Up to the Wire on RMAF Day 3

Although most rooms I visited at the end of RMAF 2018 offered fine sound, I single out the new Dragonfire Acoustics Mini Dragon self-powered desktop system ($10,000 total) for two reasons: a) its designer, Dragoslav Colich (aka Dr. C), who continues to design every Audeze headphone, calls these first desktop planar speakers from his new company his "life achievement…the finest transducer I have built," and, b) they sound fantastic.

This "totally absolutely impressive" system, to quote from my ultra-articulate show note scribble, includes digital volume control and room correction. Displayed were two Mini Dragon Planar Satellites ($4995/pair), MD-4 amplifier/DAC with DSP ($2995—this has four amplifier modules, four DAC modules, and a "super high power" DSP engine, and can decode up to PCM 24/192 or play DSD that has been converted to PCM by music playback software such as Roon, Amarra, and Audirvana), an 8" subwoofer ($495), and a set of Kimber Kable cables ($1495).

From a typical desk chair position, the bass on a 24/96 file of deep-voiced Cassandra Wilson's "Dance to the Drummer Again" was deep and totally in control (as in tight). Equal satisfaction came from very different music, a bit of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, on a 2L recording in 24/192 format. This was a system in which musical flow reigned supreme.

Warmth and midrange smoothness were the strengths of a Vinnie Rossi/Triode Wire Labs / Harbeth loudspeaker system comprised of the new Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature preamplifier ($14,995, or $21,985 including the optional new L2 DAC module and L2 phono stage), new Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature monoblocks ($14,995/pair), Harbeth 40.2 40th Anniversary Edition loudspeakers ($17,990/pair), and Triode Wire Labs cabling. A Mozart LP sounded absolutely warm and lovely. It was hard to avoid noticing an edge on violin on my 24/48 files of Lou Harrison's Violin Concerto, and an equally sharp edge on a 24/96 file of soprano Sandrine Piau singing Loewe (from Chimère) to Susan Manoff's piano accompaniment; I wonder if power conditioning would have made a difference.

Having said that, drums and percussion were depicted with excellence, the low tones of piano and instruments were conveyed with perfection, and the artistry and emotion of all concerned came through loud and clear. In fact, the brilliance of music and interpretation was such that, for one of the rare times in my 15 years at audio shows, absolutely no one left the room or even fidgeted during a long piece of relatively obscure, heart-rending German lieder that was impeccably sung with deep feeling. This is a tribute not only to Vinnie Rossi, Harbeth, and Triode Wire, but also to the quality of show attendees whom Vinnie tends to attract. Thank you, one and all.

Wynn Audio, headed by Wynn Wong, presented a small, intriguing, and hardly inexpensive system that contained the Thales TTT-Compact II turntable ($14,850) with Thales Statement tonearm ($21,090) and EMT JSD-VM cartridge ($5000), Karan Acoustics KA PH1 phono stage ($15,000) and KA-I180 integrated amp ($10,000), Kiso Acoustics HB-X1 speakers in "exotic" Hawaiian Koa finish ($20,000), Entreq Poseidon Ground Box ($5000), and ZenSati cabling. I took what I thought was a fabulous picture of the two-stick linear tracking tonearm, whose headshell constantly adjusts to changing groove angle, but for reasons that some would blame on the devil (or MQA—the two seem interchangeable in certain circles), my camera treats it as "unidentifiable."

Why the pricing? Well, for one, the special stabilized aluminum in Thales's top-of-the-line tonearm is aged underground, and the tonearm is assembled by watchmakers who usually use this particular aluminum in their finest creations. The choice of this material is also said to affect the tonearm's resonance properties.

After listening to some Johnny Cash, we turned to one of those old, quasi-New Age standbys, Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider. I thought the soundstage depth very fine, but the sound a little sharp and tilted toward the treble region. The captivating voice of Switzerland's Sophie Unger, who dared perform the Jacques Brel standard, "Ne me quitte pas," sounded gratifyingly warm, but also displayed some sharpness.

Lord knows what was affecting the electricity on the 4th floor of the Marriott Tower on the last day of the show, but even with a debut Isotek Genesis One power regenerator ($3495) on the debut Dr. Feickert Volare turntable (price TBD) with Origin Live Silver tonearm ($3495), My Sonic Lab Eminent Ex MC cartridge ($3995), and Little Fwend automatic tonearm lifter high ($249), and (if you're still following the syntax of this very long sentence) a debut Isotek Nova power conditioner ($7995) on the rest of MoFi's system, there was a bit of an edge on tenor Christoph Prégardien's rendition of a lied (song) by Mendelssohn. In all fairness, that edge may have been recording-specific, because I heard it on none of the other three fine-sounding selections I auditioned.

In fact, the midrange on everything I heard—that includes Diane Katz's "Drowning Slowly," a cut from Eric Clapton's Unplugged LP that Soundcloud refused to recognize, another from Bill Evans's Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and "Chan Chan" by the Buena Vista Social Club—was demonstration class. I really enjoyed sitting for a while and listening to music in this room, whose operators deserve Five Stars for Music Quality.

The new Isotek Nova power conditioner actually combines two Isotek Sigmas power conditioners with a EVO3 Syncro power cord that is designed to regulate DC offset so that components operate more efficiently. Note that Isotek's EVO Ascension won the RMAF 2018 International HiFi Press Award for power cable (Nordost Odin 2 won for signal cable).

Doing the honors, besides the two debut power conditioners and turntable set-up: Manger S1 Active loudspeakers ($24,995), debut Primare Pre35 Prisma ($4495), discontinued Primare R32 phono stage (the new R35 is expected by year's end), Solidsteel HP-4 rack, Finite Elemente footers, Isotek power cables, and Cardas signal cables.

The time was past 4:00, and the show had already closed. Back to my room for a little nibble and nap, followed by cold leftover Chinese delivery from the day before and a night of writing show reports.

After a decent night's sleep, it was off to the gym for 20 dedicated minutes on the elliptical trainer. Thanks to a boost from Roy Gregory's darling wife, Louise Ford, who was burning up the treadmill three machines to my right after reminding me that people who really work hard cannot possibly talk to each other, and an additional push from Denver's mile-high elevation, which made me work harder, I got my heart rate up to 148. I think that means I should be dead. By the time I had flown back to Washington state and driven into our driveway in Port Townsend, WA, it was past 11:00pm, and I really was dead.

Thank you for reading my first series of show reports from beyond the grave. As long as the worms don't eat through my internet connection, there will be many more.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Never Give Up" .......... Sia :-) .............

Robin Landseadel's picture
dalethorn's picture

Oh my gosh, I haven't heard much of Nina Hagen since 1992 when I was last stationed in Chattanooga, and listening to all-night indie radio from WUTC.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I met [encountered?] Jason back around the time Nina Hagen's "Angstlos" appeared. Mr Serinus gave me a proper introduction to some great vocalists from the past, notably Elizabeth Schumann. Nina Hagen, in case you didn't notice, has an operatic vocal technique, put to best use [IMHO] in this particular song. The title translates [more or less] into "I know one day all my miracles will come true." Seeing as it appears that JVS has returned from the dead, it struck me as appropriate for the occasion.

dalethorn's picture

Another quirky singer I like in the same sense (to me) as Nina Hagen is Emily Autumn. Autumn even plays a fair violin.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

and I will never, ever let you forget the voice of the blessed Elisabeth Schumann!!!!

Anton's picture

It's nice to see Monsoon making a comeback!


Best desk top speakers, ever!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Drag-On :-) .............

DougM's picture

How can you possibly know that the sharpness you heard was due to a lack of power conditioner, and not from the room, or something else? Speaking from personal experience, some days my system sounds muddy to me, and at other times it'll sound shrill. The same goes for my guitar amps and electric guitars. I know my ears don't necessarily hear things the same way all the time, nor do yours. We're human, not machines, and we're not perfect, and there are too many variables to make a definitive statement like that. We're not perfectly objective machines, and our emotions come into play as well, and can and do affect our perceptions.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It's a hunch of mine, but not a known fact. Definitely a poor choice of words. Thanks for pointing it out. I'm going to see if we can change it.


Ortofan's picture

... the sound quality from various brands of USB flash/thumb drives?
Which one(s) are you using?

jeffdyer's picture

nice trolling......

sedusia sound's picture

Whether Ortofan is serious or not, I can't say; what I can say is, just like using different brands/dyes of CDRs can (though not necessarily always) sound different, using certain brands of flash memory can make a difference...in some, though not all situations.

I have a first-gen Fiio X5 and was originally using two(2) 64GB Adata micro-sd cards. I then got a hold of a couple of Silicon Power 128GB cards and was not prepared for the change of sound quality I heard, especially in how much more dynamic and alive the sound was using the newer and larger capacity cards.

Shortly thereafter, I picked up a couple of Lexar 200GB cards and was utterly disappointed that sound had flattened out even more than the Adata cards I was initially using.

Please note, all the cards I've used are Class 10.

Draw you own conclusions.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Were you using loudspeaker based playback or headphone/IEM based playback or both? Just curious :-) .........

sedusia sound's picture

A variety of different headphones, both IEMs and over/on-ear, direct from the Fiio's headphone out.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Could it be due to the potable device(s) you are/were using? ........ May be the newer portable devices are better with better DACs and/or headphone output? ....... May be you could look into the LG V30, which was very favorably reviewed by JVS? :-) ............

sedusia sound's picture

DEVICE, not devices.

As stated above, this is all strictly using my first-gen X5.

All the micro-sd cards were brand new, formatted as FAT32, with no "utility/recovery/backup' software, and all .flac files were transferred once to the cards inserted into the Fiio. I used the same cable, same late-2008 15" MBP, and all other factors involved were the same. The only change was using the 3 different brands of cards.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Like I mentioned, may be it is worth trying the newer portable devices with newer DACs with better headphone outputs ......... This is a fast advancing area as far as portable devices are concerned :-) .........

sedusia sound's picture

Yes, I am looking into purchasing a new device, probably by the end of the year, though, I don't think something with a newer/better dac/output is the issue, nor have I had any failures with the larger capacity micro-sd's I've been using.

In fact, I think a newer (re: better) device will only compound the differences I hear between the various cards I've used.

And speaking of micro-sd cards and Macs, anyone wishing to expand storage on their Macbook Pros in a nice, clean, sleek way should check this out:


Bogolu Haranath's picture

The newer Macs are available with up to 4 TB SSD storage .........

dalethorn's picture

I had several reviews of failed Sandisk MicroSD cards on Amazon U.S. and U.K., until they got removed. Basically, none of the 128 gb and up MicroSD cards I've tried can act as large-capacity drives to a computer, and why I don't know. They may be OK with cameras, but they fail on computers when used same as the USB thumb drives or external SSD drives. I have lots of those - all are good.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Also, if you haven't already done so, I would recommend checking the Innerfidelity/AudioStream websites to keep up to date with these aspects .......... They both are sister websites of Stereophile :-) ..........

dalethorn's picture

Flash memory cards have controllers that "spread" data here and there to reduce "wear". One could argue that wear is insignificant these days, but it is a real factor however small. Along with that, the FAT tables, or increasingly the "ex-FAT" tables have to list all of the "clusters" that a file has been written to, and those have to be retrieved on playback and - again - however small any latency, it's also a real factor.

To think that these devices, of unknown quality at any given moment in any given "cluster", would always play seamlessly, is dreaming. The best sound would usually come from the best brands, formatted nice and clean with no hidden "utility" programs on the device, and with the files written once (so as to be in contiguous clusters), and never rewritten.

jeffdyer's picture

I conclude that you haven't really thought about how those millions of computers, cameras, pdas and phones have used flash memory cards for years without any of them generating weird random read errors continuously.

Seriously, get a grip.

sedusia sound's picture

Firstly, I never stated anything about "generating weird random read errors continuously", I merely stated, in MY particular circumstance, I do hear a difference in using different cards.

Second, to think that the flash memory in "those millions of" devices never have any errors, is living in a dream world.
(aren't they all just zeros and ones)

Thirdly and most importantly, I hated "Get A Grip". All the songs sound the same on that album....in fact, everything after "Pump" sounds the same.

jeffdyer's picture

How's it going to sound different from play to play or card to card unless you get different data from the card than was originally stored, i.e. read errors? (Don't even think about jitter/timing and that because all the data will be buffered at some point and your computer works, doesn't it?)

sedusia sound's picture

Getting angry or do you feel so compelled to prove whatever point you are trying to make to the whole world?

The only thing I am saying is, I hear a difference.

If you don't believe me, that's fine; it's no skin off my back.

Perhaps my hearing is defective.

Mic drop.

jeffdyer's picture

Just trying to save you some.

sedusia sound's picture

OK, I picked that mic back up.

Thank you so much for being so concerning for my well-being!

I guess you don't want me to "fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way". In that case, perhaps you were the one I was "waiting for...to show me the way".

And since you are so concerned for my money, I wouldn't mind if you would "share it fairly" because "I'm into high-fidelity".

Now, "don't give me that do goody good b**ll***t", because that is one fine, though admittedly overplayed album.

jeffdyer's picture

Careful with that axe, Eugene.

sedusia sound's picture

Which brings up the question, do The Floyd literally mean axe, as in a hatchet, or axe as in slang for guitar?

sedusia sound's picture
Bogolu Haranath's picture

That movie is "Crazy" .......... Aerosmith ............ Get a Grip :-) ..........

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I have three of them.

Anton's picture

Get ready for the Nordost 11,000 dollar thumb drive!

Exceedingly well done, they owe you a finder's fee for their sales.

Which God will they name it after?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Hel" :-) ...........

Ortofan's picture

... clipping when driving the Harbeth speakers?
The Monitor 40.2 are not particularly efficient and the amps are rated for not much more than a 100W output into a 6 ohm load.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It is also possible that the Harbeth 40.2 model may have problems in the crossover region between midrange and tweeter .......... Violins and sopranos are two very good examples of testing this particular transition region among the dynamic speakers ........ Higher frequencies generated by the pianos are also very good for testing this particular crossover region........... JVS used all of these three for testing ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

One of ways to find out is, to try another amp(s) which puts out more watts and play the same (type of) music ........ We may find out whether the problem is the amp or the speakers (or both) ..........

Allen Fant's picture

Nice coverage as always- JVS
148 is not bad for an exerted heart rate. 248 would qualify one for dead.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Heartbeat" .............. The Fray :-) ............

Anton's picture

Hasn’t all the aluminum aged under ground?

Kudos to the marketing director for sparing us “aged underground for five billion years!”

I had a glass of 4.6 billion year old 0.9998 pure water today, imported from outer space!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Kimchi is also aged underground in jars :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some beers are aged underground :-) ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some cheeses are aged in underground caves :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Salumi (cured meats) are aged underground :-) .............

Long-time listener's picture

If you have some feeling for the music of Lou Harrison (you mention his violin concerto), I'd like to recommend his Mass to St. Anthony, which can be found on Amazon and Amazon.uk, coupled with an Aarvo Part work (I think the Harrison is the better of the two).

"Harrison always writes deeply personal and original music; here, his scoring for chorus, strings, trumpet, and harp, and his seemingly simple yet deeply affecting writing, produce a distinctive and evocative choral work. Gilbert Seeley does a wonderful job, directing possibly the only performance you'll ever hear on CD, so get this if you can. The sound quality is open, atmospheric, and sweet-toned."

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I knew Lou just a little bit, and cherish a letter, handwritten in calligraphy, he once sent me after I spontaneously kissed him in public at a concert. I have another recording here with some of his music, and may get around to reviewing it. I never know where I will be led.

es347's picture

..were tongues involved?

jeffdyer's picture

"It was hard to avoid noticing an edge on violin on my 24/48 files of Lou Harrison's Violin Concerto, and an equally sharp edge on a 24/96 file of soprano Sandrine Piau singing Loewe (from Chimère) to Susan Manoff's piano accompaniment; I wonder if power conditioning would have made a difference."

It wouldn't, no.

ppgr's picture

"Ne me quitte pas " is by Jacques Brel.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for the catch. We'll fix it.

Mycophile's picture

…by the arrows in their backs. :-)

That is, Pure Music pioneered by a considerable margin native DSD playback from an audio enthusiast music player application, not to mention automatic real-time (or file-based) DSD to PCM conversion… plus playing DSD via iTunes (per U.S. Patent 8,738,163 B2).

Accordingly, Pure Music always did (since June, 2011) and would work as you mentioned (“…such as Roon, Amarra and Audirvana”).

Just jesting about arrows, of course! :-)


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Nursing my wounds right now.

windansea's picture

The Dragonfire mini planars remind me of the Mini Maggie system (which I own and enjoy). Seems like that could be a nice comparison review for the magazine.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Agreed :-) ...........

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Unless I am mistaken, Wendell has never given Stereophile a pair of Magnepans to review, due to concern over how they will measure.

We do not compare products to products we have not reviewed. Even if we did, it would be rather tacky, don't you think, to call up manufacturer B and say "Hi, could you please send me your speakers short-term so I can see if the speakers from manufacturer A are better?"

Bogolu Haranath's picture

HR reviewed Maggie .7 speakers without measurements ........... They are listed in the Stereophile recommended components :-) ..............

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Good point. Nonetheless...

Bogolu Haranath's picture

(Kinda) reviewing without measurements is not new at Stereophile ........ AD, HR and MF do it occasionally ........ ST used to do it ........... Some of those components are listed in the recommended components ......... Of course, reviewing with measurements is the better way to do it :-) ..........

John Atkinson's picture
Bogolu Haranath wrote:
(Kinda) reviewing without measurements is not new at Stereophile ... AD, HR and MF do it occasionally ... ST used to do it ...

This is because products that are written about in our regular columns, like the Magnepan .7 speaker, do not routinely get measured.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

To add to the above, almost none of the turntables, tonearms, phono pre-amps and phono cartridges are measured :-) ..............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Aren't Stereophile reviewers supposed to have excellent "aural memory"? :-) ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mini Maggies could be matched with the new Benchmark pre-amp and AHB2 power amp, for example ............