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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest – Part Two

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest – Part Two

If there is one term that describes the audio industry, it’s that we collectively ‘put on a good face!’ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is a perfect example of this. As discussed previously, the hotel was running late on its rebuild and as a consequence exhibitors were given rooms of different sizes or dimensions to the ones they anticipated, and some were moved into temporary spaces. Also, many of the international representatives and travelling demonstrators were exhibiting signs of show overload as a result of a constant stream of departure lounges and hotel lobbies, seeing the world through the window of a taxi, and living out of a suitcase for months at a time.

RMAF is a fixture on a now very contended international audio events circuit. It vies for its place amid a travelling circus that moves from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, then Tokyo, Silverstone, Denver, London, Toronto, Copenhagen, Old Windsor, New York, Warsaw, and so on in a matter of a few short weeks in the Autumn of each year. It would be easy for major brands to skip at least one of these events, and – being considered more of a local than a national event – RMAF could be the one in the cross-hairs. And yet, the friendliness and laid-back approach of RMAF wins out year upon year. Long may it continue!

Of course, that seemingly endless stream of audio shows in the latter half of the year does pose some ennui problems for readers too, which is why we’ve focused primarily on new products in these round ups. Please note, however, as RMAF is effectively the last major show in the headphone However, there are a few good rooms that deserve praise irrespective of whether or not they featured new products.

3Beez is not a brand commonly seen outside of the US, which is a shame because its top Wax Box 4SE music server seems a very impressive piece of digital electronics. The latest iteration includes a new ‘BitScrubber’ noise elimination board, the company’s own Wax music management software (PC driven, but also on an intranet web-page for tablet users), and more. This $6,000 digital front end showed a lot of promise.

The TechDAS turntables are proving to be some of the most popular designs at the top-end of the high-end. At $27,000, the Air Force III is the brand’s  ‘entry level’ model. It has been shown at several events since its launch earlier this year, but this was its first sonic outing, and really rather spectacular it is too!

BelCanto’s impressive Black Series was the darling of 2015’s show circuit. The line is joined this year by the $25,000 ACI 600 integrated amplifier, a full-spec 300W design complete with phono stage, DAC, Ethernet streaming, MQA support, an impressive headphone amp. Again seen but not heard earlier this year, this sounded very tasty coupled to a pair of Verity Parsifal Anniversary loudspeakers and WyWires Diamond cabling.

Bricasti Design recently added the M12 source controller to the (gold and black) M1 DAC and M28 mono power amplifiers. However, at RMAF, Bricasti completed the line up with the new $18,000 M15 stereo amplifier, essentially taking all the benefits of the M28s in a single stereo chassis. This system (sporting ZenSati cables and Tidal loudspeakers) was extremely precise and detailed.

Burwell and Sons is a maker of very fine horn loudspeakers, based around the classic Altec Voice of the Theater designs. The company trawls modernising movie theatres in search of classic Altec and Western Electric loudspeaker units, that are lovingly restored, and implanted into some of the nicest looking cabinets this side of Living Voice Vox Olympians. This particular set – the deliciously named $80,000 Mother of Burl – came complete with a pair of subwoofers to handle the bass, and the room was driven effortlessly by these reborn classics.

 

Crystal Cable has been showing prototypes of its Cube System for some time, but it’s now in its ready to roll form. The 200W $16,995 system in a box that draws heavily from sister brand Siltech’s unique SAGA amplifier system. It’s a perfect partner for the company’s Arabesque Minissimo loudspeakers and Dreamline Plus cables, also shown at the show. In many respects, this is the ideal small-but-perfectly-formed audio system.

MartinLogan was playing its new additional lines in its Masterpiece series. The company had set up the $14,999/pr Expression ESL 13A floorstanding hybrid electrostatic loudspeaker using the optional Anthem Room Correction system, which makes a lot of sense in the home, and an awful lot of sense in a hotel room! The Expression ESL 13 A, the second of four models in the new range (not including the mighty Neolith), sounded great as a result.

French brand Métronome Technologie requires a little bit of explaining now. Both are subsets of the same company, but the Métronome name is now reserved for its standard sized digital devices, while the name Kalista appears on the top end three-footed reference models from the company. So the old top-end DAC – the Métronome Kalista – has been replaced by the new Kalista, an elegant tripod arrangement with two separate DACs and two different output stages to suit the needs of the digital signal it receives. A matching touch-screen Kalista CD transport was shown at Warsaw apparently. The Métronome Music Center 1 music server was also on hand.

Yes, RMAF is a high-end show, but not all things on show are that high-end. Take NAD for example. The brand’s new C 368 Hybrid Digital DAC amplifier from its classic series is a full streaming design (and even includes a phono stage) in very much the NAD tradition minted with the legendary 3020 amplifier of more than 30 years ago. With a pair of PSB Imagine XB loudspeakers, this $899 system in a box sounded extremely easy on the ear.

The new $799 Oppo Sonica DAC/headphone amp is designed to be the company’s core desktop product, but also fits well into a decent audio system. Combining an ability to play virtually every file format (apart from MQA), stream from a network, computer, USB stick or connected drive as well as traditional digital audio sources. Sonica is built around the new top ESS ES9038PRO Sabre DAC.

 

Peachtree and Zu Audio work well together sonically and philosophically. Both are trying to upturn the ideals and ideas of high-end audio by making high performance products at good value. The demonstration in a large room switched between two Peachtree integrated amps and several large and small speakers. The star of the show was the Zu Soul Supreme (in vivid blue at $4,500 per pair) playing through the excellent and upcoming Peachtree Decco125. This smart amp-meets-headphone-DAC made a thrilling large-room filling sound, and is expected to cost $999 without WiFi and $1,199 with. This has to be one of the true value stars of the show!

Synergistic Research had one of the most packed rooms at the show. Even during the slow-down Sunday, Ted Denney’s room was constantly packed out, as he showcased the performance of the brand’s latest UEF treatment to every aspect of an audio system. The system itself set a high bar in a low room, featuring Berkeley digital and VAC analogue electronics, and a pair of Magico S3 loudspeakers in a room too small for such a system. Regardless, Synergistic’s systematic treatment brought out the quality of the sound impressively. The latest component in the system is the new PowerCell 12 UEF ($5,995 in its full glass-topped glory) line conditioner, which uses graphene in its EM cell system, and reclocks the AC with the Earth’s Schumann resonance!

Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio Specialities talks us through the finer points of the new $25,500 Yvette. Wilson Audio seems pathologically incapable of making a bad loudspeaker, but the Yvette (which replaces the Sophia 3) is exceptional, even by the standards of category-defining speakers like the Sabrina and Alexia. Yet another Daryl Wilson design, the new three-way, easy driving, 175lb single box loudspeaker – played through a fine Brinkmann/dCS/VTL/HRS/Nordost system – was one of the high-points of the show, even if the total cost came to more than half a million dollars. 

Wyred 4 Sound was showing two new products at the show. It’s new SX-1000R mono power amp is a real power house, delivering 625W into eight ohms, and yet costs just $1,499 per unit. It’s joined by the $499 PS-1 modular linear power supply, that takes the place of up to four wall-wart PSUs and delivers high-grade DC juice without switch mode supply noise!

 

Zesto Audio’s new $12,000 all-tube Téssera phono stage looked fabulous in the flesh; and not too shabby on screen, too. With the exception of sharing the same case and power cord, the Téssera is completely dual-mono (even down to doubling up the controls on the front panel) and made a great sound via a Merrill Williams REAL 101.2 turntable, Zesto’s Andros amplification, and Marten Django loudspeakers.

While most of our round-up of new products discusses those devices that were ‘in play’ rather than ‘on show’, we were rather taken with the $9,900 VAC linestage preamp. Matching the Phi range of continuous auto bias power amps, this new preamp (with optional phono stage) uses circuitry and components from VAC’s high-end and super-high-end ranges.

Like many of the best US products, brands like Vinni Rossi often miss the credit they deserve outside of the country. In fairness, the exposed tubes of the company’s LIO integrated amplifier might prove difficult to get past the CE-marking police in mainland Europe, but this $11,000 modular amplifier and optional power supply, driven by a pair of Harbeth Super HL5 Plus speakers, was one of the most effortless sounding systems of the event.

VPI’s $21,000 Avenger Reference turntable has been shown at a number of shows, but never quite like this! Possessed of multiple arms sitting on multiple outriggers for stereo and mono performance, the Avenger aced it all. In single arm-guise, VPI’s Prime and Avenger turntables were some of the most popular choices at the show, and Mat Weisfeld was one of the most exhausted men at the show, having to deliver decks to almost every floor!

Finally, there were three rooms that deserve to be singled out for making an exceptional sound. The first was the Luxman/Eclipse room, because once a day Philip O’Hanlon of distributor On a Higher Note played an hour’s worth of classic mono recordings on a giant Luxman reference turntable from the 1970s. The newest LP played was 50 years old, and many were well into their mid-60s. Say what you want about stereo, but one channel of effortless, dynamic, and vivid sound is hard to beat.

Next up, Sanders Sound Systems. This $26,000 preamplifier, ESL stereo power amplification, and Model 10e electrostatic loudspeaker package from the brand might not have been exactly new, and firing-across-the-room, three chairs in a row layout was not particularly interior-design friendly, but the even-handedness and sheer ability for music to breathe made this one of the true stars of the show. Sanders consistently wins ‘best in show’ plaudits for good reason.

Finally, one of the more satisfying and uniformly best loved systems at RMAF featured a Kronos turntable, arm, and EMT cartridge, Nagra Classic amplification and Avalon Acoustics Indra Diamond loudspeakers, with al the equipment resting on Modulum racks and using top Kubala Sosna cables and power conditioning. This was one of those high-end systems that looks great and sounds even better. A true star system worthy of wrapping up any show report!

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