HE2003—Day Two

Polk Audio completely redesigned its popular RTi series of loudspeakers. The RTis occupy the "better" position in Polk's good (R series), better (RTi), best (LSi) hierachy. The refurbished line features new drivers, higher quality cabinets, and handsome cosmetics—including real wood veneers in black oak and cherry.

The range boasts five models: two two-way bookshelf units (the $259.90/pair RTi 4 and the $459.90/pair RTi 6) and three floorstanding models (the RTi 8 at $839.90/pair, the RTi 10 at $1139.90/pair, and the RTi 12 at $1639.90/pair). All feature new generation polymer/mineral composite Dynamic Balance drivers and 1" silk/polymer dome tweeters. The floorstanding models also feature multiple long-throw 7" composite woofers. The entire range utilizes a new variation of Polk's patented Power Port Technology—which reduces port turbulence while improving overall efficiency by 2dB over the previous iteration of the Power Port. The speakers are slated to ship in late summer.

TAD Home Audio demoed a technologically advanced loudspeaker, the $45,000/pair Model-1. The speaker boasts a laminated shell of ¾" birch plywood, coaxial beryllium tweeter/midrange driver, and TAD's acclaimed Coherent Source Transducer woofer. The room was probably less than one quarter the size the Model-1s required, so serious assessment was impossible, but the speakers had huge presence and phenomenally taut attack—the folks down the hall probably had incredible bottom-end performance. Even under less-than-ideal circumstances, however, the Model-1s had dynamic range that warrants serious consideration, preferably in a big room.

That's a serious problem for many audiophiles, however. What if you don't have a big room—or an ideal room acoustic, or even a room with symmetrical walls? You could spend a few thousand bucks on room treatment, or, Rives Audio suggests, you might consider employing Rives' $2800 PARC (Parametric Adaptive Room Correction) Room Mode Equalizer. The PARC is an analog, two-channel, three-band, parametric notch-filtering equalization system that applies only to frequencies below 1kHz—the range that accentuates room modes.

When you're demoing a unit that "corrects" for sub-optimal room sound, you couldn’t possibly ask for a better venue than a hi-fi show hotel room, so we were uniquely qualified to assess the impact of the Rives unit in the room it shared with SimAudio electronics and Talon loudspeakers. The system consisted of SimAudio's $5995 Eclipse/PSX CD player, $4295 P5 preamplifier, and $30,000/pair Rock monoblocks (rated at 1kW/channel), driving Talon's $26,000/pair Firebird loudspeakers. The effect was not subtle—the bottom end "unmuddied" and the lower midrange lost an immense amount of rattling energy. With the PARC activated, we heard deeper into the soundstage—enough so that we were aware of room boundary effects in the recorded acoustic that just weren't audible when the unit was bypassed and the room loaded up the modes with excess energy. The results may well be more subtle in a less-compromised listening environment, but the overall improvement was impressive enough to warrant investigation by anyone who feels limited by the apparent resolving power of his or her room.

Speaking of huge, honkin' amps, VTL unveiled its $40,000/pair Siegfried 800W monoblocks. The amps are sleek-looking brushed aluminum towers that continue VTL's transition into a slicker, less "butch" design ethos. The unit builds upon Luke Manley's desire for "tube smart" technology—tubed products that require as little coddling on their owners' part as transistor designs. The Siegfried is definitely descended from the audio circuit topology of VTL's Wotan 1250W monoblock, but it is paired with extremely advanced precision-regulated power supplies and balanced inputs. "Tube smart" features include logic-controlled automatic tube biasing, self-diagnostic fault-sensing, maintenance diagnostics that display information on tubes and operating parameters (including tube change time reminder, automated fuse testing, and line-voltage display), logic-controlled soft-start power up, and a whole slew of input and control options. As is par for the course for VTL amplifiers, Siegfried can run in either tetrode or triode operation.

A brief demo with Peter McGrath supplying 24-bit/88.2kHz master tapes, driving Manley's own Wilson Audio MAXX loudspeakers, was sonically impressive—even if we did get the impression that the amps never even had to breathe heavy, despite the impressive musical dynamics.

Fortunately, there were a few audio systems on display today that cost less than our yearly income. One of the slickest was in Music Hall's room, where the $1699 MMF9 turntable (the price includes arm and high-output MC cartridge) was driving a $225 Creek OBH-8 phono stage and a pair of $2495/pair Shanling SP-80 50W tubed monoblocks. The speakers were the redoubtable Epos M15s ($1395/pair).

You may be wondering, as we were, how one controls the volume of a system that feeds a phono stage straight into a power amp—it turns out the SP-80 has synchronized electronic (remote controlled!) volume controls. Pretty slick idea.

Pretty slick sound, too. It was vivid and focused and natural—just the way we like it!

Also on display in the Music Hall room was a system that seemed too good to be true: Creek CD50 CD player ($1195), a new Creek 60Wpc integrated—the 850 ($795)—and a pair of ELS-3s, brand new stand-mounted two-way bookshelf speakers from Epos, which cost $300/pair. That's not a misprint: the whole system cost barely $2500 and it sounded pretty darn good. And big. Epos is going to be busy making enough ELS-3s to meet demand.

Figuring he must know what he was doing, we asked Roy Hall what brand of cables he was using in such a well-matched system. "ADS," he replied. Walking straight into his set-up, we responded that we weren't familiar with that company. "Any damn stuff," he explained.

We stopped by Paradise Audio & Video's room, on John Marks' recommendation, to hear the new JMLab Nova Utopias ($35,000/pair). There we discovered an all-French system consisting of YBA's $6500 CD-1, $6000 YBA 1a preamplifier, and $6000 YBA 1a power amplifier—and a recording engineer whose name we did not catch, who was playing his own two-channel analog recording of Phillippe Entremont performing the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto. Holy moly! What liquidity; what soundstaging; what timbral accuracy! What a great pianist Entremont is! Thank you, masked man!

We ended up spending far more time than we allotted in Paradise's room—and we still haven't heard as much of that system as we would like. Duty called, however.

But duty at HE2003 isn't all that onerous. Not when there are products that delight the technoweenie in us as much as the $695 xDucer 2.1 three-piece desktop speaker system from xHiFi. The system mates a single 6.5" paper-cone woofer to a pair of satellites which employ ultra-high–bandwidth 360° drivers—the whole schmear driven by compact 50W class-D amplifiers housed in the sub's enclosure. The satellites are claimed to deliver frequency response out to 50kHz, which seems hard to believe—whatever the rated response, however, the cute little system sounded impressive and might make you pine for a far better soundcard if you connect to a standard desktop computer. We heard it driven by an iPod and were stricken with technolust.

And just to make our day complete, we caught some live music from Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs. Live rockabilly/roots music that had us rocking in the aisles. Life at HE2003 is no hardship at all when we manage to remember how to dance our troubles away.