SHOW RE­PORT

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS - By Jean-Marie Liere

The Rocky Moun­tain Au­dio Fest is a small show, but a pop­u­lar one. Jean Marie-Liere tells us why…

The Rocky Moun­tain Au­dio Fest—or just ‘RMAF’ as it’s usu­ally called—is a rel­a­tively small show. The re­cent 2017 event drew around 5,000 at­ten­dees and about 50 jour­nal­ists ac­cord­ing to show or­gan­iser Mar­jorie Baumert, who bravely took over af­ter her hus­band—AlSteifel—died un­ex­pect­edly. She is do­ing a very fine job let me tell you. The newly-re­fur­bished venue (the Mar­riott Tech Cen­tre) is very stylish and even the food was gor­geous! And I par­tic­u­larly liked that five rooms at the show were ded­i­cated to low-cost sys­tems… some of which sounded quite amaz­ing. My only wish is that it ran for longer… a long week­end was sim­ply not enough time for me to see ev­ery­thing on dis­play…

SOURCES

There were a lot of iPads and servers around, as well as all sorts of toys for play­ing dig­i­tal files, and I will cer­tainly talk about some of these, but it was turnta­bles that stole the show, with tonnes (and I mean tonnes…) of turnta­bles on dis­play, from Or­a­cle Au­dio, Clea­r­au­dio, Pro-Ject, Rega, EAT, Kronos, SME, Marantz, Lux­man, Tech­nics, Brinkmann, Ana­logue­works, Kuzma, VPI, Mark Levin­son, Gem-Dandy, Ref­er­ence Ana­log, Au­dio­engine, NAD, McIn­tosh, Mer­ryl-Wil­liams and oth­ers, in­clud­ing a beau­ti­fully crafted one from JWM Acous­tics built out of ex­otic tim­bers. The Mer­ryl-Wil­liams was equipped with two arms, one fit­ted with an Orto­fon Mono cartridge I have been wanted to lis­ten to for ages and it didn’t dis­ap­point. I was also able to lis­ten to my dream Bergmann, with a lin­ear track­ing arm.

The big sur­prise for me was the num­ber of fancy pro­fes­sional tape recorders be­ing used, some play­ing master tapes recorded only days be­fore es­pe­cially for the show. Mod­els from Sonorus, Tech­nics, Tas­cam, Sony, Studer, Na­gra, and Am­pex were just some of the ones I saw as I moved from room to room.

On the other hand there were com­par­a­tively few CD play­ers be­ing used as sources, and the few that I saw were all made by Oppo, in­clud­ing one mod­i­fied with a tube out­put, plus there were some French con­trap­tions from Metronome, bien sûr.

Live mu­sic was sup­plied by fa­mous Cana­dian pi­anist Robert Sil­ver­man, who played Chopin for our sheer plea­sure. Sil­ver­man is very in­ter­ested in the record­ing process, hav­ing recorded a num­ber of SACDs and vinyl with IsoMike, a com­pany ded­i­cated to record­ing straight to DSD256 with the help of Merg­ing Tech­nolo­gies ADCs. The IsoMike is an evo­lu­tion of the ‘ar­ti­fi­cial head’ in­vented by An­dré Char­lin in France in the 60s and which was also the inspiration for the Decca ‘tree’, all de­signed to main­tain the orig­i­nal phase of the in­stru­ments so as to be able to re­pro­duce their tim­bres as ac­cu­rately as pos­si­ble. In the dig­i­tal world, the talk at the show mainly con­cerned Tidal, MQA, Roon… though other acronyms were men­tioned. The ‘War of the DACs’ was in full swing at RMAF, in­deed so many were on dis­play that I ig­nored the ‘war’ and just tried to en­joy the mu­sic.

Com­par­a­tively few CD play­ers were be­ing used as sources, and the few that I saw were all made by Oppo...

A few head­phones def­i­nitely caught my ears, par­tic­u­larly the new mod­els from Fi­nal and Sonoma. Fi­nal is a rel­a­tively new Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer that is us­ing pla­nar ti­ta­nium di­aphragms in its head­phones, while Sonoma Acous­tics is us­ing a new elec­tro­static trans­ducer de­vel­oped in the UK, called HPEL, which es­sen­tially dis­penses with the front grille of a tra­di­tional elec­tro­static. I liked the sound of the Fi­nal a lot as it was ex­tremely de­tailed and smooth and not at all me­tal­lic (I usu­ally dis­like ti­ta­nium mem­branes in speak­ers), plus they were more com­fort­able to wear than the Sono­mas. The Sono­mas had more dy­namic range but were slightly less de­tailed, although I am a great fan of the ESS SABRE DAC used in the ded­i­cated pow­er­ing unit.

ElEc­tron­ics

A good third, if not more, of all the elec­tron­ics on dis­play used tubes—ei­ther exclusively or in com­bi­na­tion with solid-state. Some were mighty (the Au­dio Re­search Ref­er­ence 750SE), some amaz­ingly sweet and gor­geous (all those from Zesto Au­dio) and some min­i­mal­ist (such as the new ModWright Am­brose A30 monoblocs). Na­gra’s new hy­brids, paired with the new Wil­son Au­dio Alexia II, pro­duced one of the best-sound­ing sys­tems I heard at the show. Also im­pres­sive were the new mod­els from Dan d’Agostino and Moon by Si­mau­dio, with French com­pany Mi­cromega de­serv­ing of a spe­cial men­tion for try­ing (suc­cess­fully) to give De­vialet a run for their money! At the more af­ford­able end of the spec­trum, I was im­pressed by the new mod­els from NAD.

loud­spEak­Ers

Any­one who knows me knows that the field of loud­speak­ers is my area of ex­per­tise and my real pas­sion. There is still some black magic and in­tense re­search and in­no­va­tion in this field and I am al­ways amazed by the thou­sands of com­pa­nies—as well as in­di­vid­u­als such as my­self—that ex­pend such in­or­di­nate amounts of time and re­sources cre­at­ing new speak­ers, and RMAF 2017 was a good ex­am­ple of this, with mod­els rang­ing in size from minis­cule to mono­lithic, and with many ‘out of the square’ de­signs.

I had to award a palm to Dan­ish out­fit Jern for its cast-iron cab­i­nets, which en­abled the ul­ti­mate ‘form fol­lows func­tion’ way. Small is beau­ti­ful… and they sounded amaz­ing! I like open baf­fle speak­ers (and am a great fan of Ky­ron Au­dio) so it was with some ex­cite­ment that I went to check the lat­est in­stal­ment of the mod­u­lar de­sign by Is­raeli out­fit PureAu­dioPro­ject. Their Quin­tet15 Horn1 de­sign now in­cludes a horn speaker as a midrange/tweeter, which is cou­pled to four 15-inch bass driv­ers. These speak­ers sounded ef­fort­lessly sweet and mighty, par­tic­u­larly con­sid­er­ing they were be­ing driven by a 4-watt tube am­pli­fier… and at less than $10k per pair, a real bar­gain!

In the same cat­e­gory, one could in­clude all the Martin Lo­gan speak­ers ex­hib­ited in var­i­ous rooms at the show, the most spec­tac­u­lar of which be­ing the full Ne­oliths driven by Au­dio Re­search Ref­er­ence 750SE and fed by the ‘money-is-no-ob­ject’ Clea­r­au­dio Master In­no­va­tion with lin­ear-track­ing arm and State­ment phono cartridge. Buy the whole sys­tem and you wouldn’t get much change out of $US300,000.

An­other sur­prise was the Ul­tra Stat Panel from San­ders Sound Sys­tem which uses a trans­mis­sion line to load the woofer and an elec­tro­static panel that de­signer Roger San­ders claims is more rugged than those used by Martin Lo­gan. They sounded very good.

Brys­ton showed its new ac­tive speak­ers and since I like ac­tive speak­ers and I like Brys­ton am­pli­fiers, I had great ex­pec­ta­tions of this new range, and it didn’t dis­ap­point… it was cer­tainly one of the best-sound­ing sys­tems at the show.

Sev­eral com­pa­nies ex­hibit­ing at RMAF de­serve spe­cial men­tion for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Neat Acous­tics for its un­con­ven­tional cab­i­nets and driver place­ments; Tek­ton De­sign, for mak­ing mul­ti­ple tweet­ers work; JWM Acous­tics not only for mak­ing some of the best-sound­ing speak­ers at the show, but also for its beau­ti­fully crafted hand-made cab­i­nets; Acous­tic Zen for be­ing one my top five lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ences at the show; Bang & Olufsen for fi­nally de­sign­ing a speaker I could live with and to Au­dio­engine and Vana­too for man­ag­ing to build ac­tive speak­ers that re­tail for less than $US500 per pair (with the ‘per­for­mance’ prize go­ing to Vana­too and the ‘de­sign’ prize to Au­dio­engine). Spe­cial men­tion too, for Aussie com­pany DEQX, which demon­strated its amaz­ing tech­nolo­gies at RMAF. Jean-Marie Liere

Na­gra’s new hy­brids, paired with the new Wil­son Au­dio Alexia II, pro­duced one of the best-sound­ing sys­tems I heard at the show...

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