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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest - 2004
The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was a huge success. Many thanks to Dana and Dan Welborne, Alan Stiefel, and Marjorie Baumert and all of the other volunteers who were responsible for making the show a success. The Denver Tech Center Marriott as an excellent venue. No AC power problems, no snakes of power cables running down the hallways, or generators roaring away outside the windows as has been encountered at other shows. The restaurants and coffee bar were open at all times to provide sustenance. The draft beer in the pub included a number of local micro brews. The only negative for the show was that the rooms seemed to be very difficult to deal with sonicly. On Friday, the first day of the show, none of the rooms had good sound. By Sunday afternoon, the sound had improved in most rooms, but none of the rooms, to my ears, sounded as good as the best rooms at the 2004 CES. The rooms, which for the most part were small, were particularly unkind to large speakers. Large speakers, which had sounded so good at the 2004 CES, sounded very mediocre. It was the small speakers, in many cases the inexpensive speakers, that sounded the best at this show.
Before I discuss the rooms that made a favorable impression on me, let me give my standard disclaimer. If I don’t mention your favorite room, don’t flame me. While I attempted to get to all exhibit rooms, some rooms were so crowded whenever I dropped by that I could not get a chance to play my own music. I find it impossible to evaluate the sound of an audio system without using my own music, CD or vinyl, as a reference.
The rooms that I found with worth mentioning, in alphabetical order:
Cabasse - Cabasse speakers were in several rooms. The room with the Baltic speakers with Thor subwoofers, driven by the Audio Art Diavolo amp and Gill Audio preamp was a room that I returned to several times. I had heard the Diavolos at previous shows and had been impressed with them. This time with the Cabasse speakers I found the music seductive even at low volumes. The tonality, texture, and timbres of the music were very realistic, which was why I kept returning to the room. The only negative to the sound was that the sound stage was moved very far back—almost like you were looking at it through a tunnel. That could be the consequence of the small, narrow room. I would love to hear this system in a large room with proper sound treatments. I suspect it could be spectacular.
Chord, Croft, Living Voice - The Living Voice speakers were set close to the long wall in a small room. The room had no sound treatments whatsoever and was CD only. The sound was very full and detailed. Very musical. The cost of the equipment, however, not counting cables was in excess of $40,000.
Daedalus Audio/Butler Audio - The floorstanding DA-1 Daedalus loudspeakers sounded very good driven by either the $15,000 Butler hybrid amps or the $1,500 Jolida tube amps.
deHavilland/Spendor/Prana Wire - The little floor standing Spendor 5e at $1,650 was one of the most surprising finds at the Fest. Driven with the new deHavilland 27 wpc Ios stereo 845 SET amp, the new Mercury deHavilland preamp, and a Quad CD player, the sound was excellent. The speakers are so short that the best sound was achieve while sitting on the floor, but the much more expensive electronics and cabling upstream were put to very good use. The larger and more expensive Spendor 8e also sound very good. However, at its price point, the 5e was a real winner.
Overkill Audio - The Overkill room was a captive system; i.e. the CD Player, amps, cables, and speakers are sold as a complete system. The Ovation speakers, which are a truncated pyramid, use the Manger driver for most of their frequency range (80 - 20,000Hz) and were bi-amped by four modified deHavilland GM70 SET amps. In an untreated room the sound was very musical. Early Sunday morning I had a chance to play quite a few tracks from my audition CDs. On quiet vocals the sound was very intimate (Iz Kamakawiwo’ole - Facing Future (BBCD 5901) and Lisa Garrard - The Mirror Pool (4AD 9 45916-2). On orchestral works (Barber - Violin Concerto, Hilary Hahn (Sony SK 89029) and Vangelis - Mythodea (Sony SK89191)) the orchestra filled the room. On rock (Rammstein - Mutter (Universal/Republic 314 549 639-2)), the system really came alive—it played loud without overdriving the room. Unfortunately, the system is not cheap. The amps alone cost $40,000. At the CES 2005 they said they would have a more affordable system. I look forward to hearing it.
Roan/Monarchy - I had heard the Roan speakers at CES 2004 and had been impressed. This time Roan was exhibiting their Mustang and Five monitor speakers. The speakers were driven by Monarchy mono block amps ($686 each). In an untreated room, the sound was quite good. The larger Mustang ($3,000) had a bigger sound stage and went deeper. At half the price, the Five, while not in the same category as its big brother, sounded very good—definitely a great bang for the buck.
Teres Turntables - Teres turntables were in several different rooms. After hours, Chris Brady, the driving force behind Teres, put on a demo of the different sound of his platters and of his new model 360 turntable. For the platter demo, a model 200 turntable with an Origin Live Illustrious arm and Shelter Crown Jewel cartridge was used. With the acrylic platter, the sound was very nice. Substituting the lead loaded acrylic platter for the 100% acrylic platter made the sound a little smoother and brought out additional details. Substituting a rosewood platter for the lead loaded acrylic platter, increased the detail and made the sound much warmer. To me the sound was richer and had more resonance. I much preferred the wood. Other people thought the wood was overly warm and preferred the lead loaded acrylic platter. I suspect it is a matter of taste. If you like tubes and Koetsu cartridges, you will probably prefer the wooden platter. If you prefer solid state and a cooler, more analytical sound, you will probably prefer the lead loaded acrylic platter.
The demo was being done in the Red Rock room using the Red Rock Renaissance push-pull amplifiers, and the ESP Concert Grand loudspeakers. After the platter demo, Chris Brady attempted to demo a Teres model 320 with a Schroeder DPS arm and a Blue Note Bobili cartridge. Unfortunately the moving magnet cartridge did not mate well with the phono preamp. So we then listened to the brand new model 360 prototype with a Schroeder Reference arm and a Koetsu Urushi cartridge. The model 360 is a model 340 with all of the aluminum struts and feet replaced with brass. In addition, a one inch thick slab of brass has been added to the bottom of the platter increasing its weight to 67 pounds. The model 360 that we listened to had the brass gold plated. It looked very nice. Based on the buzz on the web, some people feel that the gold plate is a bit of overkill - think pimpmobile or early Kansas City bordello. Other people absolutely loved the gold plate and the gold mylar drive belt. Per Chris Brady, a number of finishes will be available including nickel and black powder coat. The brass has to be plated because it is sourced from several different manufacturers and the manufacturers use different alloys. Each brass alloy has its own distinct color. According to Chris, the cost differential between the various plate finishes is actually surprisingly small.
Earlier in the day I had listened to this same system with the Teres model 200 with the wood platter. I had a chance to play some of my LPs.; i.e. EMI HMV-1 45rpm Walton: Pomp and Circumstance, Nirvana: Unplugged in New York (DGC 24727), the Classic Records 45rpm reissue of Louie Armstrong doing St. James Infirmary (Satchmo Plays King Oliver), and Joe Satriani: Surfing with the Alien (Relativity CRI-08193). With the model 360 installed, we listened to the Louis Armstrong: St. James Infirmary, the Nirvana, and the Joe Satriani. The table sounded as good as it looked. I have not heard any of the megabuck turntable/arm combinations under controlled conditions. However, what I heard from the 360/Reference/Urushi was the best vinyl sound that I have heard from a system with which I had some familiarity. It is a shame that it is so difficult to do A-B comparisons between different turntables with the same arm and cartridge. Anyway, Teres has another winner on its hands. New models/improvements have been coming fairly frequently from Teres. Hopefully, something even more exciting will be awaiting vinyl lovers at CES 2005.