In our final part of our round-up of Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (Editor’s note: delayed on the part of the Editor due to illness of the Editor), Roy Gregory trawls Denver in search of the best loudspeakers and digital devices. He also goes looking for the best of the best.
Magico’s new M6 floorstander is both an evolution of and a departure from the company’s existing models. The carbon nano-tech cone material has now extended to the three 10.5” bass units as well as the midrange, but the really big news is the move to a monocoque enclosure constructed from ½” thick carbon composite, including integral bracing and mated to a constrained layer aluminium baffle. If the performance comes close to justifying the claims in the press release, it should be impressive indeed – as it should be at the projected $172K asking price.
B&O Beolab 50
If the Munich launch of the Beolab 90 speaker system revealed much about B&O’s reading of the audio market, the smaller and more affordable Beolab 50 marks a serious statement of intent. A seven-way interactive, digital ready design, it uses DSP filtering to alter dispersion and balance for sweet-spot or wider audience listening (read audiophile or A/V). The funky motorized tweeter housing (all lift and separate) and smooth lines are unmistakably B&O, while their traditional customer base will find the $40K price tag reassuringly exclusive.
Revel Performa F228 Be
Revel’s latest assault on the almost affordable but genuinely high-end speaker market takes the attractive shape of the new F228 Be three-way floor-stander. It’s svelte lines and flawless finish were as attractive as its musical performance – the latter the result of extensive refinement of the driver motors and a continuing quest for ever-lower system distortion. Price is still to be determined but seems likely to be in the $20K region, with availability early next year.
Perhaps the most distinctive loudspeaker introduction at RMAF was Focal’s Kanta, a speaker that shares so much with the company’s existing products that the difference in visual identity seems all the more apparent. Essentially combining the tweeter and motor technologies of the Sopras with the now established flax cones from the Aria series, the Kanta features a massive, moulded polymer baffle coupled to a moulded wood enclosure, creating a compact and striking cabinet. Focal describe the appearance as “Obviously Made In France”: or as at least one US observer was heard to remark, “No kiddin’!”
Audio Physic Step Plus
Audio Physic’s diminutive two-way Step has always delivered remarkable soundstaging and transparency – and the latest Step Plus iteration ($2,595) is no different. Driven by an entry-level Moon integrated amp, it delivered sound that was both expansive and engaging at a price that was almost as attractive as the music it produced.
Raidho’s new XT5 represents the first fruits of a seriously beefed up design team at the Danish manufacturer. The design itself is beefed up too, the elegant, aerofoil enclosure offering twice the power handling of previous models and a noticeably more weighty, substantial balance. Even in the optional but beautiful Birdseye Maple Burl veneer, the price is a surprisingly affordable $40K. For those who have trouble with the use of that number and the term “affordable” in the same sentence, consider this: the XT5 is Raidho’s most musically convincing, best balanced and complete design to date, yet it weighs in at around a sixth of the price of the flagship D5!
Wilson Alexia Series Two
Wilson’s Alexia is the latest of the established speaker range to be updated to Mark II status, bringing it into line with Sasha 2 and the newer Alexx. The results are impressive, with the revised model displaying impressive spatial, tonal and dynamic coherence and far better overall integration. Its pairing with Constellation electronics and the Continuum turntable was notably successful, creating a seamless acoustic space and equally seamless dynamics along with natural tonal colour and texture.
Neat Iota Xplorer
Neat extended its Iota series with the squat, floorstanding, three-way Xplorer (£3,500). This interesting speaker combines the legendary Hiel AMT tweeter with their super-fast 170mm paper-coned bass-mid unit, housed in an upper, sealed chamber. Below that (in every sense), a pair of downward firing bass drivers is arranged in an isobaric loading, the “rear” unit in a ported enclosure. The sound was relaxed, open and inviting, with good rhythmic coherence and no obvious discontinuity between the mid and treble – itself quite an achievement. Available from November, the Iota Xplorer should be well worth seeking out.
Sometimes it’s not the new products that are the story, but simply the latest version of the established ones that continue to impress. Verity Audio’s flagship Lohengrin speaker system might be sixteen years young, but in its latest IIS guise (a new mid-treble crossover and inter-cabinet isolation plate, both retrofitable to existing models) it turned in a remarkable musical performance. Driven by a full set of Verity electronics and a TW Acoustics ‘table, its expansive soundstage, impressive dimensionality and fluid phrasing showed more than a few of the younger pretenders just how serious high-end should be done.
JERN14 DS Loudspeaker
Danish industrial casting company Skalform have introduced the JERN speaker brand, built around two-way weeble speakers with cast iron cabinets, available with a range of different quality drivers that spread the price from $499 to $5,300 each, as well as subs, stands and other accessories. Appearance and performance were both extremely interesting, but what really attracted my attention was the fascinating rack, based on cast conical uprights. Customers supply their own woodwork or other supporting surface, with the conical spacers offering three height options, levelling and a serious dose of Scandi styling.
Pure Audio Project Quintet 15 Horn 1
Pure Audio Project showed their largest model, the Quintet 15 to considerable effect. The curved array, open baffle speakers are both attractive and imposing. Customers assemble the speakers themselves and have various tweeter choices, ranging from Hiel or Voxativ units to fully horn-loaded compression drivers. Those eight 15” woofers certainly let the music breathe while the PAP-based horns on the show set-up were also beautifully integrated. High-performance, high-value DIY is alive and (in this case) definitely kicking.
MarkAudio-SOTA Viotti One
Driven from a modest Marantz/PS Audio system, MarkAudio-SOTA’s Viotti One standmount offered an interesting take on the standard two-way theme, running a 11cm alloy cone up to 2.4kHz, with a second, 5cm alloy cone taking over above that. An attractive but largish box, stable stand and gentle crossover made for quick, lucid sound that was impressive for the $2,495 asking price.
Thrax Lyra/Basus speakers
Every show has its crazy products and most of them are speakers, but even so the Thrax Lyra/Basus speaker system deserves a special mention. The Lyra ($19,600) has been around for a while, its horn loaded compression tweeter making it stand out from the crowd. But nest it with the $40,600 Basus subwoofers (the two elements quite literally interlocking) and you have something that, given the solid aluminium cabinetry, is almost certainly as immovable as it is visually imposing!
Micromega M One 100/150
Micromega did a Devialet, only to rather more impressive musical effect and in a rather more stylish package (at least to these eyes and ears). The single aluminium chassis accepts multiple analogue and digital inputs, is compatible with all popular streaming services, is network capable, can be disposed horizontally or vertically and can be specified in any RAL paint finish. The junior model ($5,000) delivers 100 Watts of Class A/B power and offers optional room EQ, the MARS system, which comes as standard on the more powerful 150 ($7,500). The musical results when teamed with a colour-matched pair of Focal Scala Utopias suggest that this is a lot more than just a pretty face.
Sonore Signature Rendu SE
Sonore made their name with a range of affordable, high-performance computer audio peripherals. The Signature Rendu SE signals a move up market, although at $3,295 the price-tag is still hardly stratospheric. Designed to accept a network streamed digital signal and convert it to a high-quality USB output, the Rendu features an EI transformer, a substantial power supply with heavy regulation and a Femto oscillator, all in an effort to deliver a ripple free, jitter free signal.
Esoteric N-01 Network Audio Player
Showing that streamed audio sources are not only the preserve of budget boxes sold over the interweb, Esoteric launched their $20K N-01 network player. Featuring the DAC chip and digital circuitry from the Grandioso CD player, in what is becoming an increasingly familiar theme, the unit also employs multiple, independent power supplies and massive reservoir capacitance, naturally all of which is housed in Esoteric’s substantial aluminium case work.
AURALiC Aries G2/VegaG2 Streaming Solution
With file replay systems apparently in every room, their ubiquity served mainly to demonstrate just how far they’ve still got to come if they are going to prove a credible high-end source. Of the exceptions to that rule the best was the AURALiC room, where their latest Aries G2 Wireless Streaming Transporter (server) and Vega G2 DAC fed a pair of their Merak amplifiers and YG Acoustics Carmel 2 loudspeakers, producing unexpectedly sweet, lucid and engaging sound. Throw in the neat styling and beautiful finish and AURALiC could carve themselves a serious niche in this crucial market.
The diminutive Korg DS-DAC-10R may be small but it’s definitely mighty, offering full DSD 2.8 and 5.6MHz A-to-D and D-to-A encoding/decoding as well as PCM to 24/192, all for a paltry £500. But throw in the included moving-magnet input and DSP implementation of phono EQ (RIAA, NAB, Columbia, FFRR-Decca, AES) and this could just be the ultimate affordable vinyl archiving device.
Wavelength Audio Europa V2
Gordon Rankin, the man behind AudioQuest’s remarkable DragonFly and other portable DACs, showed a new addition to his own, Wavelength range. Based on micro triode devices, the Europa v2 (to the left of the flagship Crimson DAC) is a modular DAC preamp, with both an optically isolated 32/348 capable USB and analogue inputs. There’s also a 24/96 TosLink and you can expect uprated digital and optical inputs in the future, as well as network connectivity, all remotely controllable of course. Wavelength, in association with Vaughn loudspeakers are one of the few exhibitors to deliver consistently excellent sound from file-replay, making this a particularly interesting introduction.
PS Audio P20 Powerplant
PS Audio launched their most powerful regenerator to date, in the substantial shape of the P20. Boasting an 1850VA output and a range of AC optimization tools to ensure that you get the voltage you want and nothing but the voltage you want, this looks like a serious step up on the established P10, although at what price only time will tell.
Mark Levinson No. 585.5 Integrated Amp
When the Levinson 585 arrived, it had big shoes to fill and plenty of competition, but it didn’t just better the wonderful 383 that preceded it, it pretty much crushed all-comers in the high-end integrated market, combining a superb DAC with plenty of genuine Levinson power. The .5 suffix denotes the inclusion of the promised phono section, the same as used in the 523 and 526 pre-amps, making the 585 an even more versatile device. The non-phono 585 continues at $12,000, while the 585.5 will cost $16,000. Owners of existing units will be able to upgrade, but it will necessitate a trip back to the manufacturer or distributor, as it involves a new rear panel as well as the internal work.
Cambridge Audio showed a pair of artfully disguised “prototypes” – an ambitious pre/power combination set to sell at £4K per box. The pre-amp will feature a sophisticated digital input section as well as balanced and single-ended analogue circuitry. The power amp is a warm-running 200 watt, DC coupled design with a clever servo arrangement, serious power supply and twin contra-wound toroidal transformers. Both units are much nearer to completion than appearances might suggest, with delivery scheduled for early next year. “Levinson performance at real world prices” burbled the irrepressible Dominic Baker: time will tell, but it certainly looks like it could be fun finding out.
Tidal Audio Presencio/Ferios amplifiers and Akira loudspeakers with TW-Acustic Raven turntable
The Voice That Is showed what was arguably the most expensive system at RMAF: fortunately it was also the best sounding. The Akira speakers that so impressed in a large room at the Munich show two years ago were this time deployed to equally impressive musical effect in a hotel bedroom. This might have been a single seat, single source set up, but sit in that hot seat, play a record and the system, the room and the end wall simply disappeared. If you ever wondered what a time and space machine might cost, the answer is around half a million dollars!
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