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2009 RMAF Coverage 9

Rooms That Really Floated My Boat - Soundsmith, Audio Unlimited, deHavilland, Lotus Group USA, ModWright, Artemis Labs, Audio Note, Merlin

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Last year I did a show report entitled the “Top Ten Rooms” where I simply listed my ten favorite rooms in alphabetical order. This year I tried to spend more time in the rooms that “really floated my boat” so I would be able to tell you much more about these rooms. I’m not claiming these were the best rooms, but they were the rooms that, after visiting, I really wanted to tell you more about. So let’s start with the room that I found to have the most exciting stuff in it.

Most Exciting Room – Soundsmith

The Soundsmith room is one of the busiest rooms at every audio show I’ve been to. It is often mentioned as one of the best sounding rooms and this is even more amazing, considering Peter Ledermann uses the little Firefly Audio Speakers that cost $1,500 or $2,000 depending on the mode. That’s right, one of the best sounding rooms at the show used speakers that cost $2,000, not $20,000. Another amazing thing about Peter’s room is how much stuff he crowds into such a small room, and as far as I am concerned that’s just fine. Sure, it’s great to hear an attempt to make a huge system sound good with only one day to set it up in a hotel, but The Soundsmith room always sounds musical and most importantly, is full of stuff I really want to hear in my system.

This year there was the new Sussurro Phono cartridge from Soundsmith. It’s a low output moving iron cartridge that works with moving coil preamps. It was inspired by Frank Schroder’s work, and designed and built by Peter Ledermann. The Sussurro was mounted in Teres Audio’s new Illius Tri-Pivot tonearm which was mounted on Teres’ pre-production Certus Model 440 turntable. The Sussurro was being played through a handmade tube preamp built by Jim Fosgate for Peter. Peter said that after Jim heard the Sussurro through Soundsmith’s little MCP-2 preamp, he said “Peter, your little MCP-2 is fantastic for the dollar, but you need one of my designs”. Peter said Jim was right. All I can say is that it sounded just wonderful. They were also playing the Sussurro on the VPI HRX with the JMW 12.6 tonearm with the little Soundsmith MCP-2 preamp, and I tell you, this set up sounds really good, too. I’m not saying it’s just as good, but it was incredible for the money.

There was also a Schroder tonearm mounted on the Teres’ table with the Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge using the new Strain Gauge Phono System SG-200. It’s built to sound the same as any of the other Soundsmith Strain Guage cartridge setups that come with their own preamp. The difference is the SG-200 comes to you at a considerable savings because it is designed to work with your existing preamp. This setup sounded incredible also, but it was hard for me to tell which setup I liked best considering we were listening in a hotel room. If I could have anything I wanted to review in 2010, it would be the SG-200 system, as well as the Sussurro cartridge, and the Illius Tri-Pivot Tonearm to play them in. I told you this was the most exciting room for me and I think Peter certainly has some exciting new products right now.

One last point before I move on to the next room. What does the fact that Peter gets this kind of sound from the little Firefly speakers say about the importance of source components? Even more: what does it say about the sound of the source components that Peter puts together?

Most Improved Room – Tie between the deHavilland and the Audio Unlimited Room with the top of the line Focal Speakers.

Audio Unlimited Room

The Audio Unlimited room featured the Focal Grande Utopia and Maestro Utopia, with MLB amplification, Jim Whites newest and greatest Aesthetix phono preamp, and the Clearaudio Innovation turntable with Clearaudio’s newest linear tracking tonearm and Clearaudio’s cartridge. The turntable was sitting on Clearaudio’s Everest turntable stand.

This setup was in the same room as last year and as far as I could tell the speakers were in about the same place. The differences were the changes in amplification and in turntables. I don’t know if that would account for the difference, but I expect it’s just that with another year in the room they got the setup down. Whatever the reason this was, one of two rooms that shocked me was about how good a big multi-driver speaker could really sound. The system sounded big, fast, powerful, and surprisingly coherent. This was surely one the very best sounding rooms I heard at the show.

deHavilland Room

The deHavilland room had almost the same system as last year, but in a different room. The big difference is that, this year the sound was perfectly beautiful. An Esoteric CD player into the a deHavilland Mercury III Linestage was providing the signal to a pair of the deHavilland 50A Signature mono amps which was powering a pair of Wilson Benesch’s Curves, all the cables were by Kubala-Sosna.

This was a room that I found myself returning to more than once when my ears were tired of all the noise. This is certainly not a cheap system, but it sounded better than some systems that cost three times as much. Most importantly, it was a system that allowed you to really enjoy music.

Room with the Best New Speaker

The Lotus Group USA Granada UB II Speaker

The Lotus Group was showing a new two-way dipole speaker called the Granada. It cost between $69k-$160k depending on how you have it built. The one playing in their room used the incredibly good-sounding and incredibly expensive Feastrex field-coil driver. This is the same driver I fell in love with last year when it was used full-range. This speaker was so good everyone I talked to was raving about it. I’m not sure I personally like it better than the full-range single-driver version of the Feastrex field-coil from last year, but it is certainly a much more extended and powerful sounding system. Somehow it pulls this off without giving up much of the beautiful speed, transparency, and delicacy of the single-driver speaker.

These open baffle speakers were bi-amped using an active crossover to split the signals between the OB woofers and the Feastrex drivers. According to Joseph Cohen of Lotus Group USA, the U.S. distributor, the crossover network is his proprietary design that is similar to a DEQX HDP-3.

Equipment That Consistently Sounded Good.

This may be a strange category, but I would fail to convey one the major impression which I had at the RMAF. There were two different brands that kept popping up in other companies’ room that consistently sounded good.

ModWright room

In regard to electronics this would be the amps, preamps, and the modded Transporeter from ModWright. The ModWrights room was, without a doubt, one of the better sounding rooms, but what really amazed me was how many rooms I went in that were using ModWright electronics, and without exception these rooms all sounded wonderful.

I was especially impressed with their “Truth Mods” on Logitech’s Transporter Music Server. The addition of these mods re-designed the analog stage and the use of tubes transforms this already fine product. Truth is, the only digital source (not DACs) I heard that was better was the newest version of the Meitner SACD system.

Artemis Labs table with Schroder tonearm

The other product that kept popping up in good sounding rooms was the Artemis Labs table with Schroder tonearm. This simple combination consistently produced beautiful music.

Old Favorites

The last three rooms I want to mention are rooms that I have come to expect to sound good, and so far they have never disappointed me. Let’s start with the two Audio Note rooms, they both sounded wonderful. I was very impressed with the room that featured the newest version of their Zero range of components including their CD Transport, DAC 0.1x 24/96 DAC, R Zero phono stage and Zero valve integrated amplifier. The prices start at from $1500 and go up from there.

Audio Note Room

The speakers were a version of the AN/Es that cost $7,500. The sources were the new transport and DAC listed above and the entry-level Audio Note turntable system. The sound was really musical. This system should be good enough for any music lover.

Audio Note’s big room

The big room sounded incredible. When I walked in the room my first thought was not even these great speakers could sound good placed so far apart, but I was wrong. This was as good as any sound at the show.

Merlin Room

The other old favorite was the Merlin Joule-Electra room. Truth is, I have over the years loved Jud Barber’s Joule-Electra amps and preamps, while my feeling toward Bobby Palkovic’s speakers have been mixed. I really liked some of his early speakers that were huge and had a very powerful sound. I have also liked the TSM, finding it to be one of the best sounding stand-mounted speakers being made. The VSM in its early versions didn’t seem to do it for me at their price point. They were very revealing and had great micro-dynamics, but always seemed smoother than live musical performances to me. Well, let me tell you all this has changed with the current version, the VSM-MXe, which now has some seriously upgraded capacitors. Let me tell you, these speakers sounded wonderfully musical, very transparent, and showed great promise as one of the view speakers that might challenge my preference for single-driver speakers.

As usual the Merlin speakers were being powered by the Joule Electra Grand Marquis Mk 4 OTL amplifiers. The new LA-450ME Marianne Electra Balanced Memorial preamp may also have played a big part in my feelings about the great sound in this room. The preamp surely seems to be an all out attempt at a state-of-the-art preamp.

There were other rooms that sounded very good, but these were the ones that really “floated my boat.” Hope you enjoyed reading about them and looking at their pictures.

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