RMAF 2016: Saturday, Part 2, with Herb

German loudspeaker manufacturer BMS “Sells fewer raw drivers to more DIY guys and more raw drivers to fewer pro-sound guys…”—or so says Jack Arnott of Assistance Audio, BMS’s North American importer. (Got that?)

I used to be a DIY guy, but now that I work for Stereophile, I'm living like Jay Z —and there's no time for sawing wood or screwing raw drivers into boxes. But: I think I know a high-quality, well-engineered cone speaker or compression driver when I see one—and the BMS drivers I saw at RMAF 2016 looked a lot like pro-style, industrial-strength objets d'art. The BMS catalog is nice, too!

I used to export Western Electric 205D “baseball” tubes and import Tango transformers—and when I walked into Austin Acoustic’s room, I saw a lot of both. I also saw a big pile of fat but elegant-looking amplifiers with copper tops and faceplates; they sported exotic tubes—very much like the Audio Note amplification I used to import. As you can imagine, the kind folks at Austin Acoustic and I had a lot to talk about!

Every tube was lit and all the amplifiers you see were actually driving the three-way Austin Acoustic SP-3R loudspeakers ($348,000/pair); that said, a price list or a visit to their website will give you a better feel for what this floating world of expensive tri-amplified loudspeakers was like. (There was even an ever-so-cool vintage Accuphase active crossover dividing the signal between these three amps per channel!)

The Austin Acoustic LS-436A preamplifier ($12,000) is based on the Western Electric 436A tube. Their M-205D amplifier ($24,000/pair) is based on the Western Electric 205D tube. And the name of their M-300B ($28,000/pair) mono amp is self-descriptive, as is that of their M-GM70 amplifier ($64,000/pair). Think lots of shiny cooper and dull emitters.

Everything in the Austin Acoustic room was rich for the eye, but the sound was unfocused, thin, and phasey to my ears. When I stood by the amplifiers I saw a lot of unbranded silver wires running hither and yon; I suspect one or two got crossed up somewhere.

Every time I encounter Paul Manos (Hifi Services), who represents the British-made Neat Acoustics loudspeakers and Analogueworks turntables (and other good products), I always get a big smile stuck on my face. He beams and glows and puts out a smart, enthusiastic energy that fills the whole room. And the sound Paul gets from his products makes me want more, and never to leave.

This year he was showing the knee-high Neat Iota Alpha loudspeakers ($1995/pair), which sit gnome-like on the floor but push out music the same way Paul pushes out strong smiles. The sound coming from these little floorstanders was surprisingly big, lucid, and detailed. My only question was: what kind of duster should the owner use to dust them?

The Iota Alphas were driven by the FL Three S integrated amplifier ($3995) from Italian manufacturer Audia Flight, sourced by an Audia Flight FL CD Three CD player ($2795)—plus a totally cool and very-high-value Analogueworks TurntableZero turntable with a Jelco SA-750 tonearm ($1995 complete).

I wish I could show you a picture of the old Carr Street Sugden Factory in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, UK—or let you feel how warm the heatsinks were on the Sugden A21 SE pure class-A integrated amplifier ($3250) that powered the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 loudspeakers ($8400) in the room John DeVore shared with Sugden’s importer, Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports. (The original A21 was the world's first production pure class-A transistor amplifier!)

Trust me folks, class-D is like fake cocaine compared to the rolling, relaxed, shroom-like beauty of the Sugden A21 SE’s midrange. It was the end of the day: John and Jonathan knew I was revved up but that I’d relax when they played one of my all-time favorite songs, “Raining in My Heart,” by Slim Harpo. Slim’s harmonica was oozing Crayola colors while his words put darkness in my chest. I loved it—and I started to chill—but just a little. I needed more records and sweet sounds.

The source was a Well-Tempered Amadeus turntable and tonearm ($2850) with the Well-tempered DPS power supply ($400) and an EMT TSD75 moving coil cartridge ($1950), feeding a Sugden Masterclass PA-4 phono preamplifier ($2500). Alternatively, there was that legendary classic Sugden A21 integrated amp ($2400) I referred to above. J. E. Sugden & Co Ltd. has making amps in the UK since 1967 (!!), and they are always warm-running, sweet-sounding, heart-pounding, class-A.

By the by, the S4M maple equipment stand ($2950) was by Box Furniture Company, and all cabling was by Auditorium 23.

GamuT amplifiers and loudspeakers are made in Denmark, and their logo has these three words at the top: Organic&$151;Dynamic—Alive. That about sums up how they play music, except: I think the word dynamic should be in all-capital letters. GamuT amps are heavy to lift and sport fist-sized industrial MOSFETS that can be romantic or rough on demand. Mostly, however, they just disappear.

The GamuT system featured their RS3i loudspeakers ($19,990) coupled to the M250i mono amps ($12,990/each) and the D3i Dual-Mono preamp ($8390)—and all cabling was by GamuT. But the part I loved best and the part that I sensed made the sound big and fast was: the Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas turntable/Cornet 2 tonearm with external power supply ($9990), plus the Pear Audio Blue reference phono stage ($4495). All the good sounds were swept from those black grooves by the Ortofon Cadenza Black MC cartridge ($2750). The GamuT amplification was connected to an IsoTek EVO3 Aquarius power conditioner ($2250) via GamuT Reference Power Cables ($4290/2m).

The Focal/Micromega/Audio Plus Services room wins my prize for the most beautiful, best lit, most relaxing, and most refined-sounding room at the show.

My prize for the best (and most ubiquitous) loudspeakers at RMAF 2016 goes to the crystal-clear, low-distortion Focal Sopra No2s ($13,999). The Sopra No2s were used in many rooms at the show, and in each one they played music with strong but delicate expression—but nowhere were the 2s more finely expressed than in this Audio Plus Services room. Why so? I think it was the matching orange Micromega M-One 100 Amp/DAC with built in MM-MC phono stage ($3999). And just as the Japanese paper wall lighting was a pleasure to observe in this room, so were the (almost matching) elegant, thin, white cables by Crystal Cable.

BradleyP's picture

So, a contender for best sound for around $20k (Focal, Micomega) versus a giant thin and phasey tube and horn system for over half a mil? This sounds like sanity versus, well, um, something else. It says a lot when a $4k all-in-one can drive such a great speaker so credibly. I wonder how the Micromega stacks up against its pricier French competitor.

jim davis's picture

Herb, when you entered and moved around a room running the Sopra No2s, was the sound good, or did you have to be seated? With that angular cabinet design, I wonder if sound is dramatically different outside of a certain horizontal band so many feet off the floor.