RMAF 07: Ragan Mena Reports
So what if the Colorado Rockies were swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Look on the bright side Denver, They did clinch the NL Pennant and this years Rocky Mountain Audio Festival was bigger and better than ever. Suck it up and just repeat the old Cubbies adage, “There’s always next year.” As for the 2007 RMAF, those of us who made the pilgrimage to the Denver Marriot Tech Center, we were rewarded with great sound, great company, and interesting seminars led by industry professionals. Besides the central theme of 2ch music, this year’s festival had a much welcomed showcase of manufactures, distributors, and dealers with digital music on the brain. Everyone knows the mood-altering benefits of vinyl music, but it was nice to see emphasis placed on digital music in a good way. (Bye-bye MP3, Hello FLAC) The only bad thing about the show was its enormous size. Wait, isn’t that a good thing? So many rooms, so little time, perhaps next year I’ll start hitting up manufactures in the parking lot….Enjoy the eye candy!
RMAF 07: Acoustic Zen
Another room that received a lot of great attention was Acoustic Zen. Their new $12k Crescendo is gunning to replace the very best speakers from other Refined-type companies like Wilson and Genesis. All drivers are custom creations featuring an unusual short coil/long gap magnet structure. Like the less expensive and wildly popular Adagios, the Crescendos feature transmission-line bass loading and massive cabinets.
Halco provided the components. It's hard to say how each piece sounded, but the overall sound was definitely Refined and some of the very best at the show. If the comments at the show are any indication, expect to see people saying, "I replaced my far more expensive XYZ speakers with Acoustic Zen!"
RMAF 07: Sonicweld $99k Super System
Paging Kanye West: Your new speakers are here. At $99k, the Sonicweld system has enough polished aluminum to out-bling Bugatti. And with active x-over, room correction and amazing sound, the Sonicweld system was the best Precise-type room at the show.
Being the nosey guy I am, I asked everyone I ran into what their favorite room was. Sonicweld came up a number of times usually accompanied with arm waving and copious gushing. Taste is subjective, of course, but the Sonicweld's Precise-type sound was simply seductive. The speed of the 2" midrange array was incredibly fast with class-leading definition between notes. The sound wasn't too cool or sharp or etched, just perfectly flat and amazingly revealing. Those who like their sound colored, look elsewhere. But for those with a love of absolute accuracy (and have a recording contract at Aftermath), put Sonicweld at the top of your list.
Sonicweld is located in Utah (along with 50% of the other high-end speaker manufacturers) and sells direct with in-home installation and optimization. $99k is steep, but the man behind Sonicweld Josh Heiner revealed there's a new system in the works. Once he's finished milling his current backorder of super systems, he's going to get down to a sub $10k system for the rest of us.
The speakers are 4-ways with a silk dome tweeter, six 2" titanium midrange drivers and six 4" aluminum woofers. Double outboard 12" subs are in separate enclosures. Unusual for Precise-type speakers, the titanium drivers run wide-range while the six woofers are bipoles firing forward and backward. All drivers feature individual ICEpower amplification controlled by a DEQX digital crossover and room correction unit. And that's just the beginning, check out their website for all the tech that goes into these amazing speakers.
RMAF 07: Lovecraft
After the passing of Terry Cain, famed single driver Fostex speaker company Cain & Cain was taken over by a new company called Lovecraft. The guys behind Lovecraft were comrades of Terry, and the new company offers the famous classics like the Abby and Ben while dishing up some new products and colorful finishes.
New at the show are Lovecraft's Walla Walla Walla Sound folded horn speakers (the Sponge Bob shaped speakers pictured below). Featuring a single Fostex 8" Sigma driver, the WWW's are classic Emotional-type speakers and run $3300/pair.
The desktop system below is called the Noogi & Spud. For $1600 you get the single 3" driver monitors with a powered subwoofer section. Very cool product and the finishes are absolutely fantastic. The guys at Lovecraft are young and hip with and into the computer audio, retro tubes and funky finishes.
Click "read full article" for some of the coolest speaker finishes around. The speakers, as of the show, weren't for sale, but if you really want a pair with flames, their automotive artist can probably hook you up. Check 'em out.
RMAF 07: Reference 3A and Antique Sound Labs
Reference 3A's new Grand Veena speakers ($7995) are receiving a good deal of attention, and rightfully so. Paired with $9500 of Antique Sound Labs electronics and utilizing a Copland Digital Room Correction Module, the system put out some of the best Refined-type sound at the show. Great voicing, huge dynamics, perfectly smooth bass and really detailed presentation make for an absolutely fantastic $17500 system.
The Grand Veenas signature trait is a 7" "Hyperexponential" midrange driver. In a fairly unusual move for a large, multi-way floorstander, this driver runs wide-range and without a crossover to minimize parts in the signal path.
The Grand Veena's bass is provided by dual 8" woofers tweaked by the Copland DRC-205 digital room correction device. You can, with a single push of a button, even out the bass and, if you dare, manipulate the entire frequency via your computer. Very cool product.
RMAF 07: Where's Waldo?
Notice anything unusual about the picture above? No? Look closely...
This picture was taken at an after-hours cocktail party for press and other industry insiders held by On a Higher Note (Vivid and Luxman). So the people here aren't unwashed Best Buy masses, but hard core audiophiles.
Have you seen it yet?
Look at the pic below.
Yes, that's a glass of beer sitting on the new $9000 Luxman L-509A II amp (playing at the time). I was going to go give him hell, but he finished up doing whatever it was he's doing and moved on. The top of the amp is vented for heat dissipation, so the barrier between his beer driblets and the sensitive electronic circuitry is nonexistent. Unbelievable...
RMAF 07: Vivid/Luxman Super System
If you've ever heard or read about Vivid speakers, know that the sound at RMAF was completely different. At past shows, Vivid has demoed with a variety of gear (Pathos is the one I can recall), but this time, Vivid was matched up with Luxman equipment, both companies now under the wing of On a Higher Note by Philip O'Hanlon (whose past projects saw the launch of Halcro into the big time).
Talk about synergy. The Vivid K1 speakers ($20k/pair) with the Luxman L-590A II integrated ($9000) were simply out of this world good. Flushed out with a Weiss Jason CD player, the total system cost comes out to roughly $40k.
Philip is one man who loves the system-centric approach. He picked up these two brands simply because of the amazing synergy. Philip is packaging the smaller Vivid speakers and a Luxman integrated for a package price of $15k and marketing it to doctors, lawyers and rockstars everywhere.
MusicGiants, of lossless downloading fame, was a joint exhibitor in this room. After I played my demo track, Philip smiled and said, "You have to hear this." The sample tracks he put on simply blew my mind. What was the deal? Hi-rez tracks downloaded from MusicGiants and burned onto a DVD-A. Philip wanted to have a direct computer connection to play these hi-rez tracks, but the rig didn't arrive. While SACD and DVD-A may be dying a quick death, computer-based hi-rez playback could very well be the glorious future we've all hoped for.
As for the system sound, everyone I talked to said this system was unlike anything they've heard from Vivid before and, while past Vivid rooms weren't anything to talk about, most everyone I talked to raved about the new Vivid/Luxman super system. Interestingly, Vivid/Luxman is placed in the Vivid group on the Sonic Circle. I didn't name the categories with Vivid in mind and the speakers could very well be in another group. But the Vivid/Luxman system together provided one of the absolutely best Vivid-type demos at the show.
Vivid, if you know anything about this South African company, has its roots in famed Brit company Bowers & Wilkins. While some of the Vivid tech is derived from the B&W Matrix/Nautilus stable, to me, the Vivid speakers, both at this show and shows past, sound nothing like the B&W 800 series. B&W has a very distinct sound, and Vivid exhibits none of these characteristics.
Luxman is a classic Japanese company, recently revamped with new lines of solid state and tube components. I've heard the new Luxman MQ-88 amp (KT88 tubes) outside of the show and the sound is, upon first blush, a really great and unique Vivid-style sound. It's unlike any other tube gear I've heard before and, to play Nostradamus for a second, will really appeal to a lot of the new school American hi-fi fans who are gravitating towards this kind of rich and powerful sound.
Vivid has some very interesting tech behind it. First, the driver compliment. The Vivid K1 is a 3.5-way speaker with all custom aluminum drivers. What you can't see is the two additional woofers on the back side, putting out frequencies below 100Hz. The front woofers mirror the back woofers, but run all the way up to 900Hz to mate with the midrange dome (which, in turn, runs up to 4kHz).
As for construction, the "cabinets" are "carbon fiber loaded polyester compound." While I'm a little rusty on my polyester compounds, this method creates a cabinet with walls that vary in thicknesses to kill cabinet resonances. Additionally, like a sports car shaped in a wind tunnel, the Vivids are shaped to virtually disappear from driver reflections that would otherwise be bouncing off of the hard edges of a traditional box cabinet.
Interestingly, the Vivid K1 speakers are rated at 89dB sensitivity (6 ohms) while the Luxman pure class-A L-590A II integrated amp puts out all of 30 watts into 8 ohms. The system had no right to sound as powerful and full as it did. I hung out in the Vivid/Luxman room on two occasions and people would come in and say, "Wow! So how many watts is that amp?" And Philip O'Hanlon would tell them, and then smile as their faces contorted in confusion. There's something funky going on inside the Luxman amp. Check out the website for all the tech talk you can handle and expect to see the L-590A II winning all kinds of awards from around the interwebs.
RMAF 07: Sjofn Guru AV Speaker System
If you haven't heard of the Sjofn (pronounced: "shoe-fen") Guru system yet, be prepared for reviews coming your way from every magazine. In fact, SonicFlare's own Robert Learner has the Guru system in home. So what's the big deal? Big bass, little box. Believe me, you've never heard deeper bass from a smaller cabinet (or driver) before. The best part is the Guru is designed as a system. Combine huge bass, small size and great sound for $3000 and you have yourself a Show Superstar.
First of all, Sjofn Hi-Fi is the Swedish parent company putting together the pieces: the Guru QM10 speakers ($1995), Xindak integrated and CD player ($400 each), and Supra cables for a package price of $3000. At RMAF, they also showed their $9,995 QM40 speakers with Xindak equipment for their $14k system. Speakers shown were either matte or gloss black, though other colors will be available in the future. Additionally, I was told by Sjofn's finance man that a number of retail stores are in the works with the first in the Denver and the next in Vegas. Single-brand hi-fi stores are a rarity, but if anyone can do it, it'll be the Sjofn.
When I came into the room, the Guru guys were probably thinking I, like everyone else, had an audiophile demo disc to play. But when my bass heavy tracks came on, their eyes lit up. They were pretty confident about putting out big bass, so I said, "We'll see about that -- crank the suckers up!" After a moment, however, the volume was so high, one of the Guru crew told me I was getting close to "blowing up the speakers." He then said something in Swedish to his coworker who turned the volume down to normal human levels. But before they got a chance to tame the system, I snuck up to the little 5" driver and found it bouncing back and forth more than any 5" driver I've seen before.
In terms of sound, the system falls into the Intense camp (with a slight lean towards the Refined group). The system was cool instead of warm, but not so cool as to turn people off. There's obvious system synergy going on between the Guru speakers and Xindak gear. The differences between the $3k and $14k systems were, clearly, bass output, but also definition in notes and overall clarity. As for how each of the components sound, we'll just have to wait and see.
So how does Guru work its magic? As you can see from the pictures, the speakers are pushed back against the front wall. Play with any speaker for a few minutes and you know the closer to the front wall, the bigger the bass. Also, the closer you sit to the back wall, the bigger the bass.
Now, positively utilizing room gain is nothing new -- Linn did it back in the day, as well as a few other manufacturers at RMAF. But the Guru speakers are the smallest, most powerful I've ever heard. Looking at the speaker the first thought that came to mind was "transmission line." No, I was told, speakers are, in fact, bass reflex with a special design rather than the hole-in-box approach.
Of course, if everyone could get monster bass from pushing their speakers against the wall, they would. So what are the trade offs? The reason the majority of manufacturers design their speakers for mid-room placement is to tame room reflections and increase sound stage. Guru deals with the room reflection issues in a couple of ways. As you can see from the picture below, the front wall is covered with sound-sucking foam. Guru designer Ingvar Ohman explained that high frequency reflections are the major issue with close-wall placement and taking the reflections out of the game is the only way to go.
As for sound stage, while it's hard to tell from the picture, the speakers are slightly farther apart than typical speaker setups and, most importantly, toed in so the tweeter axis converge a few feet in front of the listener. Again, this is nothing new (Audio Kinesis does this) but the effect is really obvious: awesome sound stage with depth, width and, interestingly, stable imaging for any position in the room. Ingvar explained that when you sit, say, to the left of center, the right speaker, now pointing directly at you, sends out a higher, faster frequency that compensates for the delay from the other speaker. While I've never heard it explained like that before, the results speak for themselves.
There is only one trade off that may be a sticking point. The $2000 Guru QM10 doesn't have the clarity and definition as other speakers in this class. My guess is that since the woofers are forced to work extra hard to get the bass, the midrange frequencies lose definition relative to other speakers with less excursion. Ideally, a speaker would have all frequencies coming from the same plane. But when you have a driver with, say, an inch of excursion, the mid frequencies from one moment to the next may be offset by as much as an inch. It's not as if you're experiencing Doppler effect, it's just that the Gurus aren't as defined as other speakers in the same class.
Overall, the Gurus are brilliantly engineered and sound fantastic. While the black cabinets don't scream luxury hi-fi, the Gurus are the ticket for people wanting killer sound without big boxes and huge bass without subwoofers.
RMAF 07: Audio Kinesis & AtmaSphere System
My love for Audio Kinesis began at a Los Angeles expo a few years back where Audio Kinesis showed prototype bookshelf speakers with, if I remember correctly, a half dozen drivers per side. Later, Audio Kinesis released the more conventional looking 2-way Jazz Modules ($4000) and Storm Bringers ($2800). At RMAF, Audio Kinesis's main man Duke LeJune revealed the new Dream Makers ($9000), which take his signature sound and technology to the limit. One Audio Kinesis owner told Duke he should name his new speakers "The Crocs" in deference to my glowing show coverage where I defined the Audio Kinesis sound as having "snap like a croc." Duke, you can still change the name, you know...
The new speakers have all his signature snap and more. The system, paired with top AtmaSphere equipment, lands directly in the Vivid camp. The bass was powerful and tight while the overall presentation was wall to wall and incredibly precise. The AtmaSphere amps and overall speaker tuning was warm with really lively voices. The Jazz Modules claim up to 112dB of output with only 1dB of compression. The Crocs, er, Dream Makers, should put out even more.
The driver compliment is similar to the Jazz Modules I raved about, but feature a very unique second driver compliment on the back of the speaker that radiates in bipole fashion. The bipole feature puts out larger bass and a bigger sense of scale and sound stage. The downside -- if there is one -- is that room placement becomes a little more tricky.
Sourced from famed TAD, the alnico woofer is one of the most expensive drivers in the world. Check out the Audio Kinesis site for a lot more talk about the tech behind these speakers.
RMAF 07: Salagar $7999 Super Speakers
One of my new favorite speakers at the show comes from the new kid on the block, Salagar Speakers. Their Symphony S210 monitors, at $7999, sounded so good, they're taking home the SonicFlare Superstar award for top Precise-type room.
Other than the funky shape, the Salagar S210s feature a bevy of technology. First of all, they're powered with double 200 watt ICEpower modules nestled inside the jellybean enclosures and mated directly to the drivers. Additionally, the speakers feature an "active digital crossover/controller" called X-ACT. X-ACT processes inbound signals at 24bits/96KHz and digitally splits the signal between the 1" tweeter and 10" woofer. X-ACT also features simple room correction controls for tweaking the bass.
The speaker construction and build quality is first rate. Color options are as wide as the rainbow and you can, if you dare, order the front baffles dressed up in leather, 24k gold or mother-of-pearl.
The rest of the system included only the E.A.R. Acute CD player ($5500) with integrated volume control. This system, with just a source and speakers, is as simple as they come and the sound was excellent in part because of the simplicity. Everything is made to work together harmoniously, and the sound was fast and powerful with all the Precise-type qualities but with a touch of warmth. Really great stuff.
Almost as interesting as the speakers is the company behind it. Salagar showed with a double room and I had a chance to speak to both the designers, the marketing man and a variety of other people in the company. Salagar isn't a mom-and-pop operation, but a strong company run by some very intelligent and savvy gents. Keep an eye out for these guys as they quickly expand their product line.
RMAF 07: Tyler Acoustics & Edge
The Tyler Acoustics Woodmere II speakers ($8800) paired with Edge for a really nice Refined-style sound. Tyler is all about custom wood finishes and, with speakers as low as $700, bang-for-your buck designs. The Woodmeres are his top of the line speakers and are designed to compete with other speaker manufacturer's best-of-the-best at a much lower price.
RMAF 07: Proclaim Speakers
The Proclaim Audioworks DMT-100 ($26k/pair) defy categorization. Using an outboard crossover with a variety of tone controls, a listener is able to manipulate the sound to his or her liking. I explained the Sonic Circle concept to Proclaim's designer Daniel Herrington and he said, with a few turns of the crossover knobs, one could shift the sound from Precise to Refined to Emotional and anywhere in between. And with the adjustable driver positions, the Proclaims are able to create all kinds of sonic fireworks. Definitely not for the beginner, but experienced audiophiles are going to be in hi-fi heaven tweaking these guys into the next century.
The speakers were paired with 50 watt Red Rock monos. A GamuT preamp/amp combo was waiting in the rack, but Red Rock was a co-exibitor, so the GamuT amps never received any play time, though they are, I'm told, a better match for the speakers.
The finish on these speakers is amazing. Check out the next page for more pics.
RMAF 07: Genesis
Genesis showed their new 7.1P bookshelf speakers ($2100) paired with their Genesis amp ($3000) Simaudio player ($2100) and Benchmark DAC ($1000) for a rough system total of $8200. Genesis was also showing their larger speakers with T&A gear (pics next page) but I only had a chance to listen to the smaller rig. Not much news to report, other than the Genesis/Simaudio system is a Refined-type sound.
RMAF 07: Rau Research's Single Purpose Speakers
The Rau Research $20k system was, by far, the most unique sounding system at the show. To get right into the tech talk, the speakers are three ways, but when I asked what was up with the additional drivers and where the crossover points were, I received the good ol' "if I told you, I'd have to kill you" line. After I deadpanned amusement (I deadpan with the best of them), the Rau designer revealed that central horn is an ambiance tweeter. Above the horn is the standard tweeter and a foot below is the midrange driver, followed by the woofer below that. At least, that's what he told me.
Now, ambiance tweeters aren't that bizarre, but the Rau sound was distinctly bizarre. Only the orchestral tracks sounded normal. In fact, the orchestral tracks sounded fantastic with just a huge amount of depth and sense of space. However, on my other tracks the sound stage was a mess. Voices came from 10 feet behind the speakers while instruments were right in front of me and other frequencies were scattered about the room.
Questioning Rau designer Greg Rau about his design sensibilities, he was quick to proclaim regular visits to his local orchestra for extended live listening sessions, and the Rau speakers, he says, are the only speakers he has ever heard that recreate what he hears at his orchestra. I believe him. I have never heard a speaker more purpose-built.
Also worth noting is another first (as far as I know): wooden heat sinks. Yup, instead of aluminum fins for dissipating heat, the Rau solid state monoblocks wear fins in a variety of hard wood finishes. Fancy.
RMAF 07: RL Acoustic + Opera $19k Super System
RL Acoustique partnered with Opera Consonance for an absolutely fantastic Emotional-style room. So good, in fact, their $19,200 system gets my vote for the top Emotional system at the show. The sound was warm and smooth like a world-class Emotional system should be. But the RL Lamhorns ($9500/pair) were also amazingly fast without a lot of the bizarre frequency anomalies that typically turn people away from single driver speakers.
The new Consonance Mini Droplet CD Player ($2500) includes integrated volume and remote while their monoblock amps are the Consonance Cyber 300B ($7200/pair). If you've never seen any of the Cyber series amps up close, just know they're absolutely gorgeous. For the style conscious, the Droplet/Cyber combo is an instant conversation starter (the good kind of conversation).
The RL Acoustique Lamhorns champion the AER MK-1 driver. German AER has made a name for itself in DIY circles as the better-than-Lowther alternative, offering multiple magnet configurations and, interestingly, a field-coil driver. The Opera Cyber amps feature 300B tubes in Single Ended Parallel configuration. The entire Cyber line offers different amps for many flavors of the best tubes out there: 845/211, 300B (in SET, parallel and push/pull configs), and EL34.