RMAF day 2

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Another great day RMAF. It was crowded but never got log-jammed. I got a good listen at a number of rooms, I hope I can recall them all.

Zu Audio is interesting in that they are the Apple Computer of the audio world. They are different and people like them and they go their own way. I heard a couple of Zu rooms today, the main room was ok and I did not connect well with the music or environment. I got to the Red Wine room with Zu speakers early in the morning and the guy was grooving to some music all by himself. This was odd in that this guy was showing gear all yesterday and when most people would be burned out, he turns on the system and relaxes. For me, Zu is not the last word in detail or clarity or balance. I don’t think the sound stage was that good either. But whenever I am listening I really enjoy it. This is really what it is all about, right? Just enjoying music?

I made a second stop to the GR Research room. On the first stop they had some music playing that should never have entered the building. This time was a better experience and the person in charge let me turn the volume down to a reasonable level, always a good thing. I cannot tell you the number of rooms where the first words are “can you turn it down a little?” The name of the speakers are something like SuperBee. They look a lot like the Linkwitz Orion with open baffle but a quick check at the rear of the speaker and you can see this similarity is co-incidence as the designs are very different. Overall a very good sounding speaker. I wish I could have played my test tracks. They need to work on making the room more welcoming and encourage people to run their own tracks. But overall a good system.

The NAD room was cool because I got to hear their new high end digital amp. I wish I could repeat the technology description, something like a direct couple digital drive. The speakers were PSB. I am a real fan of the PSB alpha but these floor standers in the NAD room were not working for me. This is a disappointment as I really want to hear what the new NAD amp can do.

There was one room which shall remain nameless that had some small company hocking their new high end turntable. They were very excited about it and it was nice to see a young team so enthusiastic about the first product. Now I am not a big vinyl guy but I took time to hear them. So they put on a pleasant orchestra LP and about 30 seconds into it I hear a definite warble in the speed. At this point I am thinking it must be me, this simply would not happen on a high end TT. But I heard it again two or three more times. Something was amiss. I hope they discovered it and worked it out before the crowds arrived.

The McIntosh room is always a pleasure palace of audiophile lust. It was early and they let me play my test disk. Right off I found the image was way off and told the guy I thought the phase was off. He gave me the “yeah right” signal but then offered to do a quick check to appease “the customer”. Red-red, black-to-black, red-to-black WHAT!! He was all red faced as one speaker phase was reversed. He should have picked that up. Shows he is not paying attention to his own sound. Once that was resolved the whole system sounded great.

The Marantz room was good. They kept it simple and clean and it worked well. Not the last word in perfection here but good. I don’t recall the speakers.

Speaking of paying attention. If any company has the resources to build a great room it is Harmon. They get the fickled finger of fate award for outright failure. They have three rooms with equipment and all three sounded terrible. What a disappointment. Sitting in the Mark Levinson room was depressing. Come on guys, if 200 other small companies can sound good, you should be able to as well. And the worst part was that none of the reps in any of the rooms seemed to be aware of the sound quality. They show up and put all this expensive gear in the room and assume it will sound good. Ugh! Someone need to do a reality check on that team.

On the other hand, Jeff Joseph shows up by himself, sets up the right sized speakers for the room and smiles the whole time. Awesome speakers and probably the tightest and deepest bass I have ever heard from a 7” bookshelf. Overall a great listen.

I took a short trip into the Salk room and they were great. I have heard these before and liked them.

The Esoteric room was also a winner. Great sound from smallish speakers. I have not heard the TAD room yet as the room is hidden somewhere on the main level. I always like the TAD room because Andrew Jones has cool music and the speakers sound great.

I finally got a good listen in the Magico room. This is my third show where Magico has had a room and I had yet to get a decent listen. The speakers sounded great. But talking with Bob later about it he noted they were about the same level as the Wilson Sasha in sound. Maybe a different texture but in the same ultra high end range. So the Magicos are $68000 and the Sasha’s are $28000. Not a lot of thinking needed here. I would take the Wilsons. Maybe if I heard the Magicos for a longer time I would pull out the added value. This was, after all, a 30 minute session in a hotel room (don’t let that statement get out of context).

I heard the YG Accoustics in three rooms and all were a wreck. Don’t know why they had so much trouble but this was not their day. I know a lot of people consider them the top rung so I will give them another go at some other venue.

The Avalon room was fabulous as always.

I hit the Quad room twice. The first time I thought it pretty good. The second time it was not speaking to me. Not sure what was going on there but not the day for them.

When I walk into a room and see speakers with lots of drivers all over the front baffle, I prepare for the worst. A lot of people think they can plaster a bunch of drivers together and the more the merrier. I have heard few successes in this type of design. But Daedalus Audio seems to have pulled it off. There were three rooms with these all hardwood speakers (no MDF). Two of the rooms were ok but the third was a smaller room with what seemed like a less complex setup, I think it was some integrated amp and a CD player. It sounded great.

I had to poke into the Jumping Cactus room since they got the lead Stereophile blog from yesterday. They were interesting and engaging.

Once again there were a number of annoyances. So many rooms blast the music and I just cannot enter the room. The big room with the Wilson Sashas was playing some drum track so loudly they were bottoming out the woofers. What was that rep thinking? One room clearly had someone smoking in it recently. Many rooms had music that was just plain poor quality. At the end of the day I was in some room just pulling my test cd out of the player and some guy walks in and says “I would like to hear some none-audiophile music. I have been hearing audiophile music all day long and I want to just sit and hear normal music if you have it”. At first I chuckled but they I realized he was right. I was tired of all this power listening and I would just like to relax and hear something that will move me. Like the Zu guy in the first room I went to this morning.

Mostly socialized at this year's show - lots of chatting with Rene Jaeger (HDCD), Keith Johnson (Reference Recordings, HDCD), Bob Cordell (author), John Atwood (Vacuum Tube Valley co-founder), and Gary Dahl (collaborator on the Beyond the Ariel loudspeaker). Most of the time we told war stories about the audio business and shared various design tips.

Fascinating info from Keith on how he made the RR recordings - surprised to hear they were not minimalist, but used additional stereo pairs for on-the-fly accent miking (time-corrected, of course). The trick with accent miking is knowing the score, always do it discreetly, and adjust levels and timing so the overall stereo image is not degraded as the mikes are brought up and down.

Went to a few rooms with Gary D and John A - I wanted to hear the JBL DD66000 Everest, which has been unobtainium in the USA (Japan only), and it was a fun listen. My grumbles about the slightly hard and forward midrange could have had something to do with the Class D Mark Levinson amplifier - not much of fan of Class D, much less on a 96 dB/metre horn speaker. But the Everest was quite good, as it should be for a speaker that will sell in the USA for between $60,000 and $70,000 (according to the Harman rep). I suspect with the right amplifier and twiddling with the level switches on the crossover, this speaker is as sweet as silk. I very much liked the "large-format" quality to the sound - just the speaker for large-scale music.

Other rooms I liked were Harbeth and Avalon - both different, but my kind of sound. Nothing playing at the Marantz room, but I told the rep I enjoyed my Marantz AV8003 and MM8003 combo very much, and was curious if the new replacements were similar-sounding. He'd owned the same AV/MM combo for the last 8 months, had recently switched to the new Marantz SR7005, and said it was very similar - just a bit less power. According to him, the new AV7005 is simply the pre/pro portion of the SR7005, so if I like the AV/MM, I should stick with what I have. Good to know. Considered he had a opportunity to "upsell" me to the latest and greatest, his honesty and directness was refreshing. I like the attitude at Marantz, very different than the mass-market Japanese companies. Even though they are part of the giant D&M Holdings, they are still a boutique shop, and from what the rep said, they have their own engineering team.

My favorite room had the Win Analog monster DHT transmitting-tube amplifiers, filling the room with light and heat. This was the room where I just melted and relaxed, enjoying every disc. The best I've ever heard Red Book CD's sound - every one they played, including Gary Dahl's discs, sounded wonderful. The non-oversampling Philips-based DAC won me over - no digital hash or brightness at all, and gorgeous tonality. So nice. I guess I will have a non-oversampling DAC in my future - good to hear that plain old Red Book, flawed as it is, can sound so good. Dunno what kind of speakers they were using - some kind of MTM - but the 100-watt DHT amplifiers drove them with the greatest of ease.

Overall take on the RMAF 2010 show - amps (and sources) were more important than I realized, even in adverse show conditions. Room treatments didn't correct the sound of bad amplifiers, despite heroic attempts on the part of the exhibitor. The best rooms had the best amps, and many, if not most, rooms were let down by harsh-sounding transistor gear played way too loud. Many of the computer-based music servers sounded pretty much the same as an iPod - not the best-sounding source, despite the astronomical prices for these things.

But some transistor amps - Jeff Rowland and Spectral come to mind - were really excellent, and classical transformer-coupled tube amps almost always sounded good. I would have liked to have heard the big JBL Everest speaker the way the Japanese listen to them - with a top-quality tube amp.
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Hi Lynn,

I too would have liked to hear the JBL Everest with a suitable tube amp (and perhaps not so close to the wall, blocking the rear ports a bit).

On the plus side, the cab is remarkably slim depth-wise (shallower than anything else I own), though obviously at the expense of horn-loading the bass.

I would be very curious to know to what degree the top end we heard was a function of the Mark Levinson's. Overall, they were a very fun listen and I can't wait till next year :)
I had a long chat with Rene Jaeger and Keith Johnson, and the remarks they made about the current state of development of Class D amplifiers weren't encouraging. Many problems with phase margin and sensitivity to load reactance remain - and they (and I) were doubtful that ML had actually developed their 500-watt Class D amplifier from scratch, since that takes a combination of specialized RF, high-speed digital, and high-speed power-switching expertise, skills that are rare in the audio field. Our guess was an ICEPower module with expensive casing and a very heavy linear power supply.

There were some good transistor amps around - Magico was using Spectral amps, and they were very good. Avalon was using Jeff Rowland, and those sounded good as well. Most of the rooms had pretty bad-sounding electronics, though, and the sound of the music servers was not that great. I tried to find a room using the Halide Designs Async USB -> S/PDIF converter, since I'm considering getting one for my Monarchy PCM-63K-based DAC, and using a Mac Mini as an inexpensive Red Book server.

The favorite room by far was Win Analog, with Rockport speakers. Most relaxing and natural sound of the show.
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Win Analogue manufactures large single-ended amplifiers which use an 833 transmitting tube at the output. The driver is a KT-66. They are designed by Andy Ton and made in the USA. They also make a line stage amp that uses an 845 at the output. I'm willing to bet they aren't Sao Win's cup of tea. :)

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