Monday, October 15, 2012

RMAF 2012 - quick reactions

It's fast, it's furious and it's a form of audio heaven and hell combined. Yes, RMAF has the makings of a good time that every audiophile should experience. There are plenty of accounts emerging, none more  representative of the attendee experience than Pez and Tyson's show thread on AudioCircle where they give blow by blow accounts, with great pics, of many rooms. This is what the weekend can consist of, a type of dash through so many rooms for a few limited minutes of sonic experience with a combination of gear that can prove difficult to follow, all the while battling people talking too loudly, doors swinging open and closed, and the sounds of other rooms bleeding through. But apart from that, if you prepare yourself for this craziness, you can really enjoy the show.

I went with a few targets in mind, get them out of the way as early as possible so I could return to them at leisure over the weekend and explore other treats on offer as available, and at RMAF there are lots of treats in store. Here are a few of the products I set out to hear and managed to experience for some of the time there.  My main concentration was speakers, but along the way I gave some attention to tables, tweaks, and general quality for price. In no particular order, and without accompanying pics as I don't carry a real camera, here's the brain dump.

The Kef Blades

Stunning to the eye and great to the ear, the orange Blades were powered by a rack of Macintosh gear (strangely, stuck right in the middle of the speakers in same plane, destroying imaging) and a Mac laptop in a huge room. I went there twice to sit in front, to walk to the sides, to admire the coin standing on the edge at the top seemingly immune to the powerful soundwaves the speakers could put out, and to just take in the dramatic form. These speakers are much bigger than I thought, way taller than they appear in magazines yet their curves give them every possibility of disappearing in a real room, maybe! Vocals were extremely well presented with these, a true attention-grabbing product.

The Sony AR1

Playing largely 4 channel Isomike recordings from Kimber with EMM and Pass gear, this room sounded excellent to me and gave me a real sense of the abilities of a company like SONY to surprise you, again. There's no doubt, when they commit to doing something for sonics, they really can do it. I loved these so much I bought a copy of Victor Uzur's Solo Cello recording that they were playing, so powerfully did it grab me in this room. Would love to have heard it just as two-channel but I've no doubt these speakers can deliver the goods. Nothing flashy, everything just musically balanced and engaging. I know people cannot imagine spending serious money on speakers from Sony but that is really a case of brand mis-perception. These were a highlight of the show.  A prototype ES model speaker with different tweeter was on show in a second room, powered by Pass, and sounded great too, price to be determined but lower than the AR2 (meaning less than $20k, official release at CES apparently).

Thiel 3.7

I've wanted to hear these for years and always been stifled in my attempts. This year I got to spend some time with them (after first hearing the new 2.7 which as the same metal mid/tweeter driver). They were demo'd with a Hegel intergrated (new one, with DAC, some $5200 I believe, 250w). Feeding these from your iPod or laptop, you could have a $20k system all in that would give you resolution galore. Hard to get too much of a read on unfamiliar music with speakers challenged for space but there was resolution here that never tipped over into harshness and I'd imagine one could get a lot of music out of them with the right set up. I'd like to hear them with some other equipment, but I think it's fair to say I really preferred the 3.7 to the 2.7, even though the latter were powered by Audio Research.

Associated panel/electrostatic/line array/out of the box speakers

After failing to be impressed with the Quads at my last RMAF or the Martin Logan Summits I auditioned locally, I've wondered if the push on electrostatics or line arrays was just a matter of style choice for some people. Thus, I determined to hear all I could at RMAF this year, and particularly targeted the most cherished designs (other than Quads perhaps) in this realm, the Magnepan room. It took three efforts to get in as they closed their door and ran a fixed number of folks through in 15 minute sessions. On demo were the basic MMG ($650, if I got that right) coupled with a centre channel (to ensure everyone in the room had full sound according to Wendell) and a bass panel (don't call it a subwoofer) cunningly disguised as  a coffee table. Running us through several samples of classical and 50s pop/rock, the results were pleasing but there was no chance to hear the basic two speakers on their own, which strikes me as the real deal. Pleasant music resulted, not much more I can say than that but I'd be interested in what Maggies gave me for under $700 for stereo pair (which probably are hard to beat if you like resolution) than for this full three-channel with bass rig, which goes for $2500 or so and takes up lots more floor space. At the full three-channel price I see challengers that fit a bit easier into domestic life.

Room space would be less of an issue, height aside, if you go with Wisdom Audio's new model, Not sure the number but it's very tall and comes with a suitcased-sized subwoofer that you can hide under the couch or wherever, out of sight. We received a semi-lecture on how good these measured before we listened but the sonics to me were over-tight, slightly mechanical and lacking in bloom. Need to hear them again. King Sound had a large pair of panels in one room which looked curiously old fashioned with their wooden sides and feet. No chance these would ever disappear visually in any room but in a hotel room they looked completely oversized. Sonics were ok, people listening with me seemed to like them but I heard nothing that would encourage me to invite a pair of these into my home. A quick check in on the Martin Logan demos again left me wanting more from what are just some of the best looking speakers out there --what a pity the sonics have never really seemed right to me - despite the looks, they do not actually sound airy and box-free.

Sanders Sound had a pair of their hybrids in a room run by a pair of amps. Roger Sanders explained that for about $13500 he sells you the speakers and one amp, you have to provide one on your own, just like any speaker purchase. Using room correction and active crossovers in the set up and feeding it from a laptop, the layout had people sitting in a single file in the middle of the room with the speakers slightly off-set from the corners. Well, if anything really surprised me it was the level of detail, control, full range resolution and space that these speakers provided. I sat right in the front and let waves of SRV (how many times can you count hearing Tin Pan Alley at RMAF?) wash over me in sheer pleasure. I don't care for the looks but sonically, the Sanders are stand outs -- I'd love to hear a pair of these in my home because if they can be made to sound this good in hotel room, their potential is surely enormous. A real game changer.

German Physiks also appeared very competitive with their new $12k speaker, the Unlimited MkII.  Plane jane looks but the value is in the sound: easy, spacious, resolving and a genuine taste of their higher end products. The rep at the show when I visited mentioned these were easy to place, no great fussing about with locations, which adds to the domestic appeal. Something about these speakers from Physiks really appeals to my sense of music, another product I'd love to hear in familiar space like my listening room.

Other product experiences

I spent time twice in the Audio Research/Vandersteen 7 room while there. On both occasions the music was a pleasing mix of digital and analog (gorgeous AMG Viella 12) and it always sounded good. Prices here start to get scary with the speakers alone costing $50k with external crossovers, and I don't even want to know how much those big Audio Research monoblocks would cost but it's hard to argue with the results. A sound that draws you in rather than forcing itself at you.  Generally enjoyed the other Vandy's I heard, the Quattros, in another room late on Friday, a real palette cleanser after hours of ear bashing in some other rooms. Last RMAF I loved the Vivid speakers but this time around I could never get to hear them properly -- too many people talking and moving around, a common problem. Listened to Sean Casey fending questions in the Zu Audio room which limited my chance to hear the speakers for more than a few minutes but the designs looked great, and while he outlined some of the pains the company are experiencing, he seemed in good form and dealt amiably with all manner of  questions and lengthy comments from folks -- got to love that company for their commitment to value and strong design identity.  At a different end of the price spectrum, I have to say the TAD room sounded good to me -- who knew they made amps too? -- and this was for their lower end Evolution speaker (just under $30k?). For once the hype and my hearing were in alignment!

Lots of reel-to-reel players on display and in use throughout the weekend. if you think LP's take effort to play, try loading tapes and selecting tracks in hurry. I did spend a really fun evening in the United Audio Room late on Friday listening to the complete three-tape presentation of The Who's Tommy, played through impressive Von Schweikert VR44s and a prototype Jolida tube monoblocks that were eye-catching in white finish with blue lights. The ample supply of beer and wine clearly helped proceedings with a lively audience and air guitar flourishes, shouts of 'yeah' and various jerky body movements accompanied the Moon-driven rhythms and Townsend riffs. Late stayers were treated to a similar run through a tape of Sgt Pepper too. Not sure how late everyone stayed but I would love to have heard some of the music on hand that I know better but I never got to hear their tape of Kind of Blue. The sonics here suggested to me that with tape you hear enough into the recording to recognize the limits of The Who's playing abilities back then - the rawness was all there. Good fun.

Also lots of turntables on display, some quite beautiful, some just for show. Triangle Arts Reference, eye-catching towers of metal, seemed almost a bargain at $16500 compared to the price of some gear here. George Warren's table seemed to be in more than a few rooms and looked good too. I also retract my comment in an earlier blog about the new Merrill table being one of the ugliest products in audio. In person it looks much better, though sadly I did not get to hear it. Music Hall had their $1000 table playing Jimmy Cliff when I visited - all through an integrated Creek and a pair of their own bookshelf speakers that belied what you can do all in for $1500. The scotch that everyone was consuming might have helped the party spirit but it did not spill over into the evening event by the Lift Bar they organized which was a bass booming mess of a dance party that never got going -- wrong demographic methinks.

Lawrence Audio presented their $18k Cello speaker playing via Rowland amps. Striking looking and sonically spacious, I found myself sitting next to the designer. I am not sure my few words made much sense to him but I did enjoy the music and I think that showed. The Cello had an ease that befits the name, definitely another speaker I'd like to hear in my own room. Also striking looking but not in a way that I found as attractive on the eye, the MBL room sounded excellent but man, the size of their accompanying monoblock amps just makes domestic accommodation difficult to imagine. The white finish would not do it for me either, black would definitely help reduce the apparent footprint.

Loving the Harbeths I reviewed late last year I went searching for more. Found the 30.1 playing in a dealer's room but the bass overloading was so pronounced, I did not stay long. Hard to believe something that small would sound that deep but it was a problem when I was there. Believe it when Harbeth offer advice on room size for their products if you want to get the best out of them.  I loved my first hearing of Eficion speakers however, the F250, a sort of box on a ball shaped floorstander sounded great partnered with a large Plinius integrated. At under $10k these speakers are very appealing, and the company offers lease/loan terms that allow you to get them into your home for less than $300 a month - nice idea, let's see how well that works. Small catch, the designer told me he thinks the speakers only sound great with Plinius amps, so factor in another loan to buy that too!

The Von Schweikert VR22s are in for review right now so I'll not say too much here other than at $3k delivered, they put lots of more expensive competitors to shame. Since loading by close wall placement is designed into the speaker, these made a lot more sense in the hotel room environment than most speakers on show. The improvised cable elevators made of upturned plastic wine cups were a delightful added touch :)

No Revel this year - a real disappointment. I love the efforts made to use scientific methods of listening tests to design a statement product but the lack of dealer network means I can only hear these at shows. The sole dealer I could find heard my complaint and did not disagree with me - their absence was noted. No Magico either that I could see, perhaps the latest darlings of the media are going the way of previous darlings such as Kharma and we'll have a new company to read all about soon. Wilson were there but what can I say, I always admire but rarely enjoy their sonics. This time was no different.

Overall impressions

The new ordinary is $30k -- by which I mean almost anything you asked about price for seemed to cost about that much. Sometimes that was a pleasing answer (the Rockport room sounded really good on two visits, and stunning when playing Peggy Lee's Fever through their new Avior speaker) but other times you wondered if manufacturer's are being told by marketeers that this is the price point to aim for regardless. What do you want, a new car or a pair of speakers? Given this, some gear, such as the Sanders, seem almost underpriced at $13,000 - and you wonder why audiophiles get such a bad rap!

Macs were everywhere (the computer not the amps). Mac minis, airs, books, iPads etc seemed at the front end of so many demos that you can't escape the feeling that you have to go this path yourself, even while reel-to-reel and LP technologies were still on show. No cassettes or DATs though, some some progress is inexorable.

Room treatments seemed to be more in use this year than before - not sure how much it helped some rooms but I do feel for the efforts dealers and some manufacturers with limited budgets go to in order to present well. It's got to be madness for some in small rooms to have doors swinging open and shut, people talking loudly, stepping on cables to get behind the gear and generally doing anything but listening to the gear but such is life at an Audio Show. Typical compensation efforts involved ramping up the volume (Vapor Audio, are you listening?) which  tended to drive me away rather than draw me in, but that's just me.

Loved the sample of the Auto Desk LP cleaner that Cable Co had on working display - smaller and quieter than I imagined  -  I know I want one but even at the show special price of $3200 it's beyond me at this point. They told me that most people who buy one keep their old machine (perhaps as a pre-cleaner?) and report cleaning more LPs in a few months with this new machine than they did in years with their previous cleaner. I can understand that given the labor involved. I know .....add up those minutes and the price almost seems a bargain over a couple of years.

More to come as I gather my notes but that's it after the flight back. I also attended a seminar from John Atkinson on the problems associated with any claim to 'absolute sound'.  Got to love it -- other than the limited seating for food in the bar, the whole event is great tribute to the folks in Denver who organize it. As a colleague noted, the price of admission and the travel costs are cheap, the real costs come later when you fantasize over what is next for your system because you know, to paraphrase The Stranglers,  something better change!

Were you there? Feel free to share your impressions below....

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