JA Discovers Great Sound at RMAF

The last room I visited before the Wes Phillips Memorial, which was hosted in the PS Audio room Friday night of the show, was conveniently, PS Audio's. In my photo, the company's cofounder, fitness freak Paul McGowan, whom his daily email newsletter has revealed to be a talented writer, poses beside the humongous collection of PS Audio gear that was used to drive the Scaena La Maitresse Ultime speakers ($125,000/pair). These combine line arrays of ribbon tweeters and cone midrange units with two subwoofer towers.

The Scaena speakers were bi-amped with four of PS Audio's BHK Signature 300 monoblocks ($6499 each), with the preamplifier the BHK Signature ($5999), digital decoding via the DirectStream DAC ($5999), and source the new-at-RMAF DirectStream Memory Player ($5999). AC was produced by multiple PS Audio Power Plant regenerators and cables and stands were from MG Audio Design. The Memory Player incorporates all that PS Audio has learned about digital technology and will send raw DSD data from SACDs via a proprietary link to the DirectStream DAC. What I found intriguing was when a CD was played, the artwork and track metadata were displayed on the player's front-panel screen. PSA's digital engineer Ted Smith told me that as the player can be networked via Ethernet, when it reads a CD it retrieves the artwork etc from Music Brains. However, there is not yet an on-line database for the SACD equivalents.

Listening to the John Rutter Requiem, the system sounded sweet, with extended, well-defined lows. But the sound was too sweet, in fact, as it turned out that the speakers' tweeters were not giving full output. I had to leave the show early Sunday morning to go measure speakers in California, but I was told that the highs were much improved the final day of the show.

The 11th-floor room hosted by Burwell and Sons Loudspeakers heavily featured PS Audio components, including a PS Audio BHK Signature preamplifier, a BHK Signature 250 stereo amplifier, and a PS Audio Directstream Junior DAC, as well as a VPI Avenger Reference turntable ($21,000). But my attention was drawn to the Mother of Burl horn-loaded speakers ($80,000/pair with subwoofers operating below 160Hz). These are a recreation of the Altec Voice of The Theater and use classic Western Electric compression drivers that Burwell rescues from form cinemas and the like. The sound of the Henry Mancini Pink Panther theme demonstrated all the benefits of horns—dynamics, jump factor—and not many of the drawbacks, like coloration and restricted bandwidth.

Also on the 11th floor was the room featuring the Wyred 4 Sound Roon-ready music server (price to be announced), the Wyred 4 Sound USB reclocker ($199), the Wyred 4 Sound PS1 modular power supply (from $499), the SST Thoebe II D/A preamplifier ($5350), and four of Wyred 4 Sound's new SX-1000R amplifiers ($1499 each). The amps deliver 625W into 8 ohms, 1225W into 4 ohms and were driving PureAudioProject's Stellar 12 open-baffle speakers ($25,000/pair) via Wyred 4 Sound cabling. The sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Tin Pan Alley" brought back memories—this track used to be played in every room at every show 30 years ago—and the speakers did full justice to it. The version of the speaker at RMAF used four woofers per channel, which easily handled the dynamic needs of the big bass drum on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but the design is modular, meaning it can be scaled up or down according to the requirements of the room.

Saturday was my last day at the show, so I started it with a visit to Magico, who were displaying in an appropriately large room at the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel. Their system comprised a pair of M3 speakers ($75,000/pair), coupled with a pair of QSub5 subwoofers ($22,000 each) operating below 45Hz, with amplification from Soulution and source a Berkeley DAC fed data by a Baetis server. The S3 uses the new diamond-coated beryllium-dome 28mm tweeter that was first used in Magico's Q7—I am currently working on a review of the Magico S5 Mk.II speaker, which uses a 26mm-diameter version of this tweeter—and three 7" woofers with graphene-coated cones in a gracefully contoured aluminum enclosure.

I listened to a variety of music on this system, including Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, a percussion/metallophone-heavy recording by Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek, a virtuoso bass guitar solo from Brian Bromberg, and Bromberg's glorious tribute to the late Jaco Pastorius, "A Remark You Made." Sound pressure levels at the listening position in this big room (peak, C-weighted) reached 100dB but the sound was free from any edge, overload, or distortion, yet without losing any high frequencies or midrange detail. Low frequencies were perhaps a little too rich, but the stereo imaging was superbly well-defined and stable—the image of the saxophone on the Jaco track hung before me between the speakers. This was one of my best sounds at the show.

My other best sound was to be heard in one of the two rooms featuring MQA demonstrations, this one using MSB's Select II DAC ($89,950 with a single power supply, plus $9950 for the Femto 33 Clock option) driving MSB's Platinum 204 monoblock amplifiers ($39,950/pair)and YG's Sonja 1.2 speakers via Analysis Plus cables. (MSB joined Brinkman, Cary, Mytek, Bluesound, Aurender, and Berkeley in debuting MQA-capable digital processors at RMAF.) To decode MQA data, the Select DAC needs a new USB input module, so current owners can easily upgrade.

As with my own comparisons of MQA files with the original PCM versions, the new format increased the palpability of the sound, allowing the recording to sound more like the sounds made by real musicians in a real space. The highlight for me was listening to a restored, MQA-encoded version of the late Radka Tonnef's "Nature Boy." The original had been recorded in the early 1980s on a Mitsubishi DASH-format, 16-bit open-reel digital recorder sampling at 50.4kHz (!) and the only machine capable of playing the tape back was found in a Norwegian museum. The original LP, cut from the digital master, was an audiophile classic in the 1980s, and a 24/192 needle drop I made with Ayre's QA-9 A/D converter is still in heavy rotation back home. But on the MSB/YG system, the MQA version stunned me, particularly regarding the sound of the piano. When I was a child, I used to strike the higher-pitched keys of the grandmother's piano, sticking my head inside to hear how the sound of the strings excited the instrument's body. With this dem, I could hear the interaction between piano strings and piano body more clearly than I recall ever hearing before from reproduced sound.

MQA's Bob Stuart (above) announced at RMAF that the format has been awarded the RIAA seal of approval for a hi-res music format and that the entire Warner Bros 24b catalog has now been transcoded to MQA, with all of the other majors' catalogs scheduled to have been MQA-encoded by the spring of 2017. Still no word on Tidal streaming MQA files, but of course, when they do, that eliminates the criticism that MQA will make everyone purchase their favorite recordings again. All you will need to experience what I feel to be a significant improvement in sound quality will be a Tidal lossless subscription. For more on MQA at RMAF, read Michael Lavorgna's report for our sister site AudioStream here.

Finally, HiFi Plus founder and current AudioBeat.com contributor Roy Gregory (right) hosted a seminar entitled "EXCLUSIVE: Living Proof That Hi-End Audio Magazines Aren't Dead," with Lincoln Cheng (left), editor of Hong Kong-based magazine Audiotechnique. I sat in the audience but refrained from gently suggesting that Stereophile, with a circulation equal to that of all the other English-language audio magazines combined, wasn't dead either :-)

Bill Leebens's picture

I didn't go to that seminar, John. ;->

rt66indierock's picture

Lincoln Cheng and Rebecca Chin made a presentation about how their business model works. The three things I took from the presentation were, one the steps they take to insure consistency of the magazine and the communication it takes, two their enthusiasm and third the reason for the sound quality of glass compact discs.

And you might have found the discussion after the seminar about Compact Disc production interesting.

Finally you have been to audio show seminars before so you should have known they are more about telling war stories than sticking to a topic. At RMAF this year it wasn’t until the sixth seminar I attended that anyone stayed in the neighborhood of the topic. Thank you Cookie Marenco.

rt66indierock's picture

I think you are looking the wrong way. Look up instead of down say at Street Rodder. Why let’s take a look at your competitors. The Absolute Sound well Robert Harley believes you can’t have too much detail (TAS 2/16). A sustainable position if you believe that the only way move units is to churn the existing pool of audiophiles. Hi-Fi News & Record Review they found an important piece of data in late 2014, published it in their February 2015 issue and missed the significance of it. Hi-Fi+ they could have written their review of the D’Agostino Momentum Integrated Amplifier in the September 2016 issue without listening to it from existing reviews in 2014 and 2015. I’d worry more about being dragged down than any of them catching up.

As for the seminar itself, Roy Gregory is an interesting case in how I evaluate the audio press. I evaluate credibility by applying discounts to the person. Starting at 100% I discount Roy 50% for his involvement in the retail side of audio. Any involvement at the retail level taints you. Then I discount his starting Hi-Fi+ magazine 25%, working for a manufacturer 15% and working for a distributor 15%. I don’t believe the hobby is well served by size of the audio press so I’m going to penalize anyone expanding it. And finally a bounce between the press and industry jobs is a revolving door hurting the credibility of both the press and the industry. Now that Roy is at The Audio Beat he gets two hits for his time in the industry. If you’re keeping score he is negative. To me he is now entertainment. Good entertainment but entertainment.