A First-Timer Hits RMAF 2010

Notes to self:

First, if I ever get lucky enough to escape for another trip to RMAF, go early and stay late. Day One is a bewildering zoo but Day Three is (by contrast at least) almost bereft of attendees which makes it an ideal time to button hole hung over designers.

Second, rent a car. Denver is a great town, but unless I want to eat hotel-food, the Tech Center area isn’t a great place to get stuck. Besides, cab rides from the airport to that area are $65 each way, so renting a car is almost a wash. Okay, it’s not, but the flexibility is worth it.

Third, go to demos not to seminars. Every seminar I went to was very lame (of course, I didn’t hit them all as I had to bolt early on Sunday and was too overwhelmed on Friday) and I managed to miss some interesting stuff. Like the discussion and demo for Stein (seems like voodoo), LessLoss Blackbody (totally seems like voodoo) and Nordost cabling (absolute voodoo). The talks with Harry Pearson, Steven Stone or Mike Mercer I could easily and happily replaced with a trip to the head (which I did). My apologies to the esteemed panel people. I suppose you could chalk this up to the truism that great writers do not necessarily make great speakers, but nonetheless I was totally bummed me out because I think there were a lot of great topics that could have been covered and just weren’t. Of course, not a single topic is coming to mind …

Fourth, go with or meet up with other ‘philes. Got to meet Chris, Ted_B & Barrows from CA, which was fun. Giving Barrows the beat-down live and in person was just great (I’m totally kidding) — it’s a shame Clay wasn’t there! But in that 45 minutes, I managed to pick up an entire agenda for the following day — going after stuff they’d seen and heard. And swapping stories with the folks in the Super Shuttle on the way back to the airport was hilarious. Man, we are an OPINIONATED bunch.

Fifth, take a better camera. Maybe a ‘pod of some kind. I have a couple hundred photos from the trip, but that little pocket cam is annoying. Bad lighting everywhere meant I needed to use a flash and direct-flash from a compact is just awful. And holding a camera utterly still for a half second is WAY harder than it sounds. The DSLR, bulky and clunky though it is, is worth the hassle.

Sixth, and lastly, take notes. There are a lot of rooms at the Marriott and all are jammed full of cool gear. But three days is a lot of time to get through it all (or most of it) and so there’s really no reason to only stay in a room for 17.6 seconds (time for a quick snapshot).

Ok, some disclaimers: I went to this show looking for vinyl playback. So, if the focus tends to fall on that side of the spectrum, well, it’s on purpose. Besides, vinyl photographs better than DACs, so there. Also, the photos on ‘Bucket are all uncropped, so they’re big, which seems to make this blog have some kind of fit — which means they might get chopped. Click through for the fullness of the glory if they look a little abbreviated. Also, I didn’t touch any of these up — so, no parallax correction, no color correction, no highlights, nada, nothing, zip. If I ever get paid to go, maybe I’ll fiddle more. Until then, you get what you get, you ingrate.

Another side note: “they” say that sound quality at shows is often hit-or-miss. At RMAF this year, this was definitely true. Most rooms sounded “good”. Very few sounded “great” or “bad”. A finer distinction than that was really hard! Some rooms were absolutely packed with bodies. Many had room treatments or EQ of some kind. Some didn’t. I didn’t get hung up on it. It was all good … until it wasn’t. 😉

So, after walking in the door and getting myself all square with The Man, I went in search of music. Acoustic Sounds and May and a couple of used vinyl shops had a big room on the main floor. I went in … and promptly remembered that getting to Denver was a total PITA. TSA happily confiscated my toothpaste, shaving cream & shampoo and the Delta flight attendants were SO eager to charge me $30 for the privilege of letting me fly with my bags …. Anyway, adding a big bag of vinyl was out of the question. But a few CDs … oh why not. I picked up some K2HD & DXD recordings, including “We Get Requests” and “Getz/Gilberto”. Simply OUTSTANDING sounding recordings. Much thanks to the forum members who turned me on to FIM mastering. Stupendous!

I’ve never seen a Triplanar tonearm live and in person before. Nice piece of work. The “look” is rather industrial for me, but the sound was great. The big speakers, I think from Classic Audio, were insanely imposing and sounded great. Burl wood, anyone? The Kuzma Stabi Reference and Atma-Sphere rig very handily rounded out the room.

I think earflappin’ might recognize these! Atma-Sphere MA-60 OTL amplifiers! I think these things are awesome. Some find the design a bit offputting — a bit utilitarian for the price — but I find them charming. And the sound just kicks ass all over the place. Never heard them? Think: neutral and extended on the treble with an “organic” (ie, a bit soft) super-low end. Extremely listenable, and if anecdotal reports from friends are worth anything, they’re tanks that’ll battle on for decades.

I think I might have liked the Empirical Audio room more if I hadn’t been forced to grab my skull and some towels to clean up the blood that kept flooding out of my ears every time I went in there. It was as if Steve was deliberately trying to kill me, the SPLs in there were so high. Sound was good, but asking Steve questions was totally impossible. The big Salk speakers were definitely lookers. Great sound from this room — well, let’s just say that it sounded great in the hall outside the room.

Acapella put together a beautifully sounding room. This is one of those speakers I wish I could afford; I’m a big horn fan (“straight ahead and strive for tone”) and for that, this room couldn’t be beat. That is, until one of the plasma tweeters blew. Whoops. Still, the speakers make very pretty (silent) sculptures.

Color me a fan of Aesthetix. Their room with Hansen Audio was just great. That Clearaudio table is absurd (but fun!). Look at the size of that thing! Sound in here was some of the best at the show. Top 3, easy.

All the gear in here was new to me. I’ve never heard Aesthetix, Hansen or Clearaudio. Together, the rig was “aspirational” — and if you have the cash, go for it. If I had the flexibility of redo-ing my rig, this is a direction I’d be happy to go in.

Did I mention that I loved the sound in this room?

Peachtree was running guided demos all weekend. I guess that kept down the question as to why the were running their new $1k DAC (based on the Nova) into a Simaudio Moon W7/P7 driving a pair of Sonus Faber Stradivaris. What is that, like $70k worth of gear? Crazy. Unfortunately, I think the sound in this room could have been better. Wasn’t bad, but not up to the quality I’d expected from the gear. Was it the fault of the DAC? The room? Barrows & Ted_B chatting about op-amps and HDMI diverters? Who’s to say. But those speakers sure were easy on the eyes. Delicious — and no, I didn’t lick them, though I was sorely tempted.

Here’s another oddity. I went up to the Towers to specifically hunt down Walter Liederman’s (Underwood Wally) newest venture, Spatial Computing. Spatial is all about Mac-based room EQ, speaker crossover & audio playback. The Emerald Physics 2.3 (or was it 2.7?) speakers were driven bi-amp by Wyred4Sound (low) and Modwright (high) with the Orpheus Prism doing DAC/EQ/crossover duties.

Just down the hall, the EP speakers (either the 2.3 or the 2.7, whichever wasn’t in the Spatial rom, oh, and the 2.7 is a 2.3 but with upgraded tweeters for an additional $2-3k or so) were being driven by Wyred amps, but the DAC duties this time were handled by a Wyred DAC2.

In a “compromised environment” like a hotel room, Walter told me years ago, the EP speakers would shine. And given the fancy room-EQ and “better” DAC that the Prism offered over the Wyred, the Spatial room should have been head-and-shoulders better than the companion Wyred room.

It didn’t happen. At all. Oops. All I can say is that if I were looking for a DAC, I’d be looking up Wyred4Sound.

Interesting, I had several people tell me that they had the exact opposite reaction to mine. Yes, I’m sure they were brain damaged and aurally compromised, but it did cause me to wonder. Unfortunately, a re-listen didn’t change my mind.

While the Quad room wasn’t the “best in show” in terms of sound quality, it was pretty high up there. Either that, or I’m a Quaddie. Anyway, I thought the Quad ESL 2805s driven by Quad IIs was just wonderful. Jazz fan? Look no further.

There were two Daedalus/Galibier rooms, stacked right on top of each other (literally). In the “top flight room”, the new Stelvio II from Galibier was on display I think there was a Durand Talea arm ($8k) on there for half the show, then a Schroder Reference ($6k) got put on there on Saturday night (which was something of a drama, apparently, as Frank decided to setup his arm during the after-hours party (and took an hour to do so). Artists, what can you do.

Interestingly, Green Mountain Audio had a pair of Calypso speakers in that room too. In a corner, disconnected, with a sign offering an apology as to why they were not going to be played. Apparently, the Atma-Sphere amps they had on hand simply couldn’t drive them well. Whoops. Pity, that, because I’ve never heard GMA speakers, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about them. Now, I hear they’re pigs to drive. Good to know ….

[edit: Roy of GMA posted on his site about some of the difficulties he was having with low voltage at the show and how the Atma-Sphere MA-60s were just not cutting it into the 5-ohm GMA Calypsos. So, to be fair, calling the Calypsos “pigs” is a bit unfair. Acknowledged. But that said, there were a lot of speakers on display at the show that sounded superb and did so with middling-efficiency on middling-output amps at the crappy show conditions. The fact that the GMAs could have done with better, higher-output amps or better power conditioning is a bit beside the point. At the very best, this is terrifically bad planning. At the very worst, well, they’re pigs to drive. Not that that pigs are bad — everyone knows that pigs are the tastiest creatures to have ever graced this Earth. Mmm. Bacon ….]

Oh, and I don’t care what Roy says. Marigo Mystery Feet are just plain weird.

The Stelvio & Stelvio II are honking big tables, all chromed to hell and gone, and run from $15k for the “original” to just shy of $30k for the new II. At that price, I don’t really get it, but maybe that’s me.

I talked to Thom Mackris a bit on Sunday and got some understanding of what’s going on at Galibier and learned that the affordable Serac is going to go bye-bye. Shame, really. His entry-level offering will now be the $9k Gavia. Also, stay tuned for some new tweaks from Thom — he’s got a mylar-replacement in the works.

Sound in this room was “good”, but not great. I’m going to give the Galibier the benefit of the doubt and lay some blame at the feet of the Ulysses speakers from Daedalus, which sounded pretty much the same in both of their rooms: uninspired. Interesting to see the Alana from Art Audio in there (nice pre). But the Modwright amps with the Daedalus is supposed to be a potent combo (or so Lou Hinkley claims), but as I mentioned — for whatever reason — the magic wasn’t there. And the Atma-Spheres didn’t make it any better.

Quick note about the woodworking of the Daedalus speakers. Everyone I talked to about the Ulysses (prior to the show) has raved not only about the heavenly sound of these speakers but also at their being marvels of woodworking. I am going to have to be one of the outliers, I guess. I think they look nice, but I suppose I’d have preferred to see the wood and grain match even a little from panel to panel. Oh well.

The biggest surprise for me came from a rather unassuming room playing the LSA 1 monitor speakers. I think the mojo missing from the Daedalus/Galibier room had gone on break and wound up spending some time in here. The sound was big and open and immediately put a grin on my face. My second thought, right after the “hey hey!” was that more non-speaker manufacturers should do these cramped-quarters shows with monitor speakers. They not only fit better in the room, they have less that will fight with it, and hence, have a better chance of sounding better. Great room, but since I didn’t take any notes, I have no idea what else was in here. 😉 I’m told that the rest of the gear was all LSA.

Aside from the oddball speakers, the PS Audio room was a snoozer. Sound was good, but IMO, not exceptional.

The Eficion room sounded nice. Again, not remarkable in the show conditions, but nice nonetheless.

The Acoustic Zen / Triode Corporation room was interesting for a variety of reasons. First, the Crescendo speakers are really nice for their price. The fit and finish is great, they’re imposing and actually do throw big-speaker sound. And being driven by Triode’s amps amply showed how a middlingly efficient (90dB) speaker can be very well handled by a mid-power tube amp. Oh, and Triode’s gear was very posh. Got a chance to chat with Robert Lee a bit, which was fun, and I got to tell him I’d bought piles of cables from him (which I’ve since sold in favor of Blue Jeans Cables, but I didn’t mention that for some reason).

I’m sure someone can tell me why building speaker cabinets out of acrylic is a great idea, but to me, it seems … well … silly. Waterfall Audio’s speaker line, driven by an all-Cary Audio lineup, sounded good but looked great. Definitely a show piece, but as to being something more than eye-candy, well, another time, another place, as several revisits made it quite clear that a “good” audition was going to be near impossible in this very popular room without being smashed cheek to jowl with my fellows.

Playback’s room was another must-see (apparently), and auditions were accordingly in demand. SQ was good in here, but I wasn’t so taken aback that I felt compelled for a further look. Good? Sure.

“The Beat” looked neat — and at such stratospheric price, it damn well better sound better in real life than it did at the show.

The Ayre room was another rather boring disappointment. The Vienna Acoustics speakers sounded fine, but didn’t “fill the room” — the imaging was all lateral and very flat. The gear was interesting, though. Got to fondle the new DX-5 and the DPS turntable with the DPS arm — very nice.

This show was also the first time I got to hear Zu speakers. And seeing the Zu Crew dressed up like Al Capone’s henchmen was pretty cool. And cool was the sound in their main room, with the green Superfly on aural display. Very good sound in here. Great speakers? Great gear? Great room acoustics? Or the pair of shot glasses next to the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black on the rack? Hard to say. But it worked.

Wood Artistry had a pair of their reskinned Linkwitz Lab Orions on display. Having heard these before in someone’s home, I will say that they sounded much much better here at the show — perhaps the kit version you can get just isn’t up to the quality you’d get from a woodworking pro — a surprise, I’m sure. And these speakers will surprise you — that hand-built crossover and amp is something else. I’m enthusiastic.

Best sound in show? Hard to say, but Vandersteen’s 7’s are on my short list. While the “sweet spot” isn’t that big — Barrows thought it was more than a head-in-a-vise, but not much — the sound was spectacular. Love these. Want them! Or a new BMW. One or the other. Which brings me to another rant — speakers over $20k are silly. Speakers over twice that are stupid. Even if they are nice.

One of my main motivators for going to the show was, as I’ve mentioned, to check out the vinyl scene. One of the rooms I was most looking forward to, therefore, was TTWeights. Their direct drive turntables are said to be some of the most finely machined pieces available today, but the question remained — worth it?

I visited this room each of the three days, and each day, the sound in the room was good. Not great, but good. The room was jammed full of 3 tables, the mid-tier Onyx, the entry-level Gem, and the upgraded Gem. All three were of superior workmanship and after visiting with Joel & Stephen, I am convinced that these guys are true enthusiasts — they so obviously love what they’d doing and explaining every little thing about the tables. It was great, but I’m looking forward to some reviews by folks that can hear them in a much quieter venue.

I think my favorite sound at the show came from the Genesis room. I’d never seen nor heard the G5.3s before, which is a shame, because these monsters just sounded spot on each time I swung by. Great sound. Clean, uncluttered mids, extended treble, deep seamles bass response. Wish they were cheaper. Oh well.

The Soundsmith room was like walking into vinyl heaven. Hee hee! There was so much here to see and touch and play with. The new Cartwright should solve just about every setup problem simply (VTA, azimuth, &c), but sadly it’s a bit costly at $800. Peter was showing off his Strain Gauge system on the second arm on both the VPI HRX and the Teres Certus he had on display (the glowing blue bits). After an a/b switch, I clearly preferred the Sussuro, though.

Another favorite of mine was Still Audio (?) showing off his brand new 45-driven amps pushing a huge 1.5wpc into some baby Rethm speakers. These little guys with their oddball shape and Lowther drivers sounded fantastic. Great bass, effortless everything else. Very surprising. The amps and pre are all new from Still — and Still is itself very new. Very impressive freshman showing and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them in the future.

Von Schweikert Audio had a couple of their new more moderately priced VR-33 speakers in a couple of rooms. One of those rooms had a Kronzilla amp! Good sound in here, and easily on par with rooms 3x the price.

My favorite room was the Highwater Sound suite. For our aural pleasure, Jeff built us a sauna. I mean it — with all those Tron and Thoress tube amps going, I was sweating my balls off. On one side of the room, he had a pair of Horning speakers driven by Tron and fronted by a TW Acustic Raven AC and a Raven One. On the other side, he had a pair of Aspara speakers fed by Thoress and fronted by the new TW Raven Black Night. All of the TW turntables are excellent — and according to TW himself, the audible differences between them are not huge. Want to save yourself some cash? Buy the Raven One and never look back, says he. Fascinating. And refreshing!

If you’ve not seen one, the TW Tonearm is a nice piece of kit, but even more interesting (to me at least) was that the cart driving that $45k Black Night was the Ortofon Cadenza Black. Our man TW isn’t shy about sharing his opinions. And apparently a $2300 cart isn’t out of place on a table 20x the price. Very interesting indeed.

Did I mention that the sound in here was fantastic? On either end? It was!

Legacy Audio is one of those companies that I’ve been interested in for quite a while. The Whisper XD (upgraded xover) is big, new, and dead-sexy. I love the speed of the open-baffle design, but while I was very happy with the wall-of-sound it generated, I was left wanting something.

I’ll admit it — I’ve never heard an Avalon that I actually liked. Until the Transcendant. This is a very nice speaker — even in show conditions. Definitely made the best-in-show class.

Not being press, I didn’t get invited to the VTL thingie on Friday. So, out of spite, I waited till Sunday to go. And I’m glad I did — it was a great way to end the show. Like the Avalon, I’ve never heard a Wilson sound like it was worth it’s price. But … the Saschas driven by the new VTL amp did sound very nice. Again, best-in-show class. Worth the price? Hard to say. But that dCS rack was pretty neato. Gimme!

Another room I could live with: Red Wine Audio driving some Zu Essence speakers. The Zus, a wonderful pea-green with a matte finish that begs to be touched, sounded easy and wonderful. Last word on detail? No. But they sure did boogie. And all that RWA gear is so quiet … Isabella + 70.2 monos drove the Zus to deafening levels all off of the Lithium batteries.

Vinnie, the RWA man himself, was there groovin to the tunes. He told me that not only are there beefier amps on the way (100+wpc) in the new year, there’s going to be a tube-based phono stage too. Given how great the sound was in this room, I’m going to keep an eye on RWA and I suggest you do too.

After all the Stereophile reviews of the great big Revel speakers, I’ve always wanted to hear them. So I did at the show. First off, they’re huge. Second off, they sound huge. And I mean HUGE. I get what all the fuss is about. And those Mark Levinson amps are hilariously big, too. Note to Harman — next time, find a bigger room.

I stumbled on CanJam totally by accident as it was tucked away in a corner like some kind of embarrassing step child. Got to hear some great headphones, like the new Sennheiser HD 800s, but nothing that could touch my beloved Stax. Heh. But, maybe, possibly, I’d consider switching if I got to have one of Ray Samuels’ new Emmaline head-amp rigs. Though, at $5k, that’s a bit much for a headphone-only setup. But it sure was nice! Also got to try the Cary SEI 300 as a head-amp, which at a mere $3k, doesn’t seem like much of a bargain.

Following Ted_B’s advice, I looked up the EAR room on Sunday morning — and sat down very happily for a few minutes before reluctantly slinking off to go in search of my ride to the airport. Yes, Ted_B — that Acute CD player is very nice! Love those Marten speakers! But the real marvel was the Townshend turntable. It had this really interesting Helius tonearm. Me want!

Gordon had a nice little setup in the Wavelength room. Got to fondle the Wavelink, a Brick, his high-end DACs (I think he was driving everything from his Crimson) and a few other odd bits. His amps sound very nice and made really great sound with the Vaughn speakers. I’d never heard or heard of Vaughn speakers, so this was quite a treat –and I left being very impressed with them and with how well Gordon’s amps handled them. All I had expected of this room were some great DACs … well, you learn something new every day.

And I don’t care what anyone says. LessLoss’ Blackbodies are reedonkulous.

I can’t remember who these guys are, but their speakers were nice. And HUGE. Interestingly, it’s the same speaker — the smaller of the two is simply housed inside the bigger one, in it’s own isolated and buffered chamber. With the additional two giant over-under subwoofers, of course. Gotta say, totally ballsy. But I can think of no possible universe where I’m gonna be able to swing the biggies — even in my home theater rig.

Tyler & Silver Circle had a good sounding room, as did Coincident. Neither stood out, but both were better-than-average.

On a lark, I went in search of Jeff Joseph’s room to see what he was showing off. I’d caught his Pulsars & Pearls at the DC show in June and had been very happily blown away. I’m happy to report that at RMAF, the Pulsars were just phenomenal. I really want these speakers! At $7k, and based on what I heard, they are a steal — and in those cramped conditions, the Pulsars were easily on par with the best at the show.

Another fun discovery was Gallo’s new mystery speakers. As yet unnamed, these feature his latest tweeter, but now constrained to a mere 180 degrees from the 270 of his Reference 3.5s. More interestingly — the woofers all fire forwards! No more side-firing craziness. Show conditions were not great for Tony, though, so I expect to see or hear some more before launch. I thought they sounded pretty good for a prototype though … more to come in the New Year, says Gallo.

On an earlier visit, I got to talk to “Mr Spectron”, John Ulrick, too. Great, funny guy. And his amps kick ass. On that visit, I got to hear the now famous Reference 3.5s — some great stuff, if muddled. I want to say “room” as those side firing woofers really had nowhere to go in that tiny space.

I got to hold a Sonicweld Diverter in the Sonic Studios room — this thing is a weapon!

BTW, Amarra 2.1 is coming “very soon” (like 2 weeks). More goodies! Oh, and BTW — got the skinny on some product futures. Amarra will be going 384 in 2011 and at that time Amarra Mini will be getting 24/192! Woohoo!

Dr Feickert’s Blackbird is a very nifty table. I found it in the AMR room, and it was every bit as awesome as I remembered. One distracting thing — the guy running that room needed two, maybe three less cups of coffee. NO ONE needs to move their whole body that much when “tapping their toes”. Freaky.

To close out this great show, I visited Jumping Cactus. Honestly, the name put me off and it wasn’t until the last day that I found myself in here. At 9am on Sunday, almost none of the rooms were open (yet), but the halls were strewn with beer bottles. Anyway, the Jumping Cactus room was open and something awesome was playing, so why not? In I went. I’m glad I did! They’re great! At $9500 per pair with the optional active crossover, they’re no bargain — but they’re no joke, either. A healthy 94dB efficient, they were just great — and even when driven by cheap gear, too. Does make you wonder why some of those “big boys” had so many problems even when backed by gear that cost quite a bit more than the $2k or so they were running with. Good show, Jumping Catcus!

And that’s it. My first RMAF! No idea if I’m going to make this a “thing”, but I’m up for a rematch next year. Anyone else in?