Hi-Fi+ dispatched a team of reviewers to Denver to cover this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The show, bigger than ever, falls into two distinct camps; the original audio show and CanJam – the headphone event. Both represent arguably the most important and highly-respected events in the American West. This year, in the wake of the postponement of this year’s T.H.E. Show in Anaheim, and the relatively poor showing of the Los Angeles Audio Show earlier in the year, RMAF was perhaps even more eagerly anticipated than usual.
In addition, unlike 2016’s event, the Denver Marriott Tech Center had completed its full renovation, and many were keen to see the end result. This has a good and bad effect on rooms, because the remodel effectively changes the room acoustics of the hotel rooms and what worked two years ago might not work so well now. Typically, audio experts learn from the first year in a show to make a better sound in subsequent years. By extensively reworking the hotel, Marriott effectively reset the RMAF sonic clock. There were still many making good sounds, but there will be a lot better next year, too!
Regardless, it’s great to see a snowy Denver re-instigated its important place in the audio calendar, and we hope for many more years of RMAF! The show is so large, that one person alone cannot hope to cover it, so I was tasked with looking to the best in analogue and amplification, Roy Gregory was to investigated the latest in digital audio and loudspeakers, and Chris Martens chose to cover the CanJam in full effect. These reports will appear across this week and next.
SIGNIFICANT NEW ANALOGUE COMPONENTS
The abundance of new turntables gave pause to think of the biblical song made famous by the Byrd’s—“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season”. Not only was the Rocky Mountain Fest sandwiched between hurricanes on the East Coast and devastating fires on the West Coast of the US, the event itself opened to spring weather and closed with snowfall.
That didn’t seem to dampen attendance, especially on the first day, when ticket lines seemed longer than usual. And many of those in attendance were there to see an abundance of new turntables, many turning to the more affordable end of the spectrum.
ProJect was featuring The Classic SB Superpack, an improved version of the Classic turntable. For $1,499 the US version comes fitted with a Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 cartridge, and a wood plinth in walnut, rosenut or eucalyptus. Looking ever so much like a Linn clone, or as ProJect calls it, an homage, the table departs from Linn in that the chassis is suspended on TPE rather than springs and the platter is TPE dampened. The European model substitutes an Ortofon Quintet Red and costs £1399.
The VPI Avenger Reference turntable was standing duty in the digital free Classic Album Sunday room, where the CAS program of listening to full albums straight through packed in audiophiles hungry for music throughout the show. The Avenger Reference ($20,000) was outfitted with a JMW 12” 3D Reference arm ($4,400) along with a spare JMW 12” 3D Reference arm top ($3,200) to allow swapping out cartridges during an analog set-up seminar offered by Roy Gregory and set-up guru Stirling Trayle. The feet of the Avenger presented a footprint a wee bit large for the HRS rack, so they were swapped out for some very handsome and slightly smaller feet from Wilson Benesch. Before the doors opened to the crowds, Stirling Trayle spent countless hours setting up the turntable and installing his personal copy of a Fuuga Moving Coil Cartridge.
In the Mod Wright room, VPI’s perhaps most handsome turntable, the Prime Signature Rosewood ($6,800), sat on a Stillpoints rack and traced the grooves with a Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge. For a lot less money than an Avenger, you still get that great JMW 3D arm, a 10” wand in this case. The new thing is the gorgeous finish, with the Rosewood accounting for an $800 upcharge from the standard Prime Signature.
VPI’s new Cliffwood table seems determined to capture the low-priced turntable sweepstakes. At $900 I see little to compete competition in that category. Including a cartridge joint made by Grado Labs to VPI’s specifications, the Cliffwood is now available only in the US market, crossing the pond in the unspecified future.
Fern & Roby Audio, of Richmond, Virginia, is a relatively new concern that has been developing turntables over the last couple years. A close look at the two decks on display at RMAF suggests the designer has a fine eye for design and detail. Like the new food movement, Fern & Roby stresses use of local and domestic sourcing, including recycled materials. The tables are made of Richlite, a composite of recycled paper and resin. The Montrose Heirloom Turntable has a bronze platter with bronze and stainless steel details. The Heirloom is $8,500 with their own unipivot arm or $12,050 with a Schröder CB Tonearm by Thrax. The lighter Montrose Turntable table runs $4,950 substitutes a lighter platter but retains the stunning good looks.
European Audio Team’s newest turntable, the Team B-Sharp Turntable comes with an Ortofon 2M Blue Cartridge, a carbon fiber alloy B-Note Tonearm and a dustcover for $1,595. While you might be tempted to add a bumper sticker claiming “my other turntable is a Thales”, EAT turntables are so good that tonearm envy should not intrude. The B-Sharp is a trickle down version of the more expensive C-Major turntable.
Rega’s new Planar 6 turntable was featured in the Fort Collins Audio room, the sensibly priced room I found most appealing. The Planar 6 or P6 is not to be confused with the older RP6. The base price is $1595 or $1995 with an Exact MM cartridge. The plinth is composed of a Tancast aerospace polyurethane foam core inside a Polaris laminate, with the edges finished with a gloss black polymer, and the resulting two toned contrast is quite attractive. The RB330 tonearm, two-layer glass platter, outboard power supply and adjustable speed add up to a lot of turntable for the money.
Steve Dobbins of Xact Audio was showing his new turntable developed in cooperation with Paul Wakkeen of /Stillpoints. The XX MagDrive turntable is a direct drive model, filled with Stillpoints technology, retails for $19,900 US. It features a uniquely shaped plinth design and was fitted with Frank Schröder’s Linear Tracker tonearm that has been updated with a magnesium armwand and is priced at $12,500.
Not to be outdone by the XX turntable, Acoustic Signature showed its Triple X Turntable in Makassa ($5795) with the 9” TA 2000 tonearm, a TA 1000 on steroids with more rigid and massive bearing housing.
The Thales Statement Silver tonearm was mounted in a Thales TTT Compact II, a temporary base until the arrival of a new and larger turntable coming to better accommodate the Statement. Thales products are always a work of art, and the Statement is no exception. With on the fly VTA adjustment, azimuth adjustment, and correction-mechanism for tangential pivoted tracking claiming zero tracking error, the beauty is not skin deep. The silver version on display costs $21,500, more than twice of the Thales Simplicity.
SIGNIFICANT NEW AMPLIFICATION AND POWER COMPONENTS
Electronics to deliver electrical signal along the path to its conversion to musical sound, with one exception, were evolutions of well-developed technologies. That new development may cause some confusion in the long-standing debate over the supremacy of tubes over solid state, or is it sold state over tubes? In addition, power treatment solutions continue to move toward boxes and cables that promise to cleanse power line noise without current limiting, long the bugaboo of filtration products.
Zesto Audio’s new Andros Allaso, joins the small number of step up transformers currently available. The diminutive 5-pound unit provides 40 adjustments, in both stereo and mono modes, on the “fly”. It includes 4 step up ratios/gain settings (1:4, 1:6, 1:8 and 1:12) and 10 moving coil load positions. It includes two ground binding posts to avoid hum. Priced at $2,995 US, the Allaso is distributed worldwide.
Tucked away in the ELAC room was an interesting power conditioning unit developed by Scott Rust of 512 Engineering for Tim Murutani, the Symmetrical Power Source. The 140-pound unit clearly contains some very large transformers. The product literature seems to reject the filtering approach taken by other power conditioners, suggesting that it rejects power grid noise purely through the use of balancing the phase of the AC signal, claiming that line filtering limits current delivery. Pricing is to be determined but the distributor indicated a price would be about $22,000.
Nagra’s only “new” product (first shown in Munich but now in production) was its HD Preamp, a dual mono, tube preamplifier fitted into two boxes bearing the classic Nagra Swiss crafted look, meter and switches. At $59,500 US or £54,900, it won’t be for everybody. Nagra is working on an HD phono preamplifier to fill out its HD line.
The Parasound room featured the Halo JC 3 Jr. phono preamplifier, due to ship soon after the show. With a manufacturer’s suggest price of $1,495, Parasound is bringing John Curl’s legendary phono design skills to a its most affordable level yet. The front panel is simplicity itself, with only an on/off and mono buttons. The back panel sports high quality XLR and RCA outputs and RCA inputs, a switch for Moving Coil or Moving Magnet, a continuously variable MC impedance control and a switch allowing three gain choices.
Constellation was showing two upgraded products. It’s Audio Centaur II mono amps ($80,000 the pair) are said to offer tighter bass than the original model. The Cygus Media Player/DAC ($38,000) has now added Roon. The all Constellation set-up was feeding a pair of Wilson Audio Alexia Series II speakers ($58,000) with an analog front end by Continuum Audio Labs, producing some of the finest sound at the show.
Korg, best known for its professional gear, was some newly developed technology, a chipset called the NuTube. Like a vacuum tube, the chip has an anode grid filament structure and is said to operate the same as a triode vacuum tube. Korg packaged several NuTubes into a prototype phono equalizer. The unit ticked some fascinating boxes—battery power and equalization curves. Korg also displayed a prototype preamplifier developed by Nelson Pass using NuTubes.
Audioquest’s power products were in line in several rooms throughout the show, nowhere to better effect than in The Audio Alternative room featuring VTL electronics and Vandersteen Audio Model Seven MKII loudspeakers and Sub Nine Subwoofers. Nothing says “power” like a pair of VTL Siegfried Series II monoblock power amplifiers. Standing between the Siegrfrieds and the wall was Audioquest’s Niagara 5000 (a Niagara 7000 isolated the front end) and a number of runs of its top of the line Dragon Hi Current Power cords and Hurricane Power Cords.
COOLEST NEW INNOVATION
The NuTech technology, discussed above, was far and away the coolest new innovation, in a year a bit short on innovation.
BEST SOUND OF SHOW, SENSIBLY PRICED
While the show again featured several “entry level” rooms, none of them impressed me as giant killers, and one of them (the $5,000 room) was locked every time I stopped by. Climbing from entry to sensibly price, however, the system in the Fort Collins Audio room was an oasis of excellent sound. Two Spendor models, the A4 for $3,195 and D7 for $5,950, worked brilliantly in the small space of a hotel room. Digital sound was underperforming, but spinning records on the Rega P6 turntable ($1595) fitted up with an Ortofon Quintet Black ($995) brought the performance up to something I could easily live with. The system was driven by Quicksilver electronics, including the Mono 120 amplifier with the KT150 tube upgrade ($4,3945 the pair); Line stage ($995); and Phono Preamplifier ($1,595). Cables were Cardas, including the new Clear Beyond XL speaker cables (price TBD) and Cygnus cables.
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