RMAF 2016: Saturday Morning with Herb

In the room shared by NAD and PSB, I got to meet the latter's Paul Barton and listen intimately to Francis Albert Sinatra. The little PSB Imagine Mini loudspeakers ($749/pair + $299 for stands) put lots of well-formed vocal energy into a rather large room—enough to let Sinatra be Ol' Blue Eyes while I closed my eyes and dreamed. Frank and Paul made such a nice vibe together—one that was surely enhanced by the affordable but sophisticated, downright overachieving , Paul Barton-designed Imagine Minis, plus NAD's 368 integrated amplifier-DAC ($899), C 568 CD player ($699), and C 556 turntable ($599), and a tidy bundle of AudioQuest cables. As Frank said, "I am a thing of beauty"; as Herb says, "NAD + PSB is a thing of beauty."

Sonoma Acoustics is an American company—famous for their DSD recording and editing system—that manufactures the new, and quite handsome, Model One electrostatic headphone ($5000, complete with amplifier-DAC-energizer unit). Its High-Precision Electrostatic Laminate (HPEL) transducer elements are manufactured in the UK by Warwick Technologies, Ltd.

The Sonoma room was friendly, with cozy couches for seated listeners. Ancillary equipment included the Sonoma DSD Workstation, plus there was a 1/2-inch, two-track Ampex ATR-100 mastering recorder, functioning as a premium exotic source.

Based only on a short audition, I can tell you the Model Ones plays music with a kind of beautiful, hyper-delicate high-resolution sound that seemed to struggle to light up, declare itself, and get moving. I suspect the headset is fine, but wondered—maybe the amp-DAC-energizer needs a little more range and oomph?

The room was dark and the faceplates were black, but the impressive Revel Ultima Salon 2 loudspeakers ($22,998/pair) made Yello's music sound brightly lit and eagerly presented. I have not experienced the Salon 2s as much as I wish to, but damn! These Revel speakers do a very fine job with every kind of music you throw at them. Source and power for the Salon 2s was provided by a Mark Levinson No.519 streaming media player ($20,000), No. 526s dual mono class-A preamp ($20,000), and the 400W (into 8 ohms) No. 536 monoblock amplifiers ($30,000/pair).

Here is a shortlist of people and stuff I am a fan of: Chad Kassem, Acoustic Sounds, Analogue Productions, stinky toy poodles, Sony loudspeakers and electronics, Quality Record Pressings, fuzzy bunnies, Super HiRez DSD downloads, Art Dudley's audio stories, Chad Stelly's analog stories, and, last but not least: Mara Machines reel-to-reel recorders. And they were (almost) all listed on the door of Chad Kassem's room at RMAF 2016.

Chad Kassem is surely the coolest dude walking the streets of Salina, Kansas, or the halls of any hi-fi fest. Acoustic Sounds, Inc. is the company Chad founded in 1992; Analogue Productions is the division of Acoustic Sounds that presses LPs and creates the highest quality reissues of LP, CD, and SACD titles—more than 300 so far! Quality Record Pressings (and who doesn't like quality LPs?) is another Chad Kassem creation: it presses fresh, clean, new vinyl in a 20,000 sq. ft. former refrigerated warehouse, also in Salina, KA.

Scruffy toy poodles are cool because they can read French and paw your leg for snacks. Even Art Dudley likes fuzzy bunnies—and who doesn't like Sony loudspeakers and electronics? Especially when they sound like the fantastic Sony SS-AR1 speakers ($27,000/pair), driven by the beyond-fantastic Sony VFET 40 Year Commemorative monoblock amplifiers, designed by Nelson Pass. Those amps are unobtainable, but, Lord save me—I must have a pair now! Please, please, please! (The Sony VFET amp was made with a special type of transistor referred to both as a VFET and, more commonly, a Static Induction Transistor (SIT). These early field effect transistors were manufactured in the 1960s to give the new solid-state amps a "triode-like" character. Today VFETs are venerated as arcane cult objects.)

All of those—except the bunnies and the poodles—were in the Acoustic Sounds room. In the back of the room was another arcane object: an MCI JH110 reel-to-reel mastering recorder, rebuilt by Mara Machines. What a beauty! And it is quite reasonably priced, too: $4000 with 1/4" heads, and $7000 with an easily swap-able 1/2" headset. Chad Stelly of Acoustic Sounds is an analog-smart guy like Michael Fremer or Michael Trei. He knows a lot about turntables and what to play on them—but today he was playing Dean Martin and Johnny Hartman at 30ips on that MCI/Mara machine. Wow! Think grainless, colorful, and supremely precise. I doubt many home stereo systems ever sound as gentle, dynamic, or easy-flowing as this cool-ass rig.

Folks, rooms like Chad Kassem's are the No.1 reason to attend audio festivals: you get to experience rare, exotic, and wonderful stuff—stuff that will make you a better listener, a better person. And who doesn't like fuzzy bunnies and stinky poodles?

DSD? USB? SACD? How about field-coil horns, OTLs, and reel-to-reel?

Greg Beron and United Home Audio always show their fine-sounding JBL-inspired Classic Audio T3.4 field-coil driven horn-loaded loudspeakers ($45,000)—with clay parrots and Nipper on top. They always drive them with Atma-Sphere M-60 MKII 3.3 mono amplifiers ($7400/pair), a great Kuzma record player, and one of several United Home Audio reel-to-reel tape decks, the one at RMAF 2016 being a UHA OPS-DC Phase 12 ($19,000). All the cables were by Purist Audio. This time they were introducing new line of outboard "OPS-DC" power supplies (starting at $4000). The sound was, as always, fast, wide, and Corvette-smooth.

Bryston makes everything now. They used to make just amplifiers and preamps, designed by Stewart Taylor. Now they make loudspeakers and even a turntable. (Is it just my imagination or are there currently more types and manufacturers of turntables than CD players or music servers? Hmmmm?)

Bryston amps always looked good, but now they have this smooth-to-the-fingers and -eye attractiveness that you can almost feel while you are looking at them. On display and sounding very nice at RMAF were the 7B3 mono amplifiers ($5695/each), the BP-26 preamp ($3295), and the MiniT loudspeakers ($3370/pair), all sourced by a Bryston BDP-2 digital player ($3295), a BDA-3 DAC ($3495), and (surprise!) Bryston's new BLP-1 turntable ($3995) and BLP-MC phono pre ($1500). Speaker stands were by Target, cables by Straightwire.

While introduced at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, the Aurender A10 "caching music server & player with analogue outputs" ($5500) still felt like big news at RMAF 2016, mainly because it was "serving"—ie, storing, categorizing, playing, converting—music in several very high-profile rooms at RMAF 2016. The A10 includes 4TB of hard-disk music storage, buttressed by a solid-state music cache, plus a built-in DAC based on AK chips. (There is also a digital output.) And best of all: the A10 comes with the same amazing playback app that made its big brother, the N10, famous. As with all such products, it is impossible for me to speculate about the quality of the A10's services. But as John Atkinson said of the tried-and-true N10, in his April, 2016 review, I "very much enjoyed my time with [it], especially given its sound quality and the usability of Aurender's Conductor app."

jmsent's picture

They weren't manufactured in the 60's. The Sony and Yamaha V-Fet amplifiers were products of the mid '70s.