Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rock Mountain Audio Fest 2008

What started as a local audio show in Denver has turned into a world renowned celebration of high fidelity music. Despite the looming economy, the show’s vibe was eager and upbeat. It goes to show that cool weather, fantastic music, good company, and of course Oktoberfest can make the best kind of weekend. Enjoy the coverage.

What got major buzz at the show? Focal’s brand new $180,000 Grande Utopia EM Loudspeaker. I’ve always respected the JM Lab/Focal name so I stopped by the first day for a listening session. So why a $100K increase over its predecessor? For starters, a large and very expensive 16” Electro-Magnetic woofer for greater sensitivity, improved Beryllium inverted dome tweeter and mid-bass drivers, new crossover, and of course, a radical new look. The accordion spine is for angling the drivers towards your listening position. Use the leather bound hand crank on the speaker’s rear for fine tuning adjustments in your listening space. I didn’t care for the room’s demo music but the point had been made. When it comes to music playback, this speaker is the ultimate luxury statement. To hell with Wall Street, this is my new entertainment investment….

How does one small Hi-Fi company sway the attention of an entire industry? Easy, develop a ground breaking product that follows a progressive trend in music; give it a fair price, and make the technology exclusive to you. Stroll through the show rooms and it becomes quite clear, Wadia’s iTransport ($379) is this year’s must have system accessory. Even the RMAF program booklet printed asterisks next to rooms with iTransports on display. What’s the secret? The iTransport is currently the ONLY dock that can bypass the internal DAC of an iPod and send a digital signal to the DAC of your choice. In this case, Wadia chose their 781i DAC/Transport ($15,000) with a pair of Pass XA100.5 monoblocks. ($16,000) Loudspeakers were the beautifully sculpted Dynaudio Sapphire (30th anniversary pair $16,500)

The Balanced Power Technologies demonstration started with a simple Gateway laptop. Lossless music streamed over a USB to S/PDIF converter (Empirical Audio Off-Ramp Turbo 3 $990) to a TacT Audio 2.2 mini pre-amp and DAC. ($3500) D-Sonic Magnum 1000S amps ($1475 each) powered the great sounding BPT Cirrus Loudspeakers ($2695 pair) Cabling was all BPT.

From Scotland, A.R.T. (Acoustic Research Technology) Loudspeakers – Deco 10

Last year we were taken in by Avalon Acoustics’ Ascendant loudspeakers ($9,300 pair) connected to Ayre MX-R monoblock amplifiers. ($16,500 pair) This year, Blu Note Audio has upped the ante with Avalon’s new Indra Loudspeakers ($19,995 pair) along with a pair of VTL MB-450 Signature II monoblocks. ($15,000 pair) I’ll take both pairs….

Have you ever heard a system that “knocked your socks off”? Well, this system bypassed the socks and went straight for this man’s hair. This guy was completely enthralled with Ray Kimber’s (Kimber Cable) Isomike recordings and accompanying system. (Pass Amps with EMM Labs equipment) To be honest, I was too. Song after song, Mr. Kimber transported us to the live event and you know the crazy part? The speakers were complements of Sony. Not sold in the US and approximately $20K if desired, these speakers shatter any preconceived notion that Hi-Fi and big-name electronics don’t mix.

Talk about a terrific pair; throw in a moderately sized amp, and you’ve got it made. Benchmark DAC1 PRE ($1595) is a Stereo Pre-Amp, high quality DAC, and headphone amp all in one small, inexpensive package. Why has no one else done this? Bravo Benchmark!

Say hello to the new Reference 3A Episode Loudspeaker. ($5,500 pair)

WINNER! Most Unique Speaker Design at RMAF 08. All around the show I hear, “Have you seen the E.T. Speakers?” What, martian speakers? I gotta see this. The Evanui speakers from ViV Laboratory definitely resembled something from another planet. Nevertheless, we were impressed with their natural, full bodied sound. As one show attendee pointed out, “The sound was out of this world!” (Single 3”driver with back loaded horn in an apitong plywood cabinet, $60,000 pair)

Escalante Design Pinyon loudspeaker ($10,000+ depending on finish) shown with Electrocompaniet gear. Sometimes the most attractive finish does not resemble a tree.

Nick-named the “Dalmatian Speakers” the hand painted Scaena Loudspeakers delivered the goods and then some.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to listen to these ultra hip Davone Loudspeakers. ($6000 pair) Good news though, the Danish speakers were recently picked up by a distributor (The Signal Collection) and will be available in the U.S. Do they sound as good as they look? I don’t know, but I’ll soon find out.

Smile Brett Bargenquast, your company Audioengine has created the year’s coolest audio gadget. The Audioengine AW2 ($169.00 PP) is a wireless transmitter and receiver that will stream music wirelessly from your iPod to any stereo/HT or powered speaker system. That’s right folks; use almost any iPod as a wireless remote AND music server. I tried the system out with my iPhone and loved its plug and play functionality. It provided CD quality sound and excellent range of use. From what I can see, the AW2 is by far the cheapest and easiest way to go wireless with your digital music collection. (Approx release date: Dec 08)

Check out the Roth Audio Music Cocoon MC4, Integrated Tube Amp with iPod dock. (Street price $500)

RUNNER-UP! Most Unique Speaker Design for RMAF 08. Made from solid Pennsylvania hardwood and completely hand built, Oswald Mill Audio's new AC1 Loudspeaker ($53,000 pair) definitely commanded some attention at the show. Grab yours now, ΩMA has limited the production run to just 30 pairs.

No, those extruding knobs are not input or volume control buttons but rather artistically placed duel triode tubes. Veloce Audio: LS1 linestage Pre-amp ($12,500)

- GINI LS-3/5a Bookshelf speakers ($560) with B+ Bass Module ($630)

- Audio Space Reference 3.1 integrated amp ($3390)

- Audio Space CDP 320 ($880)

- Audio Space DAC-1 ($3000)

Up on the lonely Grand Mesa floor at the Hyatt Hotel was the show’s best kept secret. The equipment lineup included: Kaiser Speakers, ($50,000) Mastersound Finals 845 mono-block amps, ($15,000) LessLoss DAC, (2995 € plus 495 € volume control) Cables, Firewall Power Filter, ($4995) and CEC Transport. What a remarkable system. Huge soundstage, wonderfully detailed, and even with a relevantly small system it effortlessly filled the large room with music. Long live Lithuanian audio.

Everyone had their favorite, this one was mine. What incredible synergy between the soon to be available TAD Monitor Speakers (Price TBA) and a full line of Bel Canto Electronics. CD-2 ($2995 used as transport), DAC3 ($2495), REF 500 mono-block amps ($2495 each), and a prototype called The Virtual Battery Power Supply (Price TBA) After sitting through several songs, my group asked me if I was ready to move on. “Just one more song” I said. They left but I was right where I wanted to be.

You want a piece of the $180K Focal Grande Utopia EM? Make a pact with the devil and you’ll have beautiful music for eternity. Coming in at $12K a pair, ($2K for matching stands) the Focal Diablo Utopia isn’t exactly cheap, but if you lust for the signature sound of the Utopia line, this might be your next purchase.

The Decco is back! ($799) Simply shown with the Wadia iTransport and Era bookshelf speakers, this system proves Hi-Fi doesn’t have to be an equipment rack full of expensive gear. But just wait, Signal Path Intl. will soon be releasing a new version of the Peachtree Audio Decco that includes a better DAC and beefier amplifier. (Price TBA) Also look for snazzy color options such as Cherry and Rosewood.

Robyatt Audio – The Ridge Loudspeaker, ($3100 premium finish, starts at $2K) and Tektron Italia Tube Electronics.

I enjoyed the warm, inviting sound of Vienna Acoustics’ new flagship loudspeaker The Music. ($27,000 pair) Exquisite in both construction and sonic ability, this speaker will take VA’s Hi-Fi reputation to the next level. (Playback system included Jeff Rowland gear and a Marantz SACD source)

RMAF Demo Disc 2008

Over the RhineTrouble Ben SolleeIt’s Not Impossible

Vampire WeekendA-Punk Rodrigo Y GabrielaTamacun

Jack JohnsonIf I Had Eyes


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