RMAF 2014: In Another Class Entirely

Stereophile editor John Atkinson claims the best seat in the house to listen to the system put together by Luke Manley and Bea Lam (top right). Photo: Peter McGrath.

Despite having covered more audio shows than there are angels dancing on the head of a pin, I always look forward to the moment when all preconceptions vanish, the rug is pulled out from under, and I can do is marvel at the mystery of music reproduction at its finest. The time doesn't always come, but when it does, it feels as if childlike wonder has been born anew.

Such was my experience in the VTL and Wilson Audio Room on the second floor of the Marriott Tower. Thanks to a chain that included products from Spiral Groove, Lyra, dCS, VTL, Wilson, HRS, Transparent, and Nordost, plus more than a little help from ASC and RPG, this $548,483 system [breathe] was so mesmerizingly musical that it really cannot be discussed in the same space as the other systems I encountered at RMAF 2014.

True, I heard some very fine systems at RMAF 2014. Those from Dynaudio/Emerald Physics/Wyred 4 Sound, and Golden Ear/Marantz/Stillpoints/AudioQuest were astoundingly good for their price point. There were also a number of others, including Hegel/Magico/Nordost, EgglestonWorks/Bricasti/VTL, Simaudio Moon/Bowers & Wilkins/Stillpoints/AudioQuest, Parasound/Joseph/Kimber , Joseph/VTL/Grand Prix /Isotek/Cardas, and Arcam/Nordost that stood out from the pack. It is also important to note that I missed the majority of systems, having only heard two others that were not on the four floors of the Tower to which I was assigned. (Because of the sheer size of the show, the four Stereophile writers had to split up their coverage geographically: me, Marriott Tower, floors 8, 9, 10, and 11; John Atkinson, Marriott Tower, floor 2 and mezzanine, plus seminars and music; Tom Norton, Marriott ground floor; Herb Reichert, Marriott Atrium, floors 4 and 5, with some overlap Sunday afternoon.)

This system, from dCS, VTL, and Wilson, was something else entirely. When I entered the room, shortly before the show officially closed, San Francisco Symphony Media Producer/Chief Engineer Jack Vad, who received a Grammy for his 2012 production of the San Francisco Symphony's performance of John Adams' Harmonielehre, was in the midst of listening to a CD of Irish folk singer Luka Bloom sing "Danny Boy" to guitar accompaniment. The sound in the 19' x 30' x 8' room was so organic that I had to catch my breath. Vad, who later called what he heard "staggeringly beautiful," teared up while listening.

Next, Vad played the final mix of Fauré's Pavane from an available-for-preorder SACD, Masterpieces in Miniature, which contains SFSO Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas' favorite short works. I could not believe how beautiful it sounded. I've sat in prime orchestra seats in Davies Symphony Hall on any number of occasions, and the truth of this system's depiction of the sound in the hall was such that I felt as if I had entered the Holy Land. I understand that at Saturday's "Experts Ask the Experts seminar," attendees gave thumbs up to those recording engineers who adhere to minimal miking techniques, and frowned upon Vad for using four main mikes for 70–75% of the sound, and employing as many others as necessary to do justice to the music, performance, and interpretation. If they had moved out of their preconceptions of audiophile correctness, and instead heard how atmospheric and wonderful Vad's mix sounds on a great system, perhaps they would have reconsidered their auto-judgments.

Finally, John Atkinson, who was in the room when I entered, offered up his Astell&Kern portable file player so that Wilson's Peter McGrath could connect the player's TosLink output to the dCS Vivaldi DAC via a standard Toslink cable. He then played the 24-bit/88.2kHz master file of John's recording of "Northern Lights" by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977). The track, which is discussed in my preceding blog on the Parasound room, is from the recently released CD, Into Unknown Worlds, that John recorded with the Portland State University Chamber Choir. Stereophile contributor Erick Lichte, who was former assistant conductor of the choir, and also a choir member, produced and edited the album.

John had previously given me a copy of the CD, which I played in a few rooms at the show. But I had never heard anything that even remotely approached what was reproduced on this dCS/VTL/Wilson/Nordost /Transparent system from the hi-rez master. Voices, both solo and massed, were depicted with such natural warmth, and surrounded by so much natural radiance, that I felt as though I had never heard any sound system reproduce music like this.

Toward the end of the track, the glockenspiel, which John intentionally placed very far from the singers because it would have otherwise overpowered them, rang out with such radiance, and decayed so naturally, that I felt as though I was in the midst of a religious experience. "Wow" only tells part of the tale. "Thanks be to God" is more like it.

After the show, John shared his experience in the room via email: "I played the master file in a number of rooms at the Denver show. It was remarkable how the presentation varied, with one system destroying all the glorious ambience of St. Stephen's. The dCS-VTL-Wilson room got it right."

It's essential to note that the equipment configuration differed in several key respects from those I had encountered previously with this component line-up. As Luke Manley shared with me after the show:

The main concept presented in the system is that using the same amplifier technology for the whole audio range offers superior integration between the frequency ranges. This is best achieved via means of passive subwoofers [that] allow the user's choice of amplifier for sub and main. Passive subs, as opposed to active subs that often muddy the sound, challenge the notion that bass has no effect in the mid and upper frequencies.

The demonstration shows the contribution of the subs even in frequency ranges that have no bass program. It also shows how the subs allow the mid- and top-ends to float freely, with more air and space.

Vertical bi-amplification technique was used, with one channel of each amplifier driving the sub, and the other driving the main speaker. This contrasts with horizontal bi-amplification, where one amplifier drives the sub and the other drives the main speaker. Vertical bi-amplification offers greater channel separation, with one stereo amplifier dedicated to each channel.

As for room treatment, we stacked two 16" round ASC Tube Traps in front of the left-hand pillar. Single tube traps were placed behind that pillar, behind the turntable, and in the rear left corner, and two more were stacked in the rear right corner. There were also four 12" Traps in the closet. There was also an RPG Vari-screen wrapped around the front and right side of the right-hand pillar, and one folded in a V on the wall behind the speakers in the center, with the sharp end facing out towards the room, as seen in just about every photo taken of that room.

As far as I remember the subs were placed in both front corners, approximately 6–9" into the room, and blended into the main system by John Giolas and Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio using their special technique for placement, crossover points and slopes.

The equipment was connected as follows: The VTL TL-7.5 preamp drove the main speakers (Sasha II) full range, and the second pair of outputs drove the stereo Wilson Controllers for the sub-bass. We used just one channel of each controller for best stereo separation.

The S-400 Series II Reference stereo amplifiers were configured in order of speaker placement: Far left sub driven by the left channel of the left S-400II amplifier, left main Sasha driven by the right channel of the left S-400II amplifier, right main Sasha driven by the left channel of the right S-400II amplifier, and right sub driven by the right channel of the right S-400II amplifier.

There was yet another party responsible for the vinyl part of the system that you didn't hear: Stirling Trayle. Stirling worked with my wife, Bea Lam, to get the sound we were looking for from the Spiral Groove turntable/arm and Lyra Etna.

There was a lot of work put into getting it right. Stirling's approach and setup technique is very interesting, as he uses an unusual tracking curve and then tweaks cartridge-to-record geometry very carefully to achieve the sound the customer wants. Stirling, who is based in Petaluma, CA, offers this service to manufacturers, dealers, and customers.

Here are complete details on this Best of Show system:

Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Sasha II ($30,900/pair)
2 x Wilson Watchdog subs ($9800/each)
2 x Wilson Controller ($4000/each)

Analog: Spiral Groove, Lyra
SG 1.1 Turntable and Centroid tonearm ($31,000)
Lyra Etna Cartridge ($6995)

Digital: dCS
Vivaldi Digital Playback System
Transport ($39,999)
DAC ($34,999)

Electronics: VTL 2 x S-400 Series II Reference Stereo Amp ($33,500 each)
TL-7.5 Series III Reference Line Preamplifier ($25,000)
TP-6.5 Signature Phono stage, with step up MC transformer ($12,000)

Racks: HRS Harmonic Resolution Systems
2 x Signature SXR racks, with M3X Isolation Bases ($22,855/each)

Cables: Transparent, Nordost
Transparent Reference XL Digital Cables ($10,885/3 pieces)
Transparent Opus MM2 Audio Cables ($108,630/4 pairs)
Transparent Reference XL Audio cables ($38,365/3 pairs)
Nordost Odin and Valhalla I Power Cables & Distribution ($69,400/10 pieces)

lmanley's picture

A huge thank you to Jason, John Atkinson and Stereophile for this comprehensive report on the VTL/Wilson room at RMAF.

The room was put together by VTL and Wilson, and I must point out that the sound achieved in the room was entirely due to the work of John Giolas and Peter McGrath, who did the speaker setup, and, on the analog side, Stirling Trayle, who did the turntable setup. As mentioned, Bea Lam worked with Stirling on the turntable setup, listening and providing feedback for Stirling to optimize the cartridge setup.

But that can only be done once the speakers are set up properly, and John and Peter unequivocally provided the foundation for the whole system.

Our sincere thanks also go to dCS, Transparent and especially HRS for their support in providing gear and setup help, and again to Stereophile for such detailed reporting on what Bea and I feel was a truly beautiful system.

Allen Fant's picture

I would like to suggest Ramsey Lewis' version of 'Pavane".

jimtavegia's picture

Can't wait to hear it even on my pitiful systems. Unfortunately the only Wilson I will own is like the volleyball Tom Hanks had.

Anon2's picture

Jim's doing better than I am.

The only Wilsons I last owned was a can of tennis balls.

I appreciate the engineering and precision, but the high-end of hi-fi is up there with healthcare and post-secondary education for the rate of cost increases to the consumer; not good for a discretionary purchase (per chance even the well-heeled are beginning to question it).

The good news is that there are still many good choices at the lower end. I hope we can see more credible lower-end products at shows in the future (a bit of fear, perhaps, of how good they might sound in comparison, per dollar, to the exotic stuff.)