Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Back to the review business

Wow, 4000+ readers for my RMAF comments? If I'd known, I'd have given more thought to organization and layout. But another year has come and gone....I forgot to mention a few things, such as the ubiquity of Vanessa Fernandez LP in analog rooms - sounded impressive on first and second listen but I soon yearned for something more. Does a new singer songwriter set out to be the darling of the audiophile crowd? One imagines not but good luck to her, it's a tough world for new voices who opt for music over shock.

Anyway, onward to the regular services here, I've had a couple of fine phono cables in for review (about the only new cables I can get interested in reviewing in my rig), a Purist Corvus and Furutech Silver Arrow, both offering some impressive sonics. Review in HiFi'Zine now live. After this I have the Essence of Music treatment to try, and a promise of a pair of Prana Fidelity's excellent-at-RMAF monitors. But there's many a slip between promise and ship, so we'll see. Hope I can snag some of the great Raven amps I heard too but it's hard on new companies to ship gear out for review, and I appreciate that. Getting any audience for a new specialized audio product or recording is a challenge for everyone. Let's keep trying.

Also bought the latest two releases in the MusicMatters Blue Note release series...the Cannonball and Sonny releases.
I think I just reached the full set point. More to come one hopes but what started out as a desire to fill in the blanks in my collection grew into a 'better get them all while I can' approach. No regrets but this pushes the average price of my LP purchases up, which was never part of any plan. Got to love them anyway - these are products of art, manufactured to standards of love. Can't really ask for more. Some time I'll try to report on all I hear but it's fair to say, I never regretted picking up any one of them, even if I have one or more copies of the same recording (and I mad or sad?). Ron at MusicMatters is really committed to sound and a quality product (and service too). Let us all be grateful. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

RMAF 2014 - Third instalment

So, what else remains. Here's a few memories....

I really enjoyed meeting Ron Sutherland - I had him to myself listening to his new phono stage which he was explaining when in walked a well known chief of a large audio company. Clearly they knew each other and my conversation was irrelevant at that point as the interloper bellowed loudly and asked to check out the new design. Without really waiting for an answer, he strode behind the set up and promptly trod on a connection, breaking the signal and shutting everything down. I left.  Prior to this, it was clear to me that Ron is just a passionate designer who really wants to create special products. "I don't build appliances" he told me, but he left his mind open to the idea that despite what his engineering background told him, some audiophile ideas might not be too easily dismissed. So he set off on a journey which ended with the new $25k phono stage. Too rich, likely forever, for my blood but I liked the man, he's just a little different than most. Hope he got the music back up but I guess that visitor brought a literal meaning to 'stomping all over the competition'.

The TW Acoustics table in the High Water Sound room made great music. Nice looking speakers too. I could have sat there and just relaxed. Also relaxing, but not so good looking, the JTR speakers were so big in their room you could not imagine them working but they did. And to top it all, they were driven by the tiny DAC Maraschinos I reviewed recently - a good pairing - they win the "How could this work" combo award.

I just don't get NOLA - they never sound very good to me any time I hear them so I cannot understand the awards and plaudits. Every year I try the room, it's large, they play loud, obviously can rock but they only ever sound ok to me. But I don't sweat it, I sort of don't get the raves on TAD either - they seem over-damped to my ears, though I liked them better this year in the Zesto room with a Merrill table/Tripalanar arm. And let's face it, I do love my cheapo Pioneer speakers that the same designer has created  and which I run in a second system so maybe it's just the set ups and rooms.  I also enjoyed the Salk room with van Alstine amps. This was news for me as usually, despite all the forum positives on this combo, I've not been particularly impressed. This year was different, I really enjoyed the set up and during a particularly driving track, I saw cone extension in the drivers like I have never seen - they literally slid uniformly in and out like pistons as the music flowed.

Table wise, I have to say the twin platter Clearaudio set up on the Mezzanine with the Focal speakers sounded great for the second year in a row. And wow, what a sight. Speaking of which, Triangle Art's tables are pure eye candy - acres of shiny metal and very decent sonics to boot. I'd love to just watch one spin in my room. Even their cheapest model looked fabulous, I'd love one. The various VPI set ups were only ok, but I've owned an Aries and am happy to have sold it on.  And what do you make of a $10k metal spinner from Lithuania's Jakutis, which includes a granite and steel stand (the Dalia?) Who buys these tables? Well  distributor (Mockingbird) told me he sells direct, often arriving in person to set them up too. The model I heard looked and sounded very fine to me, with a real ceramic body cartridge whose manufacturer I missed. I'd love to know more about that set up and since Mockingbird are based in Texas, I hope to do so.

Also enjoyed discovering the Pear Audio tables which seemed familiar until I twigged they were the fruits of the final work of Tom Fletcher, best known for the Nottingham line of tables. The similarities are obvious once you see them. The room did them few favors but I liked the table and arm enough to think I need to hear this one again.  Many enjoyable analog set ups this year. The Bergmann air-armed tables looked great and sounded so, the Merrill table/Triplanar arm in the Zesto room was so relaxing but it was the Kuzma table in the Prana room just took the biscuit for me - fabulous sonics, all smooth detail, body and rhythm, nothing to want. I think it was the Reference table with a 12" Kuzma tonearm -- best vinyl at show to my ears. And as far as I could tell, the main guy there just grabbed his own table from home to front the room at the last minute. And with a Denon 103R cartridge to boot....I could live with the sound at home for a very long time, which is a rare experience for me at RMAF.

Must mention the Exasound multichannel offering. Using five Maggie 1.7s, the enthusiastic host fed a Mac into his DAC and, with a multichannel Bryston amp, proceeded to show us the differences between 2 and 5 channel music. The multi-channel was better but not to the level that would have me buying five speakers and associated cables for my room (not to mention how little music that matters for me in this format). The real lesson for me (other than this DAC is very good and priced well), was the Maggies. They sounded better than I ever heard them and they were not positioned with any great thought to layout. Clearly, with Bryston driving them, these speakers can deliver fine sound. Another strike for the saner end of the audio market.

Lots of other stuff sort of passed me by (and I know I've forgotten some rooms). I gave no attention to CanJam this year as I got their too late and I ignored anything related to computer audio other than to note how much of it was there. Some people are pompous and loud, but really, most attendees are there for fun and it shows -- I really enjoy this show despite all the problems. If I get the time I'll try to list what I heard in alphabetical order to make it easy for people to find- some of you asked, I just have to find the time.  If I missed something, let me know and I'll check my notes but this was most I can easily decipher from memory, scribbles and literature.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

RMAF 2014 - second instalment

I had a lot of fun checking out gear that is very different than my usual set-up, and why not? RMAF has it's own lunatic fringe that is not about price alone, it's about the passion and personal efforts some designers make to create something different.

Raven Audio, a Texas company, caught my eye last year with their beautiful looking tube amps so this year I made a real effort to hear them. Their room contained some of the most intriguing speakers at the show, the Burwell and Sons 'Mother of Burl' horns which look like finished furniture. As if this was not enough, Raven decided to show their new 'Goldfinch' stacked all tube mini system containing and 8w 5AQ4 amp/preamp/DAC/power amp combo, as well as their Spirit 300B monos which sounded very sweet. You have to love people who commit their lives to creating special audio gear - this is a precarious way to make a living and the Raven and Burwell guys deserve to succeed. I had a couple of listening sessions, helped along in the first instance by  particularly welcoming hosts who seemed to throw themselves fully into the party spirit of the show. Really, an 8w tube stack powering an $80k pair of 'work-of-art' horns blasting out Stevie's "Tin Pan Alley" like you would not believe-- it just made for a crazy good experience.  Now that is what RMAF should be about - these guys know how to treat attendees.

Speaking of gracious and helpful hosts, Audio Kinesis' set up made music and chief designer Duke LeJeune was as gracious as could be in answering my rather naive questions about his up-firing woofers. Totally different look that gives not a hint of how smooth the speaker sounds. Driven by Atmasphere amps, the music from these $4900 speakers was really up there with some far more expensive products.

Sticking with the $5k price range, new boys on the block (to me at least) Ryan Speakers had a great pair of their floorstanders pushing out pleasing sounds in their room. The brothers Ryan told me they had started designing speakers in the 1980s but gave up as life took over but are back, and determined to do it well. Fit and finish was great, these really are products that would find a place in most homes, and the sonics were really impressive too. See, there is value to be found at this price point. Watch out for Ryan Speakers - these guys mean business.

Keeping it real, price wise and sonically, I lucked into the Prana Fidelity room on Sunday morning where the main host was demo-ing a tape deck through what looked like fairly modest monitors, their Fifty90s. So good did they sound that I asked if this was a function of the expensive looking tape source. Quick as a flash, the host (Steve?) said 'watch this' and proceeded to fill the room with glorious vinyl sounds courtesy of his Kuzma Ref turntable, playing a Charlie Byrd DTD record. Imagine my surprise when he added that this great sound was coming out of a budget Denon 103R cartridge on the arm. Fabulous stuff -- and an amazingly full, balanced, musical presentation from the Fifty90s. At $3400, these have to be the best bang for the buck at RMAF. I would give these room in my rig anytime. I knew the name but had never heard the products. Prana, I am on the prowl to hear more.

Also sounding good, and one room that most folks reporting would say the same about, was the set up from Vapor. They had a beautiful looking, curvy Joule Black (approx $18k) filling a large room with musical, pleasing sonics. At the suggestion of Ryan, the main man, I sat in the middle of the front row while he proceeded to play demo recordings that had sounds practically wrapping around me and a colleague who tried the same seat. And in case you're worried, the music was good in all parts of the room, not just the sweet spot. When you hear what some committed folks can produce under $20k, you have to wonder how anyone sees value in the higher end market. And did I mention that these looked good?

No, I don't have photos, my iPhone capture is not worth adding in here. I also have lots more notes and when I get the chance, will try to list all rooms I visited and think worthy of comment in an alphabetical list. I know how hard it can be to glean info on what you want to know about from a brain-dump like this. I've not mentioned the interesting sounds of the King Sound Labs (another contender at $10k), the kick-ass sonics in Acoustic Zen's room (another sub-$20k that asks really hard questions of the more expensive loudspeaker products) and the new lifestyle Muso soundbar from Naim.....who'd have thought they would be taking on Bose (all eyes were on their Statement display, the $200k+ amp system which I was told has sold out its first year's supply). Am hoping to get the Muso in for review. And then there was the vinyl, the great joys of the Zesto/Wywires/TAD room, the demo of stereo and mono cartridge sounds from a twin-armed VPI, a five channel Maggie 1.7 demo and more. Phew. Stay tuned.












Monday, October 13, 2014

RMAF reactions - first instalment

RMAF seemed less well-attended to me this year, but that's just my impression from wandering through over a couple of days. As always it's great fun albeit somewhat draining. The chief culprit? Volume. Most people just seem to prefer music played far more loudly than I can comfortably tolerate and across the day, it starts to wear me down. But I was prepared for this and made sure to take regular time out to allow my ears to calm between listening session.  Rather than give an exhaustive listing of what I heard and thought, let me just tackle some of the targets I went to explore.

I had a personal interest in the new PS Audio Directstream DAC since I see this as a logical upgrade for my PWD Mk II. Unfortunately I could determine almost nothing about it. PS Audio used it in a major display that contained massive IRS Infinity Beta speakers and two new monoblock amps. It was just impossible to know what the effect of the new DAC might have been while I was there. The sound was interesting in that the music floated away from the huge cabinets which made placement of instruments vague, and the room was definitely not bass-heavy despite the size of those woofers. But in combination it all seemed a bit diffuse and soft.  Not sure what the purpose of this set-up was supposed to be as it neither showcased the Directstream model or offered any real insight into the new amps. The matter was not helped by one of the monoblocks packing in while I listened so I took myself next door to hear their new Sprout. Now this is a product to watch out for: integrated amp with  50w per channel, a MM phono stage, USB and RCA inputs for a CD player and TV, a headphone input and bluetooth capability. I immediately snyc'd my iPhone and streamed tunes through it for fun. Sonically the bluetooth option renders everything at MP3 level, I believe, but it's good enough if you just wanted to hear something in the background. A lifestyle product or second system option, at $799 this seemed good value. Good host in the room too, Scott(?) who showed infinite patience and enthusiasm. As for upgrading my DAC, well, I am none the wiser from this trip.

I also spent a good deal of time checking out the Von Schweikert VR55s, an active pair, listing for $49k, was in constant use over the weekend with a huge Constellation amp. The looks are not the classic two-box design I love of the old VR5s but the sonics were clearly a step up in terms of resolution and coherence. The secret is the new  stiff-material (coated magnesium?) drivers I believe which still sounded here as if they needed a bit of breaking-in as they were slightly etched sounding on some frequencies. That said, the resolving power here was impressive to my ears and these worked far better in the hotel room than the big VS100s that VSA showed last year. I gather there's a trade-up program coming for current owners so watch out.

Every year there are a couple of faithful rooms that are worth stepping into just to calibrate one's ears to real sounds and  prices.  German Physiks always impresses me in this regard. The newly lower-priced (yes, you read that right) entry model of these omnidirectional  DDD wonders sounds like no other speaker at the show, and in so doing, it cleanses your palette and makes you feel like more audio gear should capture this quality. The musical selections on offer are wider than most too, helped along as always by the good-mood vibes of the host Michael Broughton. I heard vocal and flute reproduction that had reach-out-and-touch quality on Sunday morning and one attendee, after hearing a pipe organ track remarked that he'd never heard an organ sound that good before. Easy placement, somewhat plain looks (you can pay more for other finishes), the German Physiks room was a serious contender for the one to beat at $10k.

Legacy had the usual large room location to themselves and showed off the Aerius and debuted their new V speaker. This is simply huge looking, not helped by the wide and deep proportions at the foot, shaped to house the amplification (two per speaker). The interesting part of their use of  the Wavelet processor, a preamp with crossover time alignment and room resonance correction built in. As Bill Duddleston explained it Saturday morning to some of us, this enables the speaker to be adjusted for any room. You could indeed walk around the side of it and hear the sound drop as intended. Yes, this might work in your house but I'd say WAF on these is on the low side. Sonically, I'd say this was more impressive than enjoyable but then, I rarely enjoy Legacy at RMAF where they sound very different than I've heard them in people's homes (not least my own).  Price to be determined but 'around $50k' was mentioned.

Ah yes, did I tell you that 'around $50k' seemed to be prevalent here. I used to think $30k was the new normal for good speakers but clearly price inflation knows no limits and the $50k bar has been reached and pushed through by too many companies for my taste. Not sure it was launching them here but Polymer made a big splash with their MKS-X speaker ($59k). I cannot recall what it was matched with but the layout had the speakers sitting way out in the large room, volume cranked, and details flying at you. All pretty good but I felt the bass could be choked on some recordings and this took the shine off the experience for me but others seemed excited, and I am sure that had nothing to do with the company's use of two supermodels at the front door handing out literature and invites to the mainly male attendees. Just sayin'.

Focal always seem to be out in strength at RMAF and this was no different - I think I counted them in at least 5 rooms. I have a mixed reaction to these speakers. The low end models always disappoint me, offering great looks but so-so sound to my ears. But the upper end models, from $30k  Scala up seem cut from a different cloth. On the mezzanine floor the Grande models were on show, and mostly sounded good but I was surprised as how flat and dull the LP reproduction of Pink Floyd's DSOTM seemed in the Apex Audio room on Saturday pm. Just goes to show, I suppose, that it's all about the system and context but at the price one pays for the pair, these speakers had better sound fabulous every time.   I'd say the same about the Wilson/VTL room. It was impressive in some ways and the use of those monster subs (taken in an out to show the difference when I was there) confirmed my sense that subs can free the sound up.  But the price is too high for what you get in my view and I just cannot warm to the look. Still, at least I heard music in this room this year, unlike two previous years.

I've never heard the YG Acoustics speaker line sound very good before. I know their speakers receive glowing reviews from the mainstream press and are marketed as the best in the world with some measurements to boot, but when I listen, I am left uninvolved by what seems a rather cool, detached quality, more lab than musical instrument.  After stepping out from another great presentation in the Sanders room (where I stood to the side to determine if these really required absolute central sitting position - they don't!), I crossed the corridor to hear the YG Acoustics in the GTT room. Still felt these were not my sound and when I mentioned this to Roger Sanders I received the 'what can you expect from cones and boxes' speech. Can't argue with him on the basis of his room but I was forced to revisit my YG conclusions when I heard them set up in one of the Rowland rooms where they sounded very musical. The other Rowland room with their lower end preamp and a pair of their stereo amps driving stand-mounted Josephs was another sweet environment, and all for under $20k.

Some quick shout outs to gear that caught my attention:  The new Harbeth Super HL5 sounded pretty good with the Acoustic Signature Thunder front end, but not great. Davore Fidelity were making fine music with their Orangutan 96 high sensitivity speakers (96db) but I think the looks might be a hard sell for some. The Box Company racks in this room are great looking though - real furniture for real homes.  Reading great things about the Daedalus/Modwright set up on the ground floor, I stopped by at what must have been the most inopportune time as they seemed to be experiencing some difficulties and the sound was poor. Never got back again.  The Linkwitz room was fascinating as always, and I sat in on the demo and explanation of the little model you make yourself from a kit with the addition of a few items purchased at Home Depot. Man, these were so good you have to pinch yourself and ask what is going on in some of the other rooms. Methinks this little kit has to be tried as a project.  OK, more later......





Friday, October 10, 2014

RMAF 2014

Most likely will save any comments until I take it all in it's too hard to sort it all out while it's happening. Main objectives for me would be to hear the latest PS Audio DSD wonder DAC, check in on the new Von Schweikert 55s, the replacement for my recently upgraded Anniversary 5s (see, both of these are updates to products I use ), plus to enjoy the range of turntables and speakers that one reads about in the glossies.

There's usually a live performance going on, and some talks but most of the weekend is spent just moving room to room.It's often fun to hear what the buzz is all about there and to just hear the mega priced components you would never dream of buying. It's often quite useful to be reminded that after a certain point, it makes little difference and that in a poor room, everything sounds ordinary. If you go, let me know.

And if you landed on this page by searching Google for RMAF 2014 reviews, just click on the AudioMatters header above to get the more recent instalments.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Jerome Sabbagh's The Turn reaches target

Am pleased to report that this KickStarter project has reached its target -- well done all who contributed. And of course, as the target was approached, more piled in so the amount raised surpassed the initial request. More than 140 backers stepped up and one person paid the necessary $2k to be listed as a producer on the album...guess that gives a new meaning to some sleeve notes but I'm just happy for the musicians involved. I'll report back when I get the LP.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

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