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......

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