Escaping on the last jet out of Denver after the close of Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2016, I felt a little like the nervous spy-support staff member Faisil in the 1994 movie “True Lies.”
Reporting on his recent deployment activities to a grimacing, eye-patch-wearing Spencer Trilby (played with relish by Charlton Heston), Faisil is somewhat defensive about his performance.
“It’s a scale really…” he tells his boss, who already has smoke coming out of his ears, “…with a perfect mission at one end and a total pooch-screw at the other. We’re right about in the middle.”
Indeed, for your lowly Part-Time Audiophile operative, the three-day insertion into the Denver Marriott Tech Center had its challenges. From the hotel losing my reservation and an entire wing of the facility being closed for major renovation to camera struggles and general strategic-plan hurdles, I constantly was fearing the 100-plus rooms on site were going to prove to be, to cite another flick, “Mission: Impossible.”
But the rag-tag PTA crew pulled together and, in general, we wound up coming back with most of the information we’d been sent to extract. We returned a little worse for the wear, maybe, but essentially intact. And the pooch, thankfully, was unscathed.
Searching room by room
What did I learn? To start, as I was stealthily negotiating another dim room on Sunday afternoon, it occurred to me that the quality of sound being produced by the surprisingly ever-growing number of manufacturers in high-end audio has reached a level of consistency that may be unmatched in the hobby’s history.
It really is rare these days to attend a show and hear some truly poor-sounding systems, or even reproduction that is merely ho-hum. It still does occur, of course, and RMAF had at least one rig that would send dogs howling from the room. Still, compared with 10 or 15 years ago, the resolution on display was quite remarkable.
And, it’s not just that the cost-no-object rigs are getting closer to the live ideal; far-less-expensive gear is hitting the market that brings a taste of reference-level playback to those with thinner pocketbooks.
Because of this rising-tide-raises-all-boats trend, it’s getting a little harder to separate the jaw-dropping from the merely sublime for these “Best of Show” wrap-ups.
The overall level of competence in the industry, in fact, has created a new topic for us audio spies to moan about as we give each other the secret handshake in elevators or debrief over beverages in a dark corner of the hotel bar.
“What’d you hear today that blew your socks off?” someone will start. “Um, not much,” another will answer. “Maybe (any one of a number of brands), but I’ve got to go back tomorrow. They were having some issues with the (AC, room acoustics, component matching, speaker placement, cable).”
When I’m trying to narrow my picks for “Best of Show,” I usually go back to my short list of rooms for a final listen on Sunday. By then, most will have sorted out the gremlins, crowds are smaller and reps are more open to multi-song personal demos.
Now, you can actually hear some of your own music without the loud guy on the front row trying to impress the host with his encyclopedic knowledge of amplifier topology. You also come into the room carrying a different aural perspective than you had Friday, with your ears recalibrated by the experience of listening to all that other equipment with your familiar test tracks.
A rendezvous with Yvette
So, while I will reiterate that there was a lot of fine sound in mile-high Denver, there were some systems that rose to an even more rarefied level. I had my first such peak experience Thursday evening as I used my special-ops training to sneak into a lightly guarded, ground-floor room shared by Wilson Audio Specialties and VTL. My informants had revealed Wilson would un-box its Yvette floor-standing speakers at RMAF for their first step toward world domination.
Wilson had come close to turning me into a double-agent with its new $109,000-a-pair, near-statement Alexx last April at AXPONA in Chicago. Now with the new $25,500-a-pair Yvette, I was curious to discover how the Utah company would outfit a model just above its entry-level Sabrina ($15,900).
In my four visits over the weekend to hear the Yvette, it did not disappoint. Whether it was some of my own tracks such as the Cowboy Junkies’ “Rock and Bird” or a varied program of Bach, organ music and trip-hop put together by Wilson sales manager Peter McGrath, the VTL-Wilson duo never failed to impress me.
Wilson is benefitting from several crucial changes at headquarters. One is founder Dave Wilson’s decision to phase out, through the company’s entire line, his longtime-favorite titanium tweeter for a smoother, more refined silk-dome model. The other is the emergence of his son, Daryl, as a talented speaker designer in his own right.
Daryl, in fact, was instrumental in helping choose the silk-dome tweeter, even after the company had gone pretty far down the road in developing a beryllium driver. He also increasingly is the lead designer on new products, including the Alexx and Yvette, and just was named CEO. So, based on the direction Daryl is moving in voicing his creations, it appears I’m going to be including Wilson Audio on lists like these for some time to come.
I had a feeling Wilson and tube specialists VTL (which is an another fine company, run by music lovers and life partners Luke Manley and Bea Lam) would create something special, but the next exceptional room on my list came as something of a surprise.
Opening a valve
Valve Amplification Company long has been a well-regarded, tube-centric firm. When I left them at RMAF 2015, they were making some gorgeous music through a pair of the very formidable, 7-foot-tall, $180,000-a-pair Focal Grande Utopia EM Reference loudspeakers.
I suspect my college-era Yamaha receiver would sound pretty good through the Utopias, so I wasn’t sure exactly how much praise to heap on the rest of the system. This year, though, VAC brought in some of its less-expensive gear and paired it with the relatively humble — in the world of the high-end — Harbeth 40.2 monitors ($14,795 a pair).
The simple outward appearance of these stand-mounted speakers (the old ported-box arrangement) gave me no warning for what was about to emerge from its three drivers.
Driven by the VAC components in a large room, the Harbeth 40.2 flaunted its BBC roots. Without fanfare, it just got down to business and created an energy and organic, pinpoint-imaged soundstage that allowed music to emanate much as you would expect if you were on-site in the U.K. recording and monitoring a live-for-radio performance.
As I wrote in my room review, there was an overall “rightness” to the presentation that usually only exists as an ideal in my head, rather than a physical reality my ears can hear.
Overall, VAC and Harbeth created a rare synergy that made me want to throw out my own painstakingly assembled system and FedEx the entire RMAF rig to my doorstep.
Rocky Mountain high
My last two rooms of merit both were located near the end of hallways on floors in the Tech Center’s tower. Hopefully, enough show-goers braved the thinner air to hear these systems, because they left me hyperventilating.
One was a system put together by Denver retailer Soundings Fine Audio & Video. It featured Boulder electronics driving a pair of Rockport Technologies Cygnus loudspeakers ($62,500 a pair), aided by a pair of corner-situated REL Acoustics subwoofers ($3,995 each).
The drum wallop that opens Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” sounded like an artillery shell exploding and the driving accordion that followed threatened to saw my chair in half. Despite the nearly overwhelming dynamic impact of the rig and concert-worthy volume level, the sound flowed with a sense of ease and liquidity. You just wanted to soak it up, instead of run from it.
The other standout system was perched all the way up on the seventh floor, and also had the most unusual demo room. Roger Sanders of Colorado-based Sanders Sound Systems placed a single row of chairs back-to-back in the sweet spot between his Model 10e flat-panel, electrostatic-hybrid speakers ($22,500 a pair, with digital crossover/preamp/room correction and two Magtech stereo amplifiers for bi-amping).
Sitting in one of those seats, a sci-fi cloaked version of Willie Nelson appeared to be shimmering before me, leaning on an equally invisible organ, crooning the most authentic version of “Stardust” I’ve ever experienced. Every road mile of the thousands of concerts and a probably even greater number of spliffs could be heard in the sandpaper-and-honey tone of his voice, while I felt the organ’s deepest notes resonate up through my toes.
I followed this demo up with a long conversation in the hall with Sanders himself, asking him how he pulls off this 3-D holography. To get a glimpse into that chat, block out about a week to read through the fascinating engineering white papers on his website. Sanders has thought this stuff through, and then thought it through again. The proof he’s right can be heard in what may be the most revealing and accurate speakers now available anywhere at any cost.
Other than my “Best of Show” list, there were other trends I scribbled (in code, of course) in my spy notebook at RMAF. Some have been building all year, such as the disappearance of CD players. (Them: “Do you have your music on a thumb drive?” Me: “No, sorry, just CD.” Them: “Oh, really? Can’t help you then.”)
I guess this means I’m going to have to go full-on Michael Fremer and carry around my own bag of vinyl. One of my Part-Time Audiophile cohorts actually does this, so I guess 180-gram pressings of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Roxy Music’s Avalon are traveling with me next time.
In addition, the whole music server-streamer thing continues to be, well, a thing. I think the sound is improving here, but — despite a few really promising units — I’m still not ready to send my vinyl and silver discs to the landfill.
Another trend is that is the next frontier (there’s probably never a final frontier in hi-fi) appears to be in vibration control and AC power.
I saw many more rooms taking pains to control the smearing effects of component vibrations. Nordost now has a very convincing “hear it with your own ears,” with-or-without demo of its various control devices. Reps for other exhibitors also often went out of their way to point out the stability-enhancing measures they were using, much the same as they started giving kudos to cable a few decades ago.
In fact, the only product I busted out my own credit card for at the show (apart from a stunning Lyn Stanley SACD) was a couple of sets of vibration-control footers for my CD transport and preamp.
AC power, meanwhile, was the common enemy in Denver. The Marriott’s juice, straight from the wall, was inconsistent and filled with grit from an untold number of hotel appliances. Rooms that took pains to include power conditioning faired better than those that did not.
Shunyata Research’s new Hydra Denali 6000T conditioner ($4,995), in particular, seems to be gaining fans. The systems where I heard it cleansing the AC were freer of hash and possessed blacker backgrounds (editor’s note: a full review will be available soon).
Nordost also expanded some minds with a fascinating demo in which their rep substituted, one by one, a variety of increasingly sophisticated power cords for the stock cable that came with the system’s CD player. Each substitution appeared to bring a significant upgrade in sound quality. And, this was achieved by changing only what arguably was the least significant cord in the entire rig.
Of course, the rest of the wire in the Nordost exhibit totaled about $150,000, so there’s my last trend — big-ticket cable. One room actually had wire that exceeded the total price of all of the other components on offer — an eye-popping $218,000 worth of silver and copper strings.
So, combine that with the stratospheric price tags of some ultimate-reference speakers and electronics, and it quickly becomes clear that chasing the last 10 percent in ultimate sound quality never has been more gut-checking, even for the hedge-fund crowd.
Still, complaining about that is like whining that Ferraris sure cost a lot these days. For those who can’t play at that level, there’s also the modern BMW 3s and even Honda CR-Zs that in many ways outperform budget sports models from yesteryear.
In the same way, there’s a flood of great-sounding electronics out there now at very affordable prices. I even wrote about a room where two very excited young boys were putting a major cutie-face begging assault on their father after hearing a vinyl-based, $520 system playing Eric Clapton. Yep, belt-drive ‘table, cartridge, phono stage, silk-dome tweeter-equipped speakers, amplification, even D/A conversion. Five bills.
Despite all the mainstream disruptions from MP3 files and Bluetooth boxes, this still is a great time for high-end audio. The good stuff is out there, and you can spend anywhere from Warren Buffett-esque amounts to modest working-person sums and find good sound.
Waiting for new orders
As for us on the Part-Time Audiophile intelligence team (now there’s an oxymoron), we’ll continue to slip out of our underground base when the job requires.
Publisher/covert operations chief Scot Hull — who BTW bears an unsettling resemblance to “True Lies’ ” Spencer Trilby, minus the eye patch — so far has made sure we haven’t been hacked or infiltrated. We await the next mission.
Guard the pooch.
Best of Show
— Valve Amplification Company/Harbeth: VAC’s electronics and Harbeth’s BBC-channeling 40.2 monitors captured a rare synergy where the music matched my conscious mind’s ideal. Not inexpensive in absolute terms, but good value for reference performance.
— Wilson Audio/VTL: Wilson’s new Yvette sounded poised to expand the Wilson legacy, and it found a sweet partner at RMAF in VTL’s S-400 Series II stereo tube amplifier ($33,500).
— Soundings Fine Audio & Video: Used careful, ear-based set-up to wring a heretofore-unheard level of dynamics and realism from a mix of Boulder electronics and Rockport Technologies speakers.
— Sanders Sound Systems: Roger Sanders’ Model 10e flat-panel, hybrid electrostatics have a somewhat narrow sweet spot, but when you’re in it you don’t want to leave.
— Legacy Audio: The company fired a shot across the bow of the industry with the introduction of its Calibre stand-mounted monitor ($5,500 a pair). With the new speaker, Legacy somehow has figured out how to offer mini-monitor focus and sound-staging with close to floor-stander bass. Great value for the money.
Power in Small Packages Award
— Audio Alchemy: The manufacturer, which disclosed it had just become a division of Elac, was making a fine sound with its compact DPA-1M hybrid Class A/Class D power mono amplifier (325 watts per channel, $1,995 a pair). They were driving — you guessed it — Elac speakers.
— Wyred 4 Sound: A busy Atascadero, Calif.-based company, Wyred introduced its SX-1000R monoblock amplifiers ($1,499 each). Measuring 8.5×4.1×13.5 inches and weighing only 13 pounds, each SX-1000R delivers a staggering 1,000 watts.
Head-Turning Bargain System
— The $500 room: A rig containing a pair of Audioengine A2+ speakers ($249 a pair, with built-in 15-watt amp, Burr-Brown DAC, USB input and video shielding) and a U-Turn Audio belt-drive turntable ($179 plus $89 for external phono stage) proved to be a pleasant, no-fuss way to play vinyl. Total cost? $520.
Coolest Phono Cartridge
— DS Audio DS Master 1 ($22,500): An upgrade of an innovative design that uses a beam of light to detect cantilever movement. The result is warm and smooth, but detailed, sound. Shown by Musical Surroundings and Audio Alternative.
Old-School Craftsmanship Award
— Burwell & Sons’ “Mother of Burl” loudspeakers ($80,000 a pair): Imagine what an Altec “Voice of the Theater” speaker might look like crafted from fine reclaimed wood. And inside are actual salvaged Altec and JBL drivers.
Bless Your Heart Award
— Vibration-control devices, sophisticated power cords, disappearance of CD players in favor of streaming, affordable megawatt Class D amps, horn-loaded speaker designs.
No Problemo Citation
— RMAF staff: A large section of the Denver Marriott Tech Center was closed off for reconstruction. We got through it.