Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Detailed video review of the SMcAudio VRE preamp

I happen to own this preamp and it's the one item in my rig that I imagine handing over to my son, which is not quite what I feel about other components (well, maybe the SME 20/2 table will be equally heirloom-like in due course but I can imagine upgrading from it). It's just built right and the sonics convince me that running without a pre-amp is not better, no matter how purist it might feel. Anyhow, see more here, and there are three parts so follow the links. Well done Peter Breuninger of AV Showrooms, nice set-up!!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Who gets to say what is good sound?

My 'reactions' post garnered more traffic in a few days than most posts here manage in a month. What gives? Other than general interest in the show, the traffic suggests a lot of interest from the modestly titled "What's Best" Forum, where a 'name' reviewer dismissed my views in such an off-hand manner that it drove traffic my way. Thanks Mr. Expert. No hard feelings here, people who make a living from doing what I and many others do for fun probably are threatened.

I moved through RMAF with a friend who, like me, has spent non-trivial amounts of his own money on equipment he thinks sounds good. We attended, listened, and compared notes, so you can be fairly confident that if we liked something, it was based on two sets of ordinary ears, not one golden pair. That may nor may not be important. When something did not sound so good, then that's where the trouble seems to start.

If you read the majors' 'Best of' lists you might be surprised. TAS, a magazine to which I subscribe, had a senior writer review speakers above the $20k mark. He lists almost over thirty pairs of speakers, fully one-third of which are candidates for 'Best of Show'.  If you read it, there are several others which were also described as producing 'excellent' sound, one which for brief moments was better than anything else, and these not' contenders. Perhaps it's all just thinking out loud but you now realize the meaning of 'best' as used in some professional circles is likely not the way you and I use the word.

On that same forum, a room I heard on Friday was described as excellent.  I thought it was awful. So did my colleagues. Interestingly, the owner admitted he probably shared my view. What were the others hearing? Could the presence of the company's CEO as a regular poster on the same forum have possibly influenced people to say nice things about the room's sonics?  You tell me. 

All this points to a rather difficult position for potential purchasers. Since it is practically impossible for most US audiophiles to hear everything they are interested in buying via dealers, attendance at shows such as RMAF is increasingly a vehicle for making purchasing decisions. If you can't make it there, you consume all you can find from others who go. Everyone accepts the room sonics might play a part but if people really can hear the same sounds and describe them as 'great' or 'awful', then there's something of a problem here. I certainly allow for differences of opinion but the human percpetual mechansims for sound are more similar than different, so what causes these reactions?

I don't believe there is one simple factor here but I do sense in the dialog and chatter about RMAF that there is a class of reviewers either determined to create some mystique about sound so as to protect their status as judges, or they are so lazy that they just don't really critique any more, they just say vague pleasantaries so as not to upset manufacturers.  Read the press. How many poor rooms are listed? I heard more than a few. I also heard lots of ordinary rooms, places where the sound was undifferentiated from anything playing around it, poor in timbral reproduction, boomy or muddled in the bass, tizzy on top. Anyone who tells you otherwise either luckily missed all of these rooms (in which case I question if they were there at all), chose to ignore them, or, perhaps has an agenda. That at least a couple of these are being lauded this in the professional press as fine sounding really suggests to me that something is awry.

There is also a class of casual reviewers (like myself) motivated to write about such shows and equipment. Don't assume we're any better. Plenty of people just use the web to criticize expensive gear, to take a pot shot at Wilson or Magico, and to push the more affordable equipment they buy, like or happen to know about. If they are friends of the owner, even worse, they will sometimes push the idea that research, technical development and large scale manufacturing capacity a la B&W or Focal are unnecessary when a guy in his garage with some woodworking skills can produce better sounds. Yeah, there's a lot of that about too.

But there are people who are genuinely interested in finding out how good something might sound, and how much one has to spend to get near the best sounding gear. There is so little science or method here that you are left with opinions as a guide, and some established opinion makers seem threatened. When expertise is almost entirely based on taste and experience, you don't have quality standards, you have connoisseurship. Fine, as far as it goes, but then audio gear becomes more like wine than engineering, subject more to branding, marketing, and opinion formation from elite reviewers than from facts. No wonder, when you state an opposing view, an 'expert' feels it is acceptable to summarily dismiss it  with a derisive 'who's he?'

I cleansed my ears this week with two live performances at the opposite ends of a true skill spectrum. The first from my son's school orchestra, which contained some players who started their instruments only weeks ago. The second was from Manahem Pressler with the Miro Quartet, a collective that has served its dues.  The former was in a school auditorium, the latter in an acoustically designed performance stage. Both sounded  really good, and nothing I heard at RMAF came close. During the school orchestral performance, the sound of strings rose up from the stage in a bloom, unlike anything any speaker has ever delivered to me at RMAF or elsewhere.  When listening to the Miro and Pressler, as I looked at the performers, followed the intricate lines, lost myself in the music and I did not think too much about soundstaging, bass, or articulation. I listened to the whole sonic picture and realized that if an audio system reproduced what I was hearing from my seat in mid-hall, I am not sure commentators from RMAF would think it the 'best-of' anything. We have a long way to go.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

RMAF 2013 - some reactions

I got there early enough for the opening, stayed late enough for the closing, and over the course of 2.5 days I think I saw most of what I wanted plus a fair bit of what I didn't.  It's difficult to summarize the chaos and energy but there was a lot to hear even if the numbers in attendance seemed down, making it a bit easier to move around during peak hours. With fellow audiophile Mike, we started with a plan: go to the top floor on Friday and work our way down, checking ahead that anyone we had to see/hear on each floor was visited, other rooms treated to a quick decision as we passed based on traffic, sound etc.  We figured by doing this we'd have a sense of our progress as time passed. This was complicated only slightly by the need to get over to the Hyatt to visit four rooms,  the desire to take in a performance of Doug Macloed, and spend some time at the CanJam.

What follows are some general impressions with examples that struck me as standing out, for better or worse. There's more than a few reports online with blow by blow, room by room images and comments, and 'best-of' lists (Audio Circle run one of my favorites) but I always get overwhelmed by such coverage after a while though it is useful to remind me what I visited and to calibrate my views with others (we don't all agree, that's for sure). I'll update as time allows, but here's a quick brain dump.

Who and what are really there?

It is really hard to attribute sound to one component when you are listening to complete systems put together in various ways, all in standard hotel rooms. You might imagine that you are visiting the room of one manufacturer only to find they are not even at RMAF but their speakers or tables are being used by another. Working your way through the program can help a bit, but even if you don't see the product you like listed, it may still be somewhere on show. That said, I could not find models from Thiel, Magnepan, Revel (except for their tiny monitor), Quad, Martin Logan, KEF, and a few others.

Although attendance seemed down and private comments from manufacturers seemed to confirm this, there is still a ton of people at the show. While there are indeed some young people and some women, it's mostly a fairly narrow slice of the population who gravitate to RMAF. No, it's not quite as nutty as a Star Trek convention (so I hear!) but white, middle aged and male sort of typifes the demographic.


 Isn't it really about the music?

Audiophiles tell you it is but you may doubt it after a couple of days here. What music you do hear can start to grate after a while. Attendees long complain of endless female jazz vocal examples or another spin of Kind of Blue and we sure had those, but this year I head more Ray LaMontagne than I needed. Enough to put me off hearing him for another year. Oddly, I was surprised to hear David Coverdale's voice in more than one room, with his unplugged vocal/guitar album with Adrien Vandenberg used to good effect. Some stuff just sounds good anywhere I suppose but it was a rare demo that had me pulling out Shazam to learn more about some great new music I was hearing.

Of course, some rooms cannot get their act together even to keep the music going,  leaving long periods between tracks as people talked or the person managing the room became distracted with other matters.  A tip to those demo-ing vinyl. Don't stand in front of the table, controlling the play, simultaneously answering detailed questions from one attendee while a room full of seated attendees wait to hear something. Yes, we walked in and out of several rooms after waiting minutes for sound and never actually hearing anything played. The winner for this: Wilson and VTL. For me, it's the second year in a row that I've walked in to their much-lauded space and left without hearing a note. This year, two gentlemen who seemed to be from one of the manufacturers ignored us, engrossed in some minor disagreement about a distributor or 'the business'. And boy, could they talk loudly about this. I tried to interject by asking  "is anyone playing any music here or are we just in a display room" but I was ignored. The gentlemen continued; we left. I know Wilson/VTL rooms like to play on a schedule but really, they did that in their main demo room at the Hyatt, there was no need for this in the regular space at the Marriott. I wonder if they can make it three in a row next year? They get my "Who Gives a Toss about the Punters" award.

Not far behind would be the YG Acoustics main room. $175k's worth of set up sounded OK on Friday, with a vinyl rip of Randy Newman's 'I Love LA' still doing loops in my head. The problem here was less the sonics than the reaction of the main guy in that room to a problem triggered, it would appear, from one attendee's light touch on the side of the speaker to determine the material (I'm not naming names!). Some grounding problem likely triggered a meltdown in one left channel amp, followed by a meltdown of the guy leading the demo, who literally shouted 'what did you do?' to the person he blamed for the problem. Sorry, this was just bad manners (and there were plenty examples of this to go around at RMAF) and left a poor impression on those of us in the room. Cue a new "It's Always the Punter's Fault" award for this guy.   I went back next day but was not particularly impressed with the sonics, and would be less so if I paid list price for that combined system. In fairness, YG were in multiple rooms and the smaller set-ups tended to sound better, an experience I've had in previous years too.

How good are the sounds in a hotel room?

On Friday I think Mike and I both agreed that nothing we heard sounded very good. There was a factor of more than 10 between the most and least expensive rooms, but there was a great flattening of difference in sonic quality.  The Genesis room, one I'd targetted to hear after reviewing Gary Koh's excellent power cables, was loud and harsh sounding. We both felt something was not right, an interpretation that was confirmed when I went back on Sunday to hear a far smoother, lower volume presentation that was easy on the ears and eyes led by Gary himself. His smaller speakers can be used in nearfield and they indeed sound very good up close.    Ditto the United Audio/Constellation/Von Schweikert room. I went to hear the big $100k Vons but left very disappointed with the sound. A reel-to-reel version of Sgt Pepper was quite unlistenable, but this is hardly an album I consider sonically impressive. I found I only enjoyed this room later in the weekend with digital tracks, but even then, it never really got going, both frequency extremes being lost somewhere. I discussed this with Albert Von S himself and he acknowledged they were having difficulties in the room. I have heard good things about Constellation amps but I could not recommend them with VSA on this experience. As for reel-to-reel tapes, which were common, I'll go as far to say that someone, somewhere, is pulling a fast one. 

General problems of this kind were everywhere. Many rooms insisted on putting in speakers that overwhelmed the space or were underpowered. We both wanted to enjoy time with the Rockport Avior speakers but they were only found in one room, a pair owned by another company, who tried to get good sound out of them using leather-clad (really!) Absolare 45w tube monos fed by a turntable. The music was always a bit unresolved in the lower regions, and that bass clouded the mids and uppers. Not good for the manufacturers or for Rockport sadly, they never scaled the heights reached last year. But what do I know -- a major mag is listing this room as possible best of show!  A quick visit to the SVS room had to be quick - a live Police video was blasting out from a home theatre set up with the SVS UltraTowers I know well sounding nothing like as good they can. Here however, a tired looking reunion trio on a large flat screen practically sat in the laps of those in the front row while the volume did it's best to reach concert level distortion. Bad. Very Bad. Small rooms and loud volume lent harshness and boom to way too many rooms. Dealers and demonstrators know this but seem unable to help themselves.  One room ups the ante as  music bleeds through the opening doors and volume is increased elsewhere to compensate etc. And as you moved from one to another you tended to get numbed into a state that makes serious auditions impossible. People always say they are exhausted at the end of the day and I attribute most of this to the onslaught your auditory channels must take.

Is the CD player dead yet?

If you looked around the various rooms for sources you would see a ton of MacAirs, USB-receiving DACs or related laptops. This you would expect in 2013. What you might not expect is the plethora of turntables. From one perspective it was marvellous to get close to so many that you can never hear locally. Regas, Thorens and VPIs were plentiful, but there were more than a few exotic AMGs and an almost top of the range Clearaudio that was about as good as it got to my ears in the Musical Surroundings room. No SME though that I could see. What is odd, to me at least, is the almost unquestioned belief that vinyl is always better, despite the evidence on display, and some pretty expensive set ups had some mid-level vinyl rigs feeding the signal, and it sounded like it too.  This certainly plays to the aging demographic in attendance but must confuse people who go there expecting to learn more about cutting edge digital. You can do so, but you have to actively seek it out.

So what really caught the ears?

Lowlights out of the way, there were some really impressive showings in places. Wilson annoy lots of people, just because, but I could hardly fault their structured presentation at the Hyatt where a pair of the truly massive XLFs, with Thor Hammer subs, and amplification from VTL and Parasound, combined to create a very impressive sonic picture. Big, bold, deep and very clear, the room ran 30 min demo slots that required you to come, listen, and leave. No standing round listening to arguments in this room. The opening track presented drums in real detail with perhaps the best reproduction of cymbals I've heard. Forget the expense, I went there to learn what a top company, going all out, could deliver. Most of us could never, even if had the money, assemble that gear into that sized space in our homes. That, to me, was not the point. What Wilson Audio demonstrated there was how far audio has come and yet how far it still has to go. I thank them for this demo, it cannot have been easy or cheap to assemble and staff this event and they delivered.

The Hyatt actually had some of the best rooms at the show even through the traffic here was low. Next door to Wilson were a couple of set ups by virtual new-kids-on-the block Vapor: two dramatic looking pairs of speakers that both sounded pretty good to my ears. Costing a fraction of the price, their  Joule and Nimbus floorstanders are not embarressed by the comparison to their costly neighbors.   Next door to them on the other side was a stunning-looking and sometimes stunning-sounding Scaena set up, all chrome, 15 line drivers and two stacked trios of woofers behind them. My first impressions where of high frequency tizz from some ambient track being demo'd but by the time I got to hear Dave Brubeck playing live, I was reminded of the argument that a great stereo system is really a time-machine. Apart from the woofers, the Scaena are among the most beautiful speakers I've seen and they can sound great too.

Sanders Sound Sytems always manage to impress me with their $20k system (just add music). I don't care to have snippets of high volume music played at me by a somewhat patronizing host, nor do I care to have to sit in one place only to get the magic but I must admit, the sonics can be superb here. Mr Sanders himself told me that if other speakers were as phase-controlled as his, we'd all notice the effects of not sitting right in the middle but since they are not, his are unfairly criticized for this result. Yep, that's the line. Would love to try a pair at home.

I've never been impressed with the Focal speakers I've heard at RMAF but this year was an exception. On the mezzanine floor, two upper level Focal speakers could be heard, the Scala Utopia, a mere $32k, the Stella Utopia in the mid $90s, and both were supported by superb front ends and amplification. The 'more affordable' of the two had incredible soundstage depth (yes, it exists), and the timbral reproduction on both was among the best I've heard.  But don't think it's all about expensive stuff, I was totally seduced by the Fourier product -- it looked like it was made with spare kitchen parts in someone's garage but at 'less than' $1500, and designed to go flat up against the wall, it produced the most enjoyable presentation of Kind of Blue I heard all weekend.

Best demos were from Synergistic Research and Nordost. The former set up a Bosewave system playing Neil Diamond with a before/after demo of the impact of some dots and an energizer. Hearing is believing but the energizer ($799) is a strange black box that plugs into the wall (not your system) and is either on or off. Switched on, I heard a  transformation in the sound for the better. Added to this were a series of small metal cones about the size of your small finger nail that were placed in the corners of the front wall, one on the ceiling, and a another on the Wave unit which in combination made the Bose sound better. Huh? Right. $299 for a set of 5, add in the energizer, and hey presto, instant room transformation for about $1k and nobody can tell you've changed a thing unless they know where to look. Beats most room treatments I've seen. But I'm still trying to make sense of what I heard. Got to try and get a review set of these!

Nordost have the demo model down pat. Listen to music on a decently set up system with a pair of excellent Audio Physic speakers. Add footers to a component and listen to the same music again. Repeat with power cords and eventually speaker footers. Each change was immediately recognizable to the point that I was wondering if they were playing two different versions of the same track!  The most amazing change was upping the quality of power cord on the CD transport. It sounded good with their entry level cord ($350), but sounded better with their $800 cord. They promised even more dramatic improvements on other parts of the rig. The speaker footers gave the music even more drive and depth. When I was there Sunday morning, most people were shaking their heads at what they were hearing. Great music too, including some Russian ska from a group called 3:14 (I think). Now that was how a demo should be run!

Quick shout outs to other good systems should include the Salk/Van Alstines (never enjoyed the pairing before but the cheaper of the two speakers actually sounded great, better than the more expensive ones to my ears). I love speakers that do it differently and in this regard, German Physiks are hard to beat. Very basic looks but the omnidirectionals really do vocals in an almost uncanny manner, and the demo had some fantastic, obscure Irish vocal pieces which were spookily fine. Love to know how the upper range ones sound if this is what entry level ($12k) can do! A truly fine sounding room was the Eficion one, $16k F300 speakers, a $4k integrated (name escapes me) and music I could listen to for the long-term. Next door, the Rowland room impressed with sound and looks...my word, those chasses for the amps are fabulous, though I was not so sure I could live long-term with the speakers they were using here. On the other hand, the Tidal speakers, coupled with SMcAudio VRE-1 preamp and Audo Power Labs really sounded different, in the best way possible, too, just don't tally up the cost. Got to hear some Bryston smallish speakers which live up to the company's record of fine design at a fair price, and I thought the PMC/Rega room showed just what you can get for comparatively small dosh compared to much else on display.  It goes on and on.

Summing up

Fun, camraderie, community and general exposure to the range of audio products out there, all in one weekend, is exhausting but a great experience. The biggest cost is getting there, though the hotel restaurant and bar can add a few dollars to that, and that is not including the gear lust induced by exposure. As I say to people, it might be $25 to get in, but it's more like $25k to get out the other end. Watching some of the major reviewers lumber around can give you a genuine calibration for their reviews, if you get what I mean. And yes, some of them do get treated like minor royalty, so that might explain  of their attitude to the rest of us. Not sure what explains the attitude of regular attendees who can't shut up or fail to appreciate that their constant jabbering is instrusive, I guess self-centredness is endemic. But this is a minority -- most folks are their for the fun and polite enough not to intrude on the fun of others. The great folks behind the Zesto room, George and Caroline,  (with Merrill-Williams  table, TAD speakers and WyWires cables) threw a great reception Friday night - wine, whiskey, and total relaxed vibes, welcoming anyone who came through. Class folks who epitomized all that was good at RMAF. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

It's time for the Rockies

Am attending RMAF -- I'll update (maybe) if time permits but more likely will just take notes and try to provide a refined report when I get through it.  It's hard to target anything there as the crowds and the distractions from many other inviting rooms can make it difficult to move but I want to experience some of the upper echelon speakers on display, not least the Von Schweikert VR-100XS, the Focal Stella Utopias and a few more that have been announced. Hope there some Revels there too, and Harbeths. WIll try out some headphones at the bigger-than-ever CanJam too. Great vinyl is also on the cards if the opportunity presents itself. I don't tend to get too excited over new DACs or hi-res streaming but then again, it's impossible to predict what will catch the eye and the ear on the day. No doubt the buzz factor will be high and the days will be long, but you know you want to be there, right?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

New mono designs from Digital Amp Co

I believe I wrote the first published review of the DAC Cherry amp a few years back (see reviews listing) and waited for their monos to emerge. Well, the Cherry monos did arrive, but I never received a pair for review. Such is life. Still, I keep an eye on Tommy O'Brien's company to learn what's happening and still think their amps are a well-kept secret in audohilia, even though they've garnered more than a few positive reviews since mine. Right now the company is launching a smaller mono design, the Marachinos, which I am hoping to get to hear soon. In the meantime, here's a taster:  250w in 4ohms, true balanced design, 5"x6"x 5" footprint, 8lbs in weight, external mains power supply, WBT binding posts, Neutrik inputs, granite base.  Great power in a small package? We'll see. Check out their products here