RMAF 2107: Nagra, Wilson define the state of the art

I found myself getting short of breath at RMAF not long after I entered room 1030 at the Marriott Denver Tech Center. I put most of the blame on my general middle-aged poor health, combined with the altitude. But I also might have been hyperventilating from hearing $200K worth of impeccable electronics playing some classic blues records on the new Wilson Audio Alexia 2s.

I’d only sunk into a chair for a short time when my oxygen-starved brain began to process the sounds coming out of the new Alexias ($57,900 USD). This, without a doubt, was among the two or three best systems of the show, I thought. After I stayed to hear another handful of tracks, my confidence in that initial assessment only grew stronger, and I started to ponder this rig’s place on my year-end list.

In front of me was a bank of glowing amber dials from a rack full of equipment from Nagra, including the new HD preamplifier ($59,500 USD, shipping soon), HD monoblocks ($86,000/pair USD), HD DAC ($30,995 USD) and VPS phono stage ($7,995). The vinyl was being played on a Kronos Pro turntable ($38,000 USD, with a Kronos arm and Air Tight Opus-1 Ermitage moving-coil cartridge). There also was a Nagra reel-to-reel deck. Wire was by Kubala Sosna.

The song that made such a strong initial impression on me was “Stranger Here” by Lightnin’ Hopkins, played on the Kronos. Hopkins’ voice – recorded somewhat “dry” with little reverb – was immediate and palpable, and his finger-picked guitar had a crisp tone. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the presentation was the stunning resolution of the decades-old record. It was as if any noise had been wiped away, leaving only Hopkins’ vocals and strumming emerging from a deep black background.

A second vinyl selection, this one from the Jimmy Giuffre Trio on a Columbia jazz sampler, showed the Nagra-Kronos-Wilson system to be equally adept at instrumental music. Giuffre’s horn had power and sophistication, while I also found it thrilling to follow the interplay of the group’s other members. There was an appropriate weight to the instruments, and the soundstage had realistic width and depth.

RMAF 2017 coverage is proudly sponsored by Noble Audio.

I listened to a few more tracks, including Dean Martin and Ben Webster, and cemented my opinion. “High definition” is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, but it can be more marketing hype than reality. Nagra chose to use the HD label on some of the equipment on display in Denver, but in this case I think they aren’t stretching the truth. Wilson, meanwhile, has taken what already was an exceptional speaker and somehow – through a long list of small changes – made it even better. All these products likely would be successful with other gear as well, but there definitely was a synergy here.

Price tags are not always a good predictor of ultimate performance. In this case, though, the manufacturers seem to be coming as close as anyone to achieving the promise of the upper reaches of the high end.

Another thing I must note is that, despite the dollars involved, this room was not a total bling-fest of audio jewelry. The Nagra components, while handsome, have a pro sound-type look. Wilson speakers feature beautiful paint and fit-and-finish, but the exteriors prize function over form. The bottom line for all these products is that they deliver the goods to your ears. If you’re chasing that last 10 percent in state-of-the-art sound quality and won’t faint at the cost, these are components you should audition.