Attendance was down significantly this year. A number of exhibitors chose to stay in the rooms which they had used in past years (Audio Federation, Aaudio Imports, EAR, Audio Unlimited, etc.). In general this was a wise choice, particularly with respect to setting up systems in more familiar acoustics. Exhibitors generally seemed upbeat. Sound was generally good rather than exceptional. Many rooms were plagued with poor equipment matching. The rooms that used iPod-based front-ends were generally a disaster. The few rooms that used turntables for their front-ends had better sound on average, although some of the digital front-ends were spectacular (EAR, Esoteric and EMM Labs). Given the time and expense necessary to transport and display a system at a show, you would think that more care would have gone into some of the systems. I did occasionally found myself wishing that I could have moved one piece of equipment (Audio Note Gakuons, Ypsilon tube monoblocks, EMM Labs or Esoteric) to a number of other rooms to better evaluate other equipment. There were a few products that exhibited well where ever they turned up, such as E.A.R., EMM Labs, Esoteric, Marten, Einstein, Ayon, McAllister).
While I tried to visit as many rooms as possible, I missed many and heard others at inopportune times. Rather than talking about every room which I visited, I have instead chosen a Baker’s Dozen which for one reason or another appealed to me. One of the high points of the show was being able to spend time with the other Dagogo reviewers that attended the show. I can say with some confidence that we disagreed more often than we agreed but that was part of the fun.
One of the really nice things about a show like RMAF is discovering products that for whatever reason you missed in past years and realizing that they do some nice things. Until this year, I do not believe that I ever seriously considered Hansen speakers. It always seemed to me that their tonal palette was somewhat washed out. As it turns out, this may have been more a case of the partnering electronics than any limitations involving the speaker. This year, partnering with the Accuphase electronics in the Blanca Peak Suite, the speakers exhibited a warm/ rich string tone with very good soundstage including a modicum of depth. They had nice detail at the top without being bright or aggressive. Dynamics and bass extension were also very good. Equipment included Hansen Emperor speakers, Accuphase DP-800 transport, DC-801 DAC, C-2810 preamp and M-6000 mono amps.
Normally you would expect great depth and dimensionality from well designed tube gear, but when you also have superb dynamics and bass power, the designer has done something right. In addition, this system had excellent resolution, good transients and leading edge definition. Occasionally, when the system was overdriven, there was some roughness at the top. The equipment included Legacy Audio speakers, Ayon CD5 reference CD player and Triton integrated amp using KT-88 output tubes. The Ayon gear was also present in a number of other rooms, particularly the CD5. I probably should also say that I was impressed by what the Legacy speakers delivered at their price point. They strike me as good value for the money.
Aaudio Imports was again showing in the Larkspur Suite with a system comprised of Einstein electronics (The Source Balanced Tube CD player, The Tube Mk II Tube preamp, The Final Cut MK 60 mono OTL amps), Acapella (High Violon speakers, Fondato Silenzio isolation bases Reference LaMusila speaker cables and High LaMusika power cords), Isoclean power cords and filtering, and Stage II Gryphon interconnects and Zyklops power cords. This was similar to the system used last year except that the High Violon Mk IV had been substituted for the larger Triolon and the substantial room treatment used last year was missing. The sound was sweet/ natural with excellent string tone. Depth, stage and focus were exceptional. One of my test CD’s is Ruth Ann Swenson- Positively Golden. Cut two from “Lucia de Lammermore” contains some mezzo fortes that are very difficult for most systems to reproduce without break-up. On this system, the sound was magical. There was nothing that I threw at this system that sounded anything but superb. This was one of the two or three rooms to which I kept returning during the show.
System: Martin Byrd speakers; EAR 912 preamp, 890 amp, Acute CD player; Jorma Prime and Origo cables. Harmonically complex and toneful. Nice extension at the top, excellent leading edge, good detail. Cymbals were properly metallic without being hard. Bass was solid and the sound was clean and musical. This was another of my favorite rooms. I have a love/hate relationship with ceramic drivers. I value their speed and detail but sometimes find them a bit fatiguing. This was clearly not an issue in this system. I should note that the speakers were set up on the room diagonal. This positioning seemed to minimize room related problems.
Joe Cohen who also imports Acoustic Revive has been showing the Feastrex drivers for several years at RMAF with varying degrees of success. Unlike most dynamic drivers the Feastrex drivers uses an external DC power source to energize a coil which provides the magnet. This type of speaker is termed a “field coil” and expensive to build. In addition, the cones of the drivers are a unique paper formulation. In past years, Joe has mounted a single 5″ or 9″ Feastrex driver in a tuned enclosure to generate the full frequency range. While this resulted in a very coherent sound, it also resulted in some trade-offs at the frequency extremes. This year he chose to use the 5″ Feastrex in an open baffle design with a rear firing tweeter and front firing woofers with outboard digital crossovers and Pass amps. The system exhibited nice stage width but little depth. The top-end was just a bit polite; the bass nice but not overwhelming. I mention this system because I think that it has real potential when Joe works out all the bugs and gets the right amps driving them.
Audio Note/EMM Labs
System: EMM Labs XDS1 single-box SACD player; Audio Note M9 phono preamp, Gakuon amps, speakers, Nordost Odin power cords and cabling. In a departure from past years, Audio Federation was not showing their premier system with the Coltrane Supreme speakers but instead were using the two-way stand mounted Audio Notes. My initial response based on strictly visual cues was that the smaller speakers would not adequately fill the large room and would lack energy in the low bass. I could not have been more wrong. The speakers were more than up to the task when placed near the room corners. The corner placement did not result in either uneven frequency response or lack of image specificity. If anything, this system seemed better able to deal with room related anomalies than the vast majority of other set-ups that I heard.
There was a certain magic to the sound, a rich warm tonal balance coupled with an ability to look deeply into the texture of the music. Female voice was particularly nice. If I had to nitpick the sound, I would say that leading edge and transients were somewhat soft and depth was foreshortened. This system was true to the music and an absolute pleasure to listen to for long periods. If I failed to say so, the new one-box EMM Labs XDS1 may well set a new benchmark in digital reproduction. For the first time, you have a transport provided OEM by Esoteric coupled with Meitner’s unique D/A processing. This was another room to which I returned many times.
Another room utilizing a combination of EAR electronics and Martin Miles 3 speakers but in this case Kubala Sosna cabling. The sound had nice extension at the top-end, good string tone and nice bass extension. Male voice was particularly nice. Piano sounded very natural. There was some problem with room resonance which made the bass seem one-note. This system definitely got my toes tapping.
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