RMAF 2011 Coverage

October 24, 2011

The thing that stuck me most about the show was that, while there were probably more exhibitors than ever before, and they were full of enthusiasm for their products, there were few crowds at the elevators, or in the halls or rooms. I sensed no pulse of excitement or buzz. It seemed to me that, in general, the attendees were there for the singular purpose of seeing and listening to components and loudspeakers which were unavailable for audition anywhere else, so that they could draw up a short list of products to either aspire to or purchase. Many were taking notes. In other words, it appeared that the attendees were approaching the show in a business-like rather than serendipitous manner. They had a job to do and methodically set about doing it. Music was requested to be played, and then analyzed, matter of factly.

Exactly how the attendees are going to purchase the products they select when they return home is an interesting conundrum. The future of the high-end depends on its solution. I suspect that many of them will simply contact the manufacturer directly to purchase what they have decided on, or to obtain a referral to a dealer somewhere within easy shipping distance. I think many of the manufacturers who are not already doing so will be selling to purchasers directly, and those that stick with the dealer network model will be sanctioning out-of-market sales; in other words, contractual territorial restrictions will be defined in terms of regions rather than miles. From my experience, this has already begun to occur, and will only become more prevalent. I also expect to see many more manufacturers selling their products through internet dealers like AudioAdvisor, MusicDirect, NeedleDoctor and others, where they can maintain control over pricing, which is of course critical to maintaining a dealer network as well.

While there were no loudspeakers that blew my socks off, several were noteworthy. The Evolution Acoustics MMMicroOnes are a bargain. While obviously lacking in the low end, they more than make up for it with a smooth midrange and treble. The ribbon tweeter was not excessively bright as is sometimes the case. Vertical dispersion appears to have been addressed. The speakers were on stands considerably above seated ear level, yet I detected no shift in treble emphasis when sitting or standing. It could also be that they sounded so good because, at least when I was in the room, the source was reel-to-reel tape. That the integrated amplifier powering them was from darTZeel almost certainly was a positive factor.

The active Gradient 5.1s were one of the few speakers that completely disappeared, while at the same time throwing a wide and deep soundstage. Obvious care had been taken in setting them up, but the room was bereft of acoustic treatments, making their performance even more remarkable. I don’t think these speakers get the attention they deserve.

The Lansche No. 5.1 loudspeakers were well balanced, and with their plasma tweeter had a crystal clear high end that was not too hot. The electronics were all Ypsilon with a Bergmann Magne turntable. Although the 5.1s were a new model, I have heard other Lansche speakers on several occasions, and they never fail to impress.

The Magico Q1s are exceptional speakers, and not just for their size. The bass went much lower than I expected and was well defined, but the silky smooth treble was what really grabbed my attention. Yet the detail was all there. They were neither laid back nor in your face; they were simply extremely well balanced. I think I could live happily with the Q1s in my small listening room for a long time. Although a reel-to-reel deck was available, the source during my audition was Redbook CD. The electronics were from BALabo.

I could not get over the sound of the $699 Silverline Minuet Supremes paired with Conrad-Johnson electronics. These loudspeakers have to be added to any entry-level system short-list. And I don’t think their exemplary performance is dependent on tubes.

The TAD Compact Monitors sounded virtually faultless in an all TAD environment. I am glad to see that both TAD’s electronic and loudspeaker technologies are trickling down into more affordable (but still expensive) components and speakers. Sony needs to follow TAD’s lead and develop a line of high-end components to compliment its sensational SS-AR1 loudspeakers – and market them under a different moniker.

I think it is extremely difficult to say that this front-end component, that amplifier, or those cables sounded good, better or best in the context of a show. Each room had a specific system comprised of a many different components, cables and loudspeakers. No two were the same. How one can say, for example, that such and such preamplifier sounded great without comparing it to something else in the same system, baffles me. It is why reviewers have reference systems; at least they are supposed to. Nevertheless, there were a few components beyond the obvious candidates that caught my attention and bear further investigation:

Ayre QA-9 analog to digital converter
BSG Technologies phase recovery processor
Empirical Audio Ultra DAC
Exemplar Audio phonostage, linestage and power amplifiers
Fosgate headphone amplifier
Hanss T-60 turntable
Holborne Analog 2 turntable
Parasound CD-1 player
Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC
Stahl-Tek Opus CD transport and DAC
Sutherland Reference phonostage, linestage and power amplifiers
Van Alstine FET DAC, preamplfier and power amplifier
Vitus RS RI-100 integrated amplifier and RCD-100 CD player
Wavelength Audio Neutron A/D-D/A converter
Zesto Andros PS1 phonostage

The Tidal Piano Ceras, the least expensive model in their line, sounded sublime. I love the presentation of all of Tidal’s loudspeakers. There is a real sense of naturalness and ease found in few other speakers. They were played back with a dCS front end and Tidal preamplifier and power amplifier. I could have spent a couple of hours in that room just listening to music.

The Wilson Sashas were disappointing in two rooms, unexceptional in a third, and finally reached their potential in a fourth. I was surprised. I have been very impressed with the Sashas at previous shows and at my local dealer. They can be a lovely sounding speaker. The issue was edginess in the treble. I could be wrong, but I think the problem lay in their setup, specifically the lack of room treatments at the first reflection points, and perhaps compensatory excessive toe-in to achieve a well-defined central image. My experience at the show also indicates that selection of system components (including cables), and particularly setup, is especially critical with the Sashas.

The full range of YG Acoustics speakers – Carmel, Kipod II Signature and Anat III Pro Signature – sounded excellent in all rooms, whether treated or untreated, and regardless of associated components. Like the Magico, they are doing something very special in the upper midrange and treble. I believe that it is due not only to their new driver construction technology, but also to the changes they made in the Signature level crossover.

Zellaton, a speaker I was completely unfamiliar with, coupled with BMC components, made a very positive impression on me. Like the Tidal, it was a very natural sounding speaker, though on a smaller scale, imaging was good without being pin-point, and the sound stage extended well beyond the speakers positions. I think we will be hearing more about them in the future.

Now let’s take a photographic tour of the show.

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