ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

December 1, 2007

Searching for the Extreme: Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2007

The fourth Rocky Mountain Audio Fest took place in Denver, Colorado, October 12-14. For that weekend, the Denver Marriott Tech Center hotel became the largest audio store on earth. Audiophiles from across the US and farther afield attended to see and listen to gear that just isn’t available in their hometowns anymore. Better still, the gear was demonstrated by knowledgeable people, often the designers themselves. In a day and age when bricks-and-mortar audio stores are going the way of the great auk, it’s especially valuable to be able to actually hear equipment before making a purchase.

Unlike the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which is a trade event open only to manufacturers, dealers, and the press (consumers have been known to crash the party), the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) is for consumers only -- folks like you and me who want to see and hear all that neat stuff reviewers rave about. CES probably has more new equipment introductions, but RMAF has its share, especially this year.

The RMAF is organized by directors Al Stiefel and Marjorie Baumert, with considerable assistance from the Colorado Audio Society. The show occupied more than 140 rooms at the Marriott, with more than 300 manufacturers’ wares on display -- it was noticeably larger than last year’s event. The Fest featured two-channel audio almost exclusively; very few rooms had home-theater setups, and even those tended to play more music than movies, which was only as it should be -- after all, it’s an audio fest.


I observed several trends at RMAF 2007. One was the large number of turntables spinning vinyl, from the gargantuan TW Acustic Raven AC, with three motors and four tonearms -- possibly the best source component I’ve heard of any sort -- to modest players from Rega and Pro-Ject. It was clear that the vinyl renaissance is real. It’s still no threat to the Compact Disc, but within the audiophile community, vinyl continues to regain respect.

A trend that could be a threat to CD (but isn’t yet, despite much hype) is the music server. These devices, touted as the wave of the future, store music as digital files and let you select and play them via a menu on a monitor or TV. In the ideal music-server world, we won’t need to bother with CDs any more; all music will be stored on internal hard drives, available at the push of a button. In fact, we should be able to download music via the Internet directly to the hard drive, and never sully our hands with a CD. And when we run out of storage space, we can just plug in another hard drive, as we do with our computers. Some music servers will play music recorded at higher resolution than CDs, so our sound will be upgraded. At least, those are the theoretical goals; I’m not sure that the actual hardware has been completely realized yet. Many manufacturers seemed proud that their servers can download and display cover art. To me, liner notes would be far more useful, but none of the products I asked about could do that.

Linn demonstrated their high-end music server by comparing it to their venerable CD12 CD player, which has been out of production for three years. Using a wireless control pad, the demonstrator played short selections through both players. Most in the audience couldn’t tell the difference. Of course, we were listening to unfamiliar music through an unfamiliar system, but any differences must have been subtle indeed. The Klimax DS ($18,500) also plays music recorded at higher resolutions than CD, such as Linn’s own hi-rez downloads. The DS is built on a standard Klimax chassis and looked like any other elegantly designed audio component. Music is stored on a separate, network-attached hard drive; additional drives can be added as desired. The Klimax series is Linn’s top line; the DS server technology is expected to filter down into lower lines, such as the Majik, with commensurately lower prices.

I didn’t get a separate demonstration of this server, which was used as the source for the Scna loudspeaker system (see below), but the flyer makes it sound innovative. Though I understand that most people use the Memory Player ($15,500) as an advanced CD player rather than as a server, it can store up to one terabyte (1TB) of music. Used as a CD player, the Memory Player offers several innovations, such as very precise and accurate reading of tracks. It’s also a very good CD burner that lets you optimize the burning speed for your CD blank.

The most unusual music server I saw was the moodSeer from Magic Home Entertainment. It consists of three parts: the moodCenter, which stores the music; the moodSpot, a multizone router that sends music to different areas in your home; and the moodBeamer, a wireless handheld controller. Like most other servers, the moodSeer can store up to 1TB of music, and can access additional storage drives via a network. A variable bit-rate algorithm minimizes the load on the system. Music is stored as MP3s or in the lossless FLAC format. The moodSeer can be integrated with several home control systems so you can operate it from anywhere in the house. The demonstrator said it could also play hi-rez audio formats, and that it can organize music by mood. ($4375 for one room to about $11,000 for four rooms)

After RMAF 2005, I raved about the first music server I had seen, the VRS. Well, since then VRS has not been asleep at the wheel, but has made numerous improvements to its products. Music is played from internal DIMM or flash memory. Storage capacity can be had by adding external hard drives. An incredibly precise external rubidium clock improves timing to minimize jitter. Soon, an external DAC will be available that will play anything, including SACD and DVD-Audio. I heard a track of hi-rez music from the AIX catalog, and it sounded very smooth and naturally detailed. AIX and Reference Recordings will soon be using VRS as a portal for downloading their hi-rez music. The costs of these new features has not been finalized, but I expect they will be by CES in January.

I was hoping to see one of McIntosh’s new turntables, but none was displayed. Their MS750 -- whose name indicates that it’s a music server that can store 750GB of music files -- was launched some time ago. (More storage can be accessed through an additional, network-attached drive.) Selling for $6000 without monitor (any computer monitor will work), the MS750 stores music in the FLAC format, and requires a wired Internet connection. The MS750’s remote somehow didn’t make it to the show, so I wasn’t able to see it in action. The MS750 is a "Red Book"-only device; it won’t play higher-resolution formats. It looks like any other McIntosh component: very classy, with a black-glass front panel and a green and blue display. It also burns CDs, which could be very useful for copying your vinyl to CD blanks using your high-end audio system instead of some crummy plastic $100 USB turntable.

The Sooloos music server, which sells for $12,900 with a single source or $14,900 for five sources (zones), consists of three modules: the control:one, comprising a monitor with a CD drive in its base and all the control software loaded; the store:one, which is two 1TB hard drives for redundant storage (in case one drive crashes); and the source:one, which acts as a single-zone D/A converter to decode the signal from the store:one. Also available is the store:two, which holds 2TB of music. The source:five DAC packages five source:ones together for a multizone system. The Sooloos system will play files up to 24-bit/192kHz; future versions will play back SACD and DVD-Audio. One thing that impressed me was the speed with which the Sooloos operated; it seemed much faster than most of the other music-server systems.

Other equipment

Of course, there were lots of conventional and not-so-conventional components on display.

Dave Belles, proprietor of Power Modules, Inc., demonstrated his brand-new electronics, the LA-01 preamplifier ($6750) and MB-200 monoblock power amplifier ($6750/pair). Available in black or silver finish (the latter looked really elegant), the LA-01 has a separate power supply housed in a chassis that matches the signal section. Belles has focused on simplifying the circuitry and using the best parts. The MB-200 amps are stylistically similar to the LA-01 and produce 200W each. Driving the Sonics Allegro ($7800/pair) and Usher Be-718 ($2795/pair) speakers, the Belleses’ sound was spacious and incisive yet warm and inviting: not typical solid-state, but not tube-like either. Maybe it just sounded like music.

In one of the Sumiko rooms, I heard clean, clear, inviting sound, with very deep bass, from a system consisting of a Jeff Rowland Design Group Concerto preamp ($3900), a Rowland 312 power amp ($15,400), a Primare CD-31 CD player ($2295), a Pro-Ject RM-9.1 turntable with Sumiko Blackbird cartridge (combined cost $2248), and Vienna Acoustics Mahler speakers ($9800/pair) augmented by a REL B-1 subwoofer ($3195). Cardas Gold Reference cables were used throughout. The bass may have been excessive in that small room; in my experience, the Mahlers don’t need much help in the nether regions, though I’m sure some bass-heads would disagree.

VAC, Wadia, Talon, Kubala-Sosna, and Rives shared a room in which they made sweet music together. Wadia’s new 581SE SACD player ($9950) provided audio signals to a prototype integrated amplifier from VAC ($12,500), which drove Talon Hawk speakers ($10,000/pair). Talon’s Thunderbird passive subwoofer ($10,000) provided a solid foundation for the music, driven by a Rives Sub-Parc subwoofer amp ($4500), which includes a crossover, a parametric equalizer, and a digital switching amp. Cables consisted of Kubala-Sosna’s MSC1-SPSP-2.0 speaker cable ($3500), XSC1-SPSP-5.0 to the subwoofer ($1800), MAIC-SESE-1.5 unbalanced interconnects ($3100), and MPC1-1 and M1C-2.0 AC cables ($1200). The sound was detailed, spacious, and sweet. When I played an SACD, I was amazed at how realistic and analog-like the system sounded. I wanted to stay longer to hear more music.

VAC, Wadia, Talon, Kubala-Sosna, and Rives

In the Gershman Acoustics room, their physically and sonically striking Black Swan speakers ($36,000/pair) held court. It was refreshing to enjoy once again the Black Swans’ full, warm sound, and excellent soundstaging and dynamics. And they look as elegant as they sound.

I’d heard of Mark & Daniel Audio Labs, but didn’t know what to expect when I walked into their room. What I found were small speakers that sounded way bigger than they looked. My favorite was the tiny (11.4"H x 6.7"W x 8.4"D) Ruby ($1650/pair), a pair of which sounded huge and produced astonishingly low bass as they sat on bespoke stands ($700/pair). Like all Mark & Daniel speakers, the Ruby uses a Heil tweeter modified for better dispersion and strength. Moving upscale, the Aragorn ($4950/pair), named for the character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was considerably larger, with optional omnidirectional tweeters on top ($950/pair). This isn’t really a supertweeter -- it crosses over at 7kHz to add a sense of spaciousness. The Aragorns were placed on purpose-designed stands ($1700/pair), which augmented their bass response, but while the Aragorns are considerably larger than the Rubys, they seemed to produce less bass. They did have a very warm, spacious sound, however.

Moving way upscale, the Pioneer-TAD-Bel Canto room featured a pair of TAD’s wholly awesome Reference 1 speakers ($60,000/pair). I’d heard raves about these, and I’m pleased to report that they are completely deserved. Distinguished by a concentric midrange and tweeter, both made of beryllium for lightness and stiffness, the Reference 1 was incredibly fast and dynamic. Two 10" woofers provided strong bass that was well integrated with the midrange. Bel Canto shared the room and provided the rest of the system: CD-2 CD transport ($3000), DAC-3 D/A converter ($2500), and four Reference 1000 monoblock power amps ($2000 each). $15,000 worth of Wireworld OCC silver cable connected everything.

Artemis showed several interesting products. The SP-1 monoblock amplifiers ($14,000/pair) produced 14W each using 300B XLS tubes. The amps’ power supplies are housed in separate chassis. They seemed quite comfortable driving Verity Audio Sarastro speakers ($34,995/pair) in a fairly large meeting room. The LA-1 line stage ($3200) drove the SP-1s, while a PL-1 phono stage ($3800) amplified signals from the cartridge. Speaking of phonos, Artemis showed a new turntable prototype (price to be determined) designed by Frank Schrder, who knows more than a few things about turntables. Other components were a Nagra CD player ($13,495) and cables by Silversmith.

Artemis' prototype turntable

Thiel's CS3.7 speaker ($9900/pair) has been widely publicized for its unusual metal drivers, which are creased to increase stiffness. At RMAF they sounded very dynamic, if perhaps a bit bright. Other components in the system were from Simaudio: the W-7 power amp ($8000), the P-7 preamp ($6200), and the SuperNova CD player ($5900). Cardas Golden Cross interconnects and Golden Reference speaker cables connected everything.

The Jumping Cactus ($9300/pair), from Jumping Cactus Loudspeakers of Tucson, Arizona, is as unusual as its name: a three-way speaker with each driver housed in its own aluminum enclosure. The speaker is triamped, and the price includes a Marchand four-way electronic crossover, an aluminum backbone to mount the three cabinets, and a stand for each speaker. The sidewalls are made of 0.5"-thick aluminum, the front panels of 0.75"-thick bubinga wood. Eminence drivers are used. Although it’s a triamped three-way, its low-frequency limit of 65Hz means that the Cactus really isn’t full range -- a Genesis Servo-Pro subwoofer was used in the demonstration. You have to provide three amplifiers, four if you use a passive subwoofer. The sensitivity is specified as 94-95dB. The Jumping Cactuses sounded delightfully open, with palpable images and a relaxed presentation. I’d like to hear more of these.

The room shared by GR Research and Dodd Audio featured Danny Richie’s LS-6 line-source speakers ($1995/kit) and Gary Dodd’s new 280W (120W in class-A) monoblock amplifiers ($50,000/pair). Dodd joked that if anyone could carry the amps off without assistance, they could have them, but as each weighs 275 pounds, he got no takers. Aside from being huge, the amplifiers were also painted bright blue. I like that; I’m bored with silver and/or black components. Also in the system were a Dodd battery-powered preamp and a power conditioner, both painted blue to match the amp. The sound was effortless and dynamic.

One of the advantages of holding the RMAF in central Colorado is that Denver and nearby Boulder both have some very large high-end dealerships that typically bring along tons of equipment that has been carefully matched to sound good. One of those dealers, ListenUp, had several interesting rooms, including one in which Sonus Faber's Elipsa speakers ($20,800/pair) were displayed. Looking like a smaller version of Sonus’s Stradivari Homage, the Elipsa is actually the top of Sonus’s Cremona line, though it uses the same woofer driver found in the Stradivari. Electronics were from Musical Fidelity, which have always sounded really good with Sonus Faber speakers. The sound was typical of Sonus Faber, but more so: warm, open, and inviting. If there’s a speaker that reproduces the human voice better, I haven’t heard it. The larger enclosure and bigger woofers added some weight that you don’t normally hear in a Cremona model.

Driving a pair of GR Research's LS-9 line-source speakers ($5995/pair) -- which remind me of the Dali Megalines, except that they’re in a single cabinet, look better, and cost $39,000/pair less -- Red Rock’s Renaissance monoblock amplifiers ($38,000/pair) sounded bold and dynamic. These large, class-A tube amps use a parallel, push-pull, zero-feedback circuit.

One of the most unusual items at a show replete with unusual items was the Scna (pronounced SAY-na) speaker system ($44,000/pair). These bright -- and I do mean bright -- red speakers consisted of two line-source speakers, each comprising a series of ribbon tweeters and dynamic drivers in individual pods, the two ranks of drivers vertically stacked next to each other to create a semi-line source. Additionally, there were two large cylindrical woofers, also bright red, that looked like 55-gallon drums on their sides. The price includes the crossover, woofer amp, and stands. The Scna’s most distinguishing feature was a huge, palpable soundstage that was among the best I’ve ever heard. I felt I could walk into the space between the speakers and touch each musician. The large woofers supported the towers with prodigious bass. The red enamel might put some people off, but I’ll bet Scna has other colors. Me, I liked the red.

Audio Space Acoustic Lab and Gini room

A confirmed tube boob, I love walking into rooms filled with tube gear, and the suite occupied by Audio Space Acoustic Lab was one such. Although many tube components were on display, the system that was playing when I arrived was relatively inexpensive. It consisted of an Audio Source Galaxy integrated amp ($1690) using push-pull EL34 tubes; Gini LS3/5A speakers ($560/pair); and the Stand B+ bass module, which serves as both a subwoofer and a stand for the LS3/5As. The bass was extended considerably below the LS3/5A’s range, and blended seamlessly with the output of that classic minimonitor. Although the Stand B+’s price hasn’t yet been fixed, it’s anticipated to be in the same range as the LS3/5A itself. Also in the system were Audio Space’s CD320 CD player ($880) with tube output stage; and their DAC-1 DAC ($2900) with both solid-state and tube outputs.

Another room full of tube gear was Navison's. Their new product was the NVS-211SE monoblock amplifier, which uses parallel 211 tubes in a single-ended-triode circuit to produce 40W. Price has been tentatively set at $16,900/pair. Navison gear always looks and sounds elegant. Driving Bastanis Apollo speakers ($21,600/pair), the NVS-211SEs sounded clean, sweet, and forceful.

Next-door to Navison was Chalice Audio, whose first product is the Grail SET monoblock amplifier, which uses parallel 845 tubes in a single-ended-triode circuit to produce 50W. Sound was similar to the Navison NVS-211SE, described above. Well, the Grail SET is substantially larger, as is its price: $70,000/pair. Effortlessly driving Piega P-8 speakers ($8000-$10,000/pair when produced), the Grails’ sound was big and forceful. The Piegas aren’t particularly sensitive; I suspect the Grail SETs will work with just about any speaker of average or higher sensitivity.

Norvinz has taken over the distribution of Opera Consonance, and had an interesting OC system playing in their room: the new Mini Droplet CD player ($2500 in wood finish, $3000 in black) looked like a smaller version of the older Droplet; its built-in volume control means it can drive a power amp directly. The demo system used two Opera Consonance Cyber monoblock amps ($7200/pair), which use 300B tubes in parallel. These 15Wpc amps very comfortably drove the 99dB-sensitive Lamhorn 1.8 speakers ($9500/pair), which use a single AER driver. The sound was agile and open, with rather good bass for a single-driver speaker.

Acoustic Zen has followed up their deservedly popular Adagio speaker with the larger Cresendo ($12,000/pair). The Crescendo is in two sections: the top half is a sealed enclosure with a midrange-tweeter-midrange driver arrangement, the bottom half a transmission-line enclosure with two woofers; a Raven ribbon tweeter provides the highs. The near-production prototype didn’t sound quite sorted out yet, but showed considerable promise.

Distributor Sjfn HiFi (pronounced SHEU-fn, if that helps) demonstrated two speakers from Guru. The tiny QM10 monitors ($1995/pair) are designed for placement near a wall; the bass was surprisingly deep and strong for a speaker not much bigger than a shoebox, and the mids and highs were pure and detailed. And for speakers intended to be placed so close to a wall, their soundstaging was quite good. The QM10’s big brother, the QM40 ($9995/pair), is a small floorstander also designed for near-wall positioning. Its bass was remarkable, going very deep with little distortion and great power. The QM40’s tweeter is stepped back an inch or so from the other driver. Both speakers were painted matte black, which didn’t make them all that attractive to my eyes. The demonstrator showed me some photos of the Gurus’ response to a pulse signal. Most speakers, when pulsed with a sine-squared wave, produce a wave that’s hardly recognizable as a pulse. The Gurus’ pulses were virtually perfect, which might explain why they sounded so clean and clear. (QM stands for Quality Manager, by the way.)

Avalon speakers are a familiar sight at RMAF. This year, smaller Avalons were demonstrated: the Ascendant ($9300/pair), which uses Avalon’s trademark faceted low-diffraction enclosure, ported at the bottom. The Ascendant may have lacked the bass and authority of Avalon’s Isis (what doesn’t?), but it was clean and fast. Electronics were from Ayre Acoustics: MX-R monoblocks ($16,500/pair), C-5xe universal player ($7000), K-5xe preamp ($2950), and L-5 line conditioners. Cables were from Cardas.

David Berning’s new 200W monoblock amp ($29,995/pair) looks like a nicely made conventional amplifier, if rather ordinary in its plain metal chassis. Inside, it was exceptionally innovative. The brilliant Berning seems incapable of producing a component that works like anything ever seen before. This new amp, an output-transformerless tube design, is based on a principle I don’t understand. Apparently, the audio signal piggybacks on a radio frequency that is amplified and then filtered out within the amplifier. How that enables the tubes to work without an output transformer remains a mystery to me.

High Water Sound’s proprietor, Jeffrey Catalano, must be telepathic: He knows exactly what I like. Last year, I became emotionally attached to a prototype of his Aspara HL-1 speaker. This year the HL-1 was back, better than ever in production form. A small two-way horn model from the UK, the HL-1 ($12,500/pair) sounded very fast, detailed, and agile. Driving the HL-1s again this year were Tron electronics: the Model 7 line stage ($5500), the Model 7 phono stage ($4500), and a prototype power amp that uses 211 tubes to produce 12Wpc ($15,000). Not much power, you say? Well, the HL-1’s sensitivity is rated at 105dB -- you could probably drive a pair of them with an iPod.

The analog source for this system was the formidable TW Acustic Raven AC turntable, which sells for $20,000 without tonearms. Yes, the Raven AC lets you mount up to four arms (as on the demo sample at RMAF), and can be equipped with up to three motors to smooth the speed of its platter. If you suspect that a turntable with four arms and three motors would be large, you’re right. Huge might be a better word. The digital source was the popular AMR CD-77 CD player ($8500); cables were by Stealth.

All this audio goodness sounded just beautiful. When I listened to gear in most of the rooms, I thought, "What a great hi-fi!" In the High Water Sound room, I thought, "What great music!" There were lots of speakers and electronics with lower distortion, wider frequency extension, and higher-tech parts (the HL-1 uses Fane public-address drivers), but none seemed to get inside the music and present its spirit as well as the Aspara-Tron-TW system. I’m not particularly fond of jazz, but when a classic jazz record was played, I found it so engrossing I listened to it enraptured, all the way to the lead-out groove. To me, that’s why the high end exists: to make you love music more. Given that reaction, you won’t be surprised to learn that the High Water Sound room was one of my two Standout Rooms at the show.

In the AudioKinesis room, their Dream Maker speaker ($9000/pair) was making sweet (dreamy?) music. A large speaker at 42"H x 26"W x 15"D and 170 pounds, and unusual in having an impedance of 16 ohms, the Dream Maker produced a full, weighty sound that was very easy to listen to. Driving the pair of them was Atma-Sphere’s new MP-1 Mk.III fully regulated preamp ($12,100), with eight independent regulated power supplies and six proprietary regulators. The MP-1 Mk.III uses eight 12AT7 tubes and ten 6SN7 tubes, of which four are constant current sources. It sounded quieter and more stable, with finer detail, than the Mk.II. Atma-Sphere’s S-30 Mk.III output-transformerless amp ($3300), normally rated at 30Wpc, delivered 45Wpc to the 16-ohm AudioKinesis Dream Makers, and had no trouble driving the 92dB-sensitive speaker.

Blue Circle Audio displayed its brand-new speaker, the Penny, whose name does not indicate its price ($4700-$6500, depending on finish). A small floorstander designed to be placed near a wall, the Penny provides minimonitor detail with the robust bass impact of a floorstander. With a rated sensitivity of only 85dB, the Penny needs some power to drive it, but its capacity is a robust 600W, and it’s designed to work in rooms as small as 9’ x 10’ and as large as 25’ x 35.’ The midrange driver, a sixth-generation Walsh model, covers the range from 60Hz to 6kHz. The woofer covers 24-120Hz, and uses first-order crossover slopes, as does the silk-dome tweeter. As you’d expect, electronics were Blue Circle Audio’s own: a BC202 power amp ($6495) painted a distinctive yellow and red (a trend I hope continues); a BC3000 Mk.II GZpz preamp ($9495); and a BC501ob DAC ($7395).

You may not know that Blue Circle also make cables, but they do, and they were in use at RMAF. The system sounded lively, with good bass for a Marriott room, and the Penny was quite attractive. One of the complaints audiophiles may hear from significant others is that audiophile-grade speakers are not only large, they must be located 3’ or more from the wall. The small Penny should alleviate any size and placement objections.

Blue Circle Audio room

One of the many pleasures of attending RMAF each year is seeing how certain companies improve with time, and one such is speaker builder Daedalus Audio. I singled out their first speaker, as sounding very good, but their latest, the Ulysses ($8800/pair), sounded far better in one of the Marriott’s largest and best-sounding rooms. The Ulysses, a large tower model, uses two complete sets of drivers -- tweeter, midrange, woofer -- in each cabinet. The sound was relaxed and coherent, with excellent imaging, and the finish was nicely done, too. Aiding the good sound were Gill Audio’s Alana Pro preamp ($5000) and Elise DAC ($6000), and the demonstrators alternated between Art Audio’s Adagio SET amp and push-pull Quartet monoblocks, both rated at 45-50W and costing $15,000. Although you might wonder if such modestly rated amplifiers could drive large speakers in a big room, the Ulysses’ sensitivity is rated at 97dB; the amps never broke a sweat.

One of the fun things about a hi-fi show is discovering new gear I’ve never heard of, such as era’s new D-14 speaker. These tiny floorstanders sell for only $2200/pair but managed to produce amazingly strong bass using just two 5" woofers per cabinet. Attractively veneered in cherrywood, the D-14 didn’t only produce strong bass; the mids and highs, too, were quite detailed.

Ever since the first RMAF, in 2004, visits to the room occupied by Boulder, Colorado dealer Audio Limits have been part of my audio education. Using the Marriott’s Primrose room, one of its best sounding, Audio Limits displays systems put together with considerable thoughtfulness. In 2004, I first heard the Dali Megaline speakers, with their stunning soundstaging. The following year I heard the Genesis 201 speakers, with even better soundstaging and subterranean bass. This year it was the Acapella High Campanile Mk.II speaker ($88,700/pair), which has four 10" woofers, a horn-loaded midrange that protrudes well out in front of the cabinet, and a horn-loaded ion (plasma) tweeter recessed into the woofer cabinet. It stands an imposing 94" high, weighs 650 pounds, and is rated at a sensitivity of 93dB. To drive the speakers, Audio Limits chose FM Acoustics’ 245 preamp ($19,000) and 611X power amplifier ($62,150). Weiss Engineering’s Jason CD transport ($15,700) and Medea DAC ($13,500) served as the source. FM Acoustics interconnects and speaker cables were used, as well as Isotek Titan ($3550) and Nova ($3750) power cords.

This megabuck system sounded, in a word, huge. Transients were lightning-quick, dynamics were stunning, and detail was incredible. In other words, it sounded like a good horn speaker should sound but vanishingly few do, while managing to do a good job with soundstaging and never sounding at all peaky. Crescendos pummeled the room with physical force. Once again, Audio Limits has educated me in the state of the art of audio reproduction, which is why I designate their room my second Standout Room of RMAF. I’m anxious to see and hear how and if they can top this act next year.

Joseph Audio presented its new RM25xl Special Edition speaker. Beautifully veneered in rosewood, the RM25xl sounded very relaxed and inviting. The bass was quite good, somehow transcending the typical limitations of a Marriott room, and the soundstaging was very precise. With a frequency response specified as 32Hz-20kHz, 2dB, and dimensions of 46"H x 8.5"W x 11.5"D, the RM25xl is very spouse-friendly. With an impedance of 8 ohms and a minimum impedance of 6 ohms, it’s also very tube-friendly, and in this room it was paired with familiar partners, Manley Laboratories’ Snapper monoblocks ($4250/pair). The source was a homemade music server: a computer and a DAC with a USB input.

In addition to the Klimax DS music server, Linn introduced the new Majik integrated amp ($2975), demonstrated in a system that included the Majik CD player ($3500) and Majik floorstanding speakers ($2945/pair). However, the system was located in the Mezzanine area, outside the demo room itself, so the demonstration was silent.

One of the more interesting product introductions at RMAF was Emerald Physics' CS2 Controlled Directivity Dipole speaker ($2995/pair). Looking somewhat like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 48"-high CS2 is an open-baffle design. From the front you can see the tweeter, a compression driver that feeds a 12" waveguide and crosses over at 1kHz to two 15" woofers. The sound of the speaker is determined in large part by a digital signal processor (DSP), which provides a 48dB/octave crossover. The price includes the DSP module, but the CS2 must be biamplified, and amps are not included; however, the CS2’s sensitivity is 100dB, so any amps used don’t have to be very powerful. The CS2’s frequency response is specified as 20Hz-22kHz, -3dB. I thought the pair of them sounded dynamic, open, and wide-range.

I’ve always liked the concept of active speakers, in which the amplifier is built into the speaker cabinet. That ensures that the amplifier is ideally matched to the drivers, and eliminates the need to buy a separate external amplifier. In fact, because many CD players have their own volume controls, a music system using active speakers could consist of only three parts -- player, interconnects, and speakers -- to make for a neat, unobtrusive system. The Salagar S210 active speaker ($7999/pair in standard finishes, $8499/pair in odder colors) has a striking appearance -- it looks somewhat like an ear. What better shape for a speaker? It’s a two-way stand-mounted design, with two 200W ICEpower amps built in. Input is via a balanced XLR connector, and crossover and frequency contouring are performed in DSP, yielding a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz, 0.1dB! The S210 sounded very dynamic and extended. Available in eight different painted finishes and five wood veneers, the Salagar S210 is a very attractive speaker that won’t clutter your listening room and should fit well into virtually any dcor. Matching, purpose-built stands are available.

Salagar S210 active speakers

I was glad to see Apogee again, even if it’s not really the same company that the late Jason Bloom founded many years ago. Now located in Australia, Apogee Acoustics rebuilds early Apogee speakers or builds all-new facsimiles of them. Playing in the room was a pair of Duettas ($12,000/pair rebuilt, $21,000/pair new). One of the useful parts of the rebuilding process is raising the speaker’s impedance. I recall that my Apogee Scintillas had an impedance of 1 ohm or less, which shut down several amplifiers I tried. (Finally, I discovered Krell amps.) If you like the sound of full-range ribbon speakers as much as I do, check out the new Apogees.

The Rocky Mountain Audio Fest has grown, but I haven’t gotten any faster or more capable -- there’s no way I could have visited every room. If a room was jam-packed when I tried to visit, or if the room attendants were too busy to talk, I had to move on. If I didn’t cover your room or products, I apologize; it’s not because I wouldn’t have liked to.

With the Stereophile shows now defunct, I expect RMAF will grow even more. RMAF 2008, scheduled in the same location for October 10-12, 2008, should be even better. Plan now to attend!

...Vade Forrester

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