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This was my first appearance at the much-heralded Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I must say that it lived up to the hype. There was more excellent sound at RMAF 2009 than I have heard at any show. In fact, I came away from this event optimistic that we may be entering a new golden age in sound quality - but not value. Prior to my departure to RMAF, Srajan suggested that I might want to focus my report on just what interested me rather than try and cover every room. Indeed, covering every room is a formidable task. And to be sure, many rooms did not get a fair shake from me. To those exhibitors, my apologies. If I walked into a room and it didn’t grab me within a minute or two, I left for the next. With this method, I was sure to miss some good-sounding rooms that just happened to be playing a bad recording or that didn’t quite have their act together yet. I know that some rooms improved their sound radically between Friday and Sunday.

My posse consisted of Arthur Loesch, Tempo Electric designer, and Roger Swiatek, salesman at Music Direct. We started in the lobby level rooms. I brought two CDs for test material, Damien Rice’s 2003 release O and cut one Way Back Home from a demo CD by a North Carolina jam band lead by Ian Schumacher. Eskimo on Damien Rice reaches a densely orchestrated crescendo with a soprano opera soloist overlaid. While the bass is somewhat overblown, many systems just come apart on this crescendo and spill into harshness. It’s funny that in talking to Bill Allen of Baul Audio after the show, he admitted to hating it when people bring CDs like this into his demo room. I can understand why. The Ian Schumacher has a guitar solo which makes a good substitute for the overplayed Stevie Ray Vaughan Tin Pan Alley. It has an energy that tests the midrange dynamics of a system and whether the system can flat-out rock. Arthur brought a wonderful Louis Armstrong with his All-Stars Live, Paris Jazz Concert [Malaco Jazz 1206]. We used Yellow Dog Blues and When the Saints Go Marching In. He also provided a CD we used sparingly, John Coltrane's Settin’ the Pace [Prestige 30646].

In the Esoteric room, their $7800/pair MG-20 speakers were being demonstrated with the Esoteric A-100 tri-stage tube amp, the new A-03 class A transistor amp presently with Frederic for review, the C-03 line stage, G-03X clock, X-05 CD/SACD player and DV-60 universal player.

The system impressed all three of us with a huge yet well-organized soundstage and pleasant musical balance. It also had great clarity and speed. Apparently some have criticized this speaker for its lack of bass but I found the bass to be of excellent quality and sufficient balance, reportedly extending to about 50Hz. 

Arthur played I See You Face Before Me from the Coltrane CD. It contains a cello solo that was rendered with outstanding clarity and timbre. We were told that the speaker cones were made by Toshiba of Japan from pure Magnesium which is coated with ceramic on either side of the membrane.

Tannoy was contracted to build the cabinets and crossovers. These also are very handsome speakers that should have a high wife appeal.

Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports had a large room to demo the visually stunning $68,200/pr Acapella High Violin IV from Germany.  Electronics included Einstein's The Source tube CD player, The Tube Mk.II tube preamp and The Final Cut MK60 OTL tube mono amps. 

From what I can tell from their hand-out sheet, the ion tweeters were powered by Isoclean products and cabling was by Stage III. This system played my Damien Rice cut with ease, completely filling the room on the crescendo and fleshing out the soprano with absolutely no sense of strain. 

We played Arthur’s Louis Armstrong CD here and it was fabulous. Although it was only Friday, we marked this room as a definite contender for our best sound of the show.

The recently reviewed YG Acoustics Anat Reference II loudspeakers ($107,000/pr) were in the next room sponsored by Audio Limits. Associated equipment was the Weiss Jason transport ($19,600), Weiss Medea DAC ($16,200), Blacknote DSS-30 ($4500), Aural Acoustics Cables, HRS SXR rack ($10,000), FM Acoustics 811 MK2 amplifier ($128,800) and FM Acoustics 245 preamp ($23,200). Yikes! Along with many others, I found the sound here to be a mixed bag at best. While the excellent resolution and dynamics of the system were evident, the tonal balance was off. The imaging was not my cup of tea either. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet was playing about three feet from the tall ceiling. Below the mid/tweeter module, the image was sucked out, then filled in again near the floor. It was bizarre and unsettling. The scuttlebutt was about bad room interactions but I can’t say I liked the speakers a whole lot better in the GTT Audio & Video room where they were demoed with Swiss Soulution electronics.

I spent quite a bit of time in one of Jeffrey Catalano’s Highwater Sound rooms due to the fact that I own a Tron 211 SET amp and am currently reviewing the Tron Seven line stage. Highwater had two rooms side by side. One had the higher end system with the top-of-the-line TW-Acustic Black Night turntable, Tron Syren preamp, Tron Telstar 211 SET amp and Hørning Euphrodite loudspeakers. 

I was more interested in Jeffrey’s other room where the somewhat more affordable Hørning Aristotle Zigma Ultimate speakers were driven by the Tron Discovery 300B SET amp, Tron Seven line and phono stages and one of several TW-Acustic turntables.

These speakers have a unique rear mounting of the four woofers firing into the back of the cabinet into what Jeffrey describes as a cross between a transmission line and back-loaded horn. Yet a portion of the open backs of the cones fire into the rear of the room as well to provide dipole ambience. The midrange is the Lowther DX55 also rear-loaded into the same TL/rear horn. The tweeter is front-horn loaded and made by Hørning. On our first visit to the room, Jeffrey was playing the Miyabe standard cartridge on the lower model TW-Acustic Raven turntable. The sound was crystalline and refined except for considerable muddiness in the bass. When I went back on Sunday and spent an hour in the room, Jeffrey had the Raven AC turntable playing with the Graham Phantom arm and the Ortofon A90 cartridge. The bass boom was gone but so was the richness and airiness of the Miyabe cartridge. Jeffrey explained later on the phone that much of the equipment (speakers, Tron line and phono stages, Ortofon A90 cartridge) had been brand new and needed break-in. He'd taken delivery of them just prior the show. While he made good strides in improving the sound into Sunday playing a burn-in disc every night all night, I think with more time the system would open up a lot more and be really special. All in all, I enjoyed my time in this room very much not just due to the good sound but also because Jeffrey plays interesting music that shuns the politically correct show repertoire. His enthusiasm and taste are attractions by themselves.

Electrocompaniet Inc. made a triumphant return to the U.S. with their $30,000/pr Nordic Tone Reference loudspeakers powered of course by Electrocompaniet electronics. The speaker is a thoroughly engineered product with drivers from SEAS and Scan Speak mounted in a sand-cast aluminum cabinet. The aluminum is “formed in thin curved surfaces that are extremely stiff. Internally, the walls are covered with vibration damping layers. The cabinet sections are coupled together with viscoelastic adhesive and then pre-stressed with rods to 2500N.” The crossover utilizes Mundorf silver/gold alloy capacitors. Playing my Ian Schumacher CD in this system, the energy, presence and full-range performance was very satisfying and among the best I heard from this CD.

The next day we struck gold in the high peaks of the Marriot’s Mezzanine level. The sound quality in the Maroon Peak (Audio Unlimited) and Longs Peak (On a Higher Note) rooms was astonishing. In the Maroon Peak were the Focal Grande Utopia EM, Clearaudio Innovation Turntable, Benz Micro LPS cartridge, Aesthetix IO Eclipse phono pre, MBL DAC, pre, mono amps etc. Ray Brown's Soular Energy LP spun. This system’s reproduction of Gene Harris’ piano struck me as the most lifelike I have ever heard. This was an extraordinary system.

The distributor On a Higher Note showed the highly stylized $57,000/pr Vivid Audio Giya G1 speakers with Luxman Anniversary mono amps, Synergistic Research Galileo cables with active shielding—a whopping $40,000 for the speaker cables and $25,000 for the interconnects!—Acoustic Art resonator room treatments and the magnetic direct-drive/magnetic-bearing Brinkman Oasis turntable. While the speakers might have looked like overgrown elves, there was nothing comical about their sound.  The system filled the large room with a sound that was enveloping and warm yet had good focus and detail. Quite a feat! Halfway through one song, certain Acoustic Arts resonators were removed from their wall mounts (one is visible above on the post behind equipment rack) to have the listeners decide on their effect. I have to say that I heard a loss of harmonics, air around the instruments and soundstage bloom when they were removed.  Whether I could detect this in a blind test I don’t know. My listening notes said “superb… total ease with delicacy and coherence.”  A very impressive room indeed!

Kara Chaffee of the deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company demonstrated her relatively new KE 50A Signature monoblock amplifiers ($9,995 per pair) with her Ultraverve preamp, $9,950/pr Wilson Benesch Curve 2.5-way floorstanders and Kubala-Sosna Research cables. Musicality reigned supreme here with the speakers completely disappearing in an expansive soundstage. 

Kara took me up close to the amp to show me the clean fit and finish of the chassis. It is a handsome amp evoking much of the classic styling of the inspiration for this design, the vintage Fisher 50A.

Harman International had a tractor trailer parked in the parking lot and their room was filled with ultra high-end equipment from JBL, Sony, Levinson (a pair of 33H amps biamping the JBL speakers), a EMM Labs digital front end and Pass Labs amps on the Sonys. The sound from the $60,000/pr JBL Everest DD6600 horn was notably uncolored and natural though the bass was slightly wooly. There was a towel sticking out from the rear port to show an obvious attempt to address this.  It was mostly successful.

There were also a pair of Sony SS AR1 speakers which are not available for sale in the U.S. On piano music, they were quite pleasant but perhaps somewhat sweeter than reality. Halfway through my listening, I realized that they were playing four-channel sound and that there were JBL and Sony speakers on the rear sides too. A major feature of the recordings was the use of IsoMike technology. As explained by Ray Kimber, this technique utilizes a microphone support structure that prohibits sound from one side of the venue from reaching the microphone directed at the opposite side of the venue. This is supposed to result in a more realistic recording of the hall’s acoustic properties.

My best sound for the money rooms were by Grant Fidelity and the LSA Group. In the Grant Fidelity room, the $1,900/pr Shengya V-218 two-way 'wood-horn-loaded tweeter' speakers were driven by a $2,500 A-534B integrated 300B single-ended triode amp to very good effect.

My all-around favorite 'budget' system featured the LSA Group’s LSA1 Statement two-way speakers. I was pleasantly surprised that designer John Tucker had mated this speaker’s ribbon tweeter to the cone mid/bass driver better than I have heard before. Ribbon tweeters matched with dynamic cones usually bother me because they can have such different sonic signatures as to be distracting. I learned that a great deal of attention had been focused on overcoming this obviously shared objection. Playing my Damien Rice cut, the soundstage was enormous. The crescendo and difficult soprano solo were navigated with confidence and absolutely zero harshness. In the highs, this speaker was only bettered by the Acapella High Violin IV’s ion tweeter.

Sunday was a banner day for listening as an increasing number of rooms had gotten their act together. Notable among these was the room shared by Triode Corporation Limited electronics and Acoustic Zen's top-line Maestro speakers. According to a friend, they switched from the 200-watt mono amps to the new TRV-845SE single-ended 845 integrated on the final day and the synergy with the Maestro was much better. Tonal balance, dynamics, detail and soundstaging were all first rate. Visitors on the first two days apparently had a different impression.

Peter Laderman of Soundsmith seems to have a fully mature show presentation by now, producing spectacular sound from his strain gauge phono cartridge. I know that he has been refining the design gradually and it shows. What I find so involving about this cartridge is that the more complex the recording, the more it shows its mettle. It seems to thumb its nose at difficult passages. People are also amazed by the rich and satisfying sound he gets from his line of modestly sized two-way speakers. Well, Peter did work for Bozak for a spell.

Von Schweikert Audio teamed up with George Kaye, pairing their $15,000/pr Unifield 3 Signature Series speakers with the Moscode 402AU amplifier. When we walked in the room, an organ recording played and pitch definition through the entire bass range was clean and balanced up and down this frequency range. This was the best Von Schweikert speaker demo I have heard and as George rightly pointed out, his amp had a lot to do with it.

I will admit to a love/hate relationship with Lowthers. I keep checking into the variety of ways designers are trying to harness their incredible transparency while taming their less attractive sonic qualities, i.e. the infamous upper midrange peakiness. Hørning’s approach is to remove the troublesome whizzer cone tweeter altogether. Dave Slagle of Intact Audio is working with Lowther importer Jon Ver Halen on converting the PM5A driver from a permanent magnet to a field-coil motor with 15-ohm copper voice coils. The PM5A here was mounted to an open baffle with a Great Plains Audio/Altec 416B woofer crossed using a Nelson Pass FirstWatt B4 electronic network. A pair of new FirstWatt J2 amplifiers were doing biamp duties. The Pass Labs XP20 and XP15 provided line level/phono stage functions and the phono front end was an Artemis Labs turntable, Schroder Reference Tonearm and Artemis Labs phono cartridge.

I visited this room several times. The first time it had the permanent magnet PM5A playing Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale [Reference Recordings REF70]. My past complaint about speakers based on solo Lowthers was that they don’t do justice to large-scale orchestral works. With the woofers in place, this criticism was largely addressed. However, I I still heard some brittleness in the strings that had bothered me with Lowthers before. With the field-coil version there seemed to be greater presence and a livelier smoother sound. It was a clear and definite improvement across the board. On Sunday, they played a lacquer pressing of acoustic guitar that was truly outstanding. Of course, this is where Lowthers naturally excel.

Rethm’s approach to Lowthers is to try and tame the upper midrange peak by damping the whizzer cone and installing a phase plug to disperse these frequencies. I spoke with Darren Censullo of Avatar Acoustics about the latest Rethm design. He said that the upper midrange peak had been attenuated from about 6 to 2dB and that the Maarga will feature two isobarically loaded six-inch powered woofers (the demo version had only one woofer). [On a related note, the bigger Saadhana is rumored to be undergoing surgery to house three woofers in the future rather than the present two - Ed.]

Playing Hugh Masekela’s wonderful recording Stimela on the Feickert turntable, Hugh’s train whistle vocal hoot really exploded into the room with no sense of edge or strain. Very nice! I think this speaker design is finally coming into its own.

John Wolff of Classic Audio Loudspeakers had two rooms. I was most intrigued by the field-coil version of his three-way horn-loaded Project T1.3 with Atma-Sphere electronics, Kuzma Reference turntable, Tri-Planar arm and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge. I played the Damien Rice CD here and the vocal was clear and uncolored. Bass was great! When the going got tough in the crescendo, there was a little edginess but the overall presentation was surprisingly coherent with very lively dynamics.

Another room with excellent sound was Vandersteen with Audio Research electronics. Despite the fact that they were playing the tired demo LP cut of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Tin Pan Alley, I heard nothing to criticize here. Some might say that Vandersteen has left the value arena with his new $40,000/pr Model Seven but you do get a built-in 400-watt push-pull subwoofer, high-tech carbon fiber cabinet panels and patent-pending carbon fiber/balsa-wood sandwich composite for the mid/woofer, midrange and tweeter.

What I will call the most intriguing room at the show was by Intuitive Design. As our group was about to board the down elevator, a woman acting as hallway barker for Intuitive Design invited us to enter their room claiming to have some of the best sound at the show. I sarcastically replied “Oh, sure” but I did take the bait. 

Once inside, I asked to play my Ian Schumacher CD and was surprised by the excellent sonics. The speaker was their upgraded version of the $5,000/pr Summit two-way called the Gamma Summit ($10,000/pr, 89dB, nominal 4 ohms). The exhibitors explained that they had paid great attention to phase and time coherence in the speaker’s design. It showed. The music had a rightness that was disarming. 

They purposely ran modest electronics (Arcam transport, Exemplar DAC, Aesthetix Calypso line stage, Belles M200 monos) to not distract from their focus products, the Gamma Summit speakers, The Theorem AC conditioner ($5,000 to $7,000), Mosaic Xi speaker cable ($4,000) and Mosaic Gnu interconnects ($2,000). 

The speakers have granite cabinets and proprietary inductors, capacitors and resistors all of their own manufacture. The crossover is claimed to use carbon fiber nanotube arrays.  They also use carbon nanotube technology at the end of their cables. As explained, the technology was borrowed from an expired patent owned by General Dynamics for sonar technology. 

I looked over at my friend Arthur Loesch who is a retired Physics professor to check his bullshit detector but he asked a few questions and seemed satisfied with their answers. I ended up calling Intuitive Design after returning from the show to gain more insight into their company. 

I spoke to Dale Pitcher, director of engineering for the allied companies represented as Mosaic and Intuitive Design. He pointed out something I missed in the demo - their Theorem AC conditioner. He finished the demo model in the week just prior to RMAF. According to Dale, the Theorem was responsible for a large portion of their good sound. This conditioner has no capacitors or inductors yet is “packed” with parts to do the job. The top-of-the-line Theorem comes with AC outlet cables connected to the conditioner by very high-quality Fischer AC connectors. At the other end is a male IEC connector you plug into your component. In essence Dale then guarantees the AC supply quality right up to your component. Over time, Dale claims that the conditioner adapts and optimizes to the particular current needs of each component.  Don’t ask me how but my curiosity was definitely piqued.

It was quite a challenge to visit each room at the show and I did not succeed. Looking over the list of exhibitors, I realized that I missed some significant rooms by Lotus Group and Feastrex, Nola, Janszen, Analysis Audio, Merlin and Joseph Audio. Oh well! I also want to give a tip of the hat to Luke Manley who after twenty years still remembers me from my late 1980s' phone calls sharing my enthusiasm and getting help with my VTL 120 monos. Not to slight his room but I really didn’t have much time as I was in a hurry to meet someone.  I can say that what I heard with VTL electronics and Avalon Indra loudspeakers was worth a longer listen. 

• Best cost-no-object sound of show -  Aaudio Imports with Acapella, Einstein and Stage III
• Runners Up -  On A Higher Note with Vivid Audio, Luxman and Synergistic; Audio Unlimited with Focal, Clearaudio, Benz, Aesthetix and MBL; and Vandersteen with ARC
• Best affordable sound of show - LSA1 Statement monitor
• Most intriguing system - Intuitive Audio Gamma Summit with Belles
• Best debut product -  Electrocompaniet Nordic Tone speakers
• Best phono playback - a tie between Soundsmith and Audio Unlimited’s Clearaudio rig
• Most interesting music selections -  Jeffrey Catalano of NYC's Highwater Sound