Best Sound at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014
This entry was posted on Monday, October 27th, 2014 Authored By: Robert Entenmann
Best Sound at Show | RMAF 2014
As I recall the show, several rooms come to mind. On the lobby level Kimber Kable and EMM Labs caught my attention in the Evergreen D, E, and F ballroom salons. Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio was in room 9007 with his single-ended, 8 watt per channel, silver-wound-transformer mono-blocks hooked up to Vaughn Loudspeakers. Richard Vandersteen showcased a door or two down in room 9030, with a very similar setup as I reviewed a few weeks back at the New York Audio Show. A couple of floors up in room 1130, I found, in the midst of strolling through all of the formidable names aforementioned, a unique combination of equipment: a Wells Audio stereo amplifier connected to the TAD Labs CR1 loudspeakers by DanaCable, a DSA front-end, a VPI source with two arms, and a Silver Circle power conditioner for clarity. I’ll preface the following remarks by saying that this show was primarily one of business for me.
That being said, I am first and foremost a designer and consultant to those who seek the finest two-channel systems and second, a publicist and reviewer of such equipment. In light of my business obligations, I did not have the time I would generally like to juxtapose systems and discern which I deem superior based on carefully selected parameters. For those of you who have become acquainted with my methodology of reviewing, I tend to lean more towards the emotional connection to music produced by a system, and not the overwhelmingly dull laundry list of audiophile terminology associated with technical differences. It is necessary to use such terms in reviewing, however context is paramount. All roads leading to Rome, my contextual analysis will always be founded in personal experience, both playing and listening to live music, to arrive at a final conclusion regarding which system achieved the live sensation best.
Taking into consideration that I have hand selected both EMM Labs and Kimber components in my reference system; I must divorce myself from any bias, so that my opinion may be one of truth and not economic motive. When discussing HiFi speakers, Sony is definitely not the first speaker that comes to mind. The EMM/Kimber room had a four-channel Sony SS-AR1 speaker setup sourcing from an EMM Labs front end comprised of the TSDX CD/SACD Transport, DAC2X D/A Converter, XDS1 V2 Integrated CD/SACD Player, and the PRE2 Reference preamplifier. Powering the Sony loudspeaker was EMM’s 24K gold (hard coated plating) MTRX Reference mono-blocks. EMM & Kimber get to cheat a little with the isoMike guys contributing to the setup by playing pure DSD files from a 60K dollar Sonoma system. Believe me when I say, this helps a little. The 4-Channel DSD album from Fan-Ya Lin, “Emerging,” is without doubt the most convincingly real piano I have ever heard from a HiFi system, and this includes the finest dedicated rooms I’ve been in, let alone a hotel room. Stereophile gave EMM/Kimber best sound at show RMAF 2013, so as tempting as it is to continue Atkinson’s endorsement, it’s time for someone new.
Heading upstairs to Wavelength’s room on the 9th floor provided an entirely different experience than the EMM/Kimber room. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a larger contrast in rooms at the show: giant mono-blocks fueling a four-channel system in a suite with considerable square footage and high ceilings, vs. tiny mono-blocks powering a two-channel system in a standard size hotel room. Gordon Rankin was displaying a source you’d see in most end-user environments, namely a 15” MacBook Pro Retina 16G/480G SSD hooked up to Wavelength’s Crimson DAC. It was the very fist time I had the privilege of listening to the Europa preamplifier in conjunction with the Napoleon Ag silver-wound-transformer mono-blocks, which deliver 8 watts of pure Class-A single-ended seduction.
I asked Gordon if he might play David Crosby’s 24/192 “If I Could Only Remember My Name.” Sure enough he had it. The state-of-the-art Wavelength equipment was cabled with AudioQuest to a pair of Vaughn Loudspeakers with Duquesne Plasma tweeters, Accuton midrange, and a powered subwoofer which operates under 80Hz. David’s voice was magical, and the plasma tweeters rendering of the autoharp was the most holographic presentation I have experienced to date. For the audio purist, Gordon’s room is far and away a dream come true. As for realism, which demands a certain balance of highs, lows and everything in between, there was something left to be desired in terms of body. With only 8 watts of power, compromise is something the listener must expect, and from 80-250Hz was my point of contention. This was not an issue with Crosby’s “Traction in the Rain” because it is virtually all above the said frequency range. My final conclusion is that I did very little analyzing, but rather listened intently, and I attribute this to the spiritually intoxicating nature of Mr. Rankin’s system.
Directly across the hall at an angle was Vandersteen’s room. Richard’s system sourced from a Brinkmann turntable into an Audio Research front end, which passed through to his liquid cooled 600-watt per-channel, “Vanderamps.” One notable thing about the room was that Richard showed the MkII version of the 7’s for the first time. I was lucky to walk in during a demo of mono and stereo first pressings of various Beatles albums, which I am familiar with. Prior to forming HFDG, I worked for two Vandersteen dealers on both the East & West Coast. An interesting aside about Vandersteen dealers is: if they carry the speaker line they generally demo it before anything else, even if they display a number of competitor speaker lines. Having worked for two Vandersteen dealers means I have hundreds of hours of experience with the 7’s.
The MkII version of the 7 improves clarity several fold from its predecessor, and this was most evident as a cut from The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “A Day in the Life,” played. During the slightly maddening crescendo of brass instruments, strings, and symbols, I could hear each distinctly and with separation. Very few speakers could make sense of this convoluted array of instrumentation, but the MkII 7’s seemed to bring dynamics, air, and life into this incredibly complex point of the cut, solving the innumerable directions of sound taken by the full orchestra. To hear the 7’s better than I’d heard them in the past was a pleasant surprise and at the same time no surprise at all. If I’m writing an article entitled “Best Sound at Show,” and Vandersteen is at that show, then you’ll be sure to see him as a part of the article almost by default.
Sometimes the best sound you experience at a show has nothing to do with who the press is touting about, a forty-year legacy of making the finest audio products in the US, multiple patents held as it relates to D/A conversion, or groundbreaking achievements with respect to USB audio. In room 1130, I found the most unlikely combination of equipment, in my opinion, at the entire show. As with EMM/Kimber, I had to be careful with my preconceived notions of “what’s best” in consideration that I use the TAD Labs CR1 in my reference demo system at HFDG. Knowing the CR1 as well as I do, it was easy for me to rid myself from any bias. The reason being is that the CR1 is the most revealing speaker I’ve ever heard, and therefor a system with poor acoustic synergy will show its liabilities in spades. In other words, I looked at the CR1 as a control in the system.
I entered the room just prior to a demo of Ben Webster’s “Soulville,” an original mono recording first released in 1957. This particular pressing was a 2-LP 45rpm re-issue from Analogue Productions of the original Verve LP. The intention of the demo was to show the difference between a mono and stereo cartridge when playing a mono recording. My initial thoughts were that it would be nuancy at best: I couldn’t have been more wrong. First the Miyajima Madake stereo cartridge was demoed and Webster’s tenor was well positioned, full-bodied, and the drum set’s symbols had a nice sense of air around them. After a couple of minutes, David Sckolnik of DSA started the same cut from the top, but this time with the Zero mono cartridge, which retails for less than half the cost of the stereo.
What I was about to hear completely blew my mind! Webster’s tenor literally entered the room this time; it was as though he was right in front of me. The tonality of the instrument was palpably different and real, real to the extent that what type of reed Webster was using might be discernable to the trained ear. Now when the symbols were struck, you could tell if the drumstick had a nylon or wooden tip. The overall presentation was sexier, more engaging, and live feeling. Furthermore, imaging took on a whole new meaning as instrument placement and separation was as distinguishable as if one was able to see the musicians in conjunction with listening, which is obviously impossible considering “The Brute” passed in 1973. The soundstage I heard in room 1130 was nearly as real as the stage at the Village Vanguard, which I visit regularly as it is a couple blocks from my home. Bravo to Mr. Sckolnik, whose phonostage and linestage preamplifier undoubtedly contributed to the strikingly real stage I experienced that day. After the demo, I knew I wasn’t alone in my experience as the comments around the room were unanimous and the disposition of the listeners was such that we didn’t know if we should grin or applaud after Webster’s cut was finished.