ribbon tweeters. The speaker's core design features will become the basis for a new line of Arnie Nudell loudspeakers from PS Audio, which will ideally debut toward the end of 2019.

With their focus on a single one-person sweet spot, and the need for a large room with listeners seated far field, the speaker found a less than ideal home in the long but somewhat narrow PS Audio suite. Nonetheless, playing either files or music downloaded from Qobuz, the latter played through a Mac mini equipped with Audirvana, I heard impressively clear and lively sound from a system that also included PS Audio's DirectStream Memory Player ($5999) and DirectStream DAC ($5999), BHK Signature preamplifier ($5999) and Signature 300 mono amplifiers ($14,998/pair), two PS Audio P20 Power Plants ($9999/each), and a combination of NBS, Shunyata, and Synergistic Research cabling from Arnie's own set-up. Playing my 24/192 file of the first movement of Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra presented the system with a challenge that left the lowest notes and passages of this demanding music sounding somewhat muffled and wooly. The depiction of spatial depth, however, was as excellent as the system's transparency, and highs were quite fine. The presentation left me eager to hear PS Audio's forthcoming Arnie Nudell loudspeakers.

"The Wilson Benesch Resolution speakers ($69,500/pair) need 500 hours to break-in and loosen up, and they have less than 100 hours on them." Thus did AAudio's Brian Ackerman alert me to the fact that what I was hearing was not a true representation of his system's ultimate potential. I shall therefore limit my comments to saying that the system threw very large, clear images that left me with the sense that, when the system was fully up to snuff, it would be capable of delivering far more than what I heard.

Key components beyond the speakers themselves: Wilson Benesch Torus + Amp ($12,900), R1 Carbon Modular Hi-Fi rack ($25,500 as shown), and Carbon Plinth Medium ($3200); Ypsilon PST 100 MKII tube preamp ($37,000), Hyperion Mono amps ($93,000/pair), and DAC 1000 ($24,500); Aurender N10 music server ($8000); HB Cable Design PowerSlave Marble MKII power distributor ($16,500); and Stage III cabling.

Next up was a substantial system that was headlined by MartinLogan Neolith loudspeakers ($80,000/pair) powered by a Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems Progression preamp (with DAC) ($26,500) and the same Progression mono amplifiers ($38,000/pair) that I reviewed for Stereophile and use in my reference system. An Aurender N10 music server ($8000) was also in use. All power was treated by the new, smaller Stromtank S 2500 ($19,500), and cabling was Transparent.

I entered the room in the middle of a Stromtank demo. I had hardly gotten my bearings when the S 2500 was engaged, and images immediately became far more color-saturated and three-dimensional. Very, very impressive—it made me wish I had a spare $20,000 at hand. Instruments in Dire Straits' "Ride Across the River," played very loudly in DSD128, had lots of substance and depth, with great air around trumpets and a very neutral, convincing sound. Bass, however, was a mite muffled. On other recordings, I noted how well the system captured depth, weight, and the natural resonance of instruments in space. Had the sound been a little lower, or if days had more hours, I would have stayed longer.

Ortofan's picture

... about 96dB below the peak level. How does that not provide sufficient "silence between the notes"?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The noise floor should be equal to the silence before the "Big Bang" itself, to be considered ideal :-) ...........

dalethorn's picture

If only that were the case. Legend has it the spirits were arguing over dominion, then they started throwing things around, and before you knew it the whole thing blew up into a huge spectacle.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

--Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"I frequently hear music, in the very heart of noise" .............. George Gershwin :-) ..........

dalethorn's picture

When I was hanging out with the Shaking Ray Levi Society in Chattanooga, they hosted an occasional "noise band" which, upon careful listening, made musical sense. (true story). I enjoyed them.

Indydan's picture

Ray Levi Society? Didn't you hang out with Rajneesh Bhagawn in Oregon in the early eighties?

dalethorn's picture

Only in your tortured little mind.

Ortofan's picture

... Tanglewood, where the "silence" between the notes is the sound of crickets chirping.

chuckles304's picture

I make a point of attending one Tanglewood concert per year. It's maybe a half-hour from my house. Good way to spend a couple hours with the wife.

Anton's picture

A buddy of mine who is at the show tried to get into the Verity room for a listen, but failed his credit check.

Rumor has it that Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have teamed up to produce a line of ultra ultra ultra high end audio gear to be sold only through Sotheby's and Christie's.

Next up, 5,000+ dollar records that can only be played once.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be that $5,000 is the entrance fee to get into that demo-room for mere mortals :-) .............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

million dollar works of art that self-shred in front of auction-goers' eyes once the winning bid has been announced? If you don't know what I'm talking about, check the latest art news.

Indydan's picture

Funny you would mock a million dollar work of art. When was the last time you reviewed something reasonably priced?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Bogolu Haranath's picture

They recently sold a million dollar bottled whiskey ......... So, why not? :-) ........... May be Rafe Arnot could review that whiskey and tell us how it tastes? :-) ............

dalethorn's picture

The whiskey wasn't actually the issue - that was just a cover story. The real objective is to carve up the wooden containers the whiskey was aged in and use the wood to make earcups for the new Audeze LCD-XXX headphone - expected to retail for $13995. It's said that this new headphone has an unparalled warmth and ethereal energy to its sound.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

At least, 3 of the Stereophile reviewers that I know of, JA, JVS and HR own LCD-X headphones ......... I am sure all three of them can afford those new XXX headphones :-) .........

Anton's picture

I think if Rafe did that again, there would be a general uprising one certain individual.


Simon from Oz's picture

500 hours to break in? For 70 grand? How do they ever demo them at their "best"? Do dealers (if there are many) really have the time to run a pair of speakers for that long to be able to convince a customer to buy them? If I bought them to play music, for 2.5 hours a day every day I'd wait 200 days - more than half a YEAR - just to *maybe* hear them at their best?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

All speakers, regardless of price, require break-in. Some need more hours than others. Ditto for electronics.

Since people who can spend $70,000 for a pair of speakers often have dedicated listening rooms, they simply turn the music on high or temporarily position the speakers facing each other, connected out of phase to cancel noise, and run them at decent volume with the door shut until the break-in period is complete.

RafaPolit's picture

When I began reading reviews in stereophile, I was in awe at what might a One Million dollar system sound like! As years go by, I am no longer impressed by reading that a $1M setups sounds good and that it presents a huge soundstage with detailed nuances. It absolutely should, and there should be no need to point that out.

I am also wondering who can buy a $1M system? Someone with a $20M house and income that rounds $5M to $10M a year? Do any of you know such a person? I don't, I never will.

So I am no longer interested in such systems or their reviews. I look forward to the reviews of $100 to $5K pieces of equipment, which, some being a considerable investment, are something me or a few fellows I know may actually end up having (therefore the reviews come handy and interesting).

Those are the reviews I am looking forward to read... all with your exquisite taste in classical and choral music which I always end up fetching and listening after your reviews.

Thank you,

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Please note, however, that show reports are not reviews. They are simply reports of what usually amount to short listens in frequently challenging environments. Frankly, when a system sounds great after less than a day for set-up in a hotel room, it's cause for rejoicing.

Given the large number of active exhibits at RMAF - Marjorie initially expected at least 163 until the current administration's draconian VISA policy resulted in delayed and denied entry for a number of overseas companies that were forced to cancel at the last minute - I decided to focus on premieres. Whether those premieres were in the $100 or $250,000 range was not a concern. I simply went from floor-to-floor, and covered as many premieres as I could.

Going room-to-room is a lot of work, and sometimes arduous. It's especially arduous when a system's sound makes me want to bolt from the room. To compensate, I sometimes head first to rooms that customarily deliver fine sound. I also try to cover the largest rooms on the lobby level on the first day, when I expect traffic to be lightest.

Thank you for the strokes about my classical reviews. I love writing recording reviews. If you're into live performance, please check out my recent reviews of BSO's Mahler 3, The Boston Camerata, Jonas Kaufmann recital, and Philippe Jaroussky/Emoke Barath recital, all heard on my first trip to Paris, and ENO's Salome, heard on my first trip to London. Do a search at Classical Voice North America and San Francisco Classical Voice. I'm especially proud of those reviews. On January 18, I review Seattle Symphony for Classical Voice North America.

My next blog will include comments on the Audiophile Recording Awards at Friday night's Rocky Mountain International HIFi Press Awards. I think you'll appreciate them.

ok's picture

that most outlandishly priced hardware is actually made by demand..

mcrushing's picture

Hi, I read these blogs obsessively but I'm not a frequent leaver of comments - but I do want to chime in to second the comment that appeared in an earlier RMAF post, by a reader who was missing Jana's awesome binaural show videos. I think her videos added a lot to Stereophile, and that it would be wise to bring back that kind of content (and Jana, if at all possible).

hourld's picture

I feel the same, but lucky for us (and maybe not so lucky for Stereophile) Jana just launched a new YouTube channel, shortly before RMAF. It's called Earspace. The first video is a binaural recording of John Devore's new reference system and it is quite amazing. In every way a huge improvement over the standard high end videos that we're all used to, and a clear step up from the videos that she was making at Stereophile. I was really looking forward to a reviewer video profile of JA. :(
I do love JVS's show reports, and this one is no exception!

Long-time listener's picture

Really, instead of reviews of million-dollar systems, I'd be a lot happier if Stereophile would help poor listeners like me who have spent thousands, and thousands, and thousands of dollars on Stereophile recommended Class A or Class B stuff -- that reviewers return after saying "I greatly enjoyed my time with _____" -- only to be disappointed. My new $4,500 NAD M32 amplifier -- Stereophile Class A--sounds no better than an entry-level NAD pre- and power amp combination that I spent $1000 on ten years ago. In some ways it sounds worse.

I've been reading Stereophile for several decades. The only result is that while I used to love music--that was how this started--all I've ever done after buying Stereophile recommended components is listening to my favorite test tracks day after day and trying to understand why my system doesn't give me musical pleasure. The higher up in the rating category I go, the more this happens.

Today, I have Dynaudio Special 40 speakers (Class B), the NAD M32 (Class A), Audioquest's best copper speaker cables (they were 10 years ago anyway), and thousands of dollars of other cabling and noise reduction. But if I really want clarity, spaciousness, tonal density, and freedom from glare and harshness -- which is to say, musical pleasure -- I listen to My Opus#2 DAP from The Bit and a pair of NuForce IEMs. Total cost $1,250. Shit on this goddamned "hobby."

Solarophile's picture

Wow. That's a rather sad story!

I think you learned the hard way about why it's best not to drink too much of the Kool Aid in this hobby.

After a few years and some listening at the local dealer without spending too much money, I hope most of us see that the flowery words and superlatives given to describe the products should not be taken literally! Clearly the "Class" ratings are also not much more than opinions and we should all remember to add "YMMV" to the recommendations.

Long-time listener's picture

What I don't understand is this: On my Opus#2 player and NuForce IEMs, EVERY SINGLE CD sounds GOOD! Really good! All different, but all just plain good! Now, if I have a stereo with all Stereophile Class A and Class B stuff, with some of the best cabling around, I would expect that MOST CDs would sound at least "pretty good." Not the case. So aside from system matching, I have to do CD matching: finding those very few CDs that actually sound good on this all-Stereophile-approved system.

Woman Izer's picture

I know the feeling... I could actually buy a $1M system if I so fancied but the only purpose would probably be to impress friends by casually mentioning the price tag. While I do own a couple of systems that would be considered "decent" in audiophile circles, built around pairs of Vivid Giya G3 and Kef Blade 2 (often switching amps/dacs for variety), the setup I use most often is basically a very cheap $120 FX Audio D802 full digital amplifier connected to a pair of Kef LS50...

On the fun side, I visited a friend this week-end because he was complaining of a slight lack of bass and definition (compared to my G3 who aren't even "full range") in his approx $150K system build around G1s. He's the type of guy who would never get his hands dirty hooking up cables to boxes so he selected his hardware based on reviews and had it professionally set up. Turns out he loved streaming from his iPhone over BT because it was convenient... But yeah, his network cable alone - which he was obviously not even using - was just slightly more expensive than my FX802 + KEF system.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

If your friend loves the convenience of streaming from his phone, I'd urge him to consider the LG-V30. He doesn't have to use it as an iPhone replacement for calls; he can simply use it for music. It's a true hi-end product, and sounds exceptional.

As for the frustrations some have with their systems - I have them as well - I am convinced more than ever that power, room acoustics, and vibration / noise isolation are key to getting the best from one's components. The choice of cabling is also crucial.

Finally, there is system synergy. A component that matches well in one configuration does not necessarily match well in another. The components in my system, for example, are often seen together at show demos. When you visit the factories of these companies, you see the same components together. What works well in the factory also tends to work well at home... as long as you attend to power, room issues, cabling, and all the rest.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Legacy makes a flag-ship loudspeaker, Valor .......... That loudspeaker comes with an external EQ/DSP unit(s) as well as internal amplification .......... There is potential for those loudspeakers to match the room acoustics ........... May be you could review/listen to them? :-) .............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I did not get to the Legacy room, and I don't review loudspeakers. There is simply no room for a second set of loudspeakers. Regardless, the Legacys are probably much too big for my room.

foxhall's picture

I guess you won't be reviewing the WAMM Master Chronosonic then. Does any Stereophile writer have a room large enough to review them? Or, will they not even be reviewed since availability is so limited?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stereophile could rent an indoor stadium during off-season, and review WAMM speakers, if they wanted ....... Just a thought :-) ............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

As far as I know, Wilson does not send the limited edition - only 70 pairs of WAMM Master Chronosonic loudspeakers out for review. Several of us have heard them at Dave Wilson's home. There are now some dealer events happening with a pair of prototypes, but when they came to Seattle, I was in Europe. Regardless, hearing a speaker in an unfamiliar environment and with unfamiliar components does not a review make.

Allen Fant's picture

JVS- Much Thanks! for posting Jana's YouTube site.