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Impressions:  My Audio Oasis! Awards for RMAF 2019, Part the Last

10-21-2019 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 105

David W. Robinson:  Self-Portrait, Variation 3, Happy Valley, OR, 2019

Wilson Audio & VTL

As usual of late, the Wilson Audio/VTL room did not disappoint…quite the contrary. The Wilson Audio Sasha DAW loudspeakers and their accompanying Wilson Watchdog Subwoofers, with an external crossover, were sounding quite full-range and authoritative, driven by the VTL S-400 Monoblocks. Shunyata, Roon, and dCS were also in this room. The Sasha's have really been catching my attention over the past year; I'm keeping an eye and ear on them in 2020. These Sasha's with the Watchdogs were knock-out, and Peter McGrath demoed them to me by switching them out, and then back into to the playback.

No doubt at all about the improvement that the Watchdogs brought to the mix. These are English Bull Mastiffs, not Poodles.

Peter McGrath next to the static display of the Wilson Chronosonic Loudspeakers…

…which are visually quite imposing…here in their white finish.

The pieces of the puzzle:

  • Wilson Audio Sasha DAW Reference Loudspeaker System, $37,900 per pair
  • Watchdog Passive Subwoofers (x2), $10,000 per unit
  • Watch Controller Stereo Crossover Controller, $4500
  • VTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference Linestage Preamplifier, $30,000
  • VTL S-400 Series II Reference 300 Watt Stereo Amplifiers, $37,500 each
  • dCS Vivaldi One, $79,998
  • Shunyata Audio and Power Cables and Power Conditioner, prices vary

Once again this year, Peter McGrath was kind enough to give me a personal demonstration of some of his exceptional PCM digital recordings from his archive. He showed me the difference between the standard PCM of, say, an 88.2kHz recording, and the MQA version of that same recording. Once again, as at AXPONA 2019, there is clearly an improvement in the sound in every example that Peter shared with me:  better imaging and soundstaging, improved details, and a somewhat more harmonic sound. It isn't DSD, especially Double or (especially) Quad DSD, but it does seem to ameliorate PCM files in some definite ways, bringing out more of their potential.

Overall, there could be no doubt about the quality of the sound in the Sasha DAW/Watchdog/VTL room. Full-range and very musical sound…stellar! In fact, I'd love to review the Sasha DAW with Watchdogs and crossover here at PF Central. Perhaps that will happen someday.

Meanwhile, out comes another Audio Oasis! Award.

Musical Surroundings/Clearaudio/Boulder/AMG/Soundings/Vienna Acoustics/REL

In the Musical Surroundings room:  A blizzard of Boulder electronics, with AMG Viella Forté 12 Turbo Engraved Turntable, on HRS racks, with cabling by Nordost

Well, what can I say? Garth Leerer and various associated companies have been putting together rooms that really go the distance in the audio arts. Especially over the past three years or so, I've been particularly impressed by the quality of the music (Garth's a great DJ!) and the synergy of the systems that he and associated companies have been putting together.

I was very interested to hear this generation of Boulder electronics, since I hadn't heard them in my listening room in a number of years. It sounded quite good here, with a pleasant touch of musicality and warmth. Clearly Boulder has continued to progress over the years.

This year it was the combination of AMG, Boulder, HRS, Nordost, Vienna Acoustics, and REL

I also liked the sound of the Vienna Acoustics/REL transducer combination, which seemed to integrate with a reasonable seamlessness. Very pleasant, this.

The cast:

  • Boulder 2108 Phono-Pre, $52,000
  • Boulder 2120 DAC, $65,000
  • Boulder 1110 Preamp, $21,000
  • Boulder 1160 Amplifier, $28,000
  • AMG Viella Forte 12 Turbo Engraved Turntable, $32,000
  • Clearaudio Jubilee Cartridge, $6000
  • Vienna Acoustics Liszt Speaker (Rosewood), $18,798
  • REL S/812 Subwoofers, $2899 each
  • HRS VXR equipment stands with MX3 platforms, price varies
  • Nordost QB8 Power Base Line Conditioner, $1599
  • Nordost Valhalla Cables, price varies


Garth Leerer in action!

Garth did a fine job of demonstrating the considerable strengths of the system in this room. Being a larger suite, there was plenty of space for the music to develop, and he discussed each record that he played. It was enjoyable to listen to his expositions on music and the equipment here. Besides which, anyone who plays the original French Harmonia Mundia LP of Michel Portal's brilliant album Turbulence stands tall in my book!


The AMG/Boulder/HRS stack:  handsome stuff

By the end of my (longer than usual) time here, there was no doubt in my mind that Garth and company deserved one of my Audio Oasis! Awards.

"So let it be written; so let it be done."

AGD Productions and Sigma Acoustics

The AGD Productions and Sigma Acoustics room was another one of the larger suites at RMAF 2019. Alberto Guerro and company put together an impressive display, with AGD's innovative glass-encased Gallium Nitride MOSFET-based GANTube designs and Sigma Acoustics massive MAAT Vector XAC loudspeakers filling the room.

There wasn't an equipment/price list for this space; this is the best I can do:

  • AGD Productions Vivace Monoblock Amplifier
  • AGD Productions The Audion Monoblock Amplifier
  • AGD Productions Andante Preamp/Phono Amp/DAC/Streamer
  • Sigma Acoustics MAAT Vector XAC Loudspeakers

Foreground, the AGD Vivace Monoblock Amplifier; background, The Audion Monoblock Amplifier

The overall sonic impression that I got from this presentation was of a full-range system that was quite comfortable in filling a larger area. Show conditions are always tricky, and a number of people were in and out of the room, but I came away impressed with the clarity and authority of the GANTube sound (The Audion @ 170W - Vivace @ 200W into 4 ohms) driving the high-efficiency (100dB/watt/meter, 8 ohms) MAAT XAC loudspeakers.

Very good; very different. I think that the Gallium Nitride MOSFETs…in glass, no less!...are a promising development in amplification. I salute Alberto Guerro for his innovative approach in designing and implementing such new components into his amps. And they do sound great.

An Audio Oasis! Award is in order here.


Anthem, Paradigm Electronics, Clarus Cables, & Wolf Audio Systems

Joe Parvey's Wolf Audio Systems room was a destination that I was planning to visit before I arrived at RMAF 2019. Joe and I have been talking since last year about the information and technology involved in his ambitious digital designs, and I was particularly interested in hearing his Alpha 3SX Music Server, with its support for all the way out to DSD1024(!) This is quite an accomplishment in itself…DSD1024 is just beginning to emerge at the source end, with companies like NativeDSD.com giving it its first push as part of its DSD512 initiative. (Go to NativeDSD.com for details.)

While I don't have a complete room equipment list with prices, here are the parts that I have in my notes:

  • Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3SX Music Server
  • Anthem STR electronics
  • Paradigm Persona 7F loudspeakers and subwoofer
  • Clarus cables
  • Torus Power isolation power transformers

Joe Parvey with his Alpha 3SX Music Server

The sound in this room was musical, well-balanced, and nicely detailed. "Three Little Bears" sonics:  not too hot, not too cold…just right! The Anthem STR electronics were unfamiliar to me, as were the Paradigm speaker system and the Clarus cables, but they did make beautiful music together. Joe had some excellent higher resolution DSD sample recordings, as well as a lot of PCM available, and the results were refreshing.

So…definitely an Audio Oasis! Award room here.

Nola Speakers, Valve Amplification Company, & Nordost

In the Nola/VAC/Nordost room…imposing!

I got an opportunity to visit the Nola/VAC/Nordost room and visit with the host, Carl Marchisotto. As usual, Carl was very welcoming and kind, and showed me his Concert Grand Reference Gold 2 speakers in their system.

The cast:

  • Nola Concert Grand Reference Gold 2 Loudspeakers, $250,000
  • VAC Statement 450S IQ Amplifier, $63,000
  • VAC Master Line Stage Preamplifier, $28,000
  • VAC DAC Mk II DAC, $12,000
  • Audio Research Corporation Ref CD8 Transport, $10,000
  • Nordost Odin 2 cables, price varies

The VAC Master Line Stage Preamplifier

Kevin Hayes' ongoing product development at Valve Amplification Company (VAC) has been floating my boat at audio shows for a very long time now. His designs always seem to be on my list of "rooms with VAC are always killer!" That's why I make special efforts to catch VAC-equipped spaces at audio events…I know that I won't be disappointed.

A look behind the open-baffle design of the upper section of the Nola Concert Grand Reference Gold 2 Loudspeaker

The Nola loudspeakers definitely caught my attention. A combination of midrange-tweeter baffleless with enclosed lower drivers, they seemed to meld an open, airy spaciousness with a very solid bass section that had plenty of authority. Driven by the VAC tubes, the results were very fine indeed. I would have liked to have heard DSD and LPs on this system; I'm sure that the results would have been terrific.

Carl Marchisotto:  a portrait

So:  overall, I was quite taken with the sonics in the Nola/VAC/Nordost room. This should be no surprise:  VAC is always stellar, and the Nordost cables are well known to me over years of shows now. But the Nola Concert Grand Reference Gold 2 was new to me. This combination of gear worked and played very well together, producing an authoritative and musical result that made it easy to connect emotionally with the music that Carl played. Carl is doing excellent work in this design…plaudits to him!

Expensive, yes.

But also quite brilliant, and a very relaxing effect on yours truly.

An Audio Oasis! Award is definitely in order here.

PS Audio & VPI

In the PS Audio suite on the main floor of RMAF 2019

PS Audio was demonstrating their latest generation of designs, including sources, amplification, power conditioning, and their new AN3 Loudspeakers. Analog was provided by the VPI HW-40 turntable, a very nice choice.

The ensemble:

  • Mac Mini (digital)
  • PS Audio DirectStream DAC, $5999
  • BHK Signature Preamp, $5999
  • Stellar Phono Preamp, $2499
  • BHK Signature 300 Monoblock Amplifiers, $7499 each
  • PS Audio P20 PowerPlants (x2), $9999 each
  • PS Audio P15 PowerPlant, $7499
  • VPI HW-40 Turntable, $14,999
  • PS Audio AN3 Loudspeakers, price to be determined
  • PS Audio AC Series Power Cables, price varies

The very attractive AN3 Loudspeaker

The stack in the rack

Having made the business decision to shift from a dealer network to factory-direct sales, at the very time that they will be producing a loudspeaker (the logistics of shipping loudspeakers can be pretty daunting), I was curious to hear what an all-PS Audio system (plus VPI) would sound like.

As always, the DirectStream sounded superb with digital sources. Ted Smith does such fine work with that component, and keeps its firmware updated with any advances that will improve the listening experience. The results are always smooth, properly detailed, and quite musical. Bascom King's Signature preamp and monoblocks were effortless in making the AN3's pay attention to the signal…no surprise there.

My final thoughts about the PS Audio room is that Paul McGowan and company have an extremely promising system, one that sounds highly synergistic and make music all day long. I couldn't really find anything here that was not to like. Given the meticulousness and care given to product development at PS Audio, this is what I would expect.

The good news is that what I would have expected is what I got.

Assuming that the new sales and distribution model works well for PS Audio, and postulating that the price of the AN3 comes in at an attractive level, I'll predict that the upcoming year for them will be quite successful.

Meanwhile, one of my Audio Oasis! Awards is in order.


High End by Oz, Vitus Audio, United Home Audio, & Audio Solutions

The Oz/Vitus/AudioSolutions/UHA room at RMAF 2019 was in one of the large suites on the main floor. Larger rooms represent their own set of sonic challenges…always…and can be the devil to whip into shape. But when you get it there, the rewards can be quite significant. And normally a room with UHA in it is quite rewarding.

But I have to admit it:  this was one of those rooms that just wasn't there on Friday afternoon. It happens; quite often the slam and bam of putting together a system under real pressure and then tweaking it, working out the bugs, and getting the whole thing warmed up enough to really start to bloom before the show ends is a real challenge. I know Greg's UHA tape decks very well, and respect the heck out of them, and he had some glorious tapes with him, as usual.

But it just didn't draw me in…which surprised me, actually.

The United Home Audio Ultima4 OPS-DC Tape Deck

I told him so, too. Greg and I have known each other for quite a while now, share a common passion for RTR tape, and we can be honest with each other. He conceded that the room was still shaping up, and invited me to come back on Sunday afternoon for a return take, which was what I was planning to do anyway.

Greg Beron, a portrait

So, I put it on my list for Sunday.

The orchestra:

  • United Home Audio Ultima4 OPS-DC Tape Deck, $30,000
  • Vitus Audio SCD-025MK II CD Player/DAC, $25,200
  • Vitus Audio SIA-030 Integrated Amplifier, $40,000
  • AudioSolutions Virtuoso M Loudspeakers, $32,000
  • Ansuz Acoustics Speakz A2 Speaker Cable, 3 meters, $5670
  • Ansuz Acoustics Signalz A2 XLR Interconnects, 2 meters, $4500
  • Ansuz Acoustics Mainz A2 Power Cord, 2 meters, $3150
  • Ansuz Acoustics Mainz8 A2 Power Distributor, $4500

The quite lovely AudioSolutions Virtuoso M Loudspeaker

The very good news was that by Sunday afternoon, this room had leaped ahead in its feel and sonic presentation. I'm going to assume that the Vitus Audio electronics really needed some time to hit the bloom button, and that perhaps the Virtuoso M Loudspeakers and cables needed a workout to even begin to hit their stride. The M's were new to me, but I got the impression that their stated 25Hz - 30kHz frequency response was coming into play. Good foundation; nice extension; balanced midrange.

Whatever it was, this place was now in the zone, and the UHA RTR recorder and Greg's great tapes were really sounding choice! This was what I had been expecting on Friday; the wait until Sunday led to the musical payoff, in spades.

Hans-Ole Vitus, Greg Beron, and Ozan Turan:  a portrait

I got a chance to meet Hans-Ole Vitus of Vitus Audio, and Ozan Turan of High End by Oz before I left. These are two great fellows (not everyone in high-end audio is, you see), who were a pleasure to talk with. Together with Greg, they are obviously motivated by passion for the possibilities of fine audio, and following their own paths to contribute to that larger cause. Good folks; excellent results here, at last.

There was no doubt (on Sunday!) that one of my Audio Oasis! Awards was merited here.

And so given.

All photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson, except the cover of the Michel Portal LP.