Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2010 Show Report
Bill Schuchard: "The Clue" is actually a speaker from Sjofn HiFi that I stumbled upon. There was a special price of $999 for the show. As I walked in I heard some guttural bass and saw this little monitors against the wall. "Where's the subwoofer?" I joked. The soundstage was immense, the midrange smooth and detailed, and the bass was just very surprising for a little speaker. I knew the tracks they were playing and they WERE bass heavy tracks but even so it was impressive. After speaking the designer, it's clear this was no accident. They tuned the bass of this speaker to purposely reach the lower registers with a small woofer when placed against the wall. You'll notice the tweeter has a small amount of controlled directivity to help reduce first reflections when placed near the wall. Also notice the large acoustic panels on the wall immediately inside each of the speakers. Cheating? No. But if you want to hear them sound as good as I did, something to absorb and/or diffuse the sound there would really help you.
I know a lot of people who aren't audiophiles but just want good sound for a moderate cost and will never be allowed to pull their speakers out from the wall. Now I have a great solution for them. Sjofn doesn't get all the credit here. A well respected (a review pending by James Darby) He gal CDP4A CD player at $4,500 and a He gal H200 integrated amplifier at $5,000 also had something to do with it.
James Darby: Sjofn caused quite a stir a couple of years ago with their "Guru" speaker, built along the same principles of "up against the wall" big sound and big bass.
The Clue is an improvement in overall transparency and performance. Bill nailed it. A good speaker for those who can't put speakers out in the room. Sure beats the crap out of Bose, and you don't need expensive amps like the Hegels to drive them.
Laufner Teknik / German Physics
German Physics HRS-120 omnidirectional speaker in high polish ($33,500)
Nova Physics Memory Player source and preamp ($22,500)
Abis Shuhgetsu monoblock amplifiers (price TBD)
Paul Kaplan cabling ($1995 total)
BILL SCHUCHARD: The German Physics room was truly captivating with uncanny detail and the immense soundstage one might expect from an expensive omnidirectional speaker. I was impressed that the driver could cover such a large range of frequency and still have utter transparently in the high end. After a few questions and a few audio tracks, they agreed that we would do a review of these in the not too distant future. When I showed the pictures of my favorite rooms to my kids, my youngest said "Oooh, it's just like the lighthouse". We live near a lighthouse and it was meant as a compliment. The difference being the sound shines out for all to hear instead of the light.
James Darby: I wasn't as captivated as Bill. The sound was tipped up and too bright and not linear from top to bottom. Detail was sort of grainy. I thought there was better (the Holographic Audio we told you about earlier) for one for less money.
Bill: Lowther was showing off their EXR Open Baffle Speaker (est $15,000) creating a very musical experience using a First Watt amplifier, First Watt B5 electronic crossover ($1,600)a Galibier Design Gavia-l Turntable ($8750), Schroder Reference Tonearm ($5,700), a Miyabi phono cartridge, a Pass Labs XP25 phono preamp ($10,600) and Pass Labs XP20 line stage ($8,600), and not to be outdone, an E-Mu 1616M PCMCIA card bus (now obsolete) for the digital end.
The Lowther open baffle speakers were huge, and the view from the back precludes them from entering homes with small children and curious fingers, but they offered up an extremely moving experience. The midrange was the heart of the system and was uncommonly natural sounding. A supertweeter picked up the top end and may have been adjusted just a little too hot while the powered bass section was nothing short of amazing. These speakers and this setup was just plain fun. I was accompanied by Steve Hluchan, formerly of Mark Levinson, and a Stereophile reviewer which made this visit that much more interesting. Steve enlightened me as to how the First Watt "current sourced" amplifiers worked after our visit.
James: Let's be honest; these are butt ugly and fit and finish is not worthy of a $15,000 speaker. Looks like a bad DIY job. Bill does much better work himself. Open baffle is a great way to listen to music. If you haven't heard them, either Danny Richie's GR Audio DIY or Nolas (any model) is FAR better. And you SHOULD audition them if you like the "live in your room" concept.
BILL: AudioEngine brought their very affordable P4 speakers ($249), the A5 active speaker ($349), the new N22 desktop amplifier ($199), and the A2 active speaker ($199). Having reviewed and purchased the P4 speakers, I had to stop and visit to check out the new desktop amplifier. Surprisingly, the new amplifier is not class D, but AB. They said the class AB just sounded better to them. How do they keep it cool in such a small package? The MDF chassis is like a little toaster on top and is open on the bottom to allow for lots of airflow.
Bill: Selah Audio used a Solaja Audio SA-R tubed preamp ($4,500), a Benchmark DAC1-HDR preamplifier via the fixed outputs, and Red Dragon monoblock amplifiers to show off their Selah Audio Verita loudspeakers ($2,000/pair).
I actually cleared the room with this one trying to test out how the dynamics would be using the Benchmark DAC. It was better than expected but I kept turning it louder trying to get a fuller more robust bottom end and some dynamic contrast... thus clearing the room. the speakers themselves were wonderful with the Scan Speak woofer and RAAL tweeter really well integrated.
I suspect that using a different DAC may have made for a more robust, moving experience but one cannot deny that the top end was top notch.
James: Solaja is designed by a guy with the best name at the show; Dragon Solaja, pictured above. Dragon and his company are Serbian. High-end audio is certainly becoming more international.
The SA-R preamp is tube rectified, battery biased, C-L-C tube regulated and has Teflon tube sockets and tube dampers. Volume control is an ELMA step attenuator, signal cable is Mundorf silver-gold, Connectors are WBT. This is Dragon's all out assault on the high-end, the best he can make at any price; all for $4,500. He makes a full line of tube pre's and power amps, some Class D as well. He asked us to do a review of the SA-R and we'd love to.
If you've read our reviews of the Benchmark's, you know we are not on the "Benchmark is the greatest thing" bandwagon. Heck, the eastern Electric Mini DAC we just reviewed kills it in term of musicality and transparency. Wish we could have heard the system with another DAC. The Solaja did pass along the Benchmark signature sound perfectly though. The little Selah's produced big, detailed sound - room clearing or not. We need to review one of their speakers. Sounds like a good project for you, Bill.
Beyond Frontiers Audio (BFA) had a system that rivaled my own system even after all my tweaks and even beats my system with respect to ultimate authority. Wow. I was shocked, enthused, impressed, and basically giddy. This was the only room that had me counting up my components wondering what I would have to sell to get my hands on this stuff.
The ($7,200) integrated amp is literally a DAC, preamp, and amplifier in one box. As a guy with monoblocks and separate everything, I was skeptical. Additionally, the DAC always
upsamples which has never worked as well as using the native rate in my experience. One listen and I was hooked. The amplifier employs zero feedback as they thought it sounded better. Who are we to argue?
There was no sibilance, tons of air and decay, the sense of attack was fantastic, imaging was great, and the bass was super strong and extended. Wow. All in one clean box? When my youngest son saw the pictures he said woah!
The ($11,200) speakers were a great form that doesn't take over the room and come in much nicer finishes than the simple oak but at much higher prices. The top unit is a custom designed dipole coaxial ribbon. Instead of a normal coaxial, the tweeter ribbon sits squarely between two midrange ribbons. It works amazingly well from 200Hz on up. The speakers separate into two sections for transport and the top section can be aimed in order for the short line source to provide the best sound possible into the listening area.
The bass unit is comprised of four woofers in a simple ported enclosure with three of the woofers running active in the front and the rear woofer passive right alongside the port. When asked, they said they ended up with this setup via trial and error. "It just sounded better" was their answer yet again.
This system might have been one tiny tick below the Evolution Audio system in terms of the realistic for instruments such as strings but the difference is much smaller than the system from Beyond Frontiers Audio to continue to provide insane amounts of detail at borderline too loud listening levels. If I were to whip out my checkbook, these would be my first consideration. I suspect my fellow reviewers would rather the Evolution Audio speakers but either way they're both amazing.
The designers were Russian and reminded me of a couple of people I know from Russia; funny, competent, and passionate. When leaving the room, Jim Darby caught me saying "I feel like getting some Vodka".
I was sitting outside the hotel, taking a needed break and enjoying the Denver air when a tall, lanky guy goes walking past. He did a double take and startled me when he said "You are James Darby, of Stereomojo? I looking for you", he practically shouts in his thick Eastern European accent. Please....I want you come to my room! I want you hear my system. I promise you never hear anything like it!" He kept on and I promised him I would. Since the room was close to the one in which we were staying, I thought I'd visit it on the way back. But then all of us were standing in the lobby comparing notes and assignments when he approached me again, saying the same thing, actually begging me to come to his room. His ID card said "Bosko Pjescic". I looked at the group and said, "Let's just go now".
Yikes...we were all gaga over this system. We actually got to play the Stereomojo Ultimate Stereo Evaluation Disc here. The system devoured the "Pirates of the Caribbean" torture track with all it's low-end detail and complexity. It brought out the passion in Ronstad's "Shattered", soaring with her big voice. Dynamics on the Flim & the BB's track are supposed to snap your head back when the big hits surprise. This was one of a small handful of systems at any price that did just that and I mean of all time, not just at this show. After each cut, I turned to our group and said, "THAT'S the way this cut is SUPPOSED to sound!" For me, this was the biggest and most pleasant surprise at the show. What I don't know is how much is to be attributed to the speakers vs. the amp. It must be both.
The amp (on the floor) is designed by Zdenko Zivkovic, a multi-award winning designer of such icons as the Sonic Frontiers preamp and the Magnum Dynalab tuners, to name just two. He did about a 5 minute description of the technology in the amp but talked so fast that most of it wizzed over our heads, too fast to take notes. I did catch it when he said, "This is my greatest achievement...everything I know is in here." I believe it. It's a hybrid design with a tube front end with 200 wpc. The built-in DAC is 24/192. He's going to send me the amp after the show. I can't wait. Hopefully we can get Bosko's speakers at the same time. Over all the years, everything sounds better in my home that it does at any show. I can't imagine how good it might really sound.
On a side note, my friend Clement Perry of Stereotimes sauntered in. Right away I started talking good natured smack to him, telling him we found this room first. He stared taking pictures and I yelled, "Clement! Stop it! Keep your hands off!". He was grinning as he completely ignored me. As he sat down next to me, Johnny Adam's cut "One Foot In the Blues" came up. I asked him if he has ever heard it. He sat there for a moment with a small smile on his face, and then starting SINGING along with Johnny! Rather well I might add. I think the man may have some pipes. I even joined in on a chorus. It was a great time. Thanks Clement. But they're sending the amp & speakers to us FIRST! As he left the room, he muttered, "Nice find". We agree.
Don't leave me hangin' now!
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