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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest - 2005
This year's RMAF was even more fun than last years, which is saying a lot, as I thought last year's RMAF was the most fun of any audio show that I had ever attended. Kudos to all of the many volunteers that have made this event possible. We can only hope that the volunteers don't get burned out and the RMAF is able to continue year after year and that it continues to grow. I would guesstimate that the number of exhibit rooms increased by at least 30% over ‘04. Lots of things to see and hear. I felt just about as rushed trying to visit all the RMAF exhibit rooms in three days as I do trying to visit all of the High End rooms during the four days of CES/Las Vegas.
To my ears, there were a lot more excellent sounding rooms this year than last. This is notable since the rooms at the Marriott Tech Center are more of a challenge as far as acoustics are concerned as compared to the exhibit rooms at the Alexis Park at CES in Las Vegas. It would appear that the exhibitors learned from their experiences last year and came prepared.
Listed below in random order are the rooms that I felt had excellent sound. While I tried to get to all of the exhibit rooms, and made repeated attempts to visit all rooms at least once, I was not able to, for a number of reasons. In some for the rooms, I was not able to play my own CDs or LPs. Without playing music I am very familiar with, I can not form an educated opinion. In other rooms the crowds were so large that critical listening was not possible. In a few rooms, the music was constantly TOO LOUD. An acoustic guitar does not play at 105dB. It should not sound that loud in a exhibit room upon playback. Rant!
The DeVore gibbon Super 8 loudspeakers ($4,000/pair) were playing in one of the large suites. The electronics consisted of a Herron VTSP-2 tube preamp ($5000), Berendsen CDP-1 CD Player ($2295) and Berendsen STA150SE amps ($3295). I have heard the DeVore loudspeakers at previous shows and have been impressed. The gibbon Super 8 is a full range (36-40kHz), floor standing speaker which is easy to drive (8 ohms, 90dB/W/M). The system had plenty of fine detail—more than enough to please the audiophile. However, what impressed me was the effortlessness and sheer musicality of the system. I would have loved to have spent more time listening to this system.
Anthony Gallo Acoustics
The Gallo room was demoing their A'Diva Ti loudspeakers ($275 each) with the TR 1 subwoofer ($425). The A'Diva Ti speakers are 3" titanium based drivers in a 5" spherical all metal enclosure. The subwoofer is approximately one cubic foot in size. The speakers are miniscule, but they play real music with a wide and deep soundstage. For less than $1000 these little speakers are hard to beat. Killer for a home theater.
Red Rock Audio/Walker Audio/Verity Audio
This was analog done right. Using one of the large suite rooms, the source was a Walker Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable Reference ($35,000) with Magic Diamond cartridge ($4500) directly connected to a Walker Reference Phono Amplifier ($12,500), connected to a Walker Reference Tube Line Stage ($12,500), connected to a Red Rock Renaissance Monoblock Push Pull Tube Amplifier ($38,750 per pair), playing through Verity Audio Sarastro speakers ($35,000 per pair). Musical. Detailed. Fun! Another room where I could have spent all day playing my LPs.
This was my first chance to hear Horning loudspeakers, specifically the Perikles. The Perikles is a smaller version of the Hybrid Agathon Ultimate Loudspeaker which were reviewed in Positive Feedback Online - Issue 20. The electronics consisted of Tron Cantata amps and Tron Syren preamp, with either a Harmonix/Raimyo CDP-777 CD Player or a TW Acustic Raven Turntable ($10,000) with a DaVinci tonearm ($6,700) and a Dynavector P75 phono stage. With either digital or analog the system played music. Rammstein, Joe Satriani, and Peter Townsend Unplugged—it all sounded wonderful.
Any room with two turntables can't be bad. Teres had their drop-dead gorgeous flagship Model 360 Turntable, with Schroder Reference Tonearm, and ZYX UNIverse cartridge along with a
Model 265 with a Graham 2.2 tonearm and Benz Ruby 2 cartridge. Phono preamplifier was the Artemis Labs PH-1. Amplification by Parasound. The room was set-up for 5.1 Home Theater, which I heard. However, my critical listening was done with just two channels. The first day I thought the sound was very good via the 360/Schroder/UNIverse. On Saturday something had been changed and the sound had become dull and flat. Not sure what happened. However, I can highly recommend the 360/Schroder/UNIverse as a source.
The Audio Magic room ran the full panoply of Audio Magic equipment, cables and conditioners. The speakers were supplied by Green Mountain and the source was a Zero-One Music Server/CD Drive feeding a Audio Magic Stealth DAC. Very natural sound. I returned several times.
Last year I thought the Spendor speakers sounded very good. This year was more of the same. Using Talk electronics both the Spendor S8e ($3000) and the Spendor S5e ($1650) sounded excellent.
Rhino Acoustics/Vacuum State
Rhino Acoustics is a new loudspeaker manufacturer. They were demoing their Affirm Audio Immersion loudspeaker ($8600). The Affirm Audio is a horn speaker with a downfiring horn that covers the 40-1,000 Hz range. A front firing 6.5 driver covers the 1k to 5k range, and a concentric super tweeter covers the 5 to 20k range. While I love the dynamics of horn loudspeakers and the fact that they can be driven by single ended triode amps, I am not normally partial to them. Most horn loudspeakers, to my ears, make the music sound like it is coming through a megaphone. The Affirm Audio did not sound at all like a horn speaker. There was no ‘megaphone' sound. On my first listen to them I thought the speakers had promise, but the bass was weak and flabby, and the midrange did not seem coherent. This was not unusual for a new company demoing at its first show. I hoped that they would be back next year with a more refined product.
After my initial listen I was chatting with Allen Wright of Vacuum State. He asked me if I had heard the Affirm Audios. I said that I thought they had promise, but they did not sound all that impressive. Allen said he thought the speakers were quite good and that the problem was with the amplifiers being used. He said that after the show closed for the night that he was going to take his $16,000 dpa300B monoblock amplifiers up to the Rhino Room and see how the Affirm Audios sounded with his electronics. He said that if I wanted to sit in on the listening session to show up at the Vacuum State room at 6 PM when the show closed for the night. I dutifully showed up at closing and Allen pressed me into service by having me haul one of the two dpa300B monoblocks over to the other tower to the Rhino room. This was not as arduous as it may sound. The dpa300B monoblocks weigh slightly over 20 pounds each. This is very light for a tube amplifier utilizing two 300B tubes (18 watts) per side.
The combination of the Vacuum State dpa300Bs with the Affirm Audios was a marriage made in heaven. All the problems that I had heard on my initial listen disappeared. With the dpa300Bs, the sound was coherent, detailed, dynamic. This was easily the best sound that I had heard at the show. After half an hour of listening I had to leave in order to meet some friends for dinner. I had just left the room and was saying good bye to Allen out in the hall where he had been conversing with one of the Rhino people when I suddenly heard Bela Fleck's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo coming from the room. I know and love this bass guitar piece and use it as my test track when demoing subwoofers. Back into the room I went. What I heard was the best sounding Cosmic Hippo I have ever heard and I have heard it on quite a few systems including my own.
Now, was it the Vacuum State Amplifiers or the Affirm Audios that sounded so good, or the combination of the two? Either of these would be worth auditioning. Very Impressive
This room featured the Exemplar Exception Line Stage, the Exemplar Exultation Amplifier, and the Exemplar Horn Speakers with the Galibier Stelvio Turntable with Schroder Reference Arm and ZYX UNIverse cartridge. The sound in the large suite was very rich, detailed and dynamic. I would love to hear these electronics with different speakers as the Exemplar Horns are not my cup of tea. This system does so many things right. But to my ears, the speakers have a touch of that ‘megaphone' sound. Still, highly worth a listen if you get the chance.
This was the first year for Herron Audio at RMAF. Their room looked and sounded very much like their room at the CES, namely, excellent. Using a VPI HRX turntable as source, the electronics, prototype phono stage, preamp, amps, and prototype loudspeakers were all Herron. Year after year, show after show, Keith Herron always has one of the top three best sounding rooms. He must be doing something very right.
Frank Schroder did not have his own exhibit room at the RMAF. However, his tonearms were used in a number of rooms. For me, the highlight of the show was talking to Frank and watching him as he tweaked the setup of the Galibier Stelvio/Schroder Reference/UNIverse combination in the Exemplar/Galibier room. With his ears, two LPs that he was intimately familiar with, and a simple beam balance tracking force gauge, Frank adjusted VTA, VTF, and Azimuth. Before Frank started I thought the system sounded very, very good. However, after 20 minutes of listening, adjusting, listening, and adjusting the sound stage noticeably widened and deepened. It appears you don't need fancy or expensive test equipment to set up a turntable. You just need to train your ears. A very educational experience.
Try to make it to next year's RMAF. It is worth experiencing.