January/February 2008

Rocky Mountain High: (Low and Midrange, too!)

One of the recurring questions we get from readers of this column is, “Where can I hear speaker X? Or amplifier Y? Turntable Z?” I was surprised when one such reader living in Chicago was having trouble finding a number of products we’ve recently discussed. I assumed one of America’s largest metropolitan areas would have a wealth of high-performance audio gear for sale.

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Esoteric MG-20 Loudspeaker
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Guru QM 10 Loudspeaker
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E.A.R. Disc Master Turntable

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We’ve addressed this topic before when we’ve covered Internet shopping. But if you want to see the stuff up close and personal, what do you do? The largest collection of equipment is to be found at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but that zoo is only open to the certified loonies associated with the industry.

Average Joe Jazzer, don’t despair; there’s hope yet. Today’s money says the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (audiofest.net) is the premier audio gathering for consumers in the United States. It has matured quickly into a highly respected and well-organized dog-and-pony show for (mostly) two-channel audio. The 2007 Fest, held Oct. 12-14 in Denver, Colo., was a relaxed, informal affair, and the ideal one-stop shopping mall for high-end audio nuts, with over 140 demonstration rooms showing off products from more than 300 manufacturers. No wonder nearly 3,500 folks showed up from 47 states and a dozen foreign countries.

The nature of this sort of show allows for extensive interaction between buyers and manufacturers and, often, even equipment designers are on hand to discuss their gear and dispense complimentary beer. With tons of LPs, CDs and DIY parts available for purchase, the show was a music lover’s dream come true. I, for one, am already planning to go back for the 2008 edition.

What did I hear? Well, lots of wonderful music played through some exceptional gear, but also some wonderful music played through some not-so-exceptional gear. Caveat emptor: It was more often the modest-priced, even affordable, stuff that was the most pleasing and intriguing.

A good example of this maxim was to be found in the Lovecraft Designs room (lovecraftdesigns.com), which featured speakers developed by Terry Cain, whose work was legendary until his untimely passing in 2006. His Cain & Cain speakers are not only impressive performers (they deliver wonderful sound with as few as two or three watts), they are also beautiful examples of the woodworker’s art, since Cain was first a cabinet maker in Walla Walla, Wash., who later combined his chosen vocation with his love of music and audio. When I visited their room, the Lovecraft crew was playing the Walla Walla Wall-O-Sound speaker ($3,300)—which was originally conceived by Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio—powered by a mere eight watts of warm tube power from a pair of Triode TRV-M300SE amps ($4,199; twinaudiovideo.com).

On the more cost-effective side, they also had the Triode TRV-S300SE integrated amp ($1,995), which would have produced similar results for somewhat less jack. The W3 speaker is 30 inches wide and 42 high, but only seven inches deep, and uses a single 6.5-inch driver for the entire audible spectrum. The resulting sound is absolutely coherent because there is no need to blend the disparate sounds of woofer and tweeter. Instead, the music comes out more noticeably “whole” than we are normally used to; single drivers can be uncannily startling and realistic when properly implemented, and the W3 does just that. All of Cain’s designs are intended to mate perfectly with low-wattage amps, but can handle much more. The music in this room possessed a magic not found in many others at this show.

One of those other exceptions was the E.A.R. suite. E.A.R. products (ear-usa.com) are engineered by industry legend Tim de Paravicini, whose tube gear has warmed up living rooms and recording studios around the world for several decades. The big news was the introduction of E.A.R.’s first speaker, the Primary Drive ($7,000), a dipole affair (meaning it radiated to the rear as well as the front), which was making pretty damn good music. U.S. distributor Dan Meinwald was spinning tantalizing sides, and even played my coveted test pressing of a Horace Parlan 45-rpm Blue Note LP that has just been reissued by Music Matters. The sound as interpreted by this all-E.A.R. system, including de Paravicini’s newish turntable, the Disc Master, was nothing short of exquisite and holographic, and I could feel the emotion and soul of the music.

Another highly musical and listenable system was composed of ESP loudspeakers, Lamm tube electronics and Argento Audio cables. This was a room I returned to several times as it offered true sonic relief from the audio overload experienced in many demos—it was just pure musical pleasure to listen to CDs on this equipment. I know the Lamm amps are quite well respected, but I’d hazard a guess that the main cause for the totally satisfying sound of this demo room lies in the ability of the ESP speakers to transmit music without mucking it up in any way whatsoever. And isn’t that the secret to any well-designed audio gear? Whatever the reason, ESP (esploudspeakersna.com) has a clear winner in its Bodhran SE speakers ($16,000). Thanks to Doug White of Matrix Systems, an ESP and Lamm dealer in Philly, for putting this hypnotic kit together.

Esoteric (teac.com/esoteric) also had a terrific system based around its new MG-20 speakers ($8,600) and its splendiferous CD playback gear. My notes remind me that the sound was very, very solid and evidenced extreme clarity in addition to the authoritative weight.

Salagar (salagar.com), a new member of the audio community, was showing off its new Symphony S210 speakers ($7,999). In addition to looking good—they come in a nearly unlimited selection of colors—the sound is extremely enjoyable. These are a new breed of self-powered speakers that have been designed from the ground up. I think we’ll be hearing more from them in the future. One other cool thing: with an optional converter box, you can hook your iPod directly into these babies.

One of the biggest surprises I encountered came out of one of the smallest boxes. Again powered by Triode tube amps, the Micropure Kotaro speaker from Japan ($2,800; twinaudiovideo.com) produced some of the finest music of the weekend from a box not even 10 inches high and no heavier than five pounds. Someone grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “Sakuji makes these speakers like a violin. Because the violin is light, and resonates so beautifully, he thought a speaker might sound better if built like that. Sounds good, don’t you think?” I had to agree, these speakers were amazing. Sakuji Fukuda, the designer, has done a miraculous job of coaxing believable, accurate, full-range musical images from something the size of two cigar boxes, maybe three, with only a four-inch driver and a very small super tweeter to handle the highs. He brought one over to me so I could examine it. It weighed nothing, but was beautifully constructed. Yes, it’s built like a violin: thin walls, minimum corner bracing and a natural resonance that seems to be the secret of how these things sound so, well, tonally accurate and full. They disappeared from the room and allowed the music to just float, yet they also had unbelievable authority and heft.

Another misleadingly small speaker came from Sweden, the Guru QM10 ($1,995; sjofnhifi.com), this time about the size of maybe two of the Kotaros. Again, despite sporting such an unassuming package, these things could rock the house. Sjöfn HiFi, the American importer, also sells a very affordable line of Chinese electronics.

Other notable exhibitors included Bel Canto, DALI speakers, Art Audio, Simaudio, VAC, Ayre Acoustics, Vandersteen, McIntosh and Mark and Daniel Audio Labs, among many other worthy brands.

In the meantime, break in your hiking boots and get ready to go audio shopping next October. The sound of so much great music and so much top-notch equipment will surely give you a Rocky Mountain high.

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