Saturday, 7 September 2019

RMAF 2019 Day 1...

I must say that Colorado has some really pretty skies and lovely interplay of clouds and rays of sunlight...
Well, Day 1 of RMAF 2019 is done. Time to take a few moments to think about and review some of what was heard and seen.

The show started I believe around 10:00AM. It'll be interesting to see how the attendance numbers turns out but when I arrived around 9:30 to register, the line-up was rather long already - a good sign I hope for the organizers and exhibitors.



The image above is the line up after I was already through the process by about 10:30! I suspect the good folks at RMAF will be tightening this process for the years ahead. Many name tags (including mine) were not printed out, and it's interesting that there wasn't a computer system to double check registration. Heck, I could have just walked up to the registration counter, told them I registered for 3 days, and I didn't see any way for them to check if I actually paid the $40 general adult entrance fee!

Anyhow, once that was done, it's off to the races with the show...

To start off. Let me offer an observation which for some folks would be rather unpopular but I'll say it anyway :-).

In the 21st Century, IMO, LP is not a high-fidelity playback medium. Don't get me wrong, I still like my turntable playback, I have no intention of selling off my record collection. LPs have their place in the world of audiophilia. There is a history here which nobody would deny, and of course LPs have great cover art.

The problem with LP playback is that fidelity is clearly not better than a well produced digital album (much less excellent quality hi-res digital). I felt this years ago while attending the Vancouver Audio Shows that I mentioned yesterday and it's easily heard at audio shows like this. IMO, to properly show off the quality of an audio system, listening to LP playback even on very expensive turntables with fancy cartridges, and "best of the best" phono preamps simply will not show off the dynamics, low noise floor, and extended high and low frequency extension that some of these systems are capable of! You'll see this general sentiment expressed in a few of my thoughts below.

A good example was in the PS Audio room where they showed off the forthcoming AN3 loudspeakers:



In the morning, I popped in to have a listen. They were playing Melody Gardot's "Baby I'm A Fool" on vinyl. I thought it sounded merely OK... A little too warm compared to a couple of other rooms I had visited; clearly the treble extension was a bit lacking with some of the percussion too weak, plus at times the sound just didn't seem to reach deep enough. Also, it's inevitable that you'll hear the occasional surface noise, and a pop or crackle here and there. If I wanted to show off state-of-the-art hardware for high-fidelity playback, I fail to understand why I would want to choose a clearly non-state-of-the-art medium like LPs for demonstration purposes!

Later in the afternoon I popped into the PS Audio room again and this time they were playing something through their DAC (forgot to note what song, also a jazz vocal). The impression was way different. Clearer (in the "veil lifted sense"), quiet noise floor, good bass (the speaker has an integrated 700W bass amp with DSP), and extended treble.

LP vs. digital source being one consideration, this also serves as a reminder that in audio shows, the impressions we form of products may not be reliable depending on many factors (room layout, music playing at the time, people chatting in the room, available seating...).

I see that RMAF this year is split into 2 major sections - the part in the convention hall and the part in the hotel section which goes up to the 11th floor. The convention hall includes the Headspace headphone section which I didn't have time to explore today:


The Marketplace where things are bought and sold:



"Wowza" - US$450 for each reel-to-reel!?

Nice looking Elekit tube amp.
Also, there's this car / vehicle audio section I quickly looked in on for a couple of pictures:



The conference room section also is where Colorado Ballroom C is located where the seminars are being held. Today, I just attended Paul McGowan's (PS Audio) "Ask Paul" talk. Here are a few of his take-home points:
1. He is not a fan of DSP beyond bass frequencies. This does make sense as many might want to just run DSP correction up to ~200Hz "Schroeder frequency". Remember though that DSP correction is not just for frequency correction but can also provide time domain benefits he did not talk about. 
2. He likes DSD over PCM. Not surprising since the DirectStream DAC has conversion to DSD at the heart of it. What else would he say? 
3. All servers sound different. He makes a big deal about noise and jitter (remember Ted Smith's claims). And he claims that changing even the GUI elements could change sound quality (not sure if he's specifically referring to the hardware screen or computer/tablet GUI). Anyhow, what else would he say? PS Audio is coming out with their own server the "Octave" in the near future.

Other than PS Audio, there are a variety of other convention centre showrooms. Here's the McIntosh room:



XRT1.1K speakers with massive 70-driver line array - I think they're $60k each. Very nice sounding room. I noticed that they had the MEN220 room-correction device active (bottom left box, full audio frequency correction I was told). 70th Anniversary 150W tube amp and also the anniversary preamp.

A few interesting tracks played in the room that sounded great: Zhao Cong "Moonlight On Spring River", and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young "4 + 20"

Then there's a Göbel room:



Those are the Divin Noblesse speakers (4Ω, 95dB/W/m) - we're looking at something like $250k a pair. Driven by CH Precision M1.1 amplifier - 2x200W, can be run in bridged mode (~$54k). At these prices they better be good :-), and indeed it all sounded very fine. I vaguely recall that I thought the midrange was a bit accentuated with the samples they played.

Nearby we have the YG Acoustics speakers, VTL amps and Nordost room:


Arrrrgggg, scratchy vinyl playback strikes again. Not impressed. Things sounded better when the Nordost representative did a little demo and played some jazz through the computer (I don't think it was CD). Alas, Nordost was trying to show off their "QRT" products including their "resonance synchronizer" in the usual "off" then "on" demo which took a bit of time in between.

The claim here is that it "takes a few seconds to engage the resonant synchronization" and as usual during this time, the salesperson will make a few suggestions on how there's "greater dynamics" and better "flow" when the devices are turned on... Hmmm, maybe there was a difference but I'm a little suspicious if anything changed between playbacks, plus I was not familiar with the instrumental jazz music used at all. I think there are other things I can do with the starting price of US$750 for these tweaks.

Here's Sonus Faber:



On active display is the Olympica Nova driven by Audio Research amps playing some Agnes Obel's "Stretch Your Eyes". A few of the other speakers like the larger one (didn't catch the name) was not playing. Unfortunately there was quite a bit of talking in the room during my time there so could not really enjoy the music.

Next - Troy Audio Hellena MK II speakers:


Vinyl playback strikes again. I honestly think the system should be able to sound better than what they were playing at the time. Interesting looking gear and design but when I walked out of the room, I just wasn't feeling too excited.

Zu Audio:


Really dark room. Sean Casey seems like a really good guy, passionate about his music, and has great stories to tell. But yet again, vinyl playback did not sound great and I don't understand why people seem to like the sound of the Zu speakers. To me, they seem a bit veiled and of limited fidelity. The Druid VI was playing at the time and the smaller ones are the Omen Dirty Weekend mk. II I presume.

Next up - Alsyvox ribbon speakers - these are called the Botticelli; 1.8m tall, 0.58m wide, 5.4cm thick, 94dB/W/m, 4Ω nominal impedance:



We see the crossover box on the floor. I was quite impressed by the sound in this room. Quick, precise transients, good dynamics and surprisingly easy to drive. Omega Audio Concepts DNA line of DAC and amplifiers being used with lots of fat red cables :-):


I was hoping to get more literature on the amps but there wasn't any except for some picturesque brochures with no info like power ratings even! [I went back on the last day of the show and was told they are 100W monoblocks.] At one point they were playing a duet track from Mi Innamoravo di Tuitto that sounded wide, with great anchoring of the vocals in space.

Now here's an interesting room - Sigma Acoustics speakers amplified by the Vivace "GaNTube" Monoblock:


Those are MAAT Vector XAC speakers, 100dB/W/m sensitivity, 340kg each!

Just as interesting are the amplifiers:



As you can see, despite the "tube" shape and interface, these are actually solid state devices. Basically, we're looking at a Class D amplifier system capable of 200W into 4Ω (0.1% THD+N). Cute eh? On one of the banners, it looks like the spec is 768kHz switching speed; and based on the name, I guess we're looking at gallium nitride (GaN) transistors in the device.

Clean, "hi-fi" sounding room.

Acora Acoustics with Audio Research eye candy:



I then started going up the levels of the "Hotel Rooms" portion of the audio show. These are smaller, more intimate rooms starting at level 3 up to level 11! On each floor, we have something like 6-8 display rooms...

Floor 3:
Sanders Sound Systems - Model 10e and Magtech Amplifier electrostatics:



Notice how the chairs are oriented in the top picture one behind the other. Getting into the sweet spot is important. Soundstage gets really off kilter when off-axis. In the lower image, we see the DSP correction system that time-corrects the bass unit.

Despite the limitations, once you're seated in the sweet spot between the speakers, the sound is quite remarkable. Precise, fast transients, impressive wide soundstage. Music playing included Willie Nelson's "Stardust" and Patricia Barber's "Nardis".

Schiit gear and Salk Speakers:


The more lateral, smaller 6M speakers were in use at the time. Jesse Cook's Vertigo and Dave's True Story's "Like A Rock" were playing. Excellent sound, I was quite impressed by how low the small 2-way speakers could dig into the bass range.

CAD (Computer Audio Design):


While I am personally not a big fan of NOS DACs, I must say that the sound in this room did impress me overall. The CAD DAC consists of 16 TDA1543 DAC chips running in parallel. The small Boenicke W8 speakers really did put out quite a punch despite diminutive size.

Joseph Audio, J. Sikora, Doshi Audio:


A couple of Doshi Audio monoblocks on the ground (I believe 160W into 4Ω). Music played off J. Sikora turntable on the left side. Joseph Audio Pearl3 speakers.

Well Vaal, since you asked in the comments to yesterday's post, I honestly did not like what I heard here as much as I would have liked. Again, I think the limiting factor is the vinyl playback. They were playing The Who's "Underture" from Tommy at the time. Surface noise, imperfections here and there... Maybe I'll poke my head back there again to have another listen.

Lumin Music Systems - with Harbeth speakers and Vivid Audio Giya G2:



Harbeth 40th Anniversary Compact 7ES-3 (~US$5000) sound, well, like classic BBC monitors - pleasant. This is the side system in an adjoining room.

They have a larger room with more seats featuring the Giya G2 ($50k/pair). They were using the Lumin X-1 player ($14k) with ES9038Pro DAC and Lumin AMP in dual mono ($14k each), class A/B 160W into 8Ω. Punchy sound, clean. No complaints.

Innuos Room:


As I have said in the past, to me, there is little if any audible difference between digital server systems so long as you keep fan and other mechanical noise out (judicious placement of course just common sense). Innuos claims that with the PhoenixUSB reclocking mechanism, the clock drift is down to something like 3ppb (parts per billion) on the OCXO clock; that's nice I guess. Remember what I said recently about "bits are bits". As such, I really can't say much more than that the sound here is good with the pair of YG Acoustics Vantage speakers partnered with Ayre and Boulder electronics.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela's version of "Stairway To Heaven" playing.

Floor 4:

Nola:


Lots of disparate drivers in those Nola Concert Grand Reference Gold 2 speakers (~$250k/pair). Powered with VAC Statement 450S IQ amps ($63k) fed with VAC DAC Mk II ($12k). I'd be very curious about measurements of these speakers.

They were playing Slide Hampton & The JazzMasters' "Tour De Force". Impressive workout for one's tweeters :-)!

Bryston:


Here's a nice setup. The speakers are 3-way without a crossover inside. Instead, you have an external digital crossover box as seen below:


The box on top is the BDA-3.14 Streamer. As the numbering suggests, the heart of the device I was told does include a Raspberry Pi 3 board (not sure if the newer B+).

And each speaker is amplified with a 3-channel 21B3.


Situated in the adjoining room to the Bryston system are the Kii Three and Fyne Audio speakers:



Unfortunately the Kii was at a corner of the room and playing softly (the Bryston system took priority). The Fyne speaker (F702 in the image above) is said to be the brainchild of ex-Tannoy designers. They're certainly pleasant sounding, have a down-firing port, and sounded "fine" close to the wall. Worth keeping an eye on these speakers in the future.

Finally, to close off... Haniwa:


As you can see, a number of vinyl LP's in the room. You can read more about the company here. While I applaud the attempts at improving spatiality by using DSP along with what looks like interesting cartridge and phono preamp technology, I'm just not liking the sound I'm hearing. A bit too midrange accentuated without enough sparkle or bass for my taste. I wonder if this is mainly to do with the speakers?

Whew... Busy day and massive post :-). Let's see what's out there tomorrow!

8 comments:

  1. Great post Archimago, and thanks for reporting on the Joseph Audio room. (That's a speaker brand I've become enamored with, having demoed their smaller speakers. There is a smoothness and lack of grain/hash in the Joseph sound that makes for a less "mechanical" "electronic" signature than I hear from many other speakers. You might need to hear digital on them to notice, though).

    Usually the Joseph room is cited as best, or among best-of show, so if you have the inclination it's probably worth dropping by again. They usually take requests to play reel-to-reel (or digital) so you can avoid the vinyl problem.

    BTW, I use a nice digital front end (server streaming to a Benchmark DAC) and also have a really nice turntable set up, so I really love the sound of vinyl as well as digital (in my set up).

    But that said I actually HATE when vinyl is used in demos, be it in hi-fi stores or in shows. There are just so many additional variables vinyl add to the mix - the variation among cartridges (most not very flat), the set up angle of the arm/cartridge (which as you'd know can alter the sound), and all the distortions and imperfections of the vinyl records themselves.

    I just don't know if I'm listening to problems in the speaker, or in the vinyl source. Much prefer digital sources, which is why I always bring my own digital music to demo speakers.

    (Absolutely LOVE collecting and listening to vinyl though!)


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    1. Hi Vaal,
      Yup, absolutely with similar mindset. I really enjoy the record collection part especially finding the rare or vintage "mint" album with sentimental and/or historical value. But would not jump to using vinyl as demo material.

      So much variability introduced in vinyl playback with the different turntables (just think of the temporal variability!), preamp qualities (accuracy of the RIAA EQ), cartridge differences (and whether the stylus might be worn out or whether set-up was good). I've seen audiophiles poo-poo the idea of using EQ in playback but never thought twice about the fact that the RIAA curve in vinyl playback is EQ applied to very low voltage signals!

      Yeah, I'll see about finding time to visit Joseph Audio again tomorrow (last day). Alas, the room was also showing off the J.Sikora turntable so I suspect that's part of the intent of the room...

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    2. Cool!

      My vinyl collection has increased so rapidly since I got back in more heavily a couple years ago. I especially love soundtracks and hard to find Library Music records (KPM, Bruton, many other labels), so most of that Library stuff can only be found on the original records (and many were beautifully recorded). And vinyl is a soundtrack lovers paradise at this point - the new soundtracks and re-issues are being packaged with amazing, collectable aesthetics.

      But one thing getting back in to vinyl really helped me with was getting me to focus on music listening again.

      I'd had my CDs all ripped (damned horrible process, monotonous, took forever!) and had been streaming them, and also added Tidal, using a Raspberry Pi and Logitech server, controlled via my phone/ipad. Standard stuff. At first it seemed like a musical paradise. Every song of my 5 or 6 hundred CDs at my fingertips, and then Tidal expanded that incredibly. I'd spend hours just surfing Tidal.

      But that became the problem. With another song at my finger tips at any moment, I found myself more "surfing" music rather than really settling in to listen. A song might sound great but "I wonder what THIS one is like." I'd add up hundreds of favourites, and rarely revisit them again. Basically, it felt like having music ADD and music listening took on a bit more of a restless quality, than a relaxed, focused one.

      Vinyl totally cures that for me. First, I only buy albums where I like most of the songs. Second, when I put an LP on I inevitably listen to a whole side, and very often the whole album. I find it more relaxing and engaging, and there is something about the physicality of the album and using the turntable that seems to feel more like a "premium" richer experience. (Despite digitals obvious technical competence).

      I absolutely, totally understand any music lover/audiophile who has no interest in vinyl and prefers digital. It makes all the sense in the world, and if someone doesn't have the "music ADD problem" with the world of songs at their fingertips, I envy them. Digital is the sh*t for that experience.

      But, I've found getting in to vinyl richly rewarding. What I refuse to do is ever make bullsh*t arguments for it's technical/sonic superiority. I never did get that early audiophile "digital can't sound like music" thing. Digital has provided me with gorgeous sound for 3 decades. (But, holy cow, looking at the computer audiophile sites can make even vinyl/turntables look plug-and-play vs the amount of tweaking going on by those guys. I'm frankly happy not to be in that mindset about my digital source, which is extremely "un-tweaked").

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  2. Some great pics there Arch! Like the comments too – wow, vinyl eh? Who would have thought an inferior source of playback media would make such a comeback. I wonder if it is retaliation for wildly dynamically compressed “digital” media… Would love to hear some insights as to why vinyl from the exhibitors.

    Troy Audio Hellena MKII – wow, those remind me of the Urei 813 time aligns I used to use in some studio control rooms back in the 80’s. There is a reason you don’t see those anymore – the diffraction off the horn from the midrange driver was horrible, along with the tiny honky horn. Really surprised to see this in 2019!

    Nola Concert Grand Reference Gold 2 speakers – what in the hey… the off axis response (polars) must be awful. Again stunned to see such disregard for good loudspeaker design in 2019, especially at $250K!!

    Love those phat red cables – lol! So Arch, out of what you heard so far, which speakers sound best to you?

    Keep it coming!

    Cheers,
    Mitch

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    1. Hey Mitch,
      Your impressions on the tech and subjective opinions would have been very interesting if you were here! Hey... I did ask :-).

      Yeah, for the Nola Grand, I was really wondering what the diffraction patterns would look like. Plus with all the drivers, just how much complexity in the crossovers did they implement and whether they're playing to the strengths and weaknesses?

      Anyhow, at least they sounded pretty good.

      Best of Day 1 as I look over the rooms I visited, I would say for "price no object" with a large room, I liked the Alsyvox ribbon speakers. Fast, good frequency range (I'm sure can add a sub or two if needing even deeper extension). Close second was the McIntosh, and for less than $20k, I'd certainly have a good listen to the PS Audio AN3 again.

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  3. Mitch,

    "Would love to hear some insights as to why vinyl from the exhibitors."

    I think I can surmise: Vinyl is the current "sexy thing" in music playback, and exhibitors avail themselves of that cool aura when playing vinyl. The vinyl revival has also meant a proliferation of new turntable designs, so they also get to have a cool-eye catching turntable source in the room as well. It also caters to the perception among lots of audiophiles that vinyl "sounds better" than digital; that except for reel-to-reel, a great turntable is the ultimate source.
    I'm certain this is actually a minority of audiophiles, most of whom use a digital source. But the minority who feel this way seem to be influential and vocal (think Michael Fremer). I don't therefore conclude the use of vinyl sources are merely cynical on the part of every exhibitor. I'm sure many also like the sound of vinyl on a good turntable.

    Personally I actually (to my surprise) have ended up liking the sound of a lot of my vinyl albums as much or more than my digital sources. I hear a slightly more nuanced timbral presentation from my digital, with sometimes finer resolution/clarity of low level detail (e.g. the really specific nature of reverb placed on instruments). On the other hand vinyl on my turntable, through whatever alterations required for vinyl mastering, and whatever accrued distortions through the chain, strikes me as having a slightly more vivid, present, textural "pop out of the air" vividness and punch that I find quite satisfying. That's just a statement of subjective preference, not a claim for vinyl superiority of course. But even so, it's ridiculous how good vinyl can actually sound sometimes, given it takes one engineering kludge after another to get that sound on to and off the wax.

    But...as I mentioned...I'll keep my enjoyment of the vinyl sound to listening to my system. When I really want to know what a speaker sounds like and reduce variables, digital is my go-to source.

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    1. I agree,
      Vinyl as physical medium is now clipping at the heels of CD for total worldwide sales based on recent RIAA 1st half of 2019 data. They cannot be pirated. They eventually wear out and need to be replaced. Each unit can be charged at a higher rate with likely better margin. This is all just part of the financial equation.

      Then there's the collectability, pride of ownership, perhaps sense of "luxury" (maybe even elitism) in owning both the LP and the playback hardware. Certainly good psychological dimension here.

      Nonetheless, when I'm more interested in the performance of the amps and speakers (as opposed to the turntables, cartridges, phono preamps themselves), it's rather disappointing to walk into a room and see only vinyl spinning...

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  4. A look at a microscope picture of the a vinyl with the needle bouncing between sides is very convincing that this mechanical based media has serious frequency range and dynamics limits. And for those who says that digital is not as musical as analog because it is only a sample, there jaw would probably drop if they learned a bit about all the corrections that are made to the analog signal like RIAA, mono bass, etc. : not BIO at all! I guess vinyl lovers prefer the smoothed mix version required to master on vinyl. Like you said Archie, they have all the rights to prefer that kind of sound, personal tastes can't be argued, it's currently "à la mode" and therefore, one look cool when he says that he prefer vinyl, but holy sh... vinyl lovers, don't pretend that vinyl is a more accurate storage medium than digital...

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