Thursday, October 26, 2017

Stereophile Recommended Components List

I started reading S'phile in the mid-1990s, and have stayed with it over the years. Its combination of technical coverage, decent writers (Art Dudley, particularly), new music, and sheer commitment to the sonic arts make it an easy choice each time renewal rolled around.  I also happen to like magazines as a medium and S'phile has always been well-presented. I know the nay-sayers, and sense there's a lot of hate and suspicion out there on the forums for all audio mags, but I feel I get my money's worth.

The regular recommended components list alway gets my attention, and in the early days of my subscription I thought I'd  never get much beyond the Class C category as Class A was just too damn expensive. Well, I've grown older and the 'A' gear still seems a little out of reach, but I don't care anymore as I am not convinced there are huge sonic differences between components that warrant such sums of investment anyway.  And yes, I have heard a lot of it - am sure the differences I do hear might even be less if heard blind, but best not go down that path with audiophiles lest they contort themselves unhealthily in denial.   All that said, I've noticed over the years a huge variability in prices within categories, to the point that I play a little game every time a new list is produced. That is, can one still assemble a Class A set of components for 1/10th the price of another set?

The answer, as usual seems to be yes.  In fact, so robust is this conclusion, that I'd invite interested folks to peruse past lists and play the same game for any time period. It's fun, safe, and you can do it in the privacy of your own home!

So let's see what we have in the latest, Oct 2017 listing. Now leaving aside the silly school grade inflation of Class A+ being distinct from Class A for some component categories (instead of Class A being consistently true to the magazine's own definition of it as the "best attainable sound for a component of its kind"), you can find the same 10:1 (approx) range in pricing across all categories of component.

Take turntables. The highest priced Class A table is the Dohmann Helix 1 at $40k. The lowest is the PTP Solid12 at (currency adjusted) $3200 plus shipping.  Fancy a Class A tonearm? Try the Acoustic Signature TA-9000 at $18k, or the Abis SA1.2 at $1800...and so it goes.  Need a preamp? The Boulder 2110 is recommended class A at $55k but if that's too rich, the Parasound Halo JC2 will only set you back $5k for Class A performance -- what a bargain!  And there's more, the Parasound guys can give you class A monoblocks at $9k a pair which is proportionally about one tenth of what a pair from, yes, you guessed it, Boulder will set you back, with their 2150 monos going for $99k a pair.

Yes, it's fun....spend half a million for the best of the best...or don't...get the best of the best for $50k.. So what does that extra $450,000 actually get you if not better performance?  Normal folks with roll their eyes but you can point to the mag and show how you're a connoisseur of audio, and a savvy purchaser too. Now that's what I call good value.

I know, you cannot assume components play well together, and S'phile never intended this to be a basis for system building but come on...people love rankings and use them to determine everything from college attendance to cars.  It is still the case that these regular issues sell more than any others during the year? Surely so.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Further links on MQA

The more I dig, the more comes up.

Here's an excellent editorial by Doug Schneider of Soundtage.
And here's a longer discussion by audio professions (not to be confused with audiophiles).

General points are common-- the basic comparisons enabled by the promoters of MQA are not equivalent in terms of source material so it's hard to know what is really going on. Presumably the MQA folks know this but don't seem to offer a very convincing argument as to why they do it this way. The points about the audiophile press being too quick to push MQA as an advance seem justifiable. 

Ad this to the blind test results reported below and it's just bizarre that we seem to be having this happen in 2017.  Not taking sides here (though no sane person who loves music wants backfoor DRM, if that's really on the agenda),  just trying to fathom what the heck is going on?

I'll keep posting what I find -- feel free to send links.

Monday, October 23, 2017

MQA concerns continue

My recent post (see below) on the blind test results on MQA samples from Archimago clearly struck a nerve. This got me digging deeper and now I find there are more than a few people pointing out that something seems a little odd with the whole push from Meridian.

The main concern seems to be that this is a back door move to rights management for music that will force us all into paying fees for music that we never actually own, but some folks are even more vocal in their objections, claiming that endorsements from the audio press are based on comparative samples that have been goosed up to favor MQA. The most outspoken critic right now seems to be Charlie Hansen of Ayre, someone we might all acknowledge knows a thing or two about good sound.  Over on the AudioAsylum forum, he's started a minor firestorm by criticizing Meridian and the mainstream press for failing to be completely honest in their  presentation and coverage of the MQA move.

Take a look at: Why can't the audio mags do this?    You'll want to expand the full thread to read comfortably...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Burning Amp 2017 coming in Nov

No, I won't be there but would love to know what i's like.  

Burning Amp Festival 2017, DIY Audio’s
Premiere International Festival Held Annually
In San Francisco, Set for November 12th

San Francisco, CA November 12, 1217 — Burning Amp Festival 2017 is coming to the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco on Sunday, November 12th from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 PM. New This Year: BAF’s hours have been extended due to the increased interest and popularity

Held in the fall since 2007, BAF has grown into a premier international event for do-it-yourself audio enthusiasts and professionals.  DIY audio is the original maker movement dating back to the 1940’s and 1950’s when Hi-Fi was in its infancy, and a lot of great-sounding equipment was assembled at home by enthusiastic amateurs.

BAF celebrates audio technology both new and old, tube and solid state, analog and digital. The festival has been held in the fall since October of 2007.  Come listen to hand-built audio amplifiers, speakers, and more.  Bring your own gear: DIY amps, speakers, turntables, DACs, servers, etc. Share ideas and learn to design and build your own equipment. 

 There will be free admission to anyone bringing a DIY project.

There will be displays, demos, auction and raffles items and freebies, plus well-attended lectures by prominent figures in audio engineering design like Nelson Pass, Siegfried Linkwitz, Damian Martin and Wayne Colburn. 

Nelson Pass is, as always, generously contributing a big batch of Amp Camp amp circuit boards, parts and loudspeaker drivers.

A helpful map of the Fort Mason grounds can be found here:
When driving to the site, enter via the Gatehouse at Laguna Street and Marina Boulevard.


There are four talks throughout the day and will be held at the Firehouse. A link to the schedule is available on the Home page. Unfortunately, the room cannot by the Fire Code accommodate more than about 110 people so some may have to stand outside or will not be able to attend the talk they want to hear if they are late.  Please: no standing around the walls as this will violate Fire Code.
Nelson Pass will be talking about his new amplifiers which diyAudio will sell as kits and should have them to demo along with tons of other cool stuff including the awesome SAL speakers in his audition rooms
Siegfried Linkwitz will also give a presentation on audio perception, and demo his acclaimed LX series open baffle speakers in his audition room.
Damian Martin will demonstrate the only existing sample in the U.S. of a new precision measurement interface for computers which has unheard of performance per dollar, and a device designed by Jan Did den that automatically sets the input voltage to your computer interface to 1 volt to get the best measurements and not blow it up! He will have them on display at a table in the Firehouse and may do some tests of amps for people to demonstrate them
Wayne Colburn from Pass Labs will be about his new headphone amp design and the PCB’s he can supply for them and how he approaches some common circuit design issues. He will also have a table in the Firehouse where you can listen to it. Bring your own headphones for the most meaningful experience!
The talks are throughout the day and will be held at the Firehouse. A link to the schedule is available on the Home page. Unfortunately, the large room cannot by the Fire Code accommodate more than about 110 people so it may very well be that some may have to stand outside or will not be able to attend the talk they want to hear.  Please no standing around the walls as this will violate Fire Code.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

RMAF 2017 -- last thoughts

A few loose ends to tidy up now that I've got most thoughts down on another show. These are necessarily quick reactions and likely not common, but it's what I heard.

Big Tannoys and VAC amps...sounded good in a huge room, which is not as routine as it seems at RMAF.  Acoustic Zen were in two rooms with two very different sounds: the smaller Crescendo IIs in AZ's own room sounded great -- an experience I have every time I hear them. Sadly, in the W4S room downstairs, the top of the range Zens ($40k) just boomed too much on Holly Cole for me to stick around long. Poor set up and music choice there.

I was also disappointed with the Harbeth 30s I heard in Vinni Rossi's room. Not helped by a continuing, loud conversation going on and on with a press rep from a well known mag. I almost asked them if anyone was playing music here but they eventually put on some singer songwriter that the guys in the room thought sounded "amazing". I heard a rather dull, limited sonic picture that surprised me, but not in a good way. Another first-- poor sound from a pair of Harbeths. I moved on.

The Constellation amps sounded very good wherever I heard them but particularly in their own room with Continuum table (lovely!) and Wilson speakers. I went in a couple of times, always to hear great music on LP.

Caught the tail end of a demo of the new Legacy processor which seems to be all about timing and signal recovery (not to be confused with the Qol of yore that was about phasing). Switched in and out, it made an obvious improvement to my ears. Hard to figure what this would sound like in a normal room as Legacy always seem to take over a ballroom and play music in different set ups around the huge space. With more gorgeous amps from Raven than I've ever seen in one place, this was also a visual delight. Wish I'd had more time here to really listen closely.

Zu Audio are wonderful hosts, but I was not too impressed with the sonics in their big room. Certainly affordable, loud, and toe-tap-inducing enough but not what I'd want to hear all day. Technics room was excellent and their two turntables, both direct drive, sounded very good. Their top of the range $4k model might be the one to beat at the pricepoint.

And of course Sanders. No surprises...simply excellent sounding speakers. I say it every year and it's always true. While the seating arrangement only encourages people to believe these speakers have to be heard from the sweet spot, I moved about and still found them excellent sounding. For most sane people, these would be good enough to settle with for the long haul.

Can't say the same about the Golden Ear speakers with Hegel. Two good companies whose products garner great reviews, it all sounded lifeless to me when I was there. The Joseph Audio room had a pair of floorstanders (the Pearls?) that were superbly coherent and lifelike. Sort of shaped like my reference Von S VR5s but a little more full-bodied and present in that room. A quick word with Mr Joseph asking how he got this sound and he mentioned to secret is really the crossover. No argument from me.

Not sure I mentioned the ELAC speakers...I wanted to hear them but when I entered they were shutting it down to reboot everything as Andrew Jones did not like the sounds he was hearing. Telling us to come back in 10 mins or so, I moved on and of course, inevitably was distracted by other stuff.
Never even tried Can Jam, but that was only a function of time - I really would like to have heard a few options there. And despite promising myself a Stax experience (they had a room), it never happened either. Next time, maybe.

Checking out of my hotel, I lucked into finding Avalon and Spectral set up on their own in the Hyatt. Keith Johnson himself was playing a selection of his own recordings, and damn good they sounded too. Not sure too many people knew they were there but I suspect their goal was about business meetings rather than casual attendee listeners.

Last shout outs -- ATC sounded very good in two rooms, the active versions particularly. Same can be said of smallish Monitor Audios I heard. Not sure what changed with both company's designs recently but I liked both more than before.

Other major disappointments: Apart from no Quad, I found the sound in some really expensive rooms to be really disappointing. Generally like Vandersteen but their 7s in a large room with VTL amps sounded like nothing special to me, and for the combined price, made me wonder just why anyone spends such sums. Maybe large rooms have different demands, but if that is what I ended up with my home after dropping north of $100k, I'd question my sanity. No, it did not sound 'bad' but it just did not sound great or even better than many other rooms with far more affordable gear.  Am sure room will get best of show from someone though.

On the very first day, during the early pre-show hours, I lucked into Robert Silverman's new recording being played in the Kimber room with four Sony floorstanders surrounding the listening space. It sounded spectacular, a real best in show. When I opened my eyes after taking it in, found the (Silver)man himself clearly enjoying it too on the sofa in front of me (only being partly interrupted by an over-zealous purchaser of the new recording who wanted it signed).  To end it all, on Sunday, I walked in again to hear Mr. Silverman playing live on a piano in the adjoining room. It was marvelous and served to remind anyone there what music listening was all about. If anything, it also reminded me of how far we have to go. No fake soundstaging, no ultra sharp transients,  no overemphasized details, but real dynamics and decay, and beautiful music that was physically present. Every room here, even the best, paled in comparison.

Good fun, a real reminder of what's out here, what's possible, and what's typical, RMAF is worth any audiophile's time. My congrats to the organizers and to all the companies that set up rooms and put up with the endless repetitive questions and requests for music. It's hard work for all but worth it. I consider the cost of attendance a small investment in reality checking -- after hearing what all those extra dollars gain you sonically, you might save a small fortune over time on your own system.  That's it for another year. Thanks for all the emails, I tried to cover everything I could reliably remember but am sure I've missed a few.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

RMAF 2017 part IV

Lots of other stuff caught my attention, some for a moment, some for considerably longer. While I don't have huge interest in all the latest high-tech gadgets working magic in the digital domain, I was quite impressed with the sonics in the Merging Tech room. Their transport and networking DAC (called the Player and NADAC in their lingo) have their origins in studio technologies but are presented here for home use employing the Ravenna open-source audio over IP, which for the rest of us means it is pretty easy to get this thing to play music everywhere and anywhere you need it.

Set up with an Ayre power amp and Sistrum rack, to the fore of a pair of $3k Definitive Tech speakers, the music was actually gorgeous. Kudos, as always to set-up expert and charming host Michael Broughton, it was possible to sit here and not want to leave the haven in an otherwise quite rough environment of the RMAF hotel. Highlight for me: Luna's Tender Surrender, which simply was magical and uplifting, unlike so much else being played at the show.

At the opposite end of the technology front, I had to admire the passion and commitment of those hardy folks who have an alternative view of audio. The Audio Kinesis Azels look different, are toed-in aggressively and, with their rear coaxial driver induce a delay in reflected sound that aims to create  sense of space. I quite enjoyed the results.   Similarly, the Lejonklou room was mostly about their electronics but I could not help give most of my attention to the use of JBL flat speakers, products aimed at cinemas but co-opted here as stereo speakers (and only $800 or so each, shipped). Not too attractive looking but I noticed some people quite taken by the price and those large woofers.

For real oddball innovation though I have to hand it to Swan Song Audio whose Black Swan speakers really caught my eye. With 18" woofers and a top mounted horn, all on a beautiful wooden cabinet, these heavyweight high-efficiency transducers looked like nothing else. Chief Tony Crocker has a unique passion for exploring the unconventional and producing something unique, in small numbers, including a 3W 6NS7-only SET amp. The results proved easy and engaging when Dark Side of the Moon was spun on an SME 20/3, causing at least one person in the room with me to sigh and slightly complain that this made him re-think his decision to quit vinyl. I liked it enough that I sat through a side, even though time was catching up with me.

Tony tells me that given their size, he is willing to host visitors interested in purchases and cover travel costs to their Tulsa base (check with him for details). Thank goodness there are still folks out there pushing the bespoke, unique product lines in audio like Swan Song.

More mainstream, but sounding very smooth and relaxed were the Von Schweikert VR55s, where I found host Damon even spinning vinyl on a Kronos table that wins the award for good looks. The ZYX cartridge seemed a little tight to me but I enjoyed these speakers and had them spin Robbie Robertson to help clear the RMAF-induced Dire Straits ache from my ears.  In the connected room, a pair of Endeavor 3s were really making music, but you had to know it was there to hear it. These are normal home size speakers with outstanding musicality.  Those inquisitive enough to make it back there seemed to enjoy what they were hearing when I was there.

Speaking of musical interludes, I smiled to myself passing one room on Saturday when I heard Whitesnake belting out the door. Inside, a rack of vintage NAD gear and small PSB bookshelves were pumping out the memories, with an original NAD amp from back in the 1980s doing the honors to show just how long those guys have been around.

Ditto Sunday when a re-visit to the ModWright/Studio Electric room was ensured when AC/DC belting out caught my ear. I'd been there earlier in the show when Dan of ModWright was switching between his excellent 200w integrated and a new mini-sized low power tube amp which can run headphones or efficient speakers. While there an attendee asked to hear the Carpenters and Dan asked us all to stick around and listen to it played on both amps, and then with both StudioElectric standmounts and floorstanders. Amazingly, the tube amp managed both but I felt, oddly, that the tubes sounded a bit harsher on the top end than integrated. Either way, I never heard the Carpenters sound so good -- but not quite as good as AC/DC!

Still more loose ends to tidy up, I did hear a lot more stuff, but that's the main story as I recall it - I'll add some more observations over the weekend, but am sure I have forgotten tons already.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Learning while listening: RMAF 2017 part III

The best experience for me was hearing Paul Barton, chief of PSB Audio, deliver a seminar on Saturday morning. The emphasis was on his use of the acoustic labs at NRC Ottawa to test his designs on listeners. While the talk aimed at headphone design particularly, much of it was based on prior research on listening preferences with loudspeakers. The real emphasis here was on the scientific method, and use of blind tests to establish listening preferences for various response curves, with particular details provided of a simple experiment involving headphone reviewers and their reactions to curves, including the one employed in the PSB RoomFeel technology.

The seminar covered a lot of ground, not least the value of testing, the importance of preventing participants from seeing what they were listening to and from communicating their reactions to other participants. A part of the seminar covered breakthroughs in modeling and tools for measurement of the human ear  (the physical interface a headphone makes with the listener seems paramount to perceived quality) and a lively Q&A session at the end had us exploring how universal the preference for a tapered frequency curve might actually be. I learned that it has been long known that humans generally prefer a particular frequency curve when left to their own devices, which means they do not like ruler flat,  but that this preference can be distorted in early listening impressions, only to emerge  over time as listeners gain some ability to shape the sound to their preference.  Yes, there is hope your teenager will outgrow those Beats!

Naturally this had me asking, if the preference is so universal, why do we see such variance in gear at RMAF? Ah, sighted listening, a preference for a particular look, influence of others etc, all mentioned as reasons. We humans, it seems, might have a preferred response curve when all other stimuli are removed, but that's not actually the world we inhabit or make purchasing decisions within. Fascinating stuff, if only to push me harder to understand more of the science of listening preference (no, not the engineering of loudspeakers, what people actually experience).

Of course, I thought a lot about the estimable Paul Barton's words as I wondered the rooms later that day. Is it any surprise then that I found great pleasure in the Revel room where a new $10,000 pair of speakers (F228?), due to be released early next year.  Revel's rep was pretty clear in stating that their speakers are always built on the basis of scientific, blind listening tests, and a new model is only released when it clearly improves on existing models. Hence, the Ultimate series, now 10 years old, remains top of their tree as it's the best they can build currently. This new model ups the ante on the previous F series apparently and they have the data to prove it!

I visited the room more than once to check it out and have to say, it would get my vote as one of the best sounds at the show. Obviously conditions are less than ideal, and I hate the white plasticky look but the speaker had an impressive coherence and very smooth sound to go with sufficient resolution to reveal lots of detail on a range of tracks. The triumph of science?

Would say the same seems true of the Bryston gear. A pair of snazzy white floorstanding (is the color a code?) Model Ts in a a cool active system (exernal crossover before power amps feeding the various drivers). Sounded smooth, coherent and inviting, so I took some time just sitting there. One attendee behind me remarked something to effect that this was the kind of 'buy it and be done' system that you spend $25k on and then forget about gear thereafter. Of course, much as audiophiles might love that idea, I think few actually do it. But in spirit, I have to agree. Is it a coincidence that James Tanner of Bryston is another user of the NRC labs for testing speaker designs?

Monday, October 9, 2017

RMAF 2017 part II

So let me deal with speakers, which were my main focus on this visit.

Carver ALS
Those Gamut's pic'd in first part of my coverage are nearly as tall as me, so that picture does not really convey. But even at their height, they are dwarfed by Carver ALSs. At over 7ft, these ceiling-scrapers might take some time to get used to in your room - I know I had to sit an look at them for more than a few minutes to take them in.

Bob Carver himself was on hand, jovially posing for pics with enthusiastic audiophiles, and told us that at first his own wife objected to these but over time came to view them as pieces of sculpture that just belonged in the room. Could happen, but I suspect this will take a lot of time, I'd not exactly call them beautiful on the eye.

So how did they sound? Well, chameleon-like comes to mind. Some female vocals sounded more than a little tizzy to me, with sibilance obvious on some Barber, and some old school jazz swing recordings had a bite that might require taming for me to feel too settled. But they threw a great soundstage, sonically disappearing as sources. The set up included a woofer, which I think was being offered as a package for $18k, with lifetime warranty (cuing many jokes on the day about just whose lifetime!). I think with their tailorability, they offer a very interesting option. Would love to hear them properly set up in my room for sure, I actually quite like the slender profile and great height - performers certainly did seem life sized here.  Hearing is believing.

Tekton Design 
There's been enormous buzz on various forums about Tekton Design's speakers. Chief Eric Alexander was on hand in one room to demo a pair of floorstanders ($3k) with Parasound amps, while the Parasound room down the hall used a pair of his Double Impact Monitors in their system. Visually, these are nothing special but the multi-tweeter design does catch the eye.

My conversation with Eric was interesting. He is a man on a mission who has a distinct view that most speakers are following the wrong design principles. He aims to develop products which respond more like the natural wavelaunch of real instruments in terms of moving mass and speed. I admire his passion and wish him well.  Quick take: the floorstanders looked as if they would power out the bass with their dual large woofers, but were remarkably light in that regard. Might have been something to do with the recordings chosen (Eric Clapton live at San Diego mostly when I was there on two occasions). There's a sort of planar quality to the sound that is deceptive given the box nature of the design.  The monitors delivered a Michael Hedges track on a Marantz table through Parasound amplification with tremendous body and detail, and provide stiff opposition to many other monitors at the $2k price point. I could easily see a great music system being build around them.  Indeed, that Parasound room with the Marantz TT15-s1 ($1495, Clearaudio MM cartridge included) into a Halo JC 3 Jr phono ($1495, to be released later this year) and Halo Integrated ($2595), all connected up with the more affordable end of Straight Wire cable ($670 for the lot used) was one such rig. Great sound all round for less than $10k the lot.

JWM Acoustic
Winner of the Al Steifel Legacy Room Award, chief Josh Miles was demo-ing a pair of his hand-made Alyson monitors. And not just any pair -- this is a pair I have had in my home for review (forthcoming). I won't give the game away too much when I say that partnered with a pair of $50k Constellation monos, thankfully provided by the company when the accompanying Aires Cerats developed a problem, these $8k speakers sounded very special.  It would have been great to here the Cerats as my brief exposure to them indicates they are really good, but really, when an $8k speaker sounds this good with any amp used, you know it's competitive. And did I mention, these are beautiful too?

Worth noting though are the JMW tables Josh produces. He used one here to great effect, with an Ortofon 12" arm, producing sweet sounds that killer bass that kept me sitting longer here than many other rooms. This room was a family affair, like so many other small companies, with Josh's mother and brother helping to ensure it was always staffed and open, no easy feat given the show hours!

Martin Logan
I had specifically wanted to hear several speakers at RMAF that I cannot otherwise easily listen to (well, that would describe most speakers actually in today's retail space). Sadly, Quad's distributor told me they weren't showing (odd decisions given recent front page coverage on S'phile), so the wait to really ever listen to Quads continues since the only dealer in the state of Texas doesn't carry any to hear either!  It's true too of the upper-end Martin Logans too but thankfully they had three models on show here.

Top of the range Neoliths ($80k) are huge but beautiful in red, and partnered with coffee table sized ARC amps and fed a range of vinyl on various Clearuadio tables, from the entry level to the Statement, this was a very popular room. I thought the sound was largely excellent but sometimes a bit ragged, surely a function of many variables but there were moments of magic in the sweet spot. Not sure how these would work in a smaller room but they can be truly impressive.

More practical for most (which might tell you something about audiophiles), the smaller Renaissance 15As and 13As (so named, I learned for the panel size in inches, and the A for amplified bass), priced at $25k and $15k respectively. Again proving the importance of room and partnering gear, the 15As sounded incredible on some tracks when I visited (and I went three times to soak these in!), the 13As less so. A good part of the difference was room size, the use of the incredible StromTank power distribution system with the 15s (a barrel sized power conditioner that uses batteries to drive gear). Switching it in and out of the system produced a clear difference, though it's so large, I feel I'd have to hide it somewhere, but where that might be in a typical home is hard to imagine). Am sure the D'Agostino amp helped too in that room. On a tired Sunday morning, I sat upright when the ghost of SRV himself started singing to me on Tin Pan Alley (yeah, even that old chestnut came back to life for me in this room).

The 13As, in comparison sounded a lot less impressive. Driven by relatively affordable (I use the term as only audiophiles understand it) combo of Benchmark amps/DAC and Aurender streamer,  the room could sound a little sharp and thin. My last visit was the best one when a selection of orchestral pieces and some Patricia Barber (RMAF should give her a medal for service!) came through far better than earlier selections I'd heard of Fleetwood Mac (ugh!).  The Renaissance line extends down to lower prices, comes with built in Anthem room correction software and looks lovely, so I suspect the general Logan qualities are there, with room set up and partnering gear being important. The 15s are large but it's not impossible to imagine them fitting your room. I could imagine them being the last speaker for many people. The 13s, I have to take more on faith. At least I got to hear them, though it confirmed my belief that it would be nigh impossible for me to make a purchasing decisions based on show listening.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

RMAF - the view on the way out

Early word suggested RMAF might not be as popular as it once was, and the pre-opening evening meet up exhibitors and press was a little light, but the official word suggests otherwise. By close of show today I heard the Friday numbers were very good, even if more than a few rooms I visited were less than full. Not sure of the facts, I suppose we wait for the official numbers but it was definitely easier to get around this year, so draw your own conclusion.

There are ways to approach a show -- target the products you want; wonder around and see what takes your fancy, or the truly insane approach I adopted of going to the top of the tower -- the 11th floor -- and working my way down. I figured, 11 floors, then a mezzanine, then the remaining large rooms, and I'd get it all covered in 3 days. By end of day one-- having started early, I had cleared 5 floors. Even then I felt I missed spending enough to time in some rooms...and that was without taking lunch, having a drink or even a restroom visit. Yeah, TMI....but that's an audio show.

And how crazy is an audio show? Hotel rooms taken over, stripped out, audio gear moved in and music played while interested people wander about. If not part of the audiophile community it must seem a little strange that people invest so much effort to hear recorded music, and further, that there can be so many differences in sound quality and price that enable dozens, perhaps hundreds of specialist companies to exist.  But the sales trope is consistent: each company believes their products do something different, better, truer to what people want, etc. It makes no sense but that's the world we inhabit.

Anyway, you just want to know what sounded good right? Let me cut to the chase before going into details. Most of high end audio, as evinced by what was on display here,  is not actually very good at delivering music to your ears in a confined space. The claims of many manufacturers to producing high quality sound are little more than marketing BS. Exotic enclosures, fat cables and resolution rates hide myriad fudges about doing anything very different. We still have drivers in boxes, we rely on claims over data, opinion over science, and tolerate pricing that fundamentally is based on what someone else might pay, rather than intrinsic worth.  Oh, and of course, every manufacturer claims it is the other guys that are doing that...not them.

And the prices!  Dear me, how little is the reality of most consumer lives reflected here. A couple of years ago I noticed that many speakers were one hitting $30k a pair. That's been blown through and there were lots of speakers here well north of that price. Thus year I found a common problem to number fudging.  Prices are quoted in dollar units that you must interpret as you can't be sure if the answers refers to hundreds or thousands. How much were those monoblocks you ask?  The answer is $39-five! that $3950 or $39 500? In this world, standards are so vague that you cannot reliably estimate the correct answer from any sonic or visual examination of the product.

So what did I learn here at RMAF 2017?

Most rooms are overloaded with bass. Much 'hi-resolution' gear has such a sharp, cutting transient delivery and decay that it never produces anything that sounds like real music.  Many people sit in rooms scratching their heads wondering why anything that sounds like this can command such a price. But hey, you knew this already right? Oh, and the music is still very predictable, lending some weight to the argument that for audiophiles, it really is more about the gear.

Rather than do a day by day, let me try to convey some general observations and specific experiences.

Focal were everywhere. I gave up counting after hearing them in at least 4 rooms but there were surely more. The value of this is it reinforces the vital importance of rooms, set-up and parterning equipment. And time. The speakers sounded good in the Krell room of local dealer Listen Up, but sounded harsh and tizzy in two other rooms. On the first day I thought them boomy in the PS Audio room powered by the great BHK300 monos but this had smoothed out over the course of the weekend and on some music, particularly piano recordings, they could sound great.  Focal's own main display might have had Anne Bisson sitting outside it most of the time but inside it resembled a bad dealership on a busy afternoon with lots of display items but no chance of hearing anything meaningful. So if you ask me about how good Focal can sound, I have to say they run the gamut from great to ear killing.

And speaking of Gamut -- wow, a $100k+ pair of magnificent speakers that visually dominated the space but managed to make sweet music on two occasions I visited - the highlight being their open party on Sat evening when 4 or 5 of us were treated to a master tape R2R play through of Floyd's Wish You Were Here that reached such thunderous levels that they were asked to turn the music down by the hotel. Bass notes from these monsters actually set up enough air disturbance to flutter nearby candles. Add in the coolest room hosts -those Danes know how to have a good time -- and it was a pleasant space.  The Zodiacs are made in small numbers, and this pair is heading off to TAS and another reviewer after that. Expect raves just because they've made it this far. But yeah, they actually sounded good.

And because I really do like to hear what super expensive stuff sounds like, I get to hear the $50k Raidho flootstanders (very nice sounding, and even better looking), the top of the range Martin Logans powered by mega AR tube amps (sometimes great, sometimes a bit rougher depending on what was being played, but generally impressive) and the largest Wilson Benesch speakers I'd seen, which proved to be a little disappointing on the two occasions I entered the room. Nothing really wrong but generally nothing that spoke to me either.

More to come -- just dumping some notes now. I will get around to a talk by Paul Barton, a chance to hear those tall Carver speakers in action, the ML Renaissance 13 and 15s, and a couple of interactions with the Tekton speakers. Turntables were plentiful and in use, with some great sounds emanating from some lower level products in odd partnerships with much more expensive speakers. Hard to summarize it all quickly.....stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

New review out, more music in, and off to RMAF

It's been a while coming, but my review of the PS Audio BHK 300 monos is now live at the 'Zine. Have to say, they're the best I've heard in my own rig, and this in a period when I've had some top amps to hand.  Next up, a pair of JWM speakers which have been impressive in my room, plus I've had some new music coming in, not least the new Waterboys triple LP, Gretchen Mann now on CD (better!) and more, but am heading to Denver for RMAF later this week so my plate is full. I try to give a bit of a running commentary on RMAF as I go but no promises.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Blind test results on MQA?

I've been trying to make sense of the MQA development but have yet to hear for myself what's really on offer here. Clearly the early press enthusiasm captured attention but most reports are from people who don't get a really good chance to hear the same recording in competing formats. Yes, there are arguments about the lossy nature which give one pause, though how ironic that the old 'your gear/ears are not sophisticated enough to hear the difference' argument is now reversed with a 'the listener's brain perceives the lossy as lossless' argument of MQA.

Leaving aside the concerns we all have with yet another format, the vague 'wrapper' language of Meridian, and the prospect of yet another push from record companies to buy the same old shit again (oh no, not another set of  the 'best-sounding' Beatles, pleeeeze!!!), I do wonder where this is all going.  A few dissenting voices are now finding their way into the mags (see e.g., Positive Feedback's Interview with Andreas  Koch) but for me, the most interesting piece so far comes from blogger Archimago who took it upon himself to run a blind test with volunteers around the globe. It's a three part article and you should read them all. Am sure the criticisms of method will come but the basic facts reveal that few people report hearing a positive difference of MQA over more standard high resolution files.

What's most interesting in the reported data set is that he didn't just ask people to pick a best sounding version, they were also asked to report how confident they were in their distinctions. I really welcome this as we know that while most of us can tell the difference between a boom box and a decent domestic stereo system blindly, it's less clear-cut for any two reasonably full-range set ups.  In general, Archimago reports that perceived differences were non-significant, and where people did report them, they typically said it was subtle.

Only a very small proportion of listeners (under 10%) reported the differences were easy to decipher. Fine says you, audiophiles are only a small proportion of listeners anyway. True that, but most of these respondents were audiophiles anyway. Further, of those few who claimed the differences were easy to hear, half of them seemed to prefer the non-MQA version!  Cue the attacks....