Sunday, October 17, 2010

RMAF -- what I heard

RMAF was great, really great fun, but overwhelming. It's wonderful to wander from room to room hearing the gear you cannot otherwise experience in your own locale but it is also a trial. There is not enough time to hear every room, and frankly, if you don't know the Marriott, the layout is bewildering and it's easy to miss the stuff you really hope to find unless you plan with the precision of a military campaign. I went with a couple of goals in mind: one specific aim, to really hear the PS Audio Perfect Wave transport and Dac set-up; and a second more general one, to learn what some of the really 'great' (read expensive) speakers and tables might sound like.

I arrived on Friday and headed straight to the Von Schweikert rooms to learn what the new VR33 and VR35 Deluxe could do, and therein lies the problem. The VR33 is good and sounded it, either in the VSA room or the Jolida room, and at the asking price of $3750 it is a very attractive deal. However, if you will add $4k to that basic design you can get the significantly upgraded VR35 which really is excellent, and partnered with a truly spectacular looking KR integrated amp ($16k) with two tubes the size of two-liter wine bottles and Tentation CD player ($12k) in a highly inverted cost-basis system in the Musical Reality room, I heard music here that made much of what I subsequently experienced sound comparatively flat. i went back a couple of times to be sure, and I ended up certain that this was a really great speaker.

I wandered around a few more rooms that first day and set out Saturday morning to hear as much as I could. I trawled the rooms the second day for 8 hours without even stopping for coffee, which frankly is not hard to do with so much on display. In terms of my first aim, I did get to hear the PS Audio combo in two rooms: the excellent Veloce room where battery powered amps ($14000 a pair of monos fed the lowest priced YG Audio Carmel speakers ($18,000) along with a great sounding Amazon table, which one can find used for about $5k. On LP or digital, this room sounded very good and I could not draw too much from this about the Perfectwave combo, other than the rep for Veloce said it was a definite contributor to the room's good music.

I then targeted the PS Audio room directly, hoping to learn more, but this was a major disappointment. The PW combo fed a prototype PS Audio power amp directly (no preamp) and a pair of large Genesis speakers (I think an unmarketed prototype from a few years back) in a relatively simple set up. Sadly, the insistent chatter of the PS Audio reps with a loud-mouthed attendee and the awful selection of music while I was in the sweet-spot alone (Journey) meant I left totally underwhelmed. I understand music choice is personal but when the reps are more interested in standing to the side and engaging in full voiced chatter with another attendee, (and I include, most depressingly, VTL and Wilson's room in this complaint) it's hard to understand why they were even showing. Maybe I just timed it badly or you have to be on the insider track to get the 'private' session but given my aim, this was a lousy experience.

This was a widespread problem at the event. So many people at RMAF, presumably audiophiles, thought nothing of holding conversations at near shout levels, often about nothing to do with the gear and everything to do with their 'expertise'. Room organizers tended to up the volume to compensate with the result that music tended to force itself at you, rather than inviting you to listen. Add this to the natively hostile environment of limited square-footage hotel rooms and I left too many demos where the overloaded bass and in-your-face volume wondering why anyone would want to showcase their products in this manner.

Darlings of many, the Magico speakers, sounded very coherent but hardly in another league from many others, as you might imagine from most of the media coverage. Yes, they sounded good, and yes, I'd like them at home, but at nearly $60k it should sound like the singer is in your room -- it didn't. The Zu Soul Superfly at $2600 offered a lot of quality for a fraction of that price, though the bass was overloading when I listened. For ridiculous sums of money, the Kaiser room was really making music while I was there; understated but with a fidelity to instrumental timbre that was supremely engaging, but the total set up topped $200k before I stopped counting the price. Their Kawaro speakers ($66k) sound like they want to seduce you by any means other than flash.....they succeeded with me, and looked good too.

So, if the rooms are not well proportioned for audio, what can one do? Well, one might imagine that a dealer or manufacturer would appreciate this when planning an exhibit; too few did. There were exceptions. TweekGeek of Denver seemed to know what they were doing. They showed the Vivid Audio $7500 speaker on a stand which had a wonderful, full-range sound that belied the tiny size. With Modwright amps (which seemed to be everywhere), this room sounded great and I felt that for people with less than $10k to spend on speakers, these with the the VSA VR35s are offering some serious musical reproduction that is hard to beat. Most importantly, these kinds of products give you a palate cleansing calibration that will make you think again about where to put your hard earned cash. Congrats TweekGeek -- this was a special room.

I'd heard a lot about the quality of Van Alstine products but I confess the room I heard these amps in with Salk speakers sounded disappointing to me, flat and generally lifeless. Not sure the fault here but with too many other rooms to hear I did not stick around to find out. I did hear Salk's new Soundscape 12 in the Iris room, powered by Parsasound JC1 monos to much better effect. These look big and sound big but in the large, treated room used for their demo, this speaker worked quite well to my ears but I could not quite shake the feeling that this was not the best sound the speakers could provide. Was it a case of trying to make the case with too much volume? This was not an isolated problem. I was very disappointed in an ARC-fed Vandersteen 7 -- big room, loud sound but sadly nothing special in the results that reached my ears for the prices involved (was that another $100k+ room) , though the use of the classic Linn Lp12 to deliver vinyl to these was a nice reminder of that vintage table's qualities, which I've often doubted since playing with a friend's version years ago. Sometimes refining over time on a basic model really does yield results.

At the other end of the cost spectrum, Harbeth's tiny P3 bookshelf speakers sounded so good in their room that one had to really stop and listen. If you want truth the sound, I thought these had it in a way that even the more spacious and bass-rich Harbeth 5s could not replicate. This was high class sound of real fidelity. And did I mention 'proportion'? I'd say the same about the Gallo room where I heard the ref 3 with a Spectron amp -- small looks, well structured sound. Apparently a new model was also on the go here but I missed it. I did get to speak with John Ulrick of Spectron though who was a really pleasant person (and why not, I suppose?)

Also very good, Bryston ran a very musical set up consisting of their own BCD-1 player, their transport and Dac1, BP26/MPS2 Preamp and mono power amps, with PMC IB2 speakers (I think). I sat next to James Tanner as he controlled the music with an iPhone and Ipad, playing various selections in quick succession. The music was in proportion, sounded pleasing and just somehow right, another reminder that power has its place, and quality is not the same as cost.

There were Wilson Sashas and Sophia 3s in several rooms. To my ears, the Sophia 3, particularly when partnered with Rega's new top of the range Osiris integrated ($9k) and Isis Valve CD player ($10k), were better suited to their environment than the Sashas, which confirms again the need to consider the room when choosing audio gear. I 'know' intellectually that the Sasha is 'better' but that matters little if your home is not of a scale to do the physics of the speaker appropriate justice.

Sadly, no Thiel's could be found, meaning my desire to hear the 3.7s had to be postponed again. I did however get to sit for a while in front of a pair of Quad 2805s in their room, which was pleasant, though not the epiphany I hoped for given their legendary status. What was closer to epiphany was my experience with a pair of the German Physik omnidirectionals. These look ordinary but they spread a soundstage out in all directions, especially front to back that makes live music sound really present. Soundstaging is a bug of mine - we love it in our speakers but don't easily find it in the pinpoint way of audio in real live music, despite the myths, and these speakers seem to capture that odd nature of this quality really well. They also sounded light and airy in a most captivating manner. I doubt I'll ever own any at the price (in the $30k range) but they have a truly original voice.

I had great fun listening to a Townsend Rock 7 turntable with EAR gear on a dedicated Townsend rack, with Marten's new Getz speakers ($20k). Dan, the EAR rep explained a little about the table and frankly, at the starting price of around 3k without an arm, one can enter the world of hi-end tables with this design, though the show table came loaded up at around $11k once the arm Helius Omega ($3k) and Dynavector SV-1s cartridge were included. Lots of music to be had here and your toes will tap.

The Sota demo included Tweek Studio's rep rapping the Sapphire table ($2700) crisply while an LP spun with no deleterious effect to anything except his poor knuckles. His aim, which I think he reached, was to show that the tweaks they add to the table's isolation are effective. That got everyone's attention in the room, I can tell you. This room also had the Genesis 7.1f speakers ($8k) which did little for me though they looked quite nice.

What looked better than their photos suggest were the Revel Ulltima Salon2, and they sounded great from the mid=bass up, offering a kind of floating-free-of-the-enclosure sonic picture that you read about but seldom hear. When I first listened I was genuinely taken aback by the sonics -- here was something truly different. The bass, however, was too much for that small room, a conclusion I confirmed by coming back later to determine if I really had heard what I thought that morning. Yes, these speakers are really good, but in that room they were too much and I'd have loved to hear how the Studio2's worked there.

I was repeatedly disappointed in several rooms with the Avalon line up -- they sounded pretty dead no matter where I listened though one well known reviewer who ended up at my bar table on Sat night told us all that the Avalons are clearly the best sounding speakers out there. So, people disagree. I'd hoped the reviews were true, but on this evidence, I'd never own a pair. I had wanted to get to the Legacy room but could not locate it in a hurry. I did however stumble on the Studio Electric monitors fed by a Benchmark DAC/pre and large power amp which, for their price (under $2300) offered impressive sound and in the scheme of things, true value. Nice room -- no hard sell, wine and cheese too!

So, what to conclude? First, it's a blast. RMAF has the feel of a fanatic's gathering and it permeates everything about the venue, from the rooms to the bar. Second, there is so much stuff to hear that you really cannot aspire to completion. Third, the rooms often suck sonically and some exhibitors seem to care little about this. As a result, some great gear probably does not sound so good at the show. Make allowances but recognize your home probably sucks too, so the importance of room context is not to be understated and serves as a great leveler in the world of hi-end audio. Getting your room right first is better than dropping tons on new gear, and the differences between decent and superb gear cannot be measured simply in dollar terms.

Finally -- get there sometime -- the only way to experience this show is to experience the show. I'll be there next year and the organizers really should be thanked profusely for their efforts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What really ruined my visit to the PS Audio room at RMAF 2009 was all the chatter. I'm amazed that this was something that bothered you this year. Why would PS Audio go through all that effort to set up only to have their rude folks ruin it for attendees genuinely interested in hearing PS Audio gear.