Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2009 Show Report
JAMES & LINDA DARBY - Publisher/Editor
Last year attendees sat in the lounge during breaks and watched as the stock market plummeted day after day. This year the affects of the financial tsunami were certainly felt as some companies eschewed appearing this years as they had in years past, but there were other new companies that had never been at the show before. For high-end amplifiers, tubes still seem to take precedence over solid state models and the trend toward computer and server based digital audio continued thought there was still a good showing of turntables and analog products. We took over 1,000 pictures and hundreds of pages of notes to bring you the best of the best.
2008's show produced some rather unique and even bizarre designs and products, but this year with fewer bucks chasing the high-end, the industry seems to have gone back to more tried and true conservative models. This was the first year the show was put together by someone other than Al Steifel who founded and shepherded the event with his wife Marjorie who amazingly stepped up and produced this show with no discernible hiccups at all. Still the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest is the best place on earth for people who actually buy audio (unlike CES which is closed to the public) to see and hear the best stereo systems in the world in the best possible environment.
What's it like to attend RMAF? Over 200 rooms of the Denver Marriott Tech Center hotel, from huge conference rooms to very small hotel rooms, have the beds and most furniture removed so that audio designers, manufacturers, distributors and even local high-end audio stores can set up their wares. Many join together to share the cost of the rooms which sometimes works well and sometimes not. For example, a guy that only makes speakers may team up with someone who only makes amps, a cable maker, turntable designer...you get the picture. People and press then rush from one room to the next trying to see and hear as much as they can. Of course, the salesmen in each room want to tell you their spiel as to why their product is the best at the show. When we see or hear something that we think YOU might like to have us review, those arrangements have to be discussed and tentatively scheduled. Of course, we can't just have everything sent at the same time or our homes will be filled to the rafters and products will be sitting around for months before we can get to them. At least that's how it is for some other publications. And vendors wonder why it takes sometimes close to a year to see their review published. Stereomojo doesn't play those games. Our policy is to return gear in 30 to 60 days depending on the state of break in when we get it. That makes it much harder to schedule and carefully match the gear to our reviewers, their rooms, reference systems and biases. As publisher, it's James Darby's job to make sure a SET amp doesn't go to a reviewer with low efficiency speakers in a large room as well as many other factors. We wouldn't send a solid state amp to a reviewer who prefers tubes - and so on. We believe it is important to be fair to the people that send us their stuff for review - and to our readers as well.
The trend toward computer based audio sources expanded even more with many rooms using only laptops going into various digital boxes as the only source. The problem with that from our perspective is that we cannot use our evaluation CD's since there are no CD players present - we have to listen to whatever music they have on their computers. That makes even harder to compare apples to apples which is impossible to do accurately in any case. you can take the system in one room and move it down the hall to another room and it might sound completely different. in addition, the exhibitors are constantly tweaking their systems and rooms during the show, so if you listen to a system in the morning it can easily sound much different the next day - or even that afternoon.
Tubes still are predominant but solid state is making headway. Rumors were rampant about companies that have gone out of business and others that are on the verge. Some very big names. That includes some high-end publications, too. The big corporate owner of Stereophile went bankrupt and reorganized this year, but John Atkinson swears that the magazine is fine. We'll see. Legendary Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound made a rare appearance and told our publisher that "they" wanted him to "get out and promote". Harry has not owned or controlled TAS in years. More on that later. We are glad he was there.
More and more speakers are incorporating digital crossovers as opposed to the analog devices in use since day one. Digital has come a long way and many of the old school guys who just a few years ago would roll their eyes at the mention of digital crossovers are now featuring them.
There were less cost-no-option "statement" type products and more mid and lower priced models. China continues to be a big factor with their products looking and sounding better each year.
This Special Report also will reveal several of our 2009 PRODUCTS OF THE YEAR. In addition, we will do our best to recognize those products, companies or people that stood out at the show, bearing in mind that it is difficult to judge fully anything under the circumstances - or even hear everything. Still, there are those few that seem to rise above the fray. We'll point them out to you at the end. We have tried to publish the best and biggest photos possible with regard to reasonable loading times on your computer. We will be adding new content for several days until there is no more. Last year we had 6 huge pages. This year will be more, so keep checking back. We'll let you know when we're done.
Our publisher says that each time he goes to the Rocky Mountain Show, he looks at the big hotel as he enters and laments that most Americans have no idea that any of the products he's about to experience even exist. The audio press, he says, needs to put aside petty competition and politics and join together to spread the word. "We are all in this together and share the same love of music and the things that bring it into our homes", he likes to say. Well...we can dream.
THE SHOW - PART ONE
One of our favorite companies, Nola showed three speaker models this year; two of them new and one that's been around for a couple of years which we were the first in the world to review and which won one of our top awards last year - the outstanding Nola Baby Grand References (top rear).
New were the $1,500 per pair Boxer (above), a 2-way stand-mounted monitor that deviates from Carl Marsicotto's signature open baffle designs. This is a pored enclosure that incorporates a low-mass 6½ inch bass/midrange driver with a laminated pulp cone for low coloration and high speed. The tweeter is a high-resolution silk dome that uses a diffraction ring. The bass driver is loaded by a rear firing twin- flared port for low distortion and noise. Over the years Nola speaker's main priority has been the best possible mid-range quality, but bass from the small box has been extended to 44 Hz in order to provide a full sound. Rear connection is by a pair of high quality all metal gold-plated 5-way binding posts. These connectors are fixed directly to the cabinet, thereby omitting the sonically deleterious effects of plastic connection plates often used.
The all-important crossover is a shallow slope design with excellent phase characteristics we are told. The construction employs only point-to-point hand wiring of very high quality components. Capacitors are 630-volt high purity polypropylene types and only air core inductors are used. Resistors are close tolerance 2% metal types. Wiring is proprietary low-loss oxygen-free copper. The crossover also incorporates a shock-isolation system in order to minimize the effects of vibration for a cleaner sound, another trademark of Nola designs as pointed out in our reviews of their other speakers. The 90dB sensitivity combined with an 8-ohm impedance makes the Boxer easy to drive.
Dimensions: 15½ inches H x 8 inches W x 11.5 inches D
Bass/Midrange: 6½ inch laminated low-mass cone
High Frequency: 1 inch high-resolution silk dome
Response: 44 Hz to 28 kHz
Sensitivity: 90 dB
Impedance: 8 ohms
Finish: True Piano Finish Cherry Wood / Black Cloth Grill
Also new (they showed a preproduction model last year) and in keeping with the open baffle philosophy is the $14,000/pair Micro Grand Reference (front of top picture), Carl's effort to bring a large percentage of the $55,000 Baby Grand's performance to a smaller size and much smaller price. Carl says the driver complement consists of two magnesium woofers, one alnico magnet open baffle midrange and one open baffle true ribbon tweeter in a 3½ way design. The driver array utilizes a 45° mirror-imaged array for the midrange and tweeter while the twin 120mm cast-frame magnesium woofers operate in a rear vented enclosure. The 110mm cast-frame alnico magnet midrange operates as an open baffle dipole. The open baffle ribbon tweeter eliminates any type of extra diaphragm, as the ribbon is the diaphragm. The moving mass of this design is about 25 times less than any type of dome tweeter he continued, and provides the natural reproduction of a wealth of musical detail. The lack of an enclosure in the midrange and high frequencies eliminates a large source of coloration.
The 3½ way integrated crossover system is built on three separate boards and utilizes top quality audiophile-grade passive components throughout. Inductors are flat wound oxygen-free copper types and capacitors are 630 volt polypropylene units. The crossovers are hard wired (no printed circuits) for maximum quality. The Micro Grand utilizes a built-in double platform base with ball bearing isolators to further reduce coloration as is used in the Baby Grand Reference. As we found in the review of the Baby Grand's, they work. The bases are finished in a true Piano Black. "The Micro Grand is is ideal when state of the art sound quality is desired for smaller venues", Carl concluded.
This is open baffle. Mikey Fremer of Stereophile can be seen listening with us.
Our first 2009 Product of the Year announcement is "Digital Source", awarded to the ground breaking PS AUDIO Perfect Wave two-piece transport and DAC, seen on the top and second shelf. We were beta testers for the units and we were also the first in the world to publish a review of the final production models, easily the most anticipated new product this year.
President Paul McGowan (pictured) said in his recent newsletter that upcoming network Bridge is a $500 add on card that slides into the back of the DAC. Once inserted, the unit is transformed into one of the very few high-end music servers available today. The card permits network access of any stored media, whether it’s on your computer, or a network attached hard drive, or even the Internet. Once the Bridge is installed, you can stream uncompromised high-resolution media (up to 192kHz 24 bit) right to the DAC and it’ll sound as good as if it were being played on the PerfectWave transport (because the Bridge has a built in Digital Lens). But, how do you select what you want to hear on the PWD? How do you access the library and sort through it? To manage this, you need a controller.
PS Audio will build two controllers to serve the Bridge and your library. The first will be an iPod/iPhone app that you download and have full access to everything in your library. It will allow you to build a playlist, select songs, search through your library, see cover art, control the volume, the equipment, etc. It’s a really cool and low cost.
The second option will be a full bore 7” color touch screen tablet that will do even more but will not be available till sometime in 2010. In the meantime, if you get a bridge, you’ll either control it through the front panel of the PWD or the iPod Touch interface.
They also showed a a prototype of the PerfectWave Power Amp (third shelf) .Well, prototype is the wrong word. They haven't decided much of anything about the proposed amp, even what class it will be. "It won't be tubes, I can say that for sure", said McGowan. Other than that, they have no idea yet.
Turntables were less of a presence, but there were still some rather exciting new models, and even new turntable companies. Stalwart Brinkman exhibited a new turntable dubbed the Bardo. The first name association that came to mind was "Guy Lom"Bardo", but I don't think that's what they intended. The BARDO has a magnetic direct drive motor, which uses only one bearing for the motor and the platter. A circular magnet is mounted in the bearing of the platter and is concentrically driven into rotation via coils on the circuit board under the magnet. An electronic circuit drives the coils via two magnetic sensors that react to the magnetic fields and push the heavy-weight platter in a precise and slow circular rotation. The tonearm base of the BARDO can be rotated and secured without play to allow a simple and precise adjustment for all tonearms between 9” and 10.5”. Brinkmann will drill the base to accept the tonearm of the customer's choice. The output sockets found on the back of the turntable can be equipped with either RCA or XLR sockets, and it is also possible to install tonearms with DIN connectors or fixed cables. The two possible speeds, 33 1/3 and 45 rpm, are selected by a switch located at the front of the turntable and can be finely adjusted via individual trim potentiometers that are located next to the switch. Three upgrade stages are available that will bring the Bardo, they say, to "nearly the bandwidth of our big tables".
People still flocked to the vendors selling new and used LP's.
Qsonix showed its latest system enhancements for the Q105 and Q110 series music servers, including support for third-party external USB DAC’s (Digital to Analog Converters) and support for import and playback of high-resolution 24-bit audio. These enhancements they tell us will open the door for listeners to take advantage of the increasing number of mid and high performance USB DAC’s as well as high-resolution audio from online sources such as AixRecords.com, Itrax.com, HDtracks.com, Linnrecords.com and others.
The system comes in two parts - a slim black box that houses the CD drive for ripping and hard drive for storing and the touch screen monitor. Getting around the comprehensive interface was intuitive and easy. They were partnered with DEQX, Legend Acoustics and Edge Electronics demonstrating a high-definition, digital audio system comprised of Qsonix media playback system, DEQX HDP-3 digital audio processor and four Edge G-Series linear analog amplifiers driving a stereo pair of the stunning Tikandi speakers from Legend Acoustics.
The newest upgraded system is on its way to our office for review as we write this.
Soundsmith continues to build on the success of its highly innovative Mark II Strain Gauge phono cartridge systems by introducing a new model, the SG-200 that comprises the Strain Gauge cartridge – with user replaceable styli, power supplies and a gain stage which deliver a line level signal to the user’s pre-amplifier (above). Sonically, they state, the unit is identical to other models in their Strain Gauge line up. What is different is the price: $5500, a significant drop from the previous starting price.
The new Soundsmith Sussurro phono cartridge at $4499.95 also launched officially at The Fest. They are famous for their ultra low moving mass systems found in both their Strain Gauge and Moving Iron designs like "The Voice" we reviewed when it was released a couple years ago and received a Product of the Year Award from Stereomojo. The new top of the line Sussurro is a new concept in moving iron design and Soundsmith’s first low output cartridge. This architecture ensures the cantilever’s resonant frequency is further above the audio band than found with many high end cartridges, and it provides the ultra low inertial design required for ultimate tracking.
Sussurro’s origin began with a conversation after hours at RMAF in 2008 between the legendary tone-arm builder, Frank Schroeder and Soundsmith President, Peter Ledermann. What if, Frank postulated, the very convincing Voice cartridge could be produced in a low output, low compliance version, and with exacting attention to design for superbly critical damping performance? Surely the combination of advanced adherence to first principles of cartridge design and the already proven performance of Soundsmith’s past designs would be akin to musical alchemy? To ensure optimal performance, it would also be necessary to design a new energy distribution system within the cartridge body to control energy passage into the tonearm/ bearing system. Ledermann took away the concept and developed a design which exceeded expectations. By also designing an innovative yoke for the cartridge, Peter enabled the Sussurro to provide adjustment of VTA and azimuth on the cartridge itself, critical for use in arms without these important adjustments.
Also new is a low output moving iron cartridge optimized for use with conventional MC phono preamplifiers. Named Sussurro (“whisper” in Italian), the cartridge was developed at the suggestion of Frank Schröder, who advised on the cartridge?s development. Everyone who has heard Sussurro has been transfixed by its detail retrieval, timbrel palpability and precise sound- staging. Price $4500.
Their third new product is the MCP-2 phono pre-amplifier, designed to partner Sussurro and a wide range of MC cartridges. This solid-state design incorporates built-in step up transformers and infinitely variable impedance matching, ensuring compatibility with any low output phono cartridge. Priced at $699.95.
Speaking of computers, computer audio keeps getting better and better as demoed via the Amarra software that works with Itunes (on Mac's only) to improve the sound coming out of the Mac. It was used in many different rooms to dramatic effect. We heard the system compared to Itunes alone going into the same DAC and same system. The difference was night and day. It sells for $995 so it better sound way superior, huh.
Amarra works with most FireWire and USB DACs.
AMARRA Features Include ::
• Optimized playback for a sound that rivals CDs and Vinyl
• Supports all PCM formats (Apple Lossless coming soon)
• Automatic hardware sample rate adjustment
• High resolution Sonic EQ for room adjustment
• Adjustable digital volume with automated dither processing
• Volume control using Apple Remote or iTouch
Amarra Software Features ::
Advanced dither and digital volume (as set thru iTunes) • Plays all high resolution PCM formats up to 192kHz • Uses iTunes for compressed and rights managed music • Support for Snow Leopard, Leopard and Tiger versions of OS X
While computer audio is the coming thing, retro reel-to-reel is coming back! Each show seems to introduce more and more companies that take used, no longer made tape machines and rebuild/upgrade them for resale. It was really stunning to walk into a room full of them and be whisked back decades ago when these were popular. Did you know companies used to issue music on 10" reels like they do on CD today? Not as plentiful as R to R was the mainly the domain of audiophiles and pros. How did they sound? Outstanding. Tape hiss is almost nonexistent because of modern electronics inside with ultra low noise floors and increased dynamic range. Heck yeah...we're going to review one for you. Prices ranged from $3k to over $5k, some with purple metalflake paint!
Above are examples from J Corder with United Home Audio below.
Not bad so far...take me to PART 2
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