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RMAF - 2006
This year's RMAF was even more fun than the last two. Besides the great music and camaraderie, this time the organizers even ordered snow for us—1.5 inches on Friday night. For those of us from places where it does not snow, it was a lovely surprise to wake up Saturday morning to find everything covered by snow. Way to go, Al, Marjorie and Art!
Regional audio shows like the RMAF may be the wave of the future. A number of manufacturers that I spoke with said that they would not be exhibiting at CES 2007 in Las Vegas as they have in the past. Reasons given included the increased room costs, the change from weekend to weekdays, the trouble and expense of dealing with union labor to move gear in and out, and the change of location from the Alexis Park to the Venetian. Regional weekend audio shows such as RMAF may be the wave of the future as they are easier on both the exhibitor and the attendees. Long Live RMAF!
Before I get into my show report, let me give my usual caveat. I did not get to every room at the show. Some rooms were always crowded when I went by. You can not do critical listening in a room full of people particularly if some of them are talking. Some rooms played their music TOO LOUD so I did not venture in. In other rooms, I was not able to play any of the CDs or LPs that I had brought with me. It always makes me suspicious when exhibitors won't let you play your own music—you can only listen to the music they select. If I can't listen to music with which I am very familiar, it is hard for me to form an educated opinion on an audio system. I did speak with friends and other reviewers as I encountered them in the hallways, asking them for rooms that I should visit. I believe that I got to all of the rooms that were recommended to me, subject to the above limitations.
The following music was used to evaluate the audio systems:
Teldec 9031-74717-2 Rachmaninoff: Fantaisie-tableaux: Paques (two Pianos Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovitch)
Sony SK89029 Barber: Violin Concerto, Third Movement, Hillary Hahn, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Hugh Wolff
Dorian DOR-90117 Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, transcribed for organ, Jean Guillou
Hillcrest HPCD 001 The Duo-Tones: Surf Music Unplugged, Mr. Moto (two acoustic guitars)
4AD 9-45916-2 Lisa Gerrard: The Mirror Pool, Sanvean (female vocal)
Geffen DGC 24727 Nirvana: Unplugged in New York, About a Girl
Island 12 WIP 6598 The Secret Policeman's Ball, Pete Townshend, Pinball Wizard (one acoustic guitar and male voice)
RCA AJLI-5847 Eurhythmics: Revenge, Missionary Man
Stockfisch SFR357.8025-1 Sara K.: Waterfalls, The Painter (female vocal)
Columbia OC 40158 Judas Priest: Turbo Lover, Turbo Lover
With the above caveat, in no particular order, are the rooms that I found most enjoyable:
Nagra/Verity Audio - The system was composed of the Nagra CDC CD player ($14,995), Nagra PL-L Line Level Preamp, ($8495) and Nagra PSA Stereo Amp ($6595) driving the new Verity Audio Rienzi System (monitor and bass unit $7995) using Silversmith cables and Nordost power cords. The system was set up in one of the meeting rooms rather than in one of the hotel rooms. The system was very impressive reproducing the Rachmaninoff piano music. It sounded like the two pianos were in the room. Likewise, the two acoustic guitars on the Surf music sounded very realistic.
Wilson Benesch/deHavilland - The system was composed of the deHavilland Mercury preamp and GM-70 monoblock amps driving the Wilson Benesch Act floorstanding speakers ($14,995) and the Wilson Benesch Torus infrasonic generator (subwoofer $5400) with separate Torus amp ($3995), Cardas cabling and power cords. The system was set up in one of the meeting rooms rather than one of the hotel rooms. Since I own a pair of deHavilland 845-G monoblock amps, I am very partial to the sound of deHavilland amps. With that being said, in this room I found the sound of the Rachmaninoff piano music to be the most realistic of all of the rooms in which I played it. While in some of the other rooms the right hand notes sounded life-like, in this room, with the subwoofer, the left hand notes also sounded life-like.
Hagerman/Galibier/Azzolina - Galibier Gavia turntable ($4500) with Schroeder Reference Arm, EMT HSD cartridge into all Hagerman electronics: Gold Trumpet phono stage ($2500), Clarinet tube line stage ($1000), Cymbal 8 watt push/pull tube amp ($2500), driving Azzolina Audio Grand Sfera horn loudspeakers. On the Sara K. and Pete Townshend LPs the system was detailed and very musical. Considering the relatively modest cost of the electronics, there was a lot of bang for the buck.
Walker/Red Rock/LSA - Walker Proscenium Gold Signature Turntable ($30,000 plus depending on options) with the Magic Diamond Super cartridge ($12,000?), Walker phono preamp, Red Rock Renaissance monoblock amps ($38,750), LSA Group LSA 10 loudspeakers, with cabling and power cords by Walker. The system was set up in one of the large corner rooms. Because of the constant stream of people going through the room I was only able to play the one cut of my Nirvana album. However, another listener played a track from the Speakers Corner reissue of Mercury SR90315. Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet. This is an LP that I own and am very familiar with. Based on these two tracks, the Walker system threw a very wide soundstage. The music was very detailed with lots of air around the instruments. Most enjoyable.
As part of the demonstration of his system Mr. Walker was also demoing the prototype of his new record cleaning fluid. On both my Nirvana LP and on the other attendee's Mercury, one track was played and then Mr. Walker cleaned that side of the LP using his cleaning fluid and a VPI RCM. Once cleaned, the same track was played again. There was a noticeable change in the sound of both LPs after Mr. Walker's cleaning. The sound was smoother and arising from a blacker background. Since I had cleaned my LP with my DIY fluid just prior to leaving for the RMAF, I know my LP was clean.
The Walker cleaning fluids are a three step process. The first step is an enzyme cleaner. Mr. Walker maintains that enzyme cleaners lose their cleaning ability after 8 hours in solution. Thus, he supplies his enzyme as a dry powder. You mix up only what you are going to need for that cleaning session. The enzyme cleaner is the first step, followed by a plastic cleaner (step 2) and then a final super pure water rinse (step three). According to Mr. Walker, the cleaning fluid will be available for purchase off of his website in about six weeks. I hope to obtain a sample and do A-B comparisons with both my DIY fluid and the other commercial fluids that I have on hand.
TW-Acustic/Tron/Aspara - The TW-Acustic Raven AC turntable had two tonearms: A Schroeder Reference with a ZYX UNIverse (copper) and a Dynavector 507MkII with a Dynavector XV-1s. The electronics from Tron Electric included the Seven phono stage, the Syren Reference preamp, and the Cantata 300B monoblock amps. The speakers were the Aspara Acoustics HL1 105dB horns. Cables and power conditioning by Clarity. Both tonearm/cartridge combinations sounded very good. The music was detailed, but more importantly, very emotionally satisfying.
Teres Audio - The Teres room was an all analog room. The speakers were the Edgarhorn Titans driven by monoblock SET amps and preamp built by Chris Brady, owner and chief designer of Teres. Phono stage was the Artemis Labs PH-1. This is the equipment he uses at home. The two turntables available for demoing were the new Models 450 ($12,500) and 460 ($17,500). Both of these models feature the new Certus direct drive motor. For those of you familiar with the Teres Models 320 and 340 belt driven turntables, the Model 450 is analogous to the Model 320. It is a single arm table without a separate base. The Model 460 is analogous to the Model 340; i.e. it is a two arm version and rests on a separate wooden platform with additional damping just like the 340. The Model 450 was resting on the new Teres Audio Equipment rack ($1150 - $2450, approximately 80 lbs) while the Model 460 was sitting on the Teres Audio Gibraltar Stand ($5500, approximately 350 lbs). There were two tonearms that were moved back and forth between the two turntables: a Schroeder Reference SQ with a Koetsu Jade (with only about 20 hours on it) and a Schroeder Reference with a ZYX UNIverse (copper). Initially, I heard the 450 with the Reference SQ/Koetsu Jade. That arm/cartridge combination was then moved to the 460 with no other changes and the same LP played. The additional base and more massive stand made a significant improvement to the sound. The sound was more stable, came from a blacker background, and seemed to be louder even though the volume control setting on the preamp was unchanged.
I was very impressed by the sound that I heard from both the 450 and 460 turntables and returned to the Teres room several times. One of the times that I returned to the Teres room was right after visiting the Walker room. By coincidence, the person that had just played his Prokofiev Mercury in the Walker room had preceded me to the Teres room. He had just had his Prokofiev Mercury placed on the 450 with the Schroeder SQ/Koetsu Jade and we heard the same track played that we had just heard in the Walker room. Granted that the sound in the Teres room with its single ended triodes and horn speakers is a very different sound from the Walker room with its push/pull tube amps and cone driver speakers. However, after the first few notes, it was readily apparent that the music that we were hearing had significantly more PraT (Pace, Rhythm, and Timing). The initial transients of notes were sharper, more distinct, and struck with greater impact. The music had greater rhythmic drive. The music more like live music. The owner of the Prokofiev Mercury and I looked at each other and then whispered back and forth. We were both hearing the same things. After his track was done we then played my Nirvana track. Again the Prokofiev Mercury owner and I both heard the same differences - the Teres had more PraT. Later in the day I had a chance to talk with Chris Brady about what I had heard. I asked him specifically if the increase in PraT that I was hearing was due to the horn speakers which are known for their ability to get micro-dynamics right, or if it was due to the direct drive. Mr. Brady said that the difference was due to the direct drive. The only real difference between belt driven 340 and the direct drive 460 was the direct drive motor and the 460 had more PraT than the 340.
Mr. Brady and I then discussed direct drive for the masses, since at $12,500 even the 450 is beyond the reach of most audiophiles. With some redesign of the motor unit, Mr. Brady thought that a $6000 direct drive turntable was possible. Was there a cheaper approach? Mr. Brady also thought that with a little redesign work that the controller unit from the direct drive motor could be used to control a motor driving an idler wheel running against the outside of a platter. Laughingly I said, ‘Gee, you could have belt drives as your entry level tables, idler wheels as your mid level and direct drives as your top of the line tables'. Mr. Brady chuckled and said ‘that is not a bad idea'. Could there be an idler wheel in Teres' future? Who knows? But this is certainly an exciting time for vinyl lovers.
Galibier/Karna/Azzolina - Located in one of the big corner rooms was a system composed of a Galibier Design Stelvio ($12,500) turntable with Triplanar arm and Dynavector XV-1s. The phono stage and preamp were one-off designs, amplification from Karna Push Pull 300B amps from nutshellhifi.com. The speakers were Azzolina Audio Grand Sfera. Cables by Chimera Labs. I played my audiophile approved Sara K., then the Pete Townshend track. Since no one else had any other vinyl to play, I played the Nirvana cut. All the other attendees present left the room, but several more people came into the room and sat down with big smiles on their faces. After Nirvana I played The Eurythmics and Judas Priest to more smiles. So what did I hear from these five LPs. The Sara K. is a true audiophile recording—superbly recorded and pressed. What I heard was like her sitting and singing right there in the room with me. Very nice. On the Pete Townshend track I heard every detail, every movement of his fingers. Quite a toe tapping performance. Kurt Cobain's voice on the Nirvana cut was not quite as realistic as in the Walker room, but still very nice. The Eurythmics track is heavily mixed. On a high resolution system you can hear each separate track of the mix. I heard all of the tracks. Turbo Lover is actually fairly well recorded and pressed, but I played it just for fun. Judas Priest sure beats hearing Jazz at the Pawnshop for the thousandth time. A very nice sounding room to which I returned several times.
Merlin/Joule - Set up in a standard sized hotel room, which is the smallest room in which I have ever heard the Merlins, were the new Merlin VSM-MXe loudspeakers driven by Joule-Electra equipment: LAP-150 preamp with phonostage and VZN-100 OTL amps. Cabling and power cords were JPS Labs Illuminata. The source was a Audio Aero Capitole Reference CD Player. After a rough start on Friday morning, the Merlin room was sounding very, very good by Sunday. The Merlins can't play thunderous bottom octave bass (4dB down at 30Hz), but the Moussorgsky organ rendition was spectacular. Cavernous soundstage. Spacious, open sound. This was the best that I have ever heard that recording sound. The Barber Violin Concerto was detailed, musical, and exciting. The Rachmaninoff piano track was wonderful. Not quite as realistic as the Wilson Benesch/deHavilland room, but close. Of all the digital only rooms, this was my favorite. I returned numerous times.
Red Point/WAM Engineering - There were two systems in this conference room. The one that I heard consisted of a Red Point Model D turntable with Breuer Model 8 arm and Transfiguration Orpheus cartridge. Electronics were all FM Acoustics: 611 amp, 245 preamp, and 122 phonostage. The CD player was the Blue Note Stibbert. Speakers were the new ones from WAM Engineering (Wally Malewicz of Wally Tool fame). I did not get to play my own vinyl but Peter Clark of Red Point did play two albums that I own and am familiar with: Cantate Domino (Proprius 7762) and Dead Can Dance: Into the Labyrinth (4AD DAD3013). The soundstage was wide and deep. Lots of detail. A very musical system. I would have loved to have spent more time here, but the room was always crowded. I did get a chance to talk with Peter Clark regarding the Breuer arm. Peter has the largest and finest collection of tonearms of anyone that I know. He is absolutely in love with the Breuer 8. He says it easily surpasses the performance of his Ikeda arms which were his previous favorites.
Acoustic Zen/Modwright/Response Audio - The sources were a Sony 9100 CD player with the Modwright Signature Truth mods and a VPI Scout with SDS and a Dynavector 10X5 cartridge. Preamp with phonostage was the Modwright SWLP-9.0SE. Amps were the Response Audio Bella Extreme 100 monoblocks. Loudspeakers were the Acoustic Zen Adagio. With either CD or LP this was a very nice sounding combination. Detailed, spacious, musical. Despite the relatively low cost analog front end, the Peter Townshend and Nirvana cuts were quite good and for musical enjoyment, this system could easily run with the big, more expensive boys.
Thanks again to the Colorado Audio Society, Al Stiefel, and Marjorie Baumert for a wonderful time. See you all again next year.