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Sixth Annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
The sixth annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was held, as usual, at the Marriott Tech Center in Denver. This sixth iteration was just as much fun as the previous five. The Denver weather was warm and sunny which was good since on Saturday the power in the Marriott hotel and the neighboring buildings went out at the same time as smoke from the Marriott's kitchen set off a smoke detector. Needless to say we all got to spend a few minutes waiting outside in the sun while the firemen determined that there was no fire. According to one of the firemen the power outage was caused by a tripped breaker in the underground electrical conduits that serve the area. Usually power outages at audio shows are caused by tripped circuit breakers because some gargantuan amp is drawing too much current. This is the first time that I can recall an audio show shutting down an entire block.
This year's show was a little smaller than last year. The economy had taken its toll as there did not seem to be as many exhibitors this year. Also the corridors did not seem as crowded. The Sunday crowd seemed particularly sparse but that happens every time there is an important Denver Bronco game in town. Despite the thinner crowds, most of the vendors that I talked to were very happy with the number and/or quality of people that visited their room. All of the vendors said that they would be back next year assuming the economy doesn't tank.
Listed below, in alphabetic order, are the rooms that I thought were interesting and/or had excellent sound. While I tried to get to every room, I did not achieve that goal. Some rooms were too crowded every time I stopped by. Other rooms wouldn't let me play my own CDs. And some rooms just played their music to darn LOUD so I didn't even want to venture in. I did compare notes with friends to see if there were any rooms that I had missed that I should visit. For listening I used a CD that I had compiled from various CDs that I have used at CES and previous RMAF shows.
Affirm Audio/Ayon/Clarity Cable
Affirm Audio (formerly Maxxhorn Audio) was demoing their latest version of the Maxxhorn speaker, the Elation ($9950). Electronics were the Ayon CD-2 CD player ($5500) and the Ayon Spirit 2 amplifier ($4200). Cabling and line conditioning were by Clarity Audio. I have found it very educational to watch the evolution of the Maxxhorn speakers over the last few years. While the basic design has remained the same, a single full range driver with downward firing woofer for bass, each year the speaker has been different, sometimes radically so. Last year's version of the Maxxhorn utilized a very expensive Feastrix driver which pushed the price of the speaker well beyond the affordable range. In an attempt to bring the price of the speaker into a price range more in tune with the current economic situation Affirm Audio switched to an OEM driver designed by Mark Finlon. The new driver, while different from the Feastrix driver, does sound very good. To my ears, at its current price point, the latest iteration of the Maxxhorn is competitive with other speakers in its price range.
Artemis Labs/Schroeder Tonearms
The Artemis Lab/Schroeder room was an analog only room. The electronics were all Artemis Labs - LA-1 preamp ($3500), Phono Stage ($3500), and ST1 amp ($18,000). The sources were two of the new Frank Schroeder designed turntables. One turntable was a standard SA1 ($8000) with a prototype of the Schroeder designed gimbaled tonearm. The cartridge was an Artemis Soundsmith cartridge. The other turntable was the SA1S, which is the wider version of the SA1 designed to accommodate 10-12" arms. The SA1S had a Schroeder Reference tonearm and a Miyajima Shilabe ($2800) cartridge. Frank Schroeder was kind enough to play the same LP on both tables so that an A-B-A comparison could be done. It would have been nice to have done the A-B-A comparison with tonearms that had identical cartridges. However, that was not possible. What the A-B-A comparisons did was to show that there were audible differences between the two cartridge/tonearm combinations. No surprise there. The differences were not dramatic. Both combinations sounded very similar in tone, dynamics, and texture. Which sound you preferred would probably come down to personal preference. So how good is the new gimbaled arm versus the Reference arm? We will have to wait until the production version of the gimbaled arm is released, hopefully, by CES, to find out. But so far, things sound promising.
DeHavilland Electric/Wilson Benesch
The deHavilland room was in one of the regular hotel rooms this year, having been in one of the smaller ballrooms in previous years. This year the sound was quite good. The source used was an Esoteric X-03SE ($8250). Electronics were the deHavilland Model 50A-Triode Interstage Amplifiers ($9,995 per pair) and the deHavilland Mercury III Remote Line Preamplifier. Speakers were the Wilson Benesch Curves ($9950). Cabling by Kubala-Sosna. A very musical system.
The E.A.R./Marten Designs room was demoing the Marten Design Bird speakers ($30,000). The source was an E.A.R. Acute CD Player ($5,500) with E.A.R. 912 preamp ($11,000 with phono), and E.A.R. 890 amplifier ($7300). Cabling and powercords by Jorma Design. The Birds are third from the top in the Marten Designs speaker line-up. Only the Coltrane and Coltrane Supreme rank above it. Being only 46 inches tall, the Bird fit very nicely into the small hotel room. Despite the lack of any room treatment the sound was very nice. I listened to the entire Beethoven Choral Fantasy (Julius Katchen, Decca, ASIN: B00006GE73). It was a wonderful listening experience.
Galibier Design/Atma-Sphere/Classic Audio Reproductions
Using the large hotel suite they have used in prior years Galibier Design was demoing their Gavia Turntable with Stelvio platter ($10,500). The arms used were the Triplanar MkVII and the new Durand Talea Tonearm. Cartridges were the Dynavector XV-1s ($4,500), ZYX UNIverse ($4250), and Artisan Cadenza ($2150). On the first day the amplification was from the Quicksilver Triode Monoblocks ($3595). However, the Quicksilvers were later replaced with the Atma-Sphere M60 3.1 amps ($5350) which seemed a better match for the Classic Audio Reproductions T-3 Field Coil Speakers. The sound in the room was very nice. The Durand Talea tonearm, which is almost ready for production, sounded very promising. The price of the arm has not been established as they are still getting bids for parts. It will probably sell in the $5000 - $6000 range.
Merlin Music/Joule Electra/Cardas
The Merlin/Joule/Cardas room featured the Merlin VSM-MXe speakers ($11,500). The electronics included the Joule OTL VZN-100 Mark IV amps ($18,000) and the Marianne Electra Memorial Preamplifier ($11,000). The preamp uses the same topology as the LA-150 preamp but uses cost-no-object parts. Cabling was Cardas' new top of the line Clear cables. The Clear speaker cables come in two versions, Clear and the more expensive Clear Beyond. The lower priced Clear speaker cables were being used. The equipment in the room was the same as I had heard at CES 2009. The only real change was in the capacitors used in the RC network and in the BAM (bass augmentation module aka equalizer). Merlin is now using Dueland copper-foil capacitors. During my several visits to the Merlin room I played and replayed the same CD tracks that I had played on this equipment at CES 2009, RMAF 2008 and in my home when I reviewed the speakers last year. To my ears the sound of this current system was the best that I have heard it sound and it was also the best sound that I heard at RMAF 2009. The improvement in sound from CES 2009 to RMAF 2009 was not dramatic, but it was audible. The sound was more relaxed, more natural, more open. The Dueland capacitors are significantly more expensive than the capacitors that were previously used. However, they apparently are worth the price if you are seeking top-notch reproduction. If you own Merlin speakers I would give Bobby at Merlin a call and talk about upgrading your capacitors.
Monarchy Audio/Lenehan Audio
I have always been impressed with the quality of sound versus the dollar spent whenever I have heard Monarchy Audio products. This year was no exception. Except for the stock Samsung CD player that served as the transport all of the electronics were Monarchy: NM24Tube DAC and Line Stage ($1590), DIP Combo UpSampler ($399), and SE100 Delux MK2 mono block amps ($2358 for pair). The speakers were the ML1 mini-monitors from Lenehan Audio of Australia ($2365). For a $7000 system (plus cabling and powercords) the sound was detailed, natural, and emotionally satisfying. If I had a small listening room or if I wanted to set up a second system this Monarchy/Lenehan system would definitely be on my short list.
The Lotus Group
The Lotus Group was using one of the large hotel suites. The equipment in the room consisted of The Lotus Group UB II speakers ($115,000), Pass Labs XA 30.5 amplifiers ($11,000 for pair), Lamm Industries LL2.1 Line Stage ($5990), PranaWire cabling, and Acoustic Revive room treatments. The speaker is a prototype utilizing the $52,000 Feastrex Type II Field Coil Driver. Total retail price of everything in the room was $254,595. At last year's RMAF, the previous version of these speakers, which contained only the Feastrex driver, could not play with any authority the Rammstein tracks on my test CD. This year's speakers had two large woofers per side. There were problems with the room overloading, however, so one woofer on each speaker had been disconnected. There were also problems with the digital crossover. Thus, the speakers were a work in progress. Despite the speakers being only 70% complete (per Joe Cohen of The Lotus Group) the sound was intriguing. I have heard a number of $200,000+ systems at CES. Usually the sound has been very HiFi-ish. With this system the tracks on my test CD of orchestral, blues and guitar music sounded very natural and quite enjoyable. I played one track of Rammstein which this time had the proper bite and slam. I was asked to come back to the room later to play all three of my Rammstein tracks for a gentleman who wanted his wife to hear Rammstein. When I returned I played all three tracks at a high enough volume that one of the posters stuck to the front wall came loose due to the vibration of the walls. As usual, the first few bars of Rammstein drove all the listeners out of the room. Then a whole new flock of people arrived and started head-banging. After the three tracks were finished and we could communicate with one another again one of the new listeners commented “At last I get to hear some real music!” One of the exhibitors in the room commented that he had never seen that many people in the room before. PS: the wife really liked Rammstein.
TW-Acustic/Tron/Horning had two adjacent rooms. The rooms were essentially all analog. I was able to hear the same LP played in both rooms. I preferred the sound in the room with the TW-Acustic Black Knight turntable ($40,000), Graham Phantom arm ($4,700), Dynavector XV-1st cartridge ($6000), Tron Syren Reference Preamp ($22,000), Tron Telstar 211 Amplifier ($28,000), and Horning Eufrodite speakers ($18,000). A very nice sound, totally relaxed and natural.